Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Calvin and Justification

February 11

Calvin and Justification by Faith

“For it has by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8,9)
“He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5)

Calvin: I confess that we are made partakers of Jesus Christ, and of all his blessings, by the faith which we have in the gospel, that is, when we are truly and surely persuaded that the promises comprehended in it belong to us. But since this altogether surpasses’, our capacity, I acknowledge that faith is obtained by us, only through the Spirit of God, and so is a peculiar gift which is given to the elect alone, whom God, before the foundation of the world, without regard to any worthiness or virtue in them, freely predestinated to the inheritance of salvation. I confess that we are justified by faith, inasmuch as by it we apprehend Jesus Christ the Mediator given us by the Father, and lean on the promises of the gospel, by which God declares that we are regarded as righteous, and free from every stain, because our sins have been washed away by the blood of his Son. Wherefore I detest the ravings of those who endeavor to persuade us that the essential righteousness of God exists in
us, and are not satisfied with the free imputation in which alone Scripture orders us to acquiesce. (Calvin’s Brief Form of a Confession of Faith)

Justification by Faith is widely regarded as “the central doctrine of the Reformation” (McGrath “A Life of Calvin” 1990 p. 165). Everyone knows that justification by faith really was the key to Luther’s theology. Calvin regarded Luther as the apostle of the Reformation. Calvin said that justification by faith was “the principal article of the Christian religion” (III.9.1). Calvin placed his teaching on predestination in his Institutes (1559) after his teaching on justification- though in progress and order of time (the “ordo de saludis”) predestination came first. Why is justification so important?
If we know we are saved by God’s grace and not by our works (that is the practical definition of justification by faith), then we don’t have to live in fear of doing. Luther, before his awakening was always confessing his sins, and was aware that there were other sins he was leaving out. Calvin was deeply aware of the sinfulness of human beings that we sin in our best deeds as well as our worst, and that sin permeates everything, even our ability to see it in ourselves.
But Calvin gave another reason why it was so important, that we sometimes miss. Justification is the way we are awakened (regenerated) to God. We are dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1) with little hope of getting out of the state of being dead, blind, and deaf to God. When justification happens we are not only made aware of God (this knowledge of God that Calvin talks about as so important (I.1.1), but we also are united with Christ.
“Through faith, the believer is united with Jesus Christ in a spiritual union , in such a way that we are ‘not only partakers of his benefits, but also of himself” (McGrath ibid., III.2.24). The union with Christ is not by eating his body and blood in communion as by faith in his body and blood. The union with Christ is not by uniting with him in being good, but by uniting with him in belief and trust. The above quote from his brief confession affirms this: “we are made partakers of Jesus Christ, and of all his blessings, by the faith which we have in the gospel.” In some sense this is a recognition that justification, regeneration, and adoption all happen at once. By faith we are awakened to God and then included into the family with all the inheritance rights (blessings) of that family. Justification is how we are accepted into the family.
I have been impressed by how much the little overlooked phrase “in Christ” (eis Xpisto) is used in the New Testament. It is used hundreds of times. We have our blessings “in Christ.” We are saved, “in Christ.” We are part of the family “in Christ.” We are predestined "in Christ." We are united “in Christ.” We are included “in Christ.” William Barclay once pointed out that for those who believe (are justified) we are in Christ much like we are in the air. The air is inside us and we are inside the air. Every cell of our body is dependent on the air. McGrath says that Calvin submits justification and sanctification to the believer’s union in Christ. If this is so, then I have downplayed way too much my teaching about our union in Christ. Thank you God for your including those who believe- accepting us, welcoming us! Thank you too, that by your grace you give us our belief!

(Picture today is of International Memorial to the Reformation in Geneva made in 1916. L-r: Farel, Calvin, Beze, Knox)

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