John Calvin, the Calvinist Movement, and the Doctrine of Justification

John Calvin not only found an important theological line of agreement with Zwingli about viewing nature in terms of law, but, more importantly, Calvin agreed with the Zwinglian notion of the law of the gospel being incorporated into the law of the state. Here, Calvin advocated the role the state must play in “punish[ing] the impious [who] they were criminals because they are against the law of the state which is based on God’s law.”[1] As a result, for Calvin and his movement, “it [became] their duty to make the civil government conform to the law of God.”[2] This, of course, undoubtedly, aligns Calvin’s perception of the oneness between the law of the state and God’s law with that of Zwingli’s but, simultaneously, places him in opposition to Luther who “detested the idea that God has established a law between himself and his world, between himself and finite actions and things and decisions.”[3] These “finite actions and things and decisions,” as Calvin would have defined them by way of how they manifest themselves from “the impious” that violate the law of the state as well as God’s law, would have been just as easily construed in light of the issue of justification. This is because justification by grace through faith is inarguably based on “finite actions and things and decisions,” the embodiment of righteousness and what is considered as “good works.” By extension, therefore, this leads Calvin to define the doctrine of justification by grace through faith as being “Christ given to us by the kindness of God [which] is apprehended and possessed by faith by means of which we… [are] reconciled by the righteousness of Christ…[and] sanctified by his Spirit [so that] we aspire to integrity and purity of life.”[4] The fact that Calvin invokes the need to “aspire integrity and purity of life” means that he interprets the importance of Christians obeying the law and doing good works. Though this seemingly abides by Luther’s views on the matter, Calvin does not focus exclusively on the doctrine of justification as the end and be all of the Christian faith but, instead, “was able to pay more attention to several aspects of Christian faith which Luther had virtually ignored –in particular, the doctrine of sanctification.”[5] For Calvin, justification and sanctification “which we perceive to be united together in him, are inseparable.”[6] In this respect, Calvinist movement sees both justification and sanctification as a divine act of God receiving someone into God’s favor in order to present that person with the Spirit of adoption, “whose agency forms them anew in his image.”[7] It is, perhaps, in view of the justification-sanctification doctrinal relationship that Calvin asserts that “there is so wide a difference between justification by faith and by works, that the establishment of the one necessarily overthrows the other.”[8]

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[1] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 259.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010), 86.

[3] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought: From Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 259.

[4] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002), 445.

[5] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010), 78.

[6] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2002), 449.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 456.

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