Grace Alone: John Calvin and the Good News of Adoption

Reformation 500 Lecture at Southwest Baptist University
November 1, 2017

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.

Galatians 1:6-7

When I was asked to speak about Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), linking my thoughts to one of the primary reformers, for your recognition of the 500th anniversary of the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation, there was no hesitation in my mind. I would speak about John Calvin. Martin Luther is certainly more fun than Calvin. Teaching my pastoral ministry class at Southern Seminary, I recently read them this quote from a funeral sermon Luther preached, “Therefore devil, begone with both my righteousness and my sin. If I have committed some sin, go eat the dung; it’s yours. I’m not worrying about it, for Jesus Christ died.” I cannot read ten pages of Martin Luther without bursting forth in laughter.

Calvin, Warm Theologian?

John Calvin described himself as a quiet scholar. As a schoolboy, supposedly Calvin was given the nickname from classmates, “the accusative case.” A nickname like that doesn’t exactly scream fun and games. While preparing for this talk I tweeted that Calvin was a warm theologian whose writings are replete with family imagery. The reasoned and thoughtful scholars of social media reacted immediately with these kinds of comments: “Theological determinism is not warm,” “Oh yeah, nothing says warm theology like double predestination,” and my favorite, “What is warm and fuzzy about the leader of the salvation illuminati?” That is quite an emotive reaction to a man who died in 1564 and demanded to be buried in an unmarked grave.

Timothy George has written that no theologian has been “as highly esteemed” and “meanly despised” as Calvin.1 In his, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography, Bruce Gordon states that he writes to “render one service, and that is to dissuade readers that the following chapters are about a dreary theological treatise by a bearded killjoy.”2 I wish that Calvin was actually read, on his own terms, as much as he is critiqued, criticized, and caricatured. I would like to suggest what I would hope is obvious: you do not have to agree with all of Calvin’s views on providence and sovereignty to appreciate his contribution to the recovery of the biblical gospel in the Reformation.

Justification, the Main Hinge on which Religion Turns

Calvin had great respect for Martin Luther, who was 26 years his elder, and he was in agreement with Luther on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Calvin and Luther believed that grace was not something infused in us that made our works acceptable to God, as the church in Rome taught. Grace, according to Luther and Calvin, was imputed to us, and it was not simply righteousness from Christ, it was the righteousness of Christ. Grace was the unmerited favor of God given to us in spite of what we deserve. Calvin said that justification is “the main hinge on which religion turns.”3 In Calvin’s commentary on Galatians he writes,

All merit of works is thus excluded from being the cause of justification, when the whole is ascribed to faith. For faith,—so far as it embraces the undeserved goodness of God, the testimony of our adoption which is contained in the gospel,—is universally contrasted with the law, the merit of works, and with human excellence.4

Familial Theologian

Notice that Calvin connects adoption to justification (and to the whole of salvation). According to Calvin, the Roman church corrupted the doctrine of justification, leaving its adherents in fear and servitude instead of living in the freedom and grace of sonship. One of Calvin’s favorite phrases that shows up consistently in his commentaries and in his Institutes of the Christian Religion is “the grace of adoption.” Another frequently used phrase is “the covenant of adoption.” Theologian B.B. Warfield writes, “Preeminent among the doctrines of God given expression in the Reformation are in the commanding place it gives to Divine fatherhood.” Warfield notes that no reformer spoke of divine fatherhood as frequently as Calvin.5

John Calvin was not focused on theoretical and speculative theology. He was a practical theologian-pastor. One of his biographers, Herman Selderhuis, writes, “Calvin has an aversion to theoretical reflections that do not immediately impact piety and praxis.”6 Consider the following quotes from Calvin,

The promises, I say, are testimonies of divine grace. . . And then he declares himself to be a father. . . The promise, by which God adopts us to himself as his sons, holds first place among them all. Now the cause and root of adoption is Christ.7

Until we feel assured that God is a father to us, and that we are his people, whatever happiness we may have, it will only end in misery.8

Until men feel they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care. . . They will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity.9

These kinds of familial quotes are almost endless in Calvin’s writings. The primary shaping motif of John Calvin’s theology is not predestination, sovereignty, or election—it is God’s fatherly and adopting love. His sovereign power for us is an expression of his fatherly care and relational love. Brian Gerrish, in his book on Calvin, Grace and Gratitude, asserts that Calvin describes the gospel as “quite simply, the good news of adoption.”10 In Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, there is no distinct section on adoption and sonship because it undergirds the whole and is woven throughout the book. Calvin explains his comprehensive understanding of adoption in this way: “The gift of adoption, which is not the cause merely of a partial salvation, but bestows salvation entire.”11 Calvin is following the apostle Paul who references adoption in a comprehensive way, relating it to the eternal purposes of God (Eph 1:4-5), God’s covenant promises (Rom 9:4), the Messiah’s mission (Gal 4:4-5), discipleship (Rom 8:15-16), and eschatological hope (Rom 8:22-23).

The Good News of Adoption

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. 

Galatians 4:4-7

In Calvin’s sermon from Galatians 2:15-16 entitled, “Justification is by Grace Alone,” he posed the following question: “You may ask, why do the Scriptures use the word justify when it seemed so inappropriate? We could just as well say that God loves us, that he takes pity on us, that he desires to be our father and Savior—why not use these expressions instead of speaking of justification?”12 He answers that it is with good reason that God uses judicial language because we are indeed guilty before God, and God is just. Nevertheless, why does Calvin pose this question? In Calvin’s understanding, the believer must not be left in the courtroom declared righteous by the almighty Judge. He must also be taken into the family room, because the almighty Judge does not simply pronounce a bare legal verdict; he also adopts the pardoned as his own child. J.I. Packer explains what I believe is at the heart of Calvin’s reasoning: “To be right with God the judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the father is a greater.”13

Calvin titles his sermon on Galatians 4:4-7, “Crying out to God in the Certainty of Our Adoption.”14 He explains about Paul’s purpose in Galatians, “The apostles object is to show that the grace of adoption, and the hope of salvation, do not depend on the law, but are contained in Christ alone, who therefore is all.”15 Paul’s argument in Galatians has been building to his explanation of adoption in chapter four. As J.I. Packer notes, Paul’s argument is that “adoption is the highest privilege that the gospel offers: higher even than justification.” He explains,

Justification is the primary blessing, so it is the fundamental blessing, in the sense that everything else in our salvation assumes it, and rests on it—adoption included. But this is not to say that justification is the highest blessing of the gospel. Adoption is higher, because of the richer relationship with God that it involves.16

Adoption and Redemptive History

Paul explains, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son” (Gal 4:4a). In the previous chapter of Galatians, Paul focused on the Abrahamic promise and the law of Moses, contending that justification is by faith alone and not through law keeping. In fact, the law exposes our unrighteousness and leaves us with no hope but justification by faith alone. While there are distinctions between people in terms of ethnicity, class, and gender, in terms of the need for the gospel and what it means to be in Christ, we are one. Our distinctions are no longer barriers for those who are in Christ, they represent the unique glory of familial relationships, the household of God (see, Eph 2:11-22). Paul summarizes at the end of Galatians 3:

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. 

Galatians 3:23-29

In Galatians 4:1-3, Paul builds on the categories he has already introduced by way of an illustration. An “heir,” Paul says, is “no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything” (Gal 4:1). The “heir” is a Jew who had the law of God. He is not different from a slave in that, like the slave, he has no access to an inheritance. The inheritance was “under guardians and managers,” (Gal 4:2) meaning the law (Gal 3:24), until the appointed time of the Father. In Galatians 4:3, Paul says that Jews and Gentiles were “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” In the context, it seems that Paul is referring to the ABC-like natural defaults that people choose for justification. Many Jews corrupted the law of God by treating it like a path for salvation, and many Gentiles followed their own self-generated fleshly desires as a means of righteousness. Both the Abrahamic promise and the law of Moses pointed beyond themselves toward Christ.

Adoption is not a metaphor Paul invented, but rather it is where redemptive history was always heading. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul says that God is at work in the world with “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in

[Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” When, in the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son, it was a significant turning point in redemptive history. After all, Galatians begins with a reference to “the present evil age” (Gal 1:4) and concludes with a reference to “a new creation” (Gal 6:15).

Adoption and the Messianic Mission   

As Paul continues, he characterizes the Son with two pregnant descriptors. The first descriptor is that the Son was “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4b). He was the incarnate Son, which points all the way back to the original gospel promise in Genesis 3:15, that a seed born of woman will crush the head of the serpent. The second descriptor is that he was “born under the law” (Gal 4:4b), which means he was born ethnically an Israelite. The Jewish nation was the people to whom the law and promises were given. The two descriptors of the Son are immediately followed by two hina (purpose) clauses, which describe his mission. The first purpose is stated in legal terms: “to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal 4:5a). In the previous chapter, Paul stated that Christ removed the curse that believers deserve by becoming a curse for us on the cross (Gal 3:13). God the Son, Jesus, is able to redeem because he was the only Jew fully obedient to the law and covenant promises. The second purpose of Jesus’ mission is stated in personal terms: “so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:5b).

Paul’s two descriptors and two purpose statements tie Jesus’ person and work together. The saving mission of the unique son of God is expressed in terms of redemption and adoption.  In the previous chapter, when Paul wrote that Christ became a curse for us (Gal 3:13), he followed that assertion in the next verse with a statement of blessing: “so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:14). Calvin explains, “The word Blessing is variously employed in Scripture: but here it signifies Adoption into the inheritance of eternal life.”17 To summarize, God sent his Son as the Redeemer on the messianic mission of adoption. J.I. Packer describes this as “adoption through propitiation” and asserts, “I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that.”18

Adoption and the Spirit of Adoption

  According to Paul, our sonship in Christ is to become our controlling identity. Paul writes, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal 4:6). In a parallel verse in Romans, Paul writes, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Rom 8:15).  The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and another title for the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of adoption. The indwelling Spirit of God is at work in the believer’s life, confirming their identity as children of God. In other words, we live in the freedom of God’s love. Consider Calvin’s warmth as he comments on these verses in a sermon,

We have been assured that God pities us and bears with our weaknesses, as a father with his children, . . . we are not to lose confidence if we stumble or fall, or make mistakes; that is to say, if we do not fulfill all the is expected with the desired perfection. We are not to feel totally defeated, for we can be sure that God still holds our hand and will not bring us to account for each thing, or scrutinize us rigorously.19

Calvin believed it was significant that Paul used the word “crying” for the work the Spirit does in our hearts (Gal 4:6). He explains, “Paul could well have used the word ‘saying,’ but he goes further, for a reason. . . . he says that we cry out that God as our father with a loud voice and absolute certainty, coming to him boldly to glorify him because we are his children.”20  Calvin further explains that the believer has exchanged a fearful “spirit of bondage” for the “Spirit of adoption as sons” (Rom 8:15), which brings assurance. Assurance of sonship that is so clear we can cry out to God with the intimate language of “Abba! Father!” “Abba” is in Aramaic word. So why would Paul use it in a letter written primarily to Greek speaking Gentiles? Because it was the way Jesus, the only begotten Son, cried out to the Father (Mark 14:36). In Christ, sons of God, speak to God the Father with the intimacy of God the Son.

Herein lies Calvin’s problem with the church of Rome. He explains, “They say that we can never be sure of God’s [Fatherly] love,” whereas according to Calvin, “the most important thing for us to be persuaded about is that God is our Father.”21 In Galatians 4:7, Paul adds, “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Calvin believed that any system of salvation that included human merit, while it might speak of grace, left men living in fearful servitude rather than freedom as sons. He writes,

First, let us be heartily convinced that the Kingdom of Heaven is not servants’ wages but sons’ inheritance [Eph. 1:18], which only they who have been adopted as sons by the Lord shall enjoy [cf. Gal. 4:7], and that for no other reason than this adoption [cf. Eph. 1:5–6].22

Is the message of the Protestant Reformation still an important one for today? With the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation looming, Pew Research Center decided to do a study for release on August 31, 2017 to find out if Protestant Christians believe today the truths that were fought for during the Reformation. When they released the results, they titled it, “U.S. Protestants Are Not Defined by Reformation Era Controversies 500 Years Later.”23 The study explains that 52% of Protestants say that both the good deeds and faith are necessary in order to get to heaven, a historically Roman Catholic view.

The Reformation is never really over. In every generation, there is a struggle for the very heart and truth of the gospel. Preserving the Solas of the Protestant Reformation, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone, and Glory to God Alone, is vital. The “Alones” makes all of the difference. This task is never merely abstract or theoretical; it is practical. How these questions are answered affects the way people live. I believe that the Protestant Reformers were correct: any notion of our merits contributing to our salvation produces fear, insecurity, bondage, and a stricken conscience. I believe that Calvin’s relentless determination, following the apostle Paul, to always express the gospel not only in terms of the courtroom, which is foundational, but also in terms of the family room, is a path we would do well to recover.

 I once spoke with a family who adopted a teen girl who had been terrified that she was going to age out of the system with no family. When the girl first came home with the family after the judge had declared legally that she was their child she was still full of fear. In the morning when the parents woke up and went to her bedroom, she would be sitting on the bed and her room would be immaculate. And often she would say something like, “See how clean my room is. Can I stay?” This idea that she had to earn her place to stay in the family broke her adoptive parent’s hearts. They told her, “We love you because you are our child no matter what you do! Nothing will change that!”  The first time the parents got up in the morning and saw that she had not cleaned her room they high-fived one another. It’s not that they didn’t want her to clean her room, it is just that they did not want her to do it as a servant’s wages. After all, she now possessed a son’s inheritance, and she did not have to earn it.

What about you? Salvation is by grace alone from beginning to end. If the almighty Judge has declared you righteous because his Son has paid your penalty in full and if he then stepped down from the bench, not only forgiving your debt, but also declaring you now his Son with full rights to his inheritance, what is there to fear? What can you be lacking if the one who owns everything has adopted you as a son, united you to his only begotten Son, and given you the Spirit of adoption? Let us conclude with Calvin’s final words in his Galatians 4:4-7 sermon,

Now let us fall before the presence of our great God, acknowledging our sins, and praying that he would make us aware of them so that we humble ourselves before him. At the same time, let us not lose courage, since he accepts us, and willingly deigns to listen to our petitions when we come to him with complete trust. May he grant us grace to overcome all problems and hindrances, and all arguments and questions that the devil sets in our hearts, that we may know the truth of that promise, that whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Joel 2:32, Acts 2:21). Thus, we all say Almighty God, and our heavenly father.24

  1. Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, Revised Edition (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013), 174.
  2. Bruce Gordon, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 11-12.
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, J. T. McNeill, Ed., F. L. Battles, Trans. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1:726.
  4. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, trans., William Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 85.
  5. B.B. Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of God,” Princeton Theological Review, 1909 (7): 425.
  6. Herman Selderhuis and Henry J. Baron, The Calvin Handbook (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 258.
  7. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, vol. 2 trans., William Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 137-138.
  8. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Prophet Jeremiah and Lamentations, vol. 4, trans., John Owen (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 49.
  9. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:41.
  10. Brian Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Edinburg: T&T Clark, 1993), 89.
  11. John Calvin, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 3, trans., Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 345-346.
  12. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, 178-179.
  13. J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 207.
  14. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, 370-384.
  15. Ibid., 112.
  16. J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 207.
  17. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, 88.
  18. J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 214.
  19. John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians, trans., Kathy Childress (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1997), 372-373.
  20. Ibid., 375-376.
  21. Ibid., 379.
  22. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:822.
  23. See,
  24. John Calvin, Sermons on Galatians, 384.

By |November 6th, 2017|Categories: Blog|Tags: , |

About the Author:

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today