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Posts Tagged ‘Sanctification’

I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake (1 John 2:12 ESV).

Can we ever emphasize the forgiveness of sins too much?

Some might think we can. The concern is that by focussing too much on the cross, we won’t be able to move on to things which pertain to our ‘new life’ in Christ. Such a continual emphasis on the sin-atoning, wrath-turning, law-satisfying, penalty-paying, work of Christ is thought to short-circut the very life it intends to bring about. If we’re always thinking of the “Lamb who was slain”, will we not overlook the Son in resurrected and ascended glory?

But what I believe this concern overlooks is the sad but true fact that we ever remain painfully sinful in this life. For this reason, we can never ‘move past’ our need for the cross. We must ever come back to that fount of every blessing.  As long as we trudge this pilgrim land, all right worship of God will naturally flow from our continual forgiveness and assurance of pardon at the foot of the cross. In fact, it is every practice which assumes the contrary, that in the end, will circumvent sanctification.

Only by continually beginning, and returning, to the cross will the ‘new life’ and sanctity which we so desire take solid root. For there is no other way to relate to God, except through the perfect work (life, death, and resurrection) of Christ.  In fact, God’s grace-mercy-favor rests upon us for this reason and this reason alone–even the merits of Christ.

Similarly, Calvin understood that faith, not works, must be that foundation for all of our confidence before God. Faith, not works, is that wellspring from which every other saving grace flows. Unlike many who have attempted to mix faith and works as the ground or foundation of our confidence before God, we must rightly give the priority to faith alone. Justification must have the logical priority over sanctification. We must begin our hourly, daily, and weakly journey from our gracious entry point in the Sabboth rest of justification by faith alone. For it is the Lord who sanctifies us.

Calvin comments on 1 John 2:12:

…lest the preceding exhortation should obscure the free remission of sins, he [John] again inculcates the doctrine which peculiarly belongs to faith, in order that the foundation may with certainty be always retained, that salvation is laid up for us in Christ alone.

Holiness of life ought indeed to be urged, the fear of God ought to be carefully enjoined, men ought to be sharply goaded to repentance, newness of life, together with its fruits, ought to be commended; but still we ought ever to take heed, lest the doctrine of faith be smothered, — that doctrine which teaches that Christ is the only author of salvation and of all blessings; on the contrary, such moderation ought to be presented, that faith may ever retain its own primacy. This is the rule prescribed to us by John: having faithfully spoken of good works, lest he should seem to give them more importance than he ought to have done, he carefully calls us back to contemplate the grace of Christ.

Your sins are forgiven you Without this assurance, religion would not be otherwise than fading and shadowy; nay, they who pass by the free remission of sins, and dwell on other things, build without a foundation. John in the meantime intimates, that nothing is more suitable to stimulate men to fear God than when they are rightly taught what blessing Christ has brought to them, as Paul does, when he beseeches by the bowels of God’s mercies.

It hence appears how wicked is the calumny of the Papists, who pretend that the desire of doing what is right is frozen, when that is extolled which alone renders us obedient children to God. For the Apostle takes this as the ground of his exhortation, that we know that God is so benevolent to us as not to impute to us our sins.

For his name’s sake The material cause is mentioned, lest we should seek other means to reconcile us to God. For it would not be sufficient to know that God forgives us our sins, except we came directly to Christ, and to that price which he paid on the cross for us. And this ought the more to be observed, because we see that by the craft of Satan, and by the wicked fictions of men, this way is obstructed; for foolish men attempt to pacify God by various satisfactions, and devise innumerable kinds of expiations for the purpose of redeeming themselves. For as many means of deserving pardon we intrude on God, by so many obstacles are we prevented from approaching him. Hence John, not satisfied with stating simply the doctrine, that God remits to us our sins, expressly adds, that he is propitious to us from a regard to Christ, in order that he might exclude all other reasons. We also, that we may enjoy this blessing, must pass by and forget all other names, and rely only on the name of Christ. – Calvin’s Commentaries

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I’m going through 1 John right now in my Greek class, and thought I would offer some thoughts.

John speaks of the false teachers (the antichrist) who have come into the world. And then as if to reassure his beloved church, he then changes his tone:

Little children, you are from God and have overcome them (the antichrist), for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (4:4).

This reminds me of a theme I’ve been noticing all throughout the NT, but particularly in John’s writings. Namely, that Christ indwells his church.

It sounds simple enough, but this is a profound mystery. There is this vital and mystical union between Christ and his Church, and it is one of the reasons why Christians don’t get destroyed by the evil one. It is not because we are tough enough to take on our spiritual enemies. On the contrary, we are weak, poor, pitiful, hobbit-folk — halflings — who roam a world full of desperate peril.

We are like spiritual ragamuffins, defenseless if left to ourselves. But Christ works through us by the power of the Holy Spirit, sanctifying, guarding, protecting, nurshishing, strengthening, and preserving us unto the end.

Calvin comments:

Though then they must contend, yet he says that they had conquered, because they would have a successful issue, as though he had said that they were already, though in the middle of the contest, beyond any danger, because they would surely be conquerors.

But this truth ought to be farther extended, for whatever contests we may have with the world and the flesh, a certain victory is to follow. Hard and fierce conflicts indeed await us, and some continually succeed others; but as by Christ’s power we fight and are furnished with God’s weapons, we even by fighting and striving become conquerors. As to the main subject of this passage, it is a great consolation, that with whatever wiles Satan may assail us, we shall stand through the power of God.

But we must observe the reason which is immediately added, because greater, or stronger, is he who is in you than he who is in the world. For such is our infirmity, that we succumb before we engage with an enemy, for we are so immersed in ignorance that we are open to all kinds of fallacies, and Satan is wonderfully artful in deceiving. Were we to hold out for one day, yet a doubt may creep into our minds as to what would be the case tomorrow; we should thus be in a state of perpetual anxiety. Therefore the Apostle reminds us that we become strong, not by our own power, but by that of God. He hence concludes, that we can no more be conquered than God himself, who has armed us with his own power to the end of the world. But in this whole spiritual warfare this thought ought to dwell in our hearts, that; it would be all over with us immediately were we to fight in our own strength; but that as God repels our enemies while we are reposing, victory is certain.

Our only hope is to call upon the name of the Lord, our only strength is through the power of prayer, and our only victory is obtained through faith in Christ the Victor.  He, and he alone, is why we overcome.

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Calvin once wrote that “everything that is announced concerning Christ seems very paradoxical to human judgment” and that “the flesh, hearing of justification by faith, should often strike, as it were, against so many stumbling-stones.”[1] Calvin scholars have doubtless attempted to peer down this apparent ‘paradox’ in the esteemed theologian by way of some ‘dialectical’ fashion and failed.[2] And yet it is the assumption of this paper that the precise relationship between justification and sanctification likely poses one of the chief ‘stumbling-stones’ for many.[3]

Integral to John Calvin’s soteriology was his concept of the “double grace” gifted to all believers through their “partaking” in Christ. This double grace consisted both of justification and sanctification.[4] What is abundantly clear in Calvin’s scheme is that these gifts are inseparable one from another. There is no breaking their “indissoluble” bond.[5] Yet what is equally clear is that these graces must be amply distinguished.[6] The question then arises: distinguished how?

Mark Garcia has argued that,

Within Calvin’s soteriological model, to make sanctification follow justification as an effect is to concede the theological possibility that one may be truly justified but not yet sanctified, with the result that the legal fiction charge, to which Calvin was always sensitive, would be validated.[7]

In this reading of Calvin, it would seem justification is not only temporally simultaneous with sanctification but logically coterminous as well. However, this is not the only interpretation. Taking a somewhat different view is Cornelis P. Venema who argues,

When Calvin treats the subject of the benefits of our reception of God’s grace in Christ, he clearly grants a kind of priority to justification as the “first” aspect of the “twofold grace of God.” The pre-eminence of this benefit is affirmed in various passages in his writings, which speak of justification as the principal aspect of the “twofold grace of God.”[8]

Similarly, J. Todd Billings observes: “For Calvin […] there is still a sense in which sanctification as a life of gratitude is profoundly dependent upon the forensic declaration of justification in a way that shows a non-temporal ‘ordering’ between the two.”[9]

Following the latter interpretation, this paper will make the case that in Calvin’s theology there was a particular logical priority of justification in reference to sanctification. For Calvin, justification is a foundational doctrine which sets the stage and serves as the groundwork for the rest of the Christian life. Sanctification, by contrast is an ongoing, continual, and progressive work which ever accompanies but never precedes justification. And in this relationship there remains a certain logical priority to justification throughout.

In order to make this argument, however, two key terms in Calvin’s theology must first be clearly defined: justification and sanctification.  Second, having established the grammar, one will then be able to trace the logical priority of justification conceptually as it emerges from Calvin’s writing in three ways: pastorally, exegetically, and homiletically. Finally, this paper will engage some of the possible objections to this view.

CALVIN PROLEGOMENA

The term justification, for Calvin, meant “simply…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.”[10] Likewise, “to be justified in God’s sight,” for Calvin, one “is both reckoned righteous in God’s judgment and… accepted on account of his righteousness.” It is altogether crucial that one recognizes the forensic and judicial nature of these categories for Calvin in their context before the judgement of God. To further help define the concept, it is often helpful to delineate what something is not. Commenting on the parable of the publican (Luke 18), Calvin wrote:

For it was not said that the publican was justified, because he suddenly acquired some new quality, but that he obtained grace, because his guilt was blotted out, and his sins were washed away. Hence it follows thatrighteousness consists in the forgiveness of sins.[11]

Again, notice the accent on guilt, sin, forgiveness, and righteousness: these are all legal categories for Calvin and of the essence of his doctrine of Justification.

The term sanctification, on the other hand, for Calvin, meant “that we who are otherwise unholy by nature, are by his Spirit renewed unto holiness, that we may serve God…being renewed to innocence and purity of life.”[12] So we see that for Calvin, while justification was very much a judicial and legal category, sanctification on the other hand is very much a transforming and renewing category. In Calvin’s mind, “justification must be very different from reformation into newness of life.”[13] Indeed it would seem the very thing justification is not is the very thing sanctification is.  With these crucial definitions established, one will now be able to identify their logical relationship in Calvin’s writing.

ARGUMENT: Pastoral Priority

For Calvin, the doctrine of justification held a certain priority over sanctification pastorally. In his own words, the “matter of justification by faith” was “the principle article of the Christian Religion” (French translation)[14] or “the main hinge on which religion turns.” And this was said by a man who’s calling was to watch over the souls of his parishioners and encourage them towards good works. And it was in this context that Calvin believed, “…unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God.”[15]

One also sees this pastoral priority of justification in Calvin’s concern for the believer’s assurance:

No portion of righteousness sets our consciences at peace until it has been determined that we are pleasing to God, because we are entirely righteous before him. From this it follows that the doctrine of justification is perverted and utterly overthrown when doubt is thrust into men’s minds, when the assurance of salvation is shaken and the free and fearless calling upon God suffers hindrance-nay, when peace and tranquillity with spiritual joy are not established…. For faith totters if it pays attention to works, since no one, even of the most holy, will find there anything on which to rely.[16]

And again:

Paul consistently denies that peace or quiet joy are retained in consciences unless we are convinced that we are “justified by faith”. At the same time he declares the source of this assurance: it is when “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit”. It is as if he had said that our souls cannon be quieted unless we are surely persuaded that we are pleasing to God.[17]

And for Calvin, this pleasingness to God only comes about by way of the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer in justification. It was this peace of conscience and assurance which served an establishing role. And yet this solid foundation would continue to be the basis for Christian works as well:

[W]hen it is a question of the founding and establishing of their own salvation, [the Saints,] without regard for works turn their eyes solely to God’s goodness. Not only do they betake themselves to it before all things as to the beginning of blessedness but they repose in it as in the fulfillment of this. A conscience so founded, erected, and established is established also in the consideration of works, so far, that is, as these are testimonies of God dwelling and ruling in us. Inasmuch, therefore, as this reliance upon works has no place unless you first cast the whole confidence of your mind upon God’s mercy, it ought not to seem contrary to that upon which it depends.[18]

Clearly then, it is the mercy of God (namely the forgiveness of sins and acceptance as righteous through justification) that serves not only as the “founding and establishing of….salvation,” but also as the “beginning” and “fulfillment” of “blessedness.” Thus, for Calvin, the logical priority of justification over sanctification established a sure foundation, pastorally, for the believers piety, assurance, and good works.

Exegetical Priority

Calvin also saw the priority of justification arising directly out of Scripture.  Calvin’s Commentary on Romans is particularly instructive in this regard. Richard Muller has pointed out that “Melanchthon (and subsequently, Luther as well) had argued the centrality of Romans to the understanding of the biblical message.”[19] And similarly, Billings observes, “Romans was used by Calvin as an exegetical key to the rest of Scripture, as well as a doctrinal key for the Institutes.”[20] Now this was Calvin’s first published commentary (March 1540, Strasbourg).[21]  And yet it is worth noting that although in succeeding years and revisions, “[t]he changes made were far-reaching… there was no change at all in Calvin’s general understanding of the Epistle between 1536 and 1556.”[22]

This historical context, nonetheless, helps one appreciate the impact Paul’s “argument” in Romans had on Calvin’s theology:

[A]nd thus he enters on the main subject of the whole Epistle–justification by faith….The subject then of these chapters may be stated thus,– that man’s only righteousness is through the mercy of God in Christ, which being offered by the Gospel is apprehended by faith.[23]

Thus, Calvin, in an overview statement, attributes the “main subject” of the epistle to the Romans to “justification by faith.” And this theme is picked up again in his commentary on 5:18 where Calvin stated,

Justification of life is to be taken, in my judgment, for remission, which restores life to us, as though he called it life-giving. For whence comes the hope of salvation, except that God is propitious to us; and we must be just, in order to be accepted. Then life proceeds from justification.[24]

Given the importance of the book of Romans in all of his theology, these statements carry tremendous weight and offer essential insight into the priority of justification for Calvin’s soteriology.

This idea, however, also appears in Calvin’s exegesis of Acts 13:38-39. Here, Calvin describes at length both the nature in which Paul must have presented the Gospel message as well as the way in which Luke recorded it. Several lengthy quotations will help tease out the significance of Calvin’s reasoning.

After that he hath declared the mean whereby salvation is purchased through Christ, he doth now intreat of his office and power. And this is the principal point, to know what good things we have by the coming of Christ, and what we are to hope for at his hands. And although Luke setteth down in a word that Paul preached of the benefits of Christ, yet there is no cause why any man should doubt but that so great matters were handled weightily, and only according as their dignity did require.[25]

Here, Calvin made clear the context is regarding the benefits of Christ. We may assume Calvin had in mind both justification and sanctification. And yet as Calvin would go on to explain, “Forgiveness of sins is set first, whereby God doth reconcile us unto himself.”[26] That the forgiveness of sins are correlated to Calvin’s doctrine of justification has already been showed. Calvin was explicit, however:

Certainly, it cannot be denied (but wickedly) that justification annexed to remission of sins is, as it were, the means and way to obtain the same. […] Therefore he is justified by Christ, who is freely loosed from the guilt and judgement of eternal death to which he was subject. This is the righteousness of faith, whilst that God counteth us just, by not imputing our sins.[27]

Here Calvin explicitly connected the doctrine of justification to what was “set first” — namely, the forgiveness of sins.  And this is all within the context of that “principal point, to know what good things we have by the coming of Christ.” The question then arises: where is sanctification in this discussion? Calvin didn’t leave one to speculate on this either: his comment on the next verse (39) decisively ties up this loose end:

Paul showeth how men obtain the righteousness of Christ: to wit, when they receive it by faith… Wherefore, Paul’s opinion is plain, that we are justified by faith alone…. There be also other benefits of Christ which we reap by faith; for when he regenerateth us by his Spirit, he restoreth in us the image of God; and after that the old man is crucified he fashioneth us unto newness of life. But it was enough for Luke to express this one thing, how men return into favour with God, from whome they be estranged by sin, because we may easily pass thence unto the residue [emphasis added].[28]

Here, the priority of justification becomes quite explicit. It was enough that the Luke should inscripturate the doctrine of justification when describing the preaching of Paul and not feel any equivalent weight requiring a description of the doctrine of regeneration. Both this and the Romans examples offer telling insight into how Calvin read the priority of justification arising exegetically from the Scriptures.

Homiletical Priority

Similarly, Calvin saw the priority of justification as a homiletical principal as well. Commenting on John 20:23, which speaks of the forgiveness of sins, Calvin said that, “Here, unquestionably, our Lord has embraced, in a few words, the sum of the Gospel; for we must not separate this power of forgiving sins from the office of teaching…”[29] Calvin then would describe the principal object of preaching the gospel in forensic categories:

The principal design of preaching the Gospel is, that men may be reconciled to God, and this is accomplished by the unconditional pardon of sins: as Paul also informs us, when he calls the Gospel, on this account, the ministry of reconciliation, (2 Cor. v. 18) Many other things, undoubtedly, are contained in the Gospel, but the principal object which God intends to accomplish by it is, to receive men into favour by not imputing their sins. If, therefore, we wish to show that we are faithful ministers of the Gospel, we must give our most earnest attention to this subject; for the chief point of difference between the Gospel and heathen philosophy lies in this, that the Gospel makes the salvation of men to consist in the forgiveness of sins through free grace. This is the source of the other blessings which God bestows, such as, that God enlightens and regenerates us by his Spirit, that he forms us anew to his image, that he arms us with unshaken firmness against the world and Satan. Thus the whole doctrine of godliness, and the spiritual building of the Church, rests on this foundation, that God having acquitted us from all sins, adopts us to be his children by free grace.[30]

Here, Calvin was describing the “principal design of preaching the Gospel” and, once again, using forensic and judicial terms to do so. Distinguishing the forgiveness of sins from all other blessings (including regeneration), Calvin described the former as the “source” of the latter. From this passage it appears once again that the concept of justification emerges with a logical priority, this time in Calvin’s homiletical understanding.

OBJECTIONS

As has been alluded to, there is disagreement amongst scholars on Calvin’s doctrine of the “double grace.”[31] Not surprisingly, then, there are some who would object to this paper’s thesis. One counter-argument may point to the fact that Calvin placed sanctification before justification in Book Three of his Institutes thereby effacing any logical priority to justification. Similarly, one may point to Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ as reason to remove any necessary logical relationship between justification and sanctification. Richard Gaffin argues something like this in his work on Calvin’s double grace. And although he recognizes that “[t]his way of proceeding is apparently counterintuitive, even contrary some might think, to Reformation instincts,” he sees it as instructive nonetheless:

Prior to discussing justification as a topic and in any length, largely bypassing justification and saying little about the role of faith in justification, he [Calvin] concerns himself extensively with sanctification and faith in its sanctified expressions. Calvin demolishes Rome’s charge by showing that faith, as the sole instrument in receiving justification, in its Protestant understanding, entails a disposition to holiness without explicit reference to its role in being justified.[32]

However, this view is not without difficulty. As Thomas Wenger aptly points out, there is a difference between an ordo docendiand an ordo salutis in Calvin’s theology:

[I]f Calvin was following Melanchthon’s description of Paul’s organization of Romans, then it is improper to assume that his ordo docendi is tantamount to an ordo salutis, because his intent was not to describe such a thing at all… The entire Institutes follows the Pauline order and thus must be interpreted in that light. So to claim….that Calvin used union with Christ as his organizing soteriological principle based on their assumed ordo salutis […] not only lacks internal evidence but is also completely out of accord with the historical context of the Institutes’development.[33]

If this is true, efforts to logically de-sequence justification to sanctification in Calvin’s soteriology, ether because of their order in the institutes, or due to his doctrine of union with Christ, would equally be ill-founded.

CONCLUSION

In refuting the “schools of the Sorbonne” (who he dubbed the “mothers of all errors”), Calvin criticized them for having “taken away from us justification by faith, which is the sum of all piety.”[34] As has been observed, for Calvin the concept of justification as a legal/forensic category serves as a foundational and establishing doctrine in his theology of the Christian life. Pastorally, exegetically, and homiletically, this theme clearly emerges from his writings. As Michael Horton has pointed out, there is a sense in which “Calvin makes justification that which brings everything else, including regeneration (again, the whole process of inward renewal), in its wake.”[35] All this evidence merely demonstrates the degree to which in Calvin’s theology there was a particular logical priority of justification in reference to sanctification. Or, as Calvin himself put it: “life proceeds from justification.”

____________________________________________________

1John Calvin, Commentaries on The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. and ed. John Owen, Romans 6:1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 218.

2 Cornelis Venema, Accepted and Renewed in Christ: the Twofold Grace of God and the Interpretation of Calvin’s Theology,(Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), pp. 16-21.

3 Ibid., 23.

4 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.11.1.

5 Calvin, Commentary on The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. William Pringle, on 1 Cor. 1:30 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 1:93-4.

6 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.11.

7 Mark Garcia, Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology, (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2008), 264.

8 Venema, Accepted and Renewed, 97.

9 J. Todd Billings, “John Calvin’s Soteriology: On the Multifaceted ‘Sum’ of the Gospel,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11 no. 4 (October 2009): 446.

10 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.2.

11 Calvin, Commentary on A Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle, on Luke 18:14 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 2:206.

12 Calvin, Commentary Corinthians, on 1 Cor. 1:30, 1:93-4.

13 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.11.

14 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. Elsie Anne McKee, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 318.

15 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.1.

16 Calvin, Institutes, 3.11.11.

17 Calvin, Institutes, 3.13.5.

18 Calvin, Institutes, 3.14.18.

19 Richard Muller, The Unacomodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 127.

20 Billings, “Calvin’s Soteriology,” 429.

21 Wulfert de Greef, The Writings of John Calvin Expanded Edition: An Introductory Guide, trans. Lyle D. Bierma (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 75.

22 T. H. L. Parker, Commentarius in Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos (COR II/13: Geneva: Droz, 1999), xvi, cited in Mark Garcia,Life in Christ, 91.

23 Calvin, Commentaries on Romans, xxix-xxx.

24 Calvin, Commentary on Romans, on Rom. 5:18, 212.

25 Calvin, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Henry Beveridge, trans. Christopher Fetherstone,  Acts. 13:38, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 1:540-1.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., 1:542-3.

28 Ibid., on Acts 13:39, 1:544-5.

29 Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, trans. William Pringle, John 20:23, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 2:270.

30 Ibid., 2:271.

31 Venema, Accepted and Renewed, 13. 32 Richard Gaffin, “Calvin’s Soteriology: The Structure of the Application of Redemption in Book Three of the Institutes” Ordained Servant, (November 2009), http://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=174 (accessed March 12, 2010).

33 Thomas L. Wenger, “The New Perspective on Calvin: Responding to Recent Calvin Interpretations,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50 (June 2007): 320.

34 Calvin, Institutes, 3.15.7.

35 Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 201.

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Calvin on WORKS AS FRUITS OF THE CALL:

When, therefore, the saints by innocence of conscience strengthen their faith and take from it occasion to exult, from the fruits of their calling they merely regard themselves as having been chosen as sons by the Lord. Accordingly, the statement of Solomon: “In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence” [Proverbs 14:26], and the fact that in order to be heard by him the saints sometimes use this calling of God to witness that they have walked before him in uprightness and simplicity [cf. Genesis 24:40; 2 Kings 20:3] are matters that have no place in laying a foundation to strengthen the conscience but are of value only when taken a posteriori. For there is nowhere that fear which is able to establish full assurance. And the saints are conscious of possessing only such an integrity as intermingled with many vestiges of the flesh. But since they take the fruits of regeneration as proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, from this they are greatly strengthened to wait for God’s help in all their necessities, seeing that in this very great matter they experience him as Father. And they cannot do even this unless they first apprehend God’s goodness, sealed by nothing else than the certainty of the promise. For if they begin to judge it by good works, nothing will be more uncertain or more feeble; for indeed, if works be judged of themselves, by their imperfection they will no less declare God’s wrath than by their incomplete purity they testify to his benevolence.

In sum, they so proclaim God’s benefits as not to turn away from God’s freely given favor, in which, as Paul testifies, there is set “length, breadth, depth, and height” [Ephesians 3:18]. It is as if he said: “Wherever the minds of the godly turn, however high they mount up, however far and wide they extend, still they ought not to depart from the love of Christ but should apply themselves wholly to meditating upon it. For in itself it embraces all dimensions.” Therefore, he says that it excels and overtops all knowledge, and that when we acknowledge how much Christ loved us we are “filled with all the fullness of God” [Ephesians 3:19]. As elsewhere, while Paul boasts that the godly are victors in every contest, he soon adds the reason: “on account of him who loved us” [Romans 8:37 p.].

– Calvin’s Institutes

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So the question then arises: what of our good works? How do we view them? What about 1 John 3:19 and the idea of good works helping our assurance of salvation?

THE SIGHT OF GOOD WORKS, HOWEVER, CAN STRENGTHEN FAITH

Now the saints quite often strengthen themselves and are comforted by remembering their own innocence and uprightness, and they do not even refrain at times from proclaiming it. This is done in two ways: either comparing their good cause with the evil cause of the wicked, they thence derive confidence of victory, not so much by the commendation of their own righteousness as by the just and deserved condemnation of their adversaries. Or, without comparison with others, while they examine themselves before God, the purity of their own conscience brings them some comfort and confidence.

We shall look at the first reason later. Now concerning the second, let us briefly explain how what we said above agrees with it: that under God’s judgment we must not put any trust in works, or glory in any esteem of them. The agreement lies in this: that the saints, when it is a question of the founding and establishing of their own salvation, without regard for works turn their eyes solely to God’s goodness. Not only do they betake themselves to it before all things as to the beginning of blessedness but they repose in it as in the fulfillment of this. A conscience so founded, erected, and established is established also in the consideration of works, so far, that is, as these are testimonies of God dwelling and ruling in us. Inasmuch, therefore, as this reliance upon works has no place unless you first cast the whole confidence of your mind upon God’s mercy, it ought not to seem contrary to that upon which it depends. Therefore, when we rule out reliance upon works, we mean only this: that the Christian mind may not be turned back to the merit of works as to a help toward salvation but should rely wholly on the free promise of righteousness. But we do not forbid him from undergirding and strengthening this faith by signs of the divine benevolence toward him. For if, when all the gifts God has bestowed upon us are called to mind, they are like rays of the divine countenance by which we are illumined to contemplate that supreme light of goodness; much more is this true of the grace of good works, which shows that the Spirit of adoption has been given to us [cf.  Romans 8:15].
– Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ book three

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In light of the recent debates (in the PCA) over our understanding of the forgiveness of sins (and what that means when we say it), it is helpful to read old guys like Caspar Olevian who helped shape our confessional understanding of Reformed doctrine. Reading through ‘Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant‘ I come to what he calls the “forgiveness of sins” (remissio peccatorum). And how does he define it but in terms of justification. He calls it “the greatest question in the entire world” (p. 148). What question?

That is, our righteousness before God, that Christ gave himself for our unrighteousness…. Why did he rescue us? Not because of our merit, but of his grace. This is our consolation, that the Gospel is an infallible testimony to us, that God is not only our creator, but also our Father… (p 148)

It is the greatest question in the world because it is the heart of the Gospel of Christ. Why else is the ministry the gospel (and particularly the preaching thereof) so vitally and urgently important? Olevian comments on Romans 1:16 “The Gospel is the Power of God unto salvation to all who believe:

We speak about the purpose for which God instituted the ministry of the gospel. The purpose is that the Lord might powerfully lead to salvation those who believe, sealing in their hearts the gracious remission of sins and renewing the heart into his image and beginning in them eternal life. (p. 148)

So we see here the “remission of sins” is ‘sealed’ to the believer — as is the ‘renewal’ of the heart. Both (justification and sanctification) come as a fruit of the Gospel and are freely given to us by God, in Jesus Christ, by the work of the Spirit

And what’s more, this gospel must be preached to unbelievers and believers alike: for the conversion of the former, and the strengthening and of the latter. But this “benefit” (which we should read as including forgiveness of sins), as R. Scott Clark points out, “is restricted to those who believe, i.e. those ‘predestined by God’.” (p. 149)

Olevian calls this Gospel the “principal doctrine” of the Scriptures.  And what is this doctrine? “…how sin, the wrath of God, and eternal death, are removed…” He writes, “…the principal life-giving doctrine, by the outpouring of the Spirit of God was, is, and shall be, the promise of the Gospel. (p. 148)

Furthermore, as far as our justification is concerned, Olevian sees this gospel as set in opposition to the law. But he makes clear that this doesn’t mean the gospel wasn’t present in the Old Testament times as well:

Thus the Holy Spirit constantly affirms throughout Paul that the doctrine of the gospel about the forgiveness of sins and eternal life given freely for the sake of the Son to those who believe, is not in any way new. But from the beginning of the world Christ was promised with his gospel. In order that this might be understood the distinction between law and Gospel must be considered. (p. 150)

So we see here that for Olivian, the gospel was about the forgiveness of sins through the justifying work Jesus Christ imputed by faith unto the believer. And, to further stress this point, it wasn’t to the unbeliever that these things were given — but to “those who believe”. Forgiveness and justification go together. And with them come regeneration, sanctification, and ultimetely glorification.

And, brothers and sisters, this is why the Gospel is so awesome (for lack of a better term).  Just as surely as you know (and are convinced) that you are a sinner and have sin in you; and just as surely as you know you’re going to eventually die because of this; you can also be just as assured that Christ is in you; and because of that fact you are also righteous; just as assured that you have everlasting life in you and that will never perish but will surely be raised from the dead. Just as sure! Think about that. This is definitely good news — the best in the world! And it is for all who believe.

And finally, in view of the recent controversies (great and small, near and abroad) over the nature of the Gospel, it’s helpful to read someone like Olivian who tells us that these kind of difficulties aren’t new. They will always follow the church wherever she goes. Why? Because in this world, the powers of darkness and the principalities and rulers of the air won’t stand for the gospel to be proclaimed among the nations. In fact they’re straining all their efforts (whether by schism, heresy, or persecution) to thwart this very process. But should that discourage us? Well, it didn’t disuade men like Olevian.  In his commentary on Romans he would write: “The world…claims I have asserted a new doctrine, but the Gospel is not new.” (p. 147)

May we, too, live with that conviction.

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The following is taken from Horatius Bonar’s God’s Way of Holiness.

Forgiveness of sins, in believing God’s testimony to the finished propitiation of the cross, is not simply indispensable to a holy life, in the way of removing terror and liberating the soul from the pressure of guilt, but of imparting an impulse, and a motive, and a power which nothing else could do.

Forgiveness at the end or in the middle, a partial forgiveness, or an uncertain forgiveness, or a grudging forgiveness, would be of no avail; it would only tantalize and mock. But a complete forgiveness, presented in such a way as to carry its own certainty along with it to every one who will take it at the hands of God–this is a power in the earth, a power against self, a power against sin, a power over the flesh, a power for holiness, such as no amount of suspense or terror could create.

A forgiven man is the true worker, the true lawkeeper. He can, he will, he must work for God. Re has come into contact with that part of God’s character which warms his cold heart. Forgiving love constrains him. He cannot but work for Him who has removed his sins from him as far as the east is from the west. Forgiveness has made him a free man, and given him a new and most loving Master.

Forgiveness, received freely from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, acts as a spring, an impulse, a stimulus of divine potency. It is more irresistible than law, or terror, or threat. A half forgiveness, an uncertain justification, a changeable peace, may lead to careless living and more careless working, may slacken the energy and freeze up the springs of action, (for it shuts out that aspect of God’s character which gladdens and quickens); but a complete and assured pardon can have no such effect.

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