Lord’s Day 44
Question 113. What doth the tenth commandment require of us?
Answer. That even the smallest inclination or thought contrary to any of God’s commandments never arise in our hearts; but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness.
Question 114. But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?
Answer. No; but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.
Question 115. Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?
Answer. First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we constantly endeavor, and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us, in a life to come.
The tenth and final commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” is something like a capstone. The law, and our obedience to it, are not complete until God has spoken in the tenth commandment.
This commandment is unique. Each of the others addresses either a behavior or a relationship, speaking to something observable, something you will either hear or see. This one, however, speaks to something that only God can see, the desires of our hearts. In this commandment the law brings us before God, and sets Him forth as the judge of men’s hearts. No man can punish or imprison you for your hidden desires, but God can send you to hell for them. “I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give to every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings” (Jer. 17:10).
This commandment is the door to understanding all of the commandments and brings obedience to a much higher level. There are not nine commandments that deal with external behavior and now one that deals with internal thoughts, but God is concerned in every commandment with obedience from the heart. “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts” (Ps. 51:6).
The answer of the Catechism to the question, “What does the tenth commandment require of us?” is quite surprising. Though coveting is a sin familiar to all of us and of which we are all guilty, nothing is said about coveting. No definition is given. Nothing is said about the neighbor’s possessions and our greed, envy, jealousy or lust for what is not ours. Instead, the Catechism states something impossible: that this commandment teaches that God requires a perfect, heart obedience from us. Notice the absolute language: “That even the smallest inclination or thought contrary to any of God’s commandments never rise in our hearts; but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness.” There is no wiggle room, no falling short of perfection.
But, how did we get from coveting to perfection?
Because the commandment addresses desire. God is not concerned merely with obedience to the letter of the law, to the external activity, but with our “inclinations and thoughts” and our “hatred” for sin and “delight” in obedience. We sin without doing. Covetousness is a heart sin, and God holds us responsible for our entire thought life. The focus in this commandment is not the neighbor or his house or wife; nor is the focus merely your thoughts about your neighbor, but the focus is your heart before God.
And now, we have learned something about all the other commandments, about all obedience to God. The first commandment does not merely forbid the worship of other deities or idols, but it demands exclusive love for God. The fifth commandment does not merely require obedience and respect to an authority figure, but examines our attitudes and demands that we obey “as unto the Lord.” The seventh not only forbids adulterous acts but, if a man looks on a woman with desire, his lust is adultery.
The tenth commandment deepens and strengthens the law. When we might think with the rich young ruler that we have kept all the commandments of God, then this commandment comes and says, How about your heart? Are your desires perfect before God?
But someone objects: How can God require such perfection? Is that not unfair?
God can require it because He Himself is holy and righteous. In stark contrast to our imperfect and impossible obedience stands the perfect active obedience of Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. Salvation is impossible through our fulfilling the law, but Christ has kept it to the letter and from the heart perfectly for us.
In requiring perfection this commandment exposes our corruption. There is our dark side that we try to hide that this commandment exposes to God. There are lusts and jealousies that we do not share because they are “nobody else’s business;” but God says, “That, too, is my business.” The deep sea of sinful thoughts and desires that lies under the glassy surface God sees. You may outwardly appear so clean and pious, but God sees deeper. “There is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known” (Matt. 10:26). “I the Lord search the heart” (Jer. 17:10).
Before this commandment there is an alarming increase of guilt and we begin to see what it means that “daily” we increase our debt. The one who lacks a sense of guilt before God looks into shallow waters and needs to look into the mirror of this commandment, to descend from the pride of his own actions and to pray,
Search me, O God, my heart discern, Try me, my inmost thought to learn; And lead me, if in sin I stray, To choose the everlasting way.
“Even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience.” How instructive is this statement! Notice that it selects for examination not the unholy wicked but the holiest of men, those sanctified by God’s Holy Spirit who have been described as having “a sincere sorrow of heart that they have provoked God for their sin, and more and more hate and flee from sin.”
How far have these—have you as a Christian—progressed in obedience to God’s law?
Putting it positively, we have “only a small beginning.” Negatively, there remains a mountain of sin and corruption. My best works are as filthy rags. “I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes,” said Job. “I am a man of unclean lips and dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips,” said Isaiah. “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” said Peter. “O wretched man that I am,” said Paul. When it comes to the holiest of men, below the surface is the corruption of that old man of sin.
Is this too hard? Does someone say, “But what’s below the surface, my desires, are beyond my control? Does God really hold me responsible for thoughts that seem to just pop into my head?” The answer is, “Yes!” This is the depth of the law, revealing to us not only the filth of our sinful deeds, but also the stench of our corrupt nature.
And the regenerate heart says, with Paul, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7, 25).
The regenerated heart is not a pool of stagnant water, but rather a flowing stream. Once we have become new creatures, by the power of regeneration, that new life buds and brings fruit in every direction. As the waters are stirred by the Spirit of God that speaks in the law, the believer says, “I delight in the law of God” and have “a sincere resolution to live not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.” As the sun awakens a flower, so the child of God says when he hears the commandments, “That’s what I want to do. I want to be holy as God, the Lawgiver, is holy.”
In this life, that obedience is never perfect. It is always a beginning, but a beginning that increases, so that we, growing in grace and obedience, “become more and more conformable to the image of God.” The strict preaching of the law to regenerated ears and hearts produces this fruit. We are not wasting words as we preach and apply the commandments strictly to the lives of God’s people. The Word of God is profitable “for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Tim. 3:16-17).
To be built up, we must first be broken down. To be repentant, we must first be exposed. To be equipped, we must first be stripped. For new desires to be awakened, the old and sinful must first be recognized.
A superficial knowledge of ourselves will not do. We need the kind that will make us “more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ.” We do not need to feel good about ourselves and our “small” obedience, but to see the greatness and sufficiency and excellence of the cross and love of Christ for broken, repentant sinners. This is where the law as our schoolmaster leads us.
Perhaps you thought that to die happily you would need Christ. Now we learn that to live we also need Christ. “Without me, ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). The branch is fruitless and withers apart from the vine. We cannot do without Christ. We cannot do without His forgiveness. We cannot do without His righteousness. We cannot do without His Spirit. We cannot do without His Word. We cannot do without His grace.
And so, rather than poking around, trying to obtain righteousness by our obedience to the law, we turn in faith and prayer to God, “who will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them.”
Next, the catechism will take us to the subject of prayer.
Questions for discussion