A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism (Ames)

William Ames (1576-1633) plays several crucial roles in the transmission and development of Reformed Orthodoxy. As a student of William Perkins, he carried forward Perkins’ strong Reformed theology. At the same time, Ames ministered among leading theologians in the Netherlands, combining both British and Dutch Reformed Orthodoxy. His A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism, published somewhat posthumously from lectures he gave throughout his teaching ministry, provides the student with a handy resource for teaching and preaching with the Heidelberg Catechism in mind.

As with most commentaries and guides to the Heidelberg Catechism, Ames’ work is divided into 52 Lord’s Days.  Each “Lord’s Day” contains a statement of the proposition, several Lessons, under each of which are “reasons” and “uses.” Each use has admonitions and directions. To be sure, this is not a commentary on the Catechism. Although it is divided into 52 Lord’s Days, and it does follow the structure of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude, Ames alludes to rather than comments on the Catechism itself.

The Greatness of My Sin

From whence do I know my sin and misery? The law of God. And this law, Ames notes, is more than just a summary of the ten commandments. Law has a structure, indeed, a “common ground (ratio) and rules of operating. This rule and ground are prescribed for rational beings with the divine authority and the highest obligation” (Ames 12). This law, logically, binds man to a covenant of works, an “obligation that binds us to render the whole of obedience to God is infinite. Consequently, the transgression in which sinners violate this obligation is in some manner infinite, just as a privation of good is infinite” (24). This is why the covenant of works is binding upon sinners. Not only is it binding, it also shows that the sinner can never go beyond God’s demand for perfect justice (a point Ames will later make in response to Roman Catholicism).

Christ as Mediator

Following, if indirectly, comments by Olevianus on Christ’s mediatorial work, Ames draws our attention not simply to the person of Christ, but the person of Christ the mediator: “All the actions are the actions of His person, as their originator (principii) who performs the action, although they may come from either nature, as from the originator by whom or by whose strength they are elicited (34). Sometimes in unguarded speech, one might say “the human nature of Christ of Christ did this” or the “divine nature did that.” As Cyril of Alexandria taught us, the nature itself does not actually do anything. The person does. Ames agrees, and with Caspar Olevianus, highlights the person of Christ while pointing us to his threefold office.

Our Union with Christ

Regarding our salvation, Ames makes some comments on the nature of “will” that are different, at least on the surface, from earlier (and many later) writers. In terms of the ordo salutis and “the Golden Chaine,” Ames is in line with older writers.  In fact, his statement on justifying faith is as good as it gets: “The proper nature of faith is like a spiritual hand by which we embrace and receive the good that is necessary for our salvation (John 1:12). There, “believe” is explained by “receive,” so that it may show the gift of faith and its proper nature” (38).

On the other hand, he says something that does not seem to be in line with older writers.  He connects faith closely with choice in the following: “[faith is] the act of the will or heart that is properly called “choice” (electio), by which we lean back, settle into, or repose on Christ, clinging to Him as to a suitable and sufficient mediator” (40). Ames seems–and I admit I am not an Ames scholar–to say that this faith, earlier defined as resting and receiving, is now a choosing. Is that what Ames said? Maybe not. He goes on to say that faith is a disposition of the will that follows knowledge, and this is what the earlier tradition said.

That alleviates some of the difficulty. Ames has a rather simple reason for his position: faith cannot simply be reduced to the intellect.  It involves the will at some (though certainly not the whole) level. There must be some kind of transition between the intellect and faith, and Ames sees this in the will, and the will represents the whole person in action.

On Natural Theology Arguments

Ames, in line with the historic Reformed tradition, holds to natural theology and the classical arguments.  Also in line with the tradition is the limited (yet valid) place he gives them. Traditional arguments are good, but they should not eclipse the gospel. Ames notes, “Finally, every right line of reasoning testifies the same thing, because in every order of causes and beings or existing things, a common line of reasoning draws us to a first cause, and to one first being” (50). These remarks, moreover, allow Ames to use traditional terminology to explain difficult issues in freedom, necessity, and contingency. For example, “God is the cause of things by His counsel and highest wisdom. It is not from the necessity of nature, nor from chance or any other constraint (coactione) (55).

Why must God uphold all things by the word of his power?  One reason, and a reason not often mentioned in the literature, is the mutability of things.  Matter is not evil, but neither is it self-sufficient. Providence is necessary, therefore, because “the contingent things that are changeable and liable to accidents (casibus)” (58).

An Early Pactum Salutis?

The earliest official recording of a Reformed use of the pactum salutis, the intratrinitarian covenant, is David Dickson’s sermon to Parliament in the mid-seventeenth century.  Elements of it can be found earlier, to be sure.  Ames appears to give us one such example.  He writes, “This was the covenant initiated (pactum initum) between the Father and Christ: if He should offer this obedience for us, then, since we have been liberated from disobedience and death, we would live in Him” (Isa 53:10) (82).  He does not use the exact terminology, but the concept seems to be the same.


And in following the outline of the Catechism, Ames gives the reader excellent discussions on good works, the sacraments, and the Lord’s Prayer.  Ames is worth our study, not merely for edification, but also to see a mutual interaction between English and Continental Reformed streams.

© Jacob Aitken. All Rights Reserved.


Ames, William. A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism, ed. R. Scott Clark, trans. Todd M. Rester, vol. 1, Classic Reformed Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008.


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Posted by Jacob Aitken | Thursday, June 1, 2023 | Categorized in Heidelstuff. Jacob Aitken. Bookmark the permalink.

About Jacob Aitken

Jacob Aitken teaches junior high English in Monroe, LA. He is an elder-elect in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. He studied at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS and earned his M.A. at Louisiana College.