John Calvin on Christ’s Atonement

            In last week’s article, I referred to a visit to the home of Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1977 when his successor, R. T. Kendall, was writing his book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. Kendall’s thesis was that the Puritans had changed Calvinistic theology for the worse by developing the doctrine of limited atonement or particular redemption. Kendall attempted to prove that Calvin’s view was different than the Puritans. In this article, I will not attempt to review Kendall’s work. Instead, I will focus on the question of whether or not the great Reformer, John Calvin, held to the death of Christ as efficient for the elect alone, while being sufficient for all sinners. Kendall tried to put a wedge between Calvin and the Westminster Divines. 

             Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology does a masterful job in restricting the issue concerning “limited atonement” and this article will deal with the issue in that way. He wrote: “The question is not. . .  whether the satisfaction of Christ was sufficient for the salvation of all men, since this is admitted by all. . . The question is not. . . whether the saving benefits are actually applied to every man, for the great majority of those who teach a universal atonement do not believe all are actually saved. . . The question is not. . . whether the bona fide offer of salvation is made to all who hear the gospel, on the condition of repentance and faith, since Reformed churches do not call this in question. . . The question is not. . . whether any of the fruits of the death of Christ accrue to the benefit of the non-elect. . . since this is explicitly taught by many Reformed scholars.” Here is the main question: “Did the Father in sending Christ and did Christ in coming into the world, to make atonement for sin, do this with the design or for the purpose of saving only the elect or all men?” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1972, pp. 393-4).  Was it God’s intention and design to save every person by the sacrifice of Christ or was it His design to save only the elect? That is the issue. And John Calvin taught, every bit as much as the Westminster Divines, that it was God’s intention to save only the elect by the sacrifice of His Son. Yet, Kendall states his opinion, wrong as it is, that Calvin held that “Christ died for all men” (Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, p. 2). We will comment on that idea later in this article. 

            In the 1559 edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin deals with the atonement of Christ in Book II, Chapters 16 and 17. My careful examination of those chapters has convinced me there is nothing in either chapter that indicates Calvin believed Christ died to save all men. Consider these statements: 

            “By dying, he ensured that we would not die, or—which is the same thing—redeemed us to life by his own death.” (Calvin, Institutes, I, p. 511). In this passage, Calvin teaches that the death of Christ actually accomplished salvation- not just made it possible.  

            “It was superfluous, even absurd, for Christ to be burdened with a curse unless it was to acquire righteousness for others by paying what they owed.” (Calvin, Institutes, I, p. 532.). This quote shows that Calvin denied that Christ could have died for people who never actually received His righteousness. He died to acquire that righteousness for them and to pay their debt. It was a real atonement—not a hypothetical one.  

            Calvin’s commentaries gives us his view of various disputed passages of Scripture concerning Christ’s atonement. The rule that should govern us in examining Calvin’s comments is the same one we use in interpreting the Scriptures: that is, we use the clearest statements to interpret the more obscure statements. Perhaps, the clearest passage concerning Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement is 1 John 2:2, “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” Calvin declares his agreement with the view of the atonement given by the Scholastics that it is “sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect.” Yet he says the Scholastic formula does not fit this passage and then gives us his interpretation: 

            “But here the question may be asked as to how the sins of the whole world have been expiated. I pass over the dreams of the fanatics, who make this a reason to extend salvation to all the reprobate and even to Satan himself. Such a monstrous idea is not worth refuting. . . For John’s purpose was only to extend this blessing to the whole Church. Therefore under the word ‘all’ he does not include the reprobate, but refers to all who would believe and those who were scattered through various regions of the earth” (Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel According to John, 11—21 and The First Epistle of John, Eerdman’s, 1961, p. 244). 

            Calvin clearly shows that the death of Christ is extended to the whole Church and only to the Church. In a footnote to his work referenced above, R. T. Kendall says concerning Calvin’s view of the atonement that “never does he explain, for example, that ‘all’ does not mean all or ‘world’ does not mean the world, as those after him tended to do” (Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, p. 13, footnote 2). It is hard to take someone seriously who makes such an egregious misstatement. In the quote above on 1 John 2:2, Calvin clearly stated: “under the word ‘all’ he does not include the reprobate.” Thus, Kendall has clearly misrepresented Calvin’s view.      

            Commenting on John 3:16, one of the most well-known verses of Scripture, Calvin states: 

            “Moreover, let us remember that although life is promised generally to all who believe in Christ, faith is not common to all. Christ is open to all and displayed to all, but God opens the eyes only of the elect that they may seek Him by faith. The wonderful effect of faith is shown here too. By it we receive Christ as He is given to us by the Father—the one who has freed us from the condemnation of eternal death and made us heirs of eternal life by expiating our sins through the sacrifice of His death” (Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel According to John, 1—10, p. 73).  This comment emphasizes the universal free offer of the gospel while making it clear that only the elect can believe and only the saved receive the expiation of Christ’s death. 

            Calvin’s comments on Isaiah 53:12 are enlightening:  

            “First, he offered the sacrifice of his body, and shed his blood, that he might endure the punishment that was due to us; and secondly, in order that the atonement might take effect, he performed the office of an advocate, and interceded for all who embraced this sacrifice by faith, as is evident from that prayer which he left to us, written by the hand of John, ‘I pray not for these only, but for all who shall believe in me through their word.’ (John 17:20).  If we then belong to their number, let us be fully persuaded that Christ hath suffered for us, that we may now enjoy the benefit of His death.”

            Calvin rightly says Christ performs His duties as a high priest in praying for those who believe and who are among the number of those for whom He suffered. This is not a view of unlimited atonement, but particular redemption. Those for whom Christ intercedes and those for whom He died are the same group—those who shall believe in Him through the preaching of the gospel. 

            I could give more quotes from Calvin to prove the same things that these passages do, but it is not necessary. The idea that there is a fundamental difference between the theological views of Calvin and the Westminster divines is patently wrong. While there are certain formularies that were developed after the Reformation (for instance, the acrostic TULIP), there is every reason, in my opinion, to believe that Calvin would and did agree with the Puritans and their successors on the main issues. 

            Next week, we will show how the free offer of the gospel is true Calvinism and is asserted by both Calvin and Samuel Davies, among many others. 

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL.

You may send contributions to Vanguard Presbytery at: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.

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