Book II Chapter V Section 1-19
In this final chapter on the subject of free will Calvin addresses some of the questions that are raised in response to his teaching on this topic. So far Calvin has argued that our will is free only in so far as it means we act voluntary and not under compulsion, in our natural state we willingly choose to do what we love – sin. He claims that we are not ultimately free to choose whether to do good or evil until we are created anew by the indwelling Spirit. He recognises that the Spirit acts in the heart of people to restrain them from evil, but this is not sufficient to transform them. We need a new heart. A living soul of flesh implanted by God that wills to serve Him and is enabled by His grace to have the power to serve Him.
Some of the questions he tackles in this chapter are:
- Does God mock us in demanding things we are not able to do (when he commands us to obey precepts He knows we are unable to do)?
- Does this teaching not make the promises and precepts of God pointless if we have no power to respond to their encouragements and warnings?
- Why does God rebuke the people of Israel and blame them for things they were unable to avoid?
- How can mankind be held accountable for things they are powerless to change?
- If the scripture teaches that God waits for us to repent then surely something must depend on us?
- The scripture describes good and bad works as our own, how then is it that we are held responsible for the bad works but the good ones are attributed to Him?
In answer to some of these questions Calvin repeats the comment of Augustine that “God does not measure the precepts of the law by human strength, but, after ordering what is right, freely bestows on His elect the power of fulfilling it”. Augustine himself says “God orders what we cannot do, that we may know what we ought to ask of Him…Faith acquires what the law requires…nay, more, God demands of us faith itself, and finds not what He thus demands, until by giving it He makes it possible to find it”.
Calvin argues that there is no contradiction between God demanding a new heart within us, and then declaring that He gives it. Again from Augustine: “What God promises, we ourselves do not through choice or nature, but He Himself does by Grace”.
How does all this work in practise? Does God do everything while we sit back and relax? Well, not quite. God has given the believer a new heart to love and serve Him. Now they have the Spirit within to empower them to live for Him. So we want to act righteously, and although we often fail, we freely choose to follow our Saviour. Calvin puts it this way “you act and are acted upon, and you then act well when you are acted upon by one that is good…nature furnishes the will which is guided so as to aspire to good”.
What Calvin is essentially saying here is that our nature has provided the power to will, but God provides the new direction and sustaining power. We have the innate ability to reason and decide on a particular action, but like the horse illustration that was used in the last chapter, we need to be broken in. God must tame our stubborn wills and bring us to a point of submission. Although the final victory over our old nature was certain from the moment of regeneration, there is a moment by moment decision required of whether to yield or resist.
God pleads with His people to be willing, “do not be like the horse or mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you” (Psalm 32.9). But we are weak and our efforts half-hearted. How we need His forgiving, healing Grace. Praise Him that our salvation does not depend on us, but on our sinless, spotless, Saviour.
“For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so He condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit”. Romans 8.3+4
Father, help our weak wills and sinful hearts to long and search for You. Forgive us our sins and renew our hearts that we may walk with You in unity rather than grieving Your Spirit within us. Pour out Your Grace today Lord, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.