Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Calvin: Justification, Union with Christ, and Good Works

In reading Calvin on Rom. 3.22, I found this:

‘Faith is therefore said to justify, because it is the instrument by which we receive Christ, in whom righteousness is communicated to us. When we are made partakers of Christ, we are not only ourselves righteous, but our works are also counted righteous in the sight of God, because any imperfections in them are obliterated by the blood of Christ. The promises, which were conditional, are fulfilled to us also by the same grace, since God rewards our works as perfect, inasmuch as their defects are covered by our free pardon.’


1. It seems to me that for Calvin, union with Christ is logically prior to any act of imputation (in contrast, I think, to Michael Horton and Bruce McCormack who I believe argue vice-versa, namely, that union is based on imputation - others can enlightenment me if that is indeed the case).
2. In union with Christ, good works, actually become good. Here we have, I think, a link between justification and works that can make better sense of passages like 2 Cor. 5.10 and Rom. 14.10, etc. Here is the tension I find in Calvin's thought: (a) He rejects justification based on the gift of faith and renewal of the Spirit, (b) He rejects justification based on works of the law = moral effort, but (c) He grants that in Christ God can "reward" good works. Although what he means by reward is not spelled out.


Rob Edwards said...

A recent book that deals with this topic at length is Mark Garcia's Life in Christ, in particular chapter 3, titled "In Christ, Like Christ: Union with Christ, Good Works, and Replication in Calvin’s Romans Commentary". He too sees that in Calvin union with Christ has priority over the application of all benefits, in contrast with Horton, and deals with the distinction between rewards and merit. Of course, Richard Gaffin has made similar arguments in various places.

Steven Coxhead said...

Good observation, Mike.

I've got a couple of articles on this topic that should be coming out in the next few issues of WTJ. But to summarize some of my findings, in Calvin’s thinking, the fact that “we … receive a double grace” through union with Christ through faith (i.e., reconciliation and regeneration) means that the good works of believers are also imputed to them as righteousness (Inst. 3.11.1).

Calvin actually believes in double imputation: "After [the] forgiveness of sins is set forth, the good works that now follow are appraised otherwise than on their own merit. For everything imperfect in them is covered by Christ’s perfection … Therefore, after the guilt of all transgressions that hinder man from bringing forth anything pleasing to God has been blotted out, and after the fault of imperfection, which habitually defiles even good works, is buried, the good works done by believers are accounted righteous, or, what is the same thing, are reckoned [i.e., imputed] as righteousness" (Inst. 3.17.8)

In Calvin’s thinking, a person can only be accepted by God solely on the basis of the absolute righteousness of Christ; but because faith goes together with spiritual renewal and because the imperfect works of believers are sanctified by the righteousness of Christ, then works righteousness also applies to the believer. As Calvin puts it: “it follows from justification of faith that works otherwise impure, unclean, half done, unworthy of God’s sight, not to mention his love, are accounted [i.e., imputed as] righteousness” (Inst. 3.17.9).

Calvin believes in a legitimate doctrine of justification by works that is subordinate to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This subordinate doctrine of justification by works means for Calvin that the blessing promised by God in the law to those who keep his law is really applied to believers.

I believe that Calvin's model is problematic in that he has not understood justification by faith and justification by works in Pauline salvation historical terms, but his system is nonetheless a remarkable synthesis of biblical teaching, which seems to have been lost by many Reformed theologians today. How many Reformed people today would dare to speak of the imputation of the works of the believer as righteousness, for example?

Grosey's Messages said...

Mike, do you think that Calvin was advocating a "touch up" righteousness of faith..where is added to our own righteousness the righteousness of Christ to make ours perfect?
I must admit 30 years ago when I read that in Calvin's commentary I came to that conclusion. However, perhaps a riper Calvin may have come to a better conclusion?
Phil 3:7-9
But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.
8 Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ,
9 And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:

"Hence there are two things that are to be observed here. In the first place, that the righteousness of the law must be given up and renounced, that you may be righteous through faith; and secondly, that the righteousness of faith comes forth from God, and does not belong to the individual. As to both of these we have in the present day a great controversy with Papists; for on the one hand, they do not allow that the righteousness of faith is altogether from God, but ascribe it partly to man; and, on the other hand, they mix them together, as if the one did not destroy the other. Hence we must carefully examine the several words made use of by Paul, for there is not one of them that is
not very emphatic.
He says, that believers have no righteousness of their own."

Hey Mike I hear Dr McGowan is coming to Newcastle... I look forward to meeting him,