What was running through John Calvin’s mind as he contemplated the doctrine of predestination? Was he locked in a trance, eyes rolled back, imagining a somber God lurking in the mists of eternity, arbitrarily picking and choosing who would be saved and who would be damned?

No, Calvin’s thoughts about predestination did not originate with morbid and abstract speculations, as some might suppose, but with a pastor’s concern for the people who filled the pews of his church every Sunday. As a pastor, Calvin noticed that people responded differently to the preaching of the gospel. “If the same sermon is preached, say, to a hundred people,” he observed, “twenty receive it with the ready obedience of faith, while the rest hold it valueless, or laugh, or hiss, or loathe it.”

What Calvin saw troubled him. Why did some men fervently embrace Christ, while others firmly rejected him? He searched the Scriptures and there he found the doctrine of predestination.

Historical Context

Calvin was not the first to treat the doctrine of predestination, but it is the name of John Calvin with which this doctrine has become inseparably linked. This is due in part to Calvin’s detailed exposition of predestination and partly because he, more than anyone else since Augustine, was called upon to defend it. Past interpreters of Calvin often fell victim to the misconception that predestination resided at the center of his theology. However, today most acknowledge that he never discussed predestination as his most basic presupposition.

Admittedly, he did accord a growing importance to predestination in succeeding editions of the Institutes. In the first edition of 1536, it did not warrant special discussion. But later, when Augustine’s doctrine came under assault, ...

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