Calvin & the Spirit

In the sixteenth century John Calvin was a gift to the young Protestant Reformation; and he remains helpful today. The broad Bible reach of his Institutes, for instance, is still engaging.

Some, I know, will be suspicious. Calvin has a reputation as a cold intellectual fixated on divine sovereignty and predestination. But, certainly to my own surprise, I discovered an affective theologian once I actually read him.

What is an affective theologian? One who finds God’s love so compelling that it moves him or her to treat other motivations as secondary to knowing Christ. It’s a label for all those who are coming to love God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. With an accompanied love for neighbors.

Let’s consider, for one, Calvin’s portrayal of the Spirit. Early in the Institutes he elevated the Spirit’s role in genuine faith. In “The Knowledge of God the Creator” Calvin warned Christians not to trust raw rationality—the stuff of academic debates—as a pathway to faith. Why not? Because “they who strive to build up firm faith in Scripture through disputation are doing things backwards” [1.7.4]. Such efforts, Calvin continued, “will not at once imprint upon their hearts that certainty which piety requires.”

Piety was Calvin’s term for a transformed heart: one fully devoted to the Lord. Today the term has been reduced, for many, to a label for superficial and questionable religion; but for Calvin it represented a whole-hearted response to God.

What is crucial to faith, Calvin believed, is a believer’s assurance that God speaks in the Bible. So that a reader is sure, beyond mere rational proofs, “that Moses and the prophets spoke divinely.” Calvin insisted that, “the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason. For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word.”

Calvin believed that the Spirit who inspired the original writings of Scripture must also be active in the reader’s soul for that person to respond appropriately. “The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commended.”

Later, in “The way we receive the grace of Christ,” Calvin pursued the question of how faith is first birthed in a soul. The Spirit forms faith by drawing the heart to accept God’s attractive love. Before faith we all experience competing desires that distract our hearts from God’s grace. The Spirit alone can overcome false desires when he offers a clear view of God’s character.

Sin, in other words, produces conflicted hearts. The Spirit, then, is “persistently boiling away and burning our vicious and inordinate desires, [so that] he enflames our hearts with the love of God and with zealous devotion” [3.1.3]. This is God’s grace at work.

Calvin later offered his well known definition of faith with these features in place: “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” [3.2.7].

Calvin pressed the point. The Spirit’s ministry is an inward work in the soul, so “when we are drawn we are lifted up in mind and heart above our understanding” [3.2.34]. “Indeed, the Word of God is like the sun, shining on all those to whom it is proclaimed, but with no effect among the blind. Now, all of us are blind by nature in this respect. Accordingly, it cannot penetrate into our minds unless the Spirit, as the inner teacher, through his illumination makes entry for it.”

Religious education, by itself, is inadequate. “It now remains to pour into the heart itself what the mind has absorbed. For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart…”

And this only comes when the Spirit turns on the lights: “But if it is true that the mind’s real understanding is illumination by the Spirit of God, then in such confirmation of the heart his power is much more clearly manifested, to the extent that the heart’s distrust is greater than the mind’s blindness. It is harder for the heart to be furnished with assurance than for the mind to be endowed with thoughts” [3.2.36]. So the Spirit, alone, produces assurance in the heart. “Indeed, this assurance alone nourishes and protects faith…” [3.2.37].

Yet Calvin insisted that minds and hearts must be fully aligned in faith: “But how can the mind be aroused to taste the divine goodness without at the same time being wholly kindled to love God in return?” [3.2.41]. He answered his rhetorical question: “it is faith alone that first engenders love in us.” The key to this faith coming alive is “the testimony of the Holy Spirit that salvation is stored up for us.”

I need to quit here and invite you to read Calvin for yourself. And with his encouragements in mind, take up your Bible and ask the Spirit of Christ to illuminate his word as you read. He’s always happy to respond!



  1. Pete

    Ron, this is so inspiring. I studied Reformed theology at Gordon-Conwell under David Wells, but until recently I never fully appreciated Calvin’s pastoral and affective emphases. Thank you for sharing, friend.

  2. R N Frost

    Glad you liked it, Pete. Quoting Calvin makes for an easy post! I will say, too, that I enjoyed two courses with David Wells just before he moved from Trinity to Gordon-Conwell. A good prof & very helpful in offering Reformed (“Calvinist”) paradigms. But reading Calvin for myself was a new world.

  3. Eddie

    I just started reading Calvin’s’ Institutes with Dave. Thank you for your insights on his writings!

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