During the winter of 1536-37, the 29-year-old John Calvin wrote his Brief Outline of the Christian Faith. It is really a summary of the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion.
The Brief Outline was replaced in 1542 by a catechism in which the basic doctrines were treated equally thoroughly, but in a different order. This became the definitive catechism of the French-speaking Reformed churches in Europe and the Brief Outline fell into disuse. An English translation by Stuart Olyott based on Pierre Courthial’s 1953 contemporary French version has been published by Banner of Truth.
In the section quoted below, Calvin outlines what is probably his most controversial doctrine, predestination. But he sets it in the context of faith and of our need to embrace Christ, as well as our inability to comprehend the perfect wisdom of God. It’s simplicity and Christ-centredness make it a wonderful passage.
The merciful Father offers us his Son through the Word of the gospel. And it is by faith that we embrace him and acknowledge him as given to us.
It is true that the Word of the gospel calls all men to participate in Christ, but many, blinded and hardened by unbelief, spurn such extraordinary grace. Only believers, then, enjoy Christ; only they receive him as sent to them. He is given to them and they do not reject him. They are called by him and they follow him.
In looking at this difference between believers and unbelievers we must necessarily consider the great secret of God’s counsel: for the seed of God’s Word takes root and bears fruit only in those whom the Lord, by his eternal election, has predestined to his children and heirs of the heavenly kingdom.
To all the others who (by the same counsel of God, before the foundation of the world) are rejected, the clear and plain preaching of the truth can be nothing but an odour of death which leads to death.
Now the reason why the Lord treats some mercifully and exercises the rigour of his judgement towards others we must leave to be known by him alone, for he, with very good intentions, has wished that it should be hidden from us all. the coarse insensitivity of our mind would not be able to bear such light; nor would our smallness be able to understand such great wisdom.
In fact, all those who will try to rise to such a height, being unwilling to hold in check the foolhardiness of their spirit, will experience the truth of what Solomon says: that he who desires to investigate the majesty of God will be crushed by his glory (Prov. 25:2).
It is enough for us to have decided this in our hearts: that this dealing of the Lord, although hidden from us, is nonetheless holy and just. For if God wanted to ruin all humanity, he would have the right to do it. And in those whom he rescues from perdition, one can contemplate nothing but his sovereign goodness.
Let us not seek (like so many) to penetrate as far as heaven and to enquire what God, from his eternity, has decided to do with us – and all this with a view to confirming the certainty of our salvation. Such a quest can only serve to stir up miserable anguish and upset in us. Rather, let us be content with the testimony by which he has sufficiently and amply assured us of this certainty. It is in Christ that all those who have been preordained to life have been elected, and this took place before the foundations of the world had been laid. Similarly, it is in Christ that the pledge of our election is presented to us, if we receive and embrace him by faith.
For what is it that we are looking for in election, if it is not that we might be partakers of eternal life? And we have this life in Christ, he who was Life from the beginning, and who is set before us as Life, so that all who believe in him should not perish but enjoy eternal life (John 3:16).
In possessing Christ by faith, we also possess eternal life in him. This being so, we have no reason to enquire any further concerning the eternal counsel of God. For Christ is not only a mirror by which the will of God is presented to us, but he is a pledge by which it is sealed to us and endorsed.