John Calvin is one of the two most influential Protestant Reformers, along with Martin Luther. Although he didn’t deny man’s free will, Calvin effectively gutted it, because he said all men were preordained by God either to heaven (election) or hell (reprobation), and so there is nothing we can do to impact our eternal destiny.
Calvin seems to say that because God omnisciently knows all of our choices before we make them, he must therefore have ordained them to occur.This is particularly seen in Calvin’s commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. For example, Calvin and his modern disciples cite Romans as evidence that God unilaterally chooses who has saving faith and who doesn’t:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it,the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith (3:21-25; emphasis added).
The Catholic Church acknowledges that faith is undoubtedly a divine gift and that no human being can earn his salvation. And yet, gifts need to be received and maintained, and thus the importance of our free-will responses to God. St. Paul and St. Peter make clear that Jesus came to save everyone (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). In addition, Jesus makes clear that our being saved requires our free-will cooperation, as he affirms to the rich young man (Matt. 19:16-30) and in the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46), and that our heavenly Father won’t forgive us our trespasses—a prerequisite for gaining heaven—unless we freely forgive those who have trespassed against us (Matt. 6:14-15; see Rev. 21:27).
Further, Paul affirms the importance of good works in our freely accepting and maintaining the gift of salvific discipleship (Rom. 2:6-8), including believing in receiving faith (Rom. 3:22), and that certain unrepented transgressions will prevent us from attaining heaven (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21).
All of these passages regarding our freedom need to be kept in mind so as not to misread Romans chapter 9, which forms the foundation of Calvin’s theology of salvation. In particular, because Paul speaks in 9:22 of “vessels of wrath made for destruction,” Calvin infers his doctrine of divinely predetermined reprobation. But instead, as Scott Hahn says, the apostle is talking about the unfolding of God’s plan in history, not designating the destinies of human persons for eternity:
Wrath and glory are terms Paul uses elsewhere in connection with the final judgment (2:5-8). Yet Paul is not here concerned with the consignment of destinies. He is setting forth a scenario for the sake of argument in order to defend God against the charge of acting unjustly toward Israel. He is not delivering a prophecy that reveals who will reach heaven and who will go to hell. Rather, the context indicates that Paul is concerned with God’s freedom to assign different roles to different persons in implementing his designs for history. It is a matter of God choreographing the [temporal] election of some and the hardening of others in order to accomplish his plan of redemption. It is within this historical frame of reference that the Lord has a purpose for all the vessels of Israel, noble and ignoble alike.
In addition, in writing of God’s choice of Jacob in salvation history, Paul quotes God’s word to the prophet Malachi: “As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom. 9:13; see Mal.1:3) As any good Jewish scholar can affirm, this ancient Semitic expression means that God loved Esau less than Jacob, not that he predestined Esau—let alone his Edomite descendants (see Gen. 36:1-43)—to eternal damnation.
The ancient Israelites certainly didn’t teach Calvinistic divine reprobation (see, e.g., Deuteronomy 23:8 and Amos 2:1-3 for God’s enduring concern for the Edomites). Indeed, the prophet Ezekiel proclaims that the righteous man can fall away through his bad choices and that the wicked man can repent and be restored to communion with God (Ezek. 18:21-32). In any event, Ezekiel adds, “I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord God; so turn, and live” (Ezek. 18:32).
Further, God portrays Christians as vessels of mercy and thus implies that unbelievers, whether Jews or Gentiles, are vessels of destruction (Rom. 9:22-24). Yet Paul does not teach that unbelieving Jews, for example, are predestined to damnation, because we see him otherwise praying (Rom. 10:1) and working (11:14) for their salvation (see CCC 1037). Again, God desires that all be saved, but some may choose to rebel against God without repentance.
Finally, if Romans 9 were read in isolation, Calvin’s view might seem more plausible, although even then the standard of love for Calvin’s God would fall far short of that espoused by mere human mothers and fathers, who desperately desire all of their children to attain heaven. If finite creatures made in God’s image and likeness have such loving concern for their children, how much more should we expect from the infinite, eternal God?
Indeed, in arguing for God’s sovereignty in the way he does, Calvin unwittingly blasphemes God by presenting him as a capricious tyrant who is responsible for the greatest of evils: consigning men and women to hell without giving them any real opportunity to accept or reject him. Calvin defends his position by saying we have no right to question God on this matter, but what his critics are questioning is actually Calvin’s concept of God’s goodness. Double predestination makes God, not the godless sinner, responsible for human sin.
In contrast, the Church teaches that God desires all men and women be saved. And his omniscience—knowing who will be saved and who will not—certainly doesn’t preclude his giving each person the free-will choice to accept or reject his gift of eternal life in the drama of salvation history.
More than that, God in his love seeks out those most in need of his mercy, as the Good Shepherd who seeks out wayward sheep (Matt. 18:12-13; Luke 15:1-7).
For more on these issues, see Tim Staples’s related articles here and here. See also my article on “The Reformer’s Distorted View of Salvation.” You may also be interested in purchasing Dr. Hahn’s Romans and/or my book What Did Jesus Do?: The Biblical Roots of the Catholic Church. Chapter three of my book, “What Must I Do to Be Saved,” is particularly relevant.