There is a sense in which it could be rightly argued that the whole of the Reformation came down to one word: “alone.” The Roman Catholic Church taught justification by faith and works. In opposition to that false teaching, the Reformers insisted upon the biblical truth of justification by faith alone (sola fide), which is to say, by faith alone entirely apart from good works.
In this article, for the sake of space, we are going to focus on what John Calvin taught on the subject. However, it should be noted that, while the focus here will be on Calvin, the other Reformers taught virtually the same thing as he did.
Justification by faith…
Calvin defines justification in terms of the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness: “…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” (3.11.2).1
Calvin taught that the means or instrument of our justification is faith. He speaks of faith as “only the instrument for receiving righteousness” (3.11.7).
The unique nature of faith as it relates to justification is that it rests in and receives Jesus Christ and His righteousness. Calvin does not speak of faith in relation to justification in terms of faith being a bond or an unconscious power or disposition. Rather, he speaks of faith in terms of its conscious activity. When he defines faith, he speaks of it in terms of embracing God’s promises: “…we make them [God’s promises] ours by inwardly embracing them” (3.2.16). Elsewhere he speaks of faith in terms of grasping Christ’s righteousness: “…justified by faith is he who… grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith…” (3.11.2). A little later he speaks of it in terms of receiving Christ: “… before his [Christ’s] righteousness is received Christ is received in faith…” (3.11.7). The unique nature of faith as the means of justification is that it trusts in and rests upon Jesus Christ and His righteousness and receives the gracious declaration of God that we are righteous before him.2
This understanding of faith indicates that, for Calvin, the primary reference to justification is to God’s declaration in the life and experience of the believer.
While Calvin did not hesitate to speak of faith in terms of its activity as the means of justification, at the same time he was concerned to guard against a wrong emphasis on faith. He wanted to guard God’s people from having their focus on faith rather than on God’s promises and Christ’s righteousness.
Calvin guarded against this wrong emphasis on faith, in part, by teaching that faith itself is a gift of God. “But faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit” (3.1.4). Not only is justification a gift of grace, but faith as the means of justification is a gift as well.
Calvin also guarded against a wrong emphasis on faith by denying that faith possesses any inherent power to justify in itself. He writes, “…faith of itself does not possess the power of justifying…. For if faith justified of itself or through some intrinsic power, so to speak, as it is always weak and imperfect it would effect this only in part; thus the righteousness that conferred a fragment of salvation upon us would be defective.” The all-important thing for Calvin is not really faith, but faith’s object. Faith by its very nature looks away from self and rests in Christ and His righteousness. He writes that faith is the means of justification “only in so far as it receives Christ.” He goes on: “We compare faith to a kind of vessel; for unless we come empty and with the mouth of our soul open to seek Christ’s grace, we are not capable of receiving Christ” (3.11.7). For Calvin, justification was always by faith, never because of faith. To teach the latter would be to make of faith a new work performed for justification.
On this point, François Wendel’s analysis of Calvin’s thought is spot on: “In [Calvin’s] view…faith is nothing in itself. It acquires its value only by its content; that is, by Jesus Christ.” Calvin is concerned about “a real danger in overemphasizing the function of faith.” Wendel says, “We must, no doubt, attribute all these precautions to Calvin’s constant preoccupation not to grant too much to man” because “by too much insistence upon the part [faith] is called upon to play in justification, we might presume upon it and to that extent diminish the work of the Christ and the glory of God.”3
Calvin taught that we are justified by faith alone. Faith is the sole means or alone instrument of justification.
This truth meant for Calvin that we are not justified by means of faith and by means of repentance. He acknowledged that the believer looking to Christ in faith for justification does so knowing and grieving over his sins. In his commentary on Psalm 32, he writes, “This voluntary confession is always conjoined with faith; for otherwise the sinner will continually seek lurking-places where he may hide himself from God.” But this does not mean that faith and repentance together are the means of justification. Repentance does not rest in and receive Christ and His benefits. That function belongs alone to faith. Calvin continues in his commentary on Psalm 32:
Should any one infer from this, that repentance and confession are the cause of obtaining grace, the answer is easy; namely, that David is not speaking here of the cause but of the manner in which the sinner becomes reconciled to God. Confession, no doubt, intervenes, but we must go beyond this, and consider that it is faith which, by opening our hearts and tongues, really obtains our pardon. It is not admitted that every thing which is necessarily connected with pardon is to be reckoned amongst its causes. Or, to speak more simply, David obtained pardon by his confession, not because he merited it by the mere act of confessing, but because, under the guidance of faith, he humbly implored it from his judge.4
Especially for Calvin did the truth of justification by faith alone mean that the child of God is not justified in any way by his good works. Obedience to the law has absolutely no part in justification. For example, he wrote, “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” (3.11.11). In the matter of justification, faith is diametrically opposed to works. Faith is not just distinct from works, but faith is the renouncing of works for justification. The fact that we are justified by faith repudiates all working for justification. Our good works do not enter into our justification at all. To bring works into the discussion is a denial of the truth of justification. We are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, and not by works.5 Justification cannot be by works, because all our works are tainted with sin and we cannot keep the law perfectly: “I say that the best work that can be brought forward from [believers] is still spotted and corrupted with some impurity of the flesh, and has, so to speak, some dregs mixed with it” (3.14.9).
Justification cannot be by works, because the works we perform are not our own but God’s gift to us: “We now see that the saints have not a confidence in works that either attributes anything to their merit, since they regard them solely as gifts of God from which they may recognize his goodness…” (3.14.20). Justification cannot be by works, because even if somehow we could obey God perfectly we still cannot merit with God and do beyond what He requires of us: “For to the Lord we have given nothing unrequired but have only carried out services owed, for which no thanks are due” (3.15.3).
In his rejection of justification by works, Calvin denies a place to all works. There were some in his day (as there are some still today) who said that the Scriptures’ rejection of works for justification is only a denial of works done in obedience to the ceremonial law, and not all works. Calvin says, “They prate that the ceremonial works of the law are excluded, not the moral works.” After proving that this cannot possibly be, he concludes, “Let them now babble, if they dare, that these statements apply to ceremonies, not to morals. Even schoolboys would hoot at such impudence. Therefore, let us hold as certain that when the ability to justify is denied to the law, these words refer to the whole law” (3.11.19).
In his rejection of justification by works, Calvin contends with those who appeal to Galatians 5:6 (“faith which worketh by love”) and claim that we are justified by faith’s acts of love. Calvin calls this a “foolish subtlety” and responds, “But it [faith] does not take its power to justify from that working of love. Indeed, it justifies in no other way but in that it leads us into fellowship with the righteousness of Christ” (3.11.20). Faith will certainly show itself in love, but it is faith alone apart from love that is the instrument of justification.
It is in this light that Calvin’s reference to “passive faith” must be understood: “For, as regards justification, faith is something merely passive, bringing nothing of ours to the recovering of God’s favor but receiving from Christ that which we lack” (3.13.5). Calvin’s point is not that justifying faith is inactive or unconscious, but that its unique character is that of resting in and receiving from Christ. Faith brings nothing to God for righteousness— not the works that flow from faith or even faith itself— but rests in and receives Christ and His righteousness.
Although Calvin denied to good works a place in justification, he did not stifle the zeal to live a life of good works. The charge was laid against him that he taught a dangerous doctrine that promoted careless living among Christians, as if justified believers would abuse that confidence by purposely living wicked lives. Calvin rejects this false charge. He teaches, “Therefore Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify” (3.16.1). He adds, “Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness” (3.16.2). Justification and sanctification must be kept clearly distinct, yet they are also inseparably connected to one another. We are justified by faith alone, but that faith will then show itself in the fruits of good works.
Calvin’s concern in denying to works a place in justification was chiefly doxological, that is, he was concerned for the glory and praise of God in salvation. To rest in one’s works for righteousness is to rob God of the honor that is due to Him alone. The teaching of justification by faith alone insures that “the Lord’s glory should stand undiminished and, so to speak, in good repair” (3.13.1).
His concern in denying to works a place in justification was also pastoral. Calvin understood that, when one tries to ground his standing before God on his works, he will forever doubt and tremble under the fear that he has not done enough. Only the truth of justification by faith alone insures that “our consciences in the presence of his judgment should have peaceful rest and serene tranquility” (3.13.1).
Calvin’s doctrine of justification sola fide (which is the teaching of Scripture and the Reformed confessions) serves as a necessary safeguard against errors of the present day. One of those errors is the false teaching of Norman Shepherd and his adherents in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Shepherd denied the Reformed teaching of justification by faith alone by redefining the faith that justifies. For Shepherd, the controlling question was not, “What is the instrument of justification?” but, “What is the nature of faith as the instrument of justification?” And the answer that he gave to that question was that justifying faith is “a living and active faith,” by which he means “a living, active, and obedient faith,” and “a living, active, penitent, and obedient faith.”6 Justifying faith is not defined as resting and receiving, but is defined in terms of repentance and obedience to the law. By this teaching, Shepherd undermined the gospel of justification by faith alone and taught a new, subtle form of justification by works.
This ought to serve as a warning and corrective to Reformed believers today, including Protestant Reformed believers. We must understand rightly the unique nature of faith as it relates to justification and allow no room for works to intrude.
This is important not only from the viewpoint of having our theology correct, but also from the viewpoint of the comfort of our own souls. Our right standing before God and peace in our consciences is not to be sought in our obedience, not in our repenting, not even in whether we believe enough. Faith does not rest for justification in whether we have obeyed enough, whether we have sorrowed over sin deeply enough, or whether we have trusted enough, but faith simply rests in Christ. Even the smallest faith rests in a great Savior. And there alone is rest for the weary, burdened soul!
This understanding of faith’s function as the alone instrument of justification represents sound Reformed orthodoxy. It glorifies God. It exalts Christ and His cross. And it humbles and comforts the believer.
1 Rather than footnote every reference to Calvin’s Institutes, I will include the reference in parentheses after the quotations. All quotations are from volume 1 of Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).
2 Luther taught essentially the same thing about faith in relation to justification: “For faith is the firm and sure thought or trust that through Christ God is propitious and that through Christ His thoughts concerning us are thoughts of peace, not of affliction or wrath. God’s thought or promise, and faith, by which I take hold of God’s promise—these belong together…. The confident laying hold of the promise is called faith; and it justifies, not as our own work but as the work of God…. Faith alone lays hold of the promise, believes God when He gives the promise, stretches out its hand when God offers something, and accepts what He offers…” (Luther, Lectures on Genesis, as quoted in Joel Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999], 21).
3 François Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, trans. Philip Mairet (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 262-263. Jaroslav Pelikan makes a similar point about Luther in his analysis of Luther’s view of faith in relation to justification: “At the same time it became necessary to protect these encomia of faith from the impression that they referred to faith as ‘believing in believing’ or that the imputation of faith as righteousness took place apart from Christ as its object and content” (cf. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984], 4:154).
4 John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 1:530, 531-532.
5 Luther similarly denied to good works a place in justification, but in his own inimitable way: “Trying to be justified through the Law, therefore, is as though someone who is already weak and sick were to ask for some even greater trouble that would kill him completely but meanwhile were to say that he intends to cure his disease by this very means; or as though someone suffering from epilepsy were to catch the plague in addition; or as though a leper were to come to another leper, or a beggar to another beggar, with the aim of giving him assistance and making him rich. As the proverb says, one of these is milking a billy goat and the other is holding the sieve!” (quoted in Ronald Hanko, “Luther on Justification,” in David J. Engelsma, ed., The Sixteenth-Century Reformation of the Church [Jenison, MI: RFPA, 2007], 113-4).
6 Norman Shepherd, The Way of Righteousness: Justification Beginning with James (La Grange, CA: Kerygma Press, 2009), xiv, 27, 30, 40. Emphasis added.