Creeds and catechisms are things that help summarize what Christians believe from the Bible and how Christians are to live in light of the Bible, with the Heidelberg Catechism (written in Germany and often used in Reformed churches that trace their lineage back to the Netherlands) and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms (written in England and often used in Presbyterian churches) being the most commonly known and used catechisms in the Reformed family of churches. There are some minor divisions in what these catechisms talk about and how they talk about things, so we could debate which one should be crowned “the catechism champion,” but one of the similarities between the documents (and common in other catechisms, such as Luther’s) is that they treat the 10 Commandments. In doing so, they show that the 10 Commandments are more than just “no’s.”
Why do I say that? Well, they do note how the 10 Commandments talk about things that we should not do, but they do more than forbid the simple actions that we might think about when we read the “thou shalt not.” As an example, one that I think is good for us to think about as we move towards Christmas, is the 8th command (“thou shalt not steal”), which does more than just forbid stealing — as the Heidelberg Catechism (Q and A 110) says that it also addresses “all scheming and swindling in order to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves, whether by force or means that appear legitimate, such as inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God.” You might say you are off the hook because you are not engaged in commerce like those activities, but it ends with “In addition God forbids all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.” The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q and A 142) similarly notes that this command speaks against “covetousness,” “envying at the prosperity of others,” and “idleness.” This is more than just a simple no, as Jesus has shown us with other commands in Matthew 5. Just as lusting means you have not kept the command not to commit adultery and anger means you have not kept the command not to kill, so greed means that we have not kept the command not to steal.
So, the no is more than a simple action. However, that is still a negative, a “no” way of looking at the commands. But is there a “yes” in this as well? Yes!
Here is how Q and A 111 of the Heidelberg Catechism puts it:
Q. What does God require of you in this commandment?
A. That I do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good, that I treat others as I would like them to treat me, and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.
We fulfill this command not just by not stealing or being greedy but by sharing and seeking to work to have things to give to others! The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q and A 141) adds that this command tells us to seek justice in contracts and economic dealings, “giving and lending freely, according to our abilities, and the necessities of others,” “frugality,” and seeking to preserve and protect the wealth of others (trying to make sure people are not stolen from!). To use the old “teach a person to fish” analogy, we are called not just not to take someone’s fish, but to give them our fish — and to teach them to fish so that they will not be tempted to take someone else’s fish!
To keep this command, we need to be people who give, who share, who seek the good of others; doing so with the right motives. As we move towards Christmas, are we people who might seem to be giving to others but really are greedy and desire things ourselves? Are we seeking to give to those who have need or only to those who seem to need nothing? Do we give in a way that steals dignity from others, or in a way that gives them dignity and tries to help them move forward in, as the catechisms says, “a lawful calling” that helps them “procure, preserve, and further” their wealth?
I could write a whole another post on how the catechisms also show that the 10 Commandments are not a way to earn favor or salvation with God but rather stand as our response to God, as we live a life of gratitude in his gracious response to our guilt as sinners; the 10 Commandments are a guide to life that help us know how to please God. We’ll save that for another day, but I wanted to end on that to remind us that when in Christ, God does not “grade” or evaluate us based on our work but based on what Christ had done for us — but this is in response to God’s graciousness to us. And the proof of that is found in the life of Jesus, with the start of that being something we celebrate and remember this Christmas season.
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