How Does John Calvin Explain the Virtuous Non-Christian?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

John Calvin and his theological offspring are famous for the doctrine of total depravity. What does this doctrine mean?

Theologian R. C. Sproul, himself a Calvinist, describes total depravity as follows in his Essential Truths of the Christian Faith:

The Bible teaches the total depravity of the human race. Total depravity means radical corruption. We must be careful to note the difference between total depravity and utter depravity. To be utterly depraved is to be as wicked as one could possibly be. Hitler was extremely depraved, but he could have been worse than he was.

I am a sinner. Yet I could sin more often and more severely than I actually do. I am not utterly depraved, but I am totally depraved. For total depravity means that I and everyone else are depraved or corrupt in the totality of our being. There is no part of us that is left untouched by sin. Our minds, our wills, and our bodies are affected by evil. We speak sinful words, do sinful deeds, have impure thoughts. Our very bodies suffer from the ravages of sin.

Sproul goes on to quote Romans 3:10-12:

There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one.

This doctrine often leads to the question, “If people are totally depraved, sinful to our core, then how do we explain seemingly virtuous non-Christians, people who have never been regenerated by the Holy Spirit? Doesn’t the doctrine of total depravity tell us that these people shouldn’t exist?”

Not exactly. In order to answer this question, it is useful to look at the words of Calvin from his most famous literary work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin admits about the virtuous non-Christian,

Such examples, then, seem to warn us against supposing that the nature of man is utterly vicious, since, under its guidance, some have not only excelled in illustrious deeds, but conducted themselves most honourably through the whole course of their lives.

Calvin’s response is that the ability of a person to live virtuously at all is due to God’s special grace upon that individual in order to restrain his sinful nature.  Citing the many kinds of wickedness found in man, Calvin argues that

in the elect, God cures these diseases in the mode which will shortly be explained; in others, he only lays them under such restraint as may prevent them from breaking forth to a degree incompatible with the preservation of the established order of things.

Without God’s special grace, man would degenerate into complete corruption and the world would plunge into chaos. Calvin further explains natural men’s true motives for seeking good:

Some are restrained only by shame, others by a fear of the laws, from breaking out into many kinds of wickedness. Some aspire to an honest life, as deeming it most conducive to their interest, while others are raised above the vulgar lot, that, by the dignity of their station, they may keep inferiors to their duty.

The man that appears to live more virtuously owes all of this virtue to God’s special grace.  God distributes his special grace in a way that prevents the world from descending into chaos.  If we admit that these people exist, must we say that there is something good in them that earns them credit before God?  No.  Calvin argues,

But as those endued with the greatest talents were always impelled by the greatest ambitions (a stain which defiles all virtues and makes them lose all favour in the sight of God), so we cannot set any value on anything that seems praiseworthy in ungodly men.

In addition, righteousness is absent “when there is no zeal for the glory of God, and there is no such zeal in those whom he has not regenerated by his Spirit.”  He concludes, “The virtues which deceive us by an empty show may have their praise in civil society and the common intercourse of life, but before the judgment-seat of God they will be of no value to establish a claim of righteousness.”

Here is the bottom line. Calvin allows that some men live lives of relative virtue.  These men, however, owe all their excellence to God’s special grace, a grace that restrains their wicked natures like a bridle.  Calvin also argues that since men only pursue the good for their own personal ambitions, they merit no righteousness before God.

Although I do not consider myself a 5-point Calvinist, I think that Calvin’s ideas on man’s sinful nature are mostly correct. The regenerated Christian lives his life in a completely different way from the unregenerated non-Christian. I see this every day.

I am curious to know what you think about this doctrine and whether you think all men are born sinful at their core. Please leave comments!

  • GoodBerean

    A lot depends on what is meant by “virtuous.” There is none good but God, Jesus says. Thus, “good” = Godly. An unbeliever is, by definition, not Godly. So, an unbeliever can never do a Godly thing because the unbeliever can never do the good/Godly thing for the right reason (because God says to do it or not do it.) If unbelievers are not as evil as they might be all the time that is due, I believe, to God’s grace and restraint.

    John Lofton, Recovering Republican
    Dir., The God And Government Project
    Active Facebook Wall

  • sean

    I want to make sure I’m understanding this correctly. When Christians are virtuous and good above and beyond the normal, it’s because God has graced them especially. But when non-Christians are virtuous it’s because they are ambitious, which negates the good thing in the eyes God.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “So, an unbeliever can never do a Godly thing because the unbeliever can never do the good/Godly thing for the right reason (because God says to do it or not do it”

    Why is doing something without hope of reward purely because you want to help others no good at all, compared to doing the same thing just because you think a God told you to do it?

  • God enters into a special relationship with a person who has trusted that Jesus is the Son of God, died, and rose from the dead, all for our sins. That relationship influences the thinking and behavior of the person, who has now become a Christian.

    First and foremost, the Christian understands that every good thing he has is a gift from God. He owes his very life to God. He owes his eternal destiny to God. The Christian’s behavior is characterized by incredible gratitude.

    The non-Christian denies that every good thing he has is a gift from God. He does not believe his life is owed to God. He doesn’t believe God is responsible for his eternal destiny to God. The non-Christian’s
    behavior is not characterized by gratitude.

    So you can see that the motives for a Christian and for a non-Christian are completely different. Goodness is centered around God, so the person who denies that God exists, or that rejects the work Jesus did, is therefore missing the single most important aspect of goodness.

  • sean

    I follow you up until the last paragraph I think. Is it that gratitude is the most important aspect of goodness? Or that doing in the name of God is the most important, or am I completely off the mark?

  • Psychologically, gratitude toward God is foundational to being good.

  • sean

    Okay, I understand now, thanks.

  • Christopher Lynn Park

    Because you suppose that we, “Do good to get a reward,” through the use of a scale. The Law uses such a system. Grace rescues us from the scales that we could never balance through our own goodness. Good Works before God are done out of gratitude and to extol God for Grace presented in Jesus work before the Father on our behalf. Works that detract from Jesus Christ detract from the Father, and are not guided by the Holy Spirit. By definition, they can’t be good.

  • Christopher Lynn Park

    I’d add that actions stem from beliefs and presuppositions. Ambition also means believing that doing good can also increase one’s sense of righteousness in oneself. In short, It feels good so you do it, and you do it to feel good. One’s own well-being is the goal of their effort.

    The question often posed as, “Why not do good because it’s the right thing?” comes from a perspective that a good as defined by their worldview that have already supposed their own answers to “What id good?” and “What is right?” and believes that we can know the answers to those questions. Different beliefs and worldviews give different answers. Abortion, or Doctor Assisted Suicide are both considered potentially good for the Atheist, and usually considered evil by the Christian based upon their presuppositions.

    Christians do good to glorify God. Trusting that good deeds elevate you in some way (Assuming Atheism) in your own eyes, or others’ does not submit to Christ. This is self-righteousness by defining its own rules of goodness.

    The question, “Why don’t people do good because it’s the right thing to do?” Both hints at what Isaiah said, “There is none righteous, no not one,”in Romans 3:10-12, and from the perspective of the questioner, not the Prophet, is really a cry of, “Why don’t people do what I think is good?” or, “Why don’t people run their lives the way I want?” whether the speaker realizes it or not. In short, it assumes a worldview, and expects others to tow the line. It is the preaching of a Law that seeks to supplant God’s Law in the Old Covenant, and leaves no Grace found in the New Covenant.

    Christians do good out of thanksgiving for the Grace shown through our Redeemer to such wretched and corrupt creatures, such as ourselves.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Because you suppose that we, “Do good to get a reward,” through the use of a scale.”
    When did I suppose that?

    Let’s take me question, and put your answer to it in the same sentence and see if it makes sense:

    Doing something without hope of reward purely because you want to help others is no good at all because I suppose that Christians, “Do good to get a reward,” through the use of a scale.

    Does that sentence make sense to you?

    Also, you’re saying that doing something without hope of reward purely because you want to help others is a work that detracts from Jesus Christ. Really?