Being fed by Jesus: what the Catechism teaches about the Lord’s Supper.

In last week’s post on baptism, I asked you to imagine a young couple who declared that a carved wooden model of a baby that they had made was a real child. I noted that although in many ways this model child might be like any other baby in its outward appearance it would lack the crucial characteristic of a real baby in that it would lack the life which can only be bestowed upon  a child as the result of a sexual union between a man and a woman.

I further noted that the only thing that could give life to a model baby would be a miracle, a supernatural occurrence that would result in it having the life that it would not naturally have. Let us  imagine for a minute that this miracle occurred. The young couple in our story would then have a real baby to look after and a central part of their responsibilities for this baby would be to ensure that it was regularly fed. This is because, after having received the gift of life human beings need to feed regularly in order that their lives may be sustained. Human beings require food in order to live.

The principle that life needs to be sustained by regular feeding applies not only to human beings as material creatures with physical bodies, but also to human beings as spiritual creatures created to have a relationship with God. Just as human beings as material creatures need to feed on material food for their physical life to be sustained, so also as spiritual creatures they need to feed on spiritual food in order for their relationship with God to be sustained.

It is this principle which underlies what the Prayer Book Catechism says about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  Its teaching on this topic runs as follows:

‘Question. Why was the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper ordained?

Answer. For the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ, and of the benefits which we receive thereby.

Question. What is the outward part or sign of the Lord’s Supper?

Answer. Bread and Wine, which the Lord hath commanded to be received.

Question. What is the inward part, or thing signified?

Answer. The Body and Blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.

Question. What are the benefits whereof we are partakers thereby?

Answer. The strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine.

Question. What is required of them who come to the Lord’s Supper?

Answer. To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.’

As in its teaching on baptism, what the Catechism says about the Lord’s Supper distinguishes between ‘the outward part or sign’  and the ‘inward part or thing signified.’

The outward part is the bread and wine, which Jesus told his disciples that they should eat and drink in remembrance of him (Matthew 26-26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).

The inward part is Jesus’ body and blood which were broken and shed for our salvation on the first Good Friday, and which are ‘verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.’  The benefit of this, the Catechism says, is the ‘strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine.’

The concept that at the Lord’s Supper it is possible for people to take and receive Jesus’ body and blood and that their souls are strengthened when they do so is one that many people find baffling. This is for three reasons. Firstly, what is received at the Lord’s Supper is bread and wine and not flesh and blood. Secondly, Jesus body ascended into heaven at the end of his earthly life (Acts 1:6-11) and so is not present here on earth for us to feed on. Thirdly, even if Jesus’ body and blood were now physically accessible to us, consuming them would be cannibalism and it is impossible to see how this could benefit our relationship with God.

In order to make sense of what happens at the Lord’s Supper in the light of these objections we need to go back to the point I made in this blog two weeks ago about how material objects can be gifts of love. Consider a young man offering his young lady a bouquet of flowers, or an engagement ring. These are intended as a material expression of his love for her, and if she accepts them as such and returns his love, then their relationship will grow.  To put it another way, his gifts of love are a way in which their relationship can be nourished and grow as a result.

In a similar way, when the Lord’s Supper takes place, Jesus, acting through the person administering the sacrament, offers us the bread and wine as a material expression of his love for us shown in his dying for us on the cross (’this is (i.e. signifies) my body broken for you, this is my blood shed for you’).  If we accept the bread and wine as signs of his love for us and respond with love for him in return, then the result will be that our relationship with him (and with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit as well ) will be nourished (‘strengthened and refreshed’) and will continue to grow as a result.

However, as the Catechism goes on to warn, if the Lord’s Supper is to have this beneficial outcome three things must be present in those who receive the bread and wine,

First, there has to be repentance. Our relationship with God will not be able to grow unless we are willing to turn away from sin. Jesus died to deliver us from sin so we cannot say that we accept with gratitude  what he did for us unless we are willing to reject it.

Secondly, there has to be faith. Unless we have a ‘lively’ (i.e. living ) faith in the truth that Jesus died to save us then we will not be able to accept the bread and wine as signs of this fact and grow in our relationship with God as result.

Thirdly, there has to be  ‘charity with all men.’  In this context ‘charity’ means love and ‘men’ means people, regardless of their sex. As we have noted above, we have to respond to God’s love for us with love for him in return, and the sign that we have that responding love is our willingness to love our neighbour. Love for God and love for our neighbours go together. As 1 John 4:20 tells us: ‘he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.’

What all this means is that we have to take the Lord’s Supper seriously as a key means by which we may be fed spiritually by Jesus and through which our relationship with God may grow. We also have to approach it seriously, seeking God’s help to repent of our sins, to accept what Jesus has done for us, and to show love to our neighbours, so that there may be no barriers preventing us from receiving the love he wants to offer us through the sacrament.  

This post is the end of my short series on the Prayer Book Catechism. If you would like to know more about the Catechism and it’s teaching you might find the following books helpful.

Martin Davie, Instruction in the Way of the Lord – A guide to the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer (London: Latimer Trust, 2014).

Frank Colquhoun, The Catechism and the Order of Confirmation (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1963).

Arthur Robinson, The Church Catechism Explained (Cambridge: CUP, 1903).

The last two are out of print, but can be obtained second hand.

The gift of life: what the Catechism teaches about baptism.

I want to begin this seventh post in my series on the teaching of the Prayer Book Catechism by inviting you to imagine a young couple who have announced to their family and friends that they have now produced a baby. However, what they then show to their family and friends is a lifelike wooden carving of a baby which they have made.

In many ways this carving is like any other baby in its outward appearance. Nevertheless, it lacks one crucial characteristic of a real baby. It does not have the life which can only be bestowed upon  a child as the result of a sexual union between a man and a woman.[1]

There can be no doubt that what the couple claim to be their new baby has existence. It is not an imaginary baby in the sense of being an entity that exists only in their shared imagination. However, the form of existence that it has does not include life. The nature of things in this world means that wooden carvings of babies cannot have life in the same way that babies begotten through sexual union do. It follows that only thing that could give life to what our young couple claim to be their baby would be a miracle, a supernatural occurrence that would result in it having the life that it would not naturally have.

The reason why I have told this imaginary story is that it provides a good way in to understanding what the Catechism teaches about baptism. What we saw in last week’s post about the nature of the sacraments is that baptism is an effective sign of the love of God. It is effective in the sense that it effects something. It makes something happen.  If we ask what it effects the answer is that it gives the person who is baptised the opportunity to have life that they would not otherwise possess. In John’s Gospel Jesus declares ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10), and baptism is the sacramental means by which this new life is received.

Now at this point someone might well object that human beings do not need to be given life since they have it already as a result of the sexual union between their parents. What this objection fails to understand however, is that there are two different types of life. There is the life that we naturally have as a result of sexual union, and there is the life that comes to us supernaturally through the miraculous action of God.

In his book Mere Christianity  C S Lewis helpfully distinguishes between these two types of life. Just as the wooden baby in my story lacked life because it was made by the young couple rather than being begotten by them through sexual intercourse, in the same way, writes Lewis:

‘We are not begotten by God, we are only made by Him: in our natural state we are not sons of God, only (so to speak) statues. We have not got Zoe or spiritual life: only Bios or biological life which is presently going to run down and die. Now the whole offer which Christianity makes is this;  that we can, if we let God have His way, come to share in the life of Christ. If we do, we shall then be sharing a life which was begotten, not made, which always has existed and always will exist. Christ is the Son of God. If we share in this kind of life we also shall be sons of God. [2]

If we turn to what the Catechism says about baptism, we shall see that it tells us that the benefit of baptism is precisely that it enables us to become the children of God in the way Lewis describes.

‘Question. What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?

Answer. Water: wherein the person is baptized, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question. What is the inward and spiritual grace?

Answer. A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

Question. What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer. Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that Sacrament.

Question. Why then are infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them?

Answer. Because they promise them both by their sureties: which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform.’

In line with Catechism’s general teaching about the sacraments that we looked at last week, these words declare that there are two parts to baptism, the ‘outward visible sign’ – the administration  of water in the name of the Trinity, and the ‘inward and spiritual grace’ – the gift of new life promised by Jesus in John 10.  

The Catechism says that our being born into this new kind of life  through baptism in the way described by Jesus in John 3:3-6 involves ‘death.’ This may initially seem difficult to understand. Why should ‘birth’ involve ‘death?’ This point becomes clear when we understand that death is used here to mean not biological death, but rather the cessation of a particular kind of existence.

In my story at the start of this post, for instance, in order for the couple’s wooden image to become a real baby it would have to cease to exist as a wooden image and become a living human being instead. In similar fashion, human beings need to cease to exist (‘die’) as they are and begin a new form of life instead.

Why? Because, as described in the Bible in Genesis 3, something went drastically wrong at the dawn of human history which means  that the natural life that we possess as a consequence of our biological birth is a self-centred form of life, in which we fail to love either God our neighbours as we should (this is what the Catechism means when it says that we are ‘born in sin’).

Since God is morally perfect, he must necessarily hate this form of life and our existence as those marked by it. To quote Lewis again ‘if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do.’[3] It this form of existence as the objects of God’s hatred that the Catechism refers to when it says we are ‘children of wrath.’

However, while God hates us, he nevertheless loves us[4] and therefore does not give up on us. Instead, he makes it possible for our existence as ‘children of wrath’ to come to an end and for us to begin a new life as ‘children of grace,’  people who share the life of Christ and who in consequence begin a new God-centred form of existence marked by love for him and for our neighbours (what the Catechism calls ‘righteousness’).

As saw last week, gifts of love have to be received as well as offered and this is true of what God offers through baptism. As the Catechism explains we have to receive it and this reception takes two forms. We have to say ‘no’  to our old life of sin (‘repentance’) and we have to believe in, and say ‘yes’ to, God’s promise of  new life through union with Christ (‘faith’). 

Those who are baptised as infants cannot make this response for themselves, so those who act for them (their ‘sureties’) respond on their behalf. When they become old enough to do so, those who are baptised as infants then have the obligation to make this response their own (‘which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform’). When they do this the seed of new life sown at their baptism comes to fruition.

In summary, like the wooden baby in my story human beings in their natural state have existence, but they lack life. In Lewis’ terms they have Bios, but are without Zoe. Jesus came to give us the life which he has, but we lack, and baptism, when received with repentance and faith, is the sacramental means through which that life is given to us.


[1] Even IVF treatment is an artificial form of sexual union. 

[2] C S Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1984), p. 150.

[3] Lewis, p.37.

[4] Augustine puts it well ‘in a manner wondrous and divine, he loved even when he hated us’ (Tract in John 110).

Receiving love: what the Catechism teaches about the sacraments.

As I write this blog, yesterday was Mothering Sunday, a day when people traditionally give cards, flowers and other gifts to mothers as a sign of their love and appreciation for them. This is, of course, not the only occasion when such gifts are given. Birthdays, Christmases, and anniversaries are three other examples, and numerous other examples could also be cited.

For our purposes, the point to be noted about the gifts given on such occasions is that they are an outward sign of the inward feelings that the person giving the gift has for the person to whom they give it. If the giving of a gift is more than simply obedience to social convention, then it is a sign of the love that one person feels for another. Love is inward and invisible, and the gift is an outward and visible sign that shows that love exists.

Thinking further about signs, we can also observe that signs can make things happen. The Queen’s signature on a piece of legislation makes it law. Receiving a degree certificate makes someone a graduate. The acceptance of a ring makes a couple engaged. In all these three instances the visible sign points to a reality beyond itself, the Queen’s consent to a law coming into force, someone having successfully passed their exams, and the desire of a couple to eventually get married.

The two truths about signs that I have just outlined, that they can express love and make things happen are also the truths that underly what the Prayer Book Catechism teaches about the sacraments. This teaching runs as follows:

‘Question. How many Sacraments hath Christ ordained in his Church?

Answer. Two only, as generally necessary to salvation; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

Question. What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?

Answer. I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.

Question. How many parts are there in a Sacrament?

Answer. Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace.’

The background to this section  of the Catechism is the disagreement between the Roman Catholic and Protestant sides at the Reformation.

In the earliest days of the Church there was no agreed definition about the number of the sacraments. In the Middle Ages however, the view came to be accepted that there were seven sacraments. These were: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders, and matrimony. At the Reformation, the matter was debated once again, and while the Roman Catholic Church stuck with the Medieval list, the Church of England (like other Protestant churches) eventually decided that there were only two sacraments – baptism and ‘the Supper of the Lord’ ( another name for the Eucharist).  It is this view of the matter that is taught in the Catechism.

The Church of England of England took this view of the matter because it came to believe that a sacrament, properly so called, has to have two characteristics. It has to have been instituted by Christ, and it has to be an effective sign of divine grace. Baptism and the Support of the Lord meet these two criteria, but the other five Medieval sacraments do not.

We know that Christ instituted baptism and the Supper of the Lord because the New Testament tells us so (for baptism see Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:16, and for the Supper of the Lord see Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:19-24 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). We also know that both involve the use of external signs, water in the case of baptism, and bread and wine in the case of the Supper of the Lord.

What is less obvious, however, is what it means to say that these signs are effective signs of grace. In order to understand this we need to go back to the point made at the beginning of this blog that signs can make things happen. It is this point that is being made when the Catechism says that the sacraments are ‘means’ by which we receive ‘an inward and spiritual grace.’

What the Catechism  means by ‘inward and spiritual grace’ is the new relationship between ourselves and God that Jesus made possible when he died and rose for our salvation. Baptism and the Supper of the Lord are methods (‘means’) established by God through which we enter into this new  relationship (in the case of baptism) and are sustained in it (in the case of the Supper of the Lord), which is the why the Catechism says they are ‘generally necessary for salvation.’

The two questions that arise at this point are (a) why does God use signs for this purpose and (b) do we automatically receive grace through them?

The answer to (a) is that God uses signs because as human beings the grace of God is invisible to and us so he uses signs to show it to us. As the sixteenth century Anglican writer Alexander Nowell explains, the answer to the question  ‘Why would God so have us to use outward signs?’ is that as human beings:

‘…  we are not endued with mind and understanding so heavenly and divine, that the graces of God do appear clearly of themselves to us, as it were to angels.  By this mean therefore God hath provided for our weakness, that we which are earthly and blind should in outward elements and figures, as it were in certain glasses, behold the heavenly graces which otherwise we were not able to see. ‘

God condescends to our weakness by giving us the sacraments in order to enable us to see the ‘graces of God’ (‘graces’ being used because God’s grace is manifold in its nature)  in visible form. When we see someone being baptised, or the bread and wine being given to people at the Supper of the Lord, there we behold God giving his grace to his human creatures. To put it another way, God loves his human creatures, and he demonstrates that love visibly through the sacraments, just as human beings demonstrate love in a visible way when they give flowers, presents, or engagement rings.

The answer to (b) is that grace is not automatically received through the sacraments. They are not the spiritual equivalent of inoculation. This is because love that is offered has then to be received.

Think for a moment of a boy giving a girl an engagement ring. For a new form of relationship as an engaged couple to be established between them the girl has to first of all believe what the offering of the ring signifies (i.e. that the boy really does love her and wants to marry her)  and secondly has to be willing to accept that love and let it change her life.

In a similar way, for a new form of relationship to be established through the sacraments, human beings have to believe that God loves them and is offering them the opportunity either to enter into a new relationship with him or to be sustained in that relationship  and they also have to being willing to accept what God offers and to let it change their life. This is what Christian theology means when it says that their needs to be ‘worthy reception’ of the sacraments. This does not mean that the people who receive the sacraments need to be worthy of God’s  grace (something that is never true of anybody). What is does mean is that those who receive the sacraments need to believe in the love that God offers, and are willing to receive it and to have their lives changed by it.  

Being dependent: what the Catechism teaches about prayer.

A fact which most of us fail to recognize most of the time is how dependent we are on other human beings.

This is clearly true in the case of babies and young children, who are utterly dependent on their parents, or other older people, for their food, their clothing, their hygiene, their transportation, and so forth. It is also clearly true in the case of very many people in extreme old age, and of people with severe mental or physical disabilities. However, it also true for all of us in a variety of ways.

For example, are we dependent on other people for most, if not all, of the food that we eat, for the water we drink and wash with, for our electricity supply, for our communications networks and (as the Covid -19 pandemic has underlined) for our healthcare. We may like to think of ourselves as independent beings, but this is simply not the case. We need other people to survive and to thrive.

We are even dependent on other people for the very thoughts that we have. As human beings we think in words and these words have been passed on to us by other human beings, who had words passed on to them in their turn.

What we also fail to realise is that we are dependent not just on other human beings, but also upon God. This point is highlighted by the Prayer Book Catechism in relation to our calling to obey God’s commandments. After the Catechism has set out what these Commandments are and what it means to live in accordance with them, the Catechist then declares:

‘My good child, know this, that thou art not able to do these things of thyself, nor to walk in the commandments of God, and to serve him, without his special grace; which thou must learn at all times to call for by diligent prayer.   Let me hear therefore if thou canst say the Lord’s Prayer.’

The point that is being made here is that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can live in the way we should without God’s grace enabling us to do so. We are as dependent on God’s help to live in obedience to him as a small child is on other people to enable him or her to walk. Furthermore, we do not receive this help automatically. We have to ask for it in prayer and the model for what this prayer should look like is the prayer given by Jesus to his first disciples (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4), what is commonly know as the Lord’s Prayer (which is why the Catechism introduces the Lord’s prayer in this connection).

The section of the Catechism on the Lord’s Prayer gives the words of the Lord’s prayer and then explains their meaning. It runs as follows:

‘Answer. Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. Amen.

Question. What desirest thou of God in this Prayer?

Answer. I desire my Lord God our heavenly Father, who is the giver of all goodness, to send his grace unto me, and to all people, that we may worship him, serve him, and obey him, as we ought to do. And I pray unto God, that he will send us all things that be needful both for our souls and bodies; and that he will be merciful unto us, and forgive us our sins; and that it will please him to save and defend us in all dangers ghostly and bodily; and that he will keep us from all sin and wickedness, and from our ghostly enemy, and from everlasting death. And this I trust he will do of his mercy and goodness, through our Lord Jesus Christ. And therefore I say, Amen, So be it.’

The first thing this section of the Catechism teaches us is that the primary thing we should desire for ourselves and for all other human beings is that we should worship, serve, and obey God. This is what human beings were created to do, and so we and others will never find true joy and fulfilment unless this is what we do.

The Catechism then goes on to say that what we also need to pray for what is necessary for our souls and bodies (so ordinary food and drink, but also the spiritual sustenance given to us through the Bible and other forms of spiritual nourishment), the forgiveness of our sins,  protection from spiritual and physical danger, protection from sin and the Devil, and finally protection from ‘everlasting death’ (that is, being cut off from God and all good for ever).

All the specific things we might ever need to pray for are covered by this list of topics for prayer. All of our bodily needs are covered, and so are all our spiritual needs, both in this world and the next.

Returning to the issue of dependence, the fact that we need to  pray for these things shows just how radically dependent upon God we are. If we pray it means we ask God for something. If we ask God for something it means that we need God to provide it because we cannot provide it for ourselves.

The fact that according to the pattern set out in Lord’s Prayer we need to pray for all the things we need for the wellbeing of our bodies and souls, both in this this world and in the world to come, therefore tells that we cannot provide these things for ourselves. Even though the things we need may often be passed on to us through the agency of other people, ultimately they all come to us from the hand of God. They all have their origin in him.

The truth that we need to pray for all these things also means that we need to take prayer seriously. In our day to day lives, all of us take the steps that are necessary to obtain the things that we need from other people, whether food, or drink, or clothes, or housing, or whatever else it is we require. Recognising our radical dependence upon God means recognising that we likewise need to do what is necessary to obtain the things we need from God, and what that means is praying.

As the Catechism reminds us, God is good and merciful, and because this is the case, he will answer our prayers. As Jesus taught:

‘Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.’ (Matthew 7:7-8)

We need the good things that come from God. When we pray he has promised to give them to us. So, let’s get praying.

The meaning of freedom:what the Catechism teaches about obedience to God’s commandments.

In the fourth in my series on the teaching of the Prayer Book Catechism I am going to look at how freedom and obedience to God’s commandments fit together.

In contemporary British Society (as in the Western world as a whole) there is general agreement that freedom is a good thing. Furthermore, freedom has a very particular meaning. It is understood to mean the right of each individual to decide for themselves how they should live their lives. As Richard Bauckham explains, in a tradition of thought going back to the Renaissance:

‘Freedom is conceived as radical independence. Nothing is received, all is to be freely chosen. Freedom is the freedom to make of oneself what one chooses.’ [1]

The laws governing society are understood within this view of freedom. The prevailing view in Britain today is that these laws are a purely human construct and that they have authority because they represent the collective choice of the members of British society about how they wish to live. When that choice changes the law should change as well (as in the case of the change in the law to allow two people of the same sex to marry each other).

By contrast the Prayer Book Catechism holds that human beings should not regard themselves as free to live in any way that they choose. Rather, they are to live in the way laid down for them by God. This point is made clear in the section of the Catechism that is concerned with the Ten Commandments. This section runs as follows:

‘Question. You said that your Godfathers and Godmothers did promise for you, that you should keep God’s Commandments. Tell me how many there be?

Answer. Ten.

Question. Which be they?

Answer. The same which God spake in the twentieth chapter of Exodus, saying, I am the Lord thy

God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

I. Thou shalt have none other gods but me.

II. Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them. For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, and visit the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me, and shew mercy unto thousands in them that love me and keep my commandments.

III. Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless, that taketh his Name in vain.

IV. Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all that thou hast to do; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt do no manner of work, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, thy cattle, and the stranger that is within thy gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.

V. Honour thy father and thy mother; that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

VI. Thou shalt do no murder.

VII. Thou shalt not commit adultery.

VIII. Thou shalt not steal.

IX. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

X. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his servant, nor his maid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.

Question. What dost thou chiefly learn by these Commandments?

Answer. I learn two things: my duty towards God, and my duty towards my Neighbour.

Question. What is thy duty towards God?

Answer. My duty towards God is to believe in him, to fear him, and to love him, with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul, and with all my strength; to worship him, to give him thanks, to put my whole trust in him, to call upon him, to honour his holy Name and his Word, and to serve him truly all the days of my life.

Question. What is thy duty towards thy Neighbour?

Answer. My duty towards my Neighbour is to love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me: To love, honour, and succour my father and mother: To honour and obey the Queen, and all that are put in authority under her: To submit myself to all my governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters: To order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters: To hurt nobody by word nor deed: To be true and just in all my dealing: To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart: To keep my hands from picking and stealing, and my tongue from evil-speaking, lying, and slandering: To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity: Not to covet nor desire other men’s goods; but to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me.’

What is taught  here is that human beings should not regard themselves as having the right to live in any way that they choose. Rather they have the obligation to live according to a pattern of behaviour laid down by God. At first sight this teaching in the Catechism may seem to amount to the negation of human freedom.  How can we be free if we have to obey a set of laws that God has laid down for us?

From a Christian perspective  this objection fails to reckon with the reality of the human situation. Contemporary Western thought rightly argues that we should be free to be true to ourselves. However, since we were created by God, who we really are is who we have been created by God to be. Consequently, being true to ourselves means being true to the person God has made us to be and choosing to live in the way that he has designed us to live. This is sometimes seen as inimical to human autonomy, but, as Richard Bauckham points out, the very opposite is true:

‘God’s law is not the will of another, in the ordinary sense in which this would be true of the will of another creature, but, as the law of the Creator and his creation, also the law of our own being, in conforming to which we become most truly ourselves.’ [2]

In summary, it is not the case that we have to make a choice between obedience to God and possessing freedom. Freedom is the ability to be true to ourselves, and, for the reasons given above, being true to ourselves  involves living both individually and collectively in obedience to the will of God. The importance of the section in the Catechism dealing with the Ten Commandments is that it gives a clear summary of what living in this way means in practice.


[1] Richard Bauckham, God and the Crisis of Freedom (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), p. 32.  

[2] Bauckham, p.208.