Calvin on Faith: Illumination by the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit’s Work

Calvin’s defines faith not in terms of a book accredited by the Spirit; rather, faith has Christ as its object and is enabled by the Spirit’s work of illumination. Illumination plays a key role in Calvin’s doctrine of faith, especially in regard to the human condition: “The simple and external demonstration of the word of God ought, indeed, to suffice fully for the production of faith, did not our blindness and perversity interfere. But such is the propensity of our minds to vanity that they can never adhere to the truth of God, and such is their dullness that they are always blind even to his light. Hence, without the illumination of the Holy Spirit the word has no effect” (Institutes III.2.xxxiii). Calvin presents the illumination of the Spirit and the internal testimony of the Spirit in connection with the certainty of faith: “There are two operations of the Spirit in faith, just as faith consists of two principle parts: it both illuminates and establishes the mind…The commencement of faith is knowledge; the completion of it is a firm and fixed persuasion which admits no opposing doubts. Both, as I have said, are the works of the Spirit” (Commentary on Ephesians).

A Trinitarian Foundation for Faith

After focusing on Christ and his gospel, God’s gratuitous promise of mercy, and the illumination of Holy Spirit, Calvin arrives at his final definition of faith: “Now we shall have a proper definition of faith if we say it is a steady and certain knowledge of the Divine benevolence toward us, which being founded upon the truth of the gratuitous promise in Christ is both revealed to our minds and sealed in or hearts by the Holy Spirit” (Institutes III.2.vii). Calvin’s definition is concise and the content of the knowledge of faith is clear. Faith’s certainty is not founded on an argument or proposition, but founded on the work of the Trinity—God’s will to be benevolent toward us is revealed in the gratuitous promise because of Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit. The ground of certainty is God. To be continued.