by John Calvin
This selection was extracted from Calvin's Commentary on the book of Romans, translated into english by Rev. John Owen of Thrussington (Calvin Translation Society, Edinburgh, 1849). Made available by Shane Rosenthal for Reformation Ink, it is in the public domain and may be freely copied and distributed. The above title was created for this online edition.
Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousnes (Rom. 4:4-5).
4. To him indeed who works, &c. It is not he, whom he calls a worker, who is given to good works, to which all the children of God ought to attend, but the person who seeks to merit something by his works: and in a similar way he calls him no worker who depends not on the merit of what he does. He would not, indeed, have the faithful to be idle; but he only forbids them to be mercenaries, so as to demand any thing from God, as though it were justly their due. We have before reminded you, that the question is not here how we are to regulate our life, but how we are to be saved: and he argues from what is contrary, that God confers not righteousness on us because it is due, but bestows it as a gift. And indeed I agree with Bucer, who proves that the argument is not made to depend on one expression, but on the whole passage, and formed in this manner, "If one merits any thing by his work, what is merited is not freely I imputed to him, but rendered to him as his due. Faith is counted for righteousness, not that it procures any merit for us, but because it lays hold on the goodness of God: hence righteousness is not due to us, but freely bestowed." For as Christ of his own good-will justifies us through faith, Paul always regards this as an evidence of our emptiness; for what do we believe, except that Christ is an expiation to reconcile us to God? The same truth is found in other words in Galatians 3:11, where it is said, "That no man is justified by the law, it is evident, for the just shall by faith live: but the law is not by faith; but he who doeth these things shall live in them." Inasmuch, then, as the law promises reward to works, he hence concludes, that the righteousness of faith, which is free, accords not with that which is operative: this could not be were faith to justify by means of works. — We ought carefully to observe these comparisons, by which every merit is entirely done away.
5. But believes on him, &c. This is a very important sentence, in which he expresses the substance and nature both of faith and of righteousness. He indeed clearly shews that faith brings us righteousness, not because it is a meritorious act, but because it obtains for us the favor of God. Nor does he declare only that God is the giver of righteousness, but he also arraigns us of unrighteousness, in order that the bounty of God may come to aid our necessity: in short, no one will seek the righteousness of faith except he who feels that he is ungodly; for this sentence is to be applied to what is said in this passage, — that faith adorns us with the righteousness of another, which it seeks as a gift from God. And here again, God is said to justify us when he freely forgives sinners, and favors those, with whom he might justly be angry, with his love, that is, when his mercy obliterates our unrighteousness.