Zacharias Ursinus on the Law’s Requirement of Perfect Obedience . . .

Does the law of God require perfect obedience, or is the law simply given to sinners who thereby are not expected to render perfect obedience to its demands? Aren’t those to whom the law is given called instead to live according to a reasonable degree of conformity to that law in order to be called “blameless” or “righteous?” After all, weren’t such Biblical characters as Job (Job 1.1, 8; 2.3; etc) and David (2 Sam 22.24) – among others – declared to be blameless (Heb: tam or tamiym)? If they were called blameless, doesn’t this then prove that one can be blameless apart from perfect obedience to the law, thereby concluding that the law must not actually require perfect obedience?

Zacharias Ursinus, one of the primary authors of the Heidelberg catechism didn’t see it this way. Here are some quotes from his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. (Note: here is the Kindle version I own.)

The comparing of ourselves with the law, or of the law with ourselves, is a consideration of that purity which the law requires, and whether it be in us. This comparison clearly proves that we are not what the law requires; for it [the law] demands perfect love to God, whilst there is nothing in us but aversion and hatred to him. The law, again, demands perfect love toward our neighbor; but in us there is enmity to our neighbor. (pg. 26)

And again:

The obedience of the law is possible in the regenerate, 1. As touching external propriety and discipline. 2. As it respects the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, or by the benefit of justification and regeneration which we obtain by faith. 3. As it respects the commencement of internal and external obedience in this life. . . . He that boasts that he knows and worships God, without the commencement of obedience, or regeneration, is a liar.

But the law is impossible to the regenerate in respect to God, or the perfect internal and external obedience which it requires. (pg. 608 )

Finally Ursinus answers a few objections. Two of them are considered here (I’ve added paragraph breaks to facilitate easier reading):

Obj. 4. The severity of divine justice does not render good according to works which are not perfectly good. But Christ in the final judgement will render to every one, and so to the saints also, according to their works. Therefore the works of the saints are so perfect that they will in themselves stand in the judgement of God.

Ans. There are here four terms; because the major must be understood of a legal reward of works, whilst the minor must be understood of a reward that is evangelical; or to express it differently, we may say that the justice of God does not render good according to works which are imperfect, if he judges according to the covenant of perfect obedience to the law.

But Christ, in rewarding the works of the saints, will not judge according to the covenant of perfect works, but according to the covenant of faith, or of his own righteousness imputed and applied to them by faith; and yet he will judge them according to their works, as according to the evidences of their faith, from which their works have proceeded, and which they, as the fruits of this faith, declare to be in them.

Obj. 5. The Scriptures attribute perfection to the works of the saints [Citation is made of Ps. 119: 1, 10; Gen. 6:9; 2 Chron. 15:17] . . . . Testimonies of a similar character are found in every part of the Scriptures. Therefore the works of the saints are perfect.

Ans. These and similar declarations of Scripture speak of that perfection which consists in parts, of true sincerity as opposed to hypocrisy, and a feigning of piety, and not of that perfection which consists in the degrees of obedience which the saints ought to render to God. For the saints do not in this life attain to that degree of perfect obedience which the law requires; yet they, nevertheless, have the commencement of perfect obedience to the divine law, and of subjection to God, according to all his commandments.

And although there is much hypocrisy and sin still remaining even in the most holy, as it is said, let every man be a liar (Rom. 3:4), yet there is notwithstanding a great difference between those who are altogether hypocrites, whose hypocrisy is pleasing to themselves, having no commencement or sense of true piety in their hearts, and those who, acknowledging and lamenting the remains of hypocrisy in themselves, have at the same time the commencement of true faith and conversion to God.

The former are condemned of God, whilst the latter are received into favor, not on account of this commencement of obedience which is in them, but on account of the perfect obedience of Christ imputed unto them.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

But, say our opponents, the Scriptures also attribute the perfection of degrees to the saints . . . . But these and similar declarations of scripture, do not mean by the term perfect, such as are absolutely or wholly conformable to the law, but such as have more knowledge, assurance and readiness (confirmed by exercise) to obey God, resist carnal desires, and to bear the cross, than others who are not so fully confirmed and established in the principles of piety. For so this perfection is elsewhere explained, where it is said [citation of Eph 4:13; Phil 3:12; Rom 7:18]. . . . Hence this perfection is relative, having respect, not to the divine law, but to such as are weaker and less confirmed in the faith of the gospel.

(Taken from pgs. 609-11; emphasis mine)

Ursinus makes it clear that even though the law does in fact demand perfect obedience, Christians can take heart in the fact that they will not be judged according to their own performance of that required obedience, but according to Christ’s performance of it. Ursinus ends with some amazing words of comfort:

And although regeneration is not perfect in this life, yet, if it be indeed begun, it is sufficient to confirm the truth of our faith to our consciences. And indeed that which John adds, when he says, Love casteth out fear, is a proof that love is not as yet perfect in us, because we are not in this life perfectly delivered from fear of the wrath and judgement of God, and of eternal punishment. For the fear and love of God, which are contrary to each other, are here in small degrees in the saints at the same time, their fear decreasing, and their love and comfort or joy in God increasing, until joy fains a complete triumph, and perfectly casts out all agitation and fear in the life to come, when God shall wipe away every tear. (pg. 611)

Amen! Come quickly Lord Jesus!

Rev. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA

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