(Westminster Shorter Catechism Q: 39-40)
by Bob Burridge ©2011
Even before sin came into human hearts,
we had a purpose.
God created us to live for his glory and to enjoy doing so forever. That’s how our Westminster Shorter Catechism begins.
Sin did not change that purpose, but it separated us all from fellowship with God. It made us unable to be all we were made to be. In our frustrating fallen condition we cannot do anything truly good in the eyes of God, therefore we lost all hope of true joy forever.
For us to fulfill that purpose again, God sent the Messiah to redeem and to restore his people. This redemption is purely by grace. It clothes the unworthy with perfect righteousness, and enables them to joyfully glorify God.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us what the Bible principally teaches. In Question 3 it organizes it all into two major categories. It asks, “What do the Scriptures principally teach?” The profound answer is, “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.”
These are the main things God tells us about in his word. What we believe about God and about who we really are effects how we put things into practice in our everyday lives. Belief and duty need to stay together. They can never really ever be separated. You have to know what to do, and you must put into practice what you know.
The first part of the Catechism, questions 4-38, are about what we ought to believe concerning God. This next section is about how we go about the duties he gives us to do.
God requires us to obey his revealed will.
Question 39 introduces this next part of the Catechism. It asks, “What is the duty which God requireth of man?” This is the answer:
“The duty which God requireth of man is obedience to his revealed will.”
We often hear people worry about being “out of the will of God”. They fret over every decision and circumstance thinking they might mess up God’s plan. The confusing part is that God does not tell us all that he planed to do. Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us that much of God’s plan is kept secret from us. It says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
We cannot know how all things work together to fulfill his purposes. However, his word does tell us to focus on the things he has made known. That is our duty.
God’s decrees are unchangeable. Nobody can ever make a choice or do anything that makes God deviate from his eternal plan. Nothing can frustrate that eternal will of God.
This the consistent teaching all through Scripture. It could not be more clear.
Job 42:2 “I know that You can do everything, And that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You.
Psalm 115:3 “But our God is in heaven; He does whatever He pleases.”
Psalm 135:6 “Whatever the Lord pleases He does, In heaven and in earth, In the seas and in all deep places.”
Even the wicked things people do are part of how his plan works out. It does not excuse their evil, but evil cannot operate independently from God’s decrees.
When Joseph’s brothers conspired to kill him and to sell him into slavery, Genesis 45:7-8 says, “And God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.”
In Genesis 50:20 Joseph explained this to his wicked brothers. He said, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”
This is not an isolated text. It is the pervasive center of all Scripture. Psalm 76:10 says, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise You; With the remainder of wrath You shall gird Yourself.”
God employs men’s sins for his ultimate glory. However, sin is never condoned, and remains contrary to the moral principles God reveals.
The things he calls us to do are the things we need to be concerned about:. He reveals what is right for us to do. When that is violated, it is called “sin.” While we can never change God’s eternal plan, his decreed will. We can and do at times violate this revealed will of God.
In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 Paul reminded Timothy how we know God’s will for our lives: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
This means that all of the Bible is God’s word, and therefore is profitable for these 4 duties:
1. It is profitable for teaching: It offers us a complete curriculum of all God wants us to know. There he tells us about himself and about how everything else relates to him.
Psalm 119 illustrates how God’s word is our teacher. Verse 24 says, “Your testimonies also are my delight And my counselors.” Verses 98-99 say, “You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; For they are ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation.”
2. It is profitable for reproof: The Bible warns about errors and shows us the truth which exposes them. There is no other standard against which what we learn can be compared.
Psalm 119:21 says, “You rebuke the proud — the cursed, Who stray from Your commandments.”
3. It is profitable for correction: Once error is exposed, the proper path needs to be found. Only the Bible as God’s word can show a person that right path.
This is also well summarized throughout Psalm 119.
9 “How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word.”
11 “Your word I have hidden in my heart, That I might not sin against You.”
30 “I have chosen the way of truth; Your judgments I have laid before me.”
105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.”
4. It is profitable for training in righteousness: Righteousness is when we live according to the things that please God. Deuteronomy 6:25 defines righteousness as obedience to God’s revealed will. It says, “Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us.”
Biblically, righteousness means innocence before God’s law. There is no other standard than God’s own word for knowing what pleases him.
Again we turn to Psalm 119:
40 “Behold, I long for Your precepts; Revive me in Your righteousness.”
116 “Uphold me according to Your word, that I may live; And do not let me be ashamed of my hope.”
117 “Hold me up, and I shall be safe, And I shall observe Your statutes continually.”
142 “Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, And Your law is truth.”
160 “The entirety of Your word is truth, And every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever.”
This pastoral advice to Timothy points out these four ways God’s word is profitable. God’s revealed will enables his people to be complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The Bible is a book of content. It is not just interesting reading material. We need to learn and then to do what it says in order to live in a way that pleases our Redeemer. This is the only way to enjoy fulfilling what we were made to be.
The standard for our obedience is the moral law of God.
Question 40 of our Shorter Catechism says,
“The rule which God at first revealed to man, for his obedience, was the moral law.”
It is one thing to say we should live morally, obeying what God says is right and what truly satisfies our real needs. It is quite another thing to know which attitudes and behaviors are really moral.
There are many different views about morality. Some things are universally accepted as right and wrong. God built into our nature an awareness that it is evil to commit murder, and to steal. Most agree that it is wrong to be unfaithful in marriage, to be greedy, and to lie. Most agree that it is good to help others in need, to worship, and to be kind to others. However, there is a lot of confusion about when some of these things are binding upon us. There are many views about how worship should be done, and when ambition becomes greed.
To clear up the confusion in our fallen nature God gave us his written word. The Bible tells us what is good and acceptable in the eyes of God. These principles are called God’s moral law. This is not a set of baseless rules made up for us as tests, or for earning our way to heaven. Moral law is the way things must be in a universe created by the one True God.
It is always wrong to worship other gods, to make physical images of God who is spirit, to use God’s name without respect, or to forget honoring the Creator on the Creation Sabbath. It is never right to show disrespect to those God puts in authority over us, or to murder. No one should be unfaithful in marriage, steal, lie, or covet.
The Ten Commandments were not just laws for Israel.
Not one of them was made up in the time of Moses. They all go back to creation itself. They are a summation of these ethical principles that can never be annulled. The first four tell us about how the Creator should be worshiped. The last six tell us how we should live together as his creatures designed to live for his glory.
In our era, even some churches teach that not all of God’s revealed moral principles apply today. They explain away one after another of these universal standards, making excuses or loop holes to justify violating what remains.
That is exactly what many of the people of Israel did in the time of the prophets. It is what the Pharisees were doing in the time of Jesus and the Apostles. It is what corrupt churches have done since the time the Bible was completed.
Some are quick to point out that Jesus fulfilled all of God’s law. This is certainly true. But we need to let Scripture alone tell us what it means to fulfill the law.
It certainly does not mean that he eliminated any of these moral principles. Jesus made an important contrast in Matthew 5:17-18, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
The word translated “to fulfill” is “plaero-o” (πληροω) which means to make something complete. Jesus makes it clear in verse 17 that this does not mean he destroyed the law.
The ceremonial laws of the Old Testament given in the time of Moses were completed in Christ. He fulfilled what they were teaching. They showed in advance that God would send a substitute to pay for the sins of his people. To continue the sacrifices, washings, and dietary rituals, the priestly system, or the added ceremonial Sabbaths, would be to deny that they all pointed to Jesus Christ as the final sacrifice, as our High Priest, as our only washing from sin and clothing of righteousness. He did not end the principles taught in these ceremonies. He brought them to completeness and satisfied their demands for us.
Jesus also fulfilled the moral law for us. He paid the penalty demanded by eternal justice for us. We deserve death for violating the Creator’s moral principles. Jesus suffered and died in place of those who come to him trusting in his Atonement.
He also perfectly kept the moral law in our place, fulfilling all its demands as our representative. The legal benefits of his obedience are credited to us. We are clothed in his Righteousness. By his completed work he brings believers back into fellowship with God. This makes them able to do things that are truly good. He breaks the chains of sin so that it is no longer our master or motive. This moves us to want to honor our Creator out of gratitude. Jesus never made it acceptable to dishonor God’s name, break the Creation Sabbath, murder, steal, or lie. Only unbelief or dispensational extremism could eliminate any one of the moral laws of God.
Jesus and the Apostles often spoke of God’s moral principles as still binding. For example, in Romans 7:7 Paul said, “I would not have known sin except through the Law”
We who love the Lord know we are saved by grace alone, not by our obedience. Our desire in response is to honor our Creator and Redeemer, and to enjoy doing so forever. Our great passion is to hunger to know what God says is right and good. We prayerfully work to do those things, and to say “no” to thoughts and actions that offend him.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)