The title of this article is that of Book 3, Chapter XXI of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Right off the bat, he confirms for his readers what most people find abhorrent: God has chosen before the foundation of the world those who receive salvation and those whom he has predestined for eternal destruction.
Make no mistake about it: all discussions about logical consistencies and fatalism and free will are mere diversions from the true matter. At their heart, they are waged by men combatting the Biblical revelation that, as God told Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” [Rom 9:15]
Also, they are launched as a defense to counter the affront our carnal senses, bound by sin, suffer when we read that “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—[Rebekah] was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'” [Rom. 9:11-13]
But in all of this, Calvin does something hardly anyone else does: rather than turning it into mere discussions of rules of logic and fallacies and resolving inconsistencies between definitions — as if the misunderstanding of Biblical predestination is intellectual instead of ethical, merely one of simple errors of logic instead of moral rebellion against God’s will — he also speaks to the fruits of this doctrine.
Where most people shake their fist at God for his reserving the right to do what he wishes in accordance with his righteousness and secret judgment, Calvin reminds us just how beneficial this doctrine is to believers. He speaks of why men despise it and why it’s important theologically.
CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT
His insight into the depravity of the human will is incisive. He says that “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.”
He speaks of this behavior as audacious and impudent.
He reminds us that “when they inquire into predestination they are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom….For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this also he should fill us with wonder.”
He said we must exhibit restraint, and that to unbridle our curiosity is sinful. In other words, he takes seriously the Bible’s admonition: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” [Deut. 29:29]
HE REALLY MEANS WHAT YOU THINK HE MEANS
Calvin assaults his reader in the first sentence of the chapter with that doctrine which many revile. “In actual fact,” he begins, “the covenant of life is not preached equally among all men, and among those to whom it is preached, it does not gain the same acceptance either constantly or in equal degree. In this diversity the wonderful depth of God’s judgment is made known.”
He continues this assault upon our carnal senses when he says that “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.”
He calls men who would question God’s wisdom to the floor of the throne room immediately, for such men “think nothing more inconsistent than that out of the common multitude of men some should be predestined to salvation, others to destruction.”
Is this not still true today? Do people think nothing more inconsistent or intolerable than that God would predestine some to salvation, others to damnation?
But here he begins to talk about the “very sweet fruit” of this doctrine which is made known to us in the very darkness that frightens them. A question follows:
How do you know you’re saved?
He says that “We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy until we come to know his eternal election, which illumines God’s grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others.”
Here, a couple of things should be repeated: it’s by God’s will that some are not saved. God denies salvation to some.
Also, we won’t be fully convinced of our salvation until we understand that God does not bestow such a great gift upon all, indiscriminately. He’s not some figment of fantasy who reaches into his sack of fairy dust and sprinkles it onto the masses such that whosoever happens to be touched by it finds salvation but those who aren’t fortunate enough to stand under a falling speckle of salvation powder simply miss out.
No, he saved you for a reason. He chose you to be among the elect before the foundation of the world intentionally. It is no accident.
And it is also no accident that he does not save everyone.
MERITING GOD’S FAVOR
Paul helps to explain why. We are saved by grace alone. If it is not by grace alone, then it is by works. But what does that really mean?
“Works” are those things which we do…period. They can be good or bad. Did you remember someone’s birthday and mail them a card? That’s a work. Did you study hard for a test in order to make a good grade so that you can have a successful career? That’s a work.
Did you sit in an armchair long enough to finally decide, after turning over every thought in your mind regarding a complex argument, that one side of the argument is correct and the other is incorrect such that you’ve now aligned your opinion with that side which you believe to be correct?
That’s also a work.
THIS WILL BE CONTROVERSIAL
Did you search your heart and read Scriptures and finally make a decision to accept Christ into your heart as your personal savior?
That, my friend, is a work. It’s a very good work. But it is still a work, and no man ever came to saving faith by works, for Paul wrote that “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” [Rom. 11:5-6]
That work of yours is only good because of God’s first, sovereign act of choosing you by grace and illuminating your heart with the Holy Spirit, planting the seed of your faith, and quickening it to life so that you may have life.
It is because you are baptized into Christ and now clothed in his righteous robes that your works, even as spotted as they continue to be, are accepted by God as good despite their lingering tarnish. [Gal. 3:27] Without God’s grace, we would all stand before his throne and none of our works would be accepted because “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” [Is. 64:6]
The King James Version translates “polluted garment” as “filthy rags.”
In Chapter 3 of Romans, Paul reminds us pointedly that “no one does good…no one understands; no one seeks God…all have turned aside,” and “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Again: no one seeks God. But how can that be true? Didn’t you seek God before finding Christ? Yes, you did. But if left to your own devices you never would have sought after God. It’s by God’s grace that you ever began your quest of seeking for him.
You didn’t decide to seek him on your own, meaning you didn’t, by doing a good enough work, earn God’s favor. That would mean that all people can do good enough works by seeking God and that they, too, can find salvation.
It would mean God doesn’t really know who’s going to be saved and who won’t. It would mean that there’s a chance that your salvation may be ripped from you by the same forces of chance that some presume God to allow to operate when allowing people to stumble into salvation.
The Bible doesn’t teach that this is true. People only seek out God if God has chosen them by his grace, a free gift. That way, it is not by works, but grace, that we are saved.
Your faith is a gift of God, not by works, but by grace, so that no one may boast. [Eph. 2:9]
By his grace he had mercy on us and put the light of Christ in our hearts so that the path to eternal life may be illuminated for us.
SHUTTING THE GATES
Calvin continues to assail those who assail the Biblical doctrine of predestination. He says that “They who shut the gates that no one may dare seek a taste of this doctrine wrong men no less than God. For neither will anything else suffice to make us humble as we ought to be nor shall we otherwise sincerely feel how much we are obliged to God.”
Take note of his point: accepting the doctrine of predestination even though it assaults our carnal senses is an act of humbling ourselves before our Lord and Savior, the Creator and sustainer of all things. If we don’t, we’ll not sincerely know our deep obligations to God.
Remember what Christ told us: “I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” [John 10:28-29]
Christ here teaches this so that we may lose all fear and gain all confidence in our eternal salvation.
Calvin comments about those, then, who continue to live in fear: “From this we infer that all those who do not know that they are God’s own will be miserable through constant fear. Hence, those who by being blind to the three benefits we have noted [God’s free mercy, God’s glory, and our sincere humility] would wish the foundation of our salvation to be removed from our midst, very badly serve the interests of themselves and of all other believers.”
Christ tells us that his sheep who hear his voice should be secure in their salvation. We should suffer no apprehension when staring into the darkness of the mystery of predestination. Those who do not hear Christ’s voice, as Calvin notes, will labor in constant fear and apprehension all their days. It’s from the likes of these that assaults to the doctrine of predestination come. But by their assault, they attack the very sweet fruits that would be of benefit to themselves as well as other believers.
Calvin was clear about his understanding of the Bible’s doctrine of predestination. I have shown that he does not fear the doctrine, and he exhorts us to embrace it also so that we may fully humble ourselves before God and taste in fullness the sweet fruits of his divine, righteous mercy.
We have examined in brief some of the fruits of the doctrine, and we have explored the motivations of men who assail the doctrine. Their dark motivations are illuminated by, and are given support in, the testimony of Christ who tells us that his sheep have no need to fear their salvation.
More discussion will follow in proceeding articles. There I’ll add more Scriptural proofs of this doctrine which some refer to as “double predestination.”