Book 3 Chapter 11 Section 1-23
This chapter begins seven chapters on the topic of justification by faith. The first thing Calvin does is to define his terms (would we expect anything else by now?). He begins by explaining the meaning of the expression to be justified in the sight of God. Calvin states that “a man is said to be justified in the sight of God when in the judgement of God he is deemed righteous, and is accepted on account of his righteousness.” The key question then becomes how can this happen? Well, there are two possible ways, and two only, either by faith or by works.
Regarding the latter, he describes a man who is justified by works “if in his life there can be found a purity and holiness which merits an attestation of righteousness at the throne of God.” On the contrary, a man will be justified by faith “when, excluded from righteousness of works, he by faith lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, and clothed in it appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as righteous.”
Calvin quickly moves to refute a popular heresy of the time called “essential righteousness“. This teaching is ascribed to a man called Osiander and sounds very similar to the orthodox position, but differs in one important aspect. If we put Calvin and Osiander side-by-side and compare their different answers we can see the subtle distortion that Osiander has introduced into the doctrine of justification by faith:
- Define: To be justified – Answer: being reconciled to God by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness
- Define: To be made just of ourselves – Answer: not yet, but one day, when we are transformed by Christ (1 John 3.2 & 1 Corinthians 15.51-53)
Osiander (essential righteousness):
- Define: To be made just of ourselves – Answer: at the point of regeneration by the infused essence of Christ
- Define: To be justified – Answer: being reconciled to God by the infused essence within us – God justifies not only by pardoning but by regenerating.
Osiander is claiming that we are justified because we receive an infusion of the divine essence that makes us worthy of God’s love and forgiveness – we are justified because of who we are rather than who Christ is. For, he claims “it would be insulting of God, and contrary to His nature, to justify those who still remain wicked.” But this is the wonder of grace, it is that we were, are and will remain sinners for the rest of our earthly lives, sheltering under the wings of a pure, spotless Saviour until He finally transforms our character.
Calvin quotes from Ambrose regarding Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright to illustrate the nature of justification by faith. He says that “he who did not merit the birthright in himself personated his brother, put on his garments, which gave forth a most pleasant ordour, and thus introduced himself to his father that he might receive a blessing to his own advantage, though under the person of another, so we conceal ourselves under* the precious purity of Christ, our first-born brother, that we may obtain an attestation of righteousness from the presence of God.”
The footnote from this last quotation (*) states that the French here literally means “under the robe” – a beautiful description of our position before God, sheltering under the robe of Christ. Although we have a new nature within us and the presence of the Holy Spirit, our natures are not changed to become totally sinless and thus deserving of God’s approval. No, we are only justified because we hide under the robe of Christ, we take refuge from the wrath that our wickedness accumulates by sheltering under the protection of our Saviour. It is His righteousness that saves us from first to last. We are still full of sin even after our hearts have been regenerated, but praise God that we can hide under the shadow of the Son of Man’s wings until that day when we will finally become like Him.
“Dear friends, now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself.” 1 John 3.2+3