by John Calvin
(Justification in the light of the majesty and perfection of God, 1–3)
1. No one is righteous before God's judgment seat
Even though all these things are by shining testimonies shown to be perfectly true, still, how necessary they are will not be clear to us until we set before our eyes what ought to be the basis of this whole discussion. First, therefore, this fact should occur to us: that our discourse is concerned with the justice not of a human court but of a heavenly tribunal, lest we measure by our own small measure the integrity of works needed to satisfy the divine judgment. Yet it is amazing with what great rashness and boldness this is commonly defined. Indeed, one can see how there are none who more confidently, and as people say, boisterously chatter over the righteousness of works than they who are monstrously plagued with manifest diseases, or creak with defects beneath the skin. That happens because they do not think about God's justice, which they would never hold in such derision if they were affected even by the slightest feeling of it. b(a)Yet surely it is held of precious little value if it is not recognized as God's justice and so perfect that nothing can be admitted except what is in every part whole and complete and undefiled by any corruption. Such was never found in man and never will be. b(a)In the shady cloisters of the schools anyone can easily and readily prattle about the value of works in justifying men. But when we come before the presence of God we must put away such amusements! For there we deal with a serious matter, and do not engage in frivolous word battles. To this question, I insist, we must apply our mind if we would profitably inquire concerning true righteousness: How shall we reply to the Heavenly Judge when he calls us to account?2 Let us envisage for ourselves that Judge, not as our minds naturally imagine him, but as he is depicted for us in Scripture: by whose brightness the stars are darkened [Job 3:9]; by whose strength the mountains are melted; by whose wrath the earth is shaken [cf. Job 9:5–6]; whose wisdom catches the wise in their craftiness [Job 5:13]; beside whose purity all things are defiled [cf. Job 25:5]; whose righteousness not even the angels can bear [cf. Job 4:18]; who makes not the guilty man innocent [cf. Job 9:20]; whose vengeance when once kindled penetrates to the depths of hell [Deut. 32:22; cf. Job 26:6]. Let us behold him, I say, sitting in judgment to examine the deeds of men: Who will stand confident before his throne? "Who … can dwell with the devouring fire?" asks the prophet. "Who … can dwell with everlasting burnings? He who walks righteously and speaks the truth" [Isa. 33:14–15 p.], etc. But let such a one, whoever he is, come forward. Nay, that response causes no one to come forward. For, on the contrary, a terrible voice resounds: "If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who shall stand?" [Ps. 130:3; 129:3, Vg.]. Indeed, all must soon perish, as it is written in another place: "Shall a man be justified in comparison with God, or shall he be purer than his maker? Behold, they that serve him are not faithful, and in his angels he found wickedness. How much more shall those who dwell in houses of clay, who have an earthly foundation, be consumed before the moth. From morn to eve they shall be cut down" [Job 4:17–20]. Likewise: "Behold, among his saints none is faithful, and the heavens are not pure in his sight. How much more abominable and unprofitable is man, who drinks iniquity like water?" [Job 15:15–16, cf. Vg.].
Indeed, I admit that in The Book of Job mention is made of a righteousness higher than the observance of the law, and it is worth-while to maintain this distinction. For even if someone satisfied the law, not even then could he stand the test of that righteousness which surpasses all understanding. Therefore, even though Job has a good conscience, he is stricken dumb with astonishment, for he sees that not even the holiness of angels can please God if he should weigh their works in his heavenly scales. Therefore, I now pass over that righteousness which I have mentioned, for it is incomprehensible. I only say that if our life is examined according to the standard of the written law, we are sluggish indeed if we are not tormented with horrid fear at those many maledictions with which God willed to cleanse us—among others this general curse: "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by everything written in this book" [Gal. 3:10, Vg.; cf. Deut. 27:26]. In short, this whole discussion will be foolish and weak unless every man admit his guilt before the Heavenly Judge, and concerned about his own acquittal, willingly cast himself down and confess his nothingness.
2. Righteousness before men and righteousness before God
Hither, hither we ought to have raised up our eyes to learn how to tremble rather than vainly to exult. Indeed, it is easy, so long as the comparison stops with men, for anyone to think of himself as having something that his fellows ought not to despise. But when we rise up toward God, that assurance of ours vanishes in a flash and dies. And exactly the same thing happens to our souls with respect to God as happens to our bodies with respect to the visible heavens. For keenness of sight, so long as it confines itself to examining nearby objects, is convinced of its discernment. But directed toward the sun, stricken and numbed by excessive brightness, our vision feels as weak as it did strong in gazing at objects below.3 Let us, then, not be deceived by empty confidence. Even though we consider ourselves either equal or superior to other men, that is nothing to God, to whose judgment the decision of the matter must be brought. But if our wildness cannot be tamed by these warnings, he will answer us as he spoke to the Pharisees: "Ye are they that justify yourselves before men; but … what is exalted among men is an abomination to God" [Luke 16:15, cf. Vg.]. Go now and haughtily boast of your righteousness among men, while God from heaven abominates it!
But what say God's servants, truly instructed by his Spirit? "Enter not into judgment with thy servant, for no man living is righteous in thy sight." [Ps. 143:2; cf. Comm. and Ps. 142:2, Vg.] Another servant speaks, although in a slightly different sense: "A man cannot be righteous before God. If he wished to contend with him, he could not answer him once in a thousand times" [Job 9:2–3; cf. v. 3, Vg.]. Here, then, we are clearly told the nature of God's righteousness, which will indeed not be satisfied by any works of man. When it examines our thousand sins, we cannot be cleansed of even one. Surely that chosen instrument of God, Paul, had sincerely conceived such a righteousness when he confessed that he was not aware of anything against himself but that he was not thereby justified [1 Cor. 4:4].
3. Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux as witnesses of true righteousness
Such examples are found not only in Holy Scripture but all devout writers show that this was their view. So Augustine says: "All the pious who groan under this burden of corruptible flesh and in this weakness of life have one hope: that we have one Mediator, Jesus Christ the righteous one, and he is the appeasement for our sins" [cf. 1 Tim. 2:5–6]. What do we hear? If this is their only hope, where is confidence in works? For when he says "only," he leaves no other hope. Now Bernard says: "Where, in fact, are safe and firm rest and security for the weak but in the Savior's wounds? The mightier he is to save, the more securely I dwell there. The world menaces, the body weighs us down, the devil sets his snares. I fall not, for I am grounded upon firm rock. I have sinned a grave sin. My conscience is disturbed, but it will not be perturbed5 because I shall remember the Lord's wounds." From these thoughts he afterward concludes: "Accordingly, the Lord's compassion is my merit. Obviously, I am not devoid of merit so long as he is not devoid of compassion. But if the mercies of the Lord abound, then equally do I abound in merits. Shall I sing my own righteous acts? O Lord, I shall remember thy righteousness only, for it is also mine. Namely, he was made righteousness for me by God." Also, in another place, "This is man's whole merit if he put his whole hope in him who makes safe the whole man." Similarly, where keeping peace to himself, he leaves the glory to God. "To Thee," he says, "may glory remain undiminished. It will go well with me if I shall have peace. I utterly abjure glory, lest, if I usurp what is not mine, I shall also lose what has been offered to me." He speaks even more openly in another passage: "Why should the church be concerned about merits, since it has in God's purpose a surer reason for glorying? Thus there is no reason why you should ask by what merits we may hope for benefits, especially since you hear in the prophet: 'It is not for your sake … that I am about to act, but for mine … says the Lord' [Ezek. 36:22, 32 p.]. Merit enough it is to know that merits are not enough; but as it is merit enough not to presume upon merits, so to be without merits is enough for judgment." The fact that he uses the term "merits" freely for good works, we must excuse as the custom of the time. But essentially his intention was to strike fear in hypocrites, who in their unbridled sinning act shamelessly against God's grace. This he presently explains: "Happy is the church that lacks neither merits without presumption nor presumption without merits. It has cause for presumption but not merits. It has merits, but to make it deserving, not to make it presumptuous. Is not to refrain from presuming really to merit? It then presumes the more boldly in that it presumes not, having ample occasion to glory in the Lord's abundant mercies."
(Conscience and self-criticism before God deprive us of all claim to good works and lead us to embrace God's mercy, 4–8)
4. The gravity of God's judgment puts an end to all self-deception
This is the truth. Awakened consciences, when they have to do with God's judgment, recognize this as the only safe haven in which they can securely breathe. bFor if the stars, which seem so very bright at night, lose their brilliance in the sight of the sun, what do we think will happen even to the rarest innocence of man when it is compared with God's purity? For it will be a very severe test, which will penetrate to the most hidden thoughts of the heart; and, as Paul says, "he will bring to light the things hidden in darkness, and will uncover the hidden purposes of hearts" [1 Cor. 4:5 p.]. This will compel the lurking and lagging conscience to utter all things that have now even been forgotten. Our accuser the devil, mindful of all the transgressions that he has impelled us to perpetrate, will press us. Outward parade of good works, which alone we now esteem, will be of no benefit there; purity of will alone will be demanded of us. And therefore hypocrisy shall fall down confounded, even as it now vaunts itself with drunken boldness. This applies not only to that hypocrisy by which a man, knowing himself guilty before God, strives to show himself off among men but also to that by which every man deceives himself before God, prone as we are to pamper and flatter ourselves. They who do not direct their attention to such a spectacle can, indeed, for the moment pleasantly and peacefully construct a righteousness for themselves, but one that will soon in God's judgment be shaken from them, just as great riches heaped up in a dream vanish upon awakening. But they who seriously, and as in God's sight, will seek after the true rule of righteousness, will certainly find that all human works, if judged according to their own worth, are nothing but filth and defilement. And what is commonly reckoned righteousness is before God sheer iniquity; what is adjudged uprightness, pollution; what is accounted glory, ignominy.
5. Away with all self-admiration!
Let us not be ashamed to descend from this contemplation of divine perfection to look upon ourselves,7 without flattery and without being affected by blind self-love. For it is no wonder if we be so blind in this respect, since none of us guards against that pestilent self-indulgence which, as Scripture proclaims, inheres in all of us by nature. "To every man," says Solomon, "his way is right in his own eyes." [Prov. 21:2 p.] Again, "All the ways of a man seem pure in his own eyes." [Prov. 16:2.] What then? Is he acquitted by this delusion? No indeed, but, as is added in the same passage, "the Lord weighs men's hearts" [Prov. 16:2 p.]. That is, while man flatters himself on account of the outward mask of righteousness that he wears, the Lord meanwhile weighs in his scales the secret impurity of the heart. Since, therefore, a man is far from being benefited by such flatteries, let us not, to our ruin, willingly delude ourselves. In order that we may rightly examine ourselves, our consciences must necessarily be called before God's judgment seat. For there is need to strip entirely bare in its light the secret places of our depravity, which otherwise are too deeply hidden. Then only will we clearly see the value of these words: "Man is far from being justified before God, man who is rottenness and a worm" [Job 25:6, cf. Vg.], "abominable and empty, who drinks iniquity like water" [Job 15:16]. "For who could make clean what has been conceived of unclean seed? Not one." [Job 14:4, cf. Vg.] Then we shall also experience what Job said of himself: "If I would show myself innocent, my own mouth will condemn me; if righteous, it will prove me perverse" [Job 9:20, cf. Vg.]. For the complaint that the prophet of old made concerning Israel does not apply to one age but to all ages: "All … like sheep have gone astray; everyone has turned to his own way" [Isa. 53:6 p.]. Indeed, he there includes all those to whom the grace of redemption was to come. And the rigor of this examination ought to proceed to the extent of casting us down into complete consternation, and in this way preparing us to receive Christ's grace. For he who considers himself capable of enjoying it is deceived unless he has first humbled all haughtiness of mind. This is a well-known passage: "God confounds the proud, but gives grace to the humble" [1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6; cf. Prov. 3:34].
6. What humility before God is
But what way do we have to humble ourselves except that, wholly poor and destitute, we yield to God's mercy? aFor if we think that we have anything left to ourselves, I do not call it humility. And those who have hitherto joined these two things together—namely, that we must think humbly concerning ourselves before God and must reckon our righteousness to be of some value—have taught a pernicious hypocrisy. For if we confess before God contrary to what we feel, we wickedly lie to him. bBut we cannot feel as we ought without immediately trampling upon whatever seems glorious in us. Therefore, when you hear in the prophet that salvation has been prepared for the humble people, and abasement for the eyes of the proud [Ps. 18:27; cf. Ps. 17:28, Vg.], first consider that the gateway to salvation does not lie open unless we have laid aside all pride and taken upon ourselves perfect humility; secondly, that this humility is not some seemly behavior whereby you yield a hair of your right to the Lord, as those who do not act haughtily or insult others are called humble in the sight of men, although they rely upon some consciousness of excellence. Rather, this humility is an unfeigned submission of our heart, stricken down in earnest with an awareness of its own misery and want. For so it is everywhere described by the Word of God.
When the Lord speaks thus in Zephaniah, "I will remove from you the proudly exultant … and leave in the midst of your people the afflicted and poor, and they shall hope in the Lord," does he not clearly point out who the humble are? [ch. 3:11–12]. They are those who lie afflicted with the knowledge of their own poverty. On the other hand, Scripture calls the proud ones "exultant" because men happy in their prosperity usually leap for joy. But to the humble, whom he plans to save, he leaves nothing but to hope in the Lord. So also in Isaiah: "But to whom will I look, save to him who is lowly and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my words" [Isa. 66:2, Vg.]? Likewise: "The high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy, dwelling in the high and holy place, and with a contrite and humble spirit, to quicken the spirit of the humble and … the heart of the contrite." [Isa. 57:15, Vg.]
Whenever you hear the word "contrition," understand a wound of the heart that does not permit a man cast to the ground to be raised up. If you would, according to God's judgment, be exalted with the humble, your heart ought to be wounded with such contrition. If that does not happen, you will be humbled by God's powerful hand to your shame and disgrace.
7. Christ calls sinners, not the righteous
And our most excellent Master, not content with words, in a parable represents to us, as in a picture, the image of proper humility. For he brings forward a "publican, standing afar off, and not daring to lift his eyes to heaven, who prays with much weeping, 'Lord, be merciful to me a sinner' " [Luke 18:13 p.]. Let us not think these signs of feigned modesty: that he does not dare to look up to heaven or to come nearer, and that, beating his breast, he confesses himself a sinner. But let us know these to be testimonies of an inner feeling. On the other side he puts the Pharisee, who thanks God because he is not a common man, either an extortioner or unjust, or an adulterer, and since he fasts twice in the week and gives tithes of all that he has [Luke 18:11–12]. In his open confession he acknowledges that the righteousness he has is a gift of God; but because he is confident that he is righteous, unpleasing and hateful, he departs from God's face. The publican is justified by the acknowledgment of his iniquity [Luke 18:14]. Hence, we may see how much favor our abasement has before the Lord, so that the heart cannot be opened to receive his mercy unless it be utterly empty of all opinion of its own worth. When it has been occupied with these things it closes the entry to him. That no one should doubt concerning this. Christ was sent to the earth by the Father with this commission: "To publish good tidings to the poor, to heal the contrite of heart, to preach liberty to the captives, deliverance to the imprisoned, … to console the sorrowing …, to give them glory instead of ashes, oil … instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of grief" [Isa. 61:1–3 p.]. According to this commandment, he invites to share his beneficence only those who labor and are heavy-laden [Matt. 11:28]. And in another passage: "I have come not to call the righteous but sinners" [Matt. 9:13].
8. Arrogance and complacency before God block our way to Christ
Therefore, if we would give ear to Christ's call, away with all arrogance and complacency! Arrogance arises from a foolish persuasion of our own righteousness, when man thinks that he has something meritorious to commend him before God. Complacency can exist even without any belief in works. For many sinners are so drunk with the sweetness of their vices that they think not upon God's judgment but lie dazed, as it were, in a sort of drowsiness, and do not aspire to the mercy offered to them. Such sloth is no less to be shaken off than any confidence in ourselves is to be cast away in order that we may without hindrance hasten to Christ, and empty and hungering, may be filled with his good things. aFor we will never have enough confidence in him unless we become deeply distrustful of ourselves; we will never lift up our hearts enough in him unless they be previously cast down in us; we will never have consolation enough in him unless we have already experienced desolation in ourselves.
Therefore we are ready to seize and grasp God's grace when we have utterly cast out confidence in ourselves and rely only on the assurance of his goodness—"when," as Augustine says, "forgetting our own merits, we embrace Christ's gifts."10 For if he sought merits in us, we would not come to his gifts. Bernard is in agreement with this when he neatly compares to faithless servants the proud, who claim even the slightest thing for their own merits because they wrongfully retain the credit for grace that passes through them, as if a wall should say that it gave birth to a sunbeam that it received through a window.11 Not to halt any longer with this, let us hold it as a brief but general and sure rule that prepared to share the fruit of God's mercy is he who has emptied himself, I do not say of righteousness, which exists not, but of a vain and airy semblance of righteousness. For to the extent that a man rests satisfied with himself, he impedes the beneficence of God.
Source, Calvin's Institutes, 3.12.1-8