Heidelberg 86: Why Good Works? (3)

In part 2 we considered the proper role of good works as evidence and the fruit of justification and salvation contra the nomist (moralist) view that they do more than that and contra the view that the catechism’s teaching reduces sanctification to a second blessing. We also saw that the catechism’s teaching that sanctification, i.e., Spirit-wrought, gradual conformity to Christ (more about that under Heidelberg 88-90) is morally and logically necessary as fruit and evidence is incompatible with the position that sanctification is desirable but optional and contrary and contrary to the antinomian view that obedience to God’s holy law is no longer necessary in the new covenant.

Sanctification has another function in the Christian life: to bolster assurance. This doctrine has also been controversial in some circles. There is a view that says that sanctification can play no role whatsoever in assurance. There is also an approach that says that, in seeking assurance, the first place a believer looks is to his sanctification. In distinction the Reformed Churches confess:

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 two clauses in view here are “he be glorified through us” and “we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof….” The Westminster Shorter Catechism famously begins by teaching that the “chief end of man” is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This notion, however, did not arise in the 17th century. He was common Reformed teaching. Adam was created to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Our Savior, the Last Adam, glorified God and now enjoys him forever, and we shall, by God’s grace, because of Christ’s obedience for us, enjoy him forever and by his grace, with the help of his Spirit, we seek now to glorify him day by day. We do that by obeying him, according to all the teaching of his Word and particularly by obeying God’s moral law. We will address the role of the law in the Christian life in more detail under Heidelberg 91.

When, by the grace of God, in union with Christ, with the help of his Spirit, we are obeying him (however imperfectly) that fruit of our free justification and salvation does contribute to our assurance. To be sure, we do not look first off to our sanctification (fruit) for assurance. That would be a mistake. Our sanctification, in this life, is never complete. Therefore, to look at our sanctification as the primary ground must necessarily result in uncertainty. Should we look principally at our sanctification then every time we sin we should lose our assurance. This is not only unbiblical and contrary to our confession but a terrible way to live the Christian life. The ground of our assurance is Christ’s obedience and righteousness for us not the Spirit’s work in us. The ground, the basis of, our assurance of our salvation and right standing with God is God’s gospel promise to us that “whosover believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The ground of our assurance is objective. It is fixed. It is established by Christ. It is immutable, i.e., it does not change. It cannot change. It is fixed in history and in the heavens. It rests upon God’s immutable, eternal decree and upon his immutable, eternal character and attributes.

Nevertheless, resting on the fact of Christ’s obedience for us and upon his promises to us, e.g.,

  • “it is finished”
  • “having therefore been justified”
  • “no one can snatch them from my hand”

we may also look to the evidence of the work of God’s Spirit in us as proof that we really do believe. We rightly say that we are justified and saved by grace alone, through faith alone (sola fide) but believers frequently ask the question, “how do I know that I believe”? It is not sufficient to answer that question by simply repeating the exhortation, “believe!” There are other questions. “Do I know the greatness of my sin and misery?” and “Do I know the history of salvation?” and “Do I agree that what Scripture says is true?” One who does not yet know himself to be, by nature, under the wrath of God, who has not sensed the jeopardy in which all of Adam’s children exist after the fall, is not ready to flee to Christ as his only hope and righteousness. Certainly true faith involves basic knowledge of the facts of Christ’s saving work and assent to those truths. He must also trust heartily that what Christ did, he did for us (pro nobis), for me (pro me). This is why it is so important for believers to hear and read over and again God’s law and Christ’s promises. We must be reminded constantly of what God demands and what Christ has fulfilled for us and promised to us.

It is entirely appropriate and even necessary, however, for the believer to find encouragement that he does actually believe by observing the evidences, however small and inadequate they may be in this life, that yes the Spirit of God has given him new life. We begin with the objective, the promises of God represented to us in the preached gospel and the gospel made visible in the sacraments. We are baptized people. We are being nourished by the body and blood of Christ. We are received in the church as members in good standing. We do see ourselves for what we are by nature: sinners. We acknowledge that and seek our standing before God only in what Christ has done for us. We are grieved by our sins. With Paul we sometimes despair “what will become of me?” That is the cry of the Christian who struggles with and sometimes seems overcome by sin and death. Finally, however, we say:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:1-4).

It is because of what Christ has done for us that we can move forward in conformity to Christ. Believers are no longer under the law of sin and death but under the “law of the Spirit of life.” Christ has liberated us from condemnation. The same righteous substitute has not only justified but he is sanctifying us. Is our sanctification perfect? No, not by a long shot but just as we trust Jesus for our justification and salvation so we trust him for our sanctification.

Next time: Sanctification and witness to our neighbor.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!

One comment

  1. A correspondent asked about Ursinus’ comment on this question. The first section are his prefatory comments to the third part of the catechism. The second section contains his comments in toto on Q. 86. I agree heartily with every word.

    Having now considered the misery of man, and his deliverance through Christ, the doctrine of gratitude or thankfulness is necessary,

    1. On account of the glory of God, inasmuch as the chief end of our redemption is thankfulness, which comprehends acknowledgement and praise for the benefits of Christ.

    2. On account of our consolation, which consists in our deliverance by the free grace of God. None now obtain this deliverance, but those who desire to show their gratitude to God.

    3. That we may render unto God such worship as is lawful, and acceptable. God disapproves of all worship which grounds itself in self-will. We must, therefore, show from the word of God, what is the nature of true thankfulness, which is the worship due to God.

    4. That we may know that all our good works are expressions of thankfulness, and have no merit in the sight of God.
    Thankfulness in general is a virtue acknowledging and professing the person from whom we have received benefits, as well as the greatness of the benefits themselves, with a desire to perform towards our benefactor such reciprocal duties as are becoming and possible. It includes truth and justice. Truth, because it acknowledges and makes mention of the benefits received: and justice, because it desires to return thanks equal to that which has been received.
    True Christian thankfulness, therefore, which is here taught, is an acknowledgement and profession of our gracious deliverance, through Christ, from sin and death, and a sincere desire to avoid sin, and every thing that might offend God, and to conform the life according to his will; to desire, expect, and receive all good things from God alone, by a true faith, and to render thanks for the benefits received.

    This thankfulness likewise consists of two parts—truth and justice. Truth acknowledges and professes the benefit of our free redemption, and renders thanks unto God for it. Justice offers unto God such a return as he requires from us, which is nothing else than a true worship of him, consisting of obedience and good works. The doctrine of prayer belongs to truth; whilst that of good works to justice. That in which both these things root and ground themselves, is the conversion of man to God: for the works of none but those who are regenerated, are good and pleasing to God. Hence we must, under this division of the Catechism, treat of man’s conversion to God, and of the law of God. There are, therefore, four principal Common Places which belong to this general division of thankfulness; Man’s conversion—good works—the Law of God, and prayer.

    The order and connection of these several parts may be thus explained. We have learned, from what has been said upon the two former general divisions of the Catechism, that we are redeemed from sin and death, that is, from all the evils of guilt and punishment by no merit of ours, but only by the mere grace of God for the sake of Christ’s merits. From this, it follows that we ought to be thankful to God for this great benefit. We cannot, however, show and approve ourselves thankful to God, except we are truly converted: for whatever is done by those who are unconverted, is done without faith, and is, therefore, sin and abomination in the sight of God. Hence, those things which are to be spoken concerning man’s conversion to God, are first in order. Then follows the subject of good works, since true conversion cannot be without them, and we in this way especially show our gratitude to God. Afterwards, there is subjoined the doctrine respecting the law of God, from which we learn what constitutes good works. Those now are in reality good works in which God is worshipped aright, and by which we declare our gratitude to him; which are done by faith, according to the command of God’s law, and with the design that we may honor and glorify God thereby. And seeing that God desires to be chiefly honored and praised by us, by invocation and prayer, it follows, lastly, that prayer is likewise necessary, in order that we may properly express our thankfulness to God.


    This Question, with respect to the moving causes of good works, is placed first, even before the Question relating to man’s conversion, not because good works precede conversion, but because the things which follow are in this way more strikingly connected with what precedes. Human reason argues in this way from the doctrine of free satisfaction: He is not bound to make satisfaction, for whom another has already satisfied. Christ has satisfied for us. Therefore, there is no need that we should perform good works. We reply, that there is more in the conclusion than in the premises. All that legitimately follows, is: Therefore, we ourselves are not bound to make satisfaction, which we grant, 1. In respect to the justice of (God, which does not demand a double payment. 2. In respect to our salvation, which, in other respects, would be no salvation. Yet we are, nevertheless, bound to render obedience, and perform good works, for the reasons which are referred to, and explained in the above Question of the Catechism:

    1. Because good works are the fruits of our regeneration by the Holy Spirit, which are always connected with our free justification. “Whom he called, them he also justified, and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” “Such were some of you; but ye are washed; but ye are sanctified; but ye are justified,” &c. (Rom. 8:30. 1 Cor. 6:11.) Those, therefore, who do not perform good works, show that they are neither regenerated by the Spirit of God, nor redeemed by the blood of Christ.

    2. That we may express our gratitude to God for the benefit of redemption. “Yield your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.” “That ye present your bodies, a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service,” &c. (Rom. 6:13; 12:1.)

    3. That God may be glorified by us. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” “That they may, by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.” (Matt. 5:16. 1 Pet. 2:12.)

    4. Because they are the fruits of faith—that by which our own faith, as well as the faith of others is judged of. “Give diligence, to make your calling and election sure;” after which certain copies add the words, by good works. “Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.” “Faith worketh by love.” “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” (2 Pet. 1:10. Matt. 7:17. Gal. 5:6, 22.)

    5. That we may bring others to Christ. “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” “Ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may, without the word, be won by the conversation of their wives.” “Let us follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.” (Luke 22:32. 1 Pet. 3:1. Rom. 14:19.) These causes, now, must be explained and urged with great diligence, in our sermons and exhortations to the people; and here we may cite, as being in point, the whole of the sixth chapter, and the first part of the eighth chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, down to the sixteenth verse.

    For a further explanation of the first cause, we may remark, that the benefit of justification is not given without regeneration:

    1. Because Christ has merited both; viz., the remission of sins, and the habitation of God within us by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, now, is never inactive, but is always efficacious, and so brings it to pass that those in whom he dwells are made conformable to God.

    2. Because the heart is purified by faith: for in all those to whom the merits of Christ are applied by faith, there is kindled the love of God, and a desire to do those things which are pleasing in his sight.

    3. Because God bestows the benefit of justification upon none, but such as render true gratitude. But no one ever renders true gratitude except those who receive the benefit of regeneration. Therefore, neither of these can be separated from the other.

    We must also observe the difference which exists between the first and second causes. The first shows what Christ effects in us by virtue of his death; whilst the second teaches to what we are bound in view of the benefits received.

    Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, G. W. Williard trans. (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 464–66.

Comments are closed.