Advent is a season of preparation for Christ’s coming. What better time for a little reflection on faith and life.
If we were Puritans or Catholics in the Jesuit tradition we might call it “self-examination.” Me, I’m just a 21st Century Presbyterian with a penchant for blogging on the Heidelberg Catechism–that 16th century summary of Biblical Christianity. I think of it as a gratitude check-up.
The Catechism says the whole life of a Christian is an expression of gratitude. God has given us Jesus, his own well-beloved Son, to solve our deepest problems and lead us to new life. Life forever after is about expressing our gratitude.
Where do we start?
As I’ve noted recently, the first stop in the Catechism’s summary on the topic is the Ten Commandments. That is where God summarized the kind of life he wants for us. Rather than thinking of God’s law as a constraint or a cause of guilt, it is actually good news: it gives shape to our gratitude.
Here’s priority one:
94 Q. What does the Lord require in the first commandment?
A. That I,
not wanting to endanger my own salvation,
avoid and shun all idolatry, sorcery, superstitious rites, and prayer to saints or to other creatures.
rightly know the only true God,
trust him alone, and look to God for every good thing humbly and patiently,
and love, fear, and honor God with all my heart.
In short, that I
give up anything
rather than go against God’s will in any way.
I know first-time readers of the Catechism who see the bit about “not wanting to endanger my salvation” and think it is setting us up for “works righteousness,” as if salvation depended on us toeing the line.
It isn’t really so.
Read the flow of the argument in the Catechism and you know the authors are convinced salvation depends on God’s grace in Christ. The kind of faith that makes a Christian a Christian includes “wholehearted trust,” not doubt and fear.
The issue here for a grateful believer is true identity.
This question is an explanation of the first of the Ten Commandments:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:2-3, NRSV)
It all starts with relationship. God saved the people of Israel from centuries of slavery, and that was intended to establish a very particular relationship.
Gratitude for salvation was to result in exclusive devotion.
Devotion to any other god was the supreme ingratitude. If the people of Israel broke this law it did not simply result in punishment. Breaking this law negated relationship.
The Catechism tells us that idolatry, or sorcery, or anything else that gives the devotion belonging to God to a creature, is still a negation of that sacred relationship.
(By the way, O beloved Catholic and Orthodox readers: Lest the Catechism’s comment on saints cause offense, please note that the writers were opposing abuses known to Catholic theologians as well. Ordinary people’s approach to the saints in the 16th century looked very different from the better teachings of the Church. Converts to Protestantism knew from their own experience that saints could actually displace God in people’s hearts.)
I don’t want to show supreme ingratitude, or negate my relationship with the God who saved me in Christ. I don’t know that I could, actually, endanger my salvation. But because I do not want to endanger it, I hold fast, exclusively, to the Triune God.
This is about my exclusive devotion to the God who has come in person in Christ to save me from my slavery. It is about aiming my gratitude in the right direction.
I would love to hear from you in the comments. Does the Catechism capture what you think the First commandment actually means? What does it mean to have “other gods” today?
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