John Calvin’s Doctrine of Election is Christocentric

According to church historian Timothy George, “Calvin did not teach this doctrine [election] because he was a ‘dour despot’ or a mean man but because, rightly or wrongly, he believed it was clearly found in the Scriptures” (Theology of the Reformers).  For Calvin, this doctrine of election was from first to last pastoral in its import.  This must not be lost upon us.

With the above in mind, for Calvin, first and foremost, he saw the doctrine of election as christocentric.  “We have in the very head of the church the clearest mirror of free election” (Institutes 3.22.1).  This is clear in Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians 1:4:

“For if we are chosen in Christ, it is not of ourselves. It is not from a perception of anything that we deserve, but because our heavenly Father has introduced us, through the privilege of adoption, into the body of Christ. In short, the name of Christ excludes all merit, and everything which men have of their own; for when he says that we are chosen in Christ, it follows that in ourselves we are unworthy.”

As professor George remarked above, “rightly or wrongly, [Calvin] believed it was clearly found in the Scriptures” and that it was christocentric (Institutes 3.22.1).

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18 Responses to John Calvin’s Doctrine of Election is Christocentric

  1. Jon Hughes says:

    It’s not very pastoral if you’re not one of the elect! Thank God, however, that He has reconciled all things to Himself in Christ (Colossians 1:20).

    • TC says:

      Jon, when you consider that no one is worthy of salvation to begin with, I think it is very pastoral that we experience Romans 8:29-30.

      Are you a universalist?

      • Jon Hughes says:


        Isn’t everyone a hopeful Universalist? By definition those who hold to a universal atonement have a wider hope than those who advocate Limited Atonement. I have a two year old son and a two month old daughter, and couldn’t worship a God who didn’t have a saving purpose for them, and for whom Christ didn’t die. I certainly couldn’t worship a God who would be glorified in their damnation by some eternal decree.

        I’ve thought this way more and more since becoming a father.

        “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” (Romans 5:18)

        I’m not a dogmatic Universalist, just as I am not a dogmatic Calvinist, nor a dogmatic Arminian. All three can be argued from Scripture.

  2. TC says:

    I’ve wrestled with similar issues. But in the end, I’ve had to give way to the Scriptures. If God didn’t take the initiative to save sinners, none would be saved. Period. But not all are saved.

    But even Romans 5:18 must be interpreted in light of the rest of Scripture. I cannot stand alone.

    • Jon Hughes says:


      Romans itself has a universalistic scope. Paul’s thought-process culminates not in chapter nine (where most Calvinists tend to stop) but chapter eleven, in which he writes:

      “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:32-33)

      As for the rest of Scripture, Psalm 22:17 reads:

      “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before You.”

      Indeed, the Psalter is universalistic in scope, as is Isaiah. Jesus said that, being lifted up,
      He would draw all to Himself. At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father – tell me that in the Greek it means that people will do so against their will!!! Christ’s redemption is a COSMIC one, as we’ve seen from Colossians. The gates of the New Jerusalem shall never be shut. Jesus is the Saviour of all men. He’s the propitiation for the whole world. He’s led captivity captive, and conquered sin, Satan and death.

      You’ve got to factor in temporal judgments versus ‘eternal’ judgments in Scripture; look into the meaning of ‘olam’ and ‘aionios’ in the OT/NT; consider whether punishment is retributive or restorative; ask the perfectly reasonable philosophical question of whether God (who is love) would be satisfied with a vast mass of humanity created in His image being consigned to unremitting agony in an eternal torture chamber – not to mention the difficulty of finite sins meriting infinite punishment – and to top it all off, whether the redeemed could really enjoy perfect bliss in the presence of their Creator while some (if not many) of their friends and loved ones are subjected to such unrelenting anguish?

      I’m not dogmatic, but neither do I dismiss it as easily as you do. As for interpreting verses in the light of the rest of Scripture, why does this never seem to apply in the same way to Calvinistic proof-texts? 😉

      Who would deny that God takes the initiative in saving sinners? You know as well as I do, though, that there are Calvinists who are also Universalists; and they’ve come to that understanding precisely because of their commitment to Scripture.

      You move in ministerial circles far more than I do. According to what I’ve read by Clark Pinnock and Tony Campolo, a growing number of evangelical ministers are closet Annihilationists and Universalists, but can’t go public for fear of their congregations. In my country, John Stott is still viewed as a ‘heretic’ for his brave and honest exploration of an alternative to eternal conscious torment, that believers can live with “without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain.”

      • TC says:

        Jon, I understand. But what about those Scriptures that talk of eternal separation and the like from God? What are we to do with them?

  3. Simon says:

    I would just add this: If universalism means that all will be saved, then I disagree. Because we are free to reject God.

    If universalism means God desires all to be saved, then I am happily a universalist.

    I heard the RC priest Father Barron say that we can’t know whether hell is poplulated. The Christian is not obliged to believe that anyone is in hell. Nevertheless, hell is always a possibility because human beings can choose to say “no” to the God who loves us.

      • Jon Hughes says:

        The problem is that those who hold to the doctrine of reprobabation and double-predestination know full well (according to their system) that hell will be populated. This post is about Calvin. This is what he said:

        “In conformity, therefore, to the clear doctrine of the Scripture, we assert, that by an eternal and immutable counsel, God has once for all determined, both whom he would admit to salvation, and whom he would condemn to destruction. We affirm that this counsel, as far as concerns the elect, is founded on his gratuitous mercy, totally irrespective of human merit; but that to those whom he devotes to condemnation, the gate of life is closed by a just and irreprehensible, but incomprehensible, judgment. In the elect, we consider calling as an evidence of election, and justification as another token of its manifestation, till they arrive in glory, which constitutes its completion. As God seals his elect by vocation and justification, so by excluding the reprobate from the knowledge of his name and the sanctification of his Spirit, he affords an indication of the judgement that awaits them.”

        Yes, you can find a few ‘proof-texts’ to back this up, but it seems to me to be out of step with the breadth of Scripture, and the heart of God.

  4. TC says:

    Jon, those of us who hold to some form of Particular Atonement has got to also affirm double-predestination, even though some do not want to articulate this. So your Calvin quote stands.

    Do you believe in the judgment of the biblical flood or even the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? If you do, then this is the God we must reckon with and need to quite trying to domesticate.

  5. Jon Hughes says:


    I believe that the way in which we view the atonement has a big impact on how we view the world around us, and how we relate to our neighbours. I understand the mindset of Limited Atonement. I’ve been there, but don’t want to be there any more. It’s an inference, not directly taught in Scripture, but fits the other points of TULIP. No doubt you would agree that there are plenty of passages in the Bible that teach Universal Atonement. I find it very sad when they are explained away in order to uphold a philosophical system.

    As for those judgements of God that you mentioned, who would deny that He is holy and that He judges the world? They were, however, temporal judgements. It’s an exceedingly strange thing to come across decent people in churches around the world, enjoying cream cakes and buns after services, who believe in eternal conscious torment for the lost. These are the very same people who would seek to pray for their enemies, and do good to those who do evil to them, and forgive, and bless, and restore those who are wayward. They would do that because it reflects the heart of God. They would cry out for mercy when the punishment was enough, because they are created in the image of God.

    There are BIBLICAL alternatives to eternal conscious torment – I’m not interested in an alternative that’s not biblical.

    For Universalism, see Gregory MacDonald: “The Evangelical Universalist”
    For Annihilationism, see Edward Fudge: “The Fire That Consumes”

    But let’s not come up with the notion that this is an attempt to domesticate God. That’s a straw man, and, with the greatest respect, evidence that you’ve not properly read the literature on the subject.

    • TC says:

      Jon, these are hard doctrines, as we both know. I’ve read a few of the literature on the issues raised and had to make a decision. I continue to side with that historic evangelical tradition that affirms a literal, conscious, and eternal hell for those who choose to reject Jesus and the gospel.

      A universalist should not trouble themself with Limited Atonement. 😉

      • Jon Hughes says:


        Clearly, those who reject Jesus and the gospel are lost. Much depends on whether there will be a possibility of post-mortem repentance. Without this possibility, the vast majority of human beings who grew up into adulthood will be lost. With this possibility, there is a wider hope.

        But please don’t think that I deny the exclusivity of Christ.

  6. TC says:


    But what difference does it make whether a person deny the exclusivity of Christ if they are going to be saved in the end, according to the universalist?

    • Jon Hughes says:


      There are different types of Universalists. Those Universalists who hold to the exclusivity of Christ (as any evangelical must) clearly allow for the possibility of post-mortem repentance. After all, it’s clear that many remain lost during their earthly lives.

      But you seem to have misunderstood something – nobody will be saved who denies the exclusivity of Christ.

      Coming back to your comment about attempting to domesticate God, try reading William Law and Andrew Jukes. You won’t find anything soft or sentimental about these 18th and 19th Century Universalists. (Perhaps you’re familiar with Law’s influence on John Wesley.)

      • TC says:

        Jon, I’m impressed with your knowledge on this subject and the extent of your reading. Your brand of universalism seems to hinge on post-mortem repentance, and equally believing that everyone will eventually come to faith in Christ, your exclusivity of Christ affirmation. You remind of Rob Bell here. Remember him?

  7. Jon Hughes says:


    I’m not a dogmatic Universalist. How could anyone be? The Bible is too ambiguous for that. What is telling, however, is the number of brethren who dogmatically dismiss it without giving due consideration to the biblical texts and arguments that can be marshalled in its defense. Whatever position we espouse, we end up having to ‘explain away’ other verses.

    You don’t have to be a Universalist to hold to the possibility of post-mortem repentance, by the way. There’s still the question of free-will, as Simon mentioned recently. C.S. Lewis was not a Universalist, but held out the possibility of post-mortem repentance. This hope pervades a number of his writings.

    As for Rob Bell, he asked some good questions, to which John Piper was so threatened that he tweeted, “Farewell…”. Just as well we’re not living in the 16th Century – Bell would likely have burned as a heretic, especially if he’d visited Geneva 😉

    A number of books came out after “Love Wins”, holding to the possibility of Universalism, and seeking to provide biblical answers to the questions that Bell raised. Despite the climate of fear (and misunderstanding!) surrounding these issues, it’s not going to go away. After all, it’s not a novel doctrine. Many in the early Church were Universalists – especially pre-Augustine:

    You might be surprised by the above!

    • TC says:

      Jon, yes, I’m often reminded of the Arminian-Calvinism debate here, where Scripture seems to support both at times – so that either one has to be “explained away.”

      Perhaps I need to study the matter more closely to see where it leads, if anyway at all! Thanks for the link.

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