Heidelberg 59: What Good Is Faith?

sola-fide-flagOne of the more disturbing aspects of the reaction to antinomianism in recent years, whether that antinomianism is real or perceived does not matter for the purposes of this discussion, is how quickly some have been willing to write, speak, and act as if what we say about justification may be hermetically sealed from what we say about sanctification, the Christian life, and salvation. It has become fashionable in certain circles to say, in effect, “Yes, we’re justified by grace alone, through faith alone but we’re saved by grace and works.” In other words, when the doctrine of justification and indeed the gospel itself was perceived to be threatened by the self-described Federal Vision most of the NAPARC denominations/federations responded with a resounding “No!” and adopting reports and statements clearly teaching that justification and salvation are by grace alone, through faith alone and that sanctification and good works are fruit and evidence of justification and salvation. There were people in the NAPARC would who weren’t happy with the consensus against the FV and that group has continued to advance a moralist agenda the way dripping water gradually erodes a rock. They seized on the perception that antinomianism is an existential threat to churches to treat us as if we were all imperial storm troopers and that justification and salvation sola gratia, sola fide are not the doctrines we’re looking for.

Here is yet another reason we may be thankful for the confession of the churches. They provide us a baseline summary of the Reformed understanding of God’s Word (which is our plumb line) against which to measure the shifting scene around us. Reformed theology, piety, and practice is not an ever undulating mass of jello and it isn’t whatever the guru of the month says it is. Heidelberg Catechism 59 is a great example of this. At first blush, it does not seem like a terribly consequential little Q & A, sandwiched as it is between the doctrine of heaven just before and the great doctrine of justification to come in 60. If one thinks that one would be wrong indeed.

59. What does it help you now, that you believe all this?

That I am righteous in Christ before God, and an heir of eternal life.

What good is it to believe all what? This is one of the several summarizing questions that serves to transition from one subsection to another. Remember, there are three parts to the catechism: guilt, grace, and gratitude or law, gospel, and sanctification. We’ve been in the “gospel” section of the catechism since question 5. Before that we learned the greatness of our sin and misery. So “all this” refers to everything we’ve learned about the human condition before the fall, after the fall, God, Christ, his righteousness for us, his grace to sinners, faith as the instrument of justification and salvation, the Spirit’s ongoing work in his people, and heaven. What good is to believe all of that? We are justified and saved. Full stop.

Please notice which verb the catechism used in Q.59. “Believe.” Please notice which verbs are absent: doing, obeying, growing, cooperating, keeping. These are the verbs of the moralists. That some of them are now conceding justification sola gratia, sola fide but falling back to “salvation” as the place to man the barricades in defense of works tells us that their concession is merely rhetorical, strategic. They can still make works do more than serve as the logically, morally necessary fruit and evidence of justification and salvation. You see a moralist is never really satisfied with the gospel of free grace. Deep in his heart he suspects that Paul’s opponents had a point. Paul has just declared the astoundingly good news:

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

“The law came to increase the trespass.” No moralist can say that. Only a gospel man can say that. “Where sin abounded, grace super abounded” with the result that just sin and death once reigned, “grace might also reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This kind of unequivocal language, however, makes the moralist really uncomfortable because he wants you to be good and he’s not at all sure that this a very good plan to produce the desired outcome. If, however, he can convince us that there’s an initial acceptance by grace alone, through faith alone but a final acceptance (final justification, salvation) well he’s had to delay gratification but in the end he gets what he wants: our final standing is still contingent upon our performance. Christ’s performance for us is not the final word, it’s not definitive. The moralist (be he Romanist, Baxterian, Shepherdite, Fullerite, Federal Visionist, for a follower of the NPP) can concede that Jesus’ obedience and death makes our justification and salvation possible but he cannot have Jesus’ work as the last word. For the moralist, we must have our part.

Hence Paul’s opponents, whom he quotes, asked:

What shall we say then? mAre we to continue in sin that grace may abound?

That question says it all. The moralist says, “Paul, if we talk like that people will never be good.” In this way we see that the moralist is also a rationalist. He not only wants a scheme that will make us good but it has to be a scheme he can understand. Sanctification, however, is a just as great a mystery as justification. That’s not my language. That’s the language of that antinomian John Owen:

It is the design of corrupted reason to debase all the glorious mysteries of the gospel, and all the concernments of them. There is nothing in the whole mystery of godliness, from the highest crown of it, which is the person of Christ, “God manifested in the flesh,” unto the lowest and nearest effect of this grace, but it labours to deprave, dishonour, and debase.

It’s also the language, of course, of Walter Marshall. This used to be standard Reformed theology. Though we’re told that the “real” Reformed doctrine of sanctification and salvation, which is broader than justification, is that works do more than give evidence, that they’re more than fruit, that they’re an instrument of salvation, a close reading of the Scripture and the sources, in context, tells a different story.

The Reformed churches confess that the gospel is that we are both justified and saved, i.e., we come into full possession of all that Christ has earned for us not by faith and works, or by faithfulness, but through faith alone. As soon as we say this the moralist will object, “but it says heir of eternal life. You might have it now but that doesn’t mean you’ll have it finally.” Our first response should be to say: get thee behind me. The implication of the question is that Christ has made it possible for those who do their part to be finally saved. How much is enough? To ask that question is rent a one-bedroom apartment with the Evil One. You’ve already granted the premise. No, there is only one man’s works who are enough: his who said, “It is finished.”

Believer, you and I are righteous and heirs of eternal life, an inheritance that is as certainly ours as Christ is righteous, as sure as God is faithful to his promises. This is not a fanciful interpretation. In his explanation of this question, which he treated together with 60, Ursinus only mentioned Christ’s obedience for us, the Spirit’s work of making us alive (regeneration), and his gift of faith whereby we lay hold of Christ and his righteousness. There’s no discussion our obedience and sanctification as part of the way we receive the promised inheritance. That’s because the same faith by which we receive justification is the same faith by which we receive the promised inheritance and it is the gift of God.

What good is faith? It is as good as its object is righteous and powerful.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal 3:10)

    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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  1. I was just listening to one of the Q&A Sessions from the recent Ligioner Ministries conference and Dr. Sproul brought up this topic…. and important one for the entire foundation of Reformed theology it would seem.

    On another note I just received in the mail today a copy of ‘Recovering the Reformed Confession’ and look forward to starting to read and digest it as soon as I finish up the book I’m currently reading. Even though we don’t see eye to eye on some (non-essential) issues, I’m very thankful for your ministry and the solid growth in Reformed thought and theology it has provided me as a new Presbyterian/Reformed Christian.

  2. I read Recovering the Reformed Confession about two years ago after Dr. Clark commented on an account of my excursion into Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism, and I’ve come to realize what a treasure the Reformed confessions are. They are essentially “sermons” preached by the consensus of the Church that will keep us on the right course if we pay attention to them. Sure, they aren’t infallible or equal to Scripture, but they are a great treasure that the Spirit has given us, and I do think we need to rediscover and recover them because of the clarity with which they proclaim biblical truth in practical and timeless ways. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in looking for ancient liturgies and ceremonies I was reverting to “ordinances once commended” (Calvin), which were actually a form of works righteousness.The connection to the historic Church I thought I was looking for was already there in the Reformed confessions. Thank you once again, Dr. Clark.

  3. Scott,

    I’d be interested in hearing who the dissatisfied in NAPARC are, who continue to promote a moralist agenda. Your ambiguous “they’re out there” is a shadow of suspicion, and it’d be nice to put a face on it. When you very helpfully discredited the FV (to which we should all be thankful) you weren’t afraid to call out names and direct us to writings. Could you point me to any people/writing(s) within NAPARC that say good works are “an instrument of salvation”? I assume you think they mean something different than Witsius, “Without good works none shall be saved,” or Francis Turretin, “There is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them,” or even the WLC Q. 32, “…to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, *and* as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.”

    Thanks for your continued writing!

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