Are my good works even mine at all?

As I committed to reading through Calvin’s Institutes with a friend, in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, I thought it would be worth jotting down some bits that I found particularly interesting. Here’s the quote for today:

For any mixture of the power of free will that men strive to mingle with God’s grace is nothing but a corruption of grace. It is just as if one were to dilute wine with muddy, bitter water. But even if there is something good in the will, it comes from the pure prompting of the Spirit.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, 5.15

If you’re sitting there shocked at this quote and wondering what it’s talking about, I must confess, I pulled only a short excerpt from his writing. So before you get all up in arms about Calvin’s view on free will, let me try to explain what he’s actually talking about: He’s saying that any good works we do are completely of God’s grace to us. You probably already knew that Jesus saving us was entirely by the grace of God, but here Calvin is affirming even more—that every single good work of ours comes from the prompting of the Spirit.

So what does this mean for us? I think there’s a tendency in me (and, I’m guessing in you and other Christians) to get a bit smug about all the nice things we do. Maybe you stopped swearing, or started being more generous with your money, or helped someone else come to know Jesus. But is there really any cause for smugness?

Every good work you have done as a Christian has been only by the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Every. Single. One. So perhaps the next time we’re getting proud of how much more we are doing than other Christians, let’s remember who the praise belongs to for it all. (Hint: the answer is Jesus)


Malcolm Purdey is a Christian, husband, father, student minister and science nerd. He completed a PhD in Chemistry and worked as a research scientist before making the jump into ministry in early 2017. He has been married for 5 years and has two daughters aged 3 and 1.

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