A Defense of Unlimited Atonement


How Calvinistic Was Calvin?


How Calvinistic was John Calvin? What did he teach concerning the extent of the atonement? Let us ponder his own words:

On Isaiah 53:12--"I approve of the ordinary reading, that He alone bore the punishment of many, because on Him was laid the guilt of the whole world. It is evident from other passages, and especially from the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, that many sometimes denotes all."

On Mark 14:24 – "The word many does not mean a part of the world only, but the whole human race." In other words, Christ’s blood was shed for the whole human race.

On Matthew 20:28–"‘Many’ is used, not for a definite number, but for a large number, in that He sets Himself over against all others. And this is its meaning also in Rom. 5:15, where Paul is not talking of a part of mankind but of the whole human race."

On John 1:29 – "And when he says the sin OF THE WORLD, He extends this favour indiscriminately to the whole human race....all men without exception are guilty of unrighteousness before God and need to be reconciled to Him....Now our duty is, to embrace the benefit which is offered to all, that each of us may be convinced that there is nothing to hinder him from obtaining reconciliation in Christ, provided that he comes to him"

On John 3:16 – "He has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers....He shows Himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when He invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ."

On Romans 5:18 – "He makes this favor common to all, because it is propoundable to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all (i.e. in the experience); for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God’s benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive Him."

On 2 Corinthians 5:19 – God "shows Himself to be reconciled to the whole world" and Calvin goes on to say that the "whole world" means "all men without exception."

On Galatians 5:12 – "It is the will of God that we should seek the salvation of all men without exception, as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world."

On Colossians 1:15–"This redemption was procured by the blood of Christ, for by the sacrifice of His death all the sins of the world have been expiated."

On Hebrews 5:9–"He (the writer of Hebrews) has inserted the universal term ‘to all’ to show that no one is excluded from this salvation who proves to be attentive and obedient to the Gospel of Christ."

Calvin even taught that the lost were purchased by Christ's blood:  "It is no small matter to have the souls perish who were bought by the blood of Christ" (The Myster of Godliness, p. 83).

In fairness, it should be stated that some of Calvin’s comments seem to indicate that he held to a limited atonement (see his comments on 1 Timothy 2:4-6, for example, where he says that the "all" refers to all classes or ranks of men, and see his comments on 1 John 2:2 where he says that the word all or whole does not include the reprobate). However, in his comments on 1 John 2:2 he mentions a phrase commonly used in the schools: "Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect." He then states that he is in basic agreement with this statement and that it is true.  Calvin basically taught that the cross-work of Christ was unlimited in its extent, but limited in its application.  Only those who believe benefit from it. 

For a full discussion of Calvin’s views on the extent of the atonement, see Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism by C. Gordon Olson, Appendix E, pages 458-463.

In conclusion, Calvin made some statements which seem to indicate he held to a limited atonement, but he also made many more statements which seem to better harmonize with an unlimited atonement. The best indication of where he stood on this issue, as Norman Duty suggests, should come from his final statement on the matter. Calvin made a statement in his will, drawn up when he was 54, shortly before his death. The year was 1564 and may be regarded as his final judgment concerning the extent of the atonement: "I testify also and profess that I humbly seek from God, that He may so will me to be washed and purified by the great Redeemer’s blood, shed for the sins of the human race, that it may be permitted me to stand before His tribunal under the covert of the Redeemer Himself."  [See Douty, The Death of Christ, pages 175-176. For an excellent discussion of Calvin’s position on the extent of the atonement, see Morison, The Extent of the Atonement, pages 126-128.]  See also Norman Geisler's Systematic Theology, Volume 3, pages 382-387.

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