Rev. Connors is pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia. Previous article in this series: November 1, 2009, p. 68.
In the first part of this presentation at the Calvin Conference sponsored by the Protestant Reformed Seminary (cf. November 1, 2009 SB, p. 68), Rev. Connors outlined Calvin’s doctrine of Predestination. Now he turns to:
Calvin’s Challenge to the Church
1. Calvin challenges us to be committed to predestination as a truth we receive from God through His word.
Calvin did not just teach a doctrinal system—he experienced the reforming power of sola scriptura. Consequently, he models what happens when a mind well versed in Scripture and enlightened by the Spirit submits itself under God speaking in the word; and he challenges us to do the same—in a most practical way. This is what made Calvin such a catalyst for thorough-going reform.¹ And this is what it still takes to stand fast in the truth of predestination, against the tide.
Fully as far, but no further than the word. That was Calvin’s rule. Faith follows Christ fully as far, but not one step beyond. Perhaps the best way to show how completely he submitted to that rule, and how firmly he required others to do the same, is to cite a passage from one of his sermons:
Let us know that our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us, that we cannot do amiss to hearken and open our ears, to inquire and search after what it has pleased him we should know: but let us take heed that we go not beyond it: for there is no rage so great and outrageous, as when we will know more than God shows us…. Let us therefore keep this mean: that is to say, to hearken to that which God propounds unto us: and as soon as he shall once shut his mouth, let us have all our understandings locked up and captive, and let us not endeavor to know more than he shall have pronounced to us…. And when we shall be…[troubled] tormented, let us have recourse unto God: that is to say, let us hearken to that which is shown us in the holy Scripture, let us pray that God will open our ears and our eyes, to the end we may understand his will. And further, we have this; it behooves us altogether to rest therein, and to be quiet. For there is no cause of disputing any farther, when God has once pronounced his sentence.²
Do you believe God speaking in the word—or do you not? Faith must go as far as, but no further. That is a constant refrain in Calvin. He repeats it so of ten that you get the impression Calvin didn’t expect anyone to agree with what he taught about predestination unless this way of relating to the word was first fixed in the heart. And especially when he must touch upon a “perplexing” point, he locates his hearers inside this principle by reiterating it before, during, and after what he has to say!
Now, that principle cuts both ways revealing either faith or unbelief. To those who deny predestination because it raises “questions concerning the judgments of God which are incomprehensible, and which are of so high and profound matter, that the Holy Spirit has to teach them,” Calvin says, “instead of curious searching, we must adore them!” (Sermons, p. 52). “Let us not be ashamed to be ignorant of something in this matter wherein there is a certain learned ignorance” required. “We cease to speak well when we cease to speak with God” (Institutes, 3.23.5). So, not one step beyond!
And at the same time, Calvin judged it to be false humility, dishonoring to God, and detrimental to God’s children to draw back from predestination as if it is a reef upon which we might be shipwrecked. And he chides the “teary modesty” of the “insipid cautious ones” (Calvin’s Calvinism, p. 150) who want to hide what God teaches men to believe. He believed they made themselves wiser than God, for implying that the Spirit had let slip something by mistake that was injurious to His church. To such like, Calvin says—fully as far as he leads!
The “insipid cautious ones” of our day may not take refuge in Calvin’s calling reprobation “the dreadful” decree. McNeill has it right when he explains that “Calvin is awestruck but unrelenting in his declaration that God is the author of reprobation.”³ By all means, let us be awestruck, but let us not be dumbstruck. The heirs of Calvin will surely be interested in the unrelenting bit also! Calvin’s doctrine of predestination includes, indeed demands, just such subjection to God speaking in the word. For Calvin, denial and/or suppression of predestination was a display of unbelief!
2. Calvin therefore holds a challenge to the churches to teach and preach predestination.
Calvin’s conviction was that, “The doctrine of election ought to be preached constantly and thoroughly.” And when it comes to those who “carp, rail, bark or scoff at it,” Calvin challenges us to remember that, “if their shamefulness deters us, we shall have to keep secret the chief doctrine of the faith, almost none of which they or their like leave untouched by blasphemy” (Institutes, 3.21.4). Predestination is not an addendum to the gospel—nor is it something to be hidden from the world in case it causes offense! Predestination is in Calvin’s judgment the chief doctrine. His challenge to the churches is this: If opposition to predestination can drive you into an embarrassed silence—there is nothing you will ultimately stand on.
It is telling to see what Calvin associates this with. What if someone opposes the doctrine of the Trinity? he asks. Or what if someone guffaws at your belief that only a little more than 5,000 years have passed since creation? Calvin’s words were prophetic! Before theistic evolution could be entertained, the churches drew back from the predestinating God of the word.
Calvin reminds us that, “God’s truth is so powerful, both in this respect and in every other, that it has nothing to fear from the evil-speaking of wicked men” (Institutes, 3.21.4). For the church to suppress and hide predestination because of what men might think or say, is unbelief! That is Calvin!
If we would stand with Calvin, we will need to say: “Let those deride us who will, if God but give His nod of assent from heaven to our stupidity (as men think), and if angels do but applaud it” (C.C., p. 84).
3. Finally, Calvin challenges us to embrace predestination as gospel truth—and to preach and teach it for the good of God’s elect, and the glory of God’s name.
Calvin firmly believed that without the truth of predestination we are “blind to the three great benefits of salvation, namely, God’s free grace, God’s glory, and sincere humility” (Institutes, 3.21.1). Predestination grounds the gospel in grace, and humbles us all under the reality that “there is nothing but his mercy alone” (Sermons, pp. 41, 42). Furthermore, out of election in Christ flows all comfort to believers—and they may not be robbed of the inheritance God has given. Predestination unto life in Christ Jesus holds us at the foot of the cross!
And because that is so, Calvin has a caution. He insists, with Augustine, that, “those things which are truly said can at the same time be fittingly said” (Institutes, 3.23.14). What did he mean by “fittingly said”? That is a subject worthy of a paper in its own right. But the way he put his Institutes together, and what he writes therein, show us clearly enough.
In the Institutes he models what he means when he leaves his formal treatment of predestination until Book Three. When we might expect him to deal with predestination under Theology, he leaves it until towards the end of his treatment of the way of salvation. Calvin first leads us through faith as a gift of God, through regeneration and effectual calling, into union with Christ. Then, only when he has shown us that in Christ we are made partakers of the benefits of salvation, Calvin introduces us to predestination!
I find in Calvin three primary reasons for this order. First, he believed that the natural place for predestination to arise, as Paul shows in Romans 9, is in answer to that crucial question: Why, when the gospel is preached to all, do only some believe? Second, he believed firmly and passionately that predestination must never be preached in such a way that it sends sinners directly to God’s secret counsel to discover their election. For preaching to do that, says Calvin, would be to, “cast men into the depths of a bottomless whirlpool to be swallowed up; then he tangles himself in innumerable and inextricable snares; then he buries himself in an abyss of sightless darkness” (Institutes, 3.24.4). If we would teach men how to sail the ship of faith so as to avoid this rock, “against which no one is ever dashed without destruction,” and to do so safely, calmly, and pleasantly, then “let this therefore, be the way of our inquiry: to begin with God’s call, and to end with God’s call” (Instatutes, 3.24.4). He refers to the effectual call that unites the soul to Christ by faith.
And that is his third reason: election must be revealed to and ratified in the soul—by faith. It is only to believers, indwelt by the Spirit of His Son, that God gives that power to become the sons of God, and to cry Abba, Father. Therefore, if we would preach predestination as Calvin would have it preached, then one thing must be made so perfectly clear that there is not so much as a hint of its opposite left in the minds of our hearers; that is, knowledge of God’s electing love can be had in no other way than by faith in Jesus Christ. Preaching must call sinners to “Christ as the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election” (Institutes, 3.24.5).
Thus, predestination demands that sinners be called to faith in Christ alone. That is what preaching is for—it is to unite the elect to Christ by faith, build them up in Christ by faith, and bring them safe home to Christ through faith!
Predestination is, therefore, the great encouragement to preach.
Calvin saw that predestination grounds the gospel message in God’s sovereign mercy, and directs sinners to Christ alone. And this is so far from militating against the preaching of Christ to all men, that it beggars belief that the charge is ever made!
Predestination lets the gospel of God loose as the power of God to all those who do believe. It sends the gospel to call every sinner to believe in Christ as the Savior of unworthy sinners of every sort. It has a Divine promise that is grounded in eternal election to encourage and enrich whosoever believes! And it sends it forth with confidence—absolute and unshakable confidence—for it places the preacher in the midst of a fallen world, like Ezekiel called to declare the word of God in the valley of dry bones. Can these bones live? The irresistible grace of unconditional election is able to make them live! GOD can do it—and He will, for all His elect! GOD will call His elect to life through the gospel. That is the encouragement to preach! That is the basis of missions! That is the encouragement for us to witness and share the gospel with our neighbors, to teach and nurture our children—to bring the word as elders in admonition and discipline! Christ will make His sheep to hear His voice!
That is the good news! God is still God!
Thanks be unto God, who always causes us to triumph in Christ, and makes manifest the savor of His knowledge by us in every place. For we are the savor of death unto death, and to the other the savor of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ (II Cor. 2:14-17).
¹ On Sunday, August 16, 2009, an ABC radio program was dedicated to a discussion of John Calvin’s life and influence. It was stated, and agreed by the panel, that “without John Calvin, the world we live in would be a very different place.”
² Calvin, Sermons on Election and Reprobation, p. 30, see also pp. 28, 29, 31, 36, 37, 52, 53, 54; and in the Institutes, 3.21.3.
³ McNeill, Institutes, 3.23.7, note 17.