Humble Calvinism – Part 4

Posted: November 11, 2010 in calvinism, humility, theology

See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Calvin’s Doctrine: Predestination

The final doctrine in Calvin’s theology that we will turn to is his teaching on predestination.  As mentioned previously, many Christians, including Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike, assume that Calvin’s theology begins with God’s sovereign election of sinners.  J.K.S. Reid is right when he says,

“The opinion may be hazarded that, contrary to a prevalent view, the doctrine of Predestination by no means determines [Calvin’s] system.  Though it is indeed attached to and even integrated into the system, the part it plays is not really dominant; and there are points, for example where Calvin treats of the Church and of the sacraments, where it seems really supplementary to the main theme, and strictly dispensable.”[1]

A careful reading of his Institutes would sufficiently prove this point.  Calvin thinks of the doctrine of predestination as one that must follow the other soteriological doctrines.  It is a doctrine for Christians, those who have already experienced the new birth, believed in Christ for salvation, and have thus been indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  Far from over-emphasizing the doctrine, Calvin reserves it for the end of his discussion of soteriology.  It is as if, after explaining the process of salvation to the new believer, impressing upon him the hopeless plight that he was in and his constant need for grace throughout the whole process, Calvin then lifts up the curtain and adds the final piece to the puzzle – indeed the piece that holds all the other pieces together.  Additionally, Calvin takes time to caution his readers not to pry too deeply into God’s eternal election lest they pry into a mystery that God has chosen not to reveal.  This warning, perhaps, needs to be heard again today:

“When [men] inquire into predestination they 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 can find no exit.  For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself.”[2]

Those of us who would claim to follow in Calvin’s thinking would do well to heed his caution.

Defining predestination, he writes,

“We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man.  For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others.”[3]

He turns to Israel as an example, demonstrating how their status as the chosen people of God was not based on anything they had done but solely on the sovereign mercy and grace of God, saying that their’s was a “freely given covenant.”[4] The same is true of God’s election of individuals in the New Covenant: it is “founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth.”[5]

In keeping with all he has said regarding each of the previous doctrines, Calvin insists on the humbling effects of the doctrine of predestination.  He writes,

“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.  How much the ignorance of this principle detracts from God’s glory, how much it takes away from true humility…”[6]

Far from providing the Christian with an opportunity to boast, the belief that God sovereignly elects individuals to salvation, regardless of who they are or anything that they have done, is the only thing that will “suffice to make us humble as we ought to be.”[7] Indeed, predestination is the foundation of true humility, and those who deny it “tear humility up by the very roots.”[8] Consider that statement carefully: those who deny the doctrine of predestination “tear humility up by the very roots.”  Clearly for Calvin, the believer’s humility rests on the doctrine of unconditional election.  Thus, for the sake of God’s glory, Christians must embrace the doctrine of predestination.[9]

Part 5

Endnotes:
[1] See J.K.S. Reid’s introduction to Calvin’s treatise Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, p. 9, 29-30.
[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:12:1.  Inherent in these words is the assumption that God has only revealed as much as would be beneficial to us.
[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:21:5
[4] Ibid., cf. Exodus 32:9; Deuteronomy 7:7-8; 10:14-15; 23:5; Psalm 47:4
[5] Ibid., 3:21:7
[6] Ibid., 3:21:1
[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:21:1
[8] Ibid.
[9] It should be noted that Calvin does not neglect to support his understanding with Scripture.  As with all of his other doctrines, Calvin’s understanding of predestination was basely firmly in the Bible, which throughout testifies to God’s unconditional election.  See his Institutes, 3:21:2 and following.

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