Calvin and sola fide

In the book Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, W. Robert Godfrey writes a chapter entitled “Faith Formed by Love or Faith Alone”. Where he responds to those who are critical of the doctrine of justification by faith alone by examining the medieval definition of faith, Calvin’s definition of faith alone and examining the Apostle Paul. For the sake of this post, I want to consider what he writes about Calvin’s definition of faith alone and demonstrate that opponents of the doctrine of sola fide are attacking the sufficiency of Christ.

How did Calvin articulate the doctrine of faith alone? Calvin states that the role of faith is intimately linked with the Holy Spirit. He writes, “The Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself”. The Holy Spirit is so vital to the life of the believer that unless we are united to Christ by the principal work of the Holy Spirit, which is faith, we do not possess Christ. Calvin writes

All that he [Christ] possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. It is true that we obtain this by faith.” (3.1.1.) And: “Faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit” (3.1.4).

Calvin’s most famous work is his Institutes of the Christian Religion. They are divided up into four books and in Book 3 he titled chapter 2 “Faith: Its Definition Set Forth and Its Properties Explained. This is an important chapter to read in order to understand his doctrine of sola fide. He says a couple of things about faith and the first is that, “faith is knowledge”. This isn’t a knowledge of historical facts rather it is a knowledge of God’s attitude towards us in Christ. Part of what it means to have faith is that faith knows something, it knows of Christ and his reconciling work. Faith knows, for example, that because of Christ we are reconciled to the Father. This is in part what he means by “faith is knowledge.”

This definition of faith that includes knowledge goes against the medieval understanding of implicit faith. In the medieval church, the doctrine of implicit faith taught that Christians do not need to know the teachings of the Scriptures or the church, they just needed to trust the church and all of its teachings as true. The irony is that, in implicit faith, the Christian was still expected to trust, but the object of the trust moved from the risen and exalted Christ to the medieval church.

By opposing the doctrine of implicit faith the Reformed were causing the member of the church to move from a happy ignorance and to stop following in blind obedience. This is foundational for the Reformers, because in part to follow Christ meant that we know what he has done. Thus, in Calvin’s basic definition of faith, knowledge is fundamental

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit (3.2.7)

Secondly Calvin sought to teach that faith was trust. It is a trusting and confident knowledge.

For, as faith is not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion, so is it not content with an obscure and confused conception; but requires full and fixed certainty, such as men are wont to have from things experienced and proved. For unbelief is so deeply rooted in our hearts, and we are so inclined to it, that not without hard struggle is each one able to persuade himself of what all confess with the mouth: namely, that God is faithful. (3.2.15)

We observe the pastoral concerns of Calvin here as he unfolds the trusting aspects of faith. Life is hard and at times the root of unbelief in the heart of man makes trusting God difficult. The eyes of faith, in the times of God’s apparent absence, must see Christ. And here is the essence of faith, that we know and trust that, in Christ, God is faithful to us.

The phrase above from 3.2.15 “full and fixed certainty” has been a concern for some readers of Calvin. Is he arguing that true faith can have no doubt? No, rather that through the trials of doubt and uncertainty we will end in a full and fixed certainty. Again he writes anticipating the question and challenge

Surely, while we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety. On the other hand, we say that believers are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief. Far, indeed, are we from putting their consciences in any peaceful repose, undisturbed by any tumult at all. Yet, once again, we deny that, in whatever way they are afflicted, they fall away and depart from the certain assurance received from God’s mercy. 3.2.17

For the end of the conflict is always this: that faith ultimately triumphs over those difficulties which besiege and seem to imperil it.

How does it conquer doubt? Because it looks to Christ through the process for eternal life. It finds in the battle that the victory has been given to Christ. In the end it is not a comparison of our works to God’s grace but our works to Christ. And this is what the Gospel announces, that Christ has accomplished salvation for his people and we possess it by faith which is a gift of God. And this is his third emphasis in faith. That Christians, by the Spirit of God, know the Gospel and trust Christ.

Fourth Calvin speaks about the relationship between faith and love. In the medieval church, faith was only saving when it was “formed by love.” We affirm that justification is by faith alone which works through love (Gal 5:6). But the power of justification is not grounded in our works of love but in the sufficiency of Christ. Faith alone produces love.

For the teaching of the Schoolmen, that love is prior to faith and hope, is mere madness; for it is faith alone that first engenders love in us.(3.2.41)

This is because faith looks outside, away from us and to someone else. And a true saving faith will rests its eyes on Christ. If we are to depend on our acts of love for our justification, not only is our work of love always imperfect, weak, and corrupt, but it cannot compare to the perfect, eternally enduring and holy works of Christ. Thus true saving faith will have to rest on Christ alone and it becomes a spring from which our acts of love go forth, not for the purpose of merit but in sacrifices of praise.

This doctrine of justification by faith alone is under attack constantly. We are not arguing against dead men from the medieval church but even those from within the Reformed community who confess sola fide but practice and preach something different. This doctrine is not a dead irrelevant doctrine but one that we must continue to affirm and teach to ourselves and our children. So that we can rest knowing we have peace with God through Jesus because we have been justified by faith. (Rom 5:1)