The Helmsman

Institutes 1.17.13 – 1.18.2

In Chapter 17 Calvin has been discussing the providence of God. He concludes the chapter by introducing and discussing the subject of God’s “repentance” in Sections 12-14. Then, as he moves into Chapter 18, his attention turns to the “permissive will” of God.

With respect to “repentance,” the question would be begged, “Does God do things or make decisions that He needs to repent of?” Calvin would be the first to say that there are many verses in Scripture that would appear to suggest that very thing. He makes reference to Genesis 6:6; I Samuel 15:11, and Jonah 3:4,-10. These verses are used by many to argue that the LORD of creation “has not fixed human affairs by an eternal decree, but by the merits of each individual ….”

To those who would hold this position, Calvin says,

As to repentance, we must hold that it can no more exist in God than ignorance, or error, or impotence.”

He supports his statement with Scripture: ” … He is not a man that He should repent,” (I Samuel 15:29) and “God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent: has He said and shall he not do it? or has He spoken, and shall He not make good?” (Numbers 23:19). (1.17.13)

Part of the confusion about whether or not the Lord can or needs to repent of things has to do with the definition of the word “repent.” According to Calvin it is a word used to help humans express their understanding of God and His activity, rather than a word to represent Him as He really is.

We are cautioned that,

… we ought not to imagine any thing more under the term repentance than a change of action … because every change whatever among men is intended as a correction of what displeases, and the correction proceeds from repentance, the same term applied to God simply means that his procedure is changed. In the meantime, there is no inversion of his counsel or will, no change of his affection. What from eternity he had foreseen, approved, decreed, he prosecutes with unvarying uniformity, how sudden soever to the eye of man the variation may seem to be.”

To me this simply means that the LORD may choose to change the means of action by which he achieves His will, but He never changes His sovereign and perfect will. (1.17.13)

This is the point that I think Calvin is making in 1.17.14 which is entitled, “God Firmly Executes His Plan”. There he quotes Isaiah, “For the LORD of hosts has planned, and who can frustrate it? And as for His out-stretched hand, who can turn it back?’ (Isaiah 14:27)

In the first two sections of Chapter 18, Calvin addresses and refutes the distinction that some attempt to make “between the permission and the will of God.” In the opening portion of the chapter, even before he actually begins to refute their notion, he declares that, “Angels and men, good and bad, do nought but what has been decreed by God.” There is no question about where Calvin stands on this subject.

In sections 1 and 2, Calvin is speaking about those who say that the Lord permits men to be “borne along at random with a blind impulse” while He remains either “unconscious or quiescent” of what is happening.(1.18.1)

But, the LORD is neither unaware of what is happening in the lives of men nor is He inactive in the course of our daily affairs. Rather, He is totally aware of who we are, where are, and what is going on in our lives; He is omniscient. And, He “holds the helm” of the activities of men and Satan in the palm of His hand and “makes all their efforts contribute to the execution of his judgements.” (1.18.1)

Numerous Scriptures are presented from the Word by Calvin to prove the point, including Job 1:6; 2:1; Acts 2:23; 3:18; and Acts 4:28.

So, when asking if there is such a thing as the “permissive will” of God where He know about things and just lets them happen, Calvin answers that,

… it is the merest trifling to substitute a bare permission for the providence of God, as if he sat in a watch-tower waiting for fortuitous events, his judgements meanwhile depending on the will of man.”

In the final section of this reading, the question is asked, “How Does God’s Impulse Come To Pass In Man?” Referring to Proverds 21:1, the answer is that just as a king’s heart is like a channel of water being directed by the hand of God, so is the heart of every man in God’s hand. What we think we have concieved of has actually been “directed to its end by the secret inspiration of God.” God is behind the man, whoever that man might be.

Calvin uses Scripture such as Leviticus 26:36; Isaiah 29:14; Exodus: 9:12; 10:1,20,27; and Psalm 105:25 as evidence of the point he has just made.

While Calvin has much to say in this final section of this particular reading, he concludes by saying,

The sum of the whole is this, – since the will of God is said to be the cause of all things, all the counsels and actions of men must be held to be governed by his providence; so that he not only exerts his power in the elect, who are guided by the Holy Spirit, but also forces the reprobate to do him service.”


I am thankful that my God, the God of the Bible, is One Who is of divine counsel unto Himself. He makes no mistake for which He needs to repent. He is faithful to Himself, to His Word, and to His people.

Explore posts in the same categories: Bible, Prayer, Reformation, Reformed Theology

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2 Comments on “The Helmsman”

  1. watcat Says:

    Hi this blog is great I will be recommending it to friends.

  2. tangiblethoughts Says:

    Thank you, Mike.

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