As a sequel to my previous article on Lutheran-Catholic differences on the doctrine of justification, in this article I will introduce Calvin’s critique of the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent (the official Catholic definition of the dogma of justification), showing that the heart of the dispute between Calvin and Trent lies in their different understandings of how justification relates to the person and work of Christ.


Christ and Justification

Undergirding Calvin’s doctrine of justification is the central notion of union with Christ. Though Calvin does not elaborate on this concept in his rejoinder to Trent, it is clearly presupposed throughout his critique. The fundamental dispute between Calvin and Trent thus centres on the relation between Christ and justification. The point of contention is: in what way is Christ is the cause of justification? As Calvin puts it, “the whole dispute is as to the cause of justification” (Calvin, Antidote to Trent, 6). According to Trent, Christ is merely the “meritorious cause” of justification, which means that Christ merited justification for the believer by his satisfaction of divine justice on the cross (Ch. VII). This implies that Christ’s merit is a necessary condition for justification. Calvin would wholeheartedly agree with this claim (Calvin 26). The problem is that for Trent, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, though necessary, is insufficient for sustaining and continuing to merit justification if this imputed righteousness is not accompanied by sanctification, “as if our righteousness were composed partly of imputation, partly of quality” (Calvin 6). By “quality” Calvin is referring to an inherent righteousness in the believer, as taught by Trent, that is achieved as Christ “continually infuses his virtue” into the justified, so that in cooperation with Christ’s grace the believer may merit eternal life (Trent, Ch. 16).

Calvin contests that justification consists in imputation alone—the imputation of righteousness and non-imputation of sin (Calvin 5). The righteousness that the believer possesses is therefore not an inherent or infused righteousness, but always the imputed alien righteousness of Christ: “The righteousness wanting in ourselves is borrowed elsewhere” (Calvin 7). The righteousness that we receive is “without [alien to] us, because we are righteous in Christ only” (Calvin 6).

Note the preposition “in” in the last clause. This preposition signals the crucial presupposition of Calvin’s doctrine of justification, namely, union with Christ. Whereas Trent emphasises Christ’s being in us to the extent that Christ’s righteousness becomes inherent in us, Calvin’s balanced emphases on our being in Christ and Christ’s being in us enable him to argue that the righteousness imputed to us really becomes ours without becoming our inherent merit. In other words, for Calvin, our mystical union with Christ serves as the medium, so to say, wherein a two-way transaction of sin and righteousness really takes place between Christ and the believer. Justification as such is not an external legal fiction. Justification as imputation is the real communication, though not infusion, of Christ’s righteousness to us and of our sin to Christ.

Note a further difference between Calvin and Trent. When Trent identifies Christ as the “meritorious cause” of justification, the implication is that the imputed righteousness is merited by Christ’s work (Ch. 7). In this Tridentine chapter, no mention of Christ’s person is made. For Calvin, however, Christ not only merited righteousness for us; Christ is our righteousness. Christ not only atoned for the sins of all believers; Christ “is the propitiation for their sins” (Calvin 13). In other words, our imputed righteousness is the inseparable unity of Christ’s person and work.

Justification and Sanctification

The different understandings of the relation between Christ and justification give rise to two different definitions of justification. According to Trent, justification “is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man” (Ch. VII). This view of justification, as suggested earlier, arises from the Catholic notion that Christ infuses his righteousness into us.

Calvin, in response, insists that justification has no “other meaning than the imputation of righteousness” (Calvin 5). This does not mean that Calvin holds to an antinomian understanding of justification as a legal fiction, so to say. For Calvin, justification and sanctification are two distinct but inseparable processes, both following necessarily from our union with Christ. Calvin illustrates this relation with an analogy: “The light of the sun, though never unaccompanied with heat, is not to be considered heat” (Calvin 6). Whereas Trent discusses justification in the present tense as an ongoing process that may increase or cease, Calvin speaks of justification in the perfect tense alone. For Calvin, sanctification is present and ongoing, but justification has taken place once and for all; the final justification that is to be announced on Judgment Day depends entirely upon what Christ has already accomplished.

Once again, for Calvin, justification and sanctification result necessarily from our union with Christ, whose person and work are inseparable: immediately after declaring that Christ is “our righteousness and sanctification,” Calvin reiterates that Christ “both justifies and sanctifies us” (Calvin 5). This unity of Christ’s person and work in relation to justification and sanctification, as we shall see next, provides a basis for Calvin’s understanding of faith and good works.

Faith and Good Works

As stated earlier, Trent defines justification as the imputation of righteousness followed by sanctification. If we examine the relation between imputation and sanctification in this scheme, we find that the dispute between Trent and Calvin is not merely over terminology. According to Calvin, the imputation of righteousness is complete, and this imputed righteousness is Christ’s perfect righteousness which cannot be increased or lost.

Trent, however, states that sanctification serves to further the process of justification by increasing the imputed righteousness: the baptised, “through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified” (Ch. X). Without good works, declares Trent, justification may be temporarily or even eternally lost. Furthermore, justification lost may be restored by the sacrament of penance and various practices of indulgences. In sum, according to Trent, faith is necessary in initiating justification in the first imputation of righteousness, but without good works it is insufficient in sustaining, let alone increasing, this righteousness.

In comparison, for Calvin, justification by faith alone means that faith is a necessary and sufficient condition for justification, not in the sense that Christ and grace are not also necessary. Faith is necessary for justification in the sense that “for that which God offers to us in Christ we receive only by faith”; it is sufficient for justification in that “whatever Christ is to us is transferred to faith, which makes us capable of receiving both Christ and all his blessings” (Calvin 8). Moreover, faith is a “free gift of God” wrought by the indwelling of Christ’s Spirit, and so “faith brings nothing of our own to God, but receives what God spontaneously offers us. Hence it is that faith, however imperfect, nevertheless posses a perfect righteousness” (Calvin 11). Because the righteousness grasped by faith is perfect, it need not and cannot be increased.

Note that Calvin’s formulation of justification by faith is not to the exclusion of good works. Quite the contrary, since by faith we are united to Christ whose person and work are inseparable, we are not only justified in our persons, but also in our works: “Not by our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works justified” (Calvin 13). The justification of works ensures that our struggles to do good will never be in vain, even though our good works are “far from having the reality of righteousness” (Ibid.).

Furthermore, “the justification of works depends on the justification of the person, as the effect on the cause” (Ibid.). Justification of the person is effected by our union with Christ’s person. Yet, Christ’s person and work are inseparable. Therefore, Christ who is in us by the indwelling of his Spirit effects good works in us. In other words, the good works that we do are, strictly speaking, not our own, but Christ’s. As Paul puts it, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Yet, at the same time, those good works are still our own in the sense that while Christ is united inseparably to us, there remains an abiding distinction between Christ’s person and ours. Christ’s Spirit who indwells us transforms us to the likeness of Christ, but does not make us identical to Christ. And since this transformation, or sanctification, is still incomplete, the good works that we do are “far from having the reality of righteousness” (Calvin 13). Our good works are reckoned righteous because they are effected by Christ who is our righteousness.


Conclusion: Calvin, Trent and the Joint Declaration

Much has changed since the time of Calvin and Trent. Instead of mutual condemnation, there have been since the nineteenth century and especially in recent decades ecumenical efforts of friendly dialogue between Catholics and Protestants. It is thus befitting to conclude this paper by considering whether Calvin would change his mind on some points in light of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, of which I offered an evaluation in the previous article.

Two considerations are in order. First, it has often been noted that despite Calvin’s often polemical attitude and harsh criticism against his opponents, he consistently exhibits a generous spirit whereby he makes concerted efforts to establish as many points of agreement with his opponents as possible. This is evident, for instance, in his disputes against Osiander in the Institutes and against Pighius in Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. In the Antidote, Calvin shows this generous spirit with a number of unreserved “Amens” to Trent’s statements (e.g. Canons 1, 2, 3, 8, 19, 22). Note that Calvin says “Amen” even when he might have recognised that underlying some ambiguous passages in Trent are teachings that he deems erroneous or even heretical. For instance, Calvin might have been dissatisfied with the preposition “through” in Canons 1 and 2 in Trent, recognising the ambiguity and insufficiency thereof, but he does not hesitate to express his agreement wherever possible. It may thus be speculated that Calvin might treat the intentionally ambiguous language of the Joint Declaration with a similar generosity.

However, a further consideration is in order when we take into account the fact that the Joint Declaration has not treated, but rather avoided, some of the most fundamental differences between Catholics and Protestants inherited from the time of Trent. The ambivalence of the Joint Declaration allows it to be interpreted in such a way that it is completely in line with Trent, albeit without the language of the anathema. For instance, as I showed in my previous article, when the Joint Declaration says that justification is “by grace alone” (paragraph 15) and “through Christ alone” (paragraph 16), the formulation is ambiguous enough to allow for the interpretation that “alone” means “necessary but insufficient.” Calvin, who is very precise with his language and grammar, might not be very satisfied with such ambiguities. Recognising that Catholic dogma still holds to a synergistic view of justification as imputation and sanctification, and has not come to understand justification as having been completed once and for all by the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness, effected by the free gift of faith on the basis of the believer’s union with Christ, Calvin probably would not have changed his mind on any of the major points that he has made in the Antidote in light of the Joint Declaration.

In a word, concerning the all-important doctrine of justification, not only do Lutheran-Catholic differences remain unresolved notwithstanding the Joint Declaration, but also the Reformed position, which places greater emphasis on sanctification than the Lutheran, has not been reconciled to that of Catholicism despite decades of ecumenical dialogues. Once again, I am all for ecumenism between the two Western branches of Christianity, but I wonder why the very obvious fact that no true reconciliation can be established without the acknowledgement of disagreements is so often downplayed in contemporary ecumenical efforts.










Calvin, John. Antidote to the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent on the Doctrine of Justification (1547).

Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Schaff, Philip, ed. “The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent,” “Sixth Session: On Justification.” The Creeds of Christendom 2. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983.


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