Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) was the principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). He was responsible for perhaps as much as 70% of the catechism, though the two source documents that he created, from which much of the catechism was formed, drew from many sources (including Luther), so the source criticism of the catechism is challenging. For more on the background of the catechism see Lyle Bierma et al ed., An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology (2005) and J. I. Good, Good, The Heidelberg Catechism in Its Newest Light ( Philadelphia, PA: Publication and Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1914).
Ursinus was from Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) and studied in Wittenberg with the great Protestant scholar Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) for several years before finally siding with the Reformed just after Melanchthon’s death. Frederick III (1515–76), the elector Palatinate, called him to teach theology in the University in Heidelberg and in the seminary, the Collegium Sapientiae (the College of Wisdom). So, Ursinus had deep roots in the Protestant Reformation. Melanchthon had been involved in controversies over how to relate good works to salvation. There had been those (e.g., John Major in the early 1550s) who had tried out formulae to the effect that the believer enters salvation by grace but retains it by good works. Melanchthon, who had battled the Antinomians (e.g., Johannes Agricola) decades earlier in the 1520s, had toyed with such language but ultimately rejected it. He had no interest in corrupting the doctrine of justification and sanctification (salvation) by sola gratia, sola fide. The question of the relation between good works was, then, “in the air,” when Ursinus reached Heidelberg.
Ursinus’ Catechisms Before The Heidelberg
In his larger catechism (Q. 46), also known as the Summa Theologiae, which he wrote in preparation for drafting the official catechism of the Palatinate (Heidelberg), he taught salvation as the product of grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide):
46 Q What does it mean to believe in God?
A It means to be firmly convinced that this one true God who has revealed himself in the church is Lord of all creatures so that with the highest right he is able to do with them whatever he wishes, and yet he so desires our good that we ought to expect from him everything that pertains to our salvation.
Of course one sees here the lineaments of what will become Heidelberg 21. Note that the question pertains to faith and that the instrument of salvation is not good works but faith. One sees the same doctrine in his Catechismus Minor (from the same period) Q. 17. He repeated this doctrine in Summa Q. 49 in the very same terms. Salvation is through faith alone. Under Christology (e.g., Summa 45), in both catechisms, he taught that Christ is the Savior, that Christ accomplished our salvation for us. Nowhere are we said to be co-Saviors, cooperating sufficiently with grace unto salvation. Of course, Ursinus knew nothing and taught nothing of a two-stage salvation wherein we are said to be initially justified sola gratia, sola fide but only finally saved through faith and works. In his Minor Q. 51, (as in Heidelberg 64) free salvation does not make the believer careless about sanctification and good works.
A No. Rather, it kindles in me an even stronger desire to continue and advance in piety, since, without true conversion to God, I cannot take comfort in the confidence of my election. And the more certain I am of my salvation, the more I want to show God that I am thankful.
In Q. 90, obeying the fifth commandment (to honor parents and superior authorities) is said to “serve our salvation.” Q. 195 in the Summa echoes this doctrine. In Q 219 he addressed the problem of assurance.
Q But since no one is saved except those whom God from eternity has chosen for salvation, how can you be convinced that the promise of grace belongs to you when you don’t know whether you are elect?
A Because by true faith I accept the grace of God offered to me, and by that most certain proof I know that I have been chosen and will always be kept by God for eternal life. For if he had not chosen me from eternity, he would never have given me the Spirit of adoption.
We note two things: the absence of any mention of good works and his immediate turn to the unique function of faith. “By true faith” (language later to be adopted repeatedly in the Heidelberg) “I accept the grace of God offered…”.
In Summa 233 and in Minor 98 prayer, like good works, is said to “serve” our salvation but it is not made an instrument. In Summa 264 the ministry of the church is said to work toward the “perfecting” of our salvation. Clearly here, Ursinus was thinking of our progressive sanctification graciously wrought and aided by the due use of the ordained means of grace.
In Summa 267 he explained the relationship between the ministry of the church and the sanctification of the Christian. Notice the instrument of salvation.
267 Q Isn’t the Holy Spirit’s honor taken awaywhen sanctification is attributed to the ministry?
A No, it is not. For the strength and power by which we are sanctified is all from the divine Spirit; the ministry is simply his instrument. By it he moves the hearts and souls of the elect whenever and however he sees fit; not because he could not do otherwise, but because it pleased divine wisdom, through the foolish preaching of the cross, to save those who believe.
God the Spirit uses means and instruments. The ministry of Word and sacrament is a divinely instituted instrument of sanctification. Notice, however, what is the instrument of salvation: faith. God saves believers. Had Ursinus intended to teach salvation through faith and works, he should have written, “to save those who believe and obey” but he did not because, for Ursinus, faith was the alone instrument of salvation.
In Summa 269 he gave his students a diagnostic test to determine whether the ministers were preaching God’s Word faithfully:
269 Q And how can we be sure that the Word of God is being proclaimed by ministers?
A If they proclaim the teaching written in the books of the Old and New Testaments, and if what they say conforms to the articles of faith and the commands of God; in short, if they teach us to seek our complete salvation
in Christ alone.
Again, Ursinus wrote nothing about the instrumental role of good works. Studying God’s Word privately, he wrote, is “necessary for your salvation” (Q. 270). The force of this language, however, does not seem to be instrumental. It was analogous to that in 281 where he wrote about the use of the sacraments in the Christian life:
A Those who do not make use of the sacraments, when it is possible, show that they have no faith
and exclude themselves from the communion of saints and God’s covenant. Nevertheless the promise made to believers is valid for those deprived of the sacraments against their will.
Those who refuse the sacraments “show” that they do not believe. Here he was thinking of fruit and evidence and not of instruments (see also Minor Q. 55). This is the same language he used in Summa 123 where he wrote that being a member in the visible church is “necessary for all who will be saved.” Membership is not instrumental but it is necessary. Unlike some in the contemporary debates, Ursinus regularly distinguished between is, with, and through.
In Minor 19 he made it clear that not only is Christ the only Savior but it is those who believe who are saved:
19 Q Why do you call him “Jesus” meaning
A Because I am firmly persuaded that he alone by his merit and power is the author of perfect and eternal salvation for me and all who believe in him.
Had Ursinus wanted us to think that good works were co-instrumental in our salvation it is odd that he missed his opportunity to say so here. So too in Summa 135 where Jesus was said to be the Savior only of believers. Faith is always and only the instrument of salvation. In this connection Minor 52 speaks only of the instrumentality of faith in salvation.
Rather, consistently good works were said to be the result of salvation as in Summa 160:
160 Q Why does he call himself our God who brought Israel out of Egypt?
A First, so that we may be reminded that this alone is the true God who revealed himself from the beginning in the church by his sure Word and clear divine testimonies. Second, so that, considering that we are saved and set free from all evil by him, we may realize that we owe him thanks and obedience.
God is the Savior and believers are the saved. We respond with good works out of heartfelt gratitude. He taught this explicitly in Summa 214:
214 Q Since we are not made right with God by this obedience, why does he require it?
A First, so that we might give our thanks to him who has freely justified and saved us. Second, so that even in our reconciliation it will still be clear that God is an enemy of sin, since he receives in grace only those who repent.
For Ursinus, in his catechisms, salvation is a free gift, offered graciously and received through the sole instrument of faith. Works are the said to be the by product of true faith, to act as evidence of salvation given and received but there are nowhere said to function as co-instruments with faith nor is salvation ever structured in two stages, initial and final.