John Calvin on Mercy

Part 3 of a 4 part series. View series intro and index.


It’s been said that because John Calvin preached election as a biblical truth, he could not have taught that God is merciful.  Some have written that Calvin’s view of God’s sovereignty distorts his attribute of mercy — that God cannot be sovereign and merciful.  Calvin’s God, people have said, must be an unloving God since he sends people to hell.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth.  John Calvin taught that the God of the Bible is a God of mercy.  In his commentary on Romans 4:5, he wrote:

This is a very important sentence, in which he expresses the substance and nature both of faith and of righteousness. He indeed clearly shews that faith brings us righteousness, not because it is a meritorious act, but because it obtains for us the favor of God. Nor does he declare only that God is the giver of righteousness, but he also arraigns us of unrighteousness, in order that the bounty of God may come to aid our necessity: in short, no one will seek the righteousness of faith except he who feels that he is ungodly; for this sentence is to be applied to what is said in this passage — that faith adorns us with the righteousness of another, which it seeks as a gift from God. And here again, God is said to justify us when he freely forgives sinners, and favors those, with whom he might justly be angry, with his love, that is, when his mercy obliterates our unrighteousness.

Calvin taught that God’s anger has a “long wick,” so to speak.  God is not quick on the trigger, but rather he is patient and kind and willing to forgive.  He wrote elsewhere, “God tolerates even our stammering, and pardons our ignorance whenever something inadvertently escapes us — as, indeed, without this mercy there would be no freedom to pray.”  Because God is merciful, sinners are welcome before God.

God’s mercy was a rock-solid truth to be depended on for Calvin, and he consistently taught and preached this to his congregation.  “The divine mercy,” Calvin wrote, “is a better foundation of trust than any life fashioned out to ourselves, and than all other supports taken together.”

No matter what life brings, the Christian can trust that “it is well with them, in the best sense of the term, when God is their friend.”  For the believer, God is truly a friend!  “Unbelievers, on the other hand,” he wrote, “must be miserable, even when all the world smile upon them; for God is their enemy, and curse necessarily attaches to their lot.”