Luther, Calvin, Pascal The Three Essay


In comparison to God, however, this changes. The human being who is never dissatisfied with him- or herself, however, never becomes aware that there is a contrast to be made with God. This is what Calvin appears to mean by piety. People with true knowledge of themselves as imperfect and unholy in comparison with God are those who are most pious. They are aware that there are imperfections to be addressed and aspire to do so by contemplating the nature of Gold. Instead, impious and hypocritical human beings are never aware that there is much wrong with them. They create a type of cycle by only contemplating other human beings to compare with themselves. By doing this, they become aware only of their excellence and power, which further discourages any contemplation of their true nature or God. Ironically, those who appear to be the best and most pious are in fact the words and most impious, because they never gain the wisdom by contemplating themselves in the light of God.

In a Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards considers the nature of "affections" that solicit the favour of God. In general, he asserts that these are reliant upon the inspiration and grace of the divine rather than the human spirit. Like Luther, Edwards notes that no amount of works can create enough favor with God to result in salvation; instead, faith should be the creator of works rather than the other way around.

Calvin, on the other hand, had a rather more severe view of God and his grace. The five principles of Calvinist belief are summed up by the acronym "TULIP:" Total depravity of mankind; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; Irresistible grace; and Perseverance of the Saints.

As he indicates in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin believes that all mankind has been doomed by Adam's original sin. For him, the message of the Bible is not one of possible salvation for all. Instead, he suggests that only some were chosen for salvation by God. Any good that humankind was able to do was only the result of God's general grace, which enabled qualities such as civility and obedience to the law. Saving grace, however, was required to obtain eternal life. This, according to the doctrine, was only possible for those preselected by God.

Saving grace, according to the doctrine, is unconditional and undeserved. Therefore no person can activate it in some way, such as "deciding" to qualify for it. Instead, saving grace is extended only to those who are regenerated by God. It follows, in Calvin's mind, that the death on the cross only applied to those who were elected to receive God's saving grace. This became known as limited atonement. All human beings on earth were not recipients of this atonement, and therefore it was not universally applicable...


Again, returning to God was the choice of God rather than the person being returned. Only the truly elect could be the recipient of this persevering grace. This is what was referred to as the "Perseverance of the saints."
The question of God's favor is therefore answered in terms of God's saving grace and salvation. A person who is elected will probably turn away from God from time to time, according to this theology. However, if such a person returns to God each time, it might be taken as a sign of favor and election.

The attraction and energizing effect in such a theology is the fact that atonement is limited. People who believe themselves to be elected by God might consider themselves either extremely lucky or somewhat better than other human beings. Furthermore, it frees them from any responsibility. Atonement is offered without any condition; therefore, doing anything to deserve it or even as a result of it is useless.

It is almost as if this theology would give such persons a license to consider themselves the "best" and the "holiest" of all, despite the hypocrisy against which Calvin warns. Ironically, this very hypocrisy is what Calvin claims makes it impossible for human beings to know God. Comparing themselves to others they think are not elected, those who think they are consider themselves "holier" and therefore "better" than others, forgetting that self-knowledge in fact begins with the awareness of depravity in the self.

In this light, it is perhaps a comfort to know that even great philosophers like Calvin were simply human beings, and that they were hardly likely to know the mind of God on matters such as salvation, grace and atonement.


Calvin, J. Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Mountain Retreat. Retrieved from:

Edwards, J.A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. The Covenant of Grace. Retrieved from:

Edwards, J. Sinners in the hands of an Angry God. Retrieved from:

Edwards, J. God Glorified in Man's Dependence. What Saith the Scripture? Retrieved from:

Luther, M. On the Freedom of a Christian. Modern History Sourcebook. Retrieved from:

Pascal, B. Pensees. Retrieved from:

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