[A26] God's Threat From Sinai (The Small Catechism)

“The natural man cannot but conclude that there is a God, but his conception of His nature is never a very exalted one. Even during Old Testament times, and not infrequently during the New Covenant, the ideas of God’s own children, with respect to His nature and disposition, were often rather dark and forbidding; they regarded Him as a stern, ruthless, relentless taskmaster. Jesus’ revelation of God was far other than this. He showed God to be a Father, approachable, merciful, loving, forgiving iniquities and sins. We can never afford to lose this conception of God. But, as is so frequently the case with weak, vacillating human nature, many have gone to the other extreme. They conceive God to be a being whose love excludes all other attributes, one whose love has so weakened His character that, though He may feebly demand righteousness, He will not punish even where His requirements are disregarded.”

Table of Contents

26. God’s Threat From Sinai

“I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” — Exodus 20:5.

Our text you doubtless recognize as part of the Conclusion of the Ten Commandments. In our Catechism it is introduced by this question, “What does God say of all these commandments?” The implication of this question is correct. These words do apply to all the commandments. But I hope that most of you are well enough acquainted with your Bibles to know that these words, which we call the Conclusion, are found in connection with the First Commandment. Indeed, a considerable portion of the Protestant church uses this Scripture passage, together with those other words about graven images, as the second commandment. I shall have something to say at an other time about the divisions and numbering of the commandments. At this time I shall confine my self to showing why we use these words as a conclusion.

First of all, the words themselves tell us that they refer to all the commandments. In the next verse, which contains the promise, the Lord says, “To them that love me, and keep my commandments,” — not one, or part of them, but my commandments, all of them. The probable reason why the Lord attached this threat and promise to the First Commandment is because of its supreme importance and comprehensive character. The First Commandment includes all the others. And if we could comprehend the First aright we should need no others. It is only as an accommodation to our weakness that the others were drawn from the First for our instruction.

It would, of course, not be wrong to treat of the words of our Conclusion in connection with the commandment with which they are associated, but we should have to be at pains to explain that it refers to all of them. Luther prepared this catechism, first of all, for children and simple folk; so he gave it that position which in itself would show its purpose and scope. It is indeed a conclusion. It tells us how God feels toward those who do not keep His commandments, and how He feels toward those who do keep them. And this is the point which I want now to emphasize. But, as my text indicates, I am going to confine myself this morning to the first part of the Conclusion, that which sets forth God’s threat against the violators of His commandments. I shall take as my subject — God’s Threat from Sinai. It is the threat of a jealous God, a threat against sin, a threat to punish sin.

The Threat of a Jealous God

The natural man cannot but conclude that there is a God, but his conception of His nature is never a very exalted one. Even during Old Testament times, and not infrequently during the New Covenant, the ideas of God’s own children, with respect to His nature and disposition, were often rather dark and forbidding; they regarded Him as a stern, ruthless, relentless taskmaster. Jesus’ revelation of God was far other than this. He showed God to be a Father, approachable, merciful, loving, forgiving iniquities and sins. We can never afford to lose this conception of God. But, as is so frequently the case with weak, vacillating human nature, many have gone to the other extreme. They conceive God to be a being whose love excludes all other attributes, one whose love has so weakened His character that, though He may feebly demand righteousness, He will not punish even where His requirements are disregarded.

The commandments are all of a nature to disabuse man’s mind on this score. Especially is this Conclusion of such a nature. Here God comes before each one, and addresses each one personally. The same God who says, “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me,” says, Here are your tables of duties. My nature, your nature, and the constitution of the universe, demand their fulfillment. Violation of them cannot go unpunished. It will bring its own punishment. But I, the personal God, the author of your being, this law, and all things, shall be personally outraged. The violator will incur my displeasure and such punishment as the demands of justice and righteousness require.

Let those who incline to the theory that God may make threats to scare men into being good, but that He cannot bring Himself to be really severe even with the obstinately disobedient — let them ponder carefully, prayerfully, these words of our text:

“I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

These are God’s words. They have never been recalled, or modified.

“I … am a jealous God.” These words rather startle us, and incline us to draw back. The word jealousy has, with us, a rather unsavory meaning. We are inclined to think of a jealous person as one who is unreasonably touchy, easily estranged, full of exaggerated demands and feelings of resentment. We speak of jealousy as the green-eyed monster. And yet we are taught by God Himself to look upon Him as a jealous God. There must be a jealousy, therefore, which is perfectly proper. The person who is not capable of jealousy is not capable of love. Jealousy is the pain of neglected, wronged love. Jealousy is the shadow which falls when the sun shine of love has been intercepted. Jealousy is the heart’s counterpart of the mind’s sense of justice. Justice has a right to expect a recompense where service has been rendered. Jealousy asks for love in return where affection has been bestowed and has a right to expect reciprocation.

Now to understand somewhat at least of what God means when He says, I am a jealous God, all we need to do is to apply this principle. We owe God everything. He is our Creator, the author of our every good. He loves us, condescending to love us in our lovelessness, to seek our good in everything, to win us back to His image. God’s exalted nature calls for our reverence and adoration. His goodness obligates us to gratitude. His holy laws, the expression of the perfection of His attributes, and the most perfect instrument for achieving man’s welfare, demand obedience. And when man fails to give God what is His due, and gives to imperfect creatures like ourselves, or even to merely material objects, the affection which belongs to Him, then He is rightly offended. He would not be God, the perfect, the holy, the just, if He were not so. And this is what He means by being a jealous God.

Let us remember, then, O children of men, that God is watching us with sleepless, never diverted, eyes. Nothing escapes Him which relates to His Moral Law, even though it be but a secret thought or a desire hidden in the depths of the soul. As Luther says:

“These precepts are not human trifles, but commandments of the most high God, who earnestly enjoins them, and who, in anger, sternly punishes those who despise them; but abundantly rewards those who keep them.”

The devil constantly tries to whisper into our ears that it can make but little difference to the great God even if we, as individuals, are somewhat unbelieving, careless, loveless, disobedient. We are a great nation of many millions of people, but does not our government take note of the violations of individuals? Honest citizens are righteously indignant when criminals succeed in creeping through the meshes of our law; shall God not see that His laws are vindicated? We have a national honor, and we are inclined to become very much wrought up when the rights, sometimes the questionable rights, of a few of our people are infringed; shall God not insist upon His honor?

It will have a salutary influence on our lives, of the old as well as the young, if we will follow the advice of Luther with respect to this Conclusion.

“It should be kept before the young and impressed upon them, that they may learn and remember it; that they may observe what those circumstances are that make obedience to the commandments imperative. They are to regard it as a seal to each commandment, and as the soul which pervades them all.”

God’s Threat Against Sin

If there is one thing which we should have learned from our study of God’s Law, besides the loftiness of the ideal He sets before us, it is this — the universal failure of mankind to realize this ideal. In other words, the unpalatable, but stern fact that we have not kept this holy Law, that we are sinners.

We all know, the vilest and most ignorant of heathen know, that a terrible blight has fallen upon the race — a blight which has enfeebled and put chains on man’s powers, and filled him with love for evil and hurtful things. But as to the explanation for the presence of this blight, there is no general agreement. Some think that it is only a lack of knowledge and power which man is to outgrow as he follows the law of development. God’s Word gives us another, and by far the most satisfactory, explanation. It tells us of man’s original state of perfection, that he was made in the image of God; and that it was disobedience, rebellion against God, which marked the birth of sin in man’s nature.

Human history, from its earliest dawn down to the present moment, is largely a history of sin. The first man and the first woman broke God’s clear commandment, and brought “death into the world, and all our woe, with loss of Eden.” The first son born into the world became a branded murderer, the second, his victim. When the conduct of men rose as a stench to heaven and so displeased God that He resolved to destroy the race, the father of the one family he saved, almost as soon as the Ark found a resting place, became the first victim of the intoxicating cup. The Scriptures declare that:

“There is none righteous, no, not one. There is none that understandeth, there is none that seek after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they use deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the ways of peace have they not known; there is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3).

The reeking pages of secular history confirm this statement. They are ill-smelling with the stories of lust and rapine; they are dark hued with flowing streams of blood; they tell of innocence debased, of justice out raged, of fortunes wrung from the tears of widows and orphans, of empires built on the bleaching bones of the ignorant or helpless who were enslaved and exploited by the powerful and selfish.

What is the burden of the message of our great newspapers? Is it not largely made up of the stories of lust and intrigue? It is the recital of devastations, themselves the expression of the condition of a nature itself which, because of sin, travails in pain during this present age; of thefts, murders, adulteries, warfare, and the tricks of scheming politicians.

And this is not, by far, the whole story. Much of the fruit of sin is unwritten history. It does not reach the ears of men, though it never fails to reach the ears of the Lord God of Sabaoth. Many of those whose names never appear in print as transgressors, have compromised with Mammon, have entered into league with death, and have covenanted with hell. But even if all were known to men, no pen could ever do justice to the universal, never ceasing ravages of sin. The tragedy of creation’s wound is felt, but felt too deeply to be described. Every tear, every heartache, every pricking of pain, every wail of a lost soul, is part of the history of sin.

Many refuse to be included in the class of gross sinners. No excesses can be attributed to them. They are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, of respectable families. They observe the commonly accepted code of morals in business and professional life. They are good citizens. They practice the amenities of life. Shall we be classed with sinners? they sometimes rather indignantly inquire. Yes, we have all failed. There is not a clean record among us. The fact that we are not criminals does not free us from being sinners. We have all done things we should not have done. And we have, perhaps more frequently, failed to do the things we should have done. “If we say,” even Christian people, “that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

The universal prevalence of sin in action has led many to inquire about its origin. Even many heathen moralists were forced to the conclusion, confirmed by the Word of God, that sin dwells in the very nature of man. Indeed, as to the nature, extent, and consequences of this birth-sin the Word of God is our only source of trustworthy information. We usually call it original sin, because it comes with us into the world. As David said, so all must say,

“I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5).

When sin came into human life, it destroyed the image of God in man, and so alienated man’s affections from God and things holy that “the carnal [that is, the natural] mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7). Our nature being enfeebled, and more, turned against God Himself, we lack the power of appreciating the things of God.

“The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).

This spiritual deadness, so often and so strongly affirmed in God’s Word, and so constantly experienced in human life, Jesus has in mind when He says:

“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

The idea of original sin is objectionable to a great many people. And many others who recognize and are willing to admit that life must have sustained a great loss, are not ready to admit that God can be seriously offended at it or hold men responsible for it. But God’s Word, as in all things, settles this question for us.

“As by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12).

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6). And that which is of the flesh is by its very nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3). Common experience bears out these statements of God’s Word. The first great curse of sin spares none, death comes even to the infant. And the workings of all the dreadful passions, which soon begin to bring forth their bitter fruit, show them selves in the earliest life of the child. But only that which inheres in the nature of a thing can regularly and persistently show itself in its development.

We must learn to get away from the idea that sin inheres only in action. The very essence of all sin is not action but perverted relationship. The heart, the life, alienated from God, failing to recognize His fatherhood and authority, rebelling against Him and entertaining feelings of enmity toward Him because of His claims — this is the heart of all sin and the germinating source of all sinful action. In this Conclusion God comprises all sin in the term “hate.” Hatred may and generally does show itself in some form or forms of action; but not necessarily so. It is primarily and essentially a state of the heart.

The reason men want to hear nothing of original sin, a sin which has robbed human nature of its beauty and power, set it against God, and filled it with all kinds of ugly, deforming passions, is that it hurts their pride. For its rectification a renewal of the whole inner life is needed — a cleansing and a power which God alone can provide, and which He has provided in His dear Son, who became man’s Saviour. For its reception there must needs be repentance and confession of emptiness and need. This hurts the natural man’s self-esteem and he tries to justify himself by denying the too evident corruption of his nature.

Only the enlightened child of God can begin rightly to apprise the true character of sin, because he alone has the spiritual faculty which enables him to see the contrast between sin and righteousness. A man immured for years in a dungeon would be blinded on being brought suddenly into the brightness of the noon-day sun. In this condition he would not be a good judge of the relation, or appearance, of things. Sin has blinded man to the glory of God and the beauty of holiness, hence the sinner can have no true standard of valuation in the sphere of spiritual and holy things.

God Threatens to Punish Sin

The one thing which God, in the first part of the Conclusion, aims to set forth and emphasize is the fact that He punishes sin. And this is a truth of which this generation needs especially to be re minded. A false optimistic hope has blinded many eyes to this truth of God. If men did but open their eyes, they could not help seeing that all history, secular as well as sacred, teaches that sin is punished. It is a universal law that no man can escape. When a man sins, he is entering into a conflict with Almighty God, whom no man can fight and expect to win.

We meet people occasionally who affect to think that it does not become a being such as God is to punish sin. Much more does it appear that God could not be a perfect being if He did not punish secession and rebellion against Him and His perfect government. With all our imperfections, our fractional vision of things, does not the best that is in us feel outraged when truth is perverted, justice trampled under foot, innocence outraged, purity defiled, and all principles of honor violated? Would it not indicate a lower, a more calloused, rather than a higher standard of moral perfection not to feel thus? We can rest assured that God feels these things a thousandfold more than we do; and that, having the right and the power, He is going to punish them.

“I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

The punishment of sin takes many forms. There are present punishments. There is a punishment known to none but the offender. It comes through the conscience. Many a person moves among friends and appears joyous when, in reality, the heart is full of pain within. In the still watches of the night the haunting spectres of ill deeds torment. At the feast, where joyousness reigns, in the very hour of some signal triumph, there is a tugging at the heart and a paling of the cheek; from out the abyss of years long past capricious memory has brought, like a half-forgotten dream, the recollection of some deed which put a stain on the soul, and, mayhap, wronged, or put fetters on, another soul.

Many sins are punished in the bodies of the transgressors. Every sin, whatever its nature, injures the sinner.

“He that sinneth against me wrongeth himself” (Prov. 8:36).

There are many sins which are in a special way sins against the body. These sins have a tendency to bestialize the very features of the sinner, and they sow in the body the seeds of early decay and dissolution. I know a Lutheran minister who said that one of the most solemn and effectual lessons he ever heard on the operation of God’s laws was from the lips of a hospital physician whom he was permitted to accompany on one of his rounds. When the doctor came to treat a young man, whose dying body was full of pollution and cankered sores, he repeated these words:

“Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

The young man had been determined to have his fling, to sow his wild oats, and now he was reaping — reaping the whirlwind.

“Thou makest me to possess the iniquities of my youth” (Job 13:26).

Sin does not always bring men to such a pass as this, but the penalty always comes. No power can stay it.

“Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23).

The gluttonous man, the drunkard, the licentious person may not have to pay at once; but the bond comes due, and payment has to be made. “My Lord Cardinal,” said the unhappy Queen of France to Richelieu, “God does not pay at the end of every week, but at the last He pays.” Truer words were never spoken.

The ancients said that Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, was slow of movement, being lame of her feet; but that she never failed to catch her victim, for, while the victim slept, she was still relentlessly pursuing. The sinner may congratulate himself that he is succeeding in his career of evil doing; but, with movement surer and swifter than that of the stars in their courses, the day of reckoning comes. Pull and graft do a great deal in this world; but all the power that hell can muster cannot shield one sinner any more than, in the eyes of God, it can blacken one saint.

“Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished” (Prov. 11:21).

In communal, in national, as well as in individual life, sins are punished. That sin is punished by sin is the constant record of history. When men cultivate the spirit of lovelessness and selfishness, when they practice fraud and oppression, they often reap rebellion and bloodshed. When men generally shut their eyes to any of God’s laws it leads to blindness in other directions, and this is often followed by widespread suffering. The mind of man is incapable of following all the intricate workings of God’s sovereign providence, on account of which we should be very careful in our judgment; but the Word of God tells us that the whole creation feels the curse of sin and that the calamities brought by the forces of nature are judgments setting forth the nature and consequences of sin. The same is true of all the evils which affect human life. What is the meaning of our physical ills, what gives us the explanation of the graves over which love weeps, what the interpretation of all our losses? It is sin. They are the results of sin, the penalties of sin.

Perhaps the most perplexing phase of the great problem of sin and punishment is that presented by by our text in the words, “Visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

One thing is very clear: no one ever has to bear the moral consequences of another’s sin. God never punishes one person for the sins of another.

“The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him” (Ezek. 18:20).

However, the present physical consequences of sin very frequently are transmitted. No human life exists in isolation. All our interests are intertwined. There is a solidarity of the human family. We are not only individuals. There is a humanity, a something which pervades and unites us all, so that if one member suffer, all the members suffer with it.

Some of the most terrible afflictions come to innocent offspring as a heritage of parental sins. Physicians learn more of this than anyone else, and the things revealed to them are often of a nature to incline one’s blood to boil. And if those guilty of saddling a lifelong legacy of suffering, of mind and body, on their own flesh and blood, do not them selves suffer a hundredfold more than their innocent offspring, then their hearts have ceased to be hearts of flesh and have become hearts of stone. I know of nothing better calculated to lead such a guilty person to join in the cry, “Whichever way I turn is hell; I am hell itself.”

To a certain stage in life, the sufferings which come from sin, are chastisements meant to remind men of the presence and operation of sin, to the end that they may serve as calls to repentance.

“Blessed is the man whom Thou chasteneth, O Lord, and teachest him out of Thy law, that Thou mayest give him rest from the days of adversity” (Ps. 94:12:13).

They help to keep us mindful of our tendency to evil, and its final consequences, and thus keep us close to the Lord’s side. There is a stage, however, beyond which punishment comes as an evidence of God’s wrath, as was the case with Jerusalem, and doubtless with many visitations since then. But whatever the nature or extent of the punishment for sin, truth would compel everyone to say: “God has punished us less than our iniquities deserve” (Ezra 9:13).

Terrible are the consequences of sin as we experience them here and now, in our own lives, and in the lives of all those around us. But it does not by any means end the dark chapter. The Son of God, our gentle brother, pictures the last earthly scene which has to do with sin. It is the last day of earthly human history. The countless multitudes are assembled before Him to hear pronouncement of sentence on their lives. After the children of the Kingdom have heard the sentence which shall confirm them in their goodness, the eternal Judge shall say to the godless:

“Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).

In another place the same great Teacher lifts the veil, gives us a glimpse into that unexplored region where none of us hope to come, and shows us, whether in parable or history makes no difference as to the teaching, a condition of life separated by an impassable barrier from the realm of real life, and light, and blessedness. I refer to the rich man and poor Lazarus, and the heaven and hell that holds them — a prophecy of humanity’s eternal night or eternal glory.

When we come to realize our condition and the limitations imposed because we are carnal, sold under sin; having some vision of better things, indeed, but lacking the power to stimulate our laggard faculties to realize the better things for which we yearn; having a certain hatred of evil — resolving and reresolving to overcome it and to keep it in subjection, but failing again and again; and, added to all this, the consciousness that we have deserved God’s displeasure land His sentence of eternal banishment, we feel as did St. Paul, himself a faithful child of God and a veteran in His service:

O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Rom. 7:24).

There is only one hope of deliverance. It is through Christ Jesus; “there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

Luther’s Small Catechism: Series A – The Ten Commandments

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Ten Commandments”
  • Originally Published: 1915 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2019
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0