Calvin on Predestination (Institutes)

The following is a short paper by Ed Bryant summarizing his study of primary sources.


In his discussion of predestination, Calvin says that there are three benefits to knowing this truth: Predestination gives all the glory to God for salvation; predestination humbles man; and predestination imparts confidence and comfort in times of trial.

Since the subject of predestination is a very deep and difficult subject to understand, man’s curiosity tempts him to pry into things God has not been pleased to reveal.  Calvin issues a word of caution here that man must refrain from this presumptuous tendency to know God’s secrets and instead just worship him.  Do not go beyond the teaching of the Bible in one’s quest for knowledge of predestination.  On the other hand, Calvin says that to avoid the subject altogether and suppress what the Holy Spirit has revealed in Scripture is as great an error.  To be silent about predestination is to deprive God’s people of blessing.  In summary, the secret things of the Lord are not to be scrutinized nor are the revealed things of the Lord to be overlooked (Deut.29:29).

Calvin defines predestination as God’s eternal decree “by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man.”  He goes on to say that some are foreordained to eternal life and others to eternal death.  Calvin cites the nation of Israel as an example of national election.  God loved and chose Israel over other nations and favored them with his covenant, not because of their merit and worth but on the grounds of his own sovereign choice.  Further, God demonstrated his sovereign choice in the family of Abraham when he chose Isaac instead of Ishmael and Jacob over Esau.

A common interpretation that many have put forward to explain the origin and cause of election and reprobation is to say that God chooses or passes by according to the merits he foresees in each individual.  Election is based on the foreknowledge of man’s works rather then on the sovereign choice of God to bestow his grace on whoever he chooses.  This is contrary to what Paul teaches in Eph.1:4-5; Rom.9:11-13; II Tim.1:9.

Calvin names some of the church fathers that believed that God dispenses his grace “according to the use which he foresees that each will make of it.”  Even Augustine held to this opinion for a time but later retracted it, excluding all merit as a cause of election.  God shows mercy for no other reason than He wants to (Exo.33:19).

Calvin also takes issues with Aquinas’ view that the “elect are in a manner predestinated to glory on account of their merits, because God predestines to give them the grace by which they merit glory.”

The common objection that is raised regarding the universal free offer of the Gospel and the doctrine of election is dealt with by Calvin.  How are these truths to be reconciled that appear to contradict each other?  Calvin answers by saying that everyone who hears the Gospel are called to faith and repentance, but only the elect are given the Holy Spirit to respond.  God is free to dispense His gifts to whoever he wants and is under no obligation to give the Holy Spirit to anyone.

Calvin’s view of reprobation is parallel to election, in that, as there is no other reason assigned for why God shows mercy to the elect but His sovereign will, so there is no other reason given for why God rejects others but His will (Rom.9:18).  Paul does not say that God rejected Esau because of his sin nor did He choose Jacob because of his obedience.

Calvin answers those who question God concerning the justice of His decree of reprobation by reminding them that everything God wills must be righteous by the mere fact of His willing it.  Man needs to desist and be quiet before the God who does not need to give an account of what he does (Rom.9:20-21).  God’s ways and thoughts are infinitely above man’s and man’s capacity to grasp.  It is not right for man to ask God why he does thus and so, because man cannot understand nor does God have to tell.  Furthermore, those who God reprobates are worthy of destruction.  God inflicts the punishment they deserve.

God was free to save some, none or all.  Since He is not obligated to save any, then it is due solely to God’s goodness that he chose to save some in order to demonstrate that his grace is free and sovereign to the praise of his glory.

Calvin deals with the Scriptures commonly raised against the doctrine of reprobation (Eze.18:23; Matt.23:37; I Tim.2:4; II Pet.3:9).  Both truths are Biblical and must be held together, namely, God’s eternal decree of reprobation and the free offer of salvation indiscriminately to all.  There is no real discrepancy between these truths.  The ultimate solution is found in the incomprehensibility of God.

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