Calvin's Theology: Predestination
John Calvin lived from 1509-1564. He was an influential Reformer for his ministry in Geneva. By many accounts he was an excellent writer, preacher, and theologian. When people hear his name today, they often think of him as associated with the doctrine of predestination—that God elects before the foundations of the world a people unto salvation apart from any goodness or foreseen faith in man. Predestination entails God’s sovereignty in every area of life. As Eph. 1:11 says, God “works all things according to the counsel of his will,”
It is worth noting three caveats when it comes to thinking about Calvin and predestination. First, later interpreters have often given it more prominence in Calvin’s thought than Calvin himself did. They assume that all his theology bends around this one magisterial doctrine. Unfortunately, this distorts Calvin and creates an unbalanced picture of him. No doubt, predestination was important but so were other doctrines like Christology, the work of the Holy Spirit, justification by faith and union with Christ.
Second, for Calvin the doctrine of predestination is primarily a Biblical doctrine not a philosophical doctrine. He holds to it because he finds it in the Bible. Calvin is clear that we should only seek to understand election and predestination so far as God has revealed it. Our speculation should not try to look into things God has not made known (Institutes 3.21.1). Calvin was a pastor and expositor. He wrote commentaries and homilies as much, if not more, than he wrote theology. In the final version of his Institutes, he begins his discussion of election in book 3, chapter 21, which is after he has discussed union with Christ, faith, and justification by faith.
Finally, John Calvin was not the first person in church history to teach the doctrine of predestination and unconditional election. For example, Augustine had articulated aspects of these doctrines. Even in his day, John Calvin was not the only reformer holding to these doctrines. Sometimes we do a disservice to the larger history of the church when we simply call a doctrine of predestination “Calvinism.”
What are some things we can learn from John Calvin?
First, the doctrine comes from the Bible. In his institutes as well as his other writings, John Calvin is careful to tie his doctrine to Scripture and explain the Scriptures. He examines passages like Eph. 1 and Rom. 9. He covers these passages in his commentaries and sermons, as well as bringing them to bear in his Institutes and his Treatise on Eternal Predestination.
Second, faith is not the cause of God’s election. God does not foresee ahead of time that we will believe and then choose us on that basis. Calvin writes on Eph. 1:4 “Therefore you can safely infer the following: if he chose us that we should be hold, he did not choose us because he foresaw that we would be so” (Institutes 3.22.3). “To make faith the cause of election is altogether absurd and utterly at variance with the words of the apostle [Paul]” (Calvin’s Calvinism, 45).
Third, Calvin’s overarching concern is to give glory to God and help the believer understand the grace and mercy of God. He understands that any doctrine of election that gives credit to make or makes election based upon man’s work, faith, or personal holiness, God will not get the glory because God is merely responding to men. The Bible teaches that God’s election is according to his will alone (Rom. 9:15-16) and for the purposes of the praise of God’s glorious grace (Eph. 1:6). For Calvin, the doctrine of predestination is important because it is in Scripture but it also has a practical effect: it humbles the sinner. It makes us turn and praise God for the depths and power of his mercy.
We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy until we come to know his eternal election, which illumines God’s grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others. (Institutes 3.21.1)
Finally, Calvin does not deny the necessity of the preaching of the gospel. While the benefits of Christ are “extended unto, and belong to, none but the children of God” (Calvin’s Calvinism, 94), the gospel offers salvation to all. He writes, “That the Gospel is, in its nature, able to save all I by no means deny. But the great question lies here: Did the Lord by his eternal counsel ordain salvation for all men? It is quite manifest that all men without difference or distinction, are outwardly called or invited to repentance and faith” (Calvin’s Calvinism, 94-5). So, John Calvin holds that God’s election of individuals unto salvation is God’s eternal decree. God ordains individuals to salvation and its benefits but there is the free outward call of the gospel where the listener is invited to believe. Calvin distinguishes this outward call from the inward work of the Holy Spirit who regenerates and enlivens, inwardly drawing the sinner to God’s grace and enabling them to receive it by faith.
John Calvin is a stalwart in church history and is worth reading today even if you are not a church historian or academic theologian. His works are filled with a pastoral tone and a clear explanation of Scripture. In this respect, we can still learn from Calvin on the doctrine of predestination as he points us back to what the Bible says and upward to see the glory of God in the accomplishment of redemption.
John Calvin, Calvin’s Calvinism: Treatises on the Eternal Predestination of God and the Secret Providence of God. Translated by Henry Cole. Reformed Free Publishing Association: Grand Rapids, Mich.: No date.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.