Belief in God Biblical doctrines

By faith alone, resting on the mercy of God

Justification by Faith. The Name and Thing Defined

by John Calvin (abridged)1,2

1. Justification by faith has been discussed before this, but slightly, because it was necessary first to understand that the faith, by which alone we attain justification, is not unattended by good works. The subject of justification must now be fully discussed, with the recollection that it is the principal hinge by which religion is supported.

2. First let us explain the meaning of these expressions: To be justified in the sight of God, to be justified by faith or by works. To be justified in the sight of God means that a person is accepted, on account of his righteousness, before the Divine judgment; for iniquity is abominable to God, and no sinner can find favour in His sight. Thus he must be said to be justified by works, whose life shows such purity and holiness, as to deserve the character of righteousness before God. On the other hand, he will be justified by faith, who, being excluded from the righteousness of works, receives by faith the righteousness of Christ. Invested in Christ, he now appears in the sight of God, not as a sinner but as a righteous man. Thus we simply explain, that justification is God receiving us in His favour, esteeming us as righteous persons. This consists of the remission of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.

3. With respect to the present subject, where Paul says, “The scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, . . .” (Galatians 3:8), what can we understand, but that God imputes righteousness through faith? Paul speaks on justification more plainly in his conclusion, in Romans, “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth” (Romans 8:33). Here it is just as if he had said, “Who shall accuse them whom God absolves?” Justification is, therefore, no other than an acquittal from guilt of him who was accused, as though his innocence had been proved. Since God justifies us through the mediation of Christ, He acquits us, not by an admission of our personal innocence, but by an imputation of righteousness; so that we, who are unrighteous in ourselves, are considered righteous in Christ.

4. Paul describes justification as an acceptance, when he says to the Ephesians, “[God has] predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted” (Ephesians 1:5, 6). The meaning of this passage is the same as when, in another place, we are said to be “justified freely by his grace” (Romans 3:24).

5. Osiander errs gravely when he teaches an essential righteousness in man. Not content with that righteousness which has been procured for us by the obedience and sacrificial death of Christ, he imagines that we are substantially righteous in God, by the infusion of His essence as well as His character. He betrays his error again, when he says that we are not justified by the sole grace of the Mediator, and that righteousness is not simply and really offered to us in His person; but that we are made partakers of the Divine righteousness when God is essentially united with us.

6. Osiander teaches that righteousness is not a gratuitous imputation, but a sanctity inspired by the Divine essence which resides in us. Secondly, he resolutely denies that Christ is our righteousness, as having, in the character of a priest, expiated our sins and appeased the Father on our behalf, but as being the eternal God. Osiander confounds regeneration with justification, and contends they are one and the same thing when, in fact, there is a distinction between the two, like between light and heat.

7. In justification, the part that faith plays is like an empty vessel. Faith must receive Christ first, before it receives His righteousness. But faith itself is not Christ, as Osiander teaches, as though an earthen vessel were a treasure, because gold is concealed in it. Faith, although intrinsically it is of no value, justifies us by the application of Christ, just as a vessel full of money constitutes a man rich. Therefore, I maintain that faith, which is only the instrument by which righteousness is received, cannot be confounded with Christ, who is the material cause, and at once the author and dispenser of so great a benefit.

8. In justification, Osiander opines that, since Christ is both God and man, He is made righteousness to us, in respect of His Divine, not His human nature.

In justification, I say that, Christ was made righteousness when He assumed the form of a servant. He justifies us by His own obedience to the Father; and, therefore, He does this for us, not according to His Divine nature, but by reason of the dispensation committed to Him. For though God alone is the fountain of righteousness, and we are righteous only by a participation of Him, yet, because we have been alienated from His righteousness by the fall, we must be justified by Christ through His death and resurrection.

9. While it is true, that, without His Divine nature, Christ could neither purify our souls with His blood, nor appease the Father with His sacrifice, because human power would have been unequal to so great task; yet it is certain that He performed all these things in His human nature. If it be inquired, How are we justified? Paul replies, “By the obedience” of Christ (Romans 5:19). But has He obeyed in any other way than by assuming the form of a servant? Hence we infer, that righteousness is presented to us in the flesh. Paul places the source of righteousness wholly in the humanity of Christ, when he says, “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). We are justified in Christ, inasmuch as He was made an expiatory [atoning] sacrifice for us; which is incompatible with his Divine nature. For this reason, when Christ designs to seal the righteousness He has presented us, He says through the sacraments, “My flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (John 6:55). Thereby, He teaches that justification resides in His human nature. However, I do not deny that Christ justifies us, as He is God and man, and that this work is common also to the Father and the Spirit.

10. Now, when Christ imputes His righteousness to us, we do not contemplate Him at a distance out of ourselves; but rather that we have put Him on. We are ingrafted into His body, because He has deigned to unite us to Himself. Thus we refute the cavil [false argument] of Osiander, that faith is considered by us as righteousness; as though we despoiled Christ of His right, when we affirm that by faith we come to Him. Now, we come to Him empty, that He alone may fill us with His grace.

But Osiander, despising this spiritual connection, insists on a gross mixture of Christ with believers, in what he teaches as “essential righteousness.” Essential righteousness, according to Osiander, is an essential inhabitation of Christ in us. First, that God transfuses Himself into us by a gross mixture of Himself with us, as he pretends that there is a carnal eating in the sacred supper. Secondly, that God inspires His righteousness into us; since according to Osiander, such righteousness is really God Himself.

11. There is yet more latent poison in the second point, in which he maintains, that we are righteous together with God. Such teaching of a twofold righteousness so elevates us above the clouds, that we may not embrace by faith the grace of expiation [atonement, reconciliation].

Osiander ridicules those who say that justification is a forensic term, and he dislikes the doctrine of justification by gratuitous [free] imputation [act of attributing vicariously]. Osiander objects that it would be dishonourable to God and contrary to His nature, if He justified those who still remain impious. He confounds justification with sanctification. Now, while justification is inseparable from sanctification. they are distinctive from each other. The difference between justification and sanctification is beautifully expressed by Paul. Speaking of his real righteousness, or of the integrity which he possessed, to which Osiander gives the term “essential righteousness,” he sorrowfully exclaims, “0 wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). But, resorting to the righteousness which is founded on Divine mercy alone, he nobly triumphs over life and death, reproaches and famine, the sword and all adverse things and persons (Romans 8:33, 38, 39).

We affirm, therefore, that those who were undone are justified before God by the obliteration of their sins; because, sin, being the object of His hatred, He can love none but whom He justifies. But this is a wonderful justification that sinners, invested with righteousness of Christ, dread not the judgment which they have deserved. And that, while they justly condemn themselves, they are accounted righteous out of themselves.

12. Having contended that we do not obtain favour with God solely through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, Osiander concludes that Christ is given to us for righteousness, not in respect of His human, but of His Divine nature. He argues that justification is a work that exceeds the power of angels and men. Though it is true that if angels offered satisfaction to God, it would be unavailing; the man Christ however, by God’s appointment, was “made under the law, . . . [to] redeem us from the curse of the law” (Galatians 4:4; 3:13).

Osiander accuses those who deny that Christ is our righteousness according to the Divine nature, of retaining only one part of Christ, and making two Gods out of Him. But we who call Christ the author of life in consequence of His having suffered death (Hebrews 2:14), do not deny the honour to His complete person, as God manifested in the flesh. We only state, with precision, the means by which the righteousness of God is conveyed to us. We do not deny that what is openly exhibited to us in Christ flows from God, nor do we deny that the righteousness conferred on us by Christ is the righteousness of God, but we maintain that we have righteousness in the death and resurrection of Christ.

13. Since many imagine righteousness to be composed of faith and works, let us prove that the righteousness of faith is so different from that of works, that if one be established, the other must necessarily be subverted. As long as there remains the least particle of righteousness in our works, we retain some cause for boasting. But if faith excludes all boasting, the righteousness of works can by no means be associated with the righteousness of faith. Paul speaks clearly in Romans 4, “If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory.” He adds, “but” he hath “not” whereof to glory “before God” (Romans 4:2). It follows, therefore, that he was not justified by works. Then he advances another argument from two opposites. “To him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt” (Romans 4:4). But righteousness is attributed to faith through grace. Therefore it is not from the merit of works.

14. The sophists [intellectuals, teachers] argue that a man is justified both by faith and works, though the works are not properly his own, but the gifts of Christ and the fruits of regeneration. But they do not observe, that in the contrast of legal and evangelical righteousness, which Paul speaks in another place, all works are excluded. For he teaches that this is the righteousness of the law, that he who has fulfilled the command of the law shall obtain salvation (Romans 10:5, etc.); but that the righteousness of faith consists in believing that Christ died and is risen again (Galatians 3:11). Whence it follows, that even spiritual works are not taken into account, when the power of justifying is attributed to faith.

15. Both the Papists and schoolmen [philosophers, theologians] regard faith to be a certainty of conscience in expecting from God a reward of merit, and the grace of God to be, not an imputation of gratuitous righteousness, but the Spirit assisting to the pursuit of holiness. Lombard represents justification by Christ as given us in two ways. He says, “The death of Christ justifies us, first, because it excites charity in our hearts, by which we are made actually righteous; secondly, because it destroys sin, by which the devil held us in captivity, so that it now cannot condemn us.” We see how he considers the grace of God in justification to consist in our being directed to good works by the grace of the Holy Spirit. This is an example of the schools running into worse and worse errors, till at length they have precipitated into a kind of Pelagianism [which denies original sin, states man is born innocent].

16. The Scripture, when speaking on the righteousness of faith, leads us to something very different. It teaches us, that being diverted from the contemplation of our own works. we should regard nothing but the mercy of God and the perfection of Christ. According to Scripture, the order of justification is this: From the beginning God embraces sinful and miserable man with His gratuitous goodness; that he may affect the sinner himself with a sense of His mercy, losing all confidence in his own works. This is the sentiment of faith, by which the sinner comes to enjoy his salvation, when he knows from the Gospel that he is reconciled to God. Having obtained remission of sins, he is justified by the righteousness of Christ; and though regenerated by the Holy Spirit, he thinks, not in his good works, but solely in the righteousness of Christ.

17. Here let us recall the relation we have before stated between faith and the Gospel. The reason why faith is said to justify, is, that it receives the righteousness offered in the Gospel. Its being offered by the Gospel absolutely excludes all consideration of works (Romans 10:5, 6, 9). The righteousness of the Gospel is free from all legal conditions. The promises of the Gospel are different from the promises of the law, for those of the Gospel are gratuitous, whilst the promises of the law depend on the condition of works.

18. Apart from Romans 10 quoted above, the other passage of Scripture for consideration is Galatians 3:11, 12, “That no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them.” It follows, therefore, that works are not required to the righteousness of faith. From this statement it appears, that they who are justified by faith, are justified without the merit of works; for faith simply receives that righteousness which the Gospel bestows, which rests entirely on the mercy of God (Romans 4:2, 3).

19. The sophists would agree that a man is justified by faith, but cavil [use false arguments] at us when we say “by faith only,” because they say “only” is not in Scripture. Our answer is, does not. He most completely attribute everything to faith alone, who denies everything to works? What do these expressions mean—”righteousness of God without the law is manifested” (Romans 3:21), “justified freely by his grace” (Romans 3:24), and “justified . . . without the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28)?

20. If anyone should wonder why the Apostle does not mention works but rather works of the law, the reason is obvious. Works in themselves are of no value, unless they are approved by God; only when they are acts of obedience to God. Now, if “the works of the law” cannot be justification, so works of any kind, as when he says, “David describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works” (Romans 4:6).

21. Such a righteousness may, in one word, be denominated a remission of sins.

22. Thus, “forgiveness of sins” is connected with “justification” by the Apostle, to show that they are identically the same (Acts 13:38, 39).

23. In conclusion, we see that our righteousness is not in ourselves, but in Christ. And that all our title to it rests solely on our being partakers of Christ, for in possessing Him, we possess all His riches with Him.

References and Notes

  1. An Abridgement of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: Books I-IV, Editor: Timothy Tow, Far Eastern Bible College Press, Singapore, pp. 254-260, 1997.
  2. My emphases added. KJV used throughout.

By John Gideon Hartnett

Dr John G. Hartnett is an Australian physicist and cosmologist, and a Christian with a biblical creationist worldview. He received a B.Sc. (Hons) and Ph.D. (with distinction) in Physics from The University of Western Australia, W.A., Australia. He was an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award (DORA) fellow at the University of Adelaide, with rank of Associate Professor. Now he is retired. He has published more than 200 papers in scientific journals, book chapters and conference proceedings.