Calvin: Paul Excludes All Works, Even Those Wrought By The Spirit

This righteousness then, which God communicates to man, and accepts alone, and owns as righteousness, has been revealed, he says, without the law, that is, without the aid of the law; and the law is to be understood as meaning works; for it is not proper to refer this to its teaching, which he immediately adduces as bearing witness to the gratuitous righteousness of faith. Some confine it to ceremonies; but this view I shall presently show to be unsound and frigid. We ought then to know, that the merits of works are excluded. We also see that he blends not works with the mercy of God; but having taken away and wholly removed all confidence in works, he sets up mercy alone.

It is not unknown to me, that Augustine gives a different explanation; for he thinks that the righteousness of God is the grace of regeneration; and this grace he allows to be free, because God renews us, when unworthy, by his Spirit; and from this he excludes the works of the law, that is, those works, by which men of themselves endeavour, without renovation, to render God indebted to them. (Deum promereri—to oblige God.) I also well know, that some new speculators proudly adduce this sentiment, as though it were at this day revealed to them. But that the Apostle includes all works without exception, even those which the Lord produces in his own people, is evident from the context.

John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. John Owen (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 134.

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  1. The law ‘was added because of transgressions’. It came only to deal with sinners, not to be involved at all with our righteousness (1 Tim 1:9).

  2. Delightful, and happens to clear the way for doing good works, not as necessary to acquire our place in Him, but as co-workers with Him.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Can you please help me understand the difference between FV and Witsius below? Thank you!

    XXIV. The foundation of this justification can be nothing but inherent holiness and righteousness. For, as it is a declaration concerning man, as he is in himself: by the regenerating and sanctifying grace of God, so it ought to have for its foundation, that which is found in man himself: He that doth righteousness is righteous, says John, 1 John iii. 7. And Peter says, Acts x. 34, 35 “of a truth, I perceive, that in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted with God.” And Luke in the name of God, gives testimony to the parents of John the Baptist, that “they were righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless,” Luke i. 6. But yet inherent righteousness is not the foundation of this justification, from its own worthiness, or because it is a holiness exactly commensurate with the rule of the law, but because it is the work of the Holy Spirit in the elect, which God cannot but acknowledge and delight in his own, and because the failings with which it is always stained in this world are forgiven in Christ’ sake.
    XXV. In this sense we think the apostle James speaks of justification in that much controverted passage, James ii. 21, 24. where he declares, that “Abraham was not justified by faith only, but also by works,” and insists upon it, that every man ought to be justified in this manner. For the scope of the apostle is to shew, that it is not sufficient for a Christian to boast of the remission of his sins, which indeed is obtained by faith only, but then it must be a living faith on Christ; but that besides he ought to labor after holiness, that being justified by faith only, that is, acquitted from the sins he had been guilty of, on account of Christ’s satisfaction, apprehended by faith, he may likewise be justified by works, that is declared to be truly regenerated, believing and holy; behaving as becomes those who are regenerated, believing and holy. Thus our father Abraham behaved, who having been before now justified by faith only, that is, obtained the remission of his sins, was afterwards also justified by his works. For, when he offered up his son to God, then God said to him, “now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me,” Gen. xxii. 12. And James insists upon it, that this last justification is so necessary to believers, that, if it be wanting, the first ought to be accounted only vain and imaginary.
    XXVI. These things are evident from scripture: but lest any after the manner of the world should ridicule this, I inform the more unskillful, that this is no invention of mine, but that most celebrated divines have, before me, spoken of such a “justification according to inherent righteousness and of works.” Bucerus in altero Colloquio Ratisbonensi, p. 313. Says, “we think that this begun righteousness is really a true and living righteousness, and a noble excellent gift of God; and that the new life in Christ consists in this righteousness, and that all the saints are also righteous by this righteousness, both before God and before men, ‘and that on account thereof the saints are also justified by a justification of works,’ that is are approved, commended and rewarded by God.” Calvin teaches much the same, Instit. Lib. iii. c 17. viii. Which concludes with these words, “The good works done by believers are counted righteous, or which is the same, are imputed for righteousness.” — The Economy of The Covenants Between God and Man Vol.1 pg. 400-401

    Alex Harris

    • Hi Alex,

      There are many great and vital differences between them but perhaps it would improve dialogue if you could tell me what you think the FV is and why this passage is confusing.


  4. Thank you for the response Dr. Clark! I’ve had people tell me that the FV is heretical because of their view on a future justification according to works. Isn’t that what’s Witsius is saying here? God will judge us according to inherent righteousness at the final judgement according to Witsius.

    • Alex,

      The FV includes a number of mistakes. Future justification according to works is one of them.

      Witsius was not teaching that we shall stand before God, in the judgment, on the basis of our works.

      He was distinguishing between two kinds of justification or between justification and vindication. The key is the clause in para. XXV “in this sense…” The Protestant interpretation of James, to which Witsius appealed, is that we are justified, i.e., declared righteous and saved, on the basis of Christ’s inherent righteousness imputed to us. That truth will be illustrated and demonstrated at the last day but we are not re-justified or declared righteous on the basis of our good works at the last day.

      This post might help.

  5. Which passage is Calvin commenting on? Is this an excerpt taken from his comments in the second chapter of Romans?

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