Friday, May 04, 2007

Calvin Teaches Unlimited Atonement - Romans 5:18

My favorite commentator on the scriptures is Calvin — no question about it. The reason for my strong preference is not that I am a Calvinist, or that Calvin was one of the early reformers, or that I'm a Presbyterian (I'm not); it is Calvin's brilliant insight, clarity of expression, and stone-cold honesty that appeals to me. In Calvin these abilities and dispositions are combined with a Christ-centered theology, which makes him unequaled as an expositor of the holy scriptures.

Having given my defense against those who say that Calvin taught limited atonement (see my previous blog articles entitled "Calvin's View on the Atonement"), I intend now to make the positive case for Calvin's teaching of unlimited atonement.

This is not to say that Calvin saw no limitation whatsoever in the atonement, for he clearly did. As I mentioned previously, all Christians see some limitation in the atonement of one sort or another. Calvin said in several places that the atonement is only efficacious for those who believe. On at least one occasion, Calvin said that the atonement is efficacious only for the elect.

When I say that Calvin taught unlimited atonement, I mean that he said that the atonement is intended for all men. Remember the critical distinction between intention on the one hand and effect on the other. Calvin taught that God intended that the atonement benefit all men, but those benefits are only actually efficacious for some.

There are dozens of passages in Calvin's work in which he relates and expounds on these universal aspects of Christ's sacrifice. I propose to relate some of these here in this blog in serial fashion with my own comments.

Romans 5:18

Here is Calvin's comment on this verse:

18. Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.

* * *

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 — dikaiosunen, but the justification — dikaioma, 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.

(Emphasis added.) Notice the emphasized sentence. Here Calvin clearly affirms that Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world. This is not an atonement that is merely or hypothetically sufficient for the whole world, but is rather an atonement in which our Savior suffered for the sins of the whole world.

Further, the benefits of the atonement are offered through God's goodness to all men indiscriminately. Man, through his unbelief, fails to appropriate those blessings that God has offered to all men through faith in His Son.

What does Calvin mean by the first clause of the sentence? ("He makes this favor common to all, because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all....") The favor refers to the last part of verse 18: "the free gift came upon all men...." This free gift, or favor as Calvin calls it, is not actually given to all men, but it is propounded — announced or offered — to all men.

Here we plainly have the universal intention of God to bless all men through his benevolence, the universal proclamation of the blessings of the gospel to all who believe, and the requirement that men approach God only through faith in Christ.

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Dan said...

Trying to split between "intended for all" but "effective only for some" is inconsistant. It is faulty logic to say that it is intended for all, and that God Reprobates some (before the beginning of the world). For clearly atonement can't be intended for the reprobate.

Perhaps Calvin did teach this, but this shows his own inconsistancy.

Steve said...

Hi Dan. R. L. Dabney showed how it is not inconsistent. We know from our own experience that one might desire two conflicting things and choose for some reason that seems good to us to do "the right thing" even though we have no desire to do it.

God's ways being far above our ways, it should not surprise us that some of his motives, declarations, and actions seem puzzling to us.

So what theological position do you hold? Are you an Arminian?

Anonymous said...

I've been browsing through some of your posts for the past several days and have added your blog to my reader.

I appreciate the breadth and depth of your research. You're obviously far more knowledgeable than I am. That said, there's a pretty extensive discussion going on over at my blog on the scope of the atonement; I would welcome your input.

I look forward to following your blog.

Steve said...

Thanks Barry ... I'll check out your blog and leave a comment or two. Thanks for reading! :-)

Brent said...

I think you are using the wrong context of "limited." Calvin's use of limited atonement can be described as purposeful and specific atonement.

Yes, it is limited in scope to those who receive it, and yes that is limited to only those of God's elect who experience regeneration, otherwise they would never have a desire to receive His grace. However, the key concept to grasp here is that since man is inherently wicked since the Fall, and suffers from total depravity to desire God, the fact that God offers saving grace to ANYONE ought to be seen as a VERY generous offer! He certainly is not in any way obligated to do that whatsoever. In our wickedness, we willfully choose to sin against Him. His grace is such a merciful and loving gift that it should never be taken for granted or understated. I feel that this ought to be in the focus of importance.

It is my feeling that some have taken Calvin's words on limited atonement out of context.

Christ be with you my friends.

Duane Hensley said...


you saying "God's ways being far above our ways, it should not surprise us that some of his motives, declarations, and actions seem puzzling to us." is a silly cop-out. When you Calvinists can't explain your position you fall back to this argument, but then contradict yourself when you think you see an Armenian not making sense. In other words you judge Armenians by trying to use reason and logic, but when your position doesn't make sense logically or with in reason you claim we can't understand God. This is a disingenuous argument and a double standard.