The Calvinist's Motivation for Holiness

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

John CalvinOne of the accusations often leveled against the doctrine of predestination (or election) is that if you believe that God chooses ahead of time those who will be saved, there is no motivation to live a holy life.  And if ultimately falling away from the faith is impossible because God will assuredly make His people persevere to the end, then there is no motivation for holy living. 

And we must admit that this argument has some teeth to it.  In the history of the church there have been many people who have used this kind of logic to rationalize and justify their own bad behavior.  But at the same time, some of the greatest advocates for the biblical doctrines of predestination, election, and free grace have strongly opposed such rationalizations as utterly unbiblical. 

In 1528 and 1529, Martin Luther and his associates made a series of parish visits in the Electorate of Saxony and were shocked at the way in which people who had received the gospel of free grace were using it as an excuse to engage in immorality.  In his introduction to his Small Catechism, Luther writes:

The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare [publish] this Catechism, or Christian doctrine, in this small, plain, simple form. Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach [so much so, that one is ashamed to speak of it]. Nevertheless, all maintain that they are Christians, have been baptized and receive the [common] holy Sacraments. Yet they [do not understand and] cannot [even] recite either the Lord’s Prayer, or the Creed, or the Ten Commandments; they live like dumb brutes and irrational hogs; and yet, now that the Gospel has come, they have nicely learned to abuse all liberty like experts.

In a similar manner, John Calvin strongly disapproved of those who would use the great doctrines of the Bible as an excuse for sin.  In his commentary on Matthew 7:6, Calvin writes:

“Whatever is taught in Scripture, for instance, about the corrupt nature of man, free justification, and eternal election, is turned by many into an encouragement to sloth and to carnal indulgence. Such persons are fitly and justly pronounced to be swine.”

If one wants to argue that believing in the Reformed doctrine of predestination or election necessarily leads to lazy living, he will find no support from the great teachers of these doctrines, nor from the great majority of those who believe these doctrines. 

But, it may be asked, why would the Calvinist bother to try to be holy if he knows he is going to be saved anyhow?  In order to answer that, we first need to unpack the wrong assumptions tucked away into this question. 

First is the assumption that the Calvinist’s main motivation in life is to do as little as possible to honor God.  It is an assumption of laziness and selfishness. 

Secondly, there is the assumption that all Calvinists will rationalize their laziness by following the doctrine of election to its logical (yet unbiblical) extreme.  But that is where a balanced view of Scripture mediates the sinful logic of man that would otherwise carry us away into a den of iniquity. 

The Calvinist is not someone whose entire life and thought is shaped by one single point of doctrine, namely predestination or election.  The Calvinist, or any Christian, must take into account the entirety of Biblical revelation so that he doesn’t go off the proverbial rails, either to the left or to the right.  All of Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16) and we must not take one doctrinal point and build an entire system out of it without taking the rest of Scripture into account. Those who do so find themselves in places that the Bible never intended for them to go.  For example, there are a small minority of people who are properly called hyper-Calvinists, who follow predestination to its logical end and negate the need for evangelism.  Such pernicious thinking must be opposed.  But the majority report of Calvinists is quite different than the hyper-Calvinist extreme which is too often (and incorrectly) held up as representative of the whole.

Rather, the Calvinist is one who has beheld the greatness of God and His grace, and desires to live to honor God.  The Calvinist does not sit around, thinking, “Since predestination is true, I don’t need to do this or that, and I can get away with that other thing.”  Rather, a true Calvinist is someone who has a balanced understanding of Scripture, logically refuses to go places that Scripture does not go, and orders his priorities and values according to Scripture.  A true Calvinist is someone who has a warm love for God, rejoices in God’s grace, desires to share that grace with others, and seeks to live a holy life because his greatest joy and God’s honor in this world depend upon abiding in Christ and walking according to the way that Jesus walked.

If those who are Christians stay within the bounds laid out by Scripture, doctrines such as election and predestination do not lead to sinful living, but to holy living.  An apprehension of the Christian’s hope, of which the grace given in predestination is a part, leads to a desire to purify one’s life in expectation of the return of Christ, as the Apostle John writes:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2–3 ESV)

The blessed hope of the Calvinist, and every true Christian, is that we will someday see Christ face to face, and for that reason we seek to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16).



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