Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin.
Book 2: Of the knowledge of God the Redeemer, in Christ, as first manifested to the fathers, under the law, and thereafter to us under the gospel.
Chapter 3: “Everything Proceeding From The Corrupt Nature of Man Damnable.”
Section 1: Scripture is key in learning about the nature of mankind. If man is perfectly described by the words of Jesus, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh” (Jn 3:6), then he must be a very miserable creature. John states in Romans 8:8 that to be carnally minded is death, and that it is hostile against God, because it does not and cannot submit to God’s law. For those who say that the term “flesh” regards only the carnal desires and that the soul is somehow capable of a higher purpose, Jesus’ statement in John 3:6 refutes it in that our Creator states that we ARE flesh – in our complete being. The soul of a natural man is as corrupt as the flesh itself. Paul goes on to say in Ephesians 4:23 that the natural man is corrupt through deceitful desires, and implores us to be “renewed in the spirit of our minds”. This emphasizes that corruption has its seat in our desires – which are born in our souls. There is no part of the natural, unconverted man which is without corruption. “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” (Eph 4:17-18) The heart of the unconverted man is wholly set against God. David drives the point home when he says, “Those of low estate are but a breath; those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.” (Psalm 62:9) There is no one, rich or poor, who can bring anything to God of any worth.
Section 2: “In no degree more lenient is the condemnation of the heart, when it is described as ‘deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,’ (Jer 17:9)”. Calvin then goes on to state that it is Romans 3:10-18 that describes in detail the truth about the heart of man:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” (Ps 14:1-3; 53:1-3)
“Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.” (Ps 5:9; Jer 5:16)
“The venom of asps is under their lips.” (Ps 140:3)
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” (Ps 10:7)
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery, (Prov. 1:15-17; Isa 59:7-8)
and the way of peace they have not known.” (Lk 1:79)
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Ps 36:1)”
~ Romans 3:10-18.
It is clear that Paul is not claiming that there are certain people who are in sin, but all people who are in sin, and their sin is grievous to the heart of God. This is not to bring people to repentance but to teach that none is without sin before God and that deliverance needs to come from God alone.
We are not corrupt because of customs or upbringing but because it is our nature. Paul’s point is that we are, outside of the grace of God, totally separated from the salvation that God provides because we automatically disqualified in our nature. In this passage, Paul strips man of his intelligence, integrity, and purity – subjecting their God-given bodies to their blasphemy against Him, and seek only their own pleasure at the expense of all around the. Ultimately concluding that they refuse to acknowledge their Creator and Protector. Calvin concludes, ” If these are the hereditary properties of the human race, it is vain to look for anything good in our nature. I confess indeed, that all these iniquities do not break out in every individual. Still it cannot be denied that the hydra lurks in every breast.”
Section 3: What about those who have, all their lives, devoted themselves to virtue? (Think: Gandhi, Mother Teresa, etc) While it would be easy to spot their sins before God once you examined their lives closer, and the virtuous acts which they performed will be judged by God, for the sake of this discussion, let’s look at the issue at hand and determine how that devotion may be found in them if they are wholly corrupt. There seems to be some evidence from Scripture to the fact that mankind has the ability to curb his basest desires – in that we cannot possibly imagine the horrors that would erupt if God allowed mankind full vent to his lusts. The fact remains that it is only by the cause of divine grace that natural man to performs virtuous deeds, and even appears to do so from their own desire.
Section 4: Calvin now refers to someone named “Camillus” who appears to be an unconverted person who was committed to to virtuous acts. “I admit”, says Calvin, “that the specious qualities which Camillus possessed were divine gifts, and appear entitled to commendation when viewed in themselves.” But how are these actions proof of a virtuous nature? In a nutshell, they aren’t. We’ve already shown that all mankind is bent toward evil. It is then a special gift from God when someone is granted the ability to love and serve others, sometimes even at their own expense. He also grants special abilities to those whom He designates for certain roles; kings, princes, rulers, military generals, scientists, artists, etc. Understand, however, that these given virtues are not leading to eternal life, but are a means to an end. No one comes to the Father except through the Son.
Section 5: When the will is chained as a slave to sin it cannot pursue goodness. Every step toward goodness is, therefore, a gift of divine grace. Jeremiah prays, “bring me back that I may be restored” (Jer 31:18), showing that our sanctification comes from God alone. Continuing that thread, in Jeremiah 31:11, he states that it is the Lord who redeemed Jacob and ransomed him from one stronger than himself. There is no way that man can free himself from his sin to pursue righteousness, and it is something that God Himself has to purchase for us. It is not that we are deprived from our will, but that our will is deprived of wisdom. “Thus simply to will is the part of man, to will ill the part of corrupt nature, to will well the part of grace.” The will is not free to decide its fate, but is led by compulsion to evil by our Adamic nature. It is necessary for the will of man to pursue evil because this is how he is wired. As he continues in sin, his will conforms to the compulsion. Bernard relates, “Thus the soul, in some strange and evil way, is held under this kind of voluntary, yet sadly free necessity, both bond and free; bond in respect of necessity, free in respect of will: and what is still more strange, and still more miserable, it is guilty because free, and enslaved because guilty, and therefore enslaved because free.” (Bernard, Sermo. super Cantica, 81).