Justification … the first and keenest subject of controversy between us

I have recently been re-reading some of the 7 volume edition of Calvin’s “Tracts and Letter” and so was reminded of a classic Calvin quote on justification.  The context is Calvin’s response to Cardinal Sadolet’s letter to Geneva:

… justification by faith, [is] the first and keenest subject of controversy between us.  Is this [a right understanding of justification] a knotty and useless question?  Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown … I will briefly explain to you how we speak on this subject … We bid a man begin by examining himself … to sist his conscience before the tribunal of God, and when sufficiently convinced of his iniquity, to reflect on the strictness of the sentence pronounced upon all sinners.  Thus confounded and amazed at his misery, he is prostrated and humbled before God; and, casting away all self-confidence, groans as if given up to final perdition.  Then we show that the only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete.  As all mankind are, in the sight of God lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions; by his sacrifice, appeased divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, borne our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us.  We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father. by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy…

Powerful words – and as relevant as the day they were penned!

2 Responses to “Justification … the first and keenest subject of controversy between us”

  1. Matthew Holst Says:

    Hi DJ

    Hope all is well in Cambridge – we miss you all very much.

    Two things (from a now American perspective) – Calvin’s quotation is really interesting to me at the moment, given some of the discussion on this side of the Atlantic. Many quotations like this are being drawn from Calvin and other places as the argument that Justification is the central teaching of salvation, or that it has a primacy in the ordo, even over such things as regeneration. Yet I believe this is to move the goal posts in the discussion. Calvin is explicitly speaking about the relationship between justification and works, and in that context all his above statements are fair.

    The Second and related issue is to do with Murray’s quotations on justification a few threads back. I think his understanding of the role of works in justification is perfectly consonant with Calvin here, yet Murray also adds that justification is “one part of the redemptive process”- he correctly situates within the ordo, as opposed to being the fountainhead of redemptive blessings.

    It seems to me that there is a failure on the part of many within the justification / union discussion to distinguish between the relationship of justification to sanctification (and the logical priority of J over S) and justification’s relationship to union with Christ. Quotations like the Calvin one above are cited in demonstration that he believed that justification is the redemptive conduit for all other blessings. I think that is to do Calvin an injustice. The relationship between Just. and Sanct. and the relationship between Just. and the ordo are two separate discussion.

    Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    Blessings brother.

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Matthew

    Great to hear from you! I trust the ordination was a blessed occasion and that you are settling in well.

    On the points you make, I think you are exactly right – especially the point about needing to distinguish discussions about J &S from discussions about J & the ordo. Calvin here is not saying anything which would be contrary to an understanding of justification as “one part of the redemptive process.”

    As an aside I think that the Gaffin/Murray school is perfectly faithful to the reformed tradition. Hodge for instance, states “federal union is the ground of our justification … vital union is the ground of our sanctification” and that “covenant [federal] union … constitutes Christ the head and representative of his people … Hence his righteousness becomes theirs and constitutes the ground of their justification … the union secures to those for whom Christ acts, the benefits of redemption.” (Princeton Sermons, 213).

    James Durham also places union in the same relationship to justification, as does the leading Westminster Divine, Obadiah Sedgwick in his massive work on the Covenant of Grace.

    Have you seen this years Confessional Presbyterian Journal? There was a very helpful review in their by Gaffin which spent some time on Calvin’s doctrine on Union.

    Every blessing

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