The Priority of Grace: Diving Further into Justification

According to the Bible, humanity is clearly responsible to exercise Spirit-wrought faith in Jesus. When sinners willing place their faith in Jesus, God responds by justifying the sinner for their good and his glory. However, before we talk about the necessity of man acting in faith, we should first remember that justification is by grace.

The reality of a gracious or gratuitous and merciful justification means human beings do not earn righteousness by exerting effort. Any attempt to earn God’s favor would undo grace. Interestingly enough, both Rome and the Reformers assert the mercy of God as a leading cause of justification. For Rome, the efficient cause of justification is the mercy or grace of God. [1] The Reformed have no quarrel in seeing justification as a grace or even admitting that grace is the efficient cause of justification. Calvin writes, “the Scripture everywhere proclaims that the efficient cause of eternal life being procured for us was the mercy of our heavenly Father.”[2] Turretin communicates the same reality. Turretin, in defending a forensic reading of the term justification, says that “Justification is the act…of a supreme magistrate and prince…[who shows] favor to the guilty.”[3] The phrase “showing favor” points to the merciful and gracious character of God’s justifying act. Indeed, “we cling to this foundation.”[4] Question sixty of the Heidelberg Catechism codifies the gracious character of justification.

  • Q. 60: How art thou righteous before God?

  • A. Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ.”

In addition, for the Reformed, grace was prior to any human act of the will. Of course, the priority of grace was not a novelty within Christian theology. Augustine believed God’s grace preceded a move of the will towards God. He makes this explicit in reference to justification in his work, The Spirit and the Letter. “Justified, then, not by the law, not by their own will, but the weakness of our will is discovered by the law, so that grace may restore the will and the restored will may fulfill the law, established neither under the law nor in need of law (italics added).”[5] True, this does not mean Augustine had a Reformational understanding of justification sola fide. Yet, he clearly believed in the priority of grace over an act of the will. Indeed, grace must precede an act of the will that moves towards God. In this regard, Aquinas was Augustinian. Aquinas states that “The first [step] is the infusion of grace; the second, the free-will’s movement towards God; the third, the free-will’s movement towards sin; the fourth, the remission of sin.”[6] Thus, as is clear, for an Augustinian, grace is prior to the free-will’s (liberum arbitrium) move towards God.

However, the priority of grace in the thought of Augustine, Aquinas, and, as we shall see, the Reformers stood in contrast to the late Medieval position that we find in men like Gabriel Biel, perhaps the “last of the scholastics.”[7] For Biel, the liberum arbitrium (free will) has “causal priority.”[8] That is, the man who does his best, or does what lies within him (facere quod in set est), would merit de congruo (rather than de condigno)the first grace.[9] The act of the will in doing its best causes grace to flow towards the sinner. Biel writes, “The infusion of grace is granted to the sinner when he does his very best.”[10] Therefore, in summarizing Biel, Heiko Oberman concludes that for Biel, “grace is not the root but the fruit of preparatory good works.”[11] In short, Biel’s form of medievalism had a tremendously elevated view of man. Men and women had the power within them, even post-Fall, to make the first step towards God. If they would first help themselves (facere quod in se est), God would turn and help them with a gift of grace. This is an optimistic anthropology (i.e. elevated view of man) because it assumes fallen humanity has the ability to move towards God apart from an inward work of grace. The idea that the liberum arbitrium is able to move towards God prior to God working graciously within the sinner is firmly rejected by the Protestant Reformers.[12]

The priority of grace over the liberum arbitrium, is clear in the Reformers. Of course, before Calvin and the Reformed tradition assert the priority of grace, it is true that we find Luther debating the Medieval position of those like Biel on this very point. By 1517, in his Disputation against Scholastic Theology, Luther stands firmly “against the via moderna’s anthropological optimism.” That is, contra to Biel, as mediated through Luther’s teacher Johann Nathin, Luther believed grace must precede any move of the will towards God. He writes, “On the part of man, however, nothing precedes grace except indisposition and even rebellion against grace.” Summarizing Luther, Barrett writes, “Grace must be primary, prevenient, and…effectual.” With Luther revolting against the priority of the will over grace, a current found as far back as Augustine and running through those like Aquinas, flowed straight through Luther to the Reformed tradition.

Building on his doctrine of depravity, in which the will has been enslaved to sin, Calvin notes that “When the will is enchained as the slave of sin,” it is impossible for the will “to make a movement toward goodness.”[13] He continues, “every such movement is the first step in that conversion to God, which in Scripture is entirely ascribed to divine grace.”[14] Though Biel asserted that if man would do his best, God would bestow grace, Calvin and the Reformed tradition maintained that man was simply unable to do his best apart from a prior work of grace within the sinner’s soul. To the praise of God, we find that our Lord uses various means (e.g. hearing the Word) to “remove an unbelieving and stony heart [to] create a new heart…[thus] God customarily generates actual faith in the heart.”[15] In short, the Reformed tradition, in continuity with Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther maintains the absolute necessity of a work of grace preceding any move of man’s liberum arbitrium towards God.

In the end, for the Reformed, justification is by grace, which has priority over the will of man. Paul tells the Romans that they “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24). If you pursue justification by “works of the law,”[16] or through any other human effort, “you have fallen away from grace” (Gal 5:4). Luther wrote that to fall from grace “means to lose the atonement, the forgiveness of sins, the righteousness, liberty, and life which Jesus has merited for us by His death and resurrection. To lose the grace of God means to gain the wrath and judgment of God, death, the bondage of the devil, and everlasting condemnation.”[17] For Calvin, to add any human work to justification was tantamount to a “renouncing of Christ and his grace.”[18] Those are massive implications of falling away from grace! To fall from grace is to fall into destruction. By the grace of God and with the help of the Spirit, we cling to grace because “being justified by his grace we…become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:7). It seems to me, holding to the priority of the will over the priority of grace is akin to falling from the idea of grace alone.

Thus, the Reformation tradition has maintained the gratuitous and merciful nature of justification. More than that, the tradition has asserted the priority of grace. God must work in us before we can move towards him. Our hope is founded upon the reality that God first moves graciously towards us and works within us before we come to him in faith. We thus are dependent upon God’s grace from the first to the last. As Owen writes, “the whole of our acceptation with him seems to be assigned to grace, mercy, the obedience and blood of Christ; in opposition to our own worth and righteousness, or our works and obedience.”[19] Owen continues, it is wisest for those seeking justification before God “to betake himself absolutely, his whole trust and confidence, to sovereign grace and the mediation of Christ.”[20] Here, then, we should follow the Belgic Confession and lean on the Apostle Paul. “And [Paul] saith, that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ.”[21]


[1] According to the Tridentine Decree on Justification, the efficient cause of justification is the mercy of God (see McGrath, iustitia Dei, 325). In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1991), justification is defined as a grace in several places (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 68, 81, 125).

[2] Calvin, Justification, 4.17.

[3] Turretin, 27–28.

[4] Belgic Confession, Article 23.

[5] John Burnaby, ed., Augustine: Later Works (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 205.

[6] Barrett, “Can This Bird Fly: The Reformation as Reaction to the Via Moderna’s Covenantal, Voluntarist Justification Theology,” in The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls, 628.

[7] Michael Horton references Biel in this manner in volume 1 of his two-volume work on justification (Horton, Justification, vol. 1, 150). We should remember, however, that Biel does not appear out of a theological vacuum. Instead, he stands in the nominalist tradition and is preceded by John Duns Scotus (1265–1308) and William of Ockham (1285–1347). As Horton notes, though Luther did not care much for Aquinas, at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, he likely reacted against Scotus, Ockham, and Biel more so than Aquinas (see Horton, 131–134).

[8] Ibid., 642.

[9] Greg Allison explains the difference between condign merit(i.e. true merit)and congruous merit (i.e. appropriate merit). “Merits are of two types: Condign merits are real merits, or merits of worthiness, accomplished by the faithful through divine grace. God is morally obligated to reward the faithful who are righteous with condign merits. Congruous merits, or merits of fitness, are not strictly merits; rather, they are human works reckoned as merits because in doing them, the faithful do what is in them to do. Considered in and of themselves, good works do not achieve any real merit—condign merit—before God, because the faithful who engage in good works are in a state of sin and have received everything—especially grace—from God in the first place. But as long as the faithful do what is within their ability to accomplish, according to the way that God has designed them to use their free will to do good, they are rewarded with congruous merit” (Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 240. Also, Bernard J Wuellner, Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto Publications, 2012), 75.

[10] Barrett, “Can This Bird Fly,”639.

[11] Heiko A Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 140.

[12] Alister McGrath has argued that Biel escapes the charge of Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism because of the presence of the pactum. That is, in Biel’s scheme, God has voluntarily covenanted to accept man’s doing his best as meriting de congruo the first grace. Thus, the gracious character of the pactum means, for Biel, grace does in some sense precede the act of man’s liberum arbitrium. In arguing this way, McGrath is rejecting the position of someone like Heiko Oberman who believes Biel sits firmly in the Pelagian or semi-Pelagian camp. Oberman writes, “Sin has not made it impossible for man to act without the aid of grace” (Oberman, Harvest of Medieval Theology, 164). Matthew Barrett outlines the argument and, though he appreciates the nuance of McGrath, he finally sides with Oberman. For my part, it seems the debate over Pelagianism is not so much concerned with God’s gracious decision in eternity to past to save sinners. Instead, the question of Pelagian and semi-Pelagianism aims at what fallen man is able to do as fallen man. Fallen man, corrupted by sin, is simply unable to move his own will towards God without an internal work of grace. For a discussion of this debate, see Barrett, “Can This Bird Fly,” 638–642.

[13] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. John T McNeill (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 180–181.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Peter van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Todd M. Rester, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 27, 35.

[16] The phrase “works of the law” is the center of exegetical and theological debate. See Schreiner, Justification by Faith Alone, 97–111. Also, see Schreiner, “‘Works of Law’ in Paul,” NovT 33 (1991): 217 – 44; and I. H. Marshall, “Salvation, Grace, and Works in the Later Writings in the Pauline Corpus,” NTS 42 (1996): 339 – 58.

[17] Luther, Galatians, comments on Galatians 5:4 (Accordance version). John Piper places things in sharp relief when he writes, “And if we are severed from Christ, there is no one to bear our curse…”[17] (John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 15).

[18] Calvin, Galatians (see my accordance notes).

[19] Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, 38.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Beeke, Three Forms of Unity, 40.

7 thoughts on “The Priority of Grace: Diving Further into Justification

  1. Almost one thousand years before Reformation the issue between grace and our freedom was already settled at Council of Orange in 529 AD. When we do evil then we do it freely, not because God makes us do so but when we do good (including having faith and good works) we do it freely after being moved and is only possible by grace. This is now known as synergism. Canon 23 of the council says:

    “The good will of God and of man. Men do their own will, not God’s, when they do what displeases God; but when they do what they wish, in order to serve the divine will, even though willingly they do what they do, nevertheless, it is the will of Him by whom what they will is both prepared and ordered”

    Luther who wrote that our free will is not free but is in captive by either God or devil , taught that our salvation is monergistic work of God from start to end. He wrote:

    In just the same way (our answer continues), before man is changed into a new creature of the Kingdom of the Spirit, he does nothing and attempts nothing to prepare himself for this renewal and this Kingdom, and when he has been recreated he does nothing and attempts nothing toward remaining in this Kingdom, but the Spirit alone does both of these things in us, recreating us without us and preserving us without our help in our recreated state, as also James says: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of his power, that we might be a beginning of his creature” [James 1:18]—speaking of the renewed creature. (Luther: the Bondage of the Will, English translation from Luther’s Works, Vol. 33, page 243)

    John Calvin, on the other hand, taught that grace works monergistically only in regeneration, through which our will is set free. Before regeneration we do have freedom but only freedom to choose evil. After being monergistically regenerated then we can freely believe in Christ and freely do good. Calvin wrote in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, page 130:

    But the question is asked whether freedom to choose good or evil does not naturally reside in man. He [Augustine] replies: “It must be acknowledged that we have free choice to do both evil and good. But in doing evil each one is free of righteousness and the slave of sin, while in doing good, no one can be free, unless he has first been set free by the Son of God [Augustine: Rebuke and Grace 1.2, NPNF 5:472]. So people are freed from evil by the grace of God alone. Without this they do no good at all, whether by thinking, or by willing and loving, or by acting. This means not only that when [grace] shows them they know what they should do, but that when it enables them they gladly do what they know [to be right]. [Augustine: ibid 2.3] And he then explains this more briefly. “The human will does not obtain grace through its freedom, but rather freedom through grace.” [ibid 8.17, NPNF 5:478]

    Since Calvin cited from Augustine, did Augustine teach monergistic regeneration? The following statement written by Augustine shows that he followed synergism (without using that term, which was introduced much later).

    But God made you without you. You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you. How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist? So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you. So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it.
    Augustine: Sermon 169.13, English translation from The Works of Saint Augustine: sermon III/5 (148-183), page 231.

    • Viator,

      A few notes on what you wrote here.

      First, thanks for continually engaging in a respectful manner. I appreciate your candor and your thouthfulness.

      Second, the whole discussion of monergism and synergism is a bit outside the scope of the actual post. That is, my post talks about the priority of grace in regard to the doctrine of justification. That is, as I’ve shown to some degree in the post, Augustine, Aquinas, and the Reformers all believed that an internal work of grace preceded a move of the will towards God. Gabriel Biel, on the other hand, confuses that order and places the will prior to internal grace. For Biel, you do your best (facere quod in se est), and then you merit the first grace. That’s my (rather simple) point. How the larger issues of monergism/synergism work out, in terms of what God does in the larger framework of salvation and how man cooperates (or doesn’t), is not something I dive into here.

      Third, the problem with your Augustine quote is that you conflate regeneration and justification. Note Augustine’s words: “he justifies [not regenerates] you with your willing consent.” I agree with Augustine, as do the Reformers. God justifies you when you exercise your will by placing your faith in Christ. As Paul writes, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom 5:1). Justification is by grace through faith (which is an act of our will).

      However, it may be that this is where our definitions are important. I’m assuming, given our interactions, you believe the word “justification” is a transformative term (that’s the Catholic view). That is, justification means more than God declaring something, but that he actually “makes us” something. We part ways on this definition of justification.

      The Protestant tradition believes justification is a forensic term. It refers to God declaring us righteous (cf. Luke 7:28; Deut 25:1). It is distinct from sanctification, the idea that God progressively and internally conforms us to the image of Christ. So, that is perhaps why your last quote about Augustine seems to conflate justification and regeneration. Given that your Catholic background assumes justification denotes internal transformation (i.e. akin to regeneration), using justification and regeneration in ways that you do above, makes sense for your tradition. However, I reject that reading, as I’m sure you know. I believe Rome incorrectly collapses justification and sanctification. Those are distinct, though inseparable, realities.

      Blessings!

      • Whatever Gabriel Biel wrote (which he is fully entitled) is NOT the Catholic teaching, which was already declared in 529 AD. We do not believe we can merit the first grace. This official teaching is stated in Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2010, 2027 (available online).

        Contrary to what you wrote Luther denied the role of free-will – according to him our free will is in captive by either God or devil. If God is in control then we do good, and if devil is in control then we do evil. According to Calvin, only after being (monergistically) regenerated then our will is set free to do good.

        According to Reformers justification is one time event and is therefore through faith alone. Sanctification is separated from justification but these two must come together in the live of (already saved by faith alone) person. You know that I argued the Reformer’s view as the phrase “justified by faith” in NT appears in either aorist or present times, which do not indicate a one time event and completed justification by faith alone.

        We do believe that we are transformed through justification as Scripture says through Christ we are made righteous (Rom. 5:19). Scripture nowhere says through Christ we are counted as righteous based on external (or alien) righteousness of Christ imputed on us. Scripture also says we cannot use other’s righteousness (Ezekiel 18:20).

        The word “to justify” is related to justice (in Greek and Hebrews) – Catholics do not deny the forensic aspect of justification. In human court-room if a guilty person is declared not guilty because the judge cannot see his crimes being hidden from his eyes, can you say that justice is served? Unfortunately, that is the implication of forensic justification as taught by the Reformers. But if a person is made not guilty, then he is legally declared not guilty and justice is served.

      • Viator. Thanks for replying again. A few responses:

        First, my post aims at tracing the historical-theological progression of ideals. I contrasted the Reformers with the nominalism of Biel (which was held in some sense by Jon Duns Scotus and William of Ockham). My point was not to say that what Biel (or nominalism) taught was the Catholic position. It was, however, to compare/contrast the Reformed tradition with Biel, who they all would have been familiar with. So, if you read my post again, I do not assert that Biel is THE Roman position.

        For the issue of Luther, we will have to disagree. Luther believed the will was captive, to be sure. Yet, you have to define what yo mean by free? For Luther (and Calvin) you were “free” to do what you wanted to do. That is, you were not “forced” or “coerced” to sin. You “freely” choose to rebel/sin/etc. Once God liberated your will, you freely come to Jesus. But, again, this is all quite beside the point of my post and therefore I do not care to run this down further with you.

        You simply circle around to asserting that justification is a transformative word. We disagree (cf. Luke 7:28–29; Deut 25:1). You are correct to say that Catholics have room for a forensic side of justification. This is clear in various Catholic writers (Nick Needham has provided good historical work here. See his chapter in the book by Matthew Barrett, “The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls”). Yet, and here is our rub, Catholicism says justification is more than merely forensic …. it is also transformative (as you note). Again, we disagree. Transformation rightly falls under the theological loci of sanctification, in the Protestant view.

        Finally, all this is outside the scope of the post which aims narrowly at the priority of grace in the thoughts of the Reformers contra the position of Biel. If you have specific comments about those issues, I am happy to engage. Otherwise, I’ll bid you adieu.

      • Even you did not state Biel’s teaching as official teaching of the Catholic Church, your readers may get that impression.

        Calvin taught that before regeneration we are only free to choose evil. Luther, on the other hand, wrote that our will depends on who control us, God or devil – more or less like “behaviour” of a car depends who has the control of steering wheels. Luther and Calvin are not the same on the issue of free will.

  2. Pingback: The Priority of Grace - The Aquila Report

  3. Pingback: Justification: By Grace Through Faith | Theology Along the Way

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