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Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: June 2007, p. 397.

Calvin’s Influence


In confessing that election governs the covenant, as they did at the very beginning of their history, particularly in the “[Reformed] Form for the Administration of Baptism” (1574) and in the Canons of Dordt (1618/1619), the Reformed churches in the Netherlands were guided by the Reformer John Calvin. The basis of this doctrine for the Reformed churches certainly was Holy Scripture, but the Spirit used that mighty instrument, Calvin, to lead the Reformed churches in the Netherlands to the knowledge of this fundamental truth of the covenant.

It was not so much Calvin’s explicit teaching about the covenant that influenced the Reformed churches in the Netherlands to view the covenant as governed by election, although there was such explicit teaching scattered throughout Calvin’s writings. Important as the covenant was for Calvin, he did not systematically and thoroughly develop the doctrine of the covenant. This was work that the Spirit of truth reserved for the Reformed theologians who would follow Calvin.


Calvin on Election


But Calvin taught that the eternal decree of election is the source of the grace of God in Jesus Christ; that election determines the objects of this grace; and that election makes the grace of God in Jesus Christ effectual in the everlasting salvation of every one towards whom this grace is directed and in whom this grace begins to work. Thus, Calvin taught that all the saving work of God in Jesus Christ originates from, depends upon, and is governed by God’s election.

Calvin taught this clearly. Calvin taught this prominently. Calvin taught this from the beginning of his ministry to the end, and more zealously at the end than at the beginning. Calvin taught this everywhere in his writings. Calvin taught this emphatically. Calvin taught this as the very foundation of the Reformation gospel of salvation by grace alone. Therefore, he vigorously defended the truth of election as the sole source and determiner of grace and salvation against all those who opposed it.

In the final, 1559 edition of hisInstitutes, Calvin deliberately placed the doctrine of predestination at the conclusion of his treatment of God’s gracious salvation of sinners by Jesus Christ in order to demonstrate that election is the sole source and only determiner of this grace and salvation. The lines that introduce the doctrine of predestination in theInstitutes, immediately following the conclusion of Calvin’s treatment of God’s gracious salvation of sinners in Jesus Christ, are these:

In actual fact, 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. For there is no doubt that this variety also serves the decision of God’s eternal election.

(It ought to be of some embarrassment to the many Reformed theologians today who vehemently insist that the covenant is not closely related to election, much less governed by election, that in Calvin’s opening line on predestination in the Institutes he expressly states that the “covenant” is controlled by “decision of God’s eternal election.”)

Immediately, Calvin added:

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.

Calvin’s definition of predestination followed:

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 (Institutes, ed. John T. McNeill, tr. Ford Lewis Battles, Westminster Press, 1960, 3.21.1, 5).

In his “Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” Calvin contended with an opponent who, like the men of the federal vision today, taught that God chooses those who make good use of His grace, which He bestows on all alike: “He chose us out of all men, because He foresaw that that which was set before all men for their reception [that is, God’s grace—DJE] would become peculiar to us, who alone would receive it.”

Against this “folly,” Calvin responded, with reference toEphesians 1:3-12, by declaring that all of God’s grace and saving work in Jesus Christ have their source in and depend upon God’s eternal election.

God is said to have saved us “according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” for this very reason, because, finding no cause in us, He made Himself the cause of our salvation. Is it for nothing, think ye, that the apostle repeats five times over that the whole of our salvation is the effect of, and dependent upon, that eternal decree, purpose and good pleasure of God? Is it with no intent whatever that the apostle declares that we were “blessed” in Christ because we were “chosen” in Christ? Does not the apostle refer all sanctification and every good work to the election of God, as waters are traced to their originating source? Does not Paul attribute it to the same grace that we are the “workmanship of God, created unto good works, which He hath before ordained that we should walk in them”? Why did God choose us out, and separate us from the rest, but that we might know that we are what we are, and that we are blessed above all others by the free favor of God alone? (John Calvin, “A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” in Calvin’s Calvinism, tr. Henry Cole, Eerdmans, 1956, pp. 153, 154).

Commenting on Ephesians 1:4, “According as he [God] hath chosen us in him [our Lord Jesus Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him,” Calvin taught the same truth. Every saving grace and all the divine work of salvation have their origin in, depend upon, and are determined by God’s eternal decree of election.

The foundation and first cause, both of our calling and of all the benefits which we receive from God, is here declared to be his eternal election. If the reason is asked, why God has called us to enjoy the gospel, why he daily bestows upon us so many blessings, why he opens to us the gate of heaven—the answer will be constantly found in this principle, that he hath chosen us before the foundation of the world…. This leads us to conclude, that holiness, purity, and every excellence that is found among men, are the fruit of election.

Well aware of the alternative to viewing election as the source, foundation, and determination of God’s grace and saving work, Calvin astutely concluded, “Election, therefore, does not depend on the righteousness of works, of which Paul here declares that it is the cause” (John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, tr. William Pringle, Eerdmans, 1957, pp. 197- 199).


Applying Calvin to the Covenant


When, very early in their history, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands confessed that the covenant of grace has its source in, depends upon, and is governed by election, they were simply applying Calvin’s teaching concerning election specifically to the covenant. In the covenant, the objects of God’s grace in Christ, particularly among the physical children of believers, are determined by election. In the covenant, all the blessings of salvation, including union with Christ, regeneration, conversion, justification, sanctification, and perseverance, are bestowed and worked by the Spirit of Christ according to election. In the covenant, God’s grace depends upon His election. In the covenant, therefore, God’s grace and saving work are sure, so that no one in whom God begins the work of salvation shall fall away and perish. It is preposterous to suppose that the early Dutch Reformed churches, hearing and reading the gospel of grace as preached and written by Calvin, would have concluded that, although election is the source of grace and salvation, the grace and salvation of the covenant are excluded; although God’s saving works in Christ depend upon election, in the covenant they depend upon something else (namely, a condition fulfilled by the children); although election determines the objects of grace, in the covenant many more are the objects of grace than the elect; although the grace of God in Christ is effectual and irresistible, in the covenant many successfully resist the grace once bestowed on them, so that they forfeit the grace and perish; although God’s gracious gifts and calling are without repentance, in the covenant the gifts and calling of God can be, and often are, revoked.

Of course, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands, like the Reformed and Presbyterian churches everywhere in those glorious early days of the Reformation, alive by the gospel of salvation by sovereign grace as proclaimed especially by John Calvin, confessed the covenant of sovereign grace. This was simply the gospel of the Reformation applied to the covenant.

… to be continued.