Righteous By Faith: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 23


  1. What does it help you now, that you believe all this?

That I am righteous in Christ before God, and an heir of eternal life.1

[1] Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Jn. 3:36; *Tit. 3:7; *Rom. 5:1; *Rom. 8:16.


  1. How are you righteous before God?

Only by true faith in Jesus Christ:1 that is, although my conscience accuses me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them,2 and am still prone always to all evil;3 yet God, without any merit of mine,4 of mere grace,5 grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction,6 righteousness, and holiness of Christ,7 as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me;8 if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.9

[1] Rom. 3:21–25; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8–9; Phil. 3:9. [2] Rom. 3:9–10. [3] Rom. 7:23. [4] Tit. 3:5. [5] Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:8. [6] 1 Jn. 2:2. [7] 1 Jn. 2:1; Rom. 4:4–5; 2 Cor. 5:19. [8] 2 Cor. 5:21. [9] Jn. 3:18; *Rom. 3:28; *Rom. 10:10.


  1. Why do you say that you are righteous by faith only?

Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God;1 and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only.2

[1] 1 Cor. 1:30; 2:2. [2] 1 Jn. 5:10. *Isa. 53:5; *Gal. 3:22; *Rom. 4:16.


Righteous by Faith

We have just concluded looking at the Apostles’ Creed, a summary of the basic articles of the faith, which ends with the word “amen,” a declaration that we believe what we said, not just reciting it by rote.  The natural question to ask is, “So what?”  This Lord’s day section tells us how it benefits us to believe these things, expanding on what was said back on Lord’s Day 7, where we were told that we are ingrafted into Christ and receive all His benefits only by true faith.  The Apostles’ Creed summarizes for us the content of that faith, and the questions we look at this week tell us the result of believing those doctrines.

Very simply, the result is justification.  I am righteous before God and an inheritor of eternal life.  Question 60 defines it further, explaining what it means that we are “righteous before God.”  The term for this is justification, and the justification we receive as a result of faith in the gospel is emphatic.  We are regarded as being just as righteous as Jesus Himself.  His righteousness is “imputed” to me, meaning that it is charged to my account, reckoned as if it belongs to me.

This “imputation” is not just that I am regarded by God as innocent, as if I had never committed any sin.  It is that, but more.  God sees me as having done all the good works which Christ fulfilled, perfectly obeying the requirements of God in every respect.  In a sense these are just different ways of saying the same thing, since any failure to do what God commands is a sin, just as much as my commission of an act which God has prohibited.  But it makes the point emphatically that Christ’s death on my behalf doesn’t just wipe the slate clean so I can start fresh on earning my way to salvation.  Christ’s life and death on my behalf means that it is completely done.  My salvation is guaranteed when I believe the gospel.  The one who truly believes the gospel of Jesus Christ is as certainly beloved of God as Christ Himself is and can have absolute confidence that he will inherit the joys of eternal life.

Sadly, churches and teachers have so often muddled this point.  They have frequently added requirements to the simple obligation to believe the gospel.  They have added ceremonies and sacraments.  They have added obligations to do good works or penance of some prescribed type.  They have required that a person have some specific kind of “conversion experience” or level of emotional intensity about Christ.

To be sure, many of these things are good things and will inevitably be produced by true faith.  Faith without works is dead—that is, a faith which does not produce change in the believer is not real faith, and we cannot be saved by a sham faith.  The person who does not turn from his sin, who refuses to be a part of Christ’s body, and who despises the signs which God has given the Church to strengthen and nourish our faith has no business considering himself as in Christ.  But we must not make any of those things the grounds of our justification, or even the grounds of our assurance of justification.  The promise of the gospel is that if we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, we will be saved, and we must not add anything to that or take anything from it at the risk of God’s wrath.  The Apostle Paul in the book of Galatians sharply condemned any who would add conditions to the gracious forgiveness that people have in Christ by faith alone.

We must even avoid the mistake of thinking that God accepts our faith as a substitute for obedience.  Even this is to suspend our salvation on something in us, leaving us to wonder whether we believe enough or not.  But as question 61 tells us, it is the perfect righteousness of Christ which is substituted for our own lack of righteousness, not our faith.  Faith is what the Spirit of God works in me to lay hold of that righteousness.  Grasping this point, I can recognize that my justification is something objective: the perfect and complete obedience of Christ and His perfect sacrifice on my behalf.  There is no need to wonder whether or not I have met the bar, whether I have done enough.  We can rest completely in that perfect salvation.  In fact, that’s just what faith is.