Have you read one of the greatest works on justification in church history? Here’s your chance
John Calvin’s articulation of justification by faith is set forth in his Institutes On the Christian Religion and may be one of the most important treatments of this central doctrine in the history of the church. Nate Pickowicz has republished Calvin’s teaching on justification in Justification by Faith to ensure that it is both not forgotten and accessible to Christians. Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine and host of the Credo Podcast, has written the foreword to the book, which you can now read below.
Nate Pickowicz is the pastor of Harvest Bible Church in Gilmanton Iron Works, New Hampshire. He is the author of Reviving New England: The Key to Revitalizing Post-Christian America and Why We’re Protestant: An Introduction to the Five Solas of the Reformation.
Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God; 40 Questions About Salvation; God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture; Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary; Salvation by Grace, and Owen on the Christian Life. He is the host of the Credo podcast where he engages top theologians on the most important theological issues today.
How can I, a sinner, be reconciled to a holy God? That question has occupied the greatest minds of the Christian church because it is a question that is central to Christianity itself. The Bible is a book that confronts humanity with terrible news: you have rebelled against your good and benevolent Creator and now and forever stand under his just condemnation. But the Bible is also a book that presents humanity with the good news: The Father has sent his Son to reconcile you with God. Your Creator has become your Redeemer.
How is this possible? It is only possible because the Son of God himself became incarnate to represent us. As the God-man, he lived in perfect obedience to God’s law, something everyone since Adam has failed to do. Yet he not only fulfilled the law we failed to obey, he suffered the penalty of the law that we violated and transgressed. Laying his own life down at the cross in our place, Christ Jesus became a sacrifice, absorbing the wrath that should have been ours, the punishment that our sin deserved. In doing so, love and justice kissed. On the one hand, God’s love was displayed in all its radiance. Who gives his own son over to death? Only one who is so full of love that he would make the ultimate sacrifice. On the other hand, such love was not at the expense of justice but wrapped in benevolent holiness. In vain would God have loved us if he compromised the purity and integrity of his divine character. So, he stepped down from the heavens to take the penalty upon himself, and in doing so was then able to remain just while justifying anyone who trusts in him.
How is one to receive this great work of salvation? By faith. Turning to one’s one works is a fool’s errand, an attempt to justify our sinful selves before the God of infinite and eternal holiness. The only hope is to turn to someone outside ourselves, someone who can provide us with the righteousness and forgiveness we cannot create for ourselves. Now we come to the pivotal moment in the Bible’s own story, the great announcement to sinners who have heard the good news of Jesus Christ. It is through faith in Christ alone that one is declared right with God. Upon faith in Christ, the guilt for one’s sins is forgiven—Christ has paid our debt in full. Yet that is but half the story. For the righteousness of Christ is imputed as well. Remember, he not only suffered the penalty we incurred for breading the law, but he obeyed the law we failed to fulfill. What a great, marvelous exchange: Christ has taken our sin, we have received his righteousness. None of this is our own doing; it is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Therein is the doctrine of justification. We, sinners, have been declared right with God.
This good news is the treasure of the church and one would think the church would protect it at all costs. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case. In fact, not only was this good news about justification forgotten at times but it was exchanged for a different gospel, one that relied upon man’s efforts, merits, and righteousness to be made right with God. How ironic: that which made the good news so good, namely, it’s announcement of free mercy and unmerited grace, was replaced by a message that called upon the individual to add his own contribution to the work of Jesus Christ. The church entered this dark night of its soul at the end of the fifteenth century.
But after darkness came light—post tenebras lux. The sixteenth century reformers returned to the scriptures only to find they could not reconcile what the biblical authors said with the church’s teaching. Risking their own lives, the reformers not only translated the scriptures into the common language of the people so that Christians could see the good news of salvation in Christ for themselves, but the reformers entered pulpits to proclaim that justification is by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (solus Christus). Those solas (solae) proved liberating, freeing the medieval Christian from the uncertainty of a justification that depended in part upon one’s own merits.
Few reformers were so gifted at communicating the evangelical doctrine of justification as John Calvin. As a young reformer, Calvin was content to spend the rest of his life in an ivory tower writing works of theology. Yet when he serendipitously passed through Geneva, he was persuaded to stay and preach the scriptures to the church. What started as a pilgrim’s detour turned into a ministry that would last for a lifetime. In time, Calvin not only preached sermons and wrote commentaries on books of the Bible, but he also provided the Genevans, and all of Europe, with an expansive theology of the Christian faith in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. With memorable prose, scriptural fidelity, and theological acumen, the Institutes shed light on the doctrine of justification where previously there had been dark ambiguity. With clarity in his left hand and precision in his right hand, Calvin helped the average churchgoer understand beauty of justification. “We define justification as follows: the sinner, received into communion with Christ, is reconciled to God by his grace, while, cleansed by Christ’s blood, he obtains forgiveness of sins, and clothed with Christ’s righteousness as if it were his own, he stands confident before the heavenly judgment seat” (Institutes 3.17.8). In but one sentence, Calvin has summarized the driving force of the Reformation. Forgiven and clothed in the righteousness of Christ, the sinner no longer had to fear the fires of purgatory, question the certainty of salvation, or attempt to do his or her best to somehow merit grace and remission of sins. Righteousness is a gift, said Calvin, given to all those who simply trust in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Here is a book to be read and re-read throughout your Christian life, lest you forget just how amazing grace is or what warmth the robe of Christ’s righteousness provides. Click To Tweet
The good news of justification by faith alone defined Calvin’s ministry but it should define any church today who claims to be evangelical. For that reason alone, Calvin’s work on justification deserves retrieving, lest we too fall back into darkness and drift away from the light of the biblical reformation. Thankfully, Nate Pickowicz has made Calvin’s treatment on justification accessible. I would encourage every pastor to read it so that this doctrine informs his ministry from start to finish. But I would also recommend it to every churchgoer. Here is a book to be read and re-read throughout your Christian life, lest you forget just how amazing grace is or what warmth the robe of Christ’s righteousness provides. Tolle lege—take up and read!
Executive Editor, Credo Magazine
Associate Professor of Christian Theology, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary