“Reply to Calvin” #3: Synergism, Grace Alone, & the Elect

“Reply to Calvin” #3: Synergism, Grace Alone, & the Elect April 3, 2017


Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]


This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.

Related reading from yours truly:

Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)

A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)

Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)




IV, 1:6-8



6. Her ministry effectual, but not without the Spirit of God. Passages in proof of this.

Moreover, as at this time there is a great dispute as to the efficacy of the ministry, some extravagantly overrating its dignity,

Likely a veiled dig at Catholicism . . .

and others erroneously maintaining, that what is peculiar to the Spirit of God is transferred to mortal man,

Probably a swipe at Protestant radicals and sometimes “fanatics” to the “left” of Calvin (folks that Luther also opposed) . . .

when we suppose that ministers and teachers penetrate to the mind and heart, so as to correct the blindness of the one, and the hardness of the other; it is necessary to place this controversy on its proper footing. The arguments on both sides will be disposed of without trouble, by distinctly attending to the passages in which God, the author of preaching, connects his Spirit with it, and then promises a beneficial result; or, on the other hand, to the passages in which God, separating himself from external means, claims for himself alone both the commencement and the whole course of faith. The office of the second Elias was, as Malachi declares, to “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6). Christ declares that he sent the Apostles to produce fruit from his labours (John 15:16). What this fruit is Peter briefly defines, when he says that we are begotten again of incorruptible seed (1 Pet. 1:23). Hence Paul glories, that by means of the Gospel he had begotten the Corinthians, who were the seals of his apostleship (1 Cor. 4:15); moreover, that his was not a ministry of the letter, which only sounded in the ear, but that the effectual agency of the Spirit was given to him, in order that his doctrine might not be in vain (1 Cor. 9:2; 2 Cor. 3:6). In this sense he elsewhere declares that his Gospel was not in word, but in power (1 Thess. 1:5). He also affirms that the Galatians received the Spirit by the hearing of faith (Gal. 3:2). In short, in several passages he not only makes himself a fellow-worker with God, but attributes to himself the province of bestowing salvation (1 Cor. 3:9).

How interesting that Calvin, after going through several uncontroversial points, affirms that Paul was God’s co-worker, who “attributes to himself the province of bestowing salvation.” Calvinists today are very wary of such talk as that, because they immediately classify it as semi-Pelagian, or a form of works-salvation, and decry it as “synergism.” But Calvin is not averse to speaking in such a fashion, since it is explicitly biblical. The Bible contains many passages along the lines of men being the direct instruments of salvation, and pertaining to the motif of being God’s “fellow workers”:

Mark 16:20 And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen.

John 15:13-15 Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

1 Corinthians 3:9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 9:22 . . . I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

2 Corinthians 4:15 For it [his many sufferings: 4:8-12, 17] is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

2 Corinthians 6:1 Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.

Ephesians 3:1-2 For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles — assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you,

1 Timothy 4:16 Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

All these things he certainly never uttered with the view of attributing to himself one iota apart from God, as he elsewhere briefly explains. “For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but (as it is in truth) the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). Again, in another place, “He that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles” (Gal. 2:8). And that he allows no more to ministers is obvious from other passages. “So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor. 3:7). Again, “I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). And it is indeed necessary to keep these sentences in view, since God, in ascribing to himself the illumination of the mind and renewal of the heart, reminds us that it is sacrilege for man to claim any part of either to himself. Still every one who listens with docility to the ministers whom God appoints, will know by the beneficial result, that for good reason God is pleased with this method of teaching, and for good reason has laid believers under this modest yoke.

And this is, of course, exactly the same teaching as in Catholicism (I’ve argued precisely the same way in many of my own apologetics teachings): all these things are completely enabled by the grace of God. But because Calvin has a very poor understanding of Catholic soteriology, and specifically of merit, he wouldn’t know that, which is sad. If he had comprehended that there was no disagreement at all on this point, as lot of mutual ill will and misinformation and useless polemics back and forth for almost 500 years now would have been avoided.

Alas, that is not what happened, as we all know, and to this day, Calvinists and even Lutherans (per the latter’s confessional works) falsely accuse the Catholic Church of teaching semi-Pelagianism. It’s the devil’s victory: divide and conquer. We have more than enough true disagreement with our Protestant brethren in Christ, without adding on “phantom disagreements,” where in fact we actually agree; yet many on both sides don’t realize it. I’ve always found that very troubling, and I do all I can to educate folks, so that we can rejoice in agreements and discover that the disagreements (though many and broad) are less in number than has largely been supposed.

7. Second part of the Chapter. Concerning the marks of the Church. In what respect the Church is invisible. In what respect she is visible.

The judgment which ought to be formed concerning the visible Church which comes under our observation, must, I think, be sufficiently clear from what has been said. I have observed that the Scriptures speak of the Church in two ways. Sometimes when they speak of the Church they mean the Church as it really is before God—the Church into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are sons of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ. In this case it not only comprehends the saints who dwell on the earth, but all the elect who have existed from the beginning of the world.

Catholics agree. We have no objection to the “Mystical Body” concept, as long as it isn’t pitted against the visible, institutional, historical Church. And Calvin recognizes the “visible Church” once again. He presupposes this whenever he makes an analogy to the Temple and OT priesthood, etc., as relevant to Christianity and Christian ecclesiology.

Often, too, by the name of Church is designated the whole body of mankind scattered throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith; by partaking of the Lord’s Supper profess unity in true doctrine and charity, agree in holding the word of the Lord, and observe the ministry which Christ has appointed for the preaching of it. In this Church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance: of ambitious, avaricious, envious, evil-speaking men, some also of impurer lives, who are tolerated for a time, either because their guilt cannot be legally established, or because due strictness of discipline is not always observed. Hence, as it is necessary to believe the invisible Church, which is manifest to the eye of God only, so we are also enjoined to regard this Church which is so called with reference to man, and to cultivate its communion.

Calvin (most importantly, in light of later widespread Protestant developments to the contrary; even in some Calvinist circles), does not ditch the notion of “sinners in the Church” and the “visible Church.” He knows the Bible too well to do that.

8. God alone knoweth them that are his. Still he has given marks to discern his children.

Accordingly, inasmuch as it was of importance to us to recognise it, the Lord has distinguished it by certain marks, and as it were symbols. It is, indeed, the special prerogative of God to know those who are his, as Paul declares in the passage already quoted (2 Tim. 2:19). And doubtless it has been so provided as a check on human rashness, the experience of every day reminding us how far his secret judgments surpass our apprehension. For even those who seemed most abandoned, and who had been completely despaired of, are by his goodness recalled to life, while those who seemed most stable often fall. Hence, as Augustine says, “In regard to the secret predestination of God, there are very many sheep without, and very many wolves within” (August. Hom. in Joan. 45). For he knows, and has his mark on those who know neither him nor themselves. Of those again who openly bear his badge, his eyes alone see who of them are unfeignedly holy, and will persevere even to the end, which alone is the completion of salvation.

Calvin again reiterates that no one knows for certain who is in the elect except God, and this ties into the necessity of bearing with rank sinners in the ranks of he church and the body of Christians. The main difference here is that Calvin (and his followers today) would say that those who “fall” had never truly been in God’s grace or right with God at any time (or never justified, as Protestants construe that). We would agree with him that they are probably not in the elect if they die with serious unrepented sin, but disagree that eventual outward “falling away” proves that they had never been truly regenerated or justified at any time. Both sides agree that those who have an authentic faith in God and are true disciples, will inevitably manifest fruit and do good works. I’ve collected Calvin’s statements along those lines, that are quite agreeable to Catholics, who want to stress the high importance of good works, while denying that man-produced works can save (the doctrine of sola gratia).

On the other hand, foreseeing that it was in some degree expedient for us to know who are to be regarded by us as his sons, he has in this matter accommodated himself to our capacity. But as here full certainty was not necessary, he has in its place substituted the judgment of charity, by which we acknowledge all as members of the Church who by confession of faith, regularity of conduct, and participation in the sacraments, unite with us in acknowledging the same God and Christ. The knowledge of his body, inasmuch as he knew it to be more necessary for our salvation, he has made known to us by surer marks.

In other words, there is a sense of the word “Christian” as defined by outward observances of attending church, partaking of sacraments, and subscribing to creeds. This is another thing that is often poorly understood by many Protestants today. Calvin makes crucial distinctions that too many of them never even consider, let alone grasp, at all. Full certainty of salvation or being in the elect is neither attainable nor “necessary,” but the judgment of charity dictates that we acknowledge a brother in Christ if he is conforming at least outwardly. Only God knows the human heart.

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