Calvin on Predestination
John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination has often been rejected as unjust. In this series of two articles I will explain why, according to John Calvin, this charge is misplaced. In this article, I will summarize Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. My discussion of Calvin’s view will draw on excerpts from Book III, chapters 21-23, of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) in Hans J. Hillerbrand’s collection The Protestant Reformation (ordinary page references are to this work), and sections 3.24.4 and 3.24.5 of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion translated by Henry Beveridge (decimal references are to this work, pictured to the right).
Predestination According to Calvin
According to John Calvin, predestination is God’s unchangeable decree from before the creation of the world that he would freely save some people (the elect), foreordaining them to eternal life, while the others (the reprobate) would be “barred from access to” salvation and sentenced to “eternal death (180, 184).” Calvin was careful to distinguish the predestination of individuals from the corporate election of nations such as Israel (185). He argued that an explanation of predestination is only complete when it includes the election of individuals (187).
Calvin described the basis of predestination in several ways. In general he affirmed that there is no basis for election outside of God. Referring to Eph. 1.9, Calvin noted that God purposed election “in Himself,” basing his decree of predestination on “nothing outside Himself (192).” Calvin attributed the salvation of the elect to God’s free decision to favor them (188). He variously described this as God’s “mere generosity (180, 187),” his “freely given mercy (189, 195, 211),” and the “good pleasure of His will (191; cf. Eph. 1.5).” Moreover, Calvin based the damnation of the reprobate solely in God’s decision (189, 200).
Since God’s reasons for predestination are wholly internal to his being (190), they are opaque to humanity. Ultimately, then, the basis of God’s predestination is mysterious and “utterly incomprehensible” to people (209). This mystery points to one of God’s purposes in predestination, to inspire wonder and reverence in believers (181). The things hidden in God are not to be understood by people, but rather revered in their “wonderful depth (179).” Indeed, for John Calvin the overarching purpose of predestination is for God to be glorified, both in the praise of the elect for his grace (192), and in the terrible yet glorious judgment of the reprobate (199).
Despite the mysterious basis of predestination, it is possible for the elect to be certain of their status as children of God (187). The first and seemingly most important indicator of election is what Calvin referred to as “the calling of God (3.24.4, 189).” His use of this term seems to refer to a subjective inward certainty that God has chosen a person for salvation. Elsewhere, Calvin suggested that having “knowledge of [God’s] name” and reflecting the process of sanctification are both indicators of election (189). Moreover, Calvin claimed that “communion with Christ” is sufficient proof of election (3.24.5): since we are elected in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1.4), we cannot seek the certainty of election “apart from the Son (3.24.5).” Calvin also seemed to obscurely suggest that the daily blessings received from the hand of God might rightly be perceived as an indication of election, “that secret adoption (3.24.4).” Together, these signs—the foremost being “the calling of God,”—yield certainty of salvation and tranquil peace with God (3.24.4).
John Calvin also defined his doctrine of predestination in opposition to differing views held by his contemporaries. First, Calvin took up the view that God predestines people according to his foreknowledge of their works. While Calvin affirmed the foreknowledge of God (184), he denied that God “adopts as sons those whom He foreknows will not be unworthy of His grace,” and damns those he knows will be inclined to “evil intention and ungodliness (190).” From Ephesians 1.4 he argued that one purpose of God’s election was to make his children holy. Since holiness is to be produced by election, it made no sense to Calvin to assert the reverse (191-2). Moreover, the whole point of teaching that election took place before creation (Eph. 1.4) is to demonstrate that election had nothing to do with meritorious works (191). Indeed, for Calvin another important purpose of predestination was to communicate that salvation is not based on individual merit but solely on God’s grace (191).
Second, Calvin took up the view that God elects some but condemns none (200). Calvin saw this view as “highly absurd” since it seemed to imply that the salvation received by the elect could also be attained by the non-elect as a result of “chance” or “their own effort (200).” Rejecting this inconsistent implication, Calvin asserted that the reprobate are those God intentionally neglects to choose (200). From Rom. 9.14ff, Calvin argued that the hardening of non-elect hearts is as much attributable to God as is mercy. Moreover, he noted that Paul did not shy away from this dreadful conclusion, but rather questioned the right of the clay to protest the Potter’s work (Rom. 9.20), and linked condemnation of the reprobate to God’s glory (Rom. 9.22-23). For John Calvin, election could not but stand “over against reprobation (200).”
In the next article in this series I will describe why and how Calvin chose to teach predestination, and I will articulate Calvin’s defense of predestination as just.