Blog 135: 3.17.11 - 3.17.15

Justin Taylor

As Rick noted at the close of last week, it is amazing how relevant Calvin's arguments remain today. Unfortunately, the same errors that he addressed continue in our time. Hence we may profitably learn from Calvin as we seek to contend for the apostolic faith.

Calvin addresses the perplexing issue of how Paul and James seem to be saying opposite things about justification, faith, and works. Calvin shows that the two apostles speak in harmony if we recognize that they are using the same words with different meanings. By "faith" Paul is referring to true, living, Christian faith. James, on the other hand, is referring to a "faith" that is actually dead and demonic, without profit or power. The latter merely confesses God's existence and has no power to justify. True faith justifies by uniting us to Christ, where we are able to participate in his righteousness. It doesn't justify merely because it confesses monotheism, but because it confidently reclines in God's mercy.

So, too, Calvin shows that James and Paul are using different definitions for the word "justify." Paul is referring to the imputation of righteousness, whereas James is referring to the manifestation of righteousness. Calvin claims that, at the end of the day, you can only really derive two fundamental principles from James in this section: (1) empty faith doesn't justify; (2) believers manifest their justification by good works.  But you cannot derive from it any teaching that contradicts the substance of Paul's.

Another confusing issue: given what Paul says about righteousness, how can some of the OT saints make appeal to God regarding their own righteousness? Calvin suggests that we need to consider the context and circumstances: they were talking about righteousness (1) in particular cases, not their whole life; and (2) in comparison with the wicked, not in comparison to God. Even though believers may defend their integrity against the hypocrisy of the ungodly, appealing to God as witness, nevertheless when dealing with righteousness before God, the admission is that no one could stand or be justified before God (Ps. 130:3; 143:2).

Good works, Calvin insists, are not optional. Even though the righteousness of believers is always partial and imperfect, it's still a step in the path toward heaven. The Father graciously accepts and embraces the imperfect works of those united to Christ. Quoting Augustine, he ends this section by insisting that on the final day, part of our perfection will consist in truthfully and humbly acknowledging our imperfection.