Calvin's Catechism Part 2 - The Law

Creeds and Confessions of the Church

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A reformulation of the Genevan Catechism written by John Calvin.

A Dialogue between the Minister and the child.
by John Calvin


II. The Law

131. What rule has He given us by which we may direct our life?
His law.

132. What does it contain?
It is divided into two parts: the first contains four commandments, the other six. Thus there are ten in all.

133. Who made this division?
God Himself, who delivered it to Moses written on two table, and declared that it was reduced into ten words. (Exod. 32:15; 34:29; Deut. 4:13; 10:1).

134. What is the content of the first table?
The Way of the true worship of God.

135. And the second?
How we are to live with our neighbours, and what we owe them.

136. Repeat the first commandment.
Hear, O Israel, I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage: thou shalt have no other gods before Me (Exod. 20:2-3; Deut. 5:6-7).

137. Explain the meaning.
At first He makes a kind of preface for the whole law. For in calling Himself the Eternal and the Creator of the world, He claims authority to command. Then He declares that He is our God, in order that we may esteem His doctrine. For if He is our Saviour, that is good reason why we should be an obedient people to Him.

138. But is not that which He says after the deliverance from the land of Egypt, addressed particularly to the people of Israel?
Yes, it does refer to the physical deliverance of Israel, but it also applies to us all in a general way, in that He has delivered our souls from the spiritual captivity of sin, and the tyranny of the devil.

139. Why does He mention this at the beginning of His law?
To remind us how much we are bound to obey His good pleasure, and what gratitude it should be on our part if we do the contrary.

140. And what does He require briefly in this first commandment?
That we reserve for Him alone the honour that belongs to Him, and do not transfer it elsewhere.

141. What is the honour due Him?
To adore Him alone, to call upon Him, to have our affiance in Him, and all similar things due to His majesty.

142. Why is it said “Before my face”?
Since He who sees and knows all is the judge of the secret thoughts of men, it means that He wants to be worshiped as God, not only by outward confession, but also in pure trust and affection of heart.

143. Turn to the second Commandment.
Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any form that is in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not do honour to them.

144. Does He entirely forbid us to make any image?
No, but He forbids us to make any image with which to represent God, or to worship Him.

145. Why is it unlawful to represent God visibly?
Because there is no resemblance between Him who is eternal Spirit and incomprehensible, and corporal, dead, corruptible and visible matter (Deut. 4:15; Isa. 40:7; Rom. 1:23; Acts 17:24-25).

146. You think then that it does dishonour to His majesty to represent Him in this way?
Yes.

147. What kind of worship is here condemned?
When we come before an image intending to pray, or bow our knee before it; or to make any other sign of reverence, as if God were there showing Himself to us.

148. This does not mean that all sculpture or painting is universally forbidden, but only all images used in the service of God, or in worshiping Him in visible things, or indeed for any abuse of them in idolatry of any kind whatsoever.
That is so.

149. Now to what end shall we refer this commandment?
With the first commandment, God declared that He alone, and no one beside Him, should be worshiped: so now He shows us the correct form of worship, in order that He may draw us away from all superstitions, and carnal ceremonies.

150. Let us proceed.
He adds a warning that He is the Eternal, our God, strong and jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children of them who hate Him, to the third and fourth generation.

151. Why does He make mention of His might?
To indicate that He has power to maintain His glory.

152. What is meant by jealousy?
That He cannot allow an associate. For as He has given Himself to us out of His infinite goodness, so He would have us to be entirely His. And this is the chastity of our souls, to be consecrated and dedicated to Him. On the other hand it is a spiritual whoredom for us to turn away from Him to any superstition.

153. How is this to be understood, that He punishes the sin of the fathers on their children?
To give us a greater fear of Him. He says not only that He will inflict punishment on those who offend Him, but that their offspring also will be cursed after them.

154. But is it not contrary to the justice of God to punish someone for others?
If we consider the condition of the human race, the question is answered. For by nature we are all cursed, and we cannot complain of God when He leaves us in this condition. Moreover as He manifests His grace and love toward His servants in blessing their children, so this is a testimony to His punishment of the wicked, when He leaves their seed accursed.

155. What more does He say?
To incite us by gentleness, He says that He will have mercy on all who love Him and observe His commandments, to a thousand generations.

156. Does He mean that the obedience of a faithful man will save the whole of his race, even if they are still wicked?
No, but that He will extend His goodness toward the faithful to such an extent, that in love for them He will make Himself know to their children, not only to prosper them according to the flesh, but to sanctify them by His Spirit, that He might make them obedient to His will.

157. But this is not always so.
No. For as the Lord reserves for Himself the freedom to show mercy to the children of the ungodly, so on the other hand He retains the power to elect or reject in the generation of the faithful as it seems good to Him (Rom. 9:15-22). However, He does this in such a way that men may acknowledge that this promise is not vain or fallacious (Rom. 2:6-10).

158. Why does He mention here a thousand generations, and in regard to punishment, mention only three or four?
To signify that it is His nature to exercise kindness and gentleness much more than strictness or severity, as He testifies, when He says that He is ready to show mercy, but slow to anger (Ex. 34:6-7; Ps. 103:8).

159. Let us come to the third commandment.
Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.

160. What does this mean?
He forbids us to abuse the name of God, not only in perjury, but also in superfluous and idle swearing.

161. Can the name of God we used lawfully in oaths?
Yes, when they are necessary, i.e., in order to uphold the truth, when it requires it, and in maintaining love and concord among us.

162. Does He reprove no other oaths, then those which are a dishonour to God?
In this one case He gives us a general instruction never to utter the name of God except with fear and humility in order to glorify it. For since it is holy and honourable, we ought to guard against taking the Name of God in such a way that we appear to hold it in contempt, or give others occasion to vilify it.

163. How is this to be done?
By never thinking or speaking of God and His works without honour and reverence.

164. What follows?
A warning, that He will not hold him guiltless, who takes His name in vain.

165. Since elsewhere He gives a general warning that He will punish all transgressors, what is the advantage of this warning?
He wants to declare how highly He regards the glory of His name, explicitly mentioning that He will not suffer anyone to despise it, so that we may be all the more careful to hold it in reverence.

166. Let us come to the fourth commandment.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Sis days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made haven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day, and hallowed it.

167. Does He order us to labour six days a week that may rest on the seventh?
Not precisely, but in allowing us to labour for six days, He excepts the seventh, on which it is not right to be engaged in work.

168. Does He thus forbid us all work one day a week?
This commandment has a particular reason, for the observance of rest is part of the ceremonies of the ancient Law, which was abolished at the coming of Jesus Christ.

169. Do you mean that this commandment properly belongs to the Jews, and that it was given for the time of the Old Testament?
I do, in so far as it is ceremonial.

170. How is that? Is there anything else in it besides the ceremony?
It was given for three reasons.

171. What are they?
To represent spiritual rest, in aid of ecclesiastical polity, and for the relief of servants.

172. What is this spiritual rest?
It is to cease from our own works, that the Lord may work in us.

173. How is that done?
By mortifying our flesh, that is, renouncing our own nature, so that God may govern us by His Spirit.

174. Is this to be done only one day a week?
This is to be done continually. After we have once begun, we must continue all our life.

175. Why, then, is a certain day appointed to represent this?
It is not required that the representation should be altogether identical with the truth, but it is sufficient that there should be some resemblance.

176. But why is the seventh day appointed rather than any other day?
The number seven implies perfection in Scripture. Thus it is suited to denote perpetuity. It reminds us also that our spiritual rest is only begun in this life, and will not be perfect until we depart from this world.

177. But what is meant when our Lord asserts that we must rest as He did?
After having created all His works in six days, He dedicated the seventh to the contemplation of His works. And in order better to induce us to do this, He set before us His own example. For nothing is so desirable as to be conformed to Him.

178. Must we meditate continually on the works of God, or is it sufficient on one day out of seven?
We must do it every hour, but because of our weakness, one day is specially appointed. And this is the polity of which I spoke.

179. What order, then, is to be observed on that day?
That the people meet to hear the doctrine of God, to engage in common prayer, and bear witness to their faith and religion.

180. What do you mean by saying that this commandment is also given to provide for the relief of servants?
To give some relaxation to those who are under the power of others. And likewise, this tends to maintain a common polity. For everyone accustoms himself to labour for the rest of the time, when there is one day for rest.

181. Let us now see how this commandment addresses itself to us.
As for the ceremony, it was abolished, for we have the accomplishment of it in Christ Jesus.

182. How?
Our old man is crucified, through the power of His death, and through His resurrection we are raised up to newness of life (Rom.6:6).

183. What else is there here for us?
That we observe the order constituted in the Church, to hear the Word of God, to engage in public prayers and in the Sacraments, and that we do not contravene the spiritual order among the faithful.

184. And does the figure give us any further benefit?
Yes, indeed. It should lead us to the truth, namely, that being true members of Christ, we should cease from our own works, and put ourselves under His government.

185. Let us come to the second table.
It begins, “Honour thy father and thy mother.”

186. What do you mean by “honour”?
That children be humble and obedient toward their parents, doing them honour and reverence, helping them and being at their command, as they are bound.

187. Proceed further.
God adds a promise to the commandment, “That thy days may be prolonged on the land which the Lord thy God will give thee.”

188. What does that mean?
That God will give long life to those who honour their father and mother as they ought.

189. Seeing this life is full of misery, why does God promise man as a favour that he will live long?
However miserable it may be, life on earth is a blessing from God to the faithful, if only for this reason, that in it God testifies to His fatherly love in supporting them in it.

190. Does it follow conversely, that the man who dies prematurely is cursed of God?
By no means. Rather does it sometimes happen that the Lord withdraws from this world more quickly those whom He loves most.

191. In so doing, how does He fulfill His promise?
All that God promises us in earthly blessings, we must receive under this condition, viz. that it is expedient for our spiritual salvation. For it would be poor indeed if that did not precedence.

192. What of those who are rebellious against their father and mother?
Not only will God punish them at the last judgment, but here also God will exercise judgment on their bodies, it may be by letting them die before their time, or ignominiously, or in some other way.

193. Does He not speak expressly of the land of Canaan in this promise?
Yes, so far as the children of Israel are concerned, but the term ought to have a more general meaning for us. For seeing that the earth is the Lord’s, whatever be the country we inhabit, He assigns it to us for our habitation (Ps. 24:1; 89:12; 115:16).

194. Is that all there is to the commandment?
Though father and mother only are mentioned, nevertheless all superiors are intended, as the reason is the same.

195. What is the reason?
That God has given them pre-eminence; for there is no authority whether of parents, or princes, or of any others who are over us, but what God has ordained (Rom. 13:1).

196. Repeat the sixth commandment.
Thou shalt not kill.

197. Does it forbid nothing but murder?
Yes, indeed. For seeing it is God who speaks, He gives us law not only for outward deeds, but primarily for the affections of our heart.

198. You mean then that there is some kind of inward murder which God forbids to us?
I do: hatred and rancour, and desire to do evil to our neighbor.

199. Is it sufficient for us not to hate or to bear ill will?
No, for in condemning hatred God signifies that He requires us to love our neighbours and seek their salvation, and all this with true affection and without simulation.

200. State the seventh commandment.
Thou shalt not commit adultery.

201. What is the essence of this?
That all fornication is cursed by God, and therefore we must abstain from it if we do not want to provoke His anger against us.

202. Does it not require anything else?
We must always regard the nature of the Lawgiver, who does not halt at the outward act, but requires the affection of the heart.

203. What more then does it mean?
Since our bodies and our souls are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16, 6:15; 2 Cor. 6:16), we must preserve them in uprightness. And so we must be chaste not only in deed, but also in desire, word and gesture. Accordingly no part of us is to be polluted with unchastity.

204. Let us come to the eighth commandment.
Thou shalt not steal.

205. Is it only meant to prohibit the thefts which are punished by justice, or does it extend further?
It refers to all civil traffic and unscrupulous means of acquiring our neighbour’s good, whether by violence, or fraud, or in any other kind of way that God has not allowed.

206. Is it enough to abstain from evil deeds, or is covetousness also included here?
We must ever return to this, that the Lawgiver is spiritual, that He does not speak simply of outward thefts, but all schemes, wishes and plans to enrich ourselves at the expense of our neighbour.

207. What are to do then?
We must do our duty in preserving for every man his own.

208. What is the ninth commandment?
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

209. Does it forbid perjury in court, or any kind of lying against our neighbour?
In mentioning this one case it gives a general instruction, that we are not to speak evil of our neighbour falsely, nor by our slanders and lies are we do him harm in his possessions, or in his reputations.

210. But why does He expressly mention public perjury?
That He may give us a greater abhorrence of this vice of evil speaking and slander, telling us that if a man accustom himself to slandering and defaming his neighbour, he will soon descend to perjury in court.

211. Does He only forbid evil speaking, or does He also include evil thinking?
Both of them, for the reason already stated. For whatever it is wrong to do before men, it is wrong to wish before God.

212. The summarize its meaning.
He enjoins us not to be inclined to misjudge and defame our neighbours, but rather to esteem them highly, as far as the truth will permit, and to preserve their good reputation in our speech.

213. Let us come to the last commandment.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

214. Seeing that the whole law is spiritual, as you have so often said before, and the other commandments are not only to order outward acts, but also the affections of the heart, what more is added here?
The Lord wished by the other commandments to rule our affections and will, but here He imposes a law also on our thoughts which though charged with covetousness and desire, yet stop short of an active intention.

215. Do you mean that the least temptation that enters into the thought of a believer is sin, even though he resists it and does not consent to it?
It is certain that all evil thoughts proceed from the infirmity of our flesh, even though we do not consent to them. But I say that this commandment speaks of concupiscence which tickles and pierces the heart of man, without bringing him to a deliberate purpose.

216. You say then that the evil affections which involve a definite act of will or resolution are already condemned, but now the Lord requires of us such integrity, that no wicked desire may enter our hearts, to solicit and incite them to evil.
That is right.

217. Can we now give a short summary of the whole law?
We can, reducing it to two articles—the first of which is that we are to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our strength; the second that we love our neighbours as ourselves.

218. What is meant by the love of God?
To love Him as God is to have and hold Him as Lord, Saviour and Father, and this requires reverence, honour, faith, and obedience along with love.

219. What does “with all our heart” signify, and “with all our soul, and with all our strength?
Such a zeal and such a vehemence, that there is in us no desire, no will, no intention and no thought, contrary to this love.

220. What is the meaning of the second article?
As we are by nature prone to love ourselves, that this affection overcomes all others, so love to our neighbour should be so predominant in our hearts, as to direct and govern us, and be the rule of all our thoughts and actions.

221. What do you understand by “our neighbours”?
Not only our parents and friends, or those acquainted with us, but also those who are unknown to us, and even our enemies.

222. But what connection do they have with us?
That which God has placed among all men on earth, and is so inviolable, that it cannot be abolished by the malice of any man.

223. You say, then, that if any man hate us, the blame is his own, and yet according to the order of God, he does not cease to be our neighbour, and we are to regard him as such?
It is so.

224. Seeing that the law of God comprises the form of worshiping Him aright, should not the Christian man live according to its command?
Yes indeed. But there is some infirmity in us, so that no man acquits himself perfectly in it.

225. Why then does the Lord require a perfection which is beyond our ability?
He requires nothing which we are not bound to perform. Nevertheless, provided we take care to conform our life to what we are told here, although we are very far from reaching perfection, the Lord does not impute our faults to us.

226. Do you speak of all men in general, or of believers only?
He who is not yet regenerated by the Spirit of God cannot begin to do the least of the commandments. Moreover, even if a person could be found who had fulfilled some part of the law, he would not acquit himself before God, for our Lord pronounces that all those who have not fulfilled all the things contained in it, will be accursed (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10).

227. Hence we must conclude that the law has a two-fold office, in accordance with the fact that there are two classes of men.
Yes, in regard to unbelievers it seems but to convict and make them inexcusable before God (Rom. 3:3). And this is what Paul says, that it is the ministry of death, and condemnation (2 Cor. 3:6,9). In regard to believers, it has a very different use.

228. What?
First, in that it shows them that they cannot justify themselves by their works, it humbles them and disposes them to seek their salvation in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:3). Secondly, inasmuch as it requires of them much more than they are able to perform, it admonishes them to pray unto the Lord, that He may give them strength and power (Gal. 4:6), and at the same time reminds them of their perpetual quilt, that they may not presume to be proud. Thirdly it is a kind of bridle, by which they are kept in the fear of God.

229. We say then that although during this mortal life we will never fulfill the Law, such perfection is not required of us in vain, for it shows us the mark at which we ought to aim, that each of us, according to the grace God has bestowed on him, may strive continually to press toward it, and to advance day by day.
That is as I understand it.

230. Do we not have perfect rule of goodness in the Law?
Yes, and therefore God demands nothing from us, but to follow it; and, on the other hand, repudiates and rejects all that a man undertakes to do beyond what it contains. The only sacrifice He requires is obedience (1 Sam. 15:22; Jer. 7:21-23).

231. What is the purpose then of all the admonitions, reproofs, commandments, and exhortations made both by Prophets and Apostles?
They are nothing else than declarations of the Law, leading us into obedience to it rather than turning us away from it.

232. But nothing is said about particular vocations?
When it is said that we are to render to every one his due, we may well infer what the duty of each is in his own vocation. Moreover as we have already said, this is expounded for us in the whole of Scripture, for what the Lord has set down in this summary, He treats of there, and with much fuller teaching.

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