Excerpt from Vol. 1
(pages 821-829)

Institutes of the Christian Religion
John Calvin

Concerning Works and Rewards

(Passages referring to reward do not make works the cause of salvation, 1-4)

1. What does "recompense according to works" mean?

Let us now proceed to those statements which affirm that God will repay every man according to his works [Matt. 16:27]. Of this sort are these: "Everyone will receive the things done in his body . . . whether . . . good or bad" [2 Cor. 5:10]. "Glory and honor . . . to the doer of good; hardship and tribulation upon every evildoer's soul" [Rom. 2:10, 9]. And: "They who have done good shall come forth into the resurrection of life; they who have done ill, into the resurrection of judgment" [John 5:29, order changed]. "Come, blessed of my Father, . . . I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink," etc. [Matt. 25:34-35, conflated with v. 42, cf. Comm. and Vg.].

Let us join to them those statements which call eternal life the reward of works. Of this sort are these: "The recompense of a man's hands will be paid to him" [Prov. 12:14, conflated with Isa. 3:11, Vg.]. "He who fears the commandments . . . shall be rewarded" [Prov. 13:13]. "Rejoice and be exceeding glad" [Matt. 5:12]; "behold your reward is great in heaven" [Luke 6:23]. "Each shall receive a reward according to his labor" [1 Cor. 3:8].

The statement that "God will render to every man according to his works" [Rom. 2:6] is explained with little difficulty. For the expression indicates an order of sequence rather than the cause. But, beyond any doubt, it is by these stages of his mercy that the Lord completes our salvation when "he calls those chosen to himself; those called he justifies; those justified he glorifies" [Rom. 8:30 p.]. That is to say, he receives his own into life by his mercy alone. Yet, since he leads them into possession of it through the race of good works in order to fulfill his own work in them according to the order that he has laid down, it is no wonder if they are paid to be crowned according to their own works, by which they are doubtless prepared to receive the crown of immortality. But they are fitly said to "work out their own salvation" [Phil. 2:12 p.], for the reason that, while devoting themselves to good works, they meditate upon eternal life. This corresponds to another passage in which they are enjoined to "work for the food that does not perish" [John 6:27], while by believing in Christ they receive life for themselves. And yet the clause is immediately added: "which the Son of Man will give to you" [John 6:27]. From this it appears that the word "to work" is not opposed to grace but refers to endeavor. Accordingly, it does not follow that believers are themselves the authors of their own salvation, or that salvation stems from their own works. What then? Once they are, by knowledge of the gospel and illumination of the Holy Spirit, called into the fellowship of Christ, eternal life begins in them. Now that God has begun a good work in them, it must also be made perfect until the Day of the Lord Jesus [Phil. 1:6]. It is, however, made perfect when, resembling their Heavenly Father in righteousness and holiness, they prove themselves sons true to their nature.

2. Reward as "inheritance"

The use of the term "reward" is no reason for us to suppose that our works are the cause of our salvation. 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]. "For the son of the bondwoman shall not be the heir, but the son of the free woman." [Gal. 4:30 p.] Even in these very passages where the Holy Spirit promises everlasting glory as a reward for works, by expressly terming it an "inheritance" he is showing that it comes to us from another source. So Christ enumerates the works, which he repays with the reward of heaven [Matt. 25:35-37], in calling the elect into possession of it; but at the same time he adds that they must possess it by right of inheritance [Matt. 25:34]. Thus Paul enjoins servants, faithfully doing what is of their duty, to hope for recompense from the Lord, but he adds "of the inheritance" [Col. 3:24]. We see how, as it were, in prescribed terms, they carefully warn us not to credit everlasting blessedness to works but to our adoption by God.

Why, then, do they make mention of works at the same time? This question is cleared up by one example of Scripture. Before the birth of Isaac, Abraham was promised seed in whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The increase of his seed was to equal the stars of heaven, the sands of the sea, and other things like these [Gen. 15:5; 17:1 ff.; cf. ch. 18:18]. Many years later, as he had been commanded by the oracle, Abraham girds himself to sacrifice his son [Gen. 22:3]. Having performed this act of obedience, he receives the promise. "By myself have I sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this thing, and have not spared . . . your only son, I will bless you, . . . and I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven and the sands of the sea, and your seed shall possess the gates of his enemies, and in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice." [Gen. 22:16-18 p.] What is it that we hear? Did Abraham merit by his obedience the blessing whose promise he had received before the commandment was given? Here, surely, we have shown without ambiguity that the Lord rewards the works of believers with the same benefits as he had given them before they contemplated any works, as he does not yet have any reason to benefit them except his own mercy.

3. Reward as grace

Still, the Lord does not trick or mock us when he says that he will reward works with what he had given free before works. He wills that we be trained through good works to meditate upon the presentation or fruition, so to speak, of those things which he has promised, and to hasten through them to seek the blessed hope held out to us in heaven. Hence the fruit of the promises is duly assigned to works, which bring us to the ripeness of that fruit. The apostle beautifully expressed both thoughts when he said that the Colossians occupied themselves with the duties of love, for the sake of the hope laid up for them in heaven, of which they had previously heard through the word of the truth-telling gospel [Col. 1:4-5]. For in saying that they knew from the gospel that their hope was laid up in heaven, he declares that it was supported by Christ alone, not by works. With this, Peter's statement agrees, that the godly are "guarded by God's power through faith, unto the salvation that has been prepared to be manifested in" its "time" [1 Peter 1:5 p.]. In saying that they labor on this account, Paul means that to attain it believers are to run the whole course of their life.

But lest we should think that the reward the Lord promises us is reduced to a matter of merit, he has set forth a parable, in which he has made himself a householder who sends whomever he meets to cultivate his vineyard. Some are sent, indeed, at the first hour, others at the second, still others at the third, and some even at the eleventh; and at evening he pays them all equally [Matt. 20:1 ff.]. That ancient writer--whoever he was--whose book The Call of the Gentiles goes under the name of Ambrose, briefly and truly interprets this parable. I shall use his words rather than my own. "The Lord has by this comparison illustrated the diversity of his manifold calling, pertaining to the one and only grace . . . where it is clear that those sent to the vineyard at the eleventh hour and put on an equal footing with those who had labored the whole day represent the destiny of those . . . whom God's mercy rewards at the decline of the day, that is, at the end of their lives, in order to reveal the excellence of his grace. For he does not pay the price of their labor but showers the riches of his goodness upon those whom he has chosen apart from works. Thus they also, . . . who sweated in much labor, and did not receive more than the latecomers, should understand that they received a gift of grace, not the reward for their works."

Finally, this also is worth noting: in those passages where eternal life is called the reward of works, it is not understood simply as that communion we have with God until the blessed immortality when his fatherly benevolence embraces us in Christ but as the possession or "fruition," as they call it, of blessedness. So also Christ's very own words declare: "In the world to come eternal life" [Mark 10:30]. And in another passage: "Come . . . take possession . . . of the Kingdom," etc. [Matt. 25:34, Vg.]. For this reason, Paul terms "adoption" the revealing of adoption that will be made at the resurrection [cf. Rom. 8:18 ff.]; and afterward he interprets it as the "redemption of our body" [Rom. 8:23]. But otherwise, just as estrangement from God is eternal death, so when man is received into grace by God to enjoy communion with him and be made one with him, he is transported from death to life--something done by the benefit of adoption alone. And if, as is their wont, they stubbornly urge the reward of works, we can throw back at them that statement of Peter that the reward of faith is eternal life [1 Peter 1:9].

4. The purpose of the promise of reward

Therefore, let us not consider that the Holy Spirit approves the worthiness of our works by this sort of promise, as if they merited such a reward. For Scripture leaves us no reason to be exalted in God's sight. Rather, its whole end is to restrain our pride, to humble us, cast us down, and utterly crush us. But our weakness, which would immediately collapse and fall if it did not sustain itself by this expectation and allay its own weariness by this comfort, is relieved in this way.

First, let everyone consider with himself how hard it would be for him to leave and renounce not only all his possessions but himself as well. Still, it is with this first lesson that Christ initiates his pupils, that is, all the godly. Then he so trains them throughout life under the discipline of the cross that they may not set their hearts upon desire of, or reliance on, present benefits. In short, he usually so deals with them that wherever they turn their eyes, as far as this world extends, they are confronted solely with despair. Thus Paul says, "We are of all men most to be pitied if we hope only in this world." [1 Cor. 15:19 p.] Lest they fail amidst these great tribulations, the Lord is with them, warning them to hold their heads higher, to direct their eyes farther so as to find in him that blessedness which they do not see in the world. He calls this blessedness "prize," "reward," "recompense" [cf. Matt. 5:12; 6:1 ff., etc.], not weighing the merit of works, but signifying that it is a compensation for their miseries, tribulations, slanders, etc. For this reason, nothing prevents us, with Scriptural precedent (cf. 2 Cor. 6:13; Heb. 10:35; 11:26], from calling eternal life a "recompense," because in it the Lord receives his own people from toil into repose, from affliction into a prosperous and desirable state, from sorrow into joy, from poverty into affluence, from disgrace into glory. To sum up, he changes into greater goods all the evil things that they have suffered. Thus also it will be nothing amiss if we regard holiness of life to be the way, not indeed that gives access to the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom, but by which those chosen by their God are led to its disclosure. For it is God's good pleasure to glorify those whom he has sanctified [Rom. 8:30].

Only let us not imagine the correlation between merit and reward on which the Sophists rudely insist because they do not consider the end that we have set forth. How absurd is it, when God calls us to one end, for us to look in the other direction? Nothing is clearer than that a reward is promised for good works to relieve the weakness of our flesh by some comfort but not to puff up our hearts with vainglory. Whoever, then, deduces merit of works from this, or weighs works and reward together, wanders very far from God's own plan.

(Answers to objections against this view, 5-10)

5. Reward rests upon forgiveness

Accordingly, when Scripture says, "The Lord, the righteous Judge, will one day give to his own the crown of righteousness" (2 Tim. 4:8 p.], I begin by replying with Augustine: "To whom should the righteous Judge have awarded the crown if the merciful Father had not bestowed grace? And how could there be righteousness unless the grace that 'justifies the ungodly' had gone before? And how could these things now be awarded as due unless things not due had previously been given?" But I also add something else: How could he impute righteousness to our works unless his compassion covered over whatever unrighteousness was in them? And how could he judge them worthy of reward save that he wiped out by his boundless kindness what in them deserves punishment? For Augustine is accustomed to call eternal life "grace," because, while it is rendered to works, it is given for God's free gifts. But Scripture humbles us more and at the same time lifts us up. For besides forbidding us to glory in works, because they are God's free gifts, it teaches us at the same time that they are ever defiled with some foul dregs so that if they are weighed according to the standard of his judgment they cannot satisfy God; but lest we become discouraged, Scripture teaches that our works are pleasing only through pardon. But even though Augustine elsewhere speaks somewhat differently from us, his words in the Third Book to Boniface will show that he does not substantially disagree with these words. There he has compared two men: the one of marvelously holy and perfect life; the other upright indeed and of wholesome habits, but still so imperfect as to leave much to be desired. Finally he concludes: "Certainly the latter man, who seems so inferior in morals to the former, on account of the right faith that he has in God, by which he lives, and according to which in all his wrongdoings he accuses himself and in all his good works praises God, giving shame to himself, glory to God, and receiving from him both forgiveness of sins and love of right deeds--this man shall be delivered from this life and depart . . . into the fellowship . . . of Christ. Why does he so live if not on account of faith? Although without works it saves no man, for it is not a reprobate faith, since it works through love [cf. Gal. 5:6], yet through it sins are also remitted, for 'the just lives by faith' [Heb. 2:4]; for without it what seem to be good works are turned into sins." Here, surely, he clearly confesses what we strongly contend: that the righteousness of good works depends upon the fact that God by pardon approves them.

6. On "treasures in heaven"

The following passages are close in meaning to those cited above: "Make yourselves friends of the Mammon of unrighteousness that when you fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles" [Luke 16:9]. "Admonish the rich of this world not to be proudly wise, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on the living God . . . that they do good, that they be rich in good works . . . and treasure for themselves a good foundation for the coming age, that they may lay hold on eternal life" [1 Tim. 6:17-19]. For good works are likened to the riches we shall enjoy in the blessedness of eternal life. I reply, we shall never gain access to a true understanding of them unless we turn our eyes to the purpose to which the Spirit addresses his words. If what Christ says is true--"Where our treasure is, there resides our heart" [Matt. 6:21 p.]--as the children of this age are wont to be intent upon getting things that make for delight in the present life, so believers ought to see to it that, after they have learned that this life will soon vanish like a dream, they transfer the things they want truly to enjoy to a place where they will have life unceasing.

We ought, then, to imitate what people do who determine to migrate to another place, where they have chosen a lasting abode. They send before them all their resources and do not grieve over lacking them for a time, for they deem themselves the happier the more goods they have where they will be for a long time. But if we believe heaven is our country, it is better to transmit our possessions thither than to keep them here where upon our sudden migration they would be lost to us. But how shall we transmit them? Surely, by providing for the needs of the poor; whatever is paid out to them, the Lord reckons as given to himself [cf. Matt. 25:40]. From this comes that notable promise: "he who gives to the poor lends to the Lord" [Prov. 19:17.] Likewise, "He who sows bountifully shall reap bountifully." [2 Cor. 9:6.] For what is devoted to our brothers out of the duty of love is deposited in the Lord's hand. He, as he is a faithful custodian, will one day repay it with plentiful interest. Are our duties, then, of such importance in God's sight that they are like riches hidden for us in his hand? And who would shrink from saying this, when Scripture so often and so openly attests it?

But if anyone wishes to jump from God's pure kindness to the value of works, by these testimonies he will not be helped to build up his error. For from these you can duly infer nothing except the pure inclining of God's mercy toward us. To quicken us to well-doing, although the services we offer him are unworthy even of his glance, he permits none of them to be lost.

7. Reward for tribulation endured?

But the apostle's words press us all the more. While comforting the Thessalonians in their tribulations, he teaches that such tribulations are sent to them in order that they may be counted worthy of God's Kingdom, for which they suffer [2 Thess. 1:5]. Indeed, he says, "God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, . . . and to grant rest with us to you . . . when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven." [2 Thess. 1:6-7.] And the author of The Letter to the Hebrews says: "God is not so unjust as to forget your work and the love that you showed in his name, in that you ministered to the saints." [Heb. 6:10.]

To the first passage I reply: No worth of merit is there meant, but because God the Father wills that we, whom he has chosen as sons, be conformed to Christ, his first-born [Rom. 8:29], as he had first to suffer, and then at last enter into his appointed glory [Luke 24:26], so also "through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of Heaven" [Acts 14:22 p.]. Therefore, while we suffer tribulations for Christ's name, certain marks, as it were, are branded upon us by which God commonly designates the sheep of his flock. In this way, then, we are accounted worthy of God's Kingdom, for "we bear in our body the marks of our Lord and Master" [Gal. 6:17 p.], which are the signs of God's children. The following statements also belong here: We carry about the mortification of Jesus Christ in our bodies so that his life may be manifested in us [2 Cor. 4:10]. We are conformed to his sufferings to attain to the likeness of resurrection from the dead [Phil. 3:10-11].

And the reason appended by Paul is not to prove that works have any worth but to strengthen hope in God's Kingdom. It is as if he said, "As it agrees with God's righteous judgment to take vengeance upon your enemies for those troubles which they have inflicted upon you, it also agrees with his judgment for you to be granted rest and peace from your troubles." The second passage [Heb. 6:10] teaches that it so befits God's justice not to relegate to oblivion his children's service so as to hint that it would be well-nigh unjust for him to forget. This means that God, to prick our sloth, has given us the assurance that the trouble we have borne to the glory of his name will not be in vain. Let us always remember that this promise, like all others, would not bear fruit for us if the free covenant of his mecy had not gone before, upon which the whole assurance of our salvation depended. Now, relying on this, we ought to have firm confidence that, however unworthy our services, a reward will not be lacking from God's generosity. To confirm us in this expectation the apostle declares that God is not unjust but that he will keep his pledge once given. This justice, then, refers more to the truth of the divine promise than to the equity of rendering what is due. In this sense, Augustine's saying is well known, and as this holy man did not hesitate to repeat it often as worth remembering, I judge it not unworthy of being constantly impressed upon our memory. "The Lord," he says, "is faithful, who made himself our debtor--not by accepting anything from us, but by promising us all things."

Return to Calvin's Institutes Page

© Copyright 2020 Rediscovering the Bible. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us | Email Webmaster