Calvin refutes the (not so) “new” perspectives on Paul

III, 19.3. On this [Christian liberty] almost the whole subject of the Epistle to the Galatians hinges; for it can be proved from express passages that those are absurd interpreters who teach that Paul there contends only for freedom from ceremonies. Of such passages are the following: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.” “Stand fast, therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace,” (Gal. 3:13; 5:1–4). These words certainly refer to something of a higher order than freedom from ceremonies. I confess, indeed, that Paul there treats of ceremonies, because he was contending with false apostles, who were plotting, to bring back into the Christian Church those ancient shadows of the law which were abolished by the advent of Christ. But, in discussing this question, it was necessary to introduce higher matters, on which the whole controversy turns. First, because the brightness of the Gospel was obscured by those Jewish shadows, he shows that in Christ we have a full manifestation of all those things which were typified by Mosaic ceremonies. Secondly, as those impostors instilled into the people the most pernicious opinion, that this obedience was sufficient to merit the grace of God, he insists very strongly that believers shall not imagine that they can obtain justification before God by any works, far less by those paltry observances. At the same time, he shows that by the cross of Christ they are free from the condemnation of the law, to which otherwise all men are exposed, so that in Christ alone they can rest in full security. This argument is pertinent to the present subject (Gal. 4:5, 21, &c). Lastly, he asserts the right of believers to liberty of conscience, a liberty which may not be restrained without necessity.[1]


[1] Calvin, J. (1997). Institutes of the Christian religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

About pastor tony phelps

Pastor of Christ Our Hope PCA in Wakefield, RI
This entry was posted in Calvinism, Hermeneutics, Justification, N.T. Wright, New Perspective on Paul, The Reformation, Tony Phelps. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Calvin refutes the (not so) “new” perspectives on Paul

  1. John Bugay says:

    Thanks Tony. I’ve honestly not read much of Wright. I know that the Carson/O’Brien works have pretty much shown that Sanders “exaggerated” — they “out-Sandersed Sanders”, so to speak, by reading far more widely and deeply into “second-temple Judaism”, and indeed found a kind of legalism (though Sanders did touch on something, which forced the kind of reading that Carson/O’Brien did, in order to put his “perspective” into perspective. And I understand that Dunn has also “backed off” a bit from his his writings. And James White has reported that Wright, too, is “changing his story” a bit. Wright errs in that he makes the claim that the Reformers actually were too immersed in “medieval categories of merit” to have gotten Paul “right”. But as you show here in the Institutes, Calvin’s perspective on Paul was not lacking much of anything.

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  2. Nathan W Northup says:

    Tony, I love so much of this quote, and affirm wholeheartedly that we are saved by grace through the work of Jesus who tasted death for us all. At the same time, when Calvin begins to address justification and any work, it seems he is thinking of justification almost as synonymous to salvation. I still maintain the question of why does not one single text in all of scriptures say that at the judgment man will be judged according to the merited righteousness of Christ and why every last text on judgment speaks of being judged on our deeds?

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  3. pastor tony phelps says:

    Hey Nathan, good to hear from you. I’m reading Wright’s Justification. As he admits in the opening, it’s all about worldviews. There are governing presuppositions / an interpretive grid, i.e., a paradigm, common to the NPPs and to the good ol’ “OPP” respectively. I think it’s ironic how Wright so sharply diagnoses historically conditioned presuppositions among the Reformers that ultimately caused them to misread Paul at certain points, but seems less aware of his own that might mislead him. He’s rather condescending, in a proper and polite way, of course. The OPP is as backwards as a geo-centric view of the universe – as he asserts with a less than veiled analogy. But the OPP has not ignored the texts that deal with our works being judged.

    I think John 5:24-29 is an important passage to deal with your question. Verse 24 starts with the solemn “most assuredly I say to you.” A second follows in verse 25. Jesus is calling our attention to two things that must be heard, believed, and embraced. First, we have the glorious promise of justification by faith alone in Jesus’ own words. The one who hears & believes Jesus’ words as the One sent by the Father HAS (presently) eternal life. The eschatological promise of life is yours, right now. You are not coming into JUDGMENT, meaning what? The condemnation of the Last Day. You have God’s favor as affirmed by His justifying verdict. You have passed (perfect tense) from death to life. Justification & life are linked here, as they are in Romans 5 and elsewhere. The reward of life is the Last Day reward brought forward, and participated in right now. We await the fullness of that eternal life, but the certainty of that is found on the basis of this declaration of Jesus as God’s appointed Judge (and the Savior who will secure it for us).

    Jesus is the eschatological Judge & Savior. And thus comes His second solemn declaration. He emphatically declares in verse 25 that He will not only raise the dead in the Last Day, but is already doing so. Those who hear His words with faith are already raised from the dead (regeneration). The basis of this (verses 26-27) is that Jesus, the God-man, has been granted “life in Himself” by the Father. He is likewise God, who alone has power to raise the dead – spiritually and physically. Further, He is the divine “Son of Man” (Daniel 7), and likewise has been given the divine prerogative to render judgment. No wonder He says “do not marvel at this” in verse 28! This stuff of judgment, justification & resurrection was always understood to be the stuff of the Last Day. But it’s already happening, and Jesus (!) is the divine agent of these things.

    He then transitions to what is yet future in verses 28-29 – the future consummation of the last days which have already begun (Heb 1). It will be Jesus’ voice in the final Day which will raise all the dead physically, and assemble them for judgment. Remember, those in verse 25 have already been promised that they will not be condemned, that they already have passed from death to life. They are justified by faith alone. “Those who have done good” are those who have heard & believed Jesus’ words & lived accordingly. They are already justified, and the good they do vindicates that reality (see below). These will be raised to the resurrection of life – this is the “is not coming into judgment but has passed from death to life” Gospel promise of verse 25 fulfilled! The rest, those who have done evil – i.e., NOT believed and thus lived in accord with their unbelief, will be raised to the resurrection of condemnation.

    So, I think it’s a canard for Wright to say that salvation = justification for the Reformation hermeneutic. The OPP quite thoroughly accounts for the work of Holy Spirit, good works, final judgment, and the renewal of all things – but in their proper place, and properly related to justification. In the OPP, justification is indeed eschatological, with the governing presupposition that the good and gracious God is also the just judge of all the earth who must do right. Adam & Eve, having sinned, heard His judgment oracles and received the penalty for their rebellion: the loss of God’s favorable presence and immediate communion with Him in the temple-Garden, and the sting of mortality. They also heard the life-giving promise of the coming Seed of the Woman. Subsequently, God judges His people throughout their covenant history, bringing covenant curses upon Israel for its idolatry / sin. And yet His Seed promise of a sin-vanquishing, life-giving Savior grows continually – spoken to Abraham, typified through the Mosaic covenant, spoken to David, the prophets, etc, etc.

    The wrath of God is continually revealed from heaven against ALL ungodliness & unrighteousness of men. Sin and death are the governing realities of human history according to Scriptures. And so it’s not a stretch to see this as the primary problem for humanity, according to the OPP, with which justification preeminently deals. God the Judge is not happy with us – but He is yet merciful. So He sends His Son in fulfillment of all His promises, to once for all deal with sin & death. He brings Judgment Day forward to the Cross. Christ is judged as a sinner – the sinless, righteous second Adam & true Israel. He identifies with us, and represents us. “Do this and live” is the life He lives for us, winning for us the reward of eternal life. On the Cross, He bears the sin of His people and dies their cursed death, to deliver them from death & hell. JBFA is thus the verdict of Judgment Day brought forward. “No condemnation” is not merely to assuage our consciences (though that’s a blessed benefit), but is the objective verdict of the Last Day rendered right now. And He rises the third day, because of our justification. Having satisfied for our sins, having fulfilled all righteousness, having lived a life of consummate covenant faithfulness, Christ is raised. Sin and death are vanquished under His pierced feet – for us, and for our (total) salvation.

    Thus, every spiritual blessing we receive from God in the Gospel is from the fount of Christ’s Cross & resurrection for us. On what basis is one “made alive with Christ” or born again? Is this just a soteriological necessity, that is, since we’re spiritually dead God HAS TO regenerate us before we can believe? That may be true enough, but on what BASIS would He grant us the gift of life, if it were not in view of the fact that Christ has answered for the sin that plunged us into spiritual death and is now raised from the dead for His people? I think this is what Paul is getting at in Col 2:13-14, etc.

    Christ having died and risen for us, we are regenerated, justified, sanctified, and ultimately glorified. Those who are united to Christ by true, Spirit-wrought faith are “vindicated” to be justified by Spirit-wrought works. Works are necessary in that sense, but are not the basis of final justification. Love is the fruit of faith, the fruit which vindicates the tree to be “good” (i.e., justified). Our works are indeed judged in the Last Day, but those sheep “on His right hand” are vindicated TO BE His elect & justified people by those works. Christ graciously & surprisingly commends them (“When did we, Lord?”) – and graciously rewards them: “Come, you blessed of My Father, INHERIT the kingdom PREPARED FOR YOU, from the foundation of the world.” We don’t earn that inheritance – it is secured for us and given to us by the One who died and rose again for us.

    Wright’s view of justification, which includes a “final” justification that accounts for the Holy Spirit’s work in the whole life of the believer as part of their justifying righteousness, is quite amenable with Rome’s. “If righteousness comes through the Law, Christ died in vain” still applies. The OPP already accounts for justification, good works, covenant, final judgment, etc, better than Wright does – who effectively diminishes the sole sufficiency of Christ’s comprehensive saving work. It is in Christ alone that we are blessed with “every spiritual blessing,” soup to nuts, now and in the Last Day. Even our good works which He graciously rewards are ultimately due to His gracious work alone, soli deo gloria.

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