Heidelberg 65: Faith, Union With Christ, And The Means Of Grace (1)

Open Quote 4 lines65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, whence comes this faith?

The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.

Students (seminary and catechism alike) have often asked me whether they need to memorize both the questions and the answers of the catechism. Heidelberg Catechism 63 is an excellent example of why it is important to learn both of them. Catechism questions are not just opportunities for an answer. They are not just filling space. They often contain important truths. In Calvin’s catechisms the question is sometimes the answer. He asked long questions the answer to which was, “Yes, teacher.” In those cases, to miss the question is to miss the whole enchilada.

The question here could not be more timely. The premise of the question concerns two issues that have roiled the North American Presbyterian and Reformed community since 1974: justification sola fide and union with Christ. Had we followed the Word of God as confessed by the Reformed and Presbyterian neither of these doctrines should have ever become complicated. If ever someone presents them to you so as to make them complicated, they are doing something incorrectly. Briefly, our understanding of God’s Word (follow the links above to copious resources) is that, in the act (Divine declaration) of justification the ground is the perfect, whole (active and passive) obedience of Christ imputed to the sinner. The sole instrument is faith knowing, agreeing, resting in and receiving Christ and his finished work. That’s it. The doctrine of union with Christ is not much more difficult (again, for more, follow the link above). There are three aspects to the doctrine of union with Christ. First, believers may be said to have been united to Christ in the divine decree from all eternity; second, believers were represented federally by Christ; and third, we are brought into mystical (i.e., Holy Spirit-ual or sometimes existential) union with through faith alone (sola fide). There has been no great controversy in the modern period (of which I am aware) over the first two aspects but there has been a revision proposed that has been widely adopted. It has even been suggested that the revisionist view is the normative, historic Reformed view. For more on this discussion see J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700) (2012).

For my part it seems abundantly clear that the Reformed churches intended to confess and teach that the same faith that is the “sole instrument” (Belgic Confession art. 22) of our justification and our union with Christ. It is through faith alone that we come into possession of Christ and his benefits. In other words, it is not regeneration that brings us into union with Christ.1 It is the Holy Spirit who regenerates us, i.e., grants to us new life. The Spirit who gives us new life also gives us true faith. Remember too that we are not discussing chronology. What is in question here is the logical order. Lest one think that the question of the logical order of salvation (the ordo salutis) is unimportant, it is not. The entire Reformation doctrine of justification and salvation sola gratia and sola fide was about the logical order of things. The Roman communion claims that God justifies those who are progressively sanctified and that we are sanctified by grace and cooperation with grace. This is a logical order. It is the wrong order, but order it is. The confessional Protestants (the Lutheran and Reformed) confessed a different order. We confessed then and we confess now that it is not the sanctified who are justified but it sinners who are justified, i.e., those who are not intrinsically, inherently righteous. That, we say, is the good news. We say that justification is not God’s recognition of our progressive sanctification but rather his definitive declaration of what is true of us. Christ’s actual, inherent, condignly meritorious righteousness (iustitia) is credited (imputed) to us and received through faith alone (sola fide). It is the justified who are, are a consequence of that once-for-all justification who are being graciously, gradually sanctified. Those who believe are also those who are united to Christ. Another way to put this is to say that there are no unjustified people are being sanctified or in union with Christ.

This is not a peculiar view. It is the clear teaching of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?

A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.

Please note the logical order. Christ accomplished redemption for us. The Holy Spirit sovereignly applies his redemption to us. How? “By working faith in us….. This is the pan-Protestant doctrine of justification and salvation sola fide. The consequences of the gift of faith, however, are not exhausted by justification. The catechism adds “thereby uniting us to Christ….” That thereby refers back to the noun faith. Thereby signals the instrumental role of faith. Through it the Spirit both grants to us Christ, his righteousness, and union and communion with him.

There is more. Next time we will consider the role of the means of grace (media gratiae) in strengthening our faith, our union, and our communion with Christ.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


  1. I am aware that Herman Witsius taught that, in a real sense, we are united to Christ through regeneration. Here is the passage:

    III. By a true and a real union, (but which is only passive on their part,) they are united to Christ when his Spirit first takes possession of them, and infuses into them a principle of new life: the beginning of which life can be from nothing else but from union with the Spirit of Christ; who is to the soul, but in a far more excellent manner, in respect of spiritual life, what the soul is to the body in respect of animal and human life. As therefore the union of soul and body is in order of nature prior to the life of man; so also the union of the Spirit of Christ and the soul is prior to the life of a Christian. Further, since faith is an act flowing from the principle of spiritual life, it is plain, that in a sound sense, it may be said, an elect person is truly and really united to Christ before actual faith.

    IV. But the mutual union, (which, on the part of an elect person, is likewise active and operative), whereby the soul draws near to Christ, joins itself to him, applies, and in a becoming and proper manner closes with him without any distraction, is made by faith only. And this is followed in order by the other benefits of the covenant of grace, justification, peace, adoption, sealing, perseverance, &c. Which if they be arranged in that manner p 69 and order, I know not whether any controversy concerning this affair can remain among the brethren.

    Herman Witsius, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, trans. Thomas Bell (Glasgow: W. Lang, 1807), 68–69.


    1. As much as his theology is to be admired, the Reformed Churches do not confess the writings of Herman Witsius (or anyone else’s writings). We confess God’s Word. Our confessions do not speak as Witsius did.

    2. Witsius was an irenicist, which is a good thing. Sometimes, however, peacemakers resort to equivocation as Witsius did in this passage. In §III he used the word union in a way that neither the Heidelberg nor the Westminster Shorter Catechism did and in §IV he used it in the way the catechisms did.

    3. What changed was the move in the late 17th century to posit that a person might be regenerate and yet not yet believing. The catechism does not know anything about that way of thinking. So we have two different conceptions of regeneration (spiritual awakening from death to life). In the first the Spirit is said to regenerate, grant faith, and through that faith unite to Christ. In the later conception, the Spirit is said to awaken but yet necessarily grant faith. Now union is a two-stage process. However laudatory, this move was not helpful. It was speculative, well intended, but has created confusion.

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One comment

  1. Mike Horton—Even if it is granted that justification is an exclusively forensic declaration, the rest of the order of salvation has usually been treated in Reformed theology as the consequence of an entirely different event the implantation of new life in regeneration.” (Covenant and Salvation p 216)

    Bruce MCormack quotes Calvin (3:2:10)–”Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with Him in the gifts with which he has been endowed.”

    Bruce McCormack—”The problem with such statements is that one of the ‘gifts’ he speaks of–regeneration–is very difficult to distinguish conceptually from that ‘union’ which is supposed to give rise to BOTH justification AND REGENERATION…. Where regeneration is made— if only logically–to be the root of justification, then the work of God in us is once again made to be the ground of the divine forgiveness of sins.” p 110, “What’s At Stake in Current Debates Over Justification?”,

    Jonathan Gibson, “The Glorious, Indivisible, Trinitarian Work of Christ”, From Heaven He Came, p 352—”Some conclude that the efficacy of Christ’s work occurs only at the point of faith, and not before. This ignores the fact that union with Christ precedes any reception of Christ’s work by faith”

    Hanko—By making faith the condition of salvation, faith is set outside the benefits of the atonement. if the atonement is for every sinner, but faith is not for every sinner, then faith cannot be a blessing given by means of the atonement. Then faith is not one of the blessings of Christ’s death, but becomes a condition for making Christ’s death effective.

    One cannot have it both ways. Faith is either part of salvation or a condition to salvation; but both it cannot be.

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