The Development of John Calvin’s Understanding of the Extent of the Atonement

One of the subjects that scholars of church history love to debate is the position of John Calvin on the extent of the atonement. Was John Calvin a real Calvinist or did later Calvinists depart from the teaching of Calvin by teaching definite atonement? R. T. Kendall argued in Calvin and English Calvinism that Theodore Beza and the Puritans departed from Calvin on the issues of the extent of the atonement and assurance of salvation. While Kendall is completely wrong on the departure from Calvin on assurance of salvation because he ignores the different contexts each group was writing in (Calvin was arguing against Roman Catholicism’s teaching that no one can have an infallible assurance of their eternal salvation while the Puritans were writing against the dead formalism and hypocritical antinomianism of many in the Church of England which presumed that a person was saved because of infant baptismal regeneration regardless of the fruit of that person’s life), there is an element of truth in his assessment of Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement.

The truth of the matter is a bit more complicated than either side realizes. While each group claims that its interpretation of Calvin is correct, they are actually both wrong. Calvin’s understanding of the extent of the atonement developed over time. Calvin, in his early preaching and writing, was in agreement with the Catholic Church that Christ’s death was for every person who has ever lived. But later in life, he came to believe in definite atonement where only the sins of those who are saved are imputed to Christ on the cross. In fact, everyone must agree that at some point in his life Calvin held to universal atonement because he was converted out of Roman Catholicism which teaches this. If Calvin ever taught definite atonement, then the question we must answer is, “When did he change his mind on this topic?” Those who argue that Calvin never taught universal atonement believe that this change in his thinking occurred at the beginning of his ministry. I will argue here that it took place later in life. There are many quotations from Calvin that could be used to argue for his belief in universal atonement, but this one is the clearest:

“And again, has not our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed men’s souls: true it is that the effect of his death comes not to the whole world: Nevertheless for as much as it is not in us to discern between the righteous and the sinners that go to destruction, but that Jesus Christ has suffered his death and passion as well for them as for us: therefore it behooves us to labour to bring every man to salvation that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ may be available to them” (Sermons on Job, 454).

He says that Christ suffered in his passion for both them and us. “Them” in the context of his statement must refer back to “the sinners that go to destruction.” That is, sinners who go to hell are among those for whom “Jesus Christ has suffered” in his death and passion. Calvin did not believe in postmortem evangelism so those “sinners who go to destruction” will never be among the saved portion of humanity. At this point in his ministry, Calvin believed that Christ suffered equally for both the saved and for those who perish. But we see the exact opposite taught by Calvin in his treatise on the Lord’s Supper The True Partaking of the Flesh and Blood of Christ in the Holy Supper in which he argues against the real presence view of Lutheranism and Tilemann Heshusius:

“I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?” (Theological Treatises, 285).

The statement “Jesus Christ has suffered his death and passion as well for them as for us” versus “the flesh which was not crucified for them” and “the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins” are in complete contradiction to each other. I’m sorry, but there is no possible way you can reconcile these two groups of statements. It’s no wonder that scholars can’t come to a consensus on Calvin’s doctrine of the atonement when they each have a proof text from Calvin that seems irrefutable. But there is a simple solution to this problem that no one wants to take into consideration for some strange reason: Calvin’s understanding of the atonement developed over time just as every other person’s theology develops over time. Calvin’s theology is not immutable. Your own theological beliefs develop over time. Why can’t the same charity be extended to Calvin? Only the Word of God never changes (Matt 24:35). What is significant about this treatise on the Lord’s Supper is that it was written by Calvin in 1561, only three years before he died in 1564. It represents his mature thought while his sermons represent his early career as a reformer.

Many “universal Calvinists” try to get around the force of this statement by Calvin by saying that he is describing the beliefs of the unbeliever rather than his own beliefs. In other words, the unbeliever does not believe that Christ’s blood was shed to expiate his sins while Calvin does. But why would an unbeliever want to partake of the Lord’s Supper if he does not believe Christ has died for him? Who are these professing Christians who do not believe that Christ’s blood was shed to expiate their sins? The Libertines believed that Christ died for them and used that as an excuse for their unrepentant sin. Merely believing in the truth that Christ was crucified for sinners does not save, it is trusting in Christ alone for salvation which evidences itself by good works.

Calvin’s argument is that Christ is not present in the Lord’s Supper in the same way Lutheranism does because then unbelievers would partake of Christ in the Supper. Christ is only spiritually present in the Eucharist for those who believe, not for those who are lost. Because Christ was only crucified for believers, only believers can spiritually feed on the body and blood that was shed for them. Unbelievers do not feed upon Christ’s body and blood because it was not crucified for them. Therefore, Christ cannot be physically or substantially present in the supper or else they would feed on Christ. The Lutheran view of the Supper is a reductio ad absurdum because it would mean that those who are not saved truly feed on Christ in the Supper in the same way that those who are saved do.

Calvin is arguing from definite atonement to a spiritual view of the Lord’s Supper as opposed to a real presence one in which unbelievers do feed on Christ. His argument is, “Because the cross is limited in its extent, those who feed on Christ must be limited in extent which requires a spiritual eating instead of a physical one or else more people would feed on Christ than Christ was crucified for.” This is why Lutherans such as R. C. H. Lenski rightly understand that Calvin is affirming definite atonement in this quotation because they know the background of the debate and how definite atonement is used as an argument against their view of the Supper. The Lutherans can see what the universal Calvinists cannot because they understand what the debate was about. If Calvin believed in universal atonement at this point in his life, he could not make this argument. No one who believes in universal atonement could or would ever use these words and Calvin does not make any qualification in his words or clarify that he is talking about the unbeliever’s viewpoint instead of his own. But Calvin’s argument is not watertight since many unbelievers do come to faith in Christ later in life proving that Christ certainly did suffer for them.

A similar development can be seen in John Bunyan who taught universal redemption in Reprobation Asserted but then changed his mind because of his interaction with his friend John Owen:

“Now then, his intercession must, as to length and breadth, reach no further than his merits. For he may not pray for those for whom he died not. . . . But this, I say, his intercession is for those for whom he died, with full intention to save them” (Christ a Complete Savior in Works of John Bunyan, 1:235).

The opposite development can be seen in Martin Luther who taught definite atonement early in his career in his commentary on Romans 8:28 but later embraced universal atonement:

“Christ did not die for absolutely all, for he says: ‘This is my blood which is shed for you’ (Luke 22:20) and ‘for many’ (Mark 14:24) – he did not say: for all – ‘to the remission of sins’ (Matt 26:28)” (Lectures on Romans, 252).

As to what I think of this debate, Romans 8:32 is decisive. Paul declared that God will give all things to those for whom he gave up his Son. If God has given us the greater, how will he not also give us the lesser? If he has given us his very own Son, how will he not also give us salvation? The great truth of Christ’s death on behalf of those who trust in him is the foundation of the believer’s assurance of salvation. Because Christ has died for me, I cannot be lost because Christ has paid the penalty for my sins. But if there are some for whom the Father gave up his Son but will not be given all things, then Paul’s argument is invalid “since it might be replied to him, that God might deliver up his Son for persons, and yet not freely give all things with him to them” (John Gill, The Cause of God and Truth, 102). And I don’t believe the Holy Spirit can make logically invalid arguments.

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