Justification by Faith Alone

In the recent edition of Themelios, Dr. Scott M. Manetsch published an essay examining the main contentious issues between Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation, as found in the writings of John Calvin. This is always worth thinking about, since the work of preserving sound biblical teaching and protecting the “flock” of Christ’s Church from both internal and external attacks of wolves is an ongoing, never-ceasing responsibility of pastors and elders (c.f. Acts 20).

In particular, I enjoyed Manetsch’s clear and well-informed presentation of Calvin’s view of the doctrine of justification. I hope you do too!

(The remainder of this post is excerpted from Dr. Manetsch’s essay, “Is the Reformation Over? John Calvin, Roman Catholicism, and Contemporary Ecumenical Conversations”, available here.)

2.5. Justification by Faith Alone

As with other sixteenth-century Protestant reformers, Calvin believed that the doctrine of justification occupied an essential place in the Christian gospel. 65 He also believed it to be one of the most significant issues separating Protestants from their Catholic opponents. In his Letter to Sadoleto, for example, Calvin identifies justification as “the first and keenest subject of controversy between us.” This was no trifling matter, for “[w]herever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown.”66

How then did Calvin understand the biblical doctrine of justification? According to Calvin, justification is simply God’s acquittal of sinners by which he pardons them of their sin and imputes the alien righteousness of Christ to their account. Sinners are justified through Christ’s expiatory death alone, and this is received by faith alone. Faith is not a good work that merits justification; rather, faith is the gift of God by which the Holy Spirit unites sinners to Christ, effecting their adoption and enabling them to partake of all the blessings of Christ. Calvin defines justification like this in his Adultero-German Interim:

As God justifies us freely by imputing the obedience of Christ to us, so we are rendered capable of this great blessing only by faith alone. As the Son of God expiated our sins by the sacrifice of his death, and by appeasing his Father’s wrath, acquired the gift of adoption for us, and now presents us with his righteousness, so it is only by faith we put him on, and become partakers of his blessings.67

Stated more succinctly: “We say therefore, that we are justified by faith, because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us.”68

Calvin emphasizes that justification, as God’s forensic declaration of non-guilt, must be distinguished from regeneration or sanctification. But at the same time, he insists that the faith that justifies the sinner necessarily results in spiritual renewal and growth in godliness: “when we say a man is justified by faith alone, we do not fancy a faith devoid of charity, but we mean that faith alone is the cause of justification.” It is “faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.” 69 Calvin articulates this doctrine most fully in his Antidote against the Council of Trent:

Justification and sanctification, are constantly conjoined and cohere; but from this it is erroneously inferred that they are one and the same. . . . [A]s soon as any one is justified, renewal also necessarily follows: and there is no dispute as to whether or not Christ sanctifies all whom he justifies. . . . The whole dispute is as to the cause of justification. The Fathers of Trent pretend that it is twofold, as if we were justified partly by forgiveness of sins and partly by spiritual regeneration. . . . I on the contrary, while I admit that we are never received into the favor of God without being at the same time regenerated to holiness of life, contend that it is false to say that any part of righteousness [iustitiae] consists in quality, or in the habit which resides in us, and that we are righteous [iustos] only by gratuitous acceptance.70

This then is the crux of Calvin’s disagreement with his Catholic opponents. The reformers taught that believers’ right standing before God is due to the once-for-all free imputation of Christ’s righteousness. By contrast, the Tridentine Fathers taught that justification includes both divine pardon and the process whereby Christ’s righteousness is infused into believers, which enables them to cooperate with divine grace, live a holy life, and merit salvation. From Calvin’s viewpoint, Trent’s doctrine represents little more than a modified version of the ancient heresy of Pelagius, in that it affirms “that men are justified partly by the grace of God and partly by their own works.” 71 Accordingly, Calvin finds the Catholic doctrine of justification altogether pernicious, for it ignores the full effects of original sin, exalts human righteousness, vitiates divine grace, distorts the meaning of true faith, and destroys the grounds of Christian assurance. On this last point, Calvin is particularly adamant. Because Catholics predicate justification on the inherent righteousness of the believer, they must regard full Christian assurance as ungodly presumption. In so doing, they portray God as an exacting Judge and thereby “rob all consciences of calm and placid confidence” in divine grace. 72 How different is the Protestant teaching on justification, Calvin believes. The doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone enables Christians to conduct their lives with confidence and gratitude, secure in the knowledge of God’s fatherly love for them. As Calvin notes in his response to the Augsburg Interim,

It is asked . . . where our consciences may rest safely in regard to salvation. . . . Any part of this righteousness, however small, if placed in works will totter, as resting on an insecure foundation. . . . It is a plain matter, that we cannot come boldly before the tribunal of God, unless we are certainly persuaded that he is our Father: and this cannot be without our being regarded as righteous in his sight.73

For Calvin, the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith is not only a truth to be professed, but a doctrine to be celebrated and enjoyed, for it provides Christians both comfort and confidence during this present life and a firm assurance for the next.