The Heidelberg Catechism is in three parts: Law, Gospel, and Sanctification or Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. This is not an artificial interpretation of the Catechism nor is it an artificial arrangement of the Christian faith. Question 2 outlines the Catechism for us:
How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?
Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.
Notice that there are three things that one must know: sin and misery (guilt), how we are redeemed (grace), and how believers live in light of God’s grace (gratitude). Remarkably, even among Reformed Christians this outline is not as well known as it should be. I recall a discussion from more than a decade ago in which a person well familiar with the Reformed Churches professed that he had never heard this outline of the Catechism and suggested that it was some novelty. It is not a novelty. The principal author of the Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83), who was authorized to comment on the Catechism in Heidelberg and who lectured on it explained:
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, while 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.
Already, between 1563 and 1583 Ursinus was aware that there was discussion of the organization of the Catechism. It’s interesting that he did not “pull rank” as we say but he it also interesting that the did suggest there are different ways of analyzing the catechism. There is the superstructure and there are substructures within the catechism. A house has a basic frame within which there are rooms and hallways. So too, within the catechism. He argued that the five parts that some had seen we really only expressions of two great heads: law and gospel. That there is today such apparent resistance, within the Reformed world, to these basic categories, which Ursinus had inherited from Luther and Calvin, illustrates how far we have drifted from our roots. When he invoked these categories he was not being controversial. He just states them as a matter of fact, as accepted categories because they were universally accepted by the Reformed theologians and churches of the 16th and 17th centuries. Ursinus, Olevianus, Beza, and Calvin would not understand why some insist on saying that they are Lutheran distinctions since they themselves used them, advocated them, and taught them. In his Summa theologiae, written before the Heidelberg, Ursinus wrote:
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).
Not only did Ursinus clearly articulate the very same distinction between law as one principle (“do this and live”) and gospel as another (Christ has done) that he had learned from Philipp Melanchthon (1497&ndash1560), which Melanchthon had learned from Luther, and which Ursinus had heard in Geneva from Calvin and Beza but he did so in covenantal terms, which would become fundamental to Reformed theology. The great Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield would later call covenant theology “architectonic” to Reformed theology. Ursinus equated the law principle with the covenant of works (“the day you eat thereof”) and the gospel to the covenant of grace. Again, when he did this he did not intend to be controversial. He took these things as basic. The Westminster Divines adopted these categories and confessed them explicitly in the 1640s. There was some dissent, e.g., from the Arminians (Remonstrants) in the 17th century but it would only be in the 20th century that they would become highly controversial. From a historical perspective, however, these corollaries (the first use of the law = covenant of works and gospel = covenant of grace) were basic.
Calvin often spoke in terms of law and grace, instead of law and gospel, but he used the traditional terms also. Commenting on Romans 10:9, he wrote:
Do you see how he makes this the distinction between law and gospel: that the former attributes righteousness to works, the latter bestows free righteousness apart from the help of works? This is an important passage, and one that can extricate us from many difficulties if we understand that that righteousness which is given us through the gospel has been freed of all conditions of the (Institutes, 3.11.17)
He made this distinction no fewer than 35 times in his writings and it’s certain that one could many more instances. Calvin’s successor in Geneva was also insistent upon this distinction:
We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558)
Olevianus (and see the essay published here) wrote that the whole book of Romans could be analyzed as having two parts: law and gospel. Perkins wrote that it is impossible to preach God’s Word without using the distinction. Edward Fisher taught it clearly in The Marrow of Modern Divinity. William Twisse, the first prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly taught it explicitly and many other writers could be cited and have been in other places. Much of this evidence has been in print, in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry and online for many years now.
As we saw, however, Ursinus settled on the tripartite division of the catechism: “The catechism of which we shall speak in these lectures consists of three parts.” The evidence from the catechism itself and from Ursinus is conclusive. We must consider the catechism fundamentally organized in three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude.
This organization is reflected in 86:
86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?
Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism 86).
The major premise of this question is the biblical, Protestant doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide, that has been explored and explained repeatedly through this commentary on the catechism. The German text uses the verb erkauft, which is fairly translated “to redeem” or “to purchase.” This imagery takes us back to Heidelberg 1, where we confess that our only comfort in life and in death that we “belong, body and soul, in life and death” to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. This is Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 6:20, “you were bought with a price, therefore honor God with your body” and 1 Corinthians 7:23, “You were bought with a price; do not become the bondservants of men” (ESV). The Latin text says “liberati simus,” and says literally, “Since from all our sins and miseries, without any of our merit, only by the mercy of God, on account of Christ we have been liberated, why should we do good works?” The rhetorical effect of the ordering of the phrases is to condition the final clause, the question. We are only discussing good works after reiterating that the biblical, Protestant, and Reformed conviction that redemption (salvation) is by grace alone, through faith alone. To make it crystal clear, the catechism specifically mentions the question of merit. It does rejects any notion that we sinners have merit of any kind, condign or congruent, relative to our standing before God. Here is a discussion merit in Heidelberg 62 and 63.
The catechism speaks thus because the Reformed (e.g., Calvin and Olevianus) had long spoken of the “double grace” (duplex gratia) or the “double benefit” (duplex beneficium) of Christ. We are justified and sanctified by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. Our new life, our sanctification, that process of being gradually conformed to the image of Christ is the consequence of our free justification and his gracious salvation of his people.
Next time: Avoiding ping pong and growing fruit.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.