Pachabel's Canon in D 


Article of the Month



Paul Helm


Many have taken it for granted that the Calvinistic theology which spread across the western world in he seventeenth century was substantially the Theology of John Calvin himself. It was a considerable surprise therefore when Dr. R. T. Kendall attempted to show, in his Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, published in 1981, that later Calvinism was in fact a departure from the theology of the Reformer.

In this pioneering study Paul Helm shows that the substantial claims that Dr. Kendall makes over the alleged theological departures from Calvin, about the relation between the death and intercession of Christ and the character of saving faith and conversion, cannot be supported from Calvin, but rest on distortions and misunderstandings. With the onset of the Counter-Reformation and the rise of Arminianism questions had to be faced which Calvin himself did not address. However, the Reformed theologians who tackled these issues did in ways that were entirely consistent with the thought of Calvin himself.


JOHN CALVIN’S Institutes is a strongly personal book. The author addresses his readers directly. He assumes that they are Christian believers, and almost always associates himself with them. Calvin’s approach is not that of a text-book writer, but of a personal counsellor and Christian brother. So he typically says that ‘we’ have received certain benefits through Christ, or that Christ has died for ‘us’. It is this immediate, engaging style that has no doubt contributed so much to the power and attraction of the Institutes over the years. Yet a price is sometimes paid for this, in terms of a lack of exactness and precision. In assessing Calvin’s view of the atonement, and of faith and assurance, this must be borne in mind.

To say, in Calvin’s typical fashion, that ‘Christ died for us’ is certainly compatible with the statement, ‘Christ died for the elect’. But as it stands it is also compatible with ‘Christ died for all men’. A precision that is out of keeping with the style should not be expected. Yet Calvin’s over-all position is strikingly clear.


What did the death of Christ achieve? For whom did Christ die? In attempting to answer these questions about the atonement from Calvin’s own statements in the Institutes we shall show that Calvin subscribed to three key ideas. The first is that Christ’s death procured actual remission. On his view there are some people whose sins Christ actually remitted by his death. In the second place, all the elect, and they alone, have their sins actually remitted by the death of Christ. That is to say, the effect of the death of Christ is to atone for the sins of a definite number of people (and in this sense it is proper to speak of limited atonement). The third key idea is that Calvin expressly teaches that it was the intention of Christ, in dying, to procure an atonement for the elect. The salvation of the elect is something that can be directly related to what Christ by his death intended.

These three key ideas will now be considered, in turn, as far as possible in Calvin’s own words.

(a) Actual Remission. Basic to Calvin’s understanding of the saving work of Christ is his ascription to Christ of the work of prophet, priest and king.1 As a prophet ‘he was anointed by the Spirit to be herald and witness of the Father’s grace . . . he received anointing, not only for himself that he might carry out the office of teaching, but for his whole body that the power of the Spirit might be present in the continuing preaching of the Gospel’.2 As a king ‘he will be the eternal protector and defender of his church’.3 As a priest ‘an expiation must intervene in order that Christ as a priest may obtain God’s favour for us and appease his wrath. Thus Christ to perform this office had to come forward with a sacrifice’.4 God ‘was reconciled to us through Christ’.

Suppose a man learns, Calvin says, that he was estranged from God through sin, is an heir of wrath, subject to the curse of eternal death, excluded from all hope of salvation, beyond every blessing of God, the slave of Satan, captive under the yoke of sin, destined finally for a dreadful destruction and already involved in it; and that at this point Christ interceded as his advocate, took upon himself and suffered the punishment that, from God’s righteous judgment, threatened all sinners; that he purged with his blood those evils which had rendered sinners hateful to God; that by this expiation he made satisfaction and sacrifice duly to God the Father; that as intercessor he has appeased God’s wrath; that on this foundation rests the peace of God with men; that by this bond his benevolence is maintained toward them. Will the man not then be even more moved by all these things which so vividly portray the greatness of the calamity from which he has been rescued?5


This is our acquittal: the guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God (Is. 53:12). We must, above all, remember this substitution, lest we tremble and remain anxious throughout life — as if God’s righteous vengeance, which the Son of God has taken upon himself, still hung over us.6

And again,

By his obedience, however, Christ truly acquired and merited grace for us with his Father. Many passages of Scripture surely and firmly attest this. I take it to be a commonplace that if Christ made satisfaction for our sins, if he paid the penalty owed by us, if he appeased God by his obedience — in short, if as a righteous man he suffered for unrighteous men — then he acquired salvation for us by his righteousness, which is tantamount to deserving it.7

What can be learned about Calvin’s view from these passages? In the first place Calvin assumes the unity of Christ’s work as redeemer. There is not a trace of a sharp break between the earthly death and the heavenly intercession of Christ. On the contrary Calvin repeatedly refers to Christ’s death as an intercession with God (‘as intercessor he has appeased God’s wrath’). Christ’s heavenly intercession reflects and represents the earthly intercession, the act of atonement. It is not something additional to his death which has independent value and efficacy. This needs to be stressed in view of the fact that, as we shall see later, R. T. Kendall holds that in Calvin there is a sharp distinction to be drawn between the death and the heavenly intercession of Christ. This view is quite without foundation.

In the second place Calvin teaches that Christ redeems by satisfying divine justice in a way that is mysterious and not fully comprehensible. It is mysterious because the God whose justice Christ satisfies is the God whose love is expressed in Christ’s mission. The explanation of this mystery is to be sought in the first chapter of the letter to the Ephesians. There, after Paul has taught us that we were chosen in Christ, he adds at the same time that we acquired favour in the same Christ (Eph. 1:4-5). How did God begin to embrace with his favour those whom he had loved before the creation of the world? Only in that he revealed his love when he was reconciled to us by Christ’s blood.8

Thirdly, it is clear from the prominence that Calvin gives to the idea of satisfaction, and to the associated language of transference, the paying of a penalty, suffering, purging, and expiating, that Calvin regards Christ’s death as actually redeeming men. Whatever the scope of the death of Christ, it was a satisfaction for sins. Nowhere in Calvin is there the suggestion that Christ’s death merely made redemption possible for some, or merely possible for all, or that some further action of Christ’s, in addition to his death, was necessary. Rather, Christ effected redemption by his death. He took upon himself and suffered punishment, he appeased God’s wrath. If these expressions mean anything, they mean that divine justice has been satisfied for those whom the death of Christ benefits, whoever they may be. Because of this, salvation may be personally appropriated by faith alone. Faith in Christ’s merit excludes human merit.9

(b) Salvation for the elect alone. According to Calvin, all and only the elect have their sins remitted.

The adoption was put in Abraham’s hands. Nevertheless, because many of his descendants were cut off as rotten members, we must, in order that election may be effectual and truly enduring, ascend to the Head, in whom the Heavenly Father has gathered his elect together, and has joined them to himself by an indissoluble bond.10


Whence it comes about that the whole world does not belong to its Creator except that grace rescues from God’s curse and wrath and eternal death a limited number who would otherwise perish. But the world itself is left to its own destruction, to which it has been destined. Meanwhile, although Christ interposes himself as mediator, he claims for himself, in common with the Father, the right to choose. ‘I am not speaking’, he says, ‘of all; I know whom I have chosen’ (John 13: 18). If anyone ask whence he has chosen them, he replies in another passage: ‘From the world’ (John 15:19), which he excludes from his prayers when he commends his disciples to the Father (John 17:9). This we must believe: when he declares that he knows whom he has chosen, he denotes in the human genus a particular species, distinguished not by the quality of its virtues but by heavenly decree.11

And finally,

Through Isaiah he still more openly shows how he directs the promises of salvation specifically to the elect: for he proclaims that they alone, not the whole human race without distinction, are to become his disciples (Isa. 8:16). Hence it is clear that the doctrine of salvation, which is said to be reserved solely and individually for the sons of the church, is falsely debased when presented as effectually profitable to all.12

God the Father has gathered the elect indissolubly together in Christ. Salvation is effectual only for the elect. According to Calvin, then, the elect are saved through Christ, all the elect, and only the elect.

Bearing in mind what has so far been learned about Calvin, it might be argued that lie was committed to definite or limited atonement even though he has not committed himself, in express terms, to such a view. For it might be said that since, for Calvin, all for whom Christ died are saved, and not all men are saved, it follows that Christ did not die for all men. That is, an argument such as J. I. Packer provides could be formulated on Calvin’s behalf:

If we are going to affirm penal substitution for all without exception we must either infer universal salvation, or else, to evade this inference, deny the saving efficacy of the substitution for anyone; and if we are going to affirm penal substitution as an effective saving act of God we must either infer universal salvation or else, to evade this inference, restrict the scope of the substitution, making it a substitution for some, not all. 13

Calvin, not being a universalist, could be said to be committed to definite atonement, even though he does not commit himself to definite atonement. And, it could be added, there is a sound reason for this. There was no occasion for Calvin to enter into argument about the matter, for before the Arminian controversy the extent of the atonement had not been debated expressly within the Reformed churches.

However, plausible though such a line of argument may seem, it is possible to show that Calvin did not leave others to draw such conclusions. He drew them himself. There are passages in Calvin which show that he held the doctrine of limited atonement, even though the doctrine does not gain the prominence in his writings that it did during later controversies.

(c) For whom did Christ intend to die? When discussing the fact that Christ is both Judge and Redeemer Calvin says:

Hence arises a wonderful consolation: that we perceive judgment to be in the hands of him who has already destined us to share with him the honour of judging (cf. Matt. 19:28)! Far indeed is he from mounting his judgment seat to condemn us! How could our most merciful Ruler destroy his people? How could the Head scatter his own members? How could our Advocate condemn his clients? . Therefore, by giving all judgment to the Son (John 5:22), the Father has honoured him to the end that he may care for the consciences of his people, who tremble in dread of judgment.14


For there is nothing absurd in ascribing to the Father praise for those gifts of which he is the Author, and yet in ascribing the same powers to Christ, with whom were laid up the gifts of the Spirit to bestow upon his people . . . In this sense he is called the ‘Second Adam’, given from heaven as ‘a life-giving spirit’ (I Cor. 15:45). This unique life which the Son of God inspires in his own so that they become one with him, Paul here contrasts with that natural life which is common also to the wicked.15

Calvin shows that he is quite at home with the thought that Christ has ‘his people’ over whom he rules and to whom he gives life. How can this be? It is not only because they have chosen to be his, as we have already seen. They are elected to salvation. Rather, as Calvin hints, Christ cares for those whom the Father has given him, his people, by being their Redeemer. Not simply by being a Redeemer, but by being their Redeemer.

As Christ teaches, here is our only ground for firmness and confidence: in order to free us of all fear and render us victorious amid so many dangers, snares, and mortal struggles, he promises that whatever the Father has entrusted into his keeping will be safe (John 10:28-9).16

And who are these? They are the sheep to whom the Shepherd gives eternal life.

The same point is made at greater length in Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God.

To this pretended difficulty of Pighius, therefore, I would briefly reply that Christ was so ordained the Saviour of the whole world, as that He might save those that were given unto Him by the Father out of the whole world, that He might be the eternal life of them of whom He is the Head; that He might receive into a participation of all the ‘blessings in Him’ all those whom God adopted to Himself by His own unmerited good pleasure to be His heirs . . . Hence we read everywhere that Christ diffuses life into none but the members of his own body. And he that will not confess that it is a special gift and a special mercy to be engrafted into the body of Christ, has never read with spiritual attention Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. Hereupon follows also a third important fact, that the virtue and benefits of Christ are extended unto, and belong to, none but the children of God.17

Given the stress that Calvin places on the unity of Christ’s work, and given that the effects of this work come to none but members of his own body, how is it possible not to draw the conclusion that Calvin is teaching that in consciously, voluntarily laying down his life Christ was dying for ‘none but the children of God’?

It might be argued that a distinction should be drawn between Christ dying and Christ diffusing lift, and between Christ’s death and what Calvin calls Christ’s virtue and benefits. On the basis of such a distinction it might be said that while Christ diffused life to some, and his benefits belong only to some, he died for all. But this is to draw distinctions where none in fact exist. For how else does life and virtue come from Christ other ‘than by his death? And why should Christ be said to die for all, or for the whole world, if the purpose of his death, the provision of life, is to be confined to the elect?

But there is still more evidence. In a passage already cited Calvin speaks of ‘the Head, in whom the Heavenly Father has gathered his elect together, and has joined them to himself by an indissoluble bond . . . in the members of Christ a far more excellent power of grace appears, for, engrafted to their Head, they are never cut off from salvation18. The elect are the members of Christ, engrafted into the Head. In a striking phrase Calvin refers to Christ as the ‘Author of election’.19 If Christ is the author of election and the elect are a definite number, how can it be that Christ would die for some whom he had not elected? In the same section Calvin remarks that ‘Christ does not allow any of those whom he has once for all engrafted into his body to perish’. Could it be that Calvin might hold that Christ would give his life for some whom he did not engraft into his body?

Christ proclaims aloud that he has taken under his protection all whom the Father wishes to be saved (cf. John 6:37, 39; 17:6, 12). Therefore, if we desire to know whether God cares for our salvation, let us inquire whether he has entrusted us to Christ, whom he has established as the sole Saviour of all his people.20

If God the Father has established Christ as the sole Saviour of all his people, and if Christ has taken such people under his protection, can it be supposed that, on Calvin’s view, Christ died for the whole world?

In his work on predestination, commenting on John 6:37, Calvin says:

Here we have three things, briefly indeed, but most perspicuously expressed. First, that all who come unto Christ were before given unto Him by the Father; secondly, that those who were thus given unto Him were delivered, as it were, from the hand of the Father into the hand of the Son, that they may be truly His; thirdly, that Christ is the sure keeper of all those whom the Father delivered over to His faithful custody and care, for the very end that he might not suffer one of them to perish.21

Christ keeps those, and only those, entrusted to his care by the Father in such a way that not one of them will perish. How is this possible in any way that will not involve his death for them in particular? In a controversial tract on the Lord’s Supper against Hesshusius, Calvin says:

The first thing to be explained is how Christ is present with unbelievers, to be the spiritual food of their souls, and in short the life and salvation of the world. As he [i.e. Hesshusius] adheres so doggedly to the words, I should like to know how the wicked can eat the flesh of Christ which was not crucified for them, and how they can drink the blood which was not shed to expiate their sins?22

If Christ keeps only the elect, and did not die for the wicked, is it not reasonable to conclude that he died only for the elect?

One final quotation:

For our present question is, not what the power or virtue of Christ is, nor what efficacy it has in itself, but who those are to whom he gives Himself to be enjoyed. Now if the possession of Christ stands in faith, and if faith flows from the Spirit of adoption, it follows that he alone is numbered of God among His children who is designed of God to be a partaker of Christ. Indeed the evangelist John sets forth the office of Christ to be none other than that of ‘gathering together all the children of God’ in one by His death. From all which we conclude that, although reconciliation is offered unto all men through him, yet, that the great benefit belongs peculiarly to the elect, that they might be ‘gathered together’ and be made ‘together’ partakers of eternal life.23

Christ, according to Calvin, has the task of gathering together all the children of God, the elect, in one by his death. Is it not reasonable to conclude that Christ did this knowingly and intentionally, and that by his death he intended to save the elect only? Surely John Murray is correct in saying that ‘Election is fundamental to Calvin’s thinking, and election implies differentiation at the fountain of the whole process of salvation. The evidence indicates that Calvin did not discount this differentiation at the point of Christ’s expiatory offering’24

What has been shown so far in this chapter? That in Calvin’s teaching the work of Christ, from incarnation to heavenly intercession, is one work, focused on the death of Christ which expiated sin by satisfying divine justice. Christ’s death brings salvation to the elect, for in dying Christ intended only the salvation of the elect.

The case presented so far has one important weakness. Nothing has been said about Calvin’s treatment of those biblical texts such as John 3:16 which have often been appealed to as teaching indefinite or universal atonement. But these will be considered in detail later.

Why are these matters being stressed? Consideration will shortly be given to the views of R. T. Kendall who denies that according to Calvin Christ died only for the elect. He claims that the doctrine we have found in Calvin’s writings is not in fact there, but is a later development and distortion introduced by Beza and adopted by the Puritans. This distortion, in his view, led to others, notably to a misunderstanding of the Reformation and biblical teaching on faith and assurance, and the whole nature of conversion. Clearly these are not remote, technical questions but matters which have a bearing on many aspects of practical Christianity. According to Kendall, views about the death of Christ go hand in hand with views about the nature of saving faith and assurance. The Puritans, he asserts, having distorted Calvin’s teaching on the atonement, inevitably distorted Calvin’s teaching on faith and assurance. But what was Calvin’s teaching on faith and assurance?


In a classic statement about faith Calvin says:

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.25

There are a number of noteworthy features about this definition. Calvin stresses that faith is something supernatural. It is not a natural religious instinct, nor is it (as some would say) gullibility. Faith is imparted to us by God himself, by God the Holy Spirit. Faith relies upon the promise of God. It presupposes divine revelation, and involves the use of the mind, not its disengagement. Calvin does not oppose faith and reason, for reason is necessary to understand the divine revelation.

But what is more important for present purposes is what Calvin says about the relation between faith and knowledge. It is this that has aroused much interest over the years, and still prompts controversy. A number of scholars regard it as unquestionable that at this point there is a major break between Calvin and the Puritans. For in his definition Calvin appears to be defining faith in terms of knowledge, whereas the Puritans certainly did not. It is therefore important to take care to understand what Calvin is saying here, and elsewhere in his writings.

What does it mean to say that faith involves assurance, or that assurance ‘is of the essence of’ faith? It is not simply that saving faith involved the assurance, or confidence, that what is believed is undoubtedly the promise of God. It is rather that if a man has faith, and if faith involves assurance, then that man, in believing God’s promise to sinners, recognizes that God is gracious or benevolent toward him in particular. If faith involves assurance, then all who believe must have this confidence about themselves in relation to God. If they fail to have this confidence than they cannot truly be believers. In Calvin’s words, such faith is ‘a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence to us’, to the ones who believe.

Such faith involves more than believing in a general sense that the promise is addressed to us, it is believing that it applies to us. On this view anyone who ‘believes’ but lacks the conviction that, in believing, he is saved by Christ is not a true believer. It is important to recognize that Calvin is not offering a casual, throw-away view. This is part of Calvin’s definition of faith.

Nevertheless, it is equally important to recognize that this short definition is not the only thing that Calvin says about faith. In order to set his definition in a broader context attention will now be paid to what he says after this definition occurs in the Institutes, and then to what he says about the knowledge of election.

(a) Some Qualifications. A little after giving the definition of faith just considered, Calvin makes the following remarks:

Unbelief is so deeply rooted in our hearts, and we are so inclined to it, that not without hard struggle is each one able to persuade himself of what all confess with the mouth: namely, that God is faithful.

While we teach that faith ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety. On the other hand, we say that believers are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief. 26

The godly heart feels in itself a division because it is partly imbued with sweetness from its recognition of the divine goodness, partly grieves in bitterness from an awareness of its calamity; partly rests upon the promise of the gospel, partly trembles at the evidence of its own iniquity; partly rejoices at the expectation of life, partly shudders at death. This variation arises from imperfection of faith, since in the course of the present life it never goes so well with us that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith. Hence arise those conflicts, when unbelief, which reposes in the remains of the flesh, rises up to attack the faith that has been inwardly conceived.27

It can be seen from this that Calvin qualifies his definition of faith in terms of knowledge in important ways. Having and retaining faith is part of a struggle with natural unbelief. The degree of confidence that accompanies it fluctuates.

Further, Calvin is well aware that these further remarks of his amount to an important modification of the original definition. It is not as if there is a conflict of evidence in Calvin which he does not recognize. For he says that while faith ‘ought to be certain and assured, we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt’. So while faith ought to be assured faith, there is no such thing as perfect or total assurance, a completely doubt-free confidence that God’s mercy applies to me.

But, it may be asked, if Calvin defines faith in terms of assurance, how can he allow for the possibility of faith without assurance? Is he flatly contradicting himself within a few pages, or is there a way of reconciling the different things that he says? If we take Calvin’s definition of faith with which our discussion began as a definition based upon his own actual usage, then the only conclusion that it is possible to come to is that he is inconsistent. For, as we have just seen, he is sometimes happy to allow that there may be faith without assurance, and indeed that all faith is incompletely assured. And yet, if he defines faith in terms of assurance, then no one can have faith who lacks assurance. But if so, how can he say that faith may co-exist with doubt?

A clue to the answer to this difficulty is to be found in the second of the two quotations given above. Calvin’s definition of faith is not a report of how the word ‘faith’ is actually used, either by himself or by others, but it is a recommendation about how his readers ought habitually and properly to think of faith. Supposing someone says, ‘No one can live without a properly balanced diet’. This is not strictly true. In areas of malnutrition many unfortunate people live close to starvation. But while not strictly true, the assertion enshrines a recommendation. It is as if it were being said that no persons can flourish without a properly balanced diet, though they may exist without one. Similarly, Calvin is recommending to his Christian readers not to be satisfied with a degree of faith that is without assurance. There can be faith without assurance, but that degree of faith is to be sought that is accompanied by assurance.

(b) Knowledge of Election. This interpretation of Calvin’s definition of faith is confirmed by what he says elsewhere in the Institutes. In Chapter twenty-four of Book Three of the Institutes, having previously set out the biblical doctrine of election, and cleared up certain misconceptions about it, Calvin deals with the thorny question of how a person may know that he is one of God’s elect. Since not all men are elected, what are the signs of election? Calvin’s answer is that such knowledge comes indirectly, through the preaching of the Word of God and a believing response to that preaching. Our election is not to be known by some direct revelation to our souls that we are chosen, but by the nature of our response to the preaching of the Christian gospel.

If we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election. For since it is into his body that the Father has destined those to be engrafted whom he has willed from eternity to be his own, that he may hold as sons all whom he acknowledges to be among his members, we have a sufficiently clear and firm testimony that we have been inscribed in the book of life (cf. Rev. 21:27) if we are in communion with Christ.28

Such is Calvin’s position, often repeated throughout his writings.29 Christ is the mirror of election. Knowledge of election is reflected by means of a person’s relation to Christ. If a person wants to know whether or not he is elect he can discover this, not by direct revelation, nor by speculation, but by enquiring ‘whether he (the Father) has entrusted us to Christ, whom he has established as the sole Saviour of all his people’.30

How should such an enquiry proceed? Perhaps it is possible for a person who thinks that the Father has entrusted him to Christ to conclude that he is Christ’s. Hardly! For besides insisting that Christ is the mirror of election Calvin also insists that there are many people who seem to be Christ’s, but are not.

Yet it daily happens that those who seemed to be Christ’s, fall away from him again, and hasten to destruction. Indeed, in that same passage, where he declares that none of those whom the Father had given to him perished, he nevertheless excepts the son of perdition (John 17:12). True indeed, but it is also equally plain that such persons never cleaved to Christ with the heartfelt trust in which certainty of salvation has, I say, been established for us.31

How, then, does someone know that he is not a reprobate, that is to say, merely a temporary believer? Calvin’s answer is — and surely must be — that there are signs of true, as opposed to false and temporary faith, ‘signs which are sure attestations of it’32 The signs that Calvin mentions include divine calling, illumination by Christ’s Spirit, communion with Christ, receiving Christ by faith, the embracing of Christ, perseverance in the faith, the avoidance of self-confidence, and fear.

So it would appear that a person may be a true believer and yet not be assured that he is one, because he has misunderstood the signs. Similarly, a person may not be a true believer, but may think that he is, because he has misread the signs. To give an illustration: Whether or not a person is forty years old at a stated time depends upon the year of his birth. If he was born in a certain year then he is forty years old. If not, then he is not forty years old. But the evidence of his being born in a certain year cannot be had directly, but only indirectly, through what his parents tell him, the evidence of a birth certificate, and so on. Similarly, Calvin says, there are indirect signs of true faith, signs upon which assurance is based.

Misunderstanding is sometimes caused by statements made about the ground of assurance. It is said, for instance, that according to Calvin, Christ alone is the ground of assurance, and that to think of the ground of assurance as within oneself is a form of salvation by merit or works. But this is based on a confusion over the meaning of ‘ground’. Calvin, and indeed all the Reformers, are of course emphatic that a person’s salvation is due solely to the work of Christ. But he is equally emphatic that the evidence of personal salvation is found in a person’s own spiritual and moral renovation. While the believer has not to trust in himself for salvation — this would be salvation by human merit — nevertheless he may find in himself evidence that he has trusted in Christ for salvation. While his own state is most certainly not the foundation of his salvation — Christ is the foundation — his own state may be evidence that he is in Christ, as the birth certificate is evidence of a person’s date of birth.

(c) Conclusion. It has been shown that Calvin’s famous definition of faith is in fact a recommendation of how the word ‘faith’ should be used, not a definition of how it actually is used. What he writes elsewhere about faith is consistent with this, and with the idea that true faith may exist without assurance, however spiritually undesirable this may be.

Calvin had every reason for stressing that a Christian may properly expect to be assured of his salvation, for he was writing in a situation in which the dominant teaching in Christendom, that of the Roman Catholic Church, was that assurance was unattainable.

The papists say that we must doubt it [i.e. assurance] and that we can come to God only with a hope that he will receive us; but to assure ourselves of it — that we ought not to do, for that would be too great a presumption. But when we pray to God, we must call him Father, at least if we are the scholars of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he has taught us to do so. Now, is it at a venture that we call him Father, or are we sure of it in ourselves that he is our Father? If not, then there would be nothing but hypocrisy in our prayers, and the first word that we utter would be a lie.33

Moreover the view that has been put forward in this chapter, that in his definition Calvin was attempting to raise the legitimate spiritual expectations of his readers, certainly accords with what is known about the condition of those for whom the institutes was first written. As T. H. L. Parker has expressed it:

He [Calvin] was writing for the baptized, for those who took their religion seriously, who desired to be good Christians but were disturbed at their lack of success, who above all were distressed that their religion brought them no peace of conscience. By their baptism the guilt of their inherited sin had been forgiven. But they had sinned since their baptism, making shipwreck of their faith and thus of their standing with God. Now they clung desperately to what old St. Jerome called the second plank, the sacrament of penance. They were sorry for their sins, or rather, the more they were in earnest the more they realized that they ought to be sorry for their sins and wished that they were more sorry. They knew God to be a stern judge who would exact vengeance for their sins. They made confession, aware of the promise ‘whose soever sins ye loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’. But where was the peace that should follow? Had they confessed all their sins? Had they forgotten any? Only confessed sins are forgiven. They performed the enjoined satisfactions for their sins. They did more; they went on pilgrimages, not for a jolly Chaucerian holiday, but always seeking, always grasping after that which lay just beyond their grasp; they gave alms so far as they could afford; they practised self-denial and mortification. Meanwhile, they attempted to follow their conscience and the Law of God to the best of their ability, trusting in God’s grace that he would, of his free mercy, reward them for their efforts with such an inpouring of grace as would turn their will away from sin to love God with all their being. And again, instead of the looked-for peace, anxiety: had they really striven to the utmost? They could not tell; it was impossible to know. But if they had not done what they could, God had not rewarded them. The Institutio was addressed to men suffering under the pastoral cruelty of the mediaeval church.34

Small wonder, then, that Calvin attempted to pour into such spiritual wounds the balm of a pure evangelical faith which could bring assurance of forgiveness.


It has here been argued that there are in Calvin’s teaching the main elements of the doctrine of limited atonement. Such a doctrine does not attempt to limit the atonement in an unnatural way, or to restrict the efficacy of Christ’s death, but to emphasize that Christ’s death actually redeemed, and did not make redemption merely possible. Without such a definite atonement there could be no atonement at all. Calvin teaches that the death of Christ actually remitted sin, that such remission was for the elect, and that Christ intended to die for the elect. This last point may seem superfluous, but it is of major importance when assessing R. T. Kendall’s misinterpretation of the position.

Christ really atoned for the elect by his death. With all the other Reformers Calvin teaches that a person enjoys the benefits of the death of Christ through God-given faith in Christ. Can such a believer know and be assured that Christ has saved him by his death? As has been shown, Calvin held that it was possible for a person to be assured of his own salvation, and normal to expect this. It was monstrous to teach that such assurance was impossible. But he recognized that saving faith is often accompanied by periods of doubt which eclipse assurance, and that even assured faith is never totally free from doubt.

Almost a century after the final edition of the Institutes appeared the teaching of the Puritans was codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647). With respect to the death of Christ the Confession states that,

The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which he through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him.35

And about assurance:

Such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before him, may in this life be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God; which hope shall never make them ashamed . . . This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it.36

Is it not reasonable to conclude, on the basis of the evidence provided in this chapter, that this teaching is, in all essentials, the teaching of Calvin himself?


  1. Institutes II.xv.
  2. Inst. II.xv.2.
  3. Inst. II.XV.3.
  4. Inst. II.xv.6.
  5. Inst. II.xvi.2.
  6. Inst. II.xvi.5.
  7. Inst. II.xvii.3.
  8. Inst. II.vxii.2.
  9. Inst. II.xvii.
  10. Inst. III.xxi.7.
  11. Inst. III.xxii.7.
  12. Inst. III.xxii.10.
  13. J. I. Packer ‘What did the Cross Achieve?’ Tyndale Bulletin, 1974, p. 37.
  14. Inst. II.xvi.18.
  15. Inst. III.i.2.
  16. Inst. III.xxi.i.
  17. A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God (trans. H. Cole), in Calvin’s Calvinism (1927) p. 94. (Hereafter referred to as Eternal Predestination).
  18. Inst. III.xxi.7.
  19. Inst. III.xxii.7.
  20. Inst. III.xxiv.6.
  21. Eternal Predestination, p. 50.
  22. Calvin: Theological Treatises trans. J. K. S. Reid (1954) p. 285.
  23. Eternal Predestination pp. 165-6.
  24. Review of Paul Van Buren: Christ in Our Place, Westminster Theological Journal, November 1959, p. 59.
  25. Inst. III.ii.7.
  26. Inst. III.ii.15, 17.
  27. Inst. III.ii.18.
  28. Inst. III.xxiv.5.
  29. Eternal Predestination, pp. 132, 137. John Calvin’s Sermons on Ephesians (Banner of Truth edition), 1973, p. 47.
  30. Inst. III.xxiv.6.
  31. Inst. III.xxiv.7.
  32. Inst. III.xxiv.4.
  33. Sermons on Ephesians pp. 28-9.
  34. T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (1975) p.36.
  35. Westminster Confession, VIII.v.
  36. Westminster Confession, XVIII. i-iii.


Paul Helm is Professor the History and Philosophy of Religion at King’s College in the University of London. He is the author of The Beginnings, The Callings and The Last Things, published by The Banner of Truth Trust, and The Providence of God (IVP).

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