John Calvin and the "Awful" Doctrine of Predestination

If there is one teaching that the name of John Calvin invokes, it is that of predestination. Wikipedia, certainly no theological publication, at one point began its definition of predestination by mentioning only one name right at the beginning, saying, “Those who believe in predestination, such as John Calvin...” The association of Calvin's name with the teaching is sealed. You hear predestination, and you think John Calvin.

Yet few have read Calvin's own teaching on this subject. Further, many mischaracterize and misapply the doctrine in ways that were abhorrent to Calvin. So here is a brief overview of Calvin's careful proof of predestination from the Scriptures, his careful use of the doctrine, and his pastoral care seen in using the doctrine.

Calvin’s Careful Proof of Predestination

Calvin's magnum opus is entitled The Institutes of the Christian Religion. In particular, how Calvin upholds and applies the doctrine of election in this work is instructional.

In The Institutes, Calvin defines this doctrine in the following manner:

By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.[1]

Calvin then offers Scriptural support for this definition by tracing the development of this doctrine through the increasing revelation of the Bible in the following steps:

  1. He begins with Abraham, showing how the Lord chose this man to be His special representative out of all the people of the world. Most Christians do not struggle with accepting the truth that Abraham was chosen by God, and immediately Calvin personalizes this doctrine by using Abraham.
  2. Consequently, Calvin shows that Israel who descended from Abraham was also then chosen by God. He quotes verses such as Deuteronomy 7:7-8 which says, “The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people: for ye were the fewest of all people: but because the Lord loved you.”
  3. Calvin then goes on to speak of a deeper dimension of predestination, that in the Old Testament we see a more special election still of God saving certain ones out of the nation of Israel. Calvin says that his readers must see how “the grace of God was displayed in a more special form, when of the same family of Abraham God rejected some.” He then refers to Malachi 1:2-3 which explicitly states, “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother? saith the Lord: yet I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau.”[2]
  4. Finally, Calvin comes into the New Testament and shows how the Apostle Paul in Romans quotes this very text from Malachi to substantiate predestination. He quotes from Romans 9:15, itself another quote from the Old Testament: “For he (the Lord) saith to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’” Calvin then later asks,

And what pray, does this mean? It is just a clear declaration by the Lord that he finds nothing in men themselves to induce him to show kindness, that it is owing entirely to his own mercy, and, accordingly, that their salvation is his own work. Since God places your salvation in himself alone, why should you descend to yourself?[3]

So important was it to Calvin to believe this doctrine that he said, “We shall never feel persuaded as we ought that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God as its fountain, until we are made acquainted with his eternal election.”[4] Yet even though he saw eternal election this way, he also stressed a need for caution.

Calvin’s Carefulness with Predestination

Calvin was far more careful with this doctrine than his critics were and are. Calvin understood men would react strongly against predestination. “The human mind, when it hears this doctrine, cannot restrain its petulance, but boils and rages as if aroused by the sound of a trumpet.”[5] People who hear the teaching of predestination rarely remain unaffected by it. Their hearts too become enflamed, either with these teachings or against them. Calvin offers caution in the wrongful handling of this doctrine.

He does so by warning his readers not to make anything else but God’s will their ultimate trust.

The will of God is the supreme rule of righteousness, so that everything which he wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it. Therefore, when it is asked why the Lord did so, we must answer, ‘Because he pleased.’ But if you proceed farther to ask why he pleased, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, and nothing such can be found.[6]

Calvin taught that God’s will is to be our resting place. He cautions those trying to go beyond the limit of their understanding. When men hear of election, they immediately want to ask, “Why would God choose some, and not others?” To this Calvin replied: “When they inquire into predestination, let then remember that they are penetrating into the recesses of the divine wisdom, where he who rushes forward securely and confidently, instead of satisfying his curiosity will enter in (an) inextricable labyrinth.”[7] God’s thoughts are higher than man’s, and men will be trapped in a mental maze if they try to understand things that are beyond their human comprehension.

Calvin goes on to say, “Let it, therefore, be our first principle that to desire any other knowledge of predestination than that which is expounded by the word of God, is to be no less infatuated (or crazed) than to walk where there is no path, or to seek light in darkness.”[8] For Biblical support, he quoted Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us, and to our children forever.” Calvin even demonstrated his commitment to this truth in his placement of his teaching on predestination in The Institutes. In the final edition, he moved his section on predestination from the beginning of his work to a place following his teaching on redemption, in effect suggesting “that predestination is a doctrine best understood by believers after they come to know the redemptive work of Jesus Christ applied by the Holy Spirit.”[9]

Calvin then addresses the mistaken notion that election removes human responsibility. Many today associate John Calvin with an aberration of his teaching called Hyper-Calvinism, which is a doctrine that emphasizes divine sovereignty to the exclusion of human responsibility. Among other things, Hyper-Calvinism would deny 1) that gospel invitations are to be delivered to all people without exception; 2) that men can be urged to come to Christ; and 3) that God has a universal love. To Calvin these teachings were monstrous distortions of truth.

Another argument which they employ to overthrow predestination is that if it stand, all care and study of well doing must cease. For what man can hear (say they) that life and death are fixed by an eternal and immutable decree of God, without immediately concluding that it is of no consequence how he acts, since no work of his can either hinder or further the predestination of God?[10]

What was Calvin’s answer? He reminds his readers what the predestinated are predestined to do! He points out what the Apostle Paul said in Ephesians 1:4, where he reminds us that the end for which we are elected is “that we should be holy, and without blame before him.” “If the end of election is holiness of life, it ought to arouse and stimulate us strenuously to aspire to it, instead of serving as a pretext for sloth.”[11] He develops how predestination should lead us to fear God all the more, and consequently should both comfort us and spur us on even in the worst of times to greater holiness.

Calvin’s Pastoral Care in Using Predestination

Calvin exemplified a pastoral use of this doctrine, patterned after Christ and the apostles, who used this doctrine in two chief ways - to humble the proud and to comfort the humble.

The ministry of the Word thus required more than the public exposition of Scripture: it also entailed the declaration and application of God’s Word to individual women and men, girls and boys, through the sacraments, corrective discipline, catechetical instruction, household visitations, and spiritual counsel and consolation. As Calvin noted in his liturgy, ‘the office of a true and faithful minister is not only to teach the people in public, which is he appointed to do as a pastor, but also, as much as he is able, to admonish, exhort, warn, and console each person individually.[12]

Robert Godfrey provides an example of this pastoral use of predestination from Calvin’s life.[13] In this example, the office of the minister is seen to be expanded beyond merely a pulpit ministry.

In Volume 4 of John Calvin’s Tracts and Letters, a letter written by Calvin in April of 1541 can be found. It is a fairly lengthy letter written to Monsieur de Richebourg because his son Louis, a young man, had recently died. Louis had been a student of Calvin at the Academy in Geneva, and the impact of his young friend’s death can be heard at the beginning of this letter to the deceased’s father:

When I first received the intelligence of the death…of your son Louis, I was so utterly overpowered that for many days I was fit for nothing but to grieve…I was somehow upheld before the Lord by those aids wherewith he sustains our souls in affliction,…however, I was almost a nonentity.[14]

In this letter, we see Calvin using predestination as a “doctrine of comfort.” Listen to how Calvin then uses the doctrine of predestination to minister to this grieving father.

There is nothing which is more dispiriting to us than while we vex and annoy ourselves with this sort of question – Why is it not otherwise with us? Why has it so happened that we came to this place? [In other words, why has God allowed this to happen to us?] ...It is God, therefore, who has sought back from you your son, whom he committed to you to be educated, on the condition, that he might always be his own. And therefore, he took him away, because it was both of an advantage to him to leave this world, and by this bereavement to humble you, or to make trial of your patience. If you do not understand the advantage of this, without delay, first of all, set aside every other object of consideration, and ask of God that he may show you. Should it be his will to exercise you still further, by concealing it from you, submit to that will, that you may become the wiser than the weakness of your own understanding can ever attain to.”[15]

The last sentence is rather remarkable. “Should it be his will to exercise you still further, by concealing it from you, submit to that will, that you may become the wiser than the weakness of your own understanding can ever attain to.” Calvin shows how much wisdom and comfort can be found in submitting to God’s divine will, trusting Him regardless of how much or how little of that will He has revealed to the afflicted. In so doing, he reveals to us true pastoral care in using this Biblical doctrine.


  1. John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.21.5. ↩︎

  2. Calvin, Institutes, 3.21.6. ↩︎

  3. Calvin, 3.22.6. ↩︎

  4. Calvin, 3.21.1. ↩︎

  5. Calvin, 3.23.1. ↩︎

  6. Calvin, 3.23.2. ↩︎

  7. Calvin, 3.21.1. ↩︎

  8. Calvin, 3.21.2. ↩︎

  9. Derek Thomas, “Bowing before the Majesty of God,” Preaching Like Calvin: Sermons from the 500th Anniversary Celebration, ed. David W. Hall (Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 2010), 252. ↩︎

  10. Calvin, Institutes, 3.23.12. ↩︎

  11. Calvin, 3.23.12. ↩︎

  12. Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 256. ↩︎

  13. I am indebted to Robert Godfrey for this section. See Robert Godfrey, “The Counselor to the Afflicted,” John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, Doxology, ed. Buck Parsons (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2008), 88-90. ↩︎

  14. Parsons, John Calvin, 88. ↩︎

  15. Bruce Gordon, Calvin, Reprint edition (New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 2011), 302. ↩︎

Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. President of RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness.

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