From Commentary on Genesis (1554)
None of us would be able to conceive the rich and hidden doctrine which this passage contains, unless Paul had borne his torch before us (Rom. 4:3). But it is strange and seems like a prodigy, that when the Spirit of God has kindled so great a light, yet the greater part of interpreters wander with closed eyes as in the darkness of night…
It hence appears, that in all ages, Satan has labored at nothing more assiduously than to extinguish, or to smother, the gratuitous justification of faith, which is here expressly asserted. The words are, “He believed in the Lord, and he counted it to him for righteousness.”
In the first place, the faith of Abram is commended, because by it he embraced the promise of God. It is commended, in the second place, because hence Abram obtained righteousness in the sight of God, and that by imputation. For the word which is used here is to be understood as relating to the judgment of God, just as in Psalm 106:31, where the zeal of Phinehas is said to have been counted to him for righteousness.
The meaning of the expression will, however, more fully appear by comparison with its opposites. In Leviticus 7:18, it is said that when expiation has been made, iniquity “shall not be imputed” to a man. Again, in Leviticus 17:4, “Blood shall be imputed to that man.” So, in 2 Samuel 19:19, Shimei says, “Let not the king impute iniquity to me.” Nearly of the same import is the expression in 2 Kings 12:15, “They reckoned not with the man into whose hand they delivered the money for the work,” that is, they required no account of the money, but allowed them to administer it, in perfect confidence.
Let us now return to Genesis. Just as we understand that they to whom iniquity is imputed are guilty before God; so those to whom he imputes righteousness are approved by him as just persons; wherefore Abram was received into the number and rank of just persons by the imputation of righteousness. Paul, in order that he may show us distinctly the force and nature or quality of this righteousness leads us to the celestial tribunal of God. Therefore, they foolishly trifle who apply this term to his character as an honest man, as if it meant that Abram was personally held to be a just and righteous man…
It is indeed to be maintained as an axiom that all the promises of God made to the faithful, flow from the free mercy of God and are evidence of that paternal love and of that gratuitous adoption on which their salvation is founded. Therefore, we do not say that Abram was justified because he laid hold on a single word, respecting the offspring to be brought forth, but because he embraced God as his Father.
And truly faith does not justify us for any other reason, than that it reconciles us unto God; and that it does so, not by its own merit; but because we receive the grace offered to us in the promises, and have no doubt of eternal life, being fully persuaded that we are loved by God as sons. Therefore, Paul reasons from contraries, that he to whom faith is imputed for righteousness, has not been justified by works (Rom. 4:4). For whosoever obtains righteousness by works, his merits come into the account before God. But we apprehend righteousness by faith, when God freely reconciles us to himself.
We must now notice the circumstance of time. Abram was justified by faith many years after he had been called by God, after he had left his country a voluntary exile, rendering himself a remarkable example of patience and of continence, after he had entirely dedicated himself to sanctity and after he had, by exercising himself in the spiritual and external service of God, aspired to a life almost angelical.
It therefore follows that even to the end of life we are led towards the eternal kingdom of God by the righteousness of faith. On which point many are too grossly deceived. For they grant, indeed, that the righteousness which is freely bestowed upon sinners and offered to the unworthy is received by faith alone, but they restrict this to a moment of time, so that he who at the first obtained justification by faith, may afterwards be justified by good works. By this method, faith is nothing else than the beginning of righteousness, whereas righteousness itself consists in a continual course of works.
But they who thus trifle must be altogether insane. For if the angelical uprightness of Abram faithfully cultivated through so many years in one uniform course did not prevent him from fleeing to faith, for the sake of obtaining righteousness, where upon earth besides will such perfection be found, as may stand in God’s sight? Therefore, by a consideration of the time in which this was said to Abram, we certainly gather that the righteousness of works is not to be substituted for the righteousness of faith in any such way that one should perfect what the other has begun. Rather, holy men are only justified by faith as long as they live in the world.
John Calvin (1509-1564) was one of the most influential theologians of the Protestant Reformation, who served for many decades as the chief pastor of Geneva. He wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, which were reworked from lectures he gave to theological students. He is commemorated on May 26 or May 28 on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican churches.