Election and the Judgement of Charity (Calvin)

Calvin’s Commentaries (46 vols.)
Calvin’s Commentaries

When we speak about election, we always have to understand that we don’t have God’s view or perspective on it.  We don’t have access to all the names written in the book of life, nor can we pry into the secret counsel of God.  The question arises: Why does Peter write to Christians scattered in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and call them “elect”?  Did Peter know which Christians were elect?  Was that some knowledge he as an apostle had?  No.  Although Peter was an apostle commissioned by Christ, he, like other humans, didn’t have access to the secret things of God.  Calvin discussed this topic well in his comments on 1 Peter 1:1.

It may be asked, how could this be found out, for the election of God is hid, and cannot be known without the special revelation of the Spirit; and as every one is made sure of his own election by the testimony of the Spirit, so he can know nothing certain of others. To this I answer, that we are not curiously to inquire about the election of our brethren, but ought on the contrary to regard their calling, so that all who are admitted by faith into the church, are to be counted as the elect; for God thus separates them from the world, which is a sign of election.

It is no objection to say that many fall away, having nothing but the semblance; for it is the judgment of charity and not of faith, when we deem all those elect in whom appears the mark of God’s adoption. And that he does not fetch their election from the hidden counsel of God, but gathers it from the effect, is evident from the context; for afterwards he connects it with the sanctification of the Spirit. As far then as they proved that they were regenerated by the Spirit of God, so far did he deem them to be the elect of God, for God does not sanctify any but those whom he has previously elected. [John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 24.]

Calvin’s comments are level-headed and align with other biblical teaching.  We don’t have to equivocate language and say someone was elect but fell away and lost his election.  Nor do we have to say that we cannot know anything about election, so we best not talk about it at all.  There’s a biblical balance and it has to do with what Calvin and others have called the judgment of charity.   Matthew Henry said it this way in his comments on Philippians 4:3b:

We cannot search into that book [the book of life], or know whose names are written there; but we may, in a judgment of charity, conclude that those who labour in the gospel, and are faithful to the interest of Christ and souls, have their names in the book of life.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015



   J. Gresham Machen (d. 1937) has an oustanding explanation of predestination in his little book The Christian View of ManI realize this biblical doctrine is a tough one.  If you’ve wrestled with it or know someone who struggles with this doctrine, I recommend reading chapters 3-6 of The Christian View of Man.  I’ll give a few excerpts below.  First, he says the main question at hand is

“…whether a man is predestinated by God to salvation because he believes in Christ or is enabled to believe in Christ because he is predestinated.”

After discussing a few different views of predestination, he notes this:

“[The Bible] is utterly opposed to the view that God does not know what man will decide, and it is equally opposed to the view that what God foreknows he does not foreordain.  Over against such views, it tells us in the clearest possible way, not only in general that God has foreordained all things according to the counsel of his will but also in particular that he has foreordained the salvation of some men and the loss of others.”

“We do not, indeed know what the reason for God’s choice is. … But because we do not know what the reason is for God’s choice of some and his passing by of others, that does not mean there is no reason.  As a matter of fact, there is without doubt an altogether good and sufficient reason.  We can be perfectly sure of that.  God never acts in arbitrary fashion; he acts always in accordance with infinite wisdom; all his acts are directed to infinitely high and worthy ends.  We must just trust him for that.  We do not know why God has acted thus and not otherwise, but we know the  One who knows and we rest in his infinite justice and goodness and wisdom.”

“Little hope have we, my friends, if our salvation depends upon ourselves; but the salvation of which the Bible speaks is rooted in the eternal counsel of God. [Here Machen quotes Rom 8.28 & 30]  There, my friends, is the true ground of all our comforts – not in our love, not in our faith, not in anything that is in us, but in that mysterious and eternal counsel of God from which comes all faith, all love, all that we have and are and can be in this world and in the world to come.”

Again, this is an outstanding treatment of predestination.  Machen (as always) writes clearly, biblically, and pastorally.  He deals with objections well, and ends this section with a brief discussion of the beauty of God’s gracious act of choosing and saving wicked rebels.  If you haven’t read this book, The Christian View of Man, I’d say get it!  It is written for the average layperson, so most thoughtful Christians will be able to benefit from it.  While I’m at it, I also recommend What is Faith by Machen, which is one of the best presentations of faith alone and justification that I’ve read – its right up there with some of Luther’s sermons.  [I also need to note that each of these books is less than $10 – probably under $5 if you get them used!]

shane lems