Calvin on the virtue of unbelievers

A few days ago, I wrote an article discussing five beliefs that many assume Calvinists deny but that don’t undermine the doctrines of grace. You can read that post here. Most people were happy enough with it but a little discussion broke out over my first point, that unbelievers are capable of doing good.

I thought it might be worth quoting John Calvin himself on this:

The virtues of unbelievers are God given

To begin with I do not deny that all the notable endowments that manifest themselves among unbelievers are gifts of God. And I do not dissent from the common judgement as to contend that there is no difference between the justice, moderation and equity of Titus and Trajan and the madness, intemperance and savagery of Caligula or Nero or Domitian, or between the obscene lusts of Tiberius and the continence of Vespasian, in this respect, and – not to tarry over individual virtues and vices – between observance and contempt of rights and laws. For there is such a great difference between the righteous and unrighteous that it appears even in the dead image thereof. For if we confuse these things, what order will remain in the world? Therefore, the Lord has not only engraved such a distinction between honourable and wicked deeds in the minds of individual men but often confirms it also by the dispensation of his providence. For we see that he bestows many blessings of the present life upon those who cultivate virtue among men. Not because that outward image of virtue demands the least benefit of him; but it pleases him so to prove how much he esteems true righteousness, when he does not allow even external and feigned righteousness to go without a temporal reward. Hence, there follows that we just now acknowledged; that all these virtues – or rather, images of virtues – are gifts of God, since nothing is in any way praiseworthy that does not come from him.

No true virtue apart from faith

Yet what Augustine writes is nonetheless true: that all who are estranged from the religion of the one God, however admirably they may be regarded on account of their reputation for virtue, not only deserve no reward but rather punishment, because by the pollution of their hearts they defile God’s good works. For even though they are God’s instruments for the preservation of human society in righteousness, continence, friendship, temperance, fortitude, and prudence, yet they carry out these works of God very badly. For they are restrained from evil-doing not by genuine zeal for good but either by mere ambition or self-love, or some other perverse motive. Therefore, since by the very impurity of men’s hearts these good works have become corrupted as from their source, they ought no more to be reckoned among virtues than the vices that commonly deceive on account of their affinity and likeness to virtue. In short, when we remember the constant end of that which is right – namely, to serve God – whatever strives to another end already deservedly loses the name “right”. Therefore, because they do not look to the goal that God’s wisdom prescribes, what they do, though it seems good in the doing, yet by its perverse intention is sin. He therefore concludes that all Fabirciuses, Scipios and Catos in their excellent deeds have sinned in that, since they lacked the light of faith, they did not apply their deeds to the end to which they ought to have applied them. Therefore, true righteousness was not in them, because duties are not weighed by deed but by ends.

In other words, unbelievers can do good and such good is a gift of God. They can behave in virtuous and excellent ways as moved by God in his sovereignty.

Nonetheless, such virtuous behaviour is not in any way credited to them for righteousness because it is not offered in faith. As the virtuous deed is not done for the ultimate end of glorifying God, it is of sin.

I take this to mean that the act, of itself, can be objectively good but it cannot be considered a virtue in respect to the person given that it was not offered in faith, and whatever is not of faith is sin.

Derek Thomas similarly handles this question helpfully here.


  1. Stephen,

    Thanks for posting this. I think the language in the Ligonier link is exactly what I was trying to express, but he did it in much better words. I think the quote from R.C. Sproul is helpful where he talks about the “horizontal plane” with humans and the “vertical plane” toward God. Exactly what I was trying to say. You were right to point out that the implication then, is that our works cannot merit toward our salvation (in part or whole) because as God sees it, it is evil since it is not truly directed toward him due to our total depravity. Thanks for sharing.


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