Justification and Assurance According to John Calvin
Justification by Faith Alone
Calvin, like Luther, stresses that justification is by faith alone. A right relationship to God can’t be gained by works since all people sin, thus the only pathway to salvation is faith. Calvin is careful to say, however, that faith shouldn’t be construed as a work, as if faith itself justifies us, for if such were the case, then faith would be a good work that makes us right with God. Instead, faith is the instrument or vessel that joins us to Christ, and ultimately believers are justified by Christ as the crucified and risen one. Faith itself, strictly speaking, doesn’t justify. Rather, faith justifies as an instrument, receiving Christ for righteousness and life. Indeed, faith is not something that originates with human beings. Yes, human beings believe the gospel and are saved, and so in that sense faith is exercised by human beings. At the same time, however, faith ultimately comes from the Holy Spirit and is a gift of God. Faith alone accords with the God-centered character of the gospel, for faith gives all glory to God for our salvation.
Faith, according to Calvin is living, active, and vital; merely agreeing that certain things happened in gospel history should not be confused with genuine faith. True faith sees “Christ’s splendor . . . beamed upon us.” Those who put their trust in God see God and Jesus Christ for who they truly are; their eyes are opened to the beauty and loveliness of Jesus Christ. Those who think that Calvin was cold and devoid of emotions should think again, for his description of genuine faith almost certainly reflects his own experience. “But how can the mind be aroused to taste the divine goodness without at the same time being wholly kindled to love God in return? For truly, that abundant sweetness which God has stored up for those who fear him cannot be known without at the same time powerfully moving us. And once anyone has been moved by it, it utterly ravishes him and draws him to itself.” True faith for Calvin has a powerful affect upon our lives. We sense the sweetness of God’s love and are overwhelmed with it. Indeed, we are so ravished by his love that our hearts are drawn to put our trust in God.
We have already seen that faith is a gift of God, but we can also say that faith derives from the word of God, the gospel. As Paul says, “faith comes from hearing” (Rom. 10:17). Faith, then, puts its trust in God’s Word and his promises. Faith doesn’t come, says Calvin, from just any source. It must be derived from God’s word and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Calvin’s definition of faith is famous and rightly so. “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Those who believe are convinced that God loves them, and this love, which is revealed in the promises of the Word, is authenticated by the Holy Spirit. Calvin puts it this way in another place, “he alone is truly a believer who, convinced by a firm conviction that God is a kindly and well-disposed Father toward him, promises himself all things on the basis of his generosity; who, relying upon the promises of divine benevolence toward him, lays hold on an undoubted expectation of salvation.” Faith knows the love of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit and trusts God’s promise to save.
Justification and Assurance
Calvin taught that believers can have a sure and certain knowledge, an assurance that they are justified by faith in Christ. Calvin’s emphasis on assurance in faith raises questions about the role of doubt, for on first glance his definition seems to say that believers never suffer from doubt. Calvin, however, affirms that believers struggle with doubts; what characterizes genuine faith is not that it never doubts but that it perseveres to the end. Believers experience ups and downs in their lives but the final reality of their lives is faith. The divided experience of believers is captured well by Calvin, “Therefore the godly heart feels in itself a division because it is partly imbued with sweetness from its recognition of the divine goodness, partly grieves in bitterness from the awareness of its calamity; partly rests upon the promises of the gospel, partly trembles at the evidence of its own iniquity; partly rejoices at the expectation of life, partly shudders at death. This variation arises from imperfection of faith, since in the course of the present life it never goes so well with us that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith.” Another way of putting it is that even a small amount of faith brings comfort, even in the midst of trails and difficulties. Calvin says, “When even the least drop of faith is instilled in our minds, we begin to contemplate God’s face, peaceful and calm and gracious toward us. We see him afar off, but so clearly as to know we are not at all deceived.”
The life of faith is not simple and easy, rather, it is a fight. Calvin compares such a life to a person in prison who truly sees the rays of the sun, even though there is darkness on every side. Calvin understood the rough and tumble of the Christian life, saying that “faith is tossed about by various doubts, so that the minds of the godly are rarely at peace—at least they do not always enjoy a peaceful state. But whatever siege engines may shake them, they either rise up out the very gulf of temptations, or stand fast upon their watch.” The life of faith is difficult, but we see again that true faith endures and rises victorious in the struggle. Faith is never snuffed out entirely from the godly, but “lurk[s] as it were beneath the ashes.” Sometimes it appears that faith is dead, but we know that faith is real because it ultimately triumphs.
Both Calvin and Luther emphasized that righteousness is by faith alone. They also both emphasized the assurance of faith, but neither of them had a simplistic conception of faith. They recognized the anguish and doubts that beset believers. Still, genuine faith persists and lasts, making it through every storm. Faith may be battered and even quenched for a time but at the end of the day it arises victorious. Both Calvin and Luther also emphasized that faith itself doesn’t save. Faith justifies because it connects believers to Jesus Christ, and to his death and resurrection on their behalf. Faith, then, is rooted in the word of God, in the good news of the gospel, for believers put their faith in the glad tidings of what God has done for them in Christ.
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Thomas Schreiner’s book: Faith Alone—The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters. You can read more about The 5 Solas Series here.
Thomas Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among his many books are Romans, Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Galatians, and Faith Alone—The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters (The 5 Solas Series).