Imputed vs. Essential Righteousness: Calvin, Bucer, and Osiander on Justification

The Protestant Reformation is well-known for its emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Throughout their writings, Protestant Reformers consistently encountered the Roman Catholic argument that justification by faith alone leads to licentious living. Therefore, the Reformers, from Luther (1520s) to Calvin (1550s/1560s), generally argued that good works are a result of justification, not its cause.

However, the precise relationship between justification and sanctification was not uniform among the Reformers. This essay will demonstrate some of the important differences among Protestants regarding these doctrines. It will begin with a brief survey of soteriology in the thought of various Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon, and Bullinger). Then, it will analyze the doctrines of justification and sanctification in the thought of Martin Bucer, Andreas Osiander, and John Calvin. Ultimately, this essay will argue that Calvin’s doctrine preserved the Reformation breakthrough of Martin Luther, while addressing both Bucer’s concern for righteous living and opposing Osiander’s doctrine of “essential righteousness.”

In Calvin’s treatment of soteriology, he posits that justification and sanctification are distinct, yet inseparable. Calvin’s chapter on justification in the Institutes spends considerable time refuting the view of Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran pastor and theologian. In the 1550s, Osiander put forth a view of justification based on essential righteousness rather than imputed righteousness. In Osiander’s schema, Christ’s human nature is unnecessary for salvation because all that humanity needs can be found in Christ’s divinity. Once the sinner is made essentially one with Christ, Christ’s divine nature justifies the sinner. Osiander sought to preserve Christian morality, and thus believed that justification must make a sinner righteous, rather than merely reckon a sinner righteous. Calvin argued against this view on the basis of the Scriptures and Chalcedonian Christology.

However, at first glance, Osiander’s concern seems to align with that of Calvin’s friend and mentor, Martin Bucer. Bucer’s doctrine of justification sought to hold justification and sanctification close together so that he could emphasize the ‘effective aspect’ of justification. Bucer was concerned to quell Roman Catholic arguments that justification by faith alone was simply a license to sin. Ultimately then, many of Calvin’s arguments against Osiander can be read as implicit critiques of Bucer.

This essay will demonstrate that despite some surface-level similarities, Bucer’s understanding of justification was different from that of Osiander. Bucer’s soteriology rested on an orthodox Christology. Yet, by blurring the distinction between justification and sanctification, Bucer failed to uphold the freedom of the gospel that Luther had proclaimed. It will be demonstrated that Calvin’s forensic view of justification, being distinct (but inseparable) from sanctification, allowed him to argue against the doctrines of Osiander while maintaining the expectation of righteous living among the elect. Therefore, Calvin’s view upheld Luther’s early Reformation understanding of justification and righteousness.

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