Blog 125: 3.12.1 - 3.12.5

Paul Helm

Justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ is the true doctrine of acceptance. But is it necessary, vital? How serious should we be about it? Does it matter? Is it worth fighting over?

It matters more than we can say, says Calvin. For it concerns our vindication not before a human court but a 'heavenly tribunal'. It's a 'serious matter' therefore. (Incidentally, Calvin's emphasis on the book of Job in asserting the immaculate righteousness of God, which first appears in the 1539 Institutes, carries over from his preaching through that book in 1554-5) Only God's righteousness is immaculate, underived, Creatorly righteousness. It is with this God that we have to do. Such righteousness will not be satisfied with any works of man.  Christian theology is not a game. The Christian religion is not merely a way that we choose to spend our leisure.

Calvin finds support for this outlook in Paul, of course, but also in Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux, the two thinkers to whom he habitually turns over matters of grace and free will. 'All the pious who groan under their burden of corruptible flesh and in this weakness of life have one hope, that we have one Mediator, Jesus Christ the righteous one, and he is the appeasement for our sins'. (Augustine)  'Merit enough it is to know that merit is not enough; but as it is merit enough not to presume upon merits, so to be without merits is enough for judgment'. (Bernard) Calvin bridles at the use of the word 'merit' but does not lose Bernard's main point, which is to strike fear in hypocrites.

So the recognition of the fact that we live not before men but before God has two other practical consequences. It puts paid to hypocrisy, and to self-flattery.