The Reasons Christians Do Good Works

Guilt, Grace, And Gratitude
The Heidelberg Catechism is in three parts: Law, Gospel, and Sanctification or Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. This is not an artificial interpretation of the Catechism nor is it an artificial arrangement of the Christian faith. Question 2 outlines the Catechism for us:

How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

Notice that there are three things that one must know: sin and misery (guilt), how we are redeemed (grace), and how believers live in light of God’s grace (gratitude). Remarkably, even among Reformed Christians this outline is not as well known as it should be. I recall a discussion from more than a decade ago in which a person well familiar with the Reformed Churches professed that he had never heard this outline of the Catechism and suggested that it was some novelty. It is not a novelty. The principal author of the Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83), who was authorized to comment on the Catechism in Heidelberg and who lectured on it explained:

There are others, again, who make the catechism consist of five different parts; the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Prayer; of which, the Decalogue was delivered immediately by God himself, while the other parts were delivered mediately, either through the manifestation of the Son of God in the flesh, as is true of the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, and the Eucharist, or through the ministry of the apostles, as is true of the Apostles’ Creed. But all these different parts may also be reduced to the two general heads noticed in the first division. The Decalogue contains the substance of the law, the Apostles’ Creed that of the gospel; the sacraments are parts of the gospel, and may, therefore, be embraced in it as far as they are seals of the grace which it promises, but as far as they are testimonies of our obedience to God, they have the nature of sacrifices and pertain to the law, whilst prayer, in like manner, may be referred to the law, being a part of the worship of God.
The catechism of which we shall speak in these lectures consists of three parts. The first treats of the misery of man, the second of his deliverance from this misery, and the third of gratitude, which division does not, in reality, differ from the above, because all the parts which are there specified are embraced in these three general heads. The Decalogue belongs to the first part, in as far as it is the mirror through which we are brought to see ourselves, and thus led to a knowledge of our sins and misery, and to the third part in as far as it is the rule of true thankfulness and of a Christian life. The Apostles’ Creed is embraced in the second part inasmuch as it unfolds the way of deliverance from sins. The sacraments, belonging to the doctrine of faith and being the seals that are attached thereto, belong in like manner to this second part of the catechism, which treats of deliverance from the misery of man. And prayer, being the chief part of spiritual worship and of thankfulness, may, with great propriety, be referred to the third general part.

Already, between 1563 and 1583 Ursinus was aware that there was discussion of the organization of the Catechism. It’s interesting that he did not “pull rank” as we say but he it also interesting that the did suggest there are different ways of analyzing the catechism. There is the superstructure and there are substructures within the catechism. A house has a basic frame within which there are rooms and hallways. So too, within the catechism. He argued that the five parts that some had seen we really only expressions of two great heads: law and gospel. That there is today such apparent resistance, within the Reformed world, to these basic categories, which Ursinus had inherited from Luther and Calvin, illustrates how far we have drifted from our roots. When he invoked these categories he was not being controversial. He just states them as a matter of fact, as accepted categories because they were universally accepted by the Reformed theologians and churches of the 16th and 17th centuries. Ursinus, Olevianus, Beza, and Calvin would not understand why some insist on saying that they are Lutheran distinctions since they themselves used them, advocated them, and taught them. In his Summa theologiae, written before the Heidelberg, Ursinus wrote:

Q.36 What distinguishes law and gospel?

A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).

Not only did Ursinus clearly articulate the very same distinction between law as one principle (“do this and live”) and gospel as another (Christ has done) that he had learned from Philipp Melanchthon (1497&ndash1560), which Melanchthon had learned from Luther, and which Ursinus had heard in Geneva from Calvin and Beza but he did so in covenantal terms, which would become fundamental to Reformed theology. The great Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield would later call covenant theology “architectonic” to Reformed theology. Ursinus equated the law principle with the covenant of works (“the day you eat thereof”) and the gospel to the covenant of grace. Again, when he did this he did not intend to be controversial. He took these things as basic. The Westminster Divines adopted these categories and confessed them explicitly in the 1640s. There was some dissent, e.g., from the Arminians (Remonstrants) in the 17th century but it would only be in the 20th century that they would become highly controversial. From a historical perspective, however, these corollaries (the first use of the law = covenant of works and gospel = covenant of grace) were basic.

Calvin often spoke in terms of law and grace, instead of law and gospel, but he used the traditional terms also. Commenting on Romans 10:9, he wrote:

Do you see how he makes this the distinction between law and gospel: that the former attributes righteousness to works, the latter bestows free righteousness apart from the help of works? This is an important passage, and one that can extricate us from many difficulties if we understand that that righteousness which is given us through the gospel has been freed of all conditions of the (Institutes, 3.11.17)

He made this distinction no fewer than 35 times in his writings and it’s certain that one could many more instances. Calvin’s successor in Geneva was also insistent upon this distinction:

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558)

Olevianus (and see the essay published here) wrote that the whole book of Romans could be analyzed as having two parts: law and gospel. Perkins wrote that it is impossible to preach God’s Word without using the distinction. Edward Fisher taught it clearly in The Marrow of Modern Divinity. William Twisse, the first prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly taught it explicitly and many other writers could be cited and have been in other places. Much of this evidence has been in print, in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry and online for many years now.

As we saw, however, Ursinus settled on the tripartite division of the catechism: “The catechism of which we shall speak in these lectures consists of three parts.” The evidence from the catechism itself and from Ursinus is conclusive. We must consider the catechism fundamentally organized in three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude.

This organization is reflected in 86:

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

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism 86).

The major premise of this question is the biblical, Protestant doctrine of salvation sola gratiasola fide, that has been explored and explained repeatedly through this commentary on the catechism. The German text  uses the verb erkauft, which is fairly translated “to redeem” or “to purchase.” This imagery takes us back to Heidelberg 1, where we confess that our only comfort in life and in death that we “belong, body and soul, in life and death” to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. This is Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 6:20, “you were bought with a price, therefore honor God with your body” and 1 Corinthians 7:23, “You were bought with a price; do not become the bondservants of men” (ESV). The Latin text says “liberati simus,” and says literally, “Since from all our sins and miseries, without any of our merit, only by the mercy of God, on account of Christ we have been liberated, why should we do good works?”  The rhetorical effect of the ordering of the phrases is to condition the final clause, the question. We are only discussing good works after reiterating that the biblical, Protestant, and Reformed conviction that redemption (salvation) is by grace alone, through faith alone. To make it crystal clear, the catechism specifically mentions the question of merit. It does rejects any notion that we sinners have merit of any kind, condign or congruent, relative to our standing before God. Here is a discussion merit in Heidelberg 62 and 63.

The catechism  speaks thus because the Reformed (e.g., Calvin and Olevianus) had long spoken of the “double grace” (duplex gratia) or the “double benefit” (duplex beneficium) of Christ. We are justified and sanctified by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. Our new life, our sanctification, that process of being gradually conformed to the image of Christ is the consequence of our free justification and his gracious salvation of his people.

Sanctification As Fruit And Evidence
There is another piece to the back story, as they say in Hollywood. During the 1550s there were great struggles over how to express the doctrine of sanctification relation to the doctrine of justification. Prior to the 50s there had been questions. There had been those whom Luther labelled “antinomians” in the 1530s. This paragraph from his First Disputation against the Antinomians was used almost verbatim in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Likewise against those evils revealed and pointed out to us by the law, lest we despair, that other doctrine also has to be preserved in the Church, which teaches consolation against the accusation and terrors of the law, grace against God’s wrath, remission of sins and righteousness against sin, life against death. That doctrine is the gospel, which teaches that God through his word has locked up everyone under sin so that he might have mercy upon everyone; that he most certainly wants to remit the sins of all, liberate from death, and give righteousness and life to those who feel their misery, unrighteousness, and perdition, and certainly freely without any merit of ours, yet only in such a way that these benefits come upon believers because of Christ.

Here, to be sure, Luther was explaining the relation between the first use of the law and the gospel but this passage illustrates the degree to which the Reformed were dependent upon and influenced by Luther. He also defended what Melanchthon, the Lutheran orthodox, and the Reformed called the third use of the law (tertius usus legis):

The law, therefore, cannot be eliminated, but it remains, prior to Christ as not fulfilled, after Christ as to be fulfilled, although this does not happen perfectly in this life even by the justified. For it requires that we love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Matt. 22:37, 39). This will happen perfectly first in the coming life.

No one who has actually read Luther with any care should think that he is an antinomian. Unfortunately, some Reformed folk, relying upon mainline Lutherans (from the USA, Germany, and elsewhere) conclude from the way liberal mainliners speak (and the claims they make about Luther) that he was essentially antinomian. That would be like looking at what some mainline Presbyterian (PCUSA) writers in this country say about Calvin and drawing conclusions that e.g., would support the self-described “Occupy” movement. Again, I doubt any serious Calvin scholar would think this way since Calvin’s greatest fear about society was represented by the Anabaptists in the (1534–35) Münster rebellion. There are too many Reformed folk (and others who identify with aspects of Calvin’s theology, e.g., his soteriology) who do not read those sources that shaped  and influenced Calvin (and other Reformed writers) for themselves. Among those would be Luther.

Nevertheless, through the 1540s and 50s the question persisted among evangelicals (the word they used of themselves) or the magisterial Protestants how to relate sanctification and good works to justification. Some argued that we ought not speak of good works at all since that tends to lead Christians astray. It might tempt them to think once again that their good works, done in cooperation with grace, somehow contributed to their standing before God. It’s not as if there were no grounds for such a fear.  There were some saying that good works were a condition of standing before God. Remember, the Roman doctrine, out of which the evangelicals had come, taught that we justified because we are sanctified and we are sanctified by grace and cooperation with grace. Then there were some who were arguing ingeniously that Christ dwells in us by virtue of our union with him and God looks at us and sees the indwelling Christ and we are justified on the basis of Christ’s indwelling (and not on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed). So, the evangelicals had been ping-ponging between forms of legalism and antinomianism before the 1560s.

In our time, of course, we’ve seen the same sort of ping-ponging. We have the self-described, so-called Federal Vision movement arguing essentially the Arminian doctrine of salvation and calling it Reformed. Among the evangelicals there are antinomians arguing that the moral law no longer applies to Christians and then there are moralists (nomists) who teach that  we are justified and saved because we cooperate sufficiently with grace. So, we are not much better off in the early 21st century than we were in the mid-sixteenth century.

Thus, it is significant that the Reformed Churches confess:

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

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism 86).

Notice that we say “because.” There are some today, who call themselves Reformed, who, not unlike those in the 16th century who said that God accepts us because were Christ indwells us, would say that the catechism’s way of speaking is inadequate. They want to say that it is because Christ dwells in us and we in Christ (union with Christ) that we are sanctified and that justification and sanctification are nothing but parallel fruits of that union. That is not the teaching of the Scriptures as understood and confessed by the Reformed Churches. There are, as mentioned last time, two benefits and sanctification is the second benefit of Christ. Here we thinking and speaking of the logical order of salvation. We are not talking about time or a temporal or chronological order. Think of it this way: it is the justified, i.e., those of whom God has declared “just,” that the Spirit is necessarily, graciously, and gradually sanctifying. It is the justified, who are being sanctified, who do good works. If we reverse the order, then we have become Romanists again. Thus, we should reject soundly those who would do away with, as they say, “ordo salutis thinking.” To do away with the logical order in which the Spirit works, as taught by Scripture (e.g., Romans 8) is to send the Reformed Churches right off the cliff to destruction.

We should also reject soundly and unreservedly that teaching that will not say that believers, who are united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith alone, who are justified freely (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), have no moral obligation to be conformed to Christ and thus to do good works. That is antinomianism. No, the Spirit is conforming us to Christ’s image. Those who have been given new life (regenerated) will do good works. They want to do good works out of thankfulness. Gratitude is not, as some say, a second blessing any more than oranges are a second blessing on an orange tree (see Belgic Confession art. 24). This is the language of our Lord Jesus in John 15. Believers “show themselves to be thankful.” They manifest their new life by good works. They give evidence. That’s why the two words most often used by the classical Reformed writers and the Reformed confessions in this discussion are “fruit” and “evidence.” Anyone who is dissatisfied with this way of speaking is on the path to Rome, even if they do not realize it.

Sanctification And Assurance
Sanctification has another function in the Christian life: to bolster assurance. This doctrine has also been controversial in some circles. There is a view that says that sanctification can play no role whatsoever in assurance. There is also an approach that says that, in seeking assurance, the first place a believer looks is to his sanctification. In distinction the Reformed Churches confess:

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

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism 86).

The two clauses in view here are “he be glorified through us” and “we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof….” The Westminster Shorter Catechism famously begins by teaching that the “chief end of man” is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This notion, however, did not arise in the 17th century. He was common Reformed teaching. Adam was created to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Our Savior, the Last Adam, glorified God and now enjoys him forever, and we shall, by God’s grace, because of Christ’s obedience for us, enjoy him forever and by his grace, with the help of his Spirit, we seek now to glorify him day by day. We do that by obeying him, according to all the teaching of his Word and particularly by obeying God’s moral law. We will address the role of the law in the Christian life in more detail under Heidelberg 91.

When, by the grace of God, in union with Christ, with the help of his Spirit, we are obeying him (however imperfectly) that fruit of our free justification and salvation does contribute to our assurance. To be sure, we do not look first off to our sanctification (fruit) for assurance. That would be a mistake. Our sanctification, in this life, is never complete. Therefore, to look at our sanctification as the primary ground must necessarily result in uncertainty. Should we look principally at our sanctification then every time we sin we should lose our assurance. This is not only unbiblical and contrary to our confession but a terrible way to live the Christian life. The ground of our assurance is Christ’s obedience and righteousness for us not the Spirit’s work in us. The ground, the basis of, our assurance of our salvation and right standing with God is God’s gospel promise to us that “whosover believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The ground of our assurance is objective. It is fixed. It is established by Christ. It is immutable, i.e., it does not change. It cannot change. It is fixed in history and in the heavens. It rests upon God’s immutable, eternal decree and upon his immutable, eternal character and attributes.

Nevertheless, resting on the fact of Christ’s obedience for us and upon his promises to us, e.g.,

  • “it is finished”
  • “having therefore been justified”
  • “no one can snatch them from my hand”

we may also look to the evidence of the work of God’s Spirit in us as proof that we really do believe. We rightly say that we are justified and saved by grace alone, through faith alone (sola fide) but believers frequently ask the question, “how do I know that I believe”? It is not sufficient to answer that question by simply repeating the exhortation, “believe!” There are other questions. “Do I know the greatness of my sin and misery?” and “Do I know the history of salvation?” and “Do I agree that what Scripture says is true?” One who does not yet know himself to be, by nature, under the wrath of God, who has not sensed the jeopardy in which all of Adam’s children exist after the fall, is not ready to flee to Christ as his only hope and righteousness. Certainly true faith involves basic knowledge of the facts of Christ’s saving work and assent to those truths. He must also trust heartily that what Christ did, he did for us (pro nobis), for me (pro me). This is why it is so important for believers to hear and read over and again God’s law and Christ’s promises. We must be reminded constantly of what God demands and what Christ has fulfilled for us and promised to us.

It is entirely appropriate and even necessary, however, for the believer to find encouragement that he does actually believe by observing the evidences, however small and inadequate they may be in this life, that yes the Spirit of God has given him new life. We begin with the objective, the promises of God represented to us in the preached gospel and the gospel made visible in the sacraments. We are baptized people. We are being nourished by the body and blood of Christ. We are received in the church as members in good standing. We do see ourselves for what we are by nature: sinners. We acknowledge that and seek our standing before God only in what Christ has done for us. We are grieved by our sins. With Paul we sometimes despair “what will become of me?” That is the cry of the Christian who struggles with and sometimes seems overcome by sin and death. Finally, however, we say:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:1-4).

It is because of what Christ has done for us that we can move forward in conformity to Christ. Believers are no longer under the law of sin and death but under the “law of the Spirit of life.” Christ has liberated us from condemnation. The same righteous substitute has not only justified but he is sanctifying us. Is our sanctification perfect? No, not by a long shot but just as we trust Jesus for our justification and salvation so we trust him for our sanctification.

Christian Witness
The last major point of Heidelberg 86 is its reference to Christian witness relative to sanctification and good works. This last clause, “and by our godly walk win also others to Christ” is truly important for a variety of reasons. Here is the whole of question and answer 86:

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

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism 86).

Imagine how Christianity would be viewed has evangelical television preachers not been found to be committing fraud or to have committed immorality. Imagine if we did not have to account for pederasty among Romanist priests, the crusades, the inquisition, or the treatment of Jews in the middle ages (and after)? Sanctification or its absence has a great affect on the Christian witness to the watching world. Our sanctification or lack thereof has an affect on the plausibility of our testimony to the facts of redemption: the incarnation, Christ’s obedience, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension. Now, regardless of our failings, the facts are the facts. Jesus did what he did and he is returning and when he does he will settle accounts with the skeptics. Nevertheless, just a very brief review of the history of scandals in the church gives plenty of prima facieevidence that keeps us from being cavalier about the corruption of the Christian witness in the world.

The second thing that should be said is that the catechism and the Reformed faith should get at least a little credit for showing some concern about the spiritual welfare of the lost. Even though the catechism was drafted and adopted in a period when the state imposed religion upon its citizens, there is an open recognition that not everyone around us is a believer. This evident concern expressed in the catechism contradicts the assumption often made about the Reformed that they must be indifferent to the spiritual state (and the final state) of those around them who do not believe. The assumption is often made that if God has decreed who is and is not going to come to faith (he has) then Reformed folk must be indifferent (we aren’t). Yes, God is sovereign but that conviction is hardly distinctive to Reformed theology. It was widely held and taught in the church for the 1500 years before the Reformation. Augustine taught it. Anselm taught it, and Aquinas taught it, just to name three. These were all major theologians in the western church. God knows what he has decreed and we know that he has decreed but we do not know whom he has decreed to save and whom he has decreed to reprobate. The church’s duty is to make known the law and the gospel and offer salvation freely, seriously, and promiscuously to all who will recognize the greatness of their sin and misery, turn from it, and embrace Christ in true faith.

Evangelism properly is what the minister does in the pulpit when he proclaims the gospel to the world but each of us as Christians is a witness or gives witness to the faith (the objective facts of redemptive history and the basic truths of Scripture summarized in the creeds) and to our faith, i.e., to our personal appropriation of Christ by grace alone, through faith alone. Each of us is ordinarily surrounded by unbelieving friends, relatives, and co-workers. We must pray for them regularly that God the Spirit might do in them what he has done in us who believe: convict them of their need for Christ, grant them new life, and grant them the grace of faith and through it union with Christ. When we pray that way we should be prepared because God, in his providence, may well give us opportunity to give witness to Christ and to our faith in him.

When, by God’s grace, we do good works that gives witness to our faith and to the truth of the Christian faith. When our lives match our profession opportunities for witness are created. We do not have to choose between a silent witness of good works and a spoken witness to Christ and his truth. We believe in and confess both. They go together. May the Lord give us opportunities to give witness and may he bless that witness when it is given.