John Calvin and the Theology of Total Depravity and Free Will

Among Western theologians, John Calvin stands alongside Saint Augustine as the most influential writer of Christian theology outside of the biblical text. Calvin’s writings subsequently influenced second generation Reformed theology, the non-conformist movement in Britain (Presbyterianism and Puritanism, later, congregationalism), Brandenburg bi-confessionalism, and the Westminster Divines within the Church of England, not to mention the Dutch Reformed Church. After Protestantism had securely separated itself from the Catholic Church, internal debates over free will often drew from Calvin and his supporters. Today’s confusion about John Calvin and his theology of total depravity and the will come from these intra-Protestant debates.

It is common to hear two things about Calvin, one of which is misleading and the other verifiably false. One is that he taught humans didn’t have free will. The other is that he denied the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That Calvin taught an enslaved will is misleading. That Calvin denied the real presence is false. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion he writes: “Christ can exert his energy wherever he pleases, in earth and heaven, can manifest his presence by the exercise of his power, can always be present with his people, breathing into them his own life, can live in them, sustain, confirm, and invigorate them, and preserve them safe, just as if he were with them in the body; in fine, can feed them with his own body, communion with which he transfuses into them. After this manner, the body and blood of Christ are exhibited to us in the sacrament” and affirms “The presence of Christ in the Supper we must hold to be.” What Calvin rejected was the doctrine of transubstantiation. Calvin’s view on the Eucharist, however, is for another time. His writings on the will and the popular reception and perception of Calvin’s theology of the heart, will, and grace is what matters to us here.

Critics of Calvin often quote his statement “So depraved is [human] nature that he can be moved or impelled only to evil.” This is benchmarked as Calvin’s denial of free will. The real case, however, is more complicated. Calvin’s equally famous statement that the heart is the creator of idols implies an active will stemming from the heart, but that the heart is evil in its manifestation of its desire. He also wrote in the Institutes when dealing explicitly with the theological notion of free will, “In this way, then, man is said to have free will, not because he has a free choice of good and evil, but because he acts voluntarily, and not by compulsion.” Furthermore, the beginning of the Institutes of the Christian Religion reveals a slightly more complex view of things that Calvin’s critics like to admit:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.

According to Calvin, human nature is, in fact, seeking God by its natural powers—even in its fallen state: we desire love and Love is God. However, without grace, Calvin maintains the human heart and will always end up rejecting God and creates for itself idols for pleasure of the flesh to love. Hence his belief that there is no soundness in the activity of the will despite its seeking. The human will is free in an active sense, human nature operates on its own natural powers that it has stripped of grace as a result of the Fall. But this freedom is limited to the realm of wickedness, hence Calvin’s statement humans “act wickedly by will, not by compulsion.” Consider it this way: postlapsarian humanity exists in a room, the room of sin. Inside that room postlapsarian humans have complete freedom of the will to act within the room of sin.

Since humanity is limited in sin and stays in sin by free choice as a result of the restricted circumstance of Adam’s penalty, free will is incapable of reaching out to God to be transfigured by Him. This is where God’s decree of grace and election comes in. Salvation is not of the human will but of God’s free choice of the dispensation of grace through election. As God is absolutely sovereign, the human will has no power to liberate itself out of sin. The liberation from sin is entirely up to God.

Consider the same aforementioned analogy. In the room of sin postlapsarian humans are completely free to act in the boundaries of sin they find themselves in. They are, therefore, guilty of whatever action they take within the boundaries of sin because they freely choose to do what they do. There is, however, another room unknown to postlapsarian humans, the room of grace. God is the keymaster who opens the door of sin from outside, chooses humans out of the room of sin, and places them into the room of grace. Within the room of grace, humans are free to know and worship God having been regenerated by God’s salvific act of liberation. Thus the regenerated elect have free will within the room of grace but by the act of God’s deliverance. In either condition, room, humans are in, they have a free will within that condition, room. But how did humans escape the condition, room, of sin? God.

Calvin is able to ensure God’s sovereignty in the act of liberation while able to affirm free will in a regenerate state for the human liberated and placed into the state of grace (the room of grace) is freed from sin to know and worship God.

The problem people have with Calvin is that he denies the human possibility of self-liberation to God. Arminians and free-will soteriologies affirm the fallenness of human nature but assert that through their own action—either from God’s enlightenment or from their own power—humans can choose to leave the state of sin (room of sin) and enter the state of grace (room of grace) to find God and know and love God. Since Calvin leaves the act of liberation to God and God alone, his critics misleadingly state he denied free will since free will is the essential component to self-saving or cooperative soteriologies. Cooperative soteriology would be God’s enlightening of the fallen mind to a better reality (the state of grace/room of grace); for instance, God shines his light through the cracks of the door and humans who see it respond to God’s initial act but they are the ones ultimately liberating themselves from the state of sin to enter the state of grace God is calling them to inhabit.

Calvin, as he defines his terms and anthropology, didn’t deny free will—even in the state of total depravity. Humans have free will within their condition of sin. They choose to act the way they do within that condition. Calvin also doesn’t deny free will in the state of grace; in grace, humans freely worship God in perfect knowledge of Him through Christ. What Calvin denies is that the human will can liberate itself from its condition of sin to enter that state of grace. Only God liberates the sinner and takes them into the state of grace.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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