In my last post I discussed at length the biblical notion of falling away from God's favor. That post can be read here. At the end of that post I mentioned my own personal opinion that through John Calvin's exegesis of God's Word, his understanding of covenant theology offers a satisfactory solution to this apparent paradox of Christians who can fall away from God's favor. Over the next few posts I intend on listing numerous citations from the works of John Calvin in order to support this view which I'm claiming he believed and taught. This isn't to say that John Calvin is or should be the final word on this subject. God's Word is the final word on this subject. And so, obviously, I am asking the reader to keep in mind that John Calvin could be mistaken. He could be. That doesn't automatically mean that he was, in fact, mistaken. But because this is a serious and controversial topic to discuss, my hope is that the reader will remain prayerful concerning his or her understanding of God's Word, praying earnestly that God would keep you from stumbling into sinful thoughts about His abilities, His motives, His character, and the integrity of His Word.
With all of that said, I want to mention that there is one tremendous resource in which many of the following citations in this blog post can be found. That resource is Peter Lillback's book, The Binding of God: Calvin's Role in the Development of Covenant Theology. I studied this book two years ago while I was on vacation and it revolutionized the way I understood Calvin's Covenant theology. But, in all honesty, if the reader were to study that book for the purpose of learning more about this subject of falling away from God's favor, they may become very disappointed because Dr. Lillback's book was not about that particular subject. It included a small portion about it, but the majority of the book was about the historical development of Covenant Theology, and the ways in which John Calvin influenced it during the time of the Great Protestant Reformation.
I think one more thing needs to be mentioned before diving into Calvin's thoughts. After studying Lillback's book, Calvin's perspective of covenant theology helped clarify a lot of my own presumptions and misunderstandings. Even though I don't agree with Calvin on a number of things, I still consider Calvin to be a very thorough and thoughtful exegete of God's Word, which, I think, should be respected among all professing Christians. And so, by quoting extensively from John Calvin's own works (as meticulously documented by Lillback), my hope is that from those quotations below, Calvin's own meditations on covenant theology will illuminate our understanding of the apparent paradox of falling away from God's covenant favor.
First things first. According to Calvin's exegesis of the Scriptures, salvation is always--without exception--made freely offered to man in terms of a covenant. That is to say, God assures mankind that He dwells among them as their God through means of a covenant. Calvin comments:
All men adopted by God into the company of his people since the beginning of the world were covenanted to him by the same law by the bond of the same doctrine [of grace] as obtains among us. It is very important to make this point.1
Calvin further describes this act of covenanting as the source and spring of salvation itself. Commenting on Psalm 67:1-2, (which says, "May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations") Calvin continues this same thought:
By the way of God is meant his covenant, which is the source and spring of salvation, and by which he discovered himself in the character of a Father to his ancient people, and afterwards more clearly under the Gospel, when the Spirit of adoption was shed abroad in greater abundance.2
Accordingly, when God sovereignly places himself in a covenant relationship with people, He binds himself to them in order to highlight his grace:
For if God only demanded his due, we should still be required to cling to him and to confine ourselves to his commandments. Moreover, when it pleases him by his infinite goodness to enter into a common treaty, and when he mutually binds himself to us without having to do so, when he enumerates that treaty article by article, when he chooses to be our father and Savior, when he receives us as his flock and his inheritance, let us abide under his protection, filled with its eternal life for us. When all of those things are done, is it proper that our hearts become mollified even if they were at one time stone? When creatures see that the living God humbles himself to that extent, that he wills to enter into covenant that he might say: "Let us consider our situation. It is true that there is an infinite distance between you and me and that I should be able to command of you whatever seems good to me without having anything in common with you, for you are not worthy to approach me and have any dealings with whoever can command of you what he wills, with no further declarations to you except: 'That is what I will and conceive.' But behold, I set aside my right. I come here to present myself to you as your guide and savior. I want to govern you. You are like my little family. And if you are satisfied with my Word, I will be your King. Furthermore, do not think that the covenant which I made with your fathers was intended to take anything from you. For I have no need, nor am I indigent in anything. And what could you do for me anyway? But I procure your well-being and your salvation. Therefore, on my part, I am prepared to enter into covenant, article by article, and to pledge myself to you."3
But Calvin's understanding of God's covenant relationships with man are not limited merely to some revelation of His gracious character in binding himself to us. For Calvin, God does not merely bind himself to us. He binds us to himself:
From what foundation may righteousness better arise than from the Scriptural warning that we must be made holy because our God is holy? Indeed, though we had been dispersed like stray sheep and scattered through labyrinths of the world, he has gathered us together again to join us with himself. When we hear mention of our union with God, let us remember that holiness must be its bond; not because we came into communion with him by virtue of our holiness! Rather, we ought first to cleave unto him so that, infused with his holiness, we may follow whither he calls.4
As Lillback notes, "because of this mutual binding between God and man, the covenant places the believer under 'obligation' and 'duty' toward his God." He cites Calvin numerous times, and in one of them Calvin says:
Indeed, in all covenants of his mercy, the Lord requires of his servants in return uprightness and sanctity of life, lest his goodness be mocked or someone, puffed up with empty exultation on that account, bless his own soul, walking meanwhile in the wickedness of his own heart. Consequently, in this way he wills to keep in their duty those admitted to the fellowship of the covenant; nonetheless the covenant is at the outset drawn up as a free agreement, and perpetually remains such.5
This gracious covenantal binding, Calvin contends, is absolutely unconditional from God's sovereign vantage point:
This is also what he [God] means by the mercies of David [Isa. 55:3], but by this phrase he declares that it was a covenant of free grace; for it was founded on nothing else than the absolute goodness of God. Whenever, therefore, the word "covenant" occurs in Scripture, we ought at the same time to call to remembrance the word "grace." By calling them "the faithful mercies of David," he declares that he will be faithful in it, and at the same time states indirectly that he is faithful and steadfast, and cannot be accused of falsehood, as if he had broken his covenant.6
However, Calvin's view of that same sovereign covenantal binding is most definitely not unconditional from man's vantage point. From man's vantage point, God binds us to himself through means of a covenant which is conditional. Commenting on Psalm 132:12, Calvin writes:
For though that kingdom was for a time destroyed, it was restored again, and had its everlasting establishment in Christ. Here the question occurs -- Did the continuance of the kingdom rest upon good conduct, or human merit? For the terms of this agreement would seem to suggest that God's covenant would not be made good, unless men faithfully performed their part, and that thus the effect of the grace promised was suspended upon obedience. We must remember, in the first place, that the covenant was perfectly gratuitous, so far as it related to God's promise of sending a Savior and Redeemer, because this stood connected with the original adoption of those to whom the promise was made, which was itself free. Indeed the treachery and rebellion of the nation did not prevent God from sending forth his Son, and this was a public proof that he was not influenced by the consideration of their good conduct.... This may serve to show in what sense the covenant was not conditional; but as there were other things which were accessories to the covenant, a condition was appended, to the effect that God would bless them if they obeyed his commandments. The Jews, for declining from this obedience, were removed into exile. God seemed at that time "to make void or profane his covenant," as we have seen elsewhere. The dispersion was a kind of breaking of the covenant, but only in part and to appearance.... In this case would we not have said that the covenant of God was abolished? And yet, as the Redeemer came forth from the very source predicted, it is plain that it stood firm and stable.... The Prophet, we say, might seem to strike directly against the covenant made by God, when he speaks of the crown begin taken away, and yet what he adds in the subsequent part of the sentence, proves that covenant, in so far as it was gratuitous, to have been everlasting and inviolable, since he holds out the promise of the Redeemer, notwithstanding the conduct of the Jews, which was such as to exclude them temporarily from the divine favor. God, on the one hand, took vengeance upon the people for their ingratitude, so as to show that the terms of the covenant did not run conditionally to no purpose; while on the other, at the coming of Christ there was a free performance of what had been freely promised, the crown being set upon Christ's head. The obedience which God demands is particularly stated to be the obedience of his covenant, to teach us that we must not serve him by human inventions, but confine ourselves within the prescription of his word.7
Commenting on Hosea 5, Calvin writes again concerning the covenant of grace from man's vantage point:
[Hosea] says that they had acted perfidiously with God, for they had violated his covenant. We must bear in mind what I have said before of the mutual faith which God stipulates with us, when he binds himself to us. God then covenants with us on this condition, that he will be our Father and Husband; but he requires from us such obedience as a son ought to render to his father; he requires from us that chastity which a wife owes to her husband. The Prophet now charges the people with unfaithfulness, because they had despised the true God, and prostituted themselves to idols.8
It's interesting to note that Calvin saw an analogy between the requirement of Christ's faithful obedience to his Father and all those adopted as children into fellowship with him. In Calvin's mind, that included the people of Israel and "us" Christians today. But Christ, according to Calvin, actually accomplished that which no other man had done or would ever do, and he accomplished it according to God's covenant promise of unconditional faithfulness; and so the crown was "set on his head" as a result. In other words, it was because of God's covenant faithfulness that Jesus, the man, accomplished what God had promised; yet God's promise to His own Son did not take away or violate Jesus' requirement to remain faithfully obedient to the end of his life.
If this seems paradoxical, it is. However, Calvin did not consider God's eternal knowledge and decree of a thing promised to be contradictory with man's responsibility and accountability to God as promised. This could not be contradictory, in Calvin's mind, because God had revealed both to be true. They were paradoxical, but not contradictory. They are indeed limited to man's finite mind and abilities, but not limited to God's infinite knowledge and ability. And so, according to Calvin, if God had revealed a binding of himself to people through a covenant, and likewise He bound His incarnate Son to the same requirements of faithful obedience, how much more would he require faithful obedience from all others bound to Him in that same covenant? One subtle implication of this view is that the covenant faithfulness/obedience of all those adopted into fellowship with God must appeal to the One who was crowned in their place as promised, especially if God had also revealed that their sinful nature limits their ability to live up to all it's terms. Hence, by implication, Calvin's view of salvation magnifies the grace of God in Jesus Christ above all other things, by maintaining that true spiritual union with him is more essential to covenant faithfulness than mere outward, objective signs and seals of the covenant (a distinction which I'll discuss more about in a following post).
Dr. Lillback carefully summarizes these views of Calvin, by saying that "God's plans and promises in His covenant are not dependent upon man and are consequently unconditional. Nevertheless, at any given point in human history, God's blessings are to be responded to in human responsibility by obedience to the covenant. Without such obedience, the blessings of God shall be removed in divine judgment. From man's temporal standpoint, the covenant is conditional. From God's eternal perspective it is unconditional. God will never fail to keep His word, but if the covenant people fail to keep their word, they shall lose the covenant blessings."9
Ultimately this means that covenant breaking is a reality for sinners in covenant with God. God is not a sinner, so He will remain faithful to the terms of the Covenant with which He binds himself to us. He will not break the covenant obligations with which he bound himself graciously to undeserving sinners. But because Christians remain sinners in this life, there must be some sense in which the biblical language of "falling away" and losing God's covenant blessings is true (not merely rhetorical or hypothetical). As I noted carefully in the previous post, God's own Word seems to describe a covenantally-bound sinner's ability to break the covenant in which God has placed him.
To be sure, this doesn't answer every question related to the apparent paradox of falling away from God's favor. However, it does expose the modern "Calvinist" misconceptions about living in a covenant relationship with God, as though once someone believes they have been saved by grace, God no longer truly holds them accountable to faithfully obey His Word.
Is it true that God has chosen a peculiar people for himself, adopting them in time and history, and that from God's vantage point, every one of them to whom He has bound himself for eternal life will receive it? I believe the answer is, most assuredly, yes. John Calvin believed that too.
But is it also true that God has chosen a peculiar people for himself, adopting them in time and history, and that from man's vantage point, those "bound to God" within that same covenant can "fall away from God's favor" by despising and breaking the covenant in which God had placed them? John Calvin certainly believed so. But that is because John Calvin did not hold to a completely unilateral view of God's covenant of grace. For Calvin, God's covenant of grace was unilateral in origin, but bilateral in it's fulfillment.10 "As a result of this approach, the warnings of Scripture take on deep seriousness, and signal the importance of self-examination for all who belong to the covenant of grace."11
Keep in mind that along with this view of sovereignly initiated covenant relationships, Calvin also held to a monergistic view of regeneration,12 a comprehensive view of predestination and genuine human free will,13 as well as a firm conviction concerning God's unchangeable, eternal decree.
In the next post I will provide some more citations from Calvin concerning God's sovereign election and adoption, and my hope in the end is that we will all see that these views of his did not conflict with his firm belief in monergistic regeneration, God's sovereignty, or even man's free will.
1. Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's Role in the Development of Covenant Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001] p. 134, fn 30.
3. Ibid. pp. 137-8
4. Ibid. p. 166
5. Ibid. pp. 167-8
6. Ibid. p. 169. Parentheses mine.
7. Ibid. pp. 169-170
8. Ibid. p. 172
9. Ibid. p. 170
10. Ibid. p. 25. Lillback points out that other scholars have noted this bilateral aspect in Calvin's theology. He specifically points the reader to study certain works of W. Vanden Bergh, W.H. Van der Vegt, Anthony A. Hoekema, and Elton M. Eenigenburg [Ibid. p. 23].
13. Monergism is the view that the regeneration of an individual's spiritual ability (i.e. man's "heart") is the work of God through the Holy Spirit alone, as opposed to synergism, which, essentially argues that God has provided some small, but nevertheless significant, ability within spiritually dead men to cooperate with God's grace in order to become regenerated.
14. "Free will" is to be understood in the sense of "volition" according to one's spiritual condition. That is to say, Calvin understood the notion of human "free" will in the sense that man is free to make genuine choices according to his spiritual nature. Spiritually dead men make genuine choices and spiritually alive men make genuine choices. However, prior to regeneration, man is spiritually dead and therefore unable to please God. After regeneration, man is able to do things which please God, but because he remains a sinner, he is also able to do things which displease God.