I’ve never seen a toddler run the 40. Toddlers don’t run, they toddle. Usain Bolt. Now there’s a guy who can run. In 2019, during Super Bowl weekend, Usain Bolt ran the 40 in 4.22 seconds. He ran a 4.22 in what appeared to be Puma loafers. He’s still blazing fast.
When we think of baby steps, we don’t think of Usain Bolt. We think of a cute little kid waddling forward. He’s not fast. He’s not even steady, but he is making progress. There’s at least one thing that a toddler and Usain Bolt have in common when “running” the 40 – they are both making progress.
As Christians who possess the righteousness of Christ by faith, when we compare ourselves to God’s holy law, it’s a little like a toddler being compared to Usain Bolt. The law is so dominant, so pure, so perfect, and there we are barely making it. Even though we have the Holy Spirit living in us, we still struggle so deeply with our sin that it seems as if we’re not making any progress at all. But even though we are waddling, we are moving forward.
The closer we look at God’s law, the more aware we are of our own sinfulness and inability. We get to the last command of the Ten, “You shall not covet,” and we realize how deep our sinful desires go. James linked covetousness to murder: “You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (James 4:2). Paul linked covetousness to idolatry, in fact, he said “covetousness . . . is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). I think it is safe to link covetousness to lust and adultery as well, for we are not to covet our neighbor’s wife. So, whether it comes to loving God or loving our neighbor, covetousness holds us back.
Heidelberg 113 asks, “What does the tenth commandment require of us?” The answer may seem surprising at first. It answers:
That not even the slightest thought or desire contrary to any of God’s commandments should ever arise in our heart. Rather, we should always hate all sin with all our heart and delight in all righteousness.
To covet is to desire that which is unlawful, illegitimate, or prohibited. Isn’t it true that we covet when we desire anything that God’s holy law forbids? Aren’t covetous desires at work when we worship other gods and fashion idols of God? Aren’t covetous desires at work when we abuse God’s name and profane the Sabbath rest principle? Aren’t covetous desires at work when we dishonor authority, get angry, lust, and take what is not ours? Covetousness is at work whenever we break any of the Ten Commandments, and I think that is what Heidelberg 113 seeks to explain. Any slight desire that is an unlawful desire is covetousness, and we ought to despise every unlawful desire we have. We despise covetousness because it prevents us from fully delighting in our preeminent joy, God Himself.
Some Christians believe that our emotions and desires are neutral and that it’s what we do with emotions and desires that counts. This view fails to recognize that sin has affected our emotions and desires as much as it has our thoughts, choices, and actions. Our emotions and desires are corrupted by sin, in fact, no part of us is uncorrupted by sin. So, we feel what we ought not to feel, we desire what we ought not to desire.
Jesus taught this. In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus condemned angry feelings as murder of the heart. In Matthew 5:28, Jesus condemned lustful feelings as adultery of the heart. In Matthew 6, Jesus prohibited feeling worried about the necessities of life. In Luke 12:15, Jesus warned against “all covetousness.” Our emotions and desires are not neutral. Because of original sin, we feel strong desires toward unlawful things. We want what we should not want, whether that is wealth, power, fame, sexual immorality, or the like. God’s law helps us realize that we desire many things contrary to God’s holy commandments.
If we don’t think carefully about our emotions and desires, we’ll get discouraged fast. Yes, we know the gospel is for sinners like us. Yes, we know we have God’s favor and love in Christ. Yes, we know we belong to Christ, body and soul. However, we get so discouraged by our ongoing struggle with unlawful desires. In fact, sometimes we get so discouraged we are tempted to give up or to reduce the severity of the law’s demands or to justify or excuse our sin because then we don’t have to feel as guilty about it. But these are not good routes to take. No, instead we must look to Christ and think rightly about our ongoing struggle with sin.
Here, Heidelberg 114 is very, very helpful and hopeful. If we don’t know and believe this profound truth, we will not fight sin with much hope and strength. We’ll probably just give up. Heidelberg 114 asks, “But can those converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?” This is talking about true Christians. Can true Christians perfectly keep the law in this life? Well, no, and to think we can is to set ourselves up for immense discouragement. Though we strive with heartfelt desire to obey God all the time, we toddle, we waddle, we fall often. But here’s the thing. We move ahead. We progress in the commandments. The Spirit is sanctifying us. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s not that we don’t obey. It’s just that we don’t obey as we will someday. Heidelberg 114 answers, and listen carefully:
No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with earnest purpose they do begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God.
John the Baptist was a devout man. He was morally incredible. Jesus said, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11). And yet Jesus added, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” So, pick out the holiest person on planet earth right now, and they are a fraction of what they will be in heaven. The same goes for you. You have only begun your obedience to God. You’re only toddling. You will sprint one day, but not yet. But don’t let this discourage you. Remember, you’re making progress. You’ve begun to obey. To be toddling doesn’t mean you’re dead and not moving. You are alive in Christ, and you’re definitely moving ahead, but you’re toddling. It is a sincere and earnest toddling, a toddling that pleases the heart of your Father who loves you, but you do very much need your Father’s help to walk.
If you were sprinting, would you plead with God for His grace and Spirit? Would you ask God to conform you more and more to Christ? Probably not. You’d feel the wind in your hair and cruise along thinking you’re doing pretty great, like Usain Bolt. You’re only toddling, but this is so encouraging. God has begun a good work in you.
So, you’re toddling. Celebrate. Rejoice. Praise the Lord. The only reason you’re not sprinting away from God and the finish line is because God’s grace and Spirit are at work in your toddling. Yes, you do fall down. Yes, your obedience is not what it will be. However, rejoice that you are toddling ahead toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Find comfort and assurance in your Father’s grace and Spirit helping you toddle.
I think you and I should want to run. I think we should try. But toddling is moving ahead, it is obedience, it is earnest love for God. Don’t be discouraged at the slowness of sanctification. The important thing is that you’re taking baby steps of obedience.
Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021), 64-65.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.