Blog 133: 3.17.1 - 3.17.5

Rick Phillips

In these sections, Calvin is clearly wearied by the ceaseless attacks on justification through faith alone, although he manly perseveres: "come, let us keep beating them back!" he exhorts.  In his responses, we encounter a series of classic and very helpful statements of what the Reformed position believes concerning faith and works.  A truly classic statement appears in paragraph 1: "Justification is withdrawn from works, not that no good works may be done, or that what is done may be denied to be good, but that we may not rely upon them, glory in them, or ascribe salvation to them."  No wonder we are still reading Calvin 500 years after his birth.  In all that Calvin states, his consistent theme is the one we find here: salvation only in Christ, through Christ reconciliation with God as beloved children.

Paragraph 1 is also very relevant to the justification debates today, especially those involving the New Perspective(s) on Paul, etc.   Dealing with the many verses that indicate that justification is granted to those who keep the law, Calvin agrees but notes that no sinner can do it.  Calvin does not take these passages as hypothetical but as actual - God grants justification to the keepers of his law.  But he takes a very different take than N. T. Wright and others who insist that in the end our justification is based on our law-keeping.  Rather, Calvin asserts that the gospel achieves the ends of the law, through justification by faith in Christ.  This being the case, for sinners to cling to the law is to left "bereft of all blessing" and with a curse hanging over us because of our law-breaking sin.

For Calvin, any true apprehension of the gospel requires us to understand clearly two things about works and the law.  The first is that we have broken the law through sin and no works can remedy our prior sins.  The second is that no works that we do as sinners will ever meet the standard of the law.  Even if we could do perfect works we would still have sin to deal with, but we cannot do perfect works anyway.  Understand these two things, Calvin believes, and you will be in pretty good shape when it comes to works and justification.  Because the way of works is closed to us, we need "another righteousness from faith" (3:17.2). 

Yet still we must never denigrate works!  Our good works - flawed and corrupt as they are - are accepted with favor from God because he has already embraced us as his servants in Christ through faith, because of his fatherly generosity and loving-kindness, and because he receives the works of believers with pardon in Christ.  Against this, the "Sophists" present the concept of "condign merit" (this is what Calvin refers to as "by reason of the covenant - it is not Reformed covenant theology, but papist merit theology that he is disparaging here).  Condign merit says that while it is true that our good works do not and cannot strictly speaking merit acceptance with God, God has nonetheless established certain good works which he will accept because of his covenant - these works, of course, fall in line with Roman Catholic sacramental and penitential practice.  Calvin utterly refutes this, showing that the whole of the Scriptures conspire to prove utterly that no sinful man or woman can hope to be accepted by God except by his mercy alone, completely apart from good works.  Mercy is utterly opposed to the idea of man having any righteousness of his own to present to God.  If God later commends his people for their good works, it is because his mercy has already been at work in them and the free grace by which God receives us has wrought the very works that now receive divine praise.

As I have several times noted, these paragraphs speak very directly to justification controversies today, especially those that what to blend works and faith together in  justification.  No formula that gives works a place in the foundation of our justification is biblical, Calvin insists, since God justifies a sinner not for any reason of righteousness in them but because "he sees him utterly lost if left to himself, [and] because he does not will him to be lost, he exercises his mercy in freeing him" (3:17.4).