Union With Christ in the Heidelberg Catechism


Are all men, then, saved by Christ as they have perished in Adam?

No; only such as by true faith are engrafted into Him, and receive all His benefits. (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 20)

There has been much debate in Reformed Christendom over the last few decades over the nature of our Union with Christ, especially as it relates to the ordo and historia salutis. I have no intention here to rehearse the debate, nor even to definitively pick a side, especially given the overlap and fuzziness of the multiple positions. It would appear, in brief, that the most exercised combatants in this debate are either those who style themselves defenders of Justification by Faith alone contra those who would have vital, mystical, or existential Union with Christ as the source of faith, justification, and regeneration (the supposed error of Norman Shepherd), and those on the other hand who see themselves as defending the central role of Union with Christ against those who would reduce Christianity to a religion of Justification by Faith, with multiple Christ Unions accounting for the various benefits of salvation, each following upon the other in tidy Reformed ordo fashion (the supposed “Lutheran” position).

In this post and the next, it is rather my intention to simply see where my Confessions stand on the topic of Union with Christ, especially the Heidelberg Catechism, which has the most to say about it. In particular, Q/A 20 (above) speaks to the issue in a straightforward manner. So, in this present post, I intend to break down each phrase of the answer, fleshing out the intended meaning by looking to the rest of the Catechism and consulting the writing of its author(s), Zacharias Ursinus and (possibly) Caspar Olevianus. Most attention will be payed to Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (CHC), an invaluable window into the mind of the Catechism’s primary author.

In the following post I intend to take the same approach, but toward Heidelberg Q/A 53, to discuss the agency of the Holy Spirit in Union, with specific attention to the ordo salutis and the doctrine of Regeneration as used by the Heidelberg Catechism and its author(s).

“as they have perished in Adam”

In Questions 3 through 19, the Catechism has demonstrated that all of mankind is in a state of sin and misery, having fallen in Adam, and that the only possible redeemer must be one who is both true God and true and sinless man.  This perfect God/man mediator is our Lord Jesus Christ.  So, the question arises, is every man then saved in Christ as they have perished in Adam? Ursinus and Olevianus here see a parallel between the guilt and corruption accrued to mankind through our “first parents” and the solution to both the guilt and the corruption that is found in Christ. Ursinus writes,

[…]by the death of Christ, who is the second Adam, we obtain a twofold grace: we mean justification and regeneration. It follows, therefore, that we must all have derived from the first Adam the twofold evil of guilt and corruption of nature, otherwise there had been no necessity for a twofold grace and remedy. (CHC, pp. 99-100)

And Olevianus,

I believe that whatever is and is called sin—whether it be original sin in the form of that transgression in Adam’s loins and the consequent corruption that I carry around in the flesh, or actual sin in the form of the wicked thoughts, words, and deeds that arise out of original sin—I believe, I say, that through faith, by which I am and remain engrafted into Christ, all of that is forgiven me by the gracious goodness of God. (An Exposition of the Apostles Creed, pp. 133-134)

Throughout the Catechism, and throughout Reformed thought in general, the twofold evil of (1) guilt, by which we are condemned and under the wrath of God upon our very entrance into the world, and (2) the corruption which we all inherit from our first parents, leading to all forms of actual sin in our personal thoughts, words and deeds, are paralleled and answered by the twofold grace and double benefit found in Christ; viz. Justification, answering to (1), and Regeneration, answering to (2). These are the “benefits” found in Christ.

“all His benefits”

Together with this twofold grace found in Christ, the Catechism speaks of various other “benefits,” “treasures,” and “gifts.” In Q/A 36 we see the “benefit” of Christ’s holy conception being His ability, as mediator, to cover our sins with His own innocence and holiness; in Q/A 43 we see the “benefit” of His sacrifice to include the crucifixion of our Old Man; in Q/A 45, we are told that the “benefit” of the resurrection of Christ includes not only our justification, but also the resurrection of the New Man within us; and the “benefit” of His ascension includes His intercessory advocacy, the sure pledge of our flesh in heaven, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

In his Commentary on the article of the Creed “the communion of saints,” Ursinus defines communion as a “participation in all the benefits of Christ,” listing these several benefits as follows:

The same reconciliation, redemption, justification, sanctification, life and salvation, belong to all the saints by and for the sake of Christ. They have in common all the benefits which are necessary for their salvation.

But, just as the fall in Adam includes primarily and summarily the twofold evil of both condemnation and corruption of nature, so the benefits to be found in Christ are likewise primarily and summarily twofold, Justification and Regeneration.

He is our righteousness, that is, our justifier. Our righteousness is in him, as in the subject; and he himself gives this unto us by his merit and efficacy. He is our sanctification, that is, sanctifier; because he regenerates us, and sanctifies us through the Holy Spirit. (CHC, p. 193)

These two benefits summarize the whole of the various benefits found in Christ. Likewise, after discussing the many effects of Justifying Faith, Ursinus summarizes the whole of these effects as follows:

In a word, the effects of faith are justification, and regeneration which is begun in this life, and will be perfected in the life to come. (CHC, p. 224)

Furthermore, Justification and Regeneration are inseparable benefits according to the authors of the Catechism. We read,

[…]we are not to imagine that we can have remission of sins without regeneration; for no one that is not regenerated can obtain remission of sins. […]The desire to obey God can never be separated from an application of the death of Christ, nor can the benefit of regeneration be experienced without that of justification. All those that are justified are also regenerated, and all those that are regenerated are justified. (CHC, pp. 419-420)

[…]the benefit of justification is not given without regeneration: […] God bestows the benefit of justification upon none, but such as render true gratitude. But no one ever renders true gratitude except those who receive the benefit of regeneration. Therefore, neither of these can be separated from the other. (CHC, p. 829)

Justification and regeneration are benefits which are connected and knit together in such a way as never to be separated from each other. Christ obtained both for us at the same time, viz.: the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit, who through faith excites in us the desire of good works and new obedience. (CHC, p. 857)

Justification or the remission of sin is not sufficient without regeneration, and a new life. (CHC, p. 437)

Just as there is a twofold evil of guilt and corruption of nature received from Adam, so there is a twin benefit found in Christ, Justification and Regeneration, inseparable and summing up the whole of the benefits received in Christ.

“engrafted into Him”

In Q/A 20, we are told that all the above benefits are received by Union with Christ, that is, only those who are Engrafted in Christ receive the Justification and Regeneration that answers to the guilt and corruption found in Adam. William Ames, commenting on Heidelberg Q/A 20 in his A Sketch of the Christian Catechism, is perfectly explicit:

The first Adam neither received nor lost righteousness and life, except for those who were in some way (that is, virtually) in him and who afterwards descended by that act, or who are in the union of his blood. So, too, the second Adam, Christ, does not restore righteousness and salvation except to those who are engrafted in Him and cling to Him by union of His Spirit. It is from this source that effectual calling brings about this application of Christ or this conjunction with Christ. This union precedes not only glorification and our salvation, but even justification and all solid consolation that we have from salvation. (pp. 37-38)

Not only is this Union with and Engrafting into Christ the means of receiving the twofold benefit, but Ames states that it even “precedes” Justification.

This theme, that all the benefits of Christ are received by Union with Him, is littered throughout the Catechism and especially throughout Ursinus’ Commentary.  Beginning with the very first question of the Catechism, wherein we see that our only comfort in life and in death is that we belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, Ursinus comments,

The substance of this comfort consists in this, that we are ingrafted into Christ by faith, that through him we are reconciled to, and beloved of God, that thus he may care for and save us eternally. (CHC, p. 60)

He defines the Gospel, commenting on Q/A 19, as follows:

[W]e may, in accordance with the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth questions of the Catechism, define the gospel to be the doctrine which God revealed first in Paradise, and afterwards published by the Patriarchs and Prophets, which he was pleased to represent by the shadows of sacrifices, and the other ceremonies of the law, and which he has accomplished by his only begotten Son; teaching that the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; which is to say that he is a perfect Mediator, satisfying for the sins of the human race, restoring righteousness and eternal life to all those who by a true faith are engrafted into him, and embrace his benefits. (CHC, pp. 204-205)

Commenting on Q/A 32, “But why are you called a Christian?”, he writes:

The reasons of this are two: because we are members of Christ by faith, and are made partakers of his anointing; that is, we are called Christians, because we have communicated unto us the person, office and dignity of Christ. To be a member of Christ is to be engrafted into him, and to be united to him by the same Holy Spirit dwelling in him and in us, and by this Spirit to be made a possessor of such righteousness and life as is in Christ; and to be made acceptable to God on account of the righteousness of Christ imputed unto us by faith, in as much as this righteousness is imperfect in this life. Of this our communion with Christ, the following passages of Scripture speak. “We being many are one body in Christ.” “Know you not that your bodies are the members of Christ.” “He that is joined to the Lord is one Spirit.” “We may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.” (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 6:15; 12:12; Eph. 4:15) (CHC, p. 334)

Of particular interest to current debates over Union and atonement, Ursinus answers the claim that substitutionary atonement is unjust since “the innocent ought not to suffer for the guilty: for justice demands the punishment of the offender.”  In response, he argues that such a substitute can be a satisfier if he (1) is willing, (2) can make sufficient ransom, (3) can recover from the suffering, (4) can guard the ransomed from future offenses, and (5) is “of the same nature with those for whom satisfaction is made.” Ursinus spells out the fifth point as follows:

If such a satisfier as this can be substituted in the place of the offending, there is nothing in it that is contrary to the order of divine justice: for thus, both he who suffers, and those for whom it is endured, are saved. Christ, now, is such a satisfier; for He has accomplished all these things, and is not only a man of the same nature with us, but we are also members of his. And it is on account of this, our union with Christ our Head, that his punishment is truly ours, and that the Apostles every where teach, that we all suffered, and died in Christ: for when the body is afflicted, all the members suffer with it. (CHC, pp. 398-399)

Christ can justly offer satisfaction for the sins of others because He is of like nature with them, and because He is so united with them that His punishment is truly theirs, and that by this Union, when He suffered, they suffered, and when He died, they died. There is no “legal fiction” because of personal, vital, existential Union with Christ.

Ursinus is clear:

[U]nless we are engrafted into Christ, we do not please God, who will receive us into his favor, and grant unto us the remission of our sins, only upon the condition, that we are engrafted into Christ and united to him by that faith, which the Holy Spirit works in us. (CHC, p. 740)

To be sure, though the benefits of Justification and Regeneration are granted by Union with Christ, there is nevertheless an order in the reception of such benefits, both logical and experiential. Caspar Olevianus, while arguing that the free forgiveness of sins can never become a reason to continue in sin, writes the following:

For those of us who are truly engrafted into Christ through faith begin to possess—in addition to that benefit of forgiveness with which the image of Satan is covered—another benefit at the same time: the restoration of the image of God, which consist in the dying away of the old self and coming to life of the spirit (Rom. 6). Both of these benefits are graciously given to us by the Father because of Christ. When the Father engrafts us into Christ by the Holy Spirit, He first covers our sins by the imputation of the perfect obedience and satisfaction of Christ. Then, by that same Spirit, He initiates in us that new obedience, which is a sure testimony of our incorporation into Christ and, therefore, of the forgiveness of our sins (Rom. 8[:1]). (An Exposition of the Apostles Creed, pp. 134-135)

Upon Union with Christ, our sins are forgiven and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, then begins the restoration of the image of God, the old self dying away as we embark upon new life in the Spirit. Upon Union with Christ, both of these benefits are conferred by God “at the same time,” but Justification is definitive while Regeneration is begun and continues as the believer grows in obedience. Olevianus points to both Romans 8:1:

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.

and Romans 6:

Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. (vv. 1-6)

Both benefits are “in Christ”, both by Union with Him, but one benefit follows upon the other. (We will discuss this in more detail in our next post as we consider the agency of the Holy Spirit effecting this Union via Heidelberg Q/A 53.)

“by true faith”

The final phrase we will consider from Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 20 is “by true faith.” Faith is the instrument of this Engrafting into Christ, viz., the instrumental cause of this Union. In nearly every passage quoted above, from the Catechism itself or its authors and commentators, Union is said to be by faith. According to Ursinus, it is through faith that we have “our entire conversion to God, justification, regeneration and salvation; for through faith we receive Christ, with all his benefits (CHC, 210-211).” In fact, we can just as well say of faith what we have said of Union: it is the means by which we receive all of the benefits of Christ, for it is the instrument of Union itself.

Q/A 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism—the question immediately following the question under consideration in this post—tells us that by faith we receive “forgiveness of sins” and “everlasting righteousness and salvation”, all “given by God, merely of grace, for the sake of Christ’s merits.” Ursinus explicates in his Commentary:

WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF FAITH? The effects of justifying faith are, 1. Our justification before God. 2. Joy and delight in God, with peace of conscience. “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God.” (Rom. 5:1) 3. Conversion, regeneration, and universal obedience. “Purifying their hearts by faith.” (Acts 15:9) 4. The consequences which belong to the effects of faith, such as an increase of temporal and spiritual gifts, and the reception of these gifts by faith. The first effect, therefore, of justifying faith, is our justification. After this has once taken place, all the other benefits which follow faith are made over unto us, which benefits, we believe, are given unto us by faith, inasmuch as faith is the cause of them. For that which is the cause of a cause, is also the cause of the effect. If faith be, therefore, the last cause of our justification, it is likewise the cause of those things which follow our justification. “Your faith has made you whole.” (Luke 8:48) In a word, the effects of faith are justification, and regeneration which is begun in this life, and will be perfected in the life to come. (Rom. 3:28; 10:10; Acts 13:39) (CHC, p. 224)

We see here that the same benefits that flow from Union with Christ flow from and are effected by faith, the instrument of Union.  Further, we see the same order of benefits maintained as we saw above with Union, Justification then progressive Regeneration.  It can be said with propriety, I believe, that faith is the instrument of Justification and Regeneration, and Union the mechanism, for faith simply apprehends Christ through that Union with Him whereby all His benefits flow to the believer.  Article 22 of the Belgic Confession of Faith is helpful here:

[W]e justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from the deeds of the law (Rom. 3:28). However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.

Faith embraces Christ and is the instrument of “communion” with Him, whereby we receive all His benefits, including the acquittal of sins and the imputation of righteousness.

Final Note

It is important to note, before we close, that this Engrafting into Christ by faith, by which we receive all His benefits by faith, is a personal, vital, mystical, existential Union.  We will have much more to say on this in the next post, but it must be pointed out here that the only Union contemplated in the Catechism and by its commentators has been vital Engrafting Union throughout. It cannot be a so called “Federal Union” that exists between Christ and His members prior to regeneration, for it is always and everywhere stated to be a Union by true faith.

To believe, too, in Christ dwelling in us by faith, is to be engrafted by the power of the Holy Spirit into his body, as members to the head, and branches to the vine, and so to be made partakers of the benefits of the life and death of Christ. (CHC, p. 771)

Further, the language throughout is that of “engrafting”; this is a personal and vital Union that begins in time. Ursinus and Olevianus consistently explain Engrafting and Union as either the vital union of bodily members with the Head, or as the connection of branches to the life-giving Vine. E.g.,

[C]ommunion with the person of Christ is the foundation of communion in his benefits, according to what is said: “I am the vine; you are the branches.” “Abide in me, and I in you.” “As the branch cannot hear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can you, except you abide in me.” “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body.” “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ he is none of his.” “He that is joined unto the Lord is one Spirit.” “Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.” (John 15:4, 5; 1 Cor. 12:13; Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 6:17; 1 John 4:13) (CHC, pp. 549-550)

Also, as in the verses just quoted by Ursinus, this Union or Engrafting is everywhere and always ascribed to the agency of the Holy Spirit dwelling in both Christ and His members:

To be a member of Christ is to be engrafted into him, and to be united to him by the same Holy Spirit dwelling in him and in us, and by this Spirit to be made a possessor of such righteousness and life as is in Christ; and to be made acceptable to God on account of the righteousness of Christ imputed unto us by faith, in as much as this righteousness is imperfect in this life. (CHC, p. 334)

And as quoted before,

[W]e are quickened by the body and blood of Christ when we are united to him by the same Spirit, who works the same things in us, which he does in Christ; for unless we are engrafted into Christ, we do not please God, who will receive us into his favor, and grant unto us the remission of our sins, only upon the condition, that we are engrafted into Christ and united to him by that faith, which the Holy Spirit works in us. (CHC, p. 740)

Finally, we have already shown that the same Union (or Engrafting) that brings the benefit of Justification is also the Union (or Engrafting) that brings the twin and inseparable benefit of Regeneration.  One cannot split apart the Union that confers the benefits any more than one can separate the double benefit that flows from this single Union. Remember from Olevianus, both benefits are conferred at “the same time” and are of the same Union, but in order; the Father first forgiving sins and imputing righteousness by this Union, and then beginning a new obedience in the believer by this same Union.

Simply peruse again the many passages quoted above, and if there yet remains any question as to the singularity and identity of the one Engrafting Union that confers all benefits, I promise we will have plenty of data to further justify its vital, mystical, and existential nature in our next post on Q/A 53. A foretaste:

What do you believe concerning the “Holy Spirit”?

First, that He is co-eternal God with the Father and the Son. Second, that He is also given unto me: by true faith makes me a partaker of Christ and all His benefits, comforts me, and shall abide with me forever.

One thought on “Union With Christ in the Heidelberg Catechism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s