Righteousness and Life
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”- John 3:36
Having unpacked the Apostles’ Creed in questions and answers 22–58, the Heidelberg Catechism outlines the doctrine of justification by faith alone in questions and answers 59–64. This important doctrine tells us that we contribute nothing to our right standing before God but rely wholly on divine grace and the merit of Christ. This understanding of justification is implicit throughout the Apostles’ Creed, as that ancient creed emphasizes the work of our triune Creator alone in our behalf. The creed does not define justification explicitly, as the theological controversies that rocked the early church focused more on the Trinity, the nature of God’s grace, and other topics. The church was not forced to state the nature of justification formally until abuses in the medieval church drove the Protestant Reformers back to the New Testament for their recovery of the gospel.
Question and answer 59 of the Heidelberg Catechism introduce its discussion of justification, telling us that the benefits of believing in the gospel essentials outlined in the Apostles’ Creed include a righteous standing before God and everlasting life. Note the close connection between righteousness and life, a connection made throughout Scripture (Ps. 119:40; Prov. 21:21). Ultimately, of course, true life is eternal life, and the only kind of righteousness that leads to eternal life is perfect righteousness — the perfect righteousness we cannot work in ourselves but which is God’s gift to His people in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:21–26; 5:12–21).
There is only one way to receive this gift, and that is through faith, faith that rests in Christ alone. As today’s passage indicates, it is belief in the Son that grants us eternal life (John 3:36). The text also ties belief to obedience, not in that we must add some kind of good work to our faith in order to be counted righteous and granted eternal life, but in that true faith always demonstrates itself via obedience. If we trust in Jesus alone, we seek to obey Him, but this obedience is the fruit of our justification and not in any sense its ground or cause (James 2:14–26). Matthew Henry comments regarding the necessity of faith alone for eternal life: “God offers and conveys good things to us by the testimony of Jesus Christ, so we receive and partake of those favors by believing the testimony.”
When we believe in Jesus alone, we are immediately granted the gift of eternal life. There is nothing else we need to do in order to receive this life, and if we think that we must do good works in order to earn a right status before God, then we have missed the gospel. This is a precious truth that we must remind ourselves of again and again in order to really get it in our bloodstreams, as Dr. R.C. Sproul has often said. Faith in Christ alone is the way to eternal life.
Passages for Further Study
John 6:40, 47