From the early church to the current day, Christians have always wondered how should a good Christian live. The Bible gives some insight, particularly in the form of the Ten Commandments given to the Israelites on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20). However, the life and (more importantly) death of Jesus changed things radically. Do the commandments need to be followed anymore when Jesus' grace is offered to the faithful? In fact, is it better to sin more, so the glory of Christ's sacrifice be even more powerful? Should we "sin boldly", as Martin Luther suggested (Platcher 15)? Most Christians have rejected the last idea, and want to live good lives. However, the debate between the Catholic and Protestant churches over grace versus works is still with us today.

In Catholicism there are two tests a pious believer must complete to be acceptable for salvation: faithfulness and completing good works. The first, faithfulness, simply says one must believe in God and His sacrifice of his son Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins.

In addition to faith in the Catholic model, men and women use the sacraments to fortify themselves such that they can go out and do good works, which is the second test. It is this combination of religious devotion and selflessness that God wants from us according to the Catholic model. Looking toward the Bible, there are numerous scriptures that support this position. Such as James 2:14-18:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.

The book of James has many other examples of his belief that works are an integral part of salvation. This book because of its numerous references to works is largely the basis for the acceptance of works into Catholic doctrine.

In contrast to the Catholic position, most Protestant denominations claim that God, through Jesus, is the only one who can grant salvation. Therefore, no matter how many good works a person might do, they are all irrelevant, as salvation can never be earned by man. The only way that salvation is "earned" in the Protestant model, is through faithfulness and belief in God.

John Calvin, held particular beliefs within the framework of the Protestant idea of grace as the sole form of salvation, which was espoused before him by Augustine and Martin Luther. Calvin held that five points were essential to understanding the grace given by God. They were:

  1. Total depravity of man

  2. Unconditional election by God

  3. Limited Atonement

  4. Irresistible grace

  5. Perseverance of the Saints

The total depravity of man dealt with man's original sin. Calvin held that because of man's original sin, he is completely unable to do anything worthwhile. In fact he says explicitly that "God does [not use for his] handiwork men defiled and corrupted with sin (Calvin, Vol. I, p. 341)." This fault in man thus removes his ability to do good works; making grace via the Holy Spirit the sole mechanism for salvation (McNeill 326).

To prove his point further that man cannot do good works, Calvin quotes Romans 8:6-7, in Institutes of the Christian Religion, where mankind is the "flesh":

'For to set the mind on the flesh,' as the apostle testifies, 'is death. Because there is enmity against God, it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot.' Is the flesh so perverse that it is wholly disposed to bear a grudge against God, cannot agree with the justice of divine law, can, in short, beget nothing but the occasion of death? (Vol. I., p. 289)
This passage contradicts the previous passage from James above and illustrates the basis for the dispute between Catholic and Protestant doctrine.

The second and third points, the unconditional election by God and the limited atonement offered though Christ's crucifixion was first conceived by Augustine of Hippo. Augustine felt that faith is a gift from God, that only some receive. Since grace is found though faith, only those who received faith from God could be saved.

Why do Augustine, and Calvin by extension, feel that God takes this active role in the salvation of men? It is because God has been active all along. It was God who first showed man his faults in the form of original sin. It was God who taught the Israelites how to live by giving the Ten Commandments to Moses. It was God who actively "gave his only begotten Son" to suffer for us, so why shouldn't God choose who receives the benefits of his sacrifice? Both Augustine and Calvin believe that because of this activity it should be solely God's prerogative who is offered salvation (Richardson 265 and Calvin Vol. II, p. 935).

Calvin found that this choice that is made by God, granting salvation to some and not to others compatible with the nature of God he found in the Bible. God is merciful, but He is also just. If God simply offered grace to all men, He would be showing mercy, but not being just. From this understanding Calvin found it acceptable to believe that God saves some men and chooses to allow others to pay for their sins.

The fourth point of irresistible grace simply means that if God has chosen someone to receive salvation, this offer cannot be rejected. How is grace irresistible? Harro Hopfl asserts in The Christian Polity of John Calvin, that Calvin believed that grace is made irresistible by its association with the heart: "[Receiving] faith [and grace] , however are not a simple matter of intelligence or cognoissances, something that flutters about in our skulls without touching our hearts' but rather is a firm and solid confidence of the heart (73)." This personalization according to Calvin is what makes grace special, and not something just to be intellectualized.

Finally, the fifth point, the perseverance of the saints relates to how the 'elect' will live. Calvin insists that those chosen to receive grace will live good Christian lives. The necessity of this provision relates again to Calvin's understanding that God is both merciful and just. If those God has chosen do not live upstanding Christian lives then God is not being just in his use of grace. Calvin also explains in this last point how good Christians should live by denying themselves their essence. He asserts this by quoting Romans 12:1-3:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think as to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to each man a measure of faith.
This passage is a reminder to men not to think too highly of themselves because God wants mankind to be humble before Him.

One of the benefits of this last idea is that all Calvinists will try to live good lives, because they know that the 'elect' will act that way. So, ironically, all Calvinists will live as though they have been chosen, even if they have not been.

The problem with Calvin's ideas about grace is that they seem to contradict the free will of man. However, Calvin has no problem dismissing this critique:

Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which He has determined in Himself, what would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some and eternal death for others. Every man, therefore, being created for one or the other of these ends, we say he is predestinated either to life or to death (Calvin, Vol. II, p. 926).
Under this scenario, a person could do good works and be faithful and still not receive salvation. However, a Calvinist might interject that a person, who was not foreordained by God, would not do good works or have faith; that if a person was destined for eternal death he would have deserved it anyway.

The disturbing aspect of Calvin's interpretation of the question is that his predetermination seems to take away man's free will. If everything has already been decided for man before he is born, what is the point of life?

Calvin defends God's ability to choose those He wishes to save. Calvin makes several arguments trying to instill in his readers the sense of cosmic justice he has when he thinks of God. For example, Calvin claims that the Gospel is not preached with the same effectiveness, or to all men for that matter. Since faithfulness is a prerequisite for salvation, wouldn't that be unfair to those men who never heard the Word of God? Calvin answers his own question: "No". When these questions of God's fairness are brought up, Calvin chooses to say it is more dangerous to try and understand what God does not want us to know, than to simply accept the lot cast to us (Richardson 265-9).

It should be noted that some Protestant theologians of the time, reacted in an almost knee-jerk manner in response to Calvin simply reiterating the idea of predestination, which was Augustine's to begin with. In 1610, a Dutch group of theologians led by Jakob Arminius known as the "Remonstrants" issued their own five point statement regarding grace:

  1. God's eternal decree was to elect those who believed in Christ and reject those who were not to believe.

  2. Christ died not for the elect only but for all men, yet so that only believers benefited from it.

  3. Man is impotent apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in renewing him.

  4. Although the grace of God is the cause of man's redemption from the beginning to end, it is not irresistible.

  5. The final perseverance of believers is in doubt. In fact believers might fall from grace entirely and be lost (Richardson 269).

This rejection of predestination was itself officially condemed at the Synod of Dort in 1618, and Calvin's ideas were reaffirmed for the Protestant church. However, as time has progressed some of the ideas of the Remonstrants have found their way into Protestant teachings. The result is that some Protestant denominations believe in different standards of belief, thus resulting in groups that are two, three or four point Calvinists depending on how many of Calvin's original five points the church accepts. This dissention from the original rule does not allow for a uniform standard in the Protestant church for salvation. However, given the fractured nature of Protestantism in general, it is quite an accomplishment to have even this much uniformity.

In the end, many Protestants and all Catholics reject Calvin's idea of predestination, holding onto the idea that man does have some control over his outcome - whether it is be works and grace or grace alone that the faithful are provided. In the end, whether a person is Catholic or Protestant, it would be wise to read Philippians 2:12 which reads, "Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."


Sources
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1960.

Hopfl, Harro. The Christian Polity of John Calvin.
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1982

McNeill, John T. The History and Character of Calvinism.
Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

Placher, William. A History of Christian Theology.
Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1983.

Richardson, Alan. A Dictionary of Christian Theology.
Herder and Herder: New York, 1965.

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