Salvation Sola Fide: Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism


This post is a continuation of “Part 3” of the series below, assessing the tradition with respect to John Piper and his defenders:

Rachel Miller Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper: Part 1

Rachel Miller Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper: Part 2, “Salvation”

Rachel Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper: Part 3, Beginning at the End: The Marrow Men

Salvation Sola Fide: Martin Luther and the Fruits of Faith

Salvation Sola Fide: John Calvin and the Causes of Salvation

Salvation Sola Fide: Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism

I our first post in this series, “Rachel Miller Contra Mundum? The 5 Solas and John Piper,” we showed from the Heidelberg Catechism and its principal (or sole) author, Zacharias Ursinus, that the instrumental cause of the whole of Salvation is faith. We read the following from the Catechism:

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

A: No; only such as by true faith are engrafted into Him, and receive all His benefits.

We discussed that these “benefits” are the two-fold grace of Justification and Regeneration/Sanctification/Glorification, the first answering to our guilt in Adam and the second to our corruption inherited in Adam. As the Catechism says, we receive both of these benefits by Union with Christ through faith.  And as Ursinus comments,

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). (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 224)

Salvation, broadly considered, is by or through faith alone, because faith alone apprehends the whole Christ, the material cause, as the lone instrumental cause. As Ursinus writes elsewhere, “faith is the cause of all the other virtues” (CHC, p. 75). And because all of the benefits are by this Union through faith—including Regeneration to Glorification—it is “impossible” for one with true faith to not produce good works:

64: But does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?

A: No, for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.

1) Since faith alone is the instrumental cause of Salvation, including Justification, Regeneration, Sanctification, and Glorification in Christ, then why must we do good works? The Catechism answers:

86: Since, then, we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we do good works?

A: Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, renews us also by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and that He may be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof, and by our godly walk may win others also to Christ.

It is important to note that not one of the reasons given in the Catechism have to do with an accounting at the Last Judgement, Future Salvation, or anything of the sort. None of them have to do with so called “Double Justification” or even securing the Privilege of Salvation in addition to the Right. In fact, Ursinus spends several pages on the reasons and motivations for doing good works, and none of the above are even mentioned.

2) Are good works necessary?

The Catechism asks,

87: Can they, then, not be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life?

A: By no means: for, as the Scripture saith, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

So, good works are necessary for salvation? Ursinus comments:

The question, whether good works are necessary to salvation, belongs properly to this place. There have been some who have maintained simply and positively, that good works are necessary to salvation, while others, again, have held that they are pernicious and injurious to salvation. Both forms of speech are ambiguous and inappropriate, especially the latter; because it seems not only to condemn confidence, but also the desire of performing good works. It is, therefore, to be rejected. The former expression must be explained in this way; that good works are necessary to salvation, not as a cause to an effect, or as if they merited a reward, but as a part of salvation itself, or as an antecedent to a consequent, or as a means without which we cannot obtain the end. In the same way we may also say, that good works are necessary to righteousness or justification, or in them that are to be justified, viz.: as a consequence of justification, with which regeneration is inseparably connected.

But yet we would prefer not to use these forms of speech, 1. Because they are ambiguous. 2. Because they breed contentions, and give our enemies room for caviling. 3. Because these expressions are not used in the Scriptures with which our forms of speech should conform as nearly as possible.

We may more safely and correctly say, That good works are necessary in them that are justified, and that are to be saved. To say that good works are necessary in them that are to be justified, is to speak ambiguously, because it may be so understood as if they were required before justification, and so become a cause of our justification. Augustine has correctly said: “Good works do not precede them that are to be justified, but follow them that are justified.”

We may, therefore, easily return an answer to the following objection: that is necessary to salvation without which no one can be saved. But no one who is destitute of good works can be saved, as it is said in the 87th Question. Therefore, good works are necessary to salvation.

We reply to the major proposition, by making the following distinction: that without which no one can be saved is necessary to salvation, viz.: as a part of salvation, or as a certain antecedent necessary to salvation, in which sense we admit the conclusion; but not as a cause, or as a merit of salvation. We, therefore, grant the conclusion of the major proposition if understood in the sense in which we have just explained it. For good works are necessary to salvation, or, to speak more properly, in them that are to be saved (for it is better thus to speak for the sake of avoiding ambiguity) as a part of salvation itself; or, as an antecedent of salvation, but not as a cause or merit of salvation. (CHC, pp. 859-860)

Here the question of the necessity of works is faced head on. Just like with Calvin, good works are “part of salvation” itself, not a cause of Salvation, instrumental or otherwise. Good works are fruits of Justification by faith. The already saved man has works as “antecedents” in the necessary order of God’s bringing him to glory. As we’ve said before, “God ordains the means as well as the ends.” This is true of both Justification and Salvation, broadly considered. Even though God uses ordained means to Justification, we don’t therefore deny Justification is by Faith Alone. And though God uses ordained means in Effectual Calling, we do not therefore deny it is Sola Gratia. So with Salvation.

The Final Salvation of the justified is certain. Part of that Salvation itself is good works. In Calvin’s words, “Those whom in mercy he has destined for the inheritance of eternal life, he, in his ordinary administration, introduces to the possession of it by means of good works” (Institutes 3.14.21). Therefore it is dangerous, according to Ursinus, to say that good works are necessary for Salvation. It is better to say that good works are necessary to the Saved.

3) What about the Last Judgement? Are works to be accounted unto Salvation? Is Final Salvation by (or through) “faith and fruits”?

The righteous and wicked will be judged according to the law and gospel, which means, that they will be declared righteous or wicked at the tribunal of Christ. The acquittal of the righteous will be principally according to the gospel, but will be confirmed by the law. The condemnation of the wicked, on the other hand, will be chiefly by the law, and confirmed by the gospel. Sentence will be passed upon the wicked according to their own merits; but upon the righteous according to the merits of Christ applied to them by faith, the truth of which will then be made manifest by their works which shall be brought to light. The righteous themselves will then also confess that their reward not of merit, but of grace in that which they shall be heard to say: “When did we see you hungry and fed you? or thirsty and gave you drink?” (Matt. 25:37) We are by nature all subject to the wrath of God. Yet we shall by him be pronounced blessed, not, indeed, in Adam, but in Christ, the blessed seed. It is for this reason that sentence shall be passed upon the righteous according to the gospel.

The righteous will be judged according to the merits of Christ applied to them by faith.  The genuineness of their faith will be made publicly manifest by display of their works. Ursinus elaborates in response to the objection below:

Objection: But every one shall receive according to his works. Therefore sentence will not be passed according to the gospel; but only according to the law.

Answer: It is true, indeed, that God will render even to the elect according to their works, not, however, because their works are meritorious, but because they are the effects of faith. They shall, therefore, receive according to their works, which are the effects of their faith, that is, they shall be judged according to their faith, which is the same thing as to be judged according to the gospel. The judgment now which Christ will execute will be rather according to the effects of faith, than according to faith; because he will have it manifest to all why he thus judges, in order that the wicked may not impugn his righteousness as though he bestowed eternal life unjustly upon the faithful. He will prove from the fruits of their faith, that it was a true faith which they possessed, and that they are the persons to whom eternal life is due according to the promise. He will, therefore, exhibit to the wicked the works of the righteous, and bring them forward as evidences for the purpose of convincing the ungodly that they have applied unto themselves the merits of Christ. God will also render to the faithful according to their works, that we may take comfort therefrom in this life, having the assurance that we shall be placed at his right hand. (CHC, pp. 481-482)

We see here that God will judge the righteous by their faith. Works will be brought forward as fruits of faith to display to all, including the wicked, the justness of His judgement. Though God sees the heart and knows to whom He has bestowed saving faith, the quality of this faith will be publicly shown through its effects. Only God sees the heart. Ursinus further summarizes,

There will be a separation between the righteous and the wicked, and a sentence passed upon each. The sentence which will be passed upon the wicked will be principally, as we have before shown, according to the law, yet in such a way as to be approved of by the gospel; while that which will be passed upon the righteous will be chiefly according to the gospel, yet so as to be sanctioned by the law. The righteous will, therefore, hear their sentence out of the Gospel, according as they have apprehended the merits of Christ by faith, of which faith their works will testify. “Come, you blessed, inherit the kingdom prepared for,” etc. (Matt. 25:34). (CHC, p. 486)

To be sure, the righteous will be judged by the merits of Christ on the Last Day, with works to testify. And we thereby have that confidence and comfort described in the Catechism:

52: What comfort is it to you, that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

A: That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head, I look for the selfsame One, who has before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God and removed from me all curse, to come again as Judge from heaven; who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me, with all His chosen ones, to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.

4) But doesn’t the Apostle James argue that there is also a Justification by works before God; or that one will be Justified for Final Salvation by works as well as faith?

James says, (2:24) “You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” Therefore faith only does not justify. Answer: There is here a double ambiguity. In the first place, the apostle James does not speak of that righteousness by which we are justified before God, or on account of which God regards us as just; but of that righteousness by which we are justified before men by our works. That this is so, is clear from the following considerations. In verse 18, he says, “Show me your faith without your works.” Show me, he says, who am a man. He, therefore, speaks of the manifestation of faith and righteousness in the sight of men. In verse 21, he says, “Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works, when he had offered his son upon the altar.” This cannot be understood of justification in the sight of God; for Abraham was accounted righteous in this sense long before he offered his son. Paul also says, that Abraham was justified before God, not of works, but of faith. James, therefore, in the chapter to which reference is had, means that Abraham was justified before God by faith, because it is written, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness;” (Rom. 4:3) but he gave evidence to men of his righteousness, by his good works, and obedience to God. This is the first ambiguity in the word justify. The other is in the word faith; for when this apostle denies that we are justified by faith, he does not speak of a true, and living faith as Paul does, but of a dead faith, which consists in mere knowledge, without confidence and works. This is evident from what he says, in verse 17: “Even so faith if it has not works is dead, being alone;” and attributes such a faith to the devils who certainly have no true justifying faith. Finally, in verse 26, he compares that faith which he says does not justify to a dead body; but such is no true, or justifying faith. In a word, if the term justify, as used by the apostle James, is understood properly, of justification before God, then the term faith signifies a dead faith; and if we understand the faith here spoken of as true, or justifying faith, then the ambiguity in it is the word justify. (CHC, pp. 607-608)

We see that works are a public justification of the genuineness of saving faith, not a legal justification before God.  Just as in the Last Judgement, only the merits of Christ make one righteous before God, but works show to men and angels and devils alike that the work God has done in the believer’s heart is genuine, apprehending the merits of Christ by true faith.

5) Though this one is a bit off topic, I hear it almost every day: Are not works necessary for Justification since true faith necessarily works by love? Will not these works therefore be accounted along with faith before the Throne of Judgement?

Objection 3: That which is not alone, does not justify by itself. Faith is not alone. Therefore it does not justify alone.

Answer: If this be understood as resulting from the premises, that faith does not justify alone, meaning that it does not exist alone, then the conclusion is proper; for justifying faith is never without its fruits or effects. But if it be understood to mean that faith alone does not accept of the righteousness of Christ, then there is more in the conclusion than in the premises, or else the major is false. I alone may speak in my chamber, and yet I may not be alone. A thing may not be alone, but joined with something else, and yet it alone may have this, or that act; as the will, for instance, is not alone, but joined with the understanding, and yet it alone wills; so the soul of man is not alone, but united with the body, and yet it alone perceives; and so the edge of a razor is not alone but joined with a handle, and yet it alone cuts. This is what is usually, and correctly, called a fallacy of composition; for the exclusive particle only, which in the minor is connected with the verb is, is separated from it in the conclusion, and attached to the word justify.

This has always seemed to me to be a definitive answer to this claim. Just because two things are necessarily conjoined does not mean both are causes of the same effects. I prefer the analogy of the flame.  Though the light and the heat of the flame are necessarily conjoined, it is not the light that cooks or the heat that lights the room. So with works and faith. Though they are always necessarily conjoined, it is the faith that apprehends the whole Christ and therefore justifies and saves, not the works. Ursinus’ buttresses this point with the following:

[…] Faith, with its own peculiar act, (without which it cannot be considered) is required as the necessary instrument, by which we apply to ourselves the merits of Christ. Good works, on the other hand, are not required that by them we may apprehend the merits of Christ, much less that we may be justified on account of them; but that we may thereby prove our faith, which without good works is dead, and can only be known by their presence. Good works are required as the fruits of our faith, and as the evidences of our gratitude to God. That is not always necessary for the accomplishment of a certain result, which is necessarily connected with the cause of the same thing. So good works, although they are necessarily connected with faith, are nevertheless not necessary for the apprehension of the merits of Christ. (CHC, pp. 605-606)

Note well: the reason why faith alone justifies and saves is because it alone apprehends Christ with all His benefits. Works are fruits of this Union. According to the Catechism,

59: What does it help you now, that you believe all this?

A: That I am righteous in Christ before God, and an heir of eternal life.

60: How are you righteous before God?

A: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and that I am still prone always to all evil, yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me, if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.

6) So, in the last analysis, what is the cause of eternal life, both now begun and continuing into eternity?

The moving cause on account of which eternal life is given us, is not any work of ours whether present, or foreseen; for before the beginning of eternal life, or which is the same thing, before our conversion to God, all our works deserve eternal death; and after our conversion they are the effects of it; and so cannot be the cause why eternal life is given, as nothing can be the cause of itself. We are indeed led to eternal life by many means; but the means through which we are led to God constitute one thing, and the cause for which we are led, is another thing. The final cause for which eternal life is given, is that we may praise and magnify the mercy of God. “To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he has made us accepted in the Beloved.” (Eph. 1:6) God grants us eternal life for the same reason, for which he chose us. (CHC, pp. 579-580)

That, I believe, is a fitting conclusion to the matter. Salvation is Sola Fide. Future Salvation is Sola Fide.

Up next: “Salvation Sola Fide: Johannes Wollebius; From Justification to Glorification

6 thoughts on “Salvation Sola Fide: Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism

  1. Barbara Roberts October 21, 2017 / 10:48 pm

    Thank you, Brad.
    And thank you, Zacharias Ursinus.

    So few are proclaiming and upholding the truth about salvation.

    Although few men and woken publicly proclaim and defend the truth, God always has (and keeps) His remnant.

    Brad, there are very probably true Christians who are reading your articles and being edified and helped by them, even if they never say so publicly so that you hear their voices. 🙂


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