“Hyper-Calvinism” and the Call of the Gospel (14)

John Calvin takes up the doctrine of the call of the gospel in Book III of the Institutes, in connection with the doctrine of God’s eternal election. In chapter XXII, section 10, after he has taught that God elects some to Salvation and reprobates others to perdition, he notes that “some object that God would be inconsistent with himself, in inviting all without distinction while he elects only a few. Thus, according to them, the universality of the promise destroys the distinction of special grace.” He faces the question, “How can election be harmonized with the call of the gospel to others beside those who are saved?” This question is really an objection to election. Those who raise it argue that since God calls everyone to repent and believe, there is no election. 

Calvin’s answer is that’ there is harmony between 9 “the two things—viz. that by external preaching all are called to faith and repentance, and that yet the Spirit of faith and repentance is not given to all.” Addressing himself to the assumption that the external call to everyone implies a universal grace of God to all and a universal promise to all, Calvin reminds such objectors to election that God is not “under a fixed obligation to call all equally.” “He (God) destines the promises of salvation specially to the elect (Is. 8:16).” “Whence it is evident that the doctrine of salvation, which is said to be set apart for the sons of the Church only, is abused when it is represented as effectually available to all . . . though the word of the gospel is addressed generally to all, yet the gift of faith is rare. Isaiah assigns the cause when he says, that the arm of the Lord is not revealed to all (Isa. 53:1).” 

The harmony between election and the call of the gospel to all who hear the preaching Calvin gives in chapter XXIV of Book III. He begins by stating that he will now treat “both of the calling of the elect, and of the blinding and hardening of the ungodly” (section 1). For Calvin, “the preaching of the gospel springs from the fountain of election” (I), i.e., the preaching of the gospel is due to the eternal love of God’s heart for the elect, is God’s gift to the elect, and is intended to save the elect—and the elect only. Accordingly, the call of the gospel, “which consists not merely of the preaching of the word, but also of the illumination of the Spirit” (2), is exclusively for the elect. God withholds the call from the reprobate. 

Immediately, Calvin brings up Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:14: “Many are called but few are chosen.” Does this not contradict Calvin’s teaching that God calls only the elect, and does this not indicate that God desires many more to be saved than only the elect? Not at all, says Calvin, for “there are two species of calling—there is a universal call, by which God, through the external preaching of the word, invites all men alike, even those for whom he designs the call to be a savor of death, and the ground of a severer condemnation. Besides this there is a special call which, for the most part, God bestows on believers only, when by the internal illumination of the Spirit he causes the word preached to take deep root in their hearts” (8). The “special call,” or efficacious call, which consists both of the preaching of the gospel and the “internal illumination of the Spirit,” is for the elect alone. The call in the preaching comes also to many reprobates, but God’s “design” with the call to them is that it be to them a savor of death and the ground of worse condemnation. Calvin does not regard the external call of the gospel as grace to all hearers or as an expression of God’s sincere desire to save all. 

Calvin comes back to the assertion that the preaching of the gospel, and particularly the call of the gospel, has a two-fold effect and that this effect is determined by God’s eternal purpose in election and reprobation. “As the Lord by the efficacy of his calling accomplishes towards his elect the salvation to which he had by his eternal counsel destined them, so he has judgments against the reprobate, by which he executes his counsel concerning them. Those, therefore, whom he has created for dishonor during life and destruction at death, that they may be vessels of wrath and examples of severity, in bringing to their doom, he at one time deprives of the means of hearing his word, at another by the preaching of it blinds and stupefies them the more” (12). So far from being grace to the reprobate, the preaching of the gospel is a judgment against them, for by the preaching God blinds and stupefies them. “God sends his word to many whose blindness he is pleased to aggravate” (13). This is the teaching of Holy Scripture. God sent Moses to Pharaoh with His Word in order to harden Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 4:21). “But the prophecy of Isaiah presses still more closely; for he is thus commissioned by the Lord, ‘Go and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not, and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert and be healed’ (Isa. 6:9, 10). Here he directs his voice to them, but it is that they may turn a deafer ear; he kindles a light, but it is that they may become more blind; he produces a doctrine, but it is that they may be more stupid; he employs a remedy, but it is that they may not be cured” (13). After referring to John’s explanation of this prophecy, in John 12, that it was spoken of the Jews’ inability to believe on Christ, Calvin declared to be “incontrovertible, that to those whom God is not pleased to illumine, he delivers his doctrine wrapt up in enigmas, so that they may not profit by it, but be given over to greater blindness” (13).

Calvin concludes his treatment of the doctrine of the call by considering certain texts appealed to by those who object to the teaching that God’s call unto salvation is grounded in and determined by election. Strikingly, these texts are the same as those always appealed to by defenders of the offer and, as Calvin remarks in his “Treatise of the Eternal Predestination of God,” the same as those appealed to by Pelagius against Augustine: Ezekiel 18:23I Timothy 2:4; and Matthew 23:37. Whether one agrees with Calvin’s interpretation of these texts or not, it is clear that he does not explain them as teaching that God is gracious in the gospel to elect and reprobate alike or that God sincerely desires all men to be saved. Calvin’s remarks on Ezekiel 18:23show this. The text reads: “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?” Calvin’s opponents appeal to it as proof that God loves every man and, in that love, sincerely desires every man to be saved. Replies Calvin: “If we are to extend this to the whole human race, why are not the verymany whose minds might be more easily bent to obey urged to repentance, rather than those who by his invitations become daily more and more hardened? Our Lord declares that the preaching of the gospel and miracles would have produced more fruit among the people of Ninevah and Sodom than in Judea (Matt. 13:23). How comes it, then, that if God would have all to be saved, he does not open a door of repentance for the wretched, who would more readily have received grace? Hence we may see that the passage is violently wrested, if the will of God, which the prophet mentions, is opposed to his eternal counsel, by which he separated the elect from the reprobate” (15). The “genuine meaning” of this much-abused text, says Calvin, is that “the prophet . . . only means to give the hope of pardon to them who repent” (15). 

Calvin’s doctrine of the call of the gospel is also on the foreground in the first of the two treatises that make up his Calvin’s Calvinism*, “A Treatise of the Eternal Predestination of God.” Calvin wrote it, shortly before his death, against Albertus Pighius and Georgius the Sicilian, who denied predestination and affirmed free-will. Pighius made grace common to all men in the offer of salvation, although it depended for its efficacy on the will of the sinner. Calvin calls this a “fiction”: “The fiction of Pighius is puerile and absurd, when he interprets grace to be God’s goodness in inviting all men to salvation, though all were lost in Adam. For Paul most clearly separates the forknown from those on whom God deigned not to look in mercy . . . he (Pighius) holds fast the fiction that grace is offered equally to all, but that it is ultimately rendered effectual by the will of man, just as each one is willing to receive it” (pp. 49-51). 

Pighius, “this worthless fellow,” thought to find an argument against election in the fact that “Christ, the Redeemer of the whole world, commanded the Gospel to be preached to all men, promiscuously, generally, and without distinction.” Calvin replies “that Christ was so ordained the Saviour of the whole world, as that He might save those that were given unto Him by the Father out of the whole world, that He might be the eternal life of them of whom He is the Head; that He might receive into a participation of all the ‘blessings in Him’ all those whom God adopted to Himself by His own unmerited good pleasure to be His heirs.” The, grace of Christ in the gospel is intended for and given to the elect only: “unto, the virtue and benefits of Christ are extended and belong to, none but the children of God.” “If we see and acknowledge, therefore, the principle on which the doctrine of the Gospel offers salvation to all, the whole sacred matter is settled at once. That the Gospel is, in its nature, able to save all I by no means deny. But the great question lies here: Did the Lord by His eternal counsel ordain salvation for all men? It is quite manifest that all men, without difference or distinction, are outwardly called or invited to repentance and faith. It is equally evident that the same Mediator is set forth before all, as He who alone can reconcile them to the Father. But it is as fully well known that none of these things can be understood or perceived but by faith, in fulfillment of the apostle Paul’s declaration that ‘the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth’; then what can it be to others but the ‘savor of death unto death?’ as the same apostle elsewhere powerfully expresses himself’ (pp. 93-95). 

Calvin wants to “hold fast that the Gospel, which is, in its essential nature, ‘a savor of life unto life,’ and ought to be so to all that hear it, becomes ‘a savor of death unto death in them that perish,’ who thus remain in their darkness and unbelief because (Calvin’s emphasis—DE) ‘the arm of the Lord’ is not revealed to them” (pp. 97, 98).

Calvin makes plain that he is opposed not only to Pighius’ doctrine of free-will, but also to Pighius’ doctrine that God wills all men to be saved—which two doctrines are ever and necessarily found together. “Now let Pighius boast,” writes Calvin, “if he can, that God willeth all men to be saved! The above arguments, founded on the Scriptures, prove that even the external preaching of the doctrine of salvation, which is very far inferior to the illumination of the Spirit, was not made of God common to all men” (p. 104). 

Calvin castigates Pighius for teaching that the mercy of God extends to others than the elect: “After this, Pighius, like a wild beast escaped from his cage, rushes forth, bounding over all fences in his way, uttering such sentiments as these: ‘The mercy of God is extended to every one, for God wishes all men to be saved; and for that end He stands and knocks at the door of our heart, desiring to enter'” (p. 152). By Calvin’s standard—an accurate one—wild beasts abound today, running loose in even nominally Reformed churches. We will do our best to cage them and to muzzle their ravings about a grace of God for all, that wishes all to be saved, and that stands offering and begging at the door of the sinner’s heart. Calvin refutes this “puerile dream” with the teaching of Romans 9and Romans 11. God chose Jacob and rejected Esau before they were born or had done good or evil; God hardens whom He wills and has mercy on whom He wills; “the election obtained it, and the rest were blinded.” 

Similar is the refutation of Georgius the Sicilian. Georgius argued that the universal call to repentance and faith indicates that God willed all to be saved. For God to call a man to believe whom He had reprobated would be for God to mock that man. The form that this argument takes today is the contention that for God to call one to believe, towards whom God has no grace and for whom God does not desire that he be saved, would be to deny the seriousness of the gospel-call. Calvin’s reply is that the command of God to the reprobate to repent is God’s demand that they give God what they owe Him: “For surely God doth men no injury whatever when He demands nothing more of them than that which they really owe Him . . .” (p. 173). Calvin readily grants that the exhortations of the gospel are addressed both to elect and reprobate, but he holds that God’s purpose with these exhortations is different in the case of the elect and in the case of the reprobate. As regards the elect, God intends that they “return to a right mind,” i.e., be saved; as regards the reprobate, God’s purpose is “that lying stupefied in their iniquities, they might, by such piercing appeals, be goaded into a sense of their awful condition . . . (and) prove themselves at length to be incurable” (p. 174). 

Calvin’s doctrine of the call of the gospel, then, is this. In the preaching of the gospel, God outwardly calls all hearers to repent and believe, and the Church must call everyone indiscriminately also. God’s purpose with this call is determined by and is in harmony with His eternal counsel of predestination, election and reprobation—He wills the call to save the elect, and He wills the call to work the condemnation of the reprobate. The call of the gospel to the elect is accompanied by the internal enlightening of the Spirit, so that they are efficaciously drawn to Christ by faith and are saved. The call to the reprobate is God’s demand, made in perfect righteousness and in utmost seriousness, that they do what is their duty to do. When God gives this command, He withholds from them the Spirit Who alone is able to give the repentance and faith called for—Whom God is not obligated to give to anyone—and instead hardens them in their unbelief. 

We have now found for the defenders of the well-meant offer of the gospel the original hyper-Calvinist—John Calvin himself. 

(to be continued)