The Law/Gospel Distinction (Olevianus)

An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism The Reformers understood the difference between the law and the gospel.  It wasn’t just Luther who made this important distinction.  For one example, here’s how Caspar Olevianus (d. 1587) explained it (as quoted by Otto Thelemann):

“With reference to the relation between the law and the Gospel, Olevianus says:

“The law is a principle which God has implanted in nature, and has repeated and renewed in the commandments, in which He presents to us as in a handwriting what we are bound to do and what to leave undone, viz., a perfect inner and outer obedience; and He promises eternal life on the condition that we keep the law of God perfectly all our life. But on the other hand, eternal damnation is threatened if we do not keep it, but transgress it in one or more points. Deut. 27:26. After the law has once been transgressed, there is no promise that our sin will be forgiven through its help, i.e., through the works of the law, but the sentence of condemnation follows immediately. But the Gospel, or the glad tidings, is a truth concerning which the wisest men have known nothing by nature. It has been revealed from heaven. In it God does not make a demand of us, but He offers and gives to us the righteousness which the law demands of us, viz., the perfect obedience of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, whereby all our sins and condemnation with which the law threatens us, are pardoned and blotted out. Rom. 5, Gal. 3. God gives us in the Gospel the forgiveness of sins, not under the condition that we keep the law, but as a free gift through faith in Jesus Christ. Although we have never kept the law, and even now cannot keep it perfectly, He has nevertheless forgiven us our sins and offers eternal life. John 1:17, Rom. 8:3, 4, Gal. 3:12–15.”

 Thelemann, O. (1896). An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. (M. Peters, Trans.) (pp. 61–62). Reading, PA: James I. Good, D. D, Publisher.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Law as a Rule of Life

Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae Commentary (21 vols.) As long as I can remember I have resonated with the teaching that the law of God is a guide of gratitude for the Christian’s life.  I’ve always liked how the Heidelberg Catechism says that obeying the law is a Christian’s way of saying “thanks” to God for salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (Q/A 2, 32).  I also appreciate how the Westminster Confession says that the law isn’t a covenant of works for believers, by which they should seek justification; rather, it is “of great use to them” as a “rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty; it directs and binds them to walk accordingly” (WCF 19.6).  Along with these insights, here are some helpful comments by Charles Simeon on 1 John 2:6 (the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked – NASB).

There are some who deny that the law is to the believer a rule of life. But supposing this error could not be refuted by direct testimony, which it easily and abundantly may, what would the advocates of it gain, if once they admitted, what I suppose no man would deny, that Christ is an example for us to follow? Did not he “fulfil all righteousness,” even to the utmost extent of the moral law? And if he did, and is an example to us, must not we obey the law in the same manner, and to the same extent? We are not indeed to fulfil it for the same ends; because he alone, as the Mediator between God and man, can save men by his obedience unto death: but in all that he did as a man, we are to follow his steps: and if we neglect to do so, we shew, that we have no part or lot in his salvation.

Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae: James to Jude, vol. 20 (London: Holdsworth and Ball, 1833), 382–383.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Promise of Reward (Calvin)

Commentary on the Book of PsalmsThe 63rd Q/A of the Heidelberg Catechism deals with Scripture’s promise tthat God will reward the good that his people do.  The catechism says “This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.”  Here’s Calvin’s similar take on this theme found in his commentary on Psalm 62:12b, You reward everyone according to what they have done (NIV).

From this, and passages of a similar kind, the Papists have argued, in defense of their doctrine, that justification and salvation depend upon good works; but I have already exposed the fallacy of their reasoning. No sooner is mention made of works, than they catch at the expression, as amounting to a statement that God rewards men upon the ground of merit.

It is with a very different design than to encourage any such opinion, that the Spirit promises a reward to our works—it is to animate us in the ways of obedience, and not to inflame that impious self-confidence which cuts up salvation by the very roots.

According to the judgment which God forms of the works of the believer, their worth and valuation depend, first, upon the free pardon extended to him as a sinner, and by which he becomes reconciled to God; and, next, upon the divine condescension and indulgence which accepts his services, notwithstanding all their imperfections.

We know that there is none of our works which, in the sight of God, can be accounted perfect or pure, and without taint of sin. Any recompense they meet with must therefore be traced entirely to his goodness. Since the Scriptures promise a reward to the saints, with the sole intention of stimulating their minds, and encouraging them in the divine warfare, and not with the remotest design of derogating from the mercy of God, it is absurd in the Papists to allege that they, in any sense, merit what is bestowed upon them.

John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 432.

Shane Lems

Law, Gospel, and Conversion (Ursinus)

In Reformed theology, the law and gospel are distinguished, yet God uses both in his sovereign way.  Zacharius Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, understood this well.  After talking about how the Holy Spirit is the primary agent in a sinner’s conversion, he talks about the instrumental causes of conversion (that is, the instruments the Spirit uses to convert a sinner).  Here are his comments:

The 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 knowledge 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.

I realize many people dangerously mix this up today – even some who consider themselves Reformed.  But the historic Reformed position is really not overly difficult or complicated.  Ursinus said it well, the Heidelberg Catechism says it well, and the Westminster Standards say it well.  Making a distinction between the law and the gospel runs through the fabric of Reformed theology.  With Scripture, we say that through the law comes the knowledge of sin, and in the law we find a guide for the Christian life (Rom. 3:20, Ps. 119:174, etc.).  But the only thing that can give us life and salvation is the gospel, not the law (Rom. 1:16).

The above quote is taken from Zacharias Ursinus and G. W. Williard, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 472.

Shane Lems

Christian Duty

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms “Duty” is a word that has been used throughout history in the positive sense of the term.  From soldiers to civil servants to police officers to doctors to common laborers, many people have done their tasks because they believed it was their duty to do so.  This sense of duty is usually a good thing.

It is also good and proper for Christians to talk about duty.  Even though I haven’t come across this term in many recent Christian books, “duty” is a word Christians can and should use.  “Duty” is a word used in the best sense of the term by many Christians in the past.

For one example, John Owen wrote a book called “The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded” (it’s found in volume 7 of his Works).  In this book, he (obviously!) talks a lot about Christian duty.

Here’s what Owen notes about the duty of prayer (emphasis mine):

A person indisposed and lifeless, engaging unto prayer in a way of obedience, upon conviction of duty, may, in and by the gift, have his affections excited and grace engaged unto its proper work (p. 296).

Concerning Christian duty and superstition, he wrote,

And we are not forgo our duty because other men have been mistaken in theirs, nor part with practical, fundamental principles of religion because they have been abused by superstition (p. 346).

And more:

Wherefore, we are to call in all constraining motives, such as the consideration of the love of Christ, 2 Cor. 5:14, to keep the mind steady unto its duty (p. 386).

As you value your souls, defer not the duty you are called unto one moment (p. 466).

The Reformed Creeds and Confessions also speak about Christian duty.  The Belgic Confession (Art. 36) says it is the “bounden duty” of Christians to “subject themselves to the magistrates.”  The Canons of Dort (III/IV.15) says it is the Christian’s “duty” to pray for unbelievers whom God has not [yet] called.  The Heidelberg Catechism notes that Christians have a “duty” to use their gifts to serve others and the Catechism says the church has a “duty” to excommunicate unrepentant sinners (Q/A 55, 82).

The Westminster Standards use the term “duty” over 20 times, mostly in terms of the Christian’s responsibility to obey God’s law: “What are the duties required in the 1st, 2nd, (etc.) commandment?” And the answers list scores of duties the Christians have with relation to obeying the Lord.  The Westminster Confession even talks about the “conscience of duty” that the Spirit works in a believer (XVIII.4).

And, of course, our ultimate authority (Scripture) talks about duty.  The kings and priests in the Old Testament had duties (1 Sam. 10:25, Num. 8:26).  And Ecclesiastes straightforwardly says, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecc. 12:13).

There is more to this discussion about duty (e.g. God’s enabling grace, motives, ends, etc.), but we shouldn’t shy away from having a sense of duty as Christians.  I have a Christian duty to love/care for my wife and children, to faithfully serve as a pastor to God’s people here, to regularly attend worship services, to help and love my neighbors, to be a good citizen of my country, and, above all, I have a duty to follow the Lord Jesus.  It is not wrong to go to church out of a sense of duty, to pray out of a sense of duty, and to help your neighbor based on a sense of duty!  There is a right and proper way to speak and think about Christian duty.

The above quotes from Owen are found in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 7 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.).

shane lems
hammond, wi

Systematic Theology For Children

First Catechism: Teaching Children Bible Truths (Booklet) One of the blessings of the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition is the emphasis and practice of training covenant children in the way of the Lord.  Early on in the Reformation, the Reformers wrote and preached not just for adults, but for children as well.  In fact, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Shorter Catechism were written to help train children as well as adults.  For over 400 years, Reformed/Presbyterian churches have published booklets to help teach kids the faith.  These catechisms are a systematic question and answer way to teach our kids basic Christian doctrine.  They are not dry, dusty documents, but tried and true ways to instruct our covenant children in the faith.

The main resource my family uses is the First Catechism, which is something like a kids’ version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  When our kids are familiar with this First Catechism, it will be easy for them to move on to the Shorter and Larger Catechisms.  We like this catechism because it is brief, clear, biblical, and has precise language – language which kids pick up on (our little girl has prayed, “Thanks God, for making me and all things!”)  For an example, here are the first four Q/As (there are a total of 150 Q/As):

1) Who made you?  God.
2) What else did God make?  All things.
3) Why did God make you and all things?  For his own glory.
4) How can you glorify God?  By loving him and doing what he commands.

Another resource for those who are more familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism is A Compendium of the Christian Religion.  This is a shortened version of the Heidelberg Catechism that was (if my info is correct) written in 1599.  It was mentioned at the Synod of Dort as a helpful aid in teaching covenant youth.   It is a bit dated and contains archaic language; an updated version might be nice.  Another resource very similar to the Compendium is a small course written by Peter Y. De Jong.  It’s called Learning to Know the Lord.  I went through this material when I was a young teenager; it is an excellent resource and is inexpensive and still in print.  (For those of you in continental Reformed churches, feel free to chime in on some catechism resources you’ve used.)

Training our kids in the faith isn’t always an easy task!  There are quite a few resources out there, I know, but this is one area where we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.  Keeping it simple, we can read the Bible to our kids and teach them a summary of it in the catechism.  These are building blocks for our kids to start with and upon which to grow.  It’ll help them better understand Reformed theology of the creeds and confessions – and ultimately, the theology of Scripture!

Note: The First Catechism can be found on various websites, and is usually inexpensive (well under $5.00).  There are even catechism songs, flash cards, and apps which help teach (and learn) the catechisms of the Reformation.  We can be thankful for all these solid resources!

shane lems
covenant presbyterian church (OPC)
hammond wi

Good Works in the Christian Life

Commentary on Heidelberg Catechism Since I’ve been studying and writing on the law, justification, and sanctification, I wanted to use Zacharius Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism to explain how Reformed theology talks about good works in the Christian life.  On this topic, Ursinus has a helpful exposition of Q/A 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism.  The question is this: “Since we are delivered from our misery, merely out of grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?”

In other words, it is certainly true that by faith alone in Christ alone, by God’s grace alone, we’re delivered from our sin and misery.  It’s certainly true that God accepts and adopts us because of what Jesus has done in our place.  But why must we still do good works?  Here are Ursinus’ answers, based on Scripture.

1) “Because good works are the fruits of our regeneration by the Holy Spirit, which are always connected with our free justification (Rom. 8:30, 1 Cor. 6:11).  Those, therefore, who do not perform good works, show that they are neither regenerated by the Spirit of God, nor redeemed by the blood of Christ.”

2) “That we may express our gratitude to God for the benefit of redemption (Rom. 6:13; 12:1).”

3) “That God may be glorified by us (Matt. 5:16, 1 Pet. 2:12).”

4) “Because they are the fruits of faith – that by which our own faith, as well as the faith of others, is judged of (2 Pet. 1:10, Matt. 7:17, Gal 5:6, 22).”

5) “That we may bring others to Christ (Luke 22:32, 1 Pet. 3:1, Rom. 14:19).”

Ursinus also has a brief note to preachers after #5, which is also relevant for us today:

“These causes, now, must be explained and urged with great diligence, in our sermons and exhortations to the people; and here we may cite, as being in point, the whole of the sixth chapter, and the first part of the eighth chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, down to the sixteenth verse.”

Zacharias Ursinus is a great example of how Reformed theology discusses good works in the Christian life.  In this commentary, Ursinus clearly distinguishes between law and gospel and he clearly explains justification by faith alone.  But these truths don’t cause him to avoid the topic of good works in the Christian life.  Rather, these truths are the basis for his discussion of them.  Grace always leads to gratitude.  Salvation has to do with service, and sanctification follows justification.

Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 465-466.

rev shane lems
hammond, wi