Calvin on the Christ-Centeredness of Election

In preparation for my next post in the series Reforming Calvinism, I wanted to highlight a section from Calvin’s treatment of election in the Institutes. Calvin is of course famously known for his understanding of election and predestination, even though it is not true that he was the originator of this view. Nevertheless, one of Calvin’s great contributions to this doctrine was his particular concern to articulate it in terms of the centrality of Christ. While it may be debatable the extent to which Calvin was successful in this regard, it is at least fair to say that he took many steps in the right direction. The following section from the Institutes illustrates this well:

First, if we seek God’s fatherly mercy and kindly heart, we should turn our eyes to Christ, on whom alone God’s Spirit rests [cf. Matt. 3:17]. If we seek salvation, life, and the immortality of the Heavenly Kingdom, then there is no other to whom we may flee, seeing that he alone is the fountain of life, the anchor of salvation, and the heir of John_Calvin_-_Youngthe Kingdom of Heaven. Now what is the purpose of election but that we, adopted as sons by our Heavenly Father, may obtain salvation and immortality by his favor? No matter how much you toss it about and mull it over, you will discover that its final bounds still extend no farther.

Accordingly, those whom God has adopted as his sons are said to have been chosen not in themselves but in his Christ [Eph. 1:4]; for unless he could love them in him, he could not honor them with the inheritance of his Kingdom if they had not previously become partakers of him. But if we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election. For since it is into his body the Father has destined those to be engrafted whom he has willed from eternity to be his own, that he may hold as sons all whom he acknowledges to be among his members, we have a sufficiently clear and firm testimony that we have been inscribed in the book of life [cf. Rev. 21:27] if we are in communion with Christ. [1]

I would like to highlight a couple of important points in this passage. Notice, first, the way in which Calvin presses into the teaching of Ephesians 1:4 that we have not been chosen in ourselves but only in Christ. We are not elect except that we have “previously become partakers of him”. This is a crucial insight that I think is sometimes lost in discussions of election and predestination, and it is what I intend to tackle in my next post in  Reforming Calvinism. Second, notice how Calvin stresses that, on account of the Christ-centered nature of election, we cannot try to understand its meaning apart from Christ. We cannot have assurance of election if we seek it in God the Father “as severed from his Son”. Rather, Calvin argues, Christ and Christ alone is “the mirror wherein we must … contemplate our own election”. How often have arguments concerning the nature of election gone back and forth simply in terms of how God relates to human beings rather than in (biblical!) terms of how God relates to human beings in Christ! As Calvin recognized, election is not properly understood apart from its ‘in Christ-edness’. As Calvin stated elsewhere in the Institutes: “Unless we look straight toward [Christ], we shall wander through endless labyrinths” [2]. Indeed.

This, in my opinion, is Calvin’s central insight regarding the doctrine of election, and it is that into which I hope to delve deeply in my next post. This is also what puts the ‘Calvin’ into Evangelical Calvinism!

Stay tuned for more.

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[1] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. III.xxiv.5

[2] Ibid., III.ii.2

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