Did John Calvin actually teach Limited Atonement?

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

And finally,

 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.

John 3:16

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.

 Rom. 5:10

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.


16 responses to “Did John Calvin actually teach Limited Atonement?

  1. Pingback: Question for Arminians on their assurance of salvation - Page 10 - Christian Forums·

  2. Hey Austin,
    I am just diving into Calvins work and I ran accross your blog. I was wondering if you had any good book recommendations to further my reading and I am hoping to write a research paper on his view of the atonement. You were so thorough here.. I need to talk to my professor about citing ideas for papers.. and I am embarressed its a blog but it helped give me some ideas!


    • This website should point you to some of the best resources on John Calvin (http://www.calvin500.com/). I hope it helps.

      The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition
      By Richard A. Muller.
      New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000

      Calvin: an Introduction to His Thought
      By T.H.L. Parker
      Louisville, KY: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1995

      The Writings of John Calvin — An Introductory Guide
      By W. de Greef
      Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994

      Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought
      By Francois Wendel
      Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, c1963

      John Calvin — a Biography
      By T.H.L. Parker
      Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975. [out-of-print]

      Also, a more popular level book was released from Desiring God recently concerning Calvin and his work (Calvin in the Theater of God). I have it pdf and will email it to you if you cannot find it for free online.

  3. Austin, your quotes were right but those were in his earlier days. He had then changed his mind.

    “John Calvin Witnesses For “UNLIMITED ATONEMENT” In His Last Will, And Farewells

    Calvin’s “LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT, April 25, 1564” as printed in the History of the Christian Church, Vol. 8, pp. 828-29, by Philip Schaff [as published by Eerdmans in Grand Rapids, 1972], states: “I testify also and declare, that I suppliantly beg of Him, that He may be pleased so to was and purify me in the blood which my Sovereign Redeemer HAS SHED FOR THE SINS OF THE HUMAN RACE, that under His shadow I may be able to stand at the judgment-seat….”(op. cit., p 829). Here is a clear testimony made by John Calvin who was about to die, in 1564, that He, at least at the end of his life, had come to believe most definitely that the Lord Jesus Christ “SHED” his precious “BLOOD” “FOR THE SINS OF THE HUMAN RACE ”

    This is, in very essence, an “UNLIMITED ATONEMENT” for which we have been speaking, writing, and arguing these many months [28 to be exact]. Again, let me urge every follower of John Calvin, because of the biblical truth of his position, to JOIN HIM in this sound belief in the “UNLIMITED ATONEMENT” that is, that the Lord Jesus Christ “HAS SHED” His blood “FOR THE SINS OF THE HUMAN RACE”!! Notice that in these words, John Calvin, however, seemed to be in DOUBT of HIS SALVATION! Thus he sounded like he no longer was certain, for himself, at least in the “perseverance of the saints.” This is a rather SAD statement, I believe, for Calvin himself to make on his death bed! “

    • See the resources listed above on Calvin. From my knowledge of Calvin’s work, you are sadly mistaken. Also, his statements within his last will and testament bears the idea of substituition. Jesus Christ died for the human race. There’s no problem there for those who hold to the substitutionary death of Christ. Now if it said, “Jesus Christ died for the entire human race without distinction” limited atonement would be in trouble. Furthermore, see the following blogs below. Unless better contextual, grammatical and theological arguments can be given, I will not hold the doctrine of unlimited atonement. Christ’s blood was too precious to be wasted my friend. Also, a new book on limited atonement came out recently. I highly recommend it (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1906327076/ref=oh_details_o02_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1).

      Arguments for and against limited atonement- https://austind90.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/myths-and-caricatures-of-calvinism-part-five/

      Answering Objections to limited atonement- https://austind90.wordpress.com/2012/09/22/myths-caricatures-of-calvinism-part-six/

      John 3:16 and 1 john 2:2 are not threats to the doctrine- https://austind90.wordpress.com/2012/10/28/particular-redemption-and-john-316-1-john-22/

      • “”Now if it said, “Jesus Christ died for the entire human race without distinction” limited atonement would be in trouble.” This is purely your own interpretation and additional requirement.

        I am not mistaken, you are just trying to mis-interpret an author’s original meaning with your own additional words.

        Ask a child to interpretate it and see what he meant. God’s word is for everyone to follow and accept.
        “I testify also and declare, that I suppliantly beg of Him, that He may be pleased so to was and purify me in the blood which my Sovereign Redeemer HAS SHED FOR THE SINS OF THE HUMAN RACE…”

    • Mam, as both an avid reader of Calvin’s Institutes and his commentaries, I can tell you his above statement in his last will and testament in no way conflicts with others concerning the doctrine of particular redemption. The penal substitutionary aspect of the atonement is everywhere within his writings. Dr. Calvin repeatedly uses the descriptors of “human race, humanity, the “world” and others throughout his writings in relation to that issue. He must be interpreted in light of his work. This is exactly what is expected also when reading the writers of Scripture. You cannot bring your own ideas to the text and simply read into what you so desire. Your comment about a child is telling. You bring a child to a passage that means the world and of course they’re going to assert it means everyone in all times and places. That’s the dominant use of the term within our cultural and generational context. But, in light of the missio dei unfolding through the coming of Jesus and Gentiles being included within the hope of Israel, that use of the term cosmos is not the dominant usuage within the NT. The Old testament and second temple Judaism is the context of the new testament; not our own!

      Furthermore, this idea of a deathbed conversion to your specific viewpoint is about as dubious as the claim that Darwin also became a Christian on his deathbed. Let me make this clear, Christ is never honored by the proliferation of falsehoods. You can disagree with Calvin’s work and theology but do not dare attempt to revise history and his works because you do not find his theology congenial to the way you believe. That’s unbecoming of a Christian. Again I’ll repeat, unless better contextual, grammatical and theological arguments can be given, I will not hold the doctrine of unlimited atonement. Though I think Calvin is right, I ultimately do not hold to that specific viewpoint concerning the work of Christ because of John Calvin. Paul and Jesus are satisfactory for me. If you refuse to discuss and deal with the actual content of this theological debate, then by all means refrain from commenting on my blog.

      • How you would know this with such certainty without being a Calvin scholar is quite odd to me. Again, I read his commentaries and works often. You’re misreading him.

  4. John Calvin
    “Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery” (Gaudium et Spes, 22, §5).

    Also, In his Commentary On Romans 5:18:

    “Paul makes grace common to all men, not because it in fact extends to all, but because it is offered to all. Although Christ suffered for the sins of the world. And is offered by the goodness of God without distinction to all men, yet not all receive him” . (Calvin’s “COMMENTARY ON ROMANS AND THESSALONIANS”, 1973, p. 829, published by Eerdmans in Grand Rapids)

    You wanted it and you got it! In above quotes:
    “…And is offered by the goodness of God WITHOUT DISTINCTION to all men…”

    • Hmm…did you miss the part where it says “…not because it in fact extends to all, but because it is offered to all.” If you’re going to merely copy and paste off of polemical websites instead of actually reading the sources, you’re not going to be allowed to comment on here (http://feedmysheep.eweb701.discountasp.net/agapefellowship/BiblicalTheology/no_42_the_extent_of_the_atonemen.htm)

      The Reformed affirm the universal gospel call. Calvin obviously does as well within this very passage. Yet, all do not receive him. Paul lays the blame on men for their rejection. This is will point you in the direction of resources so you may learn more- http://www.monergism.com/directory/link_category/Reformed-Theology/Calvinism/

      • So, you are telling me your interpretation of ‘Limited Atonement’ is different from most of the Calvinist who believe in it which is basically:
        Instead of dying for the sins of everyone, Jesus Christ died only for the sins of the Elect.

        The modern 5-point Calvinists who accept ‘Limited Atonement’ don’t believe it like you do. So, as long as John Calvin’s teaching was that Christ’s blood shed for everyone and offers to everyone, it is not “Limited Atomement” as Calvinists’ common believe.

      • No. Particular redemption means Jesus Christ accomplished, secured, and guaranteed the actual salvation of all who the Father gave to him with his atoning death upon the cross on their behalf.

        Those who hold to limited atonement do so usually for two reasons:

        1) Because of how the atonement is described. It’s described as actually accomplishing salvation; Scripture writers do not speak hypothetically.
        2)The words for world, all, every and others rarely mean all without distinction. The context determines the meaning.

        Your distinction of “modern-day” Calvinists is superfluous and misleading. The following Calvinists affirm the standard view of limited atonement: Michael Hortan, R.C. Sproul, R.C. Sproul Jr., Sam Storms, John Piper, John MacArthur, Sinclair Ferguson, Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Al Mohler, Thomas Schreiner, Douglas Moo, Douglas Wilson, Tom Nettles, Timothy George, B.B. Warfield, Charles Hodge, John Frame, Louis Berkhof, Robert Reymond, Charles Spurgeon, Steve Cowan, Don Hartley, C.J. Mahaney, Carl Henry, William Carey, Andrew Fuller, David Platt, D.A. Carson, James Boice, James White, John Gill, Matthew Henry, Martin Lolyd-Jones, Joshua Harris, Abraham Kuyper, A.W. Pink, John Knox, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, George Whitfield, Francis Turretin, most of the Puritans, Voddie Baucham, Carl Trueman, Kevin DeYoung, Justin Taylor, Jarod Wilson, Matt Chandler, Eric Geiger, Herman Bavinck, Gerhardus Vos, R. Scott Clarke, Kim Riddlebarger, and a host of others.

        Read the blogs I posted earlier.

  5. Austind90 you are far from correct.

    Calvin, Luther, Bruce Ware, and Matthew Henry do not teach the modern day version of limited atonement that Pink, Piper, Macarthur hold to.

    Bruce Ware for one published this article “The Extent of the Atonement”

    Matthew Henry Wrote this “This one God will have all men to be saved; he desires not the death and destruction of any (Eze. 33:11 ), but the welfare and salvation of all. Not that he has decreed the salvation of all, for then all men would be saved; but he has a good will to the salvation of all, and none perish but by their own fault, Mt. 23:37 . He will have all to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth, to be saved in the way that he has appointed and not otherwise. It concerns us to get the knowledge of the truth, because that is the way to be saved; Christ is the way and the truth, and so he is the life. 2. There is one Mediator, and that mediator gave himself a ransom for all. As the mercy of God extends itself to all his works, so the mediation of Christ extends itself thus far to all the children of men that he paid a price sufficient for the salvation of all mankind; he brought mankind to stand upon new terms with God, so that they are not now under the law as a covenant of works, but as a rule of life. They are under grace; not under the covenant of innocence, but under a new covenant: He gave himself a ransom. Observe, The death of Christ was a ransom, a counter-price. We deserved to have died. Christ died for us, to save us from death and hell; he gave himself a ransom voluntarily, a ransom for all; so that all mankind are put in a better condition than that of devils. He died to work out a common salvation: in order hereunto, he put himself into the office of Mediator between God and man. A mediator supposes a controversy. Sin had made a quarrel between us and God; Jesus Christ is a Mediator who undertakes to make peace, to bring God and man together, in the nature of an umpire or arbitrator, a days—man who lays his hand upon u both”

    John Calvin Writes this in Romans 1:16 “At the same time, as he works not effectually in all, but only where the Spirit, the inward Teacher, illuminates the heart, he subjoins, To every one who believeth. The gospel is indeed offered to all for their salvation, but the power of it appears not everywhere: and that it is the savor of death to the ungodly, does not proceed from what it is, but from their own wickedness. By setting forth but one Salvation he cuts off every other trust. When men withdraw themselves from this one salvation, they find in the gospel a sure proof of their own ruin. Since then the gospel invites all to partake of salvation without any difference, it is rightly called the doctrine of salvation: for Christ is there offered, whose peculiar office is to save that which was lost; and those who refuse to be saved by him, shall find him a Judge.”

    They clearly believe Jesus died for everyone and the Gospel Is a Valid offer to all men.

    • Hello Brandon. Good to hear from you. I wrote this a few years back so I admit I was off throwing Bruce Ware in the arena of one who holds to limited atonement. I have since read his article.

      I have become even more convinced of Calvin’s position on definite atonement though I recognize that he can be ambivalent in some places. H was after all both a theologian and a preacher who was overworked. Paul Helm, a reformed theologian and philosopher, has done a pretty good job defending the view that Calvin taught particular redemption. See his work here: http://www.the-highway.com/articleJuly02.html

      Others have also done some great work in thus area.

      I think you’re incorrect to read Matthew Henry in this light. Matthew Henry commentating on John 17:9 writes the following, “That the world may believe that thou hast sent me ); nor is it meant of the Gentiles, in distinction from the Jews; but the world is here opposed to the elect, who are given to Christ out of the world. Take the world for a heap of unwinnowed corn in the floor, and God loves it, Christ prays for it, and dies for it, for a blessing is in it;but, the Lord perfectly knowing those that are his, he eyes particularly those that were given him out of the world, extracts them; and then take the world for the remaining heap of rejected, worthless chaff, and Christ NEITHER PRAYS for it, nor DIES FOR it, but abandons it, and the wind drives it away .These are called the world, because they are governed by the spirit of this world, and have their portion in it; for these Christ does not pray; not but that there are some things which he intercedes with God for on their behalf, as the dresser for the reprieve of the barren tree; but he does not pray for them in this prayer, that have not part nor lot in the blessings here prayed for.”

      How much plainer could he be? Christ neither prays nor dies for the world. You may disagree with the man but you cannot claim he didn’t hold his position.

      Luther was inconsistent. He was a hard determinist as well as a supralapsarian. This is helpful. http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/was-luther-a-calvinist

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