Paul's Passing Thoughts

Hero Heretic: John Calvin Believed in Progressive Justification and the Total Depravity of the Saints

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul M. Dohse Sr. on March 30, 2012

Maybe the title to volume two of The Truth About New Calvinism should be “The Truth About Old Calvinism.” I will be darned if Robert Brinsmead wasn’t right; he did rediscover what at least three of the Reformers really taught about the gospel. I realize that many “Calvinists” of our day don’t hold to everything Calvin taught, but after all, it is his name. I’m sure other people knew it, but Brinsmead and company repackaged it in a way that launched it into present-day New Calvinist mania. Bottom line: I could never understand New Calvinism until I read several issues of Present Truth and interviewed Robert Brinsmead; however, I wasn’t totally convinced that he got it from Luther and Calvin.

And here is the kicker: this is a “truth” that New Calvinists think they have to assimilate into their victims slowly—when they are “ready.” Only recently, New Calvinists like Tullian Tchividjian have finally stated in a clear way that they believe in the total depravity of the saints. Even Old Calvinists have come out against New Calvinists on these issues, but the fact is, New Calvinists are correct about what Calvin taught. Gosh, that feels good, finally being able to say that they are right about something. They are absolutely right: Calvin and New Calvinists are both heretical.

Progressive justification is a no-no. But yet, on page 502 of John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion edited by Henry Beveridge, we find the following title for chapter 14: “The Beginning of Justification. In What Sense Progressive.”  Then, Calvin, after six pages of wordiness on steroids, begins to be clear on what he means by this title. On page 508, Calvin introduces the subject of righteousness in context of believers:

Let us now see what kind of righteousness belongs to those persons whom we have placed in the fourth class. We admit, that when God reconciles us to himself by the intervention of the righteousness of Christ, and bestowing upon us the free pardon of sins regards us as righteous, his goodness is at the same time conjoined with mercy, so that he dwells in us by means of his Holy Spirit, by whose agency the lusts of our flesh are every day more and more mortified, while that we ourselves are sanctified; that is, consecrated to the Lord for true purity of life, our hearts being trained to the obedience of the law.

The point of that citation is to establish who he is writing about, but as an aside, notice that he doesn’t really make the attributes of a believer specifically personal. He could be referring to us specifically, but he could also be referring to manifestations of the Spirit. This is significant because of what follows:

Still, however, while we walk in the ways of the Lord, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, lest we should become unduly elated and forget ourselves, we have still remains of imperfection which serve to keep us humble: “There is no man who sinneth not,” says the Scripture (1Kgs 8:46). What righteousness can men obtain by their works?

With Christians, if they believe the right things unto salvation, that question isn’t even on the radar screen in a sanctification context. But, as we shall see, Calvin is clearly talking about a “perpetual efficacy in his death” for “reconciliation.” Calvin continues on page 508:

First, I say, that the best thing which can be produced by them is always tainted and corrupted by the impurity of the flesh, and has, as it were, some mixture of dross in it. Let the holy servant of God, I say, select from the whole course of his life the action which he deems most excellent, and let him ponder it in all its parts; he will doubtless find in it something that saviors of the rottenness of the flesh since our alacrity in well-doing is never what it ought to be, but our course is always retarded by much weakness. Although we see that the stains by which the works of the righteous are blemished, are by no means unapparent, still, granting that they are the minutest possible, will they give no offense to the eye of God, before which even the stars are not clean?  We thus see, that even saints cannot perform one work which, if judged on its own merits, is not deserving of condemnation.

Here is where Calvin gets into the total depravity of the saints, but in addition, this is just simply a blatant contradiction to the plain sense of Scripture:

God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them (Hebrews 6:10).

Obviously, the saints are capable of working for God, and loving Him, and His people, in a way that would make it unjust for Him to not remember. This kind of exegesis by Calvin is completely unacceptable. Calvin continues on page 508 to make the point that even if believers could obey the law to some degree, that a violation of one point would make us guilty of breaking the whole law. He then cites James 2:10 to validate this view. This angle to establish a total depravity of the saints is a staple approach by proponents of Sonship Theology and New Calvinism. And it comes from Calvin himself. And it is just dead wrong!

On page 509, Calvin propagates the idea that a perfect righteousness as judged by the law must be maintained until (what one can only assume is) a judgment to determine justification. I haven’t read far enough to validate the judgment part yet, but at the very least, Calvin is stating on that page that a perfect righteousness in our stead must be maintained throughout sanctification.  And of course, that implies an ongoing imputation of Christ’s active obedience.

Also, throughout, Calvin makes NO distinction between works for justification and works to please God in sanctification. The only logical conclusion is that works of any kind equal: for justification.

It’s late and I wanted to get this much in print, but I will expound on this more in the following days. Let me conclude with this final statement by Calvin on page 509:

Moreover, the message of free reconciliation with God is not promulgated for one or two days, but is declared to be perpetual in the church (2Cor 5:18,19). Hence believers have not even to the end of life any other righteousness than that which is there described. Christ ever remains a Mediator to reconcile the Father to us, and there is a perpetual efficacy in his death, i.e., ablution, satisfaction expiation; in short, perfect obedience, by which all our iniquities are covered. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul says not that the beginning of salvation is of grace, “but by grace are ye saved,”  “not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8,9).

This is New Calvinism’s sanctification by justification to a “T,” complete with justification verses being applied to a sanctification context. New Calvinists got it from Calvin, Luther, and Augustine. And Augustine got it from Plato.

The journey continues.


11 Responses

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  1. Bridget said, on March 31, 2012 at 12:59 AM

    Paul –
    Now you can see where the craziness comes from. There can be a real danger when men decide to study the doctrine of the “church fathers” without still being Bereans. One of the passages you quoted has been on a screen in front of my face during a sermon. It’s just sad that so many people who aren’t looking for themselves into the scripture are stifled, or fall into depression, even walk away from the faith over the hopelessness of what they are taught.


  2. p duggie said, on April 2, 2012 at 9:24 AM

    I thought for a bit you may have posted an April Fools joke here, since you’ve decided Calvin himself (one of the reformers who is responsible for the doctrine of Justification by faith alone being promulgated at all) is a heretic.

    I wonder if Jay Adams agrees with you that Calvin is a heretic on this


    • paulspassingthoughts said, on April 2, 2012 at 10:00 AM

      p duggie,
      As much as I respect Jay, I must say that he most likely would not agree with me on this one, and would say my position is extreme. He believes Calvin had unique insight regarding the use of Scripture in counseling. Perhaps. I know that’s true about Jay, I will have to look into that deeper concerning Calvin. However, I can tell you that it is certain that execution will cure a counselees problems 100% of the time. But the fact is, much of what is called Calvinism is good, but it isn’t Calvinism. In my book: then don’t call it Calvinism. This is for certain: Jay has written much against the idea of progressive justification and sanctification by faith alone/justification. And it is also certain that’s what Calvin believed. Jay’s opinions and my respect for him notwithstanding–I believe progressive justification is a false gospel, and I believe total depravity of the saints denies the new birth in exchange for Gnosticism.


  3. William said, on April 7, 2012 at 2:12 AM

    Pardon me, I cannot let this pass, and not because it is about a mortal man, John Calvin. Your error on this will discredit a most just position against New Calvinism, documented by many others. (Let us all be Bereans, fact-checking Paul D. as much as John Piper or anyone else). In your passion (provoked by persecution) you are making some knee-jerk presumptions, without more careful consideration, which are leading you to false conclusions in your zeal to go after (most justly) New Calvinism. Please remember, as I write this, “faithful are the wounds of a friend”, as I attempt to slap some sense into you on this one (before you label it “abuse”):

    Where from the quote of Calvin above is any hint of “total depravity of the saints”? Do you believe in Wesleyan “perfectionism”? (Frankly, I see plenty of evidence of sin in a previous post where you symbolized an expletive to make a point! Why?) Your post implies, almost, that there is no battle between (Romans 7) the Spirit and the Flesh in a believer? Read this part you quote from Calvin again, and ask, does the Holy Spirit dwell in the totally depraved, like this? Good night, man! He is stating, most clearly, the work of the Holy Spirit in the true believer’s life, the Spirit applying the word, “writing the Law upon their hearts” (Jeremiah, Hebrews), his Spirit within (Romans 7), helping the believer to “more and more hate sin and love righteousness” (Romans 8) see Catechisms on sanctification) and *mortify the flesh*:

    …”his goodness is at the same time conjoined with mercy, so that **he dwells in us by means of his Holy Spirit, by whose agency the lusts of our flesh are every day more and more mortified**, while that we ourselves are sanctified; that is, consecrated to the Lord for true purity of life, our hearts being trained to the obedience of the law.”–per your quote of Calvin above

    Where is the heresy in this? You jumped to an irrational conclusion by misrepresenting Calvin’s plain words. Are you saying the flesh is not still present, that there is no need for mortification? If the Holy Spirit dwells and is active in one, how is he “totally depraved”? Has he not been regenerated, the work of justification done, the work of sanctification initiated? This IS the working out of sanctification, entirely separate but begun upon justification. Maybe you don’t understand sanctification either!

    There is a Progressive Sanctification to mortify sin in a believer, daily. “In my flesh their dwells no good thing”. Apostle Paul, Romans 7, “who will deliver me from this body of death?”, as an apostle! Wasn’t it righteous Job who said, “I am vile”, yet just, righteous outwardly, yet sensible of his inward corruptions and outward failings. You are attempting to teach an Instant Satisfaction of the saints, it sounds like…satisfied with themselves, where any rebuke for sin is called “abuse”, and might hurt that worldly notion of “self worth” devoid of the rule of God’s law in comparison. And his “law is exceeding broad”.

    To suggest that New Calvinism began with John Calvin itself is an insane error, which is precisely the only conclusion this post leads to! On the contrary, it is the contrast between the two (Calvin vs. New Calvinism) that can be most readily seen (e.g. antinomianism, justification=sanctification, worldly conformity, etc.). I think perhaps you need to study more about sanctification if you see no sin to be mortified in a believer. Sanctification implies the continuous ongoing battle inwardly against remaining sin and corruption which is entirely different than “total depravity of the saints” you imply.

    “**If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us**. But if we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”–the Apostle John.

    If you can refute the apostle John on that, you win the point. But he was inspired and prophetic, which you are not. And it really is the apostle John that refutes New Calvinism and John Piper quite well on his own.

    (Your previous posts have wandered more and more astray. Implying that all historical reformed figures were heretics or “dead men” that can teach us nothing good about Christianity is a red flag. Remember New Calvinism coopts what good men have taught and refer to these “dead men” in the same way as the Pharisaical “tomb polishers” of the prophets did whom Jesus rebuked in his day, while they never learned anything from them).


    • paulspassingthoughts said, on April 7, 2012 at 8:11 AM


      Just on my way out the door and only have time to skim over your reply, but it looks like it is well thought out. I’m tagging around with Susan today and am going to take it with me to read. Should make for an interesting discussion. Thanks for the time you put into it.



    • paulspassingthoughts said, on April 8, 2012 at 10:02 AM


      Some good points, and you’re right, I should do better at letting frustration get the better of me.
      And I must say, in the three years that I have had this blog this is one of the most sensible arguments ever presented.
      Now, if you read Calvin’s statement closely, he doesn’t attribute ANY of the change to US as born again new creatures. Let’s say somebody believes that the only good thing in us is Christ via the Holy Spirit and we are totally depraved (ie, “How People Change” by Paul David Tripp), what Calvin states will fit, no? Besides that William, what am I to make of Calvin saying believers ARE NOT ABLE TO KEEP THE LAW, and even if they could, a violation at one point would make them guilty of all of it?(bottom of p.508). Also, does this not show that he believed in a future judgement based on the law for believers?

      Which brings me to my next point. You didn’t address Calvin’s clear belief in Progressive Justification. If Calvin believed in Progressive Justification, from there, it is just a matter of doing the math.

      I have been a Calvinist for years, but never called myself one because I have never read the Calvin Institutes. I knew my acclamation to Calvinism was based on what I had learned from others. Now that I am reading the Institutes, I can tell you that it is very unlikely that I will remain a Calvinist. I believe what is commonly known as Calvinism today departs in significant ways in regard to what Calvin really taught. And yes, I think New Calvinism is a return the Reformation doctrine (NOT ALL REFORMATION DOCTRINE) that was primarily influenced by Augustine who was clearly a Christian mystic/philosopher. On average, Calvin quotes Augustine (approximately) on every 2.5 pages in the Institutes.



  4. paulspassingthoughts said, on December 11, 2013 at 7:22 AM

    Reblogged this on Paul's Passing Thoughts.


  5. johnimmel said, on December 12, 2013 at 2:28 PM

    Paul… actually what you are really seeing in Williams comment is the specter of proof texting so endemic to the Neo Reformed doctrine. Of course this is what gives Calvin such enormous interpretive power. He is able to justify a “rational” position without ever considering the textual background and manufacture doctrine out of whole cloth.

    William effectively emulates Calvins interpretive method to make his counter argument. His most striking example is the use of Job to affirm “Pauline” doctrine. Whatever Job’s thoughts were, he is not echoing Paul’s theology. This would be a historical absurdity and really reveals eisegesis of the worst form. A second example is his assertion that an “expletive” is necessarily a manifestation of persisting sin, when a “clear” reading of scripture never condemns specific ENGLISH words. Well, that would be the conclusion of the interpretive methodology if people were at all consistent with the underlying premise behind proof texting . . . . But alas it is not.

    And last you should object to the portrayal of your comments as motivated by zeal born of persecution. It frankly the nature of your motivation (zealous, passionate or persecuted) does not matter if your IDEAS are correct. But William is using a not so subtle dismissal of the substance of your argument by appealing to some failure of “sinful” motive. This is a logical fallacy and should be rejected out of hand . . . no matter how much time he put into his comment.


    • paulspassingthoughts said, on December 12, 2013 at 6:35 PM

      Right, and what would have motivated me to get to the bottom of this had they not persecuted me? Calvin’s ability to captivate the reader?


  6. gene said, on March 26, 2014 at 2:53 AM

    i like your comment on calvins wordiness on steroids but i believe no one comes closer to that than the puritan john owen who writes in five pages what can be summed up in two paragraphs. of course some reformers would accuse me of bordering on blasphemy. also i agree with the fact that calvin, owen etc. were not infallible, which again might go against the grain of some reformers.


    • paulspassingthoughts said, on March 26, 2014 at 11:35 AM

      They were no only fallible–they were heretics.


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