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Q. 3. Whence knowest thou thy misery? Out of the law of God.

Q. 4. What doth the law require of us? Christ teaches us that briefly Matt. 23:37-40, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and 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? In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.


Proceeding now from the standpoint that true comfort, also true Christian comfort, is not a mere matter of the emotions, nor of inexplicable mystic experience, but is also a consideration of the mind, of which one is able to give an intelligent account and in which one may be instructed, the Catechism asks the question: “Whence knowest thou thy misery?” Three things, we recall, one must know in order to live and die happily in this true comfort. And the first of these was: “how great my sins and miseries are.” Upon a discussion of this part of the Christian comfort our instructor now enters.

We must clearly understand the meaning and purpose of the question. The question does not mean the same as: “how knowest thou that thou art miserable?” This would have no sense. That man is miserable is simply a matter of universal experience. The misery of “life and death” is too real to be in need of verification. Every individual man can testify for himself that he is aware of a good deal of evil, of suffering and sorrow, of “misfortune” and adversity in life; and he knows that he is encompassed by death on all sides, so that there is no way out. Man may attempt to drown the consciousness of his misery by drunken revelry, like a man that enjoys his last feast in a death-cell; or he may try to find the golden mean of moderation in sinful pleasure and indulgence in order to elicit from life the greatest possible amount of enjoyment; or he may proudly steel himself to endure suffering without complaint or show of emotion, like the Stoic,—the fact remains that the consciousness of misery is universal. To ask a man in this world how he knows that he is miserable would be quite superfluous. That there is something wrong, something very seriously defective with the world, yea, even that man is sinful, morally corrupt to an extent, everybody knows from his individual experience, and the report of it reaches him every day through his newspaper and over the radio. Or what note is more dominant in the tumult of the world that reaches your home through the air or by the printed sheet, than that of human corruption and human sorrow and death? But it is not the purpose of the Heidelberger to inquire as to whether and how we are aware that we are miserable. But it would instruct us with regard to the true nature and seriousness of our misery, and to realize this purpose it inquires after the source of our knowledge: “whence knowest thou thy misery?”

It must be admitted that the Catechism here applies the correct method to arrive at true knowledge of our misery. It applies a standard, a criterion, whereby to determine the real nature and cause, as well as the greatness and extent of our misery. It proceeds from the assumption that misery is something abnormal and that in order to discover just what is the character of the abnormality a norm must be applied. Abnormal is that which departs from the standard, the norm. A man may, in a general way, realize that his condition is abnormal, that there is something wrong with him, but only when he applies the proper criterion and gauges his condition with it can he know the character and seriousness of the abnormality. It is this truth that is implied in the question that introduces the discussion of our misery in this second Lord’s Day of the Heidelberg Catechism. The question means: what norm do you apply to find out what is the nature of your trouble?

And the question is very important. For it stands to reason that the kind of remedy you seek depends upon the knowledge you have of your misery, and the latter again is certainly determined by the norm you apply. And, in the case under consideration: the misery of man in “life and death,” there are only two possibilities in this respect: either you find the norm to be applied in man himself, or you apply a norm from without. Whence knowest thou thy misery? What norm did you and do you apply to determine its nature? In the world man is always measured by himself. Various standards are put up and applied, and accordingly, different remedies are tried to deliver humanity from its misery of “life and death.” Sometimes the standard of the philosophy of evolution is applied, according to which man constantly ascended the steep and difficult slope of progress from a very low state. And when this criterion is applied as the “norm,” the result is rather satisfactory and flattering to man. After all, the misery of life and death is quite normal. Already the progress man has made is really amazing. And there is a well-founded hope that in course of time he will advance to perfection! Or, perhaps, a certain standard of living is applied and we speak of “the abundant life” (rather profanely!) as the normal state for which to strive. In that case, it is conditions, environment that are to blame for the misery of life, at least, not to speak now of death. Or the standard is found in man’s conscience, or in intellectual attainment, and we set ourselves to “build character” or to improve education to overcome the misery of man and to eliminate evil from the world.

Whence knowest thou thy misery? the instructor asks of the Christian. What is your criterion? What determines for you what is normal? And the answer is placed upon the lips of the pupil: “Out of the law of God.” The law is “normal.” Whatever is in agreement with the law is “normal.” And whatever departs or is in conflict with the law of God is “abnormal,” and therefore, miserable!

What, then, is that law of God?

In general, law is the will of God concerning the nature, position and relationship, operation and movement and life of any creature. We must not think of law as a code, as a rather arbitrary set of precepts, which one may obey or disregard without any necessary evil result. Thus it is with laws of man. You may violate them with impunity as long as there is no representative of the law to arrest you. But the law of God is the living will of God, of the immanent God, Who is present in all creation and Who always maintains and executes His will, and deals with the creature accordingly. You cannot escape it. It besets you from every side. It is a power that blesses you as long as you are and act in harmony with it, but that crushes and curses you, the moment you transgress. Nor is the law of God an arbitrary expression of the will of God concerning the creature, something that bears no relation to the creature’s nature. On the contrary, God’s law for each creature is in harmony with the nature of that creature, the one is adapted to the other. And to be and operate in agreement with the law is “normal” for every creature. Disagreement with the law of God is abnormal and results in instant misery.

Thus there is a law for the fish that it shall be and move in the water; the nature of the fish is formed so as to be in harmony with this sphere of its law. To transgress this sphere of the law of God means death. There is a law for the bird in the air for the tree in the soil, for the course of the sun and moon and stars in the firmament, for the temperature of your blood, the count of your pulse, the digestion of your food, the breathing of your lungs. And always that law of God is “normal,” and the transgression of that law means misery, destruction, death. For the law of God is the living and mighty will of God, within the sphere of which He created, and within whose bounds it pleases Him to bless the creature.

And so there is a law of God for man as a volitional and intellectual being, as a rational, moral creature, as a personal nature, a free agent, who thinks and wills and speaks and acts as he is motivated from within, from the heart, by the determination and choice of his mind and will. For thus man was created. He was formed from the dust of the ground, and God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and thus man became a living soul. Indeed, he is a living soul and as such he is related to the animals. But in distinction from the animals God formed him as to his physical organism, and by His Spirit breathed into him, so that he became a personal being, standing in a definite relation to God and to all creation. The issues of his life are from his heart. He is capable of moral self-determination. And it is of the law of God for this personal, rational and moral nature of man, the law that is in harmony with this free agent and that is “normal” for him, that the Catechism speaks in this second Lord’s Day, and which it designates as the source of the knowledge of our misery. Remember that also this law is not a mere code of precepts. Its essence is not the two stone tables which Moses brought with him from the mount. It is not the “ten words” of the Decalogue. These are merely the expression, the revelation of the contents of the law of God. No, also this law is rather to be conceived as the living will of God, which is quite in harmony with the being and nature of man, God’s will concerning man’s will and life in relation to Himself and to all things; the law which God always maintains and according to which He always blesses man if he moves within the sphere of that law, and curses him when he transgresses.

What is that law of God?

The Catechism answers this question by quoting the Lord Jesus Himself: “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 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.” The quotation is from Matt. 22:37-40. The context of the passage in Matthew is interesting. We read: “But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” The Sadducees, the rationalistic sect among the Jews, who did not believe that there is a resurrection of the dead, had first tempted the Lord and tried to entrap Him by their sophistry. They had concocted a subtle story about a woman that had been the wife successively of seven brothers, and they were wondering how the Lord could possibly solve the problem as to whose wife this woman was supposed to be in the resurrection. The only possible solution would seem to be that of polyandry. And the Lord had put them to shame by pointing out their fundamental error which concerned their conception of the resurrection itself. “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God” (vs. 30). And at the same time the Lord had attacked them in the very purpose for asking the question and concocting the story: to refute the whole idea that there is a resurrection: “But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” The Sadducees had been put to silence.

Well, the Pharisees had a double interest in this incident, although their interest did not concern the truth at all. On the one hand, they could only rejoice that their enemies, the Sadducees, had been overcome in argument and had been put to shame in public. But on the other hand, they must surely regret the fact that it was Jesus of Nazareth that had scored this victory over the Sadducees, for Him they hated. They have a conference about the matter. And they decide that now they ought to make an attempt to ensnare the Lord in His own arguments. And they delegate one of them, a theologian of first rank, to make the attempt. Hence, he approaches the Lord with the question: “which is the great commandment of the law?”

The learned theologians of that time had developed “the law” into minutest detail. When they spoke of the law, they referred to a body of hundreds of precepts. But they made a distinction between more or less important commandments. They were even divided among themselves on the question which of the precepts were to be regarded as essential and important, and which might be relegated to the category of non-essential commandments. And when they come to Jesus with the question concerning the “great commandment,” they see a possibility to entrap Him, to compel Him to select one of all the commandments as of sole importance, and thereby to characterize the rest of the law as of minor significance. And in the eyes of the public he would be branded as a liberal, a modern! But in His answer the Lord again proves that the question is based upon a very fundamental error. They do not understand the law. They have no proper conception of the essence and true nature of the law. They think it is a code of many precepts, and that they can distinguish mechanically between “the great” commandment, as one of many, and less important precepts. In this they err. If you want to discover the “great commandment,” you cannot apply the method of selection from a code; you must rather search for the root of the whole law, for the essence of every precept, for that which touches not the external forms of life but the inner motives of the heart. If you do this, then there is, indeed, a “great commandment,” but then it is one that governs all other commandments of God, and from which all are derived. It is the commandment of the love of God!

Love the Lord thy God! Yes, indeed, that is the one great commandment, beside which and apart from which there is none other! For the love of God is emphatically the love of GOD! To love Him means perfection. For God is good. He is the implication of all infinite perfections. He is righteous and holy and true, merciful and just, gracious and faithful. He Himself is love, the bond of perfectness. And you must love Him! You must not make or conceive a God of your own imagination, that is like yourself, in order to love that idol. No, you must love the living God, Who is GOD indeed. You must learn humbly from Him Who He is and what He is, and love Him for His own sake, just because He is God and because He is good. And you must love Him. Your whole life must be motivated by an intense desire to be in harmony with Him, your mind with His mind, your will with His will, your desires with His desires, your word with His Word, your deed with His deeds; to be pleasing to Him, so that He looks upon you in divine favor and you taste His goodness; to seek and to find Him, and to live in perfect fellowship of friendship with Him.

Yes, that is the great commandment. From this all possible precepts must be derived. It is their root. It expresses the living will of God that besets man on every side, from which there is no escape, according to which the living God deals with man. And it concerns the whole man. It is not satisfied with any outward performance or show of goodness in the spoken word or the visible act: it lays hold on the heart of man. It does not merely prescribe what man shall do or even what he shall think or what he shall contemplate, purpose or desire: it expresses what he shall be, that is, what he shall be from a spiritual, ethical viewpoint. For love is a matter of the heart, and the heart concerns the spiritual, ethical status of man’s whole nature. His own heart he does not control: the heart controls him. From the heart are the issues of life. As the heart is, so are man’s inner desires, thoughts, purposes, motives, aspirations, words and deeds: as the heart is, so is man! And, therefore, this great commandment involves the whole man: all his heart and mind and soul and strength. “Love God” means that you love Him for His own sake with your whole being, with all your thinking and willing, with all your strength, every moment of your existence, in every relationship of your life, with all that you possess. Love of God is all-inclusive. It is either that or nothing, or rather: it is either love God or hate Him! Here you cannot divide or compromise. You cannot serve two masters. The great commandment is inexorable in its absoluteness. It brooks no competition. God is a jealous God!

And, mark you well, it is the great commandment. The Lord, in His reply to the tempting lawyer, does not evade the issue. The question was not concerning the greatest commandment, as if there were, indeed, a comparison possible, as if starting from the greatest there is a descending scale of precepts down to the very least of them all. No, the Pharisee had inquired definitely after the one great commandment. And the Lord takes him up. He is not speaking of the greatest commandment. Nor does He reply that there are really two great commandments, a great and a greater, the latter requiring the love of God, the former the love of the neighbor. On the contrary, there is only one first and great (not greatest or greater) commandment, and that is: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God.” And if you remark that the Lord, nevertheless, speaks of two commandments, we must call your attention to the fact, that Christ also declares that the second is “like unto the first.” And this cannot mean that there are after all two separate commandments of equal value and force, or that you could just as well say that the first commandment is like unto the second. It can only mean, that the second is rooted in the first, or, if you please, that the second, requiring love of the neighbor, is also principally love of God! You must love the neighbor with the same love wherewith you love God! You must love the neighbor as yourself, because also yourself you may not love otherwise than with the love of God and for God’s sake! You cannot love yourself unless you love God. You cannot love the neighbor as yourself unless the love of God is the motive power of your life! Yes, indeed, the love of God is the one great commandment!

Take it away and everything falls into ruins! For “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”! And “the law and the prophets” denote the entire Scriptures of the Old Testament. So that we may safely say: the whole Bible depends on these two commandments. For the law is norm. If you distort the norm, you distort everything. If the plumb-line is not normal, your whole house in every line of it is abnormal, and the whole city in which you live stands awry. The love of God is norm. Take it away or distort it, and everything tumbles down: the law and the prophets, the sacrifices and the shadows, repentance and redemption, sin and grace, Christ and the cross and the resurrection, yea, God Himself!

O, indeed, the law of God is norm, and if you want to know the real nature, and the extent of our misery, the very love of God must give us the amazing audacity to apply that norm to ourselves!