Blog 131: 3.15.4 - 3.15.8
Reading Calvin is always instructive not merely for what he says about the topic at hand, but also for the way he approaches the discussion. In his rebukes against those who say that works give us merit before God, Calvin explores their misuse of Scripture, seeing the errors of his own day as a result of sloppy handling of the subject in prior ages. Also, Calvin understood that those who will not submit themselves to Scripture will always seek to impose their views onto the Bible. So it is with works and merit. The fact that the Bible speaks of certain actions pleasing God does not mean that these works accrue judicial merit to that person before the Lord.
When it comes to the topic of works and merit, our need to be carefully biblical is of the greatest urgency. Calvin is forced to dismiss several false doctrines invented by men but taught nowhere in Scripture. One is the idea that while eternal life is by grace alone, good works merit God's favor in a temporal way. This enters us into a subtle matter, for it is true that God rewards obedience in his people and punishes disobedience, just as any loving father does. But this is not the same as declaring that good works accrue temporal merit. All of God's favor and every one of God's good gifts results from his grace alone; even to be a child of God who receives chastisement is the result of God's mercy and grace. The Lord does, of course, honor and reward the good works that he both desires and inspires. But to assign objective merit with God for specific actions - especially if the work is divorced from a believing and worshiping heart - is perverse in the extreme.
Worst of all, those who seek to gain merit with God through their works seek to build on a foundation other than that of Christ. Calvin shows in 3:15.5 that those who begin their salvation by grace alone but then seek to complete their salvation through reliance (even in part) on the merit of their works have departed from Christ. Our churches today are plagued with any number of doctrinal schemes that amount to "get in by grace, but stay in by works." Calvin dealt with this false teaching as well, and he argues, with heavy quotes from the New Testament, that we must build with the same principle that provides our foundation. If Christ is to be our righteousness, then we must seek no merit for ourselves by our works or any other means. In Christ we do not gain merit, but rather righteousness, as the gift of his grace. We remain sinners all the while that we are righteous; we remain fools even as Christ is our wisdom unto salvation; and we remain weak, even as Christ is power to us in order to shatter the gates of hell. Christ always remains most necessary to Christians! It should not need to be said - though it does - that no Christian ever advances beyond the point of relying utterly on the grace of Christ.
To think otherwise - to start by Christ and continue by our works - is to dishonor Christ's glory and power (3:15.6), as Roman Catholicism does by directing penitents to works as an approach to merit with God. Rome says, of course, that we can only gain merit through works because Christ put us in such a condition and place where this might be so. Note Calvin's vehement response: "O overweening and shameless impiety!" Calvin reminds us that true doctrine (and true power) accompanies a true passion for God's glory. How perverse is the human heart, he argues, to teach such impious doctrines when we have the Bible and sound teachers like Augustine that so plainly declare the truth. Those who wish to be comforted in the truth will be zealous to remain on the firm foundation of Scripture and right doctrine, Calvin states. So much for the argument frequently heard today that a zeal for doctrine will lead to spiritual dryness. Calvin knows that, in fact, the only true Christian zeal is that which rests on Scriptural truth - and thus on Christ alone, through faith alone, by grace alone.