The Heidelberg Catechism Confesses Salvation By Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone

1st Edition of the Heidelberg Catechism (credit: Jon Payne)

It has become fashionable among some who identify as confessionally Reformed and among so-called Reformedish (i.e., Baptists who identify with aspects of Reformed theology) types to claim that the Reformed doctrine of salvation hold that there two stages to salvation: initial and final. Further, they claim, Reformed doctrine is that our so-called initial salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) but that our alleged final salvation is through works. Salvation as used in this context includes our justification (the declaration of righteousness), sanctification (personal holiness), and glorification (complete conformity to the image of Christ). No one has been more vocal in making this claim than the Baptist theologian John Piper but he has allies within the P&R world echoing his claim but this claim has been refuted at length. See the resources linked below.

There Is A Mainstream Of Reformed Theology

One of the tactics used by the P&R advocates of this view is to emphasize the diversity of views held by Reformed theologians in the 16th and 17th centuries (hereafter the classical period of Reformed theology). Typically, we see them making appeals to theologians who were historically important but whose views were controversial in their own time (e.g., Amyrault, Davenant) and whose views were not adopted by the Reformed Churches. As a matter of history it is true that there were outliers and marginal figures but it is also true that those outliers do not define Reformed theology, piety, and practice. The Word of God as confessed by the churches in official ecclesiastical summaries define Reformed theology.

Catechisms Are Not Mere Systems

One of the mistakes made by those who kibitz in Reformed theology (i.e., the Reformedish and by the P&R advocates of final salvation by works) is that they confuse confessions and catechisms for mini-systematic theologies. These are two distinct kinds of documents. A system or a treatise published by an individual is just that. It does not define Reformed theology. An ecclesiastical confession or catechism has a different status. It is a churchly document. It has secondary but genuine authority. No one can be prosecuted in the assemblies of a confessional Reformed church for dissenting from Hodge’s Systematic Theology but one can be convicted for contradicting the Word of God as confessed in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, or the Canons of Dort.

The confessions of the church are not mere private opinions. They are ecclesiastical dogma. Contra Rome, that are corrigible, however. They are always subject to the Word of God. Indeed, in the classical period Protestants not only revised confessions, they wrote new ones regularly. One of the oddities of the Modern period has been the reluctance to do in our time what our forebears did in theirs: confess the faith anew in response to new challenges. I argued this case in Recovering the Reformed Confession. More recently Modern Reformation magazine invited me to re-state the case.

The Heidelberg Catechism

One of the foundational ecclesiastical documents in the Reformed tradition is the Heidelberg Catechism. It was published in 1563 by order of Frederick III, Elector Palatinate, in order to help consolidate what had been a turbulent religious situation in the Palatinate. Authored primarily by Zacharias Ursinus, who also lectured on it, the catechism synthesized much of theology, piety, and practice of the Reformation (and especially the Reformed reformation) that preceded it.

In the Heidelberger, the Reformed Church of the Palatinate confessed unambiguously the doctrine of salvation (as defined) by grace alone, through faith alone. They did so (as we do today), against those (Rome and the Anabaptists) who taught and confessed salvation by grace and cooperation with grace, a two-stage doctrine of salvation, or final salvation through works. The Reformed Churches saw that doctrine as a flat contradiction of the Word of God.

The catechism speaks explicitly to the doctrine of salvation right at the outset of the catechism. Our comfort is not only that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone but also that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone:

Q. 1. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

Were it true that there are two stages of salvation and that final salvation is through works, as some claim, the basis of our assurance is destroyed. How many works? Of what quality are necessary to qualify one to be finally saved? The proponents of final salvation through works bristle at this question. They say, “God works them in us.” Their response shows that they do not understand the Reformation. There were plenty of medieval theologians who taught that same thing and the Protestants rejected it too. Further, their response does not answer the question. It also ignores the reality of means and instruments. If our good works are the instrument of our final salvation and if I am not a stock and block (a calumny that the Reformed denied in just those terms), then my part in obedience is necessarily a part of the instrument of my salvation.

The Reformed Churches salvation is utterly the gift of God received through faith alone.

Q. 21. What is true faith?

A. True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Spirit works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, forgiveness of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

The advocates of final salvation through works necessarily corrupt the definition of faith by turning it into faithfulness. The Reformed Churches, however, do not do this. In our definition of faith, in salvation, true faith is knowing, assenting, and trusting (contra the followers of Gordon Clark et al, who omit trust from the definition of faith) not that God will produce in us, with our cooperation, sufficient good works of sufficient quality for final salvation but knowledge, assent, and trust that Christ has already accomplished our salvation and the Holy Spirit has freely given it to us with the gift of faith by which we receive it. In salvation, as in justification, faith is an empty hand. Good works are a consequence of true faith but they are not true faith. Good works are a necessary fruit and evidence of salvation but they are not the instrument of salvation. Faith is the only instrument of salvation.

Who Has A Bad Christology?

Some of the proponents of final salvation through good works complain that their opponents have a deficient Christology. I submit that to make good works the instrument of any stage of salvation (as if there were two stages) is the actual signal of a deficient Christology since it makes Christ but half a Savior. We say:

Q. 29. Why is the Son of God called “Jesus”, that is a Saviour?

A. Because he save us, and delivers us from our sins; and likewise, because we ought not to seek, neither can find salvation in any other.

We are not the Savior. Christ is the Savior. If our good works are instrumental in salvation, then we necessarily become saviors. The Reformed Churches explicitly reject this doctrine:

Q. 30. Do such then believe in Jesus the only Saviour, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?

A. They do not; for though they boast of him in words, yet in deeds they deny Jesus the only deliverer and Saviour; for one of these two things must be true, that either Jesus is not a complete Saviour; or that they, who by a true faith receive this Saviour, must find all things in him necessary to their salvation.

After all, we are not facing the doctrine of final salvation through works for the first time. This was the Roman doctrine. They defined (and continue to define) faith, in the doctrine of salvation, as “formed by love.” That means that our good works are constitutive of faith. Our good works are essential to faith, they make faith what it is. Rome explicitly rejects the Protestant doctrine that good works are the necessary fruit and evidence of salvation and only that. The proponents of final salvation through works agree with Rome on this point.

Q. 31. Why is he called “Christ,” that is anointed?

A. Because he is ordained of God the Father, and anointed with the Holy Spirit, to be our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption; and to be our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of his body, has redeemed us, and makes continual intercession with the Father for us; and also to be our eternal King, who governs us by his word and Spirit, and who defends and preserves us in that salvation, he has purchased for us.

Jesus is the anointed one. He is the Savior. We are the saved. There is a great difference between us and that is great comfort to those with true faith, who are resting in, leaning on, and trusting Jesus as Savior and Lord. He has announced God’s Word. He has accomplished redemption. By his Spirit he applies salvation. As King he preserves us to eternal life. We are prophets, priests, and kings, because we are in Christ, by his grace, united to him by the Spirit not because we contribute to our final salvation nor because our works are supposedly the instrument of final salvation.

God Uses Means To Administer Salvation Graciously

The Lord uses his people to administer salvation.

Q. 55. What do you understand by “the communion of saints”?

A. First, that all and every one, who believes, being members of Christ, are in common, partakers of him, and of all his riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.

God saves us into a communion of the saints. In that communion, in the visible church, he uses us to administer salvation to others. Our good works are not instruments of salvation but that does not mean that God the Spirit is not working through his visible church to confer salvation upon all of his elect. He is.

Salvation Is A Gracious Inheritance

The proponents of final salvation through works make our good works instrumental in obtaining eternal life. The Reformed Churches, however, confess that eternal life is a gracious inheritance earned for us by Jesus and freely given to needy sinners.

Q. 58. What comfort do you take from the article of “life everlasting”?

A. That since I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, after this life, I shall inherit perfect salvation, which “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man” to conceive, and that to praise God therein for ever.

We already experience some of the benefits of salvation. There is only one salvation. We have it now. We will experience it fully in eternal life. There is not a final test we must pass. It is not as if we get to court by grace but pass some final test through works. Salvation is a gift not a paycheck.

The Sacraments Show Us That Salvation Is A Gift

The Federal Visionists and others make the serious mistake of turning the sacraments into the things signified but we should not let that mistake drive us to make other mistakes in response.

The sacraments are objective words from God about what is true of all those who believe. One of those words is this: salvation is a free gift received through faith:

Q. 67. Are both word and sacraments, then, ordained and appointed for this end, that they may direct our faith to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, as the only ground of our [salvation]?

A. Yes, indeed: for the Holy Spirit teaches us in the gospel, and assures us by the sacraments, that the whole of our salvation depends upon that one sacrifice of Christ which he offered for us on the cross.

Our salvation does not depend upon our faithfulness. It depended upon Jesus’ faithfulness for us. It depends on the preserving grace of God and the sacraments testify that God is gracious and faithful and will not lose any of his elect.

Salvation Produces A Response

The proponents of final salvation through works do not understand that the structure of the Christian faith is threefold: guilt, grace, and gratitude. Indeed, some of them positively reject this notion as inadequate. Such a view would be understandable for Romanists and others but it is hard to understand why those who consider themselves Reformed would be dissatisfied.

As above, we should not react to the nomism of final salvation through works by turning to antinomianism (lawlessness). The Reformed Churches do not advocate lawlessness. Rather, we confess that salvation graciously given and freely received through faith alone produces genuine, heartfelt obedience to God’s holy law. Thus, under the 1st commandment we confess about salvation:

Q. 94. What does God enjoin in the first commandment?

A. That I, as sincerely as I desire the salvation of my own soul, avoid and flee from all idolatry, sorcery, soothsaying, superstition, invocation of saints, or any other creatures; and learn rightly to know the only true God; trust in him alone, with humility and patience submit to him; expect all good things from him only; love, fear, and glorify him with my whole heart; so that I renounce and forsake all creatures, rather than commit even the least thing contrary to his will.

Those who would be saved from the wrath to come must flee idolatry and they do but they are not saved because they flee nor are they saved through through fleeing. It is the case that believers flee idolatry. That fleeing is fruit and evidence of the salvation that we have been freely given through faith alone.

Praise God for his mercy and grace for saving us needy sinners by his favor earned for us by Jesus and given through the gift of faith, which itself is the gift of God.


  1. Resources On The Controversy Over “Final Salvation Through Works”
  2. Was There a Mainstream of Reformed Orthodoxy?

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  1. Dr. Clark, are you in agreement with Zacharius Ursinus’ comments on Heidelberg Catechism question 52 (re: “Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead”?)

    QUOTE: “The righteous and wicked will be judged according to the law and gospel, which means, that they will be declared righteous or wicked at the tribunal of Christ. The acquittal of the righteous will be principally according to the gospel, but will be confirmed by the law. The condemnation of the wicked, on the other hand, will be chiefly by the law, and confirmed by the gospel….

    Objection: But every one shall receive according to his works. Therefore sentence will not be passed according to the gospel; but only according to the law.

    Answer: It is true, indeed, that God will render even to the elect according to their works, not, however, because their works are meritorious, but because they are the effects of faith. They shall, therefore, receive according to their works, which are the effects of their faith, that is, they shall be judged according to their faith, which is the same thing as to be judged according to the gospel. The judgment now which Christ will execute will be rather according to the effects of faith, than according to faith; because he will have it manifest to all why he thus judges, in order that the wicked may not impugn his righteousness as though he bestowed eternal life unjustly upon the faithful. He will prove from the fruits of their faith, that it was a true faith which they possessed, and that they are the persons to whom eternal life is due according to the promise. He will, therefore, exhibit to the wicked the works of the righteous, and bring them forward as evidences for the purpose of convincing the ungodly that they have applied unto themselves the merits of Christ. God will also render to the faithful according to their works, that we may take comfort therefrom in this life, having the assurance that we shall be placed at his right hand.” (The Commentary of Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, pg. 263-264)

  2. Thank you for your reply.

    I interpret Ursinus’ words quoted above as affirming that Christ’s final judgment will eternally acquit and reward the elect of the basis of their faith and resultant obedience rather than faith alone. (“The judgment now which Christ will execute will be rather according to the effects of faith, than according to faith; because he will have it manifest to all why he thus judges”)

    What, in your understanding, is the difference between affirming this and affirming final salvation according to faith and works?

    • Benjamin,

      You’ve misunderstood Ursinus.

      1. He did not teach two-stage doctrine of salvation. He was a Protestant. It was the Romanists who taught a two-stage doctrine of salvation.
      2. He did teach the evidentiary necessity of good works, which is all he says in the passage you’re quoting.The function of good works is to vindicate the believer rather than to justify him before God. Christ earned our acquittal and our righteousness. That acquittal and righteousness is not provisional, to be replaced at the judgment by our good works. Our good works.
      3. See the explanation I posted. Ursinus was quite clear about this.

  3. Right. So you interpret Ursinus in the above quotation as saying that the elect will be acquitted and rewarded by Christ as Judge on the basis of faith alone apart from any works of the law?

    • Benjamin,

      According to Ursinus, the instrument of our salvation is faith alone. The legal basis is Christ’s righteousness alone. Good works have serve as evidence. He wrote:

      Objection 4. Faith does not justify without that which is required in those who are justified. Good works are required in those who are justified. Therefore, faith is not without good works, and so does not justify alone.

      Answer: There is here the same fallacy to which reference has just been made, on account of the doubtful construction of the particle without. Faith does not, indeed, justify without those things which are required in those who are justified. But although it never exists alone, and is always joined with love, by which it works, yet it alone justifies—is the act of embracing and applying to itself the merits of Christ. The minor also must be more fully explained; for faith and good works are not required in the same sense in those who are justified. Faith, with its own peculiar act, (without which it cannot be considered) is required as the necessary instrument, by which we apply to ourselves the merits of Christ. Good works, on the other hand, are not required that by them we may apprehend the merits of Christ, much less that we may be justified on account of them; but that we may thereby prove our faith, which without good works is dead, and can only be known by their presence.

      Good works are required as the fruits of our faith, and as the evidences of our gratitude to God. That is not always necessary for the accomplishment of a certain result, which is necessarily connected with the cause of the same thing. So good works, although they are necessarily connected with faith, are nevertheless not necessary for the apprehension of the merits of Christ.

      Did you read the essay I linked? Please do that and then we’ll talk.

  4. Thank you for linking to your essay. I have read it.

    My last question was not concerning how to summarize Ursinus’ overall teaching regarding justification by faith. Rather, I was asking about your interpretation of what he taught specifically in the passage I quoted.

    I am open to the possibility that the there is a way to harmonize the above quotation with his other writings on salvation. I am also open to the possibility that he is contradicting himself. But it seems clear to me that in this quotation he is teaching that the final judgment of the elect will be according to faith and works.

    • Benjamin,

      My essay doesn’t just summarize Ursinus. It works through particular texts. As I understand the job of the interpreter, it is to interpret one text in light of another. It also requires us to pay attention to particular texts, as I have done here. Your reading of this particular text at hand isn’t tenable.

  5. Of course, the difference between interpreting Paul and Ursinus is that the later is not inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore is capable of error and contradiction. I am not necessarily saying that this is the case here, but it is a logically possibility.

Comments are closed.