Calvin on Justification: Considering the
Judgment Day with Singular Delight
Rev. Angus Stewart
Approach and Orientation
from the very first time that I read John Calvin’s
Institutes of the Christian Religion, I was deeply struck by
especially one thing in his treatment of justification: his repeated and
forceful call to consider ourselves before the heavenly judgment seat of
are, or should be, aware of the theological issues. Does justification
mean make righteous or reckon righteous? Is justification the infusion
of righteousness or the imputation of righteousness? Is justification by
faith and works or by faith alone? These things are not "frivolous word
battles," as Calvin puts it; this is a "serious matter," for we do not
stand before a "human court" but the "heavenly tribunal."
puts into proper perspective our controversy over justification with
Rome, with ecumenically minded Protestants who would bring us back to
Rome, with the New Perspective on Paul, with the Federal Vision and with
those who claim that Calvin’s doctrine of
justification is not that of Martin Luther.
Calvin’s sharp warnings against playing intellectual games with
In the shady cloisters of the schools anyone can easily and readily
prattle about the value of works in justifying men. But when we come
before the presence of God we must put away such amusements!
… these leisured rabbis … dispute these matters under the shade in
easy chairs. But when that supreme Judge sits in his judgment seat
such windy opinions will have to vanish. It is this that we had to
seek: what confidence we can bring to his judgment seat in our
defense, not what we can talk about in the schools and corners.
hypocrites and people like them converse so boldly about
righteousness and the merit of works, for they do not think about
what a horrendous thing it is to be answerable to God’s
righteousness and majesty. But they talk about works as if we had to
make our case with one another … [However,] we have to summons
ourselves before God. That is where we need to start.
eloquent and powerful appeal, calling us to focus on God’s
majestic justice! We must not, and do not,
merely "prattle" about justification in this article.
Whatever fine reasons we use to make ourselves look good before man,
we will, as soon as God sits as Judge, still have to remain
confounded because God’s righteousness is like an inextinguishable
this question, I insist, we must apply our mind if we would
profitably inquire concerning true righteousness [i.e.,
justification]: How shall we [i.e., Calvin, you and I] reply to the
Heavenly Judge when he calls us to account? Let us envisage for
ourselves that Judge, not as our minds naturally imagine him, but as
he is depicted for us in Scripture: by whose brightness the stars
are darkened [Job 3:9]; by whose strength the mountains are melted;
by whose wrath the earth is shaken [cf. Job 9:5-6]; whose wisdom
catches the wise in their craftiness [Job 5:13]; beside whose purity
all things are defiled [cf. Job 25:5]; whose righteousness not even
the angels can bear [cf. Job 4:18]; who makes not the guilty man
innocent [cf. Job 9:20]; whose vengeance when once kindled
penetrates to the depths of hell [Deut. 32:22; cf. Job 26:6]. Let us
behold him, I say, sitting in judgment to examine the deeds of men:
Who will stand confident before his throne? "Who
... can dwell with the devouring fire?" asks the prophet. "Who ...
can dwell with everlasting burnings? He who walks righteously and
speaks the truth" [Isa. 33:14-15 p.], etc. But let such a one,
whoever he is, come forward. Nay, that response causes no one to
come forward. For, on the contrary, a terrible voice resounds:
"If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord,
who shall stand?" [Ps. 130:3; 129:3, Vg.].
alone gives us the right approach and orientation to the truth of
justification. All of us, of ourselves, stand naked and exposed before
the holy God. "Not one spark of good" is found in us "from the top of
[our] head to sole of our feet," writes Calvin, echoing Isaiah 1:6.
How can we possibly stand in God’s sight? You
answer, the only answer, is justification by faith alone, in Christ
alone, by grace alone, to the glory of God alone, according to Scripture
alone. This is the Bible’s teaching; this is
Calvin’s doctrine; this is the united
testimony of the Reformation and all of its creeds, and this is the only
true gospel that saves us miserable offenders. This is the gospel we
believe, confess and suffer for as children of the Reformation, as
Calvinists and as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. We witness to the
truth of justification for the edification and reformation of the church
and for the conversion of unbelievers.
underscore the significance of justification for Calvin, we shall
consider statements from four of his most influential writings, arranged
here in chronological order.
Reply to Sadoleto
In Strasbourg in September 1539, Calvin’s
reply to the Roman Catholic Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto, Bishop of
Carpentras, was published. Calvin, along with William Farel and Elie
Courault (an old, blind preacher), had been expelled from Geneva the
year before. This left something of a religious vacuum in Geneva.
Cardinal Sadoleto, upon the urging of his co-religionists, sought to
exploit this by writing the Genevans a cunning letter in order to win
them back to Rome.
Calvin’s response includes the following very
You [i.e., Cardinal Sadoleto], in the first place, touch upon
justification by faith, the first and keenest subject of controversy
between us. Is this a knotty and useless question? Wherever the
knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished,
religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation
utterly overthrown. That doctrine, then, though of the highest
moment, we maintain that you [i.e., Sadoleto and the Roman
Catholics] have nefariously effaced from the memory of men.
Notice several things from this quotation. Justification was the first
doctrine that Sadoleto attacked; likewise, it was the first doctrine
that Calvin defended. No wonder the Genevan Reformer calls it "the first
and keenest subject of controversy between us." Instead of it being
merely "a knotty and useless question," Calvin declares that it is "of
the highest moment," for without it, four things necessarily follow:
Christ’s glory is extinguished, religion is
abolished, the church is destroyed and the hope of salvation is utterly
overthrown. This, charges the Reformer, is precisely what the Roman
church has done by "nefariously effac[ing] [the truth of justification]
from the memory of men."
Rather than "enter upon a full discussion" of justification, Calvin
points the Roman cardinal to "the Catechism which I myself drew up for
the Genevese, when I held the office of Pastor among them." This manual
for instruction for the children of the Genevan church, Calvin avers,
"would silence you."
In his next paragraph, however, Reformed apologist Calvin does "briefly
explain … how we speak on this subject."
First, we bid a man begin by examining himself, and this not
in a superficial and perfunctory manner, but to cite his conscience
before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his
iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced
upon all sinners. Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is
prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all
self-confidence, groans as if given up to final perdition.
Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of
God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is
complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we
hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by His
obedience, He has wiped off our transgressions; by His sacrifice,
appeased the divine anger; by His blood, washed away our sins; by
His cross, borne our curse; and by His death, made satisfaction for
us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God
the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by
gratuitous mercy. When we embrace Christ by faith, and come, as it
were, into communion with Him, this we term, after the manner of
Scripture, the righteousness of faith.
What a powerful and moving presentation of justification in Christ
alone, by grace alone and through faith alone ! We also note that it
begins with what is something of a hallmark of Calvin’s treatment of
justification: the call to examine one’s "conscience before the
tribunal of God" .
Commentary on Romans
The next year in Strasburg in March 1540, Calvin published his first
biblical commentary, significantly, on that key book for the
On the very first page of "The Argument" (an introduction to the book),
Calvin states, "The main subject of the whole epistle [of Romans is]
justification by faith."
In Calvin’s fine overview of the sixteen chapters of Romans,
justification is prominent.
Moreover, Calvin declares, "When anyone gains a knowledge of this
epistle [and remember, he has just affirmed that justification by faith
is its "main subject"], he has an entrance opened to him to all the most
hidden treasures of Scripture."
In other words, with a grasp of Romans, including its key subject of
justification, the "most hidden treasures" of the whole of Scripture lie
open. Therefore, without a grasp of Romans and justification, the Bible
is a closed book. This certainly underscores the significance of this
biblical book and this fundamental doctrine!
Moving from "The Argument" to the commentary proper, Calvin identifies "justif[ication]
by faith through the mercy of God alone" as "the
principal point or the main hinge of the first part of this Epistle."
This is how the French Reformer summarises Romans 1:1-3:8: "Now
the Apostle had summoned all mankind universally [i.e., Jews and
Gentiles] before the tribunal of God, that he might include all under
the same condemnation."
After many Old Testament quotations proving man’s "unrighteousness"
Calvin comments on Paul’s purpose:
That every mouth may be stopped,
&c.; that is, that every evasion may be cut off, and every occasion
for excuse. It is a metaphor taken from courts of law, where the
accused, if he has anything to plead as a lawful defence, demands
leave to speak, that he might clear himself from the things laid to
his charge; but if he is convicted by his own conscience, he is
silent, and without saying a word waits for his condemnation, being
even already by his own silence condemned.
This paves the way for Paul’s great statement on justification in Romans
3:21-28. Calvin provides a summary, using the four Aristotelian
There is, perhaps, no passage in the whole Scripture which
illustrates in a more striking manner the efficacy of his [i.e.,
Christ’s] righteousness; for it shows that God's mercy is the
efficient cause, that Christ with his blood is the meritorious
cause, that the formal or the instrumental cause is faith in the
word, and that moreover, the final cause is the glory of the divine
justice and goodness.
After developing the subject of righteousness by faith in his exposition
of apostolic teaching in Romans 4,
Calvin notes that Paul "begins to illustrate" justification by its
"effects" (Rom. 5:1-11); indeed "the
whole of this chapter [i.e., Romans 5] is taken up with amplifications,
which are no less calculated to explain than to confirm"
this fundamental Christian truth.
with God" or "tranquillity of conscience" is impossible without
justification, for it is "the peculiar fruit of the righteousness of
Other "effects" and
"amplifications," which "explain" and "confirm"
justification include "access" to God, "final perseverance" and the
beatific vision ("when we shall see God face to face [and] shall be like
as well as "glorying" in tribulations and growing in "patience," "hope"
Calvin summarises Paul’s argument for God’s certain preservation of all
His reconciled people in Romans 5:6-11: "The
import of the whole is,—since
Christ has attained righteousness for sinner by his death, much more
shall he protect them, being now justified, from destruction."
The second half of Romans 5—verses 12-21 on the parallel between Adam’s
sin and Christ’s righteousness—contains more "amplifications"
explaining and confirming justification:
He [i.e., Paul] now begins to enlarge on the same doctrine, by
comparing with it what is of an opposite character. For since Christ
came to redeem us from the calamity into which Adam had fallen, and
had precipitated all his posterity with him, we cannot see with so
much clearness what we have in Christ, as by having what we have
lost in Adam set before us, though all things on both sides are not
In his commentary on Romans 6-7, which chapters deal with
sanctification, the French Reformer is at pains to stress that "they
who imagine that gratuitous righteousness is given us by him, apart from
newness of life, shamefully rend Christ asunder"
these two things [i.e., justification
are connected together by an indissoluble knot."
"The state of the case is really
the faithful are never reconciled to God without the gift of
nay, we are for this end justified,—that
we may afterwards serve God in holiness of life."
It will suffice simply to mention a few other passages in the remainder
of Calvin’s commentary on Romans that highlight the significance of
In his exposition of Romans 8, Calvin affirms, "The first and the chief
consolation of the godly in adversities, is to be fully persuaded of the
paternal kindness of God." We have this confidence because "God
justifies" us and "Christ is our advocate." Thus "the faithful are very
far from being involved in the danger of condemnation, since Christ by
expiating their sins has anticipated the judgment of God, and by his
intercession not only abolishes death, but also covers our sins in
oblivion, so that they come not to an account."
hence follows, that when any one seeks to condemn us, he not only
seeks to render void the death of Christ, but also contends with
that unequalled power with which the Father has honoured him, and
who with that power conferred on him supreme authority. This so
great an assurance; which dares to triumph over the devil, death,
sin, and the gates of hell, ought to lodge deep in the hearts of all
the godly; for our faith is nothing, except we feel assured that
Christ is ours, and that the Father is in him propitious to us.
Despising Christ and justification in Him alone was the grounds upon
which Israel, God’s ancient covenant people, was "deservedly rejected."
This supports Luther’s contention that justification is
"the article of a standing or a falling church" (articulus
stantis et cadentis ecclesiae).
It is this serious!
sought "to be justified by … works," it "shamefully mutilated the law of
God." This "false interpret[ation]" and "wicked abuse of the law was
justly reprehended in the Jews" who "rejected [the] soul [of the Mosaic
law] and seized on the dead body of the letter." This is the case, avers
the law had been given for this end,—to
lead us as by the hand to another righteousness: nay, whatever the
law teaches, whatever it commands, whatever it promises, has always
a reference to Christ as its main object; and hence all its parts
ought to be applied to him. But this cannot be done, except we,
being stripped of all righteousness, and confounded with the
knowledge of our sin, seek gratuitous righteousness from him alone.
Calvin’s remarks at the great turning
point in this epistle—chapters 1-11 being doctrinal and chapters 12-16
being doctrinal—are significant. At the very start of his comments
before those on Romans 12:1, he writes,
After having handled those things necessary for
the erection of the kingdom of God,—that
righteousness is to be sought from God alone, that salvation is to
come to us alone from his mercy, that all blessings are laid up and
daily offered to us in Christ only [Rom. 1-11],—Paul
now passes on, according to the best order, to show how the life is
to be formed [Rom. 12-16].
justification comes first of the three things listed as "necessary
for the erection of the kingdom of God" and covered
in Romans 1-11. Furthermore, the other two further explain or flow from
this (imputed) righteousness!
underscores the fact that righteousness is
vital in the kingdom of heaven (and not only essential in understanding
Israel’s rejection and the right interpretation of the Mosaic law):
[The apostle has] no doubt included in few words a summary of what
[the kingdom of God] is; namely, that we, being well assured [of our
justification], have peace with God, and possess real joy of heart
through the Holy Spirit dwelling in us ... He indeed who is become
partaker of true righteousness, enjoys a great and an invaluable
good, even a calm joy of conscience; and he who has peace
with God, what can he desire
The Necessity of Reforming the Church
In 1543, Calvin’s The Necessity of
Reforming the Church was published, a work addressed to Emperor
Charles V in view of the approaching Diet of Spires.
In this historic Reformation manifesto, Calvin declares, "There is no
point which is more keenly contested, none which our adversaries are
more inveterate in their opposition, than that of justification: namely,
as to whether we obtain it by faith or by works."
The Reformation doctrine of justification, Calvin avers, "is the clear
and uniform doctrine of Scripture, ‘witnessed,’ as Paul says, ‘by the
law and the prophets [i.e., the Old Testament]’ (Rom. 3:21); and so
explained by the gospel [i.e., the New Testament]."
Thus, although the book of Romans contains the most detailed and
systematic treatment of justification, it is taught consistently and
perspicuously in both testaments and in the writings of Moses, the
prophets and the apostles.
The Genevan Reformer makes the striking remark: "when we tell a man to
seek righteousness and life out of himself (i.e., in Christ only,
because he has nothing in himself but sin and death), a controversy
immediately arises with reference to the freedom and powers of the
Do you see what Calvin is saying? The orthodox doctrine of justification
clashes not only with justification by faith and works; it opposes free
will as well! This is necessarily so because justification is in Christ
alone (and not man) and by grace alone (and not works) and by faith
alone (and not the alleged free will of the sinner).
In the two sentences immediately following the last citation, our
Reformer proves his case against man’s so-called free will:
For, if man has any ability of his own to serve God, he does not
obtain salvation entirely by the grace of Christ, but in part
bestows it on himself. On the other hand, if the whole of salvation
is attributed to the grace of Christ, man has nothing left, has no
virtue of his own by which he can assist himself to procure
Calvin’s teaching means, in today’s
terminology, that not only do we have a life-and-death doctrinal battle
regarding justification with Rome, but also with Arminianism. This is
the case because, for Arminians, justification by faith means
justification by man’s free
will, since for Arminians faith is practically synonymous with man’s
Institutes of the Christian Religion
Moving from Calvin’s reply to Cardinal
Sadoleto (1539), his commentary on Romans (1540) and his The
Necessity of Reforming the Church (1543), we come to his magnum
Institutes of the Christian Religion, the final, 1559 edition. Here
we shall consider four ways that this work underscores the importance of
First, the significance of justification for Calvin is most obviously
seen in the large number of chapters devoted to this subject in Book 3
of the Institutes. Though entitled "The Way in Which We Receive
the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects
Follow," it is sufficient for our purposes here if we consider it as
dealing with soteriology, the doctrine of salvation.
Book 3 contains twenty-five chapters. Chapters 1-5 are on faith and
salvation, chapters 6-10 on the Christian life and chapters 11-18 on
justification. Christian liberty is considered in chapter 19, and prayer
in chapter 20. Then the source of our salvation is traced to eternal
election (with its necessary concomitant, reprobation) in chapters
21-24. Finally, Calvin turns to glorification in a chapter entitled, in
the Battles edition, "The Final Resurrection," which treats the goal or
"crowning act" of our salvation (chapter 25).
Thus, eight of the twenty-five chapters of Book 3, almost a third, are
devoted to justification. It is more than this if one includes chapter
19 on Christian freedom, which Calvin reckons is "especially an
appendage of justification."
Second, the importance of justification in Calvin’s Institutes is
evident from his apologetic placement of it. In the Institutes,
Calvin treats justification after sanctification, whereas
sanctification comes after justification in the ordo salutis or
order of salvation. Why does the Reformer do this? Calvin states that
"when this topic [i.e., our new life in Christ] is rightly understood it
will better appear how man is justified by faith alone, and simple
pardon; nevertheless actual holiness of life, so to speak, is not
separated from free imputation of righteousness."
Moreover, Calvin inverts the more natural order (justification then
sanctification) because justification is so crucial to him that he wants
to "forestall Romanist objections," as editor John T. McNeill puts it.
In so doing, Calvin proclaims loudly that justification by faith alone
does not deny or mitigate the power of, or the call to, holiness.
Third, the imagery at the very start of his treatment of justification
highlights its worth to Calvin. There are two metaphors used by the
Reformer in Book 3, chapter 11, section 1 of the Institutes. He
calls justification a "hinge" and a "foundation." Justification is "the
main hinge on which religion turns" or is "supported" or "sustained," as
Richard Gaffin more accurately renders it.
Lose the hinge and the door of religion falls. Justification is also
"the foundation" on which you "establish your salvation" and "build
piety toward God."
Without this foundation, the house of salvation is built on sand and all
piety collapses to the ground.
In the next section of this chapter, Calvin teaches that justification
is a legal declaration by the Most High, the heavenly judge. Being
"reckoned righteous in God’s judgment," the justified man or woman
"stands firm before God’s judgment seat."
Justification is received by faith alone without any works and it
consists in two things: negatively, the remission or forgiveness of sins
and, positively, the imputation of Christ’s
righteousness—His obedience reckoned to our account.
Calvin proves this by looking at several biblical texts in the next two
This scriptural explanation of justification must be given at the very
start, Calvin maintains, lest "we stumble at the very threshold" and so
never get into the house.
That is precisely what the Church of Rome, the New Perspective on Paul
and the Federal Vision have done: they stumble on the very threshold
with their heretical definitions of justification and so do not enter
the household of faith and the Father’s mansions. To return to one of
the two images used earlier, they are not building on the true
"foundation" at all—and so they are building some other house—and their
piety, though they may vaunt it to the skies, is built on sand.
Along with the length, position and imagery of Calvin’s treatment of
justification, there is a fourth way in which its significance comes
through in the Institutes: his detailed elaboration and defence
of it. Book 3, chapter 11 defines and explains justification by faith
alone. Chapter 12 recognises that words and arguments are not enough to
convince us of free justification; we must reckon with God’s heavenly
judgment seat—a peculiar emphasis of Calvin’s. Chapter 13 treats two
things to be noted in free justification: Jehovah’s glory and our peace
of conscience. Thus the Reformed doctrine of justification preserves
God’s honour and ensures our comfort, thereby manifesting itself, in
contrast to justification by faith and works, as the true gospel.
Chapter 14 evaluates the works of idolaters, hypocrites, nominal
Christians and the regenerate. In chapter 15, Calvin assails the
doctrine of man’s meritorious works, for it destroys both the praise of
God and our assurance of salvation. Chapters 16, 17 and 18 refute Rome’s
attack on justification based on its wrong views of good works (ch. 16),
the promises of the law and of the gospel (ch. 17) and the idea of
reward (ch. 18).
Even in this necessarily cursory summary of his instruction on
justification in Book 3, chapters 11-18, we see something, at least, of
Calvin as a theological craftsman defining, declaring and defending the
gospel truth of justification. Remember too that Calvin was never
content with his arrangement of the Institutes (including
presumably his arrangement of justification) until this final edition of
Driving Us Out of Ourselves
Having considered the significance of justification in, what are
arguably, Calvin’s greatest polemical letter, biblical commentary,
Reformation manifesto and theological treatise, we are now in a position
to ask: What is Calvin is doing in all his writings on justification in
his Institutes, commentaries, sermons and other theological
works? The answer can be reduced to one sentence: He is driving us
out of ourselves (and our supposed righteousness) so that we seek all of
our justification in Jesus Christ crucified alone.
How does he do this?
The French Reformer presents fallen man as he is: a totally depraved
sinner. All of unbelieving man’s works are only evil, even—and Calvin is
particularly sharp and clear on this at this point—the apparently good
deeds of the "virtuous heathen."
This is so, as ethicist Calvin explains, because the "motive" or "end"
or "goal" of such works is only ever selfishness and never the glory of
Throughout his writings, Calvin hastens to add that even the good deeds
of true believers are imperfect and need forgiveness. Whatever good is
in us, it is wrought in us by the Spirit of Christ alone.
Calvin also exalts the law. He explains that it is spiritual and inward,
that it includes our heart and not merely externals, that it covers our
thoughts and words as well as what we do, and that it requires
one-hundred-percent obedience and never anything less. Calvin uses the
law with the same purpose as Paul in Romans 3:19: "that every mouth may
be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God."
In this way, the law is "our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that
we might be justified by faith" (Gal. 3:24).
The Genevan Reformer forcefully appeals to James 2:10: "For whosoever
shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of
In the very last section of Calvin’s treatment of justification in the
Institutes, hammering the final nail in unbelieving man’s coffin,
the Reformer returns to this text:
These Sophists of ours stumble because they do not pay attention to
James’ statement, "Whoever sins in one point is already made guilty
of all, for he who forbade killing also forbade stealing" [James
2:10-11 p.], etc. Accordingly, it ought not to seem absurd when we
say that death is the just punishment for each several sin, for each
one deserves God’s just wrath and vengeance.
As if this is not enough, Calvin even appeals
to "a righteousness higher than the observance of the law:"
Indeed, I admit that in The Book of Job mention is made of a
righteousness higher than the observance of the law, and it is
worth-while to maintain this distinction. For even if someone
satisfied the law, not even then could he stand the test of that
righteousness which surpasses all understanding. Therefore, even
though Job has a good conscience, he is stricken dumb with
astonishment, for he sees that not even the holiness of angels can
please God if he should weigh their works in his heavenly scales.
Calvin reminds us forcibly, time and time again, of God’s terrible curse
due to us for breaking His statutes: "Cursed is every one that
continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to
do them" (Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26).
Here are two striking quotations, both from Calvin’s sermons, first on
the tenth commandment (Deut. 5:21) and, second, on "righteous" Noah
(Gen. 7:1-5), in which the French Reformer reminds us of God’s curse
upon our disobedience:
When Saint Paul wants to prove that men, as sinners, are cursed and
that not a one of them is just, what argument does he use? He cites
this passage from Moses: "Cursed are they who do not fulfil the
contents of the Law."
… we are empty of every good thing … we are already condemned and
totally lost before God, as the sentence has already been
pronounced: "Cursed is the one who does not fulfil all the things
which are written in the law" (cf. Gal. 3:10). Who fulfils
them? Who even begins to?
Merit and Works of Supererogation
From all this, it is readily understood why the Reformer of Geneva
resolutely refuses any place for human merit or so-called works of
supererogation (i.e., works beyond the law) in man’s
justification. He attacks the notion that man may "merit" with God,
calling it a "proud" and "offensive" word, which has done "great damage
… to the world." The notion that good works
may proceed from man’s flesh
It is even "execrable blasphemy:"
[Rome’s] idea of meriting reconciliation with God by satisfactions,
and buying off the penalties due to his [i.e., God’s] justice, is
execrable blasphemy, inasmuch as it destroys the doctrine which
Isaiah delivers concerning Christ—that "the chastisement of our
peace was upon him" (Isa. 53:5).
Calvin questions the spiritual sanity of those who "suppose that they
can procure eternal life by the merit of their works." He reckons, they
are "laboring under a kind of delirium."
The French Reformer rightly sees that works of supererogation are
impossible because God is entitled to all that we are and have and do.
The divine law encompasses all of life, so we can never go beyond it.
And if we did, God would ask with Isaiah of old, "‘Who has required this
of your hands?’ [Isa. 1:12, cf. Vg.]."
Calvin asks how "works of supererogation … square with the [scriptural]
injunction:" "when ye shall have done all those things which are
commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that
which was our duty to do" (Luke 17:10)?
Calvin refutes the "ingenious subterfuge" of Rome that twists Scriptures
which speak of justification "without the works of the law" to refer
only to the ceremonial law and not the moral law. He quotes various
texts (from Romans and Galatians), one after another, and ridicules
those who say that these oracles only speak of "ceremonies:"
Do they think that the apostle was raving when he brought forward
these passages to prove his opinion? "The man who does these things
will live in them" [Gal. 3:12], and, "Cursed be every one who does
not fulfill all things written in the book of the law" [Gal. 3:10
p.]. Unless they have gone mad they will not say that life was
promised to keepers of ceremonies or the curse announced only to
those who transgress the ceremonies. If these passages are to be
understood of the moral law, there is no doubt that moral works are
also excluded from the power of justifying. These arguments which
Paul uses look to the same end: "Since through the law comes
knowledge of sin" [Rom. 3:20], therefore not righteousness. Because
"the law works wrath" [Rom. 4:15], hence not righteousness. Because
the law does not make conscience certain, it cannot confer
righteousness either. Because faith is imputed as righteousness,
righteousness is therefore not the reward of works but is given
unearned [Rom. 4:4-5]. Because we are justified by faith, our
boasting is cut off [Rom. 3:27 p.]. "If a law had been given that
could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But
God consigned all things to sin that the promise might be given to
those who believe" [Gal. 3:21-22 p.].
Let them now babble, if they dare, that these statements apply to
ceremonies, not to morals. Even schoolboys would hoot at such
impudence. Therefore let us hold as certain that when the ability to
justify is denied to the law, these words refer to the whole law.
The exegesis of the Federal Vision men is slightly different but just as
foolish. When the Bible says that we are justified without works (e.g.,
Rom. 3:28; 4:5-6; Gal. 2:16), they claim it refers to works that are
done out of a desire to merit. Calvin would "hoot" at them too and
declare their views "utterly silly."
Moreover, if all this has not stopped the
mouths of all, rendering them guilty before God, Calvin drags us before
the judgment seat of God. Take time earnestly to consider yourself and
your works in the light of that heavenly tribunal! Institutes
3.12, headed in the Battles edition, "We Must Lift Up Our Minds to God’s
Judgment Seat that We May Be Firmly Convinced of His Free
Justification," is the chapter in Calvin’s magnum opus that especially
calls us to this holy consideration, and this is a theme to which Calvin
returns frequently in his writing and preaching.
Sermon on Genesis 3:7-10
Preaching on Genesis
3:7-10, on God’s coming to expose Adam after his eating the forbidden
fruit, Calvin notes that even unreached pagans, who heard "neither law
nor gospel," are guilty before God’s judgment: "And when the last day
arrives and the books are opened, it will then be known that they were
never at rest and that God prodded and entreated them earnestly and
reminded them of their offences day in and day out."
Those who have heard the
gospel are judged more strictly than the unevangelised:
However, let us know that our condemnation will be even more
grievous when God speaks to us and we realize that it is in his name
and under his authority that our sins come into reckoning and that
our case is closed. So when we see God on his judgment seat, so to
speak, and he has us recount those evil deeds like criminals before
a judge with his record and is clerk—so when God examines us that
way, it is as if we see him in a visible way with his records, his
witnesses, and his instructions all ready to condemn us. That voice
is much more terrifying than that presence of God which comes in the
cool of the day, that is, more terrifying than that apprehensiveness
and those feelings of remorse that the poor uninformed people
In full accordance
3:12, Calvin refers frequently in this sermon on Genesis 3:7-10 to
Jehovah’s heavenly tribunal to show us our need of justification:
We must be "dragged to God’s judgment."
Adam and Eve—and, indeed, all humanity—"must appear before him
[i.e., God] to give an account … they must come before him and his
Adam was "summoned by the mouth of his Judge."
When God convicts us of our sin, "we sense his presence as if he
were approaching us and making himself known as our Judge, and he
shows us that in the end we have to give a reckoning."
urges us to repent by summoning us before his holy majesty."
As Calvin exhorts
us in the last sentence of this sermon, the way to escape God’s judgment
is to become "our own judges, condemning ourselves, not only with our
mouths, but with sincere feeling and repentance," that we might receive
"the grace provided for us" in Jesus Christ.
Sermon on Micah 6:1-5
Calvin sermon on Micah 6:1-5 is a fine example of his direct and
powerful preaching of the divine "lawsuit" to the Genevan congregation.
[i.e., God] declares his intention to enter into a lawsuit against
us. Indeed, he acts as both judge and criminal prosecutor. Yet, we
sleep on! We think nothing of it! But God will make us feel the full
scope of his indictment against us.
hear prosecuting attorney Calvin put his legal training to good effect
as he insists upon "two reasons why … we cannot win our case:"
we do not have it within our ability to triumph against so powerful
an adversary as God. And second, because there is nothing we can
cite that would justify ourselves. In truth, mankind pretend to
believe that there is much in their favor, but in the end, it all
crumbles. For God need speak only a word to repudiate it all. "In
truth," God says, "in the eyes of men you appear as grand and noble,
but when you come before my presence, I charge you with being a
traitor and with being guilty of disloyalty ..."
presses home his point by appealing to the cases of two godly men, Job
order to comprehend this better, let us consider what Job said,
following the numerous protestations of his innocence and purity of
conscience. "Nevertheless," he says, "when I come before my judge, I
will be without excuse. And I will be more than guilty. Even if I
could cite just one instance that might justify me, God would be
able to list a thousand that would condemn me" [Job 9:3]. That is
Job, who acknowledged that he was as eyes to the blind, as feet to
the lame, as a father to orphans, as a haven to animals; that his
hand was never closed to the poor; that he never wronged a single
soul; and that he never rebelled against God [see Job 29:12-17]. He
acknowledged all that, yet when it came to himself, he knew that we
are all sinners, full of filth and corruption. For in comparison to
God, we ourselves know that we are worthy of a thousand deaths!
Consequently, my only recourse is to confess my sins and to
acknowledge the truth about myself. That is how he speaks. Even
David, though God found him to be a man after his own heart, says:
"O Lord, enter not into judgment." And with whom? "With your
servant" [Psalm 143:2]. He called himself God’s servant, yet he knew
himself to be guilty in every way.
we have two saints, as sound as the angels of paradise;
nevertheless, they knew that if God had entered into judgment with
them, they would have been damned. What does this say about us?
Redeemed From God’s Judgment by Jesus Christ!
To those lying prostrate in dust and ashes before the dread majesty of
the Holy One of Israel, Calvin brings the comfort of the gospel of free
justification. He heralds the righteousness of Christ alone; He
proclaims the merits and love of the One who is the incarnate Son of
God. He suffered on the cross for our sins! His life, His atoning
death, His burial, His victorious resurrection, His ascension and His
heavenly intercession—that is all we will ever need. This is held out
to, and conferred upon, all who believe the faithful promise. Pastor
Calvin encourages us that it is all of grace, rooted in eternal
election, for all who receive it by faith alone.
This is part of Calvin's treatment of Christ's condemnation
by Pontius Pilate:
The curse caused
by our guilt was awaiting us at God's heavenly
judgment seat. Accordingly, Scripture first relates
Christ's condemnation before Pontius Pilate,
governor of Judea, to teach us that the penalty to
which we were subject had been imposed upon this
righteous man. We could not escape God's dreadful
judgement. To deliver us from it, Christ allowed
himself to be condemned before a mortal man--even a
wicked and profane man ... But when he was arraigned
before the judgment seat as a criminal, accused and
pressed by testimony, and condemned by the mouth of
the judge to die--we know by these proofs that he
took the role of a guilty man and evildoer. Here we
must note two things that had been foretold by the
oracles of the prophets, and which greatly comfort
and confirm our faith.  When we hear that Christ
was led from the judge's seat to death, and hanged
between thieves, we possess the fulfillment of the
prophecy to which the Evangelist referred: "He was
reckoned among the transgressors" [Mark 15:28, Vg.;
cf. Isa. 53:12]. Why so? Surely that he might die in
the place of the sinner, not of the righteous or
innocent man. For he suffered death not because of
innocence but because of sin.  On the other hand,
when we hear that he was acquitted by the same lips
that condemned him (for Pilate was more than once
compelled to give public testimony to his innocence
[e.g., Matt. 27:23]), there should come to mind the
utterance of another prophet: that he repaid what he
did not steal [Ps. 69:4]. Thus we shall behold the
person of a sinner and evildoer represented in
Christ, yet from his shining innocence it will at
the same time be obvious that he was burdened with
another's sin rather than his own ... This is our
acquittal: the guilt that held us liable for
punishment has been transferred to the head of the
Son of God [Isa. 53:12].
have been redeemed from God’s judgment," writes Calvin, through Christ’s
"descent into hell," the "beginning" of which occurred in the Garden of
Gethsemane: "what harsh and dreadful torments he suffered, when he knew
that he stood accused before God’s judgment seat for our sake."
Centrally, the article of the Apostles’ Creed speaks of the
hellish agonies Christ endured at the cross, according to Calvin: "that
invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight
of God … suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and
This Messiah is the only and all-sufficient Saviour—for all God’s
people, John Calvin included!
There are especially two texts, both in the sixteenth century and in the
twenty-first, that Romanists use against justification by faith alone.
The number one passage to which they appeals is, as one would expect,
James 2, for verses 14-26 might appear at first to deny the Bible’s (and
especially Paul’s) doctrine of justification
by faith alone.
Calvin treats James 2, in his 1540 commentary on Romans 3:28. He
refers to the "context" or "the drift of the argument pursued by James:"
the question with him is not, how men obtain righteousness before
God [as with Paul], but how they prove to others that they
are justified; for his object was to confute hypocrites, who vainly
boasted that they had faith.
Over a decade later, in his commentary on James 2, our Reformer gives a
full treatment of these verses. Again Calvin—fine exegete that he
is—especially considers the context: "the general drift of the whole
passage." James and Calvin teach that good works "make known" or provide
"the proof" or "the manifestation of [imputed] righteousness" "and that
before men, as we may gather from the preceding words, ‘Shew
to me thy faith’ [James 2:18]."
In his Institutes (1559), Calvin makes at least three points on
First, those who interpret James as teaching justification by faith
works "drag Paul into conflict with James," which, of course, given the
unity of Scripture, exposes their exegesis as wrong.
Second, Calvin points out that James is dealing with hypocrites, those
who only claimed to have faith but did not in reality (and this showed
by their failure to live holily and do good works).
Third, Calvin exposes the "double fallacy" of his opponents who wrongly
reckon that James uses the words "faith" and "justify" in the same sense
In 1560, the year after the publication of the final edition of the
Institutes, Calvin’s four, recently-delivered sermons on
justification on Genesis 15:4-7 were printed in French along with
another fourteen sermons by the Genevan Reformer.
These Genesis 15 sermons, claims Richard Muller, "present what, with
little hyperbole, can be called Calvin’s final testament to the Reformed
teachings of justification by grace alone through faith and of the right
relationship between faith and the obedience of Christians."
Calvin devotes over a third of the last of these four sermons to proving
that James 2 harmonises with Genesis 15:6 and justification by faith
Calvin’s treatment of this subject in this fourth sermon adds nothing
new to his earlier writings. But he does use a striking analogy when
arguing that James 2 speaks of "faith" improperly, only referring to the
(false) claim of ungodly hypocrites to be true believers: "the frivolous
vaunting which was in the mouth of these scoffers that would be taken
for good Christians."
Calvin says this is similar to his using the word "church" with respect
to Roman Catholicism:
But when we speak of the Papists, we never yield unto them in truth
that they have any church which is to be obeyed: For indeed they
have nothing but some ruins of a Church, and a certain canvassing
and tossing of service of their own devising, and (as they thought)
to serve God withal.
It is highly revealing that in our day not only Rome but also the
advocates of the Federal Vision appeal to James 2, which they misread
and twist. These purported Protestant churchmen corrupt, and so deny,
the truth of justification, "the article of a standing or a falling
church," thus raising the question if we should refer to their churches
as "churches" in the proper sense!
Immediately after treating James 2 in the Institutes, Calvin, who
believes in covering all the bases, turns to Romans 2:13: "For not the
hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall
be justified." Calvin explains the text as meaning that there is no one
who can keep the law and therefore no one can be justified this way.
Any man taught in the slightest by the Spirit knows this about himself
and so casts himself before Almighty God in repentance.
In his commentary on Romans 2:13, Calvin is sharp in his criticism of
They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up
justification by works deserve most fully to be laughed at, even by
children. It is therefore improper and beyond what is needful, to
introduce here a long discussion on the subject, with the view of
exposing so futile a sophistry ...
This is the proper way, Calvin’s own way, to
deal with the men of the Federal Vision and the advocates of the New
Perspective on Paul. People should not endorse, or enthuse about, their
books; Christians ought not stand up after their speeches to give them
an ovation; they should laugh at them. If they brought any of their
children to such lectures, the children should laugh at them too. So
said Calvin, who did not even bother to expose
"so futile a sophistry;" he reckoned it was almost beneath him.
Guy Prentiss Waters’ evaluation is correct: "All expressions of
Christianity are on the path to one of two destinations, Rome or Geneva.
What the NPP [i.e., New Perspective on Paul] offers us is decidedly not
Nor is the Federal Vision. "If we examine their arguments carefully, we
see that what they are really and increasingly saying is that
Luther and Calvin were mistaken, and that [the Roman Catholic Council
of] Trent was right."
Besides these two main texts, James 2 and Romans 2:13, Calvin deals with
many others in his Institutes. One has to scratch one’s head at
points, marvelling at the forced interpretations that Rome foisted upon
many passages of Holy Scripture: "That’s ingenious! How they twist these
biblical texts to overthrow justification!" Calvin, patient theologian
that he is, pursues the Roman Catholic sophists into every hiding hole
and refutes all their evasions. This leaves them totally without excuse
and makes the truth of justification stand clear and firm for all who
have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Perversion of Orthodox Phrases
There is another ploy of false teachers in the sixteenth and
twenty-first centuries (and, indeed, in every age): using orthodox
phrases but perverting them to another meaning. Cardinal Jacopo
Sadoleto, Bishop of Carpentras, in his letter to the Genevans spoke of
salvation by "faith alone." These are his words: "Moreover, we obtain
this blessing of complete and perpetual salvation by faith alone
in God and in Jesus Christ."
alone," says the Roman cardinal! But he adds, "we must also bring a mind
full of piety towards Almighty God," before speaking of preparing
ourselves and doing good works, and concluding that faith includes "hope
and desire of obeying God, together with love."
That is some "faith alone!" "Faith alone"—and
then he adds half a dozen things to it!
James Henley Thornwell, a nineteenth-century Southern Presbyterian
theologian, stated it well in this epigram: "To be justified by graces
[plural] is not to be justified by grace [singular]."
Calvin did not even deem Sadoleto’s perverse redefinition of "faith
alone" as deserving an answer. The Federal Vision men also prattle about
"faith alone," but then, like the crafty cardinal, they include
"covenant faithfulness" and "the obedience of faith" in "faith alone."
Sadoleto also uses the phrase "Christ alone:" "we, being aided in
Christ alone, with all divine and human counsels, helps, and virtues
might present our souls to God in safety."
The Bishop of Carpentras uses the words "Christ alone," but even within
that very sentence he perverts it into our works, because, through "all
divine and human" aids, we have a decisive role in saving ourselves.
Osiander, the Lutheran
All know that Rome is Calvin’s main enemy
concerning justification, so it is somewhat surprising that the first
opponent he mentions in his treatment of justification in Institutes
3.11-18 is a Lutheran called Andreas Osiander.
After dealing with Osiander the Genevan Reformer turns the sword of the
Spirit against Rome.
Calvin does not criticise Osiander because he is a Lutheran. This
might be what you would expect if the Federal Vision men were right and
that Calvin and Luther, and therefore Luther’s
followers, differed on justification. Instead, Calvin rebukes Osiander
because Osiander was not faithful to the biblical doctrine of
justification, which was jointly held by the Lutherans and the Reformed.
Osiander’s many heresies included the notion
that the divine essence is transfused into us and that this infusion
the imputation of Christ’s righteousness
combine in our justification.
Calvin rightly calls Osiander’s "speculation"
a "strange monster" and a "wild dream" "bordering on Manichaeism."
In refuting Osiander, Calvin affirms what would later be called the
"active obedience" of Christ:
Osiander says we are justified not only by the obedience that Christ
showed and by the ransom he paid in dying to expiate our sins, but
by his divine and eternal justice. Paul is very different. He simply
affirms that we are justified by the obedience of one man [Rom.
5:19], and says in another passage that Christ was given for us for
redemption and righteousness [I Cor. 1:30].
In his Institutes, the French Reformer also
confutes Osiander’s related notions that man was created in God’s image
because he was formed according to the pattern of the Messiah to come
and that the Son of God would have become incarnate even if Adam had not
Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, declared, "Calvin has
detected, refuted, and condemned the illusions of [Osiander] more
clearly and solidly than anyone else."
Catechism of the Church of Geneva
Finally, we shall build upon the
truth of justification by faith alone by setting forth six aspects of
Calvin's teaching on this doctrine that are perhaps less
well-known and understood, but which are, nevertheless, important for a
full confession of, and greater comfort in, this glorious gospel jewel.
Here we shall take our lead from Calvin's
Catechism of the Church of Geneva (1545), which he wrote for children as
a form of instruction in the doctrine of Christ.
What does Calvin's Genevan catechism say about justification? What did Calvin want the
children of the church to know about it? What great truths of the gospel
of justification did he reckon Christ’s lambs
(and not only His sheep) should and must grasp in order to mature as
prospering and profitable members of the congregation?
Justification and Sanctification
Calvin is especially clear that justification and sanctification are
distinct but inseparably joined.
Master. But can this [imputed] righteousness be separated from good
works, so that he who has it may be void of them?
Scholar. That cannot be. For when by faith we receive Christ as he
is offered to us, he not only promises us deliverance from death and
reconciliation with God [i.e., justification], but also the gift of
the Holy Spirit, by which we are regenerated to newness of life
[i.e., sanctification]; these things must necessarily be conjoined
so as not to divide Christ from himself.
Justification and sanctification are in Christ—both
of them, together, inseparably—just as
justification and sanctification are the two, distinct, cardinal
blessings of the new covenant in Christ, as Calvin teaches repeatedly in
his various writings.
In his commentary on
Hebrews 8:8-12, which Scripture passage is a quotation of Jeremiah
31:31-34, Calvin declares, "There are two main parts in this covenant;
the first regards the gratuitous remission of sins [i.e.,
justification]; and the other, the inward renovation of the heart [i.e.,
Preaching on Galatians 2:17-18, Calvin refers to "the
two principal graces of our Lord Jesus Christ:"
The one is the forgiveness of our sins, whereby
we are assured of our salvation, and have our consciences quieted
[i.e., justification] … The second is, that whereas we be forward of
our own nature … when we have once tasted the inestimable love of
our God, and perceived what our Lord Jesus Christ is: then we be so
touched by his [H]oly [S]pirit, that we condemn the evil, and desire
to draw near unto God, and to frame ourselves to his holy will
In another sermon, the Reformer warns
his Genevan congregation about separating these "two things"
(justification and sanctification):
Now what God has
joined together, we must not separate. Therefore, since our sins are
pardoned at the moment he renews us by his Holy Spirit, let us join
these two things and treat them as inseparable: God reconciles us to
himself by his free mercy and buries our sins [i.e.,
justification] while also bringing us back to
obedience to himself [i.e., sanctification] … Let us lay hold
of that grace [i.e., sanctification] and join it with the first
[i.e., justification], for that is the way we will be prepared by
faith to be purified …
There is no room for loose living
or antinomianism in Calvin’s teaching on
justification. Those who are truly justified by faith alone will, and
must, live new and godly lives and so do good works. Covenant children—and
adults—need to know and practise this.
emphatically teaches that justification includes assurance of salvation.
Calvin wanted the Genevan catechumens to know this, as this dialogue
between the Master (M) and the Scholar (S) shows:
advantage accrues to us from this forgiveness [which is, of course,
included in justification]?
S. We are accepted, just as if we were righteous and innocent, and
at the same time our consciences are confirmed in a full reliance on
his paternal favour, assuring us of salvation.
This is necessarily the
case because justification is itself a declaration of God to us in our
consciousness that we are righteous and, hence, recipients of Jehovah’s
fatherly care and salvation. Thus justification itself carries with it
the truth of assurance.
Calvin’s definition of
faith, which he puts into the mouths of the lambs in Geneva, also
includes assurance. In answer to the Master’s request for a "true
definition of faith," the child replies, "It may be defined [as] a sure
and steadfast knowledge of the paternal goodwill of God toward us, as he
declares in the gospel that for the sake of Christ he will be our Father
Assurance is also included
in the definition of faith given in Calvin’s Institutes:
Now we shall possess a
right definition of faith if we call it 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 through the Holy Spirit.
That assurance is of the
essence of faith is a point Calvin makes repeatedly in his various
works. For instance, in The Necessity of Reforming
the Church, immediately after speaking of justification, Calvin
castigates Rome for its grievous heresy in this regard:
Lastly, there was another most pestilential error, which not only
occupied the minds of men, but was regarded as one of the principal
articles of faith, of which it was impious to doubt: that is, that
believers ought to be perpetually in suspense and uncertainty as to
their interest in the divine favor. By this suggestion of the devil,
the power of faith was completely extinguished, the benefits of
Christ’s purchase destroyed, and the
salvation of men overthrown. For, as Paul declares, that faith only
is Christian faith which inspires our hearts with confidence, and
emboldens us to appear in the presence of God (Rom. 5:2). On no
other view could his doctrine in another place be maintained: that
is, that "we have received the Spirit of
adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father"
the Genevan Reformer not only sees justification and sanctification as
inseparably joined; Pastor Calvin also rightly teaches that
justification includes assurance of salvation. The youngest catechumens
in Calvin’s Geneva were left in no doubt
concerning this. Yet many Reformed theologians even in our day have not
got this straight.
3. Justification and
Justification includes the continual forgiveness of sins. It is
not only received once and for all at the very start of the Christian
life, as many in fundamentalist and evangelical circles believe and
teach. Calvin teaches that in the fifth petition of the Lord’s
Prayer ("forgive us our debts, as we forgive
our debtors") we who are already believers
continually ask God to remit our sins:
M. What does the fifth
That the Lord would pardon our sins …
When Christ gave this form of prayer, he designed it for the whole
that, because of his continual imperfection and sin, the believer
requires "continual forgiveness:"
For since no perfection can come to us so long as we are clothed in
this flesh, and the law moreover announces death and judgment to all
who do not maintain perfect righteousness in works, it will always
have grounds for accusing and condemning us unless, on the contrary,
God’s mercy counters it, and by continual forgiveness of sins
repeatedly acquits us.
In the quotation below, we see the
Genevan Reformer prove his point from Scripture by appealing to the
history of David and Abraham, noting that statements of their
justification (Psalm 32:1 and Genesis 15:6, respectively) are given long
after they first believed and were justified in their consciousnesses
for the first time . Calvin also appeals to the testimony of the
conscience of the (continually sinning) believer as to the need for
continual forgiveness .
 Nor can this indeed be confined
to the commencement of justification, as they dream; for this
definition—"Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven"—was
applicable to David, after he had long exercised himself in the
service of God; and Abraham, thirty years after his call, though a
remarkable example of holiness, had yet no works for which he could
glory before God, and hence his faith in the promise was imputed to
him for righteousness; and when Paul teaches us that God justifies
men by not imputing their sins, he quotes a passage, which is daily
repeated in the Church.  Still more the conscience, by which we
are disturbed on the score of works, performs its office, not for
one day only, but continues to do so through life.
Remember too that Calvin
rightly sees man’s conscience as God’s witness to us, already in this
life, of His righteous verdict upon our sins.
… when men have an
awareness of divine judgment adjoined to them as a witness which
does not let them hide their sins but arraigns them as guilty before
the judgment seat—this awareness is called "conscience" … this
feeling, which draws men to God’s judgment, is like a keeper
assigned to man, that watches and observes all his secrets so that
nothing may remain buried in darkness. Hence that ancient proverb:
conscience is a thousand witnesses.
wonder Calvin affirms in his Institutes,
… we must have this
blessedness [of justification] not just once but must hold to it
throughout life … the embassy of free reconciliation is published
[i.e., preached] not just for one day or another but is attested as
perpetual in the church.
Justification is not increased, for it is always 100% complete, based on
the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us. But we who are
just are also sinners (to borrow Luther’s
phraseology), and so we continually need to hear the assuring
declaration of pardon in our consciousness, especially through the
preaching of the Word.
This is Reformed and biblical Christianity for young and old.
4. Justification and Our
instructs us that God justifies the good works of all those to whom He
imputes Christ’s righteousness.
then or how can it be that they [i.e., the believer’s good works]
S. It is
faith alone which procures favour for them, as we rest with assured
confidence on this—that God wills not to try them by his strict
rule, but covering their defects and impurities as buried in the
purity of Christ, he regards them in the same light as if they were
This is what is
referred to as "double justification:" God’s justification of both the
believer’s person and his works.
The former is treated in the first paragraph and the latter in the
second, in this fuller explanation in the Institutes:
But we define
justification as follows: the sinner, received into communion with
Christ, is reconciled to God by his grace, while, cleansed by
Christ’s blood, he obtains forgiveness of sins, and clothed with
Christ’s righteousness as if it were his own, he stands confident
before the heavenly judgment seat.
of sins is set forth, the good works that now follow are appraised
otherwise than on their own merit. For everything imperfect in them
is covered by Christ’s perfection, every blemish or spot is cleansed
away by his purity in order not to be brought in question at the
divine judgment. Therefore, after the guilt of all transgressions
that hinder man from bringing forth anything pleasing to God has
been blotted out, and after the fault of imperfection, which
habitually defiles even good works, is buried, the good works done
by believers are accounted righteous, or, what is the same thing,
are reckoned as righteousness [Rom. 4:22].
As in the previous quotation, here Calvin also
teaches that "double justification" is through union with Christ and by
A work begins to be acceptable only when it is
undertaken with pardon. Now whence does this pardon arise, save that
God contemplates us and our all in Christ? Therefore, as we
ourselves, when we have been engrafted into Christ, are righteous in
God’s sight because our iniquities are covered by Christ’s
sinlessness, so our works are righteous and are thus regarded
because whatever fault is otherwise in them is buried in Christ’s
purity, and is not charged to our account. Accordingly, we can
deservedly say that by faith alone not only we ourselves but our
works as well are justified.
Calvin underscores the
(logical) order in the pardon of the believer’s person and his works in
a sermon on the offerings of Abel and Cain: "by the remission of our
sins [i.e., justification],  we and  our works obtain from him
this blessing of being pleasing to him … God  first looks upon the
persons and  then upon the works which proceed from them."
In this same sermon on Genesis 4:1-5a, after noting that "Moses put the
person [not the works] first [Gen. 4:4]," Calvin adds, "the person is
accepted so God can approve works second and at a lower level."
The Genevan Reformer is
clear that the justification of the believer’s works are "subordinate"
and "not contrary" to the justification of his person:
I say that it is owing
to free imputation that we are considered righteous before God; I
say that from this also another benefit proceeds, viz., that our
works have the name of righteousness, though they are far from
having the reality of righteousness. In short, I affirm, that not by
our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works
justified; and that the justification of works depends on the
justification of the person, as the effect on the cause.
Calvin affirms that God
"not only loves the faithful, but also their works," before adding, "We
must again observe, that since some fault always adheres to our works,
it is not possible that they can be approved, except as a matter of
Heinrich Quistorp presents
Calvin’s teaching in this regard:
[The] good works … of
believers … are not good in themselves but they become so through
justification by grace flowing from faith in Christ, and this has
its eternal ground in the election of God. Justification and the
recompense of works do not therefore in the last resort contradict
each other … It is in fact a pure reward of grace which He gives us
in the judgment of Christ. Thus God crowns in His children the work
which He began in them.
Ronald Wallace summarises
Calvin’s view of our fatherly God as He justifies His children’s works:
does not examine our works according to the "severe rule of the
Law." His attitude to our works is rather like that of the father
who is pleased to watch and accept what his little child tries to do
even though it be of no practical value.
comforting truth for the children in Geneva and all the children of God
of whatever age throughout the world!
Justification and the Church
teaches that the gift of imputed righteousness—which is inseparably
joined to sanctification and includes assurance, the continual
forgiveness of sins and the justification of our works—is received and
enjoyed only in a true church. This is how the Catechism of the
Church of Geneva relates two articles of the
Apostles’ Creed: "I believe an holy,
catholic church" and "the
forgiveness of sins:"
M. Why do you subjoin
forgiveness of sins to the Church?
S. Because no man
obtains it without being previously united to the people of God,
maintaining unity with the body of Christ perseveringly to the end,
and thereby attesting that he is a true member of the Church.
The master’s next question
draws forth an emphatic confirmation:
M. In this way you
conclude that out of the Church is naught but ruin and damnation?
Certainly. Those who make a departure from the body of Christ, and
rend its unity by faction, are cut off from all hope of salvation
during the time they remain in schism, be it however short.
Isaiah commentary, the French Reformer also unites justification and
living church membership, and refers to the same two articles of the
It is also worthy of
observation, that none but the citizens of the Church enjoy this
privilege; for, apart from the body of Christ and the fellowship of
the godly, there can be no hope of reconciliation with God. Hence,
in the Creed we profess to believe in "The Catholic Church and the
forgiveness of sins;" for God does not include among the objects of
his love any but those whom he reckons among the members of his
only-begotten Son, and, in like manner, does not extend to any who
do not belong to his body the free imputation of righteousness
[i.e., justification]. Hence it follows,
that strangers who separate themselves from the Church have nothing
left for them but to rot amidst their curse. Hence, also, a
departure from the Church is an open renouncement of eternal
discussion on the visible, instituted church as "mother," Calvin writes,
"Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of
sins or any salvation, as Isaiah [Isa. 37:32] and Joel [Joel 2:32]
this fits perfectly with Calvin’s teaching
throughout his writings on the necessity of joining, or labouring to
establish, a true church,
as well as with articles 28 and 29 of our Belgic Confession,
written chiefly by Guido De Brès. Both the
and its author were influenced and approved by Calvin.
Genevan Reformer is not teaching justification by faith and
works! Nor is it even a mitigation of justification by faith alone!
Calvin is instructing us that the church is the only sphere in which the
blessing of justification by faith alone is enjoyed. This is another
good reason why young and old saints must "join and unite themselves"
with a true church, "submitting themselves to the doctrine and
discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ."
6. Justification and the
Justification for John Calvin brings "singular
in considering the judgment day.
M. Does it give any
delight to our conscience that Christ one day will be judge of the
S. Indeed, singular
delight. For we know assuredly that he will come only for our
M. We should not then
tremble at this judgment, so as to let it fill us with dismay?
No, indeed; since we shall only stand at the tribunal of a judge who
is also our advocate, and who has taken us under his faith and
insightful questions and perceptive answers the Genevan catechism
contains! Only the true gospel can enable us to contemplate the coming
judgment day without our running away in dread or our trembling in
terror or our being filled with dismay.
Only justification by faith alone—the
assurance that the righteousness of Christ is reckoned to our account by
God’s grace without works—can
give us confidence, nay "singular delight,"
both now and at the last day, with regard to God’s
doctrine of justification that cannot do this is, therefore, a false
doctrine of justification, and not the doctrine of justification taught
in the Bible, nor at the Reformation, nor by Calvin. This is the
condemnation of Romanism, false ecumenism, the New Perspective on
Paul and the Federal Vision (amongst others).
Calvin—good pastor and theologian that he was—preached
the good news of justification to the catechumens in Geneva. We and our
seed need to hear and believe it continually too: "Little
children, do not be distraught as you contemplate the great judgment
day. Do not think of it in abject terror. Consider it with singular
delight because you are justified, you are righteous with the
righteousness of God Himself wrought in our Lord Jesus Christ, who faced
the judgment for you two thousand years ago on the cross."
This was Calvin’s own hope
and confidence, as he stated it in his last will and testament:
With my whole soul I
embrace the mercy which He has exercised towards me through Jesus
Christ, atoning for my sins with the merits of His death and
passion, that in this way He might satisfy for all my crimes and
faults, and blot them from his remembrance … [so] that under His
[i.e., Christ’s] shadow I may be able to stand at the judgment-seat.
Under a section entitled,
"The Judge is the—Redeemer!" in the Battles edition of the Institutes,
Calvin rejoices in this "wonderful consolation," which is "no mean
Hence arises a
wonderful consolation: that we perceive judgment to be in the hands
of him who has already destined us to share with him the honor of
judging [cf. Matt. 19:28]! Far indeed is he from mounting his
judgment seat to condemn us! How could our most merciful Ruler
destroy his people? How could the Head scatter his own members? How
could our Advocate condemn his clients? For if the apostle dares
exclaim that with Christ interceding for us there is no one who can
come forth to condemn us [Rom. 8:34, 33], it is much more true,
then, that Christ as Intercessor will not condemn those whom he has
received into his charge and protection. No mean assurance,
this—that we shall be brought before no other judgment seat than
that of our Redeemer, to whom we must look for our salvation!
Moreover, he who now promises eternal blessedness through the gospel
will then fulfill his promise in judgment. Therefore, by giving all
judgment to the Son [John 5:22], the Father has honored him to the
end that he may care for the consciences of his people, who tremble
in dread of judgment.
Venema presents Calvin’s teaching:
Through fellowship with Christ, believers enjoy through faith an
anticipation of the final verdict of free acceptance and favor with
God. Justification in Calvin’s conception is, therefore, a
thoroughly eschatological benefit. By virtue of Christ’s atoning
death and resurrection, believers who are united to him enjoy the
gospel pronouncement of free acceptance with God, which is no less
than the present declaration of what will be publicly confirmed at
the last judgment.
true believers have been justified at Calvary; all true believers
receive this acquittal in their consciousnesses as they exercise faith
in Christ crucified and risen; all true believers will be openly
declared righteous with Christ’s righteousness at the great assize.
However, it is as the child of God earnestly follows Christ as a lively
church member, continually seeking and experiencing forgiveness for his
wretched depravity and manifold sins, that he is enabled more and
more to consider the judgment day with singular delight. After all,
each day he is assured of the verdict of the heavenly tribunal that
Jehovah mercifully justifies him and his works.
In this way, the great white throne loses its terror for us and is
understood as a throne of grace.
This is how
Calvin puts it in his Romans commentary:
as our faith makes progress, and as
it advances in knowledge, so the righteousness of God increases in
us at the same time [i.e., progressive sanctification], and the
possession of it is in a manner confirmed [i.e., increased
confidence in our justification]. When at first we taste the gospel,
we indeed see God’s smiling countenance turned towards us, but at a
distance: the more the knowledge of true religion grows in us, by
coming as it were nearer, we behold God’s favour more clearly and
the judge is "our advocate;" we are "under his faith and protection;" He
is coming not for our condemnation but "only for our salvation"—to our
This article is an expansion of a speech given in N. Ireland,
the Republic of Ireland, Wales and the United States in 2009, the
quincentennial of Calvin’s birth. An
(taped in Portadown, N. Ireland) and a
of the speech (recorded in Grand Rapids, USA), as well as a much
shorter written form of it, are available on-line. The CD or DVD
can be ordered from the CPRC.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,
ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia:
The Westminster Press, 1960), 3.12.1, pp.
These five groups are, of course, not mutually exclusive. Works
advocating these heretical views are too many to list here but it may
be worth mentioning at least one influential and recent book that
seeks to drive a wedge between Calvin and Luther on justification:
Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the
Development of Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001).
Calvin, Institutes 3.12.1, p. 754.
Calvin, Institutes 3.14.15, p. 782.
John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis:
Chapters 1-11, trans. Rob Roy McGregor
(Edinburgh: Banner, 2009), p. 580.
Calvin, Sermons on Genesis:
Calvin, Institutes 3.12.1, p.
755; cf. Comm. on Ps. 130:3-4. At the start of his magnum opus, the French Reformer states that
each man must "raise [his] thoughts to God" in heaven and His
judgment, in order to gain a "clear knowledge of himself" and so be
"convinced of [his] own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and
impurity." Otherwise, as totally depraved sinners, "being quite
content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter
ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods" (1.1.2,
pp. 37-38). Herman Bavinck also identifies this as the Genevan
Reformer's approach to justification: "Calvin feels that he is in the
presence of God, placed before his judgment seat; and looking up at
the holiness and majesty of God, he no longer dares to speak, with
reference to puny sinful humans, of works of their own, of merits, or
of reason for boasting in themselves" (Reformed Dogmatics,
ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 4 [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker,
2008], p. 200). Later, Bavinck explicitly takes Calvin's orientation
to justification as his own: "To correctly assess the benefit of
justification, people must lift up their minds to the judgment seat of
God and put themselves in his presence" (p. 204), citing Institutes
3.12 in the footnote (p. 204, n. 102). Francis Turretin, a
successor Calvin in Geneva, assimilates his teaching on the right
perspective on justification in Institutes 3.12.1 and even
much of his language, without specifically quoting him (Institutes
of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2
[Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994], pp. 639-640). In his classic work
on justification, James Buchanan writes that man must see himself "as
a sinner in the sight of God, standing before His awful tribunal, and
awaiting His sentence, as a righteous Judge. Without some such
apprehension as this, he will feel little or no interest in the
question of Justification, and will scarcely be able to understand
what it means, or what principles are involved in it" (The Doctrine
of Justification [Great Britain: Banner, 1984], p. 6).
Calvin, Institutes 3.14.1, p. 769.
John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate:
Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply, ed. John C.
Olin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), p. 66.
Elsewhere, Calvin traces Rome’s opposition to its diabolic
source (cf. Eph. 6:12): "Satan has laboured at nothing more
assiduously than to extinguish, or to smother, the gratuitous
justification of faith" (Comm. on Gen. 15:6). All citations of
Calvin’s commentaries are from the 22-volume Baker edition (repr.
Calvin, A Reformation Debate, p. 66. We will consider
some of the rich teaching of the Genevan catechism at the end of this
Calvin, A Reformation Debate, pp. 66-67.
John Calvin, Comm. on Rom., p. xxix.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom., pp. xxix-xxxvii.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom., p. xxix. Calvin makes
a very similar remark in his "Epistle Dedicatory" to his German friend
Simon Grynaeus (p. xxiv).
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 1:17. By "the first part of this Epistle,"
Calvin seems to be thinking of Romans 1-5 (cf. pp. xxix-xxx).
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 3:9.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 3:10.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 3:19.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 3:24; cf. Institutes 3.14.17, pp.
783-784; 3.14.21, p. 787. Sometimes, Calvin only gives three of the
"causes," omitting the "final cause" (Comm. on Rom. 3:22).
In his exposition of Romans 4, Calvin notes that
Christian baptism, which is "a sign instituted" in the "place" of
circumcision, "had the office of sealing, and as it were of ratifying,
the righteousness of faith." Indeed, justification and sanctification
are "the general benefits of [both] sacraments" as "sacred symbols,"
"instruments" and "testimonies" which "confirm" "the elect" in this
"twofold grace" (Comm. on Rom. 4:11).
Calvin continues, "No one can stand boldly before God, but he
who relies on a gratuitous reconciliation" (Comm. on Rom. 5:1).
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 5:2.
Calvin, Comms. on Rom. 5:3, 4, 5. Also, for Calvin,
"life proceeds from justification" (Comm. on Rom. 5:18)
and Christ’s "cloth[ing] us with his own
righteousness" is the "necessary" legal ground for the holy God to
"love" us (Comm. on Rom. 4:3). In his
Institutes, Calvin states that the Lord’s people "have their
sins buried and are justified before God because, as he hates sin, he
can love only those whom he has justified" (3.11.11, p. 740).
Justification is the way in which we are "received into friendship"
and "fellowship" with God (3.14.6, p. 773).
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 5:8-9.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 5:12.
Calvin, Comms. on Rom. 6:1, 4.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 6:2.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 8:33.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 8:34.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 9:32.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 10:4.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 12.
Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 14:17.
The Necessity of Reforming the Church, trans. Henry
Beveridge (Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage Press,
1995), p. 26.
Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming,
Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming,
Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming,
There a massive difference between faith and free will; the two are
antithetical. The apostle Paul not only teaches salvation by faith
alone and not works (Eph. 2:8-9); he also affirms, "it [i.e.,
salvation] is not of him that willeth [i.e., man’s supposed free
will], nor of him that runneth [i.e., man’s strenuous exertions], but
of God that sheweth mercy" (Rom. 9:16). Thus the Canons of Dordt
declare, "Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of
God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted
or rejected at his pleasure; but because it is in reality conferred,
breathed, and infused into him; or even because God bestows the power
or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the
exercise of his own free will, consent to the terms of that salvation,
and actually believe in Christ; but because he who works in man both
to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the
will to believe, and the act of believing also"
François Wendel, Calvin: The Origins and Development of His
Religious Thought, trans. Philip Mairet (New York: Wm. Collins,
1965), p. 284.
Calvin, Institutes 3.19.1, p. 833.
E.g., David J. Engelsma’s treatment of the Reformer’s doctrine of
justification contains Calvin’s chapter on Christian freedom (The
Reformed Faith of John Calvin [Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2009], pp.
Calvin, Institutes 3.3.1, p. 593; cf.
3.11.1, pp. 725-726.