Calvin, Institutes, Vol.3, Part 16
(... continued from part 15)
Chapter 15. 
15. The boasted merit of works subversive both of the glory of God, 
in bestowing righteousness, and of the certainty of salvation. 
    The divisions of this chapter are, - I. To the doctrine of free 
justification is opposed the question, Whether or not works merit 
favor with God, sec. 1. This question answered, sec. 2 and 3. II. An 
exposition of certain passages of Scripture produced in support of 
the erroneous doctrine of merit, sec. 4 and 5. III. Sophisms of 
Semipelagian Schoolmen refuted, sec. 6 and 7. IV. Conclusion, 
proving the sufficiency of the orthodox doctrine, sec. 8. 
1. After a brief recapitulation, the question, Whether or not good 
    works merit favor with God, considered. 
2. First answer, fixing the meaning of the term Merit. This term 
    improperly applied to works, but used in a good sense, as by 
    Augustine, Chrysostom, Bernard. 
3. A second answer to the question. First by a negative, then by a 
    concession. In the rewarding of works what to be attributed to 
    God, and what to man. Why good works please God, and are 
    advantageous to those who do them. The ingratitude of seeking 
    righteousness by works. This shown by a double similitude. 
4. First objection taken from Ecclesiasticus. Second objection from 
    the Epistle to the Hebrews. Two answers to both objections. A 
    weak distinction refuted. 
5. A third and most complete answer, calling us back to Christ as 
    the only foundation of salvation. How Christ is our 
    righteousness. Whence it is manifest that we have all things in 
    Christ and he nothing in us. 
6. We must abhor the sophistry which destroys the merit of Christ, 
    in order to establish that of man. This impiety refuted by 
    clear passages of Scripture. 
7. Errors, of the younger Sophists extracted from Lombard. Refuted 
    by Augustine. Also by Scripture. 
8. Conclusion, showing that the foundation which has been laid is 
    sufficient for doctrine, exhortation, and comfort. Summery of 
    the orthodox doctrine of Justification. 
    1. The principal point in this subject has been now explained: 
as justifications if dependent upon works, cannot possibly stand in 
the sight of God, it must depend solely on the mercy of God and 
communion with Christ, and therefore on faith alone. But let us 
carefully attend to the point on which the whole subject hinges, 
lest we get entangled in the common delusion, not only of the 
vulgar, but of the learned. For the moment the question is raised as 
to the justification by faith or works, they run off to those 
passages which seem to ascribe some merit to works in the sight of 
God, just as if justification by works were proved whenever it is 
proved that works have any value with God. Above we have clearly 
shown that justification by works consists only in a perfect and 
absolute fulfillment of the law, and that, therefore, no man is 
justified by works unless he has reached the summit of perfection, 
and cannot be convicted of even the smallest transgression. But 
there is another and a separate question, Though works by no means 
suffice to justify, do they not merit favor with God? 
    2. First, I must premise with regard to the term Merit, that 
he, whoever he was, that first applied it to human works, viewed in 
reference to the divine tribunal, consulted very ill for the purity 
of the faith. I willingly abstain from disputes about words, but I 
could wish that Christian writers had always observed this soberness 
- that when there was no occasion for it, they had never thought of 
using terms foreign to the Scriptures - terms which might produce 
much offense, but very little fruit. I ask, what need was there to 
introduce the word Merit, when the value of works might have been 
fully expressed by another term, and without offense? The quantity 
of offense contained in it the world shows to its great loss. It is 
certain that, being a high sounding term, it can only obscure the 
grace of God, and inspire men with pernicious pride. I admit it was 
used by ancient ecclesiastical writers, and I wish they had not by 
the abuse of one term furnished posterity with matter of heresy, 
although in some passages they themselves show that they had no wish 
to injure the truth. For Augustine says, "Let human merits, which 
perished by Adam, here be silent, and let the grace of God reign by 
Jesus Christ," (August. de Praedest. Sanct.) Again, "The saints 
ascribe nothing to their merits; every thing will they ascribe 
solely to thy mercy, O God," (August. in Psal. 139.) Again, "And 
when a man sees that whatever good he has he has not of himself, but 
of his God, he sees that every thing in him which is praised is not 
of his own merits, but of the divine mercy," (August. in Psal. 88.) 
You see how he denies man the power of acting aright, and thus lays 
merit prostrate. Chrysostom says, "If any works of ours follow the 
free calling of God, they are return and debt; but the gifts of God 
are grace, and beneficence, and great liberality." But to say 
nothing more of the name, let us attend to the thing. I formerly 
quoted a passage from Bernard: "As it is sufficient for merit not to 
presume on merit, so to be without merit is sufficient for 
condemnation," (Bernard in Cantic. Serm. 98.) He immediately adds an 
explanation which softens the harshness of the expression, when he 
says, "Hence be careful to have merits; when you have them, know 
that they were given; hope for fruit from the divine mercy, and you 
have escaped all the perils of poverty, ingratitude, and 
presumption. Happy the Church which neither wants merit without 
presumption, nor presumption without merit." A little before he had 
abundantly shown that he used the words in a sound sense, saying, 
"Why is the Church anxious about merits? God has furnished her with 
a firmer and surer ground of boasting. God cannot deny himself; he 
will do what he has promised. Thus there is no reason for asking by 
what merits may we hope for blessings; especially when you hear, 
'Thus saith the Lord God; I do not this for your sakes, 0 house of 
Israel, but for mine holy name's sake,' (Ezek. 36: 22.) It suffices 
for merit to know that merits suffice not." 
    3. What all our works can merit Scripture shows when it 
declares that they cannot stand the view of God, because they are 
full of impurity; it next shows what the perfect observance of the 
law (if it can any where be found) will merit when it enjoins, "So 
likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are 
commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants, we have done that 
which was our duty to do," (Luke 17: 10;) because we make no 
free-offering to God, but only perform due service by which no favor 
is deserved. And yet those good works which the Lord has bestowed 
upon us he counts ours also, and declares, that they are not only 
acceptable to him, but that he will recompense them. It is ours in 
return to be animated by this great promise, and to keep up our 
courage, that we may not weary in well-doing, but feel duly grateful 
for the great kindness of God. There cannot be a doubt, that every 
thing in our works which deserves praise is owing to divine grace, 
and that there is not a particle of it which we can properly ascribe 
to ourselves. If we truly and seriously acknowledge this, not only 
confidence, but every idea of merit vanishes. I say we do not, like 
the Sophists share the praise of works between God and man, but we 
keep it entire and unimpaired for the Lord. All we assign to man is 
that, by his impurity he pollutes and contaminates the very works 
which were good. The most perfect thing which proceeds from man is 
always polluted by some stain. Should the Lords therefore bring to 
judgment the best of human works, he would indeed behold his own 
righteousness in them; but he would also behold man's dishonor and 
disgrace. Thus good works please God, and are not without fruit to 
their authors, since, by way of recompense, they obtain more ample 
blessings from God, not because they so deserve, but because the 
divine benignity is pleased of itself to set this value upon them. 
Such, however is our malignity, that not contented with this 
liberality on the part of God, which bestows rewards on works that 
do not at all deserve them, we with profane ambition maintain that 
that which is entirely due to the divine munificence is paid to the 
merit of works. Here I appeal to every man's common sense. If one 
who by another's liberality possesses the usufruct of a field, rear 
up a claim to the property of it, does he not by his ingratitude 
deserve to lose the possession formerly granted? In like manner, if 
a slave, who has been manumitted, conceals his humble condition of 
freedman, and gives out that he was free-born, does he not deserve 
to be reduced to his original slavery? A benefit can only be 
legitimately enjoyed when we neither arrogate more to our selves 
than has been given, nor defraud the author of it of his due praise; 
nay, rather when we so conduct ourselves as to make it appear that 
the benefit conferred still in a manner resides with him who 
conferred it. But if this is the moderation to be observed towards 
men, let every one reflect and consider for himself what is due to 
    4. I know that the Sophists abuse some passages in order to 
prove that the Scriptures use the term merit with reference to God. 
They quote a passage from Ecclesiasticus: "Mercy will give place to 
every man according to the merit of his works," (Ecclesiasticus 16: 
14;) and from the Epistle to the Hebrews: "To do good and 
communicate forget not; for with such sacrifices God is well 
pleased," (Heb. 13: 16.) I now renounce my right to repudiate the 
authority of Ecclesiasticus; but I deny that the words of 
Ecclesiasticus, whoever the writer may have been, are faithfully 
quoted. The Greek is as follows: "Pasei ele-emosunei poiesei topon; 
hekastos gar kata ta erga houtou heuresei". "He will make room for 
all mercy: for each shall find according to his works." That this is 
the genuine reading, and has been corrupted in the Latin version, is 
plain, both from the very structure of the sentence, and from the 
previous context. In the Epistle to the Hebrews there is no room for 
their quibbling on one little word, for in the Greek the Apostle 
simply says, that such sacrifices are pleasing and acceptable to 
God. This alone should amply suffice to quell and beat down the 
insolence of our pride, and prevent us from attaching value to works 
beyond the rule of Scripture. It is the doctrine of Scripture, 
moreover, that our good works are constantly covered with numerous 
stains by which God is justly offended and made angry against us, so 
far are they from being able to conciliate him, and call forth his 
favor towards us; and yet because of his indulgence, he does not 
examine them with the utmost strictness, he accepts them just as if 
they were most pure; and therefore rewards them, though undeserving, 
with innumerable blessings, both present and future. For I admit not 
the distinction laid down by otherwise learned and pious men, that 
good works merit the favors which are conferred upon us in this 
life, whereas eternal life is the reward of faith only. The 
recompense of our toils, and crown of our contest, our Lord almost 
uniformly places in heaven. On the other hand, to attribute to the 
merit of works, so as to deny it to grace, that we are loaded with 
other gifts from the Lord, is contrary to the doctrine of Scripture. 
For though Christ says, "Unto every one that has shall be given;" 
"thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler 
over many things," (Matth. 25: 29, 21,) he, at the same time, shows 
that all additional gifts to believers are of his free benignity: 
"Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that 
has no money, come ye, buy, and eat: yea, come, buy wine and milk, 
without money and without price," (Isaiah 55: 1.) Therefore, every 
help to salvation bestowed upon believers, and blessedness itself, 
are entirely the gift of God, and yet in both the Lord testifies 
that he takes account of works, since to manifest the greatness of 
his love toward us, he thus highly honors not ourselves only, but 
the gifts, which he has bestowed upon us. 
    5. Had these points been duly handled and digested in past 
ages, never could so many tumults and dissensions have arisen. Paul 
says, that in the architecture of Christian doctrine, it is 
necessary to retain the foundation which he had laid with the 
Corinthians, "Other foundation can no man lay than that which is 
laid, which is Jesus Christ," (1 Cor. 3: 11.) What then is our 
foundation in Christ? Is it that he begins salvation and leaves us 
to complete it? Is it that he only opened up the way, and left us to 
follow it in our own strength? By no means, but as Paul had a little 
before declared, it is to acknowledge that he has been given us for 
righteousness. No man, therefore, is well founded in Christ who has 
not entire righteousness in him, since the Apostle says not that he 
was sent to assist us in procuring, but was himself to be our 
righteousness. Thus, it is said that God "has chosen us in him 
before the foundation of the world," not according to our merit, but 
"according to the good pleasure of his will;" that in him "we have 
redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins;" that 
peace has been made "through the blood of his cross;" that we are 
reconciled by his blood; that, placed under his protection, we are 
delivered from the danger of finally perishing; that thus ingrafted 
into him we are made partakers of eternal life, and hope for 
admission into the kingdom of God. Nor is this all. Being admitted 
to participation in him, though we are still foolish, he is our 
wisdom; though we are still sinners he is our righteousness; though 
we are unclean, he is our purity; though we are weak, unarmed, and 
exposed to Satan, yet ours is the power which has been given him in 
heaven and in earth, to bruise Satan under our feet, and burst the 
gates of hell, (Matth. 28: 18;) though we still bear about with us a 
body of death, he is our life; in short, all things of his are ours, 
we have all things in him, he nothing in us. On this foundation, I 
say, we must be built, if we would grow up into a holy temple in the 
    6. For a long time the world has been taught very differently. 
A kind of good works called moral has been found out, by which men 
are rendered agreeable to God before they are ingrafted into Christ; 
as if Scripture spoke falsely when it says, "He that has the Son has 
life, and he that has not the Son of God has not life," (1 John 5: 
12.) How can they produce the materials of life if they are dead? Is 
there no meaning in its being said that "whatsoever is not of faith 
is sin?" (Rom. 14: 23;) or can good fruit be produced from a bad 
tree? What have these most pestilential Sophists left to Christ on 
which to exert his virtue? They say that he merited for us the first 
grace, that is, the occasion of meriting, and that it is our part 
not to let slip the occasion thus offered. O the daring effrontery 
of impiety! Who would have thought that men professing the name of 
Christ would thus strip him of his power, and all but trample him 
under foot? The testimony uniformly borne to him in Scripture is 
that whose believeth in him is justified; the doctrine of these men 
is, that the only benefit which proceeds from him is to open up a 
way for each to justify himself. I wish they could get a taste of 
what is meant by these passages: "He that has the Son has life." "He 
Hedthat hearth my word, and believeth on him that sent me," "is 
passed from death unto life." Whose believeth in him "is passed from 
death unto life." "Being justified freely by his grace, through the 
redemption that is in Christ Jesus." "He that keepeth his 
commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him." God "has raised us up 
together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ." 
"Who has delivered us from the power of darkness, and has translated 
us into the kingdom of his dear Son." There are similar passages 
without number. Their meaning is not, that by faith in Christ an 
opportunity is given us of procuring justifications or acquiring 
salvation, but that both are given us. Hence, so soon as you are 
ingrafted into Christ by faith, you are made a son of God, an heir 
of heaven, a partaker of righteousness, a possessor of life, and 
(the better to manifest the false tenets of these men) you have not 
obtained an opportunity of meriting, but all the merits of Christ, 
since they are communicated to you. 
    7. In this way the schools of Sorbonne, the parents of all 
heresies, have deprived us of justification by faith, which lies at 
the root of all godliness. They confess, indeed, in word, that men 
are justified by a formed faith, but they afterwards explain this to 
mean that of faith they have good works which avail to 
justification, so that they almost seem to use the term faith in 
mockery, because they were unable, without incurring great obloquy, 
to pass it in silence, seeing it is so often repeated by Scripture. 
And yet not contented with this, they by the praise of good works 
transfer to man what they steal from God. And seeing that good works 
give little ground for exultation, and are not even properly called 
merits, if they are regarded as the fruits of divine grace, they 
derive them from the power of free-will; in other words extract oil 
out of stone. They deny not that the principal cause is in grace; 
but they contend that there is no exclusion of free-will through 
which all merit comes. This is the doctrine, not only of the later 
Sophists, but of Lombard their Pythagoras, (Sent. Lib. 2, Dist. 28,) 
who, in comparison of them, may be called sound and sober. It was 
surely strange blindness, while he had Augustine so often in his 
mouth, not to see how cautiously he guarded against ascribing a 
single particle of praise to man because of good works. Above, when 
treating of free-will, we quoted some passages from him to this 
effect, and similar passages frequently occur in his writings, (see 
in Psal. 104; Ep. 105,) as when he forbids us ever to boast of our 
merits, because they themselves also are the gifts of God, and when 
he says that all our merits are only of grace, are not provided by 
our sufficiency, but are entirely the production of grace, &c. It is 
less strange that Lombard was blind to the light of Scripture, in 
which it is obvious that he had not been a very successful student. 
Still there cannot be a stronger declaration against him and his 
disciples than the words of the Apostles who, after interdicting all 
Christians from glorying, subjoins the reason why glorying is 
unlawful: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto 
good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in 
them," (Eph. 2: 10.) Seeing, then, that no good proceeds from us 
unless in so far as we are regenerated - and our regeneration is 
without exception wholly of God - there is no ground for claiming to 
ourselves one iota in good works. Lastly, while these men constantly 
inculcate good works, they, at the same time, train the conscience 
in such a way as to prevent it from venturing to confide that works 
will render God favorable and propitious. We, on the contrary, 
without any mention of merit, give singular comfort to believers 
when we teach them that in their works they please, and doubtless 
are accepted of God. Nay, here we even insist that no man shall 
attempt or enter upon any work without faith, that is, unless he 
previously have a firm conviction that it will please God. 
    8. Wherefore, let us never on any account allow ourselves to be 
drawn away one nail's breadth from that only foundation. After it is 
laid, wise architects build upon it rightly and in order. For 
whether there is need of doctrine or exhortation, they remind us 
that "for this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might 
destroy the works of the devil;" that "whosoever is born of God does 
not commit sin;" that "the time past of our life may suffice us to 
have wrought the will of the Gentiles;" that the elect of God are 
vessels of mercy, appointed "to honor," purged, "sanctified, and 
meet for the Master's use, and prepared unto every good work." The 
whole is expressed at once, when Christ thus describes his 
disciples, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and 
take up his cross daily, and follow me." He who has denied himself 
has cut off the root of all evils so as no longer to seek his own; 
he who has taken up his cross has prepared himself for all meekness 
and endurance. The example of Christ includes this and all offices 
of piety and holiness. He obeyed his Father even unto death; his 
whole life was spent in doing the works of God; his whole soul was 
intent on the glory of his Father; he laid down his life for the 
brethren; he did good to his enemies, and prayed for them. And when 
there is need of comfort, it is admirably afforded in these words: 
"We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are 
perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not forsaken; cast 
down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying 
of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made 
manifest in our body." " For if we be dead with him we shall also 
live with him; if we suffer, we shall also reign with him;" by means 
of "the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto 
his death;" the Father having predestinated us "to be conformed to 
the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many 
brethren." Hence it is, that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, 
nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to 
come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able 
to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our 
Lord;" nay, rather all things will work together for our good. See 
how it is that we do not justify men before God by works, but say, 
that all who are of God are regenerated and made new creatures, so 
that they pass from the kingdom of sin into the kingdom of 
righteousness. In this way they make their calling sure, and, like 
trees, are judged by their fruits. 

Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 3, Part 16

(continued in part 17...)

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