How did Martin Luther and John Calvin Understand Justification and Sanctification?

Jin O Jeong

Last week on Reformation Day, I received some questions about how Luther and the Reformed Church, including John Calvin, understood the concept of justification and sanctification. This article will help Christians easily understand the theological differences of Luther and Calvin.

First, justification pertains to the question about "how sinners can be justified with God." Sanctification is a question that relates to how a justified man and can produce the fruit in keeping with justification.

Justification is primarily associated with redemption, accomplished by Jesus Christ on the cross. Sanctification is focused on the changes of life and the personality of the Holy Spirit. So the question that remains is, how did Luther and Calvin understand justification and sanctification?

1. Martin Luther: Theologian of Justification

First, Luther's theology has always put emphasis on justification. In other words, it always emphasizes that man, who realized that he is a sinner through the law, can be justified only by the grace of God through repentance. For Luther, justification and sanctification are not equal to each other; the emphasis is always on justification. Sanctification is regarded as the natural result of justification.

Luther asserted that because man is justified with God despite sin, he can live a holy life as the result of God's grace. For this reason, Luther emphasizes that loving one's neighbor is not done to prove the love of God, but done to produce the result of a loving God.

This point was clearly evident in Luther's Small Catechism. Luther said in his explanation of the Ten Commandments, only when we fear, love, and trust in God, can we keep the Ten Commandments. The main feature of Luther's theology is his emphasis on justification, which was well noted in his "Theology of the Cross."

2. John Calvin: Theologian of Sanctification

Unlike Luther, Calvin's theology has always placed the emphasis on sanctification. In other words, it is much more important for man to be justified in order to produce fruit in keeping with justification.

Sanctification is the result of Justification in Luther's theology, but it has equal importance with justification in Calvin's theology. In propositional logic, the relationship of justification and sanctification is a necessary and sufficient condition. In other words, loving God is loving one's neighbor and loving one's neighbor is also loving God. For this reason, Calvin's theology has been well known for the, "Glory of God."

The main feature of the Calvin's theology is that always emphasizes that sanctification must be clearly evident in his book, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin stated the reason he placed emphasis on sanctification before justification:

"The theme of justification was therefore more lightly touched upon because it was more to the point to understand first how little devoid of good works is the faith, through which alone we obtain free righteousness by the mercy of God; and what is the nature of the good works of the saints, with which part of this question [justification] is concerned" (Institutes of the Christian Religion ,3:11:1).

3. Main Arguments between Lutheran and Calvinist Scholars

There have been many disputes over the proper way to understand the relationship between justification and sanctification.

Calvinist scholars have received criticism from Lutheran scholars for weakening God's grace and emphasizing the human responsibility. On the other hand, Lutheran scholars have been criticized by Calvinist scholars for weakening the human responsibility and overemphasizing God's grace.

In addition to this, Calvinist scholars have pointed out that Luther weakened the good works of humans by only emphasizing, "faith only." In response to this, Lutheran scholars have defended "faith only" by stating that it focuses on the centrality and importance of faith; it does not reject the good works and efforts by humans.

In brief, it is as follows.

4. Cause for the Difference of Opinion between Luther and Calvin on Justification and Sanctification

For this question, there are many reasonable answers. However, it is closely related to their academic background. Hans Luther, the father of Martin Luther, wanted Martin to move up in the world, so sent his son to school to become a lawyer. At that time, being a lawyer was a way to gain money, honor, and a high social standing. In accordance with his father's wishes, Luther prepared to enroll in law school at the University of Erfurt as soon as he graduated from university.

However, in July 1505, Luther had a life-changing experience that set him on a new course. Caught in a horrific thunderstorm where he feared for his life, Luther cried out to St. Anne, the patron saint of miners, "Save me, St. Anne, and I'll become a monk!" After that, he was an ordained priest and earned a Doctorate degree in Theology. He had devoted himself to teaching Bible and theology as a theology professor for 30 years.

On the other hand, Calvin was raised in a wealthy family. John Calvin entered the Collège de Montaigu as a philosophy student. In 1525 or 1526, Gérard, the father of John Calvin, withdrew Calvin from the Collège de Montaigu and enrolled him in the University of Orléans to study law. Gérard believed his son would earn more money as a lawyer than as a priest. Calvin learned the law according to father's wishes.

This different academic background of Luther and Calvin led to a difference in their understanding of the relationships between justification and sanctification. As a theology professor and priest, Luther witnessed the corruption of the church and Pope in Middle Ages. Furthermore, Luther found the theological problem of scholastic theology in Middle Ages; scholastic theology had taught that salvation is dependent upon a decision of the human will by emphasizing that God grant to man who does his best. Luther explicitly rejected this opinion of the scholastic theology and following Paul and Augustine, asserted that man can be saved, not by his will, but only by God's grace. In other words, Luther put more emphasis on justification.

Unlike Luther, Calvin studied philosophy and law related to human life. It made Calvin focus more on sanctification. This was why John Calvin wanted Geneva to resemble the kingdom of God on earth.

If we express this theological difference of Luther and Calvin through the lens of Korean culture, it would be the the following: while Luther shed tears of repentance as an undutiful child before parents, Calvin wanted to do something to repay parents' love.

5. The Right Understanding of Justification and Sanctification

It's not about who is right or wrong in understanding justification and sanctification; it simply about understanding the difference of how Luther and Calvin emphasized the difference between justification and sanctification. To properly grasp this, we must have an understanding that both justification and sanctification are part of God's grace.

As Luther said, the sinner can be justified by faith only as God's gift; not by works and human will. The same is true for sanctification. As Calvin pointed out, justification and sanctification are inseparable; sanctification is no less important than justification. Nevertheless, it is important that sanctification can be accomplished by God's grace, not though our works and responsibility.

In addition to this,"faith only," focuses on the centrality and importance of faith. It does not reject good works and efforts by humans, as only true faith can lead us to do good works.

While Luther thought that the doctrine of Justification was more important, saying, "the article of justification is said to be the article by which the church stands or falls," Calvin thought that the doctrine of Sanctification was more important, saying, "the theme of justification was therefore more lightly touched upon because it was more to the point to understand first how little devoid of good works is the faith."

These theological differences between Luther and Calvin show us not who is right or wrong, but rather how important the doctrines of justification and sanctification are. I ask you to remember that it is the core of Christian faith to have a correct understanding of justification and sanctification.

Jin O Jeong

Reverend and Doctor Jin O. Jeong is an assistant pastor for Korean congregation at Zion Lutheran Church, Belleville, IL. He graduated from Luther University and received a Ph.D from Yonsei University. He was also a Research Fellow at Hebrew University and Visiting Scholar at Yale Divinity School. Tel: 618-920-9311 Email: