Before we call attention to the doctrine of sin as set forth in our Reformed Creeds, our Three Forms of Unity, we wish to call attention to this doctrine as set forth by John Calvin, the Genevan Reformer. Calvin,although born, in 1509, in France, celebrated his triumphs in the city of. Geneva. Timid by nature, and therefore reluctant to remain in Geneva because of the fierce opposition he would encounter in that city, he nevertheless feared God more, and, threatened with the curse of God should he leave the city, he decided to remain there. It is, of course, of the greatest interest to learn what Calvin has to say about the subject of sin. And we also wrote in preceding articles that we might also refer, briefly, to the doctrine of common grace as it appears in the writings of this tremendously gifted reformer.
First of all, we would call attention to the doctrine of a common grace as set forth by Calvin. In a paper delivered some time ago at our student club, the undersigned wrote on “Calvin and Common Grace.” We now quote from that paper:
It cannot be denied that one encounters the doctrine of Common Grace in the writings of John Calvin. However, we do well to be careful here. First of all, the term, “Common Grace,” is used very seldom. In its place, Calvin makes extensive use of the terms: goodness, mercy, favor, kindness, etc. And these terms are used by Calvin, not only as applied to men but also with respect to the mute creature. Secondly, it appears from Calvin’s writings that these terms do not have the same meaning in these writings which is ascribed to them in the present day. We do well to bear in mind that when Calvin speaks of God’s goodness and mercy to all creatures, he is speaking of God, not as Father in Christ, but as the Creator of all things. And that for this reason, these terms do not have any other meaning than God’s providence. To this we may add that these terms are not defined by John Calvin, that they must therefore be understood in the light of their context, and that the terms, “Common Grace” and “Special Grace,” when used by Calvin, are used with an entirely different distinction than that which is ascribed to them in the present day, whereas Calvin repeatedly declares that the grace of God is alone in Christ Jesus and for His people. And, in the third place, we must be careful when evaluating and appraising the position of Calvin because we must view Calvin’s writings in the light of the heresies which were maintained in his day. The question may well be asked: Is it true, as has been maintained, that Calvin never tires of writing of God’s mercy and love as to all men? Is this the key-note of the Reformer’s writings, that God is a Father full of love and mercy for all men? But, is not Calvin known in history as the man who maintained God’s absolute sovereignty? He is certainly not known as the champion of a universal and general love of God. We must certainly attempt to understand the historical circumstances which prompted Calvin in his writings. The doctrine of “Common Grace” was no burning issue in his day. Pelagianism was rampant in his day, and the sovereignty of God was questioned and denied. It was also currently taught in his day that all gifts of the wicked were given him by the devil, and that thee Lord, therefore, was not the source of all things.
The question arises: What must we understand with Calvin’s “Common Grace”? And the answer is apparent: that grace of God which all men, without distinction, have in common. However, we must be very careful when discussing this doctrine, as we encounter it in the works of Calvin, especially in his Institutes and Calvin’s Calvinism. We must bear in mind that the word “grace” is used very seldom. This is certainly true of Calvin’s Institutes. Moreover, to this we may add that, when the Reformer uses the terms “Common Grace” and “Special Grace,” he does not attach to them the same significance which is ascribed to them in the present day. Sometimes it happens that God’s Special Grace, as well as Common Grace, is used in connection with the heathen, and that Common Grace as well as Special Grace is used in relation to the Covenant of the Lord. However, although the word “grace” is used rather seldom, Calvin does use other words which teach a certain common grace. This cannot be denied. Calvin writes repeatedly of goodness, kindness, love, mercy, goodwill, favor, etc., with respect to the entire creature. It is true that these words do not always have the same meaning of grace and love, as they are presented in the present day. However, when these words are read in connection with such expressions of Calvin, that God, through these things, loves the entire creature, then we cannot doubt but that these words very often denote a certain favor of the Lord. Yet, we must be careful also with these expressions. Sometimes these terms are applied to all mankind, and then mankind is not viewed as elect and reprobate, but only as the product of the hand of the Creator. Then again, these terms are applied only to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, as separated from the world, and in this connection Calvin uses very sharp language, declaring that only the people of God partake of them. In very sharp language it is stated that love, mercy, goodness are given exclusively to the people of the Lord. From this we may conclude, that these gifts are viewed by Calvin as not bestowed upon the reprobate. And we do well not to ignore this.
Nevertheless, Calvin does teach a certain common grace. And then we would divide the common grace under two chief headings. Calvin speaks of a common grace which comes to all mankind in the sphere of the natural out of the hand of God as Creator. And this grace is again divided as universal and as a common grace which is bestowed upon mankind. And, in the second place, Calvin speaks of a common grace which is bestowed in the sphere of the covenant, a sort of covenantal grace. Now it must be stated immediately that the first class receives the emphasis in the writings of John Calvin when he speaks of Common Grace. We would treat and discuss Calvin’s Common Grace under, these two headings.
First, Calvin speaks of a common grace which is shown to the entire creation. In connection with this we read, first of all, of a common grace which is shown to the entire creation without distinction. We read in his Institutes, I, 2, 1 (the first denotes the Book, the second the chapter and the third the paragraph): “For though, in the present ruined state of human nature, no man will ever perceive God to be a Father, or the Author of salvation, or in any respect propitious, but as pacified by the mediation of Christ; yet it is one thing to understand, that God our Maker supports us by His power, governs us by His providence, nourishes us by His goodness, and follows us with blessings of every kind, and another to embrace the grace of reconciliation proposed to us in Christ.” And the same paragraph we read the following: “This I maintain, not only because He sustains the universe, as He once made it, by His infinite power, governs it by His wisdom, preserves it by His goodness, and especially reigns over the human race in righteousness and judgment, exercising a merciful forbearance, and defending them by His protection; but because there cannot be found the least particle of wisdom, light, righteousness, power, rectitude, or sincere truth which does not proceed from Him, and claim Him for its author: we should therefore learn to expect and supplicate all these things from Him, and thankfully to acknowledge what He gives us.” Moreover, we read in I, 5, 8 that Calvin calls attention to God’s care over the entire creation as proof of His paternal clemency. These expressions, in which the preservation of all things is brought in connection with the favor and mercy of God, appear, however, only in that part of Calvin’s work which treats of God as Creator. God’s relation to mankind in Christ is not mentioned here; in fact, Calvin states emphatically that we must bear this in mind in the reading of this part of his Institutes. And it is also plain from these expressions that Calvin here does not merely have his eye upon man, but also upon the animal; and it is plain that this common grace or goodness or mercy is nothing else than a merciful Divine providence, by which the Lord governs all things. That this is true is obvious when we note that mercy and goodness are mentioned in one breath with providence. And this is evident, not only from I, 2, 1 where Calvin speaks of providence and goodness in the same breath, but also from I, 10, 2, where we read: “Here we find an enumeration of the same perfections which, as we have remarked, are illustriously displayed both in heaven and on earth—clemency, goodness, mercy, justice, judgment and truth. For power is comprised in the word, Elohim, God.” And in I, 5, 6 the preservation of all things by God’s goodness is presented as synonymous with a participation of all creatures in God’s mercy.
It is plain from these quotations that Calvin presents God as the Creator of heaven and earth, Who, by His almighty providence preserves the entire creation with a paternal or a Creator’s care. God sustains the entire creation, man and beast, with a care which is characterized by the love that prompts and loves the Maker toward His creature. And it is plain, and, incidentally, this is also acknowledged by the exponents of Common Grace, that this common grace of Calvin is nothing more than the providence of the heavenly Creator over His creatures. God’s providence is called by Calvin a common favor of the Lord.
However, Calvin does not only speak of a common grace which is shown to the entire creation, without any distinction, but he also speaks of a common grace of God to mankind in distinction from the creation, and also this grace must be viewed only as relating to the realm of nature. According to Calvin, God’s love goes out to the entire human race, although expressions in regard to this point are very few. This thought is somewhat expressed in I, 16, 2, in connection with the providence of God, that the daily rising and setting of the sun is not from a blind instinct of nature, but that He himself governs his course, to renew the memory of His paternal favor towards us. It is beyond all doubt but that all men are meant here. Moreover, natural life is viewed as a testimony of God’s benevolence to all men, and in particular to the believers. We read in III, 9, 3: “But believers should accustom themselves to such a contempt of the present life, as may not generate either hatred of life, or ingratitude toward God. For this life, though it is replete with innumerable miseries, is yet deservedly reckoned among the Divine blessings which must not be despised, Wherefore, if we discover nothing of the Divine beneficence in it, we are already guilty of no small ingratitude towards God Himself.”