John Calvin and Grace
One of the most influential religious figures of the last millennium was John Calvin of Switzerland. Calvin was born in 1509. At the age of fourteen, he went to Paris to study the classics. He was so austere that his fellow students nicknamed him “The Accusative Case.” In 1529, he commenced the study of civil law. Presently, though, Calvin became intrigued with the teachings of the German reformers and so gave himself to the study of religion.
In 1533, he broke with the Roman Catholic Church after a religious “experience” during which he believed he received a commission from God to restore the Church to its original purity. By the year 1536, at the age of only twenty-six, he had completed the first edition of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion. The initial edition was a small volume of six chapters; the final version (1560)—revised over the years—had grown to eighty chapters.
To a significant degree, Calvin’s views—which were developed from the writings of Augustine, a “bishop” in northern Africa (A.D. 353-430)—have formed the doctrinal basis of much of modern Protestantism.
In this article, we wish to briefly comment upon John Calvin’s influence upon the religious community on the subject of grace. His ideas are circulated in several denominations, and, tragically, have found their way into the thinking of many people.
One of Calvin’s prominent errors was the notion that man is born totally depraved, having inherited both the effects and the guilt of Adam’s original sin. Even infants, therefore, have in them the seed of sin; indeed, their whole nature is a sort of a sin-seed, so that they cannot be anything other than corrupt before God (Institutes ii.I.8). Hence, all men stand in need of the Lord’s grace. From this fundamental error others spring.
One of the cornerstones of Calvin’s theology was the dogma of predestination. This is the notion that, consistent with his own sovereignty, God, before the foundation of the world, pre-determined who would be saved and who would be lost. In view of this, when Christ died, his death was efficacious only for the “elect.” This concept of limited atonement—hence, limited grace—is so foreign to the teaching of the Scriptures that it is difficult to see how anyone with an elementary knowledge of the New Testament could accept it.
Hear the testimony of Paul: “For the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11).
Because God loved the entire world (John 3:16), and so wants all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4) and not a single one to perish (2 Peter 3:9), Christ died to be the propitiation for sins—not just for the elect, but potentially for the entire world as well (1 John 2:2).
Calvinism argues that by a secret and special operation of the Holy Spirit, God’s grace is poured forth upon the elect. Since the extension of this grace is an act of divine power, it cannot be resisted any more than the original creation could have resisted the creative might of the Lord (Hodge 1960, 688).
But the fact is, though God’s grace is generously offered, it must be received by the sinner—“[W]e entreat also that you receive not the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). It is certainly possible to “receive not” that which is offered (cf. John 1:11).
Calvinists argue that grace is given to the elect unconditionally. If such is the case, then there is absolutely nothing that one must do in order to receive salvation—not even believe.
One writer states:
[W]e believe that there is no warrant whatsoever for the view that John 3:16 lays down faith as a condition to be performed by the lost person in order to attain spiritual eternal life.
Again he says:
God, without the use of the gospel or any other human means, will save all of his redeemed loved ones in every land and in every age (Sarrels 1978, 443-444).
The foregoing affirmations are ludicrous.
Paul declares that we have “access by faith into this grace” (Romans 5:2). In his discussion of grace in Titus 3, the inspired apostle states that God, “according to his mercy, saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit . . . being justified by his grace” (vv. 5-7).
Paul equates being saved by the washing of regeneration with being justified by grace. The washing is an allusion to man’s response to God by submitting to baptism. Grace is supplied by the Lord—independent of any merit on our part. Clearly, though, the washing of regeneration is a condition of our redemption. But is that expression an allusion to baptism? Even Calvin admitted that he had “no doubt” that Paul was alluding to baptism—though he denied the connection between baptism and salvation (see Shepherd 1950, 405).
Calvin maintained that the elect could be certain that God would never allow them to fall away from the faith. They would thus persevere unto the end. A sizable segment of Protestantism has adopted the doctrine to some degree or another. Charles Stanley, a prominent Baptist clergyman, has attempted to argue this case in a recent book (see Jackson 1993).
But the New Testament teaches otherwise. A child of God can fall from grace (Galatians 5:4), or fail, i.e., fall back from the Lord’s favor (Hebrews 12:15; cf. ASV fn). It is possible to deny the Master who bought you and so be destroyed (2 Peter 2:1). Thus, we must keep ourselves in God’s love (Jude 21) and give diligence to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10), lest our reception of divine grace be in vain (2 Corinthians 6:1).
While we acknowledge that John Calvin taught some truth, we must also recognize that he advocated much error, and that error must be rejected.
- Hodge, Charles. 1960. Systematic Theology. Vol. 2. London, England: James Clarke & Co.
- Jackson, Wayne. 1993. Eternal Security—Fact or Fiction? Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
- Sarrels, R. V. 1978. Systematic Theology. Azle, TX: Harmony Hill.
- Shepherd, J. W. 1950. Handbook on Baptism. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.