Blog 127: 3.13.4 - 3.14.5
In justification, the sinner receives righteousness from God as a gift. Because this gift rests on the promise of God, received by faith, it provides complete assurance to the conscience and full peace to the soul. Our hope of inheriting an eternal kingdom is based on the solid ground of our union with Christ and his righteousness.
To help explain this doctrine of justification, Calvin distinguishes among four categories of people, starting with people who are not justified at all. He describes such people as being "endowed with no knowledge of God and immersed in idolatry."
This definition echoes two important themes from the beginning of the Institutes: the importance of knowing God and the pervasiveness of idolatry as the root sin of the human heart. Calvin returns to these themes in order to clarify the relationship between faith and works in justification.
Calvin does not deny that unbelievers are capable of virtue, yet he insists that any virtues they possess come from God--a gift of his common grace. Further, he insists that the virtues of unbelievers merit punishment rather than reward. This is primarily because deeds that appear outwardly to be good works are tainted nonetheless by sinful motives. Here Calvin quotes Augustine approvingly: "Our religion distinguishes the just from the unjust not by the law of works but by that of faith, without which what seemed good works are turned into sins."
Before turning to the other three categories of people, Calvin restates--yet again--the core principle of his doctrine of justification by grace: we cannot be justified by our own inherent righteousness (of which we have not the slightest particle), but only by the righteousness that comes from our merciful God.