The Two Parts of the Heidelberg: Catechism Law and Gospel

The entire Scriptures consist of two parts, of the law and the Gospel.” Martin Luther relentlessly taught this unambiguous distinction between the law and the gospel in Scripture from about 1517 until his death in 1548. Phillip Melanchthon (1497–1560), Luther’s colleague, also taught the difference between the law and the gospel. He said, “All men are carefully to learn the difference between law and gospel.” The law/gospel distinction is indeed a Lutheran teaching.

Reformers who followed in the wake of Calvin also clearly taught this distinction between the law and the gospel. Yet some in our Reformed circles today say that a law/gospel distinction is a Lutheran teaching that we should avoid. This article will argue that the law/gospel distinction is such a Reformed teaching that it shows up even in the Heidelberg Catechism. Both Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus clearly upheld the law/gospel distinction.

Zacharias Ursinus

Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583) was born in Breslau, Germany. He studied in Wittenberg from 1550 to 1557, and during this time he developed great respect and admiration for his professor, Philip Melanchthon. After attending the Worms conference in 1557 with Melanchthon, Ursinus toured many major cities of the Reformation. On this trip, he befriended notable Reformed teachers such as Bullinger and Vermigli. Along with these men, Ursinus made contact with Calvin, who gave him a copy of the latest edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

In 1558, Ursinus began to lecture in Breslau, Germany, at the university. Not long after assuming his role as professor, he was charged with having “unsound faith in regard to the sacraments.” In the context of the Reformation, it is not surprising that the three-way debate (whether Christ was spiritually or bodily present in the Supper—or present in any way at all) over the Lord’s Supper created a “general hurricane of excitement,” which led to a “great sacramental war.” However, this “war” did not sever the warmhearted relationship Ursinus and Melanchthon enjoyed.

This charge of wrongly teaching the Lord’s Supper forced Ursinus to print his first published work, a defense of his own view of the presence of Christ in the Supper. In this tract, Ursinus set forth a highly Calvinistic view of the Lord’s Supper, one in which the presence of Christ in the elements was spiritual, which was distinct from the Lutheran view that Christ was present bodily and the Zwinglian view that he was not present at all. Ursinus’s tract did not silence his enemies, so he stepped down from his lecturing podium soon after Melanchthon’s death in 1560. Ursinus then went to Zurich, where in 1560 he studied under a fellow Calvinist Reformer, Peter Martyr Vermigli, for nearly a year.

In 1561, Elector Frederick of the Palatinate called Ursinus to Heidelberg to help settle the debate over the Lord’s Supper. Frederick assigned the newly appointed doctor of divinity to write a catechism along with fellow professor Caspar Olevianus. Sometime in 1562, the men began working on the Heidelberg Catechism, and by the end of 1563, it was finished. When Ursinus died in 1583, it was already the most popular Reformed catechism in Europe.



A brief survey of Ursinus’s life is important so that we see his theological background. Some may argue that since Ursinus studied at a Lutheran university for nearly seven years, it is no surprise that he strongly emphasized a law/gospel distinction, which we will soon observe. Others might say that his high regard for Melanchthon is the source of his law/gospel distinction. No doubt Ursinus learned much from Melanchthon, but we cannot simply label him a “closet Lutheran.” We’ve noted that his first published tract was one defending the Calvinist sacramental presence. Furthermore, we should not underestimate the influence of Vermigli and Calvin on Ursinus.

According to one historian, the Heidelberg Catechism was a “loud declaration of war” against the Lutheran church. Many different branches of the Lutheran church disputed the Heidelberg Catechism, with some Lutheran theologians calling the catechism heretical. Ursinus, however, was not an enemy of Luther or Melanchthon. He understood the distinction between law and gospel to be plainly taught in Scripture, and he did not part ways with either Luther or Melanchthon on this. The law/gospel distinction was so fundamental to Ursinus’s teaching that he began his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism with a plain declaration: “The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures. . . . The law and gospel are the chief and general divisions of the holy Scriptures, and comprise the entire doctrine comprehended therein.” Ursinus was entirely comfortable making such bold Luther-like statements in the pages introducing his commentary on the catechism. What did Ursinus mean by law? “The law is our schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ, constraining us to fly to him. . . . The law prescribes and enjoins what is to be done, and forbids what ought to be avoided.” The law is no stranger to us because we know it by nature, said Ursinus. We find a kernel of the covenant of works in Ursinus: “The law promises life upon the condition of perfect obedience.” This statement that obedience leads to life is another area where Ursinus was clearly not a Lutheran.

The gospel has everything to do with Christ. “The gospel announces the free remission of sin, through and for the sake of Christ.” Ursinus said that the gospel is a stranger to us, so to speak; it is “divinely revealed.” The law is generally familiar, the gospel is entirely foreign. The gospel promises life—opposite the law—on the condition of faith in Christ. “The gospel is the doctrine concerning Christ the mediator, and the free remission of sins through faith.”

Ursinus did not simply describe the law/gospel distinction and then leave it as a minor theological point. Christian doctrine itself is different from that of all other religions, because in it the law of God is “retained entire and uncorrupted,” while other religions distort and corrupt it. Moreover, the Christian church alone teaches the gospel. Ursinus even used the law/gospel distinction as one of the evidences of the truth of the Christian religion. Since the church alone upholds the Decalogue, only its doctrine is true. At the same time, only the church proclaims the way of escape from hell and the promise of forgiveness of sins. Because the church alone proclaims the gospel, it is “true and divine.” At one point, Ursinus even stated that one of the duties of a minister in the church is “a faithful and correct exposition of the true and uncorrupted doctrine of the law and gospel, so that the church maybe able to understand it.” These statements by Ursinus demonstrate, without contest, that he clearly taught the distinction between the law and the gospel. As a second-generation Reformer, he knew the difference between prescription and promise, command and comfort. This understanding of law and gospel was so fundamental to Ursinus’s theology that it even pervaded the Heidelberg Catechism. The structure of the catechism is law, then gospel. One can even say that if Ursinus had not understood the law/gospel distinction, the catechism would not be structured in the way we know it—guilt, grace, and gratitude.

Caspar Olevianus

Caspar Olevianus was born in the German city of Trier in 1536. At the age of fourteen, he moved to Paris to augment his childhood education. There, Olevianus studied law. At some point during his studies in France, Olevianus accepted Reformation theology and devoted himself to the study of the Word and the Reformed faith. After 1557, Olevianus practiced law and studied with Calvin for some time. He also visited many of the major cities of the Reformation in Switzerland, where he befriended Vermigli, Beza, Farel, and Bullinger. Olevianus was acquainted with many of the leading Reformers of his day. While he may have rubbed shoulders with Lutheran teachers, they were not nearly as influential upon him as Calvinist Reformers were.

In 1559, Olevianus was imprisoned in Trier for preaching Protestant doctrine. After Elector Frederick heard of Olevianus’s imprisonment, he paid a large ransom in order to free the young Reformer. Frederick invited him to teach at the university in Heidelberg, and soon Olevianus was promoted to professor of dogmatics. When Ursinus arrived in Heidelberg in late 1561, Olevianus stepped down from the lectern and moved behind a pulpit to preach. Along with preaching, Olevianus upheld the Calvinist position in debates over the Lord’s Supper and wrote several treatises and books. As noted, Ursinus and Olevianus began working on the catechism in1562 and finished it in 1563. Olevianus continued to preach, write, and teach until his death in 1587.

Although there has been some debate as to Olevianus’s role as an author of the Heidelberg Catechism, the evidence points to his having at least some part in its writing. First, Frederick called both Ursinus and Olevianus to Heidelberg for the cause of upholding Reformed theology in the Palatinate. Second, Olevianus’s A Firm Foundation, written shortly after the Heidelberg Catechism, has many clear parallels with the catechism. Finally, the theme of comfort is so prevalent in Olevianus’s works that it seems not simply a coincidence that the Heidelberg Catechism begins with and is full of comfort.

For Olevianus, this comfort does not come unless discomfort precedes it. That is, we cannot understand the gospel until the law crushes and kills. The law leads us “by the hand, as it were,” to the gospel. We cannot be led to the good news without hearing the bad news first. “After we are convicted of our unrighteousness and smitten with the awareness of eternal death, the law teaches us not to seek salvation in ourselves but to accept by faith the salvation offered us outside ourselves in the gospel.” The gospel is the promise that Jesus Christ alone saves His people from their sins.

What is the difference between the law and the gospel? The law is “implanted in human nature” and “repeated and renewed” in God’s commandments. Olevianus knew well the difference between the two. In the law, God holds a manuscript before us. This manuscript is a list of what we are and are not to do. We must “obey Him perfectly both inwardly and outwardly.” Olevianus stressed that the law demands perfect and perpetual obedience. If a person does not keep “every provision of the law” his “whole life long,” eternal damnation awaits him. In sum, “The law exposes but does not remit sin. It comes with accusations rather than promises. It condemns us; it does not save us.”

What then saves us? The gospel. “Because it contains promises of salvation, it is called the gospel of salvation, a word of salvation, and a power of God unto salvation.” The gospel is not known by nature even by the wisest men; it is revealed from heaven. In the gospel, God does not demand but gives. The gospel “gives us the righteousness that the law requires. ”Olevianus said: “The gospel, or the good news that delights the heart of the poor condemned sinner, is a revelation of the fatherly and immutable will of God, in which He promised us, who are unworthy, that all our sins have been washed away and pardoned not just for the rest of our lives but, indeed, forever.”

No one can deny that Caspar Olevianus distinguished between the law and the gospel. Olevianus did begin his doctrinal work, A Firm Foundation, with a discussion on the difference between the law and the gospel.

The Law and the Gospel in the Heidelberg Catechism

We may expect the catechism to open up with a thunderous declaration of law and the terrors of sin’s punishment. The catechism, however, opens up with the theme of comfort. Many of us are familiar with the first question and answer: “What is thy only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own. . . .” While Ursinus and Olevianus understood what the law meant, they did not write the Heidelberg Catechism to frighten and terrify consciences but so that Christians might attain “sure and solid comfort, both in life and death.” The Heidelberg Catechism was written to Christians to show them the comforting benefits of the gospel.

However, we cannot know the benefits of the gospel without also knowing the opposite. What must a Christian know to live and die joyfully in the comfort of the gospel? Three things, as the second answer tells us. “The first, how great my sins and miseries are; the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.” We are here interested in the first—the greatness of our sin and misery.

We need to know our sin and misery, not because it gives comfort but because it shows us that we need deliverance. We cannot understand the summits of God’s grace unless we know the depths of our depravity. Ursinus wrote that we must first preach the law so that it might slay us and show us our wretchedness. Both Olevianus and Ursinus compared the law to a diagnosis of illness. Once we know our illness, which is necessary if we wish to be made well, we are driven to the verus medicus, the gospel.

“Whence knowest thou thy misery? Out of the law of God.” Question and answer 3 is clear. The first use of the law is evident. The law of God tells us that we are hell-bound creatures by nature. According to the catechism, the law of God can be summarized as Christ summarized it in Matthew 22. Here the Heidelberg Catechism implies that the law is in the New and Old Testaments. The law and the prophets hang on the two commandments of summary; Jesus spoke these words in the New Testament.

The law requires perfect obedience, as question 5 implies. “Canst thou keep all these things perfectly?” As we have seen above, both Ursinus and Olevianus understood that God commands perfect obedience in the law. Man must keep every prescription of the law for his entire life. If man breaks the law, he is cursed and faces God’s judgment in this life and the next (Q/A 10). Because law-breaking, or sin, is committed against God’s “most high majesty,” it must be penalized with the most severe punishment: “everlasting punishment, both of body and soul” (Q/A 11).

Question and answers 3–11 is the law section of the catechism. Question and answer 12 gives the reader a hint of good news. God’s justice must be satisfied, and in order to be received into his favor, either we or someone else must make this satisfaction. But we cannot do it, because we are sinful. We actually increase our damning debt daily (Q/A 13). The catechism goes on to discuss what kind of deliverer we need who will perfectly satisfy God’s judicial demands. Who is this deliverer and mediator? Our Lord Jesus Christ. How do we know about this deliverer? From the holy gospel (Q/A 19).

The gospel teaches us how the law’s condemning roar against us is silenced, because it shows us the promise of grace. The righteousness—perfect obedience—that Christ performed is imputed to us through faith. The forgiveness of sins is possible because Jesus fully paid for the sins of his people. Therefore, when the law shouts in our face, “Do this and live,” we point to Christ and say, “He has done it; I will live.”

The Heidelberg Catechism is beyond doubt a law/gospel document. In plain terms, it says that the law prescribes while the gospel promises. The law condemns and kills and gives not even a hint of remedy or help for sin. The law cannot give us anything; it can only demand. On the other hand, the gospel promises and gives comfort, forgiveness, peace, righteousness, and life through Jesus Christ, our only Savior.


We have observed that Ursinus knew and taught the difference between law and gospel. His distinction was unmistakable: “The law says . . . , ‘Do this, and live.’ The gospel says, ‘Only believe.’” Olevianus fully agreed. Question and answer 10 in Olevianus’s Firm Foundation is lucid: “What is the difference between the law and the gospel?” Today, may God help us understand the difference between the two, which will guard us from many serious errors. The law does not give life—only the gospel does. Olevianus and Ursinus teach correctly on this truth.

This law/gospel distinction is also apparent in the Heidelberg Catechism; it is structured with the distinction. In the years following the Reformation, not only did Lutherans make a sharp distinction between the law and the gospel, but also many Calvinists did the same. Without a doubt, the law/gospel distinction is such a Reformed teaching that it shows up even in the Heidelberg Catechism. In our day, in the midst of the muddling of law and gospel, it is essential for us to uphold this important division. Ursinus was exactly right when he said that one of the duties of a pastor was to teach correctly and faithfully the difference between the law and the gospel. The Heidelberg Catechism is an excellent help for pastors and teachers as they instruct Christians in the difference between law and gospel. Indeed, it is their duty.

Rev. Shane Lems is the pastor and church planter of the United Reformed Church in Sunnyside, WA.