Justification and Motivation for Good Works

July 12, 2011 — 1 Comment

9780830838639[This post is part of the Reshaping Christian Habits series]

In the essay on justification in The Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes (TGCI), Richard Gaffin comments:

If it needs to be said again, by the nature of the case, for Calvin sanctification as an ongoing, lifelong process follows justification, and in that sense justification is “prior” to sanctification, and the believer’s good works can be seen as the fruits and signs of having been justified. Only those already justified are being sanctified. But this is not the same thing as saying, what Calvin does not say, that justification is the source of sanctification or that justification causes sanctification (p. 256 italics his, bold mine).

Justification comes prior to sanctification in a temporal sense, but sanctification is not then caused by justification nor does it grow out of it as a source. Gaffin goes on to clarify that for Calvin, that source and cause is Christ by His Spirit who is united to the believer through faith. Justification is by grace through faith and sanctification is the also by grace through faith. The difference is perhaps that the latter is a lifelong process of grace-driven effort as Matt Chandler often says, while the former is a grace-driven declaration on the part of God.

For Calvin, justification and sanctification are implications of our union with Christ. In light of this, he chooses to sketch out the Christian life first (3.6-10) before talking about justification (3.11-18) and then coming back to talk about good works (3.17-19). We’ve followed a similar trek here by looking at the goal of shaping Christian habits before discussing how justification functions in relation to that. In the section on the Calvin’s ethics in TGCI, William Edgar says that Calvin

…sets forth the basic purpose in the first sentence [of 3:6-8]: “The object of regeneration, as we have said, is to manifest in the life of believers a harmony and agreement between God’s righteousness and their obedience, and thus to confirm the adoption that they have received as sons [Gal. 4:5; cf. 2 Peter 1:10].”

As Edgar then points out, “The basic goal is to wed together human obedience with divine righteousness” (p. 323). Or, we could say the goal of developing Christian habits is that your character (sanctification) grows to match your status (justification) before God. This idea is similar to something called the doctrine of double acceptance that Calvin presents in 3.17.4 of his Institutes. On p. 339 of TGCI, Edgar comments:

But once we are accepted by the pure mercy of God, then the Spirit begins to work in us good things, his fruit, which God also accepts. Thus, there is a sense, after justification, in which we may be accepted for our good works. “God ‘accepts’ believers by reason of works only because he is their source” (Institutes 3.17.5). Calvin is careful to explain that all of the biblical passages that teach that we are approved because we keep God’s commandments refer to an obedience generated only by the same God who has forgiven us (Heb. 3:1; 1 Peter 2:5; Rom. 9:21; Duet. 7:9).

If you have been keeping up with the recent debates about justification, this should strike you as interesting, because what Calvin is arguing for is more or less what N. T. Wright argues for in Justification (and previous in Paul, and What St. Paul Really Said). While not everything Wright says is right, his main argument about the nature of justification is exactly what Calvin says in the doctrine of double acceptance. Wright observes that “it is the status of the person which is transformed by the action of “justification” not the character” (p.  91). He then clarifies further:

There is indeed a sense in which “justification” really does make someone “righteous” – it really does create the “righteousness,” the status-of-being-in-the-right, of which it speaks – but “righteousness” in that lawcourt sense does not mean either “morally good character” or “performance of moral good deeds,” but “the status you have when the court has found in your favor” (p. 92).

He goes on later to stress that in actually forming this moral good character, we are not working toward justification. As he says, “the works in question will not earn their performers their membership within God’s true, eschatological, covenant people; they will demonstrate that membership” (p. 146). This results in what may seem like a paradox for “those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality,” but

They are seeking it, not earning it. And they are seeking it through that patient, Spirit-driven Christian living in which – here is the paradox at the heart of the Christian life which so many have noticed but few have integrated into Paul’s theology of justificaiton! – from one point of view the Spirit is at work, producing these fruits (Galatians 5:22-23), and from another point of view the person concerned is making the free choices, the increasingly free (because increasingly less constrained by the sinful habits of mind and body) decisions to live a genuinely, fully human life which brings pleasure – of course it does! – to the God in whose image we human beings are made. (p. 192)

Or as Wright puts it on the following page:

Humans become genuinely human, genuinely free, when the Spirit is at work within them so that they choose to act, and choose to become people who more and more naturally act (that is the point of “virtue,” as long as we realize it is “second nature,” not primary), in ways which reflect God’s image, which give him pleasure, which bring glory to his name, which do what the law had in mind all along.

And later still he says still later (p. 239), “Paul invites his hears to trust both in Jesus Christ and in the Father whose love triumphed in the death of his Son – and in the Holy Spirit who makes that victory operative in our moral lives and who enables us to love God in return (Romans 5:5, 8:28).” In other words, as Christians we are not motivated to achieve our justification. Our justification is the status that God gives us after calling us to himself (Romans 8:30). When we repent and believe the gospel, we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection and so we are given a new status (justification) and new family (adopted as sons and daughters of God) and a new heart (regeneration).

If anything then, our union with Christ should be our motivation to do good works. Because in Christ we are now part of God’s family and have been given an irrevocable status, we should want to live up to our identity. We aren’t trying to earn an identity or make a name for ourselves, rather because God has made a us a new identity already we should walk in that and live out of our new nature rather than our old. We tend to fail miserably at this, but in the rest of the posts in this series, we’re going to look at how to move forward.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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