[A27] God's Promise From Sinai (The Small Catechism)

" In view of the fact that God deals with men as rational, responsible creatures, whom He is anxious to bless but will not force to accept His blessings, this dealing has always had as a primary object to prove to man that God is a loving God, seeking his good, willing to pardon his faults if he would let Him do so. Throughout the whole history of God’s dealings with man He has been seeking to convince him of His true fatherhood, His willingness to enfold him in His arms of love, to guide him and provide for him as only infinite wisdom, power and love is capable of doing."

Table of Contents

27. God’s Promise From Sinai

“I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, … showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.” — Exodus 20:5, 6.

So terrible were the manifestations of God’s power at the time the Law was given that Moses, when he beheld them, did exceedingly fear and quake (Hebrews 12:21). Those circumstances, so awe-inspiring, were unquestionably designed by God Himself to give expression to the character of the covenant He was establishing. In the covenant of the Law God stands before man kind in the majesty of His holiness and justice, and says, as it were: Here are my decrees; such are the rewards of obedience, and such the penalties of disobedience. This do, and thou shalt live; failure means death.

One does not need to stand before a literal Sinai, with its thunderings and lightnings and earthquake, to share to a considerable degree the feelings of Moses. Any person with a fair consciousness of the demands God’s inexorable Law makes on human life, of the degree of human failure to meet them, and of the nature of this transgression, will be torn with fear. But the second part of the Conclusion introduces an entirely new element into the consideration of God’s Law. This is contained in the word — mercy.

“I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, … showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”

In keeping with the line of thought pursued in considering the first part of the Conclusion, I shall to day take as my subject —

God’s Promise From Sinai

It is God’s promise; it is a promise of mercy; it is a promise made to those who love and serve.

[I] It is just as essential to remember that it is God who makes this promise of mercy as that it is God who threatens to visit penalties upon the head of the transgressor. The latter is frequently overlooked. Men judge God too much by the standard of human frailty, and conclude that He says a great deal which He does not mean seriously or forgets. But let us not forget that He says:

“I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me… my counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure… I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.” (Isa. 46:9-11).

For our peace and comfort it it just as necessary for us to remember that this truth applies as truly to God’s promises of mercy as it does to His threat of punishment.

God is a God of truth. He keeps His Word. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but not so much as the dot of an i or the cross of a t of God’s Word, shall fail of fulfillment. This applies with just as much force to His words of love, of mercy, of forgiveness, of fatherly kindness, as to His legal enactments.

Let us likewise remember that God’s words about being a jealous God apply as well to His promise as to His threat. To be a jealous God, so far as’ those are concerned who neither fear nor love and serve Him, means that He has a character to maintain, rights which inherently belong to Him, and that He must insistently demand that His rights be recognized, that the obligations due Him be dis charged, and all failures be punished. Now this same energy expends itself where the obligations imposed are met. It is expended in shielding the loved one against all hurtful influences, and in bestowing on him all possible benefits. Jealousy does not exist with respect to persons or things concerning which people are indifferent. God would not be jealous of us human beings if He was not concerned about us, if He did not love us. If we have begun to meet God’s requirements, if we have begun to reciprocate His love, then all the wealth of His wisdom and power are taken up into the service of His love, and put to working for our good. Let us not be afraid of the words, “a jealous God,” if we are His children; for every time we hear the sentence we should feel the Father’s strong, protecting arm tightening around us in love.

[II] The promise which the eternal truth-speaking God holds out, even from the fire-flaming mount, is one of mercy.

The words, “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not,” spoken by holy God, together with His threats against all violations, are anything but reassuring to man. The inexorableness of God’s Law has brought the proudest of men into the dust; it has reduced mighty empires to ash-heaps. The Law binds men with iron fetters. Instead of setting man free, it shows him justice — like a Juggernaut, crushing all that comes in its way. Law, or justice, is represented by the goddess with blindfolded eyes. She does not take into consideration beauty nor relationships nor anything of the kind. She is absolutely impartial. She knows no passion. She cannot be bribed. She is cold, passionless; but, oh, how resolute! how relentless! But what Law could not do, mercy found a way to do.

How like balm upon wounds which bleed and ache, must have fallen this one note of mercy upon the ears of those who witnessed the scenes and heard the words of Sinai. Since that far-off day in Eden the only religion which can help, which can be true, must have Gospel in it — a note of music, a heart-balm. The Gospel note was sounded already in Eden. It is contained in the promise that the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent’s head and cure its deadly bite. And here we find it as the counterbalance to the terrors of Sinai.

Mercy, fairest of God’s attributes, fair as the sunlight! Mercy is kindness exercised toward the undeserving, those who, because of their lack of desert, are miserable. Mercy includes pity, com passion, forbearance, gentleness, and helpfulness. In men we sometimes associate mercy with weakness of disposition. In the case of true mercy it is not so with men, least of all is it so with God. It was when He stood before Israel in the awe-inspiring sights and sounds of Sinai, saying: I am thy God; here are the requirements I make, and have the right to enforce, and, in the case of failure, here are the penalties my justice demands, and which I have the power to exact. In the hour of this most signal exhibition of power on God’s part, and of fear and submissiveness on man’s part, He breathes His plans of mercy. And this love of a holy God, showing itself in mercy to men deserving only of death, temporal and eternal, is one of the most mysterious attributes of the Divine nature.

What would have become of the world if God had not been merciful? Not a soul would have been saved. There is not a door of refuge open for the sorely afflicted children of men, save the door of mercy. Thank God! the door of mercy stands open. Our refuge is the very heart of God. And no mother’s breast was ever so secure, so peaceful, a refuge as is the Divine mercy for those who seek safety there.

Consider what wealth of meaning is added to God’s assurance of mercy by contrasting it with His threat. His threat was to visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, who followed in the wicked ways of their fathers hating God, and doing despite to his laws, unto the third and fourth generation; but His promise of mercy is unto the thou sandth generation of those that love Him, and keep His commandments.

We see, then, that Sinai itself is linked with Calvary — it prepares the way for it. Indeed, from the very beginning, love necessitated the cross. There could be no stopping place in the logic of mercy, when we remember that it is full sister to justice, till it consummated itself in the cross of Jesus Christ. Only thus could forgiveness be provided for the sins of which the Law finds all men guilty.

This little phrase, “shewing mercy,” would seem to an unenlightened reader, commonplace and inconsequential. But the whole plan of salvation is embraced in it. God was here looking forward to Bethlehem and Calvary. It was only thus that it could be said, “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps. 85:10).

Let us thank God that it is written, even in the very heart of the Law, that He is a God of mercy; the crown of all His other works is His work of mercy. Mercy encircles the very throne of Heaven, it spans the earth like a rainbow. Inclined to flee from the awe-inspiring attributes of Divine sovereignty and impartial justice, we flee to the out stretched arms of a loving Father, who speaks of mercy, and has shown what it means, in its height and depth, as it was wrought out by Jesus our Savior in the manger and upon the cross. But only those are really capable of appreciating this mercy who have truly learned the lesson which it is the great mission of the Law to teach; namely, the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and the justice of the sentence of condemnation which the Law pronounces on all men, because all have sinned.

[III] God’s offer of mercy is as broad as human need, but its application is conditioned — not by God’s inability, but man’s willingness. “I… am a jealous God, shewing mercy;” that is, making mercy effective in the lives of “thousands of them that love Me.” God is mercifully inclined toward all men. Not to believe this, is to give the lie to all of God’s plainest statements. He would like to make all men the recipients of the whole scope of the blessings His thoughts of love have devised for them and His labor of love provided. To forgetful Israel He said:

“As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel” (Ezek. 33:11).

And Jesus, who gave the clearest revelation of the Father’s heart, wept over the Jerusalem, which was persecuting Him unto death, and said:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not” (St. Matt. 23:37).

And St. Paul tells us that “God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). This is God’s side of the matter; there is another which man represents. And as long as men are loveless, with hearts full of enmity toward God, and breathe the spirit of rebellion; refusing to acknowledge God’s love, and rejecting His offers of mercy — so long even God Himself cannot make His mercy effective in human lives. Such people have closed every avenue through which God can bestow His gifts.

In view of the fact that God deals with men as rational, responsible creatures, whom He is anxious to bless but will not force to accept His blessings, this dealing has always had as a primary object to prove to man that God is a loving God, seeking his good, willing to pardon his faults if he would let Him do so. Throughout the whole history of God’s dealings with man He has been seeking to convince him of His true fatherhood, His willingness to enfold him in His arms of love, to guide him and provide for him as only infinite wisdom, power and love is capable of doing. This is shown in the covenants He made with Israel, the guidance and defense He vouchsafed them, the services He instituted for their observance, the sacrifices He re quired at their hands. They were reminded of this by the offer of mercy in the body of the Law, which, as a whole, presents the sterner aspect of God’s nature. The cumulative evidence of God’s love has increased a thousandfold, reaching its climax in the New Testament, with its Gospel of Jesus Christ.

When the bright rays of God’s love begin to break down the icy barrier of man’s lovelessness and hate; when man begins, somewhat reluctantly at first, to accept God’s statement concerning Himself that He is good, that He wants to bring only good to man, that He has provided means whereby he may be relieved of his difficulties and ample supply made for all his necessities, faith comes to birth in the human heart. This is the coming back of the prodigal, not only with the confession: Father, I have sinned against thee, but with the further confession: Father, I have learned that there is no place like home, no place like my heavenly Father’s house; because no one in all the world loves me as Thou dost; no one is so capable and willing to heal my wounds and supply my needs. And the birth of faith, the establishment of confidence in God, all of which rests on the assurance of His goodness, means the begetting of love for Him also. From this point on, under favorable conditions, love grows apace. Love begets love. God’s undying love begets this love in man. And the constant, and ever increasing, experience of God’s love nurtures the flame of love in our hearts. Here is fatherhood and childhood: God is the Father, man the child. Here we have the conditions where mercy and forgiveness are shown and accepted.

This part of the Conclusion, requiring love on man’s part as the condition of receiving mercy, contains the germ of Christ’s summary of the whole First Table of the Law;

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (St. Mark 12:30).

And it helps to emphasize anew that religion is not merely a matter of formal relationship, much less of deeds performed under stress of fear; it is a matter of heart, of life, of right relationship.

If there were abundant reason why the people of Israel at Sinai, fresh from centuries of bondage, just starting on the way to the land of promise, should recognize so much that was worthy in God’s person and so much good in His dealings with men as to recommend Him to their love and lead them to surrender their lives to Him, something increasingly true of each succeeding generation — how much greater are our obligations to love Him! We know not a promised Redeemer, but a Savior given. We know a real Deliverer from sin, not merely prefigured in the blood of sacrificial beasts. Oh, let us contemplate more frequently, more reverently, with more consciousness of our own unworthiness, God’s great love, that our love for Him may grow stronger! We should love Him in the highest degree. He is worthy of it. And it would have its reflex action on us. Love is a force that unites and transforms. If we truly love God and Divine things, we shall become more and more divine. The love of God is the delight of serious minds. It furnishes a paradise for devout souls. And where love for God dwells in human hearts, there can be no question that His mercy has been received.

“When thy heart, love-filled, grows graver,
 And eternal bliss looks nearer,
Ask thy heart, nor show it favor,
 Is the gift or giver dearer?

Love, love on; love higher, deeper;
 Let love’s ocean close above her;
Only, love thou more love’s keeper,
 More the love-creating lover.”

[IV] The proof of love is service, which is love in action. It is the proof of God’s love for man. It is also the proof of man’s love for man as well as of man’s love of God. Therefore we find the bestowal of Divine mercy further conditioned by the possession on man’s part of a right relationship. God says He will show mercy to those who love Him— “and keep my commandments.”

This brings us to the consideration of the question of good works, their place in the Christian life, their relation to our salvation. From the outset it must be understood that we attribute no merit, no saving efficacy, to any work of ours, however ex tensive in quantity or excellent in quality we may think it to be. We owe our salvation wholly to God’s mercy which provided for us Christ’s atoning sacrifice, appropriated by faith.

“By grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8).

Not only is salvation God’s free gift, but the faith by which it is received is Divinely wrought.

“No man can say [believingly, effectively], “that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 12:3).

But the moment faith is be gotten in us, though it be like a grain of mustard seed, God accepts us as his dear children, and applies to us all the merit of Christ. This act of acceptance we call, in the language of Scripture, justification. It is wholly God’s work, a work performed without any merit or worthiness on our part.

“After that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, that being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:4-7).

Even after we have become God’s children, being richly provided with all good spiritual blessings, our good works are, in reality, the result of the Divine indwelling. The great St. Paul, speaking of his spiritual life, says,

“I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

And what St. Paul says of himself, Jesus lays down as a principle applicable to all —

“I am the vine and ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit, for without me ye can do nothing” (St John 15:5).

The true child of God gives Him the full credit for every good work he is enabled to do.

Discarding, then, wholly the idea of making payment to God for anything we have received from Him and, just as completely, putting aside all thought of ever being able by anything we can do to earn His favor in the future; discarding forever all this, it would be difficult to over-emphasize the importance of a life of loving service. If we are the children of God it is because He has made us so, because His Spirit recreated us, because His Son is the animating spirit of our new life. If this is true, it will, it must, show itself in our lives. Some of us have been a little too much afraid of that passage in St. James which says:

“Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (2:17).

We do not need to surrender one iota of the comforting doctrine of justification by faith to give this passage its proper emphasis. It is simply this way: If we have real faith it has made new creatures of us, for it has brought us into living fellowship with Christ. And if we are living in Christ, and Christ is living in us, we will hate the things He hates and love and seek the things He loves. It cannot be otherwise. A living man must breathe. If he has never developed his lung capacity or if his lungs have been injured by disease, he may find no special delight in breathing or he may even breathe with difficulty and pain, — but as long as he lives he breathes. So it is with the child of God. He is not a child of God by virtue of the recital of creeds or having his name on a church record. A man is a Christian by virtue of a living relationship to God in and through Christ Jesus. And just as surely as that relationship exists there will be some evidence of it in life.

We just used the passage in which Jesus illustrates the relationship between Himself and his disciples by the vine and the branches. Now if a branch of a vine or tree has been twisted, or partly broken, the leaves will be somewhat yellow, and the fruit scarce and knotty. But as long as the point of contact between the parent stem and the branch is of a nature that the latter appropriates the life of the former, the branch continues to perform, in some measure, its accustomed functions. And as long as the branch is in full connection with the parent stem it partakes of its full nature and does its work. Are we really branches of the vine which is Christ? Then He says, we must bear good fruit —loving, upright service prompted by a holy, loving heart. It is our new nature to do so. It would be denying, going contrary to, our new nature not to do so.

God has a right to expect, and does expect, this kind of service. To this end we were created and recreated.

“We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

It is idle to talk of loving God if we do not try to do His will.

“This is love, that we walk after His commandments” (2 John 6).

God wants us to exercise ourselves unto the godliness which exhibits itself in righteousness for our own sakes. As in all other spheres, so here also, we profit by practice. The athlete, if he ceases to practice, will soon lose his power. With the fullest, richest measure of God’s gracious power at our disposal, if we do not use it, we shall soon cease to possess it and have increasing difficulty in obtaining it. It is impossible to keep a correct theory of Divine things if we do not apply the knowledge we have, and the power it brings, to the betterment of our practical lives, and the upbuilding of the Kingdom of God about us. Because of this we have such exhortations as the following:

“Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance patience, and to patience godliness, and to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged of his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure; for if ye do these things ye shall never fail; for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1,5-11).

Showing our love to God in the keeping of His commandments, even under the most adverse circumstances, should be the earnest aim of every child of God, also out of consideration for his fellowmen. Everywhere there are plenty of people ready to point the finger of scorn at the professing children of God, and to say: See, Christianity does not mean anything; Christians are just as weak, just as selfish, as we are. For this reason it is incumbent on us to walk “Blameless and harm less, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15). And we should live in the same way for the sake of the weak brother.

Especially ought we to be lovingly in earnest in keeping God’s commandments that thereby His holy name may be glorified. The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. In all things, the small as well as the great, there should be present, if not in the conscious form of active thought, still as the deep, settled purpose of life, the glorification of God. And, thank God, this may be done in the very common things of life, the eating and drinking, the resting and sleeping, and the daily toil, as well as in the greater things such as church-going, Bible-reading, and the giving of alms.

“Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (St. Matt. 5:14-16).

If we so live we shall have the assurance not only of God’s promise of mercy, but of its pos session, with the joy and peace it brings.

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