Submission to God’s Reality: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 39


  1. What does God require in the fifth commandment?

That I show all honor, love, and faithfulness to my father and mother,1 and to all in authority over me,2 submit myself with due obedience to all their good instruction and correction, and also bear patiently with their infirmities, since it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.3

[1] Eph. 6:22; Eph. 6:1–6; Col. 3:18, 20–24; Prov. 1:8–9; 4:1; 15:20; 20:20; Ex. 21:17; Gen. 9:24–25. [2] Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:18; Rom. 13:2–7; Matt. 22:21. [3] Eph. 6:4, 9; Col. 3:19, 21; *Prov. 30:17; *Deut. 27:16; *Deut. 32:24; *Prov. 13:24; *1 Tim. 2:1–2; *1 Tim. 5:17; *Heb. 13:17–18.

Submission to God’s Reality
The word for “honor” is the word kabod in Hebrew, meaning weighty or heavy. To honor is to give someone the weight that is due to their position. The Heidelberg describes this as honor, love and faithfulness, meaning loyalty and obedience.

Children are to obey their parents. God providentially has arranged society so that children are given instruction and guidance from their parents. God has created us in such a way that most people, even unbelievers, feel very strong attachments to their children, and this prompts parents to sacrifice a great deal of time, money and energy to raise and prepare children for life. God has given the human race a wonderful gift in this natural familial affection. If children are wise, then they will obey their parents in order to gain maximum benefit from this. Thus, the commandment says, your days will be long on the land. Even if your parents are unwise in some ways, they are almost certainly wiser than their children, sitcoms and Hollywood movies notwithstanding.

Obviously, in an earthly sense, the promise of long life as a result of obedience to parents is a general proverb. Many good children who obeyed their parents nonetheless died young, while wicked and rebellious people sometimes live long lives. Cain outlived Abel, and God’s providence is His own. All other things being equal, it is true that children who submit to parents will have an easier time of life and a higher quality of life if they submit to parents. Their survival chances go up considerably. They will avoid many errors earlier in life. Many of the mistakes we can make in life are not obvious, and a child is poorly equipped to understand the reasons for those. As an example, if a child’s diet consists entirely of sugary sweets, his health will suffer in many ways. But the sugary sweets will make him feel good in the moment and he will not feel the ill effects for a while. Left to himself, the child’s diet will be very poor. But the adult knows the importance of it, because of the greater perspective that the passage of time has given him. Similar statements can be made for relationships, personal hygiene, finances and many other areas of life.

Further, as the Catechism points out, it is God’s will to govern us by the hand of these authorities. Rebellion against parents is ultimately rebellion against the God that gave the parents. There is not, therefore, merely a practical injunction here. All God’s commands are inherently practical. But they are ultimately theological. If I rebel against God, I will come to ruin, quite apart from any naturalistic workings of the universe, because God is just. Even if I manage to avoid the more obvious consequences, ultimately those who rebel against God’s commands will come to destruction.

As adults, this commandment does not lose its force. Though the nature of our honoring of our parents will change, the reality of it does not. As adults, we are to continue to show respect to our parents in obedience to God. Since the authority of parents over children is given for the purpose of guiding children through childhood, obedience to parents is not required for adults (the function of that obedience has ended). And yet parents should be respected and honored throughout our lives. We should listen to their advice and give it careful consideration. We should not show contempt or ridicule for them- a common failing for adults, since as adults we are well aware of the infirmities and failings of our parents. We should care for them and ensure their comfort as best as we can when they are elderly and infirm.

Honoring our parents also means honoring tradition, giving heavy weight to the views and values of the past. Tradition is neither infallible nor inerrant, and change is often necessary, but that change should be undertaken gradually and carefully. It is a foolish child that thinks he can carelessly discard the accumulated wisdom of centuries, whatever his age might be.

There is a further spiritual principle here as well. Honoring our parents means being thankful for who God made us through our parents. We are in many ways who we are because of the parents God gave us. If we are bitter and angry because of our parents, then we are bitter and angry at God for His providence in our lives, and ultimately reject our own nature. It is impossible that we should have real success and happiness in our lives while we are bitter and angry about our own nature.

Even more broadly, then, obeying the Fifth Commandment means submitting to reality, submitting to God’s providence and not being bitter and resentful about the world into which God has brought us and His provision for us in this world. It takes no particular wisdom to find fault with those that have gone before. Cynicism and contempt for tradition often poses as wisdom, but they are very different things. It takes a great deal of wisdom to be humble, to embrace one’s own limitations, and to learn from others, including others that may be dead already. Christians should never be revolutionaries, even when they advocate for change in ungodly institutions. This commandment should give Christians a bent to the traditional without being reactionaries that idolize the past.

The obedience mandated by the fifth commandment flows out of thankfulness to God, and the result will be prosperity in many ways. We are to be thankful to God for who He made us and the gifts that He has given us, even through the failings and weaknesses of our parents. In the Commandment, the promise is couched in general and earthly terms, appropriate for the Old Testament era. Though God never promised us health and wealth in this life, He has promised us eternal life and prosperity if we will trust Him and His providences in our lives. And even in this life, we will always be more successful at the work God has given us to do when we follow His principles.

All are welcome at Christ Reformed Church!  We worship at 10 AM Sunday morning at 600 W. 21st St, in College Heights Baptist’s old sanctuary.