Category Archives: Justification by faith

You asked: how can I know I am elect?

Reader Question: From a Reformed perspective (I am relatively new to this thinking in many ways), assuming the Doctrine of Election is true (I believe this to be true myself), what is the role of parenting? Knowing that there is no way to know whether or not your children are “elect”, how can a loving parent subject his children to Biblical teaching – assuming that teaching could some day be held against them on judgement day? (wouldn’t it be better for Sodom and Gomorrah than those who know the Gospel and don’t respond?). If they are elect anyway, perhaps telling them once and seeing how they respond is better than consistent training?

Again, I am not being facetious or devious- but really struggling through this. I grew up in a church and always assumed I was a Christian. Lately, I have doubted that as I have not seen the Spirit’s activity in my life, nor fully reflect the fruit of the Spirit, nor am I sure that I have fully repented from my sin. You may say to just repent and believe, but I am finding it more difficult than that and wondering whether or not I could possibly not be “elect”. Having sat through countless sermons and podcasts and books, am I more accountable?

Then, I take that to my children and wonder if I teach them the Gospel and they don’t respond, are they destined for a much more difficult eternity? Wouldn’t love for them wish for them to find Christ, yet not subject them to countless hours of instruction knowing that they may not choose that?

I am really confused, discouraged and honestly disheartened. I feel like my efforts to find God or grow closer to Christ or even to repent are “works” of my own and can’t any longer separate the true work of the Spirit from my own efforts.

I guess I am not looking for a counselling session, rather perhaps a perspective on what my responsibility is as a parent from the Reformed perspective. Thanks for your time and consideration on this (you can pray for me as well if you desire- I would not pass on that!).

Dear reader,

Many thanks for your questions, these are real heart-felt issues that we all sometimes struggle with as we seek to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. I will try and provide some help on the issue of election before then turning to how this impacts our parenting.

As an opening comment I would say that election can be a very controversial subject and, not rightly handled, thinking deeply about it over a prolonged time can get us tied in knots. In some ways I would compare it to a person’s life assurance policy – it needs to be understood and applied, but then put in the back drawer and not obsessed over. Similarly with election, if not rightly understood and applied, rather than confirming and assuring our faith, it can actually have the opposite effect and undermine and make us doubt our faith. But once, in God’s mercy, we are granted a true understanding of the doctrine, we should allow it to support our devotion and growth, without being the test of it.

It might help to think of election as God’s side of the salvation story. Our side is the call to repent and believe and live a life of obedience in thankful response. From God’s side there are the eternal decrees determining each day of his children’s lives, from our side it is the moment by moment experience of living in this world and responding to his word. From God’s side there is ultimate and supreme sovereignty and freedom of will, from our side there is the wrestling with the sinful nature and the secret work of the Spirit in the inner life. No one can understand both sides of these things. We can see our side, and God has revealed some of his side through the scriptures. But much remains hidden and we must eventually reach a place of trust and submission if we would ever achieve assurance of our faith and peace of conscience.

It’s also important to realise that an assurance of our own faith is something that must be nurtured. Like a flower that will eventually bloom under the right conditions of soil, water and sun, so too our faith will be confirmed if we nurture the means to grow that faith. We will come to hear his Spirit confirming with our spirit that we are the children of God (Romans 8.16). At the moment of first confession we may have been told that we are saved, and some may feel assurance based on this their entire lives, but most of us will question it at some point in our lives. You certainly are at the moment, and this is a healthy thing if done for a season.

I’m sure you have heard and read many sermons and books on assurance of faith, so I’ll not go into that in detail. I just want to outline a few practical thoughts that I have found helpful:

1. The danger of relying on our feelings (and ignoring them completely) – do we feel elect when times are good and doubt our election when times are hard and we sin? The question we need to ask is what do we really believe to be true? Do we really truly believe that Jesus died for my sin – and if we do believe have we honestly asked him to forgive us. If so then we have planted the seed of the word in our hearts – we must then examine ourselves to see if the word is bearing fruit. But what is the fruit that we look for? If we seek perfection then we will be disappointed, if we seek love, joy, peace etc, then we will only see partial fruit, for we all are a pale reflection when it comes to these attributes. Perhaps a better indicator is how our desires, motivations, even feelings are being renewed. Do we grieve for sin when once we could have sinned without a second thought? Do we wish we were a better disciple and become frustrated when we fail? Good – so we should, for our desires are sometimes a better indicators than our characters, for character takes years to cultivate and while desires come and go, the fact that they do come sometimes should encourage us that God is at work.

2. The danger of self-deception – the false disciples of Matthew 7 thought they knew Christ when they only knew about him. Many people in churches will realise on the last day that this is true of them. The key question here is – have I personally appropriated the salvation which is freely given? I preached on this topic last year (click here).

3. The danger of despair – we should recognise that our minds are not infallible and are a battle ground for spiritual warfare – the helmet of salvation as Paul describes it, protects our minds. We should guard against entertaining every doubt, and emulate David in preaching God’s truth to ourselves. Don’t let our insecurities trump the truths of God’s word – for example, God has said “Never will I leave you never will I forsake you” – if we have addressed the first two items above then even though we might not feel in our experience the presence of the Lord, if doesn’t mean it is not true. The same can be said about forgiveness of sin – 1 John 1.9 promises complete and utter forgiveness of confessed sin – even if we don’t feel guiltless, or like we have been forgiven.

4. Sin, doubt or fear does not mean you are unelect – each of us face periods of failure and darkness, but like a life jacket that is pressed under the water, we are inevitably brought back to the surface again by the inner workings of the Spirit. The time to worry is when this no longer happens are we are content to wallow in our sin – then we are in danger of having our consciences seared and proving our profession to be false. If we have (as honestly as we are consciously able to) repented of our sins and confessed Jesus as our Lord, then it comes down to trusting in the promises that God has made to us – not the other way around. The promise is clear – “if you repent in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved” (Romans 10.10). If we do this and then doubt it, it doesn’t render the promise void – “for if we are faith-less, God will remain faithful” (2 Timothy 2.13).

5. The doctrine of election does not necessarily lead to complacency – unfortunately some who have misunderstood election have thought that this gives them a carte blanche to behave how they want. Like those objectors in Romans 6.1 who, after hearing that where sin abounds, grace abounds more said “well lets keep on sinning so that God’s forgiveness looks even better.” Election should be viewed holistically – not just in relation to salvation, but also sanctification and glorification (Romans 8.30). God has elected that we will be those who not only begin the Christian walk, but finish it and we will surely finish it more like Christ than when we began. Moreover, he has elected us to one day be glorified in his presence. God has not only ordained (or elected) the end (Christ-likeness in his presence), but also the means (life by the Spirit through our active obediance Galatians 5.16ff).

6. Works are not all bad – at one point Jesus was asked “what are the works that God requires” and he answered “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6.28-29). So we see belief is a work of God. Not all works are to be despised, spiritual disciplines are works that can greatly help us in our daily obedience. The works that are condemned are the reliance on these things for acceptance with God. We should, we must, be a people of (godly) works – abundant in our labour of love, but these are in response to the mercy and grace of God, not a way to gain that favour, or even as a means to confirm our election.

Consider this illustration – election is like the engines of a plane, in the same way that the engines power the uplift and flight of the plane and enable it to make progress towards its destination, so our election is the secret working that enables us to believe, preserve and overcome. But if during the flight the pilot decided to stop the engines while he inspected whether they were really working as efficiently as possible, or if they were needing a service, the result would be disastrous. So too with election – our object and goal in life should be a close walk with the Lord Jesus, filled with His Spirit and obeying his commands, not always scrutinising the reality of our faith.

Once we get diverted off this focus, we risk becoming introspective and our focus shifts to ourselves rather than away from ourselves. Yes, there is a time for examination and personal reflection, but constant examination and persistent introspection is more likely to lead to you coming to a complete stop. The Spirit will guide you as you seek God’s face what is required of you at this point in your spiritual journey.

Finally, all this plays itself out in our parenting. In the same way that we cannot fully see God’s side of the salvation story for ourselves, so we cannot see it for our children. We must allow only God to know his ultimate decrees for their lives. We do not have any guarantees for them. Rather we must see that we are seeking to follow our side of the story – doing the things that we have been commanded by God to do – instruct them in the fear and knowledge of the Lord (Deut 6.7-9, Proverbs 22.6, Matthew 19.4). We must use the means God has given us, if we would have the ends that we desire for them. Again I say that I cannot see any guarantee that God has given Christian parents, and as a father of three beautiful, precious children this scares me. But I believe that God is a good God and that as he used the means of Grace in my life to save my at 9 years old, so he is able to bring my children to himself.

But we must seek to move beyond simply indoctrinating them with abstract truths, to demonstrating the reality of our own faith in the life that we live. We must open our hearts to them that they would see our vulnerability and honest struggles. They must see that it is more than a tradition or a culture for us – that it is our lifeblood. We must exhibit the graces and character that we want them to grow towards, to make room for their questions and doubts, to have spontaneous times of prayer and thanksgiving. Oh that God would grant us the immeasurable blessing of believing children and the grace to love them (and him) no matter what happens.

I hope this is of some help for you in your struggles. I pray that the God of all compassion would make himself known to you in such a powerful and real way that your faith is confirmed, your hope renewed and love deepened. In His name, Martyn

PS You can read my four posts on Calvin’s chapters on election and predestination here:

The whispered promises of a betrothed groom

Book 3 Chapter 18 Section 1-10

How willingly we make promises to each other when we are in love. Nothing compels us to commit ourselves to each other apart from our desire to intertwine our lives so they can never be separated. On the marriage day we say our vows that promise provision, protection and faithfulness. The promises spring from a well of love that desires to make the other person feel completely secure and safe.

The star-struck lover giving precious promises to his beloved is the image that springs to mind from this final chapter on justification by faith. Here Calvin deals with the passages in the bible where God is said to grant eternal life to those who act graciously and uprightly (e.g. Matthew 25.31-46) and reward those who have acted well in this present life (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5.10). Rather than demonstrating that our works are the ground for our salvation Calvin argues that these passages indicate “not the cause, but the order of sequence.” Eternal life is given to those who have previously been adopted into the family of God for “the kingdom of heaven is not the hire of servants, but the inheritance of sons.”

More than that, we can see that God promises a reward to our works in order to motivate us to keep going. Knowing how weak we are and prone to giving up he promises rewards for our efforts. “For in order to animate us in well-doing, he allows no act of obedience, however unworthy of his eye, to pass unrewarded.” But such rewards are subsequent to salvation, for as Augustine says “To whom could the righteous Judge give the crown if the merciful Father had not given grace…and how could these be paid as things due were not things not due previously given?”

Thus our reward is certain, not because we deserve such a reward, but entirely because God has promised to give us what we don’t deserve. Again Calvin quotes from Augustine, “faithful is the Lord, who hath made himself our debtor, not by receiving anything from us, but by promising us all things.”


We are used to thinking that God is no man’s debtor – that He more than rewards those who give up or sacrifice things for him. However, in an important sense God has put himself in debt to his children to give them what he has promised in his word. Everything God gives us is sourced from his infinite mercy – from our adoption as sons to the rewards for our service. God is not in the least indebted to us in anyway, but he makes himself indebted because he wants to. His rewards are the promised gifts of a lover not the wages of a servant.

There is nothing within us that means we should ever expect a reward for our vain attempts at good works. The basis for our blessing lies entirely within the promises made from a free and sovereign God. Nothing external compelled God to give us these promises – they are founded on the love of a lover for his beloved. It is as if we are the betrothed bride listening to the whispers of our lover, telling us what he will do for his most precious possession.

In Jewish culture the betrothal was a definite and binding agreement upon both groom and bride, who were considered as man and wife in all legal and religious aspects, except that of actual cohabitation. It was a joining of two people that guaranteed marriage at a later stage. Thus God puts himself in our debt, the God who is completely free brings himself under obligation to his bride. He adorns us with sweet promises, the fulfillment of the promises are certain, because of his character and because of his betrothal to us.

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13.8

Father, we rejoice in the many great and precious promises you have showered upon us. Thank you that you take delight in your people, help us to live in the light of this grace and be people of mercy and compassion. Help us to respond in loving obedience, not for fear of punishment or hope of reward, but out of love for the one who has captured our hearts. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Don’t forget to count your laps

Book 3 Chapter 17 Section 1-15

My highlight from a great weekend for British sport was Alistar Brownlee’s victory in the Hyde Park Triathlon World Championship Series. A fellow Yorkshireman, Brownlee is only 21 and already tops the world ranking. He ran a fantastic race and was simply too good for the competition.

However, the race also included an amazing error from two leading triathletes. During the 40k bike ride two riders broke away from the main pack. As they approached transition for the last time they were a long way in front, but rather than stopping, they inexplicably continued cycling round for an extra 5k lap. As everyone watched amazed at the two riders, no one had the guts to stop them and tell them their mistake.

In the end they did a complete extra lap and raced each other to finish last. You can just imagine the second guy thinking to himself “well I thought this was the last lap, but if they guy in front thinks there is another one, then I better keep going”. What a fatal assumption! What a bizarre way to go from first to last in a flash! In this chapter we see the danger of assumptions as Calvin deals with many of our false assumptions in interpreting the promises held out in the law.

Verses such as Leviticus 18.5 “Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them” (referenced in Romans 10.5 as the righteousness promised in the law) indicate that perfect obedience to the law would bring life. The question is, if God knew this was not possible then why make these promises? Is God taunting us to offer us something that is forever out of our reach, or is he promising something that he knows will never be given, or is there ultimately some contribution of our works to our salvation?

In response Calvin argues that these promises only apply to perfect obedience, and as none of us ever make this grade then they are out of our grasp. However, this does not make them fruitless for we do receive the benefits of these promises when we turn to Christ. “For what the law was unable to do in that it was weakened by sinful nature (that is bring life), God did by sending his son (Romans 8.3)”. Through Christ’s perfect obedience, and our union with Christ, we now receive the benefit of the life that results from his complete obedience.

So, thanks to Christ, we receive the blessings that rest upon those who obey perfectly, but not through the direct route of our response to the promise, but rather indirectly through our in-grafting into him. Not only that, but as we have seen earlier, God even rewards the “works of the faithful”. He does this by first of all embracing his servants in Christ, “reconciling themselves to himself without the aid of works”. Then he views the works, “not being estimated by their own worth, he, by his fatherly kindness and indulgence, honours so far as to give them some degree of value.” Finally, he extends his pardon to them, “not imputing the imperfection by which they are all polluted, and would deserve to be regarded as vices rather than virtues.”

Thus, God redeems our faltering works, “because everything otherwise defective in them being buried by the purity of Christ is not imputed.” And Calvin concludes with the profound thought that “not only ourselves, but our works also, are justified by faith alone.”


So the promises of God found in the law are not without effect. They point to the end result that God wants to give his people. However, they do not specify the means to get there. We assume it has to be our effort, but through the wonder of the gospel we can take advantage of the obedience of another – the perfect, sinless, sacrifice. The one who represented us, and more than that, united us to himself, so that his obedience was our obedience and his victory was our victory. So don’t assume that just because we are unable to meet the requirements for the promised blessings held out in the law we can never receive them – God knew we would need help when he gave these promises, and he graciously provided it.

For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” Romans 8.3-4

There is no such thing as safe grace

Book 3 Chapter 16 Section 1-4

In this very short chapter on Justification by Faith Calvin addresses two objections that people raise against this teaching – firstly that this doctrine destroys our motivation for good works and secondly, by making salvation too easy, people will be emboldened to sin more. The question at the heart of these objections is this – will people live a more upright life if they believe that this is contributing to their salvation? And even if we recognise that this isn’t what the bible teaches, is it better to keep them obedient and respectable than tell them the truth and risk them abusing the grace of God?

Calvin starts by reminding his readers that contrary to his opponents view, justification by faith actually solidifies the place of works as being fundamental to the presence of a real and living faith. Calvin readily admits that “we are justified not without, and yet not by works.” For “we dream not of a faith which is devoid of good works, nor a justification which can exist without them.” There is most certainly a place for the good works that have been prepared in advance for us to do, but that place is within service, not salvation.

Calvin next reminds us that God demonstrates His generousity just as much when He rewards good works as when He justifies freely. Calvin will deal with this in more detail in the next chapter. However, Calvin stresses that the rewards for our work should not be the motivation for our service, for God “desires to be freely worshipped, freely loved” and seeks those who “even if all hope of reward were cut off, would cease not to worship Him.”


Arguing that the implications of a certain doctrine are too risky has no bearing whatsoever on the truth of that doctrine. If God is prepared to risk His grace being abused by people taking Him for granted, then who are we to be wiser than God in how people should be motivated to obey? God wants our motivation for serving Him to be love, not fear of punishment. He is happy to reward us, but he wants us to serve Him from a secure and thankful heart. However, in the final analysis God is not taking a risk, for He knows and sees our every desire and will one day separate those who are His from those who are taking advantage of His mercy.

Paul preached this dangerous grace and was criticised for it by people who believed that it would lead others into sinning more. But Paul did not modify his teaching, instead he appealed to believers to remember the devastating effect of their sin and the height of their new position in Christ. We too must be prepared to take the risk of people taking grace for granted if we would be faithful to the God of grace.

“What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Romans 6.1+2

10/10 for effort!

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.

Taking the red pill

Book 3 Chapter 14 Section 1-21

Sometimes we are unexpectedly faced with a life-changing decision that will effect our whole life. In The Matrix Neo faces the choice of whether he really wants to know the true nature of reality. He can stay as he is, blissfully unaware of the terrors that surround him, or enter the real world with its pain and suffering. At the critical moment Morpheus says to Neo:

You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Neo takes the red pill and life is never the same again. He realises he has been decieved all his life, and that the real world is far more disturbing than he could have ever imagined. In this chapter Calvin brings a similar challenge – do you really want to understand yourself as God sees you, or are you happy in your self-deception? Are you prepared to do whatever is necessary to really see yourself as you are, not how you see yourself? Beware! It will shake your comfortable life, but it will lead you to a deeper understanding of who God is and His great love for you.

This chapter is one of the key sections on Calvin’s discussion of justification by faith, in it he divides all mankind into four sections – as he calls them the “idolarous, profane, hypocritical and regenerate.” He goes on to consider each in turn in a display of penetrating analysis of mankind’s true nature. His key question throughout is, do any of these groups possess any kind of righteousness that could justify them before God? 

1. Those with no knowledge of God (1-6). Can those with no knowledge of God please God by their good works? No, according to Calvin. While he doesn’t deny that many in this category do have admirable virtues, “or rather images of virtues”. Since they do not possess the life that comes only through Christ (1 John 5.12), no matter how far they progress in character it will always be polluted. What is more, as they have an impure heart they are incapable of true righteousness, for “duties are estimated not by acts but by motives.”

2. The religious & hypocrites (7&8). Calvin sees this group as those who while “acknowledging themselves to be unrighteous, because they cannot deny it, they yet arrogate to themselves some degree of righteousness.” They have a form of godliness – but deny its power (2 Timothy 3.5).  This group have an appearance of righteousness for they partake in religious ceremonies, but underneath their hearts are not right with God – and they know it. This shallow spirituality does not impress God, for their “works are not pleasing to God unless the person has previously found favour in his sight.” 

3. The saved (9-21). Here Calvin addresses those who recognise that nothing good in them commends them to Almighty God, rather they trust in another’s righteousness.  Calvin lays out this in stark truth when he says “no believer ever performed one work, which, if tested by the strictest judgement of God, could escape condemnation.” And “that all the righteousness of men collected into one heap would be inadequate to compensate for a single sin.”

Lest we should remain in any doubt that even the works of believers are never 100% pure and holy Calvin finishes us off with this challenge: “Let the holy servant of God, I say, select from the whole course of his life the action which he deems most excellent, and let him ponder it in all its parts; he will doubtless find in it something that savours of the rottenness of the flesh, since our alacrity in well-doing is never what it ought to be, but our course is always retarded by much weakness.”


Whew! This is Calvin at his sharpest. He would not have believers under any illusions that their good works are able to justify them before God. Let us truthfully examine ourselves and we will have to agree with him – is their any action that I have done that has been wholly and utterly pure and self-less? Is there not always a taint of our own selfishness and pride in every “good” work?

Reading this kind of language for the first time it may seem as though this would drive believers to despair, but actually it is the ground of all our confidence. For once we come to this place of complete and utter bankruptcy then we give up all hope of ever repaying the debt ourselves. Then we are either completely without hope and lost, or someone must intervene for us on our behalf. There is no shame in casting ourselves on another to save us once we have realised that all our attempts are futile. Then and only then do we really understand that we need a Saviour. This is the reality that we must face if we would know God – painfully uncomfortable at first and then joyfully exhilerating.

“Not the labour of my hands, can fulfil Thy law’s demands; could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow. All for sin could not atone, Thou must save and Thou alone.”
Rock of Ages, Augustus Toplady.

Father, break through our self-deception and comfort with the burning, illuminating light of your word. May the trail blazed by Calvin be re-traced by your people to fall at your feet in wonder and adoration at your mercy and grace. Thank you Jesus for saving me through your death and resurrection.

There is no “we” in glory

Book 3 Chapter 13 Section 1-5

I’m sure you have seen the posters on the walls of schools – the picture of a triumphant football squad with the winning trophy, and below is the line “There is no I in team“. As a spotty teenager who loved my football I got the message – there is no room for those who are only out for themselves in a team sport.

Here in Chapter 13 Calvin is teaching us something of God’s jealousy for His own glory. When it comes to who gets the glory for our salvation it is either us or God, there is no middle ground, there is no “we” in glory. For whoever “glories in himself glories against God.” God would have every mouth closed before Him as the world stands in silence in their guilt (Romans 3.19). We should beware of attributing any part of our salvation to our own wisdom, inclinations or desires, “for so long as a man has anything, however small, to say in his own defence, so long he deducts somewhat from the glory of God.”

Calvin’s aim in this chapter is to uphold two principles that should shape how we understand justification by faith. Firstly, that the glory of God be maintained unimpaired and, secondly, that our consciences be at peace. Regarding the former principle Calvin argues from many New Testament passages that God conferred salvation upon us in order that He might show forth the glory of His name (Eph 1.6, 2.8; 1 Peter 2.9). He alone will be praised and adored for redeeming us from the curse of our fallen natures, He alone will be seen to be the author and perfector of our faith.

Rather than detracting from our sense of peace, removing all credit from the creature actually strengthens our comfort. For how could we ever expect to have any peace from our conscience, let alone the heavenly court, if we trust, even a fraction, in our own goodness and righteousness? For “conscience, when it beholds God, must either have sure peace with his justice, or be beset by the terrors of hell.” By putting every last ounce of our salvation squarely in God’s hands we can find peace by relying in His promises and not our own efforts. For “never could anyone rest securely in it, for never could he feel fully assured that he had fully satisfied the law.”


Whatever beginnings of righteousness we may have now were given to us through the righteousness of Christ, whatever desire we had for God before our conversion was due to the secret drawing of God. We can take no credit for the work of the Spirit in our lives.  But this is not to say that God does not reward our good works (as we shall see in chapter 18 of Book 3), or that we will not be one day bask in reflected glory.

For the wonder of God’s grace does not stop at our justification, but is made complete in our sanctification and glorification (Romans 8.30). We will never be the source of glory, but through God’s transforming work we will become mirrors of His glory – when “we” are enabled by our generous God to share in His glory.

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3.18

“We must have complete transparency”

Book 3 Chapter 12 Section 1-8

For those of us in the UK the last few months have been dominated by one news story – the MP’s expenses scandal. A number of MPs have now stood down from office and some are potentially even facing charges for abusing the expenses system. While it seems that the rules allowed a certain degree of flexibility, when viewed in the cold light of day many of the legally-claimed expenses appear ridiculous.  So, after much finger-pointing and public displays of contrition, there is to be a full review of the expenses process. The man leading this review, Sir Christopher Kelly, stated that “we must have complete transparency” in a recent interview, so that MPs can be held accountable for what they claim.

Transparency is a funny thing, its great when you are the detective investigating a crime, but not so great when the alleged criminal turns the tables and claims an illegitimate arrest. This happened last weekwhen the BBC had to respond to a Freedom of Information request asking for its expenses, as a publicly funded body. No doubt enjoying the irony (and the view from the moral high ground), Conservative MPs say the BBC should publish details of all salaries on the grounds of “transparency”.

Calvin is all for complete transparency. In fact he believes that if we are truly transparent with our own hearts we will be forced to see the futility of trying to be justified by works. In this chapter Calvin challenges us to “look to ourselves without flattery or blind self-love.” He believes that if we can see the heavenly tribunal that is awaiting all of us we will not be tempted to measure ourselves by human standards of perfection. “For if the stars which shine most brightly by night lose their brightness on the appearance of the sun, what think we will be the case with the highest purity of man when contrasted with the purity of God?”

A true understanding of our condition forces us to give up any hope of our own righteousness before our Creator. Outward appearances will count for nothing, the only thing that will count will be “the true intent of the will”. This is a greater level of righteousness than outward observance of the law, it has to do with the inner man – our thoughts, desires and intentions.  External comparisons will count for nothing as each of us stands alone, our every thought exposed to the penetrating eye of our judge. Which of us then will have the nerve to claim we are not deserving of the just punishment of a holy God?

What is Calvin’s solution to this predicament? Therefore “if we would make way for the call of Christ, we must put far from us all arrogance and confidence.” For “when we have entirely discarded all self-confidence and trust solely in the certainty of his goodness, we are fit to apprehend and obtain the grace of God.”


Everybody loves a scandal, its sells papers and writes headlines. But in the hysteria that followed the recent expenses revelations we would do well to remember that one day all our secrets will be revealed and all our thoughts laid bare. It’s good to want transparency,  but we need to be prepared for what it will reveal. Every action, thought and intention of every day of our lives will be completely transparent for all to see. Not just where we may have bent the rules a bit, but where we outright broke them, thought about breaking them, and lived in rebellion to God’s kindness.

But before we despair of hope we must remember that there is a solution. For our greatest danger is not that we are stand before our Maker exposed, shamed and guilty – our greatest danger is that we enter the dock before we recognise there is a remedy. For at that point it will be too late. There is a Saviour for sinners, may we run to Him for forgiveness while we still can.

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” 1 Timothy 1.15

Under the robe

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