Calvin on Faith: The Gratuitous Promise

Christ as the Object of Faith

According to Calvin, the content of the knowledge of faith is very narrow and specific, not broad and vague: “For the apprehension of faith is not confined to our knowing that there is a God, but chiefly consists in our understanding what his will is toward us. For it is not of so much importance to us to know what he is in himself, as what he is willing to be to us. We find, therefore, that faith is a knowledge of the divine will toward us received from his word” (Institutes This disposition of God toward us has to do with the promises of grace that Calvin finds in Scripture. However, Scripture is not the exact object of faith. For Calvin, Scripture is the formal authority of special revelation, but Christ alone is the material of saving faith and the proper object of faith’s knowledge. (For more on Calvin’s view of Scripture, see Christian Theologies of Scripture.)

The Foundation of Faith

Calvin excludes elements of Scripture from his definition of the object of faith: “But since the heart of man is not aroused to faith by every utterance of God, we must further inquire what it is that faith properly has respect to in the word… We do not deny, however, that it is the office of faith to subscribe to the truth of God whenever, whatever, and in whatever manner he speaks, but just now we are inquiring what faith finds in the word to lean up and rest upon” (Institutes III.2.vii). While faith believes the Word of God, it has the promise of God’s mercy as its object: “We make the foundation of faith the gratuitous promise, because in it faith properly consists… [Faith] begins with the promise, stands upon it, and ends in it. For it seeks life in God, which is not found in the commands nor in the edicts of punishment but in the promise of mercy, and that only which is gratuitous, for a conditional promise, which sends us back to our works, promises life insofar as we find it in ourselves… Wherefore the Apostle bears witness to this testimony to the gospel, that it is the word of faith, which he denies to both the precepts and promises of the Law, since there is nothing which can establish faith except that free embassy by which God reconciles the world to himself” (Institutes III.2.xxix).

The Gratuitous Promise of Mercy

Calvin makes a bold distinction regarding special revelation, and to explain his view he writes: “Therefore, when we say that faith must rest upon the gratuitous promise, we do not deny that the believers embrace and accept the word of God in all its parts, but we designate the promise of mercy as its special object” (Institutes III.2.xxix). The various terms denoting the gratuitous promise of God are found throughout Calvin’s Institutes: “gratuitous mercy” (III.31.vii and II.17.i), “gratuitous favor” (III.21.vii and II.16.ii), “gratuitous goodness” (II.7.iv), “mere good pleasure” (III.21.v and II.17.i), and “gratuitous love” (III.21.v and II.17.i).

Faith and Scripture Are Separate, Yet Inseparable

Calvin distinguishes between the whole of Scripture, which must be believed and is accredited by the Spirit, and the gratuitous promise in Christ, the substance of Scripture and that which alone is the object of faith. We are not to choose one over the other but to affirm both. He also argues against separating faith from Scripture: “Take away the word, and no faith remains” (Institutes In his Commentary on Romans he writes: “This connection of faith with the word ought to be well understood and carefully remembered, for faith can bring us nothing more than what it receives from the word.” To be continued.