The merit of Christ’s death

Screen Shot 2017-12-31 at 11.44.01Book 2 Chapter 17 Section 1-6

In this short and complicated final chapter of Book 2 Calvin is wrestling with the merit of Christ’s death. In what seems at times theological hair-splitting Calvin is addressing a very specific question that was apparently put to him by Laelius Socinus in 1555. The topic is absent until the 1559 edition and scholars believe that it was inserted following the correspondance between the two men. Socinus asked Calvin “how God could have been determined (by this he seems to mean “bound”) by the merits of Christ (i.e. his redeeming work on the cross) if redemption was solely a matter of God’s free and sovereign decision. If God is sovereign there would appear to be no need of any intermediate.”

In the words of Alister McGrath “Why is Christ’s death on the cross sufficient to purchase the redemption of humanity? Is it something intrinsic to the person of Christ, as Luther had argued?…Or was it that God chose to accept his death as sufficient to merit the redemption of humanity? Was this value inherent in Christ’s death, or was it imposed upon it by God?” (from Reformation Thought by Alister McGrath). The question posed to us is “does mercy require means?” Was the death of Christ of such a nature that it had to wash away the sins of the elect, or was it effective because God had ordained that this was the means by which redemption would be granted?

Calvin argues that the two things are not necessarily contradictory and that “the free favour of God is as fitly opposed to our works as is the obedience of Christ.” Calvin goes on to explain how we see both the chief cause (the love of God) and the secondary cause (faith in Christ) play out in scripture. The most obvious example is John 3.16 “God so loved the world (chief cause), that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him (secondary cause) might not perish.” Calvin argues that “by his obedience (Christ), truly purchased and merited grace for us with the Father…if Christ satisfied for our sins, if he paid the penalty due to us, if he appeased God by his obedience; in fine if he suffered the just for the unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent to meriting.”


Whether God had to accept the sacrifice of His Son for the redemption of humanity or whether He chose to is a tough nut to crack. In the beginning of time God was perfectly free to create whatever future He so desired, to hypothesise at what could have been done different seems the sort of speculation that Calvin normally avoids. For His own good pleasure God chose to set in course a series of events that would eventually lead to the cruel death of His one and only Son. This is the one and only way of salvation that has been opened up to us. Let us run to Christ and cling to Him for rescue without becoming pre-occupied with the means He used.

The elderly women rescued from her burning flat would be viewed with astonishment if, as she is about to be lifted from the smoking room, began to ask the fireman whether she had to be rescued through this particular window, or whether the one in the living room could have been used instead. We have a means of escape before us, let us run to our Saviour and allow Him to know the hidden depths of His choices.

“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.” 1 Peter 1.18-20

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