Blog 132: 3.16.1 - 3.16.4

Rick Phillips

My how time flies, we like to say.  But, reading Calvin, we realize that while time flies, challenges to the gospel seldom change.  Chapter 16 of Book 3 takes up challenges and accusations to the doctrine of justification through faith alone.  These arguments never seem to die (in part because they are kept alive by their original source, the Roman Catholic Church).  The good news is that heresy is always the source of many excellent writings by orthodox Christians.  Thus the doctrinal and pastoral value of these four paragraphs in Calvin's Institutes is very high, and worthy of consideration by every believer.

Let's catalogue the objections to justification through faith alone, as Calvin deals with them.  First, is the charge that to teach faith alone is to do away with good works.  How many well meaning false teachers - including some who know the truth of justification through faith alone (hello, Richard Baxter!) - insist on some form of legalism as being necessary to the cause of good works.  They reason this way: "If they believe that salvation is by faith alone, it will lead them to sin and moral laxity!"  If such a thought has crossed your lips, then read Calvin carefully in 3:16.1.  And think about Calvin's accusations: shameless, impious, slanderous.  He is right!  Here is the charge, Calvin records: justification through faith alone destroys good works.  Yet experience shows that the legalists are the least filled with truly good works.  Meanwhile, those who grasp justification (by faith alone) necessarily grasp sanctification, too, for there is only one Christ.  Calvin writes, "Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify.  These benefits are joined together by an everlasting and indissoluble bond."  I love it when Calvin gets really worked up (as he does here), because it means something vitally important is under discussion and that Calvin's most passionate prose is likely to be seen.

A variation on this theme is that the belief in merit through good works is necessary to inspiring moral zeal.  Calvin dismisses this idea as "stupid."  He reminds us that true believers are motivated for the worship and glory of God, not just for personal rewards.  Moreover, a Christian's holy calling and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit compel believers to holiness, so that we need not resort to the ruse of false teaching so as to manipulate goodness in Christ's people.  How many exhortations to holiness do we find in the New Testament that make no mention at all of rewards and merit?  God's mercy is the most common argument for good deeds.  It is true that, so as to neglect no proper means of motivation, the Scriptures tell us of future rewards.  Yet we cannot honestly say that the hope of gain predominates in biblical exhortations, nor that any Christian can be motivated solely for selfish advancement.  Ultimately, Calvin states, "there is no honoring of God unless his mercy be acknowledged."  The "fear of God," which papists consider a source of merit, is itself scripturally "founded upon the pardon and forgiveness of sins."

This shows that the criticism that justification incites wantonness is ignorant of the truth.  But to go further and say that faith alone intends to promote sin is nothing short of slander.  To the contrary, the teaching of justification through faith alone, set in the context of the Bible's truths regarding God, man, and judgment, create a dread of sin and a loathing of one's own depravity.  Those who rely on faith alone are rejecting the paltry merit of works because we know that sin requires nothing short of Christ's blood.  Why, then, would we promote sin, holding so clear a view of its horror?  Profound words and worthy of our meditation.