Calvin On God’s Gracious Acceptance Of Our Works In Christ

Not For Justification

In this way we can admit not only that there is a partial righteousness in works (as our adversaries maintain), but that they are approved by God as if they were absolutely perfect. If we remember on what foundation this is rested, every difficulty will be solved. The first time when a work begins to be acceptable is when it is received with pardon. And whence pardon, but just because God looks upon us and all that belongs to us as in Christ? Therefore, as we ourselves when ingrafted into Christ appear righteous before God, because our iniquities are covered with his innocence; so our works are, and are deemed righteous, because every thing otherwise defective in them being buried by the purity of Christ is not imputed. Thus we may justly say, that not only ourselves, but our works also, are justified by faith alone. Now, if that righteousness of works, whatever it be, depends on faith and free justification, and is produced by it, it ought to be included under it and, so to speak, made subordinate to it, as the effect to its cause; so far is it from being entitled to be set up to impair or destroy the doctrine of justification. Thus Paul, to prove that our blessedness depends not on our works, but on the mercy of God, makes special use of the words of David, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered;” “Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity.” Should any one here obtrude the numberless passages in which blessedness seems to be attributed to works, as, “Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord;” “He that has mercy on the poor, happy is he;” “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,” and “that endureth temptation;” “Blessed are they that keep judgment,” that are “pure in heart,” “meek,” “merciful,”, they cannot make out that Paul’s doctrine is not true. For seeing that the qualities thus extolled never all so exist in man as to obtain for him the approbation of God, it follows, that man is always miserable until he is exempted from misery by the pardon of his sins. Since, then, all the kinds of blessedness extolled in the Scripture are vain so that man derives no benefit from them until he obtains blessedness by the forgiveness of sins, a forgiveness which makes way for them, it follows that this is not only the chief and highest, but the only blessedness, unless you are prepared to maintain that it is impaired by things which owe their entire existence to it. There is much less to trouble us in the name of righteous which is usually given to believers. I admit that they are so called from the holiness of their lives, but as they rather exert themselves in the study of righteousness than fulfill righteousness itself, any degree of it which they possess must yield to justification by faith, to which it is owing that it is what it is.

—John Calvin, Institutes, 3.17.10 (HT: Jack Miller)

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Superb! Yes, Christ justifies both our persons and our works. Because God justifies our works for Christ’s sake, so now He as a holy God can look on them and perfect them. Unless He had justified our works, He could have no view toward them to perfect them.

  2. This truth has been so encouraging for me in what is termed our “sanctification” or obedience. Calvin was consistent on the ground of acceptance of believer’s works before God, in a word, not the quality of our obedience as aided by the the Holy Spirit within in us, but the the finished work of Christ without:

    “In short, I affirm, that not by our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works justified; and that the justification [accepted as righteous] of works depends on the justification of the person, as the effect on the cause.” (John Calvin, Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote)

    “But, meanwhile, they observed not how far the works which they insisted on regarding as meritorious must be from fulfilling the condition of the promises, were they not preceded by a justification founded on faith alone, and on forgiveness of sins — a forgiveness necessary to cleanse even good works from their stains.” (Book 3, Institutes)

  3. Dr. Clark,
    This quote from Calvin reminds me of why I don’t like to entirely reject the Gerhard Forde bumper sticker – “sanctification is the [difficult] art of getting used to your justification” because in your post Calvin is also emphasizing the objective reality of our being in Christ above the subjective reality of our attempts at good works. (In the Forde quote, “justification” is objective whereas “difficult art” is subjective)
    It helps me greatly to see my attempts at good works as objectively accepted by God even while they are subjectively rejected by the people I’m trying to do them for. One reason is because I am encouraged to keep on trying and another is because I’m less prone to be threatened, defensive, or judgmental in response to being rejected.
    “Why”, you may ask, “do you need to get all theologically complicated when what you have said is just basic common sense and Sales 101?” While I may have an overly theoretical bent, still, the art of “reckoning ourselves dead”, ”getting used to our justification” , or staying focused on a positive objective reality in the face of negative subjective experiences must be difficult for many.
    Whereas those objecting to Calvin were perhaps monks who had done good works of climbing towers on their knees and good works of cloistering themselves to avoid youthful temptations, God has given us Moderns wives and teenagers to show that we are always wrong and that none of our works ever measure up!
    Wouldn’t it be great if we could look at others with the eyes of forgiveness that we see in our own Father’s eyes towards us?
    Surely looking more to the objective reality of God’s love for us produces more rather than less subjective attempts on our part to love others.

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