Sanctification & the Heidelberg Catechism

Sanctification & the Heidelberg Catechism

Exploring the Heidelberger’s robust doctrine of progressive sanctification


In the recent and engaging discussions on the doctrine of sanctification, I have found it interesting that some in my own denomination, The Presbyterian Church in America, are quicker to reference the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) than the Westminster Standards to assert their views on this crucial issue. But why? Could it be that some view the HC as less demanding in its teaching on progressive sanctification, law, piety, and good works in the Christian life? The HC is invoked to assert, among other things, that gratefulness is the sole motivation for Christian obedience, and that the only effective way to cultivate real spiritual growth is to look back to our justification in Christ. These views, however, often touted as the Reformed position, are supported neither by Scripture nor the HC.

So what does the HC teach about progressive sanctification? Is gratitude the only legitimate motivation for Christian obedience? Does the third-use of the law play a significant role in progressive sanctification? Are Christians meant to be active and earnest in the pursuit of spiritual growth? Before we answer these questions, let’s take a moment to consider a little background on the HC.

A Most Beloved Catechism

The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) ranks as one of the most beloved Reformed Confessions since the days of the Protestant Reformation. Its warm piety, pastoral tone, and gospel-driven approach to the Christian life make it a favorite among Reformed believers everywhere. Personally, I refer to it often for doctrine and devotional purposes.

Written primarily by Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583), the HC is a masterful exposition of the gospel. The main divisions of the 129 questions and answers –– guilt, grace, and gratitude –– underscore the biblical fundamentals of salvation through faith in Christ. These three divisions are set forth in Q.2 which asks, “What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” A. First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.”

The third division, namely, “how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance,” is found in questions 86-129 and is a wonderful exposition of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. This section follows, of course, the magisterial, Gospel-heralding exposition of questions 1-85 which includes an explication of the Apostles’ Creed and the nature and efficacy of the preached Word and sacraments (c.f. Q.65, 70, 81). Rather than minimizing the role of prayer and the Ten Commandments in the sanctification of the believer, the HC makes these divinely appointed means of grace an important, necessary, and required part of the Christ-centered, Spirit-enabled process of progressive sanctification (Q.115-116). With this in mind let’s consider a few of the important questions posed above.

1. Is gratitude meant to be the only motivation for Christian obedience?

The HC teaches, without question, that gratitude for redemption in Christ is the chief motivation for Christian obedience (Q.2). Gratitude is indeed a cardinal theme in the HC as it concerns good works and obedience. Good works are described as “fruits of thankfulness” (Q.64). The Christian’s Spirit-enabled obedience should surely flow from a heart bursting with gratitude for what Christ has done on our behalf–– his sinless life, propitiatory death, and Hell-conquering resurrection to deliver us from the wages of sin. Through His sufferings, “especially on the cross,” Christ has “delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell” (Q.44). We overflow with thankfulness when we consider our justification through faith in Christ, the fact that even though each one of us has “transgressed all the commandments of God ... God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me [through faith] the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ ... as if I had never had had, nor committed any sin; yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me” (Q.60). Gratefulness, therefore, is a defining mark of the Christian. But it is over simplistic to assert that gratitude for our justification is the only biblically or confessionally recognized motivation for Christian obedience. Rather, there are other factors, in addition to gratitude, that motivate Christians unto obedience and good works. Take, for example,

A. The Glory of God: Is there any doubt that God’s glory motivates the believer unto obedience and good works? The HC asks in Q.91, “What are good works? A. Only those which proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory ... .” As God’s redeemed children, we obey God that He would be “glorified in all our words and works” (Q.99). Individually, our obedience should be motivated by a passion to “glorify Him with my whole heart, so that I renounce and forsake all creatures, rather than commit even the least thing contrary to His will” (Q. 94)–– and additionally, “that we may so order and direct our lives, our thoughts, words and actions, that Thy name may never be blasphemed, but rather honored and praised on our account” (Q. 122; cf. Matt. 5:16). In this same vein the Westminster Standards declare that God’s glory is man’s chief end (WSC Q. 1), and the Apostle Paul states “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:31). According to Scripture and the Heidelberger, then, the glory of God motivates believers to obey his commands.

B. A Desire to be Holy: Another biblical motivation that the HC recognizes for Christian obedience and spiritual growth is the desire to reflect the holiness of God. Christian baptism, according to the HC, reinforces this point as it represents “the remission of sins freely, for the sake of Christ’s blood which He shed for us by His sacrifice on the cross; and also to be renewed by the Holy Ghost, and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die to sin, and lead holy and unblamable lives” (Q. 70 - emphasis mine). God’s redeemed children are called to imitate and reflect their Father’s holiness by manifesting “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:11; cf. Eph. 5:1). After a stirring exposition of the gospel in I Peter 1:3-12, Peter states: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (I Pet. 1:14-16). Therefore, a clear motivation for every Christian’s obedience is the sincere desire to be like their heavenly Father, to show forth the family resemblance–– manifesting an always imperfect yet growing measure of Spirit-wrought holiness in their lives (Q. 114). The redeemed rejoice in the good news that Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).

C. Fatherly Discipline and Warnings: In Ursinus’ commentary on Q.115 he states that one reason for the strict preaching of the law, including its sober warnings is, in part,

“in relation to the godly, because on account of the weakness and corruption of the flesh, it is useful and necessary, even to them, that the threatenings of the law, and the examples of punishment set before them, may keep them in the faithful discharge of their duty. For God threatens severe punishment even to the saints, if they become guilty of sins of a shameful and grievous nature (Ez.18:24)” (Ursinus, Commentary On the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Reprint, 1852), 613-614.

This line of thinking corresponds with the HC’s reference to divine punishment and the “heavy wrath of God” as deterrents to disobedience for the believer (Q. 102; 112).

Paul writes that church discipline is not only intended for the censure (and potential restoration) of the offender (I Tim. 5:20; cf. Q.85). It is also meant to foster godly fear in the hearts of onlooking believers–– to encourage them, by God’s grace and Spirit, to walk more circumspectly according to God’s Word. In addition, the Scripture provides sober warnings to believers throughout, in part, to motivate them unto obedience. Isn’t the book of Hebrews full of such solemn warnings (e.g. Heb. 2:1-4; 3:7- 4:13; 10:19-39)?

It is precisely because God loves his children that he provides “useful and necessary” warnings for “the faithful discharge of their duty.” For both Scripture and the HC, then, these warnings are biblical motivations for godliness (cf. Q.102).

In addition to gratitude, these three key motivations, namely, the glory of God, a desire to be holy, and the Father’s sober warnings, are legitimate motivations for Christian obedience found in the HC. Of course, there are many others. Other motivations include the fostering of God’s praise, the deep and growing assurance of faith, and the hope that “others may be gained to Christ” as our lives show forth the fruit of the gospel (Q.86). Once again, gratitude is without a doubt the chief motivation for Christian obedience in the HC. However, it’s not the only one.

The Gospel Reformation Network’s Article V rightly states:

“We affirm that gratitude for justification is a powerful motivation for growth in holiness .... but deny that gratitude for justification is the only valid motivation for holiness, making all other motivations illegitimate or legalistic” {See GRN Affirmations and Denials at}

2. Does the third-use of the law play a significant role in the Christian life?

The HC gives serious and careful attention to the requirements of God’s law as a guide for the Christian life (Q. 92-113). This section does not teach sinners how to live in order to be saved, as if salvation could be earned by works of the law. Rather, it teaches those who are already saved through faith in Christ how to “behave towards God” and “what duties we owe to our neighbor” (Q. 93).

God’s law not only restrains, exposes, and condemns sin, it also instructs those who are united to Christ how to love, honor, please, and obey God––how to live as faithful citizens of Christ’s kingdom. The HC explains that good works are “only those which proceed from a true faith” and are “performed according to the law of God, and to his glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations or the institutions of men” (Q. 91). The law, therefore, serves to give God’s children wisdom and direction for Christian living. We do not set the rules or make them up as we go.

Ursinus states in his commentary on the HC that while the chief efficient cause of conversion is “the Holy Spirit, or God himself,” the “means or instrumental cause of conversion [which includes sanctification in his use of “conversion”] are the law ... the gospel, and again, the doctrine of the law after that of the gospel.” He goes on to explain that

The preaching of the law goes before, preparing and leading us to a knowledge of the gospel: “for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20) Hence, there can be no sorrow for sin without the law. After the sinner has once been led to a knowledge of sin, then the preaching of the gospel follows, encouraging contrite hearts by the assurance of the mercy of God through Christ. Without the preaching there is no faith, and without faith there is no love to God, and hence no conversion to him. After the preaching of the gospel, the preaching of the law again follows, that it may be the rule of our thankfulness and of our life. The law, therefore, precedes, and follows conversion. It precedes that it may lead to a knowledge and sorrow for sin: it follows that it may serve as a rule of life to the converted. It is for this reason that the prophets first charge sin upon the ungodly, threaten punishment, and exhort to repentance; then comfort and promise pardon and forgiveness; and lastly, again exhort and prescribe the duties of piety and godliness (Ursinus, Commentary, 472–– emphasis mine).

This “third-use” of the law, therefore, when taught and preached faithfully, in no way negotiates the gospel of grace or introduces a new form of legalism. Rightly understood, legalism seeks to add something to the grounds of our justification–– the merits of Christ supplemented by our own. Thus, to preach the law as a guide and rule of life for those whose faith is resting in Christ alone for salvation is not legalism. And while it is true that “even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience,” we nevertheless “with sincere resolution” are called to “begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God” (Q.114). Q. 115 is key to this discussion:

Q. 115: If in this life no one can keep the Ten Commandments perfectly, why does God have them preached so strictly?

A. First, that throughout our life we may more and more become aware of our sinful nature, and therefore seek more eagerly the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ. Second, that we may be zealous for good deeds and constantly pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that He may more and more renew us after God's image, until after this life we reach the goal of perfection.

According to the HC, the strict preaching of the law of God is meant to shows us our sin, drive us to Christ, and by the Spirit lead us in the way of growing devotion and obedience to the Lord. Ursinus lists several “uses of the law” for the regenerate in his commentary on Q.115.

1. “The preservation of discipline and outward obedience to the law.” As mentioned above, the faithful preaching of the law, along with its threatenings will help to keep God’s people “in the faithful discharge of their duty.”
2. “A knowledge of sin.” Ursinus writes that “the law is to the regenerate a mirror, in which they may see the defects and imperfections of their own nature ... lead them to true humility before God ... continually advance in true conversion [i.e. sanctification] and faith ... and become more and more conformed to God and the divine law.”
3. “A rule of divine worship and of a Christian life.” Ursinus states “for although the law be also a rule of life to the unregenerate before their conversion, yet it is not to them a rule of worship and gratitude to God, as in the case of the regenerate.”
4. “That the exposition of the law delivered to the church may teach that God is, and what he is.”
5. “The voice of the law sounding in the church is an evident testimony, teaching what the true church is, and in what true religion consists.”
6. “It admonishes us of the image of God in man ... in the original righteousness which was in Adam, and is again restored in us by Christ.”
7. “It is a testimony of eternal life, still future, in which we will perfectly fulfill the law.”
8. “In nature perfectly restored and glorified after this life, the law will also have its use.” Here Ursinus explains that a “knowledge of the law” will still remain in the elect in heaven that they might demonstrate perfect and personal obedience as did Adam before the fall (All quotes in this section from Ursinus, Commentary, 613-615).

The HC clearly teaches a “third use” of God’s law for the believer, and in no way does this third-use, understood properly, undermine the gospel. Indeed, the Heidelberger heralds a gospel that saves from the terrible wages of sin and saves unto a life of spiritual growth and holiness.

3. Are Christians meant to be active and earnest in their quest for spiritual growth?

Yes! Rather than encourage passivity (“let go and let God”) the HC teaches that Christians are called to actively and earnestly exercise faith in Christ through the means of grace (Q. 65-82; 116); that is, to “diligently frequent the church of God” on the Sabbath in order to “hear [God’s Word], to use the sacraments, and publicly to call upon the Lord” (Q. 105). Moreover, the HC exhorts believers “more and more to hate and flee from [sin]” and “live according to the will of God in all good works” (Q. 89-90). By the preservation and indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, God’s redeemed children are called to “constantly and strenuously resist our foes till at last we obtain a complete victory” (Q. 127). We are as “members of Christ by faith ... with a free and good conscience” meant to actively “fight against sin and Satan in this life” (Q. 32). In light of the finished work of Christ, God’s people are to “earnestly desire to have their faith more and more strengthened, and their lives more holy” (Q.81). There is more to growth in Christ than merely looking back to our justification.

In contrast to an apathetic view of sin, the HC exhorts believers to take this godly approach: “That even the smallest inclination or thought contrary to any of God’s commandments never rise in our hearts; but that at all times we hate all sin with our whole heart, and delight in all righteousness” (Q. 113). Therefore, far from teaching a form of passivity in relation to personal holiness, the HC exhorts believer to fight and toil in the strength of the Holy Spirit.

Final Thoughts

The HC is a marvelous Reformed confession that faithfully teaches the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the new life that is adorned with the fruit of the gospel–– a life of growing, grateful obedience and conformity to Christ through God’s Spirit and Word. Therefore, the HC’s teaching on justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is NOT undermined by its equally robust instruction on growing holiness, obedience, and piety in the Christian life. In fact, the gospel is magnified by the promise that “it is impossible that those, who are implanted into Christ by a true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (Q. 64).

As we have seen, the biblical concepts of holiness, obedience, piety, progress, duty, and perseverance are viewed by Ursinus and the HC as characteristics of the Christian life. Again, let’s be clear: these characteristics or fruit or good works are not an attempt to perfect by the flesh what was begun in the Spirit (Gal. 3:3)? That is often the charge laid at the feet of those who preach and apply the imperatives of Scripture (even when the gospel indicatives are boldly heralded week after week!). No, progressive sanctification is a work of God’s free grace whereby through the Spirit’s use of the appointed means of grace (i.e. Word, sacraments, and prayer) believers are driven to Christ and thus die more and more to sin and live more and more to righteousness. Believers are not passive in this work of sanctification. On the contrary, believers toil, struggle, fight, run, and press on in the Spirit’s strength and power (cf. Phil. 2:12-13; 3:12-16), and this is motivated by gratitude for the work of Christ as well as other key motivating factors such as God’s glory and the threatenings of the law. To downplay or marginalize progressive sanctification in our churches, therefore, is not only to deny our Reformed confession, it is to deny the clear teaching of Scripture.

Well-intentioned preachers in their zeal to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and avoid legalistic tendencies sometimes unwittingly advance a kind of soft antinomianism by not preaching the third use of the law. By doing this they fail to instruct their congregations on how to live the Christian life. Unlike the HC, they give very little attention to God’s law as a guide for believers. There is only a plea to “look to Christ” and all will work out in the end. It’s overly simplistic, however, to make “believe in Jesus” or “glory in your justification” the only imperatives when the Bible itself is full of divinely inspired instruction for God’s people on how to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” and to “grow up in every way into him” (Eph. 4:1b, 15b).

Therefore, in light of the biblical doctrine that we find in the HC (and the Westminster Standards), may our churches faithfully trumpet forth the gospel of Jesus Christ and the God-glorifying, Spirit-empowered, Christ-abiding, Word-centered life of progressive sanctification.

Rev. Dr. Jon D. Payne is the organizing pastor of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, South Carolina, and co-editor of A Faith Worth Teaching: The Heidelberg Catechism’s Enduring Heritage (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013).