Into the final stretch: Here are more reflections on the Heidelberg Catechism in honor of its 450th anniversary. (For some background and the entire document, check this out).
[Now that we are in Part III of the catechism–the part labeled “Thankfulness”–we encounter an exposition of God’s moral Law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments. The placement of this treatment highlights the Reformed emphasis on the normative use of the Law. Even if you’ve heard them before (which I hope you have), take a moment to re-read the Ten Commandments before reading the catechism’s treatment of them.]
LORD’S DAYS 36-39
99. Q. What is required in the third commandment?
A. We are not to blaspheme or to abuse the Name of God by cursing,perjury, or unnecessary oaths, nor to share in such horrible sins by being silent bystanders. In short, we must use the holy Name of God only with fear and reverence, so that we may rightly confess Him, call upon Him, and praise Him in all our words and works.
100. Q. Is the blaspheming of God’s Name by swearing and cursing such a grievous sin that God is angry also with those who do not prevent and forbid it as much as they can?
A. Certainly, for no sin is greater or provokes God’s wrath more than the blaspheming of His Name. That is why He commanded it to be punished with death.
101. Q. But may we swear an oath by the Name of God in a godly manner?
A. Yes, when the government demands it of its subjects, or when necessity requires it, in order to maintain and promote fidelity and truth, to God’s glory and for our neighbour’s good. Such oath-taking is based on God’s Word and was therefore rightly used by saints in the Old and the New Testament.
102. Q. May we also swear by saints or other creatures?
A. No. A lawful oath is a calling upon God, who alone knows the heart, to bear witness to the truth, and to punish me if I swear falsely. No creature is worthy of such honour.
103. Q. What does God require in the fourth commandment?
A. First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained and that, especially on the day of rest, I diligently attend the church of God to hear God’s Word, to use the sacraments, to call publicly upon the LORD, and to give Christian offerings for the poor. Second, that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, let the LORD work in me through His Holy Spirit, and so begin in this life the eternal sabbath.
104. Q. What does God require in the fifth commandment?
A. That I show all honour, love, and faithfulness to my father and mother and to all those in authority over me, submit myself with due obedience to their good instruction and discipline, and also have patience with their weaknesses and shortcomings, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.
The first four commands are often referred to as the first “table” of the Law, and reveal how it is that we are to relate to God–specifically, what is entailed in the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind”. The LORD alone is God, and we are to worship him and avoid idolatry.
But we are also to honor his name and his day. So what does that mean?
Honoring God’s name means more than just not using the words “God” or “Jesus Christ” as prefixes or suffixes to swear words. The concept of God’s “name” in Scripture refers to more than just a sequence of letters or phonetic utterances. In the ancient Near East, someone’s “name” was conceptually congruent with the person themselves. It has more of an ontological than categorical nature. [This is a very deep and important topic, and I know I’m brushing over it quickly.]
That’s why the way in which we use God’s name matters. “Profaning his name” is a real and serious sin. Blaspheming the revealed person and nature of God is what Jesus referred to as the ‘unforgivable sin’ (Matthew 12:31). So we do not take this lightly.
(As an aside, for those who worry about whether or not they’ve done so, I think the common pastoral answer is accurate and apt: If you’re grieved about whether or not you’ve ‘blasphemed the Spirit’, then you haven’t. It is a deliberate and conscious rejection of the Spirit’s testimony that Jesus is the Christ.)
The catechism also takes time to address some practical matters on this front. Is it permissible, for example, to take an oath in court? Yes, the catechism says, when this is done by appropriate civil authorities and serves to advance fidelity and truth. But we do not swear by any other creatures, no matter how saintly. We are called to revere and honor the name of the LORD.
We are also called to honor his day, the Sabbath. The catechism is notably brief on this very debated topic, and does not go into nearly the depth that something like the Westminster Confession of Faith does. It is content to pass by such questions as, “Why do Christians worship on Sunday, not Saturday?” [Because Jesus Christ rose on a Sunday], and “What, exactly, is allowed and forbidden on the Lord’s Day?”
We are to take a day to gather and worship, “hear the Word of God…participate in the holy Sacraments…call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian service to those in need.” In so doing, we begin to participate even now in the eternal Sabbath rest that awaits the people of God (Hebrews 4:9-10).
The fifth commandment moves into what is often called the second “table” of the Law, i.e. those commands that expound upon what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself”–and it begins in the home.
We are to honor and love our earthly parents, but the principle extends further. We are also to honor and obey all those whom God has set in authority over us and bear patiently with their failures. This is a difficult command, and it can be challenging to determine how to do that in circumstances where those figures are violating the nature of position through neglect or abuse. Certainly if such figures are promoting rebellion against God, then Peter’s words ring true, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
What is required in the third through fifth commands? That we honor God’s name, his day, and those whom he has set in positions of authority over us. In so doing, we live life as God has intended us to live, and demonstrate our love for him and for others.