Tale of Two Calvins

This is my obligatory Calvin 500th birthday post

The occasion of Calvin’s 500th Birthday has led to competing “celebrations” of Calvin’s life and work in Geneva over the last week. One led by WARC, WCC, and other “mainline” organizations that featured such speakers as  Clifton Kirkpatrick, former Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) (read some his thoughts on Calvin here ) and Setri Nyomi, Pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ghana (He is quoted as saying Calvin would have been for furthering Marxist ideals in society). The other is being backed by NAPARC and other more “conservative” Reformed and Presbyterian Groups (see their website here). So much so that they were required to “share” venues in Calvin’s adopted town. One celebrates the Calvin read through the eyes of Modern Liberalism and Neo-Orthodoxy (read here: Liberation Theology and Karl Barth) and the other allows the John Calvin of 16th-Century Geneva speak for himself (no bias here).  It makes one wonder if both sides are celebrating the same man or each have developed, to paraphrase Albert Schweitzer’s quip about the 19th-Century “Quest for the Historical Jesus”, a Calvin that looks, breathes, and thinks like a reincarnated version of themselves.


As an example here is a Calvin article on a doctrine John Calvin vigorously defended that the Neo-Orthodox and Liberationists would have to and do deal gymnastically with:

On Limited Atonement:

Dr. Roger Nicole Deftly and Carefully Turns Away the Thoughts of R.T. Kendall on Calvin’s Thoughts on the Extent of the Atonement.

For those unaware R.T. Kendall wrote one of the oft quoted books concerning the “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” discussion. In other words it is Kendall’s these that specifically the Westminster Divines (and their Confession of Faith) “bastardized” John Calvin and made him out to believe things he never believed. Dr. Nicole here takes apart Kendell’s thesis. (Also be sure to check out Paul Helm’s two books (Find them here and here) and Richard Muller’s book on the same subject here) that also show Kendall to be quite incorrect in his thoughts concerning Calvin and Westminster)

Now That The Frivolities are Over… L.A., Part 3

We can get back to more serious matters (j/k honey, honestly ;))…

Going back to looking at Limited Atonement I want in this post to focus on the logical implications of accepting an unlimited atonement. In other words for the Reformed Christian what would be the problems associated with taking an understanding of the cross and its efficacious manner for all of humanity in light of how us Reformed folk hermeneutically read the Scripture’s structure and overall composition.

1) Unlimited Atonement denies Unconditional Election

This is a pretty big statement if I might say so myself so I better figure out a way to defend it. So here we go.

As election is understood as God’s unconditional selection (John 6:65) of certain human beings to be glorified through Christ’s righteousness and death it cannot be that Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection could be both efficient and sufficient for all people and then God only elect a few of the righteous to be saved. So if this last clause be true then there must be something we need more than Christ’s imputation and therefore another way we come to salvation outside of Christ’s own righteousness. This means for the Christian man or woman that we must add something to Christ’s work to be saved. This is an untenable position for anyone outside of Rome, Constantinople, and Arminius (and therefore Biblical Christians) to hold. Unconditional Election means what it says, that we bring nothing to the table insofar as our own righteousness is concerned. In other words we bring a peanut to a gun fight and can add nothing to the work Christ has accomplished and applied on or behalf to satisfy the justice that God the Father seeks for our rightful condemnation under the inheritance we receive as being sons and daughters of Adam. Unconditional Election, as John Calvin notes in the Institutes of Christian Religion, 3.21.7:

Although it is now sufficiently plain that God by his secret counsel chooses whom he will while he rejects others, his gratuitous election has only been partially explained until we come to the case of single individuals, to whom God not only offers salvation, but so assigns it, that the certainty of the result remains not dubious or suspended…We say, then, that Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his pleasure one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his pleasure to doom to destruction. We maintain that this counsel, as regards the elect, is founded on his free mercy, without any respect to human worth, while those whom he dooms to destruction are excluded from access to life by a just and blameless, but at the same time incomprehensible judgment. In regard to the elect, we regard calling as the evidence of election, and justification as another symbol of its manifestation, until it is fully accomplished by the attainment of glory. But as the Lord seals his elect by calling and justification, so by excluding the reprobate either from the knowledge of his name or the sanctification of his Spirit, he by these marks in a manner discloses the judgment which awaits them.

Here we see Calvin marking the distinction that for whom Christ died God has elected through no effort or previous worth of the individual but only through the free and unconditional grace of God.

2) Unlimited Atonement denies Justification by Faith Alone

We touched on this a little bit in the previous section but I want to draw it out a little bit more. First to define Justification by Faith Alone we’ll let the originator, God, speak for himself in Romans 10:9, “That if you shall confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shall believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.” O.K., seems plain enough. But for clarification lets take a look at Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them.” One more for good measure, Galatians 2:21 “I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” So we see that we are saved not by works or any addition upon Christ’s work that can possibly come from us. Therefore how can we say that that Christ’s work on the cross is not enough to separate the sheep from the goats? If we say that Christ died for all yet only some are saved that Christ’s righteousness is not enough for salvation.

3) Unlimited Atonement implies Universal Salvation

In other words unlimited atonement logically implies universal salvation. Again if one believes in Justification by Faith Alone then one must believe that nothing can be added to Christ’s imputed righteousness that can lead to our protection from God’s righteous wrath against those who hate his law and mock his Son therefore being condemned themselves by their works to Hell except for Christ’s atoning death. It cannot be stated and restated enough in my opinion. Unlimited Atonement implies and logically must mean Universal Salvation if one holds to an orthodox understanding of Justification and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the elect.

Chapter XI. Of Justification — Westminster Confession of Faith (1647)

I. Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.

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.

Series on Limited Atonement

As I am still recovering from the new one I am not going to be posting new material for a little while so the conclusion to the posting series on the second commandment will be delayed for a little bit. So for your reading pleasure I will be posting articles on a defense of Limited Atonement (particular redemption I have also heard it called) which has always been the hardest pill to swallow of all of the 5 points of TULIP. First is a two-part article by Greg Bahnsen.

Limited Atonement” Part 1
By Dr. Greg Bahnsen

A very unhealthy notion that plagues the fundamentalist church is the idea that Christ laid down his life for each and every individual; that he went to the cross to save all men without exception. Such a view is not consistent with Biblical Christianity. Sometimes a person will acknowledge the total depravity of man, unconditional election of God the Father, prevenient grace of the Spirit and yet deny the particular redemption of Christ; such a position is known as “fourpoint Calvinism” and is as inconsistent as it is unorthodox.

If it be said that before creation the Father singled out in election those whom He destined to save and that the Spirit’s activity of bringing men to repentance and faith is operative (to that extent) only in the lives of God’s elect and yet that Christ offered up His life for the purpose of saving every single individual, then the unity of the Trinity has been forsaken. For in such a case Christ clearly sets out to accomplish what God the Father and Spirit do not intend to do; Christ here would be out of harmony with the will and purpose of the other two persons of the Trinity. Hence anyone who expounds “four-point Calvinism” has inadvertently destroyed the doctrine of the Trinity (by dissolving its unity) and is logically committed to a polytheistic position.

It should also be noted that the doctrine of particular redemption is necessary to the orthodox view of Christ’s substitutionary atonement; the only alternatives to it are universal salvation or salvation by works (both are unbiblical). If Christ atoned for the sins of all men then all men will be saved, for a righteous God cannot condemn a man twice; if the man’s sins have been atoned, he cannot be sent to Hell on the basis of them. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that Christ through his sacrifice made a full and actual (no potential) redemption; “who gave himself to us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a peculiar (chosen) people” (Titus 2:14); “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21; “he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking … his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).

It is clear that Christ presented an actual and not potential redemption on the cross; the gospel is good news, not good advice, it tells us what has been accomplished, not what might come about. Upon the cross Christ cried out “It is finished”; nothing was left to be done, for full atonement had been made. Hence, if Christ (as it is suggested) died for every man, all men shall be saved without exception; yet scripture clearly does not teach universal salvation. And if (contrary to scripture) it is responded that Christ’s redemption is only potential, to be made actual when the sinner believes, then salvation is said to depend finally on something the sinner does. And that is tantamount to salvation by works (as well as being based on an erroneous view of Christ’s atonement.

Isaiah prophesied that Christ would “see of the travail of his soul and be satisfied”; yet if Christ went to the cross with the intention of saving every individual, he certainly has been defeated and cannot be satisfied. But our Lord is not defeated; all power has been given to him in heaven and earth. His sufferings do accomplish what he intends, for the salvation he provides is not abstract and universal, it is particular and personal. Christ died for his people, the elect (Matthew 1:21). “All that the Father gives me will come to me … for I came down from heaven to … do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:37, 38); “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (not the goats) … I know my own … and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 14-18); “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give to them eternal life, and they shall never perish (John 10:24-29); “glorify the son … since thou hast given him power over all flesh, so that he might give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him. I (have) accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do” (John 17:1-4); “feed the church of the Lord which he obtained for himself with his own blood” (Acts 20:28); Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25-27); “who gave himself … to purify for himself a chosen people of his own” (Titus 2:14).

Those holding to the indefinite atonement of Christ will often appeal to scriptural passages which speak of salvation in terms of “the world,” or “all men,” “all nations, etc.” However, in most instances these words were used by the N.T. writers to emphatically correct the mistaken Jewish notion that full salvation was not for the Gentiles. These expressions are intended to show that Christ died for all men without distinction (not all men without exception). If the referent of “world” in 2 Cor. 5:19 (“God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself”) were taken to be every single individual, then that verse teaches that Christ’s work was to the effect of reconciling every man to God (i.e. universal salvation) — which is clearly unscriptural. The general evangelistic call goes out to all men in our preaching, while it is only the elect who are moved by the Holy sp8irit to respond with repentance and faith to that redemption accomplished for them by Christ.

If redemption were indefinite and potential, then none would be saved. For man, who is dead in sin and unable to receive the things of the Spirit of God (cf. Eph. 2:1; I Cor. 2:14), would never be able to appropriate that potential redemption for himself. No man is able to come to Christ except that Father draw him (John 6:44). The sinner drinks iniquity like water and does not seek God (Job 15:16; Rom. 3:11), so he can no more choose to come to Christ and gain for himself the benefits of the atonement than a leopard can change his spots (Jer. 13:23). Praise be to God who did not make only partial atonement for the sins of his people, who did not allow the salvation of His elect to be thwarted by leaving it up to them to respond, who fully saved us by having His Son actually obtain salvation for His sheep!

Particular redemption is the only triune, monotheistic, substitutionary, personal, effectual, and biblical (hence, orthodox) doctrine of Christ’s atonement; all else (including fundamentalism’s redemption for every individual) are doctrines pleasing to men but unsatisfactory in their Theology, anthropology, and soteriology. Sola Scriptura!