Belief in God Biblical doctrines

Answering critics of predestination

by John Calvin (abridged)1,2

A Refutation of the Calumnies Generally, But Unjustly, Urged Against This Doctrine

1. When the human mind hears these things, as stated in the previous chapter, its petulance breaks all restraint. Many would admit election in such a way as to deny that anyone is reprobated [given over to sin]. We say, whom God passes by, therefore, He reprobates, and from no other cause than His determination to exclude them from the inheritance which He predestines for His children. Unlike the persons I have mentioned, Paul never strives to excuse God. He only declares that it is unlawful for a thing formed to quarrel with his Maker.

Nay but, O man, who are you that replies against God? Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, Why have you made me thus? (Romans 9:20, KJVER).

Christ declares it this way, “Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up” (Matthew 15:13).

2. Another objection put forward by our adversaries is, by what right the Lord is angry with His creatures, who had not provoked Him by any previous offence. For that to devote to destruction whom He pleases, is more like the caprice of a tyrant than the lawful sentence of a judge. We reply: How presumptuous it is for them to inquire into the causes of the Divine will; which is, in fact, the cause of everything that exists. For the will of God is the highest rule of justice. When it is inquired, why the Lord did so, the answer must be, Because He would. But if you go further, and ask why He so determined, you are in search of something greater than the will of God, which can never be found. Now, we represent not God as lawless. Plato says, laws are necessary to men, who are the subjects of evil desires. But the will of God is, not only pure from every fault, but the highest standard of perfection, even the law of all laws.

3. If anyone should ask, Why God has from the beginning predestined some men to death, who, not yet being brought into existence, could not yet deserve the sentence of death—we will reply, what they suppose God owes to man, if He chooses to judge him from his own nature. As we are all corrupted by sin, we must be odious [offensive, repulsive] to God, and that not from tyrannical cruelty, but in the most equitable estimation of justice. If all whom the Lord predestinates to death are in their natural condition liable to the sentence of death, what injustice do they complain of receiving from Him?

4. They further object, Were they not, by the decree of God, antecedently predestinated to that corruption which is now stated as the cause of condemnation? Is He not unjust, therefore, in treating His creatures with such cruel mockery? I confess, indeed, that all the descendants of Adam fell by the Divine will into that miserable condition in which they are now involved; but it follows not that God is liable to this reproach. For Paul has answered thus: “0 man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Romans 9:20, 21). In this context, we must ask, who God is? He is the Judge of the world, and, if so, how could He commit any injustice? Observes Solomon thus, “The great God that formed all things both rewardeth the fool, and rewardeth transgressors” (Proverbs 26:10). For he is proclaiming the greatness of God, whose will it is to punish fools and transgressors. And men betray madness in desiring to comprehend immensity within the limits of their reason.

5. I say, with Augustine, that the Lord created those who, He certainly foreknew, would fall into destruction, and that this was actually so because He willed it. But of His will it is not for us to demand the reason, which we are incapable of comprehending. Nor is it reasonable that the Divine will should be made the subject of controversy with us. For God’s will is the highest rule of justice.

Of the immensity of God’s judgments, they are called “a great deep.” What advantage do you gain from plunging yourselves into an abyss that reason itself pronounces will be fatal to you? Advises Augustine, “You, a man, expect an answer from me, who am also a man. Let us, therefore, both hear him who says, 0 man, who art thou? Faithful ignorance is better than presumptuous knowledge. . . . Paul . . . calls the judgments of God unsearchable; and are you come to scrutinise them? . ..” We shall do no good by proceeding any further; and the Lord needs no other defence than what He has employed by His Spirit, speaking by the mouth of Paul; and we forget to speak well when we cease to speak with God.

6. A second objection tends, not so much to the crimination of God, as to the vindication of the sinner: Why should God impute as a fault to man those things which were rendered necessary by His predestination? What should they do? Should they resist His decrees? Therefore they are not justly punished for those things of which God’s predestination is the principal cause. Let us see how this difficulty should be solved. The declaration of Solomon ought to be admitted, that “The LORD hath made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil” (Proverbs 16:4). Observe: all things being at God’s disposal, and the decision of salvation or death belonging to Him, He orders all things by His counsel in such a manner, that some men are born to certain death, that His Name may be glorified in their destruction. Valla, a man otherwise not much versed in theology, shows superior acuteness in this observation, that both life and death are acts of God’s will, rather than of His foreknowledge.

7. They further maintain, that as Adam possessed free choice, God decreed nothing more than to treat him according to his desert. If so weak a scheme as this be received, what will become of God’s omnipotence? But whether they wish it or dread it, predestination exhibits itself in Adam’s posterity. For the loss of salvation by the whole race through the guilt of one parent, was an event that did not happen by nature. The Scripture proclaims, that all men were, in the person of their father, sentenced to death. This, not being attributable to nature, it must have proceeded from the wonderful counsel of God. I inquire again, how the fall of Adam should involve so many nations with their infant children in eternal death, but because such was the will of God. It is an awful decree; but no man can deny that God foreknew the future final fate of man before He created him, and that He did foreknow because it was appointed by His own decree. Augustine says, “The God and Lord of all things, who created every thing very good, and foreknew that evil would arise out of good, and knew that it was more suitable to his almighty goodness to bring good out of evil than not to suffer evil to exist, ordained the life of angels and men in such a manner as to exhibit in it, first, what freewill was capable of doing, and afterwards, what could be effected by the blessings of grace, and the sentence of his justice.”

8. Then, they argue that God permits the destruction of the impious, but does not will it. I shall not hesitate, to confess with Augustine, “that the will of God is the necessity of all things, and what he has willed will necessarily come to pass; as those things are really about to happen which he has foreseen.”

Man falls, according to the appointment of Divine Providence; but he falls by his own fault. The Lord had a little before pronounced “everything that he had made” to be “very good.” Whence, then, comes the depravity of man’s revolt? By his own wickedness, he corrupted his nature which he had received pure from God; and by his fall he drew all his posterity with him into destruction. Wherefore let us rather contemplate the evident cause of condemnation, which is nearer to us in the corrupt nature of mankind, than search after a hidden and altogether incomprehensible one in the predestination of God. To be ignorant of things which it is neither possible nor lawful to know, is to be learned.

9. The reprobate wish to be thought excusable in sinning, because they cannot avoid a necessity of sinning; especially since this necessity is laid upon them by the ordination of God. But we deny this to be a just excuse; because the ordination of God is guided by equity, unknown indeed to us, but indubitably certain. The ground of it he has derived from himself, not from God; since he is ruined solely in consequence of his having degenerated from the pure creation of God to vicious depravity.

10. A third objection to predestination is, that God is a respecter of persons. But Scripture denies that God is a respecter of persons, in a different sense from that which they understand. By the word person, it signifies not a man, but rather those things in a man, which usually conciliate favour, honour, and dignity, or attract hatred, contempt, and disgrace. Thus Peter and Paul declare that God is not a respecter of persons, because He makes no difference between the Jew and Greek (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Galatians 3:28). So James uses the same language when he asserts, that God in His judgment pays no regard to riches (James 2:5). There will, therefore, be no contradiction in our affirming that God chooses whom He will as his children, irrespective of all merit, while He rejects and reprobates others. They ask how it happens, that of two persons distinguished from each other by no merit, God, in His election, leaves one and takes the other. I, on the other hand, ask them, whether they suppose him that is taken, to possess anything that can attract the favour of God. If they confess that he has not, it will follow that God looks not at man, but derives His motive to favour him from His own goodness. “Not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: . . . That no flesh should glory to his presence” (1 Corinthians 1:26¬29).

11. Some people charge God with a violation of equal justice, because He observes not the same uniform course of proceeding towards all. If He finds all guilty, let Him punish all alike. If innocent, let Him withhold the rigour of justice from all. We confess the guilt to be common, but we say, that some are relieved by Divine mercy. While God rewards those whom He rejects with deserved punishment, and to those whom He calls, freely gives undeserved grace, He is liable to no accusation, inasmuch as a creditor has power to release one, and enforce his demands on another.

12. Another argument urged against predestination is, that its establishment would destroy all exertion for rectitude [correctness] of conduct. Since no action of man can impede or promote the predestination of God, all will abandon themselves in despair, and run into every excess to which their sinfulness may lead them. They profess, also, to go on securely in their vices; because if they are of the number of the elect, such conduct will not prevent their being finally saved. But Paul declares the end of our election to be, that we may lead a holy and blameless life (Ephesians 1:4). If the object of election be holiness, it should rather stimulate us to a cheerful practice of it. They carry their argument further, by asserting, that anyone who is reprobated by God will labour to no purpose if he endeavours to approve himself to Him by innocence and integrity of life. We say, whoever are of the number of the reprobate cease not to provoke the Divine wrath against themselves by continual transgressions.

13. This doctrine is calumniated by others, as subversive of all exhortations to piety of life; and ought not to be preached to the people. But if we examine Paul’s sermons, we see the preacher on gratuitous election more fervent than others, in such exhortation: “God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but . . . that every one should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour” (1 Thessalonians 4:7, 4). Again: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

Augustine says, “If the apostles and the succeeding teachers of the Church both piously treated of God’s eternal election, and held believers under the discipline of a pious life, what reason have our opponents, when silenced by the invincible force of truth, to suppose themselves right in maintaining that what is spoken of predestination, although it be true, ought not to be preached to the people?”

14. If any one address the people in such a way as this, If you believe not, it is because you are by a Divine decree already destined to destruction,—he not only cherishes slothfulness, but even encourages wickedness. If anyone extends the declaration into the future, that they who hear will never believe because they are reprobated,—this would be rather imprecation than instruction. Such persons, as foolish teachers and ominous prophets, Augustine charges to depart from the Church. “Because,” he concludes, “we know not who belongs, or does not belong, to the number of the predestinated, it becomes us affectionately to desire the salvation of all.”

Election Confirmed by the Divine Call. The Destined Destruction of the Reprobate Procured by Themselves

1. Though by choosing His people the Lord has adopted them as His children, yet we see that they enter not on the possession of so great a blessing till they are called. On the other hand, as soon as they are called, they immediately enjoy some communication of election (Romans 8:29, 30). On this account, Paul calls the Spirit received by them both “the Spirit of adoption” (Romans 8:15, 16), and the seal and “earnest of our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:13, 14). Because, by His testimony, He confirms and seals to their hearts the certainty of their future adoption. By calling, He introduces them into His family, and unites them to Himself, that they may be one. By connecting calling with election, the Scripture evidently suggests that nothing is requisite to it but the free mercy of God.

2. This point is further demonstrated by the very nature of calling, which consists not in the mere preaching of the Word, but in the accompanying illumination of the Spirit. This illumination or efficacious influence of the Spirit is the internal call that is a pledge of our salvation. “Hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us” (1 John 3:24). Of this fact, Luke gives us an eminent example, where Jews and Gentiles in common heard the preaching of Paul and Barnabas, but “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).

3. Here two errors are to be avoided. For some suppose man to be a cooperator with God. Thus, according to them, the will of man is superior to the counsel of God, as though the Scripture taught, that we are only given an ability to believe, and not faith itself. Others, not thus enervating the grace of the Holy Spirit, suspend election on that which is subsequent to faith. That this is the confirmation to us is very clear; that it is the manifestation of God’s secret counsel before concealed, we have already seen. What was before unknown is verified and, as it were, ratified with a seal.

4. As it is erroneous to suspend the efficacy of election upon the faith of the Gospel, so we shall observe the best order, if, in seeking an assurance of our election, we confine ourselves to those subsequent signs which are certain attestations of it. To inquire whether we are elected, we must begin and end with the calling of God. They, who are called, can perceive the daily blessings received from His hand, so that to them, not only good things, but evil ones also cooperate for good. Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is sufficient for me to possess His favour alone, against whom alone I have sinned (Bernard).

5. Now, what is the end of election, but that, being adopted as children, we may by God’s favour obtain salvation and immortality? The persons whom God has adopted as His children, He is said to have chosen, not in themselves, but in Christ. If we are chosen in Him, we shall find no assurance of our election in ourselves; nor even in God the Father, considered alone, abstractedly from the Son. Christ, therefore, is the mirror, in which we should contemplate our election. If we have communion with Christ, we are written in the book of life.

6. There is another confirmation of election, which, we have said, is connected with calling. Christ loudly proclaims that all whose salvation was designed by the Father, had been delivered by Him into His protection (John 6:37, 39; 17:6, 12). He freely offers Himself to be our Shepherd and declares, if we hear His voice, we shall be numbered among His sheep. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29). In a word, perseverance is a confirmation of our election.

7. But it daily happens, that they who appeared to belong to Christ, fall away from Him again. Even in that very place, where He asserts that none perish of those who were given to Him by the Father, He excepts the son of perdition. This is true; but it is equally certain, that such persons never adhered to Christ with that confidence of heart which, we say, gives us assurance of our election. “They went out from us,” says John, “but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us” (1 John 2:19). I dispute not their having similar signs of calling with the elect; but I am far from admitting them to possess that certain assurance of election which I enjoin believers to seek from the Word of the Gospel. Wherefore, let not such examples move us from a tranquil reliance on our Lord’s promise, that all who receive Him by faith were given Him by the Father, and not one of them shall perish.

8. The declaration of Christ, that “many are called, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:14), is very improperly understood. There will be no ambiguity, if we remember that there are two kinds of calling. There is the universal call, by which God, in the external preaching of the Word, invites all to come to Him. There is the special call, when, by the illumination of the Spirit, He causes the Word preached to sink into their hearts. Yet, sometimes He also communicates to those whom He enlightens for a season, and afterwards forsakes on account of their ingratitude, and strikes with greater blindness. These are the hypocrites in the Church.

9. The same reasoning applies to the exception lately cited, where Christ says, that “none of them is lost, but the son of perdition” (John 17:12). For he was never reckoned among the sheep of Christ, but only as he occupied the place of one. When the Lord declares he was chosen by Himself with the other Apostles, it only refers to the ministerial office “Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?” (John 6:70). That is, He had chosen him to the office of an Apostle. But when He speaks of election to salvation, He excludes him from the number of the elect.

10. Now, the elect are not gathered into the fold of Christ by calling, immediately from their birth, nor all at the same time, but according as God is pleased to dispense His grace to them. Before they are gathered to that Chief Shepherd, they go astray, scattered in the common wilderness, and differing in no respect from others, except in being protected by the special mercy of God from rushing down the precipice of eternal death.

11. Even the elect, before their call, were contaminated with various pollutions. For example, Rahab the harlot (Joshua 2), and the thief who repented in his dying moments (Luke 23:40-42). “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Those whom the Lord has determined to rescue from perdition, He defers till His appointed season; before which He only preserves them from falling into unpardonable blasphemy.

12. As the Lord, by His effectual calling of the elect, completes the salvation to which He predestinated them, so He has His judgments against the reprobate. Those whom he has created to a life of shame and destruction, that they might be instruments of His wrath, He causes to each their appointed end, sometimes depriving them of hearing the Word, sometimes by the preaching of it, increasing their blindness and stupidity.

Of the former, there are many examples. Let us select one that is more evident than the rest. Before the advent of Christ, there passed about four thousand years, in which the Lord concealed the light of salvation from all the Gentiles. If it be replied, that He withheld from them the participation of so great a blessing, their posterity will be found equally unworthy of it. The truth of this is sufficiently attested by Malachi, who follows his reproofs of unbelief by an immediate prediction of the coming of the Messiah. Why, then, is He given to the posterity rather than to their ancestors? He will torment himself in vain, who seeks for any cause of this beyond the secret counsel of God.

Of the second class, we have the example of the same sermon being addressed to a hundred persons, where twenty receive it with faith. The others despise, or ridicule, or condemn it. If it be replied, that the difference proceeds from their wickedness, this will afford no satisfaction; because the minds of others would have been influenced by the same wickedness, but for the correction of Divine goodness.

13. Why, then, in bestowing grace upon some, does He pass over others? Luke assigns a reason for the former, that they “were ordained to eternal life” (Acts 13:48). What conclusion should we draw respecting the latter, but that they are vessels of wrath to dishonour? Augustine says, “God could convert to good the will of the wicked, because he is omnipotent. It is evident that he could. Why, then, does He not? Because He would not. Why he would not, remains with himself.”

14. It remains now to be seen why the Lord does that which it is evident He does. If it is replied, that this is done because men have deserved it by their impiety, it will be a just observation. But as we have not yet discovered the reason of this diversity, why some persist in obduracy [hardness of heart that cannot be overcome] while others are inclined to obedience, the discussion will lead us to the remark that Paul has quoted from Moses concerning Pharaoh, “Even for this same purpose have I raised thee up, that I might shew my power in thee, and that my name might be declared throughout all the earth” (Romans 9:17). That the reprobate obey not the Word of God, when made known to them, is justly imputed to the wickedness of their hearts, provided it be at the same time stated, that they are abandoned to this depravity because they have been raised up, by a just but inscrutable judgment of God, to display His glory in their condemnation (1 Samuel 2:25; John 12:37, 38).

15. Objections are raised from some passages of Scripture, in which God seems to deny that the destruction of the wicked is caused by His decree, but that, in opposition to His remonstrances [strong statements of reason against an act], they voluntarily bring ruin upon themselves. Now, what does it mean, when it is declared by the prophet, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11)? It is, to assure the pious of God’s readiness to pardon them immediately on their repentance, and to show the impious, the aggravation of their sin in rejecting such a great compassion and kindness of God.

16. Another passage adduced is from Paul, where he states that God “will have all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4). This means, God has not closed the way of salvation against any order of men, but has diffused His mercy in such a way that He would have none without it.

Peter’s declaration, that “the Lord is . . . not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), is another verse for discussion. The second clause furnishes an immediate solution of the difficulty. For the willingness that they should come to repentance must be understood in consistence with the general tenor of Scripture, that repentance depends not on the will of man, but on God; even as Paul has said, “If God peradventure will give them repentance” (2 Timothy 2:25). And if God, whose voice exhorts all men to repentance, did not draw the elect to it by the secret operation of His Spirit, Jeremiah would not have said, “Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the LORD my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented” (Jeremiah 31:18, 19).

17. If this be correct, it will be said there can be but little faith in the promises of the Gospel, which, in declaring the will of God, assert that He wills what is repugnant to His inviolable decree. But this is far from a just conclusion.

For if we turn our attention to the effect of the promises of salvation, we shall find that their universality is not at all inconsistent with the predestination of the reprobate. We know the promises to be effectual to us only when we receive them by faith. On the contrary, the annihilation of faith is at once an abolition of the promises. If this is their nature, we may perceive there is no discordance between these two things—God’s having appointed from eternity on whom He will bestow His favour and exercise His wrath, and His proclaiming salvation indiscriminately to all. Indeed, I maintain, there is the most perfect harmony between them. For His sole design in thus promising, is to offer His mercy to all who desire and seek it, which none do but those whom He enlightened, and He enlightens all whom He has predestinated to salvation. These persons experience the unshaken truth of the promises; so that it cannot be pretended that there is the least contrariety [inconsistency] between God’s eternal election and the testimony of grace offered to believers. But why does he mention all? It is in order that the consciences of the pious may enjoy the more secure satisfaction, seeing that there is no difference between sinners, provided they have faith. On the other hand, that the impious may not plead the want of any asylum to flee from the bondage of sin, while they reject that which is offered to them. When the mercy of God is offered to both by the Gospel, it is faith, that is, the illumination of God, which distinguishes between the pious and impious; so that the former experience the efficacy of the Gospel, but the latter derive no benefit from it.

References and Notes

  1. An Abridgement of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: Book I-IV, Editor: Timothy Tow, Far Eastern Bible College Press, Singapore, pp. 312-323, 1997.
  2. My emphases added.  KJV used throughout unless otherwise stated.

By John Gideon Hartnett

Dr John G. Hartnett is an Australian physicist and cosmologist, and a Christian with a biblical creationist worldview. He received a B.Sc. (Hons) and Ph.D. (with distinction) in Physics from The University of Western Australia, W.A., Australia. He was an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award (DORA) fellow at the University of Adelaide, with rank of Associate Professor. Now he is retired. He has published more than 200 papers in scientific journals, book chapters and conference proceedings.

One reply on “Answering critics of predestination”

Hi John, thanks for sharing this. Calvin is spot-on regarding predestination! James White’s book The Potter’s Freedom is another good resource that carefully exegetes the relevant passages.


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