The Heidelberg Catechism is one of the most significant teaching documents in the Reformed Faith. (For some background and the entire document, check this out.) It’s divided into questions and answers for each week (Lord’s Day), and throughout this year I’ll try to offer some brief reflections. Here it is for this past Sunday:
Of Man’s Misery
LORD’S DAY 2
Q. 3. Where do you learn of your sin and its wretched consequences?
A. From the Law of God.
Q. 4. What does the Law of God require of us?
A. Jesus Christ teaches this in a summary in Matthew 22:37-40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Cf. Luke 10:27)
Q. 5. Can you keep all this perfectly?
A. No, for by nature I am prone to hate God and my neighbor.
We’ve all faced the “do you want the bad news or the good news first” scenario, and whatever sequence you prefer for other things, it is necessary that we hear the bad news first when it comes to our relationship with our Creator.
John Calvin famously began his Institutes by saying, “‘Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” In other words, what we know to be true about God and what we know to be true about ourselves are intimately connected.
When we consider God first–as we must–we are made aware of his holiness, righteousness, and perfection. We hear his commands given to us, and become immediately aware of how far short we have fallen from the holy standard that he requires. We become aware of our misery and guilt. We become aware of our need for rescue. As the catechism says, “We become aware of our sin and its wretched consequences.”
This is what is called the ‘first use’ of God’s Law, which I’ve written about here. We cannot keep God’s Law (Jesus’ famous dictum above is really a summary of the Ten Commandments) because of our sin–both that which we have inherited from Adam and that which we contribute to each and every day. We are rebels in thought, word, and deed. We are prone to hate God and our neighbor. We are lost, guilty, and in need of good news.
Yet long before we hear the good news (about which the catechism has much to say), we must first hear why it is that we need this good news. If there is no problem, then the solution is irrelevant. Reformed confessions follow this trajectory because it is necessary for us to know why we need rescue in order to fully understand and appreciate that rescue.
Make no mistake, the bad news is really bad. But until we face it squarely and consider its heinousness, the good news won’t make sense, and it certainly won’t prompt us to rejoice eternally.