Posted by: davidlarkin | October 11, 2021

John Calvin and the New Testament Doctrine of Predestination and Election


John Calvin (1509-1564), portrait above, who along with Martin Luther are considered the leaders of the Christian Reformation in the 16th Century. I think he is the most inspirational of the Reformers. I am reading his 1500+ page, four book, “Institutes of the Christian Religion” for the fourth time over the past 30 years. I have read the hardbound 2 volume set, but now I read a little each night on my kindle.

For several centuries, Calvin has long been mistakenly identified with the Christian doctrines of predestination and election. As German Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck wrote in 1909:

Still another injustice, however, must be laid to the charge of the average conception of Calvin. Men sometimes speak as if Calvin knew of nothing else to preach but the decree of predestination with its two parts of election and reprobation. The truth is that no preacher of the Gospel has ever surpassed Calvin in the free, generous proclamation of the grace and love of God. He was so far from putting predestination to the front, that in the Institutio the subject does not receive treatment until the third book, after the completion of the discussion of the life of faith.

Bavinck, “Calvin and Common Grace,” The Princeton Theological Review, Vol. 7 No. 3 (1909), pp 437-465.

While John Calvin expressed the doctrine of predestination well, it is not his doctrine but the doctrine of Jesus and the Apostles, as defended by Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo (354 – 430) in his extensive defense of God’s grace against the heretical writings of Pelagian, “Anti-Pelagian Writings.” Calvin relied on the Scripture and Augustine in his defense and exposition of the doctrine of election in the Institutes.

As Jesus said:

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”

John 6:44 (English Standard Version)

The Apostle Paul was more theologically explicit in expressing how those who truly believe are chosen by God and believe by his grace alone:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

Ephesians, 1:3-10 (English Standard Version)

and further:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Ephesians 2:8-10 (ESV)

Thus, we who believe can take no personal credit for our Christian faith, but must humbly thank god for his unmerited favor.

Much unnecessary thought and angst is expended trying to understand how election and free will can co-exist. It is an “antinomy,” not to be confused with the chemical element Sb “antimony“, a gray metallic substance. Contemporary theologian J. I. Packer, called this seemingly impossible co-existence an antinomy in his profound little book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, explaining that it is a contradiction that cannot be understood and must be accepted as a matter of faith in reliance on the Word of God expressed in the New Testament. John Calvin warned against trying to rationally understand predestination:

“Human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous. No restraints can hold it back from wandering in forbidden bypaths and thrusting upward to the heights. If allowed, it will leave no secret to God that it will not search out and unravel. . . let them remember that when they inquire into predestination, they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. . . He has set forth by his Word the secrets of his will that he has decided to reveal to us. These he decided to reveal in so far as he foresaw that they would concern us and benefit us. . . . For we shall know that the moment we exceed the bounds of the Word, our course is outside the pathway and in darkness, and that there we must repeatedly wander, slip, and stumble. Let this, therefore, first of all be before our eyes: to seek any other knowledge of predestination than what the Word of God discloses is not less insane than if one should purpose to walk in a pathless waste [cf. Job 12:24], or to see in darkness. . . . And let us not be ashamed to be ignorant of something in this matter, wherein there is a certain learned ignorance.”

Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Book 3, Chapter XXI, Sections 1-2.

It makes the duty of personally sharing the Gospel a work of God’s grace and love, rather than my own work. It is the means by which God spreads his grace to his chosen people.

Jesus said,

For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Matthew 22:14 (English Standard Version)

and many who claim to be Christians are not. This may have consequences today for those who call themselves “evangelicals,” and do not act in accordance with Jesus’s Gospel, for example, those who build empires of wealth through televised prosperity gospel preaching. As Jesus warned us:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

Matthew 7:21-23 (English Standard Version)

For us who God has given the gift of faith, we have assurance of salvation, which is “guaranteed” by the God, the Holy Spirit

“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,  so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”

Ephesians 1:11-14 (English Standard Version)

Calvin reverenced Scripture as the revelation of God, and relied on Scripture for the source of truth. Here is a prayer of John Calvin before reading God’s word:

O Lord, Heavenly Father, in whom  is the fullness of light and of wisdom, enlighten our minds by the Holy Spirit, and give us grace to receive thy Word with reverence and humility, without which no one can understand thy truth. For Christ’s sake, Amen.

We have cause for lifting up praise to God at all times!

“Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

Psalm 150:6 (English Standard Version). The last verse of the last Psalm, a fitting closing to the Psalms.

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