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Chapter 1:The perfection of the Law Preached (cont’d)

Thus the apostle writes in I Cor. 6:9, 10: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, non-adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” The same we read in Eph. 5:5: “For this ye know, that no whoremonger; nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” And the apostle admonishes the church at Colosse: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” And the Lord tells Ezekiel that a covetous heart is the. reason why the people of Israel indeed listen to the word of the prophet as if they long for the Word of the Lord> but nevertheless hypocritically refuse to do it: “And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and as they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they show much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness.” Ezek. 33:31. To one whose heart is full of covetousness, so that the word of the gospel cannot strike root in it, the Lord Jesus refers in the parable of the sower, Matt. 13:22: “He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.” Covetousness is the sin of being rich in the things of this world, and not rich toward God,Luke 12:15, 21: “And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness i for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth . . . So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Moreover, according to Scripture, covetousness leads to many other sins, and is a root of all evil. Tim. 6:10. 

The sin of covetousness is the desire to possess anything apart from God, against His will; anything that He does not give me and that evidently He does not want me to have. Moreover, in close connection with this, the sin of covetousness implies the longing for mere material things, apart and divorced from things spiritual. It implies that we set our hearts not on the things of the kingdom of God, not on heavenly things, on things that are above, but on earthy things, on things that are below, on the things of this world. The tenth commandment expresses this by forbidding to covet anything that is our neighbor’s—his house, his wife, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or ass, or anything else. Of course, that sin of covetousness, of desiring to have that which is my neighbor’s, is to long for something that is contrary to the will of God. If there is anything which is in the possession of my neighbor,—whether I have something similar or not, that does not make any difference,—and I set my heart upon it, I commit the sin against the tenth commandment. If my neighbor possesses a house, I shall not covet it, whether I too have a house, or a house similar to his, or not. If my neighbor has a wife, I shall not covet her, whether I am married or single. Principally the sin of covetousness has nothing to do with the extent of my own possessions. It is not true that the poor covets that which the rich man has. By nature the rich man is just as covetous as the poor man. You have a strong example of this in Ahab’s coveting the vineyard of Naboth. The poor man probably covets small things, because he is poor. And the rich man covets big things, because he is rich. But both are covetous by nature. If the sin of covetousness could be rooted out of society, most of our economic problems would be solved. Covetousness is the root of all the sinful unrest in society. The same is true of international life and relationships: if the sin of covetousness were not so deeply rooted in the heart of the depraved man, most wars, if not all, would be eliminated. Take covetousness away, and there would be no reason for men to fly at one another’s throats, and you could hardly conceive of the possibility of war. Covetousness, in Scripture, is a root of all evil,—of malice and envy and hatred and enmity against one another, of adultery and uncleanness and all kinds of corruption. The reference is to this when the tenth commandment comes to us with the injunction, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s” Thou shalt not for a moment put an object that is in the possession of thy neighbor before thy mind, to set thy heart on it and long to possess it. Positively, this means, of course, that the tenth commandment enjoins us to be content with what we have. Christian contentment is perfect satisfaction with what one has, for the sake of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, and that too, in the midst of a corrupt and covetous world. It means that we hear and heed the injunction of Scripture when it tells us: “Fret not thyself because of evil-doers, neither be thou envious against the workers of iniquity. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed. Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart. Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass.” Ps. 37:1-5. And again: “Fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass. Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil. For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth.” It means that we listen to and heed the admonition of the Lord Jesus which is joined with the injunction that we cannot serve God and mammon: “Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin; and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the Gentiles seek: for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” It is the state of which the apostle Paul speaks in Philippians 4:11-13: “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Moreover, contentment, in opposition to covetousness, is, as already evident from all the passages of Scripture we just quoted, the Christian virtue and attitude whereby one seeks the things that are above, not the things that are on the earth. It is the spiritual state of him who hears and obeys the admonition of the apostle Paul in Cal. 3:1-4: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.” This also is implied in the injunction of the tenth commandment. I shall never set my heart on anything as an object of my desire that is merely earthy, and that has no connection with the kingdom of God, or stands opposed to it. I shall never long for any object that is merely temporal, divorced from things eternal. I shall set my heart on heavenly things, and seek the things of the kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all other things shall be added unto me. 

But even this is not the final and the deepest meaning of the tenth commandment according to the Heidelberg Catechism. The commandment in its deepest and real sense means, thus the Catechism instructs us, that we shall never think, conceive, or imagine, or desire anything in the smallest degree, that is contrary to any of the commandments of God. Or, as the Catechism has it literally: “That even the smallest inclination or thought, contrary to any of God’s commandments, never rise in our hearts.” And, on the other hand, thus the Catechism instructs us, the tenth commandment requires that in our deepest heart we always and constantly assume the attitude of hatred over against all sin, and that we have it heart fully of delight in, all righteousness. The condition of our heart must be such that we can say with the psalmist of Psalm 19:8: “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart,” Or with the psalmist of Ps: 119:97: “O, how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day.” It must be such, at least, that even in our imperfect state we can utter the prayer: “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.” Ps. 19:14

The meaning is plain. As always is the word of God, so also the Heidelberg Catechism proceeds from the correct conception that no deed or work of man is good unless it is good from top to bottom, or from its root to its fruit. And any work of man is good in the sight of God only when it is perfect all the way from the heart to its outward manifestation. Unless this is true, no work of man can possibly be called good. A mere outward show of goodness while the heart is full of corruption is abominable in the sight of God. Just as when you see a tree, you behold only that part of it which is above the surface of the ground, yet that which you see is not the whole tree; often there is just as much below the surface of the ground as that which is above, and that which is below the surface belongs very essentially to the tree;—the same is true with any deed or act of man. We see only part of it. We perceive it in the words of his mouth, in the activity of his body, and perhaps in the expression of his face. All this appears only above the surface. But that which is below the surface of the appearance belongs to the work or act or deed of man before God just as well as that which is above the surface. Below the outward appearance is the mind, the thought, the conception, the imagination in which the deed is conceived. Besides, below the surface of the appearance of the deed there is the will, the desire, the emotions, the inclination, the purpose and the motive of the deed. And back of it all lays the deepest heart of man. The heart in the Scriptural sense of the word is the spiritual, ethical center and source and root of all the deeds of man: “For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil; for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.” Luke 6:42-45. And again: “And he said, That which cometh out of the man defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.” Mark 7:20-23. There is, therefore, a veritable life of man below the surface which is in itself invisible, but which belongs to the life of man before God just as really as that which appears. God does not look only upon the outward act, but upon the inward life, upon the heart of man. 

And when this tenth commandment comes with the requirement. “Thou shalt not covet,” it simply, according to the interpretation of the Heidelberg Catechism takes hold of that part of our life that lies below the surface. It points to our thinking, our willing, our desiring, our inclination. It points to our deepest heart and requires of us: “Thou shalt be perfect, be perfect even as the Lord your God is perfect.” And so the Heidelberg Catechism is undoubtedly correct in its interpretation. The tenth commandment covers really the whole of the law, in all its separate commandments. And it goes into our deepest heart. We shall not desire any other god, but love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. We shall not conceive or think or will or desire anything against any of the commandments of God. But we shall have our delight in the law of our God with our whole heart. Such is the meaning of the tenth commandment. Be ye therefore perfect, even as the Lord your God is perfect. 

Chapter 2: The Imperfect Perfect Christian 

We are not surprised that especially in connection with the tenth commandment the Heidelberg Catechism concludes the discussion of the law first of all with the question: “But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?” The whole law is perfect: as it is reflected in the tenth commandment it demands nothing less of the Christian than inward and outward perfection. And therefore, the question is quite proper, not whether man by nature, but whether the Christian can keep the law perfectly. That the natural man, apart from the grace of God, can keep the law perfectly is, of course, out of the question. A similar question was asked in the very beginning of the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 2. There the question was whether man by nature can keep all the commandments of the law of God, expressed in the principle of the love of God and of the neighbor, perfectly. And there the answer was that this is absolutely impossible. The natural man stands opposed to the law with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. And therefore the answer was: “In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.” But that natural man was redeemed by the blood of Christ. Besides, he was delivered not only from the guilt, but also principally from the power of sin and death. He has a new life, and is sanctified in. Christ. And now that Christian, so redeemed and sanctified, is confronted with the question whether he can keep the law of God perfectly. And the answer of the Catechism is two-fold. The first part is negative, and at the same time it gives the reason for this negative answer: “No: but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience.” And the second part of the answer is positive: “Yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.” 

Let us be sure that we understand this important question correctly. The question is not whether the Christian actually does keep the commandments of God perfectly, but whether he can do so. We often have an idea that the perfectionist teaches that the Christian actually does keep the law of God perfectly. But that is not his contention. And this is certainly not the meaning of Question 14 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Once, when I preached on this Lord’s Day, I spoke, according to a stenographic record of the sermon, as follows: 

“If we ask the question whether we do actually keep the law of God perfectly, we do not have to go very far, do we? Let us ask the question of ourselves as we are gathered here for public worship this morning. Suppose we would examine ourselves before the face of God, and ask the question: did we keep the law of God perfectly this morning, since we opened our eyes? One and all, you and I will have to answer undoubtedly: we did not. We do not even have to go as far back as the time when we first awoke this morning. Let us go back to the moment when we entered the church, when we began our worship: Was even our worship perfect? Did we keep the law of God perfectly while we sang and prayed as we sat and listened to the reading of Holy Writ and to the perfect law? Was even that worship perfect? Was there since the beginning of our worship not the smallest thought in our mind contrary to the holiness of that worship? Is there anyone here that would dare to say no to that question? Was there since the beginning of our worship not the smallest inclination to sin? Is there anyone here that would dare to maintain that he could pass through one hour and a half of worship before the face of God without sin? My answer to that question is negative. And so is yours, if you only examine yourselves properly before the face of God. Perhaps you will say that there arose before your mind a sinful thought, but you suppressed it. There was in your soul a sinful inclination, but you put it down and fought against it. But even though this was the case, the sinful thought and the sinful inclination were there. They were before your mind and they were in your soul, were they not?”