Thursday, March 09, 2006

Calvin on John 3:16...Limited or Unlimited Atonement?

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

I came across an article by Ron Rhodes called, “The Extent of the Atonement: Limited Atonement Versus Unlimited Atonement.” Rhodes has written many helpful books, and was on staff with the Christian Research Institute. In the article, Rhodes, who calls himself a “4 point Calvinist” argues for unlimited atonement. In his argumentation on John 3:16 he says,

The Greek lexicons are unanimous that "world" here denotes humankind, not the ‘world of the elect.’ John 3:16 cannot be divorced from verses 14-15, wherein Christ alludes to Numbers 21 with its discussion of Moses setting up the brazen serpent in the camp of Israel, so that if "any man" looked to it, he experienced physical deliverance. In verse 15 Christ applies the story spiritually when He says that "whosoever" believes on the uplifted Son of Man shall experience spiritual deliverance.”

To substantiate his point, he quotes John Calvin:

John Calvin says: ‘He has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term world which He formerly used [God so loved the world]; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet He shows Himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when He invites all men without exception [not merely 'without distinction'] to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.’ ”

Now how is it possible for Ron Rhodes to quote John Calvin against Calvinists with John 3:16? Well, it isn’t. Granted, the subject of Calvin’s view of the atonement is not the easiest of subjects to understand- scholars have different views- some say Calvin believed in limited atonement, some say unlimited atonement, some say it's just not possible to conclude one way or the other.
Leaving that systematic debate aside, Calvin’s comments on John 3:16 definitely don’t support unlimited atonement- whatever your particular opinion on Calvin’s view is. Rhodes saw the sentence “He shows Himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when He invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life” and assumed Calvin meant unlimited atonement. He did not. This is the problem of thrusting the "limited/unlimited extent of the atonement question" on Calvin's writings- it's reading a debate back into a theology that gave the question little attention.

It’s important to work through Calvin’s comments slowly, and with a thorough context. Beginning with Calvin’s comments on John 3:14, Calvin explains that the Gospel is to be manifest to “all” by Christ being “lifted up” on the cross. Here we find Calvin’s universalistic notion of the proclamation of the Gospel, rather than the extent of the atonement.” Calvin says:

To be lifted up means to be placed in a lofty and elevated situation, so as to be exhibited to the view of all. This was done by the preaching of the Gospel… The simple meaning of the words therefore is, that, by the preaching of the Gospel, Christ was to be raised on high, like a standard to which the eyes of all would be directed, as Isaiah had foretold. As a type of this lifting up, he refers to the brazen serpent, which was erected by Moses, the sight of which was a salutary remedy to those who had been wounded by the deadly bite of serpents... Christ introduces it in this passage, in order to show that he must be placed before the eyes of all by the doctrine of the Gospel, that all who look at him by faith may obtain salvation. Hence it ought to be inferred that Christ is clearly exhibited to us in the Gospel, in order that no man may complain of obscurity; and that this manifestation is common to all, and that faith has its own look, by which it perceives him as present; as Paul tells us that a lively portrait of Christ with his cross is exhibited, when he is truly preached.”

Calvin also says those who embrace Christ by faith obtain salvation. As I’ve covered elsewhere, Calvin believed faith was a gift from God. There is no idea of free will and unlimited atonement here. The paradigm is the lifting up us Christ with the universal offer of the gospel. Calvin continues talking about “us”:

The metaphor is not inappropriate or far-fetched. As it was only the outward appearance of a serpent, but contained nothing within that was pestilential or venomous, so Christ clothed himself with the form of sinful flesh, which yet was pure and free from all sin, that he might cure in us the deadly wound of sin.”

Who is the “us”? It is those who embrace Christ by faith- those who have been given the miraculous gift of faith by the sovereign choice of God. These are given the ability to be cured of the “deadly wound of sin.”

Next comes Calvin’s comments on John 3:16. Calvin continues to use “us”- that is, those who embrace Christ by faith. When Calvin refers to “all,” here, he is not referring to the extent of the atonement. Calvin has just pointed out earlier that Christ was to be preached to “all” through the Gospel. All are invited to Christ, yet salvation has come to “us”- those given the gift of faith by God:

"As the whole matter of our salvation must not be sought any where else than in Christ, so we must see whence Christ came to us, and why he was offered to be our Savior. Both points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish.”

Keep in mind the “us” are those who have embraced Christ by faith (God’s gift). Calvin says that “all” (as in everyone) are lost, unless God intervenes and “rescues.” Again, the extent of the atonement is not being discussed in this section-

"…it is very evident that Christ spoke in this manner, in order to draw away men from the contemplation of themselves to look at the mercy of God alone. Nor does he say that God was moved to deliver us, because he perceived in us something that was worthy of so excellent a blessing, but ascribes the glory of our deliverance entirely to his love. And this is still more clear from what follows; for he adds, that God gave his Son to men, that they may not perish. Hence it follows that, until Christ bestow his aid in rescuing the lost, all are destined to eternal destruction."

Calvin goes on again to speak of “us”- again the emphasis is on the benefit of Christ’s work for His people-
"This is also demonstrated by Paul from a consideration of the time; for he loved us while we were still enemies by sin, (Romans 5:8, 10.) And, indeed, where sin reigns, we shall find nothing but the wrath of God, which draws death along with it. It is mercy, therefore, that reconciles us to God, that he may likewise restore us to life."

Recall again that for Calvin, faith is a gift. Observe how this is totally harmonious with his next comment, and how Calvin clearly that gift obtains Christ's gifts from his work and death-

"... the secret love with which the Heavenly Father loved us in himself is higher than all other causes; but that the grace which he wishes to be made known to us, and by which we are excited to the hope of salvation, commences with the reconciliation which was procured through Christ. For since he necessarily hates sin, how shall we believe that we are loved by him, until atonement has been made for those sins on account of which he is justly offended at us? Thus, the love of Christ must intervene for the purpose of reconciling God to us, before we have any experience of his fatherly kindness. But as we are first informed that God, because he loved us, gave his Son to die for us, so it is immediately added, that it is Christ alone on whom, strictly speaking, faith ought to look."
Note that Calvin says “faith ought to look” to Christ alone. Calvin continues this idea-

"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."

Who is God’s love for? According to Calvin it is for “us.” Who are “us”? Those who look to Christ by faith. Who has faith? Only those given the gift of faith by God. Calvin goes on to express substitutionary atonement quite strongly:

"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. To this name Christ has a right, because he is by nature the only Son of God; and he communicates this honor to us by adoption, when we are engrafted into his body."

Calvin then says that the faith “frees us from everlasting destruction.” He then explains that the gospel offer indeed goes out to everyone, but again, he does not discuss the extent of the atonement:

"That whosoever believeth on him may not perish. It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. For he intended expressly to state that, though we appear to have been born to death, undoubted deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ; and, therefore, that we ought not to fear death, which otherwise hangs over us. And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life."

It is here where many misunderstand Calvin. When Calvin says things that sound like Christ died for “all,” Calvin is only saying that Christ is proclaimed to “all.” Recall again Calvin’s comment on John 3:14- that the lifting up of Christ is the preaching of the gospel to all. Calvin says this quite clearly-

"Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith. Here, too, is displayed a wonderful effect of faith; for by it we receive Christ such as he is given to us by the Father — that is, as having freed us from the condemnation of eternal death, and made us heirs of eternal life, because, by the sacrifice of his death, he has atoned for our sins, that nothing may prevent God from acknowledging us as his sons. Since, therefore, faith embraces Christ, with the efficacy of his death and the fruit of his resurrection, we need not wonder if by it we obtain likewise the life of Christ."

"Still it is not yet very evident why and how faith bestows life upon us. Is it because Christ renews us by his Spirit, that the righteousness of God may live and be vigorous in us; or is it because, having been cleansed by his blood, we are accounted righteous before God by a free pardon? It is indeed certain, that these two things are always joined together; but as the certainty of salvation is the subject now in hand, we ought chiefly to hold by this reason, that we live, because God loves us freely by not imputing to us our sins. For this reason sacrifice is expressly mentioned, by which, together with sins, the curse and death are destroyed. I have already explained the object of these two clauses, which is, to inform us that in Christ we regain the possession of life, of which we are destitute in ourselves; for in this wretched condition of mankind, redemption, in the order of time, goes before salvation."

I do not deny that there are passages from Calvin that sound very much like Calvin believed in unlimited atonement. Calvin’s comments on John 3:14-16 though is not one of them. The "quoting John Calvin" approach to establishing unlimited atonement requires reading one's theology back into Calvin- and this is what Ron Rhodes has done.

There are debatable John Calvin passages- and even I cannot reconcile all of Calvin's comments on the atonement with later Reformed paradigms. But as i've studied this issue off and on, I wonder if I really need to. Calvin really didn't spend a lot of time talking about the extent of the atonement. To really read Calvin correctly, I think the approach should be to try and suspend the atonment debate from one's mind, if that can be possible- for many- both Calvinist and non-calvinist, this is an impossibility! Read what Calvin was saying, not what you want him to say- be it either limited or unlimited atonement.

If you're going to quote Calvin to try and support unlimited atonement as Ron Rhodes does- ask yourself why you're doing it. Ask yourself why do this when your soteriology and Calvin's probably aren't all that similar. Do you believe faith is the gift of God? do you believe free will is a farce? Do you believe man is totally unable to do anything to choose Christ? Do you believe that God's grace is irresistible? If you don't you shouldn't be quoting Calvin as a guy in your camp on the extent of the atonement.

For reference: Calvin’s comments on John 3:13-18

1 comment:

  1. I'd recommend checking into a new book, God's Wrath Postponed by D. Michael Turner from Turner is of the Calvanist Tradition, yet takes a literal position on the Universalist passages. His views are unigue, yet refreshing. Google book search allows a viewing of the outline and about 20 pages. I'd highly recommend this book.


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