Calvin, Trent and Justification

(This is a chapter in a forthcoming book, Christ the Lord, edited by Michael Horton, published by Baker Book House.)

Justification has long been known among Protestants as the article of faith by which the church stands or falls. Justification, along with the authority of Scripture and the nature of the Lord’s Supper, was at the center of debates between the Reformers and the Roman church. Vast amounts of energy and ink were devoted to clarifying and defending the Reformation doctrine of justification. All the great Protestant confessions state the doctrine.

This study will examine the doctrine of justification from the perspective of John Calvin’s response to the decisions of the Roman Catholic Council of Trent. This perspective illumines the essential debate between Rome and the Reformers on justification.

Today such a historical reflection is especially needed. It is needed (first because Christians must continually meditate on and be renewed in the truths of the Savior’s work on their behalf. And second, they need to be equipped to evaluate new controversies that have arisen in the evangelical community in our time.


One of the significant debates of our time has come to be known as “the Lordship controversy.” Can one have Jesus as Savior and not have Him as Lord? Can one be saved with out any change in one’s life? Must one achieve a certain level of holiness to be saved? Such questions have been intensely debated, with Zane Hodges and John MacArthur emerging as principal antagonists in this dispute. This controversy at root is a new debate on the doctrine of justification.

How could a major controversy arise on a subject like justification which has been exhaustively studied for centuries and about which there was a clear consensus among evangelical Protestants? Part of the answer is that evangelical Christians have become very ignorant about church history. With what can only be called pride, many have thought that they could dig all of God’s truth out of the Bible by themselves. They neglected the treasures of insights into God’s Word that have accumulated from the labors of brothers and sisters over the centuries. They have insisted on reinventing the wheel in our generation—and they have not managed to make it round.

A second part of the answer is that many evangelicals have developed a bias against theology and theological systems. They do not want theology; they want “the simple gospel.” They believe that systems are artificial and are imposed on the Bible. The Bible is their only creed. But they end up with a system that is implicit, unexamined and sometimes ruthlessly imposed on the Bible.

A third part of the answer as to how such a controversy could arise comes from the history of evangelical Protestantism. To summarize too briefly, from the seventeenth century on, many evangelicals have seen the greatest threat to true faith coming from formalism. Especially in the state churches of Europe many people called themselves Christians and were willing to sign on the dotted line the formal confession of their church, but their lives showed no effect of the work of the Spirit. Therefore Puritans and Pietists and later revivalists of many sorts focused on the need for greater life in the churches. This concern manifested itself in calls for conversion, for holiness, for revival, for decisions. This concern was entirely valid. There was great formalism in the churches. But some of the solutions increased rather than solved the problems.

Some of the solutions tainted the gospel with legalism, implying or teaching that one could be right with God could be justified—only by acquiring a certain amount of holiness. Such legalism tended to evoke a reaction to the opposite extreme saying holiness was irrelevant to the Christian life. The pendulum swing between moralism and antinomianism continues to our day. The extremes on either end of the swing are neither theologically correct nor spiritually profitable. Hodges clearly represents an antinomian extreme in the Lordship controversy. MacArthur’s position seems much more balanced although occasionally slipping into moralistic expressions.

The Lordship controversy itself illustrates how theology is intensely practical. What is the gospel message? What are Christians to believe and how are they to live? These questions are not abstract or peripheral. but essential for the Christian.


The teaching of John calvin on justification is remarkably Biblical and balanced. It can give us the truth and stability that will build us up in the faith. The classic reflection of calvin on the Roman Catholic doctrine adopted at the Council of Trent will illumine the issues on justification that are always before a believer.



When the Reformation began and Luther trumpeted justification by faith alone, the Roman church was not in a strong position to respond. In the course of the Middle Ages much had been written on justification and a general consensus had emerged on the doctrine, but no comprehensive teaching on justification had officially been adopted by the church. Very significant differences about justification existed in the German church. Many leaders of the old church recognized their weakness on this point and urged the calling of an ecumenical council that could rule on justification (as well as on a variety of other issues).

The Council of Trent

This council, after many delays, finally convened at the city of Trent in 1545. The Council of Trent estabIished a definitive Roman Catholic position on justification.1 For our purposes we can summarize the key elements of that position in six points:

1. The Christian is justified by grace, but human free will, although weakened by sin, can and must cooperate with grace. (See for example, Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Session Six. chapters 1 and 5.) Trent teaches that grace is necessary and even primary in the process of salvation. But human dignity and responsibility require that the human will also has a role. Grace enables the will to cooperate, but ultimately the will must act to make grace effective and saving. Trent seeks to sound Augustinian in its stress on grace. but actually compromises with Pelagianism in the determinative function that it gives to the human will for salvation. (It is amazing how many evangelicals today share with Trent this understanding of grace.)

2. Faith is defined as a matter of the intellect, combining knowledge and assent to truth. Such faith, known as unformed faith, cannot justify. When faith is linked to love, then it becomes formed faith and does justify. Faith alone does not justify, but faith and love (which produces good works) justify. (See Trent, Session Six, chapters 8 and 11.) Trent is rejecting any idea that “head knowledge” alone saves. The Christian rather must link intellectual conviction with moral transformation for salvation. Love gives life to faith just as the soul gives life to the body. Faith without love is dead just as the body without the soul is only a corpse. Since God loves only the lovely, we must be morally changed by love in order to be acceptable to God.

Understanding Trent’s definition of faith is crucial for any effective communication with knowledgeable Roman Catholics. When evangelicals speak of “faith alone,” the Roman Catholic is likely to hear us saying that we are justified by the intellect alone. We must carefully define what we mean by faith to avoid that misunderstanding.

The tragedy of Hodges’ position is that he very nearly defines faith the same way that Trent does. He does basically define faith as assent to the truth. The difference between Trent and Hodges is that Hodges says that such assent is saving. This means that Hodges is more unbiblical than Trent. Hodges certainly misses the historic evangelical understanding of faith.

3. Justification is not solely by the imputation or crediting of Christ’s righteousness to the Christian. but by the infusing of Christ’s righteousness into the Christian so that he actually becomes righteous. (See Trent, Session Six, chapters 7 and 16.) This point follows necessarily from Trent’s discussion of faith. If the Christian must be morally transformed to be saved, then it is not enough for the righteousness of Christ to be counted as his. The righteousness of Christ must actually live in him and change him so that he can be justified. Luther’s idea of an “alien righteousness” is useless. The Christian needs a morally renewing righteousness. That righteousness nows into him especially through the sacraments.

4. Justification finally rests on the Christian acquiring and maintaining a certain level of sanctification. (See Trent, Session Six, chapter 7.) For Trent, grace is seen in rather quantitative terms. One needs a certain amount of grace to be acceptable. The moral transformation must reach a certain level. Certainly no mortal sins can be allowed to remain unconfessed and unforgiven or salvation is impossible.

5. The Christian can fulfill the commands of God. (See Trent, Session Six, chapter 11.) Again moral responsibility and human dignity require the freedom and ability to obey all the commands of God—at least as a theoretical possibility.

6. The Christian cannot be certain, except by special revelation. that he is presently in a state of grace. or that he is elect. or that he will finally persevere and be saved. (See Trent. Session Six, chapters 9, 12, and 13.) Since sanctification is necessary for justification and the whole life of the Christian is in process, the Christian can have no assurance of salvation in this life. Trent goes even further, however, and says that such assurance would not be spiritually profitable. Such assurance would produce spiritual pride and moral indifference. A measure of insecurity produces humility, piety, carefulness and hard work.

Again at this point evangelicals, hoping to communicate effectively with knowledgeable Roman Catholics, need to understand that we must not assume that everyone wants and is looking for assurance of salvation. Trent sees our assurance as arrogance. For Roman Catholics the assurance taught by Hodges, that if we once believe. we will be saved no matter how immoral our lives become, seems to prove their worst fears.

Antidote to Council of Trent

In 1547 Calvin responded to Trent on justification in a work entitled, Acts of the Council of Trent with the Antidote.2 Calvin analyzes and refutes the positions of Trent chapter by chapter. With careful theological reflection and Scriptural evidence, he dismantles the Roman doctrine and states his own. Let us look at the kind of alternatives Calvin offered to the basic points of Trent:

1. Calvin begins with the matter of grace in relation to justification. He acknowledges that man after the fall has a will, but insists that that will is dead in sin. The will can make decisions and take actions, but it is not free to cooperate with the grace of God. The will is so twisted and corrupted ~ what later Calvinism calls total depravity—that it has no ability or desire to choose for God or for salvation. The will is in rebellion against God. The only hope for man and his will is in God’s regenerating grace. God’s sovereign and irresistible grace makes man willing. Anything good found in the human will is not earned by cooperation, but is a gift of grace. “The whole may be thus summed up—Their error consists in sharing the work between God and ourselves, so as to transfer to ourselves the obedience of a pious will in assenting to divine grace, whereas this is the proper work of God himself.”3

Calvin especially appeals to Augustine and shows that Augustine on grace stands against Trent and with the Reformers. calvin wants to demonstrate that Rome’s claim to antiquity for its teachings is false. The Reformers have not produced a theological novelty, but stand with the Bible and the best tradition of the church.

2. Faith is a crucial topic for Calvin. He rejects the Roman distinction between formed and unformed faith. Calvin denies that true Biblical faith is ever just a matter of the intellect. Faith is not just knowledge and assent for Calvin. It is also trust. Faith justifies as it trusts the promises of God and rests in the righteousness of Christ. The true believer is not one who simply accumulates truths in his head, but one who relies upon Jesus. “Faith brings nothing of our own to God, but receives what God spontaneously offers us. Hence it is that faith, however imperfect, nevertheless possesses a perfect righteousness, because it has respect to nothing but the gratuitous goodness of God.”4

True faith, however small or weak, trusts Christ and so is the instrument that connects us to Christ and the fullness of His blessings. It is not imperfect faith that justifies, but the object of faith, the perfect righteousness of Christ that justifies.

Calvin insists that true faith is living and fruitful. It certainly produces a Christian life of love and good works, but the love and good works are no part of justification. Faith alone justifies, but true faith is never alone in the justified .

3. Calvin wants to be absolutely clear about faith so that a proper distinction between imputation and infusion can be maintained. Christ’s perfect righteousness is imputed or reckoned to us as the basis of our justification. Faith looks outside itself to Christ and His work as the only hope and strength. “But when they say that a man is justified, when he is again formed for the obedience of God, they subvert the whole argument of Paul …(Rom. iv. 14)…so long as we look at what we are in ourselves, we must tremble in the sight of God, so far from having a firm and unshaken confidence of eternal life.”5

Calvin believes that Christ does infuse His grace to change and sanctify the Christian. The Spirit does morally transform Christians. But that infusion or transformation has no part in justification. Calvin follows the Scripture in seeing that only perfection is acceptable to God: “Be holy because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44, I Pet. 1:16). Only perfect righteousness can stand in the judgment and the Christian can have such righteousness only outside himself and in the perfection of Christ. The most holy Christian who ever lived was not perfectly holy. Only Jesus met that standard. And the perfection of Jesus’ righteousness reaches us untainted only as it is imputed to us and received by faith.

4. A key error of Rome is to confuse justification and sanctification. Calvin writes:

…Justification and Sanctification, are constantly conjoined and cohere; but from this it is erroneously inferred that they are one and the same. For example: The light of the sun, though never unaccompanied with heat, is not to be considered heat…We acknowledge, then, that as soon as any one is justified, renewal also necessarily follows: and there is no dispute as to whether or not Christ sanctifies all whom he justifies. It were to rend the gospel, and divide Christ himself to attempt to separate the righteousness which we obtain by faith [justification] from repentance [sanctification]. Calvin teaches that justification and sanctification must be distinguished or one slips into the moralism or legalism of Rome. At the same time he insists that they cannot be separated or one slips into antinomianism. Justification is not sanctification, but sanctification always follows justification.

Calvin captures the Biblical balance here beautifully. James 2 shows that real faith produces works and where works are absent faith is not real. The Great Commission shows the same thing. Jesus sent His disciples to make disciples, that is, followers who are justified and sanctified. The apostles in the Book of Acts preach both faith (justification) and repentance (sanctification) as the whole message from God. Hodges’ distinction of “believers” who are saved but not sanctified. from disciples who are saved and sanctified is completely without Biblical basis. The one Jesus is justifier and sanctifier; He is Savior and Lord. The Westminster Larger Catechism (Question 77) exactly captures Calvin’s thought:

Wherein do justification and sanctification differ?

Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued; the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.

5. No one can keep any of the commands of God perfectly. All our best efforts are marred with sin. Calvin writes:

It is too plain, however, that we are never animated and actuated by a perfect love to God in obeying his just commands…In short, the seventh chapter of Romans disposes of this controversy. There Paul, in his own person and that of all the godly, confesses that he is far from perfection, even when his will is at its best.7

The sinfulness of the best Christians makes it clear why only the perfect righteousness of Christ, received by faith alone. can justify.

The reality of our imperfection does not imply that we can be content with our sin. Rather it places clearly before us our agenda and goals. The Christian life is a constant war with sin and desire to see more and more of the holiness of Christ manifested in us.

Certainty is an important theme for Calvin, faith in Christ brings a certainty of sonship to the Christian. Faith brings joy and assurance that we are right with God. The Christian can and must be certain that he is in a state of grace. calvin insists that there is no virtue in doubt. The many and glorious promises of Jesus should produce great confidence. Because by faith we possess the perfect righteousness of Christ. we ca n have real assurance. Calvin writes:

Where, then is that boldness of which Paul elsewhere speaks (Eph. iii. 12), that access with confidence to the Father through faith in Christ? Not contented with the term confidence, he furnishes us with boldness, which is certainly something more than certainty. And what shall we say to his own occasional use of the term certainty (Rom viii. 37)? This certainty he founds upon nothing but a mere persuasion of the free love of God.8

Calvin also insists that the Christian can be certain of his election:

I acknowledge, indeed, and we are all careful to teach, that nothing is more pernicious than to inquire into the secret council of God, with the view of thereby obtaining a knowledge of our election—that this is a whirlpool which we shall be swallowing up and lost. But seeing that our Heavenly Father holds forth in Christ a mirror of our eternal adoption, no man truly holds what has been given us by Christ save he who feels assured that Christ himself has been given him by the Father, that he may not perish.9

And Calvin also argues a certainty of perseverance:

For certainly, he whose expectation of eternal life is not founded on absolute certainty, must be agitated by various doubts. This is not eh kind of hope which Paul describes when he says that he is certainly persuaded that neither life, nor death, or things present, nor things to come, will dissolve the love with which God embraces him in Christ. He would not speak thus did not the certainty of Christian hope reach  beyond the last hour of life.10

Calvin believes that the Scriptures encourage a true Christian to certainty because of the rich promises of Jesus. fear. doubt and temptation must be resisted with trust and confidence in Cod. Rather than promoting moral indifference and spiritual laxity, assurance gives us the confidence and strength to love God and pursue holiness.


Calvin’s response to Trent is so valuable that it should be read in its entirety. This brief summary should encourage us, however, to keep the doctrine of justification clear in our minds and central to our Christian life. Spiritual balance and power flow from this doctrine when it is rightly understood and rightly related to other elements of Christian truth.

In our day when the church is so weak and confused in many ways, we must not be led astray into thinking that either moralism or anti-nomianism will help us. Moralism destroys the glorious liberty we have through the work of Christ. It draws attention away from Christ and His grace. Antinomianism misses the ca ll to holiness in Scripture and reinforces the serious erosion of morality in our society generally and in our churches. The work of Christ and the holiness of God are at stake in understanding justification properly. Meditating on justification will draw us closer to Christ “who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification. and redemption” (I Cor. 1:30).


1. For !he complete text of Trent’s decisions, see “The Canons and Dogmatic Decrees of the Council of Trent,” in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Baker Book House), 1977, vol. II, pp. 77–206.

2. Printed in Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, edited by H. Beveridge and J. Bonnet, Volume 3, Grand Rapids, Michigan (Baker Book House), 1983.

3. Ibid., p. 113.

4. Ibid., p. 125.

5. Ibid., p. 115.

6. Ibid., p. 116.

7. Ibid., p. 134.

8. Ibid., p. 125.

9. Ibid., p. 135.

10. Ibid., p. 136.

Dr. Godfrey is Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in California.