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Calvin on John 3:16

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” — John 3:16 (NRSV).

JOHN CALVIN COMMENTS (my responses are in blue):

John Calvin (1509-1564)

John Calvin (1509-1564)

“’That whosoever believeth on him may not perish.’ It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. For he intended expressly to state that, though we appear to have been born to death, undoubted deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ; and, therefore, that we ought not to fear death, which otherwise hangs over us. And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term world, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.”

Um. Okay. I think I’m with you there, brother John.

“Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith. Here, too, is displayed a wonderful effect of faith; for by it we receive Christ such as he is given to us by the Father — that is, as having freed us from the condemnation of eternal death, and made us heirs of eternal life, because, by the sacrifice of his death, he has atoned for our sins, that nothing may prevent God from acknowledging us as his sons. Since, therefore, faith embraces Christ, with the efficacy of his death and the fruit of his resurrection, we need not wonder if by it we obtain likewise the life of Christ.”

Whoa! What do you mean “on the other hand”? Umm… Now you seem to be dodging out of it all by appealing to a theology that is rooted in something else,  John.

Here you are clearly leaving exegesis behind and trying to reconcile the verse with a preconceived theology.

How can ‘life’ be promised to those incapable of receiving it? It can’t. How can God ‘invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers’ (as you say) if God is choosing to withhold the ability to believe from some?

You can’t have it both ways. I mean, I know you’re a logical guy, John. Isn’t it possible that Augustine was wrong in the Enchiridion — where this same logical inconsistency can be found?

“Still it is not yet very evident why and how faith bestows life upon us. Is it because Christ renews us by his Spirit, that the righteousness of God may live and be vigorous in us; or is it because, having been cleansed by his blood, we are accounted righteous before God by a free pardon? It is indeed certain, that these two things are always joined together; but as the certainty of salvation is the subject now in hand, we ought chiefly to hold by this reason, that we live, because God loves us freely by not imputing to us our sins. For this reason sacrifice is expressly mentioned, by which, together with sins, the curse and death are destroyed. I have already explained the object of these two clauses, which is, to inform us that in Christ we regain the possession of life, of which we are destitute in ourselves; for in this wretched condition of mankind, redemption, in the order of time, goes before salvation.”

What! Now you seem to be having problems with your earlier statement that [faith] ‘frees us from everlasting destruction.’ Do you mean: ‘faith bestows life upon us’ (as you said earlier) or: ‘life’ (through grace) bestows faith upon us?

Now you are saying that redemption precedes salvation, because the ability to believe is itself the result of that salvation. If the ability to believe is wholly the decision of God, then it is God who has determined the issues of life and death. It is your theology that has dictated that: “redemption, in the order of time, goes before salvation” — not the text itself.

I agree that part of the message of this verse is ‘that in Christ we regain the possession of life, of which we are destitute in ourselves’ but it is also a universal offer of eternal life (thus, it says: “whoever”) — a possibility your theology does not seem to allow for! In my opinion, making sense of this verse requires a concept of Prevenient Grace, which allows fallen humans to respond with faith to the offer of life.

Otherwise, from your point of view, the verse should read either:

“For God so loved the elect that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who belongs to the elect and, thus, has faith, may therefore believe in him unto eternal life.”

or more simply:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has eternal life may believe in him.”

But, surely you see, don’t you, it doesn’t say either of those things. You’ve turned it around backwards. This is no longer the Scripture with which you began.

(Start gathering the wood again, boys, I think there’s another heretic in town.)




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6 Responses

  1. schroera May 19, 2014 / 3:06 pm

    Thanks for a thought provoking article. May I recommend an excellent book to you that deals in part with this topic. It is called “The Foolishness of God: The Place of Reason in the Theology of Martin Luther” by Siegbert Becker. That may give you a different perspective on the seeming paradoxes you are seeing. On another note, I just wrote an devotional article on my blog dealing with the first half of John 3:16. If you have a chance, check it out and let me know what you think. Thanks!

    • Craig L. Adams May 20, 2014 / 9:40 am

      I believe that what I am seeing is not a paradox, but a man who is attempting to wriggle out of the teaching of the Scripture upon which he is commenting.

      • Nathan R. Hale November 24, 2014 / 12:38 pm

        Although I’ve always appreciated aspects of Reformed theology, John 3:16 has always been a stumbling block for me when it comes to accepting all that Calvin taught. Great thoughts!

        • Craig L. Adams November 25, 2014 / 9:44 am

          Thanks, Nathan. I do not share your high regard for Reformed theology in general — though there are exceptions. Those who take a “reformed and always reforming” perspective are fine with me. Hard line Calvinists are not. And, I’d hate to think that evangelical theology is forever stuck with the theological formations of the Reformers.

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