John Calvin on The Call to Salvation

In commenting on Jesus’s statement that many are called but few are chosen, Calvin distinguishes between the general call that God issues to all people, and the special call which cannot be resisted, which is issued only to the elect.  Because this special call cannot be resisted, if it were issued to all then all would be saved.  This shows that the Calvinist understanding of salvation and the gospel allows – in theory – for universal salvation.  However, God does not entirely will all to be saved, and so the special, irresistible call is only issued to some.

In Institutes 3.24.8 Calvin states:

[T]here is an universal call, by which God, through the external preaching of the word, invites all men alike, even those for whom he designs the call to be a savor of death, and the ground of a severer condemnation. Besides this there is a special call which, for the most part, God bestows on believers only, when by the internal illumination of the Spirit he causes the word preached to take deep root in their hearts. Sometimes, however, he communicates it also to those whom he enlightens only for a time, and whom afterwards, in just punishment for their ingratitude, he abandons and smites with greater blindness.

This is a remarkable passage for a couple of reasons. The first thing that jumps out is the statement that the general invitation to salvation is held out to some specifically to be a “savor of death, and the ground of severer condemnation.”  Indeed, it seems the non-elect would be better off if they received no invitation to the gospel than they are after receiving this general invitation; before they were as guilty of sin as anyone, while now they’re also guilty of rejecting this invitation, despite that this invitation was offered without the possibility of their accepting.

But the second thing that jumps out is even more remarkable.  For the special call is not exclusively given to the elect.  “For the most part,” Calvin writes, it is only for believers.  But “sometimes” God enlightens individuals but does not “cause the preached work to take deep root in their heart.”  And then, because of their ingratitude (which they could not have, since God did not cause the word to take deep root), God abandons them and blinds them even further than they were originally!

Note that Calvin is not saying that these people merely seemed to be enlightened or accepted by God.  They are genuinely enlightened, as much so as any believer.  God does not only seem to abandon them; he held them up for a time, yet did not enable them to express gratitude, and for that reason abandons them.  Any Christian could be in this position today.

To me, this is one of the most challenging passages in Calvin.  I think a moderate Reformed perspective would do well to abandon Calvin at this point, even while holding to the general sentiments of the Westminster Catechism.  Perhaps Calvin oversteps himself here; Calvin is being hypercalvinist.  The alternative, I’m afraid, derails pastoral counseling, and forces the reformed advocate to be either deceptive or to tell parishioners that God may not love you with the kind of love necessary to enable and encourage your spiritual well-being.

What do you think?  Is there a better option for Reformed pastoral counseling?  Can Calvinism be detached from this passage, or is it a necessary corollary to Calvin’s other doctrines?  Does it stand in contradiction to the doctrine of perseverance of the saints?


One response to “John Calvin on The Call to Salvation

  1. I’ve asked similar questions and the typical response from Calvinists is to deny that Calvin was painting God to be a moral monster or narcissist at best. Yet if we follow his trajectory of thought then there is no assurance of salvation and therefore no real hope.

    I don’t think Calvinists can detach from these statements since it was it’s founder who stated them. I often get the impression that Calvinists wish people like you and I had no access to his writings or history.

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