Series on Limited Atonement Part 2

Alan Wilkerson in his comment on the first posting in this series made a statement concerning Romans 5:18 and its bearing on this matter. Here is what Romans 5:18 says, “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.”. There are several other passages like this one that make it look as if atonement is universal, that Christ died for ALL men. In other words the oft used argument by those seeing limited atonement as the biblical reading take these passages to mean “all men” as all peoples or nations meaning that the atoning death of Christ is not limited to the Jews alone but to the Gentiles as well, hence “all men”. John Calvin’s notes from his commentary on Romans is very interesting here. It looks as if from his thoughts on 5:18 that Calvin is denying Limited Atonement. Look here:

18. Therefore, etc. This is a defective sentence; it will be complete if the words condemnation and justification be read in the nominative case; as doubtless you must do in order to complete the sense. We have here the general conclusion from the preceding comparison; for, omitting the mention of the intervening explanation, he now completes the comparison, “As by the offense of one we were made (constitute) sinners; so the righteousness of Christ is efficacious to justify us. He does not say the righteousness — δικαιοσύνην, but the justification — δικαίωμα, of Christ, in order to remind us that he was not as an individual just for himself, but that the righteousness with which he was endued reached farther, in order that, by conferring this gift, he might enrich the faithful. He makes this favor common to all, because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all; 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. These two words, which he had before used, judgment and grace, may be also introduced here in this form, “As it was through God’s judgment that the sin of one issued in the condemnation of many, so grace will be efficacious to the justification of many.” Justification of life is to be taken, in my judgment, for remission, which restores life to us, as though he called it life-giving. For whence comes the hope of salvation, except that God is propitious to us; and we must be just, in order to be accepted. Then life proceeds from justification.

At first glance this seems to fit with a reading of Romans 5:18 that supports the universal atonement position. However if you read closely you will note this sentence in Calvin’s argument, “He makes this favor common to all, because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all; 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.” Read at a cursory level and this does support universal atonement. However like one reads Scripture it itself cannot be read in separation from both its immediate context and Calvin’s overall position. While Calvin is not inerrant or infallible and should not be read as such Calvin cannot be said to support universal atonement (even though many have tried to read Calvin that way, cf. R.T. Kendall, J.B. Torrance, and others). One needs only to look back to Romans 5:15 and 16 to see this in Calvin’s thought (and Paul’s for that matter). Calvin in commenting on verse 15 says, “But observe, that a larger number (plures) are not here contrasted with many (multis,) for he speaks not of the number of men: but as the sin of Adam has destroyed many, he draws this conclusion, — that the righteousness of Christ will be no less efficacious to save many.” and on verse 16, “Observe also, that these many offenses, from which he affirms we are freed through Christ, are not to be understood only of those which every one must have committed before baptism, but also of those by which the saints contract daily new guilt; and on account of which they would be justly exposed to condemnation, were they not continually relieved by this grace.” Calvin explicitly here in his commentary on verse 16 says that Christ’s death and the grace that is received from it is not only “good” for the elect, but is also only for the “saints”. The “we” Calvin speaks of are those who have been saved, not of the damned who have no part in the work of Christ on the Cross. One can see Calvin’s thoughts on this also in the Institutes Book III, Ch. xxii, sect. 7,:

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). If anyone ask whence he has chosen them, he replies in another passage: ‘From the world’ (John 15:19), which he excludes from his prayers when he commends his disciples to the Father (John 17:9). This we must believe: when he declares that he knows whom he has chosen, he denotes in the human genus a particular species, distinguished not by the quality of its virtues but by heavenly decree.

Also in III.xxii.10 here:

But it is by Isaiah he more clearly demonstrates how he destines the promises of salvation specially to the elect (Isa. 8:16); for he declares that his disciples would consist of them only, and not indiscriminately of the whole human race. Whence it is evident that the doctrine of salvation, which is said to be set apart for the sons of the Church only, is abused when it is represented as effectually available to all. For the present let it suffice to observe, that though the word of the gospel is addressed generally to all, yet the gift of faith is rare. Isaiah assigns the cause when he says that the arm of the Lord is not revealed to all (Isa. 53:1). Had he said, that the gospel is malignantly and perversely condemned, because many obstinately refuse to hear, there might perhaps be some color for this universal call. It is not the purpose of the Prophet, however, to extenuate the guilt of men, when he states the source of their blindness to be, that God deigns not to reveal his arm to them; he only reminds us that since faith is a special gift, it is in vain that external doctrine sounds in the ear. But I would fain know from those doctors whether it is mere preaching or faith that makes men sons of God. Certainly when it is said, “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name,” (John 1:12), a confused mass is not set before us, but a special order is assigned to believers, who are “born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Now this is all to show that in Calvin’s commentary on Romans 5:18 that neither he nor Paul means that all the world was cleansed by Christ’s death on the Cross. Given the context of the whole of Romans 5 and Jesus own words in John chapter 10 and elsewhere it is hard to deny the Reformation mantra that Christ’s death though sufficient for all was only efficient for the elect.

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6 thoughts on “Series on Limited Atonement Part 2

  1. Thanks for this!! I always have had issue with those who say that Calvin and Westminster (and all of Reformed orthodoxy in the 17th Cent.) are at odds on this issue. Bah, I said!

    But you have given me the ‘ammunition’ to show that Calvin is not in Heaven arguing with the authors of the Reformed confessions, on this issue at least!

    Not that there are arguments in Heaven, but you catch my drift….

    Like the new site!

  2. Thanks Toby. If you want even more ammo take a look at Paul Helm’s Book “Calvin and the Calvinists”. It is cheap on Amazon.

  3. Hope all is well with your wife and new one, and yes even with big sister. You? Well you’re just chopped liver. Calvin is not a four pointer–he holds to all five points of Calvinism; of that there is no doubt. Paul Helm has sufficiently blasted the nosensical notion that Calvin did not hold to limited atonement. Here is an article by Helm, which I think is from Calvin and the Calvinists: http://www.the-highway.com/articleJuly02.html

    Here is Calvin on 1 John 2:2:

    “2. And not for ours only. He added this for the sake of amplifying, in order that the faithful might be assured that the expiation made by Christ, extends to all who by faith embrace the gospel.

    Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretense extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation. They who seek to avoid this absurdity, have said that Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect. This solution has commonly prevailed in the schools. Though then I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage; for the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church. Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world.”

  4. Thank you for the research on Calvin. Although I am not completely convinced that Calvin held to as an extreme view of limited atonement as later developed. I tend to hold a more moderate view on this. It is overwhelmingly clear in Scripture that Christ’s atoning death is sufficient for all (Isa. 53:6; Jn 3:15-16; Heb. 2:9,17; 2Pt. 2:1; Jn 1:29; 4:42; 1Jn. 2:2; 1Tim. 2:6; 4:10; 2Cor. 5:14-15). I believe that a more extreme view on limited atonement tends to minimize the sufficiency aspects of these verses, often reinterpreting them to apply only to the elect, which in my opinion is unwarranted. These passages and others clearly indicate that the provisions of the cross are inclusive and sufficient to atone all that would respond in faith to the gospel message. But it is also clear that those provisions are applied only to those who place their faith in Christ and Christ alone (Mat. 1:21; Acts 20:28; ROM. 8:28-30; Eph. 5:25-27). I believe it behooves us to clearly separate the fact that the cross is sufficient to atone all, but only is efficacious to those who respond in faith. The parable of the seeds and soil comes to mind.

    Thank you so much for this extremely important and valuable discussion, which is at the very heart of the Christian faith.

    Adel

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