Rev. Stewart is pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland.
In our day of widespread spiritual blindness and theological deceit, it bears repeating that John Calvin’s teaching on justification is radically opposed to that of Romanism, false ecumenism, the New Perspective on Paul, and the Federal Vision. The Genevan Reformer would shake his head in utter bewilderment at the claim of some that his doctrine of justification is not that of Martin Luther. Let it be clearly affirmed and understood that Calvin taught the orthodox, biblical truth of justification by faith alone in Christ alone through grace alone, as proclaimed in all the Reformed confessions.
However, this article, largely because of space constraints and partly because of embarrassment at proving something patently obvious to all but the most deluded, will not take time to establish that this particular circle is round.¹ Instead, we shall build upon the truth of justification by faith alone by setting forth five aspects of Calvin’s teaching on this doctrine that are perhaps less well known and understood, but which are, nevertheless, important for a full confession of, and greater comfort in, this glorious gospel jewel.
For this purpose, we shall consider Calvin’s Catechism of the Church of Geneva (1560), which he wrote for children as a form of instruction in the doctrine of Christ.² What does Calvin’s Genevan catechism say about justification? What did Calvin want the children of the church to know about it? What great truths of the gospel of justification did he reckon Christ’s lambs (and not only His sheep) should and must grasp to be prospering and profitable members of the congregation?
First, justification and sanctification are distinct but inseparably joined.
Master. But can this [justifying] righteousness be separated from good works, so that he who has it may be void of them?
Scholar.That cannot be. For when by faith we receive Christ as he is offered to us, he not only promises us deliverance from death and reconciliation with God [i.e., justification], but also the gift of the Holy Spirit, by which we are regenerated to newness of life [i.e., sanctification]; these things must necessarily be conjoined so as not to divide Christ from himself (p. 55).
Justification and sanctification are in Christ—both of them, together, inseparably—just as justification and sanctification are the two distinct, cardinal blessings of the new covenant in Christ, as Calvin teaches repeatedly in his various writings, especially by appealing to Jeremiah 31:31-34. This being the case, there is no room for loose living or antinomianism in Calvin’s teaching on justification. Those who are truly justified by faith alone will, and must, live new and godly lives and so do good works. Covenant children—and adults—need to know and practice this.
Second, justification includes assurance of salvation. Calvin wanted the Genevan catechumens to know this, as this dialogue between the Master (M) and the Scholar (S) shows:
M. What advantage accrues to us from this forgiveness [which is, of course, included in justification]?
S. We are accepted, just as if we were righteous and innocent, and at the same time our consciences are confirmed in a full reliance on his paternal favour, assuring us of salvation (p. 79).
This is necessarily the case because justification is itself a declaration of God to us in our consciousness that we are righteous and, hence, recipients of Jehovah’s fatherly care and salvation. Thus justification itself carries with it the truth of assurance. This is a point Calvin makes repeatedly in his various works. For instance, in The Necessity of Reforming the Church, immediately after speaking of justification, Calvin castigates Rome for its grievous heresy in this regard:
Lastly, there was another most pestilential error, which not only occupied the minds of men, but was regarded as one of the principal articles of faith, of which it was impious to doubt: that is, that believers ought to be perpetually in suspense and uncertainty as to their interest in the divine favor. By this suggestion of the devil, the power of faith was completely extinguished, the benefits of Christ’s purchase destroyed, and the salvation of men overthrown. For, as Paul declares, that faith only is Christian faith which inspires our hearts with confidence, and emboldens us to appear in the presence of God,
On no other view could his doctrine in another place be maintained: that is, that “we have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father,”³
Thus the Genevan Reformer not only sees justification and sanctification as inseparably joined; Pastor Calvin also rightly teaches that justification includes assurance of salvation. The youngest catechumens in Calvin’s Geneva were left in no doubt concerning this. Yet many Reformed theologians even in our day have not got this straight.
Third, justification includes the continual forgiveness of sins. It is not something that we receive once and for all at the very start of our Christian life, as many in evangelical circles believe and teach. Calvin explains that in the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”), we who are already believers continually ask God to remit our sins:
M. What does the fifth petition contain?
S. That the Lord would pardon our sins…. When Christ gave this form of prayer, he designed it for the whole Church (p. 79).
In his Institutes, the Genevan Reformer affirms,
…we must have this blessedness [of justification] not just once but must hold to it throughout life…the embassy of free reconciliation is published [i.e., preached] not just for one day or another but is attested as perpetual in the church (3.14.11).
Justification is not increased, for it is 100% complete, based on the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to us. But we who are just are also sinners (to borrow Luther’s phraseology), and so we continually need to hear the assuring declaration of pardon in our consciousness. This is Reformed and biblical Christianity for young and old.
Fourth, Calvin teaches that the gift of justification, which is inseparably joined to sanctification and includes both assurance and continual forgiveness of sins, is received and enjoyed only in a true church. This is how the Catechism of the Church of Geneva relates two articles of the Apostles Creed: “I believe an holy, catholic church” and “the forgiveness of sins”:
M. Why do you subjoin forgiveness of sins to the Church?
S. Because no man obtains it without being previously united to the people of God, maintaining unity with the body of Christ perseveringly to the end, and thereby attesting that he is a true member of the Church (p. 52).
M. In this way you conclude that out of the Church is naught but ruin and damnation?
S. Certainly. Those who make a departure from the body of Christ, and rend its unity by faction, are cut off from all hope of salvation during the time they remain in schism, be it however short (p. 52).
This fits perfectly with Calvin’s teaching throughout his writings on the necessity of joining, or laboring to establish, a true church,4 as well as with articles 28 and 29 of our Belgic Confession, written chiefly by Guido De BrÃ¨s, who was influenced by Calvin.
This is not justification by faith and works! Calvin is teaching that the church is the only sphere in which the blessing of justification by faith alone is enjoyed.
Fifth, justification for John Calvin brings “singular delight” in considering the judgment day.
M. Does it give any delight to our conscience that Christ one day will be judge of the world?
S. Indeed, singular delight. For we know assuredly that he will come only for our salvation.
M. We should not then tremble at this judgment, so as to let it fill us with dismay?
S. No, indeed; since we shall only stand at the tribunal of a judge who is also our advocate, and who has taken us under his faith and protection (pp. 49-50).
What insightful questions and perceptive answers the Genevan catechism contains! Only the true gospel can enable us to contemplate the coming judgment day without our running away in dread or trembling in terror or being filled with dismay. Only justification by faith alone—the assurance that the righteousness of Christ is reckoned to our account by God’s grace without works—can give us confidence, nay “singular delight,” both now and at the last day, with regard to God’s judgment.
Any doctrine of justification that cannot do this is, therefore, a false doctrine of justification, and not the doctrine of justification taught in the Bible, nor at the Reformation, nor by Calvin. This is the condemnation of Romanism, false ecumenism, the New Perspective on Paul, and the Federal Vision (amongst others).
John Calvin—good pastor and theologian that he was—preached the good news of justification to the catechumens in Geneva, and we and our children need to hear and believe it continually too: “Little children, do not be distraught as you contemplate the great judgment day. Do not think of it in abject terror. Consider it with singular delight because you are justified, you are righteous with the righteousness of God Himself wrought in our Lord Jesus Christ, who faced the judgment for you two thousand years ago on the cross.”
1 Cf. David Engelsma, “The Doctrine of Justification in the Theology of John Calvin,” Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, vol. 41, no. 2 (April, 2008), pp. 26-58.
2 Amongst other places, Calvin’s Catechism of the Church of Geneva is found in John Calvin, Treatises on the Sacraments: Catechism of the Church of Geneva, Forms of Prayer, and Confessions of Faith, trans. Henry Beveridge (Scotland: Christian Heritage, 2002), pp. 34-94. Page numbers in the body of this article refer to this book.
3 John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, trans. Henry Beveridge (Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage Press, 1995), p. 27.
4 Cf., esp., John Calvin, Come Out From Among Them: ‘Anti-Nicodemite’ Writings of John Calvin, trans. Seth Skolnitsky (Dallas, TX: Protestant Heritage Press, 2001).