Gifts of Union with Christ

by Michael Horton

Why have we been spending so much time exploring Calvin’s doctrinal emphases in a book on the Christian life? Once again, we have to appreciate that in his view these truths are not simply facts that we assent to and then move on to higher and more practical interests. For Calvin, the Christian life is a daily feeding upon these riches. We never move on from the gospel, but grow more deeply into its nourishing soil, thereby bearing the fruit of love and good works.

The supreme gift in this union is Christ himself, but he brings his gifts with him. As Calvin explores the benefits in the Institutes, he does not begin with election. Of course, he understands election as God’s gracious decision in eternity. Nevertheless, his concern is always pastoral and practical rather than speculative theory. The gospel is brought to everyone, and through it sinners are called, justified, renewed, and glorified. Why then do some believe while others don’t?1 That is where Calvin discusses election. So we will follow Calvin’s order of treatment.

Effectual Calling and the Gift of Faith

The point at which the Spirit unites us to Christ is effectual calling or regeneration. Calvin understands the new birth as pure gift, including even the faith to embrace it. We are not born again because we believe; we believe because we receive new life from above.

Over against the Anabaptist “enthusiasts” who separated the external Word and the Spirit, Calvin teaches just as emphatically as Luther that the Spirit freely binds his work to the external Word. However, like Augustine, he sees in Scripture a clear distinction between the external call and the internal or effectual call.2 Recall again the maxim “distinction without separation.” God binds his Word to creaturely means, while retaining his sovereign freedom. The gospel, proclaimed to everyone, is the means through which the Spirit regenerates his elect, but it would fall on deaf ears apart from the Spirit’s work in our hearts, liberating our minds and wills from captivity to sin and death. The preaching of the gospel isn’t magic; it does not work automatically. Rather, the Spirit regenerates sinners through it when and where he chooses.

Calvin never uses the term “irresistible grace.” Rather, he speaks of it as effectual, since God’s Word never fails to accomplish its intended purpose. Left to ourselves, we would always resist, but when the Spirit regenerates us, we come willingly, our will being liberated rather than coerced.3 Thus, salvation is from beginning to end the result of God’s work (monergism), not of cooperation between God and human beings (synergism).


The original Greek word for justification is a strictly forensic (courtroom) term, meaning the legal verdict that one is righteous before the law. The Latin Vulgate, Jerome’s fourth-century translation of the Bible, unfortunately rendered the Greek verb iustificare, “to makerighteous.” Erasmus pointed out this error, as have contemporary Roman Catholic scholars. For a variety of reasons, dogma has not followed better exegesis, and Rome understands justification as a process of gradually becoming righteous. Nor did the Anabaptists depart from such synergistic thinking; in fact, they often went further in affirming the believer’s personal holiness as justifying. Anabaptist scholars differ over whether their forebears ignored justification or found it “simply unacceptable,” but the focus was on following Jesus’s example and the process of the soul’s union with God.4

According to official Roman Catholic teaching, the first justification is by grace alone, and it occurs in baptism with the washing away of original sin. Although concupiscence (the tendency to lust) remains, this is not itself sinful until acted upon. An increase in justificationoccurs as you accept implicitly the church’s teachings and follow the prescribed penances and satisfactions imposed for particular sins. You hope to attain final justification by grace-enabled works, but it is considered presumptuous to claim assurance of your election and final justification. In any case, the best of us will have to suffer temporal punishments in purgatory before being welcomed into God’s presence.

In summary, justification according to Rome is a process of becoming holy—in other words, sanctification. According to Romans 4:5, God justifies the ungodly. But in Roman Catholic teaching, this is impossible; God can only declare righteous those who have been made righteous. They can be righteous before God not by an alien righteousness imputed—credited—but only by an inherent righteousness imparted and improved by obedience.

By contrast, the Reformers distinguished justification from sanctification without separating them. Condemned by the righteousness of God revealed in the law, we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness revealed in the gospel, as a free gift. Our sins are credited to Christ and his righteousness is credited to us. Commenting on Romans 4:7, Luther says, we must be united to Christ, since “all our good is outside us, and that good is Christ.”5 Simultaneously justified and sinful, the believer is assured now that there is no condemnation. The verdict of the last day has already been rendered in the present, so it is not presumption but true faith to rest in the confidence that there is no penalty—temporal or eternal—that has not been borne already by Christ, no obedience that has not been performed by Christ, and no indwelling sin that has not been already covered by the righteousness of Christ. We live in freedom and assurance from a present and perfect justification, not toward it as a goal.

Calvin declares, “There is nothing intermediate between . . . being justified by faith and justified by works.”6 Elsewhere he adds, “Whatever mixture men study to add from the power of free will to the grace of God is only a corruption of it; just as if one should dilute good wine with dirty water.”7 “Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”8 By this definition Calvin excludes from justification any moral transformation of the believer, much less his or her merits. In my view, the richest veins of his teaching on justification are to be found in his commentaries, where his close attention to passages remains very much in play even in recent debates. He also finds support in the church fathers, while conceding that they were not always consistent. Yet the basic lines of Calvin’s thinking were evident already in Luther’s 1519 sermon-tract Two Kinds of Righteousness (more fully developed in his 1535 Galatians commentary).

This cannot be dismissed as an academic debate; it’s the most relevant concern to every believer. In his Psalms commentary, Calvin feels David’s anxiety. When our hearts are terrified by the weight of our sins, “cold speculations” will not help. Instead of clinging to “what faith discovers in the written word”—namely, “the unspeakable riches of grace that have been manifested to us in Christ”—we “tremble or waver.” Those who think faith is easy have never experienced this anxiety. Indeed, “there is nothing in which we find greater difficulty than to acknowledge that He is merciful to us.”9 Terrors of conscience break in. “There is no certainty, no security. What shall I think? In what shall I confide? To what shall I have recourse?”10 The Devil does not seek to seduce us from worship, but only encourages us “to seek another God” or to convince us that this God “must be appeased after another manner, or else that the assurance of his favor must be sought elsewhere than in the Law and the Gospel.”11

Without this assurance of justification, even appearing in God’s presence through prayer “becomes something like placing wood on the fire.”12 Preaching fear actually empties the world of all true piety.13 “In short, the realization of God’s judgment without the hope of forgiveness creates a fear that will automatically turn into hate.”14 We need to hear the promises continually; otherwise “we would certainly find ourselves in a miserable condition if we had to again be afraid all of the time that God’s grace could all of a sudden not be there for us anymore!”15

Yet justification tells us how God can remain just while declaring the guilty righteous (Rom. 3:26). Apart from this imputation of an alien righteousness, we are left in doubt about whether God is truly gracious toward us. For anyone, like Calvin, who experiences this doubt and anxiety, justification cannot be just one doctrine among many. Rome teaches that Christ’s sacrifice remits the guilt but not the punishment of sins, Calvin observes. How can this be good news to sinners?16

Calvin repeatedly speaks of Christ having merited our salvation. We are indeed saved by works—that is, by perfect obedience to God’s law—but it is Christ’s, not ours. He not only bore our guilt in our place on the cross, but fulfilled all righteousness in our place by his life. Not only as the God who commands, but so too as the servant who fulfills the mandate of our creation is Jesus our Savior.17 Thus, Rome’s charge that the Reformation doctrine of justification constitutes a legal fiction was unfounded: Christ discharged the office of covenant Head, claiming by meritorious right that status of perfect justice, which he shares with his body. To say that we are righteous in Christ by imputation is no more a legal fiction than to say that we are guilty in Adam by imputation, or that Christ was made sin for us by our sins being imputed to him (2 Cor. 5:21).

The Reformation debate is not simply over the mechanism of justification, but also over the broader definition of grace, as we have seen. The Reformers also disagreed with Rome over the definition of faith. For Rome, faith is assent to everything that the church teaches (implicit faith). Therefore, it is not fully justifying until it is formed (or perfected) by love. Just as justification is collapsed into sanctification, faith becomes a virtuous work when it is formed by love. To this day, Roman Catholic theology affirms “justification by faith” only by defining justifying faith as obedient love. Calvin counters that faith is not blind assent to everything that the church teaches. “It would be the height of absurdity to label ignorance tempered by humility ‘faith’!”18 Rather, faith is knowledge of the gospel, assent to its message, and trust in Christ alone.

It is this faith that receives God’s justifying verdict apart from offering any love or good works, simply as an open hand embracing Christ. “With respect to justification, faith is a thing merely passive, bringing nothing of our own to conciliate the favor of God, but receiving what we need from Christ.”19 Apart from any virtues or actions that might improve our inherent moral condition, “faith adorns us with the righteousness of another, which it seeks as a gift from God.”20 The faith by which we are justified is also active in love, but not in the act of justifying.

Faith then is not a naked knowledge either of God or of his truth; nor is it a simple persuasion that God is, that his word is the truth; but a sure knowledge of God’s mercy, which is received from the gospel, and brings peace of conscience with regard to God, and rest to the mind. The sum of the matter then is this,—that if salvation depends on the keeping of the law, the soul can entertain no confidence respecting it, yea, that all the promises offered to us by God will become void: we must thus become wretched and lost, if we are sent back to works to find out the cause or the certainty of salvation . . . for as the law generates nothing but vengeance, it cannot bring grace.21

Like Luther, Calvin believes that faith is assurance. To believe in Christ is to be assured objectively not only of God’s mercy and grace in general, but also of his favor toward me (pro me) in particular. Through faith in Christ, I know that I am elect and already declared just before his tribunal on the last day. What Rome calls presumption, the Reformers call faith. Faith is defined in the Geneva Catechism as “a sure and steadfast knowledge of the fatherly goodwill of God toward us, as he declares in the gospel that for the sake of Christ he will be our Father and Savior.”22 Faith is directed not merely to God, or even to his Word in general.23 Rather, saving faith is “receiving Christ as he is clothed in the gospel.”24 For Calvin, as Joel Beeke points out, “The grace of faith is from the Father, in the Son, and through the Spirit, by which, in turn, the believer is brought into fellowship with the Son, by the Spirit and consequently is reconciled to, and walks in fellowshipwith, the Father.”25 “God has made Himself ‘little in Christ,’ Calvin strikingly states, so that we might comprehend and flee to ‘Christ alone who can pacify our consciences.’”26

However, our subjective experience of this assurance waxes and wanes. “How can I, a sinner, be accepted by a holy God?” is a question that believers ask in moments of doubt and anxiety throughout their lives.27 In fact, Calvin recognizes that “unbelief is . . . always mixed with faith” in every Christian.28 He frequently reminds us that it is not the quality of faith, but the object of faith, that justifies. “Our faith is never perfect; . . . we are partly unbelievers.”29 The promise is solid and secure, but our apprehension of it varies.30 “Nothing prevents believers from being afraid and at the same time possessing the surest consolation,” Calvin adds. “Fear and faith dwell in the same mind.’”31 As Beeke summarizes, “It does not hesitate, yet can hesitate. It contains security, but may be beset with anxiety. The faithful have firm assurance, yet waver and tremble.” It’s a distinction between faith itself and the believer’s experience.32 Though God’s assurance of his goodwill to us is objective and certain, our subjective experience varies.33 Yet God must always have the last word. We cling to the gospel no matter what. This is why the objective promise and its ratification by the sacraments are so important for us throughout our pilgrimage.34

“Then what about rewards?” Calvin’s critics demanded, to which the Reformer replies that “it is an absurd inference to deduce merit from reward.”35 Calvin is aware of the medieval exegesis of Romans 2:13: “For it is not the hearers of the law . . . but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Yet he replies, “They who pervert this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works deserve most fully to be laughed at even by children.” It is obvious from Paul’s argument that the purpose is to show that his readers were in fact under the law’s curse along with the Gentiles for failing to do what the law requires, “so that another righteousness must be sought.”36 Not only the ceremonies but the whole law—including the moral law—is included when Paul opposes the law to faith as the way of justification.37 “For if there be any righteousness by the law or by works, it must be in men themselves; but by faith they derive from another what is wanting in themselves; and hence the righteousness of faith is rightly called imputative.”38

A theology of glory judges by appearances. Intuitively, we believe that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell; that God cannot declare someone righteous who is at that moment inherently unrighteous. However, the gospel is counterintuitive. With Abraham, faith clings to a promise, against all human “possibilities”:

All things around us are in opposition to the promises of God: He promises immortality; we are surrounded with mortality and corruption: He declares that he counts us as just; we are covered with our sins: He testifies that he is propitious and kind to us; outward judgments threaten his wrath. What then is to be done? We must with closed eyes pass by ourselves and all things connected with us, that nothing may hinder or prevent us from believing that God is true.39

To be sure, God renovates us by his Spirit, but this is not justification, which is lodged exclusively in the free remission of sins and the imputation of righteousness.40 No more than the careless unbeliever does “the Pharisee” know this peace with God through justification.41There are no “preparations” of our own that can give us “access” to God.42 And there is no renovation—even by the grace of the Holy Spirit—that can make us worthy of justification.43


Many see the choice between Rome and the Reformation as a dispute over whether one prefers justification or sanctification. However, it is only the Reformers’ interpretation that embraces both. United to Christ by faith, we receive the imputation of Christ’s righteousness for justification and the impartation of Christ’s righteousness for sanctification. The Reformers are at one on this point. Calvin could not be clearer about the importance he gives to justification: it is “the principle article of the Christian faith,” “the main hinge on which religion turns,” “the principal article of the whole doctrine of salvation and the foundation of all religion,” and “the sum of all piety.”44 “Whenever 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.”45 In his response to Cardinal Sadoleto, Calvin wrote that justification is “the first and keenest subject of controversy between us.”46

At the same time, he emphasizes that we are united with Christ for both justification and sanctification. However, this is no different from Luther, as early as his Sermon on the Double Righteousness (1519). Also like Luther, Calvin follows Paul in discussing union with Christ in Romans 6 as the answer to those who charge that we can be justified without being sanctified.47 His response is Paul’s: “. . . for it is beyond any question that we put on Christ in baptism, and that we are baptized for this end—that we may be one with him.” In baptism, then, there is not only a remission of sins “but also the putting to death and the dying of the old man” as we are raised with Christ in newness of life.48

Antinomianism and legalism conspire in forcing us to make a false choice: Is salvation a matter of God’s forgiveness or is it moral transformation? This is a trick question from the Reformers’ point of view. Calvin reasons, “Surely those things which are connected do not destroy one another!”49 Forensic justification through faith alone is not the enemy but the basis of sanctification.50 Again we meet “distinction without separation”:

Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [1 Cor. 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. 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.51

There are not two acts of faith or two stages of the Christian life. Every believer clings to Christ for justification and sanctification.52“You cannot grasp this [justification] without at the same time grasping sanctification also.”53

For in Christ he offers all happiness in place of our misery, all wealth in place of our neediness; in him he opens to us the heavenly treasures that our whole faith may contemplate his beloved Son, our whole expectation depend upon him, and our whole hope cleave to and rest in him. This, indeed, is that secret and hidden philosophy which cannot be wrested from syllogisms.54

Calvin adds, “This alone is of importance: having admitted that faith and good works must cleave together, we still lodge justification in faith, not in works. We have a ready explanation for doing this, provided we turn to Christ to whom our faith is directed and from whom it receives its full strength.”55

Calvin bathes in the Bible’s organic as well as legal analogies for this union. All those who are justified in Christ the Tree of Life become his fruit-bearing branches. We are familiar with the emphasis in evangelical circles on following Christ’s example, asking, “What would Jesus do?” This was a central theme in medieval piety as well, as illustrated in the popularity of Thomas à Kempis’s fifteenth-century workThe Imitation of Christ. This piety lay at the heart especially of the Brethren of the Common Life, to which I referred in chapter 2. It is evident also in the Wesleyan-Holiness stream of teaching that dominates much of contemporary evangelical spirituality.

Calvin took at face value biblical exhortations to follow Christ’s example. However, he recognized that by itself this is the law without the gospel. Calvin comments that in Romans 6,

Let us know that the Apostle does not simply exhort us to imitate Christ, as though he had said that his death is a pattern which all Christians are to follow; for no doubt he ascends higher, as he announces a doctrine with which he connects an exhortation; and his doctrine is this: that the death of Christ is efficacious to destroy and demolish the depravity of our flesh, and his resurrection, to effect the renovation of a better nature, and that by baptism we are admitted into a participation of this grace. This foundation being laid, Christians may very suitably be exhorted to strive to respond to their calling.

This is true of everyone who is united to Christ, not just to a superior class, he adds.56 Thus, this “ingrafting is not only a conformity of example, but a secret union.”57 One might add by way of analogy that while a little brother or sister certainly looks up to and even imitates an older sibling, the deeper reality is their familial bond.

Christ is not only our hero, model, or pattern, but also our vine—and we are branches. He is the Head of his body of which we are members; the firstfruits of the whole harvest to which we belong. Calvin says that we are “in Christ (in Christo) because we are out of ourselves (extra nos),” finding our sanctification as well as our justification not by looking within but by clinging to Christ.58 Commenting on John 17, Calvin explains that we are “one with the Son of God; not because he conveys his substance to us, but because, by the power of the Spirit, he imparts to us his life and all the blessings which he has received from the Father.”59 “But Christ dwells principally on this, that the vital sap—that is, all life and strength—proceeds from himself alone.” Therefore, not only in justification, but also in sanctification, faith receives every good from Christ alone as the source; “if you contemplate yourself, that is sure damnation.”60

Just as Calvin goes beyond Augustine and the medieval tradition in identifying the whole person (body as well as soul) with the image of God, so too he adds, “The spiritual connection which we have with Christ belongs not merely to the soul, but also to the body.”61 This is why he attaches significance to the Supper not only for the soul’s communion with Christ but also for the life-giving energies communicated to our whole humanity from our glorified and life-giving Head. “The mystical union subsisting between Christ and his members should be a matter of reflection not only when we sit at the Lord’s Table, but at all other times.”62

Sanctification is a matter of getting used to both our justification and our broader union with Christ in all of its dimensions—judicial andorganic. This union is not the goal (as in Roman Catholic and some Protestant pieties), but the source of the Christian life. We are not just following Christ, but living in Christ and, by his Spirit, he is living in us.

While both are given in union with Christ, Calvin sees justification as the logical basis for sanctification, “for since we are clothed with the righteousness of the Son, we are reconciled to God, and renewed by the power of the Spirit to holiness.”63 “Sanctification, for Calvin, grows out of justification,” Selderhuis explains, “and the glory of Christ’s perfect righteousness may never be obscured, not even for a moment.” “Therefore, justification is the cause and sanctification is the effect.”64 He adds:

In Calvin’s view the believer never rises above the status of simul iustus et peccator. . . . Calvin’s description of the regenerate man’s struggle

against sin explains that a believer is declared righteous without actually becoming righteous. Sanctification is the internal struggle to tame the carnal inclinations which rule us by nature. It is a fight with one’s self. . . . The more someone progresses in sanctification throughout life, the more he or she realizes the distance by which he or she has fallen short of the righteousness of God, and all that is left is to trust in God’s mercy.65

While this is certainly true, Calvin also exults in the newness that flows from being united to Christ. The Spirit is at work in us, enabling us more and more to struggle against indwelling sin and to yield the fruit of the Spirit. While we dare not lodge our justification in sanctification, we should be on guard against imagining that the justified are left in the same spiritual condition that they were in under the reign of sin and death.

Passivity and perfectionism are twin dangers to be avoided in the Christian life, according to the Reformer. Of course, we are merely recipients of God’s good gifts, including sanctification. We hear the Word and receive Christ in baptism and Communion. In this, faith is “a purely passive action” (actio mere passiva).66 Yet the point of being recipients of God’s grace is to be active distributors of his love to others. We receive from God and give to others. Grace not only gives; it also activates our giving—not to God, but to our neighbors. Since grace liberates nature, it is opposed not to our activity, but to our merit. That’s the way it is throughout our life. We are always passive receivers of salvation, but we are active in our living out of that daily conversion—dying to ourselves and living to God in Christ. With faith lodged only in Christ, we are far from passive in putting to death indwelling sin. And we are therefore called repeatedly in Scripture to press on, to grow up, to train ourselves, to bear the fruit of the Spirit in our relationships with others, and to strive with all of our might to say no to sin and yes to righteousness. All of this we can do, though imperfectly, because we are already united to Christ and are indwelled by his Spirit.

Christ died for us, but he does not repent and believe for us. Repentance and faith are gifts that he gives us by his Word and Spirit, but we exercise them as a deliberate act of the will.67 Let us not downplay the difficulty of this struggle. Every believer fights against insurgents within and without, the remnants of a defeated foe. This growth is not automatic. We may quench the Spirit by refusing his promptings. When we fail to avail ourselves of the means of grace, we shrivel on the vine. Furthermore, if we don’t communicate with our Father and if we abandon the fellowship of our brothers and sisters, we become drifters instead of pilgrims. The gospel gives us a secure place to stand as we fight this battle with all our might and main.

Paradoxically, it is the acknowledgment that we are simultaneously justified and sinful that fuels our commitment to press on in the race.68“Far removed from perfection, we must move steadily forward, and though entangled in vices, daily fight against them.”69 Sanctification is real, but it is not complete. “Christ by his Spirit does not perfectly renew us at once, or in an instant, but he continues our renovation throughout life.”70 Sin’s dominion has been toppled, but still indwells believers.71 This orientation stood in sharp contrast not only with Rome, but with the radical Protestants as well. “Certain Anabaptists of our day conjure some sort of frenzied excess instead of spiritual regeneration,” thinking that they can attain perfection in this life.72

Not only at the beginning, but throughout our Christian life, we derive all of our righteousness from Christ, not from ourselves.73Ironically, those who are preoccupied with raising their standing in God’s estimation end up offending God, deepening their guilt, and doing nothing for their neighbors. The monk was the ideal portrait of this confused spirituality. As Calvin explained to Cardinal Sadoleto, it is the one who is assured of God’s favor in Christ alone who is free to love his or her neighbors simply for their own sake and for God’s glory, rather than for one’s own self-improvement and self-justification.74 There is another role for the law in the Christian life, as we will see, but it no longer has any power to condemn us.

Removing, then, mention of law, and laying aside all consideration of works, we should, when justification is being discussed, embrace God’s mercy alone, turn our attention from ourselves, and look only to Christ. . . . If consciences wish to attain any certainty in this matter, they ought to give no place to the law.75

So when we consider ourselves, there is nothing but despair; when we consider ourselves in Christ, there is faith, which brings hope and love in its train. Works-righteousness is the enemy of genuine holiness by cutting the tree at its root, but the gospel creates faith in Christ,

which puts forth branches of love and bears the fruit of good works. This gospel is the deathblow to antinomianism and legalism alike.


Another important gift of our union that Calvin frequently emphasizes with delight is adoption. B. B. Warfield, among others, concluded that God’s fatherhood is more pervasive in Calvin’s piety even than God’s sovereignty. It is an astonishing claim only to those who have never read the Reformer closely. As Selderhuis notes, “The purpose of election is God’s fatherhood. . . . In his theology of the doctrine of God, the Reformer often returns to this idea again and again.” In fact, “it is evident that he views God first and foremost as a father.”76 The Father chose a people to be his children, a bride for his Son, and a living temple for his Spirit. Believers are the family that comes into being as a result of the mutual exchange of love between the persons of the Trinity.

Even justification is important not as an end in itself, but because it secures that filial relationship that the Godhead willed from all eternity. The point of sanctification is not simply the moral improvement of individuals, but also the setting apart of children, transforming enemies into heirs. The goal is a family. It is one thing to assent to the doctrine of God’s fatherhood and another to experience his loving adoption and “fatherly love.” Calvin underscores the psalmist’s reference to “the light of [God’s] face” (Ps. 44:3): the parental smile that compensates for whatever losses we encounter in the world.77 God’s love for us, not ours for him, is always the source of this relationship, and because of Christ’s merits there is no threat that we might revert to God as our Judge rather than our Father. Because we are united to Christ, we enjoy the same privileges, favor, and access to the Father as Christ does himself.78

The Christian Life as a Banquet

The Christian life is a struggle, but it is also a lavish banquet with a generous Father, a faithful elder Brother, and an active and indwelling Holy Spirit who binds us to Christ and therefore to each other. In fact, B. A. Gerrish has argued that Calvin’s entire theology may be summarized as “Eucharistic”—a life of gratitude, marked by feasting with the triune God and each other. “The holy banquet is simply the liturgical enactment of the theme of grace and gratitude that lies at the heart of Calvin’s entire theology.”79 Selderhuis also notes, “Calvin points to the example in Psalm 104 that, although man has water to drink according to his needs, God has additionally given wine to make us cheerful.”80 Indeed, it is striking how frequently Calvin stresses the liberal generosity of the Father toward us in his Son. It was Rome that turned the banquet into a fearful courtroom and Anabaptists who saw the Christian life as a heavy yoke. Yet for Calvin the Christian life is a pilgrimage with a banquet spread in the wilderness for weary travelers. We have passed from the courtroom to the family room.

Pilgrimage and banquet: these two motifs are woven together frequently in Calvin’s teaching. While the banquet motif highlights the present joys of that salvation that we possess already in Christ, pilgrimage suggests patient endurance. We know where we are going, and we already have a foretaste of the feast’s rich fare, but we have not yet arrived at the wedding supper of the Lamb.

We experience the gifts of the triune God in that tension of the “already” and the “not yet.” Believers are already elected, redeemed, called, justified, and adopted. They are being sanctified, and they will one day be glorified. This already–not yet paradox lies at the heart of Calvin’s recurring metaphors for the Christian life as pilgrimage and banquet. A pilgrim has not yet arrived, nor is he or she an aimless wanderer or tourist, but someone called away with the throng to the City of God based on a promise. Along the way, God spreads a table in the wilderness to refresh his people in anticipation of the wedding feast with the Bridegroom in glory.

As the image of God in creation is social as well as individual, so also is its restoration in Christ. Of course, there is a place for private prayer and meditation on Scripture. However, Calvin does not think of a lonely pilgrim or diner at a table for one. That is why most of Calvin’s discussions of sanctification occur in the context of the church, the family, and our callings in the world. Monastic spirituality concentrated on private disciplines, as if detaching oneself from “the world” (i.e., society) might make one holier. Anabaptist piety was similar in that regard. However, Calvin thought of sanctification as a family affair. How could one learn loving humility, patience, wisdom, and forgiveness in isolation from others? We discover our need to continually confess our sins and pursue godliness more in the daily trials and joys of church fellowship, friendships, marriage, and child rearing than we do on our own. Since the law calls us to love our neighbors, what could be more of an obstacle to sanctification than withdrawing from others—especially the fellowship of saints—in pious seclusion?


“We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy until we come to know his eternal election.”81 Predestination is not the center of Calvin’s “system”; nor does he add anything to the doctrine that was unknown to other Augustinian Catholics, including Thomas Aquinas. However, he does bring it out of the room of philosophical speculation and set it before the Christian faithful as an article of gospel joy. Like Luther in his debate with Erasmus, Calvin sees the doctrine of election as pulling up synergism and spiritual pride at its root. “God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction.”82

Calvin never addresses this subject apart from some pastoral question or concern, especially when he comes to particular passages that clearly teach it. Why do some believe and others not believe? How can I know that I have persevering faith, rather than the sort of faith that is choked by the weeds? How can I know that I’m in a state of grace? Medieval piety had already intensified these anxious questions, and when the God of justice and wrath is more real than the God of mercy and justifying grace, predestination is a terrifying doctrine. However, when seen in gospel light, it is assuring comfort. “When one comes to election,” Calvin says, “there mercy alone appears on every side.”83

The doctrine is only comforting when we remain within the bounds of God’s Word, specifically the gospel, and refuse our speculative urges.

Human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous. No restraints can hold it back from wandering in forbidden bypaths and thrusting upward to the heights. If allowed, it will leave no secret to God that it will not search out and unravel. . . .

. . . [The curious] will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit. For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself.84

Here, as elsewhere, Calvin’s rule is clear: “When the Lord closes his holy lips, he also shall at once close the way to inquiry.”85

Like any attempt to ascend to the hidden God of majesty, any strategy to discover our election in God’s secret chamber will lead to despair. We only find God’s goodness and grace where he has revealed it, in Christ and his gospel. If we set out “to penetrate to God’s eternal ordination,” Calvin warns, “that deep abyss will swallow us up.” We must not seek to “flit about above the clouds,” but must be “restrained by the soberness of faith . . . in his outward Word.”

For just as those engulf themselves in a deadly abyss who, to make their election more certain, investigate God’s eternal plan apart from his Word, so those who rightly and duly examine it as it is contained in his Word reap the inestimable fruit of comfort.86

The danger lies on both sides: saying either less or more than Scripture teaches.87

The key is to locate our election in Christ.

First, if we seek God’s fatherly mercy and kindly heart, we should turn our eyes to Christ, on whom alone God’s Spirit rests. . . . No matter how much you toss it about and mull it over, you will discover that its final bounds still extend no farther. . . . If we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election.88

Calvin is aware that even a doctrine designed by God for assurance can be used badly when we seek God and his predestination outside of Christ. Calvin calls this “seeking outside the way.”

Satan has no more grievous or dangerous temptation to dishearten believers than when he unsettles them with doubt about their election, while at the same time he arouses them with a wicked desire to seek it outside the way. I call it “seeking outside the way” when mere man attempts to break into the inner recesses of divine wisdom and tries to penetrate even to highest eternity, in order to find out what decision has been made concerning himself at God’s judgment.89

Elsewhere he offers this prayer:

Grant, Almighty God, . . . that having cast away and renounced all confidence in our own virtue, we may be led to Christ only as the fountain of thy election, in whom also is set before us the certainty of our salvation through thy gospel, until we shall at length be gathered into that eternal glory which He has procured for us by his own blood. Amen.90

Since we discover our election not in God’s secret decree but in his revealed Word, the good news is for every person. “The gospel is preached indiscriminately to the elect and the reprobate; but the elect alone come to Christ, because they have been ‘taught by God.’”91 It is not right for us to identify even vicious enemies of the gospel as reprobate.

Renée, Princess of France and Duchess of Ferrara, once asked Calvin if she could hate her son-in-law, the Duke of Guise. Surely this cruel exterminator of the Reformed believers in France was reprobate. Calvin says he prayed often that God would show the duke mercy—but if not, that God would then “lay his hand on him” to save “the poor church.” “To pronounce that he is damned, however, is to go too far. . . . For there is none can know but the Judge before whose tribunal we have all to render an account.” Even though the duke may not be considered “a member of the Church,” Calvin adds, “I pray for the salvation of every person.”92 “And as we cannot distinguish between the elect and the reprobate,” he says elsewhere, “it is our duty to pray for all who trouble us; to desire the salvation of all people; and even to be careful for the welfare of every individual.”93

If speculating beyond Scripture is one danger, then for Calvin ignoring clear passages is the other. Scripture unmistakably teaches that before the world was created, the Father chose a people and gave them to the Son as their trustee and Mediator, to be united to the Son by the Spirit in due course. Calvin interprets this election of a church from a sinful human race as individual, not just collective, unconditional rather than based on foreseen faith or obedience, and the cause rather than the effect of holiness in those chosen. Like Paul, he anticipates the likely charge of injustice (for which, by the way, any sound exegesis of Romans 9 has to account). Far from beginning with a neutral condition in which God issues arbitrary decrees, Calvin says, “As all of us are vitiated by sin,” it is not from “tyrannical cruelty but by the fairest reckoning of justice” that all of us would be condemned unless God has chosen to save some.94 Calvin says that the reprobate will be compelled to recognize on the last day that “the cause of condemnation” lies “in themselves.”95 Later he adds, “Accordingly, we should contemplate the evident cause of condemnation in the corrupt nature of humanity—which is closer to us—rather than seek a hidden and utterly incomprehensible cause in God’s predestination.”96

The final gift of our union with Christ that Paul mentions in Romans 8 is glorification. In union with Christ we discover our eternal election as well as our historical redemption, calling, justification, and adoption. Irrevocable, these gifts belong to the “already” of our salvation. From this same union we are being sanctified. This process straddles the “already” of sin’s toppled dominion and the “not yet” of complete holiness. Yet it also looks forward to the future glory that awaits us, when we are changed in a moment to share in the resurrection beauty that belongs already to our living Head. I explore Calvin’s treatment of that subject in the final chapter.

Excerpt from Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever, Copyright © 2014 by Michael Horton, Posted with permission


1    Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2.24.4, 6.

2    Ibid., 3.24.8. See Augustine, “To Simplician—On Various Questions,” in Augustine: Earlier Writings, Selected and Translated with an Introduction, ed. John H. S. Burleigh (London: SCM, 1953), 395.

3    This point is emphasized throughout chapter 24 of book 3, as elsewhere.

4    Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 109.

5    Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans, in Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 vols., ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress; St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–1986), 25:267.

6    Calvin on Ps. 143, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 6, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 251.

7    Calvin, Institutes 2.5.15.

8    Ibid., 3.11.2.

9    Calvin on Ps. 103:8, in Calvin’s Commentaries, 6:133.

10   Calvin on Ps. 116:11, in Calvin’s Commentaries, 6:368.

11   Calvin on Ps. 44:20, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 5, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 166–67.

12   Herman J. Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 270.

13   Ibid.

14   Calvin, quoted in ibid., 271.

15   Calvin, quoted in ibid.

16   Calvin, Institutes 3.4.30.

17   François Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, trans. Philip Mairet (Durham, NC: Labyrinth, 1987), 260. I elaborate Calvin’s argument on this point in Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006).

18   Calvin, Institutes 3.2.3.

19   Ibid., 3.13.5.

20   Calvin, Commentaries upon the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 19, trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 159.

21   Ibid., 171.

22   Geneva Catechism, 1536, in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, 7 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), 2:132: Faith is “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” See also Calvin,Institutes 3.2.7: “[Faith] is a steady and certain knowledge of the Divine benevolence towards us, which, being founded on the truth of the gratuitous promise in Christ, is both revealed to our minds and confirmed to our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

23   Calvin, Institutes 3.2.1.

24   Ibid., 3.2.32.

25   Joel R. Beeke, “Calvin and Spirituality: Making Sense of Calvin’s Paradoxes on Assurance of Faith,” in Calvin Studies Society Papers, 1995, 1997: Calvin and Spirituality; Calvin and His Contemporaries, ed. David Foxgrover (Grand Rapids: CRC Product Services, 1998), 23.

26   Ibid., 24.

27   Ibid., 13n2: “Though Luther’s struggles in attaining faith and assurance, documented copiously by himself and others, are well-known, J. H. Merle D’Aubigne provides evidence that Calvin’s ‘chamber became the theatre of struggles as fierce as those in the cell at Erfurt.’”

28   Calvin, Institutes 3.2.4.

29   Calvin on Mark 9:24, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 16, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 325.

30   Calvin, Institutes 3.2.4, 15.

31   Ibid., 3.2.23.

32   Beeke, “Calvin and Spirituality,” 18.

33   Ibid., 14–24.

34   Ibid., 19.

35   Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, 19:90.

36   Ibid., 95–96.

37   Ibid., 151.

38   Ibid., 155.

39   Ibid., 180.

40   Ibid., 186.

41   Ibid., 187.

42   Ibid., 188.

43   Ibid., 186.

44   Calvin, Institutes 3.2.1; 3.11.1; sermon on Luke 1:5–10 in Corpus Reformatorum: Johannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia, 46.23; and Institutes 3.15.7.

45   Calvin, “Letter to Cardinal Sadoleto,” in Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises, trans. Henry Beveridge, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 41.

46   Ibid.

47   Calvin on Romans 6, in Calvin’s Commentaries, 19:218–31.

48   Ibid., 220, on Rom. 6:3. There are differences between Calvin and Luther, especially on whether grace can be lost, but there is no basis for making the one a theologian of union and the other a theologian of justification. Both see union with Christ as the source for all spiritual blessings and at the same time see sanctification as logically dependent on justification. On this point, see especially Richard Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), esp. 202–43, 281; cf. J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology(Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).

49   Calvin, Institutes 3.2.25.

50   For more on this topic (especially in relation to Calvin’s debate with Osiander), see Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 143–44.

51   Calvin, Institutes 3.16.1. See also 3.11.1.

52   Ibid, 3.11.1.

53   Ibid., 3.16.1.

54   Ibid., 3.20.1.

55   Ibid., 3.16.1.

56   Calvin on Rom. 6:4, in Calvin’s Commentaries, 19:221.

57   Ibid., 222, on Rom. 6:5.

58   Calvin, quoted in Mark A. Garcia, Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2008), 116.

59   Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 17, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 183–84.

60   Ibid., 107.

61   Calvin, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 20, trans. John Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 217.

62   Calvin on Ps. 63:2, in Calvin’s Commentaries, 5:435.

63   Calvin, Institutes 3.11.17.

64   Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms, 195.

65   Ibid., 197–98.

66   Calvin, Institutes 4.14.26.

67   Ibid., 2.12.6.

68   Ibid., 3.3.10.

69   Ibid., 3.3.14.

70   Calvin on 1 John 3:5, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 22, trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 209.

71   Calvin, Institutes 3.3.11.

72   Ibid., 3.3.14.

73   Ibid., 3.12.3.

74   Calvin, A Reformation Debate: Sadoleto’s Letter to the Genevans and Calvin’s Reply, ed. John C. Olin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966), 56.

75   Calvin, Institutes 3.19.2.

76   Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms, 247.

77   Calvin on Ps. 4:6–7, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 4, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 48–49.

78   Calvin on Ps. 79:9 in Calvin’s Commentary, 5:291.

79   B. A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), 20, 13.

80   Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms, 150, on Ps. 104:15.

81   Calvin, Institutes 3.21.1.

82   Ibid., 3.21.7.

83   Ibid., 3.24.1.

84   Ibid., 3.21.1.

85   Ibid., 3.21.3.

86   Ibid., 3.24.3–4.

87   Ibid., 3.21.2.

88   Ibid., 3.24.5.

89   Ibid., 3.24.4.

90   Calvin, “Prayer,” in Commentary on Zechariah–Malachi, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 15, trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 482.

91   Calvin on Isa. 54:13, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 8, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 146.

92   Calvin, “To the Duchess of Ferrara” (Geneva, January 24, 1564), in Selected Works of John Calvin, 7:355.

93   Calvin on Ps. 109:16, in Calvin’s Commentaries, 6:283.

94   Calvin, Institutes 3.23.3.

95   Ibid.

96   Ibid., 3.23.8.


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