Not of Merit but of Grace: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 24


  1. But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God?

Because the righteousness which can stand before the judgment seat of God must be perfect throughout and entirely conformable to the divine law,1 but even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.2

[1] Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26. [2] Isa. 64:6; *Jas. 2:10; *Phil. 3:12.


  1. Do our good works merit nothing, even though it is God’s will to reward them in this life and in that which is to come?

The reward comes not of merit, but of grace.1

[1] Lk. 17:10; *Rom. 11:6.


  1. But does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?

No, for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.1

[1] Matt. 7:18; *Rom. 6:1–2; *Jn. 15:5.

Lord’s Day 24

Not of Merit But of Grace

The doctrine taught in this question is something we should keep continually before our eyes.  It is so easy to slip into human pride and think we deserve God’s favor.  If we are trained in the Christian faith at all, it might be unlikely that we would so badly fall as to think that we completely merited God’s grace, but it’s quite common, virtually universal among even true believers, to think we deserve it at least a little bit.  Some theologies even teach explicitly that Jesus does most of it and then we need to add our part to finish our salvation, or that Jesus makes it possible for us to save ourselves by our labors.

When we consider that all good things are God’s grace and favor to us, in this life and in that which is to come, the problem becomes even more explicit.  I might confess that I only deserve eternal life because of God’s grace, and yet believe that I deserve a good life now.  I might think I earned my nice house and nice car and comfortable middle-class life because of my hard work or good choices.

But when I remember what is taught in the Scriptures and repeated here in the catechism, that God is so perfect that He cannot tolerate any sin at all, any challenge to His sovereignty and justice, then we will not presume to believe I can ever stand before Him with my own good deeds and think the very best things I have ever done can merit the least thing from Him.  The very best works I do are mixed with sin.  I do good at least partly to be seen of others, to think well of myself, or to gain some other earthly advantage.  I do good according to my own opinions of what good is instead of God’s law.

Further, whatever goodness I have within me is only God’s grace, and therefore, as Article 24 of the Belgic Confession says, whatever good works I do only increase my debt to God and create no debt in Him toward me.  How can God owe me anything for the good works which His own grace works in me, especially since those good works are what was due to God in return for our existence?

But it is God’s desire to crown His good gifts with more gifts, and thus our sanctification does produce rewards, like the teacher that gives the child a gold star once the child has successfully repeated his lessons.  That child hasn’t earned anything in any real sense, and God likewise owes us nothing, but because He is a good and gracious God and desires to encourage righteousness in His children, He blesses obedience in us, both now and in eternity.  But we must never fall into the trap of thinking that God owes us something or that He withholds His blessings until we learn to obey.

Contrary to the assumptions so many make, it is not fear and anxiety over our salvation which will work true sanctification.  Rather, it is heartfelt love and thankfulness for our salvation which produces righteousness in the believer’s life.  Paradoxically, then, it is the doctrine of justification by faith alone, apart from works, which has done the most to advance the cause of morality in the world.  Legalism in all its forms simply produces guilt, and guilt drives us away from God.  Free forgiveness by the grace of God produces love and thankfulness, drives us toward God, and produces real righteousness in our hearts as a result.  Paul calls us to obedience in Ephesians 4 and Romans 12 only after establishing the absolute certainty of our salvation in God’s grace through faith in Ephesians 1-3 and Romans 1-12.

Jesus also makes this point with the story of the sinful woman who washed His feet with her tears and anointed Him with oil.  He says her great love for Him was produced from the knowledge of the great forgiveness she had received.  The Pharisees thought they earned their place in the kingdom and thus did not love Jesus, having no thankfulness.  The firm assurance of God’s grace and forgiveness will always produce this same love, and the obedience that flows only from it.