Summary of John Calvin’s Predestination and Free Will

You would probably be familiar with the Adam-Eve episode in the book of Genesis in the Bible, where Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and were banished from the Garden of Eden to a life on earth for disobeying God and committing a sin. This is known as the Original Sin. It is also believed that having sinned, all of their progeny would be born sinful. Hence, mankind is sinful and Christ, the son of God, later came to martyr himself to redeem humanity.

John Calvin begins the essay with the same Christian belief that since the Adam-Eve episode or the subjugation of the first man (Adam), the propensity to sin prevails in the entire human race. In the prescribed extract from the essay, he expresses his opinion on predestination and free will.

Beliefs Regarding Free Will and Its Implications

Calvin observes that if a man believes that he is entirely governed by fate, he becomes lazy and behaves as if righteousness does not concern him. If he believes he is entirely free, then it deprives God of his due honor and grace. Therefore, Calvin says that man isn’t inherently good, but he should be instructed to aspire to both goodness and liberty that he has been deprived of due to the original sin.

Next, he compares the state of the first man to mankind now. He says that even the first man was not permitted glory in himself, when he was in fact blessed with divine beneficence for his goodness. After the damnation, man has been thrown from glory to deep humiliation and disgrace because of his ingratitude. Therefore, Calvin believes that man should become humbler now. Calvin says that even the scripture (Bible) attributes nothing of divine glory to man personally. As man was created in the image of God, all glory belongs to God. Calvin believes that when we boast of our strength- it is equivalent to falsity and an empty belief that will soon be shattered.

Calvin argues that it is boastful to imagine that man is the master of his will. He believes that, to be truly religious, it is essential to accept that free will is a result of God’s grace. Therefore, Calvin’s belief in free will aligns with his Christian humanist thought, where free will is not the only force that governs human life. Calvin believes in a moderate approach, where he accepts that free will exists, but as a gift from God.

Necessity and Compulsion

Calvin makes an important distinction between necessity and compulsion, saying that the two are often confused, leading to dangerous implications. Calvin says that the human will, if deprived of liberty, is necessarily drawn or led into evil. To explain, Calvin draws on this distinction with respect to God and the Devil, in terms of necessity.

He says that God is so good that the question of necessity of goodness for God is sacrilegious. The devil, on the other hand, is so alienated from goodness that he can do nothing but evil (compulsion). God’s inability to do evil arises from his goodness. The devil can only commit evil as it is his compulsion. Even then, the devil chooses to perform evil deeds. Building on this distinction, Calvin tries to answer the following question with respect to man: does man sin voluntarily or out of a necessity for sinning? In response, Calvin refers to Augustine again, saying that Augustine too talks of this necessity.

Augustine says that man fell into sin because of his free will. As a result of the fall, man has acquired a natural propensity to sin. Therefore, man sins voluntarily; man sins because of his own passions, disposition, and without any external compulsion or coercion. Summing up, Calvin says that man’s nature enslaves him to sin. Hence, his nature won’t encourage him to do good deeds. Distinction between necessity and coercion has also proved that man sins necessarily, but also voluntarily.

Nature of Influence of God and the Devil

Calvin attempts to answer two questions;

  • the nature and influence of God and the devil on man; and
  • whether any influence of God exists in man’s evil deeds, as Scripture intimates.

To explain this Calvin cites Augustine, who equates human will with a horse, obedient to its riders, and God and Devil as the riders. When man has God as the rider, man does good deeds, repressing and surpassing his natural inclination to sin, due to the influence of God. But if the devil is the rider, man willingly submits to his directions. It does not imply that he does evil deeds unwillingly, in reluctant submission to the devil. He does so because he is fascinated with the devil. The man who is not guided by God, submits willingly to the power of the devil. Calvin uses this example to illustrate “the wonderful depth of God’s eternal election.”

Eternal Election

Calvin says that the covenant of life is not preached or received uniformly, and this diversity illustrates the depth of the divine judgment. Diversity in divine judgment is also a result of God’s eternal election. Eternal election means that some will be offered salvation, while others will be prevented from attaining it. He distinguishes between election and predestination. We must understand the process of eternal election to be convinced that our salvation comes from God’s free mercy. The hope of salvation, as per eternal election, is not offered to anybody and everybody freely. God elects some to whom he gives the hope of salvation, and others to whom he refuses it. Calvin says that ignorance of this principle diverges from divine glory and real humility.

He quotes Paul to say that God chooses those to whom he has decreed the hope of salvation without regard to their works. This is because if regard is given to Grace then, work is irrelevant and if work is given importance, then Grace holds no meaning. The hope of salvation comes only from divine mercy. Paul suggests that God saves those whom he chooses to but he does not give the hope of salvation to anybody who does not deserve it. Christ also “promised to preserve in safety all whom the Father had committed to His care.” Those who are not God’s chosen people will always be troubled by anxiety.

Predestination and Damnation

Calvin says that predestination is a complex or intricate subject but it is made dangerously perplexing by human curiosity. He denounces that aspect of curiosity which does not restrict itself from wanting to know divine secrets. In trying to find out about predestination, people attempt to explore the secrets that God has kept hidden with Himself. Answers to the same cannot be found and the process is self-defeating. These secrets indicate the sublimity of God’s wisdom. This should evoke in us more adoration and love for divine Glory. Calvin says those secrets that God wanted to tell us have already been revealed to us, in His word, the Bible; and that should be enough for us.

Predestination is the principle by which God gives some the hope of life and gives some eternal death. He says to make foreknowledge the cause of predestination is an unnecessary objection. Foreknowledge and predestination both belong to God, but it is unreasonable to think that both are dependent on each other. By foreknowledge, we mean that everything remains before God’s eyes. Foreknowledge extends to all. Predestination is that eternal decree by which God decides what will become of each individual. Not all individuals are created with similar destinies. Some are given eternal life while others get eternal damnation.

Summing Up

Calvin’s theology had an impact on the development of the fundamental principles of Protestantism, paving the way for reforms in the Roman Catholic Church. His emphasis on the reading of the Bible as the final word diffused the authority of the Catholic Church. He believed that God’s wisdom is a mystery and He should be trusted in every case. He believed in predestination rather than free will, believing in the ultimate power, glory, beneficence, and sovereignty of God. He understood the world as the kingdom of God, despite the corruption of man after the fall because God’s beneficence ensured the sacrifice of Christ to rescue humanity. Calvin’s Institutes have enjoyed continuing historical significance because of his intellectual outlook towards religion.

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