Ursinus on Law and Gospel

Q.36 What distinguishes law and gospel?

A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).

Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83) on the organization of the Heidelberg Catechism.

The chief and most important parts of the first principles of the doctrine of the church, as appears from the passage just quoted from the Epistle to the Hebrews, are repentance and faith in Christ, which we may regard as synonymous with the law and gospel. Hence, the catechism in its primary and most general sense, may be divided as the doctrine of the church, into the law and gospel. It does not differ from the doctrine of the church as it respects the subject and matter of which it treats, but only in the form and manner in which these things are presented, just as strong meat designed for adults, to which the doctrine of the church may be compared, does not differ in essence from the milk and meat prepared for children, to which the catechism is compared by Paul in the passage already referred to. These two parts are termed, by the great mass of men, the Decalogue and the Apostles’ creed; because the Decalogue comprehends the substance of the law, and the Apostles’ creed that of the gospel. Another distinction made by this same class of persons is that of the doctrine of faith and works, or the doctrine of those things which are to be believed and those which are to be done.

There are others who divide the catechism into these three parts; considering, in the first place, the doctrine respecting God, then the doctrine respecting his will, and lastly that respecting his works, which they distinguish as the works of creation, preservation, and redemption. But all these different parts are treated of either in the law or the gospel, or in both, so that this division may easily be reduced to the former.

There are others, again, who make the catechism consist of five different parts; the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Prayer; of which, the Decalogue was delivered immediately by God himself, whilst the other parts were delivered mediately, either through the manifestation of the Son of God in the flesh, as is true of the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, and the Eucharist, or through the ministry of the apostles, as is true of the Apostles’ Creed. But all these different parts may also be reduced to the two general heads noticed in the first division. The Decalogue contains the substance of the law, the Apostles’ Creed that of the gospel; the sacraments are parts of the gospel, and may, therefore, be embraced in it as far as they are seals of the grace which it promises, but as far as they are testimonies of our obedience to God, they have the nature of sacrifices and pertain to the law, whilst prayer, in like manner, may be referred to the law, being a part of the worship of God.

The catechism of which we shall speak in these lectures consists of three parts. The first treats of the misery of man, the second of his deliverance from this misery, and the third of gratitude, which division does not, in reality, differ from the above, because all the parts which are there specified are embraced in these three general heads. The Decalogue belongs to the first part, in as far as it is the mirror through which we are brought to see ourselves, and thus led to a knowledge of our sins and misery, and to the third part in as far as it is the rule of true thankfulness and of a Christian life. The Apostles’ Creed is embraced in the second part inasmuch as it unfolds the way of deliverance from sins. The sacraments, belonging to the doctrine of faith and being the seals that are attached thereto, belong in like manner to this second part of the catechism, which treats of deliverance from the misery of man. And prayer, being the chief part of spiritual worship and of thankfulness, may, with great propriety, be referred to the third general part.

In What Does The Law Differ From The Gospel?

The exposition of this question is necessary for a variety of considerations, and especially that we may have a proper understanding of the law and the gospel, to which a knowledge of that in which they differ greatly contributes. According to the definition of the law, which says, that it promises rewards to those who render perfect obedience; and that it promises them freely, inasmuch as no obedience can be meritorious in the sight of God, it would seem that it does not differ from the gospel, which also promises eternal life freely. Yet notwithstanding this seeming agreement, there is a great difference between the law and the gospel. They differ, 1. As to the mode of revelation peculiar to each. The law is known naturally: the gospel was divinely revealed after the fall of man. 2. In matter or doctrine. The law declares the justice of God separately considered: the gospel declares it in connection with his mercy. The law teaches what we ought to be in order that we may be saved: the gospel teaches in addition to this, how we may become such as this law requires, viz: by faith in Christ. 3. In their conditions or promises. The law promises eternal life and all good things upon the condition of our own and perfect righteousness, and of obedience in us: the gospel promises the same blessings upon the condition that we exercise faith in Christ, by which we embrace the obedience which another, even Christ, has performed in our behalf; or the gospel teaches that we are justified freely by faith in Christ. With this faith is also connected, as by an indissoluble bond, the condition of new obedience. 4. In their effects. The law works wrath, and is the ministration of death: the gospel is the ministration of life and of the Spirit (Rom. 4:15, 2 Cor. 3:7)

(Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 92).

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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6 comments

  1. A very sad thing that this particular post didn’t receive any major attention (judging from the comment count.).

    • I may have had comments turned off back then but it is an important statement. In light of these and dozens of other passages I cannot accept the suggestion that either there was no Reformed law/gospel distinction or that it was so varied as to be virtually unrecognizable.

  2. Wonderful quote. In keeping up with the recent Tullian firestorm, I stumbled across your blog via the Reformed Pubcast. You provide wonderful, and really helpful resources here! Thanks.

    Love this quote from Ursinus. Though fairly familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism, I have never had a chance to get into Ursinus’s commentary on it. His language/ position here sounds very similar to Theodore Beza on Law/Gospel. As I have been reflecting on these things, if we were to dissect sanctifcation into mortification and vivification would it be appropriate to say that law’s primary role is toward the end of mortification while the Gospel’s work in the beleiver is toward the end of vification (obviously Spirit wrought)? When I read Paul in Galatians 2:19-20 this seems to be fairly illumintive in regards to the pattern or picture he lays out:

    “19 For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (NKJV)

    Does to correspondance or correlation seem appropriate here to you?

    Thank you! Austin

  3. I think one can even go further then Ursinus and see the Law/Gospel distinction in Calvin when he makes the repentance/faith distinction, which to me smacks of Law/Gospel distinction.

    I might go further and say the Westminster Shorter has implicity Law/Gospel when it states that man’s end is to glory God (Law) and enjoy Him forever (Gospel). Though I’m not educated in Puritanism but it seems rather natural to me to read it in the light.

    Saying that, I think Ursinus and Tullian minister(ed) in similar contexts. I’m from South Florida and I’m part of a PCA church that is part of the same Presbytery as Tullian’s. I’m even going to Knox Seminary across the street from the church so this is all oddly personal.

    South Florida, and I must be honest, doesn’t have many good churches. There are either Pentecostal storefronts the preach Glawspel, megachurches that want to be cool and preach Glawspel, or Roman churches. And honestly if I had to choose between one of those three I’d become Roman.

    The point is, Gospel preaching is not that prevalent in South Florida. I don’t know how many friends I’ve made that feel burnt out and exhausted by the Christian life and are tired of their churches trying to be cool and not preaching the pure word of God or administering the Sacraments.

    And to make it more specific to Coral Ridge, Tullian has to preach like that. This congregation has been battered to death by the Law for decades. Tullian has to do some work now. He needs to comfort his congregation.

    P.S.

    You URC guys should plant churches down here. There’s only one URC church in the state of Florida and Miami (to my knowledge) doesn’t have any good continental Reformed churches. We have great food and similar weather to California, I would think!

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