Calvin on Common Grace and Universal Sinfulness

In Calvin’s Institutes, II.iii.3-4, we have an excellent discussion of God’s goodness to natural men. Calvin isn’t even afraid to use the word “grace” – “Amid this corruption of nature there is some place for God’s grace; not such grace as to cleanse it, but to restrain it inwardly” (p. 292). Yes, all humans are depraved (Romans 3:10-18), but they are not as bad as they possibly can be, and some are even do what externally could be viewed as “good” things. But, as Calvin points out, “because, however excellent anyone has been, his own ambition always pushes him on – a blemish with which all virtues are so sullied that before God they lose all favor – anything in profane men that appears praiseworthy must be considered worthless. Besides, where there is no zeal to glorify God, the chief part of uprightness is absent” (294). Man apart from Christ commits two chief evils – they don’t live for God’s glory, and they do live for their own glory. This motivation taints every “good” deed that an unbeliever does.

As the Westminster Confession puts it, “Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing unto God” (WCF 16.7).

SDG,
Ezra

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