Calvin’s Institutes – 2.2.25 – Every thing which our mind conceives, meditates plans, and resolves, is always evil

In book two Calvin addresses the issue of free will. He considers these initially from a philosophical framework through the concepts of moral will and reason. Towards the end of the second section he begins to quote scripture to back himself up on his opinion of the depravity of all mankind. This is where I start to disagree with him.

This is part of my series on Calvin’s Institutes.


Of how little value it is in the sight of God, in regard to all the parts of life, Paul shows, when he says, that we are not “sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves,” (2 Cor. 3:5). He is not speaking of the will or affection; he denies us the power of thinking aright how anything can be duly performed. Is it, indeed, true, that all thought, intelligence, discernment, and industry, are so defective, that, in the sight of the Lord, we cannot think or aim at anything that is right? To us, who can scarcely bear to part with acuteness of intellect (in our estimation a most precious endowment), it seems hard to admit this, whereas it is regarded as most just by the Holy Spirit, who “knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are vanity,” (Ps. 94:11), and distinctly declares, that “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” (Gen. 6:5; 8:21). If every thing which our mind conceives, meditates plans, and resolves, is always evil, how can it ever think of doing what is pleasing to God, to whom righteousness and holiness alone are acceptable? (Calvin, Instit. 2.2.25)

There is no doubt that this opinion, adopted from Origin and certain of the ancient Fathers, has been generally embraced by the schoolmen, who are wont to apply to man in his natural state (in puris naturalibus, as they express it) the following description of the apostle:—“For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” “To will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not,” (Rom. 7:15, 18).

But, in this way, the whole scope of Paul’s discourse is inverted. He is speaking of the Christian struggle (touched on more briefly in the Epistle to the Galatians), which believers constantly experience from the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit.

But the Spirit is not from nature, but from regeneration. That the apostle is speaking of the regenerate is apparent from this, that after saying, “in me dwells no good thing,” he immediately adds the explanation, “in my flesh.” Accordingly, he declares, “It is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.” What is the meaning of the correction, “in me (that is, in my flesh?)” It is just as if he had spoken in this way, No good thing dwells in me, of myself, for in my flesh nothing good can be found. (Calvin, Instit. 2.2.27)


Calvin has ripped 2 Cor 3.5 out of context.

4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor 3.4-6)

Paul is speaking about his and his coworkers roles as apostles and evangelists. In context he is defending his gospel ministry and asserting his ‘sufficiency as ministers in the new covenant’ (2 Cor 3.6).  Paul is not here speaking of everyone’s intellect.

Calvin notes Genesis 6.5 and imposes the statement on all believers as well as unbelievers. Calvin says from ‘our mind’ there is only evil. I’ve written a post on the heart. Calvin fails to note distinction in scripture made to the believer’s heart by the Spirit.

Calvin believes Rom 7.7-25 is about the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. He’s wrong. The passage does not mention the Spirit. The identity of the ‘I’ in Romans 7 has been disputed for quite some time. I believe Calvin’s interpretation of Rom 7.7-25 is erroneous. In my blog post I show it is contrary to other scriptures.

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