With great vigor, Calvin unfolds the Pauline teaching of justification by faith alone from Luke’s report of Paul’s words in Pisidian Antioch in Acts 13.38-9 (“Let it be known to you, therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses”). Calvin takes the “law” as referring here to the ceremonial law; but that, of course, does not limit the application of what is said to the ceremonial law, for the reasons he explains.
Given that presumed referent of the “law,” Calvin also includes a brief against ceremonialism. Taking refuge in ceremonies–that is, in the physical actions that accompany the worship of God–, instead of being led by them to Christ, is for Calvin ironically a forsaking of the body for vain shadows.
The passage is long, but worth reading.
38. Therefore, be it known unto you. After that he hath declared the mean whereby salvation is purchased through Christ, he doth now intreat of his office and power. And this is the principal point, to know what good things we have by the coming of Christ, and what we are to hope for at his hands. And although Luke setteth down in a word that Paul preached of the benefits of Christ, yet there is no cause why any man should doubt but that so great matters were handled weightily, and only according as their dignity did require. By this word, Be it known unto you, Paul meaneth that nothing should hinder them from knowing such an excellent and plain matter, save only sloth; and that, therefore, it was an absurd thing that those benefits of God should be hidden from the faithful which were offered by Christ. For he was sent with the shrill preaching of the gospel, which our faith ought to hear, that it may enter into the sure possession of his good things; for we must know what he is, that we may enjoy him truly. Forgiveness of sins is set first, whereby God doth reconcile us unto himself. That which God will have preached to all his people doth he show to be necessary for all men; for Paul speaketh not to one or two, but to all the Jews which were at Antioch.
Therefore, we must first mark that we be all enemies to God through sin, (Colossians 2:13.) Whereupon it followeth that we are all excluded from the kingdom of God, and are given over to eternal death, until God receive us to favor by the free forgiveness of sins. We must also note this, that God doth pardon to us our sins, and that he is reconciled through the Mediator, because like as without him there is no satisfaction, so neither is there any pardon or forgiveness of guiltiness. These be principles of our faith which are not learned in the schools of the philosophers, that all mankind is condemned and drowned in sin, that there is in us no righteousness which is able to reconcile us to God; that the only hope of salvation resteth in his mercy, whilst that he doth freely forgive us; and that those remain under the guilt which fly not unto Christ, and seek not forgiveness in his death.
And from all things. He doth secretly prevent that which might seem contrary to the former doctrine. For look how many ceremonies of the law there were, so many exercises were there to obtain remission of sins. Therefore, the Jews might readily object, If he alone do reconcile God to us, our sins being done away, to what end serve so many washings and sacrifices, which we have hitherto used according to the prescript of the law? Therefore, lest the ceremonies of the law hinder the Jews, Paul teacheth that Christ doth that which they were not able to do. Not that Paul spake so briefly and compendiously, (for he did not hope that the Jews would at the first come unto Christ, casting from them suddenly the affiance which they had in the righteousness of the law;) but it was sufficient for Luke briefly to collect the sum of those things which he then taught in just and due order. His meaning is, that the Mediator took away that let from the Jews wherein they did stick. The ceremonial law ought indeed to have been a schoolmaster to lead them by the hand unto Christ; all rites commanded by God were helps to help and further their faith; but as men use preposterously to corrupt the holy ordinances of God, they stop the way before themselves by their ceremonies, and they shut the gate of faith, that they could not come to Christ. They thought they had righteousness in sacrifices; that by washings was gotten true cleanness; that God was pleased with them so soon as they had ended their external pomp: in sum, forsaking the body, they laid hold upon vain shadows. God did indeed appoint no unprofitable or vain thing in the law; wherefore ceremonies were sure and undoubted testimonies of remission of sins. For God did not lie in these words, Let the sinner do sacrifice, and his iniquity shall be purged. But as Christ was the end of the law, and the heavenly pattern of the tabernacle, so the force and effect of all ceremonies did depend upon him; whereby it is proved that they were vain shadows, when he was set aside, (Hebrews 8:5.) Now we see Paul’s drift and purpose; to wit, that he meant to draw away the Jews from the false and perverse confidence which they reposed in the law; lest being puffed up, they should think that they had no need of Christ’s help, or lest they should seek only external felicity in him.
Be justified in the law. This place doth plainly show what the word justified doth import in all other places where it is used; to wit, to be delivered and acquitted. There was mention made of remission of sins; Paul affirmeth that there is no other way whereby we can obtain the same but the grace of Christ. Lest any man should object that there be remedies to be found in the law, he answereth that there was in them no force. Therefore the sense is plain, that they cannot be justified from sin in the law, because the rites of the law were neither just nor lawful prices to remove guiltiness; they were nothing worth of themselves to deserve righteousness, neither were they sufficient recompenses to appease God. Certainly, it cannot be denied (but wickedly) that that justification annexed to remission of sins is, as it were, the means and way to obtain the same. For what else doth Paul go about but to confirm that saying, that our sins are forgiven us through the benefit of Christ, by answering contrary objections? And he proveth it, because neither satisfactions, neither all the rites of the law, call justify us from sin. Therefore he is justified by Christ, who is freely loosed from the guilt and judgment of eternal death to which he was subject. This is the righteousness of faith, whilst that God counteth us just, by not imputing our sins.
This only propriety of the word is sufficient to refute the cavils of the Papists, who hold that we are not justified by pardon or by free accepting, but by habit and infused righteousness. Therefore, let us not suffer them to rend in pieces unworthily and wickedly this text of Paul, when he saith that they are justified from all things, that we may be assured of remission of sins. And now we must know that the law of Moses is set against Christ, as the principal mean to obtain righteousness, if there had been any besides Christ. Paul disputeth, indeed, of ceremonies; but we must note that there was nothing omitted in them which might serve to purge sins and to appease God. Yet there was not one of all the ceremonies of the law which did not make man guilty, as a new handwriting; as Paul teacheth, Colossians 2:14. What then? Assuredly God meant to testify that men are justified by the death of his Son alone, because he made him sin for us who did [knew] no sin, that we might have righteousness in him, (2 Corinthians 5:21.) Whereupon it followeth that whatsoever satisfactions are invented by men, they tend to rob Christ of his honor. In the law and in Christ signify as much as by the law and by Christ, according to the Hebrew phrase.
From all things. By this member is refuted the wicked invention of the Papists, who teach that only original sin and actual sins committed before baptism are clearly and freely forgiven by Christ, and that others are redeemed by satisfactions. But Paul saith plainly that we are justified from sins by Christ throughout the whole course of our life. For we must remember that the ceremonies [rites] of the law were committed to the Jews, that as well the profit as the use thereof might flourish daily in the Church; that is, that the Jews might indeed understand that their sacrifices and washings were not continually reiterated in vain. If the truth and substance of them be found in Christ, it followeth that there is no other satisfaction or sacrifice to put away sins but his death; otherwise there should be no analogy or proportion between this and the old figures. The Papists call us back unto repentance and the keys, as if the ceremonies of the law were not exercises to think upon repentance, and as if the power of the keys were not annexed unto them. But the faith of the godly was holpen by such helps, that they might fly unto the grace of the Mediator alone. Therefore, let this remain sure and certain that the righteousness which we have in Christ is not for one day or a moment, but it is everlasting, as the sacrifice of his death doth daily reconcile us to God.
39. Every one that believeth. Paul showeth how men obtain the righteousness of Christ; to wit, when they receive it by faith; and that which faith doth obtain is not obtained by any merits of works. Wherefore, Paul’s opinion is plain, that we are justified by faith alone, which, notwithstanding the Papists oppugn [oppose] and strive against no less obstinately than bitterly, nevertheless, it is requisite that we know what the word believe doth import, which is made unsavory to the Papists through ignorance. There be also other benefits of Christ which we reap by faith; for when he regenerateth us by his Spirit, he restoreth in us the image of God; and after that the old man is crucified he fashioneth us unto newness of life. But it was enough for Luke to express this one thing, how men return into favor with God, from whom they be estranged by sin, because we may easily pass thence unto the residue.