Ursinus: The Holy Spirit Uses The Word To Create Faith And The Sacraments To Confirm Faith

The Word is that through which the Holy Spirit commences and confirms faith in us, and for this reason, should go before the sacraments. The sacraments are means through which the Holy Spirit confirms faith already called into exercise, and for this reason ought to follow the Word. The reason of this difference is that the sacraments do not exert any influence unless they be understood. There is no desire for that which is unknown. There must, therefore, necessarily be some explanation of the sacraments out of the Word before they are observed. The case is different, however, in regard to the infants of the church: for in them the Holy Spirit neither begins, nor confirms faith by means of the Word; but by an inward working; and that because they are also included in the covenant and promise of God, being born in the Church.

Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Commentary, 352 (on Heidelberg 67)


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. I agree 100%. The word of the gospel confers faith and the sacraments confirm it. The Reformed are unique among Protestants as they set themselves apart from evangelicals who see the sacraments as bare tokens and the Lutherans who see them as always conferring faith. Lutherans teache the word and sacraments both confirm and confer faith and salvation.
    Solid Declaration 3.16.

    16 This righteousness is offered us by the Holy Ghost through the Gospel AND IN the Sacraments, and is applied, appropriated, and received through faith, whence believers have reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sins, the grace of God, sonship, and heirship of eternal life.

    Lutheranism in practice teach the sacraments also confer faith. They technically teach it is the word of the gospel attached to the sacraments the Holy Spirit uses that gives faith, and it gives faith always to all who hear the gospel or receive baptism. Adults can resist the Spirit’s work and not believe, but infants do not present an obstacle and receive faith and are saved by grace alone through faith alone. So for Lutheran’s baptism does not merely confirm but confers faith.

    Luther in Smalcald on Repentance
    Repentance and remission of sins must be preached in My name among all nations.

    7 But whenever the Law alone, without the Gospel being added exercises this its office there is [nothing else than] death and hell, and man must despair, like Saul and Judas; as St. Paul, Rom. 7:10, says: Through sin the Law killeth.

    8 On the other hand, the Gospel brings consolation and remission not only in one way, but through the word AND SACRAMENTS, and the like, as we shall hear afterward in order that [thus] there is with the Lord plenteous redemption, as Ps. 130:7 says against the dreadful captivity of sin.

    We will now return to the Gospel, which not merely in one way gives us counsel and aid against sin; for God is superabundantly rich [and liberal] in His grace [and goodness]. First, through the spoken Word by which the forgiveness of sins is preached [He commands to be preached] in the whole world; which is the peculiar office of the Gospel. SECONDLY, through Baptism. Thirdly, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourthly, through the power of the keys, and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, Matt. 18:20 Where two or three are gathered together, etc.

    Luther saw baptism as the promise of the gospel attached to the water to wash away sins
    Article V: Of Baptism

    1 Baptism is nothing else than the Word of God in the water, commanded by His institution, or, as Paul says, a washing in the Word; as also Augustine says: Let the Word come to the element, and it becomes a Sacrament.

    2 And for this reason we do not hold with Thomas and the monastic preachers [or Dominicans] who forget the Word (God’s institution) and say that God has imparted to the water a spiritual power, which through the water washes away sin.

    3 Nor [do we agree] with Scotus and the Barefooted monks [Minorites or Franciscan monks], who teach that, by the assistance of the divine will, Baptism washes away sins, and that this ablution occurs only through the will of God, and by no means through the Word or water.

    4 Of the baptism of children we hold that children ought to be baptized. For they belong to the promised redemption made through Christ, and the Church should administer it [Baptism and the announcement of that promise] to them.

    Melancthon sees Baptism as conferring faith and salvation
    Article IX. Of Baptism
    ConfessionConfutationApology [Defense]
    1 Of Baptism they teach that it is necessary

    2 to salvation, and that through Baptism is offered the grace of God, and that children are to be baptized who, being offered to God through Baptism are received into God’s grace.

    3 They condemn the Anabaptists, who reject the baptism of children, and say that children are saved without Baptism

    It seems there is a large difference between Reformed and Lutheran on whether sacraments only confirm or also confer faith and salvation. WCF implies it can but only to whom the grace belongs to, ie the elect. But because of that it cannot be declared that all infants baptized have faith and the Spirit like the Lutherans declare.

  2. Lutherans give baptism in order to regenerate, but on HC 74 Ursinus teaches that, even before baptism, our infants have regeneration and an inclination to faith (by the grace of the covenant and Holy Spirit), and that is one reason to baptize them. (Question: Does HC 74 itself require holding these views of Ursinus?)

    “We also deny the minor proposition [namely, “infants do not believe]; for infants do believe after their manner, or according to the condition of their age; they have an inclination to faith. Faith is in infants potentially and by inclination, although not actually as
    in adults. For, as infants born of ungodly parents who are without the
    church, have no actual wickedness, but only an inclination thereto, so
    those who are born of godly parents have no actual holiness, but only an
    inclination to it; not according to nature, but according to the grace of the
    covenant. And still further: infants have the Holy Ghost, and are
    regenerated by him, John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Ghost, even
    from his mother’s womb, and Jeremiah is said to have been sanctified
    before he came out of the womb. (Luke 1:15. Jer. 1:5.) If infants now have
    the Holy Ghost, he certainly works in them regeneration, good
    inclinations, new desires, and such other things as are necessary for their
    salvation, or he at least supplies them with every thing that is requisite
    for their baptism, according to the declaration of Peter, ‘Can any man
    forbid water to them who have received the Holy Ghost as well as we.’ ” (on Heidelberg 74)

    • That commentary isnt part of the Reformed standards and isnt required to be Reformed. I like WFC 28.6 on this topic.

      “The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.”

      As far as the commentary on HC 74 I think there is a lot of wriggle room in the word “inclination.” It is clear in scripture infants and young children can have faith in God. Jesus rebuked the disciples and warned of offending the brephe which believe in him. Does it mean all children have faith in Christ? We are not baptists who will only baptize if one already has faith. Circumcision before and baptism now is for believers and their seed. The best course is to baptize babies based upon the gospel promise of the covenant. When you believe you will be buried and raised with Christ and your sins will be washed away as the waters of baptism washed your body. We dont baptize because we beilieve our infant is inclined to or has faith or the Spirit already, nor do we baptize believing our children will be saved in the rite.
      Back to the post though, it’s clear the Reformed are distinct from the Roman Catholic and Lutheran views of baptism, both, though with important differences, teaching it saves. Reformed are correct teaching faith alone in Christ alone saves. From Gen to the cross faith alone in Christ saves. The gospel beforehand was preached to Abraham. He believed and was justified. Circumcision did not save him, or deliver faith to his infants. Baptism is not a new requirement. This faith comes via the word of the gospel and is confirmed in the sacraments.

  3. Great post. I can attest to the personal value of the sacraments and the preaching of the Word. I have become homebound and have not worshipped with the saints for 15 months. It leaves a huge hollow space, inwardly. Nothing like absence to make the heart grow fonder.

  4. Mike, thank you for pointing out that Ursinus’s commentary is not a confessional standard. I myself would not say that all children of believers have regeneration and inclination by reason of the covenant. However, to my knowledge, no Reformed church has condemned this view as unacceptable.

    Ursinus wants to defend infant baptism as a different case from the usual order, “faith in the gospel first, then reception of the sacrament.”

    WCF 28:6 itself affirms that God’s appointed time to make baptism efficacious could be while some are still infants–before they can consciously believe. I read this efficacy for those infants chiefly in terms of regeneration, not in the immediate exercise of faith and repentance. However, as regenerate, they are raised with Christ and forgiven, before conscious faith. The “right use of this ordinance” for them comes later, although that responsibility pertains also to their parents and the church.

  5. THIRD AND FOURTH HEAD: ARTICLE 17. As the almighty operation of God whereby He brings forth and supports this our natural life does not exclude but requires the use of means by which God, of His infinite mercy and goodness, has chosen to exert His influence, so also the aforementioned supernatural operation of God by which we are regenerated in no wise excludes or subverts the use of the gospel, which the most wise God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration and food of the soul. Wherefore, as the apostles and the teachers who succeeded them piously instructed the people concerning this grace of God, to His glory and to the abasement of all pride, and in the meantime, however, neglected not to keep them, by the holy admonitions of the gospel, under the influence of the Word, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline; so even now it should be far from those who give or receive instruction in the Church to presume to tempt God by separating what He of His good pleasure has most intimately joined together. For grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more clearly this favor of God, working in us, usually manifests itself, and the more directly His work is advanced; to whom alone all the glory, both for the means and for their saving fruit and efficacy, is forever due. Amen.

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