16 January, 2017

Chapter Two

Calvin on Calling and Reprobation

Berkhof, in his defense of the three points, cites John Calvin in defense of the doctrine of the well-meant offer. He refers to Calvin’s commentary on Ezekiel 18:23 and 18:32but only cites a select portion of Calvin’s comments on these texts.63 Calvin affirms that God “calls all equally to repentance, and promises himself prepared to receive them if they only seriously repent.”64 Calvin even says that there is a sense in which God wills that all persons should be savedbut only on the condition that they repent. But how can this be reconciled with God’s election, since God wills to give saving grace only to the elect?

Calvin answers: “God always wishes the same thing, though by different ways, and in a manner inscrutable to us. Although, therefore, God’s will is simple, yet great variety is involved in it, as far as our senses are concerned.”65 Here Calvin shows us his Scholastic side: He is operating with a time-honored distinction in the will of God, a distinction that for centuries had allowed exegetes to make sense of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac without really intending it to occur, his command to Pharaoh to release his people while simultaneously hardening his heart so that he would not do so, and his repentance at Nineveh. This is the distinction between God’s will of the precept and his will of the decree. The command to repent and the promise of salvation following upon such repentance belong to the preceptive will of God. This human duty and conditional promise is proclaimed indiscriminately to all. The condition can only be fulfilled, however, when God has decreed to give a person regenerating grace. This is what Calvin means when he says, “God puts on a twofold character.”66 Ezekiel’s intention in this verse is not to say anything about election and reprobation but only to show that “when we have been converted we need not doubt that God immediately meets us and shows himself gracious.”67

Later, in his comments on Ezekiel 18:32, Calvin again takes up the preceptive will of God:

When God teaches what is right, he does not think of what we are able to do, but only shows us what we ought to do. When, therefore, the power of our free will is estimated by the precepts of God, we make a great mistake, because God exacts from us the strict discharge of our duty, just as if our power of obedience was not defective. We are not absolved from our obligation because we cannot pay it; for God holds us bound to himself, although we are in every way deficient.68

Thus God can demand faith and repentance from sinners, even though they have rendered themselves incapable of the required response. Berkhof cites Calvin’s comments on this verse, that God “invites all to repentance and rejects no one,”69 but he does not place it in the context of God’s preceptive or revealed will, which Calvin contrasts with God’s will of the decree or good pleasure. Berkhof, then, presents only one side of Calvin’s argument.

Calvin’s treatment of Matthew 23:37 (“O Jerusalem ... how often I have longed to gather your children together … but you were not willing”) employs the decretive-preceptive distinction even more explicitly. Hoekema adduces this passage as further support of the well-meant offer. On this text, however, he does not claim Calvin’s support, and for good reason. Calvin warns that “we must define the will of God now under discussion.” The opponents of predestination contend that “nothing agrees less with God’s nature than that he should be of a double will.” But not only do they fail to see that Christ, speaking on behalf of the Godhead, condescends to the human level by employing an anthropopathic figure of speech, they also fail to recognize that, although God’s will is one and simple in himself, our perception of it is manifold. Thus God “strikes dumb our senses until it is given us to recognize how wonderfully he wills what at the moment seems to be against his will.”70

Calvin’s lectures on Ezekiel extend only through chapter 20; but in his Institutes he does comment significantly on Ezekiel 33:11, in the context of election and reprobation. Opponents of these doctrines object that if God really takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, then he would make it possible for all to repent. Calvin responds that “this passage is violently twisted if the will of God, mentioned by the prophet, is opposed to his eternal plan, by which he has distinguished the elect from the reprobate.”71 Here again we see the contrast between the will of the precept and the will of the decree. The prophet’s true meaning, Calvin continues, “is that he would bring the hope of pardon to the penitent only. The gist of it is that God is without doubt ready to forgive, as soon as the sinner is converted. Therefore, insofar as God wills the sinner’s repentance, he does not will his death.”72 The proposition that God wills the salvation of all must be qualified. According to his preceptive will, God reveals what is required of persons if they are to receive forgiveness. But God in his eternal counsel wills only to bestow the grace required for repentance on the elect.

Calvin then anticipates the charge that would later be brought by the Remonstrants: If God does not really will the salvation of all, then his universal call is not sincere. Calvin admits that God wills the repentance of those whom he calls to himself “in such a way that he does not touch the hearts of all.” But this does not mean that God acts deceitfully, “for even though only his outward call renders inexcusable those who hear it and do not obey, still it is truly considered evidence of God’s grace by which he reconciles persons to himself.”73 The universal call is a testimony of God’s grace but not his common grace. It is a testimony of his saving grace that is only operative in the elect. It is not grace for the reprobate. Calvin teaches that God hates the reprobatenot as his creatures, but as those who are bereft of his Spirit and worthy of condemnation.74 The opponents of predestination claim that God extends his grace to all indiscriminately; but Calvin replies that this is only true in the sense that God extends his grace to whomever he wills in his good pleasure, without regard to any merit.75

For the reprobate, moreover, the external call is a testimony of God’s judgment. “That the Lord sends his Word to many whose blindness he intends to increase cannot indeed be called into question. For what purpose does he cause so many demands to be made upon Pharaoh?” As far as the reprobate are concerned, God “directs his voice to them but in order that they may become even more deaf; he kindles a light but that they may be made even more blind; he sets forth doctrine but that they may grow even more stupid; he employs a remedy but so that they may not be healed.”76 It is clear that Calvin sees the intention of the external call vis a vis the reprobate not as an offer of actual salvation but as a sign of his judgment upon human unbelief. This is even more clear from his discussion of calling: “There is an universal call, by which God, through the external preaching of the word, invites all men alike, even those for whom he designs the call to be a savor of death, and the ground of a severer condemnation.”77

Surprisingly, neither the Synod of 1924, nor Berkhof, nor Hoekema cite the most relevant of Calvin’s works in connection with the issue of the ostensible well-meant offer: his writings on election and reprobation. In his 1552 treatise On the Eternal Predestination of God, directed against the views of Albert Pighius and Georgius Siculus, Calvin responds to Pighius’ claim, based on I Timothy 2:4 and Ezekiel 33:11, that God desires the salvation of all persons:

Now we reply, that as the language of the prophet here is an exhortation to repentance, it is not at all marvelous in him to declare that God wills all men to be saved. For the mutual relation between these threats and promises shows that such forms of speaking are conditional. In this same manner God declared to the Ninevites, and to the kings of Gerar and Egypt, that he would do that which, in reality, he did not intend to do, for their repentance averted the punishment which he had threatened to inflict upon them ... Just so it is with respect to the conditional promises of God, which invite all men to salvation. They do not positively prove that which God has decreed in his secret counsel, but declare only what God is ready to do to all those who are brought to faith and repentance.78

If the distinction between God’s preceptive and decretive will is not clear enough, Calvin adds that “as a Lawgiver, he enlightens all men with the external doctrine of conditional life. In this manner he calls, or invites, all men unto eternal life.”79 This is an indiscriminate declaration of what is required for a person to receive eternal life, but it is not an offer of salvation to those whom God has decreed to leave in their sin.

Regarding the promise of the gift of conversion in Jeremiah 31:33, Calvin remarks that “a man must be utterly beside himself to assert that this promise is made to all men generally and indiscriminately.”80 Actual salvation, then, is not offered to all; but the way of salvation is proclaimed to all. The proposition that God desires the salvation of every individual cannot be maintained, Calvin argues, because not even the external preaching of the word comes to everyone, let alone the illumination of the Spirit: “Now let Pighius boast, if he can, that God wills all men to be saved!”81 If God does not intend salvation for all, how can he “offer” it to all? “No one but a man deprived of his common sense and common judgment can believe that salvation was ordained by the secret counsel of God equally and indiscriminately for all men.”82

Returning to Pighius’ use of I Timothy 2:4, where Paul says that God “wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth,” Calvin argues that this passage does not mean that God wants each and every individual to be saved. “Who does not see that the apostle is here speaking of orders of men rather than of individuals? Indeed, that distinction which commentators here make is not without great reason and point; that classes of individuals, not individuals of classes, are here intended by Paul.”83

When Calvin turns to the arguments of the monk Georgius Siculus, he makes a comment that could be construed to support the 1924 synod’s well-meant offer. His opponent claimed that God had made salvation available to all, since, as I John 2:2 declares, Christ became a propitiation for the sins of the whole world. Calvin responds that “although reconciliation is offered unto all men through him [Christ], yet, that the great benefit belongs particularly to the elect.”84 But clearly Calvin does not mean that reconciliation is offered, in the modern sense of the term, to all without distinction. Given what Calvin has already said about God’s not intending the salvation of all who are called, it is doubtful that he here reverses his course and affirms that God in fact offers reconciliation to the reprobate, that is, that he holds it out for them to take. Fortunately, we have Calvin’s French version of this treatise, where he himself translates the phrase in question “la reconciliation faicte pare luy se presente à tousthe reconciliation accomplished by him is presented to all.85

The reason why Calvin does not think that God intends or offers salvation to all becomes clear, in an accidental fashion, from his commentary on that same passage. Calvin mentions the common dictum that “Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect.” He admits that this is true, but he denies that this really applies to I John 2:2, since John only has the elect in mind. Calvin adds, however, that “under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world.”86

There is another passage, moreover, in which Calvin makes it quite clear that he rejects the concept of a universal atonement. Combating Tilemann Heshusius’ doctrine of the physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, Calvin poses the following rhetorical question: “I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?”87 We might also ask, how can redemption be offered to those for whom it was neither intended nor actually obtained? Again, how can Christ be offered to the reprobate, when in fact he has not been offered for them?

Calvin touches on this matter again in his short piece, Response to Certain Calumnies and Blasphemies, a rejection of Sebastian Castellio’s objections to Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. Castellio contends that God created the whole world to be saved, and that he works to draw to himself all who have gone astray. Calvin admits that this may be true in one sense, with regard to the doctrine of faith and repentance. This doctrine is published or declared (proposé) to all in general, but with a twofold purpose: to draw his elect to faith, and to render the rest inexcusable.88 God summons and exhorts all to come to him, but he does not draw all of them to himself; the promise to do so is only given to a “certain number,” the elect.89

Castellio thinks that God desires the salvation of every individual because all are called. But Calvin responds that Castellio does not understand that most basic truth about God’s calling (Calvin calls it the ABCs of the Christian faith): the distinction between the external and the internal call. The external call comes “from the mouths of men,” while the internal call is the secret work of God. Moreover, Calvin adds, I Timothy 2:4 means that God desires the salvation of all who will come to a knowledge of the truth, that is, the elect.90 Castellio would do well to profit from “the little book written by our brother, Mr. Beza.” This little book is Beza’s Summa totius Christianismi, which includes his famous table of predestination. Far from characterizing the external call as an offer of salvation, Beza writes that God justly hates the reprobate because they are corrupt.91 As for the reprobate who hear the external call, Beza explains that

their downfall is much more severe, since he in fact grants them the external preaching, but who, despite being called, are neither willing nor even able to respond, because, they are content in their blindness, and think that they see, and because it is not given to them to embrace and believe the Spirit of truth. Consequently, although their obstinacy is necessary, it is nevertheless voluntary. This is why they refuse to come to the banquet when they are invited; for the word of life is foolishness and an offense to them, and ultimately a lethal odor that leads to death.92

Turning back to Calvin’s trouncing of Castellio, he concludes his brief treatise by once more employing the distinction between God’s preceptive and decretive will. It is true, he says, that God often uses a form of speech such as “Return to me, and I will come to you.” But the purpose of such language is to show us what we ought to do, not what we are able to do.93

Calvin later expanded his refutation of Castellio's anti-predestinarian views in a treatise on the Secret Providence of God (1558). Here again, Calvin makes it clear that the proposition in I Timothy 2:4, that God desires the salvation of all persons, must be qualified. “Since no one but he who is drawn by the secret influence of the Spirit can approach unto God, how is it that God does not draw all men indiscriminately to himself, if he really ‘wills all men to be saved’?”94 For Calvin, this passage can mean that God wants all kinds, races, and classes of people to be saved; or it can mean that God wills that if anyone is to be saved, that person must repent and believe, and that this preceptive will of God is to be preached indiscriminately to all. But it does not mean that God earnestly desires the salvation of all who hear the preaching of the gospel.


63. Berkhof, DP, 21-23.

64. Calvin, Comm. Ezek. 18:23: “Tenemus itaque nunc Deum nolle mortem peccatoris, quia omnes indifferenter ad poenitentiam vocat, et promittit se paratum fore ad eos recipiendos, modo serio resipiscant,” CO, 40:445; CTS Ezekiel, 2:247.

65. “Si quis iterum excipiat, Deum hoc modo fieri duplicem, responsio in promptu est, Deum semper idem velle, sed diversis modis, et quidem nobis incognitis. Quanquam itaque simplex est Dei voluntas, varietas quidem est illic implicita, quantum attinet ad sensum nostrum,” CO, 40:445-46; CTS Ezekiel, 2:247.

66. “Sed notandum est, Deum duplicem personam induere,” CO, 40:446; CTS Ezekiel 2:248.

67. “Ubi conversi fuerint homines, minime dubitandum esse, quin Deus statim illis occurrat et ostendat se illis propitium,” CO, 40:446; CTS Ezekiel 2:24849, alt.

68. “Deus enim quum docet quid rectum sit non reputat quod nos ipsi possimus, sed tantum ostendit quid debeamus. Quum ergo aestimatur facultas liberi arbitrii ex Dei praeceptis, id fit nimis perperam, quia etiam si nos vis et facultas deficiat, Dens tamen merito a nobis exigit quod debe-mus,” CO, 40:457; CTS Ezekiel 2:263.

69. Calvin, Comm. Ezek. 18:32, CTS Ezekiel 2:266; Berkhof, DP, 22.

70. Calvin, Institutes, 3.24.17, OS, 4:430-31. Calvin’s commentary on Matt. 23:37 employs the same arguments; see CTS Harmony of the Gospels, 3:108-9.

71. Calvin, Institutes, 3.24.15: “Hinc videmus violenter torqueri locum, si Dei voluntas, cuius mem-init Propheta, opponitur aeterno eius consilio, quo electos discrevit a reprobis,” OS, 4:427. Translations from the Institutes are from the McNeill-Battles edition, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), emended when necessary.

72. “Nunc si quaeritur genuinus Prophetae sensus, tantum spem veniae resipiscentibus facere vult. Atque haec summa est, non esse dubitandum quin Deus paratus sit ignoscere, simulac conversus fuerit peccator. Ergo eius mortem non vult, quatenus vult poenitentiam,” Calvin, Institutes, 3.24.15; OS, 4:427.

73. Calvin, Institutes, 3.24.15: “quia etsi vox externa tantum inexcusabiles reddit qui eam audiunt, neque obsequuntur, vere tamen censetur testimonium gratiae Dei quo sibi reconciliat homines,” OS, 4:427-28.

74. Calvin, Institutes, 3.24.17: “doceo, reprobos Deo exosos esse,” OS, 4:431.

75. Calvin, Institutes, 3.24.17; OS, 4:431.

76. Calvin, Institutes, 3.24.13: “Istud quidem in quaestionem trahi non potest, multis verbum suum Dominum mittere, quorum caecitatem magis velit aggravari. Quorsum enim tot mandata deferri iubet ad Pharaonem? ... Ecce, vocem ad eos dirigit, sed ut magis obsurdescant: lucem accendit, sed ut reddantur caeciores: doctrinam profert, sed qua magis obstupescant: remedium adhibet, sed ne sanentur,” OS, 4:424-25.

77. Calvin, Institutes, 3.24.8: “Estenim universalis vocatio, qua per externam verbi praedicationem omnes pariter ad se invitat Deus: etiam quibus eam in morris odorem, et gravioris condemnationis materiam proponit,” OS, 4:419.

78. Calvin, De aeterna Dei praedestinatione, OO, SE, 112-13; Calvin’s Calvinism, 1:99, alt.

79. “tamquam legislator omnes externa vitae doctrina illuminet, ad vitam omnes priore modo vocet: hoc autem altero, quos walt, adducat, tamquam pater regenerans spiritu filios duntaxat suos,” OO, SE, 1:112; Calvin’s Calvinism, 1:100.

80. “Desipiet enim, si quis dicat generaliter hoc omnibus promitti,” OO, SE, 1:114; Calvin’s Calvinism, 1:100.

81. “Nunc iactet Pighius Deum omnes velle salvos fieri, quum ne externa quidem doctrinae praedi-catio, quae tamen spiritus illuminatione longe inferior est, omnibus sit communis,” OO, SE, 1:118; Calvin’s Calvinism, 1:104.

82. “Ne quis nisi sensu et iudicio privatus credat arcano Dei consilio statutam aequaliter omnibus salutem esse,” OO, SE, 1:118; Calvin’s Calvinism, 1:104.

83. “Quis non videt ordinum hic fieri mentionem potius quam singulorum hominum? Nec vero ratione caret trita illa distinctio: Non singulos generum, sed genera singulorum notari,” OO, SE, 1:118-20. Cole translates genus here as nation; I have emended this to class, although nation is a possible translation; cf. Calvin’s Calvinism, 104-5.

84. “Unde colligimus, quanvis per ipsum offeratur omnibus reconciliato, peculiare tamen esse electis beneficium, ut in vitae societatem colligantur,” OO, SE, 1:196; Calvin’s Calvinism, 1:166.

85. OO, SE, 1:197; cf. the introduction to this volume, 24, where O. Fatio argues that the French translation of the treatise is from Calvin’s hand.

86. Calvin, Comm. I John 2:2: “Ergo sub omnibus, reprobos non comprehendit: sed eos designat qui simul credituri erant, et qui per varias mundi plagas dispersi erant,” CO, 55:310; CTS Catholic Epistles, 173.

87. “Et qnando tam mordicus verbis adhaeret, scire velim quomodo Christi carnem edant impii, pro quibus non est crucifixa, et quomodo sanguinem bibant, qui expiandis eorum peccatis non est effusns,” Clear Explanation of Sound Doctrine concerning the True Partaking of the Flesh and Blood of Christ in the Holy Supper (1561), CO, 9:484; English translation in Calvin: Theological Treatises, ed. J. K. S. Reid (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 285.

88. “[Castellio argues] que Dieu a creé tout le monde pour estre sauve, allegue qu'il tasche de reduire à foy ses esleus Response d certaines calomnies et Blasphemes ...” CO, 58:199.

89. “Dieu convie et exhorte tous ceux qui sont desbauchez à retourner au bon chemin. Mais non pas que de faict il les amene tous a soy par la vertu de son Esprit. Ce qu'il ne promet qu'à certain nombre,” CO, 58:200

90. “Enquoy il [Castellio] monstre que iamals il n'a appris l' ABC des Chrestiens, veu qu'il ne sait distinguer entre la predication exterieure, qui se fait par la bouche des hommes, et la vocation secrette de Dieu, pax laquelle il touche les coeurs au dedans ... Et quand il est dit au second chapitre de la premiere à Timothee, que Dieu veut que tous soient sauvez, la solution est adioustee quant et quant, qu'ils venient à la cognoissance de verité,” CO, 58:201.

91. The phrase is “Dominus qui reprobos merito, quatenus corrupti sunt, execratur,” in Beza’s Summa totius Christianismi ... in Tractationum Theologicarum (Geneva: Eusthathius Vignon, 1582), 190.

92. “Quorundam vero gravior etiam est casus, eorum videlicet quos externa quidem praedica-tione dignatur, sed qui vocati nec volunt nec etiam possum respondere, quoniam ita sibi in sua caecitate placent ut dicant se videre: quibus etiam non datum est veritatis Spiritum amplecti, et credere. Itaque quamvis necessaria, tamen spontanea est ipsorum pertinacia: unde sit ut ad convivium invitati venire recusent, adeo ut verbum vitae sit illis stultitia et offendiculum, denique odor lethalis ad mortem,” Tractationum Theologicarum, 191-92.

93. “Vray est que Dieu use souvent de ce propos, Retournez à moy, et ie viendray à vous: reals c'est pour monstrer quel est nostre devoir, non pas quelle est nostre faculte,” CO, 58:206.

94. “Hic etiam tibi solvendus est nodus: Quum nemo nisi arcano spiritus instinctu tractus ad Deum accedat, cur non promiscue trahat omnes, si vult eos salvos fieri,” CO, 9:293; Calvin’s Calvinism, 2:277. Cole adds this parenthetical explanatory phrase: “in the common meaning of the expression.”

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