However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean, that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.

—Belgic Confession, Article 22

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.

—Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 11.2


In the theology of salvation, the instrumental cause refers to the tool God uses to grant His elect and regenerated people their salvation. Faith alone is this instrumental cause.

To understand this further, we need to go back 300 years before Christ was born, when the ancient philosopher Aristotle attempted to describe how a change occurs in time. (I know I am losing some of us already, but hang on, it’s not too hard to grasp!). Aristotle said there are four types of causes to any event. He used the illustration of a sculptor making a sculpture to explain the notion. First, Aristotle said, there is the efficient cause of the sculpture. The efficient cause is the man who will carry out the project. Second, there is the formal cause. This is the idea for the sculpture that the person has in his head, the form that he intends the block of granite to take. Third, he said, there is the material cause. This is the block of granite, the actual material that will be the substance of the sculpture. Fourth, there is the final cause. This is the purpose for which the whole project was conceived: to adorn a landscape, to create something beautiful, to express the talent of the artist, etc. These are obviously not all causes in the same sense, but the word “cause” was applied to all four aspects because without any one of them the sculpture would not exist.

There was something missing in Aristotle’s explanation, however—the tool the sculptor used by which the granite was made into a sculpture. This later became known as the instrumental cause. That is, the instrument or tool that the efficient cause used to turn the material into the form he wanted for the final purpose he intended for it.1

The Reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries despised the stranglehold Aristotle and Greek philosophy in general had upon theology during the Medieval period. Luther in particular is famous for his invective against Aristotle. However, both Luther and Calvin made a modified use of these “causes” in their teaching concerning salvation. They did so because of God’s revelation, not Aristotle’s philosophy. But the language and concepts, with some adjustment, worked to explain clearly what Scripture revealed about our salvation.

But if we attend to the four kinds of causes which philosophers bring under our view in regard to effects…. The efficient cause of our eternal salvation the Scripture uniformly proclaims to be the mercy and free love of the heavenly Father towards us; the material cause to be Christ, with the obedience by which he purchased righteousness for us; and what can the…instrumental cause be but faith? …Faith is thus the instrumental cause by which righteousness is applied to us. He lastly subjoins the final cause when he says, ‘To declare at this time his righteousness; that he might be just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.’2

According to Calvin, the efficient cause of our salvation is the Triune God and His grace. He alone is the author and executor of our salvation. The material cause is Christ and His righteousness alone. His righteousness is the ‘material’ granted to us as the substance of our salvation. The sole instrumental cause of salvation for the regenerated, Calvin said, is faith. Faith alone is the tool by which God grants to us in our conscious life the salvation stored up in Christ. The final cause or purpose for granting us this salvation is that God might manifest His righteousness as the God who is just and justifies His people. That is, the final cause is the revelation of God’s glory.

One way to think of these causes is to view them as various layers of the answer to the question, “Why are we saved?” There are four answers to this one question.

  1. God determined to save us by His grace.
  2. Christ and His righteousness.
  3. Faith in Christ, not our own works.
  4. That God might be glorified.

Each has its own place if understood correctly. And each must stay in its own place to be understood correctly.

Calvin and the other Reformers believed that to speak of our salvation in terms of these causes was biblical. Calvin explains that all these “causes” of our salvation can be found in Romans 3:23-26. The verses read:

For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

Calvin lays it out this way:

“Being justified freely by his grace”—This is the efficient cause, God and His grace.

Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”— This is the material cause, the righteousness of Christ.

“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith”—This is the instrumental cause, faith.

“To declare at this time his righteousness, that he might be just and the justifier….”—This is the final cause, God’s own glory.3

Calvin and the Reformers found this way of speaking of our salvation also helpful to ward off any compromise with salvation by works. “But if we attend to the four kinds of causes which philosophers bring under our view in regard to effects, we shall find that not one of them is applicable to works as a cause of salvation.” 4 Scripturally, good works cannot be made to fit into any of these categories, the instrumental cause included. When the Scriptures speak of being justified by or through or out of faith and not works, the Reformers saw the Scriptures referring to faith as the sole instrumental cause of our salvation, the only pipeline through which every drop of our salvation comes to us from Christ. This is why the Reformed creeds use the term “instrument” to describe faith’s function of receiving salvation out of Christ. It is helpful and clarifying to have these four causes in mind when one reads that word “instrument” in the context of God’s work of saving us. Distinguishing these causes helps us to understand and maintain the unique role of faith.

Faith is the lone tool by which God works into us what Christ has done for us, so that we are conscious of salvation. Faith is the lone instrument by which God imputes and imparts Christ and all His benefits to us so that we know in ourselves and for ourselves the saving work of Christ. Active faith sees in Christ all hope for salvation’s blessings. It relies upon this Christ. As such, faith does not become part of the material cause of our salvation. It is not a part of the righteousness. Faith contributes nothing. Rather, it acts as a receiving pipeline through which all the rest of our salvation comes. Faith is itself part of the salvation Christ earned for us. When given to us, faith in us becomes a conscious receiver of the remainder of Christ’s benefits.

Sanctification too is received through this sole instrumental cause. It is not the case that, moving from justification to sanctification, now good works become part of the pipeline, the instrumental cause of our salvation. Article 24 of the Belgic Confession begins this way, “We believe that this true faith being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God, and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin.” The regeneration spoken of here is in the broad sense, referring to all the work of sanctification (that’s why the next phrase is “and make him a new man”). Notice, “this faith,” regenerates and makes the child of God a new man. This is a reference to the faith spoken of in the previous articles. In other words, the same faith that is the sole instrumental cause of justification according to Articles 22-23 is the sole instrumental cause of sanctification according to Article 24. Notice also the phrase, “causing him to live new life.” The effect of this regenerating faith is a new life of good works. The works are not the instrumental cause, they are the result of faith’s receiving sanctification out of Christ. The Westminster Confession of Faith is explicit. “But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.”5

alvin (and other Reformers) used the word “means” (among other terms) to describe God’s use of our good works (as I hope to explain in another article). But the Reformers were careful to say what they meant by good works as a means and what they did not mean by it. “Means” never meant “instrumental cause.” From one perspective, many things are means God uses in our salvation. The minister studying and preaching the Word faithfully; the hard pew that keeps me awake to listen. Oxygen is, in a sense, a means in our salvation. There must be oxygen for me to be alive to know God. From one perspective, all things can be called means God uses in my salvation.6 But only one thing is an instrumentalcause in my salvation, drawing out of Christ His benefits, including their experience: faith. And when faith is functioning this way, it is absent of any of its works. It is solely a believer, a truster, an embracer, a receiver of what is in Christ.

Next time I will explain why it is dangerous to be ambiguous about this in the context of Rome’s teaching and that of the Federal Vision. In articles following, I hope to explain how especially Calvin spoke of the necessity of good works in this context.


1 Technically, the instrumental cause became a sub-cause of the efficient cause.

2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.14.17. Emphasis added.

3 Institutes, 3.14.17.

4 Institutes, 3.14.17. He also wards off Osiander’s errant view of justification with this language in 3.11.7.

5 Chapter 14.2. Emphasis added. See in Scripture Acts 26:18; Acts 15:9.

6 Lord’s Day 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “…yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation.”