"A Double Grace": John Calvin on Justification and Sanctification

Brian G. Hedges
Fri, Nov 30, 2007

John Calvin, the sixteenth-century Reformer of Geneva, is talked about more than he is read. This is unfortunate, because Christian leaders who risk reading through his Institutes of the Christian Religion will discover a treasury of Christ-centered theology precise in exegesis and lyrical in expression.

Calvin may be most helpful in Book III of the Institutes, on “The Way We Receive the Grace of Christ.” Here is a powerful summary statement:

Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.[1]

So grasping Christ by faith, we receive a “double grace”—justification and sanctification.

Justification: Reconciled Through Christ’s Blamelessness

When we grasp Jesus with the hand of faith, we are “reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness.” This is clearly Calvin’s meaning, for he goes on to say:

Justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man.

Therefore, we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.[2]

Calvin’s definition is squarely rooted in Paul’s declaration from 2 Corinthians:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:18-21).

The only means of reconciliation with God is in the doing and dying of Jesus on our behalf. He not only lived the life we should have lived; He also died the death we should have died. God treated Jesus like a sinner so He could treat us like Jesus.

The Father accepts us as righteous before Him, not because of anything we do, and not even because of anything He has done in us, but solely because of what Jesus Christ has done for us.

Sanctification: The Cultivation of a Blameless Life

But there’s more. We are not only “reconciled through Christ’s blamelessness,” we are also “sanctified by Christ’s spirit [so that] we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.” Justification is joined with sanctification.

Calvin’s preferred term for sanctification was repentance:

Repentance can thus well be defined: it is the true turning of our life to God, a turning that arises from a pure and earnest fear of him; and it consists in the mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit.[3]

Don’t let the words mortification and vivification discourage you. Calvin was simply pointing out the negative and positive dimensions to sanctified Christian living. Mortification is putting sin to death. Vivification is living to righteousness by the power of the Spirit.

In the language of Scripture,

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness (Rom. 6:11-13).

Die to sin and live to God!

Distinct yet Inseparable

While justification and sanctification are distinct, they cannot be separated. Each depends on God’s free grace flowing to us from Christ’s saving work on our behalf. Both blessings, experienced by all Christians, are integral to salvation—you cannot have one without the other.

In Calvin’s words,

Since faith embraces Christ, as offered to us by the Father [cf. John 6:29]—that is, since he is offered not only for righteousness, forgiveness of sins, and peace, but also for sanctification [cf. 1 Cor. 1:30] and the fountain of the water of life [John 7:38; cf. ch. 4:14]—without a doubt, no one can duly know him without at the same time apprehending the sanctification of the Spirit. Or, if anyone desires some plainer statement, faith rests upon the knowledge of Christ. And Christ cannot be known apart from the sanctification of his Spirit. It follows that faith can in no wise be separated from a devout disposition.[4]

Simply put, you can’t take Jesus in slices. If you receive Him as a justifying Savior, you must also receive Him as a sanctifying Lord. Justification and sanctification belong together.

But there are important distinctions to make. Although the two are joined, they are not the same:

  • Justification is an event.

Sanctification is a process.

  • Justification is a legal transaction in which God, our Divine Judge, declares us righteous before Him—absolved of all guilt in His divine tribunal.

Sanctification is an internal work of God’s Spirit in which our hearts are changed, cleansed, and purified.

  • Justification affects our status, changing our standing before God. For Christ’s sake, we are accepted and considered righteous even though we are not. It is something God does for us.

Sanctification affects our hearts, changing our inner being or nature. By Christ’s Spirit our hearts are cleansed, made new, and transformed so that we begin to look more and more like Jesus. This is something God does in us.

  • Justification is God’s work alone. Nothing we have done or can do contributes to it in the least.

Sanctification is God’s work as well, but we must cooperate with Him. Our responses and choices can either accelerate or impede our growth in holiness.

  • All believers are justified, and no one is more or less justified than any other. All stand before God solely by the perfect obedience of Christ.

All believers are being sanctified, but the degree of holiness varies from person to person.

Double Grace, Double Cure

Justification and sanctification comprise the double grace God gives us through Christ. Or, in the words of Augustus Toplady:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood
From thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure:
Save from wrath and make me pure.[5]


[1] John Calvin, John T. McNeil, ed., Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960) III.xi.1, p. 725.

[2] Ibid., III.xi.2, pp. 726-7.

[3] Ibid., III.iii.5, p. 597.

[4] Ibid, III.ii.8, pp. 552-3.

[5] Augustus M. Toplady, “Rock of Ages,” 1776.