Calvins Institutes – 3.11.19 – They pretend that the works excluded are ceremonial, not moral works

In trying to establish the false teaching that justification is by faith alone, Calvin displays ignorance of the underlying Jew – Gentile context of Paul’s justification and works of law statements. He also demonstrates no understanding of the historical context the early church were addressing when they defined ‘works of law’ as ceremonial works.

This is part of my series on Calvin’s Institutes.


The reader now perceives with what fairness the Sophists of the present day cavil at our doctrine, when we say that a man is justified by faith alone (Rom. 4:2). They dare not deny that he is justified by faith, seeing Scripture so often declares it; but as the word alone is nowhere expressly used they will not tolerate its being added. Is it so? What answer, then will they give to the words of Paul, when he contends that righteousness is not of faith unless it be gratuitous? How can it be gratuitous, and yet by works? By what cavils, moreover, will they evade his declaration in another place, that in the Gospel the righteousness of God is manifested? (Rom. 1:17). If righteousness is manifested in the Gospel, it is certainly not a partial or mutilated, but a full and perfect righteousness. The Law, therefore, has no part in its and their objection to the exclusive word alone is not only unfounded, but is obviously absurd.

Does he not plainly enough attribute everything to faith alone when he disconnects it with works? What I would ask, is meant by the expressions,

“The righteousness of God without the law is manifested;” (Rom 3.21) “Being justified freely by his grace;” (Rom 3.24) “Justified by faith without the deeds of the law?” (Rom. 3:21, 24, 28).

Here they have an ingenious subterfuge, one which, though not of their own devising but taken from Origin and some ancient writers, is most childish.

They pretend that the works excluded are ceremonial, not moral works. Such profit do they make by their constant wrangling, that they possess not even the first elements of logic. Do they think the Apostle was raving when he produced, in proof of his doctrine, these passages?

“The man that does them shall live in them,” (Gal. 3:12). “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them,” (Gal. 3:10).

Unless they are themselves raving, they will not say that life was promised to the observers of ceremonies, and the curse denounced only against the transgressors of them. If these passages are to be understood of the Moral Law, there cannot be a doubt that moral works also are excluded from the power of justifying. To the same effect are the arguments which he employs.

“By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin,” (Rom. 3:20). “The law worketh wrath,” (Rom. 4:15), and therefore not righteousness.

“The law cannot pacify the conscience,” and therefore cannot confer righteousness. “Faith is imputed for righteousness,” and therefore righteousness is not the reward of works, but is given without being due. Because “we are justified by faith,” boasting is excluded.

“Had there been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the Scripture has concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe,” (Gal. 3:21, 22).

Let them maintain, if they dare, that these things apply to ceremonies, and not to morals, and the very children will laugh at their effrontery. The true conclusion, therefore, is, that the whole Law is spoken of when the power of justifying is denied to it. (Calvin, Instit. 3.11.19)


Calvin begins giving us some context to what he is writing about. Calvin has argued justification is by faith alone. The Roman Catholics argue justification is by faith and good works. The debate here concerns how Paul understands the expression ‘works of law’ in Romans 3 and Galatians 2-3. The Roman Catholics say Paul excludes here the ceremonial works of the law of Moses. But Calvin (and the other reformers) says Paul means all works when he refers to works of law.

I note in passing that in at least one occasion Calvin notes a Jew – Gentile issue dealing with ordinances of the law.

He is clearly wrong that faith alone justifies. Scripture affirms people are justified by their words;

36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt 12.36-37)

And the only place where scripture uses the works ‘justified’, ‘faith’ and ‘alone’ is where James says;

A person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (Jas 2.24)

A direct contradiction to Calvin’s argument. See also my rebuttal of his arguments of James’ use of Justification.

Calvin amasses a number of verses to try and argue his point. Rom 3.20,21,24,28; 4.14; Gal 3.10,12. He is quite critical of his opponents, ridiculing them at points. I’ve written my own series on Romans 1-4 here.

Calvin misunderstands the context of Paul’s argument in these Romans and Galatians and its obvious he has neglected to note the Jew – Gentile context of Paul’s statements.

28 For we hold that one is JUSTIFIED by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will JUSTIFY the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Rom 3.28-30)

Paul is speaking indirectly to Roman Christians, consisting primarily of Gentiles (Rom 1.8). In this passage he refers to justification in the context of Gentiles being recognised as righteous in the sight of God.

14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” 15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not JUSTIFIED by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be JUSTIFIED by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be JUSTIFIED. (Gal 2.14-16)

Paul is recounting a conversation he had with Peter and indirectly addressing the Gentiles in Galatia. He is arguing for Gentile inclusion saying they are justified by faith and do not have to become Jews.

7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would JUSTIFY the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Gal 3.7-9)

Paul says God gave advanced notice to Abraham he would include Gentiles into his world wide family.

23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be JUSTIFIED by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal 3.23-29)

‘There is neither Jew, nor Greek’. Paul levels the playing field. All are one in Christ. This is a product of justification, the creation of a new worldwide family.

See my New Perspective page for further details.

As I’ve shown in my series on Justification in the Early Church Justin Martyr, Ireneaus, Origen, Tertullian, Ambrosiaster and Augustine all show evidence of knowing the implications of Paul’s arguments against works of law for Gentile believers.

Calvin does not understand the underlying context of Paul’s statements.

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