Calvin begins his discussion about justification and works by stratifying shades of faithfulness, ranging from complete ignorance to complete immersion. He seems to create these distinctions largely to be able to discuss the latter category – those that acknowledge Christ, and seek to live faithful lives.
Calvin, while recognizing that some people do, in fact, inhabit this fourth faithful category, still insists that there is no merit in their actions apart from God. He gives a nod to Augustine when he agrees that outside of God’s participation, human efforts have no worth.
Section 9 outlines the basic value of good works: our good works are merely evidence of God at work in us. Rather than a system of purchasing good standing with God, anything we do to contribute to our own justification begins with God.
Section 14 really begins what feels like the crux of Calvin’s argument: we can never repay more than the debt of service we owe God. Calvin insists that since we owe our Creator a debt of service for our existence, we can never over-perform our service to God. And since God enables us all differently, whatever service we are able to do at best meets our obligations. This to me sounds like a loan we can only hope to just barely satisfy.
This chapter demonstrates the reason I struggle with Calvin’s logical approach to Christian faith (if we can agree there is such a thing as logical faith). For Calvin to claim predestination, he must be willing to give all credit (and blame) to a cosmic system of God’s creation and engineering. As such, anything good, bad or indifferent is a natural extension of God. But Calvin doesn’t quite say that. Rather, he assumes human corruption within God’s creation. Due to that inherent corruption, we can only hope to achieve justifying works as the fruits of seeds God planted. Since God is the source of our own good intentions and actions, our good works become more like tithes than voluntary gestures.
So, the question I might ask is this: within Calvin’s framework, why would we bother to do good works – especially if they mean any form of sacrifice?