John Calvin's view of Limited Atonement - by Dr. Roger Nicole

Calvinistic Articles on the Christian Faith

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Does Calvin believe in limited Atonement or not? Many say that Calvin did not believe it. Dr. Nicole proves them quite wrong, but not without careful efforts.

This topic has received considerable attention in the recent past, perhaps in view of R. T. Kendall’s very controversial book Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649.1 An effort is made here to summarize the debate and to provide a brief evaluation.

It is often stated—and with considerable propriety—that Calvin did not write an explicit treatment concerning the extent of the atonement, in fact did not deal with this precise issue in the terms to which Reformed theology has been accustomed. It must be owned, of course, that the question had received some attention before Calvin. Notably Gottschalk in the ninth century had given express support to definite atonement2 and the scholastics had discussed the topic and advanced a partial resolution in asserting that Christ’s death was “sufficient for all men and efficient for the elect.” 3 Calvin alludes to and endorses this distinction but views it as insufficient for a proper analysis of 1 John 2:2. 4 Nevertheless a full discussion of the scope of the atonement is not found in Calvin’s writings, and the assessment of his position in this area has been varied.

Certain other Reformed theologians, contemporaries of Calvin or flourishing in the late sixteenth or the beginning of the seventeenth century, expressed a clear endorsement of definite atonement: e.g. Peter Martyr, H. Zanchius, T. Beza, J. Piscator, W. Ames, R. Abbot. 5 As far as we know, they did not assert that they were conscious of differing with Calvin on this score, nor did Calvin take issue in writing with any of those who formulated the view during his life-time.

One of the earliest writers to claim that Calvin espoused universal atonement was Moyse Amyraut (1596–1664) who in his Eschantillon de la doctrine de Calvin touchant la predestination6 quoted certain passages from Calvin’s commentaries in support of his own position on universal atonement. Amyraut’s friend and supporter Jean Daillé (1594–1670) later published some 43 pages of excerpts from Calvin’s works which he deemed in line with universal grace. 7 A number of these excerpts relate to the design of the atonement, but it is really amazing to observe how most of these quotations are lacking in cogency with respect to the precise status questionis. Some, indeed, appear actually counterproductive, especially if replaced in their original context. 8 Amyraut’s opponents, notably Pierre DuMoulin (1568–1658), 9 André Rivet (1573–1651), 10 and Frederic Spanheim (1600–1649) 11 did not fail to respond with explanations of Calvin’s texts which showed them to be compatible with particularism. Furthermore they quoted other texts of Calvin, especially from his Traité de la predestination,12 in which the design of the atonement and God’s elective purpose are seen as inextricably related.

In July 1861, Principal William Cunningham published in the British and Foreign Evangelical Review an article on “Calvin and Beza” in which he examined certain areas where it is claimed Beza differed from Calvin.13 One of these is the extent of the atonement, and Cunningham appears to be the first who referred to the following text of Calvin as reflecting a presumption of definite atonement. “I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins.”14

This passage, found in a treatise on the Lord’s Supper destined to refute the fiery Lutheran Tilemann Heshusius, is rendered stronger by the fact that Heshusius, in good Lutheran fashion, did believe in universal atonement and therefore would not find Calvin’s argument persuasive at this point. But Calvin was so strongly oriented here that he appears to have forgotten that Heshusius would not share his presuppositions!

William Cunningham’s article, as is usual with this author, is a very solid and searching study. In addition to discussing the important quotation of Calvin noted above, Cunningham reasoned that Calvin’s emphatic repudiation of a universal saving will and endorsement of election and reprobation as well as his particularistic interpretation of passages invariably appealed to by hypothetical universalists (1 Tim 2:4; 1 John 2:2) reflect a line of thought in which particular rather than universal redemption finds a fitting place.15

Under the title Christ in Our Place16 Paul van Buren published in 1957 a doctoral thesis submitted to the University of Basel in 1954. This deals with Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement as a whole, but it contains significant statements about Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement. Van Buren emphasized Calvin’s endorsement of the substitutionary character of the priestly work of Christ. He quotes some passages of Calvin where a universal reference of Christ’s work is indicated, and yet, says van Buren, “We find Calvin holding back from the consequences of his own exegesis”17 in limiting the redemptive impact of Christ’s death to the elect in places where the Scripture used the word “all.” Thus the universalist van Buren acknowledges particularistic elements in Calvin and deals with them as if they were a failure to accept the logical implications of his premises. Van Buren lays great stress on Calvin’s affirmation of the universal call and of the penal substitutionary nature of atonement, but he views particular election and redemption as conflicting with Scripture and the remainder of Calvin’s theology. This, however, is reading Calvin with Barthian glasses and van Buren’s criticism of Calvin here is not very damaging, especially since at several points in the book Calvin’s thought is presented as involving a definiteness in Christ’s work centering on those of mankind who will actually be redeemed.18

In a very thought-provoking review of van Buren’s book,19 John Murray notes that Calvin does assert the propriety of a universal offer of salvation, but holds a “fast line of distinction between the elect and the reprobate,” and specifically reflects on the particular reference of the atonement in his comments on 1 John 2:2 and 1 Tim 2:4, 6. Furthermore, the close connection between the sacrifice of Christ and saving union with Christ militates in favor of definite atonement.

In 1969 Brian G. Armstrong in his very able work Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy,20 expressed the view that Amyraut was a true representative of the original Calvinian thought and that his opponents (DuMoulin, Rivet, Spanheim, etc.) were the ones who by their scholastic method had deviated from the direction articulated by the Geneva Reformer. He quotes Calvin’s commentaries on John 3:16; Rom 5:10; Ezek 18:23; 2 Pet 3:9 and his sermons on Isaiah 53, 1 Tim 2:3–5, and 2 Tim 2:19, as well as the passage from the Treatise on Predestination in which Calvin refers to John 3:15. The most significant of these texts will be adduced and weighed below, but we may be bold to say that they do not appear to provide sufficient evidence to warrant the statement that the position “that Calvin himself favored the view that Jesus died only for the elect…flies in the face of the evidence in Calvin’s writings,” 21or is “untenable.”22Calvin’s distinction between the “secret” and the “revealed” will of God, strongly emphasized by Armstrong as establishing a point of correspondence between Amyraut and Calvin,23does not provide support by logical inference in favor of universal atonement and is in fact regularly found in Reformed theologians, even those who by Armstrong’s standards would be rated as having become “scholastic.”

Norman F. Douty published in 1972 a volume entitled The Death of Christ: A Treatise Which Considers the Question: “Did Christ die only for the Elect?” A revised and enlarged edition appeared in 1978.24 Douty refers repeatedly to Calvin and quotes his comments on Mark 14:24; John 1:29; 3:16, 17 ; 12:47 ; 16:7; Rom 5:18; Gal 3:10, 11; Col 1:14 mostly to demonstrate that the words “all,” “world,” “many” are construed by Calvin as having a race-wide reference. He also lists the passages quoted by Armstrong and concludes his book with a reference to Calvin’s last will and testament. The important words are as follows: “…I…seek…to be washed and purified by the great Redeemer’s blood, shed for the sins of the human race.”25

The French original reads “shed for all poor sinners,” and the absence of the article might favor the connotation “all kinds of poor sinners.” The point of Calvin appears here not to be whether Christ offered himself for the whole race or for the redeemed only—a matter that would scarcely be relevant to the last will and testament—but rather that Calvin’s hope of justification rested in God’s willingness to receive “poor sinners” among whom Calvin did not hesitate to number himself.

An unpublished 197-page Th.D. dissertation of James William Anderson on “The Grace of God and the Non-elect in Calvin’s Commentaries and Sermons” was presented to the Faculty of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in 1976. The conclusion is that Calvin’s sermons favor universal atonement. Unfortunately I have not yet had access to this work mentioned by Robert Peterson (Calvin’s Doctrine of the Atonement, 90).

1979 saw the appearance of R. T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649.26 In this volume the author attempts to document that there is a great chasm between Calvin’s theology and that of his successor Beza, followed in turn by William Perkins and others and culminating in the

Westminster Assembly, which unconsciously was veering in the direction of Arminianism rather than proceeding in the path delineated by Calvin. This extremely paradoxical thesis appears to rest primarily upon the observation that Calvin grounded the assurance of faith in the conviction “that Christ died indiscriminately for all men”27 and included this assurance in the very “essence of faith.”28 The same position is espoused in Kendall’s essay on “The Puritan Modification of Calvin’s Theology” in John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World, 29 a work otherwise in line with traditional Calvinism. Kendall’s position was very vigorously disputed in devastating reviews by A. N. S. Lane, 30W. Stanford Reid, 31and especially Paul Helm.32

On the face of it Kendall’s view appears well-nigh incredible, for it implies that practically all the Calvinist successors of Calvin from Beza to Warfield and beyond, passing through the Synod of Dort delegates and the members of the Westininster Assembly, were basically wrong concerning the major direction of their theology. To call the Westminster Assembly doctrine of faith “crypto-Arminian”33is preposterous. Kendall’s position impugns also practically all the Arminian theologians for failing to recognize that Calvin was their ally in the matter of the extent of the atonement, and the Calvinists with respect to the nature of faith! Frankly, it is easier to believe that Kendall is wrong rather than this whole galaxy of theologians!

The close connection posited by Kendall between universal atonement and the assurance of faith must also be challenged, for universal atonement is neither necessary nor sufficient for assurance. It is not necessary since my understanding of how the work of Christ affects others is not essential for a perception of how it affects me. It is not sufficient since on Kendall’s showing, all covered by the atonement will not be saved; assurance, if it is to be reliable, needs to be grounded in something that actually makes a difference between the saved and the lost.34

Kendall devotes two pages to discussing Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement. Here he quotes largely the same passages of Calvin we have encountered earlier,35one of which is so wrested from its context as to appear to have a meaning opposite to that which Calvin explicitly delineated.36 An argument is also drawn from the fact that Calvin did not object to the articles of the Council of Trent where Christ’s death for all men is affirmed.37 But these articles simply affirmed that no other remedy to original sin and no other access to justification can be found in the whole world than through the passion of Jesus Christ. In the midst of so many questionable tenets of Trent it is understandable that Calvin would not interpose an objection at this point. On the other hand in response to Trent’s 15th Canon on justification in which personal assurance of predestination is disallowed, Calvin asserts the possibility of it although not its necessity, even though predestination, justification, and adoption are particular, not universal blessings.38 In terms of this logic it is difficult to see why Calvin should have insisted on universal atonement as indispensable for the assurance of faith!

Kendall avers that Calvin distinguished sharply between expiation, which is universal, and intercession, which is particular, as well as election.39 Yet Calvin says, “Whenever the death and passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is preached to us, we must at the same time add the prayer that He made.”40The same close connection can be observed in the Institutes 2.15.6 and in many other places.

Altogether we find Kendall flatly asserting that Calvin held to universal atonement on the basis of a handful of statements which are not compelling, to say the least, and of a logical nexus between assurance and universal atonement, which remains wholly unconvincing.41 On the other hand he chose to disregard “certain statements by Calvin himself which, some thought, support a different view” on the grounds that he is “satisfied that what [he has] shown about Calvin’s position will stand.”42 Others are doubtful about that.

In Calvin’s Doctrine of the Atonement43 Robert A. Peterson broaches the question of Calvin’s view on the extent of the atonement at the very end of his dissertation. He is positive that Calvin held to a universal offer of grace and rejected universal salvation, but he holds that the diversity of the evidence concerning Calvin’s position on the extent of the atonement prevents a conclusion on this point.

In an Appendix to his Ph.D. dissertation Curt D. Daniel discusses the question, “Did John Calvin Teach Limited Atonement?”44 This is by far the most extensive treatment of this topic I have ever seen. It provides more quotations of Calvin related to this precise issue than any previous writer; it discusses adequately and fairly the arguments advanced by those who have published materials in this area; it has extensive bibliographies of previous studies; it takes cognizance of three Aberdeen doctoral dissertations that were not available to me by Robert Letham, Robert Doyle, and M. Charles Bell.45

Lest it should appear that this study makes the present essay superfluous, it must be added that Daniel’s conclusion is that Calvin held to universal atonement, while I, even after examining the data and arguments advanced by Daniel, remain convinced that the balance of evidence favors the opposite view. Daniel makes a comment to the effect that most of the contenders in this area tend to ascribe to Calvin the view which they hold themselves, that is to say, they appear to have yielded to the temptation to annex Calvin in support of their own position! Unfortunately this remark,seems to apply also to Daniel’s treatment and to the present article. One may hope, however, that in spite of a natural bias there is enough objectivity in both presentations to make them of some value.46

The April 1983 issue of The Evangelical Quarterly was largely devoted to the same subject. It contains two articles by authors who assert that Calvin taught universal atonement (J. B. Torrance, M. Charles Bell), one by P. Helm who denies it, and one by Tony Lane, who leaves the matter in some suspense.

Charles Bell47 examines certain Calvin passages which are quoted to support a view of definite atonement. He argues that they do not carry conviction, especially if it be acknowledged that in his biblicism Calvin did not recoil from accepting the tension between particular election and universal atonement. Bell also criticizes Kendall for his disjunction of atonement and intercession which, Bell avers, did remain indissolubly connected in Calvin’s thought.

J. B. Torrance48 presses the thesis that the successors of Calvin operated with a scholastic Aristotelian conception of God, which in turn undermined the biblical idea of divine love, stiffened the concept of God’s covenants with humanity, asserted the priority of law over grace and thus damaged the thrust of Calvin’s biblical insights and articulation. Torrance holds that the logic of the incarnation must emphasize the priority of grace and love throughout God’s opera ad extra, so as to manifest the perfect unity in triunity of the Father who loves all his creatures, the Son who died for all, and the Spirit who draws humans to the Father.49 Torrance does recognize a mystery here, but he does not face sufficiently squarely the fact that this construction leads to outright universalism (which is surely not Calvin’s view) or introduces a fundamental disparity between the Father’s and the Son’s saving will, which is universal, and that of the Holy Spirit, which is particular. It is not surprising that he names favorably Barth, Moltmann, and Rahner50 (to whom he infelicitously conjoins the name of the Jansenist Pascal) and quotes with great approval James Orr in a passage of Progress of Dogma where Orr is critical of Calvin as well as of the later Calvinists! What Torrance advocates here can in any case not be promoted in the name of Calvin, even if some perplexity remains as to what his exact teaching may have been concerning the extent of the atonement and the nature and number of the covenants. Calvin’s endorsement of double predestination, of the ultimate bifurcation of human destiny, and of the forensic nature of the atonement is too clear to permit any doubt on that score. Torrance is surprised that a supralapsarian like Samuel Rutherford could also be “the saint of the covenant,”51 but this is not really puzzling to a thorough Calvinist.

Paul Helm,52 whose work has already been noted with reference to a critical appraisal of R. T. Kendall, wrote a stimulating article dealing with the Covenant principle before Calvin, in Calvin, and after Calvin. He marshalls evidence to show that certain well-formulated covenant structures can be found in Augustine, that all essential features of covenant theology, notably the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son and the covenant of works between God and Adam, as well as the covenant of grace between God and the redeemed, have unmistakable roots in Calvin’s theology. The later emphases, he avers, were stimulated by the need to respond to the onset of Arminianism, but the fundamental principles were in place in Calvin and a number of others well before the beginning of the seventeenth century. It would be difficult to imagine two articles more sharply conflicting than J. B. Torrance’s and Paul Helm’s!

In an exceptionally richly documented article, Tony Lane53 explores the position of Calvin over against later developments within Reformed thought and over against some claims made with respect to Calvin’s views by neo-orthodox scholars. On the specific question of definite atonement, Lane presents the arguments on both sides of the aisle and leaves the matter unresolved.54 In his conclusion he warns that we should beware of pressing Calvin into a logical mold.55 This is very true, but should be tempered by the principle that we should beware also of pressing him into an illogical mold!

One dominant feature of Calvin’s hermeneutics and theology is his emphasis upon divine grace as contrasted with every man-made or man-initiated basis for preference. Thus for Calvin there is ultimacy in God’s choice of some to be the recipients of his special favor, and this leads to the doctrine of predestination, in fact of the gemina praedestinatio. For Calvin there is radical disablement in man, so that God’s grace is indispensable even for, we could say especially for, the first movement of man’s soul away from sin and toward God. Sinful man still functions as a human being, but his faculties have been so encompassed and enmeshed by evil, his mind so darkened, his emotions so debased, his will so weakened and misdirected, that he has become totally unable to extricate himself from his plight and even to desire, on his initiative, to be delivered and restored to the fellowship of God. Thus only the efficacious, creative grace of God can accomplish the miracle of regeneration by which a man, on the initiative of God and the sovereign operation of the Holy Spirit, is effectually changed at the very core of his being, and his dominant disposition oriented toward God. Whenever God does accomplish this miracle he also safeguards the new life thus implanted and brings it to ultimate maturity; thus grace is seen as indefectible or inamissible. All of these positions are so clearly delineated and so frequently asserted in Calvin that it appears unnecessary to attempt here to substantiate them by quotations of, or even references to, the texts.

A sensitive point emerges, however, when one seeks to ascertain Calvin’s assessment of the relationship of the work of Christ to this sovereign, differentiating purpose of grace. Is Christ as mediator, in the thought of Calvin, the representative of mankind at large, or did he come into this world principally as the head of the covenant of grace and specifically for the purpose of representing and redeeming the elect? The answer to this question may not be as easy as may appear at first.

In the first place, Calvin does not discuss it, at least not in the terms to which we may have grown accustomed, in that part of the Institutes where he deals with the sacrifice of Christ (2.16).

Secondly, a certain ambiguity resides in some terms which are of crucial importance in this connection. For instance, “all” may vary considerably in extension: notably “all” may mean, all men, universally, perpetually and singly, as when we say “all are partakers of human nature”; or again it may have a broader or narrower reference depending upon the context in which it is used, as when we say “all reached the top of Everest,” where the scope of the discourse makes it plain that we are talking about a group of people only which set out to ascend the mountain. It is not always easy to determine with assurance what is the frame of reference in view: hence controverted interpretations both of Scripture and of individual theologians.56 The same remarks could be made about other terms such as “every,” “world.” The pronoun “we” and related forms (“us,” “our”) present sometimes a similar ambiguity: do they refer to “us men,” or to “us Christians”?

In the third place Calvin’s manifest emphasis upon a universal indiscriminate call of the gospel to men may perplex the issue. Some would contend that such a call presupposes a universal provision, and tends to coalesce with it. Others insist that it is not so, and that the universal statements in Calvin are keyed to the scope of the external call and should be related to this only.

In the presence of these factors which make a decision difficult, it is not surprising that opinions as to Calvin’s position have varied. The desire to have the support of this most capable theologian, or conversely, to appear as different as possible from him, has no doubt exerted some influence upon the conclusions reached by individual scholars.

I. Those who have asserted that Calvin held to a universal atonement have advanced mainly the following arguments:

1. Calvin, they urge, views Christ’s mediatorship to have a race-wide reference and not to be restricted to the elective purpose of God.

This argument is bolstered by a reference to Calvin’s Commentary on 1 Tim 2:5, or by an emphasis upon the cosmic significance of the work of the Redeemer.

To this we reply that there are manifestly certain benefits which accrue to humanity at large and to the cosmos from the atoning work of Christ, that Calvin is not loath to acknowledge these, but that the specific purpose of Christ’s mediatorship is related to the impetration of salvation, which is done for those whom the Father has given him, drawn as they are from all imaginable categories in the human race, not from some narrowly defined group, like the Jews, or the poor, or males, etc., but from gentiles, or the rich, or females, etc., as well. This is the precise point of Calvin’s Commentary on 1 Tim 2:5.

he universal term ‘all’ must always be referred to classes [genera] of men but never to individuals [persona]. It is as if he had said, ‘Not only Jews, but also Greeks, not only people of humble rank, but also princes have been redeemed by the death of Christ.’ Since therefore he intends the benefit of His death to be common to all, those who hold a view that would exclude any from the hope of salvation do Him an injury.57

It is not fair to Calvin to separate the last sentence from the remainder of the paragraph and to pretend on that basis that he advocates a universal atonement. Calvin emphasized strongly the soteriological character of Christ’s mediatorship.58 He specifically rejects the speculations of Osiander and others as to whether Christ would have been mediator and become incarnate if no redemption were needed.59 This discussion takes more than two-thirds of the chapter devoted to the necessity of mediatorship by the God-man. Some passages of Calvin in which universal language appears may well be explained from the vantage point of Calvin’s immense concern for the exclusivity of Christ’s mediatorship as the only way of true access to God, and contrasted with outlooks in which other intermediaries (Mary, the saints) or other principles of acceptance with God (good works, attainment in sanctification) were imagined to be effective. Here again a study of Calvin’s Commentary on 1 Tim 2:5 will be instructive.

2. In asserting, as he does repeatedly, the legitimacy of a universal, indiscriminate offer of salvation to any and to all, Calvin, they urge, presupposes a universal atonement as the logical necessary foundation for such a call.

To this we reply in acknowledging readily that Calvin does indeed assert the propriety of, yea, the divine mandate for an indiscriminate call to salvation addressed to any and all human beings that may be reached by language. We furthermore believe that Calvin was right in line with Scripture, and that those who would restrict the call to the elect are mistaken. But the proposition that the prerequisite for an indiscriminate call is a universal provision, which is the base of the whole argument, appears to us palpably and demonstrably false. Most of the well-meant offers and invitations, human as well as divine, are not grounded in coextensive provision! All that is really requisite for a well-meant offer is that, if the terms of the offer be complied with, that which was offered will in fact be delivered. This is precisely what occurs with the gospel (John 6:37), but no one fulfills the terms except those whom the Father draws (John 6:44, 65). Whether or not God has made a provision for those who do not come has nothing to do with the sincerity of the offer. No solid argument can therefore be built in favor of universal atonement on this basis.

3. Calvin, they urge, takes at face value certain biblical texts which appear to teach God’s universal saving will. Here Calvin’s Commentaries on Ezek 18:32 and on 2 Pet 3:9 are often quoted.

To this we reply that with respect to Ezek 18:32 as well as to 2 Pet 3:9, Calvin expressly distinguished between the revealed, preceptive will of God by virtue of which an appeal may be extended to all humans, and the secret, decretive will of God which draws unto him only the elect. The very strong language Calvin uses in his comments on these passages relates to the obligation to present an indiscriminate universal invitation, as already noted under 2 above.

4. Calvin, they urge, asserts with Scripture that some for whom Christ died may perish (Rom 14:15; 1 Cor 8:11) or will perish (Heb 10:29; 2 Pet 2:1). These texts, perhaps more than any others in Scripture, give the advocate of definite atonement reason to pause and ponder. And Calvin does not, either in his commentaries or in the Institutes, provide any explanation of their relationship to the extent of the atonement.

To this we reply that in the context of the problem of weaker brothers, Paul affirms that they will not perish but God will make them to stand (Rom 14:4). Thus Paul’s statements do not so much represent an expression of doubt as to God’s perseverance with his own for whom Christ died, as a castigation of the selfishness of so-called “strong” Christians who would give priority to their own exercise of Christian liberty over the spiritual eternal interests of their weaker brothers.

The warnings of Hebrews and 2 Peter, on the other hand, do relate to people who will ultimately be lost. They do not support universal atonement, since the grounds of condemnation are the special privileges enjoyed by these apostates including “being sanctified by the blood of the covenant” and “being bought by the Master.” There is no way in which these benefits can in these verses be extended to the universality of mankind. If these apostates are thought to have been regenerate at any time, however, it would appear that the scope of the atonement exceeds the scope of ultimate salvation. This would also raise a difficulty with the doctrine of perseverance. The solution may be found in viewing the description of Hebrews and 2 Peter as expressing what the apostates at one time professed to have rather than what they had in fact.

This is in any case what Calvin has opted for, as is apparent when he calls the offenders of Heb 10:29 “hypocrites…usurping a place among the faithful.”60 This is confirmed by his treatment of Heb 6:4–6 and 10:29 in the Institutes.61 Calvin’s silence on the relationship of these four texts to the extent of the atonement should not, in all fairness, be construed as an endorsement of universal atonement, not any more than his silence in his commentaries on the relation of these texts to the doctrine of perseverance provides a substantial basis for affirming that Calvin did not believe in perseverance. Other passages prove beyond dispute that he did believe in it!

5. Calvin, they urge, did repeatedly assert universal atonement as is manifested from the following categories of statements culled from the Institutes, the commentaries, the sermons, and the tracts.

a. Christ suffered “for the redemption of mankind”62 or “for the salvation of the human race.”63

He ordained that Christ should be the Redeemer, who would deliver the lost race of man from ruin.64

When he says ‘the sin of the world,’ he extends this kindness indiscriminately to the whole human race, that the Jews might not think that the Redeemer has been sent to them alone.65

He was condemned for our sins…to expiate all sins.66

b. By Christ’s death “all the sins of the world have been expiated.”67 God commends to us the salvation of all men without exception, even as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world.68 Wipe away the iniquities of the world.69

Burdened with the sins of the whole world.70 Paul makes grace common to all men, not because it in fact extends to all, but because it is offered to all. Although Christ suffered for the sins of the world, and is offered by the goodness of God without distinction to all, yet not all receive him.71 On him was laid the guilt of the whole world.72 Our Lord Jesus was offered to all the world…suffered for all.73

He must be the Redeemer of the world. He must be condemned, indeed, not for having preached the Gospel, but for us He must be oppressed…. He was there, as it were, in the person of all cursed ones and of all transgressors…. He was there in our name…. He forgot Himself in order to acquit us before God…. It was all one to suffer the shames and disgraces of the world, provided that our sins be abolished and we be absolved from our condemnation.74 It is not enough to regard Christ as having died for the salvation of the world: each man must claim the effect and possession of this grace for himself personally.75 God is satisfied and appeased, for he bore all the wickednesses and all the iniquities of the world.76

c. Christ was there in the place of all sinners.

So we see that Jesus Christ was laden with all our sins and iniquities.77

He took upon himself and suffered the punishment that, from God’s righteous judgment, threatened all sinners.78 …found before the judgment seat of God in the name of all poor sinners.79 He willed to appear before the judgment seat of God in the name of all poor sinners (for he was there as it were, having to sustain all our burdens).80 To this we reply that this is indeed an impressive list of statements, which could probably be extended still further. In a number of cases, however, we note that the pronouns “we,” “us,” and the adjective “our” appear in alternation with “mankind,” “all,” etc. even within the quotations presented here,81 and that many times they appear in a larger immediate context that we could not take the space to adduce here.82 Those to whom Calvin refers by such pronouns are not merely members of the human race, but are most commonly those who confess Jesus Christ as their Savior. The context would be determinative in each instance.

In some cases Calvin makes it clear that he contrasts the broad scope from which the elect are drawn, with a narrow-minded outlook that would restrict salvation to the Jews,83 or to a few people.84

In the context of several of these quotations a major concern of Calvin is to emphasize the exclusivity of the atoning impact of the cross in contrast to those (especially the Roman Catholics) who posited other mediators or other sources of merit.85

Calvin is also concerned to express the sufficiency of the work of Christ so that no one inclined to claim this work and to cast himself or herself on the mercy of God should feel discouraged by thinking that somehow the cross would not avail for him/her.86 This sufficiency is also important with reference to the indiscriminate, universal offer of grace87 and to the personal guilt of those who reject this offer.88

Finally in the context of many of the above quotations expressions are used that connote the actual application or attainment of salvation, not merely an impetration that would still await appropriation: “our sins are forgiven” or “wiped away,”89 God is “satisfied” or “appeased,”90 “we are justified,”91 “we are exempt from condemnation,”92 “we may partake of the Lord’s Table,”93 we are “saved,”94 “delivered,”95 “restored to life,”96 “reconciled.”97 In this respect, as in so many others, Calvin’s language parallels very closely the usage of Scripture. (See for instance Rom 5:18; 8:32 ; 1 Cor 15:22; 2 Cor 5:14; Heb 2:9; 1 John 2:2). Neither the Scripture nor Calvin can be fairly interpreted to teach universal salvation, but the passages advanced as supporting universal atonement simply do not stop there. It is of course legitimate to distinguish, as Calvin clearly does, between impetration and application,98 but it is improper to separate these, since they always go together. The choice, therefore, is not between universal atonement and definite atonement as properly representative of Calvin’s theology, but rather between universal salvation and definite atonement.

6. Calvin, they urge, far from emphasizing the use of the word “many” rather than “all” in passages like Isa 53:11, 12; Matt 20:28 (Mark 10:45); 26:28 (Mark 14:24); Rom 5:15, 19; Heb 9:28 (as upholders of definite atonement are wont to do), on the contrary does interpret some of them as connoting universality.

“Many” sometimes denotes “all.”99

This word “many” is often as good as equivalent to all. And indeed, our Lord Jesus was offered to all the world.100

“Many” is used not for a definite number, but for a large number…. And this is its meaning also in Romans 5:15, where Paul is not talking of a part of mankind but of the whole human race. 101

The word many does not mean a part of the world only, but the whole human race. 102

He says many meaning all, as in Rom 5:15. It is of course certain that not all enjoy the fruits of Christ’s death, but this happens because their unbelief hinders them. 103

To this we reply that these quotations are indeed remarkable, since a good opportunity to assert definite atonement is here obviously by-passed. What is stated, however, is not different from the passages noted under 5c and the same kind of response would apply.

It is interesting to note that conversely Calvin does occasionally state that “all” refers to some parts of the race rather than the whole of mankind.

No nation of the earth and no rank of society is excluded from salvation, since God wills to offer the Gospel to all without exception…. He is speaking of classes and not of individuals, and his only concern is to include princes and foreign nations in this number. 104

Who does not see that the apostle is here speaking of orders of men rather than of individuals? 105

He expressly declares that salvation comes to all men, having especially in mind the slaves…. He does not mean individuals, but rather all classes of men. 106

When He says all, it must be limited to the elect….107

When He says all it must be referred to the children of God, who are His flock. 108

We are commanded to pray for all…[but] the prayers which we utter for all are still limited to God’s elect. 109

II. The following arguments may be advanced to support the contention that definite atonement more closely approximates Calvin’s view.

1. The strong structure of Calvin’s theology in terms of the divine purpose does appear to imply this specific reference. It seems difficult to imagine that Calvin would posit as the purpose of Christ an indefinite, hypothetical redemption, when at so many other points it is plainly apparent that the specific elective purpose of God is the controlling feature of his outlook.

2. Repeatedly Calvin asserts that God’s purpose of election is ultimate and that we cannot go behind it! To assume a hypothetical redemptive purpose more inclusive than the election of grace is doing precisely what he precludes. It is difficult to assume that Calvin would open himself to such self-contradiction.

Before the first man was created, God in His eternal counsel had determined what he willed to be done with the whole human race.

While we are elected in Christ, nevertheless God reckons us among his own prior in order to making us members of Christ. 110

3. Calvin makes it quite plain that he views repentance and faith and all other recreative benefits of salvation to have been merited for the elect by Christ. What Christ has accomplished on the cross is not so much to secure the salvability of all humans, as actually to accomplish the salvation of those whom he does redeem.

This point is made very apparent in the whole chapter 17 of Book 2 of the Institutes entitled, “Christ rightly and properly said to have merited God’s grace and salvation for us.” We may also refer to our note 98 where the relationship of repentance and faith to the saving work of Christ is articulated in Calvin’s spirit.

4. Calvin, as well as the Scripture itself, frequently conjoins in the same sentence certain benefits which accrue only to the elect, with references to the effects or intent of the death of Christ, e.g. “Christ, who died for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). 111

In this connection it is important to note that there is in Calvin a great prevalence of the use of “we” (and related forms) with respect to those who are viewed as elect and redeemed. 112

5. Calvin, following Scripture, 113conjoins closely the priestly work of Christ in his substitutionary death with this priestly work as intercessor.

First He offered the sacrifice of His body, and shed His blood, that He might bear the punishment due to us; and secondly, that the atonement might be powerful He performed the office of an advocate, and interceded for all who entered this sacrifice by faith. 114

Whenever the death and passion of our Lord Jesus-Christ is preached to us, we must at the same time add the prayer that he made. 115

Now Christ’s intercession is specifically stated to be particular (John 17:9), and so it is represented by Calvin. 116This undoubtedly is what has led R. G. Kendall to posit that Calvin assumed a different scope for the oblation and the intercession of Christ. But this position flies in the face of Calvin’s text, and has not received wide acceptance, even among scholars who believe that Calvin held to universal atonement. But if oblation and intercession are recognized to be coextensive, they will both be universal or both be particular. The clear-cut particularity of intercession becomes therefore a telling argument for the equal particularity of the atonement.

6. Calvin deals with texts which are usually associated with a universal saving intent in a way which shows that he was mindful at that very moment of the particular elective purpose of God. This is explicitly brought to the fore in the commentaries in Ezek 18:32; John 3:16; 2 Pet 3:9. In the commentaries and sermons on 1 Tim 2:4 and Titus 2:13 the word “all” is interpreted to refer to “all kinds or classes of men.” In relation to John 1:29 and 1 John 2:2 the word “world” is viewed as intending to transcend a nationalistic Jewish particularism. Similar interpretations are to be found in the Institutes117 and in the Treatise on Predestination. 118

Now we have never met an upholder of universal atonement who would favor such an interpretation. In fact we have never met one who would hesitate to use all these texts in support of his/her view. Surely if Calvin held to universal grace, he would not find it suitable, let alone necessary, to provide such explanations for these passages. In fact, the greater the confidence that such Scriptures do in fact teach universal grace, the stronger the evidence that Calvin did not hold this doctrine, since, according to this view, he would have been led to evade the clear meaning of the texts in order to conform to the demands of his system.

7. The embarrassment which some of Calvin’s universal expressions may cause the upholder of definite atonement may be alleviated by the consideration that Calvin meant to place special emphasis on the indiscriminate call of the gospel. 119 It is certainly in this sense that Calvin himself interprets 2 Pet 3:9 and the same hermeneutic may apply to his own statements.

8. There are in Scripture as well as in Calvin passages where the particular intent of Christ’s death is stressed. Christ gave himself for his people (Matt 1:21), for his friends (John 15:13), for the sheep (John 10:15), for his church (Eph 5:23–26; Acts 20:28), for us (Titus 2:14). Calvin’s commentaries on these passages, as well as those on John 11:52 and Heb 2:9 reflect this particularity.

9. Calvin’s statement in response to Heshusius, dealing with the participation of unbelievers in the Lord’s Supper and quoted above, 120deserves special attention: “I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins.”

This appears to be a categorical denial of universal atonement. Bell121 and Daniel122 have tackled this statement and attempted to explain it as reflecting the viewpoint of unbelievers who were not acknowledging the relevance to them of Christ’s work rather than Calvin’s own position. But then the argument against Heshusius would be very weak, since it was precisely his contention that the unbelievers desecrated the Lord’s Supper by failing to discern the reality of Christ in, with, and under the natural species as well as the universal relevance of his atoning work. They manifested the latter form of unbelief by failing to appropriate this work in repentance and faith.

10. Calvin follows Scripture in the terms he commonly uses to describe the atoning work of Christ: “reconciliation,” “redemption,” “propitiation.” To these may be added the term “satisfaction,” not found per se in Scripture, but commonly used by theologians. All these terms connote an accomplishment that actually transforms the relationship between God and the sinner. What kind of reconciliation would be this, if estrangement continued and ultimately were to be sealed for eternity? What kind of propitiation would be this, if God continued to look upon the sinner as a child of wrath? What kind of redemption would be this, where the captives would remain in bondage after the ransom has been paid? What kind of satisfaction would be this, where God would not be satisfied but still enact punishment in the day of judgment? The language of Calvin does not fit a mere potential blessing which remains ineffective pending some performance by the sinner, which would then make it truly operative: it connotes a basic act of God, who then sees to it that it is implemented unto the salvation of all those he purposed to save.

11. Calvin functions clearly with the concept of penal substitution, 123 that is to say Christ on the cross underwent the divine penalty which God would otherwise inflict on the sinner. Who does not see that if this is so, and if the atonement is universal, no one will be punished at the last judgment? But this is contrary to Scripture and to Calvin. It is difficult to imagine that Calvin failed to perceive the necessary link between substitution and definite atonement, or that, having perceived it, he carried on without giving regard to this matter!

12. Calvin’s strong trinitarian view would certainly lead him to recognize a unity of purpose between the three Persons of the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But universal atonement introduces a fundamental disjunction between the universal intent of the Son who gave himself for all and the particular purpose of the Father who elected only some people, and of the Holy Spirit, who confers regeneration, faith, and repentance to the elect only. Here again it is difficult to imagine that Calvin would remain unaware of such a fatal flaw at the heart of his theology.

13. A historical difficulty appears when we attempt to explain how Reformed thought moved so quickly from Calvin’s alleged endorsement of universal atonement to the very emphatic support of definite atonement by all but one or two of the delegations at the Synod of Dort. What happened in these fifty-five years to cause the Reformed community to make such a drastic shift? Usually the name of Beza is associated with this change, but can we really accept that his influence was so very far-reaching that he practically single-handedly reverted the whole trend in Reformed circles, putting himself at loggerheads not only with Calvin, but as it is alleged, with Scripture itself, and this without producing any major work centering on this topic? Somehow a lot more light should be shed on this area before such an unlikely development can be assumed to have taken place.

Our conclusion, on balance, is that definite atonement fits better than universal grace into the total pattern of Calvin’s teaching.

Taken in part from the Westminster Theological Journal 47:2 (Fall 1985).

Bible Verse:

“For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, And people should seek the law from his mouth; For he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts,” (Malachi 2:7).

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