Calvin's Gospel of Predestination

This post is for any of you who actually wonder about Calvin's doctrine of predestination.  For the rest of you, God already knows you don't care, and it has not jeopardized your salvation...

Of all John Calvin’s teachings perhaps none has stirred up such debate over the centuries as his doctrine of predestination. In this essay I will explore Calvin’s view, giving special attention to the justice and grace of predestination as well as predestination’s end.

Calvin’s Logic of Predestination
Simply stated, predestination is the doctrine that before God created humankind God chose some for eternal life, and sentenced others to eternal damnation.[1] The scandal of Calvin’s view of predestination is its completely unconditional nature – to some this seems arbitrary, but to Calvin it is aboundingly gracious. The only foundation of election, for Calvin, is “God’s mere generosity” and “good pleasure”.[2] God’s election of individuals is not a reward, nor does it spring from divine foreknowledge.[3] Again, God has complete freedom of will to choose life or damnation for whomever he will, and does not select for eternal life on the basis of an individuals potential[4] or his foreknowledge of their future merits.[5]

Calvin summarizes this point: “...all benefits that God bestows for the spiritual life [including election]...flow from this one source: namely, that God has chosen whom He has willed, and before their birth has laid up for them individually the grace that He willed to grant them.”[6] With the understanding that election’s source is purely within God, and in no way in caused by the elect, let us consider how the elect come to know of their election. Calvin speaks of three marks of election, call, justification and sanctification. The presence or absence of these reveal “what sort of judgment awaits [the individual].”[7] Calvin here does not elaborate how call and justification are visible, but gives hints about sanctification when he offers consolation to the one who “endeavors through innocent and upright life to make himself approved by God.” Calvin asks, “Whence could such an endeavor rise but from election?”[8]

It is important to note that Calvin is certain of the efficacy of God’s election. While members of Israel, God’s elect people, could fall out of election because they lacked a “spirit of regeneration that would enable them to persevere in the covenant to the very end,” nonetheless individually elected persons will certainly persevere.[9] Those whom God has chosen for eternal life, will certainly inherit it, and those God has rejected will certainly be damned. What purpose is there in God’s election of some and rejection of others? This answer is simple, but requires some defending. God elects and rejects that his own glory might be shown. It is not hard to see how the unconditional election of some to everlasting life brings glory to God because of its grace,[10] but it is more challenging to find the glory of God in the damnation of souls. Nonetheless, Calvin asserts it: “the reprobate are raised up to the end that through them God’s glory may be revealed.”[11] The justice of such a decree is the subject will consider below.

The Justice of Predestination
Many contemporary people, as well as contemporaries of Calvin, have accused predestinatinarians of envisioning an arbitrary and unjust God. Some have proposed that God elects those whom, in his foreknowledge, he knows will choose to follow God through Jesus Christ. This is an attempt to clarify and bolster the justice of God, while maintaining a doctrine of predestination. Calvin, as we have seen, rejects this proposal. He also rejects the efforts of some to argue that while God chooses the elect for blessing, he does not choose the rest for damnation, but merely passes over them.[12] Calvin sees the irrationality of this proposal when he states: “election itself could not stand except over against reprobation.”[13] Calvin believes that neither of these suggested options are faithful to Scriptural teaching.

God’s justice, according to Calvin, is plain because damnation is the rightful fate of all. He asks, “If all whom the Lord predestines to death are by condition of nature subject to the judgment of death, of what injustice toward themselves may they complain?”[14] In the “fairest reckoning of justice”[15] all are “odious to God”[16] because of original sin.[17] Due to original sin all deserve to be predestined to reprobation.[18] It is hidden and mysterious why God deemed it beneficial to his glory to allow the fall, but it is just that he should elect some to reprobation as its result. The fall, though it was ordained by God was not due to a fault in creation but solely from human “evil intention.”[19] So the source of the reprobation of some is rightly found in “the corrupt nature of humanity” not “God’s predestination.”[20] The glory and justice of God are revealed in God’s punishment of sin, as of a fair judge.[21] The appeals for justice bring not pardon but judgment. 

In fact, what is truly desired is not justice but equity. Surprisingly, it is God’s divergent treatments of humans that brings glory to God for it is “the very inequality of His grace proves that it is free.”[22] Moreover, Calvin recalls the parable of the workers[23] when he compares God to a lender “who has the power of remitting payment to one, of exacting it from another.”[24] For Calvin election, not reprobation, raises questions about God’s justice. In a sense, God’s treatment of the elect is not, strictly speaking, just, it is act of God’s free grace; it cannot be earned or demanded. What is earned is justice, and by justice all are damned. But ultimately election is just because it is praiseworthy, “for whatever deserves praise must be just.”[25]

Calvin’s opponents also cry injustice because of fatalistic fears. If God has predestined some to live wickedly, how can he hold these sins as grounds for condemnation?[26] Here Calvin seems content to assert that there is some mysterious “equity” to it—“unknown, indeed, to us but very sure.”[27] Despite God’s providential will that man “undergo calamity,”[28] this calamity’s source is not God, it is a human, Adam, and hence punishment for sin is just.

The Gospel of Predestination
For Calvin, predestination is not an unavoidable and lamentable truth, it is a central element of the gospel itself. Belief in predestination is the capstone of the doctrine of sola gratis. Calvin is adamant to argue that salvation begins not with faith, as Luther stressed, but with election.[29] Calvin calls election the “mother of faith.”[30] Not only has God’s love and forgiveness come to us apart from works and apart from righteous living, but it has been chosen for us before we even came into existence and without reference to any aspect of our future, including our faith. God has chosen us to believe, not simply forgiven us because we believed. As I said in the beginning of this essay, the source of election is “God’s mere generosity.”[31] What good news and comfort this is to the elect: God has chosen me out of love, and my salvation rests within God’s providential will.

Scripture, Reason and Mystery
Before I conclude, I want to highlight the roles that Scripture, reason and mystery play in Calvin’s construction of this doctrine of predestination. Calvin asserts that “the word of the Lord is the sole way that can lead us in our search for divine truth.”[32] He hopes to rest his argument solely on Scripture, without reliance on speculative reason whereby we “exceed the bounds of the word”[33] and err.[34] He wishes to omit nothing that Scripture has said and say nothing which Scripture omits, for “nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know.”[35] When Scripture falls silent, giving no further explanation of God’s ways, we are to practice “learned ignorance”[36] avoiding the perils of investigating the causes of God’s will.[37] Mystery surrounds the reasons God has willed various things, though God’s will itself is often evident. When we reach the horizon of Scripture’s teaching, says Calvin, we are to embrace mystery, not speculation. Despite this insistence on limiting his doctrine to the teaching of Scripture, Calvin’s argument is full of reason, and implicitly assumes that reason does lead to truth.[38]

Closing Thoughts
How shall a doctrine such as predestination be evaluated? Certainly, it must be held up against Scripture – and predestination finds strong warrant there. Beyond scriptural precedent, can a doctrine also be tested by its context and result? Predestination is a marvelous doctrine of assurance for the saints.[39] In it we find freedom, victory, gratitude and peace.[40] But it is imprudent to champion predestination when preaching to those far away from God or those complacently confident of election. Sadly, it seems that the majority our society is falls into one of these two categories; most people are either lost or proud.[41] A strong case can be made for predestination scripturally but it is the kind of doctrine for those who have been apprehended by God’s grace, not those who believe they have God in their pocket, or those fleeing from God. Let those who need assurance find it in predestination, but let us find other scriptural doctrines to  spur on lazy saints and invite the lost sinners. (For more of my own thoughts on Calvin's doctrine of election, see the post titled Election: That Distasteful Presbyterian Doctrine.)

[1] John Calvin, Excerpts from Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), in Hans J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Protestant Reformation (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), pp. 179-213. To be fair, this is superlapsarian predestination (election before fall) which is derived from Ephesians 1:4 – “he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” Infralapsarian predestinarians believe that God began predestining souls only after the fall. (p.184) – To be fair, this is superlapsarian predestination (election before fall) which is derived from Ephesians 1:4 – “he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world.” Infralapsarian predestinarians believe that God began predestining souls only after the fall. 
[2] p. 180 
[3] p.184, 185 
[4] p. 191 
[5] p. 191 
[6] p. 191-192 
[7] p. 189 
[8] p. 213 
[9] p. 188 
[10] p. 192 
[11] p. 199 
[12] p. 200 
[13] p. 200 
[14] p. 203 
[15] p. 203 
[16] p.203 
[17] p. 203-204 
[18] p. 209 
[19] p. 209 
[20] p. 209 
[21] p. 211 
[22] p. 187 
[23] Matthew 20:1-16 – “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” 
[24] p. 212 
[25] p. 209 
[26] p. 209 
[27] p. 210, 209 
[28] p. 210 
[29] p. 198-199 
[30] p. 198 
[31] p. 180 
[32] p. 181 
[33] p. 182 
[34] I am aware that Calvin nowhere denigrates reason, though he does attempt to highlight its limitations (p. 182). It is interesting to consider whether Calvin’s confidence in double-predestination, the election of the damned, derives from Scripture or a slip into exceeding the “bounds of the word.” 
[35] p. 182 
[36] p. 182 
[37] p. 202 
[38] p. 191 
[39] p. 180, 3.24.4 
[40] p. 180, 3.24.4 
[41] On this matter I clearly differ with Calvin who rails against those who “are so cautious or fearful that they desire to bury predestination in order not to disturb weak souls” of arrogantly accusing God of “stupid thoughtlessness” (184). I do not wish to bury predestination, just to deliver the doctrine to the proper destination – even as did Paul.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I like the idea of mystery because if God is truly way beyond our limited physical and intellectual grasp, then we can never fully understand His ways. I don't think one should emphasize what the scriptures loosely mention, and then build a huge theological framework that is the foundation of Christianity for an idea that is actually shrouded in the unknowable. Calvin seems to have done this very thing. From man's perspective, we are convinced, persuaded and converted to Christ - and this is plain and obvious in the scriptures, not mysterious. Likewise, it is plain and obvious in scripture that we are accountable and should strive to live righteous and holy lives. In this sense, Wesley is more appropriate than Calvin. Like many things, we should major on the majors. Calvin's inappropriate emphasis has led to the desire to bury predestination as well as the more common error of unrepentant and unregenerate "Christians". My take is this – if a passage emphasizes God’s fiat, then we teach it when teaching that passage. Likewise, If a passage emphasizes Man’s responsibility before God, then this is what is taught. It just so happens that the teachings about God are beyond us but the teachings regarding mankind are actually for us and more numerous (not that the plethora of teachings on our behavior deemphasize God’s divinity) and the scriptures should be taught as such without making up handles to calm our insatiable appetite to have absolute knowledge of the divine.

  3. Thanks. Very clear and on the button.

    A question concerning "those who have been apprehended by God’s grace, not those who believe they have God in their pocket, or those fleeing from God. Let those who need assurance find it in predestination, but let us find other scriptural doctrines to  spur on lazy saints and invite the lost sinners."

    Many Arminians believe they have been "apprehended by God's grace" who are neither lazy or cocksure, yet they despise "predestination/election" as defined in the Bible and clearly explained by Calvin (and you). My question: Do you think that this hatred (confusion? refusal?) is a very serious matter? After all, election impacts everything else in the Christian life. I find that whatever topic - religious or not - I talk about with others, God's sovereign decrees and will always crop up.