Only Through Living Faith
A Brief Comparison of Calvin’s Institutes with the Westminster Confession and Catechisms regarding the shape of imputation
By Mark Horne
This essay is a brief argument that the soteriology of John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion regarding union with Christ and the imputation of his righteousness is the same as that of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. To give an idea of what I am hoping to provide evidence for, it might be best to start with an example from another area of theology.
Let’s start, then, with the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.
As is well known, John Calvin forceably stated that the Lord’s Supper could supply believers with no benefits unless the Lord’s Supper provided Christ himself as the source of those benefits. For example, he writes in his Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of our Lord:
But as the blessings of Jesus Christ do not belong to us at all, unless he be previously ours, it is necessary, first of all, that he be given us in the Supper, in order that the things which we have mentioned may be truly accomplished in us. For this reason I am wont to say, that the substance of the sacraments is the Lord Jesus, and the efficacy of them the graces and blessings which we have by his means. Now the efficacy of the Supper is to confirm to us the reconciliation which we have with God through our Savior’s death and passion; the washing of our souls which we have in the shedding of his blood; the righteousness which we have in his obedience; in short, the hope of salvation which we have in all that he has done for us. It is necessary, then, that the substance should be conjoined with these, otherwise nothing would be firm or certain. Hence we conclude that two things are presented to us in the Supper, viz., Jesus Christ as the source and substance of all good; and, secondly, the fruit and efficacy of his death and passion. This is implied in the words which were used. For after commanding us to eat his body and drink his blood, he adds that his body was delivered for us, and his blood shed for the remission of our sins. Hereby he intimates, first, that we ought not simply to communicate in his body and blood, without any other consideration, but in order to receive the fruit derived to us from his death and passion; secondly that we can attain the enjoyment of such fruit only by participating in his body and blood, from which it is derived.
While a great deal might be said, this much is clear about the shape of Calvin’s view of the efficacy of the Lord’s Supper: in order to receive Christ’s benefits we must receive Christ himself as the only source of them.
The Westminster Confession and Catechisms are quite clear in following precisely Calvin’s thought on this matter. Chapter 27 of the Confession of Faith (”Of the Sacraments”) states in the leading paragraph that, “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace … to represent Christ, and his benefits…” The next chapter, “Of Baptism,” says,
Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.
Notice here that baptism “intrafting into Christ” heads the list of benefits. Finally, the same structure, though not as clear, can be detected in the following chapter on the Lord’s Supper, which is for “for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself [Christ] in his death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers.”
The Shorter Catechism is even more clear. “A sacrament is an holy ordinance … wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers” (q. 92; emphasis added). Thus, we are told that baptism “doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace” (q. 94; emphasis added). And, in the Lord’s Supper, believers are “made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits” (q. 96).
The Larger Catechism’s definition of a sacrament does not maintain the distinct shape we see in the Confession and Catechism, but with question 165 we are back in familiar territory:
Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ hath ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life.
Being ingrafted into Christ leads to forgiveness, regeneration, adoption, and even resurrection.
As in the sacraments, so in salvation generally: John Calvin argued that union with Christ was the key to both justification and sanctification and all other benefits that believers received. He begins his book on the application of the redemption purchased by Christ in this way:
We must now see in what way we become possessed of the blessings which God has bestowed on his only-begotten Son, not for private use, but to enrich the poor and needy. And the first thing to be attended to is, that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us. Accordingly, he is called our Head, and the first-born among many brethren, while, on the other hand, we are said to be ingrafted into him and clothed with him, all which he possesses being, as I have said, nothing to us until we become one with him (3.1.1).
As Calvin’s opening statement on how we receive Christ’s benefits this would be enough to show that Calvin taught that union with Christ was the key to sharing in Christ’s righteous status before the Father. However, Calvin does not simply leave his Institutes with this general introductory statement, but rather reiterates the importance of union with Christ. In chapter 11 of Book 3, Calvin begins his discussion of justification by saying:
I trust I have now sufficiently shown how man’s only resource for escaping from the curse of the law, and recovering salvation, lies in faith; and also what the nature of faith is, what the benefits which it confers, and the fruits which it produces. The whole may be thus summed up: Christ given to us by the kindness of God is apprehended and possessed by faith, by means of which we obtain in particular a twofold benefit; first, being reconciled by the righteousness of Christ, God becomes, instead of a judge, an indulgent Father; and, secondly, being sanctified by his Spirit, we aspire to integrity and purity of life.
Here it is laid out for us. Faith is given to us by God so that we may be united to ["apprehend"] Christ and thus be both justified and sanctified.
Calvin goes on in the next sentences to point out that he dealt with sanctification first before justification. He could have, by his own account, dealt with them in either order, and chose sanctification as the first topic for pedagogical reasons. But this certainly shows that, for Calvin, there was no logical precedence to justification. Both benefits are necessary parts of the Christian life but neither depends on the other. Rather both depend on union with Christ.
If possible, Calvin becomes even more explicit while refuting Osiander. Speaking of the righteousness we have from Christ, he writes,
I acknowledge that we are devoid of this incomparable gift until Christ become ours. Therefore, to that union of the head and members, the residence of Christ in our hearts, in fine, the mystical union, we assign the highest rank, Christ when he becomes ours making us partners with him in the gifts with which he was endued. Hence we do not view him as at a distance and without us, but as we have put him on, and been ingrafted into his body, he deigns to make us one with himself, and, therefore, we glory in having a fellowship of righteousness with him.
Union with Christ, to reiterate the obvious, has “highest rank” in Calvin’s soteriology according to his Institutes. A great deal more evidence could be cited, but since I know of no alleged counter-evidence, I shall leave the Institutes and turn to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms.
In chapter 11 of the Confession of Faith, entitled “of justification” we find more than once a phrase that seems to be parallel to the idea in the sacraments of Christ and his benefits. We do not merely receive Christ’s righteousness but Christ and his righteousness.
- Paragraph 1: Christ’s obedience and satisfaction are imputed to those who are “receiving and resting on him and his righteousness.”
- Paragraph 2–”Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification.”
- Paragraph 4–”God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise again for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.” Here, one is justified when and because one is united to Christ by the Spirit
Q69: What is the communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ?
A69: The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ, is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him [emphasis added].
Questions 70 and 71 of the Larger Catechism speak of Christ’s righteousness being imputed without explicit mention of Christ himself being received of believers being united to him. But then:
Q72: What is justifying faith?
A72: Justifying faith is a saving grace,… whereby he … receiveth and resteth upon Christ and his righteousness…
Q73: How doth faith justify a sinner in the sight of God?
A73: Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God … only as it is an instrument by which he receiveth and applies Christ and his righteousness.
The Shorter Catechism presents the same pattern, though it does not reiterate the statement of “Christ and his righteousness.” Question 33 mentions only receiving Christ’s righteousness without mentioning also receiving or being united to Christ. However, notice the ordo here:
Q29: How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?
A29: We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.
Q30: How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A30: The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling [Emphasis added].
Q31: What is effectual calling?
A31: Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby … he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
Whether or not each individual question asserts “Christ and his righteousness” in every case is irrelevant. The Westminster Shorter Catechism is clear and consistent with the Larger Catechism and the Confession: The only people who receive/have imputed to them Christ’s righteousness are those who receive/are united to Christ only by faith. For the Shorter Catechism, the reason why the effectually called are justified is precisely because they are united to Christ by faith in that calling.
The Westminsterian “order of salvation” is that of John Calvin. One is united by Christ by faith and, in Christ, one is both justified and sanctified. Bot justification and sanctification are manifestations of union with Christ (Larger Catechism #69).