Calvin on the Free Offer, God’s Mercy and Where to Find it

Sometimes John Calvin is vilified for “his” doctrine of predestination (I say ‘his’ in scare quotes because obviously he didn’t create it or speak of it first) and thus seen as a rude, unfeeling and uncaring man. Of course many people resist the doctrine of predestination because it exalts God rather than man and so as Reformed people we could easily dismiss such notions with a condescending wave of the hand and rolling eyes.

But it would be better to let Calvin respond himself. As I read through Calvin’s commentaries and Institutes I see a man who cared for the sheep of God and longed to preach the gospel so that his fellow man could be saved. Here is a man whose heart beat for the glory of God but not in contradiction of the good of the people. Here was a pastor, that is a shepherd who loved the flock. Certainly he taught that God chose those whom He willed to salvation but that didn’t stop him from also teaching from scripture that no one is cast out who comes sincerely (in faith) to Christ.

The following is a lengthy excerpt from Calvin’s Commentary on the Gospels on the account of the demon possessed man (found in Luke 8:26-39). What we read here is Calvin’s insistence on the free offer of the gospel: that God speaks to all men without distinction in the good news of Christ that all who come to Him will be saved. That God is indeed merciful and that this mercy is found in Christ. Enjoy.

We have here a striking proof that not all who perceive the hand of God profit as they ought to do by yielding themselves to him in sincere godliness. Having seen the miracle, the Gadarenes were afraid, because the majesty of God shone brightly in Christ. So far they did right but now that they send him out of their territories, what could have been done worse than this? They too were scattered, and here is a shepherd to collect them or rather, it is God who stretches out his arms, through his Son, to embrace and carry to heaven those who were overwhelmed by the darkness of death. They choose rather to be deprived of the salvation which is offered to them, than to endure any longer the presence of Christ… They honor him as God’s minister, and yet are so struck with dread as to desire that he will go to a distance from them. Thus we see that they were not at all moved by a sense of the divine grace. And indeed, though all wicked men adore God, and bestow great pains on appeasing him, yet if they had their choice, they would withdraw to the greatest possible distance from him: for his face is terrible, so long as they contemplate him as a Judge, and not as a Father. The consequence is, that the gospel, which is more delightful than anything that can be conceived, is everywhere considered to be so dismal and severe, that a good part of the world would wish that it were buried…. [so] we learn how wide is the difference between the knowledge of the goodness, and the knowledge of the power of God. Power strikes men with terror, makes them fly from the presence of God, and drives them to a distance from him: but goodness draws them gently, and makes them feel that nothing is more desirable than to be united to God… [i]n the person of one man Christ has exhibited to us “proof of his grace” which is extended to all mankind. Though we are not tortured by the devil, yet he holds us as his slaves, till the Son of God delivers us from his tyranny. Naked, torn, and disfigured, we wander about, till he restores us to soundness of mind. It remains that, in magnifying his grace, we testify our gratitude.

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