Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 1.3-5

1 Peter 1.3-5

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, (4) and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, (5) who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

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THE COMMENTARY

“Blessed be God” – This opening phrase gives Calvin the opportunity to reiterate one of the things that he set out in the earlier section concerning the argument of 1 Peter as a whole, namely, to raise us above the world, in order that we may be prepared and encouraged to sustain the spiritual contests of our warfare. To this end, Calvin thinks that it is important that Peter included further on in this passage a discussion of that which awaits us in heaven. The point is that we should be patient through earthly troubles in view of our heavenly and spiritual blessings.

“And Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” – Here, Calvin sounds a bit more like Barth than one would tend to expect from Calvin (as opposed to Luther, who says this kind of thing all the time). Calvin points out that just as God designated himself from other gods in the past by calling himself the ‘God of Abraham,’ going by “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” specifies precisely which God is being spoken about. Indeed, Calvin goes so far to say that:

[God’s] will is, not to be known otherwise than in [Christ]…Whosoever, then, seeks really to know the only true God, must regard him as the Father of Christ; for, whenever our mind seeks God, except Christ be thought of, it will wonder and be confused…


It’s a shame that we had to wait until Barth came along to get anything like a consistent, systematic unfolding of precisely what this kind of notion means for Christian theology, that is, for Christian theology to be truly Christian. In any case, Barth didn’t come up with it – Calvin (and Luther) said it first, and I’m sure that if one tried one could trace it even further back into the tradition.

“Who hath begotten us again” – Here Calvin fills in a bit of his earlier discussion of predestination by noting that it is important to be born a second time since we were born children of wrath the first time. Furthermore, Calvin understands this notion to reinforce that salvation is a purely gratuitous gift.

“According to his abundant mercy” – At this point Calvin makes one of his famous distinctions between efficient and mediating causes. In the preceding, God is shown to be the efficient cause of our salvation based solely on God’s mercy. Now, in the following phrase, the work of Jesus Christ is shown to be the mediating cause whereby this efficient cause is worked out. Next, Calvin makes one of his habitual blunders. Pointing out that it is God’s mercy that saves us, he explains that this is accomplished by the resurrection of Christ; for God does not in any other way discover his mercy. It is the last bit of this phrase that is troubling, for it implies that God had no mercy toward us until the even of Christ’s redeeming and reconciling work. (For a much more scholarly explication of this in Calvin, turn to Bruce McCormack in his essay, “For Us and Our Salvation,” in the neighborhood of page 26. McCormack also finds in this kind of statement proof that Calvin has not sufficiently thought through the notion that we only know God through Christ, which we saw Calvin affirm above. McCormack’s discussion is short but quite helpful.) First, it should be noted that this is not finally what Calvin thinks, although he tends to talk this way quite regularly (see Calvin’s Institutes 2.16.3 for a statement of Calvin’s own understanding contra what he seems to state here). Second, the problem with this statement is that, if God sent Christ, then God must have had some mercy toward us in the first place. To Calvin’s credit, he speaks this way because he feels compelled to by various parts of the biblical text and would rather let the tension they create stand than to overturn them with systematic force – a laudable goal, to be sure.

“Who are kept by the power of God” – This bit is important in terms of a doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. I have heard this doctrine criticized by the argument that it takes away the necessity of good works, morality, ethics, etc. It is often paraphrased by the statement: “once saved, always saved.” The problem with this construction is a simplistic notion of salvation as tied to a definitive prayer prayed in the distant past, a moment of placing one’s trust is Jesus, etc. But, if we recognize that our salvation is not resident within ourselves but within the work of God, whether you construe that work as predestination or have another way of talking about it, things begin looking much different.

Calvin uses this phrase to discuss faith. He insists that though we are in the world exposed to dangers, we are kept by faith. Faith is what connects us to our salvation. Calvin thinks that it thus must be a powerful force. But, he also recognizes that it is also weak.

Though we are thus night to death, we are yet safe under the guardianship of faith. But, as faith itself, through the infirmity of the flesh, often quails, we might be always anxious about the morrow, were not the Lord to aid us.


The point, for Calvin, is that our salvation would be uncertain – even when considered from the standpoint of faith – except that it is sustained by God’s power. Indeed, faith receives its stability from God’s power. One of my professors, as I have noted elsewhere, likes to put it this way. “Can we lose our salvation? We do so every day. Yet, God knows how to hold onto our hand even when we do our best to let go of his.” Were it otherwise, we should have no reason not to despair in every moment. Calvin had that figured out.

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