John Calvin on Repentance, Regeneration, and Pastoral Care

It’s easy to either write off John Calvin for certain interpretations of his theology or […]

Will McDavid / 10.16.12

It’s easy to either write off John Calvin for certain interpretations of his theology or to invoke his name indiscriminately as a supporter of one’s own point of view. Reading his Institutes lately has been an interesting project for me, if for no other reason than to clarify Jean’s actual position on things. Some observations:

“…by repentance I understand regeneration, the only aim of which is to form us anew in the image of God, which was sullied, and all but effaced in the transgression of Adam.” (Institutes, III.3.ix)

1. First, in looking at Calvin’s view of ‘regeneration’, we should see clearly his identity between it and repentance. When he talks about one, he simultaneously speaks of the other. Most of his development of the idea of regeneration occurs when he talks about it under the name of “repentance.”

“This renewal, indeed, is not accomplished in a moment, a day, or a year, but by uninterrupted, sometimes even by slow progress God abolishes the remains of carnal corruption in his elect, cleanses them from pollution, and consecrates them as his temples, restoring all their inclinations to real purity, so that during their whole lives they may practice repentance, and know that death is the only termination to this warfare.” (III.3.ix)

2. Repentance, or regeneration, is a lifelong movement. Perhaps because of modern Evangelicalism’s emphasis on a discrete, instantaneous Spirit baptism, some interpreters draw a hard distinction between the regenerate and the unregenerate. For Calvin, however, there’s very little us-against-them mentality in his idea of regeneration, because it begins a process (and is one!) rather than effecting an instant about-face in personality or character. Calvin also rightly picks up on repentance’s etymological meaning of a “turning again” and, consonant with this definition, he views it as a process.

3. His biblical citations of exemplary repentance do not involve actions, or even changes in character in the modern sense, but rather grief and humbling. Hezekiah prayed with tears and was granted a dependent confidence in God’s grace, the people of Ninevah went into mourning, and David, after adultery and murder, repented by “humbl[ing] himself before the Lord; but he, at the same time, looked for pardon.” Repentance, for Calvin, is exemplified by asking for forgiveness, by sorrow.

4. What are the fruits of repentance for Calvin? “…that they may be exercised, and not only exercised, but may better understand their weakness” (III.3.x). So the ‘fruits’ are an ambiguous description of exercise, or struggle, and a greater knowledge of our own spiritual weakness.

5. Finally, there’s the matter of agency. In view of Calvin’s famous adherence to predestination, some people like to split up justification and sanctification, so that the first is entirely God’s agency (i.e., He’s the one who ‘saves’, or regenerates, Calvin’s elect), while the second part is left up to human beings, albeit acting with a new, God-given freedom.

A few problems with this idea arise. Most importantly, if regeneration really is a process that only ends in death, then there’s no simple distinction between the so-called ‘regenerate’ and ‘unregenerate.’ For Calvin, human freedom may indeed increase throughout the course of one’s life, but his theology leaves no room for the idea that certain believers, in distinct moment of salvation, receive a sudden change in character or status of will (in mathematics terms, a ‘jump discontinuity’) between the person they were post-conversion and the person they were an hour before. Augustine’s On Grace and Free Choice, which almost certainly influenced Calvin, makes this point well. During the process of repentance, we may indeed receive a good will, but we still lack the power to carry it out.

Calvin is very much a monist; i.e. he places both justification and sanctification, in a breath, under the full agency of God:

“Moreover, if it is true, and nothing could be more certain, than that a complete summary of the Gospel is included under these two heads, i.e., repentance and the remission of sins, do we not see that the Lord justifies his people freely, and at the same time renews them to true holiness by the sanctification of his Spirit?” (III.3.xix)

7. In view of these specific definitions of repentance and human agency, Calvin writes that the main two reasons God uses men as pastors are, first, to be vessels through which God “declares his condescension toward us” and, “Secondly, it forms a most excellent and useful training to humility, when he accustoms us to obey his word through though preached by men like ourselves or, it may be, our inferiors in worth” (IV.3.i). The notion of comparative ‘worth’ within a congregation is of course problematic, but Calvin’s point here is that the ministry of men exists primarily to declare God’s condescension to us and to humble the congregation because God’s word is preached by a person so weak as the minister. From this second point, it’s obvious that the idea of a minister putting on the façade of virtue to be a leader by example is far from Calvin’s mind as he developed, over decades, what would be the final version of the Institutes’ theology of pastoral ministry. Though the office of pastor should be held in high estimation (IV.3.iii), the person of the minister should not try and pretend to be different from other men – this was also a crucial idea from the beginning of the Reformation.

The above are the reasons, for Calvin, why God uses human ministers, but what is the purpose of those ministers themselves? “The two principal parts of the office of pastors are to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments” ( Calvin discusses admonition, in the middle section of subchapter six, as an extension of the former two purposes, which a pastor should do in private. In this identity of private admonition as a part of preaching the Gospel, and in in his biblical quotes to describe them (Acts 20:20,31), it seems that exhortation, for Calvin, is primarily toward “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ,” a message which church leaders convey “with tears.” Which brings us, of course, full circle towards repentance as (God-induced) humility, godly sorrow, and death to self, as everyone from O’Connor, to Forde, to AA has seen as the starting-point for any true change.