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.
On Heidelberg Catechism 91
Above we considered the two catechisms Ursinus wrote in preparation for the drafting of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). We saw that, though he taught both the necessity and even inevitability of good works issuing from new life and true faith as fruit and evidence of salvation, he did not distinguish two stages of salvation (initial and final) nor did he teach that good works are the instrument of final salvation. He certainly taught nothing about an “initial justification” sola gratia, sola fide and continuing or maintaining justification through good works.
Nevertheless, Ursinus’ career did not end in 1562. After the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism he was assigned by the Elector Palatinate, Frederick III, with explaining and defending the catechism in a series of lectures. They were later published as the Body of Orthodox Doctrine or Explication of the Catechism. He addressed the question of good works at length in his lectures on Heidelberg 91, which is in the beginning of the third part of the catechism. Remember, the catechism is in three parts: Guilt (law), Grace (Gospel), and Sanctification or Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. The Heidelberg is a Protestant catechism, i.e., it distinguishes law and gospel and teaches justification and sanctification (salvation) sola gratia, sola fide. For Ursinus, becoming Reformed did not entail abandoning all he had learned from Melanchthon even if it did mean putting it in a somewhat different framework, namely the framework of the covenant of works made with Adam before the fall, in which Adam was under the law for glorification and the covenant of grace made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David after the fall in which believers are declared righteous and saved only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and received through faith alone.
According to the catechism, the first use of the law is to convict us of our sins and the gospel declares our righteousness and salvation from sin and wrath sola gratia, sola fide. Believers do good works out of thankfulness, in union with Christ, in communion with the saints.What are good works (bona opera)? Good works are such as are performed according to the law of God, such as proceed from a true faith, and are directed to the glory of God.”1
Ursinus was an Augustinian. He was a Calvinist. He accepted Augustine’s and Calvin’s reading of Romans 7 (as distinct from that of Pelagius, who knew that Paul could not have been describing a believer). He was realistic about the effects of the fall and the corruption of sin even in those who are in a state of grace (favor with God) for Christ’s sake alone:
The works of the saints are not perfectly good or pure in this life:
1. Because even those who are regenerated do many things which are evil, which are sins in themselves, on account of which they are guilty in the sight of God, and deserve to be cast into everlasting punishment. Thus, Peter denied Christ thrice; David committed adultery, slew Uriah, attempted to conceal his wickedness, numbered the children of Israel, &c. The law now declares, “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.” (Deut. 27:26.).
2. Because they omit doing many good things which they ought to do according to the law.
3. Because the good works which they perform are not so perfectly good and pure as the law requires; for they are always marred with defects, and polluted with sins. The perfect righteousness which the law requires is wanting, even in the best works of the saints. The reason of this is easily understood, inasmuch as faith, regeneration, and the love of God and our neighbor, from which good works proceed, continue imperfect in us in this life. As the cause is, therefore, imperfect, it is impossible that the effects which flow from this cause should be perfect. “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind.” (Rom. 7:23.) This is the reason why the works of the godly cannot stand in the judgment of God. “Enter not into judgment with thy servant; for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.” “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.” (Ps. 143:2. Deut. 27:26.) Inasmuch, therefore, as all our works are imperfect, it becomes us to acknowledge and lament our sinfulness and infirmity, and press forward so much the more towards perfection.
From what has now been said, it is evident that the figment, or conceit of the Monks in reference to works of supererogation—by which they understand such works as are done over and above what God and the law require from them, is full of impiety; for it makes God a debtor to man. Yea, it is a blasphemous doctrine; for Christ himself has said: “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; for we have done that which was our duty to do.” (Luke 17:10.)2
Our good works are, in themselves, so defiled by sin, that they are acceptable to God only because he has imputed to them Christ’s righteousness. To understand Ursinus on this point it is essential to grasp his Augustinian realism about sin. Ursinus was not a Methodist nor a Perfectionist of any sort. He wrote, “Yet they are, nevertheless, acceptable to God in Christ the Mediator, through faith, or on account of the merit and satisfaction of Christ imputed unto us by faith, and on account of his intercession with the Father in our behalf.”3 It was only by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that Abel’s works were accepted as righteous.4
As he turned to the necessity of good works he re-stated his exposition of Heidelberg 86 in two points. Good works are necessary first as “the proof of our faith and election” and second as “a good example by which others are won to Christ.”5 Since it is being claimed that Ursinus taught that good works are the instrument or part of the instrument of final salvation (as if he taught a two-stage salvation) let us observe that here, where he might have articulated such a view, he remained classically Protestant. In his elaboration Ursinus distinguished between the ways good works are owed to God, the ways we owe them to ourselves, third, the ways we owe them to our neighbors. Under the first heading he gave three reasons why good works are necessary:
- “In order that the glory of our heavenly Father might be illustrated or on account of the glory of God.”6
- “That we may present to God the obedience owed.”7
- “That we might be thankful to God or on account of the gratitude we owe to God.”8
Under the second heading, he discussed how our good works testify to our faith and contribute to our assurance. Ursinus taught the practical syllogism:
- believers do good works.
- By God’s grace I do good works out of gratitude
- Therefore I am a believer
Our good works are not the foundation (basis) of our standing with God nor the basis for our assurance. The gospel and the promises of Christ are the basis for our assurance but good works do help. As Belgic Confession (1561) art. 24, Ursinus appealed to the analogy of trees and fruit. How does one know that a tree is alive? It produces fruit. The fruit does not make the tree good but it gives proof that the tree is alive, that it is good. This is why faith is not “formed” (Rome) by good works but it is evidenced by it yet those good works never become the ground or instrument of our standing before God.9
He also appealed to what Calvin called the “twofold grace of God (duplex gratia Dei) and what his colleague Caspar Olevianus called the “double benefit of Christ” (duplex beneficium), namely that we have from God’s gracious hand both justification and sanctification. Good works give evidence that we have received this double benefit and thereby contributes to our assurance that we really are elect. Good works also exercise (exerceatur) our faith.10 When we do good works we “adorn” (ornemus) and “commend” (cohonestumus) our profession of faith. He quoted Ephesians 4:1.11 In passing (number 6 under this heading) he mentioned in passing, “that we might avoid temporal and eternal penalties.”12 As proof he quoted Matthew 7:19, ” Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The seventh reason we ought to do them for ourselves is that rewards graciously given might follow (consequamur; here the Willard translation creates a misleading impression) good works in this life and the life to come. He quoted 1 Timothy 4:8, godliness is profitable for this life and the life to come. “For unless God willed the hope of rewards and the fear of penalties to be impulsive causes of good works, he would not make use of these arguments in his promises and judgments.”12 A correspondent wrote recently to ask if, under this heading, Ursinus had put the believer back under the covenant of works. I think not. First, Ursinus was writing under the broader heading of the covenant of grace, not the covenant of works. Second, His use of Matthew 7 here links this passage to the earlier line of argument from fruit and evidence. Third, Ursinus assumed that reasonable people, enlightened by new life (regeneration) would fear God. Fourth, we do turn to God to be saved from the wrath to come. Fifth, there is such a thing as a holy, filial fear of God (Heb and of the consequences of sin. Such reverence is one of the reasons why believers do good works. It is an expression of our gratitude. As we interpret this passage we may not read it without remember all that he has already said about the role and function of good works.
These last two points are no more than the teaching of Hebrews 12:7–11:
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (ESV).
Perhaps our cultural setting and the influence of broad evangelical antinomianism makes it more difficult to appreciate this sort of teaching but it is biblical. Being disciplined by our heavenly Father does not mean that we are being put back under the covenant of works for our standing with God or that we are “in by grace” and “stay in by works.” It is believers that God chastises and corrects and believers ought to have a healthy respect for almighty God even as they love and adore him for saving them graciously from wrath and judgment.
Finally, under this head, he turned to how they relate to one’s neighbor.13 This section is brief. We do them in order to benefit our neighbor and to edify him. He quoted 2 Cor 4:15 and Philippians 1:24. We do do them so “that through us scandals might be avoided.” He quoted Matthew 18:7 and Romans 2:2414 The third reason (relative to our neighbor) that we do good works is that we might gain (lucrifaciamus) unbelievers (infideles) for Christ.15 He quoted Luke 22:32.
Here began to address directly the question whether (utrum) good works (bona opera) are neessary (necessaria) unto salvation (ad salutem) or whether they are “pernicious” (perniciosa) to the same.16 As mentioned in the first part of this essay, Ursinus was well aware of the controversies Melanchthon and the Protestants had experienced in the 1530s, 40s, and 50s over how to relate justification to sanctification and sanctification to good works and salvation. The view that they are “necessary” to salvation was proposed by John Major and the view that they are “pernicious” or injurious by Nicholas von Amsdorf. He criticized both ways of speaking as “ambiguous and scandalous,” i.e., vague and liable to give offense. He was particularly unhappy with von Amsdorf’s expression since it tends to diminish (damnare) trust (fiduciam) but also zeal for good works.17 Major’s thesis can be retained if it is understood properly. The marginal note in the 1616 edition says, “the degree to which good works are necessary.”18
They are necessary unto salvation not as cause to effect or as merit to reward but as part of salvation itself, as antecedent to consequent or as means to an end.19
Later Reformed theologians would describe good works as “constituitive” of salvation. This is what I call the “is” of good works. We are not saved because of good works. They never become the ground of salvation. We may be confident that “medium” does not mean “instrument” since he was elaborating on the expression “pars ipsius salutis.” This is the equivalent of the Westminster Divines saying “having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life” (WCF 16.2). Good works are the fruit of the “saving graces” (WCF 11.2). He continued to explain the relationship of good works to salvation by analogy with justification. Good works are necessary to salvation as they are necessary “unto righteousness” (ad iustitiam) or “unto justification” (ad iustificationem) or “in those being justified” (in iustificandis), i.e., as a consequence of justification (quam consequens iustificationis) since sanctification (regeneratio) is inseparably conjoined with justification.20 This was Calvin’s doctrine of the duplex gratia Dei (twofold grace of God) or Olevianus’ duplex beneficium. Justification gives rise to progressive sanctification and sanctification produces good works as fruit and evidence of salvation.21
At the top of the next page, however, he hastened to add “but I do not use this form of speaking” because it is ambiguous (which had already said) and because “it gives birth to contentions and give our adversaries opportunity for quibbling. 22 He also did not speak thus because this way of speaking is not found in Scripture. It is prudent (tutius) to say “good works are necessary in those being justified (iustificandis) and in those being saved” (salvandis). 23 Ursinus was unwilling to say things about salvation (the broader concept) that he could not say about justification (the narrower concept). It is “ambiguous” (ambigue) to talk about the necessity of good works in justification since such a way of speaking may be understood to make good works prior or antecedent to justification (ante iustificationem), which way of speaking would overturn the material cause of the Reformation. He was unequivocally and irrevocably committed to justification sola gratia, sola fide. Neither was he willing to say that good works are a “cause of justification” (causa iustificationis).24Rather, he wanted to follow Augustine: Good works do not precede (praecedunt) being justified but they follow the justified.25
From there he responded to the objection that good works are so essential to salvation that it is not possible to have salvation without them. In answer he reminded the reader of Heidelberg 87,
87. Can they then not be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life?
By no means, for, as the Scripture says, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the Kingdom of God.
Therefore, he concluded, “good works are necessary to salvation” but he insisted on a distinction. They are, as he had already said and now repeats, “pars salutis (part of salvation). They are antecedent to salvation (antecedens salutem) but they do not merit salvation. They are necessary “in those being saved” (in salvandis) but they do not merit or cause salvation.
In the contemporary debate over salvation prompted by the thesis of a prominent evangelical leader that there are two stages in salvation, the initial being justification sola gratia, sola fide and the putative “final” stage through “that fruit [of justification] and that faith” or that we good works are for “maintaining” our justification it has been claimed that this two-stage soteriology with good works as the instrument of final salvation is nothing more than one finds frequently in the Reformed tradition. It has been claimed that Ursinus taught this very thing or something like it.
To examine this claim we have surveyed his two early catechisms, the Summa and the Minor (1561 and 1562) and his lectures on the Body of Orthodox Doctrine, which he gave for about two decades until his death in 1583. In none of these texts have seen even the slightest hint of a “two-stage” soteriology nor have found him teaching that good works are instrumental in our salvation. We have found him teaching that good works are constituitive of salvation, that they are found in the saved, that they are fruit and evidence of salvation, that they glorify God, that they assure the believer, and edify the neighbor. We even found him teaching that they help the believer to avoid temporal and eternal penalties (chastisements) but we have seen no indication that he thought or taught his students that good works are instrumental in salvation and certainly not co-instrumental with faith in salvation.
1. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 476. Corpus doctrinae orthodoxae (Heidelberg, 1616), 470.
2. Commentary, 481.
3. Ibid., 482.
4. Ibid., p. 482.
5. Ibid., p. 482–83.
6. Corpus doctrinae, 476. My translation.
7. Corpus, 477.
9. Ibid., 478.
10. Ibid., 478.
13. Ursinus, Commentary, 484–85.
14. Corpus doctrinae, 478.
19. “quod sint necessaria ad salutem, non tanquam causa ad effectum, vel tanquam tum ad mercedem, sed tanquam pars ipsius salutis, vel tanqam antecedens ad consequens, vel tanquam medium, fine ad finem.” (Ibid).
21. See Cornelis Venema, Accepted and Renewed in Christ and R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ.
22. Ibid., 479.
25. Augustine, Ennaratio in Psalmum 110.3 (= English 111.3). Augustine of Hippo, “Expositions on the Book of Psalms,” in Saint Augustin: Expositions on the Book of Psalms, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 8, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 545.