I am continuing my review of Roger Nicole's article on Calvin's doctrine of the atonement. Part of Nicole's article is devoted to a critique of R. T. Kendall's book, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. This book is a very interesting read for the student of history and an important one for the student of theology.
After Nicole's general criticism of Kendall, covered in my previous blog entry, Nicole briefly analyzed Kendall's assertion that Calvin saw a strong connection between faith and assurance. Kendall, quoting Calvin, said this:
For since he necessarily hates sin, how shall we be convinced that He loves us until those sins for which He is justly angry with us have been expiated? Thus before we can have any feeling of His fatherly kindness, the blood of Christ must intercede to reconcil God to us. [Footnote, Calvin, Comm. John 3:16]
This statement reveals why Calvin feels so strongly about a universal expiation by Christ's death; Christ's deat is that to which we look because it is the 'pledge' that God loves us. Calvin does not direct us to God's secret decree; it is 'Christ alone' to Whom 'faith ought to look'. [Footnote, Comm. John 3:16. Cf. Comm. John 15:9....] For 'we are to learn to fix our eyes on the death of Christ, whenever our salvation is concerned'. [Footnote, Calvin, Comm. Rom. 5:11.]
Had Christ died only for those whom God had chosen by His secret decree, then, it would obviously cease to be a pledge to all.
For Kendall, this strong connection in Calvin's theology between faith and assurance made it impossible for Calvin to have taught limited atonement. Nicole criticizes that argument:
The close connection posited by Kendall between universal atonement and the assurance of faith must also be challenged, for universal atonement is neither necessary nor sufficient for assurance. It is not necessary since my understanding of how the work of Christ affects others is not essential for a perception of how it affects me. It is not sufficient since on Kendall’s showing, all covered by the atonement will not be saved; assurance, if it is to be reliable, needs to be grounded in something that actually makes a difference between the saved and the lost.
Nicole, John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement, Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985) 197 at 204-205.
Universal atonement such as Kendal posits, Nicole alleges, is neither necessary nor sufficient for assurance. Let's examine this argument. First, universal atonement is not necessary for assurance. It is not necessary for I can know the effect it has on me though I may not know the effect it has on anyone else.
Second, universal atonement is not sufficient for assurance. It is not sufficient, he says, because some who are covered by the atonement will not be saved. So a person could feel insecure because the atonement doesn't necessarily save anyone. I can only trust in that which makes a difference and only some other factor, something other than the atonement, makes a difference, therefore I must look to that other thing — my own faith perhaps? — for assurance.
I have several objections to Nicole's argument here. First, the strong connection between the atonement and assurance is not original with Kendall, it comes directly from Calvin. Anyone familiar with Calvin's commentary to John 3:16 will admit this.
For God so loved the world. Christ opens up the first cause, and, as it were, the source of our salvation, and he does so, that no doubt may remain; for our minds cannot find calm repose, until we arrive at the unmerited love of God.
* * *
He gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him may not perish. This, he says, is the proper look of faith, to be fixed on Christ, in whom it beholds the breast of God filled with love: this is a firm and enduring support, to rely on the death of Christ as the only pledge of that love. The word only-begotten is emphatic,... to magnify the fervor of the love of God towards us. For as men are not easily convinced that God loves them, in order to remove all doubt, he has expressly stated that we are so very dear to God that, on our account, he did not even spare his only-begotten Son. Since, therefore, God has most abundantly testified his love towards us, whoever is not satisfied with this testimony, and still remains in doubt, offers a high insult to Christ, as if he had been an ordinary man given up at random to death. But we ought rather to consider that, in proportion to the estimation in which God holds his only-begotten Son, so much the more precious did our salvation appear to him, for the ransom of which he chose that his only-begotten Son should die.
Calvin, Comment to John 3:16. Our minds cannot find repose, says Calvin, unless we discover proof of the unmerited love of God. Jesus assures us emphatically of the fervor of God's love. And here is a firm and enduring support on which the mind of sinful man can rest. God has testified his love for me by sending his only-begotten Son on my behalf.
It seems to me that Kendall was quite correct to point out Calvin's views on assurance. In the Institutes, Calvin makes the knowledge of God's favor an essential element in saving faith. (See Institutes 3.2.7.) Count Zinzendorf captured this spirit very well in his famous hymn, Jesus Thy Blood and Righteousness
Lord, I believe Thy precious blood,
Which, at the mercy seat of God,
Forever doth for sinners plead,
For me, e’en for my soul, was shed.
Lord, I believe were sinners more
Than sands upon the ocean shore,
Thou hast for all a ransom paid,
For all a full atonement made.
When from the dust of death I rise
To claim my mansion in the skies,
Ev’n then this shall be all my plea,
Jesus hath lived, hath died, for me.
More objections to Nicole's argument on this point next time.