Book 3 Chapter 15 Section 1-8
This is the fifth chapter (of 7) in Calvin’s discussion of Justification by Faith. In this chapter Calvin addresses the objection of those who think they are justified by works when they appeal to the passages in scripture that talk of our works being rewarded. If our works are rewarded, they argue, then our works have merit in justifying us before God. Or as Calvin puts it “they run off to those passages which seem to ascribe some merit to works in the sight of God, just as if justification by works is proved whenever it is proved that works have any value with God.”
Calvin’s response is to say that just because something has value, it does not mean it is able to justify. Consider the following illustration: I could ask my 5 year old daughter to draw me a passport for my next trip abroad. As she is a talented artist I am sure she could do a lovely drawing of me and the British emblem. I would probably even tell her that it looked wonderful, but does this mean it would be accepted by the Passport Office? No. Her drawing has value to her father, but not the government. In the same way, argues Calvin, we are rewarded for our works as believers, but on the basis of the Father’s indulgence, not their inherent merit.
“Thus good works please God, and are not without fruit to their authors…not because they so deserve, but because the divine beneignity is pleased of itself to set this value upon them.” Here Calvin shows how deplorable it is to take advantage of the grace of God by claiming that which we receive solely out of his benevolence is due to the merit of our works. Like a landlord claiming the possession of a land he is only a steward of, we illegally steal as a right that which we were given as a gift.
When rightly viewed this teaching frees us from an over-obsession with our own actions. If I think that it is what I do in my inadequate service to God that will grant me acceptance, then I will never know deep, lasting peace. But if I know I am already accepted by God and am free to love and serve others in response to that love, I can act with a care-free self-consciousness.
As a father I can relate to how God views our works. I often praise my children for their faultering attempts to draw, walk, talk, ride a bike, play tennis, tidy their beds etc. Most of the time the praise is for the attempt rather than the outcome! 10/10 for effort, you could say! I know that this will encourage them to keep going and one day they will be able do these things properly. The same is true for God – as a loving Father he blesses our small steps of obedience and service, knowing that these will enable us to one day better reflect the family likeness.
“Friend, I am not being unfair to you…I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20.13-15
Father, thank you for your generousity in rewarding our imperfect acts of obedience, we praise you that you treat us as children and not as hired hands. Help us always to live in this freedom – serving you out of a heart of thankfulness to our gracious Father, Amen.