“Calvinism” used to be a dirty word to me. When considered, I would gloss over the subject by rote dismissal, thinking such a concept contradictory to the foundational aspects of Christian faith, such as the independence and freedom of the human will. And who could blame me? I’ve "come of age" in a context where the imperative to “make a decision for Christ” was made to be the central function of the church. Every week, some well-meaning minister would offer some kind of emotional appeal to his audience to come forward and “choose Jesus.” The plea would usually go something like this: “The time to decide is now! Don’t delay! You could wake up dead tomorrow! Become a Christian! Join the team that’s going to heaven!” According to John Calvin (1509-1564), one of the fathers of the Protest Reformation, this type of faith—common to many in the modern church—is inconsistent with the witness of Scripture and accurate theology. Instead, Calvin seeks to reclaim and reshape the “catholic” theologies of Augustine, Aquinas, and the Apostles, because the Catholic Church had corrupted their teaching by superimposing a system of “works-righteousness.” Like Luther, Calvin holds firmly to the doctrine that humanity is saved by faith alone*, and in laying out the justice of predestination, he seeks to draw the church into a proper relationship with God.
The overarching principle of Calvin’s discussion of predestination is the preeminence and centrality of God in all things. All of humanity, the cosmos, and time itself exist to serve God’s eternal purposes, which are beyond human comprehension. In other words, this is Calvin’s way of turning our eyes again to the declaration first expounded in the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:2). As I read it, Calvin’s desire is to reclaim the holiness of God, which is central to orthodoxy. And when people come to recognize the holiness of God, that is the beginning of real humility.
When I said at the outset that “Calvinism used to be a dirty word,” my main contention with the idea was I could not accept that I was not a free moral agent capable of independent action. Therefore, God could not predestine or determine all things outside of space and time, because I believed a God who determined that some of my friends and family should inevitably be consigned to flames of woe for all eternity for no cause whatsoever was simply unacceptable. The self or human centeredness reflected in such a view is precisely what Calvin sought to combat. The question Calvin asks is this: if salvation, or “election,” is not a matter of God’s will and control, but relies on the “decision” of the individual, does this not impose ludicrous limitations upon God? Calvin asks: “Would [you] wish God’s might so limited as to be unable to accomplish any more than [your] mind can conceive?” In this case, God would be deprived of freedom. Instead of acting as the cause and necessity of all things, the element of control would be stripped of God, now forced to respond in turn to the “decisions” of certain people. This God is not free, therefore, glory should not be ascribed to God. Why praise God for acting out of obligation? If salvation was simply a person’s acceptance of a series of propositions and promises, do not these people “earn” election unto salvation by merit of that decision? By ascribing all things to the predestination of God, Calvin asserts God’s freedom, and when a free God chooses to elect anyone from humanity—a race despoiled by sin—this is nothing but grace. Presumably, Calvin cannot conceive of grace operating in another way. If you are now wondering how there is any justice in God electing some for salvation while condemning others without regard for their merits, Calvin has an answer. Justice, by its very nature, demands that all people be condemned. The greatest injustice of all is that God would show grace to undeserving sinners, and for this, we should rejoice.
I realize I have forsaken massive parts of Calvin’s argument and probably misrepresented him as well, but I hope this summary will suffice to generate some thought and discussion on the subject. Let me conclude with an example of the illusion of human control provided by my professor, Dr. John Thompson. It goes like this:
You walk into California Pizza Kitchen and peruse the menu, which is packed with choices. You scan this extensive document from top to bottom but still cannot make up your mind as to what you’ll order. After some deliberation, you decide to go with the same pizza you’ve ordered on every other visit to the restaurant. In the end, did you really make a choice, or did you turn to a default position? How many of the events that comprise our lives are in reality defaults, or habits, or ingrained conditions of which we are largely unaware, but which invisibly control our day-to-day existence? The illusion of control is an obstacle to humility, and Calvin would have it demolished. Dr. Thompson also offered this thought to the class: “The most centering, humbling, transcendent moments are those when I realize God is working through me. I do not regard this as a violation of my will, but a feeling of surety of purpose. [That which is worked through me] was mine, and it was a gift” (paraphrase).
I’d love to discuss the issues further (since I don’t have a solid grasp on them myself), so feel free to comment.
I am indebted to Dr. John Thompson, Professor of Church History at Fuller Seminary for exposing me to the nuances of Calvin and assigning a paper on the justice of predestination. If you encounter a compelling argument or enlightening illustration, it has most likely lifted and/or adapted from his lectures.
* This topic deserves a separate treatment, as it is frequently subject to gross misrepresentation or simple misunderstanding. If you’re not well-versed on the subject, I highly recommend reading Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian Man (1520), or his Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535), because, it seems to me, there’s more to the argument than is commonly expressed in certain church circles.