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John Calvin on God’s Willing Permission of Sin (A Selection of Relevant Comments)

April 13, 2008


1) Following that, since it is so that God willed that His Son might be thus exposed to death, may we not be ashamed of what He endured. May we not think that wicked men were in control and that the Son of God did not have the means to defend Himself. For everything proceeded from the will of God, and from the immutable decree which He had made. That is also why our Lord Jesus says in St. Luke, “Indeed, it is your reign now, and the power of darkness, As if He said, “Take no glory in what you are doing; for the devil is your master.” However, He shows that it is by means of the permission which God gave them. Although the devil possessed them, nevertheless, neither they nor he could attempt anything unless God had unleashed for them the bridle. That, then, in summary, is how we must have our eyes and all our senses fixed upon the will of God, and upon His eternal plan, when the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is spoken of to us. Now He declares that such is the will of God, because it is written. For if Jesus Christ had not had testimony of what was ordered by God His Father, He might still have been in doubt. But He knew His office. God did not send Him here below that He might not have given Him fully to His express charge. It is true, inasmuch as our Lord Jesus is eternal God, He did not need to be taught by any Scripture; but inasmuch as He is our Redeemer and that He clothed Himself in our nature to have a true brotherhood with us, He had to be taught by Holy Scripture, as we see, above all, that He did not refuse such instruction. So then, since God has shown Him to what He was called, that is upon what He relies. That is why He is taken as a captive, in order not to draw back when He knew that He had to achieve the charge which was committed to Him, that is, to offer Himself in sacrifice for the redemption of us all.

So, then, we must learn that, inasmuch as the will of God is secret to Himself and incomprehensible, we must have recourse to Holy Scripture. It is true that God does not cease to have His counsel ordered by things that we imagine to be by chance. But that is not declared to us. We shall not always have special revelation to say that God has determined this or that. Then, we must withhold judgment. That is why we pray to God that He may heal us of an illness or that He may deliver us from some other affliction when we have fallen into it. And why? We do not know what He wills to do. To be sure, we ought not to impose a law upon Him. This condition ought always to be added: that His will may be done. But all our prayers ought to lead here: to ask Him that He may know us to be necessary and useful, and that we may meanwhile refer everything to Him in His secret counsel in order that He may do as seems good to Him. But when we have testimony through Holy Scripture that God wills a thing, then it is not proper to offer any reply, as I have already said. Cavlin, Sermons on Deity of Christ, Sermon 5, Matt 25:51-66, pp., 88-9.


1) We must now enter on that question by which vain and inconstant minds are greatly agitated; namely, Why God permitted Adam to be tempted, seeing that the sad result was by no means hidden from him? That He now relaxes Satan’s reins, to allow him to tempt us to sin, we ascribe to judgment and to vengeance, in consequence of man’s alienation from himself; but there was not the same reason for doing so when human nature was yet pure and upright. God, therefore, permitted Satan to tempt man, who was conformed to His own image, and not yet implicated in any crime, having, moreover, on this occasion, allowed Satan the use of an animal which otherwise would never have obeyed him; and what else was this, than to arm an enemy for the destruction of man? This seems to have been the ground on which the Manichaeans maintained the existence of two principles. Therefore, they have imagined that Satan, not being in subjection to God, laid snares for man in opposition to the divine will, and was superior not to man only, but also to God himself. Thus, for the sake of avoiding what they dreaded as an absurdity, they have fallen into execrable prodigies of error; such as, that there are two Gods, and not one sole Creator of the world, and that the first God has been overcome by his antagonist. All, however, who think piously and reverently concerning the power of God, acknowledge that the evil did not take place except by his permission. For, in the first place, it must be conceded, that God was not in ignorance of the event which was about to occur; and then, that he could have prevented it, had he seen fit to do so. But in speaking of permission, I understand that he had appointed whatever he wished to be done. Here, indeed, a difference arises on the part of many, who suppose Adam to have been so left to his own free will, that God would not have him fall. They take for granted, what I allow them, that nothing is less probable than that God should he regarded as the cause of sin, which he has avenged with so many and such severe penalties. When I say, however, that Adam did not fall without the ordination and will of God, I do not so take it as if sin had ever been pleasing to Him, or as if he simply wished that the precept which he had given should be violated. So far as the fall of Adam was the subversion of equity, and of well-constituted order, so far as it was contumacy against the Divine Law-giver, and the transgression of righteousness, certainly it was against the will of God; yet none of these things render it impossible that, for a certain cause, although to us unknown, he might will the fall of man. It offends the ears of some, when it is said God willed this fall; but what else, I pray, is the permission of Him, who has the power of preventing, and in whose hand the whole matter is placed, but his will? I wish that men would rather suffer themselves to be judged by God, than that, with profane temerity, they should pass judgment upon him; but this is the arrogance of the flesh to subject God to its own test. I hold it as a settled axiom, that nothing is more unsuitable to the character of God than for us to say that man was created by Him for the purpose of being placed in a condition of suspense and doubt; wherefore I conclude, that, as it became the Creator, he had before determined with himself what should be man’s future condition. Hence the unskillful rashly infer, that man did not sin by free choice. For he himself perceives, being convicted by the testimony of his own conscience, that he has been too free in sinning. Whether he sinned by necessity, or by contingency, is another question; respecting which see the Institution,and the treatise on Predestination. Calvin, Genesis 3:1-3.

2) Good men, who fear to expose the justice of God to the calumnies of the impious, resort to this distinction, that God wills some things, but permits others to be done. As if, truly, any degree of liberty of action, were he to cease from governing, would be left to men. If he had only permitted Joseph to be carried into Egypt, he had not ordained him to be the minister of deliverance to his father Jacob and his sons; which he is now expressly declared to have done. Away, then, with that vain figment, that, by the permission of God only, and not by his counsel or will, those evils are committed which he afterwards turns to a good account. I speak of evils with respect to men, who propose nothing else to themselves but to act perversely. And as the vice dwells in them, so ought the whole blame also to be laid upon them. But God works wonderfully through their means, in order that, from their impurity, he may bring forth his perfect righteousness. This method of acting is secret, and far above our understanding. Therefore it is not wonderful that the licentiousness of our flesh should rise against it. But so much the more diligently must we be on our guard, that we do not attempt to reduce this lofty standard to the measure of our own littleness. Let this sentiment remain fixed with us, that while the lust of men exults, and intemperately hurries them hither and thither, God is the ruler, and, by his secret rein, directs their motions whithersoever he pleases. At the same time, however, it must also be maintained, that God acts so far distinctly from them, that no vice can attach itself to his providence, and that his decrees have no affinity with the crimes of men. Of which mode of procedure a most illustrious example is placed before our eyes in this history. Joseph was sold by his brethren; for what reason, but because they wished, by any means whatever, to ruin and annihilate him? The same work is ascribed to God, but for a very different end; namely, that in a time of famine the family of Jacob might have an unexpected supply of food. Therefore he willed that Joseph should be as one dead, for a short time, in order that he might suddenly bring him forth from the grave, as the preserver of life. Whence it appears, that although he seems, at the commencement, to do the same thing as the wicked; yet there is a wide distance between their wickedness and his admirable judgment. Let us now examine the words of Joseph. For the consolation of his brethren he seems to draw the veil of oblivion over their fault. But we know that men are not exempt from guilt, although God may, beyond expectation, bring what they wickedly attempt, to a good and happy issue. For what advantage was it to Judas that the redemption of the world proceeded from his wicked treachery? Joseph, however, though he withdraws, in some degree, the minds of his brethren from a consideration of their own guilt, until they can breathe again after their immoderate terror, neither traces their fault to God as its cause, nor really absolves them from it; as we shall see more clearly in the last chapter (Genesis 44:1.) Calvin, Genesis 45:8.

3) And assuredly this signal for the expedition to advance depends on the declaration which is subjoined in ver. 30, as we may readily gather from the context; for Moses there repeats what we here read respecting their passage in somewhat different words; and again does God testify that He has given Sihon into the hands of the people, and exhorts Moses to go down boldly to the battle. Moreover, the cause is there specified why (Sihon) had been so arrogant and contemptuous in his rejection of the embassy, viz., because God had “hardened his spirit, and made his heart obstinate.” From whence again it appears how poor is the sophistry of those who imagine that God idly regards from heaven what men are about to do. They dare not, indeed, despoil Him of foreknowledge; but what can be more absurd than that He foreknows nothing except what men please? But Scripture, as we see, has not placed God in a watch-tower, from which He may behold at a distance what things are about to be; but teaches that He is the director (moderatorem) of all things; and that He subjects to His will, not only the events of things, but the designs and affections of men also. As, therefore, we have before seen how the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, so now Moses ascribes to God the obstinacy of king Sihon. How base a subterfuge is the exception which some make as to His permission, sufficiently appears from the end which Moses points out. For why did God harden the heart of Sihon? thalt “He might deliver him into the hand” of His people to be slain; because He willed that he should perish, and had destined his land for the Israelites. If God only permitted Sihon to grow hardened, this decree was either nought, or mutable, and evanescent, since it depended on the changeable will of man. Putting aside, then, all childish trifling, we must conclude that God by His secret inspiration moves, forms, governs, and draws men’s hearts, so that even by the wicked He executes whatever He has decreed. At the same time it is to be observed that the wicked are not impelled to hardness of heart by extrinsic force, but that they voluntarily harden themselves; so that in this same hardness of heart God may be seen to be a just judge, however incomprehensible His counsel may be, and however the impiety of men may betray itself, who are their own instigators, and the authors of their own sin. Emphatically does Moses inculcate the same thing twice over, viz., that the spirt of Sihon was hardened by God, and his heart made obstinate, in order that God’s paternal favor towards His chosen people might be more conspicuous; because from the obstinacy of the blinded king He afforded them a just cause for war, and an opportunity for victory. Calvin, Deuteronomy 2:24.

4) From this passage Augustine very properly and ingeniously shows, that those events which appear to us unreasonable not only occur simply by the permission of God, but also by his will and decree. For if our God doeth whatsoever pleaseth him, why should he permit that to be done which he does not wish? Why does he not restrain the devil and all the wicked who set themselves in opposition to him? If he be regarded as occupying an intermediate position between doing and suffering, so as to tolerate what he does not wish, then, according to the fancy of the Epicureans, he will remain unconcerned in the heavens. But if we admit that God is invested with prescience, that he superintends and governs the world which he has made, and that he does not overlook any part of it, it must follow that every thing which takes place is done according to his will. Those who speak as if this would be to render God the author of evil are perverse disputants. Filthy dogs though they be, yet they will not, by their barking, be able to substantiate a charge of lying against the prophet, or to take the government of the world out of God’s hand. If nothing occurs unless by the counsel and determination of God, he apparently does not disallow sin; he has, however, secret and to us unknown causes why he permits that which perverse men do, and yet this is not done because he approves of their wicked inclinations. It was the will of God that Jerusalem should be destroyed, the Chaldeans also wished the same thing, but after a different manner; and though he frequently calls the Babylonians his stipendiary soldiers, and says that they were stirred up by him, (Isaiah 5:26;) and farther, that they were the sword of his own hand, yet we would not therefore call them his allies, inasmuch as their object was very different. In the destruction of Jerusalem God’s justice would be displayed, while the Chaldeans would be justly censured for their lust, covetousness, and cruelty. Hence, whatever takes place in the world is according to the will of God, and yet it is not his will that any evil should be done. For however incomprehensible his counsel may be to us, still it is always based upon the best of reasons. Satisfied with his will alone, so as to be fully persuaded, that, notwithstanding the great depth of his judgments, (Psalm 36:6) they are characterized by the most consummate rectitude; this ignorance will be far more learned than all the acumen of those who presume to make their own capacity the standard by which to measure his works. On the other hand, it is deserving of notice, that if God does whatsoever he pleases, then it is not his pleasure to do that which is not done. The knowledge of this truth is of great importance, because it frequently happens, when God winks and holds his peace at the afflictions of the Church, that we ask why he permits her to languish, since it is in his power to render her assistance. Avarice, fraud, perfidy, cruelty, ambition, pride, sensuality, drunkenness, and, in short, every species of corruption in these times is rampant in the world, all which would instantly cease did it seem good to God to apply the remedy. Wherefore, if he at any time appears to us to be asleep, or has not the means of succoring us, let this tend to make us wait patiently, and to teach us that it is not his pleasure to act so speedily the part of our deliverer, because he knows that delay and procrastination are profitable to us; it being his will to wink at and tolerate for a while what assuredly, were it his pleasure, he could instantly rectify. Calvin, Psalms 115:3.

5) The statement commonly made, that it is done by God’s permission, is an excessively frivolous evasion; for the Prophet has expressed more than this, namely, that this punishment was inflicted by God, because he is a righteous judge. God therefore acts by means of Satan, as a judge by means of an executioner, and inflicts righteous punishment on those who have offended him. Thus in the book of Kings we read that Satan presented himself before God, and asked leave to deceive Ahab’s prophets; and having obtained it, he then obeyed the command of God, for he could have done nothing by himself. It is unnecessary to produce a multitude of quotations in a matter so obvious. Calvin, Isaiah 19:14.

6) Here he distinctly shows us the manner in which God maddens the false prophets, and deceives them, namely, since he sends forth Satan to fill them with his lies. Since, then, they are impelled by Satan, the father of lies, what can they do but lie and deceive? The whole of this, then, depends on the just judgments of God, as this place teaches. God, therefore, does not deceive, so to speak, without an agency, but uses Satan and impostors as organs of his vengeance. If any one flies to that subtle distinction between ordering and permitting, he is easily refuted by the context. For that cannot be called mere permission when God willingly seeks for some one to deceive Ahab, and then he himself orders Satan to go forth and do so. But the last clause which I have quoted takes away all doubt, since God put a lie in the mouth of the prophets, that is, suggested a lie to all the false prophets. If God suggests, we shall see that Satan flies forth not only by his permission to scatter his impostures; but since God wished to use his aid, so he afforded it on this condition and to this end. But we shall leave the rest for the next lecture. Calvin, Ezekiel 14:9.

7) By saying that he was in their hand, he does not mean that he was not under the care of God. Christ also spoke thus when he exhorted his disciples not to fear those who could kill the body. (Matthew 10:28.) There is no doubt but that the hairs of our head are numbered before God; thus it cannot be that tyrants, however they may rage, can touch us, no, not with their little finger, except a permission be given them. It is, then, certain that our life can never be in the hand of men, for God is its faithful keeper; but Jeremiah said, after a human manner, that his life was in their hand; for God’s providence is hidden from us, nor can we discover it but by the eyes of faith. When, therefore, enemies seem to rule so that there is no escape, the Scripture says, by way of concession, that we are in their hands, that is, as far as we perceive. We ought yet to understand that we are by no means so exposed to the will of the wicked that they can do what they please with us; for God restrains them by a hidden bridle, and rules their hands and their hearts. This truth ought ever to remain unalterable, that our life is under the custody and protection of God. Calvin, Jeremiah 26:14-15.

8) We should remember then, when mention is made of God, how impossible it is for anything either perverse or unjust to belong’ to him; his will cannot be turned aside by any affection, for it is the perfection of justice. Since this is so, we should remember how extremely unbridled and perverse our rashness is, while we dare object to anything which God does; whence the necessity of this teaching which puts the bridle of modesty upon us is proved, since God does all things according to his will, as it is said in Psalm 115:3, Our God in heaven does what he wishes. From this sentence we gather that nothing happens by chance, but every event in the world depends on God’s secret providence. We ought not to admit any distinction between God’s permission and his wish. For we see the Holy Spirit–the best master of language–here clearly expresses two things; first, what God does; and next, what he does by his own will. But permission, according to those vain speculators, differs from will; as if God unwillingly granted what he did not wish to happen! Now, there is nothing more ridiculous than to ascribe this weakness to God. Hence the efficacy of action is added; God does what he wishes, says Nebuchadnezzar. He does not speak in a carnal but in a spiritual sense, or instinct, as we have said; since the Prophet must be attended to just as if he had been sent from heaven. Now, therefore, we understand how this world is administered by God’s secret providence, and that nothing happens but what he has commanded and decreed; while he ought with justice to be esteemed the Author of all things.

Some object here to the apparent absurdity of saying God is the author of sin, if nothing is done without his will; nay, if he himself works it! This calumny is easily answered, as the method of God’s action differs materially from that of men. For when any man sins, God works in his own manner, which is very different indeed from that of man, since he exercises his own judgment, and thus is said to blind and to harden. As God therefore commands both the reprobate and the evil one, he permits them to indulge in all kinds of licentiousness, and in doing so, executes his own judgments. But he who sins is deservedly guilty, and cannot implicate God as a companion of his wickedness. And why so? Because God has nothing in common with him in reference to sinfulness. Hence we see how these things which we may deem contrary to one another, are mutually accordant, since God by his own will governs all events in the world, and yet is not the author of sin. And why so? Because he treats Satan and all the wicked with the strict justice of a judge. We do not always see the process, but we must hold this principle with firmness–supreme power is in God’s hands; hence we must not cavil at his judgments, however inexplicable they may appear to us. Wherefore this phrase follows, There is no one who can hinder his hand, or can say unto him, Why dost thou act thus? When Nebuchadnezzar says, God’s hand cannot be hindered, he uses this method of deriding human folly which does not hesitate to rebel against God. Already they raise their finger to prevent, if possible, the power of his hand; and even when convicted of weakness, they proceed in their own fury. Nebuchadnezzar, then, deservedly displays their ridiculous madness in conducting themselves so intemperately in wishing to restrain the Almighty, and to confine him within their bounds, and to fabricate chains for the purpose of restricting him. When mankind thus burst forth into sacrilegious fury, they deserve to be laughed at, and this is here the force of Daniel’s words. Calvin, Daniel 4:35.

9) They shall be delivered into his hands means,–however the small horn should leap forward in desperate fury, yet: God should always rule over him, and nothing should happen without his permission,. It was God then who delivered into the hands of that identifying the saints, the political government, and the institutions of piety, allowing him to pour out, promiscuously human blood, to violate every national right, and to ruin as far as possible all religion. It brings us then no little comfort to know when God’s permission is given to tyrants to harass the Church and interfere with His lawful worship; for if we were left to the mercy of their lusts, how distressing would be the universal confusion! But he succors us, as the angel says, when tyrants assail us and disturb all order by their horrible licentiousness and cruel rage against the miserable and the innocent: he succors us, I say, so that they are unable to move to finger against us without God’s permission. We are not permitted to know why God relaxes the rein in favor of the enemies of his Church; perhaps it is to prove and try the patience of his people. It is sufficient for us, if, when tyrants scheme and plot in every way, they are unable to do anything without the divine permission. Calvin, Daniel, 7:25.

10) The Lord, however, did in the meantime execute by them what he had appointed, and what he had already permitted Satan to do. He intended, as it has been said, that his servant should be plundered; and Satan, who influenced the robbers, could not himself move a finger except by the permission of God; nay, except it was commanded him. At the same time, the Lord had nothing in common or in connection with the wicked, because his purpose was far apart from their depraved lust. So also it must be said of what is said here by the Prophet. As God intended to punish Solomon, so he took away the ten tribes. He indeed suffered Solomon to reign to the end of his days, and to retain the government of the kingdom; but Rehoboam, who succeeded him, lost the ten tribes. This did not happen by chance; for God had so decreed; yea, he had declared that it would be so. He sent Ahijah the Shilonite to offer the kingdom to Jeroboam, who had dreamt of nothing of the kind. God then ruled the whole by his own secret counsel, that the ten tribes should desert their allegiance to Rehoboam, and that Jeroboam, being made king, should possess the greater part of the kingdom. This, I say, was done by God’s decree: but yet the people did not think that they were obeying God in revolting from Rehoboam, for they desired some relaxation, when they saw that the young king wished tyrannically to oppress them; hence they chose to themselves a new king. But they ought to have endured every wrong rather than to deprive themselves of that inestimable blessing, of which God gave them a symbol and pledge in the kingdom of David; for David, as it has been said, did not reign as a common king, but was a type of Christ, and God had promised his favor to the people as long as his kingdom flourished, as though Christ did then dwell in the midst of the people. When therefore the people shook off the yoke of David, it was the same as if they had rejected Christ himself because Christ in his type was despised. Calvin, Hosea 8:4.

11) A man having a spirit of an unclean devil. This mode of expression, which Luke employs, conveys the idea, that the man was driven by the impulse of the devil. By the permission of God, Satan had seized the faculties of his soul in such a manner, as to drive him not only to speak, but to perform other movements, at his pleasure. And thus, when the demoniacs speak, the devils, who have received permission to tyrannise, speak in them and by them. The title, Holy One of God, was probably taken from a manner of speaking, which was, at that time, in ordinary and general use. The Messiah was so called, because he was to be distinguished and separated from all others, as endued with eminent grace, and as the Head of the whole Church. Calvin, Luke 4:33.

12) We know that diseases of an unusual and extraordinary kind are, for the most part, inflicted on men through the agency of the devil; and this gave the more striking display of the divine power of Christ, which triumphed over Satan. Not that Satan rules over men according to his pleasure, but only so far as God grants to him permission to injure them. Besides, as the Lord, from whom alone all our blessings flow, makes his glory to shine with peculiar brightness in those blessings which are more remarkable, and of rare occurrence; so, on the other hand, it is his will that the power and tyranny of Satan should be chiefly regarded in extraordinary chastisements, though his agency is likewise employed in those more gentle applications of the rod, which we experience from day to day. Calvin, Luke 13:11.

14) The devil is called the prince of this world, not because he has a kingdom separated from God, (as the Manicheans imagined,) but because, by God’s permission, he exercises his tyranny over the world. Whenever, therefore, we hear this designation applied to the devil, let us be ashamed of our miserable condition; for, whatever may be the pride of men, they are the slaves of the devil, till they are regenerated by the Spirit of Christ; for under the term world is here included the whole human race. There is but one Deliverer who frees and rescues us from this dreadful slavery. Now, since this punishment was inflicted on account of the sin of the first man, and since it daily grows worse on account of new sins, let us learn to hate both ourselves and our sins. While we are held captives under the dominion of Satan, still this slavery does not free us from blame, for it is voluntary. It ought also to be observed, that what is done by wicked men is here ascribed to the devil; for, since they are impelled by Satan, all that they do is justly reckoned his work. Calvin, John 14:30.

15) As to the manner in which God gives up or delivers men to wickedness, it is by no means necessary in this place to discuss a question so intricate, (longam — tedious.) It is indeed certain, that he not only permits men to fall into sin, by allowing them to do so, and by conniving at them; but that he also, by his equitable judgment, so arranges things, that they are led and carried into such madness by their own lusts, as well as by the devil. He therefore adopts the word, give up, according to the constant usage of Scripture; which word they forcibly wrest, who think that we are led into sin only by the permission of God: for as Satan is the minister of God’s wrath, and as it were the executioner, so he is armed against us, not through the connivance, but by the command of his judge. God, however, is not on this account cruel, nor are we innocent, inasmuch as Paul plainly shows, that we are not delivered up into his power, except when we deserve such a punishment. Only we must make this exception, that the cause of sin is not from God, the roots of which ever abide in the sinner himself; for this must be true, “Thine is perdition, O Israel; in me only is thy help.” (Hosea 13:9). Calvin, Romans 1:25.

16) But the word hardens, when applied to God in Scripture, means not only permission, (as some washy moderators would have it,) but also the operation of the wrath of God: for all those external things, which lead to the blinding of the reprobate, are the, instruments of his wrath; and Satan himself, who works inwardly with great power, is so far his minister, that he acts not, but by his command. Then that frivolous evasion, which the schoolmen have recourse to respecting foreknowledge, falls to the ground: for Paul teaches us, that the ruin of the wicked is not only foreseen by the Lord, but also ordained by his counsel and his will; and Solomon teaches ‘as the same thing,–that not only the destruction of the wicked is foreknown, but that the wicked themselves have been created for this very end–that they may perish. (Proverbs 16:4.) Calvin, Romans 9:18.

17) With respect to the passage before us, the blinding is a work common to God and to Satan, for it is in many instances ascribed to God; but the power is not alike, nor is the manner the same. I shall not speak at present as to the manner. Scripture, however, teaches that Satan blinds men, not merely with God’s permission, but even by his command, that he may execute his vengeance. Thus Ahab was deceived by Satan, (1 Kings 22:21,) but could Satan have done this of himself? By no means; but having offered to God his services for inflicting injury, he was sent to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. ( 1 Kings 22:22.) Nay more, the reason why God is said to blind men is, that after having deprived us of the right exercise of the understanding, and the light of his Spirit, he delivers us over to the devil, to be hurried forward by him to a reprobate mind, (Romans 1:28,) gives him the power of deception, and by this means inflicts just vengeance upon us by the minister of his wrath. Paul’s meaning, therefore, is, that all are possessed by the devil, who do not acknowledge his doctrine to be the sure truth of God. Calvin, 2 Corinthians 4:4.

18) In accordance with the practice of the inspired writers, the Devil is mentioned in the singular number. As the children of God have one head, so have the wicked; for each of the classes forms a distinct body. By assigning to him the dominion over all wicked beings, ungodliness is represented as an unbroken mass. As to his attributing to the devil power over the air, that will be considered when we come to the sixth chapter. At present, we shall merely advert to the strange absurdity of the Manicheans, in endeavoring to prove from this passage the existence of two principles, as if Satan could do anything without the Divine permission. Paul does not allow him the highest authority, which belongs to the will of God alone, but merely a tyranny which God permits him to exercise. What is Satan but God’s executioner to punish man’s ingratitude? This is implied in Paul’s language, when he represents the success of Satan as confined to unbelievers; for the children of God are thus exempted from his power. If this be true, it follows that Satan does nothing but under the control of a superior and that he is not (autokrator) an unlimited monarch. Calvin, Ephesians 2:2.

19) There are not however two adverse principles, such as the Manicheans have imagined; for we know that the devil is not wicked by nature or by creation, but became so through defection. We know also that he is not equal to God, so that he can with equal right or authority contend with him, but that he is unwillingly under restraint, so that he can do nothing except at the nod and with the permission of his Creator. John, in the last place, in saying that some were born of God and some of the devil, imagined no tradition such as the Manicheans dreamt of; but he means that. the former are governed and guided by the Spirit of God, and that the others are led astray by Satan, as God grants to him this power over the unbelieving. Calvin, 1 John 3:8.


1) If the thing be taken to a higher level and the question be raised about the creation of man, Augustine meets it thus? We make most sound confession of what we most rightly believe, that God the Lord of all things, who made all things very good, foreknew that evil would arise out of this good, and also knew that it contributed more to His glory to bring good out of evil than not to allow evil at all; so He ordained the life of men and angels so that in it He might first show what freewill could do, and then what the gift of His grace and the judgment of His justice could do. In his Manual to Laurentius he at greater length settles all residual doubt. When in the last day, he says, Christ shall appear to judge the world, then what the faith of the pious now holds fast before it is manifest to their comprehension, will appear in the clearest light of knowledge-how sure, immutable and efficacious is the will of God; how many things He can do but does not will to do, while willing nothing that He cannot do; and how true is what the Psalmist sings in Ps 15.3: Our God hath done whatsoever He hath pleased. This would certainly not be true if He willed some things and did not do them. Nothing therefore is done unless He omnipotently willed it should be done, either by permitting it to be done or by doing it Himself. Nor may it be doubted that God did well in permitting to be done all that is ill done. For this is not permitted except by righteous judgment. Hence, though the things that are evil, in so far as they are evil, are not good, yet it is good that there be not only good but also evil things. For unless there were this good, that evil things existed, they would by no means be permitted to exist by omnipotent goodness. For without doubt it is as easy for Him to do what He wills as to permit what He does not will. Unless we believe this, we imperil the beginning of our faith, by which we confess belief in God almighty. Augustine then adds this conclusion: These are the mighty works of God, excellent in all His acts of will, and so excellent in wisdom that when angelic and human creation had sinned, that is had done not what He willed but what it willed, God, through the same creaturely will which did what the creator did not will, nevertheless fulfilled what He willed, Himself superlatively good using for good even evil things to the damnation of those whom He had justly predestined to punishment and to the salvation of those whom He had mercifully predestined to grace. For so far as they were concerned, they did what was contrary to God’s will; but as far as the omnipotence of God is concerned, they did not succeed in effecting it. In their very acting against the will of God, the will of God concerning them was none the less done. Mighty therefore, are the works of God and excellent in all His acts of will, so that in a marvelous and ineffable way that cannot be done without His will which is yet done contrary to His will. For it would not be done if He did not permit it, and permission is given not without but by His will. These few references are extracted out of many, so that the reader may clearly see1 what modesty Pighius has in opposing Augustine to us so as to claim him as ally in his errors. As the discussion continues, further use will be made of the testimony of this holy man. John Calvin, The Eternal Predestination of God, 67-68.

2) It is indeed true that the reprobate procure the wrath of God by their own depravity and daily hasten its falling on their heads. But it must be allowed by all that Paul here treats of the difference arising from the hidden judgment of God. He also says that the riches of God’s grace are made known, while on the other hand the vessels of wrath rush upon destruction. Here there is nothing of what Pighius babbles, that grace is equal towards all and that the goodness of God is better illustrated by His enduring the vessels of wrath and suffering them to come to their own end. As for God’s patience, the solution is immediately at hand. It is connected with His power, so that God does not only permit what is done, but overrules it by His virtue. This, as is known, Augustine too observes. John Calvin, The Eternal Predestination of God, 90-1.

3) However, even if Scripture did not present one way of solving this problem, it would not be really difficult to find another. More arduous is the other question: Does God work in the hearts of men, directing their plans and moving their wills this way and that, so that they do nothing but what He has ordained? We do not ask here whether He inspires the pious and holy affections in their hearts, for about this there is no controversy. The question is whether He has in His power also the depraved affections of the ungodly, moving them here and I there so that they will what He has decreed they should do. Certainly when Solomon declares (Prov 2 1. 1) that the heart of kings are in the hand of God so that He inclines it as He pleases, he shows that in general the will not less than external I works are governed by the determination of God. Moses says that the heart of Pharaoh was hardened by Him (Ex 4.21,

7.3). It is useless to have recourse here to the concept of permission, as if God were said to do what was done only in the sense that He allowed it. For clearly Moses says that the hardening was a work of God. Nor indeed is the savagery of Pharaoh ascribed to God in any other sense than is the grace which He is elsewhere said to give to His people in the eyes of the Egyptians (Ex 3.21). For who does not see that fierce beasts were being tamed and subdued by the power of God, when the Egyptians were suddenly turned towards clemency? We ask, then, how it comes about that Pharaoh should rage so inhumanely, unless it so pleased God, partly to show His tolerance towards His own, and partly to exercise His power. On the same principle it is said that God turned the hearts of enemies in hatred towards His people (Ps 105.25) But this does not prevent it being said elsewhere that Pharaoh himself aggravated the condition of his heart (Ex 8.32). We do not make the minds of men to be impelled by force external to them so that they rage furiously; nor do we transfer to God the cause of hardening, in such a way that they did not voluntarily and by their own wickedness and hardness of heart spur themselves on to obstinacy. What we say is that men act perversely not without God’s ordination that it be done, as Scripture teaches. Similarly it is said elsewhere that the fact that the inhabitants of Gibeon opposed Israel was ordained by God who made their heart obstinate (Josh 11.20). The way in which this happens is expressed by Scripture when in one passage God is said to have incited the angry heart of David to number the people (II Sam 24.1), while in another Satan is made the author of the incitement (I Chron 21. 1). From this we understand that Satan is God’s fan for impelling the hearts of men just as He pleases. This is said more explicitly elsewhere, where an evil spirit of the Lord enters Saul (I Sam 16.14ff.). Saul is certainly moved by his own criminality, and indulges his fury consciously and voluntarily. But none the less Satan impels him, and this with God not idly observing but actively willing. Elsewhere the Spirit of the Lord is said to be evil; and this must be improper, unless he is sent as minister and executioner of God’s vengeance–the minister of the wrath of God not only in the sense of soliciting minds to evil cupidities, but of effectively drawing them. In this sense, Paul records error to be effectively and divinely sent, to make those believe a lie who were unwilling to obey the truth (I1 Thess 2.1 I). It is clear that not only is Satan by the command of God a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets, but his substitutes ensnare the reprobate so that they lose understanding and are drawn necessarily into error. What Paul says is to be understood in this way (Rom 1.28): those who are ungrateful to God, He gives over to a reprobate mind, and delivers them into foul and ignominious lusts, so that they do what is unspeakable and their bodies are outraged. We hear that, not by the permission of a quiescent God, but by His just judgment, they are abandoned to their lusts, for shamefully profaning His glory. How this happens, the passage itself states: God sent them an effective spirit of error. It is clear from this what conclusion must be drawn. The hand of God rules the interior affections no less than it superintends external actions; nor would God have effected by the hand of man what He decreed, unless He worked in their hearts to make them will before they acted. So Augustine’s opinion is to be accepted: When God wills to be done what cannot be done but by willing men, their hearts being so inclined that they will, He Himself effects this, not only by helping in their hearts but by determining them, so that, though they had no such intention, they fulfil what His hand and His counsel decreed. Even in the very elements of nature He wisely suggests this thought from which so many shrink For the great diversity in human talents to be observed since it is divinely implanted in them, is a splendid example of that secret working by which He rules and moves our hearts.

From this it is easy to conclude how foolish and frail is the support of divine justice afforded by the suggestion that evils come to be not by His will, but merely by His permission. Of course, so far as they are evils, which men perpetrate with their evil mind, as I shall show in greater detail shortly, I admit that they are not pleasing to God. But it is a quite frivolous refuge to say that God otiosely permits them, when Scripture shows Him not only willing but the author of them. Augustine conceded this to the accustomed and accepted forms of speech, for the time being; but when he proceeds farther to examine the thing more closely, he quite prohibits permission from taking the place of action. I shall not refer to all that he says about this matter in Book 5 of the Contra Iulianum. This will be enough: These things He does in marvelous and ineffable ways, who knows how to execute His just judgments not only upon men’s bodies but in their hearts; who does not make wills evil but uses them as He wills, while being Himself unable to will evil. Elsewhere in the same senses If diligently searched, Scripture shows not only the good wills of men, which He Himself made out of evil wills and are made good by Him, to be directed to good actions and to eternal life; even those which conserve the creatureliness of this world are so within the power of God, that He inclines them when He wilts and as He wills, either to the enjoyment of benefits in the case of some, or to the imposition of penalties in the case of others. He adds? Who does not tremble at these judgments with which God works in the hearts of even the wicked whatever He will, rewarding them none the less according to desert? Again it is quite clear from the evidence of Scripture that God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills just as He will, whether to good for His mercy’s sake or to evil according to their merits, His judgment being sometimes open and sometimes concealed, but always just. For it ought to be fixed in your hearts that there is no iniquity with God. The reason recorded for God’s judgment being sometimes concealed is to be sought in another passage. Here he frequently declares that sins are penalties which God justly returns upon those who had first sinned; and then he rises to that higher and greater hidden secret. God finds the material cause for exercising His wrath in all except those whom He gratuitously elected. For, he says, the rest of mortal men, who are not of that number, are born of the same human race from which those come and are made vessels of wrath for their benefit. For God creates none of them rashly or fortuitously or because He did not know what good He might work by them. For He effects this good, that in them He creates a human nature and out of them He effects order in the world. The reason why He should sometimes fill the heart with anxiety and fear and sometimes confirm it with courage, why He should take away the spirit from princes and infatuate the counsels of the wise, why He should bestow on some the spirit of temperance and supply others with the spirit of wild fury–the reason for all this He will one day make clear and conspicuous. But it will equally appear that His hidden judgment is paramount, as He converts wills as seems good to Him. For nature is common to all men, but not grace. So in another place speaks the holy man John Calvin, The Eternal Predestination of God, 174-179.

4) At the same time, I do acknowledge this as my doctrine, that not merely by the permission of God, but by his secret counsel also, Adam fell, and in his fall, dragged down all his descendants into everlasting perdition. John Calvin Secret Providence of God, trans., by John Lillie (New York: Robert Carter, 1840), 18.

5) The third article no less than the others, betrays your extreme fondness, for foetid calumnies. If you will attack my doctrine, why not at least show candor enough to quote my own language. In our present discussion, I maintain the distinction between permission and volition to be frivolous. You oppose what you fancy a witty subtlety, but what is really a silly sophism, viz.: If God wills all things, he wills incompatible things, inasmuch as you call me a prophet of the devil, while I affirm myself to be a faithful servant of God. This apparent inconsistency, indeed, dazzles your eyes; but truly, God himself, who knows well how at once to will, and not to will the same thing, is not concerned about pour dimness of sight. Whenever God rased up true prophets, he certainly willed, that they should actively and strenuously contend, in maintaining the doctrine of his law; false prophets arose who laboured to subvert that doctrine there must be a conflict betwixt them; but God did not conflict with himself when he raised up both. You here thrust the divine toleration in my face; while he openly proclaims (Deut. xiii. 1) that no false prophets arise, whom he does not ordain, either to try the faith of his own, or to blind the unbelieving. “If a false prophet shall arise among you,” says Moses, “your God tries you.” You, by a most impertinent commentary, transfer to a totally different quarter, what Moses ascribes, not rashly to God. Either deny that it is the prerogative of God to examine the hearts of his people, or yield at length to the clear and in ‘indubitable truth, that false prophets, are God’s instruments in that examination of which he chooses to be recognized as the author. Ezekiel (xiv. 9,) is still clearer; “if a deceived prophet has brought forth anything, I, God have deceived that prophet, and my hand is upon him.” You enjoin us to be content with mere permission. God declares his own will and hand to be at work. Now mark, which witness is better entitled to belief: God speaking of himself by his Spirit, the only fountain of wisdom, or you prating of his unknown mysteries, according to your carnal silly apprehension. What? When God calls Satan as the executioner of his vengeance, and openly commissions him to deceive, does this differ in no respect from a simple permission? The voice of God (1 Kings xxii. 20, 21,) is distinct enough; “who for us will deceive Ahab?” And there is no obscurity in the command given to Satan; “Go and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.”

I would also know whether doing and emitting are the same thing. Because David had secretly abused his neighbour’s wife, God (2 Sam. xii. 11,) declares, that he will bring it about, that his wives shall be dragged to similar infamy, in the sight of the sun. He does not say I will allow it to be done, but I will do it. You, to aid him with your hollow help, plead permission as an apology. David himself was of a very different mind, who, reflecting on the dreadful judgment of God, exclaims, I am dumb because thou didst it.” So also, when Job blesses God, he does not merely acknowledge that by the divine permission, he had been spoiled by the robbers, but distinctly affirms that God had taken &way what he had given.

If the same rule hold in giving and receiving, then by your authority, wealth cannot be a gift of God; but must flow to us casually by the divine permission. Now, though you, with your corrupt crew, cease not to rail, yet God will justify himself. But we will reverently adore mysteries, which far transcend our comprehension, till a full knowledge of them shine forth, when, face to face, we shall behold Him who now can be discerned only as in a glass. Then, says Augustine, shall be seen in the clearest light of wisdom, what the faith of the pious holds, how certain, and immutable, and most efficacious is the will of God, how many things it could do, but chooses not, while it chooses nothing, to which it is unequal. But from the lips of the same pious writer, I answer you on the point in hand. “These are the great works of the Lord, immaculate in respect of all his volitions, and so wisely immaculate, that when the angelic and human creature had sinned, that is, had done not what he, but what itself willed, even by that same volition of the creature, by which what the Creator did not will was done, God accomplished his own design: wisely employing like one supremely good, even evil, for the damnation of those, whom he justly predestinated to punishment, and for their salvation whom he benignly predestinated to pardon. For, in so far as they were concerned, they did what God did not will; but in reference to the Omnipotence of God, it was impossible they could do this; inasmuch, as by this very acting against God’s will, his will concerning themselves, was performed. Therefore, the great works of the Lord, are immaculate in respect of all his volitions, so that in a wonderful and ineffable way, even that which is against his will, does not happen without his will; because it would not happen if he did not allow it; nor does he allow it unwillingly, but willingly. Nor, as good, could he allow evil to be done, unless as Omnipotent he could bring good out of it.”

As to the Scripture examples which you adduce, they are just as much to the purpose, as mixing wine with oil. God, by Ezekiel, addressing the disobedient Jews, says; “Go ye, serve every man idols.” I acknowledge, indeed, that this is not a word of command, but of rejection of the impious mixture by which the Jews adulterated his legitimate worship. But what more will you infer from this, except that God sometimes permits what he reprobates and condemns; as if, forsooth, it were not universally agreed that in such forms of expression, God sometimes commands, and sometimes permits. He says, in the law, six shalt thou work; it is a concession; for, consecrating to himself the seventh day, he left men free on the other six. In another way too he anciently allowed divorce to the Jews, which he by no means approved. Here he indignantly devotes the hypocritical and perfidious to idols; because he would not have his name profaned. But how comes it that you forget, that the point in debate is the secret Providence of God, by which he destines and turns all the agitations of the world, to his own purpose according to his pleasure?

Moreover, by corrupting another passage, so unskillfully and so perversely, you show that nothing is sacred to an impious and profane man. God’s words are; “because they were unwilling to obey my precepts, I gave them precepts not good.” Here you trifle by telling us, that when they were deserted by God, they fell into idolatry. Whereas, there is no doubt God means the Jews were bound in servitude by the Chaldeans, who compelled them to obey their tyrannical lams. Now the question is, whether God merely permitted the Jews to be haled by the Chaldeans into exile; or whether he employed them as his chosen instruments for chastising the sins of his people. Indeed, if you still seek a pretext, in the mission of God, all the prophets must consigned to the flames, who declare at one time, that Satan is sent by God to deceive; at another that the Chaldeans, or Assyrians are sent to ravage. Again they tell us that the same God hissed for the Egyptians, when about to employ their agency; that the Assyrians mere his mercenaries; that Nebuchadnezzar was his servant in spoiling Egypt; and that the Assyrians were the axe in his hand, and the rod of his anger, in the destruction of Judea. Lest I should be tedious, I omit innumerable other instances.

You are guilty of not less drunken audacity, when you pretend that God sends a spirit of error to the unbelieving that the should believe a lie, merely, inasmuch, as he allows false teachers to exist. When you prate in this way, do you suppose that your readers are so blind as not to see, a totally different meaning in Paul’s words, “God sent strong delusion?” But it is not wonderful that he should babble thus licentiously, who either supposes there are no divine judgments at all, or securely despises the very meaning of the word judgment. For no one of sound intellect will say, that a judge does nothing when he inflicts punishment, or that he inefficiently leaves to others, what is peculiar to his own office.

But it is in vain that you strive to alarm, and harass me, with your barking. You allege there are by the permission of God, erroneous spirits teaching that God wills sin. As the very same reproach was cast on Paul, by men of your stamp, there is no reason why I should take it amiss, to be associated with him. You quote from Zechariah, that God was incensed against those nations, that vexed the Israelites more cruelly, than his displeasure would tolerate. Are you then so absurd, as to suppose there mas not strength enough in God, to prohibit these injuries, if it was his pleasure that his people should be chastised more mildly? You will object, that such is the sound of the words. But you are thrice, yea four times stupid, if you do not that, in one way, God wonderfully tries the patience of his own, by a severe, ordeal; and meanwhile, in another, is displeased with the insolence of the enemy, when he beholds him extravagantly exulting in victory, and rushing into barbarity. Besides nothing is more evident, than that your follies, if let alone, mutually destroy each other. For God either commanded, omitted, those profane nations, gently to chastise the Jews. If you answer there was a command, I maintain, however causelessly troublesome, those neighbours may have been to God’s unhappy exiles, yet they would have been free from blame, provided they had kept due bounds. For who would make a fault of their obedience to God? Yet you make a distinction between permission and command, inasmuch as when God had ordered them to inflict light punishment on his people, they by his permission exceeded their limits. On this principle, the Israelites were worthy of reproof, because they afflicted their brethren more grievously, than the divine anger allowed. Now your absurdity is too blind, in imagining they would have been free from blame, if they had only kept the due mean. For I will always drag you back to this point, that the Israelites were not merely guilty by divine permission (as you fancy,) of excessive harshness, but also of unjustly taking up arms against their brethren. You scruple not to assert, that there was nothing wrong in undertaking the war, because Go f was angry at the Jews, and armed the Israelites, to execute his commanded vengeance. But I maintain they sinned twice, because in the first place, they had no intention of obeying God, however they were the instruments of his vengeance ; and then, the very atrocity they displayed, showed that righteousness was not in all their thoughts.

Besides, in your principle itself, you display shameful ignorance in fancying that men slip and err, by God’s permission, in so far as they are concerned. For it is an impious and sacrilegious figment, that God permits any evil to men, in respect of them, since it is evident he severely prohibits, and forbids whatever. is contrary to his commands. But why he chooses to allow men to err, nay dooms those to error in his secret decree, whom he commands to hold the straight course, of this it is the part of sober modesty to be ignorant; while it belongs to mad temerity to cavil about it as you do.

As to Christ’s permission to his disciples to depart, you may infer how skillfully you interpret the passage, from the fact, that he exhorts them to perseverance, by setting before them the defection of others. For when he mournfully asks them, (John vi. 67,) “will ye also go away?” he, as it were, puts a bridle on them to prevent them wandering with apostates. Does this way of speaking seem to vou a permission? I acknowledge, indeed, that common sense dictates a difference between ordering and permitting, but on this point we have no discussion. The question is, whether God inactively beholds what is done on earth; or whither he governs with supreme sway all the actions of men.

Or, if the word permission pleases you so much, answer, is permission willing or unwilling?, This last supposition overthrown by what we read in the psalm, that God does whatever he pleases. But if it be a willing permission, then you cannot, without impiety, fancy him inactive. Whence it follows, he regulates by his counsel, what he chooses shall come to pass.

Now it is too silly in you, to think of subjecting so sublime a mystery of God, to the rule of common sense. For, as to your objection, that Christ accommodated all his instructions on divine things, to common sense, he himself expressly denies it and convicts you both of lying, and impudence. Do you not hear how he declares, that he spake in parables, that men in general by hearing, might not hear? It is true, indeed, that the Holy Spirit, always as it were stammers, like a nurse for our sakes; but common sense is still very far from being a fit judge of that doctrine, which transcends the capacity of angels. Paul exclaims, that the natural man perceiveth not the things of God. Therefore, he enjoins all who would advance in the celestial school, to become fools, and to be emptied of their own sense. In fine, God everywhere claims for himself the light of intelligence; and time and paper would fail, were I to gather the proofs, which so convict common sense of blindness, that whoever would learn of God, must renounce his own wisdom, and seek light from heaven. Therefore, one example is sufficient. Paul calls it a mystery hid from ages, yea concealed from the celestial angels themselves, that God would not have evangelical doctrine, promulgated to the Gentiles, . till the coming of Christ. . You thrust forward common sense, to subvert this doctrine at its pleasure, as you allow nothing to be susceptible of proof, of which it is not the judge, and the arbiter. The prophet, speaking of the Providence of God, exclaims, how magnificent are thy works, oh Jehovah, thy thoughts are very deep. You deny anything to be divine, which you cannot measure with your own reason. What then is the meaning of Paul, when speaking on this subject, he says, “Oh man, who art thou?” Again, “oh the height and the depth!” He enjoins wonder and astonishment because all our penetration fails us, when brought to the incomprehensible counsel of God. But you will admit nothing, that is not subjected to your eyes. John Calvin Secret Providence of God, trans., by John Lillie (New York: Robert Carter, 1840), 41-54; c.f., John Calvin, A Defense of the Secret Providence of God, trans., by Henry Cole in Calvin’s Calvinism, ((Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing, 1987?), 284-296.



As for the discord and strife that we say exists between Satan and God, we ought to accept as a fixed certainty the fact that he can do nothing unless God wills and assents to it. For we read in the history of Job that he presented himself before God to receive his commands [ Job 1:6; 2:1], and did not dare undertake any evil act without first having obtained permission [chs. 1:12; 2:6]. Thus, also, when Ahab was to be deceived, Satan took upon himself to become a spirit of falsehood in the mouths of all the prophets; and commissioned by God, he carried out his task [1 Kings 22:20-22]. For this reason, too, the spirit of the Lord that troubled Saul is called “evil” because the sins of the impious king were punished by it as by a lash [ 1 Samuel 16:14; 18:10]. And elsewhere it is written that the plagues were inflicted upon the Egyptians by God “through evil angels” [Psalm 78:49]. According to these particular examples Paul generally testifies that the blinding of unbelievers is God’s work [2 Thessalonians 2:11], although he had before called it the activity of Satan [2 Thessalonians 2:9; cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:2]. Therefore Satan is clearly under God’s power, and is so ruled by his bidding as to be compelled to render him service. Indeed, when we say that Satan resists God, and that Satan’s works disagree with Gods works, we at the same time assert that this resistance and this opposition are dependent upon God’s sufferance. I am not now speaking of Satan’s will, nor even of his effort, but only of his effect. For inasmuch as the devil is by nature wicked, he is not at all inclined to obedience to the divine will, but utterly intent upon contumacy and rebellion. From himself and his own wickedness, therefore, arises his passionate and deliberate opposition to God. By this wickedness he is urged on to attempt courses of action which he believes to be most hostile to God. But because with the bridle of his power God holds him bound and restrained, he carries out only those things which have been divinely permitted to him; and so he obeys his Creator, whether he will or not, because he is compelled to yield him service wherever God impels him. Calvin, Institutes, 1.14.17.

2) And I did not pass over this in silence but said it, for perhaps what is commonly called ‘fortune’ is also ruled by a secret order, and we call a ‘chance occurrence’ only that of which the reason and cause are secret. Indeed, I said this: but I regret having thus mentioned ‘fortune’ here, since I see that men have a very bad custom, that where one ought to say ‘God willed this,’ they say, ‘fortune willed this.’” In fine, Augustine commonly teaches that if anything is left to fortune, the world is aimlessly whirled about. And although in another place he lays down that all things are carried on partly by man’s free choice, partly by God’s providence, yet a little after this he sufficiently demonstrates that men are under, and ruled by, providence; taking as his principle that nothing is more absurd than that anything should happen without God’s ordaining it, because it would then happen without any cause. For this reason he excludes, also, the contingency that depends upon men’s will; soon thereafter he does so more clearly, denying that we ought to seek the cause of God’s will. How the term “permission,” so frequently mentioned by him, ought to be understood will best appear from one passage, where he proves that God’s will is the highest and first cause of all things because nothing happens except from his command or permission. Surely he does not conjure up a God who reposes idly in a watchtower, willing the while to permit something or other, when an actual will not his own, so to speak, intervenes, which otherwise could not be deemed a cause. Calvin, Institutes, 1.16.8.


From other passages, where God is said to bend or draw Satan himself and all the wicked to his will, there emerges a more difficult question. For carnal sense can hardly comprehend how in acting through them he does not contract some defilement from their transgression, and even in a common undertaking can be free of all blame, and indeed can justly condemn his ministers. Hence the distinction was devised between doing and permitting because to many this difficulty seemed inexplicable, that Satan and all the impious are so under God’s hand and power that he directs their malice to whatever end seems good to him, and uses their wicked deeds to carry out his judgments. And perhaps the moderation of those whom the appearance of absurdity alarms would be excusable, except that they wrongly try to clear God’s justice of every sinister mark by upholding a falsehood. It seems absurd to them for man, who will soon be punished for his blindness, to be blinded by God’s will and command. Therefore they escape by the shift that this is done only with God’s permission, not also by his will; but he, openly declaring that he is the doer, repudiates that evasion. However, that men can accomplish nothing except by God’s secret command, that they cannot by deliberating accomplish anything except what he has already decreed with himself and determines by his secret direction, is proved by innumerable and clear testimonies. What we have cited before from the psalm, that God does whatever he wills [Psalm 115:3], certainly pertains to all the actions of men. If, as is here said, God is the true Arbiter of wars and of peace, and this without any exception, who, then, will dare say that men are borne headlong by blind motion unbeknown to God or with his acquiescence?

But particular examples will shed more light. From the first chapter of Job we know that Satan, no less than the angels who willingly obey, presents himself before God [Job 1:6; 2:1] to receive his commands. He does so, indeed, in a different way and with a different end; but he still cannot undertake anything unless God so wills. However, even though a bare permission to afflict the holy man seems then to be added, yet we gather that God was the author of that trial of which Satan and his wicked thieves were the ministers, because this statement is true: “The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away; as it has pleased God, so is it done” [Job 1:2 l, Vg. (p.)]. Satan desperately tries to drive the holy man insane; the Sabaeans cruelly and impiously pillage and make off with another’s possessions. Job recognizes that he was divinely stripped of all his property, and made a poor man, because it so pleased God. Therefore, whatever men or Satan himself may instigate, God nevertheless holds the key, so that he turns their efforts to carry out his judgments. God wills that the false King Ahab be deceived; the devil offers his services to this end; he is sent, with a definite command, to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets [1 Kings 22:20, 22]. If the blinding and insanity of Ahab be God’s judgment, the figment of bare permission vanishes: because it would be ridiculous for the Judge only to permit what he wills to be done, and not also to decree it and to command its execution by his ministers.

The Jews intended to destroy Christ; Pilate and his soldiers complied with their mad desire; yet in solemn prayer the disciples confess that all the impious ones had done nothing except what “the hand and plan” of God had decreed [Acts 4:28, cf. Vg.]. So Peter had already preached that “by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, Christ had been given over” to be killed [Acts 2:23, cf. Vg.]. It is as if he were to say that God, to whom from the beginning nothing was hidden, wittingly and willingly determined what the Jews carried out. As he elsewhere states: “God, who has foretold through all his prophets that Christ is going to suffer, has thus fulfilled it” [Acts 3:18, cf. Vg.]. e Absalom, polluting his father’s bed by an incestuous union, commits a detestable crime [2 Samuel 16:22]; yet God declares this work to be his own; for the words are: “You did it secretly; but I will do this thing openly, and in broad daylight” [2 Samuel 12:12 p.]. Jeremiah declared that every cruelty the Chaldeans exercised against Judah was God’s work [Jeremiah 1:15; 7:14; 50:25, and passim]. For this reason Nebuchadnezzar is called God’s servant [Jeremiah 25:9; cf. ch. 27:6]. God proclaims in many places that by his hissing [Isaiah 7:18 or 5:26], by the sound of his trumpet [Hosea 8:1], by his authority and command, the impious are aroused to war [cf.Zephaniah 2:1]. The Assyrian he calls the rod of his anger [Isaiah 10:5 p.], and the ax that he wields with his hand [cf.Matthew 3:10]. The destruction of the Holy City and the ruin of the Temple he calls his own work [Isaiah 28:21]. David, not murmuring against God, but recognizing him as the just judge, yet confesses that the curses of Shimei proceeded from His command [2 Samuel 16:10]. “The Lord,” he says, “commanded him to curse.” [2 Samuel 16:11.] We very often find in the Sacred History that whatever happens proceeds from the Lord, as for instance the defection of the ten tribes [1 Kings 11:31], the death of Eli’s sons [1 Samuel 2:34], and very many examples of this sort. Those who are moderately versed in the Scriptures see that for the sake of brevity I have put forward only a few of many testimonies. Yet from these it is more than evident that they babble and talk absurdly who, in place of God’s providence, substitute bare permission–as if God sat in a watchtower awaiting chance events, and his judgments thus depended upon human will. Calvin, Institutes, 1.18.1.


As far as pertains to those secret promptings we are discussing, Solomon’s statement that the heart of a king is turned about hither and thither at God’s pleasure [Proverbs 21:1] certainly extends to all the human race, and carries as much weight as if he had said: “Whatever we conceive of in our minds is directed to his own end by God’s secret inspiration.” And surely unless he worked inwardly in men’s minds, it would not rightly have been said that he removes speech from the truthful, and prudence from the old men [Ezekiel 7:26]; that he takes away the heart of the princes of the earth so they may wander in trackless wastes [Job 12:24; cf. Psalm 107:40; 106:40, Vg.]. To this pertains what one often reads: that men are fearful according as dread of him takes possession of their minds [Leviticus 26:36]. So David went forth from Saul’s camp without anyone’s knowing it, because the sleep of God had overtaken them all. [1 Samuel 26:12.] But one can desire nothing clearer than where he so often declares that he blinds men’s minds [Isaiah 29:14], smites them with dizziness [cf. Deuteronomy 28:28; Zechariah 12:4], makes them drunk with the spirit of drowsiness [Isaiah 29:10], casts madness upon them [Romans 1:28], hardens their hearts [Exodus 14:17 and passim]. These instances may refer, also, to divine permission, as if by forsaking the wicked he allowed them to be blinded by Satan. But since the Spirit clearly expresses the fact that blindness and insanity are inflicted by God’s just judgment [Romans 1:20-24], such a solution is too absurd. It is said that he hardened Pharaoh’s heart [Exodus 9:12], also that he made it heavy [ch. 10:1] and stiffened it [chs. 10:20,27; 11:10; 14:8]. By this foolish cavil certain ones get around these expressions, for while it is said elsewhere that Pharaoh himself made heavy his own heart [ Exodus 8:15, 32; 9:34], God’s will is posited as the cause of hardening. As if these two statements did not perfectly agree, although in divers ways, that man, while he is acted upon by God, yet at the same time himself acts! Moreover, I throw their objection back upon them: for if “to harden” denotes bare permission, the very prompting to obstinacy will not properly exist in Pharaoh. Indeed, how weak and foolish would it be to interpret this as if Pharaoh only suffered himself to be hardened! Besides, Scripture cuts off any occasion for such cavils. “I will restrain,” says God, “his heart.” [ Exodus 4:21.] Thus, also, concerning the dwellers in the Land of Canaan, Moses said they had come forth to battle because God stiffened their hearts [Joshua 11:20; Cf. Deuteronomy 2:30]. The same thing is repeated by another prophet, “He turns their hearts to hate his people” [Psalm 105:25]. Likewise in Isaiah, He declares that he will send the Assyrians against the deceitful nation and will command them “to take spoil and seize plunder” [Isaiah 10:6]–not because he would teach impious and obstinate men to obey him willingly, but because he will bend them to execute his judgments, as if they bore his commandments graven upon their hearts; from this it appears that they had been impelled by God’s sure determination. I confess, indeed, that it is often by means of Satan’s intervention that God acts in the wicked, but in such a way that Satan performs his part by God’s impulsion and advances as far as he is allowed. An evil spirit troubles Saul; but it is said to have come from God [1 Samuel 16:14], that we may know that Saul’s madness proceeds from God’s just vengeance. Also, it is said that the same Satan “blinds the minds of unbelievers” [2 Corinthians 4:4]; but whence does this come, unless the working of error flows from God himself [2 Thessalonians 2:11], to make those believe lies who refuse to obey the truth? According to the former reason it is said, “If any prophet should speak in lies, I, God, have deceived him” [Ezekiel 14:9]. According to the second reason, he himself is indeed said to “give men up to an evil mind” [Romans 1:28, cf. Vg.] and cast them into base desires [cf. Romans 1:29]; because he is the chief author of his own just vengeance, while Satan is but the minister of it. But because we must discuss this matter again when we discourse in the Second Book concerning man’s free or unfree choice, it seems to me that I have now briefly said as much as the occasion calls for. To sum up, since God’s will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made his providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works, not only in order to display its force in the elect, who are ruled by the Holy Spirit, but also to compel the reprobate to obedience. Calvin, Institutes, 1.18.2.


While hitherto I have recounted only those things which are openly and unambiguously related in Scripture, let those who do not hesitate to brand the heavenly oracles with sinister marks of ignominy see what kind of censure they use. For if they seek from pretending ignorance to be praised for moderation, what haughtier thing can be imagined than to oppose God’s authority with one little word such as “To me it seems otherwise,” or, “I do not want to touch upon this”? But if they openly curse, what will they gain by spitting at the sky? Indeed, an example of such petulance is not new, for in every age there have been impious and profane men, who have frothed and snarled against this portion of doctrine. But they shall surely feel to be true what the Spirit declared of old through David’s mouth, that God may overcome when he is judged [Psalm 50:6, Vg.; 51:4, EV]. David indirectly reproves the madness of men in the very unbridled license with which, out of their own filthiness, they not only argue against God, but claim for themselves the power to condemn him. Meanwhile, he briefly warns that the blasphemies they spew out against heaven do not reach God, but that he, dispelling their clouds of calumnies, makes his own righteousness shine forth. Even our faith (because, founded upon God’s Sacred Word, it is above the whole world [cf. 1 John 5:4]) from its lofty height despises these clouds. For it is easy to dispose of their first objection, that if nothing happens apart from God’s will, there are in him two contrary wills, because by his secret plan he decrees what he has openly forbidden by his law. Yet before I answer, I should like my readers again to be warned that this cavil is not hurled against me but against the Holy Spirit, who surely put this confession in the mouth of the holy man Job, “As it pleased God, so was it done” [Job 1:21, cf. Vg.]. When he had been robbed by thieves, in their unjust acts and evil-doing toward him he recognized God’s just scourge. What does Scripture say elsewhere? Eli’s sons did not obey their father because God willed to slay them [1 Samuel 2:25]. Another prophet also proclaims that “God, who resides in heaven, does whatever he pleases” [Psalm 15:3]. And now I have already shown plainly enough that God is called the Author of all the things that these faultfinders would have happen only by his indolent permission. He declares that he creates light and darkness, that he forms good and bad [Isaiah 45:7 p.]; that nothing evil happens that he himself has not done [ Amos 3:6]. Let them tell me, I pray, whether he exercises his judgments willingly or unwillingly. Yet, as Moses teaches, he who is killed by a chance slip of the ax has been divinely given over to the striker’s hand. [Deuteronomy 19:5; cf. Exodus 21:13.] Thus, according to Luke, the whole church says that Herod and Pilate conspired to do what God’s hand and plan had decreed. [Acts 4:28.] And indeed, unless Christ had been crucified according to God’s will, whence would we have redemption? Yet God’s will is not therefore at war with itself, nor does it change, nor does it pretend not to will what he wills. But even though his will is one and simple in him, it appears manifold to us because, on account of our mental incapacity, we do not grasp how in divers ways it wills and does not will something to take place. When Paul said that the calling of the Gentiles was “a mystery hidden” [Ephesians 3:9], he added shortly thereafter that in it was shown forth “God’s manifold wisdom” [Ephesians 3:10]. Because God’s wisdom appears manifold (or “multiform” as the old translator renders it), ought we therefore, on account of the sluggishness of our understanding, to dream that there is any variation in God himself, as if he either may change his plan or disagree with himself? Rather, when we do not grasp how God wills to take place what he forbids to be done, let us recall our mental incapacity, and at the same time consider that the light in which God dwells is not without reason called unapproachable [1 Timothy 6:16], because it is overspread with darkness. Therefore all godly and modest folk readily agree with this saying of Augustine: “Sometimes with a good will a man wills something which God does not will … For example, a good son wills that his father live, whom God wills to die. Again, it can happen that the same man wills with a bad will what God wills with a good will. For example, a bad son wills that his father die; God also wills this. That is, the former wills what God does not will; but the latter wills what God also wills. And yet the filial piety of the former, even though he wills something other than God wills, is more consonant with God’s good will than the impiety of the latter, who wills the same thing as God does. There is a great difference between what is fitting for man to will and what is fitting for God, and to what end the will of each is directed, so that it be either approved or disapproved. For through the bad wills of evil men God fulfills what he righteously wills.” A little before he had said that by their defection the apostate angels and all the wicked, from their point of view, had done what God did not will, but from the point of view of God’s omnipotence they could in no way have done this, because while they act against God’s will, his will is done upon them. Whence he exclaims: “Great are God’s works, sought out in all his wills” [Psalm 111:2; cf. Psalm 110:2, Vg.]; so that in a wonderful and ineffable manner nothing is done without God’s will, not even that which is against his will. For it would not be done if he did not permit it; yet he does not unwillingly permit it, but willingly; nor would he, being good, allow evil to be done, unless being also almighty he could make good even out of evil.” Calvin, Institutes, 1.18.2.


Far different is the manner of God’s action in such matters. To make this clearer to us, we may take as an example the calamity inflicted by the Chaldeans upon the holy man Job, when they killed his shepherds and in enmity ravaged his flock [Job 1:17]. Now their wicked act is perfectly obvious; nor does Satan do nothing in that work, for the history states that the whole thing stems from him [Job 1:12]. But Job himself recognizes the Lord’s work in it, saying that He has taken away what had been seized through the Chaldeans [Job 1:21]. How may we attribute this same work to God, to Satan, and to man as author, without either excusing Satan as associated with God, or making God the author of evil? Easily, if we consider first the end, and then the manner, of acting. The Lord’s purpose is to exercise the patience of His servant by calamity; Satan endeavors to drive him to desperation; the Chaldeans strive to acquire gain from another’s property contrary to law and right. So great is the diversity of purpose that already strongly marks the deed. There is no less difference in the manner. The Lord permits Satan to afflict His servant; He hands the Chaldeans over to be impelled by Satan, having chosen them as His ministers for this task. Satan with his poison darts arouses the wicked minds of the Chaldeans to execute that evil deed. They dash madly into injustice, and they render all their members guilty and befoul them by the crime. Satan is properly said, therefore, to act in the reprobate over whom he exercises his reign, that is, the reign of wickedness. God is also said to act in His own manner, in that Satan himself, since he is the instrument of God’s wrath, bends himself hither and thither at His beck and command to execute His just judgments. I pass over here the universal activity of God whereby all creatures, as they are sustained, thus derive the energy to do anything at all. I am speaking only of that special action which appears in every particular deed. Therefore we see no inconsistency in assigning the same deed to God, Satan, and man; but the distinction in purpose and manner causes God’s righteousness to shine forth blameless there, while the wickedness of Satan and of man betrays itself by its own disgrace. Calvin, Institutes, 2.4.2.


The church fathers sometimes scrupulously shrink from a simple confession of the truth because they are afraid that they may open the way for the impious to speak irreverently of God’s works. As I heartily approve of this soberness, so do I deem it in no way dangerous if we simply adhere to what Scripture teaches. At times not even Augustine was free of that superstition; for example, he says that hardening and blinding refer not to God’s activity but to his foreknowledge. Yet very many expressions of Scripture do not admit these subtleties, but clearly show that something more than God’s mere foreknowledge is involved. And Augustine himself in the Against Julian, Book V, argues at great length that sins happen not only by God’s permission and forbearance, but by his might, as a kind of punishment for sins previously committed. Likewise what they report concerning permission is too weak to stand. Very often God is said to blind and harden the reprobate, to turn, incline, and impel, their hearts [e.g.. Isaiah 6:10], as I have taught more fully elsewhere. The nature of this activity is by no means explained if we take refuge in foreknowledge or permission. We therefore reply that it takes place in two ways. For after his light is removed, nothing but darkness and blindness remains. When his Spirit is taken away, our hearts harden into stones. When his guidance ceases, they are wrenched into crookedness. Thus it is properly said that he blinds, hardens, and bends those whom he has deprived of the power of seeing, obeying, and rightly following. The second way, which comes much closer to the proper meaning of the words, is that to carry out his judgments through Satan as minister of his wrath, God destines men’s purposes as he pleases, arouses their wills, and strengthens their endeavors. Thus Moses, when he relates that King Sihon did not give passage to the people because God had hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, immediately adds the purpose of His plan: that, as he says, “He might give him into our hands” [Deuteronomy 2:30, cf. Comm.]. Therefore, because God willed that Sihon be destroyed, He prepared his ruin through obstinacy of heart. Calvin, Institutes, 2.4.3.


Here they have recourse to the distinction between will and permission. By this they would maintain that the wicked perish because God permits it, not because he so wills. But why shall we say “permission” unless it is because God so wills? Still, it is not in itself likely that man brought destruction upon himself through himself, by God’s mere permission and without any ordaining. As if God did not establish the condition in which he wills the chief of his creatures to be! I shall not hesitate, then, simply to confess with Augustine that “the will of God is the necessity of things,” and that what he has willed will of necessity come to pass, as those things which he has foreseen will truly come to pass. Now if either the Pelagians, or Manichees, or Anabaptists, or Epicureans (for on this issue we have to deal with these four sects) in excuse for themselves and for the wicked, raise by way of objection the necessity by which they are constrained because of divine predestination, they advance no argument applicable to the cause. For if predestination is nothing but the meting out of divine justice–secret, indeed, but blameless–because it is certain that they were not unworthy to be predestined to this condition, it is equally certain that the destruction they undergo by predestination is also most just. Besides, their perdition depends upon the predestination of God in such a way that the cause and occasion of it are found in themselves. For the first man fell because the Lord had judged it to be expedient; why he so judged is hidden from us. Yet it is certain that he so judged because he saw that thereby the glory of his name is duly revealed. Where you hear God’s glory mentioned, think of his justice. For whatever deserves praise must be just. Accordingly, man falls according as God’s providence ordains, but he falls by his own fault. A little before, the Lord had declared that “everything that he had made… was exceedingly good” [Genesis 1:31]. Whence, then, comes that wickedness to man, that he should fall away from his God? Lest we should think it comes from creation, God had put his stamp of approval on what had come forth from himself. By his own evil intention, then, man corrupted the pure nature he had received from the Lord; and by his fall he drew all his posterity with him into destruction. Accordingly, we should contemplate the evident cause of condemnation in the corrupt nature of humanity–which is closer to us–rather than seek a hidden and utterly incomprehensible cause in God’s predestination. And let us not be ashamed to submit our understanding to God’s boundless wisdom so far as to yield before its many secrets. For, of those things which it is neither given nor lawful to know, ignorance is learned; the craving to know, a kind of madness. Calvin, Institutes, 3.23.8.


Perhaps someone will say that I have not yet brought forward evidence to silence this wicked excuse. But I admit this cannot be so done that impiety will not always growl and mutter. Yet it seems to me that I have said enough to banish not only all reason to gainsay but also all pretext to do so. The reprobate wish to be considered excusable in sinning, on the ground that they cannot avoid the necessity of sinning, especially since this sort of necessity is cast upon them by God’s ordaining. But we deny that they are duly excused, because the ordinance of God, by which they complain that they are destined to destruction, has its own equity— unknown, indeed, to us but very sure. From this we conclude that the ills they bear are all inflicted upon them by God’s most righteous judgment. Accordingly, we teach that they act perversely who to seek out the source of their condemnation turn their gaze upon the hidden sanctuary of God’s plan, and wink at the corruption of nature from which it really springs. God, to prevent them from charging it against himself, bears testimony to his creation. For even though by God’s eternal providence man has been created to undergo that calamity to which he is subject, it still takes its occasion from man himself, not from God, since the only reason for his ruin is that he has degenerated from God’s pure creation into vicious and impure perversity. Calvin Institutes, 3.23.9.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 21, 2008 10:36 am

    Thanks for this resource. It seems to me that Calvin just affirms contradictions and calls them mysteries and secrets. If exhaustive determinism is true and God directs our every thought and action then I just don’t see how he can be anything other than the author of sin and evil (nor do I see how “permission” has any real meaning).

    In reading Calvin I am pleased that he refuses to call God the author of sin (directly anyway), but I think such an assertion contradicts his overall determinism and you can see the inconsistencies in his writings. That’s my opinion anyway.

    The main reason for this comment is that I have read Calvin discuss permission (or the lack of permission) with regards to the fall of man. I didn’t see that here. Perhaps I overlooked it, but if it is not here I wonder why you didn’t include that discussion? And I wonder if you would be willing to include it? Again, if I overlooked it then I apologize (as I skimmed some of the material). If that is the case then could you direct me to the sections where the fall is discussed.

    Thanks and God Bless,

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