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Mercy on Every Side

Calvin’s Misunderstood Doctrine of Election

ABSTRACT: John Calvin’s doctrine of election, though well known, is not well understood. Many assume they know what Calvin means by the doctrine without listening carefully to his treatment of it in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin’s aim was not simply to explain the meaning of Christian doctrines, but to provide an interpretive key for reading the Bible. How Calvin approaches election, then, illuminates what he says about the doctrine and the place he thinks it should occupy in the Christian life. When viewed this way, Calvin’s treatment of election becomes a model of reverent theological thinking intended to bind our faith to Christ.

All we know about John Calvin was that he was an eighteenth-century Scotsman, a prude and obscurantist with a buckle on his hat, possibly a burner of witches, certainly the very spirit of capitalism.

—Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam1

John Calvin’s doctrine of election and predestination is frequently maligned, often misunderstood, and rarely explained. That last part may be hard to believe. After all, isn’t it what Calvin taught about election and predestination that has gained him so much fame and notoriety?

Some time ago, I spent three years researching Calvin’s biblical exegesis of election alongside that of the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968). The shadow of Calvin’s doctrine of election loomed large for Barth, and I presumed it took concrete form in the scholarly literature. I was amazed to discover, however, that at the time there was only one published English monograph devoted exclusively to Calvin on election and predestination.2 For a doctrine so readily associated with Calvin, and with the modern form(s) of the Christian tradition unfortunately known as “Calvinism,” it is astonishing that his views in this area have received so little in-depth attention. It is not the case, of course, that nothing has been written. Journal articles, theses, and book chapters on the subject in English do exist. But the surprise remains when one considers how many other topics in Calvin’s thought have been treated to independent book-length care in recent years while his infamous views of election and predestination are left to languish.

“One of the great burdens of Calvin’s theological writing was to show that he was not innovative.”

It is not easy to say for sure why Calvin’s theology of election and predestination has been so overlooked. It would be nice should one of the reasons turn out to be — as Richard Muller and others have reminded us — that there really is no such thing as “Calvin’s doctrine of election,” if by this we mean something wholly unique to Calvin. For one of the great burdens of Calvin’s theological writing was to show that he was not innovative, either with the Bible or within the tradition.

But I don’t think this scholarly insight has yet had much bearing on either popular or even more academic perceptions of Calvin. It is much more likely that so little has been written on Calvin and election simply because so much has been assumed. The epigraph of my essay is delightfully tongue-in-cheek, but, sadly, not everyone reads Calvin as fondly as Marilynne Robinson does. When it comes to his doctrine of election, assumptions tend to range from the popular perception that Calvin’s views can be reduced to double predestination without much more to be said, to slight embarrassment at some of the starker elements in his presentation (even among his well-wishers), to academic ambivalence or downright disdain. These latter positions have doubtless been caused by many factors, but certainly in some circles they are due to Karl Barth’s magisterial reworking of the doctrine of election in his Church Dogmatics. Precisely because Barth wrestled so seriously with Calvin’s approach in order to move beyond it, those following in Barth’s footsteps tend to find Calvin historically interesting but theologically passé.

In this short essay, I wish to demur from all these assumptions by offering an overview of both how and what Calvin thought about the doctrine of election. I suggest that Calvin’s what is significantly illumined by his how, and in so doing I hope to commend him to us as a model of reverent theological thinking instructing us on so many more levels than simply the matter of election itself.3

I will proceed in two steps: first, we will look at what we can learn from the Institutes about how Calvin believed we should read election in the Bible; second, we will consider what shape election took for Calvin when we look at it through five hermeneutical lenses that shaped his content to this doctrine.

The Institutes as a Roadmap to the Bible

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of Calvin’s doctrine of election in his Institutes of the Christian Religion is just how long it takes him to treat this subject. His treatment of election appears as the climax to book 3 and some twenty chapters into his discussion of how we receive the grace of Christ. Given that the Institutes went through several increasingly expanded editions in Calvin’s lifetime, and given that for the final 1559 edition Calvin separated his treatments of providence and predestination (moving providence into his treatment of the knowledge of God the Creator in book 1, but leaving predestination more or less where it had always been since 1539), it seems right to say that Calvin had very good reasons for placing election where he did. What might these reasons be?

To answer this question, it is vital to understand the purpose of Calvin’s Institutes. Consider his preface:

It has been my purpose in this labour to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling. For I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents. If, after this road has, as it were, been paved, I shall publish any interpretations of Scripture, I shall always condense them, because I shall have no need to undertake long doctrinal discussions and to digress into commonplaces. In this way the godly reader will be spared great annoyance and boredom, provided he approach Scripture armed with a knowledge of the present work, as a necessary tool.4

These words do more than clarify that Calvin never intended his Institutes to be regarded as the sum total of his theological thinking; they also make explicit his intention that this text and any following commentaries should be read together. Calvin scholarship has shown the symbiotic complementarity that exists between the developing form of the Institutes on the one hand, and Calvin’s commentaries, sermons, and other exegetical output on the other, so that the successive editions of the former were honed, supplemented, and shaped by Calvin’s prodigious output of the latter.5

But also note the intended effect of this preface on a reader of Scripture. Observe that Calvin does not say his purpose is to instruct candidates in theology, but rather to instruct theological candidates “for the reading of the divine Word.” Note the logical ordering of Calvin’s aim: if anyone rightly grasps his arrangement of Christian teaching in this text, then he will know both what to look for in the biblical text and be able to read the parts teleologically. There is a clear sequential move from doctrinal discussion to biblical text. Calvin wants to help those who read him read the Bible.

“It is not just that Calvin teaches hermeneutical principles in the ‘Institutes’; the ‘Institutes’ is itself a hermeneutic.”

Consider the hermeneutical metaphors which he uses. Like a key, the Institutes aims to grant “easy access” to Scripture, and like a torch or a guiderail it will allow one “to advance in it without stumbling.” Like a map, its parts have been arranged in order so that a “road” ahead has been “paved.” Like a weapon, the godly reader is to approach Scripture “armed” and with the “tool” of the Institutes. Calvin’s aim is clear. Mined from the Bible, shaped by the Bible, the Institutes is a map for the Bible; the product of exegesis, it is intended as an illuminating beacon for further exegesis. It is not just that Calvin teaches hermeneutical principles in the Institutes; the Institutes is itself a hermeneutic.

Nature of Saving Faith

We can see, then, that Calvin intends what we read of election in his Institutes to help us better read about election in the Bible. When we remember, however, from the preface that Calvin is seeking to arrange the sum of religion in all its parts in such an order so as to help us read the Bible well, then a very curious feature emerges in book 3. For Calvin begins there with union with Christ and moves from sanctification to justification to predestination, treating these three topics in the reverse order of what he takes to be their logical relationship. Certainly this is counterintuitive. How might such an ordering in a doctrinal text make us good interpreters of Scripture? I suggest that Calvin has subsumed the doctrine of election within a bigger particular argument about the nature of saving faith, which he believes sheds the most light on the meaning of election, thereby helping us to interpret Scripture in the best way possible.

Book 3 is titled “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ,” and here Calvin argues for union with Christ by the Spirit as the heartbeat of his soteriology. “First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us.”6 Faith alone in Christ alone is the way we experience Christ’s benefits. At the same time, given that “not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel,” Calvin’s doctrine of faith is tied to “the secret energy of the Spirit.”7 The introduction of his main subject matter here contains hints about the question of the origin of faith, something Calvin will deal with explicitly in his doctrine of election. However, before he comes to treat election in 3.21, Calvin first of all expounds faith (setting his definition over against the Roman Catholic conception), then sanctification, then justification, then Christian freedom and prayer before finally turning to election. What does this tell us? One of the most insightful treatments of Calvin’s ordo has been provided by Richard B. Gaffin. Rightly noting the significance of the polemical material in book 3, Gaffin points out that “the constantly echoing charge from Rome at that time . . . is that the Protestant doctrine of justification, of a graciously imputed righteousness received by faith alone, ministers spiritual slothfulness and indifference to holy living.”8 Calvin’s response to these charges is not in the first instance to insist on the Protestant definition of justification in greater detail, but rather to proceed on the basis of a definition of faith that addresses the heart of the contention with Rome. In Gaffin’s words, “Calvin destroys Rome’s charge by showing that faith, in its Protestant understanding, entails a disposition to holiness without particular reference to justification, a concern for godliness that is not to be understood only as a consequence of justification.”9

Calvin can treat sanctification before justification, and both of them before predestination, because he intends the nature of faith itself to shed light on what each of these doctrinal topics entails. They are each examples of how “our salvation comes about solely from God’s mere generosity” and in no respect whatsoever from our works. Calvin holds that the nature of faith is inseparably bound up with an awareness of our plight and our need for a merciful God. In this context, Calvin offers his definition of faith: “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”10

By couching his definition in a Trinitarian framework, Calvin offers an entirely monergistic account of faith’s operations: faith is a knowledge of God’s mercy and favor, it is founded on a promise freely given in Christ, and it is revealed and sealed solely by the Spirit’s working. The combined effect is a laying of the axe to the root of any conception of faith that includes a human contribution in its constitution. Step by step, with an exclusive focus on Christ and his benefits, Calvin is destroying all anthropological grounds for confidence and boasting in relation to salvation. “Therefore, when we say that faith must rest upon a freely given purpose . . . we point out the promise of mercy as the proper goal of faith.”11 Again: “It is our intention to make only these two points: first, that faith does not stand firm until a man attains to the freely given promise; second, that it does not reconcile us to God at all unless it joins us to Christ.”12

Not by Works

When Calvin’s four chapters on eternal election in his Institutes (3.21–24) are read without an eye to their place in this unfolding argument, then undoubtedly one of the first things to strike the reader is Calvin’s unashamed boldness in the face of a seemingly stark thesis: “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.”13 He soon adds his definition of God’s eternal decree in predestination: “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 other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.”14 However, when read as part of his argument, it becomes clear that Calvin’s infamous doctrine of election is intended to be yet one more part of his case for a soteriology utterly impatient with all forms of synergism precisely because it contains a continuation of his doctrine of faith as something devoid of human contribution.

“The very nature of mercy, in order for it to be mercy, is that it rightfully could have rightfully been withheld.”

In the very first section of his treatment, Calvin states that in his sovereign election “God, utterly disregarding works, chooses those whom he has decreed within himself.”15 Far from being an incidental aside, the phrase “utterly disregarding works” is in fact the driving aim of Calvin’s argument: it is only this kind of disregard in God that is able to safeguard his own glory and promote “true humility” in us. To these two benefits of his monergistic account, Calvin adds a third: on this basis alone can we know that God’s mercy is free.16

When his summary of election in the biblical materials begins, Calvin again wishes to stress that in the election of Israel these aspects of the divine choice are to the fore. Those “who have been adorned with gifts by God credit them to his freely given love because they knew not only that they had not merited them but that even [Abraham] himself was not endowed with such virtue as to acquire such a high honor for himself and his descendants.” Calvin challenges those who differ: “Let those now come forward who would bind God’s election either to the worthiness of men or to the merit of works. Since they see one nation preferred above all others . . . will they quarrel with him because he chose to give such evidence of his mercy?”17

Most pointedly, perhaps, the whole of the next chapter, 3.22, is devoted entirely to the question of whether or not election is dependent on foreseen merit in those elected. Here Calvin treats biblical passages, including the teaching of Jesus himself, as well as the witness of the church fathers. The sum total of the argument always only ever points in one direction: “Surely the grace of God deserves alone to be proclaimed in our election only if it is freely given. Now it will not be freely given if God, in choosing his own, considers what the works of each shall be.”18

In his final chapter on election (3.24), Calvin applies this conception of election to a number of different issues that have the combined effect of outlining his thinking on the connection between election and assurance. The result is a conception of assurance of salvation that goes hand in hand with his destruction of human confidence in merit. He begins by treating the universal preaching of the gospel, which God offers to both the elect and the reprobate but which constitutes an effectual call only for the elect. Here Calvin follows Augustine’s treatment of the Johannine theme that those who listen to the Father are those who come to Christ (John 6:44–46).

God designates as his children those whom he has chosen, and appoints himself their Father. Further, by calling, he receives them into his family and unites them to him so that they may together be one. But when the call is coupled with election, in this way Scripture sufficiently suggests that in it nothing but God’s free mercy is to be sought. For if we ask whom he calls, and the reason why, he answers: whom he had chosen. Moreover, when one comes to election, there mercy alone appears on every side.19

Yet again Calvin is here aiming to ground assurance in an explicitly monergistic account of the causal grounds of salvation. G.C. Berkouwer’s analysis is perceptive: “For Calvin election is indissolubly united with the rejection of all work-righteousness. For this reason election is inseparably linked with the confession of the certainty of salvation.”20

“Fundamentally, Calvin conceives of God as our loving heavenly Father and us as his dependent children.”

So, election for Calvin is irreducibly connected to soteriology and its pastoral comfort in the life of the believer precisely because it is the climactic stage of his argument for a salvation that has its grounds entirely outside us. Running through each stage of Calvin’s argument, the thread linking every part together, is a definition of faith that gives the human agent nothing whatsoever to do with the origin of faith itself. In this way, the doctrine of election is the climactic stage of book 3’s singular, recurring argument that the source of our salvation lies in God alone, with a corresponding rejection of all “works-righteousness.”

Five Hermeneutical Lenses for Election in the Bible

It is worth taking our time like this over Calvin’s method of presenting the doctrine of election, for, nestled in the opening statements about election in 3.21, and with the doctrine itself firmly located in the heart of his bigger argument, we can discern significant reasons why Calvin believed in both the “usefulness” of this doctrine and also “its very sweet fruit.”21 By proceeding in this way, Calvin has given us five lenses for his biblical hermeneutics of election. Taken together, these five windows into election reveal how Calvin reads the Bible focused on the greatness of God displayed in his goodness to us in sending his Son to be our Savior.

1. God’s mercy is free.

Calvin believed that the very nature of saving faith proves that God was not responding to something in us, but rather holding out to us a promise of life he did not have to offer. At the start of book 3, and at the start of his doctrine of election, Calvin faces head-on the fact that not all who hear the gospel believe it and come to Christ. All are equally dead in sin, so, if some believe, it cannot be because of something in them that predisposes them to belief or to God’s favor. No, the very nature of mercy, in order for it to be mercy, is that it rightfully could have been withheld. God didn’t have to save us.

At the heart of Calvin’s conception of divine mercy in election is a profoundly beautiful belief that the Son, in being loved by his Father, “is not loved separately, or for his own private advantage, but that he may unite us along with himself to the Father.”22 It is the measure of God’s mercy that he loves sinners “even as” he loves his own Son, and because he loves his Son as head of his body the church, so he loves those whom he joins to the Son as his body. Calvin says of John 17:24, “The title of beloved belongs to Christ alone. But following on from this, the heavenly Father has the same love for all the members, as for the Head, so that he loves none but in Christ.”23

Calvin viewed the Lord Jesus Christ as the Mediator between God and humanity, and he believed that Christ mediates the decree of election both by being the one in whom God’s people are elect and by being the one who comes to secure the salvation that flows from election.24 But at every point, the fact that this choosing before the creation of the world was “in Christ” is, for Calvin, confirmation of election’s utter gratuity. In his sermons on Ephesians, his repeated themes of God’s freedom in election and the absence of all foreseen merit in humanity due to our inherent corruption are clearly expressed:

Did God, then, have an eye to us when he vouchsafed to love us? No! No! For then he would have utterly abhorred us. It is true that in regarding our miseries he had pity and compassion on us to relieve us, but that was because he had already loved us in our Lord Jesus Christ. God, then, must have had before him his pattern and mirror in which to see us, that is to say, he must have first looked on our Lord Jesus Christ before he could choose and call us.25

2. God’s glory is ultimate.

God’s mercy is not the only divine attribute that Calvin believes is magnified in the doctrine of election. Eliminating all grounds for human boasting in election has a flip side: it establishes God’s action in freely choosing and therefore enables us to give God alone all the glory for our salvation.

“To not teach or preach on election would rob us of a profound view of God’s activity in salvation.”

The best place to see this emphasis in Calvin’s doctrine of election is in his commentary on Romans and his detailed exegesis of chapters 9–11. It is simply not the case that Calvin has an abstract doctrine of double predestination that forces him to misconstrue (through preconceived binaries about eternal destinies) the way in which election in the Bible is worked out in salvation history. It is common to speak of “Calvin’s purely individualistic exegesis” and “his undervaluing of the concept of covenant in his interpretation of texts such as Romans 9:18, 22.”26 We can only assume that positions such as these treat the Institutes as an exclusive compendium rather than as a hermeneutical guide to the exegetical aspects of Calvin’s thought. In fact, in his Romans commentary, covenant is arguably Calvin’s most important hermeneutical concept in his treatment of Romans 9–11 (he refers to it 39 times).

In these chapters, Calvin discerns a coherent theology of God’s covenant with Israel that allows him to explain the origin of the covenant in the general election of the entire nation, but the ground of God’s faithfulness to the covenant in the particular election of individuals from within the nation. This is why Calvin begins his material on election in the Institutes with a conclusion he has reached from his exegesis of Romans 9–11: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:5–6). Proving that salvation comes about “solely from God’s mere generosity” requires the theologian to work all the way back into the precincts of election, and in those precincts, Calvin believes that “Paul clearly testifies that, when the salvation of a remnant of the people is ascribed to the election of grace, then only is it acknowledged that God of his mere good pleasure preserves whom he will, and moreover that he pays no reward, since he can owe none.”27 This conception of God’s freedom from human contingency, so that he is the only one deserving of praise in salvation, emerges line by line from Calvin’s reckoning with Paul over the justification of God in election (Romans 9:14).

3. Our humility is essential.

Calvin’s hermeneutic for election in the Bible flows consistently from the very opening words of the Institutes: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and ourselves.”28 For Calvin, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves are “immediately reciprocal,” so that in knowing one we are immediately led to know the other.29 I think we will go astray in handling Calvin on election unless we discern that he believes we will go astray in handling election in the Bible if we do not see ourselves rightly before God as we embark on the task. One implication of knowing that in election God alone is glorious because we contribute nothing to our salvation is that profound humility should arise in our hearts. If it is true that Calvin’s doctrine of election seeks to exalt God in his majesty, it is just as true that it seeks to locate us properly, not just as fallen sinners loved without merit or measure, but so too as creatures.

“Rather than trying to discern the mind of God, we should look to Christ.”

A close reading of the Institutes from beginning to end leaves the reader with the dominant impression that, fundamentally, Calvin conceives of God as our loving heavenly Father and us as his dependent children. It is a picture of tremendous warmth and beauty. The human subject is stripped of any contribution to salvation, not to rob us of dignity as creatures, but precisely to reveal that in our plight we are nevertheless loved more profoundly than we could ever have imagined and that our praise to God for his rescue would be diminished by mingling it with boasting about what we have added.

A further lens for election in the Bible follows from this immediately.

4. Human curiosity should be curbed.

Election comes from “the heights” of the divine will and is attended by “forbidden bypaths” of inscrutable divine wisdom. Calvin believes this knowledge of God and ourselves should lead us to shun the desire to “leave no secret to God.” As well as wanting to have it all as fallen men and women, we also want to know it all. But those not willing to recognize that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29) “are penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he will find no exit.”30 It is important to see how this conception of election is all of a piece with Calvin’s epistemology and anthropology, and how it all flows from, and then again in turn informs, his interpretation of Scripture. On Romans 9:18, Calvin says “We ought to notice these words, on whom he will, and whom he will, in particular. Paul does not allow us to go beyond this.”31

It is here, of course, that Calvin’s doctrines of election and predestination often receive the harshest criticism, not least from Karl Barth in his interrogation of Calvin and the Reformed doctrine in his Church Dogmatics. The clash of Calvin and Barth on election is instructive on many levels, not least of which is simply the question of where we believe the Bible directs us to be reverentially agnostic about his ways. Barth believes Calvin’s doctrine leaves us with an “absolute decree” to save some and reject others, such that Christ appears in time to serve the electing will of God, but standing behind him, therefore, is a secret election of the Father. Agnosticism about why the God revealed to us in the Lord Jesus should elect some and reprobate others undermines the fullness of the revelation of this God: we cannot know him fully on this account. But the fact remains that in Barth’s doctrine too, if we take his rejection of universalism at face value, agnosticism simply intrudes at a different point in the system of thought, this time in eschatology. For Barth, God’s freedom is such that we cannot say for sure what God may or may not do at the end of all things; here, it seems the hidden God has been relocated from the pretemporal decree to the eschaton.32

Paul Helm points out that the explicit emphasis in the opening of the Institutes on wisdom, religion as sapientia, is an implicit rejection of another type of knowing in theology, scientia, which has to do with theoretical understanding and certainty. Indeed, Calvin himself was wary of the term theology, viewing it largely as a term of contempt for speculative thinkers, preferring instead the term religio, “which bespeaks the binding of the self to God.”33 Although Calvin provides lengthy rebuttals of objections to his doctrine of election, the Institutes is “not a work of apologetics . . . nor is it a textbook of theology. . . . In the crisis of the Reformation Calvin is attempting to set forth the character of the Christian religion to those who already confess Christ.”34 This means that, when it comes to election and predestination, Calvin is not concerned to make the doctrine palatable to unbelievers, recognizing as he does throughout that election is a doctrine given to the church for her comfort. But more than this, for believers he is especially concerned to set the bounds of enquiry at the limits revealed in Scripture, which we should approach with reverence and childlike trust.

This leads, finally, to another way in which Calvin instructs us to read election in the Bible. It is here especially that what he has left us remains, I believe, so immensely profitable today.

5. Anxious silence can impoverish.

Just as we can seek to say too much about election by transgressing the boundaries of what is known only to God, so too we can say too little about election, burying it like a reef at the bottom of our theological oceans.35 It is obvious by now that to not teach or preach on election would rob us of a profound view of God’s activity in salvation and of ourselves as needing mercy. But Calvin also believes that it is actually the doctrine of election as taught to us by the Lord Jesus himself that gives us assurance of that salvation and the certain hope of glory. “And as Christ teaches, here is our only ground for firmness and confidence: in order to free us of all fear and render us victorious amid so many dangers, snares, and mortal struggles, he promises that whatever the Father has entrusted into his keeping will be safe. From this we infer that all those who do not know that they are God’s own will be miserable through constant fear.”36

“Precisely because election comes with faith annexed to it, faith in Christ is a valid basis for assurance of election.”

Calvin has some things to say about where we must not look to understand election, but the real content of his doctrine of election is precisely about where we can look in order to understand election. Rather than trying to discern the mind of God, we should look to Christ. Commenting on John 6:39, Calvin says, “He now declares that the Father’s purpose is that believers may find salvation secured in Christ.” The way that we reach this security is through faith in Jesus, and Calvin is explicit that faith is a sufficient basis for a knowledge of election: “If God’s will is that those who he has elected shall be saved by faith, and he confirms and executes his eternal decree in this way, whoever is not satisfied with Christ but inquires curiously about eternal predestination desires, as far as lies in him, to be saved contrary to God’s purpose.”37 So, there is a connection between the divine will and human faith, such that the latter flows from the former. Election is not the only thing God decrees for his people. In a remarkable passage, Calvin asserts,

Therefore they are mad who seek their own or others’ salvation in the labyrinth of predestination, not keeping to the way of faith displayed to them. Indeed, by this wrong-headed speculation they attempt to overthrow the power and effect of predestination; for if God has elected us to the end that we may believe, take away faith and election will be imperfect. But it is wrong to break the unbroken and ordained order of beginning and end in God’s counsel.38

For Calvin, then, both election and the faith that comes from God’s calling the elect to Christ stand together as one inseparable reality. Precisely because election comes with faith annexed to it, faith in Christ is a valid basis for assurance of election. If we are silent about election in our preaching and teaching, Calvin believes, we will be silent about a wonderful means of assurance. This assurance does not flow from directing people to election in the first place, but rather to Christ as the focus of our faith and thereby of our election. In his third sermon on Ephesians, in answer to the question of how believers may know their election, Calvin answers simply,

By believing in Jesus Christ. I said before that faith proceeds from election and is the fruit of it, which shows that the root is hidden within. Whosoever then believes is thereby assured that God has worked in him, and faith is, as it were, the duplicate copy that God gives us of the original of our adoption. God has his eternal counsel, and he always reserves to himself the chief and original record of which he gives us a copy by faith.39

We should note the stress on certainty here. In the lovely image of our faith as a duplicate copy of which God holds the original, belief in Jesus as Savior really is enough to give us sure knowledge that we belong to God. We can see how all of this is part of Calvin’s doctrine of faith as laid out in the Institutes. Our very faith in Jesus does not have its origin in us, as if it were a work we were performing; rather, it is a sign to us that we are contributing nothing whatsoever to our salvation. Throughout Calvin’s writing, he clothes Christ in metaphors that describe his relationship to the doctrine of election: Christ is a “book” in whom all the elect are “written”; Christ is a “mirror,” the place we “look” to see our own election and indeed here the Father “looked” to choose us; Christ is a guardian, protecting the election given to us by the Father; and Christ is a pledge, guaranteeing our election. The point of the metaphors should not be missed, for they each in different ways deal with what we can really see and actually know and communicate the kind of certainty that gives us assurance.

This means that, when we read about election in the Bible, Calvin would not have the doctrine generate despair or introspection. He simply intends for our own incapacity to save ourselves to lead us to Christ’s complete sufficiency to save, and thereby to know God as Father: “With Calvin, election has to do with the surprise that one is safe with God, is ultimately secure. That is the heart of the doctrine.”40

  1. Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (New York: Picador, 2005), 206. 

  2. Fred H. Klooster, Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination, Calvin Theological Seminary Monograph Series 3 (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1961). 

  3. This article précises material in my Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2009); and also “A Mirror for God and for Us: Christology and Exegesis in Calvin’s Doctrine of Election,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 11, no. 4 (October 2009): 448–65. 

  4. “John Calvin to the Reader,” preface to Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J.T. McNeill, trans. F.L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:4–5. 

  5. See, for instance, Stephen Edmondson, “The Biblical Historical Structure of Calvin’s Institutes,” Scottish Journal of Theology 59, no. 1 (2006): 1–13; Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). 

  6. Calvin, Institutes 3.1.1. 

  7. Calvin, Institutes 3.1.1. 

  8. R.B. Gaffin Jr., “Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards,” Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003): 165–79 (176). 

  9. Gaffin, “Biblical Theology,” 176–77. 

  10. Calvin, Institutes 3.2.7. 

  11. Calvin, Institutes 3.2.29. 

  12. Calvin, Institutes 3.2.30. 

  13. Calvin, Institutes 3.21.1. 

  14. Calvin, Institutes 3.21.5. 

  15. Calvin, Institutes 3.21.1. 

  16. Calvin, Institutes 3.21.1. 

  17. Calvin, Institutes 3.21.5. 

  18. Calvin, Institutes 3.22.3. 

  19. Calvin, Institutes 3.24.1. 

  20. G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, trans. H.R. Boer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 284. 

  21. Calvin, Institutes 3.21.1. 

  22. John Calvin, The Gospel according to St. John, 11–21, and the First Epistle of John, ed. D.W. Torrance and T.F. Torrance, trans. T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 97. 

  23. Calvin, Gospel according to St. John, 11–21, 149. 

  24. For a detailed treatment, see David Gibson, “A Mirror for God and for Us.” 

  25. John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1973), 33. 

  26. C. van der Kooi, As in a Mirror: John Calvin and Karl Barth on Knowing God (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 164. 

  27. Calvin, Institutes 3.21.1. Calvin’s understanding of the election of Israel and the church in his exegesis of Romans 9–11 emerges as considerably more complex and multifaceted than is often recognized. The election of Israel is both general and particular, and Calvin moves freely between both these forms when speaking about Israel as God’s chosen people. Likewise, “church” can be applied to Israel in both its forms of election, so that to describe the church as either replacing or abrogating Israel in Calvin’s theology is to use language far too ambiguous to really be useful. 

  28. Calvin, Institutes 1.1.1. 

  29. See the excellent treatment in Paul Helm, “The Knowledge of God and of Ourselves,” in his Calvin at the Centre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 8. 

  30. Calvin, Institutes 3.21.1. 

  31. John Calvin, The Epistles of the Apostle Paul to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, ed. D.W. Torrance and T.F. Torrance, trans. Ross MacKenzie, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 207. 

  32. See David Gibson, “Barth on Divine Election,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Karl Barth, ed. George Hunsinger and Keith L. Johnson (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2020), 47–58. 

  33. Helm, Calvin at the Centre, 5–6. 

  34. Helm, Calvin at the Centre, 8. 

  35. Calvin, Institutes 3.21.3. 

  36. Calvin, Institutes 3.21.1. 

  37. John Calvin, The Gospel according to St. John, 1–10, ed. D.W. Torrance and T.F. Torrance, trans. T.H.L. Parker, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 162. 

  38. Calvin, Gospel according to St. John, 1–10, 162, emphasis mine. 

  39. Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians, 47. 

  40. Van der Kooi, As in a Mirror, 165.