It’s a fundamental tension of the Christian doctrine of grace: God demands righteousness and we cannot perform that righteousness. And this tension abides even when we confess that God has freely justified us without regard to our good works. As soon as we set out, on the solid ground of free justification, to live lives pleasing to God, we crash into the fact that our performance is so far below God’s standards that even we ourselves aren’t inclined to accept the performance.
Zacharius Ursinus’ Heidelberg Catechism takes up this issue in its most fundamental form, starting with question eight: “But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil?” The answer is that yes, we are that corrupt, “unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.”
And then comes the counter-question:
Q9. But doesn’t God do us an injustice by requiring in his law what we are unable to do?
A. No, God created human beings with the ability to keep the law. They, however, provoked by the devil, in willful disobedience, robbed themselves and all their descendants of these gifts.
The particular question-answer format of a catechism dictates that we are supposed to know in advance what the answer is: in fact, we ought to have memorized it so that we can make the right response to the catechist. So the question “doesn’t God do us an injustice” is sort of shadow-boxing. Still, it’s a tool of interrogation, and it takes us deeper into God’s purposes to ask and answer it.
Later (question 62), the Heidelberg Catechism will ask “Why can’t our good works be our righteousness before God, or at least a part of our righteousness?” The answer is that
the righteousness which can pass God’s judgment must be entirely perfect and must in every way measure up to the divine law. But even our best works in this life are imperfect and stained with sin.
Faced with the inadequacy of good works, even of Christian good works done in faith, the questioner casts around looking for some basis for getting God to acknowledge that our good works (Christ-inspired, Spirit-empowered, God-directed) must really earn God’s favor somehow:
Q. How can our good works be said to merit nothing when God promises to reward them in this life and the next?
A. This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.
In a last-ditch effort, the questioner probes the consequences of this doctrine. Surely if our works don’t meet God’s standard of righteousness, we must be utterly without a system of values, and we might as well leave off even trying, right? Or, as the Catechism asks, “But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?”
And the characteristic Heidelberg Catechism reply is that if we know our misery and then know God’s grace, we will also know the gratitude that follows from them. “It is impossible for those grafted into Christ through true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.”
Juan de Valdés’ neglected classic, the Alfabeto Christiano probes the same tension, but takes a different approach to its questioning. The Alfabeto is a dialogue between Juan and the noblewoman Giulia Gonzaga. Juan describes the perfect purity to which the Christian is called, warning Giulia to “fear not the purity of this Christian perfection,” though it seems to set an impossibly high standard. But Juan knows his doctrine of justification:
If all who walk by the Christian way would always thus perfectly live as we have said, St. John would not have said that if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us; and a just man falleth seven times and riseth up again. And know, Signora, that he is a just man because he goes by the way of justification, which is that which Christ taught us.
That is to say, God’s plan for Christian perfection perfectly includes the perfection of being forgiven, and of getting forgiven again and again; it includes falling seven time and rising up, or of admitting that we have sin in us.
Giulia wants to assent with docility to this teaching, which she can see for herself is the biblical one: Juan de Valdés is always careful in this dialogue to trace his teachings to the words of Scripture, lest Giulia Gonzaga accept his words on authority rather than being led to God’s own authority. But though she acknowledges that it must be right, Giulia cannot quite rest in it:
I would wish this ; that you would let me comprehend, for what purpose God sets before us a rule so painful to observe, that we have always to confess ourselves his debtors; for it has in appearance an odor, I know not how, of tyranny.
There it is: Giulia’s questions are not catechist questions. She really wants to know how God is not a tyrant, since he sounds like a tyrant. She is a noblewoman with many opportunities to live a profligate life, with all the trappings of court life and all the power and privilege of wealth at her disposal. She is counting the cost. She gives voice to her fear because she knows that this question about God’s grace is a central question both for her understanding of the character of God, and for her experience of the Christian life.
Fortunately, Juan de Valdés has an answer. God makes known his impossibly high demands because
so arrogant is the human mind, that unless it were acknowledged debtor to fulfill the whole law, it would not consider itself as a sinner; and unless it considered itself a sinner, it would not fear the judgment of God ; and unless it feared this, it would not humble it self ; and unless it were humbled it would not gain the grace of God ; and without his grace it could not become justified before Him, and if not justified, then not saved. Now think whether this singular blessing of God may not be as good as all the others! And know, Signora, that so much as a person in this present life will be more perfect, and will stand more united to God in love and charity, so much the more will he humble himself before God, as more knowing his imperfection and the necessity he has that God would continually pardon him his faults, and purify and accept his actions. Therefore David calls, not those persons who never sinned, blessed, for all have sinned; but he calls them blessed to whom God pardons the sins they commit.
Juan wants to know: “Do you rest satisfied with this explanation?” And Giulia responds, “Yes, I rest satisfied, you can now proceed further.” And proceed he does: Juan’s next lesson is a study of the three subtle ways in which we sin in this life. He returns to the goal of the Alfabeto, which is always to teach the reader the basics of life under justification by faith alone.
I think the Heidelberg Catechism and the Alfabeto Christiano share the same doctrine of justification, and the same Reformation insights into the place of the law in the Christian life. But one is a catechism and the other a dialog. It makes a difference: when we listen to the Heidelberg, we hear the voice of the pastor, wisely showing us what we ought to think, how we ought to say it, and even what questions to ask about it. But when we read the dialogue, we hear the anxious voice of Giulia pressing a question she knows he shouldn’t ask (“isn’t God a tyrant?”) and demanding an answer. Juan de Valdes the spiritual guide responds to her, mostly along the same lines Ursinus would have if he were there. Spiritual wisdom is imparted, and Valdes is as didactic in intention as Ursinus. But by choosing the dialogue form, he permits Giulia’s questions to find their own voice, so that she is invited to love the truth more deeply when it is found.
There may be here, in the preference for dialogue over catechism, a characteristic difference between the Spanish reformation and the German.