Salvation Sola Fide: John Calvin and the Causes of Salvation

John Calvin

“[W]e cannot look on personal holiness, or good works, as properly federal and conditional means of obtaining the possession of heaven, though we own they are necessary to make us meet for it.” ~The Marrow Men


As we continue in our series to consider John Calvin, it needs to be noted up front that, like Luther (see HERE), Calvin often puts Salvation for Justification and Justification for Salvation. And like Luther, for good reason. As we argued in Part 1 one of this series, the benefits of Justification and Regeneration/Sanctification are inseparable and are together granted by Union with Christ through the instrument of faith.  Thus Calvin writes:

Christ “is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption,” (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ, therefore, justifies no man without also sanctifying him. These blessings are conjoined by a perpetual and inseparable tie. Those whom he enlightens by his wisdom he redeems; whom he redeems he justifies; whom he justifies he sanctifies. […] Though we distinguish between them, they are both inseparably comprehended in Christ. Would ye then obtain justification in Christ? You must previously possess Christ. But you cannot possess him without being made a partaker of his sanctification: for Christ cannot be divided. Since the Lord, therefore, does not grant us the enjoyment of these blessings without bestowing himself, he bestows both at once but never the one without the other. (Institutes, 3.16.1)

Second, Salvation is often put for Justification because Justification simply is the present declaration of Future Salvation. For Calvin, to have the fullness of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us by faith is to have the declaration of the end already at the beginning.  (Please see Part 2 in this series.) This will be evident by the end of the post.

1) To begin, Calvin locates the true causes of Salvation according to the Scriptures. Faith is the instrumental cause. Good works are not (properly) a cause of Salvation.

[I]f we attend to the four kinds of causes which philosophers bring under our view in regard to effects, we shall find that not one of them is applicable to works as a cause of salvation. The efficient cause of our eternal salvation the Scripture uniformly proclaims to be the mercy and free love of the heavenly Father towards us; the material cause to be Christ, with the obedience by which he purchased righteousness for us; and what can the formal or instrumental cause be but faith? John includes the three in one sentence when he says, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life,” (John 3:16). The Apostle, moreover, declares that the final cause is the demonstration of the divine righteousness and the praise of his goodness. There also he distinctly mentions the other three causes; for he thus speaks to the Romans: “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God, being justified freely by his grace,” (Rom. 3:23, 24). You have here the head and primary source — God has embraced us with free mercy. The next words are, “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus;” this is as it were the material cause by which righteousness is procured for us. “Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith.” Faith is thus the instrumental cause by which righteousness is applied to us. He lastly subjoins the final cause when he says, “To declare at this time his righteousness; that he might be just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.” […] When we see that all the parts of our salvation thus exist without us, what ground can we have for glorying or confiding in our works? (Institutes, 3.14.17)

2) Though the Scripture often uses causal language when linking good works with reward, good works are not “true” causes of Salvation, but “inferior causes” as part of God’s ordinary administration of sovereignly granting Salvation.

Moreover, when Scripture intimates that the good works of believers are causes why the Lord does them good, we must still understand the meaning so as to hold unshaken what has previously been said, viz., that the efficient cause of our salvation is placed in the love of God the Father; the material cause in the obedience of the Son; the instrumental cause in the illumination of the Spirit, that is, in faith; and the final cause in the praise of the divine goodness.

In this, however, there is nothing to prevent the Lord from embracing works as inferior causes. But how so? In this way: Those whom in mercy he has destined for the inheritance of eternal life, he, in his ordinary administration, introduces to the possession of it by means of good works. What precedes in the order of administration is called the cause of what follows. For this reason, he sometimes makes eternal life a consequent of works; not because it is to be ascribed to them, but because those whom he has elected he justifies, that he may at length glorify (Rom. 8:30); he makes the prior grace to be a kind of cause, because it is a kind of step to that which follows.

But whenever the true cause is to be assigned, he enjoins us not to take refuge in works, but to keep our thoughts entirely fixed on the mercy of God; “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life,” (Rom. 6:23). Why, as he contrasts life with death, does he not also contrast righteousness with sin? Why, when setting down sin as the cause of death, does he not also set down righteousness as the cause of life? The antithesis which would otherwise be complete is somewhat marred by this variation; but the Apostle employed the comparison to express the fact, that death is due to the deserts of men, but that life was treasured up solely in the mercy of God. In short, by these expressions, the order rather than the cause is noted. The Lord adding grace to grace, takes occasion from a former to add a subsequent, so that he may omit no means of enriching his servants.

Still, in following out his liberality, he would have us always look to free election as its source and beginning. For although he loves the gifts which he daily bestows upon us, inasmuch as they proceed from that fountain, still our duty is to hold fast by that gratuitous acceptance, which alone can support our souls; and so to connect the gifts of the Spirit, which he afterwards bestows, with their primary cause, as in no degree to detract from it. (Institutes, 3.14.21)

In the passage above, Calvin introduces the distinction between Right and Possession.  But note, works are not properly conditions for possession of Salvation any more than works conditions for the right to Salvation.  “Those whom in mercy he has destined for the inheritance of eternal life, he, in his ordinary administration, introduces to the possession of it by means of good works.” The “causal” connection between works and possession noted here by Calvin is no different than the common adage “God has ordained the means as well as the ends.” Just as God ordinarily gives the intellectual ability to understand, the use of language, the sending of a preacher, etc., in order to save His elect, so He grants works for the same. None of these ordinary means, or “inferior causes”, do we properly take as the “cause” of our Salvation. If we did take these ordinary means as causes, then even Justification itself could not be ascribed to faith alone. Good works are gifts that God daily bestows upon us, given freely through the instrumentality of faith, as He carries us to our appointed end. “In short, by these expressions, the order rather than the cause is noted. The Lord adding grace to grace, takes occasion from a former to add a subsequent, so that he may omit no means of enriching his servants.”

3) Calvin applies the doctrine above to statements in the Scripture that seem to say that good works are in fact the basis for the inheritance of eternal life and the reward of Heaven:

Let us now proceed to those passages which affirm that God will render to every one according to his deeds. Of this description are the following: “We must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad;” “Who will render to every man according to his deeds: to them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory, and honor, and immortality, eternal life;” but “tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that does evil;” “They that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation;” “Come, ye blessed of my Father;” “For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink,” etc. To these we may add the passages which describe eternal life as the reward of works, such as the following: “The recompense of a man’s hands shall be rendered unto him;” “He that feareth the commandment shall be rewarded;” “Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven;” “Every man shall receive his own rewards according to his own labour.”

The passages in which it is said that God will reward every man according to his works are easily disposed of. For that mode of expression indicates not the cause but the order of sequence. Now, it is beyond a doubt that the steps by which the Lord in his mercy consummates our salvation are these, “Whom he did predestinate, them he also called; and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). But though it is by mercy alone that God admits his people to life, yet as he leads them into possession of it by the course of good works, that he may complete his work in them in the order which he has destined, it is not strange that they are said to be crowned according to their works, since by these doubtless they are prepared for receiving the crown of immortality. Nay, for this reason they are aptly said to work out their own salvation (Phil. 2:12), while by exerting themselves in good works they aspire to eternal life, just as they are elsewhere told to labour for the meat which perisheth not (John 6:27), while they acquire life for themselves by believing in Christ; and yet it is immediately added, that this meat “the Son of man shall give unto you.” Hence it appears, that working is not at all opposed to grace, but refers to pursuit, and, therefore, it follows not that believers are the authors of their own salvation, or that it is the result of their works. What then? The moment they are admitted to fellowship with Christ, by the knowledge of the gospel, and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, their eternal life is begun, and then He which has begun a good work in them “will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ,” (Phil. 1:6). And it is performed when in righteousness and holiness they bear a resemblance to their heavenly Father, and prove that they are not degenerate sons. (Institutes, 3.18.1)

Note well for below: “he leads them into possession of it by the course of good works, that he may complete his work in them in the order which he has destined” and “The moment they are admitted to fellowship with Christ, by the knowledge of the gospel, and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, their eternal life is begun, and then He which has begun a good work in them ‘will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ’.”

4) Next, these truths are applied to Christ’s teaching on the Last Judgement (Matt. 25:35-40). The word “for” in Christ’s teaching does not imply “cause,” but rather order. The Crown awaiting the believer is already secured in his Justification—by faith. Final Salvation is not according to faith and works; it is a consequence of being a “member of Christ” with all His benefits.

“For I was hungry.” If Christ were now speaking of the cause of our salvation, the Papists could not be blamed for inferring that we merit eternal life by good works; but as Christ had no other design than to exhort his people to holy and upright conduct, it is improper to conclude from his words what is the value of the merits of works. With regard to the stress which they lay on the word “for”, as if it pointed out the cause, it is a weak argument; for we know that, when eternal life is promised to the righteous, the word “for” does not always denote a cause, but rather the order of procedure. But we have another reply to offer, which is still more clear; for we do not deny that a reward is promised to good works, but maintain that it is a reward of grace, because it depends on adoption. Paul boasts (2 Timothy 4:8) that a crown of righteousness is laid up for him; but whence did he derive that confidence but because he was a member of Christ, who alone is heir of the heavenly kingdom? He openly avows that the righteous Judge will give to him that crown; but whence did he obtain that prize but because by grace he was adopted, and received that justification of which we are all destitute? We must therefore hold these two principles, first, that believers are called to the possession of the kingdom of heaven, so far as relates to good works, not because they deserved them through the righteousness of works, or because their own minds prompted them to obtain that righteousness, but because God justifies those whom he previously elected, (Romans 8:30). Secondly, although by the guidance of the Spirit they aim at the practice of righteousness, yet as they never fulfill the law of God, no reward is due to them, but the term reward is applied to that which is bestowed by grace. (Commentary on Matthew Matt. 25:35)

5) Last, Calvin does accord works a place in our assurance of salvation and the easing of our consciences. But even here, good works are secondary and are to be looked upon in the same manner as any other gifts daily bestowed upon us, tokens of God’s goodness, “like rays of the divine countenance,” proofs to us of God dwelling and reigning in us, showing that indeed “we have received the Spirit of adoption.”

The accordance lies here, that when the point considered is the constitution and foundation of salvation, believers, without paying any respect to works, direct their eyes to the goodness of God alone. Nor do they turn to it only in the first instance, as to the commencement of blessedness, but rest in it as the completion. Conscience being thus founded, built up, and established is farther established by the consideration of works, inasmuch as they are proofs of God dwelling and reigning in us.

But we forbid no believer to confirm and support this faith by the signs of the divine favor towards him. For if when we call to mind the gifts which God has bestowed upon us, they are like rays of the divine countenance, by which we are enabled to behold the highest light of his goodness; much more is this the case with the gift of good works, which shows that we have received the Spirit of adoption. (Institutes, 3.14.18)


In conclusion, we have no warrant from Calvin to say that Sola Fide applies to Justification but not to Salvation (broadly considered); no warrant to speak of good works as a proper cause of Salvation—especially not instrumental; and no warrant to say that Justification is Sola Fide while Final Salvation is by (or through) “faith and fruits.” Remember, “those whom he has elected he justifies, that he may at length glorify.” Let us surely glory in the goodness of our God that he daily blesses us with good works, granting us possession of our inheritance more and more each day; but let us never look to good works as of any account before the Judgement Seat of Christ.

Up next: Salvation Sola Fide: Zacharias Ursinus and the Heidelberg Catechism

4 thoughts on “Salvation Sola Fide: John Calvin and the Causes of Salvation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s