Calvin and Calvinists on the Extent of Christ’s Atonement

Calvin, not being a universalist, could be said to be committed to definite atonement, even though he does not commit himself to definite atonement. And, it could be added, there is a sound reason for this.

R. T. Kendall argues in his provocative book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford UP, 1979), that the doctrine of salvation taught by the Puritans is cold, legalistic and introspective, in contrast to John Calvin’s warm and spiritually vibrant doctrine of salvation. In this regard, the Puritans who promoted a distorted form of Calvinism were influenced by Theodore Beza who succeeded Calvin in Geneva.

Kendall highlights two problems with Beza and his Puritan followers: First, Beza and his followers taught a novel doctrine of limited atonement, that is, the idea that Christ did not die for everyone in the world, but only for the elect. Kendall claims that this is a radical departure from Calvin who taught that Christ died for all but that he intercedes only for the elect. Second, Beza and the Puritans reduced the act of faith to an act of the will which contradicts Calvin’s view of faith as a persuasion of the mind. Kendall argues that the doctrine of limited atonement inevitably results in legalism and loss of assurance of salvation. Kendall presses his claim by arguing that assurance of salvation is possible only if it is grounded in Christ’s universal atonement.

Kendall’s claims have been seriously challenged, if not conclusively refuted by distinguished scholars like Paul Helm, Roger Nicole and Richard Muller. I shall be drawing insights from these scholars in my assessment of Kendall. I shall only note in passing, doubts concerning Kendall’s claim that for Calvin faith is persuasion of the mind alone. In truth, for Calvin, faith begins with the mind, but it must bring conviction to the heart. My present focus is on Kendall’s claim that Calvin taught universal atonement, in contrast to Beza and the Puritans who taught limited atonement. However, a closer reading of Calvin’s writing shows that Kendall’s claim that Calvin taught universal atonement to be unfounded.

Some caution is order to ensure that we do not commit the error of historical anachronism. The issue of whether Christ’s atonement is universal or limited emerged from the Calvinist-Arminian dispute more than 50 years after Calvin’s death. Calvin’s concern was not to take sides in the debate on whether the atonement of Christ is universal or limited. He was concerned to assure believers that Christ’s atonement is intentional or effectual. As such, restricting Calvin’s concerns to the terms of universal vs limited atonement debate misses the thrust of Calvin’s understanding of Christ atonement. Nevertheless, if the push comes to a shove in contending against Kendall’s claims, I shall argue that Calvin’s teaching of Christ’s atonement is more congruent with limited (definite) atonement than universal (indefinite) atonement.

Rather than debating on isolated biblical verses (see the three related posts given below), it would be good to begin with the unity of Christ’s earthly death and his heavenly intercession. Calvin emphasizes on the obedience of Christ and the efficacy of his death in securing our salvation: “Therefore, to perform a perfect expiation, he gave his own life as an Asham, that is, as an expiatory offering for sin, as the prophet calls it (Isa. 53:10; cf. 53:5), upon which our stain and punishment might somehow be cast, and cease to be imputed to us. This apostle testifies this more openly when he teaches: “For our sake he who knew no sin was made sin by the Father, so that in him we might be made the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). The Son of God, utterly clean of all fault, nevertheless took upon himself the shame and reproach of our iniquities, and in return clothes us with his purity…Christ was offered to the Father in death as an expiatory sacrifice, that when he discharged all satisfaction through his sacrifice, we might cease to be afraid of God’s wrath” (Inst. 2.16.6).

Calvin observes that when a sinner who is an heir to the wrath of God is threatened by the curse of eternal death, “at this point Christ interceded as his advocate, took upon himself and suffered the punishment that, from God’s righteous judgment, threatened all sinners; that he purged with his blood those evils which had rendered sinners hateful to God; that by this expiation he made satisfaction and sacrifice duly to God the Father; that as intercessor he has appeased God’s wrath, that on this foundation rests the peace of God with men; that by this bond his benevolence is maintained toward them. Will the man not then be even more moved by all these things which so vividly portray the greatness of the calamity from which he has been rescued? (Inst. 2.16.2).

Calvin notes that the Father gives the elect to the Son, “All that the Father gives me will come to me” [John 6:37]. “For this is the will of the Father…that whatever he has given me, I should lose nothing of it.” [John 6:39]… The elect are said to have been the Father’s before he gave them his only begotten Son…“I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me, for they are thine” [John 17:9; see also John 15:19]. Whence it comes about that the whole world does not belong to its Creator except that grace rescues from God’s curse and wrath and eternal death a limited number who would otherwise perish. But the world itself is left to its own destruction, to which it has been destined. Meanwhile, although Christ interposes himself as mediator, he claims for himself, in common with the Father, the right to choose. “I am not speaking,” he says, “of all; I know whom I have chosen.” [John 13:18.] (Inst. 3.22.7).

Calvin ends his comment with a climatic declaration, “Christ makes himself the Author of election.”

Christ is Author of election in that he died specifically for the elect, “Through Isaiah he still more openly shows how he directs the promises of salvation specifically to the elect: for he proclaims that they alone, not the whole human race without distinction, are to become his disciples (Isa. 8:16). Hence it is clear that the doctrine of salvation, which is said to be reserved solely and individually for the sons of the church, is falsely debased when presented as effectually profitable to all” (Inst. 3.22.10).

While the word “limited atonement” is absent, nevertheless the specific efficacy of Christ death “solely and individually for the sons of the church” cannot be ignored. J. I. Packer agrees,

“So it seems that if we are going to affirm penal substitution for all without exception we must either infer universal salvation, or else, to evade this inference, deny the saving efficacy of the substitution for anyone; and if we are going to affirm penal substitution as an effective saving act of God we must either infer universal salvation or else, to evade this inference, restrict the scope of the substitution, making it a substitution for some, not all.” (J.I. Packer, “What did the Cross Achieve?: The Logic of Penal Substitution,” in The J.I. Packer Collection. Ed. Alister McGrath (IVP, 1999), p. 123.

Christ as Author of election guarantees that the believer whom the Father predestined and entrusted to him will not fall away and perish. “For Paul clearly distinguishes the foreknown from the others whom God did not please to look. The same thing is expressed as plainly in the words of Christ: Whatever the Father gives Me shall come to Me; and him who comes to Me I shall not throw out (John 6:37). Here are three things briefly but clearly expressed: first, all that come to Christ were given to Him by the Father before; second, all who were given are transmitted from the Father’s hand to His, so that they may be truly His; and lastly, He is a faithful custodian of all whom the Father entrusted to His good faith and protection, so that none is allowed to perish” (John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. Trans. J.K.S. Reid (James Clarke, 1961), p. 72).

Paul Helm draws the inescapable conclusion from these quotations of Calvin. “These quotations, and many more that could be cited, teach unmistakably that Calvin held that Christ’s atonement was substitutionary and definite. If Christ discharged all satisfaction, how can anyone for whom he died fail to be saved? But the words also teach something else. If Christ discharged all satisfaction by his death, how could anything remain to be accomplished by his intercession? If his death is sufficient, how could anything else be necessary? How could it be thought that Christ by his intercession brought about something that his death only made possible, when Calvin plainly asserts the opposite?” (Paul Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists (Banner of Truth, 1982), p. 43).

Believers may enjoy assurance of salvation because Christ intercedes specifically for those whom he has died. In contrast, unbelievers may not enjoy such assurance, much less spiritual nourishment represented by the Lord’s Supper. As Calvin asked rhetorically in his dispute against Heshusius on the doctrine of Lord’s Supper – “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? (John Calvin, Theological Treatises, Library of Christian Classics vol. 22 (SCM, 1954), p. 285). This is one passage where Calvin clearly declares that Christ did not die for unbelievers.

Calvin assures every believer that he need not have the slightest anxieties about whether Christ is interceding for him in particular. “If we then belong to their number [that is, those who are elected and for whom Christ has prayed], let us be fully persuaded that Christ has suffered for us, that we may enjoy the benefit of his death…that we may know that we ought to betake ourselves with assured confidence to the cross of Christ, when we are horror-struck by the dread of sin. Yea, for this reason he is held out as our intercessor and advocate; for without his intercession our sins would deter us from approaching to God” (Calvin Com. Isa. 53:12).

Calvin’s affirmation of the unity of Christ atoning death and his heavenly intercession leads to an inescapable conclusion: Christ intercedes only for those whom the Father has given to him. He intercedes only for the elect because he died only for the elect, that is, Christ atonement is, definite and effectual for the elect.

Kendall acknowledges that Christ intercedes for the elect, but makes a distinction between Christ’s death (for all) which makes salvation possible and his intercession which actualizes salvation (for the elect). In contrast to Kendall, Calvin does not separate Christ’s intercession for us and his death for us. Indeed, Calvin argues that it is the power of Christ’s death which intercedes for us. “But we do not imagine that he, kneeling before God, pleads as a suppliant for us; rather, with the apostle we understand he so appears before God’s presence that the power of his death avails as an everlasting intercession in our behalf [cf. Rom. 8:34], yet in such a way that, having entered the heavenly sanctuary, even to the consummation of the ages [cf. Heb. 9:24 ff.], he alone bears to God the petitions of the people, who stay far off in the outer court” (Inst. 3.20.20).

Kendall’s logic leads him to the absurd conclusion that there are some for whom Christ has died but Christ does not intercede for them, and that they are not saved. Helm rebuts the absurd implication that follows Kendall’s suggestion. “Does it not obscure the New Testament idea that the work of Christ is finished? (Heb. 9:12; 7:27; 9:26). For according to Kendall’s view of what Calvin teaches, the work of redemption is not finished so long as Christ continues to intercede. And the New Testament represents Christs intercession as something present and continuous (Heb. 7:25). Again, Kendall’s view fails to do justice to the New Testament teaching on Christ’s intercession, for it seems to make that intercession something separate from and additional to his death. But the New Testament teaching is that Christ’s intercession is the product or fruit of his victory over sin. It is a representation of his finished work on the cross before his Father, and is effected by the presence of Christ in heaven. It is the very triumph of his death and his presence at the Father’s right hand that constitutes the intercession. (Heb. 10:12, 20; 9:24; 12:2). There is therefore no prospect of dividing up the total saving work of Christ between death and intercession, and of claiming that there are things that the intercession of Christ accomplishes that his death did not accomplish” (Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists, p. 48).

Contrary to Kendall’s suggestion, Christ’s earthly death and heavenly intercession did not merely make redemption possible for some, or merely possible for all, but his death and intercession unfailingly achieve salvation for those for whose sin he, by his blood, made expiation.

What I have gathered so far from Calvin’s writings confirms that for Calvin, Christ’s earthly death and heavenly intercession procure effective and actual atonement (rather than possible atonement) only for the elect and as such only the elect are saved through Christ.

To conclude, we would be committing the error of historical anachronism if we restrict Calvin’s teaching of the atonement to the terms of the later debate between the Arminians and the Calvinists on the scope of the atonement. In this regard, Calvin did not explicitly or systematically teach the doctrine of “limited (definite) atonement” (this is because the debate between universal and limited atonement arose only after his death). Nevertheless, based on Scripture and Calvin’s writings, we may conclude that Calvin’s teaching of Christ’s atonement is more congruent with limited (definite) atonement than universal atonement. As such, the attempts by critics of the Reformed tradition to pit Calvin against the later Calvinists are both misguided and misleading. These critics would do well to ponder carefully Helm’s balanced and nuanced assessment of Calvin’s doctrine of limited (definite) atonement: “Calvin, not being a universalist, could be said to be committed to definite atonement, even though he does not commit himself to definite atonement. And, it could be added, there is a sound reason for this” (Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists, p. 18).

For further reading
Paul Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists (Banner of Truth, 1882).
Richard Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Baker, 2012).
Roger Nicole, “John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement,” in Standing Forth: The Collected Writings of Roger Nicole (Christian Focus Pub, 2002).

Related Posts
Definite Atonement (Part 1/3): Engaging Arminian Proof Texts for Universal Atonement
Definite Atonement (Part 2/3): Biblical Evidence and Theological Arguments
Definite Atonement (Part 3/3). The Logic of 1 John 2:1-2