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


Is He A Christian? I’ll Be The Judge!?!

Sometimes, humanly speaking, we know when a person is not a Christian.  If they say they are not a Christian, or if they don’t know a thing about Jesus, or if their life (words and deeds) has absolutely no fruit, most likely the person is not a Christian.  However, we should not go around making statements on who is and who is not a true Christian.  It’s not biblical, healthy, or productive to constantly make declarations on who is and who is not a believer.  (As a side, it might be a mark of hyper-calvinism to frequently make declarations on a the spiritual state of people.)

In Reformed theology – following Scripture – there’s a great term: “judgment of charity” (or “charitable judgment”).  This means that if a person professes the Christian faith, shows some fruit in his or her life, and is involved in a Christian church, we treat the person like a Christian and refuse to constantly doubt his faith.  It’s a covenantal concept.  Calvin talked about this in Institutes IV.i.8; Owen, Ridgley, Boston, Bavinck, Berkhof and other Reformed theologians also used these terms.  In Scripture, Paul called the straying Galatians brothers and the impure Corinthian church saints (for just two examples).

J. C. Ryle notes how the judgment of charity is a Christ-like attitude which is comforting, and which we should emulate:

Let us take comfort in the thought that the Lord Jesus does not throw off his believing people because of failures and imperfections. He knows what they are. He takes them, as the husband takes the wife, with all their blemishes and defects, and, once joined to him by faith, will never put them away. He is a merciful and compassionate High Priest. It is his glory to pass over the transgressions of his people and to cover their many sins. He knew what they were before conversion—wicked, guilty and defiled; yet he loved them. He knows what they will be after conversion—weak, erring and frail; yet he loves them. He has undertaken to save them, notwithstanding all their shortcomings, and what he has undertaken he will perform.

Let us learn to pass a charitable judgment on the conduct of those who claim to believe. Let us not set them down in a low place and say they have no grace, because we see in them much weakness and corruption. Let us remember that our Master in heaven bears with their infirmities, and let us try to bear with them too. The church of Christ is little better than a great hospital. We ourselves are all, more or less, weak, and all daily need the skillful treatment of the heavenly Physician. There will be no complete cures till the resurrection day.

J. C. Ryle, Mark, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 230. (emphasis mine)

shane lems
hammond, wi