Saturday, June 19, 2010

Calvin on Justification by Faith

Now that I've written on N. T. Wright's view of justification by faith, it's time to get back to Calvin's view. Conveniently, this is exactly the section of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion that I've just finished reading.

I'm not sure that it's worth trying to compare Calvin's take on justification with Wright's. The two views come out of very different contexts, yet both views converge on a number of important issues. I had originally thought to write a post comparing the two views side by side, but I realized this is a much too ambitious project. Instead, I'll just let Calvin be Calvin, and I'll write what I think he's said in the past 100 pages.

First, as I just noted, justification is an extremely important doctrine for Calvin--he spends a good 100 pages on it, taking up eight chapters in Book III. However, it is also significant what comes before and after. Book III opens with the Holy Spirit--He is the main character in applying the grace of Christ to our benefit. Faith is then defined, followed by a discussion of regeneration and repentance, and then a discussion of the Christian life. When Calvin starts talking about justification by faith, he has just been talking about denying ourselves and bearing the cross. I would argue that this point is vital to understanding what Calvin says about justification by faith. Obviously I have not read what comes after justification by faith, but I know that the topics will be Christian freedom, prayer, election and predestination, and the final resurrection.

It is quite significant to me that justification by faith is buried within Book III. Although evangelicals have followed Calvin closely in their statement of justification by faith, I don't think they have followed him in the priority he assigns to it. Calvin does not start with it as the very foundation of the gospel. Neither does Calvin build up to it as if justification by faith were the climax of it all. One might argue that this placement means Calvin views justification as the inner core of the gospel, but I don't think that will do, either. Calvin clearly views the doctrine as extremely important, especially insofar as the Roman Catholic Church has severely corrupted the doctrine in his view; but he does not equate justification by faith with either the beginning or end of salvation, certainly not with the whole of salvation. I think it's necessary to point out where the doctrine actually fits in his overall theology--not on the sidelines, but not as the star quarterback, either.

It would be pointless and tiresome to go through the whole eight chapters in sequence, so I'll just summarize what I think is significant about Calvin's view. For Calvin, justification by faith is both a humbling and an assuring doctrine. Sometimes the humbling effect comes across even stronger than the assurance. Perhaps this is because Calvin is trying to defend his view against his Roman Catholic opponents, who might suggest that Protestants are trying to get out of obeying the law. On the contrary, Calvin says. He repeatedly insists that God will bring His good work in believers to completion by sanctifying them with good works.

So how is justification by faith humbling? It says that all of our works are tainted, so that they can never merit favor before God. It says that we contribute nothing to our salvation. It says that we cannot give any credit at all to ourselves. We are justified by faith alone. And technically, Calvin says, we're not justified by faith, but rather through faith. Faith is not a work that merits justification, but a state of openness to God's grace. We are justified by God's grace, and it is by faith that we wholly rely on that grace. Note that no other kind of faith will do; mere acknowledgment of God's existence is not justifying faith, but only faith that rejects all the works of the self and trusts in God to be merciful.

Assurance goes hand in hand with this humility. Since it does not depend on human effort, but on God who shows mercy (the words of Romans 9 fit quite naturally), we can be assured that we are justified before God, and that we are free to come before Him as beloved children. Even though we cannot earn a shred of merit before God, we ought not to be afraid to come before Him, because we trust in His mercy. This kind of assurance cannot come without humility. But then again the humility cannot come without assurance, for how can one give up on trying to earn God's favor unless he is first assured that God is merciful?

What place does Calvin leave for works? This is probably the most fascinating part, because it's something evangelicals tend to short-circuit. First there is this issue of motivation. Calvin's motivation for good works is not only gratitude for God's mercy, but God's glory itself; when believers contemplate God's goodness, they are motivated by the sheer force of it to do the works God has given them.

Then there is also this issue of what benefit believers get from doing good works, and the twin issue of why God accepts good works as anything. Part of Calvin's answer to the latter question is quite remarkable: the same grace that causes God to forgive us our sins also causes Him to accept our good works as good, even though they are in fact tainted by our sin. There is a good bit of tenderness in what Calvin says here about God. It is as if he said, we are but children making a mess of all the chores our father has given us to do, but our father accepts them as acts of love because we are his children.

The other part is equally important: it is not the believers themselves who do the works God requires, but rather the Spirit of God working in them. Thus God accepts as holy the good works that He has done through us. Calvin comes a little close here to sounding as if the believer is simply annihilated in the process--if everything is up to God, is the believer now irrelevant? But I think Calvin has in mind here a spiritual union between the believer and God, so that the good fruit that begins to arise in a believer is the result of that union. This union is such that the believer does not "share the credit" for good works with God, but rather attributes all goodness in himself to God. This is kind of a mysterious thing, and in some sense it's not worth splitting hairs over, except that Calvin's view seems to be the only way to fuse both perfect humility and perfect trust in God.

What is the benefit to believers for doing good works? Well, one benefit is quite simply the blessing that naturally follows from such good works; this is a common grace that all people can accept. But interestingly enough, Calvin is quite comfortable saying that our good works also lead to final salvation. The only way I can possibly explain this is with Calvin's own words in Chapter XVIII, Section 1:
The statement that "God will render to every man according to his works" [Rom. 2:6] is explained with little difficulty. For the expression indicates an order of sequence rather than the cause. But, beyond any doubt, it is by these stages of his mercy that the Lord completes our salvation when "he calls those chosen to himself; those called he justifies; those justified he glorifies" [Rom. 8:30 p.]. That is to say, he receives his own into life by his mercy alone. Yet, since he leads them into possession of it through the race of good works in order to fulfill his own work in them according to the order that he has laid down, it is no wonder if they are said to be crowned according to their own works, by which they are doubtless prepared to receive the crown of immortality. But they are fitly said to "work out their own salvation" [Phil. 2:12 p.], for the reason that, while devoting themselves to good works, they meditate upon eternal life.... What then? Once they are, by knowledge of the gospel and illumination of the Holy Spirit, called into the fellowship of Christ, eternal life begins in them. New that God has begun a good work in them, it must also be made perfect until the Day of the Lord Jesus [Phil. 1:6]. It is, however, made perfect when, resembling their Heavenly Father in righteousness and holiness, they prove themselves sons true to their nature.
This illustrates precisely what I meant by saying that we need to fit justification by faith with Calvin's overall theology. For Calvin it is natural that, just as the Bible says, we will inherit eternal life in accordance with our works; but these very works Calvin views as gifts, and not sources of merit before God. We do not cooperate with God to achieve salvation; we receive every part of salvation from God as a gift. Justification by faith, however, is an important step in the process of salvation. It declares us firmly as completely forgiven by God, so that we will never have to fear His wrath. This teaching must surely have been a blessing to those who, like Martin Luther, struggled to know whether God would ever be satisfied with them.

In light of what I've read from N. T. Wright, I have to admit it is now obvious that Calvin never puts justification into a first century Jewish context. He never once mentions justification by faith in relation to ecclesiology (although he may do that later in Book IV, I don't know). Justification for Calvin is ultimately a question of how we know we are right with God. Thus Calvin is answering a question of his day, and scholars like Wright may be correct in pointing out that this isn't the question Paul was answering.

Nevertheless, Calvin's achievement here is that he did give Christians of his time a biblical way to think about that question that was on their minds. How do we know we are right before God? Is God's wrath waiting to punish us or reward us on the basis of how much merit we have before Him? Calvin's answer is a definitive "no." In fact, I don't think Wright gives Calvin enough credit for how close he came to abolishing the question entirely. Throughout this section I was struck by how many places Calvin said something to the effect of, "The category of merit should not even be applied here." If we had simply continued Calvin's line of reasoning, perhaps by now we would have seen the issue of justification by faith in a very different light. We would have seen that the real question we ought to be asking is not, "How do we know we are right with God?" but rather, "How is God's glory revealed to the world?" This is Calvin, through and through.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Olan,

    Dear Jameson,

    Is Half of The Story Sufficient For Salvation?

    How many sides are there to a story? If you say two, then you are wrong. If you had one side and I had one side that would make two sides. However, there is a third side, the side of truth.

    Rule # 1... One half of truth does not a truth make. Neither does one half of a story make the full story.

    No intelligent person can hear one side of a story and decide which side has the truth.

    Both sides have to be heard, then analysed, and then a decision has to be made as to which side (if either) has a valid story, and after that, the right side(s), or truth side, can be determined.

    This thinking holds true for discerning what Holy Scripture tells us.

    Throughout the Bible there are double standards, yet the fundamentalist thinking shows only one standard, or one side of the story, or only one half of the truth.

    Their thinking is in violation of rule # 1. With only one half of truth, you do not have truth. Anything less than the whole truth is error.

    In the following examples, side 'A' is the first side, side 'B' is the second, and side 'C' is the right, or truth side.

    Example # 2... Sola Fides... Saved by faith alone. The fundamentalist believes he is assured of salvation. All he has to do is to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and savior and salvation is automatic and irrevocable no matter what he does for the rest of his life.

    Oh Yeah? What happened to the ten commandments?

    A. Many verses in Scripture attest to salvation by faith alone. Joel 2:32, "...that every one that shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved."

    Acts 2:21 says the same almost word for word, and likewise for Rom 10:13. "...I live in the faith of the Son of GOD...", is from Gal 2:20. Again, these are beautiful words that should be heeded by all.

    B. However, elsewhere in Scripture there is quite a different side of the story. Start with Mt 7:21, "Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father in Heaven shall enter the kingdom of Heaven."

    It is very clear that you have to do the will of the Father to gain salvation. I like 1Cor 10:12, "...let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall."

    That one says you cannot be guaranteed of salvation. Then James 2:14-26 says over and over, "...Faith too without works is dead...Faith without works is Faith also without works is dead." Again, words to be heeded by all.

    C. So what is the answer to this dilemma? Is this one of those Bible 'conflicts' you keep hearing about? No, not at all. The answer is very simple.

    There are two types of salvation, 'objective salvation', and 'subjective salvation'.

    The verses in 'A' are examples of objective salvation. Jesus Christ did atone for all of our sins, past, present and future.

    He did His part and did it well, but He left the burden upon each one of us to complete the second side of the story by atoning for our own sins, by doing the will of the Father.

    We have to keep the commandments. We have to practice 'subjective salvation'. There is no salvation by accepting only part of Scripture as shown in 'A', and by rejecting, or trying to explain away the verses in 'B'.

    Yet this is what some non-Catholics are doing. Again, we have to combine 'A', and 'B', to have the full truth.

    A+B=C = TRUTH.


I love to hear feedback!