Augustine & Calvin – Part 3

Posted: July 3, 2011 in augustine, books, calvin, election, history, soteriology, theology

See Part 1 and Part 2.

Calvin: All for the Glory of God

John Calvin’s theology can be summed up in one simple phrase: all for the glory of God.  B.B. Warfield says it well in his book Calvin and Augustine,

“[Calvin’s theology] begins, it centers, it ends with the vision of God in His glory: and it sets itself before all things to render to God His rights in every sphere of life-activity.”[1]

Therefore, for Calvin, God was ordering all things for that ultimate end of honoring and magnifying His own name.  As with Augustine, this absolute sovereignty extended even over evil, which God righteously ordained before the foundation of the world.  This foundational principle affected every area of Calvin’s theology: all things are subservient to this ultimate end.  Thus, when Calvin looked at man’s salvation, he looked with eyes which were focused on God and His monergistic work to save sinners.  If anything leading to a person’s salvation could be attributed to man, God was necessarily robbed of glory.  Thus, Calvin echoed Augustine’s thoughts when he affirmed that “nothing, however slight, can be credited to man without depriving God of His honor, and without man himself falling into ruin through brazen confidence.”[2]  According to Warfield, this sense of man’s utter helplessness before an infinitely holy and powerful God is “the root of Calvinistic soteriology.”[3]  Thus, Calvin and Augustine started from essentially the same premise: man is totally helpless.  God must act.

Calvin also wholeheartedly agreed with Augustine on the notion of original sin.  In the Institutes he writes, “We are all sinners by nature; therefore we are held under the yoke of sin.”  The result of being held captive under sin is that men’s wills are “restrained by the stoutest bonds,” therefore rendering us incapable of choosing, loving, and obeying God.  Thus, man cannot muster up faith in God by his own strength precisely because no man wants to.  It is not that God is unavailable; rather man is unwilling.  He notes that many “ancient doctors” were unwilling to deal with the subject of original sin in detail, undoubtedly owing to its unpalatable nature.  However, a few “good men (and Augustine above the rest” did not shrink back from the challenge, boldly declaring the testimony of Scripture against the “profane fiction that Adam sinned only to his own loss without harming his posterity.”[4]  Calvin admits that this unwillingness is itself pressed upon us because of the inheritance of original sin.

This inherited bondage of the will made God’s sovereign, unconditional election absolutely necessary.  In Book 3 of his Institutes Calvin writes,

“God once established…those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation… This plan was founded upon His freely given mercy, without regard to human worth.”[5]

Election, therefore, is not based on any foreseen merit (including faith) on the part of the individual, but is based solely on God’s mercy.  For, Calvin writes, “What consistency is there in saying that the things derived from election gave cause to election?”[6]  He admits that the view that God looks down the corridors of time and elects men based on what they choose by their own free will has been held by many “important authors.”[7]  However, he asserts that “by thus covering election with a veil of foreknowledge, they not only obscure it but feign that it has its origin elsewhere.”[8]  This is utterly unacceptable to Calvin, who sees any conditional action on God’s part to be utterly at odds with the heart of a gospel of pure, monergistic grace.

For Calvin, as for Augustine, faith itself is a gracious gift from God, bestowed on the believer at the time of their regeneration.  Commenting on Paul’s words in 2 Thessalonians 1:11, Calvin writes,

“Here Paul calls faith ‘the work of God,’ and instead of distinguishing it by an adjective, appropriately calls it ‘good pleasure.’  Thus he denies that man himself initiates faith, and not satisfied with this, he adds that it is a manifestation of God’s power.”[9]

This gift of faith, Calvin later adds, is not given to all men indiscriminately, “but by a singular privilege [God] gives it to those to whom He will.”  In pondering this incomprehensible truth, Calvin quotes one of Augustine’s sermons, in which the “faithful interpreter” asked,

“Why is [faith] given to one and not to another?  I am not ashamed to say: ‘This is the depth of the cross.’… It is an abyss, the depth of the cross.  I can exclaim in wonder; I cannot demonstrate it through disputation.”[10]

God’s choice regarding who He will grant faith to (and thus save) and who He withholds it from is beyond our understanding.  The task of the faithful Christian is not to fully grasp God’s incomprehensible will, but rather to humbly submit to the testimony of Scripture, all the while remembering that God is totally righteous and just in all that He does.

The result of a correct understanding of God’s sovereign predestination is worship on the part of the believer.  “The whole intent of our election,” Calvin writes, “is that we should be to the praise of divine grace.”[11]  Having been brought low by the knowledge of their sinfulness and inability to come to God, believers can now truly praise God for choosing them, dying for them, calling them, regenerating them, and ultimately glorifying them.  Calling the doctrine of predestination a “very sweet fruit,” Calvin 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.”[12]

God’s glory is the supreme goal of predestination, higher even than man’s salvation.  Thus, Calvin would say that the ultimate reason that God chose to save some men was not so that they would be saved, but so that He would receive glory.

Like Augustine, Calvin insisted that the doctrine of God’s sovereign predestination be taught in the Church.  The reason for this was that it was only through the preaching of predestination that man would truly understand his own miserable condition and God’s miraculous salvation.  Ignorance of this truth robs God of His glory and man of his humility.[13]  Calvin boldly declared that “those who wish to get rid of all this are obscuring as maliciously as they can what ought to have been gloriously and vociferously proclaimed, and they tear humility up by the very roots.”[14]

In answer to those who would caution the teaching of the doctrine of predestination because of the mockery of evil men, Calvin is no less severe.  Citing other perplexing concepts in Scripture, Calvin argues that the difficulty of the doctrine should not prevent it being preached.[15]  Against the suggestion that the doctrine of predestination might “disturb weak souls” Calvin scathingly writes,

“With what color will they cloak their arrogance when they accuse God indirectly of stupid thoughtlessness, as if He had not foreseen the peril that they feel they have wisely met?  Whoever, then, heaps odium upon the doctrine of predestination openly reproaches God, as if He had unadvisedly let slip something hurtful to the Church.”[16]

Part 4

[1] Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, p. 292
[2] Calvin, Institutes, 2:2:1
[3] Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, p. 294
[4] Calvin, Institutes, 2:1:5
[5] Calvin, Institutes, 3:21:7
[6] Ibid., 3:22:3
[7] Ibid., 3:22:1
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 3:2:35
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., 3:22:3; see Ephesians 1:6
[12] Ibid., 3:21:1
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., emphasis mine
[15] Calvin mentions the Trinity and the creation of the world five-thousand years ago.  Later he writes, “No!  God’s truth is so powerful, both in this respect and in every other, that it has nothing to fear from the evil speaking of wicked men.”  Calvin, Institutes, 3:21:4
[16] Calvin, Institutes, 3:21:4, emphasis mine


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