Is Predestination Central in Calvinism?

There’s much more to Reformed theology than the doctrines of grace (TULIP).  Similarly, there’s more to the doctrines of grace than predestination.  This needs to be said and repeated since some say that the central dogma of Calvinism is predestination, that predestination is at the core of the doctrines of grace.  Michael Horton gave some helpful points to refute this error:

  1. Calvin was not the first Calvinist.  The standard medieval view affirmed unconditional election and reprobation and held that Christ’s redemptive work at the cross is ‘sufficient for the world, efficient for the elect alone.’  …On even the most controversial aspects of predestination, Calvin’s view can scarcely be distinguished from that of Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, and Gregory of Rimini.  …In fact, some of Luther’s strong comments in ‘The Bondage of the Will’ make Calvin moderate by comparison.
  2. Calvin was not the only shaper of the Reformed tradition.  Although his formative influence is justly recognized, he regarded himself as a student of Luther.  The Strasbourg Reformer Martin Bucer also left a decisive imprint on Calvin, as on a whole generation, including Archbishop Thomas Cramner.  …Heinrich Bullinger, John Knox, Jan Laski, Girolamo Zanchi, and Peter Martyr Vermigli were also among the many contemporaries of Calvin who shaped Reformed teaching, not to mention the following generations of leaders who refined and consolidated the gains of the sixteenth century.
  3. It is interesting that John Calvin never identified predestination or election as a central dogma.  He spoke of the doctrine of justification as ‘the primary article of the Christian religion,’ ‘the main hinge on which religion turns,’ the principal article of the whole doctrine of salvation and the foundation of all religion.’  Obviously he considered predestination an important doctrine.  But he was not only unoriginal in his formulation; he did not raise it to the level of a central dogma.  As B.B. Warfield has pointed out, Calvin’s emphasis on God’s fatherly love and benevolence in Christ is more pervasive than his emphasis on God’s sovereign power and authority.

“None of this is to diminish the obvious importance of election in Reformed theology, but it does serve to dissuade us from regarding it as a central dogma or as a uniquely Calvinistic tenent. …The truth is, there isn’t a central dogma in Calvinism, although it is certainly God-centered – and, more specifically, Christ-centered, since it is only in the Son that God’s saving purposes and action in history are most clearly revealed. …With Melanchthon and Bullinger leading the way, covenant theology emerged as the very warp and woof of Reformed theology.  Even this is not a central dogma, however, but more like the architectural framework.”

Michael Horton, For Calvinism, pp 28-30.

Shane Lems

The Promise of Reward (Calvin)

Commentary on the Book of PsalmsThe 63rd Q/A of the Heidelberg Catechism deals with Scripture’s promise tthat God will reward the good that his people do.  The catechism says “This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.”  Here’s Calvin’s similar take on this theme found in his commentary on Psalm 62:12b, You reward everyone according to what they have done (NIV).

From this, and passages of a similar kind, the Papists have argued, in defense of their doctrine, that justification and salvation depend upon good works; but I have already exposed the fallacy of their reasoning. No sooner is mention made of works, than they catch at the expression, as amounting to a statement that God rewards men upon the ground of merit.

It is with a very different design than to encourage any such opinion, that the Spirit promises a reward to our works—it is to animate us in the ways of obedience, and not to inflame that impious self-confidence which cuts up salvation by the very roots.

According to the judgment which God forms of the works of the believer, their worth and valuation depend, first, upon the free pardon extended to him as a sinner, and by which he becomes reconciled to God; and, next, upon the divine condescension and indulgence which accepts his services, notwithstanding all their imperfections.

We know that there is none of our works which, in the sight of God, can be accounted perfect or pure, and without taint of sin. Any recompense they meet with must therefore be traced entirely to his goodness. Since the Scriptures promise a reward to the saints, with the sole intention of stimulating their minds, and encouraging them in the divine warfare, and not with the remotest design of derogating from the mercy of God, it is absurd in the Papists to allege that they, in any sense, merit what is bestowed upon them.

John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 432.

Shane Lems

Moderation, Contentment, and Christian Liberty (Calvin)

John Calvin’s section on Christian liberty in his Institutes is one of my favorite parts of this outstanding book.  It’s biblical, Christ centered, founded on grace, pastoral, and very level-headed.  At one point Calvin says that Christian freedom does not mean we can be luxury-seeking gluttons and drunks who chase after our own lusts.  Note how he talks about moderation and soberness, and also notice how he explains that Christian liberty has to do with contentment:

“Where there is plenty, to wallow in delights, or gorge oneself, to intoxicate mind and heart with present pleasures and be always panting after new ones – such are very far removed from a lawful use of God’s gifts.”

“Away, then, with uncontrolled desire, away with immoderate prodigality, away with vanity and arrogance – in order that men may with a clean conscience cleanly use God’s gifts.  Where the heart is tempered to this soberness they will have a rule for lawful use of such blessings.”

“But should this moderation be lacking, even base and common pleasures are too much.  …Thus let every man live in his station, whether slenderly, or moderately, or plentifully, so that all may remember God nourishes them to live, not luxuriate.  And let them regard this as the law of Christian freedom: to have learned with Paul, in whatever state they are, to be content; to know how to be humble and exalted; to have been taught, in all circumstances, to be filled and to hunger, to abound and to suffer want (Phil. 4:11-12).

John Calvin, Institutes, III.XIX.9.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Christian Vows?

I’ve run across people who say a Christian should never make vows.  They typically quote Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:34-37 and/or James’ words in James 5:12, texts which seem to say that no follower of Christ should ever swear an oath or make a vow.  Historically, Anabaptists are against any kind of vow.

But it’s not that simple.  There are many examples in the Old Testament were vows are looked upon quite favorably (e.g. Ps. 56:12). God even gives laws on keeping vows and oaths (e.g. Num. 30).  The third and ninth commandments have to do with making and keeping vows properly.  Furthermore, God himself is an oath-making God – he made divine promises to Abraham and David, for just two examples (c.f. Heb. 6).  On top of this, Jesus answered Caiaphas affirmatively when put under oath (Mt. 26:63-64), and our Lord often used an oath-like term, truly truly (‘amen’; e.g. Mt. 5:18).  Paul called God as his witness more than a few times (e.g. Rom. 1:9, Phil. 1:8).  And the Angel in Revelation 10:5-7 raised his hand and swore an oath to God.  So there are examples in the OT and NT of vows/oaths in the positive sense.

What then do we do with the words of Jesus and James concerning oaths?  We have to remember, as Calvin said, not to make God contradict himself so that he “forbids and condemns what he once approved by enjoining it upon men’s behavior” (Institutes, II.8.26).  Here’s Calvin on Jesus’ teaching:

“It was not his purpose either to slacken or tighten the law, but to bring back to a true and genuine understanding what had been quite corrupted by the scribes and Pharisees.  If we understand this, we will not think that Christ condemned oaths entirely, but only those which transgress the rule of the law. (ibid.)”

Calvin does write more on this, and it is worth reading.  J. Douma, echoing Calvin, also writes well on this:

“Jesus is clearly refuting both Jewish causistry and superficial swearing.  People were using oaths not in a spiritual way, but a clever way.  An oath invoking the name of Yahweh must be kept, but in order to escape the tightness of such a requirement, people swore, ‘by heaven,’ ‘by the earth,’ ‘by Jerusalem,’ or ‘by my head.’  When swearing by these authorities, they did not need to be so careful about the truth, or so they imagined.  It was against this deceptive use of oaths that Jesus came with his redirecting Word: ‘Do not swear at all; when you say yes, let it be truly yes, and when you say no, let it be nothing else than no.'”

“So when Jesus (or James) says that we must not swear at all, we must read this emphatic statement in its context: ‘Do not swear at all, neither by heaven, nor by the earth, nor by Jerusalem, nor by hour heads.  Every superficial oath is from the evil one.’  Jesus is not saying, ‘Do not swear at all, period.’  Nor is he saying, ‘Do not swear by God.’  But  he is rejecting every kind of swearing that uses an oath for pulling a trick on someone.”

This is helpful, and it makes biblical and logical sense.  This is why in the tradition of the Reformation, we have membership vows (public vows about following Christ), leadership vows (minister, elder, and deacon), and it’s why we approve serious, solemn vows like marriage vows and government vows (e.g. military).  There’s even a chapter on lawful vows and oaths in the Westminster Confession (ch. 22).  Among other things, it says that “an oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation, or mental reservation.”  In other words, lawful, wise, biblical vows are appropriate for the Christian.

In conclusion, consider God’s word from Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 (NASB):

“When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools.  It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.”

The above quotes by J. Douma are found in his book, The Ten Commandments, p. 92-93.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI



That’s Not Christian Liberty, That’s Immaturity!

Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ by [Naselli, Andrew David, Crowley, J. D.] Christian liberty is one of those great biblical truths the Protestant Reformers recovered.  The papacy had made all sorts of rules, regulations, doctrines, and so forth that were neither commanded nor taught by Scripture.  The Reformers, thinking of texts like Matthew 15:9, Acts 5:29, Galatians 5:1 (and so on), said that to believe man-made doctrines or to obey man-made religious laws destroys the freedom of the conscience (see WCF 20.2).

The Reformers also talked about Christian liberty in terms of the gospel, that our consciences are be free from the terrors of the law because Christ obeyed in our place and paid for all our sins.  Justification by faith alone is very closely related to Christian liberty!

John Calvin said the following:

“…Christian freedom is, in all its parts, a spiritual thing.  Its whole force consists in quieting frightened consciences before God – that are 1) perhaps disturbed and troubled over forgiveness of sins, or 2) anxious whether unfinished works, corrupted by the faults of our flesh, are pleasing to God, or 3) tormented about the use of things indifferent (Institutes, III.XIX.8)”

Of course, Christian liberty has a few angles to it.  It also means we should obey God and seek to be holy – Christ saved us to do good works! (Eph. 2:10).  I also appreciate how Naselli and Crowley explained Christian liberty as they reflect on 1 Corinthians 9:19 and the surrounding context:

“Christian liberty isn’t, ‘Cool! I finally get to do the stuff I’ve always wanted to but my strict upbringing wouldn’t let me.  Then you Facebook about it so that everyone knows you’re hip.  That’s not Christian liberty; that’s immaturity.  Christian liberty is the domain of the mature, not the immature.  When the immature get ahold of it, they make a mess of it, like some of the Corinthians did.

Christian liberty is not about you and your freedom to do what you want to do.  It’s about the freedom to discipline yourself to be flexible for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of weaker believers.”

In summary, Christian liberty 1) frees us from man-made laws and doctrines, 2) is based upon the gospel and justification by faith alone, and 3) isn’t about doing whatever you want to do, but in self-control being flexible for the sake of the gospel.  Here’s Calvin again:

“Nothing is plainer than this rule: that we should use our freedom if it results in the edification of our neighbor, but if it does not help our neighbor, then we should forego it.”

The above quote by Naselli and Crowley is found on page 132 of Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Calvin’s Company of Pastors

I’m very much looking forward to reading this book after finishing the introduction.  Here’s an edited snippet from the intro:

The reader will encounter three important themes wending their way through the chapters of this book:

First, the ministers of Geneva cannot be understood rightly unless one appreciates the religious natures of their sense of vocation. The pastors in this book emerge as men committed to the reformation of the church and devoted to the spiritual instruction and care of God’s people.

Second, it is inaccurate to portray Calvin and his pastoral colleagues as ivory-tower theologians, disengaged from the everyday concerns of their parishioners.  On the contrary, as evident in their ministries of preaching and pastoral care, the pastors of Geneva devoted much of their time and energy to addressing practical matters of Christian discipleship, enjoining townspeople and peasants alike to conduct lives characterized by faith, hope, and repentance. …’Theology for them was indeed always practical.’

Third, it will be demonstrated that while Beza, Goulart, and their pastoral colleagues jealously guarded the legacy of Calvin, they made subtle changes to the expression of pastoral ministry in Geneva in response to the practical challenges they faced.  This does not mean, however, that Geneva’s ministers after Calvin should be judged as bold innovators who betrayed Calvin’s theological and ecclesiastical program.  Their innovations were far too modest for such an assessment.  It is my primary concern not to employ a hermeneutic of suspicion when judging Geneva’s ministers, but to exercise both charity and critical subtlety in evaluating the pastoral behavior of Calvin and his colleagues in light of their unique historical and religious contexts.

Stay tuned!  I’m sure I’ll come back here with more quotes from this book as I read through it: Scott Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 9-10.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI



Devoted to Christ; Serving Him (Calvin)

Institutes of the Christian Religion (Battles Translation) (2 Volumes) The wonderful truth of the gospel is that those whom Christ died for are not their own, but belong to him, body and soul, in life and in death (see 1 Cor. 6:19-20 and Q/A one of the Heidelberg Catechism).  This is comforting and also motivating.  Comforting because it means my body and soul are in good hands forever.  Motivating because now I want to use my life to serve him out of thanksgiving and love.  It’s right and proper for the Christian to be committed, devoted, and dedicated to serving Jesus.  John Calvin has an excellent commentary on the Bible truth that Christians belong to Christ.  It’s found in Book 3, chapter 7, paragraph 1 of his Institutes:

If we, then, are not our own [cf. 1 Cor. 6:19] but the Lord’s, it is clear what error we must flee, and whither we must direct all the acts of our life.

We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds.
We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh.
We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.

Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him.
We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions.
We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal [Rom. 14:8; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19].

O, how much has that man profited who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken away dominion and rule from his own reason that he may yield it to God! For, as consulting our self-interest is the pestilence that most effectively leads to our destruction, so the sole haven of salvation is to be wise in nothing and to will nothing through ourselves but to follow the leading of the Lord alone.

Let this therefore be the first step, that a man depart from himself in order that he may apply the whole force of his ability in the service of the Lord.

I call “service” not only what lies in obedience to God’s Word but what turns the mind of man, empty of its own carnal sense, wholly to the bidding of God’s Spirit. While it is the first entrance to life, all philosophers were ignorant of this transformation, which Paul calls “renewal of the mind” [Eph. 4:23]. For they set up reason alone as the ruling principle in man, and think that it alone should be listened to; to it alone, in short, they entrust the conduct of life. But the Christian philosophy bids reason give way to, submit and subject itself to, the Holy Spirit so that the man himself may no longer live but hear Christ living and reigning within him [Gal. 2:20].

Beautifully stated; worth reading again!

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 2nd ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 690.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church
Hammond, WI