Reformation Day 2019: Calvin on Justification by Faith Alone in Christ Alone: The Hinge and the Pernicious Hypocrisy


Back in 2006 Presbyterian pastor/theologian Robert Reymond penned a powerful piece for The Trinity Review in which he defended the great Reformation gospel truth of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, especially in the face of the then fresh errors of what became known as Federal Vision teaching.

As we mark the 502nd anniversary of the great Protestant Reformation today, it is good to contemplate and embrace anew the glorious gospel that Luther, Calvin. and the other magisterial Reformers restored to the church over against the errors of the Roman Catholic Church.

Below is a portion of Reymond’s article, which is worth reading in its entirety, since the errors of Rome have infiltrated modern Evangelicalism, including many Reformed and Presbyterian churches. May we take heed and take heart in this ongoing battle for the “hinge” of gospel truth over against its “pernicious hypocrisy.”

In the sixteenth century John Calvin termed the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ the main hinge on which religion turns (Institutes, 3.11.1), the sum of all piety (Institutes, 3.15.7), and the first and keenest subject of controversy between Rome and the Reformation (Reply to Sadoleto). He treats justification by faith in his Institutes, Book 3, Chapters 11-19. Here Calvin first defines what he means by justification:

…he is justified who is reckoned in the condition not of a sinner, but of a righteous man; and for that reason, he stands firm before God’s judgment seat while all sinners fall. If an innocent accused person be summoned before the judgment seat of a fair judge, where he will be judged according to his innocence, he is said to be justified before the judge. Thus, justified before God is the man who, freed from the company of sinners, has God to witness and affirm his righteousness [Institutes, 3.11.2];

…justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man [Institutes, 3.11.2].

He then declares that the ground of our justification is Christ’s righteousness alone:

Therefore, 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 [Institutes, 3.11.2];

…since God justifies us by the intercession of Christ, he absolves us not by the confirmation of our own innocence but by the imputation of righteousness, so that we who are not righteous in ourselves may be reckoned as such in Christ [Institutes, 3.11.3].

…the best passage of all on this matter [2 Corinthians 5:18-21] is the one in which [Paul] teaches that the sum of the Gospel embassy is to reconcile us to God, since God is willing to receive us into grace through Christ, not counting our sins against us. Let my readers carefully ponder the whole passage. For a little later Paul adds by way of explanation: Christ, who was without sin, was made sin for us,î to designate the means of reconciliation. Doubtless he means by the word reconciled nothing but justified. And surely, what he teaches elsewhere – that we are made righteous by Christ’s obedience – could not stand unless we are reckoned righteous before God in Christ and apart from ourselves [Institutes, 3.11.4, emphasis supplied].

Calvin then addresses the error of virtually all of professing Christendom, namely, the pernicious hypocrisy that we obtain righteousness before God by faith in Christ plus our own works of righteousness:

…a great part of mankind imagine that righteousness is composed of faith and works [but according to Philippians 3:8-9] a man who wishes to obtain Christ’s righteousness must abandon his own righteousness…. From this it follows that so long as any particle of works-righteousness remains some occasion for boasting remains with us [Institutes, 3.11.13].

…according to [the Sophists, that is, the medieval Schoolmen of the Sorbonne, the theological faculty of the University of Paris], man is justified by both faith and works provided they are not his own works but the gifts of Christ and the fruit of regeneration. [But] all works are excluded, whatever title may grace them… [Institutes, 3.11.14].

…Scripture, when it speaks of faith-righteousness, leads us…to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection [Institutes, 3.11.16].

[The Sophists] cavil against our doctrine when we say that man is justified by faith alone. They dare not deny that man is justified by faith because it recurs so often in Scripture. But since the word alone is nowhere expressed, they do not allow this addition to be made. Is it so? But what will they reply to these words of Paul where he contends that righteousness cannot be of faith unless it be free? How will a free gift agree with works? With what chicaneries will they elude what he says in another passage, that God’s righteousness is revealed in the Gospel? If righteousness is revealed in the Gospel, surely no mutilated or half-righteousness but a full and perfect righteousness is contained there. The law therefore has no place in it. Not only by a false but an obviously ridiculous shift they insist upon excluding this adjective. Does not he who takes everything from works firmly enough ascribe everything to faith alone? What, I pray, do these expressions mean: His righteousness has been manifested apart from the law; and, Man is freely justified; and, Apart from the works of the law?î [Institutes, 3.11.19]

As we were made sinners by one man’s disobedience, so we have been justified by one man’s obedience. To declare that by him alone we are accounted righteous, what else is this but to lodge our righteousness in Christ’s obedience, because the obedience of Christ is reckoned to us as if it were our own [Institutes, 3.11.23].