Calvin on Double Justification

Witsius cites Calvin’s Institutes 3.17.8 in support of the tradition of double justification. In section 8, Calvin, after defending justification by faith alone, does teach a justification by works which is itself founded on the prior justification by faith alone. Calvin writes:

Forgiveness of sins being previously given, the good works which follow have a value different from their merit, because whatever is imperfect in them is covered by the perfection of Christ, and all their blemishes and pollutions are wiped away by his purity, so as never to come under the cognizance of the divine tribunal. The guilt of all transgressions, by which men are prevented from offering God an acceptable service, being thus effaced, and the imperfection which is wont to sully even good works being buried, the good works which are done by believers are deemed righteous, or; which is the same thing, are imputed for righteousness.

Notice that Calvin rejects that these works, which are imputed for righteousness, have any merit. They are acceptable, even counted righteous, but they are not meritorious. John Davenant will follow him in this very position in his treatise on inherent and imputed righteousness.

Calvin continues in sections 9 and 10 of the same chapter on this same topic. He states:

They cannot deny that justification by faith is the beginning, the foundation, the cause, the subject, the substance, of works of righteousness, and yet they conclude that justification is not by faith, because good works are counted for righteousness. Let us have done then with this frivolity, and confess the fact as it stands; if any righteousness which works are supposed to possess depends on justification by faith, this doctrine is not only not impaired, but on the contrary confirmed, its power being thereby more brightly displayed. Nor let us suppose, that after free justification works are commended, as if they afterwards succeeded to the office of justifying, or shared the office with faith. For did not justification by faith always remain entire, the impurity of works would be disclosed. There is nothing absurd in the doctrine, that though man is justified by faith, he is himself not only not righteous, but the righteousness attributed to his works is beyond their own deserts.

And also:

In this way we can admit not only that there is a partial righteousness in works (as our adversaries maintain), but that they are approved by God as if they were absolutely perfect. If we remember on what foundation this is rested, every difficulty will be solved. The first time when a work begins to be acceptable is when it is received with pardon. And whence pardon, but just because God looks upon us and all that belongs to us as in Christ? Therefore, as we ourselves when ingrafted into Christ appear righteous before God, because our iniquities are covered with his innocence; so our works are, and are deemed righteous, because every thing otherwise defective in them being buried by the purity of Christ is not imputed. Thus we may justly say, that not only ourselves, but our works also, are justified by faith alone. Now, if that righteousness of works, whatever it be, depends on faith and free justification, and is produced by it, it ought to be included under it and, so to speak, made subordinate to it, as the effect to its cause; so far is it from being entitled to be set up to impair or destroy the doctrine of justification.

So we can now add Calvin to our list of Reformed doctors who taught some form of double justification. Witsius also cites Bucer, whose Loci Communes I have ordered (it is checked out from the library and says it won’t be back for a year!). Bucer’s double justification is clear though, and most people know about it.

The other important thing about the selections from Calvin is that they were noticed in their day and cited by later Reformed doctors. This was a legitimate part of the tradition.

This entry was posted in calvin, church history, justification by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

6 thoughts on “Calvin on Double Justification

  1. Hi

    “the good works which are done by believers are deemed righteous,”

    Up until that point everything seems clear; justification (the imputation of the perfections of Christ) extends to our works. I would expect the sentence to continue thus:
    “or which is the same thing, are counted acceptable” or something like; ” or which is the same thing, righteousness is imputed to them (works)”.

    Instead we get; “or; which is the same thing, are imputed for righteousness.”
    I fail to understand how “are deemed righteous” is the same thing as “are imputed for righteousness.”
    In the former the ‘good works’ are receiving the ‘deemed righteous’, in the latter the ‘good works’ are imputed to whom or what?

    Did Calvin slip up? Is it a translation issue? Or am I not making sense?

    It seems to me that your whole case for including Calvin on your interesting list of “double justification” rest on this very phrase. Calvins burden is to explain why our imperfect works can have value to a perfect God. Not what role our works play in justification but how our works are themselves justified (by faith alone).

    What have I missed?

  2. I don’t think there’s any tension between deemed righteous and imputed for righteousness. “Impute” means “to deem” or “to consider.” Calvin is saying that once we have faith, it makes us perfect (by uniting us to Jesus, who is the prior perfection), and our works are acceptable.

    But yes, all works rely on the primary foundation of faith. All “final justification” in Reformed theology is founded on the initial justification by faith alone.

  3. Pingback: To An Unknown God » Newman Membership in UiC

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  5. Calvin’ thought on Double Justification was very helpful for especially those who have been experienced that the one who had been justified by faith. Although the one who had been justified by Faith that he had experienced, but it was not yet fulfilment rather it was the process and like dynamic to be fulfilled in the end time which was known by God alone. it was the life for believers that to be bear fruit good works. therefore, double justification was closely related or dispensible organic union on one person. i summaried, double Justification of Calvin was going on till now and a the day to come until the fulfilment had come.

  6. It appears from Scripture (1John) that our works are cleansed by the blood. If we “confess”, and if we “walk in the light” the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

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