Rev. Terpstra is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.
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.
J.Calvin, Institutes, III, xxi, 1
Dearly beloved brethren, we must not be amazed if the article of the everlasting predestination of God, be so assaulted and fought against by Satan’s maintainers, seeing it is the foundation of our salvation, and also serveth for the better magnifying of the free goodness of God towards us.
J.Calvin, Sermons on Election
Old Paths, 1996, p. 305
A description of the teachings of John Calvin cannot be given without including his doctrine of predestination. For this truth is fundamental to his theology, flowing throughout it like a crystal-clear brook. In this article we do not refer to the doctrine of general predestination, that is, that God sovereignly predestines all things that take place in time and history. This too Calvin taught. Rather we limit ourselves to God’s sovereign predestination of His rational, moral creatures, in particular, man. For this is the doctrine so critical to Calvin’s Calvinism — still today — but which also comes with so much criticism and controversy.
Controversy has long surrounded Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. Not only were there those in his day who ridiculed his teaching on predestination, but also today theologians argue over the nature of his doctrine and over the place that predestination had in Calvin’s theology. For one thing, some have argued that predestination was not the center of his teaching as others had held (cf. Calvin, The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought, F.Wendel, Collins, 1965, pp. 263ff.). Others have claimed that Calvin’s doctrine of predestination underwent a significant change following his death. They argue that Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, changed Calvin’s doctrine from a warm, biblical presentation to a coldly logical and rationalistic teaching (cf. A Life of John Calvin, A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture, A.E. McGrath, Baker, 1990, pp. 211ff.). And then too, there is the controversy involving the place where Calvin dealt with predestination in his theology. Much is made of the fact that he did not treat election and reprobation in connection with the doctrine of God (theology, as was done later in Reformed theology), but in connection with the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology, cf. below) and the doctrine of salvation (soteriology). This is supposed to indicate that Calvin’s doctrine was not as dominant and strong as in later Calvinism. But this is simply not true, as Calvin’s treatment of the doctrine in these places demonstrates. Where he decided to deal with God’s predestination did not weaken the doctrine in the least.
But whatever one’s view on these issues may be, one thing is certain and acknowledged by all sincere historians and theologians: Calvin plainly and powerfully taught God’s predestination of mankind, both election and reprobation. He taught it from the beginning of his public ministry, and he continued to develop and clarify it throughout his lifetime. The truth of double predestination is found in the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes (1536). There he wrote, in connection with the doctrine of the church, that the “holy catholic church” is “the whole number of the elect.” And a few paragraphs later he stated,
Consequently, the Lord, when he calls his own, justifies and glorifies his own, is declaring nothing but his eternal election, by which he had destined them to this end before they were born. Therefore no one will enter into the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom, who has not been called in this manner, and justified, seeing that without any exception the Lord in this manner sets forth and manifests his election in all men whom he has chosen (F.L. Battles, transl., Eerdmans, 1986).
In subsequent editions of the Institutes (1539, 1554, 1559) Calvin gave the truth of predestination more and more room, as Wendel points out (Calvin, p. 264). In that final edition we find Calvin’s fullest and finest exposition of the doctrine, as it covers four chapters in the third book, sixty-seven pages in the McNeill/Battles edition (vol. 2, Westminster, 1960). Here the reader will find all the classic aspects of the doctrine treated: God’s absolute sovereignty in electing His people and in rejecting all others of the human race; the unconditional nature of God’s sovereign choice (without regard to foreknown character or works, as in Jacob and Esau, Romans 9:11); the sovereign mercy and justice of God revealed in the two-sided decree (mercy to the elect, justice to the reprobate); the Christ-centered focus of God’s election, as He chose His people in His Son and prepared all their salvation in Him and Him alone; the unchangeable and effectual character of God’s decree, such that the salvation of the elect is absolutely secure, while the damnation of the reprobate is equally sure. To give just a sampling from this edition, this is how Calvin defined predestination at the beginning of his treatment:
We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed 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 to death (p. 926).
It is striking and interesting that Calvin also included the doctrine of double predestination in his Catechism for the church in Geneva, a catechism written especially for the instruction of the youth of that city (first published in 1537). In it he tied it to the doctrine of the church, as in the early edition of the Institutes (“What is the Church? The body and society of believers whom God hath predestined to eternal life,” Selected Works, H.Beveridge, ed. & transl., Baker, 1983), but also to the twofold effect of the preaching of the gospel. There he wrote,
The seed of the Word of God takes root and grows fruitful only in those whom the Lord, by his eternal election, has predestined to be his children and heirs of the heavenly kingdom. To all others who, by the same counsel of God before the constitution of the world, are reprobate, the clear and evident preaching of the truth can be nothing else but an odour of death in death (Wendel, p. 266).
Calvin’s clear teaching on the truth of sovereign predestination can be traced first of all to the fact that he was preeminently a biblical theologian. We know that Calvin was also a great systematizer of the faith of the church, and that he applied those skills in laying out the truth of God’s sovereign predestination. That is evident from his treatment of it in his Institutes. But he taught and systematized only what he found in the sacred Scriptures. Calvin preached and wrote so much about predestination precisely because he based all he did on the Word of God, where that truth is revealed throughout. As he worked with the Bible, whether it was Genesis (cf. Sermons on Election and Reprobation) or Romans (cf. his commentary on this book), the truth of sovereign predestination was clearly revealed to him. Through the power of the Word it became the convicting belief of his own heart, such that he felt compelled to preach it, teach it, and defend it with pulpit and pen. In fact, at the beginning of his treatment of this doctrine in the 1559 Institutes, Calvin criticized those who wanted to keep predestination “buried,” i.e., avoided and suppressed because it was too deep a doctrine (he had in mind, among others, the Lutheran theologian Melanchthon). And he appealed to the Scriptures to defend teaching it to the church:
Therefore to hold to a proper limit in this regard also, we shall have to turn to the Word of the Lord, in which we have a sure rule for the understanding. For Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, in which, as nothing is omitted that is both necessary and useful to know, so nothing is taught but what is expedient to know. Therefore we must guard against depriving believers of anything disclosed about predestination in Scripture, lest we seem either wickedly to defraud them of the blessing of their God or to accuse and scoff at the Holy Spirit for having published what it is in any way profitable to suppress (Institutes, p. 924).
Another factor in Calvin’s strong teaching on predestination was his passion for the glory of God in the sovereignty of His grace. As the two quotes at the beginning of this article show, Calvin believed that no doctrine serves more to bring out the greatness and glory of God’s sovereign grace than the truth of His eternal election of His people in Jesus Christ. His writings state this repeatedly and consistently. Calvin was convinced that the most powerful way to refute the heresy of free will and all salvation by the work of man is to uphold the doctrine that God has sovereignly chosen His people to salvation from all eternity and included in that election all the means unto and blessings of that salvation. When salvation is grounded in God’s sovereign will, the will of man is put in its proper place. And, of course, this is the answer to all free-willism yet today. The contemporary Reformed church must continue to uphold (return to upholding!) the doctrine of God’s sovereign predestination, or she will cave in to the errors of free will.
And thus too Calvin’s doctrine of predestination was developed and refined in the fires of spiritual battle. This is the third factor in his uncompromising exposition of the truth concerning election and reprobation. As today the doctrine of sovereign predestination is hated and attacked, so it was in Calvin’s time too. He responded to two attackers against the truth of predestination. First of all, there was the Roman Catholic divine Albertus Pighius, who promoted salvation by the free will of man and predestination on the condition of foreknowledge. Calvin replied to him in 1543 and 1552 (cf. below), setting forth God’s sovereign election as the answer to all attempts to have man contribute to his salvation. Secondly, Calvin did battle against Jerome Bolsec, a renegade and radical Protestant who despised predestination as “godless and blasphemous” (cf. The Creeds of Christendom, P. Schaff, vol. 1, pp. 474ff.). Calvin took up the pen against him in two documents, the Concensus of Geneva (1552), which is “an elaborate theological argument for the doctrine of absolute predestination, as the only solid ground of comfort to the believer” (Schaff, p. 475). And second, in a treatise entitled “Of the Eternal Predestination of God” (1552), now published in Calvin’s Calvinism (Reformed Free Publishing Assn., 1989). Here too is his mature doctrine laid out, made sharp and strong by the attacks of the enemy. It is a marvelous defense of sovereign grace through a defense of God’s sovereignty in predestination. (We urge the reader to read this treatise!)
As we end this discussion of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, we want to show how warm and pastoral he was in teaching this truth to the saints of God. He taught that the believer can and must receive the assurance and comfort of his election. For this truth makes his salvation absolutely safe and secure. Yet this certainty of one’s election is not to be severed from Christ and faith in Him. And so, where he ties election to Christ, this is what he writes:
If we seek salvation, life, and the immortality of the Heavenly Kingdom, then there is no other to whom we may flee, seeing that he (Christ, CJT) alone is the fountain of life, the anchor of salvation, and the heir of the Kingdom of Heaven. Now what is the purpose of our election but that we, adopted as sons by our Heavenly Father, may obtain salvation and immortality by his favor? …But if we have been chosen in him, we find not the assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election. For since it is into his body the Father has destined those to be engrafted whom he has willed from eternity to be his own, that he may hold as sons all whom he acknowledges to be among his members, we have a sufficiently clear and firm testimony that we have been inscribed in the book of life (cf.
) if we are in communion with Christ (Institutes, p. 970).
May we find our own blessed assurance of election to salvation in Christ in this way.