Wednesday, August 12, 2015

So You Want to Be a Calvinist? John Calvin on the Concept of Justification

Up to about the year 1500, the term “justification” was widely understood to mean “to be made righteous.” This interpretation, which had its origins in the writings of St. Augustine (or Aurelius Augustinus. I recommend reading his autobiography, The Confessions. Awesome!), saw justification as both an event and a process. The Reformation, however, saw justification defined exclusively in forensic terms – that is, as an event, in which sinners are declared to be righteous before God. Justification is then followed by sanctification, a process in which believers are made righteous. In this passage, John Calvin provides a classic articulation of this forensic notion of justification.

To be justified in God’s sight is to be reckoned as righteous in God’s judgement, and to be accepted on account of that righteousness… The person who is justified by faith is someone who, apart from the righteousness of works, has taken hold of the righteousness of Christ through faith, and having been clothed with it, appears in the sight of God not as a sinner, but as a righteous person. Therefore justification is to be understood simply as the acceptance by which God receives us into his favour as righteous people. We say that it consists of the remission of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ…

There is no doubt that we obtain justification in the sight of God only by the intercession of the righteousness of Christ. This is equivalent to saying that believers are not righteous in themselves, but on account of the communication of the righteousness of Christ through imputation, something to be noted carefully… Our righteousness is not in us, but in Christ. We possess it only because we participate in Christ; in fact, with him, we possesses all his riches.”


1) Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.xi.2, 23; in Johannis Calvini: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel, vol. 4 (Munich: Kaiser, 1931), 182.25-183.10; 206.17-32.
2) The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister E. McGrath (Oxford: Blackwell), pg. 234-235

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