Reading the Bible with Dead Guys: John Calvin on Genesis 4:4

This article is part of the Reading the Bible with Dead Guys series.

Reading the Bible With Dead Guys is a weekly blog series giving you the chance to read God’s Word alongside some great theologians from church history. With content adapted from the Crossway Classic Commentaries series, these posts feature reflections on Scripture by giants of the faith like John Calvin, Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, John Owen, and more.

Today we’ll hear from John Calvin (1509–1564) on Genesis 4:4.

“...and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering...” - Genesis 4:4

The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering. Moses does not simply state that Abel’s worship was pleasing to God, but he begins with the person of the offered. In this way Moses shows that God will not view with favor any deeds except those performed by someone who is already previously accepted and approved by him. And no wonder, for man sees things that are apparent, but God looks into the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).

Therefore, in the first place we must hold that all deeds done before faith, however righteous they may have appeared to be, were nothing but sins, being defiled from their roots and offensive to the Lord, whom no one can please without inward purity of heart. I wish those who imagine that men, by their own free will, are made fit to receive the grace of God would reflect on this. Certainly no controversy would then remain on the question of whether God justifies men gratuitously—by faith. For this must be received as a settled point—that in the judgment of God, no respect is given to deeds until man is received into favor with God. the judgment of God, no respect is given to deeds until man is received into favor with God.

Another point appears equally certain: Since the whole human race is hateful to God, there is no other way of reconciliation to divine favor than through faith. Moreover, since faith is a gratuitous gift of God, and a special illumination of the Spirit, it is easy to infer that we are prevented from another path solely by his grace, as if he had raised us from the dead. In this sense Peter says that it is God who purifies our hearts by faith. It can now be seen in what way purity is the effect of faith. It is a vapid and trifling philosophy to adduce as the cause of purity that men are not induced to seek God as their rewarder except by faith. Those who speak in this way entirely bury the grace of God, which his Spirit chiefly commends.


John Calvin

This Crossway Classic Commentary encapsulates the basics of the faith, including Christ's nature and the profound meaning of his presence and work on earth.

Others also speak coldly who teach that we are purified by faith only on account of the gift of regeneration in order that we may be accepted of God. Not only do they omit half the truth, but they build without a foundation since, on account of the curse on the human race, it became necessary that gratuitous reconciliation should precede. Again, since God never so regenerates his people in this world that they can worship him perfectly, no work of man can possibly be acceptable without expiation (atonement). And to this point the ceremony of legal washing belongs, in order that men may learn that as often as they wish to draw near unto God, purity must be sought elsewhere than themselves.

God will then at length see our obedience when he looks upon us in Christ.

This article was adapted from John Calvin’s commentary on John, part of the Crossway Classic Commentaries series edited by Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer.*

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