Blog 134: 3.17.6 - 3.17.10

Rick Phillips

Happy birthday, John Calvin!  It is my privilege to post the Institutes blog on this glad occasion, giving thanks to God for the enduring legacy of this great Christian. 

As I have noted before, Calvin's greatness is seen in part by his enduring relevance.  We see this as he continues to pound away on the subject of works and justification.  Did Calvin realize that there would never be a time when the gospel truth of justification through faith alone would not be maligned by those seeking a righteousness by their own works?  I think Calvin did understand this, as history has born out, and that his untiring banging away at this topic is proof. 

Calvin now addresses the Old Testament texts that speak of God's favor and blessing on those who love and obey him.  Does this teach works righteousness?  No, Calvin insists.  Rather, "this indicates what kind of servants they are who have undertaken his covenant in good faith rather than expresses the reason why the Lord benefits them."  This reminds us that there are all kinds of causal relationships within Christian salvation, and in some of them good works are a true cause.  But the instrumentation of justification is one causation that is never by our works.  Behind every other cause in our salvation is the grace of God working through faith in Christ.  It is then our duty to serve and honor God, which pleases him.  But the cause behind our acceptance and performance of duty is God's sovereign grace working through faith alone.

An impressive collection of Old Testament verses are then cited that speak of the righteousness of works - Calvin's opponents could hardly have done better (3:17.7).  Since "our righteousness" shall be "keep[ing] all his precepts" (Dt. 6:25), then justification cannot be by faith alone, and faith alone cannot be an end to works righteousness.  There have been some theologians over the years who have called these kinds of works-righteousness texts hypothetical, which I think has been very unhelpful.  More realistically, Calvin admits that a real righteousness is found in works, so long as the law is perfectly kept.  Calvin is not opposed to law righteousness, he just wants us to keep the standard of law that of the Bible, namely, perfect obedience.  This Calvin denies exists anywhere among sinful men.

Calvin goes on to show that his position is the very argument set forth by Paul in so many places (3:17.8).  For Paul, "justification of faith is a refuge for those who lack righteousness of their own."  This paragraph is a good, well-rounded summary of justification by faith alone and the good works that ensue from that faith.

Calvin concludes by poking a needle in the balloon of works righteousness.  Can a man be justified by a few works when he transgresses in so many others?  Can a man be justified when he has unresolved guilt?  How?  In fact, the only reason that any of our works can be treated as righteous by God is that we ourselves are first justified through faith.  Thus we see that while works is opposed to faith as the ground of justification, faith is not opposed to works as its fruit.  There is need for us to be observant on both sides of this equation.  We must not rely on works but trust only in Christ for justification.  But being justified we must not despise work, but must go on to bear the fruit of our faith in holy living.  Calvin's writing in these paragraphs is a great help in this quest.  I find it is fitting that our tour of Calvin's Institutes concludes on his 500th birthday with a paragraph (3:17.10) that so wonderfully balances faith and works in salvation.

My greetings to all the brothers celebrating Calvin in Geneva today!