Saturday, November 16, 2013

Calvin and Justification

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Alister McGrath summarizes the Reformation’s understanding of justification as follows: Justification is a forensic declaration of righteousness involving a sinner’s status rather than his nature; Justification is distinct from regeneration or sanctification; and justifying righteousness is an alien righteousness, completely external from man and imputed to him.[1] It is within this paradigm that John Calvin lived, moved and had his existence, yet he did add his own unique flavor. His contributions that I would like to highlight is his emphasis on the forensic aspect of justification, which can be seen most readily in his controversy with Osiander, his cementing of the distinctions between regeneration and justification, and his answer to the familiar charge of antinomianism and the role of works in salvation.


John Calvin, like Phillip Melancthon, defined justification in solely forensic terms.[2] His simple definition is stated at the beginning of the Institute’s section on justification by faith: “Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”[3] He states elsewhere, “’To justify’ means nothing else than to acquit of guilt him who was accused, as if his innocence were confirmed. Therefore, since God justifies us by the intercession of Christ, he absolves us not by confirmation of our own innocence but by the imputation of righteousness, so that we who are not righteous in ourselves may be reckoned as such in Christ.”[4]

Notice the phrase “nothing else” in the second quote. To Calvin, justification is only the acquittal of our guilt and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Everything was external to the believer. As Calvin argues later, “Every particle of our salvation stands thus outside of us.”[5] Though Luther argued similarly, Luther also allowed for the renewal of the sinner to be part of the process of justification.[6] Calvin took the next step and divorced justification from any change in the believer’s nature. 

This is most evident in his famous dispute with Osiander. There are many aspects to this debate, but what is relevant for our purposes is Calvin’s disagreement with the “essential righteousness” that Osiander promoted which Calvin perceived as “inherent righteousness,” since it was a righteousness that God imparted to man, who in turn possessed it.[7] Calvin angrily responds that “Osiander mixes that gift of regeneration with this free acceptance and contends that they are one and the same.”[8]
 
Osiander supports his argument by asking whether God leaves those whom He justifies in the same condition, without curing their sins. This is where Calvin’s concept of double grace comes into play. He replies that just as Christ cannot be separated, neither can righteousness and sanctification be separated.[9] However, these two concepts are different and should not be confused. This is supported by pointing to 1 Corinthians 1:30, where Paul writes that Christ is both our righteousness and our sanctification. Calvin charges that if these terms are the same, Paul would be redundant, which is obviously not the case.[10]
 
Calvin explains double grace more fully elsewhere: “By partaking of Him [Christ], we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.”[11] In Calvin’s mind, these two concepts are inseparable, for “you cannot possess him [Christ] without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided in pieces [1 Cor. 1:13].”[12] The only support he garnishes for such a hard distinction between the two is 1 Corinthians 1:30, which I just mentioned, and the unsupported statement that whenever Paul reasons that we are called to holy living, he “clearly indicates that to be justified means something different from being made new creatures.”[13] Other than this, I have not found any other piece of support for this hard distinction, which is surprising given that this doctrine is not found in the church before the Reformation.[14] One would think that Calvin would offer substantial proof for such a new doctrine.

Since Calvin championed this distinction between sanctification and justification, it is not that surprising to find that a common claim against him was of antinomianism.[15] Calvin deals with the specific accusation that due to his doctrine of justification, men are invited to sin in The Institutes 3.16.4. Here he explains in beautiful detail that though forgiveness is free to us, it was costly to Christ. Therefore, when men are taught of the wrath Christ endured on their behalf, they should have a greater dread of sin and wish to never be defiled again.[16] He then accuses these “slanderers” who first threw the allegation at him of cheapening the forgiveness of sins by offering their own works of satisfaction.[17]

However, if a man is righteous in God’s sight as soon as he believes, and there is nothing on his part that he can do to alter that, how can the flesh not jump at this opportunity? Especially when he is taught repeatedly that justification is a change in man’s status only, and not in his nature, as Osiander tried to advocate? Calvin doesn’t teach that the flesh becomes powerless once a man is justified does he? If this is not the case, how can he sidestep the claim that his doctrine invites sin? 

 My larger question is how can one even sin if he is imputed the righteousness of Christ? For if God sees the believer always cloaked with the righteousness of Christ, the believer will never have sin reckoned to him. Yet the New Testament speaks of the possibility of sin in a believer’s life. Who then is the one that reckons the sin against the believer? 

On the other side of the coin is the question of the value of good works, which Calvin does answer. This is when he points to the fact that one cannot be justified without also being sanctified.[18] But again I ask, if God reckons the obedience to Christ as if it was ours, what good will it do for us to obey?[19] For we cannot outperform Christ. Nor will God even notice it, for he only sees the obedience of Christ. One may bring up the motivation of rewards for the good works of a believer, but how can God reward us for our works if all He sees is Christ?

Calvin does appear to have an answer for these problems, and it comes in the form of the “twofold acceptance of man before God.”[20] Not only is the believer accepted on the grounds of Christ’s righteousness, he is also accepted based on the good works he does because the believer is a new creature and God Himself is the source of his good works.[21] A believer’s good works are still imperfect, but God grants pardon to these blemishes and sees in them marks of Himself.[22] Calvin also states that the impure works of the believer are “buried in Christ’s purity and [are] not charged to our account.”[23]    The main point Calvin is making is that a man is justified by works because he was first justified by faith alone.[24] Calvin (or the translator) summarized it well in the title of 3.17.9, “Justification by faith is the basis of works righteousness.”

This is quite an interesting doctrine of Calvin’s and one I have not heard in today’s popular theology of justification.[25] But this seems to bring up a whole new set of questions. What is the relationship between justification by faith and the secondary justification by works? Can you be justified by faith without being justified by works? Why does justification by faith have to be an absolute righteousness while justification by works can simply be relative righteousness?[26]
 
Since God has already accepted us in Christ, it seems rather unnecessary to accept us yet again on the basis of our works. And if our works are only justified because they are covered by Christ’s sinlessness, so that Calvin can even say “by faith alone not only we ourselves but our works as well are justified,”[27] is not this doctrine of justification by works rendered entirely superfluous? Why should our works be said to be righteous? It seems that Calvin is employing double speak. We are justified by faith alone and not by works yet our works are also justified in this event and they, that is these impure-yet-covered-by-Christ works, in turn justify us. What? It all seems ridiculous. This doctrine is given as an attempt to account for the numerous examples of God being pleased by a believer’s works, an attempt which Calvin should probably have reconsidered.  

        If Calvin’s attempt of explaining why God is said to be pleased with a believer’s works is found to be superfluous, and the question of how sin can be attributed to a believer even though the believer has Christ’s righteousness imputed to him is left unanswered, and why God can still call a believer to obey when Christ’s obedience is reckoned to him is unexplained, where does that leave us in regard to justification? For these reasons, I think the doctrine must be reconsidered. There are too many pieces that are not accounted for in Calvin’s doctrine. For now, I must continue pursuing an answer that better incorporates the entirety of Scripture.






[1] Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification 2nd edition page 189
[2] Thomas Coates, Calvins Doctrine of Justification, Concordia Theological Monthly 34.6 (1963) 325-334.
[3] Battles 727
[4] Battles 728
[5] Battles 784
[6] See Lohse page 262ff.
[7] Cornells P. Venema. “Calvin's Doctrine of the Imputation of Christ's Righteousness” MAJT 20 (2009): 31
[8] Battles 732
[9] Battles ibid
[10] Battles 732
[11] Battles 725
[12] Battles 798
[13] Battles 732
[14] McGrath 186-87. Mcgrath calls this distinctive of the Reformation a “genuine theological novum.”
[15] Battles 797ff. See especially 801
[16] Battles 802
[17] Battles 802
[18] Battles 798
[19] Battles 753
[20] Battles 806
[21] See Battles 806ff for discussion.
[22] Battles 807
[23] Battles 813
[24] Battles 812
[25] However, John MacArthur’s secondary justification by works teaching in the Lordship debate seems to finally make sense and actually have Reformation roots.
[26] See Steven Coxhead’s article “John Calvin's Subordinate Doctrine of Justification by Works” WTJ 71 (2009): 1-19 for the different distinctions of justification.
[27] Battles 813

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