Posts Tagged ‘Todd Billings’

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.


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.


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.


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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Following up on my previous post on Calvin and ‘prayer of gratitude‘ in J. Todd Billings book, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, I found this set of quotations outstanding in their pastoral insight and theological depth at reading John Calvin. Speaking of the necessity of gratitude in prayer, Billings writes:

Yet there is a ‘negative’ side to this same theme. Two of the central ‘sins’ that one can commit in a wrong approach to prayer involve the violation of Calvin’s Trinitarian portrait of adoption: first, since one is under obligation to always give thanks to God, the sin of ‘ingratitude’ in prayer is a strong concern for Calvin.

The second frequent ‘sin’ of prayer is similar to the first, but it makes the structure of the dublex gratia all the more apparent: an uneasy conscience. The experience of prayer entails ‘extraordinary peace and repose’ for the conscience precisely because of the first grace: the imputation of Christ’s righteousness upon believers, assuring them of their salvation. In contrast, others relay upon the prayers of the saints because their consciences have not experienced this first grace. After asking why persons rely upon the intercession of the saints, Calvin writes: ‘If we appeal to the consciences of all those who delight in the intercession of the saints, we shall find that this [practice] arises solely from the fact that they are burdened by anxiety, just as if Christ were insufficient or too sever’. This not only brings dishonour to Christ, but ‘at the same time they cast out the kindness of God, who manifests himself to them as the Father. For he is not Father to them unless they recognize Christ to be their brother.’

One doesn’t have to be Roman Catholic or to have prayed to the saints to appreciate the reality of this uneasy conscience inhibiting one from coming to the Father with full assurance and confidence. It happens to evangelicals too. And yet this is correlated to the abject need for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Billings continues:

If the imputation received from one’s union with Christ is not recognized, the Spirit of adoption does not manifest the kindness of the Father. The conscience can be calmed in only one way: by recognizing the kindness of the Father in freely pardoning the sinner, through the imputation of Christ’s fully sufficient righteousness. In Calvin’s account, those who rely upon the prayers of the saints do not explicitly seek to dishonour Christ. Yet, because they have not accepted the first grace of imputation, they necessarily dishonour Christ by implying that Christ’s righteousness is insufficient…. Calvin’s repeated concern in the prayer chapter is that believers express gratitude to God with a conscience at rest, not trusting in their own righteousness, but in the assurance, that comes through the Spirit that the Father has freely pardoned believers because of their participation in and oneness with Christ. Believers are freed from terror before God, because ‘our prayers depend upon no merit of ours, but their whole worth and hope of fulfillment are grounded in God’s promises, and depend upon them’. Accepting that one has no worthiness ‘in oneself’ before God is part of the dynamic of entering into the wondrous exchange–experiencing the reception of Christ’s righteousness through a restored relationship with the Father through the Spirit.
— 111-2

What a lovely summation and correlation of Calvin’s theology of prayer with his doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the assurance of the believer. For they are all interconnected with each other.

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So I’ve been reading a lot of Calvin (and about Calvin) lately. And that’s for two reasons: 1) I really like reading Calvin. And 2) I get to write a paper on Calvin for my Medieval Reformation class.

And I recently got my hands on J. Todd Billings’ book Calvin, Participation, and the Gift. He seems to deal with all sorts of issues in this book. However, I found his comments on Calvin’s view of prayer particularly insightful and pastoral. The following are a few excerpts:

Prayer is the place where people ‘learn it by heart’, namely, the dynamic reality that they must look outside of themselves for happiness, wealth, and communion. This takes place ‘in Christ’, revealing the Father.

[Calvin quotation] “After we have been instructed by faith to recognize that whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God, and in our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom the Father willed all the fullness of his bounty to abide so that we may all draw from it as from an overflowing spring, it remains for us to seek in him, and in prayers to ask of him, what we have learned to be in him.”  Inst. 3.20.1

In explaining how we draw upon this ‘overflowing spring’, Calvin speaks of the Spirit and the adoption enabled through the Spirit. ‘The Spirit of adoption who seals the witness of the gospel in our hearts, raises up our spirit to dare show forth to God their desires, to stir up unspeakable groaning, and confidently cry, “Abba! Father!”‘

Through calling upon the Father by the Spirit, believers receive ‘an extraordinary peace and repose to our conscience’. When one experiences God as father, one recognizes that God deals with us with generosity and kindness, ‘gently summoning us to unburden our cares into his bosom’. In experiences this adoption through the Spirit by praying in Christ, one needs to have ‘true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving’, for all good gifts come from the Father. Indeed, one of the purposes of prayer is that ‘we embrace with greater delight those things which we acknowledge to have been obtained by prayers’.
— 110-1

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