John Calvin: The Church and Predestination

By: Gregory S. Neal

For John Calvin, the Church is the body of the elect--those predestined, by the love and free will of God, to salvation, faith, and grace. This body of the elect is to be ideally organized for the nurture and growth of the Christian community along "Biblical lines," with a well-developed structure of authority and discipline. The dynamic of the predestined-elect and Church discipline is an interesting one. It appears to assume the election of those within the Church while attempting to provide the organs which assist the elect in their daily living, i.e. in their election to good works. It also serves to protect the Church, through excommunication of the transgressor, in the event of difficulty with the first function. This is, however, viewed as being requisite only in extreme cases, and not a move which is to made lightly. This is, it seems to be, because of the nature of predestination and what this doctrine says about the Church itself.

Predestination is the doctrine which attempts to describe justification as the decision and act of God alone--an act based upon no external determinants, but only on God's own, divine decision. Additionally, it is held that those who are not elected to salvation are, through Divine will, elected to damnation. In this, 'double predestination' is, in fact, accepted. God elects people to both redemption and to reprobation.

We call predestination God's eternal decree, by which He determined with Himself what He willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others (p. 184).

This is not an unjust act. All are guilty of falling short of God's measure and, as such, deserve damnation. By electing some to salvation, God is merely exercising God's free will in mercy. Those not elected are only receiving their just-rewards for their lack of adequacy in the face of God's requirements (pp. 202-203). Counter to what some might argue against him on the nature of predestination, Calvin does not view God's foreknowledge as being the basis upon which God's acts of justification are based. In other words, it is not God's knowledge of one's future good works, or use of grace, which prompts God to impute righteousness; it is not God's knowledge of one's lack of will, or inability, to use grace, or perform good works, which leads God to withhold righteousness and, thus, elect one to damnation. Rather, God's foreknowledge is that in which:

. . . All things always were, and perpetually remain, under His eyes, so that to His knowledge there is nothing future or past, but all things are present (p. 184).

Another way of viewing this might be to say that God sees all of time--past through future--through 'punctilliar glasses,' or in "present tense" Aorist. God's understanding of time is not that which determines the direction of God's election, however. Instead, election is decided on the basis of God's free will. The purpose, means, and ends of God's election need not be totally understood, only "marveled at." (p. 205)

The Church is composed of this body of the elect. They are found, not only within protestant--Calvinist--communities, but can be found in any (if not all) communities of the Church. It is the true Church Universal, and one with which, Calvin asserts, he has never broken (p. 158). Instead, in breaking with Rome Calvin has attempted to restore the Church to a closer approximation of that pattern which had been laid down in the New Testament for the Church. He acknowledges that his church does not follow this pattern fully, but that it does do a better job -- relative to the Roman church -- of upholding the truth and right-worship of God through "doctrine, discipline, and the sacraments." According to Calvin, Rome has corrupted doctrine, discipline, and the sacraments through time, gross neglect, and useless tradition (p. 159). Most interesting among these is the nature of discipline -- and, which is therein implied -- structure. "For the body of the church..... to cohere well ... must be bound together by discipline as with sinews" (p. 169). This is a discipline, not only of conduct, but also of order, form, and structure. Calvin establishes the church as having four basic offices: the pastor (or preaching clergy), the teacher, the elder, and the deacons. The pastor is given the duty of preaching twice on Sunday, and once on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday Morning. Teachers are called to teach both children, with an aim to "instruct the faithful in sound doctrine so that the purity of the gospel is not corrupted by ignorance or evil opinions" (pp. 173-174). The elders are chosen from the church, are to upstanding members of the community, and are to serve as the social and moral guides of the community. In this, they are to 'maintain supervision over all. . ."I exercising authority to act on cases of public discipline (ibid, p. 175). There appear to be two basic types of deacons, the stewards and the managers, the first of which is occupied with control and administration of the funds for the poor, while the other is charged with tending to the sick and the pittance of the poor (ibid).

Church discipline is to be administered by the elders, who are charged to "keep watch over the lives of everyone (p. 174)." The nature of the discipline comes in response to the two general types of sin: Private and Public, as well as the two specific divisions of sin: light and grave.

Regarding both private and public sin of the grave classification, the three fold approach of (1) twice private admonitions, (2) once public admonition, (3) excommunication. The watch-word relative to these stages is care; great care is to be taken in administering each of these phases, with the primary goal being to aid the elect in returning to the proper path. If the third stage becomes necessary, two further realizations need to be taken into account: (1) God's honor, and (2) the perseverance of the elect.

Excommunication, if enacted, is done so that (1) God's honor is not breached through allowing evil to pervade the Church; it is also done so that (2) those elect within the Church, who are doing good, are not infected by evil. These two points are added to the general desire to (3) return the sinner to the good through the act of punishment. In the two lesser penalties, private and public admonishment, the aim of addressing the sinner and aiding in guidance and correction is seen as the goal. In the greater penalty, in addition to the above motivation, two further aims, both of which concentrate on the integrity of God and God's Church, come into play. Still, the ultimate goal is that the sinner be returned to the Church. In this, excommunication is not viewed as an eternal, or ultimate act, but instead as one which is intended to point out, to the sinner, the need of repentance and reconciliation with God and with the Church. The separation from the Church--and from the Sacraments--which occurs during excommunication, is, in this light, to be understood as an indicator of what awaits the sinner unless reconciliation is achieved through repentance (pp. 216-221).

Through discipline, the elect are guided by the organs of the church -- especially the elders -- toward good works. Their identity as the elect makes them the body of Christ, and it is in this state that they are elected to good works--not because of good works, but, rather, for good works. This, therefore, becomes the purpose for the existence of Church structure and discipline -- they serve for the edification of the elect, who are predestined to good works.


Hillerbrand, Hans J., ed., The Protestant Reformation. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968.


© 1990 Gregory S. Neal*
All Rights Reserved

*This paper was written in 1990 for a Course in Historical Theology which Rev. Neal took while in the Masters Degree program at Duke University.

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from