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Calvin on How the Gospel Hardens

April 8, 2008

Calvin on the Gospel’s essential property and purpose (sample1):

1) Now I want to consider not so much what and how Pighius speaks, as how this worthless fellow may fall and lie buried under the ruins of his desperate impudence. So pious consciences will be reassured; for, as I know, they are often disturbed because of their inexperience. So I shall select from the almost unlimited stream of his loquacity whatever is specious, so that all may perceive that with all his speaking he says nothing. That Christ, the redeemer of the whole world, commands the Gospel to be preached promiscuously to all does not seem congruent with special election. But the Gospel is an embassy of peace by which the world is reconciled to God, as Paul teaches (II Cor 5.18); and on the same authority it is announced that those who hear are saved. I answer briefly that Christ was so ordained for the salvation of the whole world that He might save those who are given to Him by the Father, that He might be their life whose head He is, and that He might receive those into participation of His benefits whom God by His gratuitous good pleasure adopted as heirs for Himself. Which of these things can be denied? So the apostle pronounces the prophecy of Isaiah to be fulfilled in Him: Behold, I and the children whom the Lord gave me (Is 8.18; Heb 2.13). Christ Himself declares: All that the Father gave Me, I keep lest any perish (Jn 6.37). We read everywhere that He diffuses life only to members of His. And whoever will not allow that to be grafted into His body is a special gift has never read attentively the Epistle to the Ephesians. From this follows also a third thing: the virtue of Christ belongs only to the sons of God. Even those opposed to me will concede that the universality of the grace of Christ is not better judged than from the preaching of the Gospel. But the solution of the difficulty lies in seeing how the doctrine of the Gospel offers salvation to all. That it is salvific for all I do not deny.2 But the question is whether the Lord in His counsel here destines salvation equally for all. All are equally called to penitence and faith; the same mediator is set forth for all to reconcile them to the Father-so much is evident. But it is equally evident that nothing can be perceived except by faith, that Paul’s word should be fulfilled: the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to all that believe (Rom I. 16). But what can it be for others but a savour of death to death? as he elsewhere says (I1 Cor 2.16). John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, (London: James Clarke & Co., 1961), 102-103.

2) Paul then intimates that the doctrine of the gospel is properly, and in the first place, designed for this endto call men to the service of God. Calvin, Jeremiah, 1:9-10.

Calvin on how hardening is an accidental property and purpose of the Gospel proclamation:

1) And with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. Christ is armed with the breath of his lips to slay the wicked. But perhaps this second clause was added by Isaiah for the purpose of amplification; and, indeed, to slay is much more than to strike. As it belongs to the gospel to cast down all men without exception, its effect on the reprobate may be said to be accidental, to slay them with a deadly stroke. In this way the Prophet would add a particular case to the general statement, intimating that the wicked fall under the sword of Christ to their everlasting destruction, because they are not set apart to be sacrifices. However this may be, this latter clause must undoubtedly be limited to the wicked alone; and it is added, because that efficacy does not immediately appear in the preaching

of the gospel, but, on the contrary, many ridicule, and jeer, and treat as a fable all that is said about Christ and his word. But though they do not immediately feel its power, yet they will not be able to escape it, and will at length be slain by a deadly wound. Calvin Isaiah 11:4.

2) In forbidding them to mention the word burden, it was the same thing as though he had said, “Let not this form of speaking be any longer in use among you.” He then adds, “For to every one his word shall be his burden.” By these words he shews that what is bitter in prophecies is as it were accidental; for God has nothing else in view in addressing men, but to call them to salvation. The word of God then in itself ought to be deemed sweet and delightful. Whence then is this bitterness and hatred towards it? even from the wickedness of men alone. As when a sick person, eating the most wholesome food finds it turned into poison, the cause being in himself; so it is with us, it is our own fault that the word of God becomes a burden. It was, moreover, the Prophet’s design to shew that the Jews had no reason to complain that prophecies were grievous to them, and always announced some trouble; for God wishes to address men with lenity and kindness, but he is forced by their wickedness to deal sharply with them. Calvin, Jeremiah 23:36.

3) The common people, doubtless, groan under their miseries, and that because God thus punishes the contempt of his grace, which he has again offered to us, and which is so unworthily rejected. Inasmuch, then, as so base an ingratitude on the part of men has provoked God’s wrath, it is no wonder that the sound of his scourges is everywhere heard: for the servant who knows his lord’s will and does it not, is worthy, as Christ declares, of heavier stripes, (Luke 12.) And what happens through the whole world is, that after God has shone by his gospel, after Christ has everywhere proclaimed reconciliation, they now openly fall away, and show that they prefer having God angry than propitious to them: for when the gospel is rejected, what else is it but to declare war against God, and to scorn and not to receive the reconciliation which God is ready to give, and of which he treats of his own accord with men?

It is then no wonder that the Prophet says here, that the world would be full of darkness after the appearance of Christ, who is the Sun of Righteousness, and who has shone upon us with his salvation: but it was, as it were, accidental, that God exhibited himself with so much severity to the world, when yet it was the acceptable time, when it was the day of salvation and of good-will; for the world suffered not that to be fulfilled which God had promised to us by the Prophet Joel, nor received the Spirit of adoption, when they might have safely fled to God; nay, when God was ready to cherish them in his own bosom. But since they were refractory and intractable, it was necessary for God to visit such perverseness in an unusual manner. It is no wonder then that the Prophet says, that in those days there shall be prodigies in heaven and on earth, for the sun shall be turned into darkness, etc., before it shall come–the day of Jehovah, great and terrible. Calvin, Joel, 2:30-31.

4) “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth.” The second metaphor, or comparison, is intended directly to point out the forgiveness of sins; for Christ, in delivering us, by his Gospel, from the condemnation of eternal death, looses the cords of the curse by which we are held bound. The doctrine of the Gospel is, therefore, declared to be appointed for loosing our bonds, that, being loosed on earth by the voice and testimony of men, we may be actually loosed in heaven. But as there are many who not only are guilty of wickedly rejecting the deliverance that is offered to them, but by their obstinacy bring down on themselves a heavier judgment, the power and authority to bind is likewise granted to the ministers of the Gospel. It must be observed, however, that this does not belong to the nature of the Gospel, but is accidental; as Paul also informs us, when, speaking of the vengeance which he tells us that he has it in his power to execute against all unbelievers and rebels, he immediately adds, When your obedience shall have been fulfilled, (2 Corinthians 10:6.) For were it not that the reprobate, through their own fault, turn life into death, the Gospel would be to all the power of God to salvation, (Romans 1:16;) but as many persons no sooner hear it than their impiety openly breaks out, and provokes against them more and more the wrath of God, to such persons its savor must be deadly, (2 Corinthians 2:16.) Calvin, Matthew 16:19.

5) That seeing, they may see, and not perceive. Here it may suffice to state briefly what has already been fully explained, that the doctrine is not, strictly speaking, or by itself, or in its own nature, but by accident, the cause of blindness. When persons of a weak sight come out into sunshine, their eyes become dimmer than before, and that defect is in no way attributed to the sun, but to their eyes. In like manner, when the word of God blinds and hardens the reprobate, as this takes place through their own depravity, it belongs truly and naturally to themselves, but is accidental, as respects the word.

“Lest at any time they should be converted.” This clause points out the advantage that is gained by seeing and understanding. It is, that men, having been converted to God, are restored to his favor, and, being reconciled to him, enjoy prosperity and happiness. The true end for which God desires that his word should be preached is, to reconcile men to himself by renewing their minds and hearts. With respect to the reprobate, on the other hand, Isaiah here declares that the stony hardness remains in them, so that they do not obtain mercy, and that the word fails to produce its effect upon them, so as to soften their minds to repentance. Calvin, Mark 4:12.

6) “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world.” It is a confirmation of the preceding statement; for it was not in vain that God sent his own Son to us. He came not to destroy; and therefore it follows, that it is the peculiar office of the Son of God, that all who believe may obtain salvation by him. There is now no reason why any man should be in a state of hesitation, or of distressing anxiety, as to the manner in which he may escape death, when we believe that it was the purpose of God that Christ should deliver us from it. The word world is again repeated, that no man may think himself wholly excluded, if he only keep the road of faith. The word judge (prino) is here put for condemn, as in many other passages. When he declares that he did not come to condemn the world, he thus points out the actual design of his coming; for what need was there that Christ should come to destroy us who were utterly ruined? We ought not, therefore, to look at any thing else in Christ, than that God, out of his boundless goodness chose to extend his aid for saving us who were lost; and whenever our sins press us–whenever Satan would drive us to despair–we ought to hold out this shield, that God is unwilling that we should be overwhelmed with everlasting destruction, because he has appointed his Son to be the salvation of the world. When Christ says, in other passages, that he is come to judgment, (John 9:39;) when he is called a stone of offense, (1 Peter 2:7;) when he is said to be set for the destruction of many, (Luke 2:34:) this may be regarded as accidental, or as arising from a different cause; for they who reject the grace offered in him deserve to find him the Judge and Avenger of contempt so unworthy and base. A striking instance of this may be seen in the Gospel; for though it is strictly the power of God for salvation to every one who believeth, (Romans 1:16,) the ingratitude of many causes it to become to them death. Both have been well expressed by Paul, when he boasts of having vengeance at hand, by which he will punish all the adversaries of his doctrine after that the obedience of the godly shall have been fulfilled, (2 Corinthians 10:6) The meaning amounts to this, that the Gospel is especially, and in the first instance, appointed for believers, that it may be salvation to them; but that afterwards believers will not escape unpunished who, despising the grace of Christ, chose to have him as the Author of death rather than of life. Calvin, John 3:17.

7) “If any man hear my words.” After having spoken concerning his grace, and exhorted his disciples to steady faith, he now begins to strike the rebellious, though even here he mitigates the severity due to the wickedness of those who deliberately–as it were–reject God; for he delays to pronounce judgment on them, because, on the contrary, he has come for the salvation of all. In the first place, we ought to understand that he does not speak here of all unbelievers without distinction, but of those who, knowingly and willingly, reject the doctrine of the Gospel which has been exhibited to them. Why then does Christ not choose to condemn them? It is because he lays aside for a time the office of a judge, and offers salvation to all without reserve, and stretches out his arms to embrace all, that all may be the more encouraged to repent. And yet there is a circumstance of no small moment, by which he points out the aggravation of the crime, if they reject an invitation so kind and gracious, for it is as if he had said, “Lo, I am here to invite all, and, forgetting the character of a judge, I have this as my single object, to persuade all, and to rescue from destruction those who are already twice ruined.” No man, therefore, is condemned on account of having despised the Gospel, except he who, disdaining the lovely message of salvation, has chosen of his own accord to draw down destruction on himself.

Yet we daily see the wicked, with all their rage and pride, struck down by the voice of Christ; and, when those men fell down who had come to bind Christ, there was exhibited a visible token of that alarm which wicked men feel within themselves, whether they will or not, when Christ speaks by his ministers. Besides, as this was in some measure accidental to the voice of Christ, to whom it peculiarly belongs to raise up men who were lying in a state of death, he will undoubtedly display toward us such power as to raise us even to heaven. Calvin, John 18:8.

8) The word “judge,” as is evident from the word save, which is contrasted with it, here signifies to condemn. Now this ought to be understood as referring to the office which properly and naturally belongs to Christ; for that unbelievers are not more severely condemned on account of the Gospel is accidental, and does not arise from its nature, as we have said on former occasions. Calvin John 12:47.

9) And to those whose sins you retain. Christ adds this second clause, in order to terrify the despisers of his Gospel, that they may know that they will not escape punishment for this pride. As the embassy of salvation and of eternal life has been committed to the apostles, so, on the other hand, they have been armed with vengeance against all the ungodly, who reject the salvation offered to them, as Paul teaches, (2 Corinthians 10:6.) But this is placed last in order, because it was proper that the true and real design of preaching the Gospel should be first exhibited. That we are reconciled to God belongs to the nature of the Gospel; that believers are ad-judged to eternal life may be said to be accidentally connected with it. For this reason, Paul, in the passage which I lately quoted, when he threatens vengeance against unbelievers, immediately adds, “after that your obedience shall have been fulfilled,” (2 Corinthians 10:6;) for he means, that it belongs peculiarly to the Gospel to invite all to salvation, but that it is accidental to it that it brings destruction to any. Calvin, John 20:23.

10) Which received lively oracles. Erasmus translated it lively speech; but those which are expert in the Greek tongue, they shall know that I have more truly translated the words of Stephen. For there is greater majesty in Oracles than in Speech, I speak only of the word; for I know that whatsoever proceedeth out of the mouth of God, the same is an oracle. Moreover, he purchaseth authority for the doctrine of Moses in these words, because he uttereth nothing but that which proceeded from God, Whereupon it followeth, that they did not so much rebel against Moses as against God; whereby their stubbornness is more discovered, And this is a general way to establish doctrine, when men teach nothing but that which is commanded them by God. For what man dare make Moses inferior to him, who (as the Spirit affirmeth) ought only to be believed for this cause, because he faithfully unfolded and delivered the doctrine which he had received of God? But some men may ask this question, Why he called the law a living speech? For this title seemeth to disagree much with the words of Paul, where he saith that the law is the ministry of death, and that it worketh death, and that it is the strength of sin, (1Corinthians 3:7.) If you take lively speech for that which is effectual, and cannot be made frustrate by the contempt of men, there shall be no contrariety; but I interpret it as spoken actively, for that which maketh to live. For seeing that the law is the perfect rule of godly and holy life, and it showeth the righteousness of God, it is counted, for good causes, the doctrine of life and salvation. And to this purpose serveth that solemn protestation of Moses, when he calleth heaven and earth to witness, that he hath set before them the way of death and life. In which sense the Lord himself complaineth, that his good law is broken, and his good commandments, whereof he had said, “He which shall do these things shall live in them,” (Ezekiel 20) Therefore the law hath life in itself. Yet if any man had liefer take living for that which is full of efficacy and strength, I will not greatly stand in contention.

And whereas it is called the ministry of death, that is accidental to it, because of the corrupt nature of man; for it doth not engender sin, but it findeth it in us. It offered life, but we, which are altogether corrupt, can have nothing but death by it. Therefore, it is deadly in respect of men alone. Though Stephen had respect unto a farther thing in this place; for he doth not only speak of the bare commandments, but comprehendeth all Moses’ doctrine, wherein the free promises are included, and so consequently, Christ himself, who is the only life and health of men. We must remember with what men Stephen had to do. They were such as were preposterously zealous of the law, who stayed only in the dead and deadly letter of the law; and, in the mean season, they raged against Stephen, because he sought Christ in the law, who is, indeed, the soul thereof. Calvin, Acts 7:38.

11) The term odor is very emphatic. “Such is the influence of the Gospel in both respects, that it either quickens or kills, not merely by its taste, but by its very smell. Whatever it may be, it is never preached in vain, but has invariably an effect, either for life, or for death.” But it is asked, how this accords with the nature of the Gospel, which we shall find him, a little afterwards, calling the ministry of life? (2 Corinthians 3:6.) The answer is easy: The Gospel is preached for salvation: this is what properly belongs to it; but believers alone are partakers of that salvation. In the mean time, its being an occasion of condemnation to unbelieversthat arises from their own fault. Thus Christ came not into the world to condemn the world, (John 3:17,) for what need was there of this, inasmuch as without him we are all condemned? Yet he sends his apostles to bind, as well as to loose, and to retain sins, as well as remit them. (Matthew 18:18; John 20:23.) He is the light of the world, (John 8:12,) but he blinds unbelievers. (John 9:39.) He is a Rock, for a foundation, but he is also to many a stone of stumbling. (Isaiah 8:14.) We must always, therefore, distinguish between the proper office of the Gospel, and the accidental one (so to speak) which must be imputed to the depravity of mankind, to which it is owing, that life to them is turned into death. Calvin, 2 Corinthians, 2:15.

12) And this is especially what deserves to be noticed, lest our fault should be imputed to Christ; for, as he has been given to us as a foundation, it is as it were an accidental thing that he becomes a rock of offense. In short, his proper office is to prepare us for a spiritual temple to God; but it is the fault of men that they stumble at him, even because unbelief leads men to contend with God. Hence Peter, in order to set forth the character of the conflict, said that they were the unbelieving. Calvin, 1 Peter 2:8.


1Many more quotations from Calvin to this same effect could be adduced. I only cite a small sample here, for the main point is Calvin’s treatment on hardening as an accidental property of the Gospel proclamation (kerugma).
2Cole translates this line as: “it is preached that those who hear might be saved,” Henry Cole, “Eternal Predestination,” in Calvin’s Calvinism, (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing, 1987?), 94.

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