Calvin, Baptism, and Election

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Here is quote by Calvin, which lays out nicely his view of the sacraments. In this section he is refuting Pighius, a Roman Catholic theologian.  I am quoting from Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. I have added paragraph breaks. Brackets and bold are mine. Everything else was in the book.

Paul represents (Romans 2:29) circumcision as of letter and spirit. We must think similarly of baptism. Some carry in their bodies the mere sign, but are far from possessing the reality. For Peter also, teaching that salvation follows our baptism, immediately adds as though in correction that the mere external washing of the flesh is not enough unless there is added also the answer of a good conscience (I Peter 3:21).

Thus Scripture, in dealing with the sacraments, customarily speaks  of them in a twofold sense. When dealing with hypocrites who glory in the sign and neglect the reality, in order to prostrate [throw down] their confidence, it separates the reality from the signs, in contrast to their perverse understanding. Thus Paul (I Cor 10:3-13) reminds his readers that it did not profit the ancient people to have been baptized in their passage through the Red Sea and to have with us the same spiritual food in the desert (meaning, that is, that they participated with us in the same external signs of the spiritual gifts).

But addressing the faithful he describes the use of the sacraments as legitimate, efficacious and corresponding to the divine institution. It is here that phrases apply: to have put on Christ, engrafted into His body, buried together with him, who have been baptized in His name (Rom. 6:4, Col 2:12, Gal. 3:27, I Cor. 12:27). From [these passages] Pighius concludes that all sprinkled with the visible element of water are truly regenerated by the Spirit and incorporated into the body of Christ so as to live to God and in His righteousness...

But a little later, as if drawing in his wings, Pighius remarks that many fall away from Christ who had been truly engrafted into His body; for he makes out  that those committed to Christ and received into His faithful care are saved by Him in such a way that their salvation is dependent on their own free will. To many, he says, the protecting grace of Christ is not wanting, but they are wanting in themselves. Certainly the stupidity and ingratitude of those who withdraw themselves from the help of God can never be sufficiently condemned. But it is a quite intolerable insult to Christ to say that the elect are saved by Him, provided they look after themselves. This is to render doubtful the protection of Christ which He affirms is invincible against the devil and all the machinations of hell. Christ promised to give eternal life to all give Him by the Father (John 17:2). He testifies that He is a faithful custodian of them all, so that none perishes except the son of perdition (John 17:12)…

If eternal life is certain to all the elect, if  no one can pluck them from Him, if no violence nor any assault can tear them from Him, if their salvation stands in the invincible power of God, what impudence for Pighius to shake so fixed a certitude. Though Christ casts none out, he says, yet many depart from Him, and those who once were children of God do not continue so. But Pighius is a bad and perverse interpreter, not acknowledging  that whatever is given him by the Father is retained in the hand of Christ, so that it remains safe to the end; for those that fall away, John declares to be not of His flock.

This lengthy quote is worth reading carefully for several reasons. It shows that certain lines from Calvin, such as “yet many depart from Him, and those who once were children of God do not continue so” can be interpreted out of context to mean something they do not mean. This line, by itself, sounds like Calvin believes true Christians can fall away. However, throughout the passage and the book he draws a clear line between the elect and the non-elect while still agreeing that many things are found alike in the reprobate and the children of God. But, however they shine in appearance of righteousness, it is certain they are not possessed of the Spirit of adoption, so that their owners may truly invoke God as Father.” (This quote is two pages after the one above.) While there are some similarities with the elect, those who fall away are never part of the elect in the fullest sense. They are not adopted and God is not their Father. 

This passage also shows that the relationship between election and the sacraments has long been an issue. Pighius argued that the elect were saved at baptism, but the rest was left up to them. They were “regenerated by the Spirit.” They have been truly grafted into Christ’s body, but they must keep themselves there. Calvin says God gives all to his elect, including the promise that Christ is the “faithful custodian of them.” Those given to Christ by the Father are kept by Christ unto the end. There are none lost (John 6:39). 

Calvin gives the classic understanding of how the sacraments are to be understood. There is the sign (baptism/communion/the Word) and there is the reality, Jesus Christ received by faith. Hypocrites need to have the two distinguished so they do not glory in the sign while not having the reality. The faithful need to have the two wedded together so they do not despair, but know that Jesus really feeds them through these signs.

Finally, he makes clear that Christ’s power and glory are at stake in any debate about election. Predestination debates are not primarily about man’s free will, but about the power of Christ to save and redeem. When we say man can and does slip from Christ’s grasp the primary problem is not that we grant man a completely free will, but that we deny the efficacy of Christ’s work.

Ten More Quotes from Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God

Last week I gave ten quotes from John Calvin’s work on predestination. Predestination continues to be a controversial topic in the life of the church. It is worth carefully examining the Scriptures on the topic, but also how other Christians dealt with it in the past. Here are ten more quotes from this book by Calvin.

Yet this remains an incontrovertible fact, that the reprobate are set aside in the counsel of God to the end that in them He might demonstrate His power. 

God the maker of men takes them from the same clay and forms them for honor or dishonor by His will (Rom. 9:21).

Grace is conferred on few, when it could with equal right be denied to all.

Readers must be warned that Pighius condemns equally two propositions: that God from the beginning, when the state of man was still intact, decreed what would be his future; and that He now elects from the mass of perdition whom He wills.

Nothing in my teaching goes to show that God by His eternal counsel does not elect to life those whom He pleases and leaves others to destruction; or to deny that there are punishments ordained for evil works and a prize laid up for good.

In all His works, the Lord has the reason of His own glory. This precisely is the universal end.

Christ therefore is for us the bright mirror of the eternal and hidden election of God, and also the earnest and pledge.

But it is quite an intolerable insult to Christ to say that the elect are saved by Him, provided they look after themselves.

But it is manifest that our willing is vain unless God show mercy; but I do not know how it can be said that the mercy of God is vain unless we will.  

For we do not imagine that the elect always hold to the right course under the continual direction of the Spirit; we say that they often fall, err, suffer shipwreck and alienated from the way of salvation. But since the protection of God by which they are defended is stronger than all., they cannot fall into fatal ruin.

And one:

Therefore we both exhort and preach. Those who have ears to hear, hear us obediently; in those who do not, what is written is fulfilled: That hearing they may not hear (Is. 6:9); for they hear with the bodily sense but not with the assent of the heart. But why do some have and others not? that is, why is it given by the Father to some that they should come to the Son and not given to others? –Who has known the mind of the Lord? Must we deny what is evident because we cannot comprehend what is hidden? 

Ten Quotes from Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God

Here are some of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite Calvin books.

Nine years have now elapsed since Albertus Pighius the Campanian, a man of clearly frenzied audacity, tried in the same book both to establish the freewill of man and to overthrow the secret counsel of God whereby he chooses some to salvation and destines others for eternal destruction. [This is the opening line of the main portion of the book.]

For it [the doctrine of predestination] builds up faith soundly, trains us to humility, elevates us to admiration of the immense goodness of God towards us, and excites to praise this goodness. There is no consideration more apt for the building up of the faith than that we should listen to this election which the Spirit of God testifies in our hearts to stand in the eternal and inflexible goodwill of God, invulnerable to all storms of the world, all assaults of Satan and all vacillation of the flesh. For then indeed our salvation is assured to us, since we find its cause in the breast of God. 

No one doubts that the root of piety and the mother of all virtues is humility.

Further, Augustine is so much at one with me that, if I wished to write a confession of faith, it would abundantly satisfy me to quote wholesale from his writings.

To make faith the cause of election is quite absurd and at variance with the words of Paul. 

Paul’s premise is: because the Lord in His good pleasure saves whom He chooses without discrimination of works; and his conclusion: therefore it is not of him that wills nor him that runs, and the whole matter turns on the mercy of God alone.

On the judgment of Pighius, God must render a reason for whatever He does, if His justice is to win praise. The rule of modesty prescribed by us, on the other hand, is that, where the reason of God’s work lies hidden, we none the less believe Him to be just.

The external sound of the voice strikes our ears in vain, until God inwardly touches the heart. 

Those who suggest that they were ordained by the motion of their own hearts deserve no more refutation than those who say the world was created by itself. 

 But I do not send men off to the secret election of God to await with gaping mouth salvation there. I bid them make their way directly to Christ in whom salvation is offered us, which otherwise would have lain hid in God. For whoever does not walk in the plain path of faith can make nothing of the election of God but a labyrinth of destruction. Therefore, that the remission of sins may be a certainty to us, our consciences rest in confidence of eternal life, and we call upon God as Father without fear, the beginning is not to be made here [with election]. We must begin with what is revealed in Christ concerning the love of the Father for us and what Christ Himself daily preaches to us through the Gospel. 

And One:

The more anyone tries to invade and penetrate those profound recesses of divine counsel, the further he recedes from God. 

Book Review: Predestination by John Calvin

Concerning the Eternal Predestination of GodConcerning the Eternal Predestination of God by John Calvin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Also read in May of 2008

Very good treatment of predestination. Calvin does a great job treating many of the relevant texts and objections to the doctrine. He also clarifies his position showing where it has been misunderstood. Calvin humbly refuses to go beyond what is written, but he also refuses to let one text blatantly contradict another. He keeps the reader going back to central questions. Why is one man redeemed and the other man not? His section on providence is wonderful. Reading the book, it is clear the Calvin teaches classic predestination. Finally the way he insults Pighius is worth the price of the book.

The formatting on my version, which is the one pictured, needs some work. First, it needs more paragraphs. The text can be hard on the eyes. Second, Calvin quotes Augustine over and over again, but in my version it is difficult to tell where the quotes end. Italics or quotations marks should be added to indicate where Calvin is speaking and where he is quoting someone else.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Chosen By God

Chosen By God: Know God's Perfect Plan for His Glory and His ChildrenChosen By God: Know God’s Perfect Plan for His Glory and His Children by R.C. Sproul
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A solid introduction to predestination by Dr. R.C. Sproul. He will not blow your mind with footnotes and scholarly tangents. But he does clearly, logically, and biblically lay out the reasons why predestination is true. His section on double predestination and equal ultimacy was very helpful in explaining the difference between Calvinism and hyper-calvinism. Other than his interpretation of Hebrews 6, I agreed with most of what he wrote. A good place to start for those who want a gracious exposition of unconditional election.

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The Freedom and Bondage of God

I reading through Calvin’s Institutes for the 2nd time. I came across an interesting argument about free will. This comes from Book II, Chapter III, Section 5.  Calvin is discussing man’s fallen nature and how that puts him into bondage, but does not eliminate his free will. Then he uses God’s nature as an illustration. Here is the idea:

Can God sin? Right answer is, “No.”

Is God free? Correct answer is, “Yes.”

So God cannot do certain things and yet is entirely free. He is bound by his nature and yet his will is free.

He also uses Satan as an example.

Can Satan do anything that is rooted in good? Answer, “No.”

Is Satan free? Answer is “Yes.”

Calvin goes on to apply this to human beings. Human beings outside of Christ can do nothing that is ultimately good. They are totally depraved. They can do things that are good in some ways, but nothing a unregenerate human being does is at root good. (Calvin’s reason for this is that they do not direct those actions towards God.) However, simply because they cannot do good does not mean their will is not free. They sin of “necessity” not of “compulsion.” In other words, they sin because they must and because they wish, but they do not sin because of something forcing them to sin outside of themselves. They are not pushed into sin against their will.

The illustration I have often used with my children is that of lion and a goat. You put a big heap of greens in front of a lion and he will ignore them. You put that same pile of greens in front of the goat and he will eat them up. Put a freshly cut piece of deer in front of a lion and he will devour it in a moment. The goat would probably ignore it. Why? Is the lion being forced to eat the meat? No. There is no outside force pressing him to eat. He eats of necessity and with a free will. His nature is such that he must eat, but his nature and his will line up. His nature does not battle against his will.

So it is with man. Man is conceived in sin (Psalm 51:5).  He is born with a sin nature that directs his actions.  But that sin nature lines up perfectly with his will. Calvin notes that when man sinned in the garden he “was not deprived of will, but of soundness of will.” Every unregenerate man, women, and child sins because they want to. No man yells at his wife against his will. No child lies to mom against his will. No employee steals against his will. When a man comes to Christ he is changed. That old nature hangs on, like a bad habit that won’t go away. However, now the sin is against the will in some way. When a man comes to Christ his nature shifts and so his will shifts, but not all the way and not automatically. That is why a Christian is often at war with himself. His old nature, which is dying, fights against the new nature which Christ has given to him. Some Christians wonder why non-Christians can have such inner peace at times. The reason is simple: their nature and will always line up. Their nature is sinful and their will is sinful. Romans 7 makes no sense to them at all. For us as believers our nature is not sinful any more. We are new creatures. Our will is being brought into line with this new nature, but it is a war. Sometimes this war is internal as we shape thoughts and desires. Sometimes it is directed towards actions when we have learned to do things automatically, such as yelling, which are now contrary to our nature and our desires, yet we still do them out of habit.

Election does not mean that men are forced to sin against their will. Just as God cannot do evil and yet is entirely free. So unregenerate man cannot do good and yet is entirely free.