John Calvin’s Gospel of Works, Fear, and NO Assurance
John Calvin was pure heretic. The present-day exaltation of him by the who’s who of evangelicals is an abomination before the Lord. For Calvin, the Christian life is lived out in a progression of justification; viz, justification is not a onetime event that is a finished work by God alone. The Christian life starts with repentance and faith, and that not only justifies us in the beginning, it must continue to justify us throughout the course of our life. “Progressive sanctification” is really progressive justification. The Christian life is not lived out as a result of our salvation; we must live in the progression of salvation and stay in its status through faith and repentance alone. We must keep ourselves saved by perpetual repentance. This is the “P” in TULIP, “perseverance of the saints.” No distinction is made between repentance unto salvation and repentance as a son of God. Calvin evokes all Scriptural calls to repentance for salvation as indicative of the Christian life. Calvin cites biblical salvation verses—as verses pertaining to the Christian life throughout the Calvin Institutes.
Furthermore, Calvin insisted that Christian repentance is motivated by fear, and repentance is active, while the results of repentance, a joyful rebirth experience, is the work of God. It is a perpetual revisiting of the gospel that saved us in order to keep ourselves saved. Our only work is repenting of sin while works imputed by God to our Christian life are only experienced, and not performed.
First, Calvin defines repentance in his Institutes. Keep in mind that he is not writing about original salvation, but the Christian life. This will be confirmed after this citation:
Certain learned men, who lived long before the present days and were desirous to speak simply and sincerely according to the rule of Scripture, held that repentance consists of two parts, mortification and quickening. By mortification they mean, grief of soul and terror, produced by a conviction of sin and a sense of the divine judgment. For when a man is brought to a true knowledge of sin, he begins truly to hate and abominate sin… By quickening they mean, the comfort which is produced by faith, as when a man prostrated by a consciousness of sin, and smitten with the fear of God, afterwards beholding his goodness, and the mercy, grace, and salvation obtained through Christ, looks up, begins to breathe, takes courage, and passes, as it were, from death unto life. I admit that these terms, when rightly interpreted, aptly enough express the power of repentance; only I cannot assent to their using the term quickening, for the joy which the soul feels after being calmed from perturbation and fear. It more properly means, that desire of pious and holy living which springs from the new birth; as if it were said, that the man dies to himself that he may begin to live unto God (CI 3.33).
We must now explain the third part of the definition, and show what is meant when we say that repentance consists of two parts—viz. the mortification of the flesh, and the quickening of the Spirit (CI 3.3.8).
And for how long do we partake in this perpetual repentance (mortification) and rebirth (vivification)?
This renewal, indeed, is not accomplished in a moment, a day, or a year, but by uninterrupted, sometimes even by slow progress God abolishes the remains of carnal corruption in his elect, cleanses them from pollution, and consecrates them as his temples, restoring all their inclinations to real purity, so that during their whole lives they may practice repentance, and know that death is the only termination to this warfare…It is not denied that there is room for improvement; but what I maintain is, that the nearer any one approaches in resemblance to God, the more does the image of God appear in him. That believers may attain to it, God assigns repentance as the goal towards which they must keep running [emphasis added] during the whole course of their lives (CI 3.3.9).
Though Calvin wrote of being transformed into the “image” of God, this is part and parcel with the passive and perpetual rebirth experience by the Christian. This does not denote a change or improvement in the Christian’s nature which would lessen the need for repentance. Obviously, if you look at the chart below, raising the trajectory of repentance makes the cross smaller, so repentance leading to real change is not in focus here. Calvin’s idea of transformation regards the birthing of realms which is experienced by the Christian through joy. Hence, the new birth is perpetual through the Christian’s life and is the result of perpetual repentance. We are to repent and dwell on our own depravity, and leave any quickenings or rebirth experiences to God:
He, however, who has emptied himself (cf. Phil. 2:7) through suffering no longer does works but knows that God works and does all things in him. For this reason, whether God does works or not, it is all the same to him. He neither boasts if he does good works, nor is he disturbed if God does not do good works through him. He knows that it is sufficient if he suffers and is brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more. It is this that Christ says in John 3:7, »You must be born anew.« To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up with the Son of Man. To die, I say, means to feel death at hand (Martin Luther: Heidelberg Disputation, theses 24).
In obedience to God’s word we should fight to walk in the paths where he has promised his blessings. But when and how they come is God’s to decide, not ours. If they delay, we trust the wisdom of our Father’s timing, and we wait. In this way joy remains a gift, while we work patiently in the field of obedience and fight against the weeds and the crows and the rodents. Here is where joy will come. Here is where Christ will reveal himself (John 14:21). But that revelation and that joy will come when and how Christ chooses. It will be a gift… Heaven hangs on having the taste of joy in God. Therefore, it might not be so strange after all to think of fighting for this joy. Our eternal lives depend on it (John Piper: When I Don’t Desire God; p.43, p.34).
It is also important to note that in this construct, for the most part, repentance is something we focus on, and not something we necessarily try to do. The goal is to see our own depravity in a deeper and deeper way, and this results in a joyful rebirth experience that is totally out of our control. But yet, we must fight for this joy, or rebirth experience because “Our eternal lives depend on it.” Not only is this clearly works salvation, but it makes our eternal destiny ambiguous at best. Therefore…
Let us, therefore, embrace Christ, who is kindly offered to us, and comes forth to meet us: he will number us among his flock, and keep us within his fold. But anxiety arises as to our future state. For as Paul teaches, that those are called who were previously elected, so our Savior shows that many are called, but few chosen (Mt. 22:14). Nay, even Paul himself dissuades us from security, when he says, “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall,” (1 Cor. 10:12). And again, “Well, because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high-minded, but fear: for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee,” (Rom. 11:20, 21). In fine, we are sufficiently taught by experience itself, that calling and faith are of little value without perseverance, which, however, is not the gift of all (CI 3.24.6).
There is danger on the way to salvation in heaven. We need ongoing protection after our conversion. Our security does not mean we are home free. There is a battle to be fought (John Piper: Bethlehem Baptist Church Minneapolis, Minnesota; The Elect Are Kept by the Power of God October 17, 1993).
According to Calvin, fear of future judgment is one of the primary motivations for repentance in the Christians life:
By mortification they mean, grief of soul and terror, produced by a conviction of sin and a sense of the divine judgment [sec.3]… it seems to me, that repentance may be not inappropriately defined thus: A real conversion of our life unto God, proceeding from sincere and serious fear of God; and consisting in the mortification of our flesh and the old man, and the quickening of the Spirit. In this sense are to be understood all those addresses in which the prophets first, and the apostles afterwards, exhorted the people of their time to repentance. The great object for which they labored was, to fill them with confusion for their sins and dread of the divine judgment, that they might fall down and humble themselves before him whom they had offended, and, with true repentance, retake themselves to the right path [sec.5]… The second part of our definition is, that repentance proceeds from a sincere fear of God. Before the mind of the sinner can be inclined to repentance, he must be aroused by the thought of divine judgment; but when once the thought that God will one day ascend his tribunal to take an account of all words and actions has taken possession of his mind, it will not allow him to rest, or have one moment’s peace, but will perpetually urge him to adopt a different plan of life, that he may be able to stand securely at that judgment-seat. Hence the Scripture, when exhorting to repentance, often introduces the subject of judgment, as in Jeremiah, “Lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doings,” (Jer. 4:4)… The stern threatening which God employs are extorted from him by our depraved dispositions [sec.7] [from the CI 3.3.3-7].
Of course, this is all in egregious contradiction to the Scriptures; viz,
1John 4:18 – There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
Calvin’s false gospel requires us to run a race of perpetual repentance driven by fear of judgment in order to keep ourselves saved. The new birth is not a onetime event known as regeneration, but is only an EXPERIENCE that follows the mortification of repentance. Calvin states that these quickenings that follow mortification are accompanied by joy and subjective manifestations of God’s image. Many are called, but not all have the gift of persevering in the cycle of mortification and vivification. Therefore, assurance of salvation is dubious at best.
Beside the fact that the apostle John wrote the book of 1John so that we can “know” that we are saved, Calvin’s gospel contradicts a mass of holy writ. This subjective gospel also adds a peculiar twist if you consider Calvin’s power of the keys; ie., whatever elders bind on earth will be bound in heaven. While the soteriology lends uncertainty to one’s eternal destiny, is assurance found more in having the elder’s approval? After all, if he states that you are saved, heaven will bind it.