Blog 130: 3.14.19 - 3.15.3

Rick Phillips

During recent debates over justification, it has occasionally been said that a tendency to works righteousness is merely a local problem.  It was Luther's problem, and probably Augustine's too, and unfortunately the Reformation has assumed that it is everyone's problem and that our doctrine of justification should always address works righteousness.  Calvin's treatment of works and justification in 3:14 takes precisely the opposite position.  He regards works righteousness as endemic to the idolatrous, sinful human condition.  This is not merely a matter of dogmatics for Calvin but of great personal and pastoral passion.  We see this when he writes on the topic of merit in 3:15: "How much offense this term contains is clear from the great damage it has done to the world" (3:15.2).  Calvin's treatment here on works and justification/assurance are extremely balanced, biblical, and wise, and all Christians would do well to study these paragraphs (pastors especially).  Reading these portions reminds me that when it comes to the spiritual life of Christians, not much has changed in the last five hundred years.

Calvin has already abused the notion of works contributing to justification.  But what about assurance?  Here, Calvin is wise and balanced in agreeing that our good works do contribute to our assurance, but only in the right way and only with a warning about slipping into works-righteousness.  In short, our works bear evidence that we have been born again and that we believe.  But if we ever start looking at our works as the ground or basis or even the direct proof of our salvation, our consciences will be undone because of the imperfections and incompleteness of our works.  In short, works serve well as demonstrations of faith in Christ - Christ himself being our trust - but they serve us very poorly whenever we begin to trust in works themselves.  Meanwhile, we must not despise good works as if they have no value.  Our good works are very precious to God.  He saved us to good works (Eph. 2:10).  As Calvin argues here, God saves us into glory, and that glory involves good works.  But, again relying heavily on Augustine, Calvin argues that we must never commend our good works to God but only commend God in our good works, since the praise of our works belongs to God alone through his grace.   Even when it seems that Scripture is correlating our salvation with good works (we think of Jesus' praise to the sheep in the judgment scene of Matthew 25:31f), works are not the cause of salvation but salvation is the cause of the works.  (Anyone who has become confused on these matters, such as those who have been reading the works of N. T. Wright on justification - especially his new book on the subject - will be greatly helped and hopefully straightened out by Calvin's far more sound, broadly balanced, and less rhetorically charged treatment of works and salvation in these paragraphs.

Chapter XV brings us directly into the theme of works and merit.  Calvin immediately gets a headache even thinking about this subject.  Would that the term merit never have been introduced, he asserts.  If we seek merit through works, we must remember, he insists, that the only works capable of meriting salvation are perfect works that completely fulfill God's law - and these we sinners cannot do!   In this discussion, Calvin displays his vast reading in the ancients, who are chided for introducing the term merit but then lauded for a thoughtful approach to the matter in general.  (As Phil argued previously, it is the Schoolmen who get Calvin's goat, not the ancients.)  Is there merit with God in good works?  The value in our works, Calvin answers, comes solely from God's grace.  So we should be devoted - as justified Christians - to good works, so that God's merit might be better displayed.  Calvin concludes with a very helpful illustration.  Tenant farmers may enjoy the fruit that grows on their land, but they may not claim the deed to it.  Likewise, it is well and good for us to celebrate works and even the merit of God displayed in them, so long as we always remember that we are farming on soil of which God alone is the sole owner.