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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

copyright © 2003

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.

Turning from the Confession, let us look at the Westminster Larger Catechism:

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).

copyright © 2003


  1. Is the mystical union of Christ and his church a truth to be believed, or does it become a truth only by faith? If the gospel is true before our believing, then union with Christ before faith is true, isn’t it?

    Comment by henry johnson — August 3, 2007 @ 12:12 pm

  2. “The mystical union in the sense in which we are now speaking of it is not the judicial ground, on the basis of which we become partakers of the riches that are in Christ. It is sometimes said that the merits of Christ cannot be imputed to us as long as we are not in Christ, since it is only on the basis of our oneness with Him that such an imputation could be reasonable. But this view fails to distinguish between our legal unity with Christ and our spiritual oneness with Him, and is a falsification of the fundamental element in the doctrine of redemption, namely, of the doctrine of justification.” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 452.)

    Comment by Brian — October 5, 2007 @ 12:22 pm

  3. Thanks, Brian. I think Berkhof is probably just wrong biblically, and also contrary to Calvin and Westminster. If you applied this consistently you would have to become Arminian since this would mean that people who are not united to Christ are capable of faith by which they are justified. As a Calvinist, I believe that one must be renewed in Christ in order to believe and be justified. The unregenerate person is morally incapable of believing the Gospel.

    I had forgotten Berkhof said that. I might add him into a new version of this brief essay or right another one just dealing with his position. I appreciate being reminded.

    Comment by mhorne — October 5, 2007 @ 12:32 pm

  4. Yes, I would be interested to see how you interact with Berkhof. His entire section on “Mystical Union” (pp. 447-53) appears to represent an approach to union with Christ that is very different than yours.

    “This imputation of the righteousness of Christ to His people in the counsel of redemption is […] certainly the eternal basis of our justification by faith, and is the ground on which we receive all spiritual blessings […]. And this being so, it is basic to the whole of soteriology, and even to the first stages in the application of the work of redemption such as regeneration and internal calling.” (from p. 448)

    Comment by Brian — October 5, 2007 @ 4:16 pm

  5. This is not an answer, but it is worth considering. someone just sent me some quotations

    Here is John Owen from his Justification by Faith:

    The foundation of the imputation asserted is union. Hereof there are many grounds and causes, as hath been declared; but that which we have immediate respect unto, as the foundation of this imputation, is that whereby the Lord Jesus and believers do actually coalesce into one mystical person. This is by the Holy Spirit inhabiting in him as the head of the church in all fullness, and in all believers according to their measure, whereby they become members of his mystical body. That there is such a union between Christ and believers is the faith of the catholic church, and hath been so in all ages” (5.209).

    And again, from his commentary on Hebrews: “Our union with him is the ground of the actual imputation of his righteousness unto us” (Hebrews 4.150).

    Thomas Boston, Fourfold State: “The first particular benefit that a sinner has by his union with Christ, is justification; for being united to Christ, he has communion with him in in his righteousness, 1 Cor 1.30 . . .”

    Comment by mhorne — October 5, 2007 @ 8:08 pm

  6. It strikes me that Berkhof’s distinction in union sounds like a tautology.

    “legal unity” with Christ is the grounds for imputation is like saying imputation is the basis for imputation.

    Comment by pduggie — October 16, 2007 @ 1:15 pm

  7. That’s my opinion, Paul.

    Comment by mhorne — October 16, 2007 @ 1:32 pm

  8. Amen Mr. Horne. It’s too easy to let our systematics overwhelm our exegesis.

    Comment by Jack Smith — October 22, 2007 @ 3:32 pm

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