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, Calvin felt obliged to meet the challenge. “Even a dog barks,” he wrote to a friend, “when his master is attacked: how could I be silent when the honor of my Lord is assailed?”

Attacks on predestination came from two directions. The Roman Catholic Archdeacon of Utrecht, Albert Pighius, mounted the first assault. In his book On the Freedom of the Will, he challenged both predestination and Calvin’s concept of free will. Pighius portrayed Calvin’s doctrine as destroying the basis for morality and making God the author of sin.

Calvin first responded to the question of free will with his own book in 1543. He planned to address the matter of predestination in another work. But Pighius died suddenly, and Calvin turned to more pressing matters.

Controversy about predestination broke out again in 1550, after Jerome Bolsec arrived as a refugee in Geneva. A former Carmelite monk, Bolsec had left the Roman church and become a Protestant. He took up the medical profession, but his interest in theological questions remained intact.

Shortly after his arrival in Geneva, Bolsec began to publicly denounce the doctrine of predestination. Such a doctrine, he said, made God a patron of criminals, and worse than Satan. At first he was dealt with rather gently. He was admonished by the Church authorities and told to cease from such activities. Calvin even met privately with Bolsec in an effort to resolve differences. Bolsec, however, remained unconvinced.

After other reprimands, Bolsec finally let fly his most blatant attack. During a church meeting in October, 1551, he suddenly erupted in a vigorous renunciation of predestination and the Genevan clergy. Just about that time, Calvin happened to enter the church. Verbal sparks flew. Afterwards, Bolsec was arrested and put in prison.

Not all in Geneva shared Calvin’s view of predestination. The city government and the ministers of the Genevan church decided to consult with the other Swiss churches about Bolsec. They generally sided with Calvin, but the replies were less than Calvin had hoped. While affirming election, the other Swiss churches were more reticent about reprobation. The result was a milder judgment on Bolsec. He was banished from Geneva and eventually returned to the Roman church.

It was under such convulsive circumstances that Calvin was provoked to defend and clarify his views. Had it not been for Pighius and Bolsec, one wonders if Calvin’s name would have been so closely associated with predestination.

Calvins Perspective on Predestination

To Calvin, predestination was like a tightrope—fearful and wonderful at the same time. He proceeded with caution and prudence, keeping his balance only by holding firmly to the teachings of Scripture. “The moment we exceed the bounds of the Word,” he wrote, “… there we must repeatedly wander, slip, and stumble.”

When one reads Calvin’s own writings on predestination, a different picture emerges than most would expect. Rather than an arid scholastic discourse, Calvin speaks of predestination as immensely practical and beneficial to the Christian. He confidently affirms, “… in the very darkness that frightens them not only is the usefulness of this doctrine made known but also its very sweet fruit.”

The God of Predestination

With pastoral experience and Scripture as his guide, Calvin reached this profound conclusion: God “does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others.” He defined predestination as “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.” Predestination, like a coin, has two sides, election and reprobation. Predestination, for Calvin, especially draws attention to two attributes of God. Election displays God’s gracious mercy. Reprobation manifests God’s righteous justice.

The Mercy of God

From Calvin’s pastoral perspective, predestination is “the Lord’s clear declaration that he finds in men themselves no reason to bless them but takes it from his mercy alone.”

Nothing else displays God’s mercy like the doctrine of predestination. It is the story of sinful, undeserving men receiving the gift of salvation for no other reason except that God wished to extend his kindness to them. Calvin was less dismayed over God’s just reprobation. That he could understand. But he was completely awe-struck by the realization that God extended mercy to the undeserving.

The best expression of God’s mercy is Christ. Great stress is laid on the fact that election is “in Christ.” For Calvin, that not only means Christ is the supreme object of the Father’s election, but also that Christ is the instrument of election. Calvin even takes the further step of describing Christ as “the Author of election.” In Calvin’s view, Christ actively participated in the choosing of the elect. At every point across the spectrum of election, from its inception through its execution to its realization, Christ is the focal point of God’s mercy.

In the final analysis, to diminish predestination was, for Calvin, to denigrate the role of Christ in accomplishing salvation. Is it any wonder that he was so insistent that predestination “ought to be preached openly and fully?”

The Justice of God

It was the dark side of predestination that aroused so much scorn toward Calvin. But he saw in reprobation more than fire and brimstone. No other doctrine so powerfully reveals the righteousness of God. To acknowledge reprobation is to acknowledge that the God of Christianity hates and punishes sin. Even the sins of the elect are punished in their substitute, Christ.

Opponents accused Calvin of making God the author of sin. He rejected such a notion as insidious, asserting that, by definition, God’s inscrutable will is righteous. “For God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous.” No one can lay a charge against God.

Just as God is the ultimate cause of election, so also God is the ultimate cause of reprobation. Calvin would not sidestep this conclusion. Indeed, it is the frank acknowledgment of God’s reprobation that prompts Calvin’s piercing confession: “It is a horrible decree.”

Calvin did not pretend to understand why God ordains some to reprobation any more than he understood why God elects some to salvation. He could only declare: “the reason of divine righteousness is higher than man’s…slender wit can comprehend.”

Calvin’s conception of reprobation is incomplete without an important corollary. Although God is viewed as the ultimate cause of reprobation, still Calvin insists that “none undeservedly perish.” Condemnation of the reprobate occurs “because men deserved it on account of impiety, wickedness, and ungratefulness.” None suffer punishment apart from a consideration of personal guilt. Calvin does not attempt to explain how these two aspects of reprobation fit: he simply embraces the tension.

Man and Predestination

“They who shut the gates that no one may dare seek a taste of this doctrine,” warned Calvin, “wrong men no less than God.” The unavoidable result of a clearer view of God is a truer picture of man.

True Humility

The wicked receive precisely what they deserve. The elect receive what they do not deserve. This recognition of the immense goodness of God stirs the pious soul to “true humility.” Without a proper understanding of predestination, Calvin cautioned, “humility is torn up by the roots.”

Calvin advocated what he called a “learned ignorance,” which is to say that the Christian must humbly trust God’s righteous judgment even though he does not really comprehend God’s ways. This he contrasted with a “brutish ignorance.” The “brutish” are those who bury their head in the sand when faced with something they do not understand, such as predestination. By its very nature, the perspective of predestination obliges the godly man to rely upon God rather than his own limited understanding.


As a pastor, Calvin had no doubt seen many parishioners troubled about their salvation. His years of ministry to the saints persuaded him that “Satan has no more grievous or dangerous temptation to dishearten believers than when he unsettles them with doubt about their election.” To counter Satan’s attack, he took courage from the doctrine of predestination. Rightly understood, predestination is a bulwark against doubt, an “impregnable security.” It “brings no shaking of faith, but rather its best confirmation.”

Ask Calvin how he knew that he was numbered among the elect, and he would reply, “Christ is more than a thousand testimonies to me.” If Christ is the cause, the instrument, and the object of election, as Calvin fervently believed, then Christ was also the “mirror of election,” in whom the Christian finds the basis for his assurance.

Stimulus to Christian Activity

Francis Hotman, one of Calvin’s devoted friends, wrote in 1556 that Geneva had been imbued with a new and vigorous spirit which had given birth to a race of “martyrs.” Predestination, rightly viewed, is a stimulus to bold Christian activity. Those upon whom God has set his mercy press on against all odds because their assured election has rendered them “invulnerable to all storms of the world, all assaults of Satan and all vacillation of the flesh.” The man chosen by God ought to confidently assert himself in the cause of Christianity.

Calvin vehemently rejected the charge that election leads to idleness. From his perspective, idleness and God’s election are mutually exclusive. When God extends his mercy, it must make a difference in the sinner’s life. God elects men to be holy.

One of the natural results of Calvin’s perspective of predestination was an intensified zeal for evangelism. “For as we do not know who belongs to the number of the predestined or who does not belong, we ought to be so minded as to wish that all men be saved. So shall it come about that we try to make everyone we meet a sharer in our peace.”

Historically, the outworking of an aggressive predestinarian theology can be seen in the vitality of the English Puritans and the French Huguenots. It provided the stimulus to George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards in the Great Awakening, provoked William Carey to initiate the modern missions movement, and inspired the dynamic preaching of Charles Haddon Spurgeon.


The essential truth of predestination was not that some are justly condemned, but that many who deserve condemnation are pardoned. Calvin came to grips with the one indisputable fact; it is only when punishment is real that the mercy of God is real.

The doctrine of predestination was for Calvin a “horrible decree” but, even more, it was “very sweet fruit.” He did not pretend to understand it fully, for that would require that he comprehend God. Yet he could confidently pronounce, “even though… predestination is likened to a dangerous sea, still in traversing it, one finds safe and calm—I add also pleasant—sailing.”

“Let this be our conclusion,” Calvin writes at the close of his discussion of predestination in the Institutes, “to tremble with Paul at so deep a mystery; but, if froward tongues clamor, not to be ashamed of this exclamation of his: ‘Who are you, O man, to argue with God?’ ”

Frank James III is a Ph.D. degree candidate at Westminister Theological Seminary, Philadelphia