That the title above is a partial quotation is evident at once.
That it is a partial quotation of Ecclesiastes 12:13 is not self evident. But to all who know this text, it will be known. The full text is, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”
Now partial quotations are to be frowned upon and not to be advocated. They lend themselves too easily and too quickly to a corruption of the truth in the text. They are often quoted for the express purpose of deceiving, of misleading and of defending false doctrines. For they are the results, so often, of the process of cutting off the rest of the text which would show the error of the teaching in whose defense they have been quoted.
And, strange as it may sound, that is exactly why we have chosen a partial quotation for our title at this writing. Only we must bear in mind that we make this partial quotation as a supplement to the usual partial quotation and to complete the picture that we may have the truth.
The words of our title are usually left off; and the text is so often read as though it simply said that the sole duty of man is to fear God. And then by fearing God is meant nothing more than believing, trusting Him, having faith in His promises.
No, this is not done in the literal sense of the word. You do not hear people literally denying that we must keep God’s commandments. For you do not hear people declaring that to keep His commandments is sinful and forbidden by God. No man who calls himself a Christian openly advocates that you and I may worship idols, take God’s name in vain, rebel against the authorities, steal, lie and kill. All know that even the civil state forbids these latter sins and that worshipping idols and taking God’s name in vain is directly contrary to all principles of Christianity. No man, no matter how much emphasis he may place on believing will himself believe that the church member or the world may break the second table of the law at will or that he may behave as though God never spoke that first table of the law. He may deny that there is any need whatsoever for Sabbath observance and that the day is man’s to do all he pleases; but he will never advocate the breaking of the first three commandments of that first table of the law.
Yet you do not need to look very far to find scores upon scores of people who in practice do ignore the phrase which forms our title and simply live from the principle that the sole duty of man is to believe. You will find this condition in- those churches where Christian discipline is lacking. Oh, they will insist that you believe certain teachings of the church. You must believe this and you must believe that to be a member in good standing in their midst. If you disagree with them in regard to their views on baptism, on the millennium, the love of God or even their own “prophetic” interpretation of events in present current events, they will be deeply grieved and do all in their power to bring you back from your “wayward” walk. Yet that you walk contrary to God’s law does not seem to be their concern. You can fill the Sabbath with the lusts of the flesh. You can go to early morning Mass so that the rest of the day is yours for golf, fishing or any other recreation you simply would not take time off for during the week. You can fill God’s Day with the things you would not do on the other days because of the almighty dollar. And nothing will be said or done about it. Your sole duty is to fear God (believe the things the church leaders say about Him) and, of course, give the church financial support. But that is the extent of it. Indeed, you must not murder, steal, lie and rebel against the authorities. It is better, too, that you do not openly commit adultery. But these are frowned upon not so much because it is part of the sole duty of man to flee these but because these are bad for society! And these must not be viewed in any other way than the literal word of the commandment. You must not ask any thing further in the matter. That joining a godless union which practices the unscriptural principle of might makes right in the strike is violating the fifth commandment and eighth must not be investigated. Believe what the church says about the cross, believe that God in. His love desires to save every man head for head and soul for soul and that you, little creature of the dust that depends entirely upon God, can disappoint Him and make His cross worthless; but never mind asking whether the dance floor and the sexual movies are not also phases of the sin of adultery! Believe in the practices of the church and go to do your “evangelism” on the street corner and in prison, on skid row and in the slum districts. But then rush home to curl up with Sunday’s enlarged section of the “funnies” or spend the rest of your time with Hollywood via TV or reading some worldly, gripping novel. These are very edifying spiritually! And these are showing due respect to that great work of God which He accomplished so fully in His Son that there is a rest that remaineth for the children of God! Just subscribe to the teachings of your church concerning doctrinal matters in the abstract and without their practical implications; and so drop out the words, “. . . and keep His commandments . . .” from your declaration as to the whole duty of man.
There are other ways!
Hold to the truth that all these are wicked, classify these works on the Sabbath as Sabbath desecration. Forbid membership in the godless unions and in all other worldly organization for whose godless practices you are responsible as a member -and .declare that the dance floor, the movie and TV entertainment of Hollywood with its immorality is not for the confessing child of God. But then do nothing about it when the members in the church walk in such wicked ways. Do as Eli did. Speak a few, mild reproving words and then look the other way! And again you rob Ecclesiastes 12:13 of the partial quotation that forms our title for this time. And that is easy to do. Who wants to stir up trouble in the church? Things are going smoothly. And if you touch this one who, does not keep God’s commandments, his father and mother, his brothers and sisters will rise up in his defense. And before you know it you have unrest in your church to say the least. Let divorce and union membership together with membership- in the atheistic lodges be tolerated. Otherwise you are going to suffer loss of membership. Your congregation and denomination is going to be less attractive and smaller in number in the midst of the world. Let this one or that one .continue in a sinful walk. Be patient and gentle. For to condemn sin harshly is to cause them to stiffen in resistance to your rebuke. And Lo! you find that others, seeing your laxity of discipline, begin to walk that way. The flood gates have opened; and now you cannot stop it! So . . . ! Recite a partial quotation and leave out, “. . . and keep His commandments.” That is the way of least resistance. That is the way of least trouble. Just preach the gospel. Tell all of the love of God, that He hates sin but not the sinner. But be sure you step on no toes. That is not the gospel. Well, you can tell people, as Eli did to his sons, “It is no good report that I hear.” But be sure you go no further than a few “choice” words of gentle reprimand! If a member of your church can recite the so-called Apostles’ Creed and say that he believes those cardinal truths of Scripture, what else can you in the name of God demand of him? And your version, your revised version of Ecclesiastes 12:13 reads, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Believe the twelve articles of the ‘Apostolic Creed’: for this is the whole duty of man.”
There are still other ways!
Preach the misery of man. Spare no words to paint the most awful picture of man’s total depravity. Show as clearly and as completely as you can his carnality. And you can never emphasize it too much. Place the proper emphasis upon man’s inherent wickedness. Explain fully Jesus’ words to the Pharisees: “Ye are of your father the devil,” and John the Baptist’s words to them: “O offspring of vipers (in your translation, generation of vipers).” And then go on to speak of the beauty and glory of the cross. With all the power at your command publish the joy of the gospel of a salvation full and free through the blood of Christ.
Well, no, not full and free, but surely free in the sovereign grace of our God. Not full, however, because you want to soft pedal or omit the sanctification that is also freely given on the basis of the blood of the cross. Indeed, there are such. They even insist that the Heidelberg Catechism with its three parts is the true doctrine of the Scriptures. Man must, they agree, have that threefold knowledge of his misery, of his redemption and of how to express his gratitude to God. But they never get to this last part of this triple knowledge. From the glorious truth of the cross they fall back again into the woes and miseries of their sin. The joy of the cross they lose almost as soon as they mention it. This misery of man is their forte. And although they confess the wonders of the cross they begin and they end in man’s misery. They never come to the treatment of the knowledge of how to express thankfulness to God. For therein is treated what God requires of us in the law. And instead of seeing the regenerated, sanctified child of God walking in that law in principle, they fall back again into the woe of the misery of not being able to keep that law AT ALL! Not even by God’s grace! Though they confess to be their only comfort that which the Heidelberg Catechism presents in Lord’s Day One, namely that they belong to Christ, a faithful Savior Who “assures us that He will make us sincerely willing and ready, henceforth to live unto Him,” that assurance is quickly brushed aside or else the “henceforth” becomes from the day of Christ’s return onward. In this life there just is no sincere willingness and readiness to live unto Him. For the regenerated child of God in this life his sole duty is to believe. And they leave off, “and keep His commandments” because they believe that in no sense of the word can it be said that the regenerated child of God does do this.
And yet we have one last consideration for this time.
Your child came home with his report card. You are deeply interested in his progress in school. Let us see, What did he get in arithmetic, spelling, reading, science, geography? After all the standings in these will determine whether he makes the grade and passes on to a higher grade. Indeed, you will take note that his mark is poor in deportment. But does that bother you MORE than his poor marks in these subjects? Or have you eliminated from his sole duty before God the keeping of His commandments. You want your child to believe in God. And you desire greatly his salvation. But is it simply a salvation from hell’s punishment, or is it also from wickedness and from a life of transgression of God’s law?
So you see, there is room to say a few things about the partial quotation that forms our theme and show that it belongs with the other part: “Fear God.” We plan, therefore, to look more carefully next time at this matter of keeping God’s commandments in this life.