Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 44 - No Coveting
- The tenth commandment:
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house;
you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife,
or his male servant, or his female servant,
or his ox, or his donkey,
or anything that is your neighbour’s.
Question 113: What does the tenth commandment
require of us?
Answer 113: That not even the slightest thought or desire
contrary to any of God’s commandments
should ever arise in our heart.
Rather, with all our heart
we should always hate all sin
and delight in all righteousness.
The tenth commandment is different. Until this point each commandment addressed a different theme. That has now ended. This final commandment no longer presents us with a new topic. That you must not covet another's wife or property is already covered in the seventh and eighth commandments. The tenth commandment does not expand the nine prohibitions to ten, but it exposes the roots of those earlier nine. It does away with “even the slightest thought or desire” that is “contrary to any of God’s commandments”.1It goes down into our inner being. Tying in with this, Answer 113 mentions "our heart" twice. That is where our desires live.
Desiring and Coveting
Desiring can be understood both positively and negatively. In this commandment it is something negative: desiring/wanting/coveting what is not yours, especially because it belongs to your neighbour. The neighbour is mentioned three times. Whoever covets what belongs to his neighbour — his house, his wife or other persons or goods — is in violation. A distinctive characteristic with this transgression is that the neighbour need not notice. If someone greedily looks at another person's car that does not mean that he will take it for a ride. A person can desire a married woman without herself or her husband ever noticing. Such coveting is entrenched deep in a person's heart and often stays there. They are like tree roots. They go down deep into the earth. Sometimes they rise above the ground here and there, and somewhere they turn into the trunk of the tree. This is how wrong desires can remain hidden deep in a person’s heart. He can also begin to nurture these evil desires and then lurk for an opportunity to make his move. Finally, the desire turns into the act, just as a tree root turns into the trunk at some point.
So there is a difference in the levels or phases of one's desires. Those who covet a car are closer to the act of theft than those who look with wistful glances in a car magazine. Those who are lurking for an encounter with a married woman are closer to the act of adultery than those who look with passion at a woman who happens to be passing by.
So: to what stage of coveting does this commandment refer?
Coveting indicates here the dangerous final stage. There is almost no turning back. The desire has turned into an obsession. It is already very close to the act and usually culminates in it.2 We see this with the temptation of Eve. While she did not desire what belonged to her neighbour, she did desire what was forbidden by God. Before she ate of the forbidden fruit, she noted that the tree was “to be desired to make one wise”. That is how she looked at that tree after listening to the snake. To desire means here: to consider something so beautiful and praiseworthy that you need to have it.3At one point Eve looked at the tree so covetously that she could not turn back: she stretched out her hand and took of its fruit. Her desire morphed into the act without a noticeable transition. The fall into sin was actually already a fact when Eve fell under the spell of this desire. Her disobedience already began with the violation of the later tenth commandment.
Cain also provides an instructive illustration of this sin, although the words “desiring” or “coveting” are missing here. He hated his brother. In his heart there grew a desire to get rid of him. He became obsessed with the idea. He had not yet committed his crime, but he was close to it. Cravings at that stage are like active landmines. At the slightest touch they will explode. God warned Cain that this sin was crouching like a monster at the door, simply awaiting its opportunity to strike.4
The commandment refers to that dangerous phase when coveting has a hold on someone. Does God consider that it is enough for people to turn their urges down a few notches so that they keep them under control? Is he satisfied as long as it does not go beyond coveting?
Not Even the Slightest Inclination or Thought
The LORD punishes wrong deeds more severely than wrong desires. He destroyed Sodom not because of its evil desires but because of "the sensual conduct of the wicked”.5 Their lascivious life aroused his anger. On the other hand, he spared the citizens of Nineveh when they repented of their evil ways and of the iniquity that clung to their hands.6 They were not repenting to God, but turned from their evil practices. That was enough for him to lift the announced judgment. That is how much of a difference it made to him whether they subdued their evil desires or indulged in them. He follows the same line in the Law of Moses. Someone who stole an ox was punished, but not the person who looked at it greedily. He makes a difference between committing a wrong deed and the harbouring a wrong desire. He who covets another person's ox or wife does not actually rob the other of his property or his wife. As long as the desire is within the limits, the neighbour remains unquestionably the owner of his ox and donkey, and keeps his own wife.
Is this meant to say that an emerging desire is not a sin? That is how society thinks about it. It does not consider coveting punishable, as long as you do not appropriate what lawfully belongs to someone else. Someone who controls his desires even deserves praise. That such desires arise in a person is not his fault. There is nothing anyone can do about it. This kind of reasoning appeals to everyone. No one thinks that coveting itself is sinful. Even Paul would never have found this out "if the law did not say, ‘you shall not covet’.7
In his law God not only demands that we control our evil desires, but “that not even the slightest thought or desire...should ever arise in our heart.” The mere fact that such a thought occurs to us is sin. Someone who, as if in a flash, looks covetously at an (already married) woman has “already committed adultery with her in his heart” even though he restrains himself immediately.8 The transgression is confined to his inner self, yet to God it is adultery. The tenth commandment is God's heartfelt appeal to agree with him completely, right down in our hearts. He does not want us to take his commandments as executive orders (“Befehl ist Befehl!”). You can despise forced injunctions in your heart if need be, as long as you carry them out. That is not how God wants to deal with his people. He is not satisfied when we follow and do his commandments flawlessly, but when even the slightest hint of an incipient protest against any commandment never occurs to us again.
Should Christians then be constantly working to eradicate their evil desires? If so, they would be doing the wrong thing. No gardener limits himself to weed control. His end goal is not a clean field, but a field full of crops. Such crops, incidentally, inhibit the growth of new weeds. Where one plant grows, another cannot. The same applies here. There is no better remedy against evil desires than to positively appreciate what is good and to do what God asks of you. The Catechism calls this "to delight in all righteousness”. Once this love gets hold of you, evil desires will inevitably have less of a chance.
The deepest meaning of this final commandment becomes clear from the introduction. The LORD has freed his people from all slavery and bondage because he longs for the perfect harmony of earlier times in Paradise. Does it start to look like that?
Question 114: But can those converted to God
keep these commandments perfectly?
Answer 114: No.
In this life even the holiest
have only a small beginning
of this obedience.
Nevertheless, with earnest purpose
they do begin to live
not only according to some
but to all the commandments of God.
This question looks like an earlier one: can you actually accomplish all of this? That was how Question 5 read as well and the Answer there began exactly like that: No, (on the contrary)”. The difference is that the earlier question was asked of people as they are by nature, but now it is about those "who are converted to God”. This is a promising advance. Unfortunately, there is no “perfection” with them either, even with those who may appear rather adept (“the holiest”). The only gain is that there is “a small beginning of obedience”. What does that represent?
A Small, But Earnest Start
Even the holiest, the most saintly people, have “only a small beginning of this obedience”. Many years after his conversion this is also the experience of the apostle Paul. He candidly wrote to the congregation at Rome: “For I do not do what I want — namely, what the law requires of me — but I do the very thing I hate." 9
The Catechism refers to these words. Christians who stumble recognize themselves in this lament. Their obedience amounts to little. Is their choice of God perhaps a matter of self-deception? At that point, the Catechism once again appeals to Paul, for he writes a little further on, “For I delight in the law of God in my inner being” (v. 22). In his heart he takes pleasure in the law. He means it. Actually, there are two Pauls, a good one and a bad one. They fight for primacy. Often the wrong Paul calls the shots. But despite that, he declares in all sincerity: when things go wrong, it is not I but the power of sin that still dwells in me. That is not a matter of shrugging it off. When he thinks of his transgressions he cries out: “wretched man that I am” (v. 24)! He accepts full responsibility for his sins. He is the offender. At the same time he distances himself from his own self. For he does not want to be like this and in his heart he is not like that. In his heart he takes sides for God and against sin.
With this, the apostle has done a great service to serious Christians who often doubt themselves. They regularly suffer their defeats in their struggle against sin. They recognize that they are responsible for it. There is a dichotomy in their lives. They want to do the right thing, yet do the wrong thing. What they desire wholeheartedly, they do not put into practice. As a result, they may doubt the sincerity of their faith. And yet it is not pious talk or hypocrisy when they insist that they honestly desire the good. God knows they do not love sin with their hearts. Despite their failures, they do not need to doubt the sincerity of their faith. The beginning of their obedience may be small, but it is entirely serious and real. How does this show itself?
Living According to All the Commandments
Those who are unfaithful to their wives or dishonest in business do not make up for it by faithfully attending church. No one can compensate for sin against one commandment by extra zeal for another. In the time of Isaiah, people frequented the courts of the temple with expensive sacrifices, while exploiting orphans and widows. They tried to camouflage their violation of the eighth commandment by being extra diligent in keeping the Sabbath commandment. That is what God calls hypocritical.10
Therefore we should not understand the small beginning of obedience to mean obedience to all the commandments with the exception of those with which we are least comfortable. The law is one comprehensive whole. In each commandment we are dealing with the same Lawgiver. Serious obedience implies that we “begin to live not only according to some, but according to all the commandments of God”.
Question 115: If in this life no one
can keep the ten commandments perfectly,
why does God have them
preached so strictly?
Answer 115: First,
so that throughout our life
we may more and more become aware of
our sinful nature,
and therefore seek more eagerly
the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ.
so that, while praying to God
for the grace of the Holy Spirit,
we may never stop striving
to be renewed more and more
after God’s image,
until after this life we reach
the goal of perfection.
The question is not “why does God cause the ten commandments to be preached to us?” but “why so strictly”. It is these words that matter. Here “strict” does not have the connotation of being coercive or unpleasant. It means “precisely” and “seriously”.11The question, then, is why does God want his law to be preached to us so unabashedly and in all seriousness?
Why So Strictly?
The questioner quite understands why God has the Ten Commandments preached to us. With “us” he means Christians. They in particular experience that preaching of the law. They fully understand that after their salvation God insists that they serve him. On their part, too, they are eager to hear what he asks of them in his law. The problem, then, is not that he presents them with the ten commandments, but why “so strictly”? There is no one who can fulfill these commandments. Sincere Christians may tiptoe around them, but never do it well enough. Therefore, it is no wonder when strict sermons on the law cause them to become despondent. It would be quite a relief if they were told to simply do their best. Nothing less and also nothing more than that. That would be within everyone’s reach. Why does God keep demanding full compliance? That is the gist of the question being asked.
Seeking Forgiveness More Eagerly
Those who hear the law proclaimed so sharply are indeed becoming more and more dissatisfied with themselves. Even the most holy people learn more and more to recognize their sinful nature. This continues throughout their lives. What does God want to achieve with this? Does he want them to realize how hopelessly bad they are? Indeed, but it is his intention that as a result they will long even more for Christ. For with him they can obtain forgiveness for all their misdeeds and also all the righteousness they never attained on their own. Thanks to Christ, there is no longer anything between God and them. That is God’s purpose for having his law proclaimed so strictly. Therefore, in all the sincere preaching of his commandments, this call has to resound: seek salvation in Christ! That is why a “wretched man” can, in the same breath, thank God for the salvation he finds in Christ.12 Perfect harmony with God begins in real terms with the forgiveness of sins. Does it also end with that? Is forgiveness the golden handshake with which God dismisses sinners from serving him? Do they not have to keep his law so strictly from now on? Anyone who claims this is forgetting that grace consists in forgiveness and renewal!
Striving to be Renewed More and More
God has a second motive for having the commandments proclaimed so strictly. He wants his Christians to become more and more like Adam in a perfect Paradise. It is to that end that he saved them. Therefore they are required to begin to obey all his commandments already in this life. They are to desire in their hearts the same as God, to have the same abhorrence of sin and the same desire for all righteousness. How do they get to this point?
Does the LORD intend to accomplish this by the strict preaching about the law? Indeed, but it is not the law itself that gets them to this point! God demands that those who hear his laws also take action. Should they immediately roll up their sleeves and start doing his commandments? That is a bridge too far.
They must make an unremitting effort. And what else? They should then “pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit”. That is the first action that God expects. This action continues as we “never stop striving” — but it has results! Upon their prayers, the Spirit will renew them more and more, until they reach the goal of perfection after this life.
What does it accomplish for you? That is a common question in our pragmatic society. The way the Catechism concludes its explanation of the law is extremely encouraging to us. The renewal of stumbling Christians endures! They will suffer their defeats as long as they are in this life. They may feel that they are not making much progress. They do not get beyond a small beginning. However, they do not remain caught in this. Their efforts are rewarded. First of all through their arduous prayer for the grace of the Spirit. He renews them. Therein lies the guarantee that they will reach the goal. That goal is called perfection.