Calvin's Soteriology: The Structure of the Application of Redemption in Book Three of the Institutes

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.


I consider it a special privilege to have this opportunity to speak to you on this occasion.[1] If I may begin on a personal note, I started my formal study of theology about the time of the 450th anniversary of Calvin's birth (marked, for one thing, by the appearance of the Battles translation of the Institutes) and now on the occasion of the 500th anniversary, looking back over the intervening years, I'm aware of just how much I owe to Calvin and how singularly I have been blessed by him, not only as a minister and teacher in the church but also and more importantly as a Christian.

I think here of 1 Corinthians 4:15. There the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, "For though you have countless guides [or teachers] in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel." I know there are others here today—many, I'm sure—who will join me in saying that in Calvin we have found more than just another teacher. Rather, as we have read and studied him, the distance from the sixteenth century has disappeared and we have been nurtured in the gospel and our Christian walk in a way that can only be described as fatherly. We are blessed in having Calvin as one of our relatively few "fathers" in the faith.[2]

In the beautiful and powerful prayer in the latter half of Ephesians 3, that the church might "know the love of Christ that surpasses knowing," Paul asks as well that such comprehension take place "with all the saints" (vv. 18-19). That "with all the saints" expresses a precious and important ecumenical truth, one that, despite divisions necessary and unnecessary, not only spans the face of the earth at any one time but also extends, and will extend, across the centuries until Jesus comes. We can only be reminded of that unity when we consider how by God's faithful hand on his church, we, the OPC, together with so many others are heirs in so many ways of that spiritual and theological legacy of Calvin, preeminently, that we call the Reformed faith. That legacy, in its distinctives, we may remind ourselves on this occasion, is not sectarian; rather it is, so to speak, truth held in trust for all believers. As Warfield observed around the time of the 400th anniversary of Calvin's birth, Reformed doctrine doesn't divide the church; it promotes its true unity.

This afternoon, in the time at our disposal, I want to consider with you something of Calvin's soteriology by looking at the structure or pattern of his teaching on the application of salvation, primarily as that teaching finds its matured expression in Book Three of the Institutes. This is an appropriate topic to consider particularly as we commemorate Calvin and the importance of his theology as a Reformer. For in the need for the Reformation and the issues at stake in it, this issue, the application of redemption, as much as any is the central issue.

Other doctrines, such as the sole ultimate authority of Scripture as God's Word, are clearly at stake as well. Nonetheless, it is fair to say, that among the developments within medieval Catholicism that necessitated the Reformation it was especially this area, the application of salvation, of the sinner's actual receiving of salvation, which was most crucially in need of remedy. What had become so severely obscured was the answer to the young Luther's anguished question, "How do I obtain a gracious God?"—the answer found only in the gospel "solas" of a totally gracious salvation.

It has been said, fairly, I think, and in fact by a Roman Catholic, that the difference between Protestants on the one hand, Catholics and Orthodox on the other, is that for the latter faith in Christ and faith in the Church is the one and same act of faith (the substance of a statement of Richard John Neuhaus in First Things magazine a few years ago; accurate, I'm reasonably confident, though I'm no longer able to document it). From the perspective of faith, the essence of the Reformation is in its decisive and liberating break with this disastrous and enslaving confusion or at least blurring of Christ and the church as the object of faith and, with that break, its recaptured understanding of what faith in Christ is. And that renewed understanding of faith inevitably brought with it a fresh appreciation of how Christ is central in our salvation, particularly in its ongoing application, its personal appropriation.

Among the Reformers, that centrality of Christ—not only now for the accomplishment of our salvation but also and particularly in its application—has been grasped and presented by Calvin in a peerless and, I would say, even to the present still unprecedented way. My interest today is in reminding us how that is so.

The often-quoted words of Phillip Melanchthon toward the beginning of his Loci Communes ("Theological Commonplaces"), known to some of you, may serve as our point of departure: "to know Christ is to know his benefits." That is certainly true, particularly in view of Melanchthon's concern to guard against the tendency in late medieval Roman Catholic theology to reflect upon his person ("his natures and the modes of his incarnation") in an unduly speculative way that neglected or distorted his work. (I will have to leave to the side here how these words of Melanchthon have subsequently been taken out of context and abused by critical theologians, like Rudolph Bultmann.)

Now, if we take Melanchthon's statement and reverse its terms, it reads, "to know his benefits is to know Christ." Doing that can serve to point up an important accent for Calvin. What is the sense of this reversal and the accent it suggests? With that question in mind we may turn to considering some emphases in Book Three of the Institutes.

Union with Christ

1. The final (1559) Latin edition of the Institutes represents an approximately 25 percent expansion of several previous editions and printings of basically the same length appearing from the second edition of 1539 through 1554. Equally, perhaps more, important is the overall restructuring that takes place. What previously, since the first edition of 1536, had been a single volume now for the first time has the multiple book-chapter-section format, familiar since to readers of this definitive Latin edition in its translation into numerous languages (including among English translations those of Beveridge, Allen, and, most recently, Battles).

We are not left to speculate how Calvin himself viewed this substantial restructuring. In his prefatory remarks to the reader, he comments that the editing he had done previously, beginning with the second (1539) edition, was such that the work "has been enriched with some additions." But, he continues, "I was never satisfied until the work had been arranged in the order now set forth." (Battles translation, vol. 1, p. 3; emphasis added; in what follows the page numbers for all quotes are from volume 1 of this translation).

This statement should be kept in mind in reading the Institutes. The structure of the whole and the placing of materials in relation to each other in 1559 afforded Calvin a measure of satisfaction that had eluded him previously for over twenty years. In his own estimation he has now expressed himself more adequately than he had previously. Without in any way suggesting anything less than thorough continuity between this and earlier editions, he is, however, saying something like, "Now I've finally gotten things in the right shape, now at last I'm saying it the way I've been wanting to." This particularly needs to be kept in mind as we look at how he treats the application of salvation in Book Three, both the basic overall structure of that treatment as well the material that is new in 1559.

2. Book Three is entitled "The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow." Previously, the latter half of Book Two (chapters 9-17) has dealt with the finished work of Christ, the once-for-all accomplishment of salvation. So, as the title to Book Three shows, Calvin's concern throughout will now be with the application or personal appropriation of that salvation ("the grace of Christ"), its "benefits" and consequent "effects." All told, his primary interest now is with "the way" (modo; "mode," "manner," "method") in which believers "receive" this grace, in other words, with how this salvation is appropriated personally. Several points may be noted.

a) Book Three, sections 1-2, their positioning as well as their composition, are new with the 1559 edition, with minimal antecedents in earlier editions. The opening words of 3.1.1 restate the concern expressed in the title in the form of a question: "We must now examine this question. How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son—not for Christ's own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men?" The next sentence (the second in the Latin original) then reads, "First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us" (537).

In my view it is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this sentence for Calvin's applied soteriology as a whole and, I would add, for a sound biblical understanding. Calvin speaks here of what is "first" in the sense of what is most fundamental for him in the application of redemption. This is primary, the single most decisive consideration that underlies all others and in that sense controls everything said throughout Book Three (and elsewhere in Calvin) about the application of redemption. Put negatively, as he does, this most deeply decisive consideration is that Christ not remain "outside us," that we not be "separated from him." Or, to express it positively, as he presently does just beyond what we have quoted, that most crucial consideration is that "we grow into one body (in unum) with him." In other words, as his point of departure for all that he has to say about the application of salvation in Book Three, Calvin brings into view and highlights the union that exists between Christ and believers.

This union is so central, so pivotal, that, again expressing the matter negatively, he can even say that without it the saving work of Christ, the once-for-all redemption he has accomplished, "remains useless and of no value." Union is the all-or-nothing reality on which everything depends in the application of salvation. I must have Christ or I have nothing—that consideration underlies and gives rise to all others Calvin is saying. Absent that union, his work for me is—the sweeping, unrelieved language is striking—"useless and of no value." Without union, the benefits that flow from it are nonexistent.

Further, implicitly here and anticipating what he will make clear later, this union is not a partial union, as if we could share in some benefits without others. Unless I share in all of his benefits, I share in none of them. If I do not have the whole Christ, I have no Christ. Or as he puts it elsewhere, Christ "cannot be divided into pieces" (3:16:1, 798); we must not "rend Christ asunder" (Romans Commentary on 6:1; 8:10), referring to those who envision receiving justification and the free remission of sins apart from sanctification and inner renewal.

b) This union, he immediately goes on to make clear, is "obtained by faith." In other words, the union in view is union as it does not exist apart from or prior to faith but is given with, in fact is inseparable from, faith. This mention of faith, and the key role accorded to it, prompts Calvin, still within this opening section, to touch on what would become a central question in subsequent discussions about the ordo salutis, namely the origin of faith. This view of the origin of faith gave rise eventually in Reformed theology, especially in response to the emergence of Arminianism, to the doctrine of regeneration in a narrower sense.

We observe, he says, "that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel." Why? Not because of some differentiating factor or capacity on our side. The answer is not to be found ultimately by looking into ourselves or contemplating the mystery of human freedom and willing. Rather, consistent with his uniform teaching elsewhere about the total inability of the will due to sin, we must "climb higher" and consider "the secret energy of the Spirit" (arcana Spiritus efficacia). Faith is Spirit-worked, sovereignly and efficacious.

Union with Christ, then, is forged by the Spirit's working faith in us, a faith that "puts on" Christ (citing Gal. 3:27), that embraces Christ as he is offered by faith in the gospel. Faith is the bond of union seen from our side. "To sum up, the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself" (538). Subsequently (3:11:10, 737), in discussing union and justification, he will categorize this union as "spiritual" as well as "mystical," that is, as produced by the ineffable working of the Spirit, it is sublime and ultimately beyond our comprehension.

c) This, then, is Calvin's understanding of the application of salvation at its core, the heart of his ordo salutis: union with Christ by Spirit-worked faith. It seems to me that he could hardly make that more clear than he does here. Subsequently (for instance, in 3:11:1, which we will consider), he will also make clear that from this union flows a "twofold grace" (note the singular), consisting of justification and sanctification, the former definitive and settled, the latter in its initiation as an ongoing process, each as distinct as it is inseparable from the other.

We may note here, in passing as it must be, that this Spirit-worked union as the source or matrix of all other benefits in the application of redemption is a part of our Church's confessional commitment. To the question, "How does the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?" Shorter Catechism 30 answers, "The Spirit applies to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling." Then the immediately following questions and answers, beginning with 32, specify the particular benefits of this union brought about by effectual calling. The answer to Larger Catechism 69 is even more explicit: "The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ, is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him" (emphasis added).

With these comments in view from the beginning of Book Three, comments that evidently frame Calvin's overall approach to the application of redemption with its controlling focus on union with Christ, we may explore that structure further by turning now to Chapter 11 of Book Three, the first in his lengthy multi-chapter treatment of justification.

Union with Christ and Twofold Grace (Justification and Sanctification)

1. Section 1 of Chapter 11 begins with Calvin reminding his readers of what he has previously explained "with sufficient care," namely that "the one sole means of recovering salvation" left for those under the curse of the law is "in faith." He also recalls his discussion of faith and its attendant "benefits" and "fruits" (for example, in 3:2-3, on faith and regeneration [= sanctification] by faith). Then follows a summary (summa) of these matters discussed up to this point in Book 3, best quoted here in its entirety (725):

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 his Spirit [not "spirit," contra Battles] we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.

This summary involves two accents that should not be missed. First and foremost is the focus on Christ, on his person. The saving benefits in view that Christ procures do not accrue to faith apart from his person. That is, specifically, they are received only as, by faith (fide), he himself, Christ, is "grasped and possessed." In other words, in view here already at the outset of Calvin's discussion of justification is the believer's union with Christ, about which we hear, emphatically and repeatedly, as that discussion unfolds.

Secondly, by this union, this sharing or partaking of him, believers "principally" or, as we might also translate, "above all" (potissimum) receive "a double grace" (duplicem gratiam). (Since this double grace is "principal," apparently for Calvin it encompasses all other saving benefits that stem from union with Christ.) This twofold grace, Calvin will presently make clear, consists, each in a word, of justification and regeneration (equivalent here with sanctification), each being described in this summary statement in terms of its outcome. Concerning justification, described here as being "reconciled to God," believers have in heaven, instead of a wrathful and unreconciled Judge, a gracious (or propitious, propitium) Father.

Concerning sanctification, as "sanctified," believers are to "cultivate blamelessness and purity of life." It is noteworthy here that in the matter of sanctification, of personal transformation and renewal, Calvin affirms a settled as well as a continuing aspect: it is just as believers have been and already are "sanctified" (note: in distinction from having been justified) that they are to "cultivate" a life of holiness. (This appears to anticipate what more recently John Murray has called "definitive" in distinction from progressive sanctification.)

This summary, with which Calvin opens his treatment of justification, expresses what may be described as "his triangulation of union with Christ, justification, and sanctification" (Mark Garcia). These three elements are fairly taken as points of reference that largely fix the framework of Calvin's thinking, all told, on the application of redemption, the personal appropriation of the finished salvation accomplished by Christ, with which, as we have already seen, he is formally occupied in Book Three of the Institutes. In particular, as we are seeing from the opening of Chapter 11, this triangulation frames his thinking on justification.

2. This raises an important question: how in Calvin's view are these three elements related to each other? At least two things stand out clearly in this summary. First, we find what we should expect from what we have already seen at the beginning of Book Three and from the way there Calvin sets the direction for his entire discussion of the application of redemption: union with Christ has precedence in the sense that the twofold grace is rooted in union and flows from it. Twofold grace is derivative; that is, it is received "by partaking of him." Secondly, as the double benefits of union, justification and sanctification, are clearly inseparable, yet they are not confused; they are clearly distinguished.

Accenting inseparability, Calvin speaks not of two graces but of "twofold grace," in the singular, although later in this section he does refer to "regeneration," that is, sanctification, as "the second of these gifts" (or, better translated, this "second grace"). This signals distinction and a priority of justification to sanctification as an ongoing process that we will address below. The nature of both this difference and inseparability, as well as the nature of the underlying union involved, Calvin will clarify as his discussion unfolds. But these observations already prompt us to speak of the basic union-twofold grace (unio-duplex gratia) structure of Calvin's applied soteriology.

3. Directly following this summary statement, Calvin himself, still in section 1, draws attention to a noteworthy feature of the overall structure of Book Three, a feature present in his argumentation from 1539 on. Prior to taking up justification, he has discussed regeneration (which, as we have already seen, he understands broadly, equivalent to what later theology calls sanctification) and has done so at considerable length. He said what he deemed "sufficient" on that topic and mentioned justification only in passing, leaving it, as he says, "more lightly touched upon." In other words, he first discusses the change that takes place within the sinner, our ongoing inner renewal and personal transformation, before the definitive change effected in the sinner's legal status, our forensic standing before God. He addresses, as he does, the removal of the corrupting slavery of sin before considering the abolition of the guilt it incurs.

This way of proceeding is apparently counterintuitive, even contrary some might think, to Reformation instincts. In the face of Rome's basing of justification on an ongoing process of sanctification, stressing the priority of justification to sanctification would appear to be crucial. Calvin's approach may also seem to be at odds with what he himself will presently say about the pivotal importance of justification as "the main hinge on which religion turns."

This way of ordering material in Book Three, deciding to treat sanctification fully (chapters 3-10) before justification, has provoked considerable discussion about Calvin's motive(s) for doing so. Without being able here to enter into the details of that discussion, we may note that, whatever other factors may have been at work, his primary motivation, at least as he saw it, is plain enough because he tells us explicitly. He has proceeded as he has, he says, "because it was more to the point to understand first how little devoid of good works is the faith through which alone we obtain free righteousness by the mercy of God; and what is the nature of the good works of the saints, with which part of this question is concerned."

This clause bears careful scrutiny. First, the stated reason for discussing sanctification before justification is in order to make clear that faith, justifying faith ("the faith through which alone we obtain free righteousness by the mercy of God"), does not lack good works. It was "to the point" (ad rem), he says, to make clear the nature of that faith "first," that is, before discussing justification itself. Why is doing that "to the point"? One consideration is likely polemical. The constantly echoing charge from Rome at that time (and ever since to the present) is that the Protestant doctrine of justification, of a graciously imputed righteousness received solely by faith, ministers spiritual slothfulness and indifference to holy living.

Calvin counters that charge, effectively and masterfully, by dwelling at length (133 pages!) on the nature of faith, in particular faith's inherent disposition and concern for holiness. Prior to discussing justification as a topic and in any length, largely bypassing justification and saying little about the role of faith in justification, he concerns himself extensively with sanctification and faith in its sanctified expressions. Calvin demolishes Rome's charge by showing that faith, as the sole instrument in receiving justification, in its Protestant understanding, entails a disposition to holiness without explicit reference to its role in being justified.

But what is "to the point" for Calvin is not only its polemical edge. Not only his Roman Catholic opponents (which are only in view implicitly), but all Protestant readers as well, need to understand "how little devoid of good works is the faith, through which alone we obtain free righteousness by the mercy of God." In view is an ongoing concern for godliness, for sanctification, and that concern, Calvin says, is of the essence of the faith that justifies. In other words, sanctifying faith, faith functioning for holy living, is the same faith that justifies.

Certainly, this does not mean that for Calvin faith justifies because it sanctifies or as it functions in sanctification. As he makes clear elsewhere repeatedly and emphatically (in Book Three, e.g., 11.7, 733-34; 14.17, 784; 14.21, 787; 18.8, 830), faith is the sole instrument in receiving justification, and that role differs from its role in sanctification. But faith as justifying and faith as sanctifying are not different faiths, nor are these exercises, though certainly distinguishable, somehow separable.

Further, to understand this and, correlatively, "the nature of the good works of the saints" is a part of the concern of "this question." What question? The question of justification. Pertinent to discussing justification, Calvin is saying here, is to clarify what place the believer's good works have, a question that he will discuss in some depth especially in chapter 16, a discussion we are not able to follow here except to note a comment at the end of section 1 that expresses its gist: "Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness" (798; emphasis added).

These observations prompt a further comment. As twin components of the grace received by being united to Christ by faith, justification and sanctification are inseparable. Now it appears as well that they are simultaneous; inseparability involves simultaneity. Calvin knows nothing of a justification that is first settled and then is only subsequently followed by sanctification. Rather, because and as they both flow from Spirit-worked union, they are simultaneous in the sense that given with this settled and irreversible justification, from the moment it takes place at the inception of the application of redemption, is a disposition inwrought in the ungodly to godliness and holy living, no matter how weak and sin-plagued that disposition and how imperfectly manifested subsequently.

With that noted, to avoid possible misunderstanding: as an ongoing, lifelong process, for Calvin sanctification plainly follows justification. He is not saying, nor am I saying that he is saying, that in order to be justified you must have first done a certain amount or requisite number of good works. Nor is it the case that sanctification simply follows justification in some unrelated, parallel fashion. Rather, justification is the absolutely indispensable precondition of progressive sanctification. This is likely why Calvin calls sanctification "second" in relation to justification. In this sense justification is plainly "prior" to sanctification, and the believer's good works are the fruits and signs of having been justified; only those already justified are being progressively sanctified.

This, however, is not the same thing as saying, what Calvin does not say, that justification is the "source" of sanctification or that justification "causes" sanctification in the sense that it produces sanctification. He may appear at a first glance to say that elsewhere (3.17.9, 812), but there his point is that justification, Christ's imputed righteousness, is the "source" or "basis" of the acceptability to God of our (all too flawed) good works. This is saying something different than that justification is the "source" or "cause" of sanctification and good works. Rather here (in 3.11.1), that source, that cause, is "Christ's Spirit"—Christ by his Spirit, Christ, the "life-giving Spirit" (3.1.2, 539, citing 1 Cor. 15:45; not "spirit," contra Battles), in whom, Calvin is clear in this passage, at the moment they are united to him by faith, sinners simultaneously receive a twofold grace and so begin an ongoing process of being sanctified just as they are now also definitively justified.

4. With this prefatory mix of considerations introduced, flowing out of matters he has previously treated, towards the close of this section (11.1), Calvin begins a thorough, multi-chapter (11-18) treatment of justification. What needs to be kept in mind throughout, he goes on to say, is that justification is "the main hinge on which religion turns" (726; "the principal hinge by which religion is supported"—Allen); Calvin's own 1560 French edition has "the principal article of the Christian religion"—"le principal article de la religion Chrestienne").

A couple of comments are in order on these frequently quoted words, probably Calvin's most well-known statement on justification. a) Clearly, beyond question, he intends here to highlight the central importance of justification. But how is it important? In what sense is it centrally or crucially important? The answer to that question appears in the explanatory sentence that immediately follows at the close of section 1, "For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God."

Uppermost in his mind here is that without the knowledge of justification, expressed as the believer's settled and favorable judicial relationship to God, there is lacking a "foundation" (fundamentum) for salvation and piety. In other words, unless you "grasp" that God is no longer your wrathful, unpropitiated judge but your loving heavenly Father, as you then have no basis "to establish your salvation," so neither do you have a basis "to build piety toward God" (to make more explicit the syntax of the sentence in Latin). The accent here is on what believers need to know, and to know "first of all," for the stable possession of their salvation and to pursue holy living.

It is also to the point here to note that Calvin speaks of "religion" ("the main hinge of religion"). He does not say the main hinge of "salvation," or of "the gospel," or of revealed truth, or of biblical teaching concerning the application of salvation. The word "religion" as it is used here is two-sided in its reference. It presupposes God's self-revelation but has in view primarily the response appropriate to that revelation. In this regard it does not seem unduly speculative to see here an implicit but unmistakable contrast to Rome's religion which, because it grounds justification in an ongoing process of sanctification and infusing sacramental grace, produces a piety for which the outcome at the final judgment is ever uncertain.

b) It is easy enough to lift this "principal hinge" and the following "foundation" statements out of context in the interests of maintaining the view that for Calvin justification is the cardinal and most basic blessing in the application of salvation, the fundamental blessing that gives rise to all others. However, as far as I can see neither the wider context of his teaching in the Institutes and elsewhere, nor even the immediate context of this section will tolerate such a reading. The terms of the next to last sentence of the section (quoted just above) must be noted. In possessing salvation, justification is certainly a sine qua non, but it is not the sole foundational consideration. As crucial as justification undoubtedly is, it is not the stand-alone foundation of the application of redemption.

That foundation, Calvin is clear from the outset of this section (and from the way, as we have seen, he has framed the application of redemption as a whole at the beginning of Book Three), is justification, but justification as a component, together with sanctification, of the principal "twofold grace" that flows out of the believer's underlying union with Christ. If I may put it this way, a "hinge" is not a "skyhook"; to function (to "turn") a hinge has to be anchored to something. Without in any way diminishing its pivotal and central importance, the "hinge" of true religion that justification is, is a hinge that can only turn as it is anchored firmly in our union with Christ, as we are bonded to him by faith. Indeed, as Calvin sees it, justification has its pivotal significance only as and because it is anchored in union.

Regarding the relationship of union and justification, for Calvin justification is not union-producing, it is not a uniting justification, a justification that unites (and then sanctifies). Rather, union is justification-effecting, a justifying union, a union that justifies. According to Calvin, I am not justified in order to be united to Christ; I am united to Christ in order to be justified. Again, I am justified, I have Christ's righteousness imputed to me, by faith. How? Only by being united to him by faith. In that sense I am justified by faith because by faith I am united to Christ, not the reverse. I am not justified, even for moment, outside of my union with Christ (any more than I am united to Christ without, even for an instant, being justified).

Listen to these words of Calvin, his "confession," relating union and justification, in particular what is at the heart of justification, imputation, Christ's righteousness imputed to believers, received by faith (3.11.10, 736-37):

I confess that we are deprived of this utterly incomparable good [imputed righteousness; justification] until Christ is made ours. Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.

In no way do I wish to make my "reader response" normative, but I must confess for my part that I never tire of hearing this confession of Calvin and I am thrilled every time I re-read these words about our union with Christ and our justification In him. And, I would add, taken as they are to be read and properly understood, they hardly "de-center" justification, as some may think. Rather, they echo so well, it seems to me, both the sense and the mood of the God-breathed and normative confession of the apostle in Philippians 3:7-9 that because of the all-surpassing value of "knowing" Christ as Lord, he reckoned all of his previous pedigree and performance as rubbish. To what end? "In order that I might gain Christ and be found in him" and, consequently, in that being found in Christ and as he is found in him, he had a righteousness not his own but the righteousness of God through faith. As Paul teaches elsewhere (Romans and Galatians), this is the righteousness of Christ imputed and received solely by faith. For Calvin, and for Paul and the rest of Scripture that he is so faithful to at this point, justification is central, as central as the union with Christ to which it is inseverably tethered and apart from which it is nonexistent.

Returning briefly to the Melanchthon quote with which we began, yes, "to know Christ is to know his benefits." But that is true, as Calvin has so helped the church in seeing, only as and at the same time and more basically it is also true that "to know his benefits is to know Christ." Knowing Christ does not amount to knowing about or receiving certain saving benefits ("twofold grace," justification and sanctification) in a way that takes place without knowing or receiving him. That is how some have understood Melanchthon and how many Christians, in effect, understand their salvation, particularly the forgiveness of their sins. Rather, we receive those benefits, that is, we "know" them, not apart from him but only as we know him in the Pauline sense—as we "gain Christ and are found in him," that is, only as, by faith, we receive him and are united with him.

5. To sum up on the relationship among union, justification, and sanctification in Calvin—a key issue at the heart of any discussion of the application of salvation: justification and sanctification are the twofold benefit that flows from union with Christ simultaneously and without separation, yet also without confusion.

An illustration Calvin uses for this relationship is a metaphor that seems hard to improve on. It's found in Institutes 3.11.6, in the context of his vigorous refutation of Osiander, where he is intent on showing that Osiander is so seriously wrong about justification because he is so seriously wrong about the nature of union with Christ; a sound understanding of justification and union stand or fall together. Christ, our righteousness, Calvin says, is like the sun, justification, its light, sanctification, its heat. The sun is at once the source of both, so that light and heat are inseparable. But only light illumines and only heat warms, not the reverse. Both are always present, without the one becoming the other (we need not get side-tracked by the physics involved in this metaphor to appreciate its validity!).

This analogy hardly seems arbitrary or a purely random one. It is prompted by the biblical truth, for instance, that as he is God's last-days speech and "the exact imprint of his nature," the Son is also "the radiance of his glory" (Heb. 1:2-3). The "sun" of our salvation is the Son. Calvin, in his writing and preaching, has focused the church's attention on the obvious and glorious centrality of the Son in the once-for-all, finished accomplishment of our salvation. But also, as few others and in a singular way, he has served the church by showing how the Son in his glory is central in its ongoing application.

As God continues to bless those efforts of Calvin, that glory of the Son, we can be sure, will shine for another 500 years or even beyond, or until sooner, if God wills, we no longer see him, the justifying and transforming glory-image with whom we are united, "in a mirror dimly, but ... face to face."


[1] A lecture, slightly edited, given on May 27, 2009 at the Pre-Assembly Conference of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth.

[2] It has been said, fairly, I think, and in fact by a Roman Catholic, that a crucial difference between Protestants on the one hand, Catholics and Orthodox on the other is that for the latter faith in Christ and faith in the Church is the one and same act of faith (Richard John Neuhaus, "A More Real World," First Things, Dec. 1997; "The Secular City Redux," First Things, Nov. 2003).

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Emeritus at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant November 2009.

Publication Information

Contact the Editor: Gregory Edward Reynolds

Editorial address: Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds,
827 Chestnut St.
Manchester, NH 03104-2522
Telephone: 603-668-3069

Electronic mail: reynolds.1@opc.org

Submissions, Style Guide, and Citations


Editorial Policies

Copyright information


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church