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Justification and Regeneration
John Calvin

Editorial Note: The following short article on the subject of the sinner's justification before God is from the masterful pen of John Calvin.1 His brilliant definitiveness on this subject exceeds both Luther and Melanchthon. In our judgment it is equaled only by Chemnitz and the Formula of Concord.

The relation between justification and regeneration has again become prominent. Many today, including some leading scholars, eschew a purely forensic justification. They wish to include the inward work of regeneration in the article of the sinner's justification before God. We need to realize that these arguments are not new.

What is righteousness by faith? Does it include regeneration and the life of sanctification? Calvin shows that the righteousness which is of faith and regeneration of life must be clearly distinguished but never separated.

Care must be taken that respect to works be not intermingled with gratuitous Reconciliation, which wholly consists in the forgiveness of sins. For though we are never reconciled to God, without being at the same time presented with inherent righteousness, yet things which cannot be separated ought to be distinguished.... We say that we are justified by faith, because the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. If any one, on the other hand, objects that we are made partakers of Christ only by being renewed by his Spirit unto the obedience of the law, this must be acknowledged to be true; but let Regeneration be what it may, we deny that Justification is to be placed in it.

We do not act thus either from a love of disputation, or because we will not allow anything to be passed over that does not altogether please us. The cause which urges us is most necessary. The point involved is peace of conscience, without which we must all be most wretched, nay, almost undone. It is asked, I say, where our consciences may rest safely in regard to salvation. If they are agitated by disquietude, or in doubt, Paul teaches that faith is made void. (Rom. iv. 14.) And he declares that this is the necessary result, so long as they look to the law. What then? That we may have salvation, we must at the same time have a sure conviction of righteousness. Any part of this righteousness, however small, if placed in works will totter, as resting on an insecure foundation. It remains, therefore, to recline solely on the pardon of sins. It is a plain matter, that we cannot come boldly before the tribunal of God, unless we are certainly persuaded that he is our Father: and this cannot be without our being regarded as righteous in his sight. Thus we are precluded from all access to him, until trusting in his paternal good will, we can without hesitation invoke him as our Father. But if there is no salvation and no invocation of God, without tranquil and sure trust for the conscience; and, on the other hand, if conscience cannot rest in anything short of certain righteousness, who can doubt that the whole righteousness on which man ought to lean, is contained in the free remission of sins? Our mediators then only gloss the matter in pretending that inherent righteousness concurs with the merit of Christ, when the point under discussion is the mode of justifying. Such concurrence must necessarily beget a fearful conflict, until, altogether forgetting works and discarding the mention of them, we obtain not a part of righteousness only, but the whole entire from Christ.

They say that God does not act with us after the manner of an earthly judge, who only acquits, and does not also bestow true righteousness. I admit it. But while a twofold grace is at the same time bestowed upon us by Christ, we ought carefully to consider the effect of each. The question now asked is, In what way are we accepted by God? If works are mixed up with the free Imputation of Righteousness, another question will immediately arise, viz., how far works avail in procuring the favour of God, and whether free imputation holds the chief place, or is only a kind of inferior auxiliary? What else is this than completely to subvert the foundation? Accordingly, Paul deservedly includes the righteousness of faith simply in forgiveness of sins, teaching that it is described by David when he pronounces the man blessed to whom sins are not imputed. (Rom. iv. 6; Psalm xxxii. 2.) And certainly that blessedness which David mentions flows from righteousness. It follows, then, that we are righteous in this, that our sins are not imputed. Hence, Zacharias in his song describes instruction concerning the forgiveness of sins, as the knowledge of salvation. (Luke i. 77.)

On the whole, let us remember that the debate here is not simply concerning the manifold grace of God toward us, but concerning the cause of our Reconciliation with him. This cause, unless it is fixed as one, is null. For Scripture does not tell us to borrow only part of our righteousness from Christ in order to supply what is wanting in our works; but the Apostle plainly declares that Christ himself was made righteousness to us. And in another passage he declares, that men are righteous before God by the very circumstance that our sins are no longer imputed to us. (1 Cor. 1. 30; 2 Cor. v.19.)

Both the magnitude and variety of the blessings which we receive from Christ are indeed to be extolled; nor does it become us to restrict his office and efficacy to any one species. Nor, when we say that men are justified by the benefit of Christ, are we to be silent as to the grace of Regeneration; nay, rather, we must take care not to separate what the Lord perpetually conjoins. What then? Let men be taught that it is impossible they can be regarded as righteous by the merit of Christ, without being renewed by his Spirit unto a holy life; and that it is in vain for any in whom the Spirit of regeneration dwells, not to glory in the free adoption of God; in short, that God receives none into favour who are not also made truly righteous. But there is need of distinction, lest the one of the two gifts should derogate from the other. Let the children of God consider that Regeneration is necessary to them, but that, nevertheless, their full righteousness consists in Christ—let them understand that they have been ordained and created unto holiness of life and the study of good works, but that, nevertheless, they must recline on the merits of Christ with their whole soul—let them enjoy the righteousness of life which has been bestowed upon them, still, however, distrusting it so as not to bring before the tribunal of God any other trust than trust in the obedience of Christ.

In order that ambiguities may be removed, it is necessary that the Righteousness which we obtain by faith, and which is freely bestowed upon us, should be placed in the highest rank, so that, as often as the conscience is brought before the tribunal of God, it alone may shine forth. In this way the righteousness of works, to whatever extent it may exist in us, being reduced to its own place, will never come, as it were, into conflict with the other; and certainly it is just, that as righteousness of works depends on righteousness of faith, it should be made subordinate to it, so as to leave the latter in full possession of the salvation of man. There can be no doubt that Paul, when he treats of the Justification of man, confines himself to the one point—how man may ascertain that God is propitious to him? Here he does not remind us of a quality infused into us; on the contrary, making no mention of works, he tells us that righteousness must be sought without us; otherwise that certainty of faith, which he everywhere so strongly urges, could never stand; still less could there be ground for the contrast between the righteousness of faith and works which he draws in the tenth chapter to the Romans. Wherefore, unless we choose to sport with so serious a matter, (this would be fraught with danger!) we must retain propriety of expression, which carries with it the knowledge of the thing expressed. Were the thing conceded to us by those who entangle this part of the doctrine by their comments, I would easily give up all contest about the word. But those who confound the two kinds of righteousness together, seeing the thing they aim at is to prevent the righteousness of Christ from being entirely gratuitous, are on no account to be borne.

But we must obviate their cavil, when they bring forward James, and collect other passages in Scripture, where the term justify is taken differently, to establish what they call concurrence. James does not mean that man acquires righteousness with God, even in the minutest degree, by the merit of works; he is only treating of the approval of righteousness. (James ii. 21.) And who denies that every man proves what he is by his actions? But to furnish men with credible evidence of your disposition is a very different thing from meriting salvation in the sight of God. Hence, not to be imposed upon by the different meanings of the word, we must always observe whether reference is made to God or to men. Moreover, we deny not that the righteous are called the children of God, in respect of holiness of life, as well as in respect of a pure conscience: but as no work, if weighed in the Divine balance, will be found otherwise than maimed, and even defiled by impurities, we conclude, that this name of righteousness, when given to works, is founded on free pardon. Believers, therefore, are righteous by works, just because they are righteous without any merit of, or without any respect to works, seeing that the righteousness of works depends on the righteousness of faith.


1 From Kenneth A. Strand, ed., Reform Essentials of Luther and Calvin: A Source Collection (Ann Arbor: Braun-Brumfield, 1971), pp.219-222. Copyright (c) 1971. Reprinted by permission.