Article of the Month
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.
THE MEANING OF THE DEATH OF CHRIST
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
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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?
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:
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:
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:
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?
FAITH AND ASSURANCE
In a classic statement about faith Calvin says:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
SUMMING UP THE CHAPTER
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,
And about assurance:
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?
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).
Discuss this article and other topics in our Discussion Board