I am a bit surprised that Lane’s guide to the Institutes glazes over Book 3 Chapter 15, and while it may be true that this does not contain information central to Calvin’s theology this chapter is worth some discussion.
In section 2, Calvin notes that the word “merit” is not Biblically-based. Here, we have another of Calvin’s contradictions. Calvin does find that the term was used in ancient church writings, that God assigns some value to our works, but we should never see our works as a type of Divine currency.
Section 3 is a discussion of grace. Calvin asserts that nothing that we do is meritorious enough to receive the gift of grace that God gives, and yet God bestows grace on us. Calvin says in the first sentence of this section, “Scripture shows what all our works deserve when it states that they cannot bear God’s gaze because they are full of uncleanness.” Humans cannot perfectly follow the law, but God bestows his good works on us anyway and calls them “ours.”
In Section 4, Calvin defends his idea against passages from Ecclesiasticus16:15 (part of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox cannon of scripture) and Hebrews 13:16. In the former case, he notes a slight error in translation that makes all of the difference. In the latter case, Calvin asks us not to put more into the meaning than what is there on the surface: this type of sacrifice is ok but not meritorious.
Section 5 brings us back to the ultimate pivot-point for Christians: Christ himself. He says in sum that Christ is the one and only key. Jesus serves as a righteous stand-in before God for we the poor and unrighteous.
In the next two sections (6-7), Calvin laments the history of misinformed theology ingrained into society by the Roman [Catholic] Church. Calvin says this theology is backwards; one does not come into Christ through good works – Christ comes first. Calvin cites several references from scripture and from Augustine that support his case, and he asserts that anything else is misrepresentation and misunderstanding of said sources.
My question for this chapter of the Institutes: Calvin’s central theme in the last section of this Chapter is “take up your cross.” If works have little value to God as Calvin says, what then would be the best evidence that a person is doing this?