Sanctification and the Heidelberg Catechism, Part One

Over at Reformation 21, Jon Payne has written this post on the subject of sanctification, as it is described in the Heidelberg Catechism (HC). This document, written primarily by Zacharius Ursinus in 1563, is one of the Three Forms of Unity, which together serve as the Continental Reformed counterpart to the British Westminster Standards. Some have recently appealed to the HC in order to defend the notion that gratitude for our justification should be the sole motivation for Christian obedience in sanctification. To be sure, the HC presents gratitude as the chief motivation for obedience, but as Payne notes, there can be other legitimate motivations as well. He mentions God’s glory, the desire to be holy, and fatherly discipline/warnings as examples.

I agree with what Payne says here, and am very supportive of the Gospel Reformation Network in general. I think they have done a good job of pushing back against the notion of “sanctification by faith alone,” or “gospel-driven sanctification,” as it is sometimes called. It reminds me of the book Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, which I read my first semester in seminary. In this volume, Gerhard Forde summarizes the Lutheran view of sanctification as, “Sanctification is getting used to your justification.” By contrast, Sinclair Ferguson, who defends the Reformed view, highlights Calvin’s “third use” of the law (the law as a guide for Christian living) and the “grace of law” (Lutherans more often set grace and law in opposition to one another). It seems that there is a sort of Lutheran resurgence within the Reformed world today (truth be told, Lutheran-leaning Calvinists have probably always been around). So I am grateful that many are calling for a return to our Reformed center.

There is one area where I might supplement what Payne has written. In addition to gratitude, God’s glory, desire for holiness, and fatherly warnings as motivations for obedience, I would also include the pursuit of blessing. [1] This principle is explicitly biblical: for example, Ps. 1:3 tells us that the righteous man prospers in all that he does, and 1 Pet. 3:9 commands us to bless, that we may obtain a blessing. Further, this principle is explicitly confessional: the Westminster Confession of Faith 19.6 states, “The promises of it [God’s moral law], in like manner, show them [believers] God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof.”

Now of course, there are two cautions that need to be kept in mind here. First, we need to beware of distorting a godly pursuit of blessing into a mercenary, legalistic desire for personal gain. Our appreciation of the gifts should not make us lose sight of the Gift-giver. And second, we need to beware of distorting the biblical principle of blessing-for-obedience into an unbiblical, mechanical “prosperity gospel” theology. There are times when a righteous person obeys, and yet still suffers (think Job). Likewise, there are times when a wicked person disobeys, and yet still prospers (Eccl. 7:15). Nevertheless, God has arranged the world in such a way that, in general, obedience to his law leads to human flourishing. We could call this “going with the grain of the universe.”


1. This might be another area where John Frame’s multiperspectivalism comes in handy: some motivations for obedience are normative (God’s glory), others are situational (blessing, evangelistic witness), and others are existential (gratitude, pursuit of holiness).

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

2 Responses to “Sanctification and the Heidelberg Catechism, Part One”

  1. Nice reflection Kyle. I think your addition is right on. One reason we pursue holiness (especially if we are remembering to consider holiness in inter-personal and not simply intrapersonal, private terms) is because we trust that being holy (i.e. having the character of Yahweh) is what it means to flourish in this world and on the new heavens and the new earth. To be holy is to be at peace, reconciled, in harmony with God, others, the earth, etc; to be holy is to be peacefully in communion. In this respect, holiness is a ultimate good (maybe even the ultimate good if described in that way).

    For an insightful and incisive new book coming out by various Reformed thinkers on the topic of sanctification, check out this book:


  1. Sanctification and the Heidelberg Catechism, Part Two | Allkirk Network - July 21, 2014

    […] and the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) at Reformation 21. In his first post (to which I responded here), he discussed the variety of motivations for Christian obedience, which extend beyond mere […]

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