Predestined for a Purpose: John Calvin & The Presbyterian/Reformed Tradition
Ephesians 1:1-14

The story is told of a group of theologians who were discussing the tension between predestination and free-will. The conversation became so heated that the group broke up into two opposing factions.

            But one man, not knowing which to join, stood for a moment trying to decide. At last he joined the predestination group. “Who sent you here?” they asked. “No one sent me,” he replied. “I came of my own free will.” “Free will!” they exclaimed. “You can’t join us! You belong with the other group!”

            So, he followed their orders and went to the other clique. There someone asked, “When did you decide to join us?” The young man replied, “Well, I didn’t really decide–I was sent here.” “Sent here!” they shouted. “You can’t join us unless you’ve decided by your own free will!” 

This humorous anecdote raises some perplexing theological questions: Do we choose God or does God choose us to receive eternal salvation for our souls? Does God determine everything that happens in the universe or do we make real decisions? What is the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free-will?

            These questions have confounded theologians throughout history and they continue to draw dividing lines between Christian denominations today. For instance, Presbyterian, Reformed, and Congregational churches have historically highlighted God’s sovereignty while Methodists and Pentecostals have emphasized human free-will. Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans are undecided and Baptists are split on the issue.

            Over the centuries, no one has shed more light on this tension than John Calvin, who broke away from his Roman Catholic roots and became the father of the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition. Listen to his story!


John Calvin and the Presbyterian/Reformed Tradition

With his brother and sister and two friends, John Calvin fled Catholic France and headed to the free city of Strasbourg. It was the summer of 1536; Calvin had recently converted to the Protestant faith and had just published The Institutes of the Christian Religion, which articulated his Protestant views. He was a wanted man.

The party stayed at an inn in Geneva, Switzerland, and word quickly passed to local church leader William Farel that the author of The Institutes was in town. Farel was ecstatic. He was desperate for help as he tried to organize a newly formed Protestant church in town. He rushed to the inn and pleaded with Calvin, arguing it was God’s will he remain in the city.

Calvin said he was staying only one night. Besides, he was a scholar not a pastor. Farel, baffled and frustrated, swore a great oath that God would curse all Calvin’s studies unless he stayed in Geneva. Always a man of tender conscience, he later reflected on this moment: “I felt as if God from heaven had laid his mighty hand upon me to stop me in my course—and I was so terror stricken that I did not continue my journey.” To this day, Calvin’s name is associated, for good and for ill, with the city of Geneva. And Calvin’s belief in predestination is his theological legacy to the church.

Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyon, France. His father, a lawyer, planned a career in the church for his son, and by the mid-1520s, Calvin had become a fine scholar. He spoke proficient Latin, excelled at philosophy, and qualified to take up the intensive study of theology in Paris.

Suddenly, though, his father changed his mind and decided John should achieve greatness in law. John acquiesced, and the next five or six years saw him at the University of Orleans, attaining distinction in a subject he did not love. During these years, he dipped into Renaissance humanism. He learned Greek, read widely in the classics, and added Plato to the Aristotle he already knew. Then Martin Luther’s teachings reached France, and his life made an abrupt turn.

He became marked out as a “Lutheran,” and, when persecution arose in Paris (where he had returned to teach), he sought refuge in Basel. There he penned the first edition of a book that was to affect Western history as much as any other. The Institutes of the Christian Religion was intended as an elementary manual for those who wanted to know something about the Protestant faith. Calvin later wrote, “I labored at the task especially for our own Frenchmen, for I saw that many were hungering and thirsting after Christ and yet that only a very few had any real knowledge of him.”

In The Institutes, Calvin outlined his views on the church, the sacraments, justification, Christian liberty, and political government. His unique and overarching theme was God’s sovereignty. He taught that original sin eradicated free-will in people. Only by God’s initiative can anyone begin to have faith and thus experience assurance of salvation.

In this and later editions, Calvin developed the doctrines of predestination, or election. More importantly, he argued for the indefectibility of grace—that is, grace will never be withdrawn from the elect. This was Calvin’s pastoral attempt to comfort new believers. In medieval Catholicism, believers remained anxious about their spiritual destinies and were required to perform more and more good works to guarantee their salvation. Calvin taught that once a believer understands he is chosen by Christ to eternal life, he will never have to suffer doubt again about salvation: “He will obtain an unwavering hope of final perseverance (as it is called), if he reckons himself a member of him who is beyond hazard of falling away.”

After fleeing France to escape persecution, Calvin settled in Geneva at Farel’s bidding. But after a mere 18 months, he and Farel were banished from the city for disagreeing with the city council. Calvin headed for Strasbourg, where he pastored for three years and married Idellete de Bure, a widow who brought with her two children.

By 1541 Calvin’s reputation had spread: he wrote three other books and revised his Institutes. He had become close friends with leading Reformers like Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon. He was asked to return to Geneva by new city authorities, and he spent the rest of his life trying to help establish a theocratic society.

Calvin believed the church should faithfully mirror the principles laid down in Holy Scripture. In his, Ecclesiastical Ordinances, he argued that the New Testament taught four orders of ministry: pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons. Around these, the city was organized.

Pastors conducted the worship services, preached, administered the Sacraments, and cared for the spiritual welfare of parishioners. Elders kept an eye on spiritual affairs. If they saw that so-and-so was frequently getting drunk, or that a man beat his wife, they admonished them in a brotherly manner. If the behavior didn’t cease, they reported the matter to the Consistory, the church’s governing body, which would summon the offender. Excommunication was a last resort and would remain in force until the offender repented.

Social welfare was the charge of the deacons. They were the hospital management board, social security executives, and poor-house supervisors. The deacons were so effective in their ministry that Geneva had no beggars.

Calvin was in no way the ruler or dictator of Geneva. He was appointed by the city council and paid by them. He could at any time have been dismissed (as he had been in 1538). He was a foreigner in Geneva, not even a naturalized citizen, until near the end of his life. His was a moral authority, stemming from his belief that, because he proclaimed the message of the Bible, he was God’s ambassador, with divine authority behind him. As such, he was involved in much that went on in Geneva, from the city constitution to drains and heating appliances.

His role in the infamous execution of Michael Servetus in 1553, then, was not an official one. Servetus fled to Geneva to escape Catholic authorities: he had denied the Trinity, a blasphemy that merited death in the 1500s all over Europe. Geneva authorities didn’t have any more patience with heresy than did Catholics, and with the full approval of Calvin, they put Servetus to the stake.

Calvin worked himself beyond his body’s limits. When he could not walk the couple of hundred yards to church, he was carried in a chair to preach. When the doctor forbade him to go out in the winter air to the lecture room, he invited the audience into his bedroom and gave lectures there. To those who would urge him to rest, he asked, “What? Would you have the Lord find me idle when he comes?”

His afflictions were intensified by opposition he sometimes faced. People tried to drown his voice by loud coughing while he preached; others fired guns outside the church. Men set their dogs on him. There were even anonymous threats against his life.

Calvin finally wore out in 1564, but his influence has not. He carried the Protestant Reformation even further than Martin Luther. Outside the church, his ideas have been blamed for and credited with (depending on your view) the rise of capitalism, individualism, and democracy. Church bodies with the names “Presbyterian” or “Reformed” carry forward his legacy in local parishes all over the world. Presbyterian churches derive their name from the presbyterian form of church government, which is governed by representative assemblies of elders. (


Predestined for a Purpose (Ephesians 1:1-14)

            There are many aspects of John Calvin and the Presbyterian Tradition that I could have focused on for today’s sermon, but I have chosen the doctrine of predestination because it is the Calvin’s most unique and controversial contribution to the Protestant Reformation. The apostle Paul specifically mentions predestination in two places in the New Testament: Romans 8 and Ephesians 1. Let’s zero in on the Ephesians passage!

After Paul begins his letter with the customary greeting, he immediately launches into a litany of praise to God for his glorious salvation through Jesus Christ. Then, starting in verse 4, he unpacks how this salvation came to be: election and predestination. He makes it perfectly clear that before God even created the world he chose them to be the recipients of his grace and that they would stand before God as holy and blameless because of what Jesus did for them on the cross. Because of God’s love, he predestined them to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance to his pleasure and will. This grace is a free gift which bestows redemption and forgiveness of sins through the blood of Jesus Christ. This grace, although it is given and received in the present, will be culminated when time has reached its fulfillment when Jesus returns to earth.

Paul reiterates and broadens this doctrine of election and predestination in verse 11. Not only does God choose and predestine some people to receive the gift of his grace, but he “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” This is an ultimate declaration of God’s sovereignty over salvation and everything else that takes place in history. It was God’s predestined will that these Ephesians were included in Christ, when they heard the word of truth, the gospel of their salvation, and were marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, which guarantees their inheritance in heaven.

Now some of you may be thinking, “Wait a minute, are you saying that God chooses some people to be saved and not others?” Yes, that is exactly what I am saying because that is exactly what the Bible is saying! But then you may be thinking, “Well, that doesn’t seem fair!” Yes, you are exactly right! It isn’t fair! Fairness is an American value; it is not one of God’s attributes. If you think about it for a moment, we don’t really want a God who is fair; we want a God who is gracious. If God was fair, in the truest sense of the word, he would condemn all of us to eternal destruction in hell because of our sins. But because of his love and through his grace, he predestined some to receive his free gift of salvation!

            Now some of you may be wondering—Has God chosen me? Has he predestined me for salvation? How do I know? Well, if you have received God’s gracious gift of salvation by putting your faith in the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ, then you can be assured that God has chosen you! If you have been sitting on the fence of faith, then you must still be wondering!


            Like John Calvin and others in the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition, I believe that God is completely sovereign over salvation and everything else in life and history, but I also believe that we are held responsible for every decision we make. So, if you haven’t already, will you put your faith in Jesus Christ today? Will you share the good news of God’s grace with those who do not yet know!

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