A Catechism on the Holy Spirit (3): The Work of the Holy Spirit Upon the Christian

The Heidelberg Catechism’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit is most expansively taught in His work upon the Christian. From the beginning of our new life to our goal of eternity, and at every step in between in the ordo salutis, the Holy Spirit is central to our Christian life. In this we see that the covenant theology of its primary author, Zacharias Ursinus, and one of its main contributors, Caspar Olevianus, comes to the forefront. Contrary to Jack Hayford, who says Reformed theology “dampens the place of our passion and partnership with God,”1 our covenant theology is the basis of a true Calvinistic piety, in which the elect are brought into covenant partnership by the Father, with Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit in the covenant of grace. As Lyle Bierma has shown, Ursinus’s doctrine of the covenant broke new ground in Reformation theology by viewing the Holy Spirit as both one of the benefits of our covenant relationship with God as well as the One who seals in our hearts all the other covenantal benefits won for us by Christ.2 He is the gift as well as the giver. The purpose of this article, then, it to demonstrate that contrary to popular caricature, Reformed churches do believe in the personal work of the Spirit, from vivification to glorification. In fact, this personal aspect of our Christian life is the reason why the Heidelberg is known as the warmest, most devotional of all Reformation catechisms. As one has said, “It is baptized with the Pentecostal fire of the great Reformation.”3


In the first part of the Catechism (Q&A 3–11), which deals with our guilt and sin, question and answer 8 asks, “But are we so far depraved that we are wholly unapt to any good, and prone to all evil?” The hopelessness into which we have been plunged by Adam’s fall is equally reversed by the power of the Spirit, who regenerates us, raising us up with Christ to new life. It must be kept in mind that at this point in Reformation history, “regeneration” was used to describe the general work of the Holy Spirit in sanctifying sinners (e.g., Belgic Confession, art. 24), while later, during the debate with the Remonstrants, it came to be used for the specific work of the Spirit in initially bringing to life the sinner (Canons of Dort III/IV, 11, 12, 13).4 Here we are using this newer use of the term to describe what answer 8 states: “Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.” In contrast to Pelagianism, the Catechism confesses the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s “special grace” to bring about the new birth in us because we have no free will to do so on our own.5


After believers have been made alive by the Spirit, the Catechism speaks of the work of the Spirit in the life of the Christian in terms of faith. In question and answer 53 we are taught, in the words of Ursinus and Olevianus, that the “office” of the Holy Spirit is to be “that bond of union by which Christ abides in us and we in him” and “the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself.”6 As the bond between Christ and us, the Holy Spirit’s “principal work” is to create faith in our hearts, which “is not from ourselves, but a gracious gift of God.”7 In this part of the Catechism we hear the echo of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism in which he explained the third article of the Apostles’ Creed as meaning, “I believe that I can not, by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Ghost has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me by his gifts.”8 As the Catechism says, the Holy Spirit “makes me by a true faith partaker of Christ and all his benefits” (Q&A 53). R. Scott Clark explains this in Olevianus’s theology, saying, “For Olevian, one of the great blessings of the new covenant (foedus novum) is that God promised to be our God and to write his law on our hearts which is principally the work of God the Spirit. Because of our union with Christ through the Spirit, there is in the new covenant an intimacy with God not possible under the old.”9

Being in union with Jesus Christ and all His benefits—what Hayford calls “partnership with God”—is spelled out in more detail in question and answer 21. Here we are taught that the Spirit is “the efficient cause of justifying faith.”10 This faith receives “forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation,” is “not only a certain knowledge” whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his Word, but also a hearty trust which the Holy Ghost works in me by the Gospel.” Not only does the Heidelberg Catechism utilize language from Luther, but also from John Calvin, who defined faith as “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts though the Holy Spirit.”11 Calvin explained further: “There is no right faith except when we dare with tranquil hearts to stand in God’s sight. This boldness arises only out of sure confidence in divine benevolence and salvation. This is so true that the word ‘faith’ is very often used for confidence.”12 Question and answer 21 also teaches a conjunction of both the Word and the Spirit, a common Reformed theme via Calvin.13 The Heidelberg Catechism particularly applies that to the inseparability of the Spirit and the preached Word to create justifying faith within us, in particular the preaching of the gospel. As question and answer 65 says,

Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence comes this faith?

The Holy Ghost works it in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel . . .

The Catechism describes the preaching of the gospel as the chief means of grace, because it is the means whereby sinners become saints. For this reason Olevianus called the minister of the gospel the “organ of the Holy Spirit” (Spiritus Sancti organum) and the preaching of the gospel the “chief testimony and principal organ of the Holy Spirit by which the substance of the covenant is offered to us.”14


The Spirit, as we have seen, regenerates sinners and gives them the gift of faith. His work is also to continue the ongoing renewal of the Christian. This work of the Holy Spirit is characterized as a lifelong repentance from sin. This is why He is characterized primarily as our Sanctifier (Q&A 24) in the Heidelberg Catechism. He works in us to sanctify us by making us a “partaker of . . . [Christ’s] . . . anointing” (Q&A 32). As Christ was anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our Prophet, Priest, and King, so we share in that anointing and are called to “confess his name” (prophet), “present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness” (priest), and “fight against sin and the devil” (king). The Catechism locates this life in the Spirit in relation to the preaching of the Ten Commandments. Question and answer 115 asks, “Why, then, doth God so strictly enjoin upon us the ten commandments, since in this life no one can keep them?” After saying that this is in order to teach us to turn from sin and flee to Christ, the answer states, “that we may continually strive and beg from God the grace of the Holy Ghost, so as to become more and more changed into the image of God, till we attain finally to full perfection after this life.” In contrast to the Antinomians and Libertines who deny the normative use of the law in the Christian life, the Holy Spirit “uses the doctrine of the law, for the purpose of inclining them [i.e., believers] to true and cheerful obedience.”15 And as Ursinus comments, although there is no condemnation for the Christian, he is freely and cheerfully bound to obedience: “We are debtors not to the flesh to live after the flesh, but to the Spirit.”16 So the Catechism teaches the irony that those to whom the Spirit has been “given unto” (Q&A 53) are by the strict preaching of God’s law to strive and beg throughout their lives for the grace of that very same Spirit. The purpose of this is so that we might receive His life-giving work in experientially changing and transforming us into the image God intended for us. Here the Catechism draws upon such texts as Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18, and 2 Corinthians 4:16, which describe the conformation/transformation/renovation of the believer into the image of God as it is found in Christ, the image par excellence.

Furthermore, question and answer 86 explains the reason why we are to strive and beg for the Spirit of renewal. In it we are asked, “Since, then, we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we do good works?” The answer opens by saying, “Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, renews us also by his holy Spirit after his own image” (cf. Q&A 1). Here the Catechism speaks of the duplex beneficium, that is, the double benefit Christ merited for us: redemption and renewal, justification and sanctification.17 The second benefit, the renewal of the Holy Spirit, Ursinus describes as the Christian becoming “the habitation of God . . . by the Holy Spirit.”18 Being the temple of God, then, consists of two things: 1) “that with our whole life we may show ourselves thankful to God for his blessing” and 2) “that he may be glorified through us.” As Bierma has shown, unlike other catechetical material during this period, the nature of sanctification is located in renewal, not obligation.19 Good works, therefore, “are the fruits of our regeneration by the Holy Spirit.”20 Because of this renewal, one of the results is that we “by our godly walk may win our neighbors also to Christ.”

At this point the Catechism gets very specific in describing one of the ways we “show ourselves thankful to God for his blessing.” In question and answer 109 the seventh commandment is exposited. The broad application of this command is that because our bodies and souls “are both temples of the Holy Ghost,” it is God’s will for us “that we keep both pure and holy.” The believer lives a holy life as a holy temple, negatively, by abstaining from “all unchaste actions, gestures, words, thoughts, desires, and whatever may entice thereto.”


This life of grateful sanctification by the power of the Spirit is also discussed in the Catechism’s teaching on Christian prayer. For those regenerated into God’s children, the necessity of prayer is found in the fact that it is “the chief part of the thankfulness which God requires of us” (Q&A 116). As well, prayer is necessary to the Christian because “God will give his grace and Holy Spirit only to such as earnestly and without ceasing beg them from him and render thanks unto him for them.” Here the words of Q&A 115 reverberate, as we are to “continually strive and beg from God the grace of the Holy Ghost.” As Ursinus says, the Spirit “is given to none, except those who seek and desire him.”21

In his Commentary, Ursinus answers the objection that the effect (begging for the Spirit) does not precede the cause (the Holy Spirit Himself). He shows his appreciation for the mystery of the Holy Spirit in his response that the cause precedes the effect according to order and nature. Yet, chronologically, they “exist together.” Ursinus describes this, saying,

For we begin to desire the presence of the Holy Ghost as soon as he is given unto us, and he is also given just as soon as he is desired and sought, or in other words, God effects in us a desire of the Holy Ghost and gives him unto us in the very same moment . . . because the Holy Ghost is a gift of such a character, that he is given, received and prayed for at one and the same time.22


The Catechism also explains the assurance of salvation by reference to the work of the Holy Spirit. The Heidelberg opens by asking, “What is thy only comfort in life and in death?” (Q&A 1). The answer is that we wholly belong to our Lord Jesus Christ, whose precious blood satisfies for our sins, redeems us, and, preserves us. Christ also works in us by the power of His Holy Spirit to assure us of our belonging to Jesus Christ. Question and answer 53, the only question and answer of the Catechism exclusively devoted to the Holy Spirit, describes the Holy Spirit’s comforting and abiding with us forever. In linking assurance and His abiding presence, the Catechism echoes texts such as John 14:16 and 1 Peter 4:14.

Spiritual Warfare

The Spirit’s work of testifying to our hearts of our belonging to Christ is necessary because of the “spiritual war” in which we are involved. Surprisingly, the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of this popular subject in contemporary Christianity. Yet its answer is not sensational but simple and Spirit-centered. In times of doubt and struggle with assurance the Spirit is needed. Question and answer 127 says we pray, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” because “we are so weak in ourselves that we can not stand a moment, while our deadly enemies—the devil, the world, and our own flesh—assail us without ceasing.” Because of this continual battle we pray, “Be pleased to preserve and strengthen us by the power of thy Holy Spirit, that we may make firm stand against them, and not sink in this spiritual war, until we come off at last with complete victory.”

Here we see that while we are unceasingly assailed we are to unceasingly strive and beg for the Holy Spirit (Q&A 115, 116) because it is the Spirit, primarily, who preserves us from falling in battle while strengthening us to fight. The entire Christian life, then, is described by our Catechism as living “in the Spirit.”

Personal Eschatology

Another area of exploration in regards to the Spirit in the Catechism is found in question and answer 103. Having described the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation’s initiation (Q&A 8, 65), appropriation (Q&A 21), continuation (Q&A 86), confirmation (Q&A 65), and preservation (Q&A 127), we come to its consummation, that “complete victory” question and answer 127 expressed.

In question and answer 103 we find the explanation of the fourth commandment. The answer speaks not only of the Christian’s grateful duty in terms of “diligently attend[ing] church” on “the day of rest” in particular, but of his experience in this life of the “everlasting Sabbath.” This is to be no one-day-in-seven experience, though, but a constant one as “all the days of my life I rest from my evil works” and “allow the Lord to work in me by his Spirit.” How do we allow the Holy Spirit to work? Question and answer 103 of the Heidelberg draws upon Calvin’s Geneva Catechism of 1545. In the Geneva Catechism the “spiritual rest” the Heidelberg speaks of is defined as ceasing from actual labor so that “God may perform his works in us” (Q&A 174). At the same time our rest in Christ leads us to our response to Christ as we crucify “our flesh,—that is, renouncing our own inclination, that we may be governed by the Spirit of God” (Q&A 175).23 The Catechism is saying that because we have already been given spiritual rest in Christ, this causes us to long for our ultimate rest as we day by day “begin in this life the everlasting Sabbath.”


The person of the Holy Spirit works personally upon the Christian. This work commences at regeneration, continues through sanctification, and concludes at glorification. As Reformed Christians, we need not concede that Pentecostalism has the corner on the market of the Holy Spirit, to use that figure of speech. Instead, the person and work of the Holy Spirit is our intimate link to Jesus Christ, and whom we seek for more and more of His power and work in our lives.              1. Tim Stafford, “The Pentecostal Gold Standard,” Christianity Today 49:7 (July 2005): 26. 2. Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 59. 3. All references to the Heidelberg Catechism are from The Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff, rev. David S. Schaff (1931; Grand Rapids: Baker, reprinted 1996), 3:307–55. 4. On this issue see Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1941; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 4th rev. ed., reprinted 1994), 466–68. 5. The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (1852; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, reprinted 1985), 56. 6. Ursinus, Commentary, 277; Caspar Olevianus, A Firm Foundation, trans. and ed. Lyle D. Bierma, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 92; Bierma, German Calvinism, 73–74; cf. Calvin, Institutes, 3.1.1, 3. 7. Cited in R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ, Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005), 154; cf. Calvin, Institutes, 3.1.4; 3.2.8, 35, 39. 8. Schaff, Creeds, 3:80; cf. Calvin, Institutes, 3.1.4; 3.2.34. 9. Clark, Caspar Olevian, 189. 10. Ursinus, Commentary, 110. 11. Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.7. 12. Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.15. 13. Calvin, Institutes, 1.9.1, 3; 4.8.13. 14. Cited in Clark, Caspar Olevian, 192, 193. 15. Ursinus, Commentary, 616–17. 16. Ursinus, Commentary, 617. 17. Ursinus, Commentary, 466. Cf. Clark, Caspar Olevian, xvii-xx, 137–209. 18. Ursinus, Commentary, 466. 19. Lyle D. Bierma, “What Hath Wittenberg to Do with Heidelberg? Philip Melanchthon and the Heidelberg Catechism,” in Melanchthon in Europe: His Work and Influence Beyond Wittenberg, ed. Karin Maag, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 116–17. 20. Ursinus, Commentary, 465. 21. Ursinus, Commentary, 620. 22. Ursinus, Commentary, 621. 23. Selected Works of John Calvin, ed. and trans. Henry Beveridge, 7 vols. (1849; Grand Rapids: Baker, reprinted 1983), 2:61–62; cf. Calvin, Institutes, 2.8.29; Ursinus, Commentary, 255–66. Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA.