Calvin the Calvinist

December 9th, 2013

As might be expected from anyone who deals with the text being preached, in speaking of Ephesians 1:3,4 John Calvin devotes a good deal of time to the doctrine of election. In the second of 48 sermons on the book of Ephesians Calvin is concerned to magnify God and give assurance of our salvation (Calvin, John, Sermons on Ephesians, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998, p.26), and explains at length that it is necessary for the doctrine to be known and proclaimed (pp.25,26).

Calvin begins by highlighting the exclusivity of saving grace, as a way to emphasize its greatness (pp.22-24,26-28). While it is clear from the second of his sermons on Galatians that he believes in a general love of God for man as such, it is also clear that he understands that there is a grace confined to those who hear the gospel (pp.26,27), and in addition to that, a grace (a “double grace,” p.27) confined to the elect (pp.23,27). Calvin does not want anyone to surmise “that God’s grace is common to all men and that he offers and presents it to all men without exception” (p.22). He has some remarkably forceful words in this connection on page 27:

If this was done commonly and to all men without distinction, we should still have reason to magnify God. But now, when we see that some are hardened and others fickle, and that some go their ways without receiving any profit from what they have heard, and that others are altogether stupid, it is certain that it makes God’s grace more apparent to us, even as it is said by St. Luke that, at St. Paul’s preaching, as many believed as were ordained to salvation.

According to Calvin, God’s grace is made more apparent to us precisely because it is not indiscriminate. The fact that elect find mercy and the rest are hardened does not disparage, but rather magnifies God’s grace.

Election is demonstrated to arise from God’s free love and sovereign will (pp.26,30), and the notion that it is based on foreseen merits is exploded because it is from before the foundation of the world (pp.31,32) and that is in Jesus Christ (pp. 32,33). If anything needed to be added to the demonstration, the simple remark “all goodness comes from his election” (p.34) would suffice. Throughout the sermon Calvin has repeatedly emphasized the reality of human sinfulness, nowhere more vividly than in the hypothetical scenario he raises when explaining that God could not foresee what could never be (pp.31,32):

But how could he foresee that which could not be? For we know that all Adam’s offspring is corrupted, and that we do not have the skill to think one good thought of doing well, and much less therefore are we able to commence to do good. Although God should wait a hundred thousand years for us, if we could remain so long in the world, yet it is certain that we should never come to him nor do anything else but increase the mischief continually to our own condemnation. In short, the longer men live in the world, the deeper they plunge themselves into their damnation. And therefore God could not foresee what was not in us before he himself put it into us.

It is abundantly clear from just the one sermon that Calvin believes in total depravity, unconditional election, and at least the presupposition of limited atonement – exclusive grace. He is undoubtedly a person of much greater genius than many who have been given the label formed from his name; but the Canons of the Synod of Dordt are manifestly not contrary to the overall tenor of Calvin’s reading of Scripture.