John Calvin was Not a Very Good Calvinist — Thank Goodness!
I bumped into this very well done brief summary of John Calvin’s view on what has become one of the five-pillars of Calvinist "wisdom" or, to put it more accurately, one of the things that is so wrong about Calvinism namely, the teaching that Christ’s atonement was limited, not for all. It is a such a glaring contradiction of the teaching of the New Testament, but Calvinism finally is about logically arranging all things in a nice, tidy system. Well, seems John Calvin himself was not much of a Calvinist. Here are quotes from his Bible commentaries that refute belief in a limited atonement:
How Calvinistic was John Calvin? What did he teach concerning the extent of the atonement? Let us ponder his own words:
Isaiah 53:12–"I approve of the ordinary reading, that He alone bore
the punishment of many, because on Him was laid the guilt of the whole
world. It is evident from other passages, and especially from the fifth
chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, that many sometimes denotes all."
Mark 14:24 – "The word many does not mean a part of the world only, but
the whole human race." In other words, Christ’s blood was shed for the
whole human race.
On Matthew 20:28–"‘Many’ is used, not for a
definite number, but for a large number, in that He sets Himself over
against all others. And this is its meaning also in Rom. 5:15, where
Paul is not talking of a part of mankind but of the whole human race."
John 1:29 – "And when he says the sin OF THE WORLD, He extends this
favour indiscriminately to the whole human race….all men without
exception are guilty of unrighteousness before God and need to be
reconciled to Him….Now our duty is, to embrace the benefit which is
offered to all, that each of us may be convinced that there is nothing
to hinder him from obtaining reconciliation in Christ, provided that he
comes to him by…faith."
On John 3:16 – "He has employed the
universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to
partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers….He
shows Himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when He invites all
men without exception to the faith of Christ."
On Romans 5:18 –
"He makes this favor common to all, because it is propoundable to all,
and not because it is in reality extended to all (i.e. in the
experience); 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."
On 2 Corinthians 5:19 – God "shows
Himself to be reconciled to the whole world" and Calvin goes on to say
that the "whole world" means "all men without exception."
Galatians 5:12 – "It is the will of God that we should seek the
salvation of all men without exception, as Christ suffered for the sins
of the whole world."
On Colossians 1:15–"This redemption was
procured by the blood of Christ, for by the sacrifice of His death all
the sins of the world have been expiated."
On Hebrews 5:9–"He
(the writer of Hebrews) has inserted the universal term ‘to all’ to
show that no one is excluded from this salvation who proves to be
attentive and obedient to the Gospel of Christ."
taught that the lost were purchased by Christ’s blood: "It is no small
matter to have the souls perish who were bought by the blood of Christ"
In fairness, it should be stated that some of Calvin’s
comments seem to indicate that he held to a limited atonement (see his
comments on 1 Timothy 2:4-6, for example, where he says that the "all"
refers to all classes or ranks of men, and see his comments on 1 John
2:2 where he says that the word all or whole does not include the
reprobate). However, in his comments on 1 John 2:2 he mentions a phrase
commonly used in the schools: "Christ suffered sufficiently for the
whole world, but efficiently only for the elect." He then states that
he is in basic agreement with this statement and that it is true.
Calvin basically taught that the cross-work of Christ was unlimited in
its extent, but limited in its application. Only those who believe
benefit from it.
For a full discussion of Calvin’s views on
the extent of the atonement, see Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism by C.
Gordon Olson, Appendix E, pages 458-463.
In conclusion, Calvin
made some statements which seem to indicate he held to a limited
atonement, but he also made many more statements which seem to better
harmonize with an unlimited atonement. The best indication of where he
stood on this issue, as Norman Duty suggests, should come from his
final statement on the matter. Calvin made a statement in his will,
drawn up when he was 54, shortly before his death. The year was 1564
and may be regarded as his final judgment concerning the extent of the
atonement: "I testify also and profess that I humbly seek from God,
that He may so will me to be washed and purified by the great
Redeemer’s blood, shed for the sins of the human race, that it may be
permitted me to stand before His tribunal under the covert of the
Redeemer Himself." [See Douty, The Death of Christ, pages 175-176. For
an excellent discussion of Calvin’s position on the extent of the
atonement, see Morison, The Extent of the Atonement, pages 126-128.]
See also Norman Geisler’s Systematic Theology, Volume 3, pages 382-387.