Should Fear or Grace Motivate Good Works (HC LD 32, QA 86-87)?

Understanding how the Heidelberg Catechism is organized is important. The law exposes our sin and misery and drives us to Christ. This is the guilt section. The grace section unpacks the gospel. In this section, the Heidelberg helps us understand the Apostles’ Creed, an excellent historical summary of the gospel. Through the gospel, the Holy Spirit quickens and motivates us to live for God’s glory by increasingly obeying His commandments. This is the gratitude section. Gratitude is more than a feeling of thankfulness. Gratitude is receiving God’s grace and Spirit through faith which motivates us to good works. Good works play absolutely no part in our justification. To be clear, good works are the fruit or result or evidence of our justification. We receive Jesus by true faith and true faith expresses itself in love. Isn’t this what Paul meant by “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6)?

As we head into the gratitude or sanctification section of the Heidelberg, I think a quick definition of sanctification is in order. This will help you understand the gratitude section of the Heidelberg. Westminster Shorter Catechism 35 asks, “What is sanctification?” In other words, what is gratitude really? It answers, “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, by which we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die to sin and live to righteousness.” [1] Sanctification is not our exertion and labor apart from Christ. Sanctification is God’s work in us. The Holy Spirit renews us and conforms us to Christ. The Holy Spirit heartens us to hate and flee sin in order to live to righteousness. We do this gratefully as we experience God’s loving provision. With all that in mind, let’s direct our attention a bit to Heidelberg 86 and 87.

One of the big objections to Calvinism or Reformed Theology goes something like this:

If God’s preservation of the saints is true, if “once saved, always saved” is true, if people can’t lose their salvation, then what motivation will they have for godly living? “Once saved, always saved” theology encourages immorality and sin.

I understand this objection, but it is faulty. Three reasons I say this are as follows. One, it is implied in this objection that a Christian must fear losing his salvation in order to live a godly life. “I must do the law so that I can be saved in the end. I must make sure that I don’t foul this up.” Fear becomes the motivation for godliness instead of grace. Two, this objection implies that law-keeping contributes to our final salvation. If we can lose our salvation by returning to a life of sin, we keep our salvation by obeying Christ. This suggests that we are finally saved by something we do. This is antithetical to grace. Three, this objection ignores the Biblical truth that when God sovereignly grants His people His Holy Spirit and faith, His Holy Spirit graciously works sanctification in them through faith. Their inevitable progress in godliness is the result of God’s grace and Spirit working in their lives. This is part of salvation. God justifies you, but God also sanctifies you. Christ hasn’t given his blood for us to make our redemption possible but to make our redemption complete.

Heidelberg 86 asks, “Since we have been delivered from our misery by grace alone through Christ, without any merit of our own, why must we yet do good works?” Think about the theology of that question. We were delivered from our misery by grace alone through Christ. Grace delivered us. Our merit was not part of the equation. God did it all. So then, why must we do good works? Heidelberg answers:

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit to be His image, so that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for His benefits, and He may be praised by us. Further, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and that by our godly walk of life, we may win our neighbors for Christ.

Many professing Christians reject the idea of eternal security. They believe a Christian can lose his or her salvation. This puts immense pressure on believers to perform to stay saved. This also destroys the comfort, assurance, and rest of believers. The comfort of the gospel is knowing Christ redeemed us by his blood. But not only that, we have true and lasting comfort and assurance knowing that Christ, by his Holy Spirit, renews us to be his glorious image. He gives us his sovereign grace and Spirit for this reason – so that we can express our thankfulness, joy, and praise by godly living. We don’t simply praise our Lord with our mouths, we praise him with our heartfelt obedience to His law. We receive Christ by true faith and are so glad to have received that by the Holy Spirit we express our gratitude in joyful obedience. What motivates obedience? Fear or grace? I would argue that though fear of perishing is appropriate to a certain extent, God’s grace in Christ is the primary motivator to obedience. Being scared does not empower anyone to truly fight lust, covetousness, deceit, anger, resentment, worry, etc. Only God’s grace and Spirit can truly transform and motivate someone to fight the good fight of faith.

Additionally, godliness is confirmation of having truly received Christ by faith. Godliness is an assurance of faith. If the fruit is not there, neither is the faith. When the fruit is there, our faith is confirmed. And when God grants the faith, God also grants the fruit of faith, good works. It would profit you to meditate on Ephesians 2:10 which says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” That is a profound verse that says much about God’s sovereign grace and good works which are predestined and motivated by sovereign grace.

So, if someone confesses Christ and is active in a local church but continues to live in sin – not just sin but live in unrepentant sin – and continues to refuse to repent, can they be saved? Clearly not. Heidelberg 87 states:

Can those be saved who do not turn to God from their ungrateful and impenitent walk of life? By no means. Scripture says that no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, greedy person, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the kingdom of God.

You may think, “I’ve been unchaste. I struggle with idolatry. I’ve committed adultery. I got drunk before. Are you saying I can’t be saved?” If you continue in these sins without repentance, without a fight, without a commitment to forsake sin entirely, then no, you cannot be saved. You will die in your sins. However, if you continue to struggle with sin but are committed to hate it, forsake it, flee it, turn from it, and are continually turning to Christ for help and receiving his help, then of course you are saved and will be saved. Your trust in Christ is the work of God’s keeping grace and Spirit, and His work of sovereign grace should comfort and assure you. James 2:18 is relevant. James said, “I will show you my faith by my works.”

Listen, when God has been infinitely merciful, kind, compassionate, gracious, powerful, and effective in saving you, thankfulness fills the heart as the Holy Spirit motivates and quickens godliness. The more we live for Christ, the more we are assured that Christ is truly our redeemer and that he is active in our lives. Saints, be comforted when you take a baby step in godliness; it’s God providing for you.

[1] The Confessions of Our Faith, Fortress Edition, ed. Rev. Brian W. Kinney (Fortress Book Service & Publishers, 2007), 129. 

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism and creeds are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism: True Comfort for Life & Death (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021), 395.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

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