Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 24 – Questions 62-64 – Zacharius Ursinus Commentary


Question. 62. But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God?

Answer. Because the righteousness which can stand before the judgment seat of God, must be perfect throughout and entirely conformable to the divine law,[1] but even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.[2]

[1] Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10; [2] Isa 64:6; Php 3:12; Jas 2:10


Thus far we have explained, and established the true doctrine of justification by faith.  We must now refute the false doctrine of the Papists, according to which we are justified by works; or partly by faith, and partly by works.  This is the argument which we employ; It is necessary that that righteousness which will stand in the judgment of God must be absolutely perfect, and conformable to the law in every respect.  But our best works in this life are imperfect, and defiled with sin.  Therefore our best works cannot be the whole, nor even a part of our righteousness before God.  The major proposition of this syllogism is proven from the law, which declares: “He that doeth these things shall live in them.”  “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.”(Lev.  18:5. Deut.  27:26.) The minor proposition is too plain to need any proof: for we do many things which we ought not to do, and leave many things undone, which we ought to do; yea, we mix much that is evil with the good we do; or in other words the good which we do, is done imperfectly.  The complaints and daily prayers of the saints testify to the truth of this.  “Forgive us our debts.”  “Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for in,” &c.  (Matt.  5:92. Ps. 143:2.) Therefore works which are imperfect cannot constitute perfect righteousness.

This is the first reason why we cannot be justified by our works, because our righteousness would be imperfect in as much as our works are imperfect.  We may add many other reasons, such as these.  2.  Because if our works were even perfect, yet they are still due from us, and so cannot acquit us, or make amends for past delinquences.  “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say we are unprofitable servants,”&c.  Luke 17:10.) 3.  Our good works are not of us, but of God, who works them in us.  4.  They are temporal, and bear no proportion to eternal rewards; whereas there is a necessity that there should be some proportion between merit, and reward.  5.  They are the effects of our justification, and so cannot be the cause of it.  6.  If we could be justified by our works, we should have whereof to boast, which would be contrary to what the Scripture saith; “Not of works, lest any man, should boast.” (Eph.  2:9.) 7.  Conscience would be deprived of true peace, and comfort.  8.  Christ would then have died in vain.  9.  The way of salvation would not be the same in both testaments, if Abraham had been justified by faith only, and we by works, whether it be by works alone, or by works joined with faith.  10.  Christ would not be a perfect Saviour, because a certain part of righteousness, and salvation would then be independent of him.

Question 63. Do our good works merit nothing, even though it is God’s will to reward them in this life and in that which is to come?

Answer. The reward comes not of merit, but of grace.[1]

[1] Mt 5:12; Lk 17:10; Rom 11:6; 2 Tim 4:7-8; Heb 11:6


This question anticipates an objection on the part of the Papists in favor of justification before God, on account of our works and merits.  Reward, say they, presupposes merit, so that where the one is, there the other must be also, for they are correlatives.  Everlasting life is proposed as a reward for good works.  Therefore the merit of good works is everlasting life.  Ans.  The first proposition is sometimes true of creatures, because men may deserve something from each other; but it does not always follow even among men, that where there is merit, there is reward.  Rewards are often given by men when there is nothing to deserve them.  But it is improperly said of God that he bestows eternal life as the reward of our good works: for we cannot deserve any thing at the hands of God by our works.  Or the objection may be thus stated: That to which there is a reward attached is meritorious.  There is a reward attached to good works.  Therefore, according to the order of justice they are meritorious.  Ans.  That is meritorious to which a reward is attached by obligation; but the reward of good works is according to grace.  There are two things to be considered in a reward: obligation and recompense.  But here there is no obligation, and hence the reward which follows our good works is a reward which follows of grace.  God bestows rewards upon our good works, that he may thereby testify that they are pleasing to him that he may teach us, that eternal life is promised only to those who strive and agonize, and that he will just as certainly grant us this reward as if we had merited it.  All the other arguments by which the Papists endeavor to prove that our good works are meritorious, may properly be referred to this place.

Obj.  2.  We are justified by faith.  Faith is a work.  Therefore we are justified by works.  Ans.  We deny the consequence which is here drawn, because there is more in the conclusion than in the premises: for this is all that follows legitimately.  Therefore we are justified by that work, which we grant, if understood in the sense of an instrument or means, and not as the Papists understand it: for we are justified by faith, as a means, but not for, nor on account of it.  There is also in the above syllogism a different form of speech: for in the first proposition faith is understood correlatively, and in the second properly.

Obj.  3.  Our righteousness is that by which we are formally made righteous.  Faith is our righteousness.  Therefore we are formally made righteous by faith.  Ans.  We deny the consequence which is here drawn, because the term faith, as used in this syllogism must be understood in a different sense in the major and minor propositions, or else it is not true: for properly speaking it is not faith, but the object of faith, or that which faith apprehends and applies to itself, which is the merit of Christ, that constitutes our righteousness.  Or, we may reply that there are four terms in this syllogism; because the major speaks of legal, and the minor of evangelical righteousness, or else the major is not true: for evangelical righteousness is not formally in us, as whiteness in a wall; but it is without us in Christ; and becomes ours by the imputation and application of it through faith.

Obj.  4.  We are counted righteous in view of that which is imputed unto us for righteousness.  Faith is imputed unto us for righteousness.  Therefore we are accounted righteous, not only by faith, but also on account of it.  Ans.  There is here again a different kind of affirmation in the terms of this syllogism.  The major is true of that which is properly and by itself imputed unto us for righteousness, while the minor is true of that which is imputed unto us correlatively; because, when it is said through faith, it means through the object of faith, which being apprehended, is properly the formal cause of our righteousness; the efficient cause is God applying unto us the merit of Christ, while faith is the instrumental cause.  Hence the declaration, we are justified by faith, if understood legally as the Papists understand it, is not true, but blasphemy.  But if understood evangelically, having respect to the merits of Christ, it is true: for the merit of Christ is the correlative of faith, arid is apprehended by it as an instrument.

Obj.  5.  Evil works condemn.  Therefore good works justify.  Ans. But evil works are wholly evil, while good works are only imperfectly good, so that these two declarations cannot be opposed to each other in the form in which they are here placed.  And even if our works were perfectly good, yet they could not merit eternal life, inasmuch as they are due from us.  A reward is due to evil works according to the order of justice; but not unto good works, because we are bound to do them as the creatures of God; but no one can bind God, on the other hand, by any works or means to confer any benefit upon him.  Evil works, again, in their very design oppose and injure God, while good works add nothing to his felicity.

Obj.  6.  He who does righteously is righteous.  (1 John 8:7.) Therefore we are justified by works.  Ans.  He that works righteousness is righteous in the sight of men; but in the sight of God no one is righteous by working, but by believing, as the Scripture saith: “By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in his sight.”(Rom.  3:20.) Again, John does not speak of the manner in which we become righteous, but declares who are righteous; as if he would say, He that is regenerated is also justified, because by doing righteousness he gives evidence that he is justified.  There is, therefore, in this objection a fallacy in making that which is not the cause of our justification, the cause of it.

Obj.  7.  But Christ said of Mary (Luke 7:47) her sins which were many were forgiven her, because she loved much.  Therefore love is the cause of our justification.  Ans, Christ here reasons from the effect to the cause.  He concludes that because Mary loved much, and had a deep sense of her indebtedness to God for his mercy, that she must have received the forgiveness of many sins.  That this is the meaning of Christ is evident from the parable itself.  Again, not every thing that is the cause of a consequence is also the cause of the consequent and thing itself, which would here be the case if it were added: therefore many sins were forgiven her, because she loved much.  The particle because does not always signify the cause of the thing consequent: for this does not follow; the sun is risen, because it is day.  Therefore the day is the cause of the rising of the sun.  The contrary is rather true.

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

Answer. No, for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.[1]

[1] Mt 7:18; Lk 6:43-45; Jn 15:5; Rom 6:1-2


This Question is designed to meet the slander which the Papists bring against the doctrine of justification by faith, in which they affirm that it is calculated to make men careless and profane.  But if such an effect as this does ever follow the preaching of free justification by faith, it can only follow by accident; for the natural effect of this doctrine is to produce an earnest desire of showing our gratitude to God.  And further, if this does ever come to pass, it is not because those who are careless and profane apply, but because they do not apply, this doctrine of grace to themselves.  To this it is objected:1.  Even those things which are evil by accident are to be abandoned.  Therefore this doctrine which makes men worse by accident, must be rejected.  Ans.  Those things which are evil by accident must indeed be abandoned, unless there be greater and stronger reasons why they should not be omitted, but rather retained and taught, than that they may become evil to men by their own fault.  Such reasons now there are in the present case; for the command and glory of God, together with the salvation of the elect, require that this doctrine should be taught, and by no means omitted in our instructions.  Obj.  2.  There is no need that we should fear that which cannot injure us.  But according to the doctrine of justification by faith future sins cannot injure us, for Christ has satisfied for all sins, including those that are future, as well as those that are past.  Therefore we need have no fears on account of future sins, which is absurd.  Ans.  We reply to the major of this syllogism by making the following distinction: that we need not fear that which cannot injure us, whether we have an eye to it or not.  But future sins do not injure those who truly repent, but it is different with those who are careless and impenitent.  We, therefore, also deny the minor proposition: for God is always offended at sin, which is the greatest offence of which any one can be guilty Our sins likewise deprive us of conformity with God, and bring temporal punishment, even upon the faithful, although they are delivered from such as are eternal.  The various other objections which the Papists bring against the doctrine of justification by faith properly belong here.  We shall notice the following in addition to the one already refuted:

Obj.  2.  That which is not in the Scriptures is not to be taught.  But the Scriptures do not teach that we are justified by faith only.  Therefore this doctrine is not to be taught Ans That doctrine which is not in the Scriptures, in plain and express terms, nor as to the sense of it, is not to be received.  But the Scriptures do most clearly teach that we are justified by faith alone, as touching the sense of this doctrine; for they declare that we are justified freely by grace, withaut the works of the law, without the law, not of ourselves, not by works of righteousness which we have done, and that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin.  But to be justified by faith alone is the same thing as to be justified by the blood and merits of Christ apprehended by faith.  We would here refer the reader to the reasons which were given in our exposition of the sixty-first Question of the Catechism for retaining the exclusive particle only, against the Papists.

Obj.  3.  That which is not alone, does not justify by, itself.  Faith is not alone.  Therefore it does not justify alone.  Ans.  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.

Obj.  4.  Faith does not justify without that which is required in those who are justified.  Good works are required in those who are justified.  Therefore, faith is not without good works, and so does not justify alone.  Ans.  There is here the same fallacy to which reference has just been made, on account of the doubtful construction of the particle without.  Faith does not, indeed, justify without those things which are required in those who are justified.  But although it never exists alone, and is always joined with love, by which it works, yet it alone justifies — is the act of embracing and applying to itself the merits of Christ.  The minor also must be more fully explained; for faith and good works are not required in the same sense in those who are justified.  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.

Obj.  5.  Where there are a number of things required, there we can not use any exclusive particles.  But good works are required in addition to faith in them that are justified.  Therefore, we cannot say by faith only.  Ans.  The same answer may be returned to this objection which we have given to the one just noticed.  Many things are required, but not in the same sense.  Faith is necessary as the means by which we apprehend the righteousness of Christ, while good works are necessary as the evidences of our faith and gratitude.

Obj.  6.  Those who are justified by two things, are not justified by one only.  We are justified by two things, by faith, and the merits of Christ.  Therefore we are not justified by faith only.  Ans.  The same answer may again be returned to this objection; for we are justified by faith, and the merits of Christ in a different sense.  We are justified by faith as that which apprehends the righteousness of Christ; while the merits of Christ are the formal cause of our righteousness.

Obj.  7.  Knowledge does not justify.  Faith is knowledge.  Therefore faith does not justify.  Ans.  But justifying faith does not merely include a certain knowledge, but also an assured confidence, by which, as a means, we apply to ourselves the merits of Christ.  Knowledge and confidence also differ widely.  The former is in the understanding, the latter in the will.  Confidence, therefore, does not only include a knowledge of a certain thing, but also a will, and purpose to do, or to apply that which we know, and to trust in it in such a manner as to find safety in it, and to rejoice concerning it.  To have confidence is to possess what is called in German Bertrauen.  To believe in God in this manner is not only to know him, but also to have confidence in him.  The devil has a knowledge of God, and of the divine promises, but has no confidence in him.  His knowledge is, therefore, no justifying faith, being only historical, of which the apostle James speaks, when he says, “The devils believe and tremble.”(James 2:19.) Of sue] i a faith we readily grant the argument of the Papists, but not of a justifying faith.

Obj.  8.  James says, (2:24) “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”Therefore faith only does not justify.  Ans.  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, “Shew me thy faith without thy works.” Shew 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 oifered 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 hath not works is dead, being alone;”and attributes such a faith to the devils who certainly have no true justifying faith.  Finally, in verse 20, 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.

Obj.  9.  It is not necessary to do that which is not required for our justification.  But it is necessary to perform good works.  Therefore they are required for our justification.  Ans.  We deny the major, because the same thing may have many ends.  Good works, although they are not required our justification, are nevertheless necessary to show our gratitude, andid the glory of God, as it is said: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”(Matt.  5:16.) This is one reason why good works should be performed.  Other reasons will be assigned when we come to treat the subject of gratitude.

Obj.  10.  The work of Phinehas (Ps.  106:30, 31) is said to have been counted unto him for righteousness.  Therefore we are justified by works.  Ans.  This, however, is a wrong interpretation of the passage alluded to; for the sense is, that God approved of his work; but not that he was justified on account of it: for by the works of the law, no flesh shall be justified in the sight of God.

Obj.  11.  Ten crowns are a part of a hundred crowns in the payment of a debt.  Therefore; good works are also a certain part of our righteousness before God.  Ans.  The examples are not the same; for ten crowns, in the first place, are a whole part of a hundred crowns, and being multiplied ten times make the whole amount of the debt.  But our works are not a perfect, but an imperfect part of the obedience due from us, and however frequently they may be multiplied, they, nevertheless, never constitute perfect obedience.  Again, ten crowns may be received by a certain creditor as a part of a debt, because there may be some hope that the balance may be paid.  God, however, cannot receive our good works as a part of our righteousness, because there is no hope of perfect satisfaction being made by us, while the law condemns the slightest imperfection.

Obj.  12.  The righteousness which Christ accomplished is according to the prophet Daniel (9:24) an everlasting righteousness.  That righteousness which is imputed unto us is not everlasting.  Therefore it is not the righteousness of Christ which is imputed unto us.  Ans.  We deny the minor of this syllogism, because the righteousness which is imputed unto us is everlasting, both by the perpetual continuation of imputation in this life, and by the perfection of that righteousness which is begun in us, each of which is the righteousness of the Messiah, and will be everlasting: for God will forever delight in us on account of Christ his Son.  Imputation will, therefore, also be continued, or it will rather be changed into our own righteousness.  But some one will perhaps reply, where there is no sin, there cannot be any remission, or imputation.  But there will be no sin in the life to come.  Therefore there will be no remission or imputation.  We grant the whole argument if it is properly understood.  There will be no remission of sin in the life to come, that is, there will be no remission of present sin; yet there will be of past sins, because the remission which is here granted will continue and last forever; or, what is the same thing, the sins which are here in this life forgiven, will never be imputed unto us in the life to come: yea, even that conformity which we shall have with God, in the life to come, will be the effect of the righteousness here imputed unto us.

Obj.  13.  The Lord is our righteousness.  (Jer.  23:6.) Therefore we are justified, not by imputed righteousness, but God himself dwelling essentially in us, is our righteousness.  Ans.  In this declaration of the prophet, the effect, by a figure of speech, is put for the cause, the abstract for the concrete.  The Lord is our righteousness, which means that he is our justifier, as Christ is said “to be made of God unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption;”(1 Cor.  1:30.) which means that he is a teacher of wisdom, a justifier, a sanctifier, and redeemer.  The righteousness with which God justifies us is not in us, nor is it God himself dwelling in us, for he would then be an accident to the creature.  Osiander, the author of this and the preceding objection, does not distinguish the cause from the effect, or the righteousness which is uncreated from that which is created.  As we do not live, and are not wise by the essence of God, (for this would in effect be to say that we are as wise as God,) so we are not; righteous by his essence.  There is nothing more impious, therefore, than to say that the essential righteousness of the Creator is the righteousness of the creature, from which it would follow that we have the righteousness of God; yea, the very essence of God.


Author: Brad

Sinner saved by the sovereign grace of God in the doing, dying, and rising of His Son Jesus Christ.

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