Is it possible to have faith in Jesus, yet be predestined to hell? John Calvin shockingly says yes! Calvin is the father of Double Predestination, so I expected him to divide the world into the believing Elect and the unbelieving Reprobate (i.e. the non-Elect). Little did I know, Calvin was not so binary and believed reprobates may have faith! Calvin said a man may have a "transitory faith" that is a "temporary . . . awareness of divine love" that is not merely a faith "pretended in words . . . that he did not have in his heart." Calvin admits that reprobates never have "true faith" like the Elect, but "the reprobate are sometimes affected by almost the same feeling as the elect, so that even in their own judgment they do not in any way differ from the elect" (cf. Acts 13:48). It is easy to see why Calvin devotes so much of his Institutes to prove that we may have assurance of salvation! In this post, I will explore what sort of faith people predestined to perdition may possess.
The Parable of the Sower: Pious and Impious Faith
John Calvin used the Parable of the Sower to describe six forms of faith in which the Elect and Reprobate respond to the Word of God (c.f. Calvin's commentary in loc.) The first three pious forms (the hundredfold, sixty-fold, and thirty-fold) signify the true faith of the Elect differentiated by degrees of fruitfulness. The other three impious forms (the rocky soil, thorny ground, and roadside) signify the transitory faith of the Reprobate that is "faith for a time" but "does not penetrates into the heart." Calvin explains the difference between impious transitory faith and pious true faith as follows:
"Although we concede, for the purpose of instruction, that there are divers forms of faith. But, while we wish to show what kind of knowledge of God can exist among the impious—we nevertheless recognize and proclaim that there is only one kind of faith among the pious—as Scripture teaches." (Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.ii.9)
(n.b. The six forms of faith are depicted as corn in the header image, but I doubt Calvin referred to the maize discovered in North America during the Age of Discovery. By "corn", Calvin was likely referring to wheat or barley used in the Ancient Near East.)
The Seed in Stony Soil: Faith for a Time
Calvin uses the seed in the stony soil from the Parable of the Sower to explain how faith may be attributed to reprobates. Calvin says the faith of reprobates is "like a tree not planted deep enough to put down living roots. For some years it may put forth not only blossoms and leaves, but even fruits; nevertheless, it withers after the passage of time." A plant in rocky soil grows between the stones, and may even put forth fruit, but since the plant's roots never penetrate the stones, it dies. Likewise, faith takes life in the stony heart of the reprobates, but since it never penetrates the reprobates heart, it eventually dies as well. Even if the faith of a reprobate bears fruit, this fruit never truly stemmed from that hard hearted person.
In the Institutes (III.ii.8-13), Calvin uses the Parable of the Sower to explain how a person may have faith for a time, and frequently utilizes that seed in the stony soil to illustrate the faith of the reprobates. I found this analogy exceedingly helpful in understanding and explaining how a person may have faith and not be of the Elect.
Calvin explains the relationship between the seed in the stony soil to the transitory faith of the reprobate in this extended quotation:
"It is said that even Simon Magus believed [Acts 8:13], who a little later nevertheless betrayed his unbelief [Acts 8:18]. When he is said to have had faith attributed to him, we do not understand the statement as do some, who hold that he pretended in words a faith that he did not have in his heart. Rather, we consider that, conquered by the majesty of the gospel, he showed a certain sort of faith, and thus recognized Christ to be the author of life and salvation, so that he willingly enlisted under him. In the same way, in the Gospel of Luke they are said to believe for a while [Luke 8:13], in whom the seed of the Word is choked before it bears fruit, or immediately withers and dies even before it takes any root [Luke 8:6-7]."
We do not doubt that such persons, prompted by some taste of the Word, greedily seize upon it, and begin to feel its divine power; so that they impose a false show of faith not only upon the eyes of men but even upon their own minds. For they persuade themselves that the reverence that they show to the Word of God is very piety itself, because they count it no impiety unless there is open and admitted reproach or contempt of his Word. Whatever sort of assent that is, it does not at all penetrate to the heart itself, there to remain fixed. And although it seems sometimes to put down roots, they are not living roots. The human heart has so many crannies where vanity hides, so many holes where falsehood lurks, is so decked out with deceiving hypocrisy, that it often dupes itself. Let those who boast of such shadow-shapes of faith understand that in this respect they are no better than the devils! Surely those of the former class are far inferior to the devils, for they stupidly listen to and understand things the knowledge of which makes even the devils shudder. Yet let those who boast of such [James 2:19]. The others are like the devils in this respect, that whatever feeling touches them ends in dread and dismay.
It is a trouble thought that anyone would believe they are justified by faith and ultimately be predestined to hell. If Calvin is right that the reprobates may have faith, how then may anyone have assurance of salvation at all? Calvin believes that if we thoroughly examine ourselves, then assurance may be found. Although Calvin repeatedly declares that the Elect may have assurance of salvation, his argument for assurance is a weakness in his doctrine of Double Predestination. (It's at this point that we look to Karl Barth's Doctrine of Election for a solution.) Here is a quote from Calvin, where he asserts that says we may have assurance of true faith:
"Suppose someone objects that then nothing more remains to believers to assure themselves of their adoption. I reply: although there is a great likeness and affinity between God's elect and those who are given a transitory faith, yet only in the elect does that confidence flourish which Paul extols, that they loudly proclaim Abba, Father [Gal. 4:6; cf. Rom. 8:15]. Therefore, as God regenerates only the elect with incorruptible seed forever [I Peter 1:23] so that the seed of life sown in their hearts may never perish, thus he firmly seals the gift of his adoption in them that it may be steady and sure. But this does not at all hinder that lower working of the Spirit from taking its course even in the reprobate. In the meantime, believers are taught to examine themselves carefully and humbly, lest the confidence of the flesh creep in and replace assurance of faith."
How may Calvin's doctrine of Double Predestination be harmonized with the phenomena of Apostasy? Calvin's use of the Parable of the Sower to explain the difference between pious and impious faith is a helpful tool to understand how a person may have faith for a time and then later abandon Christianity. A person predestined to perdition may have a transient faith that hasn't taken root in their hearts, like the seed in the stony soil, and although that faith may produce fruit, it was never a true faith grounded in their heart, in the same way as the plant's roots could not penetrate the stones in the soil. Calvin's affirming that the reprobates may have faith is helpful to explain the commonly met experience of a person who now denies Christianity yet asserts that they once believed in the past. Calvin asserts again and again that those who have true faith may have assurance of it, yet the troubling conclusion remains that we be numbered among the reprobates because we may think we possess true faith that may one day be revealed to be only transitory faith.
- Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill. Trans. Ford Lewis. Battles. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960. Book III, Chapter ii, Sections 8-13. Print.
- Calvin, John. "Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke - Volume 2." - Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Trans. William Pringle1. CCEL, 1 June 2005. Web. 07 July 2016. <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom32.ii.xix.html>.