How God Works in Men's Hearts

by John Calvin

(Man under Satan's control: but Scripture shows God making use of Satan in hardening the heart of the reprobate, 1-5)


Unless I am mistaken, we have sufficiently proved that man is so held captive by the yoke of sin that he can of his own nature neither aspire to good through resolve nor struggle after it through effort. Besides, we posited a distinction between compulsion and necessity from which it appears that man, while he sins of necessity, yet sins no less voluntarily. But, while he is bound in servitude to the devil, he seems to be actuated more by the devil's will than by his own. It consequently remains for us to determine the part of the devil and the part of man in the action. Then we must answer the question whether we ought to ascribe to God any part of the evil works in which Scripture signifies that some action of his intervenes.

Somewhere Augustine compares man's will to a horse awaiting its rider's command, and God and the devil to its riders. "If God sits astride it," he says, "then as a moderate and skilled rider, he guides it properly, spurs it if it is too slow, checks it if it is too swift, restrains it if it is too rough or too wild, subdues it if it balks, and leads it into the right path. But if the devil saddles it, he violently drives it far from the trail like a foolish and wanton rider, forces it into ditches, tumbles it over cliffs, and goads it into obstinacy and fierceness." Since a better comparison does not come to mind, we shall be satisfied with this one for the present. It is said that the will of the natural man is subject to the devil's power and is stirred up by it. This does not mean that, like unwilling slaves rightly compelled by their masters to obey, our will, although reluctant and resisting, is constrained to take orders from the devil. It means rather that the will, captivated by Satan's wiles, of necessity obediently submits to all his leading. For those whom the Lord does not make worthy to be guided by his Spirit he abandons, with just judgment, to Satan's action. For this reason the apostle says that "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers," who are destined to destruction, that they may not see the light of the gospel [2 Corinthians 4:4]; and in another place that he "is... at work in the disobedient sons" [Ephesians 2:2]. The blinding of the impious and all iniquities following from it are called "the works of Satan." Yet their cause is not to be sought outside man's will, from which the root of evil springs up, and on which rests the foundation of Satan's kingdom, that is, sin.


Far different is the manner of God's action in such matters. To make this clearer to us, we may take as an example the calamity inflicted by the Chaldeans upon the holy man Job, when they killed his shepherds and in enmity ravaged his flock [Job 1:17]. Now their wicked act is perfectly obvious; nor does Satan do nothing in that work, for the history states that the whole thing stems from him [Job 1:12].

But Job himself recognizes the Lord's work in it, saying that He has taken away what had been seized through the Chaldeans [Job 1:21]. How may we attribute this same work to God, to Satan, and to man as author, without either excusing Satan as associated with God, or making God the author of evil? Easily, if we consider first the end, and then the manner, of acting. The Lord's purpose is to exercise the patience of His servant by calamity; Satan endeavors to drive him to desperation; the Chaldeans strive to acquire gain from another's property contrary to law and right. So great is the diversity of purpose that already strongly marks the deed. There is no less difference in the manner. The Lord permits Satan to afflict His servant; He hands the Chaldeans over to be impelled by Satan, having chosen them as His ministers for this task. Satan with his poison darts arouses the wicked minds of the Chaldeans to execute that evil deed. They dash madly into injustice, and they render all their members guilty and befoul them by the crime. Satan is properly said, therefore, to act in the reprobate over whom he exercises his reign, that is, the reign of wickedness. God is also said to act in His own manner, in that Satan himself, since he is the instrument of God's wrath, bends himself hither and thither at His beck and command to execute His just judgments. I pass over here the universal activity of God whereby all creatures, as they are sustained, thus derive the energy to do anything at all. I am speaking only of that special action which appears in every particular deed. Therefore we see no inconsistency in assigning the same deed to God, Satan, and man; but the distinction in purpose and manner causes God's righteousness to shine forth blameless there, while the wickedness of Satan and of man betrays itself by its own disgrace.


The church fathers sometimes scrupulously shrink from a simple confession of the truth because they are afraid that they may open the way for the impious to speak irreverently of God's works. As I heartily approve of this soberness, so do I deem it in no way dangerous if we simply adhere to what Scripture teaches. At times not even Augustine was free of that superstition; for example, he says that hardening and blinding refer not to God's activity but to his foreknowledge. Yet very many expressions of Scripture do not admit these subtleties, but clearly show that something more than God's mere foreknowledge is involved. And Augustine himself in the Against Julian, Book V, argues at great length that sins happen not only by God's permission and forbearance, but by his might, as a kind of punishment for sins previously committed. Likewise what they report concerning permission is too weak to stand.

Very often God is said to blind and harden the reprobate, to turn, incline, and impel, their hearts [e.g.. Isaiah 6:10], as I have taught more fully elsewhere. The nature of this activity is by no means explained if we take refuge in foreknowledge or permission. We therefore reply that it takes place in two ways. For after his light is removed, nothing but darkness and blindness remains. When his Spirit is taken away, our hearts harden into stones. When his guidance ceases, they are wrenched into crookedness. Thus it is properly said that he blinds, hardens, and bends those whom he has deprived of the power of seeing, obeying, and rightly following.

The second way, which comes much closer to the proper meaning of the words, is that to carry out his judgments through Satan as minister of his wrath, God destines men's purposes as he pleases, arouses their wills, and strengthens their endeavors. Thus Moses, when he relates that King Sihon did not give passage to the people because God had hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, immediately adds the purpose of His plan: that, as he says, "He might give him into our hands" [Deuteronomy 2:30, cf. Comm.]. Therefore, because God willed that Sihon be destroyed, He prepared his ruin through obstinacy of heart.


According to the first way this seems to have been said: "He takes away speech from the truthful, and deprives the elders of reason" [Job 12:20; cf. Ezekiel 7:26]. "He takes the heart from those who are in authority over the people of the land, and makes them wander in trackless wastes." [Job 12:24 p.; cf. Psalm 107:40.] Likewise, "O Lord, why hast thou driven us mad and hardened our heart, that we may not fear thee?" [Isaiah 63:17, cf. Vg.] These passages indicate what sort of men God makes by deserting them rather than how he carries out his work in them. Yet there are other testimonies that go beyond these. Such, for example, are those of the hardening of Pharaoh: "I will harden his heart... so that he may not hear you [Exodus 7:3-4] and let the people go" [Exodus 4:21]. Afterward he said that he had made Pharaoh's heart "heavy" [Exodus 10:1] and "stiffened" it [ Exodus 10:20,27; 11:10; 14:8]. Did he harden it by not softening it? This is indeed true, but he did something more. He turned Pharaoh over to Satan to be confirmed in the obstinacy of his breast. This is why he had previously said, "I will restrain his heart" [Exodus 4:21]. The people go forth from Egypt; as enemies the inhabitants of the region come to meet them. What has stirred them up? Moses, indeed, declared to the people that it was the Lord who stiffened their hearts [Deuteronomy 2:30]. The prophet, indeed, recounting the same history, says: "He turned their hearts to hate his people" [Psalm 105:25]. Now you cannot say that they stumbled from being deprived of God's counsel. For if they were "stiffened" and "turned," they were deliberately bent to that very thing. Moreover, whenever it pleased him to punish the transgressions of the people, how did he carry out his work through the reprobate? So that anyone may see that the power of execution was with him while they merely provided service. Accordingly he threatens to call them forth by his whistle [Isaiah 5:26; 7:18], then to use them as a snare to catch [Ezekiel 12:13; 17:20], then as a hammer to shatter, the Israelites [Jeremiah 50:23]. But he expressly declared that he did not idly stand by when he called Sennacherib an ax [Isaiah 10:15] that was aimed and impelled by His own hand to cut them down. In another place Augustine rather well defines the matter as follows: "The fact that men sin is their own doing; that they by sinning do this or that comes from the power of God, who divides the darkness as he pleases."


One passage will however be enough to show that Satan intervenes to stir up the reprobate whenever the Lord by his providence destines them to one end or another. For in Samuel it is often said that "an evil spirit of the Lord" and "an evil spirit from the Lord" has either "seized" or "departed from" Saul [1 Samuel 16:14; 18:10; 19:9]. It is unlawful to refer this to the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the impure spirit is called "spirit of God" because it responds to his will and power, and acts rather as God's instrument than by itself as the author. At the same time we ought to add what Paul teaches: the working of error and seduction is divinely sent "that those who have not obeyed the truth may believe a lie" [2 Thessalonians 2:10-11, cf. Vg.]. Yet in the same work there is always a great difference between what the Lord does and what Satan and the wicked try to do. God makes these evil instruments, which he holds under his hand and can turn wherever he pleases, to serve his justice. They, as they are evil, by their action give birth to a wickedness conceived an their depraved nature. The other considerations that are concerned with vindicating God's majesty from blame, or cutting off any excuses of the wicked, have already been discussed in the chapter on providence. Here my sole intention was briefly to indicate how Satan reigns in a reprobate man, and how the Lord acts in both.

(God's providence overrules men's wills in external matters, 6-8)


Even though we have touched upon the matter above, we have not yet explained what freedom man may possess in actions that are of themselves neither righteous nor corrupt, and look toward the physical rather than the spiritual life. In such things some have conceded him free choice, more (I suspect) because they would not argue about a matter of no great importance than because they wanted to assert positively the very thing they grant. I admit that those who think they have no power to justify themselves hold to the main point necessary to know for salvation. Yet I do not think this part ought to be neglected: to recognize that whenever we are prompted to choose something to our advantage, whenever the will inclines to this, or conversely when. ever our mind and heart shun anything that would otherwise be harmful - this is of the Lord's special grace.

The force of God's providence extends to this point: not only that things occur as he foresees to be expedient, but that men's wills also incline to the same end. Indeed, if we ponder the direction of external things, we shall not doubt that to this extent they are left to human judgment. But if we lend our ears to the many testimonies which proclaim that the Lord also rules men's minds in external things, these will compel us to subordinate decision itself to the special impulse of God. Who inclined the wills of the Egyptians toward the Israelites so that they should lend them all their most precious vessels [Exodus 11:2-3]? They would never voluntarily have been so inclined. Therefore, their minds were more subject to the Lord than ruled by themselves.

Indeed, if Jacob had not been persuaded that God according to his pleasure variously disposes men, he would not have said of his son Joseph, whom he thought to be some heathen Egyptian, "May God grant you to find mercy in this man's sight" [Genesis 43:14]. Also, as the whole church confesses in the psalm, when God would have mercy upon his people, he tamed the hearts of the cruel nations to gentleness [cf. Psalm 106:46]. On the other hand, when Saul so broke out into anger as to gird himself for war, the cause is stated: the Spirit of God impelled him [1 Samuel 11:6]. Who turned Absalom's mind from embracing Ahithophel's counsel, which was usually regarded as an oracle [2 Samuel 17:14]? Who inclined Rehoboam to be persuaded by the young men's counsel [1 Kings 12:10,14]? Who caused the nations previously very bold to tremble at the coming of Israel? Even the harlot Rahab confessed that this was done by God [Joshua 2:9 ff.]. Again, who cast down the hearts of Israel with fear and dread, but he who threatened in the Law to give them "a trembling heart" [Deuteronomy 28:65; cf. Leviticus 26:36]?


Someone will object that these are particular examples to whose rule by no means all instances ought to be applied. But I say that they sufficiently prove what I contend: God, whenever he wills to make way for his providence, bends and turns men's wills even in external things; nor are they so free to choose that God's will does not rule over their freedom. Whether you will or not, daily experience compels you to realize that your mind is guided by God's prompting rather than by your own freedom to choose. That is, in the simplest matters judgment and understanding often fail you, while in things easy to do the courage droops. On the contrary, in the obscurest matters, ready counsel is immediately offered; in great and critical matters there is courage to master every difficulty.

In this way I understand Solomon's words, "God made both the ear to hear and the eye to see" [Proverbs 20:12 p.]. For he seems to me not to be speaking of their creation, but of the peculiar gift of their function. When he writes, "In his hand the Lord holds the king's heart as streams of water, and turns it wherever he will" [Proverbs 21:1], Solomon actually comprehends the whole genus under a single species. If any man's will has been released from all subjection, this privilege belongs above all to the kingly will, which in a measure exercises rule over others' wills. But if the king's will is bent by God's hand, our wills are not exempt from that condition. On this point there is a notable saying of Augustine: "Scripture, if diligently searched, shows that not only the good wills which he has made out of evil ones and directs, once so made by him, to good actions and to eternal life are in God's power; but so also are those wills which preserve the creatures of this world. And they are so in his power that he causes them to be inclined where and when he will, either to bestow benefits, or to inflict punishments - indeed by his most secret but most righteous judgment."


Here let my readers remember that man's ability to choose freely is not to be judged by the outcome of things, as some ignorant folk absurdly have it. For they seem to themselves neatly and cleverly to prove the bondage of men's will from the fact that not even for the highest monarchs do all things go according to their liking. Anyhow, this ability of which we are speaking we must consider within man, and not measure it by outward success. In discussing free will we are not asking whether a man is permitted to carry out and complete, despite external hindrances, whatever he has decided to do; but whether he has, in any respect whatever, both choice of judgment and inclination of will that are free. If men have sufficient of both, Atilius Regulus, confined in a nail-studded wine cask, has no less of free will than Augustus Caesar, governing at his command a great part of the world.

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