by John Calvin (abridged)1,2
Eternal Election, Or God’s Predestination of Some to Salvation, and of Others to Destruction
1. The Gospel not being equally preached to all, and among those to whom it is preached not always finding the same reception, this leads us to inquire into the doctrine of God’s eternal election. In the opinion of many, this is a perplexing subject; for they consider nothing more unreasonable, than that of the common mass of mankind, some should be predestinated to salvation and others to destruction. On our part, we shall never understand fully our salvation as flowing from the fountain of God’s free mercy, until we know His eternal election. The knowledge of God’s eternal election is productive of the most delightful benefit; but ignorance of this principle detracts from the Divine glory, and diminishes real humility. According to Paul, what is so necessary to be known, can never be known, unless God, without regard to works, chooses those whom He has decreed. “At this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Romans 11:5, 6).
In ascribing the salvation of the remnant of the people to the election of grace, Paul clearly testifies, that it is then known that God saves whom He will of His mere good pleasure. They who shut the gates to prevent anyone from tasting this doctrine, do no less injury to man than to God. But before I enter on the subject itself, I must address some preliminary observations to two sorts of persons. The discussion of predestination is very perplexed, which no barriers can restrain from wandering into forbidden labyrinths. As we see multitudes everywhere guilty of this arrogance, it is proper to admonish them of the bounds of their duty on this subject. Let them remember they are penetrating the inmost recesses of Divine wisdom, into those things that the Lord has hidden in Himself. Only the secret of His will which He determined to reveal to us, He has declared in His Word.
2. If we consider that the Word of the Lord is the only way to lead us to an investigation of all that ought to be believed concerning Him, this consideration will preserve us from all presumption. When we have exceeded the limits of His Word, we shall get into a darksome course, in which errors will be inevitable. Let us not be ashamed to be ignorant of some things relative to the subject in which there is a kind of learned ignorance.
3. Others, desirous of remedying this evil, will teach men to avoid every question concerning it as they would a precipice. To observe, therefore, the legitimate boundary on this side, we must recur to the Word of the Lord, even as the Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit, in which, as nothing necessary to be known is omitted, so nothing is taught which is not beneficial to know. “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
4. Predestination, by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death, no one dares absolutely to deny. But it is involved in many cavils [false arguments], by those who make foreknowledge the cause of it. We maintain that both belong to God.
5. Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which He has determined in Himself, what He would have to become of every individual of mankind. Eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others. A specimen of it is given in the whole posterity of Abraham. “When the Most High divided to the nations . . ., when he separated the sons of Adam, . . . the LORD’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance” (Deuteronomy 32:8, 9). In the person of Abraham, one people is chosen to the rejection of others. No reason is given, except that Moses, to deprive their posterity of all occasion of glorying, teaches them that their exaltation is wholly from God’s gratuitous love. “The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you” (Deuteronomy 7:7, 8). And the more to demolish all pride, He reproaches them with having deserved no favour, being “a stiffnecked people . . . [who] have been rebellious” (Deuteronomy 9:6, 7).
6. From election, we must now proceed to a second degree of election, in which the Divine grace was displayed in a more special manner. Even in the same race of Abraham, God rejected some, and by nourishing others, proved that He retained them. Ishmael is cut off, Isaac is retained. After Isaac, Esau is cut off, and Jacob is retained. God exhibited a similar example in the rejection of Saul, which is reflected by the Psalmist, “He refused the tabernacle of Joseph, and chose not the tribe of Ephraim: But chose the tribe of Judah” (Psalm 78:67, 68). I grant, it was their own crime and guilt that Ishmael, Esau, and persons of similar characters, fell from adoption. Yet it was a peculiar favour of God, that He preferred them to other nations; but I have said there are two degrees. Both Esau and Jacob come under the election of Isaac, but in their generation, Jacob, not Esau, was chosen (Malachi 1:2, 3).
7. While in the election of Abraham’s family, we find many of his posterity cut off as patriarch members; in the election of members of the body of Christ, however, there is a manifestation of the superior efficacy of grace. These who truly belong to Christ, Paul observes, are called “a remnant.” For, experience proves, that of a great multitude the most part fall away and disappear, so that often only a small portion remains. The general adoption of the seed of Abraham was a visible representation of a greater blessing, which God conferred on a few out of the multitude. This is the reason Paul so carefully distinguishes the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh, from his spiritual children called after the example of Isaac. From clear doctrine of Scripture, we assert, that by an eternal and immutable counsel, God has once for all determined, both whom He would admit to salvation, and whom He would condemn to destruction. In the elect, we consider calling as an evidence of election, and justification as another token of its manifestation, till they arrive in glory, which constitutes its completion. As God seals His elect by vocation and justification, so by excluding the reprobate from the knowledge of His name and the sanctification of His Spirit, He indicates the judgment that awaits them.
Testimonies of Scripture in Confirmation of This Doctrine
1. Against the doctrine of gratuitous election of believers is the common notion that God, foreseeing what would be the merits of each individual, makes a corresponding distinction between different persons. And He adopts as children such as He foreknows will be deserving of His grace. Conversely, He condemns to death others, whose disposition He sees will be inclined to wickedness. Thus they obscure the doctrine of election with the veil of foreknowledge. God’s sovereign election of some, and preterition [passing over] of others, they make the subject of formal accusation against Him.
2. That election is not based on foreknowledge of merit, is the statement that we were chosen “before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him” (Ephesians 1:4, 5). For what could be the reason for discrimination between those who yet had no existence, and whose condition was afterward to be the same in Adam? Now, if they are chosen in Christ, it follows, not only that each individual is chosen out of himself, but also that some are separated from others. The next clause, stating them to have been “chosen . . . that [they might] be holy,” refutes the error which derives election from foreknowledge; since Paul, on the contrary, declares that all the virtue discovered in men is the effect of election, even as God has “predestinated . . . according to the good pleasure of his will“ (Ephesians 1:5).
3. Wherever this decree of God reigns, there can be no consideration of works. “Who hath … called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Timothy 1:9). The declaration of Christ to His disciples is universally applicable to all believers: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16); which not only excludes past merits, but signifies that they had nothing in themselves to cause their election.
4. In Romans, where he goes to the bottom of this argument, he says, “They are not all Israel, which are [born] of Israel” (Romans 9:6); though all were blessed by hereditary right, yet the succession did not pass on all alike. Paul, though he admits the posterity of Abraham to be holy in consequence of the covenant, yet contends that most of them are strangers to it; and that not only because they degenerate, from legitimate children becoming spurious ones, but because the sovereignty belongs to God’s special election. He pursues the subject further under the example of Jacob and Esau, to indicate the election of one and the reprobation of the other. “The children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth; It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Romans 9:11-13).
5. We have the Apostle’s authority, that the salvation of believers is founded solely on the decision of Divine election, and that favour is not procured by works, but proceeds from gratuitous calling. Jacob and Esau are brothers, begotten of the same parents, still enclosed in the same womb. There is in all respects a perfect equality between them. Yet the judgment of God concerning them is different; for He takes the younger and rejects the elder. In other instances, God also appears to have treated primogeniture [the right of eldest son] with contempt, to cut off from the flesh all occasion of boasting. He rejects Ishmael, and favours Isaac. He degrades Manasseh and honours Ephraim.
6. If you inquire the cause, the Apostle assigns the following: “For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Romans 9:15). When God assigns you His mere mercy, why will you have recourse to your own merits?
7. Let the supreme Master decide the whole matter. Seeing such obduracy [hardness of heart that cannot be overcome], in His hearers, to the sermons He preached, He exclaims, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; . . .. And this is the Father’s will . . ., that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing” (John 6:37, 39). Observe, the origin is from the donation of the Father, that we are given into the custody and protection of Christ. Again: “No man can come to me, except the Father . . . draw him . . .. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me” (John 6:44, 45). Fall men promiscuously submitted to Christ, election would be common: now the fewness of believers discovers a manifest distinction. Having asserted His disciples, who were given to Him, to be the peculiar portion of the Father, Christ adds, “I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine” (John 17:9). This shows that the whole world does not belong to its Creator. Only grace delivers, from the curse and wrath of God, a few who would otherwise perish. At the same time, though Christ introduces Himself in the mediatorial capacity, yet He claims to Himself the right of election, in common with the Father. “I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen” (John 13:18).
His enumeration of Judas among the elect, though he was a devil, only refers to the apostolical office.
8. But it will be said, Ambrose, Origen, Jerome believed God dispenses His grace among men, according to His foreknowledge of the good use which every individual will make of it. Augustine was also once of the same sentiment; but when he had made a greater proficiency in Scriptural knowledge, he not only retracted, but powerfully confuted it. Rebuking the Pelagians for persisting in this error, Augustine pointed out that God said nothing about foreseeing the merits of those children yet unborn, “but resorts to the decrees and mercies of God.”
9. We shall not dwell on the sophistry [fallacious reasoning] of Thomas Aquinas. For since the Lord allows us to contemplate nothing in election but His mere goodness, the desire of anyone to see anything more is a preposterous disposition.
10. It is objected by some, that God will be inconsistent with Himself, if He invites all men universally to come to Him, and receives only a few elect. Thus, according to them, the universality of the promises destroys the discrimination of special grace. How the Scripture reconciles these two facts, that by the external preaching all are called to repentance and faith, and yet the spirit of repentance and faith is not given to all, I have elsewhere stated. What they assume, I deny as being false in two respects. For He who threatens drought to one city which it rains upon another, and who denounces to another place a famine of doctrine (Amos 4:7; 8:11), lays Himself under no positive obligation to call all men alike. And He who, forbidding Paul to preach the Word in Asia, and suffering him not to go into Bithynia, calls him into Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10), demonstrates His right to distribute His treasure to whom He pleases. At present let this suffice, that though the voice of the Gospel addresses all men generally, yet the gift of faith is bestowed on few.
11. Now, with respect to the reprobate, as Jacob is made the object of grace, so Esau is accounted an object of hatred (Romans 9:13). Now, Paul asserts the one to have been elected and the other rejected while they had not done any good or evil; in order to prove the foundation of Divine predestination not to be in works. Secondly; when he raises the objection whether God is unjust, he never touches on His justice, that God rewarded Esau according to his wickedness; but rather, that the reprobate are raised up that the glory of God may be displayed by their means. Lastly, he subjoins a concluding observation, that God “hath . mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Romans 9:18). You see how he attributes both to the mere will of God. If, therefore, we can assign no reason why he grants mercy to His people but because such is His pleasure, neither shall we find any other cause but His will for the reprobation of others. For when God is said to harden or show mercy to whom He pleases, men are taught to seek no cause but His will.
References and Notes
- An Abridgement of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: Book I-IV, Editor: Timothy Tow, Far Eastern Bible College Press, Singapore, pp. 305-311, 1997.
- My emphases added. KJV used throughout.