One of the disputed points in the recent debates over justification, sanctification, and the ordo salutis is whether there is such a thing as a “final justification” in the Reformed tradition, and, if so, what place the believer’s good works play in that justification. Some have reacted viscerally against the very idea of applying the term “justification” to anything other than the standard (and rightly central) initial justification by faith which served as Luther’s rallying cry. To them, any other distinction or secondary classification of the term is unacceptable and an inevitable threat to the doctrine of justification by faith alone through the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. Some are willing to grant the concept but insist on using another name. Others will allow the name “justification,” but argue that the devil is in the prepositions– our “final justification” may be “according to” works but not “on the basis of” works. Standing in back of all of this are the earlier and even-more explosive controversies of neonomianism, the Norman Shepherd controversy, and the Federal Vision.
A simple appeal to John Calvin will not and cannot answer all of the disputed questions, and this essay will not attempt to chase down all of the related topics of doctrine which appeared in the above-mentioned debates. Calvin’s position on this question was not the only position that the later Reformed tradition accepted, nor was it necessarily the primary one which they emphasized. Still, it was an important one, and understanding it does help to clarify one particular “option” in the traditional landscape. I believe clearly laying out Calvin’s understanding of a secondary justification can assist contemporary Reformed readers and writers explain their own views with sharper accuracy.
This essay will show that John Calvin does have a doctrine of “double” justification, which can be relevant to discussions about “final justification,” and that this entails a kind of justification which is subordinate to his doctrine of justification by faith alone. This subordinate doctrine is an effect of regeneration or sanctification, but since it involves a judicial declaration, it can be called “justification,” as long as the appropriate qualifications are made. The arguments I will make have been made in the past by Peter Lillback, Richard Gaffin, and others, though I have tried to simply deal with Calvin directly rather than interact with their readings specifically. 1 A 2009 article in the Westminster Theological Journal by Steven Coxhead also makes similar claims. 2 Still, the interpretations of Calvin’s writings here are my own.
Before looking at Calvin, we should understand the most common objection to a doctrine of final justification. Suggesting that there is a future point in which the believer’s works will be judged seems to suggest neonomianism, or so the loudest critics say. To claim that Calvin held to a future justification would be akin to claiming that he was a neonomian, and for most of Reformed people that would also be a subtle defense of neonomianism. This is obviously bad.
But before falling into the battle of taxonomy and guilt by association, we need to ask for a definition. What is neonomianism?
Herman Bavinck provides a neat summary of what neonomianism is in the 3rd Vol. of his Reformed Dogmatics:
And so Amyraldism and Arminianism in England soon allied themselves with each other and shaped the features of that conception of the order of salvation that is known as “neonomianism.” This name generally characterizes that sentiment that posits the ground for the believer’s justification, not in the imputed righteousness of Christ, but in the believer’s own, sincere, though imperfect, righteousness. According to this view, Christ, by his suffering and death, made satisfaction for the sins of all humankind and made salvation possible for all humans, and so brought them all into a “salvable state.” This salvable state consists in the fact that whereas the old law, the law of the covenant of works, demanded perfect righteousness from everyone, Christ has now introduced “a new law,” a law of grace, which is content with faith and repentance, with sincere, albeit imperfect, obedience of the contrite sinner. The work of Christ, therefore, may also still be called our “legal righteousness” because by it he has satisfied the old law; we may even plead our case on the basis of that work when the old law makes its demands on us. But evangelical righteousness that is the ground of our justification is a different one: it consists in our obedience to the new law, that is, in our faith and repentance. (Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 3, pg. 532-533)
We do not need to endorse all of taxonomic connections in Bavinck’s church history. More recent work has surely refined our understanding of “Amyralidism” and its reception in England. Whether similar refinement turns out to be needed for “neonomianism,” is also beyond our purposes here. All we need is to demonstrate a common understanding of the label in our present day, and Bavinck’s summary is as helpful as any. What we see is that neonomianism argues for a sort of two-stage justification, with the former employing the absolute law/gospel distinction but in a new way, as a way to then create the latter stage, a less strict system wherein believers are expected to meet new conditions of a new law, by the fruits of their sanctification. The first justification does not accomplish or necessarily secure the final justification but rather initiates a process which must be completed by sanctification. Christ’s righteousness satisfies the demands of the “old law,” but Christ Himself also institutes a new law which we must satisfy through faith and repentance.
Thus, “neonomianism.” It is a modification away from the distinctive features of the magisterial (or “Lutheran,” if you wish) doctrine of justification by faith alone. It offers that older doctrine as a starting point, but then it asks for an additional doctrine of justification by works in order to fully justify the believer. Thus it has a very distinct form of “double” or “final” justification. As we will show, this is light years away from the sort of double justification that Calvin teaches. While it is possible that some of the Neonomians misunderstand Calvin’s view and claimed it as inspiration, there is no necessary connection between the two.
John Calvin clearly and consistently taught what we think of as the traditional Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, though the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. He insisted on this, to the exclusion of our good works, including preparatory works or those wrought by the Holy Spirit in us through regeneration. He makes his views plain in countless places:
Therefore we acknowledge the things which are consequently given to us by God in Jesus Christ: first, that being in our own nature enemies of God and subjects of his wrath and judgment, we are reconciled with him and received again in grace through the intercession of Jesus Christ, so that by his righteousness and guiltlessness we have remission of our sins, and by the shedding of his blood we are cleansed and purified from all our stains.
Finally, we acknowledge that this regeneration is so effected in us that, until we slough off this mortal body, there remains always in us much imperfection and infirmity, so that we always remain poor and wretched sinners in the presence of God. And, however much we ought day by day to increase and grow in God’s righteousness, there will never be plenitude or perfection while we live here. Thus we always have need of the mercy of God to obtain the remission of our faults and offences. And so we ought always to look for our righteousness in Jesus Christ and not at all in ourselves, and in him be confident and assured, putting no faith in our works. (Genevan Confession of Faith, 1536, articles 7 & 9)
In his Institutes, Calvin writes:
[J]ustified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man. Therefore we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. (Inst. 3.11.2)
The full exclusion of works is pronounced when Calvin poses an opposition between “law righteousness” and “faith righteousness”:
The law, he says [speaking of the Apostle Paul– SW], is different from faith. Why? Because works are required for law righteousness. Therefore it follows that they are not required for faith righteousness. From this relation it is clear that those who are justified by faith are justified apart from the merit of works–in fact, without the merit of works. For faith receives that righteousness which the gospel bestows. Now the gospel differs from the law in that it does not link righteousness to works but lodges it solely in God’s mercy.
…How is this so except that faith rests entirely upon God’s mercy without the assistance of works? (Inst. 3.11.18)
Calvin staunchly rejects the argument that this justification by faith in merely a beginning of a process that is then completed by our own righteousness:
Therefore, God does not, as many stupidly believe, once for all reckon to us as righteousness that forgiveness of sins concerning which we have spoken in order that, having obtained pardon for our past life, we may afterward seek righteousness in the law; this would be only to lead us into false hope, to laugh at us, and mock us. (Inst. 3.14.10)
Now it is true that Calvin does not explicitly address the neonomian concept of “new law” or “evangelical law,” which would have a lower standard for judgment. However, he immediately goes on to exclude any lesser standard of judgment from God’s righteous sentencing, arguing instead that only perfect righteousness can satisfy:
…the law moreover announces death and judgment to all who do not maintain perfect righteousness in works, it will always have grounds for accusing and condemning us unless, on the contrary, God’s mercy counters it, and by continual forgiveness of sins repeatedly acquits us. (Inst. 3.14.10)
Calvin then says that Christ’s mediation is ongoing, and atones for the entirety of our lives:
For Christ ever remains the Mediator to reconcile the Father to us; and his death has everlasting efficacy: namely, cleansing, satisfaction, atonement, and finally perfect obedience, with which all our iniquities are covered. And Paul does not say to the Ephesians that we have the beginning of salvation from grace but that we have been saved through grace, “not by works, lest any man should boast” [Eph. 2:8-9]. (Inst. 3.14.11)
In his commentary on Gen. 15, Calvin slams shut the door that a man could first be justified by faith alone and then later have this justification altered by works:
On which point many are too grossly deceived. For they grant, indeed, that the righteousness which is freely bestowed upon sinners and offered to the unworthy is received by faith alone; but they restrict this to a moment of time, so that he who at the first obtained justification by faith, may afterwards be justified by good works. By this method, faith is nothing else than the beginning of righteousness, whereas righteousness itself consists in a continual course of works. But they who thus trifle must be altogether insane. For if the angelical uprightness of Abram faithfully cultivated through so many years, in one uniform course, did not prevent him from fleeing to faith, for the sake of obtaining righteousness; where upon earth besides will such perfection be found, as may stand in God’s sight? Therefore, by a consideration of the time in which this was said to Abram, we certainly gather, that the righteousness of works is not to be substituted for the righteousness of faith, in any such way, that one should perfect what the other has begun; but that holy men are only justified by faith, as long as they live in the world. (Commentary on Gen. 15:7)
So we see the classic “Lutheran” doctrine of justification by faith alone in an alien righteousness, namely the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. This justification covers our entire life, and no subsequent works of our own can contradict. Elsewhere, this doctrine is used to support Calvin’s notion of perseverance of the saints.
We could multiply citations to this effect. The “old” view on Calvin is certainly correct. He held the classic doctrine, and he emphasized it as the “lynchpin” on which the rest of his theology hinged. There is really no way to modify or water-down this part of Calvin’s teaching, and any attempt to do so would only serve to demonstrate a severe internal contradiction within his thought. Classic Calvin is still the real Calvin.
Now, having said all of that, Calvin does indeed allow for another, a different kind of justification. It remains a forensic and declarative act. It is not confused with the transformative work of regeneration. But it does take that work into account and render a sort of judgment on the spiritual fruit of sanctification. More often than not, this appears as slight concession, followed by a more forthright defense of the more fundamental kind of justification, the one just explained above. But other times, Calvin explains it in more detail and sets it forth as a doctrine which rounds out his systematic understanding of theology.
For instance, immediately following his rejection of a two-stage justification for Abraham in Genesis 15, Calvin adds this section:
But now since after such great progress, he is still said to be justified by faith, it thence easily appears that the saints are justified freely even unto death. I confess, indeed, that after the faithful are born again by the Spirit of God, the method of justifying differs, in some respect, from the former. For God reconciles to himself those who are born only of the flesh, and who are destitute of all good; and since he finds nothing in them except a dreadful mass of evils, he counts them just, by imputation. But those to whom he has imparted the Spirit of holiness and righteousness, he embraces with his gifts. Nevertheless, in order that their good works may please God, it is necessary that these works themselves should be justified by gratuitous imputation; but some evil is always inherent in them. Meanwhile, however, this is a settled point, that men are justified before God by believing not by working; while they obtain grace by faith, because they are unable to deserve a reward by works. (Commentary on Gen. 15:7, emphasis mine)
This secondary kind of justification is said to be a side issue. Calvin is careful to conclude with a renewed emphasis on justification by faith as contrasted against works. But notice what he does say. After being justified, the good works of believers are themselves justified. A righteousness is imputed to them, not in a way as to erase or entirely overshadow them, but rather as to make those good works capable of being accepted too.
This is not an one-off occurrence in Calvin. In his sermons on Genesis, he reasserts this point about Abraham. Calvin first restates his criticism of the idea that justification begins by faith and is completed by works. He rejects that, and asserts his own doctrine which we have explained above. But then he adds, “After he has received them, he justifies them in their persons, that is to say, he considers them pleasing as his children, and next he justifies their works.” (CO 23, pg 719). A few sentences later, Calvin says, “But we know that he justifies us in our persons and justifies us even in our works by pure faith.” Thus there is a justification of our person, and this is the basic doctrine of justification by faith alone, and this justification then extends to our works, wherein they are also justified.
This subordinate kind of justification appears in Calvin’s consideration of Phinehas, who the Scriptures say had his zeal imputed as righteousness (Psalm 106:31). Calvin first comments on this matter in his Romans Commentary, on chapter 4:6-8:
It invalidates in no degree what Paul says, that works are sometimes imputed for righteousness, and that other kinds of blessedness are mentioned. It is said in Psalm 106:30-31, that it was imputed to Phinehas, the Lord’s priest, for righteousness, because he took away reproach from Israel by inflicting punishment on an adulterer and a harlot. It is true, we learn from this passage, that he did a righteous deed; but we know that a person is not justified by one act. What is indeed required is perfect obedience, and complete in all its parts, according to the import of the promise, — “He who shall do these things shall live in them.” (Deuteronomy 4:1.)
How then was this judgment which he inflicted imputed to him for righteousness? He must no doubt have been previously justified by the grace of God: for they who are already clothed in the righteousness of Christ, have God not only propitious to them, but also to their works, the spots and blemishes of which are covered by the purity of Christ, lest they should come to judgment. As works, infected with no defilements, are alone counted just, it is quite evident that no human work whatever can please God, except through a favor of this kind. But if the righteousness of faith is the only reason why our works are counted just, you see how absurd is the argument, — “That as righteousness is ascribed to works, righteousness is not by faith only.” But I set against them this invincible argument, that all works are to be condemned as those of unrighteousness, except a man be justified solely by faith.
The like is said of blessedness: they are pronounced blessed who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways, (Psalm 128:1,) who meditate on his law day and night, (Psalm 1:2) but as no one doeth these things so perfectly as he ought, so as fully to come up to God’s command, all blessedness of this kind is nothing worth, until we be made blessed by being purified and cleansed through the remission of sins, and thus cleansed, that we may become capable of enjoying that blessedness which the Lord promises to his servants for attention to the law and to good works. Hence the righteousness of works is the effect of the righteousness of God, and the blessedness arising from works is the effect of the blessedness which proceeds from the remission of sins. Since the cause ought not and cannot be destroyed by its own effect, absurdly do they act, who strive to subvert the righteousness of faith by works. (emphasis mine)
Again, we see that the framing is actually defensive. Calvin wants to explain how this sort of “justification by works” does not undermine or contradict justification by faith alone. Calvin’s answer is that the justification of Phinehas’ works was itself dependent on a prior justification by faith alone. The good works were still imperfect, considered absolutely, and so they had need of forgiveness and acceptance by grace. That they so accepted by grace is itself a fruit of the prior justification by faith alone. “The righteousness of our faith is the only reason why our works are counted just.”
Yet still, even in the middle of that argument, we do see Calvin granting a subordinate justification, “works are sometimes imputed for righteousness.” Calvin says more about this in his later commentary on the Psalm 106:31:
But a more difficult question still remains, How that one action could be imputed to Phinehas for righteousness? Paul proves that men are justified by faith alone, because it is written, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness,” Romans 4:3
In Genesis 15:6, Moses employs the same word. If the same thing may be said respecting works, the reasoning of Paul will be not only feeble, but frivolous. First of all, let us examine, whether or not Phinehas was justified on account of this deed alone. Verily the law, though it could justify, by no means promises salvation to any one work, but makes justification to consist in the perfect observance of all the commandments. It remains, therefore, that we affirm, that the work of Phinehas was imputed to him for righteousness, in the same way as God imputes the works of the faithful to them for righteousness, not in consequence of any intrinsic merit which they possess, but of his own free and unmerited grace. And as it thus appears, that the perfect observance of the law alone (which is done no where) constitutes righteousness, all men must prostrate themselves with confusion of face before God’s judgment-seat. Besides, were our works strictly examined, they would be found to be mingled with much imperfection. We have, therefore, no other source than to flee for refuge to the free unmerited mercy of God. And not only do we receive righteousness by grace through faith, but as the moon borrows her light from the sun, so does the same faith render our works righteous, because our corruptions being mortified, they are reckoned to us for righteousness. In short, faith alone, and not human merit, procures both for persons and for works the character of righteousness. I now return to Paul. And it is not from a single expression, that he argues that we are justified freely, and by faith only, but he assumes higher principles, to which I lately referred, that all men are destitute of righteousness, until God reconcile them to himself by the blood of Christ; and that faith is the means by which pardon and reconciliation are obtained, because justification by works is nowhere to be obtained. Hence he very properly concludes, that we are justified by faith alone. But righteousness by works is as it were subordinate (as they say) to the righteousness just mentioned, while works possess no value in themselves, excepting, and as far as, out of pure benevolence, God imputes them to us for righteousness. (emphasis mine)
Here we see the same argument that our good works can only be accepted in God’s eyes if they too are justified and that justification is by faith alone. Still, Calvin is willing to say that “the work of Phinehas was imputed to him for righteousness, in the same way as God imputes the works of the faithful to them for righteousness.” It rests upon God’s prior grace, and that grace is founded on the work of Christ, but it extends to us in such a way as that it renders our good works in the life of sanctification a subordinated by true status of “righteousness.” Our good works relate to our faith as the moon to the sun, and in that way they too can be “reckoned to us for righteousness.”
This subordinate justification is a judgment on our sanctification. It is “based on” it. And yet, this judgment presupposes a prior justification by faith alone, grounded in Christ’s work, and this priority is not one of mere temporality. To the contrary, justification by faith alone is a foundation atop which the subordinate justification is placed– and the subordinate justification cannot exist without the foundation.
With this concept in mind, we can see several places in the Institutes where Calvin alludes to it. In Inst. 3.14.8, Calvin says:
Accordingly, they have spoken very truly who have taught that favor with God is not obtained by anyone through works, but on the contrary works please him only when the person has previously found favor in his sight. And here we must faithfully keep the order to which Scripture leads us by the hand. Moses writes: “The Lord had regard for Abel and his works” [Gen. 4:4]. Do you see that he points out how the Lord is favorable to men before he has regard to their works? Therefore, purification of heart must precede, in order that those works which come forth from us may be favorably received by God.
Our person is accepted first, by faith in Christ, and then our works are also accepted. A few chapters later, Calvin repeats this concept, “all our righteous deeds are foul in God’s sight unless these derive a good odor from Christ’s innocence… Works can only arouse God’s vengeance unless they be sustained by his merciful pardon” (Inst. 3.14.16). The message of judgment is familiar and consistent with what we would expect, but the use of “unless” is important. Once we have been pardoned by God and imputed as righteous in Christ, then our good works can be accepted by God. This allows those works to strengthen the believer’s faith (Inst. 3.14.18) and serve as a fruit of their calling and regeneration (3.14.19). Calvin even goes so far as to call works “inferior causes” of our salvation, though he immediately qualifies that in contrast to the four principal causes, each of which excludes our works (Inst. 3.14.21).
Again, this subordinate “righteousness” is not in competition with the basic justification by faith alone. It does not detract from it. Rather it receives its own existence from that prior justification and is a fruit of it. It cannot exist without it, and it cannot undo it. Rather, the subordinate justification is dependent upon the prior justification.
This teaching comes into its fullest articulation in Calvin’s commentary on Ezekiel 18:17. This is a lengthy section, and it has been summarized by Richard Gaffin here. Calvin again begins in the traditional Protestant way. He explains that strict justice–that is, true justice– would always condemn us. “[N]o one can satisfy the law, and, on account of this defect, we are all deprived of justification by works.” Calvin uses this to teach his basic doctrine of justification by faith alone. It’s worth nothing that he brings up Romans 2:13, but offers the “hypothetical” interpretation: if someone could be a “doer” of the law, then they would be justified. But they cannot. And so they will not be justified by the law. Calvin repeats this several times.
Even when discussing the good works of believers as believers, Calvin appeals to his basic doctrine of justification by the righteousness of Christ, received by faith alone:
As far as concerns the faithful, they aspire indeed to righteousness, but lamely, and at a great distance from their aim; they often wander from the way, and they often fall, so that they do not satisfy the law, and hence require God’s pity. Hence we must come to the second kind of righteousness, which is improperly so called, namely, that which we obtain from Christ. He who does righteousness is righteous. (l John 3:7.) None of us does it; but Christ, who fulfilled the law, is esteemed just before God.
But then he adds another layer. He adds a subordinate justification:
But the difficulty is not yet solved; because the faithful, even if regenerated by God’s Spirit, endeavor to conform themselves to God’s law, yet, through their own weakness, never arrive at that point, and so are never righteous: I answer, although the righteousness of works is mutilated in the sons of God, yet it is acknowledged as perfect, since, by not imputing their sins to them, he proves what is his own. Hence it happens, that although the faithful fall back, wander, and sometimes fall, yet they may be called observers of the law, and walkers in the commandments of God, and observers of his righteousness. But this arises from gratuitous imputation, and hence also its reward. The works of the faithful are not without reward, because they please God, and pleasing God, they are sure of remuneration. We see, then, how these things are rightly united, that no one obeys the law, and that no one is worthy of the fruits of righteousness, and yet that God, of his own liberality, acknowledges as just those who aspire to righteousness, and repay them with a reward of which they are unworthy. When, therefore, we say that the faithful are esteemed just even in their deeds, this is not stated as a cause of their salvation, and we must diligently notice that the cause of salvation is excluded from this doctrine; for, when we discuss the cause, we must look nowhere else but to the mercy of God, and there we must stop. But although works tend in no way to the cause of justification, yet, when the elect sons of God were justified freely by faith, at the same time their works are esteemed righteous by the same gratuitous liberality. (Comment. on Ezekiel 18:17, emphasis mine)
The basic foundation of God imputing Christ’s righteousness appears throughout this argument, and this is appropriate, for that is the only way in which Calvin can go on to say that the good works of believers are accepted by God. Those good works must themselves be justified by the prior justification by faith alone. And yet, after that basic justification is accomplished, Calvin feels comfortable saying that Christians may be called “observers of the law.” Calvin says that “the faithful are esteemed just even in their deeds” and “their works are esteemed righteous.” This is only by God’s “gratuitous liberality,” and that gratuitous liberality is founded on the obedience and satisfaction of Christ, but they can still be said to be accepted by God in a secondary sense.
There are many implications for Calvin’s subordinate doctrine of justification. As Dr. Gaffin explains, Calvin himself ties this in to the relationship between faith and works, as proof that they are inseparable even though their roles are distinguished. This also shows the correct way to understand how sanctification can be called a “fruit” of justification. The good works of the believer rely upon the prior truth of justification by faith alone in order to even exist as good works. Without a prior imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the Christian’s good works cannot be good. And yet, because of that prior imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the Christian’s good works can be good. More than that, they can be judged as good, and they secure rewards.
This sort of “double” justification is not temporal in the sense of the neonomian scheme. It does not involve an initial justification by faith alone that is then transferred into a mutable process which is finally concluded with a justification by faith and works, upon which the initial verdict could be changed or lost. Instead, Calvin argues for a basic justification that is a foundation or an anchor, and the subordinate justification is built atop it and dependent on it. This subordinate justification can be called a justification by works, so long as this is explained appropriately–the good works of the Christian are accepted as righteous because the person of the Christian has first been accepted righteous for the sake of the righteousness of Christ. This is really an extension of Calvin’s notion of duplex gratia, and it can in no way be opposed to his doctrine of imputed righteousness. Again, it depends upon it.
Understanding Calvin’s version of “double justification” is helpful in clarifying categories and highlighting dividing lines in what a statement does or does not mean. It opens up more exegetical possibilities, offering a way to read many of the “judgment according to works” passages in the Bible, and it shows us that the argument does not simply rest upon the use of one or two prepositional phrases (“to” vs. “for” or “on the basis of” vs. “in accordance with”). Instead, the argument depends upon the overall logical and conceptual framework. This can also help readers decide if a subsequent theologian in history–or indeed in our own day!– is making a neonomian argument or one which is entirely consistent with Reformed Orthodoxy.
Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, Florida. 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 Trust. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, daughter, and two terriers.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.