In chapter 2 of Book II of his Institutes Calvin discusses the freedom of the will. He begins this chapter with the remark:
Since we have seen that the domination of sin, from the time of its subjugation of the first man, not only extends over the whole race, but also exclusively possesses every soul, it now remains to be more closely investigated, whether we are despoiled of all freedom, and, if any particle of it yet remain, how far its power extends.
Of the early ecclesiastical writers he observes that, though there has not been one who would not acknowledge both that human reason is grievously wounded by sin, and that the will is very much embarrassed by corrupt affections, yet many of them have followed the philosophers far beyond what is right. And the early fathers appear to Calvin to have thus extolled human power (see II, 2, 4) from fear lest, if they openly confessed its impotence, they might, in the first place, incur the derision of the philosophers, with whom they were contending, and, in the second place, might administer to the flesh, of itself naturally too torpid to all that is good, a fresh occasion of slothfulness. And it appears to Calvin that they principally regarded the latter consideration, that they might leave no room for slothfulness. So, the early fathers were very afraid to give to the sinner any excuse for continuing in sin. In support of this contention, Calvin quotes several quotations from Chrysostom:
“Since God has placed good and evil things in our power, He has given us freedom of choice; and .He constrains not the unwilling, but embraces the willing.” Again: “Oftentimes a bad man, if he will, is changed into a good one; and a good one falls into inactivity, and becomes bad; because God has given us naturally a free will, and imposes no necessity upon us, but, having provided suitable remedies, permits the event to depend entirely on the mind of the patient.” Again: “As without the assistance of Divine grace, we can never do any thing aright, so unless we bring what is our own, we shall never be able to gain the favor of heaven. Again: “Let us bring what is ours; God will supply the rest (an expression very familiar with Chrysostom).” Agreeably to which Jerome says: “That it belongs to us to begin, and to God to complete; that it is ours to offer what we can, but His to supply our deficiencies.”
Of these expressions Calvin writes, in the same paragraph:
“In these sentences you see they certainly attributed to man more than could justly be attributed to him towards the pursuit of virtue; because they supposed it impossible to awaken our innate torpor, otherwise than by arguing that this alone constitutes our guilt; but with what great dexterity they did it, we shall see in the course of our work. That the passages which we have recited are exceedingly erroneous, will be shortly proved.”
Man, according to Calvin, is not possessed of free will for good works, unless he be assisted by grace, and that special grace which is bestowed on the elect alone in regeneration. And when the reformer speaks of being assisted by Divine grace, we must remember that he is opposed to every presentation as if man has of his own nature antecedent, though ineffectual, desires after what is good. Calvin states emphatically that the view is offensive to him that man has it in his power either to frustrate the grace of God by rejecting it or to confirm it by our obedience to it. Now notice what Calvin writes in the following passage, II, 2, 7:
Then man will be said to possess free will in this sense, not that he has an equally free election of good and evil, but because he does evil voluntarily, and not by constraint. That, indeed, is very true; but what end could it answer to decorate a thing so diminutive with a title so superb? Egregious (outstanding, notable, H.V.) liberty indeed, if man be not compelled to serve sin, but yet is such a willing slave, that his will is held in bondage by the fetters of sin. I really abominate contentions about words, which disturb the Church without producing any good effect; but I think that we ought religiously to avoid words which signify any absurdity, particularly when they lead to a pernicious error. How few are there, who, when they hear free will attributed to men, do not immediately conceive, that he has the sovereignty over his own mind and will, and is able by his innate power to incline himself to whatever he pleases. But it will be said, all danger from these expressions will be removed, if the people are carefully apprized of their signification. But, on the contrary, the human mind is naturally so prone to falsehood, that it will sooner imbibe error from one single expression, than truth from a prolix oration; of which we have a more certain experiment than could be wished in this very word.
How true are these words of Calvin. Calvin does not object, principally, to the use of the expression: “freedom of the will.” He states very plainly what he means with the expression. The freedom of the will does not mean that man has an equally free election of good and evil, but that he does evil voluntarily and not by constraint. But, this is not meant by many who speak of man’s freedom of the will. Besides, why decorate a thing so diminutive with a title so superb? How few there are, according to Galvin, who use this expression properly? This observation of Calvin was also verified in the sad history of our churches at the time of 1953. Will not all danger be removed, so it is asked, when the people are carefully informed of their significance? And the answer of Calvin is that the human mind is so prone to falsehood, that it will sooner imbibe error from one single expression than truth from a long, verbose oration. We may well take this advice of Calvin to heart.
We also do well to call attention to the following of Calvin in which, commenting upon a common observation borrowed from Augustine, he reiterates that which is also found in our Canons of Dordt, III and IV, Art. IV (II, 2, 12):
And, indeed, I much approve of that common observation which has been borrowed from Augustine, that the natural talents in man have been corrupted by sin, but that of the supernatural ones he has been wholly deprived. For by the latter are intended, both the light of faith and righteousness, which would be sufficient for the attainment of a heavenly life and eternal felicity . . . Hence it follows, that he is exiled from the kingdom of God, in such a manner, that all the affections relating to the happy life of the soul, are also extinguished in him, till he recovers them by the grace of regeneration . . . Again, soundness of mind and rectitude of heart were also destroyed; and this is the corruption of the natural talents. For although we retain some portion of understanding and judgment together with the will, yet we cannot say that our mind is perfect and sound, which is oppressed with debility and immersed in profound darkness; and the depravity of our will is sufficiently known.
And then, Calvin, although maintaining that man, although not having completely lost his natural talents, did retain them but as corrupted by sin, sets forth very clearly the utter corruption of the sinner, II, 2, 12:
Reason, therefore, by which man distinguished between good and evil, by which he understands and judges, being a natural talent, could not be totally destroyed, but is partly debilitated, partly vitiated, so that it exhibits nothing but deformity and ruin. In this sense John says, that “the light” still “shineth in darkness,” but that “the darkness comprehendeth it not.” In this passage both these ideas are clearly expressed—that some sparks continue to shine in the nature of man, even in its corrupt and degenerate state, which prove him to be a rational creature, and different from the brutes, because he is endued with understanding; and yet that this light is smothered by so much ignorance, that it cannot act with any degree of efficacy. So the will, being inseparable from the nature of man, is not annihilated; but it is fettered by depraved and inordinate desires, so that it cannot aspire after any thing that is good. This, indeed, is a complete definition, but requires more diffuse explication.
And then Calvin proceeds, in this section of his Institutes, to discuss the mind and the will of man. Having set forth what the human mind is able to do, notice what Calvin has to say about the spiritual ability of that mind of the natural mind, II, 2, 19:
But because, from our being intoxicated with a false opinion of our won perspicacity, we do not without great difficulty suffer ourselves to be persuaded, that in Divine things our reason is totally blind and stupid (here Calvin writes that, because we are inflated with a false opinion of what we are able to do, it is very difficult for us to be persuaded that, in Divine things, our reason is totally blind and stupid, H.V.), it will be better, I think, to confirm it by testimonies of Scripture, than to support it by arguments. This is beautifully taught by John, in that passage which I lately cited, where he says that, from the beginning, “in God was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. He indicates, indeed, that the soul of man is irradiated with a beam of Divine light, so that it is never wholly destitute either of some little flame, or at least of a spark of it; but he likewise suggests that it cannot comprehend God by that illumination. And this because all his sagacity, as far as respects the knowledge of God, is mere blindness. For when the Spirit calls men “darkness” He at once totally despoils them of the faculty of spiritual understanding. Wherefore he asserts that believers, who receive Christ, are “born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
And please notice this statement of Calvin, II, 2, 25:
Are all our industry, perspicacity, understanding, and care so depraved, that we cannot conceive or mediate anything that is right in the sight of God? To us, who do not contentedly submit to be stripped of the acuteness of our reason, which we esteem our most valuable endowment, this appears too harsh; but in the estimation of the Holy Spirit, Who knows that all the thoughts of the wisest of men are vain, and who plainly pronounces every imagination of the human heart to be only evil, such a representation is consistent with the strictest truth. If whatever our mind conceives, agitates, undertakes, and performs, be invariably evil, how can we entertain a thought of undertaking any thing acceptable to God, by whom nothing is accepted but holiness and righteousness? Thus it is evident that the reason of our mind, whithersoever it turns, is unhappily obnoxious to vanity. David was conscious to himself of this imbecility, when he prayed that understanding might be given him, to enable him rightly to learn the commandments of the Lord.