This year marks the 450th anniversary of the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism, which remains one of the most significant teaching documents in the Reformed tradition. Here is the latest in bi-weekly reflections on its contents. (For some background and the entire document, check this out).
LORD’S DAYS 23-24
Q. 59. But how does it help you now that you believe all this?
A. That I am righteous in Christ before God, and an heir of eternal life.
Q. 60. How are you righteous before God?
A. Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. In spite of the fact that my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have not kept any one of them, and that I am still ever prone to all that is evil, nevertheless, God, without any merit of my own, out of pure grace, grants me the benefits of the perfect expiation of Christ, imputing to me his righteousness and holiness as if I had never committed a single sin or had ever been sinful, having fulfilled myself all the obedience which Christ has carried out for me, if only I accept such favor with a trusting heart.
Q. 61. Why do you say that you are righteous by faith alone?
A. Not because I please God by virtue of the worthiness of my faith, but because the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ alone are my righteousness before God, and because I can accept it and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone.
Q. 62. But why cannot our good works be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of it?
A. Because the righteousness which can stand before the judgment of God must be absolutely perfect and wholly in conformity with the divine Law. But even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.
Q. 63. Will our good works merit nothing, even when it is God’s purpose to reward them in this life, and in the future life as well?
A. This reward is not given because of merit, but out of grace.
Q. 64. But does not this teaching make people careless and sinful?
A. No, for it is impossible for those who are ingrafted into Christ by true faith not to bring forth the fruit of gratitude.
This set of questions and answers reverberates with the heartbeat of Reformed theology. Briefly, it is this: Our faith lays hold of Christ and his righteousness–in whom we are credited worthy before the God against whom we have rebelled–of which the good works that we necessarily pursue are a fruit and confirmation.
Now, let’s unpack that a bit.
First, our faith lays hold of Christ and his righteousness. Calvin famously said, “faith brings a man empty to God, that he may be filled with the righteousness of Christ”, and that “if even the least ability came from ourselves, we would also have some share of the merit…[but] not a whit remains to man to glory in, for the whole of salvation comes from God.” For this reason, Reformed theology speaks of faith as the instrumental cause of our salvation. Faith saves us not because of how sincere or genuine or strong it is, but because of that to which it lays hold.
Think of it like this: if you have a headache, then you should take two aspirin. The act of swallowing is not what eliminates the headache, but it is a necessary act in order to appropriate the benefits of the aspirin, which is the thing that actually does eliminate the headache.
Of course it’s an imperfect illustration (I am not suggesting that our sin is merely a ‘headache’!), but the point remains. Faith, in and of itself, is not what saves us. Faith that lays hold of Jesus Christ is that which saves. Calvin, again, said it well: “..as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us.”
When we do cling to him in faith, however, it is his righteousness that is imputed to us. It is credited–or “reckoned”–to be ours. This is not a “legal fiction” as some have maligned, but a glorious reality in which “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21, what Luther called “the great exchange”).
Christ really and truly takes our sin. We really and truly receive his righteousness.
Then what? If good works play no part in our salvation, then why bother?
They play no part in our salvation, because even our best deeds are stained by our sin (Isaiah 64:6). They do, however, reveal and confirm our identity in Christ. They are the fruit of discipleship, and the necessary and inevitable grateful response of a heart that has been transformed by the quickening work of the Spirit. As Luther said, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” It is impossible (notice the strong language) for someone who has experienced the riches of God’s mercy in Christ to remain idle, slothful, and careless in the way in which they live. Indeed, the catechism goes so far as to highlight the biblical truth that our good works (those done in faith once we have been ingrafted into Christ that is) will be rewarded by our Father in heaven. Yet even this comes from his grace, and not because he is obligated to grudgingly bless us.
We come before our holy God with empty hands, unable to present even the best of our efforts to him unashamedly. Instead, we lay hold of Christ by faith, and are credited with his righteousness. Then, we reach out with loving hands to serve those around us in his name, joyously thankful that we are heirs of eternal life in Christ.