A Surprising Word from John Calvin

During my time at Southern Seminary I was re-introduced to the writings of John Calvin (along with many other servants of old, such as Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, Andrew Fuller, and on and on).  One of the aspects of Southern’s teaching I am most thankful for is the professors’ insistence on reading primary sources.  Secondary sources are always tainted with a particular viewpoint no matter how objective the commentator might try to be.  Therefore, I have discovered the blessing of reading the actual works of our theological giants before we move on to what others have to say about them. 

I have read the entirety of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and found it to read more like a devotional than a boring theological treatise, which I suspect is how most think of it.  I also discovered the commentaries of Calvin, which have helped me in so many different ways, not the least of which is my preaching.  During a recent sermon preparation in John 1, I was reading over Calvin’s comments on the chapter.  My focal verse was John 1:29, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Calvin’s thought is usually distorted pretty heavily by a misunderstanding or fear of the dreaded word – predestination.  No doubt that Calvin believed God elected before the foundation of the world those who would be saved.  But the notion of “hyper-Calvinism” is anything but Calvinistic.  Take a look at Calvin’s words concerning John 1:29 and be surprised:

“John the Baptist, therefore, by speaking generally of the sin of the world, intended to impress upon us the conviction of our own misery, and to exhort us to seek the remedy. Now our duty is, to embrace the benefit which is offered to all, that each of us may be convinced that there is nothing to hinder him from obtaining reconciliation in Christ, provided that he comes to him by the guidance of faith.”

Calvin clearly understands the work of Christ to be sufficient for all who will believe and places the duty of repentance on all sinners.  Calvin would understand a difference between duty and ability, but this makes clear the need and command for us to preach the good news to the world, making available the Gospel for which Andrew Fuller writes is “worthy of all acceptation.”  I think for most who have only a surface understanding of Calvin, this is surprising.  For all of us, it is a reminder that we are dealing with issues of eternity.  And how will they believe unless they are told?

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2 Replies to “A Surprising Word from John Calvin”

  1. This is a good posting and I enjoyed it. I have a great deal of difficulty understanding Calvanism as many interpret it. If we are chosen by God for salvation and as some think, have no control over the choosing, why indeed do we even have preachers, missionaries or the imperative from Jesus to go and tell? Some of our seminary professors, writers, etc. make this hard to swallow sometimes so maybe I need to read John Calvin and make up my own mind with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. thanks Phillip

    1. Frances,

      Thanks for your comment and for reading. It is nice to get reconnected with some Adel folk; my time there was short but meaningful.

      Wrestling with the teaching of Reformed Theology and Calvinism can certainly be a struggle, but it can be a helpful struggle. If you let Scripture dictate your heart and mind, then wherever you end up after your study and meditation, your faith will be strengthened for it. The point is not to “win” anyone to a particular view of salvation or of God. Rather, to lead one another in an honest and open study of Scripture. Below are two books and some quick comments on each. Blessings to you!

      Chosen By God – this is a classic and simple explanation of predestination by a trusted author and theologian. He addresses the issues you raised in your reply without getting too bogged down in terminology.

      Abridged Institutes of the Christian Religion – this abridged version of Calvin’s famous work removes some of the polemical portions of the institutes but keeps the meat. If you want to understand Calvin, read what he himself wrote. I think you will be much moved.

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