A Q&A with the Heidelberg Catechism

Zacharias Ursinus, the chief architect of the Heidelberg Catechism, in the introduction of his commentary on the aforementioned, asked, “What is the doctrine of the church?” The doctrine of the church is the law and gospel, “the law and gospel are the chief and general divisions of the holy scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein.”1 With the Apostle Paul, he calls the law our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.2 He calls the gospel the person and work of Christ. For Ursinus, the law prescribes, instructs, and forbids, whereas the gospel promises, forgives, and makes us the righteousness of Christ. He says the law is conditional (i.e., perfect obedience), whereas the gospel is by faith alone in Christ alone.3 Lastly, each has its own manner of revelation—the law is known from nature, and the gospel is divinely revealed. It is as if we can know God by two means. It is as if he has written two beautiful books that read as two eschatological realities: one condemnation, and the other condemnation no more.

Ursinus divided his catechism by these two words, “The catechism in its primary and most general sense…may be divided as the doctrine of the church, into the law and gospel.” The doctrine of the church is the law and the gospel. The Heidelberg Catechism is law and gospel.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could interview Ursinus?

“Doctor Ursinus, some claim that the law-gospel distinction wrongly narrows the gospel to the person and work of Christ alone. They would claim that the gospel includes Christian fidelity to the law. What say you?”

While Ursinus, cannot answer, his Catechism can. So on Reformation Day, I sat down to interview The Heidelberg Catechism. What follows is a condensed version of that interview. Heidelberg was quite verbose and so I’ve shortened the conversation for this blog post. I went right for the doctrine of the church:

Is the law-gospel distinction Reformed?

HC, who didn’t seem to mind me calling him HC, answered, “We have been delivered from our misery by grace through Christ without any merit of our own. Christ has redeemed us by his blood and is also renewing us by his Spirit into his image (Q86).”

So you believe that we are justified and sanctified by the gospel?

HC didn’t bat an eye, “Only those who are saved through true faith are ingrafted into Christ and receive all his benefits (20).”

But where does this faith come from? Is it law or gospel?

HC quite fiercely stated, “The Holy Spirit works faith into our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel (65).”

But what about the law?

He said, “God himself first revealed the gospel in paradise, and afterward proclaimed it by the holy patriarchs and prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law and finally fulfilled it through his own beloved Son (19).”

So you’re saying all I need for justification is Christ?

HC responded with a smile, “You are righteous in Christ before God and heir to life everlasting (59).” I said quickly, “What about fidelity?” HC was quicker still, “Only by true faith in Jesus Christ (60).”

What about raising my family, running my business, serving my country, investing my money, and so many other matters?

HC said, “You are righteous before God without any merit of your own (86). That even though your conscience accuses you of having grievously sinned against all God’s commandments of never having kept any of them, and of still being inclined toward all evil, nevertheless out of sheer grace God grants and credits to you the perfect satisfaction, righteous, and holiness of Christ as if you have never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if you had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for you (60).”

What about the command to obey the gospel?

HC shot back, “The kingdom of heaven is opened by proclaiming and publicly declaring to all believers, each and every one, that, as often as they accept the gospel promise in true faith, God, because of Christ’s merit, truly forgives all their sin (84).” HC is clearly protestant. He wholeheartedly holds to the solas of the Reformation.

That brought such comfort, but I had to continue down this road, “Where’s the law?”

HC said, “The law shows us our sins and misery (2, 3). Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22:37-40 (4).”

So we keep the law for salvation?

HC said, “No, we are inclined by nature to hate God and our neighbor (5).” We then talked at length about the Covenant of Works, which HC affirmed in the positive. HC based it on the imago dei. HC was adamant that we cannot keep the Covenant of Works insisting that we “actually increase our debt every day (13).” HC is so sure that “God’s well-beloved Son” had to pay for our sins because “a sinner never could (16).” HC then said that he also had to be truly God “to restore to us righteousness and life (17).” HC’s confidence in the gospel is found in “God himself who first revealed this gospel in paradise (19).” His gospel is Trinitarian, not humanitarian.

So, if I’m hearing you right, you believe the law and gospel are at odds when it comes to our justification?

HC said, “The righteousness which can pass God’s judgment must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law. But even our best works in this life are all imperfect and stained with sin (62).”

So our fidelity merits nothing before a holy God?

HC said in the context of talking about good works “the reward is not merited. It is a gift of grace (63).” He was confident that our good works merit nothing in this life or in the life to come.

How should Christians then live? Can we do whatever we want?

HC was just as quick to say, “No, it’s impossible for those grafted into Christ by true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.”

You’ve clearly explained the first use of the law, are you now saying you agree with the third use of the law?

HC said, “Good works are those which are done out of true faith, conform to God’s law, and are done for his glory (91). But he was quick to add again, “The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the gospel (21).” HC never gets away from the gospel. He believes it alone is the power of God unto salvation.

So the Christian life is a life of gratitude for what Christ alone has done?

HC then said in his preacher’s voice, “Christ is my only comfort, body and soul, in life and in death.” We then continued to talk about this life of gratitude, where he assured me that “even the holiest in this life have only small beginnings of obedience (114).”

Why do you spend so much time on the Ten Commandments as gratitude?

HC answered, “That we more and more come to know our sinful nature and thus more early seek the forgiveness of sins and righteousness of Christ (115).”

By the end of the conversation, I was more thoroughly convinced that the Reformed indeed make a strong distinction between the law and the gospel. I then interviewed the Belgic and Dort, who reminded me that I need to know the proper distinctions between the history of salvation and the order of salvation to know the church’s doctrine well. The conversation continued and, by the end of it, I was sure that if you confuse the law and gospel, you will only have a miserable life, body and soul, in life and in death. So I left the interview resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified for “only Jesus Christ’s blood and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sins (72) and make us wholeheartedly from now on to live for him (1).”

©Jared Beaird. All Rights Reserved.

Notes

  1. Zacharias Ursinus and G. W. Williard, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 2.
  2. Ibid., 3. “Christ is the substance and ground of the entire Scriptures. But the doctrine contained in the law and gospel is necessary to lead us to a knowledge of Christ and his benefits: for the law is our schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ, constraining us to fly to him, and showing us what that righteousness is, which he has wrought out, and now offers unto us. But the gospel, professedly, treats of the person, office, and benefits of Christ. Therefore, we have, in the law and gospel, the whole of the Scriptures, comprehending the doctrine revealed from heaven for our salvation.”
  3. Ibid., 3.
  4. Ibid., 13–20.

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