In Roger Nicole’s review of Calvin’s doctrine of limited atonement, Nicole lists several arguments of the non-continuity advocates (R. T. Kendall, Curt Daniel, et al) and offers rebuttals of those arguments. Here is his treatment of the second argument of the discontinuity folks (those who say Calvin did not teach limited atonement). The argument relates to the free offer of the gospel:
In asserting, as he does repeatedly, the legitimacy of a universal, indiscriminate offer of salvation to any and to all, Calvin, they urge, presupposes a universal atonement as the logical necessary foundation for such a call.
To this we reply in acknowledging readily that Calvin does indeed assert the propriety of, yea, the divine mandate for an indiscriminate call to salvation addressed to any and all human beings that may be reached by language. We furthermore believe that Calvin was right in line with Scripture, and that those who would restrict the call to the elect are mistaken. But the proposition that the prerequisite for an indiscriminate call is a universal provision, which is the base of the whole argument, appears to us palpably and demonstrably false. Most of the well-meant offers and invitations, human as well as divine, are not grounded in coextensive provision! All that is really requisite for a well-meant offer is that, if the terms of the offer be complied with, that which was offered will in fact be delivered. This is precisely what occurs with the gospel (John 6:37), but no one fulfills the terms except those whom the Father draws (John 6:44, 65). Whether or or not God has made a provision for those who do not come has nothing to do with the sincerity of the offer. No solid argument can therefore be built in favor of universal atonement on this basis.
~Nicole, John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement, Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985) 213-214. Available online at A Puritan’s Mind.
Nicole represents his opponents as saying this: “Calvin must have taught unlimited atonement, because he taught the free offer of the gospel.” The free offer, it is argued, presupposes provision for all.
Nicole answers that “most of the well-meant offers and invitations, human as well as divine, are not grounded in coextensive provision!” Nicole adds an exclamation mark, presumably to emphasize the obvious point his opponents have missed. But one is hard-put to explain exactly what Nicole means here. What divine offers does Nicole have in mind? Nicole believes, apparently, that there are some number of divine invitations (beside the offer of salvation?) that are not backed up by adequate provision. Puzzling.
Regarding human offers, we normally associate sincere offers with a knowledge of some reasonable ability to meet one’s obligations under such an offer. And we would normally greet the failure to live up to those obligations with a certain amount of moral disdain. Indeed, the law often requires that merchants (to use one example) back up their offers with adequate provision -- and provides remedies for those offers that are not so backed up. But despite the limitation (or frailty) of human offers, we need not associate those limitations with God’s offers.
Nicole argues further that in order for an offer to be sincere, it need merely be true that every instance of compliance with the terms of the offer be met with the promised benefits. Since the elect alone are they who will respond to the offer of the gospel, the provision need be only for them. But is that really the measure of sincerity? Since the offer is indeed made to many who will not respond, can we hide the fact that many who are offered salvation in the gospel are in fact completely outside of its provision? It seems out of keeping with the message proclaimed that there are many for whom no provision is made, though the offer is urged upon them.
But all this is quite irrelevant. For the question is not whether limited atonement (or a certain kind of limited atonement) is consonant with the free offer of the gospel, but whether the free offer of the gospel in Calvin’s theology is consonant with strict limited atonement.
I submit that there are two aspects of Calvin’s teaching that are utterly incompatible with a strict doctrine of limited atonement. (By “strict doctrine of limited atonement,” I mean that doctrine that says that there are some men for whom Christ has made no expiation. The reader should bear in mind that Calvin obviously taught that there are some men who will never enjoy the benefits of the atonement. The elect alone are they who will enjoy those benefits.)
Calvin’s doctrine of faith
Calvin’s doctrine of faith is such that the promiscuous proclamation of the gospel is incompatible with limited atonement.
We shall now have a full definition of faith, if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.
This is where Kendall’s critique is so devastating. If it is true that Calvin taught (as Kendall proves) that faith is the subjective assurance of God’s favor (or “paternal indulgence”), then calling those to faith for whom no reconciliation has been provided is tantamount to proclaiming a falsehood. How can we proclaim that God would be reconciled to men when He would not be? For Calvin, faith is the subjective assurance that God is -- in and because of Christ -- propitious toward us. But if no propitiation has been made for some, then to proclaim to them the command to believe the gospel is to command them to believe something that is not and could not be true. (One wonders how “unbelief” could be a sin in such a case.)
The answer (given by some) that the gospel ought to be preached to all because “we don’t know who the elect are” is no answer -- at least not to this problem. When we preach the gospel, we know that some will never believe. But it could never help them (nor do credit to the gospel message) to tell them something that is not true. And how could calling on them to believe a falsehood cut off any excuse? (See Calvin on John 3:16.) Sensibility to this problem is reflected in certain strains of hyper-Calvinism, where the gospel is not proclaimed promiscuously precisely because it is held that God is not propitious to all men. How would Nicole reconcile the idea of God’s being irreconcilably at enmity with certain men with the idea of proclaiming to them that God is reconciled to them?
The answer of most high Calvinists (and presumably Nicole) might be that God is indeed not reconciled with the non-elect at all. He is quite at enmity with sinners. He does not show himself to be reconciled, but ready to be reconciled with all who will trust in Christ. Since the reprobate will never trust Christ, the proclamation to them of the terms of pardon is not inconsistent or insincere.
But if Kendall is right, then Calvin taught that the gospel is the proclamation of God’s favor, love, and mercy, which not to believe is the very unbelief that God will condemn.
This ... reveals why Calvin feels so strongly about a universal expiation by Christ’s death; Christ’s death 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’. For ‘we are to learn to fix our eyes on the death of Christ, whenever our salvation is concerned’.
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.
~R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, p. 14.
Compare this statement from Calvin:
Every promise which God makes is evidence of his good will. This is invariably true, and is not inconsistent with the fact, that the large benefits which the divine liberality is constantly bestowing on the wicked are preparing them for heavier judgment. * * * Therefore, when the Lord by his promises invites us not only to enjoy the fruits of his kindness, but also to meditate upon them, he at the same time declares his love. Thus we are brought back to our statement, that every promise is a manifestation of the divine favor toward us.
Kendall’s book is known for its treatment of Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement, but it ought to be known for its treatment of Calvin’s doctrine of faith. Kendall’s treatment lays waste to many modern views of Calvin, as well as many modern views of faith.
Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper
Since we are speaking of the free offer of the gospel, there is one special application of that offer that must be mentioned here. It is Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.
Calvin saw the Lord’s Supper as a picture of the gospel, the elements representing Christ’s body and blood. Christ’s body is exhibited to us “as if Christ were placed in bodily presence before our view, or handled by our hands.” For Calvin, Christ’s body and blood are really, (spiritually and mysteriously, not corporeally) present in the elements. The sacrament, which should always be accompanied by the preaching of the word, which explains the sacrament, is a gracious offer of forgiveness. Whenever the gospel is preached, it proclaims God’s good will, love, and mercy.
It is one thing to allege (as Nicole has done) that the free offer of the gospel is compatible with limited atonement in the abstract. It is quite another to say that the free offer of the gospel (to believer and unbeliever alike) in the offer of Christ’s body and blood through sacrament is compatible with a limitation of that very body and blood to the elect alone.
Nicole’s rebuttal here does not really address Kendall’s argument, which is that Calvin’s doctrine of faith is incompatible with limited atonement. And though Nicole didn’t have the opportunity to address this point in his critique of Kendall, I would add that Kendall’s argument is greatly strengthened by understanding Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, where Calvin really did see an offer of the gospel in the picture of Christ’s body and blood.
I’ve quoted these words before, but they bear repeating:
To all these things we have a complete attestation in this sacrament, enabling us certainly to conclude that they are as truly exhibited to us as if Christ were placed in bodily presence before our view, or handled by our hands. For these are words which can never lie nor deceive: Take, eat, drink. This is my body, which is broken for you: this is my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins. In bidding us take, he intimates that it is ours: in bidding us eat, he intimates that it becomes one substance with us: in affirming of his body that it was broken, and of his blood that it was shed for us, he shows that both were not so much his own as ours, because he took and laid down both, not for his own advantage, but for our salvation. And we ought carefully to observe, that the chief, and almost the whole energy of the sacrament, consists in these words, It is broken for you: it is shed for you. It would not be of much importance to us that the body and blood of the Lord are now distributed, had they not once been set forth for our redemption and salvation.
~Institutes 4.17.3 (emphasis added).