RPM, Volume 19, Number 6, February 5 to February 11, 2017

The Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism


By Dr. Zacharias Ursinus


Question 3. Whence knowest thou thy misery?

Answer. Out of the law of God.


In this division of the catechism which treats of the misery of man, we are to consider principally the subject of sin, together with the effects or punishment of sin. Other subjects of a subordinate nature are connected with this, such as the creation of man, the image of God in man, the fall and first sin of man, original sin, the liberty of the will, and afflictions. In regard to our misery, we must consider in general, what it is, whence, and how it may be known!

The term misery is more comprehensive in its signification than that of sin, for it embraces the evil both of guilt and punishment. The evil of guilt is all sin; the evil of punishment is all affliction, torment, and destruction of our rational nature, as well as all subsequent sins also, by which those are punished that go before; as the numbering of the children of Israel, for instance, by David, was a sin, and at the same time the punishment of a preceding sin, viz: that of adultery and murder, with which he was chargeable, so that it included the evil both of guilt and punishment. The misery of man, therefore, is his wretched condition since the fall, consisting of these two great evils: First, that human nature is depraved, sinful, and alienated from God, and secondly, that, on account of this depravity, mankind are exposed to eternal condemnation, and deserve to be rejected of God.

The knowledge of this our misery is derived out of the law of God; for, "through the law is the knowledge of sin." (Rom. 3:20.) The language of the law is, "Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of the law, to do them." (Deut. 27:26.) The two following questions of the catechism teach us how the law makes us acquainted with our misery.

Question 4. What doth the law of God require of us?

Answer. Christ teacheth us that briefly, (Matt. 22:37, 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 the great command; and the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commands hang the whole law and the prophets."


Christ rehearses the substance of the law in Matt. 22:37, and in Luke 10:27, from Deut. 6:5, and Lev. 19:8. He explains what is meant by that declaration: "Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them;" that is, he who does not love God with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his mind, and with all his strength, and his neighbor as himself. These several parts must be explained more fully.

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God. To love God with the whole heart, is, upon a due acknowledgment of his infinite goodness, reverently to regard and esteem him as our highest good, to love him supremely, to rejoice and trust in him alone, and to prefer his glory to all other things, so that there may not be in us the least thought, inclination, or desire for anything that might be displeasing to him; yea, rather to be willing to suffer the loss of all things that may be dear to us, or to endure the heaviest calamity, than that we should be separated from communion with him, or offend him in the smallest matter, and lastly, to direct all this to the end that he alone may be glorified by us.

The Lord thy God. As if he would say, thou shalt love that God who is thy Lord and thy God, who has revealed himself unto thee, who confers his benefits upon thee, and to whose service thou art bound. There is here an opposition of the true God to false gods.

With all thy heart. By the heart we are to understand the affections, desires, and inclinations. When God, therefore, requires our whole heart, he desires that he alone should be loved above everything else; that our whole heart should be stayed on him, and not that a part should be given to him and a part to another. In short, he wills that we make nothing equal to him, much less that we should prefer anything to him; or that we should be willing to share only a part of his love. To love God thus, is what the Scripture calls "walking before God with a perfect heart;" the opposite of which is not to walk before God with a perfect heart, which is to halt, and not to surrender the whole person to him.

Obj. God alone is to be loved. Therefore, our neighbors, parents and kindred are not to be loved. Ans. This argument is false, because it proceeds from a denial of the manner, to that of the thing itself. God alone is to be loved supremely, and above everything else; that is, in such a manner that there may be nothing at all which we either prefer or put upon an equality with him, and which we are not heartily willing to part with for his sake. But we ought to love our neighbors, parents, and others, not supremely, nor above everything else, nor in such a manner that we would rather offend God than our parents; but in subordination to and on account of God, and not above him.

With all thy soul. The soul signifies that part of our being which wills, together with the exercise of the will, as if he would say, thou shalt love with thy whole will and purpose.

With all thy mind. The mind signifies the understanding, or that which perceives; as if he would say, as much as thou knowest of God, so much shalt thou love him -- thou shalt bend all thy thoughts that thou mayest know God truly and perfectly, and so shalt thou also love him. We can love God only as far as we know him. We now love him imperfectly, because we know him only in part. But in the life to come we shall know him perfectly, and shall, therefore, love him perfectly; for "that which is in part shall be done away." (1 Cor. 13:10.)

With all thy strength. This embraces all actions, and exercises, at the same time, both external and internal; that they may be in accordance with the law of God.

This is the first and greatest commandment. The love of God is called the first commandment, because all the others proceed from this, as their source. It is the impelling, the efficient, and final cause of obedience to all the other commandments of God. For we love our neighbor because we love God, and that we may manifest our love to God in the love which we cherish towards our neighbor. It is called the greatest commandment

1. Because the object upon which it is immediately directed is the greatest, even God himself. 2. Because it is the end to which all the other commandments look; for our entire obedience is designed to show forth our love to God, and to honor his name. 3. Because it is the principal worship of God, which the ceremonial law subserved, and to which it gave place. The Pharisees extolled the ceremonial law and worship above the moral; whilst Christ, on the other hand, calls love the greatest commandment, and gives precedence to the moral law and worship, because whatever was instituted under the ceremonial system was on account of love, and was designed to give place to it.

Obj. The love of God is the greatest commandment. Therefore it is greater than faith, and hence justifies rather than faith. Ans. Love is here to be understood as including the entire obedience which we owe to God, in which faith is included, which justifies, not of itself as a virtue, but correlatively, as it apprehends and appropriates the merits of Christ. But the love which is opposed to faith, and which in particular is so called, does not justify, because the application of the righteousness of Christ is not made by love, but by faith alone; yea, love springs from faith; for faith is the cause of all the other virtues.

The second is like to this: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. To love thy neighbor as thyself, is in view of thy love to God; or because thou lovest God, do well unto thy neighbor according to all the commandments of the Lord; or will and do to thy neighbor those things which thou wilt that he should do to thee. Now every man is our neighbor.

It is called the second commandment: 1. Because it embodies the substance of the second table, or those duties, which are performed directly towards our neighbor. If thou love thy neighbor as thyself, thou wilt neither murder, nor injure him. 2. Because the love which we cherish towards our neighbor must arise out of the love of God; it is, therefore, naturally subsequent to it.

It is said to be like unto the first in three respects: 1. In the kind of worship which it requires, which is moral or spiritual. This is no less required and sanctioned in the second table than in the first, for it everywhere opposes itself to a mere formal worship. 2. In the kind of punishment which it threatens against the transgressor, which is an eternal punishment; for God inflicts this, as well for the violation of one table, as for that of the other. 3. In the connection which holds between the two tables; for neither one can be maintained without the other.

It is also unlike the first: 1. In the object which it immediately respects, which in the first is God, in the second our neighbor. 2. In the order of cause and effect. The love which we cherish towards our neighbor originates in the love which we have to God; but not the contrary. 3. In the degree of love. We must love God supremely. But the love which we have for our neighbor must not be above everything else, nor stronger than that which we have for God; but only as we love ourselves.

From what has now been said, it is easy to return an answer to the objection sometimes made: The second commandment is like unto the first. Therefore the first is not the greatest; or, therefore our neighbor is to be regarded as equal with God, and is to be worshipped in like manner. To this we reply, that the second is like unto the first, not absolutely, and in every point of view, but only in certain respects; and unlike it in the particulars already specified.

On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets; that is the entire doctrine of the Law and the Prophets is reduced to these two heads; and all obedience to the law, inculcated by Moses and the Prophets, arises from love to God and love to our neighbor. Obj. But there are also many promises of the Gospel in the Prophets. Therefore it would seem that the doctrine of the Prophets is not properly restricted to these two commandments. Ans. Christ speaks of the doctrine of the law, and not of the promises of the gospel, which is evident from the question of the Pharisee, who asked him which was the greatest commandment, and not, which was the principal promise in the law.

Question 5. Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?

Answer. In no wise; for I am prone by nature to hate God and my neighbor.


This question, in connection with the preceding, teaches us that our misery, (of which there are two parts,) may be known out of the law in two ways. First, by a comparison of ourselves with the law; and second, by an application of the curse of the law to ourselves.

The comparing of ourselves with the law, or of the law with ourselves, is a consideration of that purity which the law requires, and whether it be in us. This comparison clearly proves that we are not what the law requires; for it demands perfect love to God, whilst there is nothing in us but aversion and hatred to him. The law, again, demands perfect love toward our neighbor; but in us there is enmity to our neighbor. It is in this manner, therefore, that we obtain a knowledge of the first part of our misery, which includes our depravity, of which the Scriptures in many places convict us. (Rom. 8:7. Eph. 2:3. Titus 3:3. &c.)

The application of the curse of the law to ourselves is made by a practical syllogism, of which the major proposition is the voice of the law: Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. Conscience supplies and affirms in us the minor proposition: I have not continued in all things written...&c. The conclusion is the approbation of the sentence of the law: I am condemned. Conscience dictates to every man such a syllogism as this; yea, it is nothing else than such a practical syllogism formed in the mind, whose major proposition is the law of God; the minor, is the knowledge of what we have done, contrary to the law; and the conclusion, is the approbation of the sentence of the law, condemning us on account of sin--which approbation will be followed by grief and despair, unless the consolation of the gospel is brought nigh unto us, and we obtain the remission of sins for the sake of the Son of God, our Mediator. It is in this way that we obtain a knowledge of our sinful state and exposure to eternal condemnation, which is the second part of our misery; for by this argument, all are convinced of sin. The law binds all to obedience, and if this is not performed, to eternal punishment and condemnation. But no one renders this obedience. Therefore, the law binds all men to eternal condemnation.

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