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By Jacob D. Gerber


John Calvin's theology of Christ as Mediator stands at the heart of his Institutes, and not

merely as an abstract theological speculation. Calvin goes beyond theory to articulate actual

benefits that Christ's mediation brings to believers. While Calvin in no way approaches

christology from an anthropocentric standpoint, as though Christ existed mainly for the benefit of

believers, he nevertheless exults in the gracious nature of Christ's mediatorial role. In this paper,

we will examine the characteristics of Christ's mediation, the benefits for believers comprised in

Christ's mediation, and the means by which believers gain possession of these benefits.

The Characteristics of Christ's Mediation

The Role of the Mediator

When Calvin uses the term “Mediator” in reference to Christ, he is following the biblical

precedent. Paul, in 1 Tim. 2:5-6, writes, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator

between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the

testimony given at the proper time.” Furthermore, in Heb. 9:15 and 12:24, the author calls Jesus

the “mediator of a new covenant,” who brings a fuller quality of redemption and salvation than

the Old Testament church had explicitly known. Even before his incarnation, however, Calvin

speaks of Christ's mediatorial role in the Old Testament. For example, Calvin condemns

Servetus for (among other things) denying that the chief angel who came to Abraham was “God's

Word, who already at that time, as a sort of foretaste, began to fulfill the office of Mediator. For

even though he was not yet clothed with flesh, he came down, so to speak, as an intermediary, in
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order to approach believers more intimately.”1 Although Christ's role as Mediator became

clearer in the New Testament, Calvin is insistent the Hebrew people in the Old Testament “had

and knew Christ as Mediator, through whom they were joined to God and were to share his

promises.2 The difference to Calvin, therefore, is not in the identity of the Mediator or even the

substance of the covenant, but only in the “mode of dispensation.”3 In other words, the churches

of the Old and New Testaments shared a covenant and a Christ, but, for the Old Testament

Church, “in the absence of the reality, it showed but an image and shadow in place of the

substance; the New Testament reveals the very substance of the truth as present.”4 Christ is the

only Mediator for all the people of God, past, present, and future, even if it is only those of us

living on this side of his incarnation who can see that clearly.

In terms of Christ's actual function as Mediator, Calvin especially follows the language of

Paul in 1 Timothy, emphasizing Christ's role “between God [the Father] and men.” The need for

a mediator arises chiefly because of humanity's sinfulness, but Calvin also notes that even our

“lowly” condition, considered in itself, requires a mediator in order to come near to God:

Hence it was necessary for the Son of God to become for us “Immanuel, that is,
God with us” [Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23], and in such a way that his divinity and our
human nature might by mutual connection grow together. Otherwise the nearness
would not have been near enough, nor the affinity sufficiently firm, for us to hope
that God might dwell with us. So great was the disagreement between our
uncleanness and God's perfect purity! Even if man had remained free from all
stain, his condition would have been too lowly for him to reach God without a

Pay careful attention here to the many facets of what Christ accomplishes in his role as Mediator.

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford L. Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.13.10, p. 133.
2 Ibid., 2.10.2, p. 430.
3 Ibid., 2.10.2, p. 429.
4 Ibid., 2.11.4, p. 453.
5 Ibid., 2.12.1, p. 465.
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First, Calvin speaks of Christ's incarnation—that is, that Christ united two distinct natures (“his

divinity and our humanity”) in his own person. Second, Calvin writes that this incarnation has

made our union with him (“mutual connection”) possible. Third, Calvin refers to the human

need for close proximity (“nearness”) to God, a need that Christ meets when he becomes

“Immanuel, that is, God with us”; by virtue of this nearness to God, we “reach” him. Finally,

Calvin suggests that Christ has settled the great “disagreement between our uncleanness and

God's perfect purity,” alluding to the forgiveness of sins that we have in Christ's name. We will

take up the last three aspects of Christ's mediation in the section on the benefits for believers

comprised in Christ's mediation; however, we will now take up the issue of Christ's two natures.

Christ's Two Natures

Calvin's christology epitomizes “Chalcedonian orthodoxy,” which is evident when he

writes that “he who was the Son of God became the Son of man—not by confusion of substance,

but by unity of person. For we affirm his divinity so joined and united with his humanity that

each retains its distinctive nature unimpaired, and yet these two natures constitute on Christ.”6

Of course, by emphasizing the full divinity and humanity contained in Christ's person, yet

acknowledging that each nature remains distinct from the other, Calvin does nothing original.

Still, Stephen Edmondson points out that, in one particular area, Calvin's christology was

highly original because he argued, against a man named Francesco Stancaro, that Christ's

humanity as well as his divinity played a role in his mediation between God and humankind:

A wandering Italian theologian, Francesco Stancaro, was teaching that Christ

mediated between humanity and God only in his human nature and not in his
complete person as the God-man....Thus, Stancaro, while acknowledging that
both a divine and human nature are united in Christ's one person, argued that the
divine nature, because it was shared equally and fully by the three persons of the

6 Ibid., 2.14.1, p. 482. As for the phrase “Chalcedonian orthodoxy,” see McNeill's note 1 on p. 482.
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Trinity, cannot mediate or stand between God and humanity—to say that the Son
mediates between the Father and humanity in his divinity would imply that he
was subordinate to the Father in his divinity, and this would be the Arian heresy.7

Calvin, then, had to articulate how Christ's divinity might play a role in his mediation between

God and humanity, but he had to do so without describing Christ as less than “very God of very

God,” in the words of the Nicene Creed. Stancaro's logic led the Italian to see only two tasks in

Christ's mediation, both of which seem to be functions of Christ's human nature—that is, being

“both priest and victim.”8 In his divinity, Stancaro argues, Christ can only be the “author of this

mediatorial work.”9

According to Edmondson, Calvin disputes Stancaro's conclusion largely on the basis of

Scripture itself, but also by the extension of Trinitarian logic. First, Calvin argues that, in Paul's

letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians, the apostle suggests that Christ's mediatorial work

begins at the creation of the cosmos, not merely at incarnation. So, “The doctrine of the Trinity

may suggest that we should be wary of identifying the Word as Mediator before the Word is

incarnate, but that is not the way that Paul speaks of the Word.”10 Second, Calvin contends for

the inclusion of Christ's Headship within the category of Christ's mediatorial work: “The

tradition in the medieval West conceived of Christ's mediation primarily in relation to his

appeasement of the Father on account of Adam's sin, so that Stancaro, in the end, focused only

on this aspect of Christ's work; but Christ's role as first-born of creation and Head of the Church

and the angels suggests that he is Mediator as Head as much as expiator.”11 Third, Calvin shifts

the discussion from Christ's natures to his person:

7 Stephen Edmondson, Calvin's Christology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 14.
8 Ibid., 17.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid., 31.
11 Ibid.
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...mediation as an activity is carried out by a person, not by his natures, though

this person certainly is only able to carry out this activity on the basis of his
natures....So, too, it is a person, Christ, who mediates, Calvin argues, but he
mediates only on the basis of both of his natures, each of which is essential.12

Theologically, this is an insightful point. Only in personhood—not in nature—is there agency,13

so the debate about Christ's mediation must turn on the work of an agent (i.e., a person), not the

work of a nature. Therefore, we can really only discuss the possibilities and limitations that his

natures place on him;14 our discussion of natures cannot extend into what Christ as a person

accomplished in these dual natures.

What this means, then, is that Christ's mediation necessarily encompasses both human

and divine functions, and indeed, sometimes the distinction between Christ's two natures is quite

thin. Calvin writes that the Scriptures “sometimes attribute to him what must be referred solely

to his humanity, sometimes what belongs uniquely to his divinity; and sometimes what embraces

both natures but fits neither alone.”15 Specifically, the Scriptures attribute to Christ three main

offices, each of which necessitate human as well as divine natures: King (Head), Prophet, and

Priest. To Calvin, these three offices hang together by a most important similarity: “under the

law prophets as well as priests and kings were anointed with holy oil. Hence the illustrious name

of 'Messiah' was also bestowed upon the promised Mediator.”16 In each of Christ's offices as

Mediator, he fulfilled an anointed office, thus fulfilling the role of Messiah (in Hebrew) and

Christ (in Greek). It is toward these three offices that we will turn our attention next.

12 Ibid.
13 Gerald Bray, Class Lecture for Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, March 3, 2009.
14 E.g., Christ's assumption of the human nature creates the possibility for him to heal humanity (Gregory of
Nazianzus: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”), but it also places certain limitations on his body:
singular position in time and space, death, etc...
15 Calvin, Institutes, 2.14.1, p. 482.
16 Ibid., 2.15.2, p. 495-96.
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Christ as Prophet

Calvin divides Christ's prophetic role into two vital functions. First, he cites Isaiah 61

(and its cross reference in Luke 4) as evidence that Christ “was anointed by the Spirit to be

herald and witness of the Father's grace. And that not in a common way—for he is distinguished

from other teachers with a similar office.”17 Thus, the first aspect of Christ's prophetic role is

that of the ultimate Prophet with an ultimate message: “the perfect doctrine he has brought has

made an end to all prophecies.”18 Christ's prophetic message is so perfect that humanity requires

no further prophecy. Although Calvin does not explicitly cite the opening passage of Hebrews,

his statements here echo it: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our

fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son...” (Heb. 1:1-2).

Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that serving as a prophet is, by definition, a

human function—even through Christ's prophetic role is extraordinary compared with other

(human) prophets, he nevertheless occupies “a similar office” to them. Christ did not need to be

divine to prophesy “the perfect doctrine,” and, if he were only divine, then someone else would

have to fulfill the role of prophet for him.

What makes Christ's prophetic ministry unique is that he embodies “the perfect doctrine”

that he preaches. Calvin writes:

...outside Christ there is nothing worth knowing, and all who by faith perceive
what he is like have grasped the whole immensity of heavenly benefits. For this
reason, Paul writes in another passage: “I decided to know nothing
precious...except Jesus Christ and him crucified” [I Cor. 2:2 p.]. This is very true,
because it is not lawful to go beyond the simplicity of the gospel. And the
prophetic dignity in Christ leads us to know that in the sum of doctrine as he has
given it to us all parts of perfect wisdom are contained.19

17 Ibid., 2.15.2, p. 496.

18 Ibid.
19 Ibid.
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In this way, Christ's prophetic office has a divine element, for Christ could not prophesy himself

as the gospel unless he were truly divine. Yet, since he is indeed divine, he himself is “the whole

immensity of heavenly benefits.” No merely human prophet could proclaim such a message.

Christ as King/Head

When Calvin speaks of Christ's kingship, he first insists that it is a spiritual kingdom: “It

would be pointless to speak of this without first warning my readers that it is spiritual in

nature.”20 That is, Calvin's argument is that Christ is building a spiritual kingdom through his

church rather than a secular kingdom through a political ruler. Second, Calvin includes Christ's

ultimate protection for his church under the larger category of his kingship: “Thus it is that we

may patiently pass through this life with its misery, hunger, cold, contempt, reproaches, and other

troubles—content with this one thing: that our King will never leave us destitute, but will

provide for our needs until, our warfare ended, we are called to triumph.”21 So, Christ's kingship

comprises not only his spiritual reign over his growing kingdom, but also his preservation of his

church's welfare. To Calvin, the dual nature of Christ's office as King is a two-pronged comfort:

“In short, when any one of us hears that Christ's kingship if spiritual, aroused by this word let

him attain to the hope of a better life; and since it is now protected by Christ's hand, let him await

the full fruit of this grace in the age to come.”22

This spiritual kingship, then, must necessarily be divine, rather than simply human—this

would simply represent too much for an ordinary human being. Edmondson explains:

Indeed, as this expansion of Christ's mediation produces a more robust picture of

Christ's work, it also allows Calvin to more easily demonstrate why Christ cannot
be Mediator in his human nature alone. All of the attributes and functions of

20 Ibid.
21 Ibid, 2.15.4, p. 499.
22 Ibid, 2.15.3, p. 498.
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headship that Calvin lists require from Calvin's perspective Christ's divine nature.
Christ can unite us to God and show us the way to the Father only because he is
already one with God. Likewise, Christ overcomes death and gives us life only
because he, in his divinity, has life in himself. For Calvin, Christ's headship
involves both a preeminence and an ability that cannot be rightfully ascribed to
the human.23

The way that Calvin develops Christ's Kingship, then, moves Christ's mediation beyond the

human realm into the divine realm. This does not mean that Christ is a King below the Father,

mediating between God and humanity as one who is less than God but more than human; rather,

it means that Christ can reign as King over humanity only because he is God, fully equal with

the Father. As Calvin explains, “And surely, to say that he sits at the right hand of the Father is

equivalent to calling him the Father's deputy, who has in his possession the whole power of

God's dominion. For God mediately, so to speak, wills to rule and protect the church in Christ's

person.”24 Only God could possess “the whole power of God's dominion”; and only God could

protect the Church, which he does now “in Christ's person.”

Still, Calvin's theology of Christ's headship has a crucial human element to it. Namely,

Christ is our Head because we are his body, and it is only by being counted as members of

Christ's body that we are assured of a share in the Kingdom of Heaven. Calvin works with this

theology as he explains the benefits of Christ's ascension:

From this [the Ascension] our faith receives many benefits. First it understands
that the Lord by his ascent to heaven opened the way into the Heavenly Kingdom,
which had been closed through Adam [John 14:3]. Since he entered heaven in our
flesh, as if in our name, it follows, as the apostle says, that in a sense we already
“sit with God in the heavenly places in him” [Eph. 2:6], so that we do not await
heaven with a bare hope, but in our Head already possess it.25

23 Edmondson, Calvin's Christology, 33-34.

24 Calvin, Institutes, 2.15.5, p. 500.
25 Ibid., 2.16.16, p. 524.
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To Calvin, our chief assurance of a participation in the reign of Christ is that he entered the

Heavenly kingdom “in our flesh, as if in our name.” Christ's Headship signifies the spiritual

reign of God himself, but this spiritual reign exists within the context of a human body—

specifically, the Body of Christ, composed of all those who have been ingrafted into Christ's own

body through faith.

Christ as Priest

Christ's role as priest stands as the most obvious aspect of Christ's mediation. Putting the

theology of the book of Hebrews simply, Calvin sums up: “The priestly office belongs to Christ

alone because by the sacrifice of his death he blotted out our own guilt and made satisfaction for

our sins.”26 Of course, God gave Israel other priests, the descendants of Aaron, and these priests

offered their own sacrifices—animal sacrifices according to the law of Moses. Still, Calvin

insists that only Christ's sacrifice—both in his roles as priest and as sacrifice—was capable of

actually making “satisfaction for our sins.” The reason for this is that “no other satisfaction

adequate for our sins, and no other man worthy to offer to God the only-begotten Son, could be

found.”27 So, to a small extent, Calvin and Stancaro find common ground: both believe that

Christ mediated as priest and sacrifice in his humanity.

Still, Calvin also broadens the role of Christ's priesthood in a way that would require a

divine nature by classifying the office Priest as a part of Christ's headship/kingship. As

Edmondson explains:

Calvin begins by expanding the contours of Christ's office to include a number of

attributes and functions, spoken of in Scripture, that Calvin will relate to Christ's
headship over us. Christ overcomes death, gives life, defends and protects us, and
guides and unites us to the Father. In all of these ways, Calvin mediates between

26 Ibid., 2.15.6, p. 502.

27 Ibid.
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us and the Father, not to the exclusion of his priestly sacrifice but in conjunction
with it; and so Calvin includes them under the rubric of Christ's headship with the
priestly function of Christ in his description of the office of the Mediator.28

So, for Calvin, Christ's priesthood is not a standalone role, but is the very means by which he

conquers death and preserves life of his people—that is, the means by which he reigns as King.

As we noted earlier, Christ's role as King/Head requires both human and divine natures, since the

totality of such a role “cannot be rightfully ascribed to a human.” Therefore, while Christ must

be human in order to act as Priest and to die as sacrifice, he must also be divine in order to

minister life to those for whom he made atonement.

The Benefits for Believers from Christ's Mediation

Having examined the characteristics of Christ's mediation, we will now turn our attention

to the larger theme of this paper: the benefits that believers receive from the Mediator. We will

address six major benefits in Calvin's theology: election, adoption, justification, union with

Christ, close proximity to God, and rewards.


In Calvin's theology, “election” refers to God's choosing a particular people for himself

before the foundation of the world.29 In this way, God predestined—that is, chose beforehand—

that he would save a particular group of people, just as he chose beforehand that he would

condemn the rest: “We call predestination God's eternal decree, by which he compacted with

himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather,

eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has

been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to

28 Edmondson, Calvin's Christology, 32-33.

29 Bray, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, April 7, 2009.
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death.”30 We should note here that, properly speaking, predestination refers to the end, or the

destination, that God has chosen for people, whether to good or bad, life or death.

Temporally, then, the first benefit for believers is their being elected and predestined to

life rather than to death, since this choice takes place before the foundation or the world.

Moreover, Calvin insists that election serves as the source for all other benefits that flow to

believers: “For all benefits that God bestows for the spiritual life, as Paul teaches, flow from this

one source: namely, that God has chosen whom he has willed, and before their birth has laid up

for them individually the grace that he willed to grant them.”31 All blessings and benefits that we

gain come as a result of our having been chosen by God for life rather than for death.

The basis for our election, however, rests entirely in our Mediator, Christ. Against those

who tried to explain why God would elect only some to life, rather than others, by positing that

God had foreseen merit in those he chose, Calvin argues that God chose his people on the merit

of Christ, not on their own merit: “Accordingly, those whom God has adopted as his sons are

said to have been chosen not in themselves but in his Christ [Eph. 1:4]; for unless he could love

them in him, he could not honor them with the inheritance of his Kingdom if they had not

previously become partakers of him.”32 That believers are chosen “in his Christ” identifies

Christ's mediation as the ground of our election. Indeed, if God had chosen believers apart from

the Mediator, then Calvin suggests that there would indeed be grounds to consider God's election

unjust, since no person merits salvation any more than another; however, since God chose to

save some in Christ, then he can justly predestining them to eternal life. From this principle,

Calvin instructs believers to take assurance of their election only in Christ:

30 Calvin, Institutes, 3.21.5, p. 926.

31 Ibid., 3.22.2, p. 934.
32 Ibid., 3.24.5, p. 970.
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But if we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in
ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his
Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may,
contemplate our own election. For since it is into his body the Father has destined
those to be engrafted whom he has willed from eternity to be his own, that he may
hold as sons all whom he acknowledges to be among his members, we have a
sufficiently clearn and firm testimony that we have been inscribed in the book of
life [cf. Rev. 21:27] if we are in communion with Christ.33

Only by our connection with the Mediator—not by our own merits, nor even by our relationship

with the Father, “if we conceive him as severed from his Son”—can we be elected unto life.


As Calvin mentioned earlier, our election in Christ is the “one source” from which all

other blessings from the Mediator flow to believers. Of these blessings, Calvin singles out

adoption as the benefit whereby we gain a new status in our relationship with God—we become

his own children. In one passage, Calvin gives a simple definition of adoption: “To sum up: by

free adoption God makes those whom he wills to be his sons; the intrinsic cause of this is in

himself, for he is content with his own secret good pleasure.”34 To become a son of God is to

attain the status and the relationship to the Father held by the only begotten Son of God, Jesus

Christ. Calvin can conceive of no higher privilege than this, arguing that, “If we desire anything

more than to be reckoned among God's sons and heirs, we have to rise above Christ,”35 an idea

that he obviously considers to be an absurd suggestion.

Stephen Edmondson, however, notes that Calvin's approach to adoption is unique among

theologians: “For Calvin, Christ took what is ours by becoming our brother, and what we gain of

his is a relationship as children to the Father....Calvin's logic is that God's chosen are adopted

33 Ibid.
34 Ibid., 3.22.7, p. 941. When Calvin speaks of “those whom he wills,” he is, of course, speaking of those whom he
has elected.
35 Ibid., 3.24.5, p. 971.
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into relationship with the Father through Christ's becoming their sibling—a rather odd approach

to adoption.”36 As in our election, our adoption is in Christ, so that we are neither adopted nor

elected as free agents, but in the Mediator. Indeed, in one place Calvin describes Christ as “the

bond of our adoption.”37 Christ is the bond of our adoption because he becomes our brother by

united us to himself, so that we gain his status as sons of God. In this way, God the Father

adopts us as his children.


Of course, the doctrine of justification became a chief point of contention during the

Reformation, and Calvin takes the trademark Protestant view:

But we define justification as follows: the sinner, received into communion with
Christ, is reconciled to God by his grace, while, cleansed by Christ's blood, he
obtains forgiveness of sins, and clothed with Christ's righteousness as if it were
his own, he stands confident before the heavenly judgment seat.38

From within this description, Calvin generally focuses on the sinner's forgiveness for his sins and

his being “clothed with Christ's righteousness as if it were his own”—that is, Christ's

righteousness is imputed to the believer. Calvin and the Reformers articulated this view of

justification by the imputation of righteousness against the traditional Catholic view of

justification by the infusion of righteousness, as if Christ slowly pumped more and more

righteousness into a Christian's life, causing him to become increasingly “substantially righteous

in God by the infusion both of his essence and of his quality.”39 According to this model, we

actually become righteous in ourselves by the infusion of Christ's righteousness, essence, and

quality, rather than being counted righteous in Christ by the imputation of his obedience.

36 Edmondson, Calvin's Christology, 118-19.

37 Calvin, Institutes, 3.6.2, p. 687.
38 Ibid., 3.17.8, p. 811.
39 Ibid., 3.11.5, p. 730.
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This belief in the infusion of Christ's righteousness, then, led Roman Catholic theologians

to reason that “man is justified by both faith and works provided they are not his own works but

the gifts of Christ and the fruit of regeneration.”40 The logic here is obvious: if justification

meant that Christ's righteousness had been infused into one's life, good works would necessarily

result, since Christ's very essence and quality would now be part of oneself. In this way, good

works would grow necessarily in such a person, justifying him progressively as he gains more

and more of Christ's essence and quality as his own. So, both faith and works justify the man in

this system of theology.

Instead, Calvin insisted that men do not and cannot have righteousness in themselves, but

that all who come to Christ for salvation do so with nothing to offer—neither good works nor the

righteousness they now possess from Christ. Nevertheless, Calvin still believed in our need of

Christ's righteousness for salvation, even if we gain it in a different way—that is, by imputation:

From this it is also evident that we are justified before God solely by the
intercession of Christ's righteousness. This is equivalent of saying that man is not
righteous in himself but because the righteousness of Christ is communicated to
him by imputation....You see that our righteousness is not in us but in Christ, that
we possess it only because we are partakers in Christ; indeed with him we possess
all its riches....To declare that by him alone we are accounted righteous, what else
is this but to lodge our righteousness in Christ's obedience, because the obedience
of Christ is reckoned to us as if it were our own?41

Calvin considered justification the free gift of God, who graciously counted Christ's

righteousness to us, as though it were ours—he imputed it to us. To Calvin, imputation is our

only hope for salvation, since we are not righteous, but Christ's life of obedience to his Father

qualified as perfect righteousness.

40 Ibid., 3.11.14, p. 744.

41 Ibid., 3.11.23, p. 753.
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These two views of the nature of justification reveal two widely divergent christological

understandings. In the medieval understanding of justification, human beings would become

sufficiently righteous in themselves to stand confidently before God; however, in Calvin's

understanding, human beings have no hope of righteousness in themselves, but depend

exclusively upon the righteousness of the Mediator for their acquittal from their sins and their

qualification to enter into eternal life. The problem with the former view is that, theoretically,

Christ's mediating role in justification would come to an end once a Christian gained enough of

Christ's righteousness in himself through infusion; in Calvin's view, however, Christ's role in

justification would last through eternity, as believers could only be counted righteous before the

throne of God through their association with him. In this way, Calvin articulates justification as

an eternal benefit of Christ's mediation between his Holy Father and his sinful people.

Union with Christ

To Calvin, however, this association that believers share with Christ, is more than some

mere partnership, where both parties, though committed to one another, were still independent

agents—Calvin sees our association with Christ in terms of actual union with him. Calvin

chiefly understands our union with Christ through Paul's metaphor of the church's being the body

of Christ, so that Christ is the head, such as in Eph. 1:22-23: “And he [the Father] put all things

under his [Christ's] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the

fullness of him who fills all in all,” but also through the metaphor of the church as the bride of

Christ in Eph. 5:32: “This mystery [of marriage] is profound, and I am saying that it refers to

Christ and the church.” To Calvin, the point of both metaphors is to signify the extraordinarily

close association that we share with Christ, and he often utilizes whatever metaphor he can find
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to emphasize this close union:

As has already been clearly explained, until our minds become intent upon the
Spirit, Christ, so to speak, lies idle because we coldly contemplate him as outside
ourselves—indeed, far from us. We know, moreover, that he benefits only those
whose “Head” he is [Eph. 4:15], for whom he is “the first-born among brethren”
[Rom. 8:29], and who, finally, “have put on him” [Gal. 3:27]. This union alone
ensures that, as far as we are concerned, he has not unprofitably come with the
name of Savior. The same purpose is served by that sacred wedlock through
which we are made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone [Eph. 5:30], and thus
one with him. But he unites himself to us by the Spirit alone. By the grace and
power of the same Spirit we are made his members, to keep us under himself and
in turn to possess him.42

In this passage, Calvin supplements his main metaphors of Christ as our “Head” and of his being

ours through “sacred wedlock. He urges us not to “coldly contemplate” our relationship to

Christ, insisting that he is neither “outside ourselves” nor “far from us,” but that he is our “first-

born” brother, and that we have put him on. Finally, Calvin insists that we are kept “under”

Christ, but that we “possess him.” All of these phrases emphasize the closeness of relationship

that we share with Christ.

In fact, to Calvin, one gains entry into this union by being “grafted” into Christ's body.

Biblically speaking, this is somewhat of an odd choice of words, since the Bible only speaks of

“grafting” in Romans 11, when Paul writes that believing Gentiles have been grafted into Israel

—the Bible never explicitly describes our being grafted into Christ. Calvin seems to utilize the

word, then, primarily to emphasize the degree of intimacy we have been granted by our union

with Christ, and therefore the high degree of privilege that we have been accorded:

Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in
our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree
of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him
in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate
him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to

42 Ibid., 3.1.3, p. 541.

Gerber 17

us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short,
because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we
have fellowship of righteousness with him.43

Indeed, because Christ “deigns to make us one with him” is reason for us miserable sinners to

glory in our fellowship with him.

Calvin sees a high degree of christological significance in our being engrafted into the

body of Christ—namely, that “salvation flows from the Head to the whole body.”44 The logic is

that, if we become part of him by being included in his body, we would thereby gain all the

benefits bestowed on Christ himself. Calvin implores his readers to understand this reality:

As if we ought to think of Christ, standing afar off and not rather dwelling in us!
For we await salvation from him not because he appears to us afar off, because he
makes us, ingrafted into his body, participants not only in all his benefits but also
in himself. So I turn this argument of theirs back against them: if you
contemplate yourself, that is sure damnation. But since Christ has been so
imparted to you with all his benefits that all his things are made yours, that you
are made a member of him, indeed one with him, his righteousness overwhelms
your sins; his salvation wipes out your condemnation; with his worthiness he
intercedes that your unworthiness may not come before God's sight. Surely this is
so: We ought not to separate Christ from ourselves or ourselves from him.45

Salvation, then, means more than simply avoiding the hell that we deserve, but that we gain the

incalculable privilege of being ingrafted as members into his body, being made heirs with Christ

so that “all his things are made yours,” and even being made participants in Christ himself.

Again, when Calvin writes that “We ought not to separate Christ from ourselves or

ourselves from him,” he reveals a christological viewpoint that envisages Christ's eternal

mediation on behalf of his people. According to Calvin, believers do not have enough of Christ's

essence infused into them until they can stand on their own two spiritual feet, but believers

43 Ibid., 3.11.10, p. 737.

44 Ibid., 2.6.3, p. 346.
45 Ibid., 3.2.24, p. 570.
Gerber 18

become ingrafted into Christ in a way that forever defies separation from him. All the benefits

bestowed upon Christ himself come also to believers, but this happens only inasmuch as

believers enjoy perfect union with Christ.

Close Proximity to God

The benefit of our close proximity to God emerges in Calvin's writing almost as a subset

to the other benefits of Christ's mediation that we have previously discussed—election, adoption,

justification, and union with Christ all draw us near to God. This subject merits its own section,

though, because Calvin sees our nearness to God as one of the main motivational factors in

Christ's incarnation. In other words, Calvin does not believe that God could have solved

humanity's problem without taking our flesh upon himself because our salvation required God's

drawing near to us—God wanted to bless us by drawing as near to us as possible in Christ.

First, Calvin speaks of Christ's incarnation in terms of proximity. Earlier in this paper, I

cited two passages from the Institutes dealing with this issue. In the first, Calvin writes, “For

even though he was not yet clothed with flesh, he came down, so to speak, as an intermediary, in

order to approach believers more intimately.”46 In the second, Calvin says, “Hence it was

necessary for the Son of God to become for us 'Immanuel, that is, God with us' [Isa. 7:14; Matt.

1:23], and in such a way that his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection

grow together. Otherwise the nearness would not have been near enough, nor the affinity

sufficiently firm, for us to hope that God might dwell with us.”47 In these statements, Calvin

makes the case that, if Christ had not approached believers so intimately as to take their own

flesh upon himself, there could be no real “hope that God might dwell with us.” From a biblical

46 Ibid., 1.13.10, p. 133.

47 Ibid., 2.12.1, p. 465.
Gerber 19

perspective, this would be an extraordinary problem, since the book of Revelation envisions a

time when “the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his

people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev. 21:3). Calvin seems to be

insinuating, then, that if Christ had not “as an intermediary” drawn so near as to be incarnated

among us, we would have no real hope of glory—that is, no real hope of dwelling in close

proximity to God. Until then, Calvin encourages believers to embrace Christ, by faith, “not as

appearing from afar but as joining himself to us that he may be our head, we his members.”48 By

Christ's incarnation, and then by our union with him, we can live in confidence that Christ will

not appear “afar,” but that he has approached believers as “intimately” as possible.


The last benefit that we will discuss in this paper is that of rewards. Calvin has an

extensive section in the third book about rewards in which his main goal is to refute those who

would attribute the attainment of rewards (beyond even salvation itself) to the human

accumulation of merit. Calvin, of course, considers the idea of earning anything from God

through piling up our own merits to be repugnant: “Therefore, when we rule out reliance upon

works, we mean only this: that the Christian mind may not be turned back to the merit of works

as to a help toward salvation but should rely wholly on the free promise of righteousness.”49 No

one can earn anything to God because all bear an infinite debt to God—in strictly economic

terms, how could a sinful human being ever get “in the black” with God? Nevertheless, Calvin

does not wholly repudiate the idea that God grants rewards to his people, and in this section we

shall examine his highly nuanced perspective on what rewards for believers might mean.

48 Ibid., 4.17.6, p. 1366.

49 Ibid., 3.14.18, p. 785.
Gerber 20

First, Calvin recognizes that, in the law, God promises the Israelites rewards for their

obedience and punishments for their disobedience. In this, Calvin is careful not to suggest that

the Israelites would earn the rewards in the same way that they could earn punishment—the

former would be all of grace, while the latter would be pure justice:

And in the penalties [of the law] God's supreme purity is manifest, which cannot
bear wickedness. But in the promises, besides his supreme love for righteousness,
which he does not allow to be cheated of its rewards, his wonderful generosity is
also attested. For since we, with all that is ours, are deep in debt to his majesty,
whatever he requires of us he claims with perfect right as a debt. But the payment
of a debt deserves no reward. He therefore yields his own right when he offers a
reward for our obedience, which we do not render voluntarily or as something not

For Calvin, the doctrine of punishment is simple: the penalties that God promises flow as a just

response from God's supreme purity. Notice the logic here, however, for Calvin's doctrine of

rewards: (1) we are deep in debt to God, and so we could earn no reward for ourselves; (2) God

owes us nothing, and so he is under no compulsion to grant us any kind of reward; therefore (3)

God gives up his claims in order to reward us out of his “wonderful generosity” alone.

The importance of these points cannot be overstated as Calvin presses forward in his

theology of rewards, especially when he moves into praising the value of good works in the sight

of God. Calvin has no problem saying that good works are good, but he avoids any hint that they

might be good enough to merit salvation, or even to assist in securing our salvation:

Though works are highly esteemed, they have their value from God's approval
rather than from their own worth. For who would dare recommend works
righteousness to God unless God himself approved? Who would dare demand a
reward unless he promised it? Therefore, it is from God's beneficence that they
are considered worthy both of the name of righteousness and of the reward
thereof. And so, for this reason, works have value, because through them man
intends to show obedience to God.51

50 Ibid., 2.8.4, p. 270.

51 Ibid., 3.11.20, p. 750.
Gerber 21

Who would imagine Calvin saying that “works have value”? His first point here, then, is that we

cannot call any of our works “good works” unless God himself considers them to be “good.”

Second, even if God classified one of our works as “good,” we would have no right to claim a

reward on that basis alone. Third, because of the first and second facts, we can only understand

rewards under the heading of God's benevolence, not under our own merit apart from God.

Fourth, we can nevertheless say that good works have value because, in them, we obey God.

So, to give a theological account of good works, Calvin argues that the credit for good

works must necessarily go to God, not to us. Furthermore, Calvin considers this point a reason

for praising God's vast goodness: “But nevertheless, inexhaustible and manifold as God's

beneficence and liberality are, he rewards, as if they were our own virtues, those graces which he

bestows upon us, because he makes them ours.”52 In some ways, this is an extension of his

soteriology of free grace. Up to this point in the Institutes, Calvin has laid out the following line

of reasoning: by grace God enables us to recognize the extent of our sin; by grace God gives us

the faith to call upon Jesus Christ for mercy; by grace he counts us righteous in Christ. Calvin is

insistent that our salvation is by grace from first to last. At this point, though, Calvin adds two

more gifts of God's grace: by grace God bestows his own virtues on us, so that, by grace, we

learn to obey him; then, by grace God rewards us for our virtues and our right actions.

Elsewhere, Calvin makes the same point: “God is no less generous when he assigns a reward for

works than when he bestows the capacity to act rightly.”53 No one can take credit either for a

good work or a reward, for both come only as a result of God's grace.

As if this all this were not enough insulation to keep humans from pride, Calvin adds yet

52 Ibid., 2.5.2, p. 319.

53 Ibid., 3.16.2, p. 799.
Gerber 22

another qualification upon his theology of good works and rewards:

Now we see that there are three reasons [that God rewards good works]: The first
is: God, having turned his gaze from his servants' works, which always deserve
reproof rather than praise, embraces his servants in Christ, and with faith alone
intervening, reconciles them to himself without the help of works. The second is:
of his own fatherly generosity and loving-kindness, and without considering their
worth, he raises works to this place of honor, so that he attributes some value to
them. The third is: He receives these very works with pardon, not imputing the
imperfection with which they are all so corrupted that they would otherwise be
reckoned as sins rather than virtues.54

In the third qualification, Calvin points out that, even if we might accomplish partially good

works, we could never offer fully good works to God—our sinfulness will always find a way to

creep into and corrupt whatever we try to do. So, beyond all the grace thus far extended, God

also bestows grace upon us when he forgives the imperfections in our virtues.

It is in this last passage, however, that we see how rewards fit into Calvin's theology as a

benefit of Christ's mediation. In the first reason, Calvin reminds us that God “embraces his

servants in Christ,” that is, through their union with the Mediator. In the second reason, Calvin

says that God honors our good works only because of “his own fatherly generosity and loving-

kindness,” that is, through our adoption through the Mediator. In the third reason, Calvin speaks

of God's pardoning the impurities in our good works, that is, through the forgiveness made

possible by the Mediator's sacrifice on the cross. From beginning to end, Calvin's theology of

reward rejects merit and upholds grace; furthermore, from beginning to end, Calvin's theology of

reward sees Christ's mediation as the only possible basis for obtaining any kind of reward at all.

The Means of Gaining the Mediator's Benefits

Even though Calvin is quick to attribute any benefits we gain solely to the mediating

work of Christ, he does not thereby suggest that Christ's mediation happens apart from other

54 Ibid., 3.17.3, p. 805.

Gerber 23

means. Calvin uses very strong language to describe the way that the church and the sacraments

both play an integral role as the means by which the benefits of Christ's mediation become real in

the lives of believers.

The Church

Many would be shocked to hear the high role that Calvin ascribes to the church in his

understanding of the way in which Christians come into possession of the blessings that Christ's

mediation provides. For some Protestants, it is unthinkable to say that anyone or anything (apart

from the Holy Spirit) stands between us and Jesus, especially given the abuses of the Roman

Catholic papacy during Calvin's lifetime.55 They would find it uncomfortable to hear Calvin

encouraging Christians to think of the church as their “mother”:

But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even
from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we
should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother
conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless
she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we
become like the angels [Matt. 22:30].56

In this statement, Calvin echoes the language of Cyprian, who famously wrote that “You cannot

have God for your Father if you have not the Church for your mother.”57 Calvin seems to agree

with Cyprian's extremely high view of the church, and the Reformer even goes on to write that,

“So powerful is participation in the church that it keeps us in the society of God.”58 Thus, Calvin

makes two claims: (1) that salvation is impossible apart from the church; and (2) that

55 Others might find it hypocritical for Calvin to speak of the church so highly, yet to break with the Roman
Catholic Church. Defending Calvin's view against this objection is not within the scope of this paper, but, in
brief, Calvin would argue that the Roman Catholic Church does not qualify as a true church. See the Institutes,
Book IV, chapters 5-13.
56 Ibid., 4.1.4, p. 1016.
57 St. Cyprian, “The Unity of the Catholic Church,” in Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in
Translation, no. 25, trans. Maurice Bévenot (New York: Newman Press, 1956), 48-49.
58 Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.3, p. 1015.
Gerber 24

perseverance in the faith is impossible apart from the church.

So, against any who would be uncomfortable with ascribing a role to the church that

seems to impede the direct access of believers to the Mediator, Calvin would return to the same

christological theme that we have pursued through this whole paper—that believers are united to

Christ. This theme, however, goes beyond individual believers to encompass the entire church.

In fact, Calvin has no sympathy with individualism in the church, that is, a sentiment that

we might describe as “Just me and Jesus.” Listen to the way that Calvin paraphrases the

descriptor “the communion of saints” in such a highly communal and christological way: “It is as

if one said that the saints are gathered into the society of Christ on the principle that whatever

benefits God confers upon them, they should in turn share with one another.”59 Notice here that,

to Calvin, the whole “communion of the saints” is gathered together “into the society of Christ,”

rather than each being united to Christ individually. On a practical level, at the end of that

particular paragraph, Calvin cites the generosity among believers in the early church as a visible

demonstration of their corporate union with Christ, and therefore their union with one another:

“If truly convinced that God is the common Father of all and Christ the common Head, being

united in brotherly love, they cannot but share their benefits with one another.”60 To Calvin, if

we are all united to the same Christ, who is our “common Head,” then we are also in union with

one another. Seen this way, it would indeed be impossible to be saved outside the church, since

that would mean not being united to the body of Christ. Furthermore, as we have seen

throughout this paper, it is our union with Christ—our being engrafted into his body—that

qualifies us to receive all the blessings bestowed upon Christ himself, and we cannot enter into

59 Ibid., 4.1.3, p. 1014.

60 Ibid., 4.1.3, p. 1015.
Gerber 25

this union as individuals, but only as the “communion of the saints.”

The Sacraments

Against the Roman Catholic church, Calvin and the Reformers believed that the church

had only two sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper.61 Calvin describes the sacraments as

both signs and seals. As signs, Calvin argues that the sacraments signified the Word. Calvin did

not think that the Word was too weak to communicate God's truth, but that God gave signs to

accommodate our weaknesses: “But as our faith is slight and feeble unless it be propped on all

sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters and at last gives way. Here our

merciful Lord, according to his infinite kindness...condescends to lead us to himself even by

these earthly elements, and to set before us in the flesh a mirror of spiritual blessings.”62 So, in

calling the sacraments signs, Calvin was articulating a view of the sacraments over against the

quasi-magical view of sacraments held by the Roman Catholic Church. Against Zwingli and the

Anabaptists, who tended to see the sacraments as merely signs, Calvin also argued that the

sacraments are seals. To explain this, he compares the seals of the sacraments to the seals used

on government documents, which “are nothing taken by themselves, for they would be attached

in vain if the parchment had nothing written on it. Yet, when added to the writing, they do not on

that account fail to confirm and seal what is written.”63 So, not only did Calvin believe that the

sacraments signified the word of God, but he also believed that they played a role in confirming,

or sealing, the authority and truthfulness of the signified word.

Baptism, then, was a sign and a seal of our engrafting into Christ. Notice the familiar

christological language as Calvin describes the effect of baptism:

61 cf. Calvin, Institutes, Book IV, chapter 19.

62 Ibid., 4.14.3, p. 1278.
63 Ibid., 4.14.5, p. 1280.
Gerber 26

Lastly, our faith receives from baptism the advantage of its sure testimony to us
that we are not only engrafted into the death and life of Christ, but so united to
Christ himself that we become sharers in all his blessings. For he dedicated and
sanctified baptism in his own body [Matt. 3:13] in order that he might have it in
common with us as the firmest bond of union and fellowship which he has
deigned to form with us. Hence, Paul proves that we are children of God from the
fact that we have put on Christ in baptism [Gal. 3:26-27]. Thus we see that the
fulfillment of baptism is in Christ, whom also for this reason we call the proper
object of baptism.64

Calvin describes the sacrament of baptism as the mechanism by which “we become sharers in all

[Christ's] blessings.” By being baptized into Christ, and thereby becoming united with him, we

thereby qualify as God's children in Christ, and we share in all his blessings. Where Calvin had,

up to Book IV, spoken of the believer's union with Christ, he now identifies baptism as the

instrument God uses to effect this union.

Calvin speaks of the Lord's Supper in similar terms to his description of baptism, and he

distinguishes the Lord's Supper from baptism by the Supper's ongoing nature:

...the signs are bread and wine, which represent for us the invisible food that we
receive from the flesh and blood of Christ. For as in baptism, God, regenerating
us, engrafts us into the society of his church and makes us his own by adoption, so
we have said, that he discharges the function of a provident householder in
continually supplying to us the food to sustain and preserve us in that life into
which he has begotten us by his Word.65

Notice again that Calvin uses language of engrafting and adoption in his description of the

sacrament—the Lord's Supper, like baptism, is a means that God uses to bestow upon us the

benefits of Christ's mediation.

Calvin also understood the Lord's Supper as a means by which believers enjoyed close

proximity to God, although he differed from Luther on how exactly this happened. Luther

believed that Christ's body was physically present in the bread, and that Christ's blood was

64 Ibid., 4.15.6, p. 1307-08.

65 Ibid., 4.17.1, p. 1360.
Gerber 27

physically present in the wine. He rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation as

a distasteful philosophical speculation to explain the miracle, but he did not deny (as Calvin did)

that Christ was physically present in the elements.

The problem with Luther's belief in the physical presence of Christ in the elements was

that more than one church took the Lord's Supper at the same time. So, if Christ's body and

blood were in the bread and cup before me, how would it be possible that he could also be in

your bread and cup? Calvin sums up this problem and Luther's solution in this way: “Unless the

body of Christ can be everywhere at once, without limitation of place, it will not be credible that

he lies hidden under the bread in the Supper. To meet this necessity, they have introduced the

monstrous notion of ubiquity.”66 This “monstrous notion of ubiquity” stated that, “because of the

natures joined in Christ, wherever Christ's divinity is, there also is his flesh, which cannot be

separated from it. As if that union had compounded from two natures some sort of intermediate

being which was neither God nor man!”67 Calvin rejected the Lutheran doctrine of ubiquity

because, in his view, it violated the fundamentals of Chalcedonian orthodoxy—that, as cited

earlier, “he who was the Son of God became the Son of man—not by confusion of substance, but

by unity of person. For we affirm his divinity so joined and united with his humanity that each

retains its distinctive nature unimpaired, and yet these two natures constitute on Christ.”68 If

Christ's humanity did not have the normal physical limitations of all other humans, then he

would be “neither God nor man.”

Still, that left Calvin with a problem: if Christ was not physically present in the elements,

how could he still say that Christ drew near to believers in the Lord's Supper? Calvin answered

66 Ibid., 4.17.30, p. 1401.

67 Ibid., 4.17.30, p. 1402.
68 Ibid., 2.14.1, p. 482.
Gerber 28

by suggesting that the partakers moved toward Christ, rather than vice versa:

But greatly mistaken are those who conceive no presence of flesh in the Supper
unless it lies in the bread. For thus they leave nothing to the secret working of the
Spirit, which unites Christ himself to us. To them Christ does not seem present
unless he comes down to us. As though, if he should lift us to himself, we should
not just as much enjoy his presence!69

So, if the Holy Spirit draws believers up to Christ in the sacrament, then the Lord's Supper plays

a vital role in bringing believers into close proximity with God. The Holy Spirit, however, does

not merely bring us close to God, but, in the Lord's Supper, the Holy Spirit “unites Christ himself

to us” as he draws us up to him. In this way the Lord's Supper also serves as a means of gaining

the benefits of the mediator.


In this paper, we have seen the doctrine of Christ as mediator in Calvin's theology.

Christ, both human and divine, acts as the ultimate prophet, king/head, and priest as he mediates

the relationship between his Heavenly Father and those who believe in him for salvation. In his

mediation, Christ accomplishes the election, adoption, and justification of his people; their union

with him and resulting close proximity to God; and the rewards that God graciously bestows on

those who are united to him. Finally, we saw Calvin's belief that Christ uses the church and the

sacraments as means by which he administers those benefits of his mediation to his people. In a

highly consistent way throughout the entirety of the Institutes, Calvin's doctrine of Christ

radically shapes the way he understands God's treatment of his people.

69 Ibid., 4.17.31, p. 1403.