Calvinism and Sanctification

I’ve ben listening to a series of lectures by Phillip Cary on the history of Christian theology. When he comes to discuss John Wesley and Methodism, he makes an interesting statement that, I believe, bears some scrutiny. “Wesley,” he says (and I quote here from memory, since I only have his words in MP3 form, but I am fairly certain I am doing his claim justice in my paraphrase), “thought that Calvinism denied the importance of sanctification. But he was wrong here: Calvinists are very concerned with sanctification."

Now, Cary is a wonderfully learned man on the history of Christian theology, and I highly recommend his lectures if you are interested in better understanding this topic. (And note: One need not be a Christian or even be contemplating conversion to benefit greatly from studying these matters: one cannot be a serious student of Western history without a sound understanding of the theological disputes that often drove that history.) But I think he is mistaken in what he claims above: Calvinists may, in fact, in their lives be very concerned with sanctification, but, as I understand Wesley’s point (I do not claim this is how Wesley understood it), there is no logical reason, given their soteriology, for them to be so concerned.

Let us proceed with an analogy: Imagine that there exists a lottery with a huge payoff, and that, on the day you are born, you are bequeathed a ticket which may or may not entitle you to a share of the winnings of that lottery. However, this lottery proceeds in an odd way: the winning tickets were drawn at the time the lottery was established, and nothing can change the outcome of that initial drawing. Therefore, the ticket you are given at birth is already either a winning or a losing ticket, and nothing you can do will alter that.

Now, as I said, the payoffs to the winners of this lottery are enormous. But the gulf between the winners and the losers is even more extreme than that: in fact, the losers will be stripped of all of their worldly possessions, in order to pay off the winners. And the drawing will occur at some unannounced date in the future.

It is quite understandable that anyone holding a ticket in this lottery might become fixated on the question of whether it is a winning or a losing ticket. In fact, they might become so obsessed with that question that they could wind up orienting their lives around it. “Those holding winning tickets,” they might come to reason, “will be able to enjoy a fabulous lifestyle, and will have untold riches at their command. Therefore, if one is certain one holds a winning ticket, one can enjoy such a lavish lifestyle today. And thus, if I am enjoying such a lifestyle, that is good evidence that I do, in fact, hold a winning ticket!” As a result of such reasoning, many of the lottery participants try to live the high life, in order to convince themselves that they are certainly amongst the lottery winners.

But surely we can dismiss their efforts as illogical. Whether or not any lottery participant believes he owns a winning ticket has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not he does, in fact, own such a ticket. The lottery draw took place far in the past; the ticket owners belief about his having won or lost cannot possibly have any influence on that long-ago drawing. It is comprehensible, given the enormous impact on the ticket holders life of winning or losing the lottery, that she might turn to such magical thinking in order to convince herself that she is one of the winners. But neither living a lavish lifestyle nor living in penury makes any difference to whether or not she actually is a winner, which is a matter that was decided long before she was born.

And so it is with any Calvinist’s efforts to live a sanctified life in order to assure himself that he is amongst the chosen. Of course, as Max Weber noted, given the psychological realities of human existence, Calvin’s doctrine of predestination will generate an intense interest, amongst those who believe in it, as to which side of the salvation-fence they fall. But the only logical response to the acceptance of this doctrine is a quiet resignation to one’s fate, which, after all, was long ago decided. If one is damned, no amount of convincing oneself that one is saved will change that fact. And if one is saved, no descent into sin and doubt, no matter how precipitous, can cancel that salvation. (Consider again the lottery metaphor above: the extent to which one becomes convinced that one is a lottery winner bears no relationship whatsoever as to whether one actually is a winner.) But such quiet resignation is psychologically very difficult, and thus, given the natural human desire for assurance (and here I again acknowledge my debt to Weber), what is supposedly a theology totally rejecting justification by works results, in fact, in an intense focus on works as “evidence” of one’s salvation. (And that is how Weber links Calvinism to the rise of capitalism: worldly success, while itself spiritually worthless, came to be seen as a sign that one was amongst the elect, and thus lost the stigma that it had borne in Christian thought up until the spread of Calvin’s teachings.)

UPDATE: Dr. Cary writes in (re-published with his permission):

"An interesting post - - this does look like a classic Wesleyan anti-Calvinist argument!  But then, on second thought, I'm hoping I'm wrong about that.

"For you seem to be saying there's no possible motive for undertaking a sanctified life other than to secure your salvation.  Can that really be what Methodists think?  Is that the Methodists' own motive for seeking to live a sanctified life? 

"You see the problem: first of all, this does not look like the right motive for leading a sanctified life. (How can real sanctification be based on desire for a reward?)  And second, it seems to reinstate salvation by works (seeking sanctification because it's what gets y you saved). 

"I'm thinking: surely Wesley and company had a better notion of the motives of sanctification than that.  What do you think?"


  1. I'd heard that theory before - that Calvinism brought about the rise of Capitalism (or perhaps materialistic capitalism). Do you know if Weber was the originator of the theory?

    Anyway, predestination always seems to lead to the problems you outline which is why I treat my personal hope/belief in universal salvation as one of the rules of Fight Club.

    Never understood why the Catholic Church keeps a kind of odd form of predestination (single vs. double) either.

  2. To add to traumerei's excellent question- Is Weber generally thought to have been correct? I've encountered the theory before and see the logic to it, but I was told it has been superseded.

  3. This:

    "One need not be a Christian or even be contemplating conversion to benefit greatly from studying these matters: one cannot be a serious student of Western history without a sound understanding of the theological disputes that often drove that history"

    ... brings to mind a question I've been meaning to ask you: What is your opinion of Will Durant as an historian?

  4. Wow, these are interesting points, and similar to those made in debates about causal decision theory aka CDT (which I had mentioned as being, for some, an ideology) and evidential decision theory (EDT).

    CDT says that you should do that which causes the best consequences for what you care about. EDT says to do that which, if you later learned you had done, would be happy to know you did. (i.e. do that which is evidence of being in the world with good outcomes)

    As you note, from a CDT perspective, the decision has already been made, and nothing you can do will change it, so you should not act differently because of your lottery ticket. Calvinists, per your account, seem to be using EDT: they do that which would be evidence of being in the elect. "The elect are hard-working, so if I were really elect, I would work hard, so I should work hard."

    (Thought EDT may seem stupid, like no one would really follow it, people actually do -- most advertising is based around, "Hey, if you were a good / smart / attractive / popular person, you would buy this" and it convinces people to do so.)

    My question for you, Gene (and sorry if this sounds like a gotcha), is: do you follow causal decision theory (i.e. only consider the consequences your actions have causal influence over), and if so, does that indicate an ideology on your part, in light of Newcomb's problem? Recall that people who reason that "the decision has already been made and so I can' have any influence over it" consistently walk away with less money than those who permit "acausal" reasoning into their calculus.

    (I wonder how Calvinists treat Newcomb's problem, which seems isomorphic to what they view as the real problem of salvation.)

  5. @Warren: "To add to traumerei's excellent question- Is Weber generally thought to have been correct? I've encountered the theory before and see the logic to it, but I was told it has been superseded."

    Warren, I am no expert on the secondary literature on Weber. BUt the critiques I have seen generally seem to have misread him. For instance, one professor online said to me, "X has disproven Weber, by showing that there were capitalist enterprises before Protestantism."

    Of course, right in _The Protestant Ethic_ Weber says, "Of course, there were capitalist enterprises well before Protestantism!" So it's hard to see how this could disprove his thesis!

    In any case, I highly recommend reading the book. It's short, quite readable. I've taught it twice, and I present it to my students as a model of good social scientific thinking.


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