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Calvin on Justification: Considering the
Judgment Day with Singular Delight1

Rev. Angus Stewart


Approach and Orientation

Right 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 Almighty God.

All 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."2

This 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.3

Listen to Calvin’s sharp warnings against playing intellectual games with justification!

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!4

… 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.5

… 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.6

What an 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 brilliant light.7

To 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.].8

This 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 1:6.9 How can we possibly stand in God’s sight? You and I?

The 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.

To further 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 significant lines:

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.10

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."11

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."12

In his next paragraph, however, Reformed apologist Calvin does "briefly explain … how we speak on this subject."

[1] 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. [2] 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.13

What a powerful and moving presentation of justification in Christ alone, by grace alone and through faith alone [2]! 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" [1].


Commentary on Romans

The next year in Strasburg in March 1540, Calvin published his first biblical commentary, significantly, on that key book for the Reformation, Romans.

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."14 In Calvin’s fine overview of the sixteen chapters of Romans, justification is prominent.15 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."16

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."17

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."18

After many Old Testament quotations proving man’s "unrighteousness" (Rom. 3:10-18),19 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.20

This paves the way for Paul’s great statement on justification in Romans 3:21-28. Calvin provides a summary, using the four Aristotelian "causes:"

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.21

After developing the subject of righteousness by faith in his exposition of apostolic teaching in Romans 4,22 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.

"Peace with God" or "tranquillity of conscience" is impossible without justification, for it is "the peculiar fruit of the righteousness of faith."23 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 him"),24 as well as "glorying" in tribulations and growing in "patience," "hope" and "love."25

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."26

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 similar.27

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" "for these two things [i.e., justification and sanctification] are connected together by an indissoluble knot."28 "The state of the case is really this,—that the faithful are never reconciled to God without the gift of regeneration [i.e., sanctification]; nay, we are for this end justified,—that we may afterwards serve God in holiness of life."29

It will suffice simply to mention a few other passages in the remainder of Calvin’s commentary on Romans that highlight the significance of justification.

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."30 Calvin continues,

It 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.31

Despising Christ and justification in Him alone was the grounds upon which Israel, God’s ancient covenant people, was "deservedly rejected."32 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!

When Israel 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 Calvin,

because 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.33

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].34

Notice that 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!

Later, Calvin 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 more?35


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."36

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]."37 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 will."38

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 salvation.39

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 free will.40


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 opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, the final, 1559 edition. Here we shall consider four ways that this work underscores the importance of justification.

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).41 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."42

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."43 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.44 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.45 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."46 Without this foundation, the house of salvation is built on sand and all piety collapses to the ground.47

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."48 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.49 Calvin proves this by looking at several biblical texts in the next two sections.50

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.51 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 1559.


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.52 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."53 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 God.54 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."55 In this way, the law is "our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith" (Gal. 3:24).56

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 all."57 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.58

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.59

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).60

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."61

… 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?62


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 is "vicious."64 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).65

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."66

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.]."67 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)?68


"Without Works"

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.69

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."70

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."71

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 experience.72

In full accordance with Institutes 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."73

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 judgment seat."74

Adam was "summoned by the mouth of his Judge."75

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."76

"God urges us to repent by summoning us before his holy majesty."77

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.78


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.79

He [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.80

One can hear prosecuting attorney Calvin put his legal training to good effect as he insists upon "two reasons why … we cannot win our case:"

First, 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 ..."81

Calvin presses home his point by appealing to the cases of two godly men, Job and David:

In 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.

Thus 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?82


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. [1] 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. [2] 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].82a

"We 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."83 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 forsaken man."84 This Messiah is the only and all-sufficient Saviour—for all God’s people, John Calvin included!85


James 2

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.86

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:"

For 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.87

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]."88

In his Institutes (1559), Calvin makes at least three points on James 2.89 First, those who interpret James as teaching justification by faith and works "drag Paul into conflict with James," which, of course, given the unity of Scripture, exposes their exegesis as wrong.90 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).91 Third, Calvin exposes the "double fallacy" of his opponents who wrongly reckon that James uses the words "faith" and "justify" in the same sense as Paul.92

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.93 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."94 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 alone.95

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."96 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.97

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!98


Romans 2:13

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.99 Any man taught in the slightest by the Spirit knows this about himself and so casts himself before Almighty God in repentance.100

In his commentary on Romans 2:13, Calvin is sharp in his criticism of the heretics:

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 ...101

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 ‘Genevan.’"102 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."103

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."104

"Faith 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."105 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]."106 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."107 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.108 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.109 Osiander’s many heresies included the notion that the divine essence is transfused into us and that this infusion and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness combine in our justification.110 Calvin rightly calls Osiander’s "speculation" a "strange monster" and a "wild dream" "bordering on Manichaeism."111

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].112

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 sinned.113 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."114


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?

1. 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.115

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.116

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., sanctification]."117

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 [i.e., sanctification].118

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 …119

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.

2. Justification and Assurance

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.120

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 and Saviour."121

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.122

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" (Rom. 8:15).123

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.124

3. Justification and Continual Forgiveness

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 petition contain?

S. That the Lord would pardon our sins … When Christ gave this form of prayer, he designed it for the whole Church.125

Calvin explains 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.126

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 [1]. Calvin also appeals to the testimony of the conscience of the (continually sinning) believer as to the need for continual forgiveness [2].

[1] 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. [2] 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.127

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.128

No 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.129

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.130 This is Reformed and biblical Christianity for young and old.

4. Justification and Our Good Works

Calvin instructs us that God justifies the good works of all those to whom He imputes Christ’s righteousness.

M. Whence then or how can it be that they [i.e., the believer’s good works] please God?

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 absolutely perfect.131

This is what is referred to as "double justification:" God’s justification of both the believer’s person and his works.132 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.

After forgiveness 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].133

As in the previous quotation, here Calvin also teaches that "double justification" is through union with Christ and by faith alone:

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.134

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], [1] we and [2] our works obtain from him this blessing of being pleasing to him … God [1] first looks upon the persons and [2] then upon the works which proceed from them."135 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."136

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.137

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 indulgence."138

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.139

Ronald Wallace summarises Calvin’s view of our fatherly God as He justifies His children’s works:

God 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.140

What a comforting truth for the children in Geneva and all the children of God of whatever age throughout the world!141

5. Justification and the Church

Calvin 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.142

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?

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.143

In his Isaiah commentary, the French Reformer also unites justification and living church membership, and refers to the same two articles of the Apostles’ Creed:

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 salvation.144

In his 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] testify."145

All this fits perfectly with Calvin’s teaching throughout his writings on the necessity of joining, or labouring to establish, a true church,146 as well as with articles 28 and 29 of our Belgic Confession, written chiefly by Guido De Brès. Both the Confession and its author were influenced and approved by Calvin.147

The 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."148

6. Justification and the Judgment Day

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.149

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.150 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.151

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 (amongst others).

John 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.152

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 assurance:"

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.153

Cornelis 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.154

All 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.155

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.156 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 more familiarly.157

Christ 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 "singular delight!"158

1 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 audio (taped in Portadown, N. Ireland) and a video 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.
2 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. 754, 755.
3 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).
4 Calvin, Institutes 3.12.1, p. 754.
5 Calvin, Institutes 3.14.15, p. 782.
6 John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, trans. Rob Roy McGregor (Edinburgh: Banner, 2009), p. 580.
7 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 380.
8 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).
9 Calvin, Institutes 3.14.1, p. 769.
10 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.
11 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. 1993).
12 Calvin, A Reformation Debate, p. 66. We will consider some of the rich teaching of the Genevan catechism at the end of this article.
13 Calvin, A Reformation Debate, pp. 66-67.
14 John Calvin, Comm. on Rom., p. xxix.
15 Calvin, Comm. on Rom., pp. xxix-xxxvii.
16 Calvin, Comm. on Rom., p. xxix. Calvin makes a very similar remark in his "Epistle Dedicatory" to his German friend Simon Grynaeus (p. xxiv).
17 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).
18 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 3:9.
19 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 3:10.
20 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 3:19.
21 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).
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).
23 Calvin continues, "No one can stand boldly before God, but he who relies on a gratuitous reconciliation" (Comm. on Rom. 5:1).
24 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 5:2.
25 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).
26 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 5:8-9.
27 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 5:12.
28 Calvin, Comms. on Rom. 6:1, 4.
29 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 6:2.
30 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 8:33.
31 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 8:34.
32 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 9:32.
33 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 10:4.
34 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 12.
35 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 14:17.
36 John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, trans. Henry Beveridge (Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995), p. 26.
37 Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming, p. 60.
38 Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming, p. 57.
39 Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming, p. 57.
40 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" (III/IV:14).
41 François Wendel, Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, trans. Philip Mairet (New York: Wm. Collins, 1965), p. 284.
42 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. 222-246).
43 Calvin, Institutes 3.3.1, p. 593; cf. 3.11.1, pp. 725-726.
44 Calvin, Institutes, p. 593, n. 2. However, Engelsma writes, "I suggest another, more substantial reason for Calvin’s treatment of sanctification before justification. Calvin recognizes that in the work of salvation there is a sense in which sanctification, or newness of life, does precede justification. Regeneration in the narrow sense, or newness of life that comes about by union with Christ, makes us new creatures in Christ, and thus holy. And this does precede the activity of faith and conscious justification by faith. To put it very simply: we are united to Christ and in principle made new creatures in Christ before consciously believing in Christ and thus enjoying righteousness" (The Reformed Faith of John Calvin, p. 226).
45 Calvin, Institutes 3.11.1, p. 726; Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., "Justification and Union with Christ (3.11-18)," in David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback (eds.), A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2008), p. 257.
46 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.1, p. 726. Later, Calvin calls justification by faith "this utterly incomparable good" (3.11.10, p. 737) and "the sum of all piety" (3.15.7, p. 794). Elsewhere, he extols it as "the principal blessing of the everlasting covenant" (Comm. on Ps. 143:2).
47 Calvin also uses the "foundation" image in a sermon on Luke 1:5-10, in which he describes justification as "the principle of the whole doctrine of salvation and of the foundation of all religion" (quoted in Wendel, Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, p. 256).
48 Calvin, Institutes 3.11.2, p. 726.
49 Calvin, Institutes 3.11.2, pp. 726-727.
50 Calvin, Institutes 3.11.3-4, pp. 727-728.
51 Calvin, Institutes 3.11.2, p. 726.
52 This is how the Reformer describes Paul’s method in Romans 1-3: "Having wholly deprived all mankind of their confidence in their own virtue and of their boast of righteousness, and laid them prostrate by the severity of God’s judgment, he returns to what he had before laid down as his subject—that we are justified by faith; and he explains what faith is, and how the righteousness of Christ is by it attained by us" (Comm. on Rom., p. xxxi).
53 Calvin, Institutes 3.14.3-4, pp. 770-771. Earlier in his Institutes, Calvin states, "As for the virtues that deceive us with their vain show, they shall have their praise in the political assembly and in common renown among men; but before the heavenly judgment seat they shall be of no value to acquire righteousness" (2.3.4, p. 294).
54 Calvin, Institutes 3.14.3, p. 770. Likewise, the Heidelberg Catechism states that good works must be "to his [i.e., God’s] glory" (A. 91).
55 Preaching on Genesis 3:17-18, Calvin explains, "God wanted to shut Adam’s mouth by showing him that he was completely convicted of his offence and that the reply he had given was unworthy of attention. Now this is the common teaching throughout holy Scripture, namely, that God silences the babbling of those who would cover their sins with excuses" (Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 301).
56 Calvin complains about the folly of Rome’s sixteenth-century council: "But so preposterous are the Fathers of Trent, that while it is the office of Moses to lead us by the hand to Christ (Gal. 3:24), they lead us away from the grace of Christ to Moses" ("Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote," in John Calvin, Tracts and Treatises [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958], vol. 3, p. 120).
57 Calvin, Institutes 3.14.10, p. 777.
58 Calvin, Institutes 3.18.10, p. 833.
59 Calvin, Institutes 3.12.1, pp. 755-756. As Derek W. H. Thomas observes, "[This] raises the issue of double justice—that there exists a standard of justice (righteousness) over and above that which is revealed in the law." Calvin not only speaks of "double justice" in his Institutes; it also "receives fairly extensive treatment in Calvin’s sermons on Job" ("The Mediator of the Covenant (2.12-15)," in Hall and Lillback (eds.), A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, p. 208). Later in the Institutes, Calvin affirms, "Christ alone, who surpasses all perfection of the law, must be set forth as righteous" (3.19.2, p. 835).
60 E.g., Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming, p. 60; Institutes 3.12.1, p. 756; Comm. on Rom. 3:23. Our Heidelberg Catechism quotes Galatians 3:10 in Q. & A. 10. Calvin sees God’s curse upon the wicked, especially those who persecute His people, as active in this life and including in a guilty conscience: "God’s wrath will be hot on their heels and their bad consciences will haunt them like a hundred thousand witnesses" (Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 427).
61 John Calvin, John Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments, ed. and trans. Benjamin Wirt Farley (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), p. 229.
62 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 618. Notice, especially, the two haunting, rhetorical questions with which the citation ends: "Who fulfils them [i.e., God’s laws]? Who even begins to?" "And when our consciences find fault with us," the Reformer adds, "God necessarily knows more, as John says in his letter (I John 3:20)" (p. 376).
63 Calvin, Institutes 3.15.2, p. 789.
64 John Calvin, "Catechism of the Church of Geneva," 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), p. 54.  "God is an enemy," the Reformer avers, to "all who declare for themselves any merit," for thereby they "make war with Him" (Comm. on Luke 14:11).
65 Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming, p. 63.
66 Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming, p. 101.
67 Calvin, Institutes 3.14.15, p. 782.
68 Calvin, Institutes 3.14.14, p. 781.
69 Calvin, Institutes 3.11.19, p. 749. Elsewhere, Calvin states that it is "quite absurd" to "confine" "the works of the law" to "ceremonies" (Comm. on Rom. 3:28).
70 Calvin, Institutes 3.11.19, p. 749. Cf. Guy Prentiss Waters: "Paul’s concern with works in justification is not merit as such. It is with the fact that they constitute [man’s] activity, and such activity is categorically excluded from the arena of justification (Rom. 4:4-5; 11:5-6)" (The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology [Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2006], pp. 93-94).
71 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 258.
72 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, pp. 258-259.
73 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 251.
74 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 252.
75 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 253.
76 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 256.
77 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 261. The Genevan Reformer speaks similarly to the previous five quotations in other sermons in this book (e.g., pp. 271, 277, 320, 321, 324, 377, 384, 394, 395, 456, 458, 509, 580, 634, 713, 792).
78 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 264; cf. pp. 280, 384, 387, 406, 439, 458, 656. In their overweening pride and folly, fallen men have twisted things the wrong way round: "they blame God for being unjust" and "want to take God to court" (p. 376). Moreover, we "wag our tongues at our Judge" (p. 390) for "we think we will win our case" (p. 378)! In this, Calvin reckons, we are like wicked Cain, who "defends his case" and would take Jehovah’s "seat from him as if he were not Judge … and brings his suit against God" (p. 400).
79 The Hebrew word rîb, referring to a legal dispute or lawsuit or case at law, is used three times in Micah 6:1-3.
80 John Calvin, Sermons on the Book of Micah, trans. and ed. Benjamin Wirt Farley (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2003), p. 313.
81 Calvin, Sermons on the Book of Micah, pp. 314-315.
82 Calvin, Sermons on the Book of Micah, p. 315.
82a Calvin, Institutes 2.16.5, pp. 508-510; cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 38: "Why did he suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge? That he, being innocent, and yet condemned by a temporal judge, might thereby free us from the severe judgment of God to which we were exposed."
83 Calvin, Institutes 2.16.12, p. 519.
84 Calvin, Institutes 2.16.10, p. 516; cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 44.
85 In the very last paragraph of his touching little book on Calvin as husband, father, friend and pastor, and commenting on a phrase in the Reformer’s will, Richard Stauffer relates not only Calvin’s comfort and hope but also his humanity and humility to his consciousness of his sinfulness and God’s forgiveness: "‘Such a wretched sinner!’ Is not this confession the best proof that Calvin was not the inhuman or anti-human person whom some people have believed him to be? After having offered ‘his heart as a burnt sacrifice to the Lord,’ after having spent body and soul for the triumph of the gospel, far from shutting himself up in a prideful contemplation of his sacrifice or of his genius, he felt a solidarity with sinful humanity which can find justification only in Jesus Christ" (The Humanness of John Calvin, trans. George Shriver [Nashville/New York: Abingdon Press, 1971], p. 96).
86 A significant, recent Roman Catholic attack on justification that leans heavily on flawed exegesis of James 2 is Robert A. Sungenis, Not by Faith Alone: The Biblical Evidence for the Catholic Doctrine of Justification (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Publishing, 1997), esp. pp. 117-175.
87 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 3:28. Calvin’s Romans commentary (1540) reveals how important he saw this issue of the apparent discrepancy between Paul and James, for he refers his readers to a more detailed treatment of it in his Institutes (Comm. on Rom. 3:28). He also remarks, "[I] intend to explain [James 2] more fully, when I come, if the Lord will permit, to expound that Epistle" (Comm. on Rom. 4:3). God did so will, for eleven years later Calvin published his commentary on James (1551).
88 Calvin, Comm. on James 2:21.
89 Calvin, Institutes 3.17.11-12, pp. 814-817.
90 Calvin, Institutes 3.17.11, p. 814.
91 Calvin describes those James is exhorting as false brethren who have "abandoned themselves to a wholly licentious life," yet they live in a "stupid assurance," for they "boast of the false name of faith" though they possess only "the empty image of it" (Institutes 3.17.11, p. 814).
92 Calvin, Institutes 3.17.11-12, pp. 815-817.
93 Richard A. Muller, "Foreword," to John Calvin, Sermons on Melchizedek and Abraham (Willow Street, PA: Old Paths, 2000), p. xv.
94 Muller, "Foreword," p. ix.
95 Calvin, Sermons on Melchizedek and Abraham, pp. 179-188.
96 Calvin, Sermons on Melchizedek and Abraham, p. 183.
97 Calvin, Sermons on Melchizedek and Abraham, p. 182. Instead of Rome being "the spouse of our Savior Jesus Christ," Calvin declares, "surely it is a very harlot" that "begot nothing but bastards" (p. 183).
98 For a couple of recent Protestant treatments of James 2’s teaching on justification, see James R. White, The God Who Justifies (USA: Bethany House, 2001), pp. 329-354; Brian M. Schwertley, Auburn Avenue Theology: A Biblical Analysis (USA: American Presbyterian Press and Covenanted Reformation Press, 2005), pp. 78-97. The five audio sermons of Rev. Stewart’s series "Dead Faith" on James 2:14-26 can be listened to on-line.
99 Cf. Calvin, Institutes 3.17.13, pp. 817-818.
100 Another interpretation of Romans 2:13 that is within the analogy of faith (i.e., in keeping with our Reformed confessions) is that this text describes the godly lifestyle of believers who (are and) shall be justified, but it does not identify the basis of our justification. Christ’s righteousness alone is the basis or ground of our justification (Jer. 23:6; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:21-22; 5:19; 10:3-4; I Cor. 1:30; II Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9; cf. Belgic Confession 22-23; Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 56, 59-62).
101 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 2:13.
102 Guy Prentiss Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2004), p. 211.
103 Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul, p. 212; italics Waters’.
104 Calvin, Reformation Debate, p. 35.
105 Calvin, Reformation Debate, pp. 35-36.
106 James Henley Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (Edinburgh: Banner, 1974), vol. 3, p. 353.
107 Calvin, Reformation Debate, p. 34.
108 Calvin, Institutes 3.11.5-12, pp. 729-743.
109 Cf. Jaroslav Pelikan: "the seventeenth century followers of John Calvin knew that they disagreed with the followers of Luther on many questions [e.g., consubstantiation and double predestination], but they recognised that all of them agreed on this doctrine [i.e., justification] of the entire Reformation, in fact, the chief doctrine of Christianity and the chief point of difference separating Protestantism from Roman Catholicism. Repeatedly the various efforts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to unite Lutheran and Reformed teachings were able to affirm this doctrine [of justification] as one that they shared, diverge as they did on other doctrines" (The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 4 [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984], pp. 138-139).
110 Against all confusion of imputed and infused righteousness, Calvin rightly maintains, "it is false to say that any part of righteousness (justification) consists in quality, or in the habit which resides in us" ("Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote," p. 117).
111 Calvin, Institutes 3.11.5, pp. 729, 730.
112 John Calvin, Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Advice, trans. Mary Beaty and Benjamin Wirt Farley (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1991), p. 33. For other quotations from Calvin teaching Christ’s "active obedience," see Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1994), pp. 454-455.
113 Calvin, Institutes 1.15.3-5, pp. 186-192; 2.12.4-7, pp. 467-474.
114 Quoted in Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 4, p. 152.
115 Calvin, "Catechism of the Church of Geneva," p. 55.
116 Cf. Angus Stewart, "John Calvin’s Integrated Covenant Theology (3): The Blessings of the Covenant," Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, vol. 42, no. 1 (November, 2008), pp. 3-16, esp. pp. 6-14. A longer, more developed version of this article may be found on-line.
117 Calvin, Comm. on Heb. 8:10.
118 John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians (Audubon, NJ: Old Paths, 1995), pp. 277-278.
119 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 368. Later, Calvin draws a parallel between faith and repentance on the one hand and justification and sanctification on the other, in that the two elements in both pairs are distinct yet inseparable (p. 439). The French Reformer correctly states that, though our justification is perfect in this life, our sanctification is not: "we are forgiven our sins [in justification] and partly refashioned in his image [in sanctification]" (p. 369).
120 Calvin, "Catechism of the Church of Geneva," p. 79.
121 Calvin, "Catechism of the Church of Geneva," p. 53. Likewise, Calvin states that faith "a sure knowledge of God's mercy, which is received from the gospel, and brings peace of conscience with regard to God, and rest to the mind" (Comm. on Rom. 4:14).
122 Calvin, Institutes 3.2.7, p. 551. For a fine treatment of Calvin on assurance in his Institutes, see Engelsma, The Reformed Faith of John Calvin, pp. 194-199. The Heidelberg Catechism faithfully reflects the biblical teaching of the French Reformer: "What is true faith? True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel, in my heart; that not only the others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits" (Q. & A. 21).
123 Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming, p. 27.
124 For more on assurance, see this on-line Assurance Resources page.
125 Calvin, "Catechism of the Church of Geneva," p. 79.
126 Calvin, Institutes 3.14.10, p. 777.
127 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 3:21.
128 Calvin, Institutes 4.10.3, pp. 1181, 1182. Similarly, Calvin states, "we are already summoned to appear before God’s judgment seat each and every time we do evil" (Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 248).
129 Calvin, Institutes 3.14.11, pp. 778-779. For other references to the believer’s receiving continual forgiveness of sins, see, e.g., Calvin, Comms. on Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:6-8; "Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote," pp. 114, 122-123.
130 Cf. Cornelis P. Venema: "Calvin conceives of justification as a definitive judgment accomplished once-for-all in Christ. Yet faith continually appeals to and appropriates this judgment throughout the whole course of life, since at no point is the believer without the need for God’s forgiveness and Christ’s righteousness" (Accepted and Renewed in Christ: The "Two-fold Grace of God" and the Interpretation of Calvin’s Theology [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007], p. 108, n. 78).
131 Calvin, "Catechism of the Church of Geneva," p. 55.
132 Calvinists not only believe in double predestination (unconditional election and reprobation); we also believe in double justification. For Calvin on double predestination, see especially, John Calvin, Calvin’s Calvinism, trans. Henry Cole (Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2009) and Institutes 3.21-24. The most detailed creedal statement of double predestination is, of course, Head I of the Canons of Dordt.
133 Calvin, Institutes 3.17.8, pp. 811-812. Here again we notice the Reformer’s references to justification (both of us and our works) in terms of confidence "before the heavenly judgment seat" and "the divine judgment"—and this too in Calvin’s "single fullest definition [of justification], at least within the Institutes" (Gaffin, "Justification and Union with Christ," p. 260).
134 Calvin, Institutes 3.17.10, p. 813; cf. Comm. on Rom. 4:6-8.
135 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 366.
136 Calvin, Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, p. 364.
137 Calvin, "Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote," p. 128. Elsewhere, the righteousness of the believer’s good works is also said to be "subordinate" to our justification by faith alone (Comm. on Ps. 106:31). Sometimes Calvin describes the justification of our works as an "effect" that "proceeds from" the justification of our persons (Comm. on Rom. 4:6-8).
138 Calvin, Comm. on Gen. 7:1; cf. Comms. on Gen. 15:6; Ps. 106:31; Heb. 6:10; Sermons on Genesis: Chapters 1-11, pp. 369, 371, 575, 578, 619.
139 Heinrich Quistorp, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Last Things, trans. Harold Knight (Richmond, VA: John Know Press, 1955), p. 149. Belgic Confession 24 states, "We do not deny that God rewards our good works, but it is through his grace that he crowns his gifts." Likewise, the Heidelberg Catechism declares, "The reward [for our good works] comes not out of merit, but of grace" (A. 63).
140 Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life (Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959), p. 302. In proof of his two statements, Wallace appeals, respectively, to Calvin’s commentary on Romans 6:14 and sermon on Job 10:16-17.
141 However, Cornelis Venema observes, "It is unfortunate that interpreters of Calvin’s doctrine of the ‘twofold grace of God’ [in justification and sanctification] have given insufficient attention to his particular doctrine of double justification, or the believer’s ‘twofold acceptance’ by God [i.e., both of him and his works]" (Accepted and Renewed in Christ, p. 163).
142 Calvin, "Catechism of the Church of Geneva," p. 52.
143 Calvin, "Catechism of the Church of Geneva," p. 52.
144 Calvin, Comm. on Isa. 33:24. Ronald S. Wallace states, "To refuse the gracious ministry of the Church [according to Calvin] is to refuse to come to the one sure source of the grace of Christ" (Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957], p. 234).
145 Calvin, Institutes 4.1.4, p. 1016.
146 Cf., esp., John Calvin, Come Out From Among Them: Anti-Nicodemite’ Writings of John Calvin, trans. Seth Skolnitsky (Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage Press, 2001).
147 Nicolaas H. Gootjes, The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), pp. 59-70.
148 Belgic Confession 28.
149 Calvin, "Catechism of the Church of Geneva," pp. 49-50.
150 Only justification by faith alone frees "the conscience of fear, terror, and dread," in approaching God, states Belgic Confession 23, for, "verily, if we should appear before God, relying on ourselves or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed."
151 Cf. Quistorp: "For the reformers the doctrine of the end is primarily a Gospel, a teaching about the joyful Day of Judgment (Luther) or about the day of our salvation and blessed resurrection (Calvin). For them too it is of course a day of judgment, but of the judgment of Jesus Christ and His grace" (Calvin’s Doctrine of the Last Things, p. 12).
152 Quoted in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8 [USA: Hendrickson, 1996], p. 829.
153 Calvin, Institutes 2.16.18, p. 526. Elsewhere in his magnum opus, the French Reformer states that "we fearlessly present ourselves to God" (4.10.3, p. 1182), for we have "untroubled expectation of judgment" (2.16.19, p. 528), since, "being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we … have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father" (3.11.1, p. 725). Calvin even speaks of our going "to God’s tribunal" and going forth "to meet Christ" "confidently," "cheerfully" and "joyfully" (Comm. on I John 4:17).
154 Cornelis P. Venema, "Calvin’s Doctrine of the Last Things: The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting (3.25 et al.)," in Hall and Lillback (eds.), A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes, pp. 461-462; cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. & A. 38.
155 In the Heidelberg Catechism, believers confess, "[I will] never be condemned before the tribunal of God" (A. 56).
156 Cf. Engelsma: "Calvin does not mean that this heavenly tribunal is where we are going to stand some day at the moment of our death, and also on the last day, when all of us stand on the judgment seat of Christ, but he means that this is where we stand every day in the matter of justification" (The Reformed Faith of John Calvin, p. 228; italics Engelsma’s).
157 Calvin, Comm. on Rom. 1:17.
158 Calvin, "Catechism of the Church of Geneva," p. 50. What Calvin speaks of in terms of "singular delight," the Heidelberg Catechism treats as "comfort:" "What comfort is it to thee that ‘Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead’? That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven: who shall cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall translate me with all his chosen ones to himself, into heavenly joys and glory" (Q. & A. 52). Calvin’s "singular delight" and the Heidelberg Catechism’s "comfort" lead to the Belgic Confession’s "most ardent desire" for Christ’s heavenly tribunal at the end of the age. Belgic Confession 37, entitled "Of the Last Judgment," is filled with hope: "Therefore we expect that great day with a most ardent desire to the end that we may fully enjoy the promises of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN." Thus it concludes, "‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus.’ – Rev. 22:20."