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Our Misery Exposed by the Law


Previous article in this series: January 1, 2009, p. 151.

Lord's Day 2

Q 3. Whence knowest thou thy misery? 

A. Out of the law of God.

Q 4. What doth the law of God require of us? 

A. Christ teaches us that briefly,

Matthew 22:37-40

, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and the great commandment; and the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Q 5. Canst thou keep all these things perfectly? 

A. In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.

The heading above this first section of the Heidelberg Catechism is, "Of the Misery of Man." 

Do you know your misery? Or we could put it another way: Do you know your need of Jesus Christ? 

That question is personal, directed, dear reader, at you. 

A person could easily look around in society and observe that there is sin and misery and conclude that this world needs a Savior. But this is about your need and about mine. Every one of us needs Jesus Christ. 

How do I come to know that I need Jesus? 

This is what Lord's Day 2 teaches. We know this need by knowing our sin, by knowing who and what we are by nature. Unless we know this, we are like the church of Laodicea in Revelation 3:17, which said, "I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing." Whereas, the truth is, "Thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." 

It is the law of God that teaches us our sin. 

Do you love the law of God? 

Do you love it as the psalmist in Psalm 19 who said of the commandments, "More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb"? Can you say withPsalm 119:97, "O how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day"? 

We are continually confronted with the law: in our conscience, at church when the law is read and the Word of God is preached; by family and church members who have the courage to exhort and admonish us when we pass a speed limit sign; and in many other ways. What is our response? Is your response, "Oh, how I love thy law!" If when you slander, someone says, "Thou shalt not bear false witness," is this your response, "Thank you, that is just what I needed to hear"? The law is good for us. We should love the law because the law shows us our misery, which in turn shows us our need of Christ, which in turn brings us to the Cross of Calvary. 

A Law Environment 

What is the law? When we speak of the law, we refer to the ten commandments. These give a summary of all the other commands and requirements in God's Word. The law is the standard and norm that God has set for our life. The law sets down the God-ordained parameters for our happy existence. 

Everything in this creation must operate according to the will of its Maker. God has set a law for the planets and the sun, for clouds and rain, for plants and seeds, for every creature. These laws define the boundaries of the creature's existence, and so long as the creature stays within those boundaries it can happily function. Take, for example, a fish. God's law for a fish, and also for a whale, is to live in the water. A fish out of water, or a beached whale, cannot live. 

Just as God has made a law for every creature, so He has made a law for man. This law is more than the law for a fish, because God made man a moral rational creature after His own image, able to communicate and enjoy the fellowship of covenant life. The law for man defines not only his physical existence and purpose in relation to other creatures, but also sets down the boundaries and parameters of his moral and spiritual relation to other men and also to God Himself. In the beginning God gave this law to Adam and Eve. Not only did He write the law on their hearts, so that they knew His commandments, but He also gave them specific commands concerning the trees in the garden. So long as they stayed inside the circle of obedience to God's law, they would be happy and live with God's blessing. 

Essentially, it is the same for us today. The law sets the boundaries for our happy living with each other and with God. God has given us a law for family life, a law for our possessions, a law for our worship of Him, and so on. So long as we live within the parameters of the law, we will live happily. Children live in the same kind of environment of law. A young child is put in a playpen, and there he is safe; but if he climbs out, he may put his life in danger. Teenagers live under the rules of their parents, and this is a place of protection for them in a sinful world.

God's Law Abides 

The world that we live in, though, is different from the world of Adam and Eve before the fall. Now we live in a fallen and sinful world. And that raises a question: In this sinful world we do live outside the parameters of the law, so, does the law still stand? Does God still maintain the requirements and boundaries of the law? After the fall, Adam and Eve began to die just as a fish out of water dies. What happened to the law? Did God come to them and change things, and say, "I see you live the existence of a beached whale, dying, so I will change the law for you so that you can be happy lying on the beach?" 

The answer is, No. The law remains. God doesn't change the law, and the reason is that the law is a reflection of the perfection of God's own character, and so God cannot change the law. God cannot deny Himself. The commandments still stand as the parameters for our happy existence. When Jesus came, He said, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill" (Matt. 5:17). Jesus maintained the law, and explained the deepest requirements of the law, and kept and fulfilled the law Himself perfectly. 

Satan would very much like it if we would set aside the law and say, "Since salvation is all of grace, the law doesn't matter." But God maintains the law, and His purpose is to show us our misery. In maintaining the law after the fall and placing the cherubim with flaming swords by the Garden of Eden, God showed Adam and Eve their misery, and told them that this was because of their own sin.

The Law is Deep 

How does the law show us our misery? 

To begin, we should understand that the law is more than a "list of do's and don'ts." 

In Matthew 19, a young man comes to Jesus with this question, "Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" Jesus' answer is, "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.... Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honor thy father and thy mother, and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." 

To this, the young man responds, "All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?" Why did he say that? How did he dare to say such a thing? It was because he had a superficial understanding of the law. He understood the law as a list of do's and don'ts. He had never taken a knife and stabbed someone, he had never committed adultery with his neighbor's wife, he was not a thief. But was that true obedience to the law? 

Jesus' response shows that it was not. He said, "One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor." The point is that God's requirement in the law is not shallow, it is not merely external, not what satisfies the outward appearance, but God maintains His law in this way, that He requires obedience from the heart, He requires a perfect heart of love for God and the neighbor. 

Jesus' summary of the law, which is quoted in the catechism ("Love God and your neighbor"), shows this depth of the law of God. The Pharisees' understanding of the law was external and shallow. They had taken all the commandments and had ranked them in order of importance, because they thought that some of them contradicted others. For example, they said, "I am required to admonish my brother sometimes, but I am forbidden to work on the Sabbath, so should I admonish my brother on the Sabbath?" 

In Matthew 22 they try to trick Jesus by asking Him which commandment is the greatest. Jesus' answer shows that they look at the law the wrong way and that the important thing in obeying the law is the motivation for obedience. That you love God with your whole being, that you love your neighbor as yourself, that you put away selfishness—this is what the law requires. This is the foundation of true obedience. The catechism asks, "What does the law require?" The answer is, "Wholehearted, selfless love for God and the neighbor."

Looking at Ourselves in the Law

Do you love God with all your heart, so that all your affections and desires follow the course of your desire to love and serve the Lord? Do you love God with all your mind, so that all your thoughts are directed and controlled by your love of God? Do you love God with all your strength, so that with feet and hands, mouth, ears and eyes, with all the strength and energy you have, you serve God? 

And how about your neighbor? Do you love your neighbor as yourself, so that you don't think of yourself above and before him, so that you don't put your needs above his? Do you love your neighbor so well that you are never envious, never selfish, never covetous, never bitter, never hateful or slanderous? 

Do you keep the law of God? Wholeheartedly? Selflessly? 

When we ask ourselves these questions, we find out how deep and penetrating the law is. It shows us not only what should be, but what is. How far we fall short. 

This is the law. It is like a mirror that shows our failures, the outlines of who we are in ourselves. The law describes me. It starts on the outside, with my life, my tongue, and my use of holy things. It addresses my priorities and desires when God says, "Worship me alone" and "Keep my day holy." It addresses my heart when it tells me to show honor and respect and not to covet. It is asking me whether I truly love God and the neighbor. And every time another commandment comes, it shows us another part of who we should be but are not. It shows us our sin.

What Is Sin? 

Sin means to miss the mark, to fall short. It is an easy figure to understand. An archer has a number of arrows. There is a target. The small center on it is the bull's-eye. You shoot! One goes way off to the left, another way off to the right, another falls short. We never hit the target. 

That is our life. The arrow is each new day, fresh and unused. Today your target is to live faithfully in your marriage, or your target is to honor your parents, or not to covet, or to uphold the good name of your neighbor. We never hit the target. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God. 

An Impossible Law 

Can we keep the law perfectly? Emphatically, the answer is, NO! "I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor." This is a strong description of our depravity. In Romans 8:7, "The carnal mind is enmity against God." 

This shows the impossibility of obeying the law of God. That is where we stand at the end of this second Lord's Day. We cannot do it. Not only that we do not do it, but we cannot do it. We are like the beached whale, dying, and we can do nothing about it. 

The Canons of Dordt put it this way,

In the same light are we to consider the law of the decalogue, delivered by God to His peculiar people, the Jews, by the hands of Moses. For though it discovers the greatness of sin, and more and more convinces man thereof, yet as it neither points out a remedy nor imparts strength to extricate him from misery, and thus being weak through the flesh, leaves the transgressor under the curse, man cannot by this law obtain saving grace (III/IV, 5).

So does this leave us depressed and downcast? No, God leads us into the knowledge of our sin so that He may also lead us into the knowledge of His Son. This is why we need the law. Perhaps the law tells us to do the impossible, and tells us things about ourselves that are unpleasant, but it also shows us our need in order to bring us to the cross. 

Again, in the Canons of Dordt,

What therefore...the law could not do, that God performs by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation, which is the glad tidings concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it hath pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old as under the New Testament (III/IV, 6).

The law leads us to an impossible situation, but God comes, in His mercy, and shows us the only way of salvation through His Son. With wave upon wave of mercy He brings us from our state of misery outside the law into the blessed life of salvation through His Son. He brings us into the waters of life, where we can live.

Questions for Discussion

1. What is necessary before we can really see our need of Christ? Does the natural man know his sinfulness? How does God dispel our ignorance?

2. What is the law? 

3. How is God's law for man different from His law for other creatures?

4. Did Adam and Eve know and need the law in their original creation?

5. Does man's sinfulness and inability remove or change the law?

6. Is it possible for someone to keep the law if he really tries hard? What about the rich young ruler?

7. Does God's standard have to do with our actions or our thoughts?

8. If the Ten Commandments and Jesus' summary of the law are essentially the same, why does the catechism discuss Jesus' summary here and the Ten Commandments later?

9. What is sin? What does it mean that we are sinners?

10. If it is impossible to keep the law, why does God maintain the law? Is there a positive purpose relating to our salvation?

Last modified on 30 November 2015
Kleyn, Rodney

Rev. Rodney Kleyn (Wife: Elizabeth)

Ordained: Sept. 2002

Pastorates: Trinity, Hudsonville, MI - 2002; Covenant of Grace, Spokane, WA - 2009; First PRC, Grand Rapids, MI - Oct.2021


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