Did Ursinus Teach Final Salvation Through Faith And Works? (1)

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.

Part 2

Here is the entire essay.


  1. Look, Piper drives me nuts, but I’m not sure that this isn’t at bottom what he means.

    Not that our works gain us meritorious saving favor with God, but that by His grace they evince that saving favor at the judgement, thus displaying the transforming power of the gospel.

    I haven’t exhaustively studied the man, but has he said that anything in or from us us merits the love of the Father? Or it’s semantic equivalent? He may have, but I have yet to see it.

  2. Greg, Piper is unequivocal in insisting that we will all face judgment on the day of resurrection and the verdict will be based on the evidence of our works. See his book, Future Grace. For details see my second post on the last segment, Background on the Current Justification Controversy.

  3. Greg, I’m not sure how to understand your second paragraph, “they (works?) evince that saving favor at the judgment, thus displaying the transforming power of the gospel.” Are you saying that we are saved or judged righteous by faith in Christ, and because we have been transformed? Do you mean saving favor is due to the transformation revealed by our works? I don’t know how to square that with salvation by grace alone, through faith alone and in Christ alone because it almost seems like you are saying that we need the evidence of a transformed life before we will receive God’s favor for final salvation.

  4. One of the things that seems to be confusing for some people is the idea that good works provide evidence that a person is a Christian. Both Reformed teaching and covenant moralists like Piper and the FV agree that works are required as evidence of our profession of faith, but just how and when works function as evidence is where they disagree. The Reformed view is that only in this life do works function as evidence that our faith is real, to demonstrate to others and to assure ourselves that our faith is real. When we believe in Christ alone for our standing with God, God declares us righteous now and in eternity. There is therefore no judgment to retry Christians on the last day. Instead their trust in Christ alone will be vindicated as they are resurrected in glory. They were judged righteous when they put their trust in Christ alone. The judgment at the last day will be of those who failed to trust in Christ alone because they wanted to be right with God by their good deeds instead of trusting in Christ alone. The covenant moralists like Piper and the FV want the evidence of good works to function as proof before God, on the last day, to evaluate the person’s claim that they are a Christian. This seems to confuse some people who do not make the distinction. The Reformation teaching is that Christians do not face a second judgment. They had their judgment already, when they put their trust in Christ alone and they were declared righteous. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1 The teaching of Piper and the FV puts our salvation in suspense, depending on the evidence of good works for final judgment, so our justification in this life, even though it is by faith alone, must be confirmed by the evidence of works, on the last day. If that is true, we are ultimately saved by works.

    • The Good Book says that every man will die and then comes the judgement (Heb 9:27). No matter what a Clark, a Werner, a Piper end yes a Neveling says, that is what the Word says and that is what we ought to believe. Everyone will be judged but he who believed and trusted in the only Saviour, Jesus Christ, although he will be judged will not be condemned. He who took your sin, and mine, upon Himself, will not deny him who did not, in life, denied Him.

  5. Was the thief truly with Jesus in paradise that day as promised? Yes. Was he then just the fortunate one who never got the opportunity to un-deserve his salvation? No. The elect have the same promised outcome of eternal fellowship with Christ even if they live on (and inevitably sin) a 100 years.
    (PS. Nobody raise the antinomian diversionary bogey!)

  6. Dr. Neveling, would you say that adding works, as as a condition for final salvation, is a form of denying Christ? That is what is issue here. The medieval church had added works as necessary for salvation. The Reformers objected, as does Paul in Galatians, that to add anything to salvation by faith alone in Christ alone is to be fallen from grace. “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” Gal.3:11 Paul insists, that to add anythig to faith alone is to deny Christ. “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. To add anything to the gospel of salvation in Christ alone is another gospel and is no gospel at all. Gal.1: 6-9 By adding works as a condition, the covenant moralists, such as Piper and the FV, are denying that our hope is in Christ alone. They are denying the gospel and replacing it with another gospel that is no gospel at all.
    “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance unto the redemption of those who are God’s possession–to the praise of his glory. Eph. 1:13-14 There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Rom. 8:1

    • That would be it exactly. To depend on works, in any form, to depend on anything but the offertory work of Christ is to deny Him. I believe that with all my heart. We as sinful, fallen humans can do nothing to earn justification, salvation. Christ and the belief in Christ alone is our salvation. I have no argument with your belief in Christ and His vicarious work, I believe as you totally, but please do not condemn those who do not agree in everything you believe in. We can only believe according to the light given to us by God. Angela you and I are absolutely on the same hymnsheet, I would only beg you to be less harsh with those who have not yet seen the light in its fullest glory.

  7. Allan, the wages of sin is death, but Christ was resurrected to vindicate Him as being perfectly righteous. When Christians are resurrected in glory they are vindicated, just as Christ was because by His imputed righteousness, they are just as righteous as He is. They were judged and declared righteous when they trusted in Christ, they will not face a second judgment, but rather the declaration of their righteousness will be proved, vindicated by their resurrection. When we believed, we received the Holy Spirit who is our seal and deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession–to the praise of his glory. Eph. 1:13-14. In the Hebrews passage 9:27 the common destiny of man is to die and be judged because all have sinned and the wages of sin is death, but since the curse of sin has been born by Christ, and we are perfectly righteous by His imputed righteousness, Christ was judged and condemned in our place. That was the judgment of believers. Those who have rejected Christ are the ones who will be judged because they are still in their sins. That is what it says in the next verse, Heb. 9:28 “so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” Christ suffered the common curse and judgment of our sin, so it is fully paid for, and we have nothing to face at the resurrection but our complete vindication of being righteous in Him and with Him. Our guaranteed acceptance in Christ is so certain that it is as if we were already seated with Him in the heavenly realms. Eph. 2:4-10

  8. The State of Believers In the Judgment by Casper Olivanus
    First of all, the reason for His coming to judge is a comfort to believers. The main purpose of His coming is the glorification of the Church, That means that when sin and death have been fully abolished, and the enemies of the kingdom of Christ have been assigned to eternal punishment by a just judgment, and thus all the offended and obstacles that held back the glory of the sons of God have been removed, God can appear in His saints fully and perfectly glorious, without any hindrance. Eph. 5:27, ICor. 15:20-58. Christ makes this reason and purpose clear to us when He calls that the ” day of redemption.” Eph. 4:30
    Second, the very person of the judge removes all our fear. For the Father handed over all judgment to the Son, as the Son of Man so that He might calm our conciences and remove all terror of condemnation. John 5:22,27 This is because we believe now that He will be the Judge,and also because our eyes will gaze on Him in whose body our sins have been atoned for and the entire curse removed. Heb. 9:28, Titus 2:12-14
    Finally Christ’s commandment and promise deliver us from all dread. The commandment is found in Luke 21:28. The promise is found in John 3:18 “He who believes in the Son is not judged or condemned. Also John 5:24.; I Thess.4:14, 17; 5:9-10; John 17:22,24 Indeed let us consider that promise in I Cor. 6:2 ” Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” And vs. 3 “Do you not know that we shall judge angels?”

  9. Dr. Neveling, thank you for your wise words of admonishment. I agree that among my many failings is a tendancy to strongly criticize when I perceive the gospel to be under attack, even to the point of harshness. If this has unduly offended anyone, I am sorry.
    I rejoice over our common agreement, that our only ground of acceptance with God does not include our works of sanctification, but is found in Christ who lived the perfect life we cannot live, and died the perfect death we cannot live. We love Him who first loved us and gave us this great salvation. That is why, more than anything, we want to show our love by striving to obey His commands. When we fail, it hurts us deeply when we realize that we have failed in our desire to please Him. This is renewed reason to humble ourselves and confess our sins, in full confidence that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Thanks be to God!

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