In 1864, the famous historian of the Reformation, J.H. Merle d’Aubigné, stood before a large assembly in Geneva that had come together to commemorate the three hundred year anniversary of the Genevan Reformer, John Calvin.
In an address entitled, “Calvin’s Teaching for the Present Day,” d’Aubigné remarks, “Christ’s Gospel is what Calvin, the doctor of ancient as well as of modern times, glorified foremost in his life.”
In the Institutes, Calvin writes, “…there is nothing more notable or glorious in the church than the ministry of the Gospel…” (4.3.3). John Calvin has been remembered for many things. But, undeniably, John Calvin was a man deeply gripped by the life-changing truth of the gospel.
In Book 3, chapter 11 of the Institutes, Calvin takes up the great doctrine of justification. He begins,
“…we must now discuss these matters thoroughly. And we must so discuss them as to bear in mind that this is the main hinge on which religion turns, so that we devote the greater attention and care to it. For 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,” (3.11.1).
“…this is the main hinge on which religion turns…”
After his introduction, Calvin defines justification as one “who is both reckoned righteous in God’s judgment and has been accepted on account of his righteousness,” (3.11.2). Justification, according to Calvin, consists in both the forgiveness of sins as well as the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (cf., 3.11.2, 21, 23).
“…there is nothing more notable or glorious in the church than the ministry of the Gospel…”
Having defined justification, he next devotes several sections to refuting Osiander’s view of justification (3.11.5-12; Andreas Osiander was a Lutheran theologian who taught that justification by faith is not by imputation but by an infusion of essential righteousness) and the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification (3.11.13-20).
And then in chapter 12, Calvin reminds his readers of the importance of justification and why one must be clear on this matter:
All men stand on trial before God’s righteous judgment seat (3.12.1).
First, therefore, this fact should occur to us: that our discourse is concerned with the justice not of a human court but of a heavenly tribunal, lest we measure by our own small measure the integrity of works needed to satisfy the divine judgment. Yet it is amazing with what great rashness and boldness this is commonly defined…Yet surely it is held of precious little value if it is not recognized as God’s justice and so perfect that nothing can be admitted except what is in every part whole and complete and undefiled by any corruption. Such was never found in man and never will be. In the shady cloisters of the schools anyone can easily and readily prattle about the value of works in justifying men. But when we come before the presence of God we must put away such amusements! For there we deal with a serious matter, and do not engage in frivolous word battles. To this question, I insist, we must apply our mind if we would profitably inquire concerning true righteousness: How shall we reply to the Heavenly Judge when he calls us to account?…Who will stand confident before his throne? (3.12.1)
Certainly, there are no more sobering or important questions a man could entertain or ill-afford to answer incorrectly.
Upon establishing the importance of justification, Calvin sets forth two points, which must always be kept in mind in relation to this central doctrine:
(1) Justification through faith alone exalts the glory of God;
(2) Justification through faith alone gives sinners peace of conscience in the presence of God’s judgment.
“Here, indeed, we are especially to note two things: namely, that the Lord’s glory should stand undiminished and, so to speak, in good repair, and that our consciences in the presence of his judgment should have peaceful rest and serene tranquility,” (3.13.1).
First, justification through faith alone exalts the glory of God.
For Calvin, the glory of God lay at the center of his focus in regards to the doctrine of justification. Calvin argues,
Thus the matter stands: we never truly glory in him unless we have utterly put off our own glory. On the other hand, we must hold this as a universal principle: whoever glories in himself, glories against God. Indeed, Paul considers that the world only becomes subject to God [cf., Rom. 3:19] when men are utterly deprived of any occasion for glorying…It is as if he were to say that the elect are justified by the Lord to the end that they may glory in him and in no other… (3.13.2).
“…man cannot without sacrilege claim for himself even a crumb of righteousness, for just so much is plucked and taken away from the glory of God’s righteousness…”
Therefore, let us remember in all discussion of righteousness to keep this end in view: that the praise of righteousness remain perfect and whole in the Lord’s possession, since it was to manifest his own righteousness that- as the apostle attests- he poured out his grace upon us “so that he himself may be righteous, and the justifier of him who has faith in Christ” [Rom. 3:26, Vg.]. Accordingly, in another passage, having stated that the Lord conferred salvation upon us in order to show forth the glory of his name [Eph. 1:6], so to speak, repeating the same thing, he afterwards adds: “By grace you have been saved…and…by the gift of God, not by works, lest any man should boast” [Eph. 2:8-9]. And Peter, when he points out that we have been called to the hope of salvation so “that we may declare the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” [1 Peter 2:9 p.], doubtless intends that the sole praises of God may so resound in the ears of believers as to overwhelm in deep silence all arrogance of the flesh. To sum up, man cannot without sacrilege claim for himself even a crumb of righteousness, for just so much is plucked and taken away from the glory of God’s righteousness, (3.13.2).
The glory of God is the great end of justification (and sanctification).
Thus, in the current debates over the doctrine of justification, it is imperative to remember what we are contending for. We are not fighting to win an academic debate. “For we…,” as Calvin reminds us, “…deal with a serious matter, and do not engage in frivolous word battles,” (3.12.1). In justification, we are contending for the heart of the gospel in view of the glory of God! The glory of God is what is ultimately at stake in the debate over justification.
Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone humbles man and exalts the free grace of God given to sinners in Jesus Christ alone.
True saving faith in justification is a self-emptying grace. In justification, sinners are taught to glorify God by recognizing their iniquity. “13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk. 18:13-14 ).
True saving faith in justification is a self-emptying grace.
Indeed, in justification the only people who are justified are sinners. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…,” (Rom. 4:5).
In justification, sinners are shown their utter inability to keep the law truly in any point (Gal. 3:11-14). In justification sinners are made aware of the powerlessness of their flesh (“the flesh profits nothing…,” John 6:63).
In justification, sinners come to see their righteousness as completely insufficient and so they look outside of themselves to trust in an alien righteousness found in Christ alone (Philip. 3:7-9). Justification by grace through faith alone leads sinners to find their righteousness in Christ alone who became to them wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30).
Walter Marshall writes,
When you are truly saved, you rely totally on the merits of Christ’s blood, and not upon any works of your own. Faith is not a work that procures the favor of God because it is an act that is so righteous in and of itself. Faith is simply a hand that receives a gift, it is the eating and drinking of Christ Himself. Faith is not a condition that entitles you to have Christ as your spiritual food! Faith receives Christ as your spiritual food, (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, p. 230).
In justification, a man comes to recognize that his nature is completely wicked, totally corrupt, beyond cure and destitute of any righteousness that is pleasing to God (Rom. 7:18). As the Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the law to prepare sinners for trust in Christ, sinners are graciously made aware of their inherent sinful nature. Such a dreadful apprehension causes them to flee to Christ for refuge (Ps. 31:1; 36:7).
The law, however, is powerless to deliver men from their dreadful, condemned state in sin. Whereas the law inflicts “horrors of conscience,” (see Clark, p. 195, Substance of the Covenant) the gospel brings peace. Only the gospel reveals the righteousness of God. Only the gospel freely offers Christ to sinners.
In the gospel, Christ is offered to sinners and a great exchange takes place:
Christ (i.e., the innocent) takes the sinner’s debt and the sinner (i.e., the guilty) receives Christ’s righteousness.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Cor. 5:21). Such a truth humbles man and exalts the free grace of God in Christ.
In justification all of the glory belongs to Christ. The proud Pharisee gave all the glory to himself for his righteousness. “…God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” (Luke 18:11-12). Unlike the tax collector who cried out for mercy, the proud Pharisee commends his righteousness to God and thus casts a shadow upon God’s glory.
By default, anyone who fails to embrace sola fide, sola gratia in justification keeps all the glory for himself rather than giving all the glory to God the Father through Christ.
God has designed salvation in such a way that from the beginning, middle and end He retains all the glory. Not even in the slightest respect may works serve as the efficient (Sola Gratia), material (Solus Christus), instrumental (Sola Fide) or final (Soli Deo Gloria) cause of salvation.
For Scripture everywhere proclaims that the efficient cause of our obtaining eternal life is the mercy of the Heavenly Father and his freely given love toward us. Surely the material cause is Christ, with his obedience, through which he acquired righteousness for us. What shall we say is the formal or instrumental cause but faith?…As for the final cause, the apostle testifies that it consists both in the proof of divine justice and in the praise of God’s goodness…Thus…in the first chapter of Ephesians he teaches that we are received into grace by God out of sheer mercy, that this comes about by Christ’s intercession and is apprehended by faith, and that all things exist to the end that the glory of divine goodness may fully shine forth [Eph. 1:3-14]. Since we see that every particle of our salvation stands thus outside of us, why is that we still trust or glory in works? (3.14.17).
Since we see that every particle of our salvation stands thus outside of us, why is that we still trust or glory in works?
Salvation from the beginning, middle and end belongs to the Lord (Jonah 2:9). Hence, the Lord through the prophet Isaiah declared:
“I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols,” (Isa. 42:8).
Again, “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another,” (Isa. 48:11).
Yet again, Isaiah proclaims, “In the Lord all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory,” (Isa. 45:25).
Commenting on Isaiah 45:25 Calvin writes,
“It is as if he were to say that the elect are justified by the Lord to the end that they may glory in him and in no other…To sum up, man cannot without sacrilege claim for himself even a crumb of righteousness, for just so much is plucked and taken away from the glory of God’s righteousness,” (3.13.2).
“…no other ministry exalts the glory of God like the gospel…”
John Calvin was a man intoxicated with God because he was saturated in the gospel. There is nothing more notable or glorious in the church than the ministry of the gospel because no other ministry exalts the glory of God like the gospel (cf., Rom. 16:27; Eph. 1:3-14).
In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul sets forth the dignity and incomparable glory of the gospel. The honor God conferred upon the law pales in comparison to the immeasurable glory of the gospel. Paul writes,
7 Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory…17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
The glory of God shines forth with far greater brilliance in the ministry of gospel than it did in the ministry of Moses. Indeed the ministry of the gospel eclipses the ministry of Moses just as the faint stars of a night sky give way to the radiance and splendor of the morning sun.
“…for he means that the glory of the law is extinguished when the gospel comes forth. As the moon and stars, though in themselves they are not merely luminous, but diffuse their light over the whole earth, do, nevertheless, disappear before the brightness of the sun; so, however glorious the law was in itself, it has, nevertheless, no glory in comparison with the excellence of the gospel,” (Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XX, p. 179).
Whereas the law was engraven on stones in the ministry of Moses, the Spirit in the ministry of the gospel writes the law on the hearts of men. “The whole excellence of the gospel,” Calvin reminds us, “depends on this, that it is made life-giving to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit,” (Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XX, p. 187).
For without the power and majesty of the Spirit, the glory of Christ in the gospel will not come into view so as to draw men’s minds and hearts toward God.
Whereas the law was temporary in the ministry of Moses, the gospel is an eternal, unbreakable covenant. Whereas the law was a ministry of condemnation and death in Moses, the gospel is a ministration of justification and life.
Distinguishing the differing ministries of the law and gospel, Calvin writes,
“The office of the law is to show us the disease, in such a way as to show us, at the same time, no hope of cure: the office of the gospel is, to bring a remedy to those that were past hope. For as the law leaves a man to himself, it condemns him, of necessity, to death; while the gospel, bringing him to Christ, opens the gate of life,” (Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XX, p. 178).
Whereas in the ministry of Moses, the Jews could not fix their eyes on the glory of the unveiled face of Moses, now in the ministry of the gospel, Christians have the staggering, empowered privilege to look, as in a mirror, upon the unveiled face of Christ and behold the glory of God!
“Observe, that the design of the gospel is this- that the image of God, which had been effaced by sin, may be stamped anew upon us, and that the advancement of this restoration may be continually going forward in us during our whole life, because God makes his glory shine forth in us by little and little,” (Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XX, p. 187).
In the gospel, Christ is offered and His glory is displayed. “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” (2 Cor. 4:6).
Paul’s goal in his life and ministry was not his comfort, health, reputation, life or even the salvation of sinners (cf., 2 Cor. 4:8-12). The ultimate goal for Paul in the ministry of the gospel was the glory of God. “For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God,” (2 Cor. 4:15).
“The ultimate goal for Paul in the ministry of the gospel was the glory of God.”
Calvin, like Paul, saturated his mind, heart and life in the gospel because in the gospel the light of God’s glory is manifested in the face of Christ. And, like Paul, Calvin then sought to selflessly reflect God’s glory to others that they might not only be saved but also glorify God.
God in His infinite wisdom and marvelous grace has chosen to use ordinary clay pots (2 Cor. 4:7) to guard (2 Tim. 1:14) and proclaim (2 Cor. 4:5) His gospel to lost sinners for His glory. If the glory of the law pales in comparison to the glory of the gospel, how much more does the glory of the gospel shine forth in comparison to the ignominious commonality of a clay pot!
First and foremost then we must always remember that justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone exalts the glory of God alone!
“To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen,” (Eph. 3:21).