What The Heidelberg Liturgy Teaches Us About Grace, Faith, And Sanctification

Heidelberg old town churchThe medievals had a saying: the law of praying is the law of believing (lex orandi, lex credendi). By it they meant to say that what we do in worship affects our theology. If you want to change the theology of the future change the liturgy today. Church history bears witness to the truth of this maxim. Today we were looking at Athanasius’ little treatise on the Psalter in which he commends the singing of psalms for, among other things, public worship. We also looked at the language of the 1563 Heidelberg liturgy and particularly the confession of sin and the absolution (declaration of pardon). As we considered them I was struck by their relevance to the current discussions over sanctification.

Heavenly Father, eternal and merciful God; we acknowledge and confess before your divine Majesty that we are poor miserable sinners, conceived and born in sin and corruption, prone to all evil, and unfit for any good. By our sinful life, we have continually transgressed your holy commandments, provoked your wrath against us and incurred your just judgment to eternal death.

But, O Lord, we repent in sorrow that we have thus offended you, we condemn our iniquities, and ourselves and implore you mercifully to help us in our wretchedness and misery.

Have mercy upon us, therefore, 0 most gracious God and Father, and pardon all our sins, for the sake of the holy suffering of your dear Son; Jesus Christ our Lord. And condescend to grant to us, henceforth, the grace of your Holy Spirit, that He may teach: us heartily to know our unrighteousness, and make us so to abhor ourselves, that sin may be slain in us, and we may arise to newness of life. Thus shall we produce the perfect fruits of holiness and righteousness with which, for Christ’s sake, You are well pleased.

This is the confession of sin made by the minister on behalf of the congregation and the subsequent prayer for forgiveness (pardon). The old Reformed made no pretense of achieving perfection in this life. The confession of sin is as bracing in its honesty as it is in its brevity. It does not go on at length but it makes illustrates the theology of Heidelberg 60 when he says, “I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil….” Even in a state of grace, in though we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit we remain corrupt in all our faculties, desires, and actions. This is the lament of the Christian in Romans 7. We are not what we would be. We are not what we should be. We are not what we shall be.

These are also the words of a penitent believer. To be penitent is to be recognizing and confessing one’s sin. Our penitence does not make our faith true but it is a necessary concomitant of true faith. New life produces genuine recognition of sin and sorrow for it. This is at the heart of Reformed piety. We come humbly before God, only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed, as sinners, asking for grad and mercy in humility.

Notice, however, how the prayer shifts in the last paragraph. We ask God to stoop down, as it were, to grant his Holy Spirit, that he might teach us to see our sins, to help us to turn away from them with all our heart, that he might put sin to death in us and that we might arise in new life. This is the teaching of Heidelberg 88–90: mortification and vivification, being put to death and being made alive. Just as we were made alive initially by the Holy Spirit (who raised Christ from the dead) so it is now, daily. We need the Spirit to put the old man to death in us and to make alive in us the new. This comes by God’s grace, through faith. In that grace, we pray with the expectation that God will use our prayers to accomplish these ends. Our good works, however, are not the instruments of our sanctification. The Spirit is the one who sanctifies us and he operates by grace, through faith alone. In this regard, the key clause is this: “Thus shall we produce the perfect fruits of holiness and righteousness….” holiness, righteousness, and we might add, good works are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in us. The grace of the Spirit is not received through works but through the gift of faith.

The liturgy features a clear expression of the distinction between law and gospel. The good news appears in the absolution or the declaration of pardon. The minister says to the congregation:

…Thus says our Lord Jesus Christ, – John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that all who would believe in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life.’ To as many of you therefore, Beloved Brothers, as abhor yourselves and your sins, and believe that you are fully pardoned through the merits of Jesus Christ, and resolve daily more to abstain from them and to serve the Lord in true holiness and righteousness, I declare, according to the command of God, that they are released in heaven from all their sins, (as He has promised in His gospel), through the perfect satisfaction of the most holy passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The liturgy, however, does not end with the gospel. There is also a declaration of judgment upon the impenitent, i.e., those who refuse to turn from their sin and who will not trust Christ:

But as there may be some among you, who continue to find pleasure in your sin and shame, or who persist in sin against their conscience, I declare to such, by the command of God, that the wrath and judgment of God abides upon them, and that all their sins are retained in heaven, and final that they can never be delivered from eternal damnation, unless they repent.

This is the liturgical reflection of Heidelberg 87. The impenitent will not be saved. We are not saved because we repent. It is the case that believers repent. Those who refuse to acknowledge their sin and misery and to turn to Christ show that, whatever their profession of Christian faith, are not actually believers because true believers acknowledge their sins and turn away from them.

It is not that the impenitent can never be saved but they will not be saved so long as they are impenitent. The key difference between the penitent and the impenitent is not good works. It is Spirit-wrought new life and Spirit-wrought true faith in Christ. There is an order to the Reformed confession of the faith. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life. He gives new life to his elect, and with new life he gives faith, and through faith he creates a mystical union between the believer and the risen Christ and out of that new life, true faith, and union come the fruits of sanctity and good works. That order is reflected not only in our confessional documents but also in our liturgical materials. The law of praying is the law of believing but what we confess also colors and is reflected in our corporate worship.

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One comment

  1. Excellent prayer. It was also included as the first confession in Knox’s Book of Common Order, (Scotland) I have slightly modernised in editing:

    “Heavenly Father, merciful and everlasting God, we acknowledge and confess before your Divine Majesty that we are poor miserable [pitiable] sinners, conceived and brought forth in sin and corruption. We are prone to all evil. We cannot, without you, do anything that is good. And we daily, and in many ways, transgress your holy commandments. In doing so we provoke your anger against us, and draw down upon ourselves, by your just judgment, death and destruction.

    But, O Lord, we repent and are sorry from our hearts that we have so displeased you. We condemn ourselves and our misbehaviour, and pray that your grace may bring help to our distress and misery.

    Be pleased, therefore, to have mercy upon us, O most gracious God and Father. Forgive us all our sins, through the holy sufferings of your dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Forgive us our sins; and grant us now the gifts of your Holy Spirit. Increase these in us from day to day ; so that we, acknowledging with our whole hearts our own unrighteousness, may truly repent of such; that sin may be destroyed in us ; and that we may bring forth the fruits of righteousness and a pure life which are well pleasing to you, through Jesus Christ. Amen.”

    I also share your thoughts on the absolution of sin and the word to the impenitent.


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