Book 3 - Chapter 21 (Parts 1-2)
ETERNAL ELECTION, BY WHICH GOD HAS PREDESTINED SOME TO SALVATION
AND OTHERS TO DESTRUCTION
In chapters 21-24 Calvin discusses various aspects of his most well-known doctrine, that of predestination. This was/is the doctrine for which Presbyterians and other Reformed churches are known. It is also, perhaps, the most disturbing doctrine that Calvin offers and knowing this (even in his day), he spends considerable time explaining and defending it. Please note that it is a doctrine to which few Presbyterians hold today for a variety of reasons, some of which will be discussed in the reflection sections of these articles.
Summary: The most basic understanding of predestination can be found in its name; that individuals are assigned one of two destinations previous to their birth; these two destinations being heaven or hell. The basis for predestination is God’s electing (choosing) some people for salvation and others for damnation. Calvin explains it this way. “…it is plain that it comes to pass by God’s bidding that salvation is freely offered to some while others are barred from access to it…that he (God) does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others” (pg. 921). Calvin understands the difficulty many people have with this doctrine and so goes to great lengths to first defend it and then to clarify it. We will begin with Calvin’s defense of the doctrine.
First he wants to make clear that we can never understand God’s reasoning behind this doctrine. “First then let them remember that when they inquire into predestination, they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit” (pg. 922-3). Calvin goes farther when he writes, “For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself…” (pg. 923). What this implies is that even Calvin, himself, cannot explain the reasoning behind this doctrine…and that in fact we ought not to try to explain it, but rather to simply accept it.
Second, the doctrine ought to be accepted and taught because it is based in Scripture. “If this thought prevails with us, that the Word of the Lord is the sole way that can lead us in our search for all that it is lawful to hold concerning him (God), it will keep us and restrain us from all rashness…for scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit in which nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know…” (pg. 923-4). Calvin will spend some time explaining the basis for the doctrine (we will cover this in the next article) but for now he wants people to understand why he is insisting that such a complex, and for many, dark doctrine needs to be discussed at all; which is that it reflects his understanding of scripture. And that to not proclaim it will leave Christians without a complete understanding of the surety of their salvation (more about this later). His response to his critics is blunt. “They say that this whole discussion is dangerous for godly minds because it hinders exhortation, because it shakes faith, because it disturbs and terrifies the heart itself, but this is nonsense…whoever then heaps odium upon the doctrine of predestination openly reproaches God, as if he (God) had unadvisedly let slip something hurtful to the church” (pg. 925-6).
Reflection: Calvin based his entire theology upon the belief that God is all powerful, meaning that God controls everyone and everything, including salvation. Thus, the only explanation for the lack of belief in Jesus on the part of some people and the belief in Jesus on the part of others, is that God has declared it to be so. This is difficult for many of us to understand, or agree with, for a variety of reasons, especially that of our sense that we are people who can make choices; choices including whether to believe or not to believe in God and to follow Jesus Christ.
In chapters 21-24 Calvin discusses various aspects of his most well-known doctrine, that of predestination. This was/is the doctrine for which Presbyterians and other Reformed churches are known. It is also, perhaps, the most disturbing doctrine that Calvin offers and knowing this (even in his day), he spends considerable time explaining and defending it. Please note that predestination is a doctrine to which few Presbyterians hold today for a variety of reasons, some of which will be discussed in the reflection sections of these articles.
Summary: Calvin begins this section by recapping the meaning of predestination. “No one who wishes to be thought religious dares simply deny predestination by which God adopts some to hope of life, and sentences others to eternal death…(predestination is) God’s eternal decree, by which he agreed with himself what he wills to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition, rather eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or death” (pg. 926). In other words, predestination is the doctrine that God chooses to save some people and condemn others before the beginning of time.
Calvin defends this doctrine by first examining the scriptures and pointing to God’s election of Israel “…in the person of Abraham, as in a dry tree trunk, one people is particularly chosen, while the others are rejected” (pg. 927). Calvin goes on to quote Moses (through the Torah) that “…the holy patriarch (Abraham) himself was not endowed with such virtue as to acquire such a high honor for himself and his descendants” (pg. 927). Calvin continues his defense of these actions by pointing out that God both elected and rejected individual Israelites. “We must now add a second, more limited degree of election, or one in which God’s more special grace was evident, that is when from the same race of Abraham, God rejected some but showed that he kept others among his sons…” (pg. 929). Scripture therefore, per Calvin, shows God electing and rejecting both people groups/nations and individuals.
The next step in Calvin’s discussion is to offer assurance and certainty to those who are elect, that they are in fact elected, not just temporarily, but eternally by God. “Although it is sufficiently clear that God by his secret plan freely chooses whom he pleases, rejecting others, still his free election has been only half explained until we come to individual persons, to whom God not only offers salvation but so assigns it that the certainty of its effect is not in suspense or doubt” (pg. 930). He continues “…yet in the members of Christ, a far more excellent power of grace appears, for, engrafted to their Head, they are never cut off” (pg. 930). What Calvin is indicating here is that election to salvation, regardless of anything an individual might do or not do, links that individual to Christ and salvation forever. This is the concept of “once saved, always saved.”
Predestination is summarized once again. “As, then, scripture clearly shows. We say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once and for all to receive into salvation and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction” (pg. 931).
Reflection: What I would argue that Calvin misses about the election of Abraham/Israel is that God elected him/them in order to bless all the nations of the earth; that God did not elect them in order to reject all others from the blessings that God wants to bestow upon creation. Calvin takes a very narrow view of election (only the elect are blessed) rather than a broad view of election (in which all people are blessed through God’s people).