A Double Grace: John Calvin on Justification and Sanctification

John Calvin, the sixteenth-century Reformer of Geneva, is probably talked about more often than he is read. This is unfortunate. Christian readers who are willing to risk his Institutes of the Christian Religion will discover a treasury of Christ-centered theology that is precise in exegesis and lyrical in expression.

Calvin may be at his most helpful in Book III of the Institutes, on “The Way We Receive the Grace of Christ.” I have benefited much from Calvin’s reflections on grace and salvation. Here is a powerful summary statement:

Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.[i]

Grasping Christ by faith, we receive a “double grace.” We receive justification and sanctification.

Justification: Reconciled through Christ’s Blamelessness

When we grasp Jesus with the hand of faith, we are “reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness.” This is clearly Calvin’s meaning, for he goes on to say:

Justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man. Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.[ii]

Calvin’s definition is squarely rooted in Paul’s declaration from 2 Corinthians.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:18-21, ESV)

The only means of reconciliation with God is in the doing and dying of Jesus on our behalf. He lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died. God treated Jesus like a sinner, so he could treat us like Jesus.

The Father accepts us as righteous before Him not because of anything we do, and not even because of anything He has done in us, but solely because of what Jesus Christ has done for us.

Sanctification: The Cultivation of a Blameless Life

But there’s more. In Christ we receive a double grace. We are not only “reconciled through Christ’s blamelessness,” we are also “sanctified by Christ’s spirit [that] we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.” Justification is joined with sanctification.

Calvin’s preferred term for sanctification was “repentance.”

Repentance can thus well be defined: it is the true turning of our life to God, a turning that arises from a pure and earnest fear of him; and it consists in the mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit.[iii]

Don’t let the words “mortification” and “vivification” discourage you! Calvin was simply pointing out the negative and positive dimensions to sanctified Christian living. Mortification is putting sin to death. Vivification is living to righteousness by the power of the Spirit.

In the language of Scripture,

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. (Rom. 6:11-13, ESV)

Die to sin and live to Christ!

Distinct, yet Inseparable

Justification and sanctification are distinct. Yet they cannot be separated. Each depends on God’s free grace, flowing to us from the saving work of Christ on our behalf. Both blessings are integral to salvation and are experienced by all Christians. You cannot have one without the other.

In Calvin’s words:

Since faith embraces Christ, as offered to us by the Father [cf. John 6:29] – that is, since he is offered not only for righteousness, forgiveness of sins, and peace, but also for sanctification [cf. 1 Cor. 1:30] and the fountain of the water of life [John 7:38; cf. ch. 4:14] – without a doubt, no one can duly know him without at the same time apprehending the sanctification of the Spirit. Or, if anyone desires some plainer statement, faith rests upon the knowledge of Christ. And Christ cannot be known apart from the sanctification of his Spirit. It follows that faith can in no wise be separated from a devout disposition.[iv]

Simply put, you can’t take Jesus in slices. If you receive him as a justifying Savior, you must also receive him as a sanctifying Lord. Justification and sanctification belong together.

But there are important distinctions to make. The two are joined, but they are not the same.

* Justification is an event, while sanctification is a process.

* Justification is a legal transaction in which God, as our Divine Judge declares us righteous before him – absolved of all guilt, and counted in the right in his divine tribunal. Sanctification is an internal work of God’s Spirit in which our hearts are changed, cleansed, and purified.

* Justification affects our status, changing our standing before God. For Christ’s sake, we are accepted, considered righteous, even though we are not. Justification is something God does for us. Sanctification affects our hearts, changing our inner being, our nature. By Christ’s Spirit, our hearts are cleansed, made new, and transformed, so that we begin to look more and more like Jesus. Sanctification is something God does in us.

* Justification is God’s work alone. Nothing we have done or can do contributes to it in the least. Sanctification is God’s work, as well. But we must cooperate with him. Our responses and choices can either accelerate or impede the progress of our growth in holiness.

* All believers are justified and no one is more or less justified than any other. All stand before God solely by the perfect obedience of Christ. All believers are being sanctified. But the degree of holiness varies in person to person.

Double Grace, Double Cure

Justification and sanctification – the double grace God gives us through Christ. Or in the words of Augustus Toplady:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee; Let the water and the blood, From thy wounded side which flowed, Be of sin the double cure, Save from wrath and make me pure.[v]

End Notes

[i] John Calvin, John T. McNeil, ed., Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960) III.xi.1, p. 725.
[ii] Ibid., III.xi.2, p. 726-7.
[iii] Ibid., III.iii.5, p. 597.
[iv] Ibid., III.ii.8 (p. 552-3)
[v] Augustus M. Toplady, “Rock of Ages,” 1776.


Anna said...

Hey Brian:
I would like to read a John Calvin book sometime, but I have a hard time getting through theology books. Do you know of short, kind of easy one I could start with?

Brian G. Hedges said...

Wow. That's a great question. I would not start with Calvin for reading theology. I'd start with someone a little easier. Sinclair Ferguson, Wayne Grudem, or maybe C. S. Lewis.

But if you specifically wanted to read Calvin, I'd start with Book III, chapters 7 - 10. They are Calvin's practical instructions on how to live the Christian life. He actually published these chapters as a separate book during his lifetime. I think its some of the most helpful theology I've ever read.

One more option would be to try "Biblical Christianity" by Calvin published by Grace publications. It is an updated and abridged version of Calvin's Institutes. I don't usually like stuff like this (I want the originals and unabridged!) but in this case I think this would be a good entry point to reading theology.


Brian G. Hedges said...

Book III, chapters 7 - 10 in the Institutes. Should have made that clearer.

Anna said...

By C.S. Lewis I'm guessing you're saying Mere Christianity...it's on my book shelf, Andy's copy...I'm also reading Future Grace by John Piper. I'm glad it's a great question. :)
Is the Four Loves by Lewis a theology book? It's about Christain Love right? I'm afraid I don't know a lot about his theology...:(

Brian G. Hedges said...

Mere Christianity is a great book in most respects. Lewis was an Arminian,so I obviously would disagree with him on numerous points. But where Lewis is right, he is also as winsome and clear and helpful as any writer I know. So, for example, the section called "Beyond Personality" on the Trinity (in Mere Christianity) is superb! But the chapters that deal with the atonement are very weak.

I would categorize The Four Loves as ethics, more than theology. But it is a quite good book in most respects - even though there is probably not as significant a difference between phileo and agape in Greek as Lewis makes out.

Future Grace is an excellent book!Piper is a great place for starting to read theology!

Anna said...

Good! Lewis is now one of my favorite authors. Tolkien too.
I enjoy Future Grace. It's pretty easy to concentrate on, and I feel like it isn't an impossible task. It's really easier than Lewis or Tolkien is!
I want to start reading the Great Divorce too...it's hard to read that one while you're reading Perelandra, so I figure I better finish that one first...