Calvin demonstrates that the sinners’ prayer of repentance before holy God is not by any merit of works! That is, the sinners’ prayer is not a work of salvation!
You see that after remission of sins justification is set down by way of explanation; you see plainly that it is used for acquittal; you see how it cannot be obtained by the works of the law; you see that it is entirely through the interposition of Christ; you see that it is obtained by faith; you see, in fine, that satisfaction intervenes, since it is said that we are justified from our sins by Christ. Thus, when the publican is said to have gone down to his house “justified,” (Luke 18:14), it cannot be held that he obtained this justification by any merit of works. All that is said is, that after obtaining the pardon of sins he was regarded in the sight of God as righteous. He was justified, therefore, not by any approval of works, but by gratuitous acquittal on the part of God. Hence Ambrose elegantly terms confession of sins “legal justification,” (Ambrose on Psalm 118 Serm. 10).
Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3 Chap 11 Section 3
Luke 18:10-14 – 10Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. 11The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men [are], extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. 12I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. 13And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as [his] eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful (hilaskomai) to me a sinner. 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified [rather] than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
Calvin says clearly that the publican has gone down to his house justified from his sins by Christ, while the obvious and necessary implication is that the Pharisee was not justified from his sins by Christ. Why was one justified and the other not justified? The passage is very clear: the publican cried out for God to have mercy upon him (that is, to propitiate him) because he was a sinner. Put simply, the publican is praying a prayer acknowledging his sins (we may assume here that repentance has to be included), and asking God to propitiate him.
The word “propitiate” (“be merciful“) is the verb form of the noun used for “propitiation” in 1 John 2:2 – And he is the propitiation (hilasmos) for our sins … where “propitiation” means to have made reconciliation for sins between God and man. The verb form is similarly used in Hebrews 2:17 – Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto [his] brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things [pertaining] to God, to make reconciliation for (hilaskomai) the sins of the people.
In other words, the prayer of the publican is a classic Biblical sinners’ prayer! The Pharisee did not pray as such, and was not justified (or propitiated). Each was dealt with according to his approach to holy God. That is, God’s justification of the publican was in response to the prayer of the publican. Which came first, the prayer or God’s justification? Clearly the prayer came before God’s response to it. Thus God’s action was a consequence of the publican’s prayer! God answered this sinner’s prayer! God will likewise answer other sinners’ prayers!
Calvin states clearly that the publican did not obtain this justification by merit of works. That is, he was saved from his sin (justified) and regarded in the sight of God as righteous. Calvin says “it cannot be held that he obtained this justification by any merit of works.” The Pharisee thus failed to be justified because he did not make such an approach to holy God. Therefore, because a Biblical sinners’ prayer must be of the same nature as the publican’s prayer, then neither can the sinners’ prayer (if prayed in similar fashion) be considered a work of salvation. Thus, according to Calvin’s teachings, this is a clear example of the sinner calling upon the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13) without it being a work toward his salvation.
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