Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Contarini on Justification (15)

Herewith the next installment. (Read that first and then circle back up here.)

A couple of important points: Contarini denies that we are justified because of inherent faith, as though “faith” in the proposition were treated as a good work that is equivalent to “righteousness.”1 Next, he denies that when we say, “We are justified by faith,” we are speaking of faith as a habit. Rather, he says, it is an “act.” Contarini does not quite say that faith justifies instrumentally, but he says that it does so “efficiently,” as that which brings about an intended end. The act of faith, that is, arrives at its goal, which is the twofold righteousness or justice that he has discussed above, that which is inherent and that which is imputed (the righteousness of Christ and his merit). So, he concludes, “the faith that justifies is faith…that is efficacious through charity.” Notice that he does not say that faith justifies because it works by love, but rather “because…we attain to each kind of justice” by it. The faith that is efficacious for justification, then, is by definition a certain kind of faith: what one might call living faith. The verse to which Contarini alludes (Gal. 5.6) is the same as that found in Westminster Confession of Faith 11.2: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.”2


With these matters discussed thus far, which I think no one can contradict, let us discuss the proposed proposition. We are justified by faith, not formally, that is, not because the faith inherent in us makes us just, as whiteness makes a wall white, or health makes a man healthy. For in this way charity3 and the grace of God inherent in us and the justice of Christ given to us and imputed makes us just; nor by “faith” do we understand a habit, as I said above, but an act. But the proposition is true if taken efficiently, as plastering4 makes a wall white, or healing makes a man healthy: in the same way–or, at least, by a not dissimilar process of reasoning–does faith make a man just, and justify, because by faith we attain to each kind of justice. And since every motion is imperfect unless it arrives at its goal, for that reason the motion of faith, too, is imperfect unless it arrives at the charity that we obtain. For that reason, the faith that justifies is faith formed by charity, or faith that is efficacious through charity5; unless one arrives at charity, faith is not efficacious for justification. It is as if we were saying that such-and-such a healing that arrives at health makes health, and it is efficacious by health, wherefore it can also be called “health.” (De Iustificatione, pp. 591-2)

  1. Compare Westminster Confession of Faith 11.1: “Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies…not…by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness…”.
  2. N.b. the claim is not that what Contarini sets out is identical to the doctrine found in WCF 11; it is not.
  3. Or “love.”
  4. Or “painting.”
  5. Or “faith that works by love”; cf. Gal. 5.6.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.