Justly Justified (Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism Term Paper)

[A term paper I wrote for my course The Theology of the Heidelberg Catechism at Davenant Hall. This version does not include citations: for those get the PDF here.]


That wonderful catechism from Heidelberg, justly famous among the chief Reformed confessional documents, is much more widely recognized than one of the greatest hands behind its formation, the Dr. Zacharias Ursinus. Yet without him this work would be undoubtedly very different, and he provided in addition to his work on the catechism itself a series of lectures upon it, when were published as a single work. This is not a systematic theology but in some respects is quite like one and deserves a place on the shelf nearby. Of the many areas in which the virtues of this work display themselves, the section which addresses the work of Christ on our behalf has some especially productive insights.

The nature of Christ’s atoning work has always been a matter of debate or, at the least, diverse explanations. Among the Reformed, the basic family of explanations known as “penal substitutionary atonement” has been dominant but has often attracted, occasionally from among themselves but more often from without, no small controversy. Objectors say it is unjust that one man, perhaps especially an innocent man, should substitute for another to take a punishment. Defenders of the doctrine have answered this in a number of ways, but Ursinus in particular offers an especially helpful response. In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus offers five criteria necessary for the justice of a penal substitute, which could be abbreviated as substance, willingness, sufficiency, recovery, and amendment, which together, but especially with the aid of the last of these, account for the justice of the atonement in a rationally and imaginatively compelling way, while perhaps also providing a window of insight in the nature of the atonement’s limitation to the elect. This, without question, is no small claim, so demonstration and further elaboration are necessary. Of first concern is the objection concerning penal substitution. What precisely is the problem to be solved?

The Problem of Substitution

Countless persons have for centuries contested the notion of a penal substitute, and it is not terribly difficult to imagine or comprehend why. There is a kind of intuitive distaste to the notion of one man, innocent and good, suffering a grievous punishment on behalf of a truly wicked and guilty man, so that the latter may go free. C. S. Lewis confessed to having found it initially “immoral” and “silly,” and he is far from the only critic. In an analysis of the problem, William Lane Craig explains the steps of one of the most common arguments on this point:

  1. God is perfectly just.
  2. If God is perfectly just, He cannot punish an innocent person.
  3. Therefore, God cannot punish an innocent person.
  4. Christ was an innocent person.
  5. Therefore, God cannot punish Christ.
  6. If God cannot punish Christ, penal substitution is false.

The objection does appear fairly strong at first glance, and it is hard to think of any obvious weakness that corresponds to what men actually know about justice by nature and even from the parts of Scripture that do not touch directly on atonement. One of the most common responses, perhaps an obvious and instinctive one, is to note that Christ Himself volunteered for this position. If Christ is a voluntary substitute, would this not render the substitution just? However, a number of critics have noted that this does not self-evidently solve the problem. There is nothing obviously just about an evil man going free just because an innocent man stepped up to suffer his punishment. Even if perhaps this is less unjust than an innocent man being compelled to suffer for a guilty man, which would be extremely grievous, there is still an obvious tragedy and something of an imbalance. What, then, would it take to actually “balance the scales”? If Christians, especially Reformed Protestants, are going to affirm the penal substitution of Christ, what additional elements will be required to render it a true satisfaction of justice? At this critical point we turn to the exposition of Ursinus.

The Solution of Ursinus

Ursinus comments on the criteria necessary for a just substitution in a couple different places in his lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism, but the most complete list appears under the fifteenth Lord’s Day, question 37, which asks, “What dost thou understand by the words, ‘he suffered?’” To this the catechism answers as follows:

That during his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race. This he did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might deliver us, body and soul, from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God’s grace, righteousness, and eternal life.

Ursinus, in the course of expositing this answer at greater length with an eye to all manner of concerns, including polemical matters, proceeds to ask four questions: what precisely did Christ suffer, did He suffer according to both natures, what was the impelling cause of His sufferinug, and what was His suffering for? For the first of these questions, Ursinus specifies that Christ suffered the penalty of the sins of the human race. In anticipating potential objections to this answer, the first one he raises belongs to the topic at hand: “According to the order of divine justice, the innocent ought not to suffer for the guilty: for justice demands the punishment of the offender.”

This is precisely the objection about which we inquire. So how does Ursinus answer? He provides five conditions on which it may be truly and properly just that an innocent man might take the punishment in the place of a guilty man, listing them as follows:

[T]he innocent ought not to suffer for the guilty, 1. Unless he willingly offer himself in the room, and stead of the guilty. 2. Unless he who thus voluntarily suffers, be able to make a sufficient ransom. 3. That he may be able to recover himself from these sufferings, and not perish under them. 4. That he may be able to bring it to pass, that those for whom he makes satisfaction, may not in future offend. 5. And that he be of the same nature with those for whom satisfaction is made.

These five criteria are much more robust than, though they also include, the common “Jesus volunteered” response, and in particular the fourth point seems incredibly insightful, or perhaps even absolutely critical to a proper conception of Christ’s substitution for His people. We shall proceed, then, to brielfy exposit the other four of these criteria before spending a few additional words on the fourth criterion, at which point it will be possible to proceed to the implications of these points. However, before proceeding at all, it would be helpful to compare these criteria to those specified by a later Reformed divine, the learned Francis Turretin.

For the sake of comparison, Turretin also offers five criteria by which a penal substitute may be offered without injury to justice. However, these differ slightly from Ursinsus’ similar list. He specifies that, for Christ to justly serve as our substitute, He needed the following:

  1. A common nature with us
  2. The consent of His will
  3. Power over His own life to lay it down and take it up
  4. The power to bear and return from the punishment
  5. Holiness and purity so as to need no sacrifice on His own behalf

These criteria map for the most part onto those of Ursinus, with the critial exception of Ursinus’ fourth criterion, which specifies that the substitute be able to ensure that the guilty party might not in the future offend. As we shall observe shortly, this one difference is of great weight. So, then, on to each of these criteria in their place.


Both Ursinus and Turretin specify that a penal substitute must share the same nature as the party for whom he provides the substitution. This makes a great deal of intuitive sense with respect to the order of justice. How would one rightly judge a turtle for the crimes of a man, or a man for the crimes of a cherub? The cases are so incommensurable that both the crime and the punishment would be entirely discordant. If “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”1 requires some kind of equivalence between crime and punishment, then even moreso it must require some kind of equivalence between the criminal and the bearer of punishment. Indeed, Scripture itself explicitly teaches this specific criterion: “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.”2


That a penal substitute must be a willing victim is yet another case on which Ursinus and Turretin agree, and to which common human reason seems to testify. If substitution can be justified at all, it most certainly requires willingness on the part of the innocent victim. Nothing can be due to a man unless his own nature or works have rendered it due to him or if he has invited some kind of obligation upon himself. For Christ as substitute for His people, the latter case is clearly applicable. On this point the Scriptures provide sufficient testimony, even if not directly intended to explain how this wondrous exchange could be justified. When Paul or the other Apostles glory in the reality that Christ “gave himself for me,”3 that he “laid down his life for us,”4, or that He shared our nature so that “through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death,”5 they emphasize the critical and determinant role Christ’s voluntary self-offering played in the acquisition of our pardon and the legitimization of His role as substitute and representative.


Another, rather obvious, criterion Ursinus and Turretin specify for a just substitution is that the substitute be able to actually provide a sufficient ransom. The necessity of this point should be almost self-evident. Though Turretin does reject a pecuniary understanding of the atonement as the primary metaphor,  it is nonetheless helpful to note that if a man owed a debt of several million dollars, a friend with only a few hundred dollars would not be able to come to his aid. This is an especially important point in the case of Christ, where He is the substitute for the sins of many persons. If a man were to substitute for his friend in going to prison for life, he could not really and truly substitute for yet another man in going to prison for life, as he can only physically experience a single lifelong imprisonment. For some other aspects of this point in an explicitly penal key, however, it is necessary to proceed to the next point.


The final criterion which both Ursinus and Turretin specify in common for a just penal substitution is the ability of the substitute to fully bear the punishment and recover himself from it. This is not as obvious as the previous criteria but the logic is nonethless fairly straightforward once the subject is raised. Though justice requires that some kind of injury or deprivation be inflicted as a punishment, so that the crime cannot go simply “winked off,” for an innocent man to be permanently injured or destroyed by the punishment due to a wicked man would clearly be entirely inappropriate. Evil is not due to good men, and while perhaps a man can voluntarily accept an evil upon himself temporarily, the very fortitude and generosity of agreeing to suffer a punishment for someone else are exemplary virtue, so that permanent damage to or the final destruction of such a great man would be a horrendous recompense for a glorious deed.

So Ursinus specifies that the substitute must be able to fully recover from any injury he takes upon himself on behalf of the offender, which does seem to be a just criterion. However, it also places a hard limit on the varities of possible substitutions available to any mere man. A natural and mortal man, if he is devoid of any unique powers or graces, cannot in fact recover himself from very many punishments. He cannot therefore take upon himself a beating so intense as to cause disability, nor the removal of a limb or other valuable organ, nor a lifetime prison sentence, nor, critically, death itself. For man qua man, then, there is no substituting for another man’s life.6 This, therefore, is an important point at which Christ’s deity, or at the very least a special promise and power from the Holy Spirit, seems to be essential, that He might be able to return from death, guaranteeing the final liberty of both Himself and those for whom He died.


Finally, we reach a point on which Ursinus seems to add something of value not often found elsewhere, such as in Turretin. His fourth criterion for a just substitution is that the substitute “be able to bring it to pass, that those for whom he makes satisfaction, may not in future offend.” This seems to be a critical and perhaps decisive point. There is an obvious injustice, even after all of the former criteria have been met, in a final result where a righteous man has suffered and an unrepentant criminal is able to go “scott free” for his crimes. What of, by contrast, a man who, being moved by his condemnation and the sacrifice made by his substitute, actually comes to regret and detest his crime and to amend his ways? Taken together with the previous criteria, the entire scenario no longer looks quite so absurd. The good man suffers for the wicked man, and the wicked man is spared in such a way that he becomes a good man. The good man recovers himself, and both are able to move on in a more positive state. Moreover, in this way the guilty party himself has experienced some kind of suffering, inasmuch as repentance and amendment of life are always a painful experience. So the final result seems to be truly just, that is, right. All is well with the world, and indeed the state of affairs is probably better than it was at the start.

Now, it would be foolish to imagine that this sort of scenario plays out identically in this hypothetical case as it would have with Christ. There are a number of important differences. For example, the natural man is not able to believe in Christ and repent of His sins without special grace from the Holy Spirit, so a raw moral influence cannot straightforwardly apply. And while in the hypothetical example it seems that the anguish of repentance at least contributes in part to what makes the total affair holistically just, we must certainly not permit that the pains of repentance add anything to the perfect satisfaction of Christ.7 These qualifications notwithstanding, this final criterion does seem to provide a unique angle into the justice of penal substitution. If Christ did not also provide for the repentance of the sinner to God, substituting on his behalf would not be properly possible.

The Limitation of the Atonement

As described in the Canons of Dort, the key distinctive of the doctrine often now called “limited atonement” consists in the belief that the atonement included within itself God’s intent to ensure that it would be applied to the elect by faith. This specific move is what separates channels the infinite sufficiency of the atonement into limited efficacy for specific people. To quote the pertinent paragraph:

For it was the…plan and…intention of God the Father that the…effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all the elect, in order that God might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross…should effectively redeem…all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation…; that Christ should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, he acquired for them by his death). It was also God’s will that Christ should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins.

This specific aspect is what also sets John Davenant’s unique form of hypothetical universalism apart from many other doctrines under that heading, since he did in fact specify that the atonement included an element of its own application so to guarantee the elect will receive it and its benefits. Indeed, any form of limited atonement will ultimately need to include such an element that limits and guarantees that it will be efficacious to the elect, though it might in many other respects, perhaps every other respect, be identical to an “unlimited” atonement.

Ursinus’ additional criterion for a just substitution seems to correspond in some way to this requirement. If the atonement does in fact include an element intended by God to guarantee that the elect shall receive its benefits through faith and repentance, then this guarantee of repentance seem to be necessary and relevant to render the atonement a proper satisfaction for the elect. Conversely, the fact that the reprobate never do repent would mean their case fails to satisfy this condition for a justified penal substitution. There is something organic to this, even if it is not (as it arguably cannot be) a full account of how the atonement’s limitation to the elect functions.

Intuition and Imagination

Some readers are likely to find the role of the criterion on repentance in justified substitution fairly intuitive. This was certainly the case for the author of this very paper. It came as a flash of insight, a sudden recognition, as soon as the words in Ursinus appeared. This may very well be the case for many other people, but for those who do not find it immediately convincing, it can help to connect this criterion to the stories that humans tell, where it often seems to be operative.

Modern stories, particularly on TV or in movies, often give a very significant role to redemption. It is a favorite theme, as characters which are wicked, morally ambivalent, haunted by a particular sin, or even just guilty of creating a bad relationship with one other person go through a process of complex moral transformation before finally becoming someone new, no longer truly considered by the audience to be liable for their past deeds. Instances of this abound, and in many of the best stories, somewhere along the line a price will still need to be paid, but sometimes not by the offender himself. For example, in Once Upon a Time, the Evil Queen Regina finds that her plots have eventually placed her adopted son Henry into a deathlike sleep, the same one she had used in the past on Snow White. Henry in a sense becomes a victim of a fate Regina had earned for herself, and when his curse is broken, Regina begins her own long road of repentance.

While such stories are obviously not perfect analogs to the work of Christ in becoming the substitute for His people, they do have a sufficient resemblance that they can help the imagination grasp, in perhaps a less conscious way, the logic of atonement. It is a great mystery that Christ gave Himself up for us; nonetheless by identifying these kinds of rational distinctions in theology and bringing them into conversation with ordinarily digestible stories, there is a real chance to increase our understanding.


In the entirety of human history, there is no more unexpected and seemingly impossible event than the death of Christ, in which God Himself, in our nature, redeemed the Church with His own blood. The death of Christ is of such magnitude and singularity that humanity will always, perhaps even into the eschaton, be grapping with it and trying to develop deeper understanding. At least one helpful step along this path seems to have been made in Ursinus.

The criteria by which Ursinus explains the justification of penal substitution are clear, sensible, and illuminating. For the most part, these same criteria can be found in other writers such as Turretin. The specific criterion that the substitute be able to bring about repentance in the offender, however, does not appear elsewhere, or, if it does, it is so rare and obscure that few have ever caught it. It seems, however, that this insight is immensely helpful, providing with the others intuitive and imaginatively compelling insight into how God is both “just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”8

1.  Exodus 21:24.↩︎

2.  Hebrews 2:17 NRSV.↩︎

3. Galatians 2:20.↩︎

4. 1 John 3:16.↩︎

5. Hebrews 2:14↩︎

6. Numbers 35:31 says, “Moreover you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer who is subject to the death penalty; a murderer must be put to death.” Ever so often the Reformers like Ursinus mention this verse when discussing this topic.↩︎

7. Of course, in neither situation does the pain the guilty party experiences actually contribute to the judicial satisfaction of punishment; the law in a human court certainly would not take this into consideration even if everything else were in place. It is possible that even in the case of the sinner and God, we might suggest a sense in which the experience of repentance contributes in some way to the overall rectitude of the substitutionary arrangement. This might provide an avenue of fruitful dialogue with so-called “moral influence” theories of the atonement, along with the views of C. S. Lewis and John MacLeod Campbell.↩︎

8.  Romans 3:26 KJV.↩︎