Amid recent discussions on Calvinism and Arminianism, I have come across a troubling statement. “Why believe in limited atonement when Calvin himself did not believe it?” This question has surfaced in various forms in different conversations and has subsequently sparked my interest. Did Calvin teach limited atonement or was it put in his mouth by latter followers who sought to systematize his ideas into a theological acronym (TULIP)? In this blog, I will not be arguing for the validity of limited atonement from a biblical standpoint. I am merely showing from Calvin’s institutes and some of his statements in his commentaries that he actually did teach the idea of limited atonement. It was not added to his theology after his death. I will quote three places within the Institutes to show that he taught the doctrine and will examine the most popular proof texts used by those who say Calvin did not teach the idea within his commentaries. I include the page numbers so the reader can go back and examine the evidence for him or herself. To answer the question, YES! Calvin taught limited atonement. Salvation for the elect alone.
According to Calvin, all and only the elect have their sins remitted.
The adoption was put in Abraham’s hands. Nevertheless, because many of his descendants were cut off as rotten members, we must, in order that election may be effectual and truly enduring, ascend to the Head, in whom the Heavenly Father has gathered his elect together, and has joined them to himself by an indissoluble bond. Inst. 3:21:7, pg. 612
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. Inst. 3:22:7, pg. 620
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, pg. 622
From these three quotes from the Institutes, it seems clear to me that Calvin taught the idea of limited atonement. He believed the atonement was efficacious only for those whom God has chosen. Did he negate these statements within his commentaries? I think not. Below are the six often quoted passages that are used to affirm that Calvin did not teach the doctrine. I do not quote the whole sections within the commentaries, but just the necessary portions that are used to extrapolate something lacking within Calvin’s thought.
And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life. Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith. Here, too, is displayed a wonderful effect of faith; for by it we receive Christ such as he is given to us by the Father — that is, as having freed us from the condemnation of eternal death, and made us heirs of eternal life, because, by the sacrifice of his death, he has atoned for our sins, that nothing may prevent God from acknowledging us as his sons. Since, therefore, faith embraces Christ, with the efficacy of his death and the fruit of his resurrection, we need not wonder if by it we obtain likewise the life of Christ. (pg. 125).
It’s clear to me that this section of his commentary should not be quoted as a proof text that Calvin did not teach limited atonement. Calvin affirms the universality of the Gospel call within this passage. He in no way teaches that the atonement is efficacious for the reprobate. Interpreters who cite this portion in favor of Calvin’s unlimited atonement are lacking in evidence in my opinion. Instead of believing that the idea that God sent his son for the world meant expiation has been made for the world, he believed the universal language was used to show the general, universal call and leave unbelievers without excuse before God.
We hence have ample proofs to strengthen our hearts with confidence respecting our salvation. By saying that we were reconciled to God by the death of Christ, he means, that it was the sacrifice of expiation, by which God was pacified towards the world, as I have showed in the fourth chapter. (pg. 198)
I do not think Calvin is teaching unlimited atonement in this passage as well. The second sentence, if read out of context and without respect to what Calvin means by the word “cosmos”, would teach the idea. However, Calvin did not mean every living and nonliving individual that will ever have the breathe of life within their lungs when he utilizes the word “world” in this passage. Calvin utilizes the word “world” in the fourth chapter to mean all the believing Jews and Gentiles. He does not include the reprobate within the word.
1 John 2:2
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. (pg. 173)
It’s evident from a simple reading of this passage that Calvin did not believe God died for all, even the reprobate. He believed the phrase, “but also the whole world” meant the believing Jews and Gentiles outside of their immediate spatial proximity or locale. Luther believed similar to Calvin but not only included a spatial element of the phrase but also a historical view. “But also the world” included believers throughout the coming centuries after First John was written. This part of Calvin’s commentary does not teach unlimited atonement.
2 Pet. 3:9
So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost. But the order is to be noticed, that God is ready to receive all to repentance, so that none may perish; for in these words the way and manner of obtaining salvation is pointed out. Every one of us, therefore, who is desirous of salvation, must learn to enter in by this way. But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches forth his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world. (pg. 419-420)
Calvin did not teach unlimited atonement in this commentary but merely affirmed God’s universal Gospel call and the distinction between the two wills of God. How someone can proof text saying Calvin taught Christ died for literally every human being that will ever live is truly beyond me.
1 Tim. 2:4
Lastly, he demonstrates that God has at heart the salvation of all, because he invites all to the acknowledgment of his truth. This belongs to that kind of argument in which the cause is: proved from the effect; for, if…it is certain that all those to whom the gospel is addressed are invited to the hope of eternal life. In short, as the calling is a proof of the secret election, so they whom God makes partakers of his gospel are admitted by him to possess salvation; because the gospel reveals to us the righteousness of God, which is a sure entrance into life. Hence we see the childish folly of those who represent this passage to be opposed to predestination. “If God” say they, “wishes all men indiscriminately to be saved, it is false that some are predestined by his eternal purpose to salvation, and others to perdition.” They might have had some ground for saying this, if Paul were speaking here about individual men; although even then we should not have wanted the means of replying to their argument; for, although the: will of God ought not to be judged from his secret decrees, when he reveals them to us by outward signs, yet it does not therefore follow that he has not determined with himself what he intends to do as to every individual man. But I say nothing on that subject, because it has nothing to do with this passage; for the Apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and not to individual persons; for his sole object is, to include in this number princes and foreign nations. That God wishes the doctrine of salvation to be enjoyed by them as well as others, is evident from the passages already quoted, and from other passages of a similar nature. In a word, Paul intended to shew that it is our duty to consider, not what kind of persons the princes at that time were, but what God wished them to be. Now the duty arising: out of that love which we owe to our neighbor is, to be solicitous and to do our endeavor for the salvation of all whom God includes in his calling, and to testify this by godly prayers. With the same view does he call God our Savior; for whence do we obtain salvation but from the undeserved kindness of God? Now the same God who has already made us partakers of salvation may sometime extend his grace to them also. He who hath already drawn us to him may draw them along with us. The Apostle takes for granted that God will do so, because it had been thus foretold by the predictions of the prophets, concerning all ranks and all nations.(pg. 54-56).
Without fail, Calvin affirms God’s universal Gospel call to all men without articulating an idea of unlimited atonement. The idea is just not within these portions of Calvin’s thought.
1 Tim. 2:6
The phrase, for all, which the Apostle had used, might have given rise to the question, “Why then had God chosen a peculiar people, if he revealed himself as a reconciled Father to all without distinction, and if the one redemption through Christ was common to all?” He cuts off all ground for that question, by referring to the purpose of God the season for revealing his grace. For if we are not astonished that in winter, the trees are stripped of their foliage, the field are covered with snow, and the meadows are stiff with frost, and that, by the genial warmth of spring, what appeared for a time to be dead, begins to revive, because God appointed the seasons to follow in succession; why should we not allow the same authority to his providence in other: matters? Shall we accuse God of instability, because he brings forward, at the proper time, what he had always determined, and settled in his own mind. (pg. 61).
Lastly, I do not even understand why this verse would be included in evidence for Calvin teaching an unlimited atonement. Is the atonement even mentioned?
Those who erroneously say, teach, or believe Calvin did not believe the idea of limited atonement should go back and reexamine what the theologian actually wrote. The six most common proof texts for Calvin teaching unlimited atonement seem to be lacking in any such concept, idea, or language. I end with a call to honesty. Just as Scripture should be read in context, so should the works of various scholars, theologians, and philosophers. Academic humility and honesty is a sign of Christian virtue and integrity.