Sanctification and the Heidelberg Catechism, Part One

Jon Payne Articles
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. However, these views - 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 background 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 overly 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 Heidelberg, 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

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).