John Calvin on Faith

1. We lay hold of Christ by Faith

The merciful Father offers us his Son through the Word of the gospel.  And it is by faith that we embrace him and acknowledge him as given to us.

It is true that the Word of the gospel calls all men to participate in Christ, but many, blinded to and hardened by unbelief, spurn such extraordinary grace.  Only believers, then, enjoy Christ; only they receive him as sent to them.  He is given to them, and they do not reject him.  They are called by him, and they follow him.

2. Election and Predestination

In looking at this difference between believers and unbelievers, we must necessarily consider the great secret of God’s counsel: for the seed of God’s Word takes root and bears fruit only in those whom the Lord, by his eternal election, has predestined to be his children and heirs of the heavenly kingdom.

To all the others who (by the same counsel of God, before the foundation of the world) are rejected, the clear and plain preaching of the truth can be nothing but an odour of death which leads to death.

Now the reason why the Lord treats some mercifully and exercises the rigour of his judgment towards others we must leave to be known by him alone, for he, with very good intentions, has wished that it should be hidden from us all.  The coarse insensitivity of our mind would not be able to bear such a great light; nor would our smallness be able to understand such great wisdom.

In fact, all those who will try to rise to such a height, being unwilling to hold in check the foolhardiness of their spirit, will experience the truth of what Solomon says: that he who desires to investigate the majesty of God will be crushed by his glory (Prov 25:2).

It is enough for us to have decided this in our hearts: that this dealing of the Lord, although hidden from us, is, nonetheless holy and just.  For if God wanted to ruin all humanity, he would have the right to do it.  And in those whom he rescues from perdition, one can contemplate nothing but his sovereign goodness.

Let us recognise, then, that the elect are the recipients of his mercy – and that is the right way to describe them! – and that the reprobate are the recipients of his anger, which, after all, is only just (Rom 9:22-23).  From our consideration of both, let us draw solid reasons for extolling his glory.

On the other hand, let us not seek (like so many) to penetrate as far as heaven and to enquire what God, from his eternity, has decided to do with us – and all this with a view to confirming the certainty of our salvation.  Such a quest can serve only to stir up miserable anguish and upset in us.  Rather, let us be content with the testimony by which he has sufficiently and amply assured us of this certainty.  It is in Christ that all those who have been preordained to life have been elected, and this took place even before the foundations of the world had been laid.  Similarly, it is in Christ that the pledge of our election is presented to us, if we receive and embrace him by faith.

For what is it that we are looking for in election, if it is not that we might be partakers of eternal life?  And we have this life in Christ, he who was Life from the beginning, and who is set before us as Life, so that all who believe in him should not perish but enjoy eternal life (John 3:16).

In possessing Christ by faith, we also possess eternal life in him.  This being so, we have no reason to enquire any further concerning the eternal counsel of God.  For Christ is not only a mirror by which the will of God is presented to us, but he is a pledge by which it is sealed to us and endorsed.

3. What true faith is

We must not think that Christian faith is a pure and simple knowledge of God, or an understanding of the Scripture, which flutters about in the brain without touching the heart.  That is the opinion we normally hold of things which are validated for us by some reason which sounds probable.

Christian faith is, rather, a firm and solid assurance of the heart, by which we cling securely to the mercy of God which is promised to us through the gospel.

Thus the definition of faith must be taken from what underlies the promise.  And faith is so very much built on this foundation that it would immediately collapse, or, rather, completely vanish, if this foundation were taken away.

Hence when the Lord presents to us his mercy through the promise of the gospel, if we entrust ourselves to him who made the promise, and if we do this with certainty and without any hesitation, it is then that we lay hold of his Word by faith.

And this definition is no different to the apostle, who teaches us that faith is the reality of the things we hope for, the expression of what we do not see (Heb 11:1).  By that, the apostle means a sure and certain possession of the things God promises, and a manifestation of things which are not physically visible – that is to say, the eternal life which we hope to have by reason of our trust in this divine generosity which is given to us through the gospel.

Now since all God’s promises are confirmed in Christ and, so to speak, kept and accomplished in him, it is clear that Christ is indisputably the perpetual object of faith.  And it is in that object that faith contemplates all the riches of divine mercy.

4. Faith is a gift of God

If we honestly consider within ourselves how very blind our thought is when faced with the heavenly secrets of God, and how very unfaithful our heart is in everything, we shall not doubt that faith is infinitely beyond all the power of our nature and that it is an extraordinary and precious gift of God.  For as St Paul says, ‘Nobody knows the things of man, except for the spirit of man which is in him; and nobody knows the things of God except the Spirit of God’ (1 Cor 2:11).  If the truth of God wavers in us, even in things that our eye sees, how could it be firm and stable in things which the Lord promises our eye cannot see nor our intelligence grasp?

It is clear, then, that faith is an illumination from the Holy Spirit which enlightens our minds and strengthens our hearts; it settles us in this assurance – that the truth of God is so certain that he will accomplish everything that his holy Word has promised he will do.

This is why the Holy Spirit is described as being a guarantee which confirms in our hearts the certainty of divine truth, and as a seal sealing our hearts while we look forward to the day of the Lord (2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13).  The Holy Spirit witnesses to our spirit that God is our Father and that we are his children (Rom 8:15-16).

5. We are justified in Christ by faith

As Christ is the permanent object of faith, we cannot know what we receive by faith except by looking to him.  Now he has been given to us by the Father in order that we may obtain in him eternal life.  Jesus said ‘Eternal life is that they might know you – you, the only true God, and he whom you have sent, Jesus Christ’ (John 17:3); and again, ‘He who believes in me will live, even if he should die’ (John 11:25).

However, for this to happen, we who are polluted by sin must be purified in him, because nothing impure will enter the kingdom of God.  This is why we have to participate in him, so that we, who are sinners in ourselves, may through his righteousness be considered just before God’s throne.  In this way, being stripped of our own righteousness, we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ; and being unjust by our deeds, we are justified by the faithfulness of Christ.

For we are said to be justified by faith, not because we receive within ourselves any righteousness whatever, but because the righteousness of Christ is credited to us, as if it were really ours; while our own wickedness is not imputed to us.  The outcome is that it is possible, in a word, to truly call this righteousness the remission of sins.  This is what the apostle so clearly declares in often comparing the righteousness of works to that of faith, and in declaring that the one is destroyed by the other (Rom 10:3-8; Phil 3:9).

In studying the Apostles’ Creed – which lays out in order all the realities on which our faith is based and on which it stands – we shall see how Christ has earned this righteousness for us, and what it consists of.

6. We are sanctified by faith so that we might obey the Law

Christ, by his righteousness, intercedes for us before the Father, so that we might be declared righteous, he being our advocate.  In just the same way, by making us participants in his Spirit, he sanctifies us, in order to make us pure and innocent.  For the Spirit of the Lord came upon him without measure – the Spirit of wisdom, of understanding, of counsel, of strength, of knowledge, and of the fear of the Lord – in order that we might all draw from his fulness and receive grace from the grace given to him (cf. John 1:16).

Those, then, who boast of their Christian faith while being at the same time entirely without the Spirit’s sanctification, deceive themselves.  For the Scripture teaches that Christ has not only been made righteousness for us, but also sanctification.  As a result, we cannot receive his righteousness by faith without embracing at the same time that sanctification.  The Lord, by that covenant which he made with us in Christ, promises that he will both take away our sins and write his Law in our hearts (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:6-12 and 10:11-18).

Obedience to the Law is not, then, a work within our power to accomplish.  The power to accomplish this work comes from the Spirit who cleanses our hearts from their corruption, and softens them to be obedient to righteousness.

Now the Law is of no use at all for Christians, outside of faith.  In former days the outward teaching of the Law did nothing but accuse us of weakness and transgression.   But since the Lord has engraved a love for his righteousness in our hearts, the Law is a guiding lamp to keep us from leaving the right road.  It is the wisdom which trains us, instructs us and encourages us to become upright.  It is our rule, and it will not tolerate being destroyed by wrongful liberty.

Repentance and the new birth

It is now easy for us to understand why repentance is always joined to Christian faith, and why the Lord asserts that no one can enter the kingdom of heaven without being born again. (John 3:3).

Repentance is that turning round by which, leaving behind the perversity of this world, we come back on to the Lord’s path.  And seeing that Christ is no minister of sin, if he cleanses us from the stains of sin, if he clothes us with participation in his righteousness, it is not so that we might then profane such great grace with new offences.  It is, rather, that we might dedicate the future course of our life to the glory of the Father who has adopted us as his children.

The coming about of this repentance depends on our new birth and comprises two aspects: the putting to death of our flesh (that is to say, of our inborn corruption) and the spiritual coming to life by which human nature is restored to uprightness.

Throughout our life, then, we are to reflect on the fact that we are dead to sin and to ourselves, in order to live for Christ and his righteousness.  And seeing that this process of rebirth is never completed as long as we are the prisoners of this mortal body, we should be careful to continue repenting until we die.

8. The connection between the righteousness of good works and that of faith

There is no doubt that good works which proceed from a purified conscience are pleasing to God.  Recognising in us his own righteousness, he can only approve and prize it.

We must however be very careful not to be carried away by a worthless trust in good works to the point of forgetting that we are justified only by faith in Christ.  For before God, there is no righteousness through works except that which corresponds to his own righteousness.  The person who wants to be justified by works, then, must do more than produce just a few good deeds.  He must bring with him perfect obedience to the Law.  And those who have outstripped all others and have progressed the most in the Law of the Lord are still very far from this perfect obedience.

Moreover, even supposing that the righteousness of God should content itself with a single good work, the Lord would not find in his saints this one good work done in such a way that he would praise it as righteous.  For, although this may seem astonishing, it is indisputably true that there is no single good work springing from us which is entirely perfect and not soiled by some stain or other.

This explains why we who are sinners and sullied by numerous stains of sin must be justified by something outside of ourselves.  We need Christ, then, all the time, so that his perfection may cover our imperfection, his purity may wash away our stains, his obedience may wipe out our disobedience, and, finally, that his righteousness might be freely put to our account – and all this without any consideration of our works, whose value cannot be sustained before the judgment of God.

But when our stains – which otherwise contaminate our deeds before God – are covered in this way, the Lord no longer sees anything in these acts except complete purity and holiness.  This is why he honours these acts with great titles and praises.  He calls them righteous and treats them as such.  He promises them an enormous reward.

In short, we must conclude that the great value of union with Christ is found not only in the fact that we are freely justified because of it, but also in the fact that our works are considered as righteous and are recompensed with an eternal reward.

Calvin, John, Truth for all Time, (chapter 3), 1998, 2000, 2008, Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, UK, Carlisle, PA, USA