Humble Calvinism – Part 2

Posted: November 8, 2010 in calvinism, humility, theology

See Part 1.

Despite how some modern day Calvinists may speak and act, when one examines Calvin’s writings and life a clear picture emerges as to what true Calvinism should look like.

Far from being overly-dogmatic and harsh (as he is often viewed), Calvin was consistently humble, submissive, and gracious towards the people he ministered to.  Although he could use strong, polemical language at times, particularly against those he saw as distorting the Gospel, when writing for those under his pastoral care, Calvin was consistently kind and gentle.  These character traits found their roots in Calvin’s theology, at the heart of which was a strong sense of his own utter sinfulness before a holy God, and thus his absolute dependence on God’s free grace.  These two themes permeate Calvin’s theology, especially his soteriology.  For Calvin, grace and humility were inextricably linked together and could not be separated.  Calvin’s theology and life demonstrated his firm belief that God’s grace always produces humility in the hearts of true believers.

Calvin’s Doctrine: The Depravity of Man

In his Institutes, before Calvin even begins to explain the redemption that God has provided through Jesus Christ, he meticulously explains the dire plight of the natural man.  For Calvin, one cannot truly understand the amazing salvation provided by God if he does not fully grasp the miserable condition that he was in prior to the work of God’s grace.  He writes, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and ourselves.”[1] Knowledge of God and man are intimately intertwined.  Just a few sentences later he writes,

“Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and – what is more – depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone.”[2]

Thus, Calvin begins his discussion of God the Redeemer with a hard look at the “depravity and corruption” of man.  It is to this topic that we now turn our attention.

Foundational to Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity was his understanding of original sin.  Adam’s first sin of unfaithfulness led to his own corruption and guilt.[3] However, by sinning, Adam also “entangled and immersed his offspring in the same miseries.”[4] Calvin completely rejects the Pelagian heresy which states that Adam’s sin affected his posterity “through imitation, not prorogation.”[5] Because Adam was the “root of human nature”, his corrupted sinful nature, along with his guilt, has been passed down to all of his offspring.[6] This “inherited corruption” affects the whole of man, for “not only did a lower appetite seduce him, but unspeakable impiety occupied the very citadel of his mind, and pride penetrated to the depths of his heart.”[7]

Thus, Calvin does not restrict man’s depravity to any one area.  He writes, “[T]he dominion of sin, from the time it held the first man bound to itself, not only ranges among all mankind, but also completely occupies individual souls.”[8] The whole man has been corrupted, including his mind, will, affections, and desires.  One of the primary ways in which this corruption can be seen is in the bondage of man’s will.  Man is, in Calvin’s words, “bound over to miserable servitude.”[9] The natural man does not have any power to move towards God for the simple reason that his will is completely enslaved by sin.  He writes, “Because of the bondage of sin by which the will is held bound, it cannot move toward good, much less apply itself thereto.”[10]

It is not as if he wants to flee to God for salvation but is restrained; the natural man has no desire for God nor His salvation.  His bondage is so pervasive that he does not even know that he is in bondage; he is “a willing slave.”[11] The only hope for man is to receive the sovereign, gracious assistance of God.

Calvin is very careful not to attribute any ability to man for two reasons.  First, it gives man a false confidence in himself and his own ability.  Second, it robs God of the glory that is due to Him alone.  He writes, “Nothing, however slight, can be credited to man without depriving God of his honor, and without man himself falling into ruin through brazen confidence.”[12] True knowledge of oneself will “strip us of all confidence in our own ability, deprive us of all occasion for boasting, and lead us to submission.”[13] This degradation has another purpose as well.  As Ian Tait notes,

“Even [Calvin’s] strong emphasis on the depravity of the sinner was designed to encourage a man, by way of realistic self-despair, to seek peace with God through the blood of Christ.”[14]

So, even the “self-despair” that Calvin’s low view of humanity created has a higher, positive purpose of driving sinners to Christ.  Against those who claim that such discussions about man’s ability and free will are “dangerous, not to say superfluous,” Calvin maintains that a correct understanding of man’s enslaved will is “both fundamental in religion and most profitable for us.”[15]

In all of his discussion of man’s total depravity, it is clear that Calvin’s purpose for insisting on this doctrine is to humble man and to magnify God.  As noted earlier, Calvin is reluctant to attribute any good ultimately to man lest full honor not be given to God.  For Calvin, the two are inextricably linked: crediting man with anything always robs God of something.  To rob God of glory is the ultimate sin for Calvin, for in his estimation, God is the ultimate purpose for and goal of all things.  Thus, Calvin sought to imitate this in his own theology and thought.  As John Piper writes, “I think this would be a fitting banner over all of Calvin’s life and work – zeal to illustrate the glory of God.”[16]

Part 3

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:1:1
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 2:1:4
[4] Ibid., 2:1:5
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 2:1:6
[7] Ibid., 2:1:9
[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2:2:1
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 2:3:5
[11] Ibid., 2:2:7
[12] Ibid., 2:2:1
[13] Ibid., 2:1:2
[14] Ian M. Tait, “Calvin’s Ministry of Encouragement”, Presbyterion 11 no 1 Spr 1985, p 44.
[15] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2:2:1
[16] John Piper, John Calvin and His Passion for the Majesty of God, 16.


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