Calvin’s doctrine of predestination (election and reprobation) is not a product of philosophical deduction. It is a result of Calvin’s exegesis of Scripture. Calvin gives two concise definitions of predestination:
We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he determined with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or death.” [Inst. 3.21.5]
As Scripture, then, clearly shows, we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction. We assert that, with respect to the elect, this plan was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation. Now among the elect we regard the call as a testimony of election. Then we hold justification another sign of its manifestation, until they come into the glory in which the fulfillment of that election lies. But as the Lord seals his elect by call and justification, so, by shutting off the reprobate from knowledge of his name or from the sanctification of his Spirit, he, as it were, reveals by these marks what sort of judgment awaits them.[Inst. 3.21.7]
For Calvin, election is gratuitous, that is, it is not based on foreknowledge of merit.
By saying that they were “elect before the creation of the world” [Eph. 1:4], he takes away all regard for worth. For what basis for distinction is there among those who did not yet exist, and who were subsequently to be equals in Adam? Now if they are elect in Christ, it follows that not only is each man elected without respect to his own person but also certain ones are separated from others, since we see that not all are members of Christ. Besides, the fact that they were elected “to be holy” [Eph. 1:4b] plainly refutes the error that derives election from foreknowledge, since Paul declares all virtue appearing in man is the result of election. Now if a higher cause be sought, Paul answers that God has predestined it so, and that this is “according to the good pleasure of his will” [Eph. 1:5b]. By these words he does away with all means of their election that men imagine in themselves. For all benefits that God bestows for the spiritual life, as Paul teaches, flow from this one source: namely, that God has chosen whom he has willed, and before their birth has laid up for them individually the grace that he willed to grant them. [Inst. 3.22.2]
Predestination Pertains to Particular Individuals
Calvin rejects the Arminian view that God’s election is concerned only with his general intention to save. On the contrary, for Calvin, God’s election is specific and pertains to salvation of particular individuals (even before their existence). Calvin recognizes that election is not exclusive to individuals. He speaks of a national election of Israel or an election to office in distinction from individual election to salvation. The two forms of election must be carefully distinguished to ensure an accurate understanding of predestination. Calvin explains,
Although it is now sufficiently clear that God by his secret plan freely chooses whom he pleases, rejecting others…still his free election has been only half explained until we come to individual persons, to whom God not only offers salvation but so assigns it that the certainty of its effect is not in suspense or doubt.” It was not the nation of Israel, but individuals [the remnants] who are elected unto salvation who are “engrafted to their Head [Jesus Christ] they are never cut off from salvation.” [Inst. 3.21.7]
Some critics may object that particular or individual election results in an unjust God who is guilty of partiality. Calvin responds with a simple and uncompromising affirmation of God’s sovereignty over his entire creation. There is no human merits or demerits involved in God’s election and reprobation. The elect to whom God shows mercy are as guilty as the reprobate while God passing over (preterition) reprobates is not simply a consequence of their sin. Calvin echoes Augustine when he writes, “The Lord can therefore also give grace…to whom he will…because he is merciful, and not give to all because he is a just judge. For by giving to some what they do not deserve…he can show his free grace…By not giving to all, he can manifest what all deserve.” [Inst. 3.21.11]
Predestination: Election as Mercy, Reprobation as Justice
Calvin faced widespread objection to the doctrine of double predestination. Even his friends who accepted election but denied reprobation advised him to soft-pedal the doctrine of reprobation (in passing, it should be noted that election and reprobation as two aspects of predestination must not be regarded as opposing equivalents). But Calvin stood firm, “Now when human understanding hears these things,” its insolence is so irrepressible that it breaks forth into random and immoderate tumult as if at the blast of a battle trumpet. Indeed many, as if they wished to avert a reproach from God, accept election in such terms as to deny that anyone is condemned.” He adds, “But they do this very ignorantly and childishly, since election itself could not stand except as set over against reprobation.” [Inst. 3.23.1]
Calvin does not teach reprobation as a logical deduction from the doctrine of election; he teaches reprobation because Scripture testifies that reprobation flows from God’s eternal decree. Calvin elaborates,
We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death. [Inst. 3.21.5]
As Scripture, then, clearly shows, we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction. [Inst. 3.21.7]
For Calvin, both election and reprobation pertain to specific individuals, in contrast to Arminians who understand the decree of reprobation as referring to God’s general intention to pass over a group people rather than individuals. The Arminians object to reprobation of individuals as this amounts to attributing unrighteousness to God. Calvin refers to Paul’s analysis the reprobation of Esau in Romans 9 to answer this objection. It would have been tempting to justify God’s action by saying that God is merely recompensing Esau according to his evil deeds. Instead,
Paul he contents himself with a different solution, that the reprobate are raised up to the end that through them God’s glory may be revealed…God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whomever he wills (Rom. 9:18). Do you see how Paul attributes both to God’s decision alone? If, then, we cannot determine a reason why he vouchsafes mercy to his own, except that it so pleases him, neither shall we have any reason for rejecting others, other than his will. For when it is said that God hardens or shows mercy to whom he wills, men are warned by this to seek no cause outside his will. [Inst. 3.22.11]
Calvin adds, “Augustine rightly explains this passage: where might is joined to long-suffering, God does not permit but governs by his power.” [Inst. 3.23.1]
Much as it may grate the objectors, Calvin insists that both election and reprobation rest on the sovereign will and good pleasure of God. Calvin explains: “… those whom God passes over [praeterit], he condemns [reprobat]; and this he does for no other reason than that he wills to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines [praedestinat] for his own children.” [Inst 3.23.1] But how can reprobation reflect the righteousness of God? Calvin is careful to make a distinction between the ultimate cause (God’s sovereign will) and the proximate cause of reprobation. Human sinful action is the proximate cause of condemnation or reprobation. Note however, that Calvin never refers to human action as being even a proximate cause of divine election. While God sovereignly passes by some sinners in His decretive will, the ground of the sinners’ final condemnation is their sin and guilt. Sinful actions are the proximate cause only of the condemnation aspect of reprobation and not the reason for God’s ultimate discrimination between elect and reprobate. God’s ultimate discrimination rests solely on the freedom and sovereign will of God. In short, the sovereign display of mercy in election and justice in reprobation testify to the glory of God.
It is not on the basis of human works, whether performed or foreseen, that God decrees to elect some based on unmerited grace and pass by (preterition) others based on proximate sinful works. In this regard, election and reprobation are not parallel. God’s gratuitous mercy is manifest as the elect receive eternal salvation through Jesus Christ. God’s justice or righteousness is manifest as the reprobate receive the eternal punishment they deserve. That is to say, while election is gratuitous, reprobation is just. In short, while election and reprobation are not parallel, they both point to the ultimate freedom and justice of God and each of them in its own way points to the glory of God.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. 2 vols. Translated by Ford Lewis Battles (Westminster Press, 1960).
Fred H. Klooster, Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination. 2e (Baker, 1977).