April 2018 Credo
Arguably, John Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination could be regarded as one of the most controversial dogmas in the Protestant Reformation in 16th Century Europe. Critics say that Calvin’s teaching made God into a tyrant who chose some to be saved and others to be damned.
Moreover, the 1559 edition of the Institutes of Christian Religion–Calvin’s final version following twenty-four years of revisions to this work–seem to reflect his concluding position on double predestination. Apparently, it only lends fuel to the fire of criticism against him.
The doctrine of double predestination, however, is more complex and multifaceted than its critics care to acknowledge. Moreover, Calvin’s position on the subject must be seen from a variety of situations beyond just the didactic context of the Institutes. Indeed, elsewhere through his commentaries and sermons, Calvin presents an assuring note to all who feared that God might just have appointed them to be damned rather than redeemed.
Hence, in this brief article, I wish to highlight from the less cited commentary on 1 Peter and the 1559 Institutes itself the other side of the picture in which Calvin sought to assure those who were gripped by fear about their eternal destiny. In this, I wish to demonstrate that a distinguishing hallmark in Calvin’s doctrine of election was the assurance he brings concerning the prospect of being chosen by God.
First off, we affirm Calvin’s clarification that our election “depends on nothing else but on God alone, for he of his own free will has chosen us.” – Comm. 1 Peter. This ought to engender in us humility and gratitude since we realize that apart from God’s election by grace, we would otherwise all perish in our sin.
But Calvin would go further to assure those who may waver in their confidence. He adds that “…all who are admitted by faith into the church, are to be counted as the elect; for God thus separates them from the world, which is a sign of election.” – Comm.1 Peter.
When you participate, by faith, in the confessions of a church, you may be counted as the elect.
That is not to say that it is our faith that precedes our election. It is, in fact, the reverse. Election precedes faith. That is to say, faith is a fruit of our election.
After all, Calvin’s definition of faith presents a picture of the triune God engendering faith in us: “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of God’s given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Inst 3.2.7)
In it, we notice that the Holy Spirit seeks to reveal the promise given in Christ to our minds and seal it upon our hearts. In the process, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ (Inst. 3.1.1), engenders faith in us, and helps us to recognize in God a benevolent Father rather than a fearsome Judge (Inst 3.11.1).
Not only so, the Holy Spirit works to sanctify us and leads us on to “cultivate blamelessness and purity of life” (3.11.1).
When we discover that God is treating us as his adopted children and disciplining us for our sanctification, we know inwardly that God has indeed elected us. Listen to Calvin’s assuring word here: “As far then as they proved that they were regenerated by the Spirit of God, so far did he deem them to be the elect of God, for God does not sanctify any but those whom he has previously elected.” – Comm. 1 Pet.
Our experience of being sanctified by the Holy Spirit bears testimony to this effect. Hear again Calvin’s reasoning: “notice the effect, by which he sets forth and bears witness to our election. That effect is the sanctification of the Spirit, even effectual calling, when faith is added to the outward preaching of the gospel, which faith is begotten by the inward operation of the Spirit.” – Comm. 1 Pet.
Further, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit spurs us to a life of obedience to Christ. This manner of living would then be indicative that we are in fact elected by God. Notice how Calvin reasons about this in the Institutes: “the object of regeneration … is to manifest in the life of believers a harmony and agreement between God’s righteousness and their obedience, and thus confirm the adoption that they have received as sons [Gal. 4:5; cf. II Peter 1:10]” (3.6.1).
Again, it is not a blameless life that earns our adoption, but one that is the fruit of the certainty of our election. In reality, the heart’s knowledge that the Holy Spirit is working tirelessly for our sanctification spurs us on to let this doctrine permeate every aspect of our living. “For, [as Calvin adds], it is a doctrine not of the tongue but of life. It is not apprehended by the understanding and memory alone, as other disciplines are, but it is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds a seat and resting place in the inmost affection of the heart” (3.6.4).
“[It] must enter our heart and pass into our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us” (3.6.4).
When this is happening, we receive in our hearts the Holy Spirit’s assurance that we are indeed the elect of God.
This then is the other side of Calvin’s word on double predestination. It is a word that assures and affirms.
Rev Jimmy Tan is lecturer of Pastoral and Practical Theology at Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in Singapore.