Calvin on Justification: Considering the
with Singular Delight
Rev. Angus Stewart
In our day of widespread spiritual
blindness and theological deceit, it bears repeating that John Calvin’s
teaching on justification is radically opposed to that of Romanism,
false ecumenism, the New Perspective on Paul and the Federal Vision. The
Genevan Reformer would shake his head in utter bewilderment at the claim
of some that his doctrine of justification is not that of Martin Luther.
Let it be clearly affirmed and understood that Calvin taught the
orthodox, biblical truth of justification by faith alone in Christ alone
through grace alone, as proclaimed in all the Reformed confessions.
However, this article, largely because
of space constraints and partly because of embarrassment at proving
something patently obvious to all but the most deluded, will not take
time to establish that this particular circle is round.
Instead, we shall build upon the truth of justification by faith alone
by setting forth five 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.
For this purpose, we shall consider
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?
First, Calvin is especially clear on the
truth that justification and sanctification are distinct but inseparably
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 (p. 55).
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, especially by appealing to Jeremiah 31:31-34. This being the
case, 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.
Second, Calvin 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:
M. What 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 (p. 79).
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
This 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 favour. 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" (Rom.
Thus 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.
Third, justification includes the
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
M. What does the fifth petition
S. That the Lord would pardon our
sins … When Christ gave this form of prayer, he designed it for the
whole Church (p. 79).
In his Institutes of the
Christian Religion, the Genevan Reformer affirms,
… 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 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. This is Reformed and biblical Christianity for young and old.
Fourth, Calvin teaches that the
gift of justification, which is inseparably joined to sanctification and
includes both assurance and continual forgiveness of sins, 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 (p. 52).
M. In this way you conclude that out of the
Church is naught but ruin and damnation?
S. 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 (p. 52).
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, who was influenced by Calvin.
This is not justification by faith
and works! Calvin is teaching 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" (Belgic Confession 28).
Fifth, justification for John Calvin
brings "singular delight" in considering the judgment day.
M. Does it give any delight to our
conscience that Christ one day will be judge of the world?
S. Indeed, singular delight. For we
know assuredly that he will come only for our salvation.
M. We should not then tremble at
this judgment, so as to let it fill us with dismay?
S. 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 protection (pp. 49-50).
What 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 judgment.
Any 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
John Calvin record—good pastor and
theologian that he was—preached the good news of justification to the
catechumens in Geneva, and we and our children 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
Amongst other places, Calvin’s Catechism of the Church of
Geneva is found in John Calvin, Treatises on the Sacraments:
Catechism of the Church of Geneva, Forms of Prayer, and Confessions of
Faith, trans. Henry Beveridge (Scotland: Christian Heritage, 2002),
pp. 34-94. Page numbers in the body of this article refer to this book.
The Necessity of Reforming the Church,
trans. Henry Beveridge (Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage
Press, 1995), p. 27.
This article is derived from part of a speech given in N.
Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Wales and the USA 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
expanded written form of it, are available on-line. The CD or DVD
can be ordered from the CPRC.