Justification by Faith according to John Calvin -- By: W. Stanford Reid

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 42:2 (Spring 1980)
Article: Justification by Faith according to John Calvin
Author: W. Stanford Reid

Justification by Faith according to John Calvin

W. Stanford Reid

The doctrine of justification by faith, particularly if it has the word “alone” attached to it, causes problems in many minds, as it has since the day of Martin Luther. For man always feels that he should be doing something about his own salvation, and that perhaps he might be able through his activity to help with his justification in the sight of God. The result usually is a growth of legalism, with stress being laid upon the necessity of conforming to certain patterns of life which Christians at the moment feel are appropriate to those who profess faith in Christ. One sees this in the history of evangelicalism down to the present day.

Even in some Reformed circles is this type of thinking apparent. As one studies the thinking of many of the seventeenth century Puritans, one finds that it reached such a position of theological importance that the Gospel became a new law to many. Richard Baxter and others even came to be known as “neo-nomians” because of their stress upon good works, as though they were an aid in obtaining justification. And this attitude has continued in some circles even to our own day, when some Reformed theologians could term the doctrine of justification by faith alone as “easy believism” and insist that such a doctrine is Lutheran rather than Reformed.

For these reasons it would seem to be a good thing to look back to one who is recognized as the theologian who largely formulated the basic Reformed doctrines in the sixteenth century. Moreover, that he was a contemporary of Martin Luther and knew exactly what Luther was teaching helps us to understand whether or not he was in favor of Luther’s formulation of the doctrine of justification by faith. If he disagreed, he would certainly have said so, while on the other hand, if he agreed there would also be a clear indication of this fact. For this

reason it would seem to be wise to take a very close look at what John Calvin had to say about this crucial doctrine.

To call the doctrine of justification by faith a “crucial” doctrine is to echo Calvin’s own feelings. Most people when asked what they know about Calvin begin by speaking of his doctrine of election and predestination, but as one works through his commentaries or surveys the Institutes of the Christian Religion, one finds that that is not his most stressed doctrine. Indeed, it is not even mentioned in his catechism. To him election and predestination are basically mysteries into which one cannot pry beyond what God has vouchsafed to reveal. On the other hand, he insists that the doctrine of justification is “the main hinge on which religion tur...

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