Ursinus on Law and Gospel in Conversion

Primary author of the Heidelberg CatechismThe means or instrumental causes of conversion are the law – the gospel, and again, the doctrine of the law after that of the gospel. For 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 this 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 know ledge 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. Such was, also, the character of the preaching of John the Baptist. It is in this way, that the preaching of repentance comprehends the law and the gospel, although in effecting conversion each has a part to perform peculiar to itself.  p. 472

Ursinus, Zacharias Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, n.d.)

For more, see http://www.seeking4truth.com/ursinus/zuquestion90.htm

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.

Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 23 – Questions 59-60 – Zacharius Ursinus Commentary


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

Answer. That I am righteous in Christ before God, and an heir of eternal life.[1]

[1] Hab 2:4; Jn 3:36; Rom 1:17, 5:1-2, 8:16; Tit 3:7

Question 60. How are you righteous before God?

Answer. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ:[1] that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them,[2] and am still prone always to all evil;[3] yet God, without any merit of mine,[4] of mere grace,[5] grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction,[6] righteousness, and holiness of Christ,[7] as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me;[8] if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.[9]

[1] Rom 3:21-28; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9; Php 3:8-11; [2] Rom 3:9-10; [3] Rom 7:23; [4] Dt 9:6; Ezek 36:22; Tit 3:4-5; [5] Rom 3:24; Eph 2:8; [6] 1 Jn 2:2; [7] Rom 4:3-5; 2 Cor 5:17-19; 1 Jn 2:1; [8] Rom 4:24-25; 2 Cor 5:21; [9] Jn 3:18; Acts 16:30-31; Rom 3:22, 28, 10:10


The doctrine of justification, which now follows, is one of the chief articles of our faith, not only because it treats of those things which are fundamental, but also because it is most frequently called in question by heretics. The controversies between the church and heretics have respect principally to two points: the one is concerning God, and the other concerning the justification of man in the sight of God. And such is the importance of these doctrines that if either one of them be overthrown, the other parts of our faith easily fall to pieces. Hence it becomes necessary for us, to fortify and establish ourselves, especially in these doctrines, against all the assaults of heretics. Concerning the doctrine of justification (for we have already spoken of the doctrine concerning God) of which the above questions of the Catechism treat, the following things are to be considered:

I. What is righteousness in general?
II. How mani-fold is it?
III. In what does righteousness differ from justification?
IV. What is our righteousness before God?
V. In what manner does it become ours, seeing it is without us?
VI. Why is it made ours, or wherefore does God impute it unto us for righteousness?


Righteousness is derived from right, which is the law, and is a conformity with the law, as sin or unrighteousness is the transgression of the law. It may be defined in general, as consisting in a conformity with God and the divine law; although a definition can hardly be given so general as to agree at the same time with God and creatures. Uncreated righteousness is God himself, the foundation, and rule or pattern of all righteousness. Created righteousness is an effect of uncreated or divine righteousness in rational creatures. Righteousness, therefore, in general, as far as it has respect to creatures, consists in fulfilling those laws which pertain to rational creatures; or, it is a conformity on the part of rational creatures with those laws which have respect to them. Finally, righteousness is the fulfillment of the law, and a conformity with the law is righteousness itself. This must be observed and held fast to, because our justification can only be effected by fulfilling the law. Evangelical righteousness is the fulfilling of the law, and does not conflict with it in the least. The gospel does not abolish the law, but establishes it.


Righteousness is in general either uncreated, as God himself is righteous, or it is created, as is the righteousness which belongs to rational creatures. Created righteousness is legal arid evangelical. By legal righteousness we mean the fulfilling of the law by one, who is thereby declared righteous; or it is such a fulfilling of the law as that which is accomplished by one’s own obedience; or it is a comformity to the law which he has who is declared righteous. This legal righteousness was the righteousness of Adam before the fall, and is in the angels, and in Christ as far as he is man. Evangelical righteousness is the fulfilling of the law, performed, not by us, but by another in our stead, and imputed unto us of God by faith.

Legal righteousness is performed, either by obedience to the law, or by punishment. The law requires one or the other. That which is performed by obedience is either universal or particular. Universal is the observing of all those laws which have respect to us; or it is obedience to all the laws which pertain to us. This righteousness is again of two kinds, perfect and imperfect. The former consists in internal and external obedience to all those laws which have respect to us; or it consists in perfect conformity with the law, as it is said: “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.”(Deut. 27:26.) By a righteousness that is imperfect, we mean that conformity with the law which is only begun, and which does not comply with all the requirements of the law, nor perform them in the manner which it prescribes. This righteousness consists also of two kinds, philosophical and Christian. Philosophical is a knowledge of the law of God, and of virtue, which is imperfect, indistinct and small, and a certain purpose of the will and heart to do those things which are right as far as that knowledge extends, together with a course of conduct in accordance with the law. Christian righteousness consists in regeneration, or a knowledge of God and the divine law, imperfect, indeed, but yet more excellent and perfect than that which is philosophical, grounding itself in faith and the love of God, which the Holy Ghost kindles in the minds and hearts of the faithful through the gospel, and which is at the same time joined with a sincere desire to obey God according to all his commandments. This form of righteousness belongs properly to those who are regenerated, and flows from a justifying faith.  That righteousness which is particular is that which renders to every one his own, and is either commutative as distributive.  The former is that which preserves an equality in contracts, or in the exchange of things and their prices.  Distributive justice is that which preserves a proportion in the distribution of offices, honors, goods, rewards and punishments, rendering to every one according to his just desert. Let the husbandman till the ground, the statesman direct the affairs of the republic, and the theologian instruct the church, and let rewards be given to the good, and punishments be inflicted upon the evil: “Render to all their dues; tribute to whom tribute is due; honor to whom honor.”(Rom. 13:7.)

Righteousness is also distinguished from the subjects into that of the person, and the cause. Righteousness of the person is when a person is just and conformable to the law; and that of the cause is when a person has a just and good cause in controversy, whether he himself be good or bad. David often comforts himself with this in the book of the Psalms. It is otherwise called the righteousness of a good conscience.


Righteousness is conformity with the law; or, it is the fulfilling of the law, or that by which we are justified before God.  Justification, on the other hand, is the application of this righteousness to any one. They differ, therefore, as shape and the application of it to an object, or as whiteness and whitening, or making white. Justification admits of the same division which we have made of righteousness, into that which is legal and evangelical. Legal justification consists in effecting in us conformity with God and the law. This is commenced in us when we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Evangelical justification is the application of evangelical righteousness; or, it is the application of the righteousness of another, which is without us in Christ; or, it is the imputation and application of that righteousness which Christ wrought out for us by his death upon the cross, and by his resurrection from the dead. It is not a transfusion of righteousness, or of the qualities thereof; but it is the acquitting, or the declaring us free from sin in the judgment of God, on the ground of the righteousness of another. Justification and the forgiveness of sins are, therefore, the same: for to justify is that God should not impute sin unto us, but accept of us and declare us righteous; or, which is the same thing, that he declare us righteous on the ground of the righteousness of Christ made over unto us. That this is the proper signification of the word is clear from these passages of Scripture in which it occurs: “In thy sight shall no man living be justified,”that is, no one shall be acquitted, or declared just by inherent righteousness. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity,”&c. (Ps. 148:2; 31:1, 2.) Paul, in accordance with this declaration of the Psalmist, interprets
justification to be the remission of sins, where the word impute is repeated
seven times. (Rom. 4:7.)

Obj. He that is righteous is conformable to the law. To justify is to make righteous. Therefore to justify is to make the subject thereof conformable to the law. Ans. We grant the whole argument. To justify is to make the subject of it conformable to the law, either in himself, by a righteousness which is called his own, and which is inherent, infused and legal; or it is to be made righteous in another which is called imputed righteousness, the righteousness of faith, of the gospel, and of another, because it is not inherent in us, but in Christ. This consists also in conformity with the law; for faith does not make void the law, but establishes it. And such we may remark is our righteousness and justification; for we now speak of that righteousness with which we as sinners are justified before God in this life; and not of that by which we shall be accounted righteous in another life, or by which we would have been righteous had we not sinned.


The righteousness with which we are here justified before God, is not our conformity with the law, nor our good works, nor our faith; but it is the satisfaction which Christ rendered to the law in our stead; or the punishment which he endured in our behalf; and therefore the entire humiliation of Christ, from the moment of his conception to his glorification, including his assumption of humanity, his subjection to the law, his poverty, reproach, weakness, sufferings, death, &c., all of which he did willingly; yea, whatever he did and suffered to which he was not bound, as being righteous, and the Son of God, is all included in the satisfaction which he made for us, and in the righteousnoss which God graciously imputes to us, and all believers. This satisfaction is equivalent to the fulfilling of the law, or to the endurance of eternal punishment for sin, to one or the other of which the law binds all. “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” “Ye are complete in him.” “By the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” “With his stripes we are healed.” “He was bruised for our iniquities.” “This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” “Being justified freely, by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” “Blessed are they whose iniquities are for given.” “Being justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.” “We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.” “He redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.” “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.” “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”(1 Cor. 2:2. Col. 2:10. Rom. 5:19. Is. 58:5, 6. Luke 22:20. Rom. 3:24, 25; 4:7; 5:9, 10. 2 Cor. 8:9. Gal. 8:18. Eph. 1:7. 1 John 1:7.) Christ fulfilled the law by the holiness of his human nature, and by his obedience, even unto the death of the cross. The holiness of his human nature was necessary to his obedience; for it became our mediator to be holy and righteous in himself, that he might be able to perform obedience, and make satisfaction for us. “For such an High Priest became us, who is holy,”&c. (Heb. 7:26.) This obedience now is our righteousness, and it is upon the ground of this that God is pleased with us. The blood of Christ is the satisfaction on account of which God receives us into his favor, and which he imputes unto us, as it is said, the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin, both of commission and omission. The shedding of his blood is the complement of his satisfaction, and is for this reason called our righteousness.

The questions, How can a rational creature be righteous before God? how can man, being a sinner, be just before God? and whether a rational creature can merit any thing at the hands of God? are to be distinguished from each other. We reply to the first question, that a rational creature may be just before God by an inherent conformity with the law, as the angels, and those that are blessed. To the second question we reply, that man as a sinner can be regarded as righteous only on the ground of the imputation of Christ’s merits; and this is the question of which we speak when treating the subject of justification. That man cannot be declared righteous upon the ground of his works is evident from this, that his works are unholy before his justification that after his justification they are also imperfect, and that if they were perfect as they will be in another life, they could nevertheless, not satisfy for those sins which are past, and which still stand against us. To the third question we answer that man can merit nothing from God, for it is said, “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which was our duty to do.”(Luke 17:10.) Nor is the obedience of Christ meritorious in this respect, as though it added any thing to God, but it is called meritorious on account of the dignity of his person, because he who suffered was the Son of God.


At first view it seems absurd that we should be justified by any thing without us, or by something that belongs to another. It is necessary, therefore, that we should explain more fully how the satisfaction, or obedience of Christ becomes ours; for unless it be made ours, or be applied unto us, we cannot be justified by it, just as little as a wall can be white, if whiteness be not applied, or fixed upon it. We remark, then, that there are two ways in which the satisfaction of Christ is made over unto us: 1. God himself applies it unto us, that is, he makes the righteousness of Christ over unto us, and accepts of us as righteous on account of it, as if it were ours. 2. We apply it also unto ourselves when we receive the righteousness of Christ through faith, that is, we rest assured that God will grant it unto us, that he will regard us as righteous on account of it, and that he will free us from all guilt. There is, therefore, a double application; one in respect to God, and another in respect to us. The former is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, when God accepts of that righteousness which Christ wrought out, that it might avail in our behalf, and accounts us as righteous in view of it, as much so as if w r e had never sinned, or had at least fully satisfied for our sins. The other side of this application which has respect to us, is the act itself of believing, in which we are fully persuaded that it is imputed and given unto us. Both sides of this application must necessarily concur in our justification; for God applies the righteousness of Christ unto us upon the condition, that we also apply the same unto ourselves by faith. For although any one were to offer another a benefit, yet if he to whom it is offered does not accept of it, it is not applied unto him, and so does not become his. Hence without this last application the former is of no account. And yet our application of the righteousness of Christ is from God; for he first imputes it unto us, and then works faith in us, by which we apply unto ourselves that which is imputed; from which it appears that the application of God precedes that which we make, (which is of faith) and is the cause of it, although it is not without ours, as Christ says, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.”  (John 15:16.)

From what we have now said in regard to the application of the righteousness of Christ it appears, first, that it is no absurdity to say that we are justified by the righteousness of another; for the righteousness which is applied unto us by faith, and for which we are regarded as righteous, is not simply another s, but is made ours by application. The subject, indeed, in which this righteousness is found is Christ; but we are the object to which it has reference, inasmuch as it is imputed unto us. Secondly, the term imputation is not so comprehensive in its signification as application; for while the former is used in relation to God alone, the latter is used also in respect to us. Thirdly, that God applies the righteousness of Christ unto us in one way, and we apply it in another. God applies it by imputation while we apply it by faith, or by accepting of it. Fourthly, that to justify, in the sense in which the church uses the phrase, does not mean legally, which is to make one that is unjust, just, by infusing in him the qualities of righteousness; but evangelically, which is to regard one that is unrighteous, as righteous, arid to absolve him from guilt, and not to punish him, all of which is done on account of the satisfaction of another imputed unto him. It is in this sense that the Scriptures use the phrase, which may also be said of almost every language. In the Hebrew language it signifies to acquit one that is guilty, or to declare him innocent. “I will not justify the wicked.” “He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord.”(Gen. 23:7. Prov. 17:15.) So the Greek word &*ar.uv (Greek Font Needed) signifies sometimes to regard, or to declare one righteous, and again it means to inflict punishment, the cause being known by a proper trial, as Suidas observes. It is in this last sense that Christ says, “By thy words thou shalt be justified.”(Matt. 12:37.) The former signification is used in two ways in the Scriptures. It signifies either, not to condemn, but to acquit on trial: “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God s elect?” “It is God that justified” “He went down justified, rather than the other.”(Rom. 8:38. Luke 18:14.) Or it signifies to recognise and declare one righteous.  “Wisdom is justified of all her children.” “That thou mightest be justified when thou speaketh.”(Luke 7:35. Ps. 51:6.) Both significations, however, are reduced to the same thing. But the phrase, to justify, is never used among the Latins, and especially not by Latin authors in the sense of making holy, or of infusing a habit of righteousness. And it is evidently used in a different sense in the Scriptures, as the following passages clearly prove, which cannot be understood otherwise than of the acquital, and free acceptance of the sinner. “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect?” “It is God that justifieth.” “The publican went down justified,” that is, absolved from guilt, and accepted of God rather than the Pharisee. “And by him all that believe are justified from all things from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.”(Acts 13:39.) To justify in this last passage manifestly means to acquit, and to receive the forgiveness of sins. “Being justified freely by his grace.” “That he might be the justifier of him that believeth.” “We conclude that a man is justified without works.” “To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” “Being justified by his blood.”(Rom. 3:24, 26, 28; 4:5; 5:9.)


God, out of his mere mercy and grace, imputes and applies unto us the righteousness of Christ, as he also predestinated us from everlasting to this grace, and freely chose us in Christ, as those to whom he might in his own time apply this righteousness “according to the good pleasure of his will,” as Paul says, (Eph. 1:5) not having been moved thereto by any goodness or holiness which he foresaw would be in us. And the reason of this arises from the fact, that there can be no goodness in us, except God first produce it. Hence all thoughts of merit on our part must be abandoned as inconsistent with the grace of God, and as a denial of it; for the mercy and grace of God constitute the sole cause of each form of the application of the righteousness of Christ. God out of his infinite goodness applies, and makes over unto us the merits of Christ, that we may apply the same unto ourselves. The cause, therefore, on account of which this application is made is in God alone, and not at all in us, for it can neither be any thing foreseen in us, nor even the apprehension or reception of this righteousness itself. Whatever goodness there may be in us is the effect of the application of the merits of Christ; for “What hast thou that thou didst not receive.” “For by grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves it is the gift of God.”(1 Cor. 4:7. Eph. 2:8.)

Christ then presents himself in various ways for our justification:1. As the subject, and the ground of our righteousness. 2. As the moving cause: because he obtains it. 3. As the chief, and efficient cause; because he, together with the Father, justifies and gives us faith, by which we believe and receive it. The mercy of God is the moving cause of our justification as far as it respects God; the satisfaction of Christ is the formal cause; while our faith is the instrumental cause, apprehending and applying to ourselves the righteousness of Christ. We must observe therefore, that it cannot be said that we are justified in the same sense by the grace of God, by the merits of Christ, and by faith. The first must be understood of the moving cause, which is in God; the second of the formal cause, which is in Christ; and the third of the instrumental cause, which is in us. We are justified by the mercy or grace of God, as the chief moving cause, by which God was led to justify and save us. We are justified by the merits of Christ, partly as by the formal cause of our justification, inasmuch as God accepts of us in view of the obedience of Christ applied unto us, and account us as righteous seeing that we are covered with this, as with a garment; and partly as the moving and meritorious cause, inasmuch as God on account of this, acquits and frees us from the condemnation of the law. We are justified by faith, as by an instrumental cause, by which we apprehend the righteousness of Christ imputed unto us.

It is commonly said, that we are justified by faith correlatively, by which it is meant that we are justified by that which faith has respect to, which is the merit of Christ; or by that which it apprehends: for faith and the satisfaction of Christ have a mutual relation to each other; the one is that which receives, and the other is that which is received. This form of speech is correctly used, because when we thus speak, faith is understood to mean the formal cause of our justification, and the sense is, that the merit of Christ justifies us, and not faith; or that we are justified by that which is apprehended, and not by the instrument which apprehends. But justification may also be correctly attributed to faith, as the instrumental cause, without any such relation, for we may correctly say that we are justified by faith, meaning by it, that we are justified by it as a means: for the effect of an efficient cause is ordinarily attributed to the instrument. But when it is said, “faith is counted for righteousness,”(Rom. 4:5.) and when expressions of a similar character are used, they must necessarily be understood correlatively, in as much as faith is the instrument by which we apprehend the righteousness of Christ, or it is the hand with which we receive the righteousness of Christ.

Question. 61. Why do you say that you are righteous by faith only?

Answer. Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God;[1] and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only.[2]

[1] 1 Cor 1:30-31, 2:2; [2] Isa 53:5; Rom 4:16, 10:10; Gal 3:22; 1 Jn 5:10-12


We are said to be justified by faith only:

1. Because we are justified by the object of faith alone, that is by the merits of Christ only, without which we can have no righteousness whatever: for we are justified for Christ’s sake. Nothing but the merit of Christ can be our righteousness in the sight of God, either as a whole, or a part only. We are justified only by believing, and receiving the righteousness of another, and not by our own works, or merit. All works are excluded from, our justification, yea even faith itself in as far as it is a virtue, or work.

2. Because the act which belongs properly to faith is to apprehend, and apply to itself the righteousness of Christ; yea, faith is nothing else than the acceptance itself, or the apprehension of the merits of Christ.

3. Because faith alone is the instrument which apprehends the satisfaction of Christ. Hence it is plain, why the exclusive particle only should be added, as it is in the Catechism, and be maintained against the Papist. It is done, 1. For the purpose of expressing what Paul affirms when he says: “We are justified freely by his grace, without the deeds of the laws:”And what Christ says; “only believe.”(Rom. 4:24, 28. Mark. 5:36.) 2. That all our own works, and merits, as well as those of others, may be excluded as being the cause of our justification, that faith may be understood correlatively. We are justified by faith only, that is, by the merits of Christ alone. 3. That not only all our merits, but that even faith itself may be excluded from that which is received by faith; so that when we say, we are justified by faith only, the sense is, that it is not by meriting, but only by receiving; as when it is said, This beggar is enriched only by receiving alms, all works and merits are excluded there from, yea, even the very acceptance of alms, in as far as it is viewed as a merit. It is for this reason, that Paul always says, that we are justified by faith, and through faith, as by an instrument; and never on account of faith, as the Papists will have it, who indeed admit both forms of expression, as if faith might be the application of Christ’s righteousness, and be also at the same time a certain work, or merit, by which we are counted worthy of being declared righteous, which is directly opposed to the very nature of faith. For if we were justified on account of our faith, then faith would no longer be the acceptance of the righteousness of another, but it would be the merit, and cause of our own righteousness; neither would it receive the satisfaction of another, for it would no longer stand in need of it. 4. That we may understand the necessity of faith for our justification, and may know that we are justified, not by the merit of faith, but yet just as little without faith, to receive the righteousness of Christ; because it is the province of faith to appropriate this to itself. 5. The orthodox Fathers often use the same form of speech, by faith only. Origen writes:  “The Apostles say, that the justification OF FAITH ONLY is sufficient, so that if any one ONLY BELIEVES, he may be justified, even though he does not per form any works.”  Ambrose says: “They are justified freely, who, with out working or rendering any thing in turn, are justified BY FAITH ONLY as the gift of God.” Again; “How can the Jews suppose that they are justified by the works of the law, seeing they have the justification of Abraham set before them, who was justified, not by the works of the law, but BY FAITH ONLY.  The law, therefore, is not necessary, when the sinner is justified before God by FAITH ONLY.”And again. “God has decreed that he who believes in Christ, should be saved without works, receiving the remission of sins freely BY FAITH ONLY.”  We are therefore justified by faith only, which means that it is by the merits of Christ alone, apprehended by faith.

This we must firmly maintain, and believe:1. For the glory of God, that so the sacrifice of Christ may not be impaired. 2. For our comfort, that we may be assured that our righteousness does not depend upon our works, (for if this were the case we should lose it thousands of times,) but upon the sacrifice and merit of Christ alone.