(92) Q. What is God’s law?
A. The Ten Commandments[i]
(93) Q. How are these commandments divided?
A. Into two tables. The first has four commandments, teaching us how we should live in relation to God. The second has six commandments, teaching us what we owe our neighbor.
(94) Q. What does the Lord require in the first commandment?
A. That I, not wanting to endanger my own salvation, avoid and shun all idolatry, sorcery, superstitious rites, and prayer to saints or to other creatures.That I rightly know the only true God,trust him alone, and look to God for every good thing humbly and patiently, and love, fear, and honor him with all my heart. In short, that I renounce all created things rather than go against God’s will in any way.
(95) Q. What is idolatry?
A. Idolatry is having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in his Word.
Near the beginning of the world, God spoke this invitation: do well and live (Gen. 4:7). That offer still stands. God wants us to prosper in his world as we respect his boundaries. And in his kindness, he has given us a conscience—an internal guide that bears surprisingly consistent witness to right and wrong (Rom. 2:15).
But our consciences aren’t autonomous—they answer to the objective moral code by which God governs the world. So, to do well we cannot simply do what we want but what God wants. And God has told us “what is good” (Micah 6:8). Truly good works “conform to God’s law” (Q&A 91). The catechism devotes 11 lessons to God’s law as a roadmap for living well even in a broken world.
What Is God’s Law?
God’s holy will “is exceedingly broad” (Ps. 119:96); “[t]he law comprises everything in Scripture which is a revelation of God’s will in the form of command or prohibition.”[ii] But God has summarized in Ten Commandments every part of our obligation to love him and our neighbors (Matt. 22:37–39). No one truly loves God who does not love his neighbor (1 John 4:21). And to love your neighbor you must first be reconciled to God and devoted to his service. Some of the commands are phrased negatively and some positively; God forbids some actions, and requires others. But they all reveal God’s will: what he wants and how we can flourish in every area of life.
But how does the law work? Because God’s law is perfect (Ps. 19:7), the commandments prick our consciences, exposing wrong thoughts and faulty behavior. They reveal that while the law is good, we’re evil. In this way, the law brings us to Christ who, as God, is alone good (Rom. 7:24–25). As we trust in Christ and are renewed in holiness and righteousness, we will find in the law a delightful guide to lead us in a truly good life. This is why the Ten Commandments are prefaced with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2; Deut. 5:6). Sinners are saved by God’s grace, not by our works (Eph. 2:8). But being saved by grace and brought into God’s house, gratitude becomes our new reason to honor God.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that the first commandment gets right to the heart of knowing, trusting, and obeying God alone.
What Is the First Commandment?
The first commandment, like the others, warns against wandering from the path of life. Our most basic danger is idolatry.
We must avoid “religious” idolatry. Believers wrestle against “spiritual forces” (Eph. 6:12). In no way may we be “participants with demons” (1 Cor. 10:20). Among God’s people there shall be no one who “practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination of the Lord (Deut. 18:10–12). We may not attempt to harness the power of evil. We must resist superstitions or irrational religious fear. We must not pray to saints or other creatures. We must not rejoice in evil (1 Cor. 13:6). Children of light (1 Thess. 5:5) must fight every power of darkness (Col. 1:13; Acts 19:18–20), empowered by the gifts of the one true God (Eph. 6:10–20).
But there are less overt or “religious” forms of idolatry. Idolatry is “having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God.” Idolatry is building your life on some incomplete joy of this world, even our own appetites (Phil. 3:19 NAS) or God’s excellent gifts.[iii] But idols kill true spirituality. They demand allegiance without rival. They overpromise and under-deliver. We fear their loss and hate their enemies. Unless you want to “endanger [your] own salvation” you must “avoid and shun idolatry … renounc[ing] all created things rather than go against God’s will in any way.” If your idols are illicit pleasures, cut them out of your life entirely. If your idols are overly-ambitious good pleasures, restore them to their rightful place. Refuse to allow anything to replace Christ as your only comfort in life and death.
But the commandment doesn’t just tell us what to avoid. We cannot not worship. So the cure for idolatry is the pure pursuit of God. How do we do that?
- “Rightly know the only true God.” Relationships are unsustainable without deep knowledge. Hosea urges revival among God’s people with this charge, “Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord” (Hos. 6:3).
- “Trust him alone.” We must look beyond fallible visible helpers, believing that “our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8). We are thankful for sustainable income, military protection, faithful judges, and countless product safety features—but only as means that God uses to care for us.
- “Look to God for every good thing.” Let’s rest in “his faithfulness and help as our only support,” and praise him “for all good things.”[iv] Let’s look to God “humbly and patiently,” believing that “the overflowing source of all good”[v] will give what is best in his time.
- Worship God. The heart of worship is “love, fear, and honor.” God is a consuming fire—we must fear him. God is love—we must love him. God alone is worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12).
The first of the Ten Commandments reveals that godliness is not merely a commitment to a religious system but also a life of devotion to God. “The Lord requires that the glory of his divinity remain whole and uncorrupted not only in outward confession but in his own eyes, which gaze upon the most secret recesses of our hearts”[vi] “You shall have no other gods before me” is a command. It’s also a gift. No counterfeit god, only the true God, can give rest to restless hearts.
[i] The catechism’s answer is the text of Exodus 20:1–17 which is omitted here for the sake of space.
[ii] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 612.
[iii] Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (United States: Penguin Publishing Group, 2009), xi, xix.
[iv] John Calvin, Institutes,2.8.16
[v] Belgic Confession, 1.
[vi] Calvin, Institutes, 2.8.16.