This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(3) Q. How do you come to know your misery?
A. The law of God tells me.
(4) Q. What does God’s law require of us?
A. Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22:37–40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
(5) Q. Can you live up to all this perfectly?
A. No. I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbor.
Lord’s Day 2 feels like a terrible letdown. You can hardly imagine a more stirring and hopeful way to begin a study of Christian doctrine than the Heidelberg’s first question and answer. After confessing our only comfort in Christ, we’re tempted to jump right into a study of God’s saving grace. But that would be unwise. Part of living and dying in the joy of eternal comfort is knowing how great our sin and misery are.
But this Lord’s Day isn’t meant to be a killjoy. We shouldn’t study this lesson as if we must wait in suspense for the cure to our misery. Knowing our misery is an act of faith. By coming face to face with our guilt through God’s law, we’re actively believing God, even when he speaks against us. Everyone experiences misery. But those who are not yet trusting in Jesus don’t believe that the cause of misery is the sinfulness of the human heart that Christ came to redeem, and that he has saved them despite their disqualifications.
Knowing our misery is the critical back story of God’s work of saving grace in his children. Every great literary work has a conflict—a crisis that gets resolved before the story ends. In a fallen world, you can’t tell a good story without misery. Lord’s Day 2 introduces God’s law as a teacher of our misery. We should know two things about God’s law:
1. The Law Is Good
Lest we wrongly link law and misery, we need to hear Scripture’s clear approval of the law: “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12). “The law is spiritual” (Rom. 7:14).
God’s Law Defines a Beautiful Life
The law is all about love. The summary that Christ teaches in Matthew 22, which is drawn from the Old Testament, is all about love: “You shall love the Lord your God and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love is the fulfilling of the law,” Paul writes (Rom. 13:10). Love is the way we show true affection. The law is a guide to the right way of feeling and acting toward God, our neighbor, and ourselves. The first table of God’s law—commandments one through four—defines true love for God. If our hearts, souls, and minds are in love with God, if we want to spend our best energies for God, we will (1) worship only him, (2) as he commanded, (3) in a way that honors his name, and (4) respects his schedule.
And this is a beautiful way to live. This is how Adam and Eve knew God before they sinned and “hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God” (Gen. 3:8). This is how redeemed people will know God in the new heaven and earth; like Adam in paradise, the redeemed “will see his face” (Rev. 22:4).
The second table of God’s law—commandments five through ten—defines true love for our neighbor. Under healthy circumstances, we instinctively nourish and cherish our own flesh (Eph. 5:29). We care about our health, our safety, our reputations. We should love our neighbor like that, (5) respecting proper authority, (6) promoting life, (7) practicing sexual integrity, (8) being good stewards, (9) prizing honesty, and (10) being content. If we actually owed no one anything, except to love each other (Rom. 13:8), the world would be unrecognizable.
God’s Law Promises Threats for Disobedience
It’s no coincidence that when God instituted his law at Sinai the people were terrified. God didn’t whisper his law. He thundered it from the top of a smoke-filled mountain (Deut. 5:22–27). The implication: If you break the law, the whole law and prophets are against you (James 2:10). But threats for disobedience, too, are a good thing. If a law can promote true flourishing (Deut. 5:28–33), it should also fiercely deter law-breaking.
God wants us to be happy by being holy; in his law he shows us how.
2. The Law Reveals That We Are Bad
The law is spiritual, but we’re of the flesh, sold under sin (Rom. 7:14). “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Not only can I not live up to this law perfectly, the catechism says, “I am inclined by nature, to hate God and my neighbor.” This is not putting it too strongly. Until the fear of God is before our eyes (Rom. 3:18) and we truly seek him (Rom. 3:11), we don’t know the way of peace (Rom. 3:17), we’re defined by ruin and misery (Rom. 3:16), are quick to shed blood (Rom. 3:15), spew deceptive, bitter, murderous curses (Rom. 3:13–14), and have become worthless, unable to do any good (Rom. 3:12). Misery has to do with “the evil both of guilt and punishment. . . . Human nature is depraved, sinful, and alienated from God, and . . . on account of this depravity, mankind are exposed to eternal condemnation, and deserve to be rejected of God.”[i] The law teaches us to sing with Psalm 51, “I am evil, born in sin, thou desirest truth within.” When blessed by the Spirit, the law makes us ready to accept healing for our misery: “broken, humbled to the dust, by thy wrath and judgment just.”[ii]
The law can’t make us whole. “Man cannot obtain saving grace through the Decalogue, because, although it does expose the magnitude of his sin and increasingly convict him of his guilt, yet it does not offer a remedy or enable him to escape from his misery, and, indeed, weakened as it is by the flesh, leaves the offender under the curse.”[iii]
Instead, the law leaves us with only one hope: Christ. The very one who teaches us our misery through the law is also the one who kept that law as our Lord and Savior. What the law demands ,Christ has done for us as the second Adam, “a life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45).
God’s law, then, activated by the Holy Spirit, can be good news. It can help us sing with David, again in Psalm 51, “Let my contrite heart rejoice and in gladness hear thy voice; from my sins O hide my face, blot them out in boundless grace.”
[i] Ursinus, Commentary, 23.
[ii] “God Be Merciful to Me,” Trinity Psalter Hymnal, 51C.
[iii] Canons of Dort 3/4.5.