By Spencer D Gear PhD
(Tulip image courtesy photos public domain)
Does it matter what your church teaches and practices concerning Christian salvation?
What is the future for churches that proclaim the following?
All people are saved (universalism)?
People have no say in whether they accept or reject the Gospel of salvation?
The whole of humanity is so corrupted inwardly that there is no hope of salvation without God’s supernatural intervention – without that person’s agreement.
People have a free will that enables them to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation.
The offer of salvation is open to everyone in the world?
Two of these positions come under what is known as the salvation theology of Calvinism.They are:
People have no say in whether they accept or reject the Gospel of salvation?
The whole of humanity is so corrupted inwardly that there is no hope of salvation without God’s supernatural intervention – without that person’s agreement.
In this article, I will examine whether the teaching of TULIP was included in the doctrines of Calvin.
I’m particularly concerned with whether John Calvin, who preceded the formulation of TULIP, believed the doctrines of TULIP.
1. What is TULIP Calvinism?
TULIP is an acronym for the theology expounded at the Synod of Dort (1618-19), held in the city of Dordrecht, the Netherlands, that responded to the five points of the Arminian Remonstrance. These doctrines have been summarised as TULIP. Here is a brief explanation of these five doctrines at: ‘The Calvinistic “TULIP”’:
In brief, TULIP means:
– ‘total depravity. This doesn’t mean people are as bad as they can be. It means that sin is in every part of one’s being, including the mind and will, so that a man cannot save himself’.
– ‘unconditional election. God chooses to save people unconditionally; that is, they are not chosen on the basis of their own merit’.
– ‘limited atonement. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross was for the purpose of saving the elect’.
– ‘irresistible grace. When God has chosen to save someone, He will.
– perseverance of the saints. Those people God chooses cannot lose their salvation; they will continue to believe. If they fall away, it will be only for a time.
Since Calvin did not originate TULIP, the purpose of this article is to discover from Calvin’s writings if he taught the theology expressed in TULIP.
Of necessity, this article will require many quotes from Calvin, especially to demonstrate favour or disfavour towards each point of TULIP.
1.1 Total Depravity:
Calvin wrote in Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.2.26: ‘The will is so utterly vitiated and corrupted in every part as to produce nothing but evil’.
Elsewhere in Institutes he states:
‘Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,’ (Gen. 6:5; 8:21). If every thing which our mind conceives, meditates plans, and resolves, is always evil, how can it ever think of doing what is pleasing to God, to whom righteousness and holiness alone are acceptable? (John Calvin, Institutes, Book 2:2.25)
… Man, since he was corrupted by the fall, sins not forced or unwilling, but voluntarily, by a most forward bias of the mind; not by violent compulsion, or external force, but by the movement of his own passion; and yet such is the depravity of his nature, that he cannot move and act except in the direction of evil. If this is true, the thing not obscurely expressed is, that he is under a necessity of sinning (Institutes Book 2:3:5).
See my articles in support of total depravity:
1.2 Unconditional Election:
Calvin wrote in Institutes of the Christian Religion:
Book Three, Chapter 21.1: OF THE ETERNAL ELECTION, BY WHICH GOD HAS PREDESTINATED SOME TO SALVATION, AND OTHERS TO DESTRUCTION.
The covenant of life is not preached equally to all, and among those to whom it is preached, does not always meet with the same reception. This diversity displays the unsearchable depth of the divine judgment, and is without doubt subordinate to God’s purpose of eternal election.
But if it is plainly owing to the mere pleasure of God that salvation is spontaneously offered to some, while others have no access to it, great and difficult questions immediately arise, questions which are inexplicable, when just views are not entertained concerning election and predestination. To many this seems a perplexing subject, because they deem it most incongruous that of the great body of mankind some should be predestinated to salvation, and others to destruction.
How ceaselessly they entangle themselves will appear as we proceed. We may add, that in the very obscurity which deters them, we may see not only the utility of this doctrine, but also its most pleasant fruits. We shall never feel persuaded as we ought that our salvation flows from the free mercy of God as its fountain, until we are made acquainted with his eternal election, the grace of God being illustrated by the contrast–viz. that he does not adopt all promiscuously to the hope of salvation, but gives to some what he denies to others.
See also Institutes 3.22.7,10. In point 10 of this quote, Calvin wrote:
Some object that God would be inconsistent with himself, in inviting all without distinction while he elects only a few. Thus, according to them, the universality of the promise destroys the distinction of special grace. . . . But it is by Isaiah he more clearly demonstrates how he destines the promises of salvation specially to the elect (Isa. 8:16); for he declares that his disciples would consist of them only, and not indiscriminately of the whole human race. Whence it is evident that the doctrine of salvation, which is said to be set apart for the sons of the Church only, is abused when it is represented as effectually available to all. For the present let it suffice to observe, that though the word of the gospel is addressed generally to all, yet the gift of faith is rare (emphasis added).
This point also infers the doctrine of Limited Atonement as well.
In his commentary on Romans 9:3 he wrote:
It was then a proof of the most ardent love, that Paul hesitated not to wish for himself that condemnation which he was impending over the Jews, in order that he might deliver them. It is no objection that he knew that his salvation was based on the election of God, which could by no means fail; for as those ardent feelings hurry us on impetuously, so they see and regard nothing but the object in view. So Paul did not connect God’s election with his wish, but the remembrance of that being passed by, he was wholly intent on the salvation of the Jews (Calvin’s Commentary, Romans 9:3).
Second Timothy 2:19 (ESV) states, ‘But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity”’.
Having this seal ([It] denotes either “a seal” or “the print of a seal”) having led into a mistake some people who thought that it was intended to denote a mark or impress, I have translated it sigillum (a seal,) which is less ambiguous. And, indeed, Paul means, that under the secret guardianship of God, as a signet, is contained the salvation of the elect, as Scripture testifies that they are “written in the book of life.” (Psalm 69:28; Philippians 4:3.)
The Lord knoweth who are his This clause, together with the word seal, reminds us, that we must not judge, by our own opinion, whether the number of the elect is great or small; for what God hath sealed he wishes to be, in some respect, shut up from us. Besides, if it is the prerogative of God to know who are his, we need not wonder if a great number of them are often unknown to us, or even if we fall into mistakes in making the selection.
Yet we ought always to observe why and for what purpose he makes mention of a seal; that is, when we see such occurrences, let us instantly call to remembrance what we are taught by the Apostle John, that “they who went out from us were not of us” (1 John 2:19) (Commentary on 2 Timothy 2:19-21).
While Calvin’s language is not that of unconditional election but elect who are known only to God who has sealed them, shut them in. That sounds awfully like unconditional election language.
Elsewhere he stated it more clearly: ‘It is no small matter to have the souls perishes who are bought by the blood of Christ’. (A Selection of the Most Celebrated Sermons by John Calvin: Titus 1:15-16, p. 84).
This reads like universal atonement but the same sermon he wrote of God’s eternal predestination and election before the world began:
Whereupon hangeth our salvation? Is it not upon the election and choice that hath been from everlasting? God chose us before we were. What could we do then? We were made fit, We were well disposed to come to God. Nay, we see that our salvation doth not begin after we have knowledge, discretion, and good desires; but it is grounded in God’s everlasting decree, which was before any part of the world was made: (A Selection of the Most Celebrated Sermons by John Calvin: Sermon II, 2 Tim 1:8-9. p. 42).
There you have the contradictory nature of Calvin’s views: (1) Souls perish who have been bought by Jesus’ blood sacrifice, BUT (2) God’s salvation is grounded in His decree before believers were created and before the world came into existence.
I’m befuddled how Calvin could say that he bought the souls of unbelievers with his blood but they didn’t make it into the elect. This is a glaring example of Calvin’s violation of the law of Noncontradiction.
See my articles opposing unconditional election:
1.3 Limited Atonement
Calvin wrote (quoted above) that salvation is solely for the ‘sons’ (believers) of the church and is not effectual for all. So, Jesus’ salvation through substitutionary sacrifice could not have been for everyone.
By application, it means Jesus’ atonement was for a limited number of people, ‘the sons of the church’. Did he believe in limited atonement? Was it only for the elect of God? Let’s check him out!
Though the word of the gospel is addressed generally to all, yet the gift of faith is rare. Isaiah assigns the cause when he says that the arm of the Lord is not revealed to all (Isa. 53:1). Had he said, that the gospel is malignantly and perversely condemned, because many obstinately refuse to hear, there might perhaps be some color for this universal call (Institutes 3.22.10).
Paul Helm’s research on Calvin and the atonement led to this conclusion:
While Calvin did not commit himself to any version of the doctrine of definite atonement, his thought is consistent with that doctrine; that is, he did not deny it in express terms, but by other things that he most definitely did hold to, he may be said to be committed to that doctrine. The distinction is an important one in order to avoid the charge of anachronism (Helm 2013:98).
Not all Calvinistic scholars are in agreement with Helm’s conclusions as he acknowledged:
Those who claim that Calvin held to indefinite atonement are by no means agreed about its consequences. G. Michael Thomas refers to a “dilemma” in Calvin’s theology, the existence of “stress points,” rendering Calvin’s overall position “inherently unstable.” R. T. Kendall holds that while Calvin had an unlimited view of the atonement, Christ’s intercessions were definite, on behalf of the elect alone. Kevin D. Kennedy claims that, according to Calvin, while atonement is universal, union with Christ is particular. The difficulty with the last two views, which tend in the direction of post-redemptionism, or Amyraldianism, is that they imperil the unity of the divine decree, and the divine operations ad extra that Calvin emphasized (Helm 2013:100).
He included this example from Calvin to support his conclusion:
That which Augustine adds in continuation must by no means be omitted. “Since we know not (says he) who belongeth to the number of the predestinated, and who doth not, we ought so to feel as to wish all to be saved. From this it will come to pass that whosoever shall come in our way, we shall desire to make him a partaker of the peace which we ourselves enjoy. ‘Our peace,’ however, will nevertheless ‘rest upon the sons of peace’ (John Calvin, A Treatise of the Eternal Predestination of God).
Calvin wrote this treatise to challenge the teachings of ‘Albertus Pighius, the Campanian, a man of evidently phrensied audacity, [who] attempted, at the same time, and in the same book, to establish the free-will of man. and to subvert the secret counsel of God, by which He chooses some to salvation and appoints others to eternal destruction’ (ibid.).
Other Calvinistic scholars are not as sure as Helm – neither am I – about Calvin’s support for limited atonement. The following evidence should demonstrate that Calvin’s teaching on the scope of the atonement extended to the whole world. But there are passages where he is double minded.
‘He [Jesus Christ] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’.
Calvin’s interpretation endorses his view of limited atonement.
And not for ours only He added this for the sake of amplifying, in order that the faithful might be assured that the expiation made by Christ, extends to all who by faith embrace the gospel.
Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated?…
They who seek to avoid this absurdity [universalism – all saved, including Satan], have said that Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect. This solution has commonly prevailed in the schools. Though then I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage; for the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church. Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world. (Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles: John 2:1-2).
Honestly, is that what 1 John 2:2 teaches? Sounds more like Calvin pushing his own Reformed barrow to me.
Here Calvin confirmed again that Christ’s propitiation/expiation was not for the sins of the whole world of unbelievers but for the ‘whole Church’ and that ‘all … does not include the reprobate’. It only designates those who ‘should believe’.
Simply put, that is not what 1 John 2:2 teaches. Jesus died for ‘our sins’ (believers’ sins) and ‘the sins of the whole world’ of unbelievers. Any other interpretation manufactures conclusions to agree with one’s presuppositions.
1.3.2 Conversely, Calvin also supported universal atonement
However, in other passages Calvin supported unlimited atonement. This is only a sample from some of his commentaries, Institutes, and other writings:
We must now see in what way we become possessed of the blessings which God has bestowed on his only-begotten Son, not for private use, but to enrich the poor and needy. And the first thing to be attended to is, that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us (Institutes 3.1.1).
Calvin used the language of the offer of universal salvation, hence unlimited atonement, to have limited effects on people:
If it is so (you will say), little faith can be put in the Gospel promises, which, in testifying concerning the will of God, declare that he wills what is contrary to his inviolable decree. Not at all; for however universal the promises of salvation may be, there is no discrepancy between them and the predestination of the reprobate, provided we attend to their effect. We know that the promises are effectual only when we receive them in faith, but, on the contrary, when faith is made void, the promise is of no effect (Institutes 3.24.17).
I find this commentary by Calvin to be conflicting, even contradictory:
This is my blood. I have already remarked that, when we are told that the blood is to be shed — according to the narrative of Matthew — for the remission of sins, these words direct us to the sacrifice of the death of Christ, without the remembrance of which the Lord’s Supper is never observed in a proper manner. And, indeed, it is impossible for believing souls to be satisfied in any other way than by being assured that God is pacified towards them.
Which is shed for many. By the word many he means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race; for he contrasts many with one; as if he had said, that he will not be the Redeemer of one man only, but will die in order to deliver many from the condemnation of the curse. It must at the same time be observed, however, that by the words for you, as related by Luke — Christ directly addresses the disciples, and exhorts every believer to apply to his own advantage the shedding of blood Therefore, when we approach to the holy table, let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but let every one consider for himself that his own sins have been expiated (Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke, vol 3, Mark 14:24).
On the one hand, the Lord’s Supper reminds believers that ‘God is pacified towards them’, i.e. His wrath towards sinners has been appeased (expiation). However, according to Calvin, ‘shed for many’ means for ‘the whole human race’. Wait a minute! Is it for the whole world? Not according to Luke where this message is directed to the disciples/believers and this shedding of blood is applied only to them and their own sin being expiated.
Here, I see that Calvin has violated the law of non-contradiction.
‘The law of non-contradiction states that A and not-A (where A is a proposition) cannot both be true at the same time and in the same sense. For example, my car cannot be parked in my driveway and not parked in my driveway at the same time and in the same sense.
Calvin’s contradictory remarks were: (1) The Lord’s Supper reminds believers God is pacified towards them, and (2) When the ‘holy table’ is approached, ‘let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ’. Has the whole world been ‘redeemed’ by Christ’s death or only that of believers? He did not state it plainly as it is.
However, everyone does not embrace the Gospel that is proclaimed:
Accordingly, he is called our Head, and the first-born among many brethren, while, on the other hand, we are said to be ingrafted into him and clothed with him, all which he possesses being, as I have said, nothing to us until we become one with him. And although it is true that we obtain this by faith, yet since we see that all do not indiscriminately embrace the offer of Christ which is made by the gospel, the very nature of the case teaches us to ascend higher, and inquire into the secret efficacy of the Spirit, to which it is owing that we enjoy Christ and all his blessings (Institutes 3.1.1).
1.3.3 Calvin, Scripture and universal atonement
Matt 22:14: ‘For many are called, but few are chosen’ (ESV).
Calvin’s interpretation was:
The expression of our Saviour, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14), is also very improperly interpreted (see Book 3, chap. 2, sec. 11, 12). There will be no ambiguity in it, if we attend to what our former remarks ought to have made clear, viz., that there are two species of calling: for there is an universal call, by which God, through the external preaching of the word, invites all men alike, even those for whom he designs the call to be a savor of death, and the ground of a severer condemnation. Besides this there is a special call which, for the most part, God bestows on believers only, when by the internal illumination of the Spirit he causes the word preached to take deep root in their hearts (Institutes 3.24.8).
The parallel in the Synoptics is Mark 14:24 (ESV): ‘And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many”.
Concerning this verse, Calvin’s comment is significant:
Mark 14:24. This is my blood. I have already remarked that, when we are told that the blood is to be shed — according to the narrative of Matthew — for the remission of sins, these words direct us to the sacrifice of the death of Christ, without the remembrance of which the Lord’s Supper is never observed in a proper manner. And, indeed, it is impossible for believing souls to be satisfied in any other way than by being assured that God is pacified towards them.
Which is shed for many. By the word many he means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race; for he contrasts many with one; as if he had said, that he will not be the Redeemer of one man only, but will die in order to deliver many from the condemnation of the curse. It must at the same time be observed, however, that by the words for you, as related by Luke — Christ directly addresses the disciples, and exhorts every believer to apply to his own advantage the shedding of blood Therefore, when we approach to the holy table, let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but let every one consider for himself that his own sins have been expiated (Commentary on Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:17-20).
Here would have been an ideal opportunity for Calvin to expound on ‘many’ meaning that Jesus did not die for the whole world but only for the elect. He didn’t. Instead he stated that ‘many’ does not leave out a chunk of the world’s population that are excluded from Jesus’ atonement.
This was in opposition to contemporary Calvinistic commentator, the late William Hendriksen, who stated that ‘Jesus’ says that his blood is poured out “for many,” not for all’ (Hendriksen 1975:575).
This is in contrast with the biblical teaching in 1 Timothy 2:9 (ESV), ‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time’.
Jesus’ atonement cannot be ‘for many’ and that does not mean ‘for all’. Why is ‘for many’ used in this way? Lenski, a Lutheran commentator, explained the meaning of huper mallwn (‘in behalf of many’) in the synoptic parallel of Matt 26:28 as:
These polloi [many] are all men [people], for all of whom the blood was shed “for remission of sins,” and not merely the believers in whom this remission was realized. They are “many,” and thus extend far, far beyond the eleven. Mark combines this by using huper mallwn, “in behalf of many” in the sense of “in place of many, huper having the idea of substitution (Lenski 1943:1031).
John 1:29 (ESV): ‘The next day he [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming towards him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’
How would Calvin interpret ‘the sin of the world’? He leaves no doubt that it applies to all people, Jews and Gentiles – everyone:
Who taketh away the sin of the world. He uses the word sin in the singular number, for any kind of iniquity; as if he had said, that every kind of unrighteousness which alienates men from God is taken away by Christ. And when he says, the sin Of The World, he extends this favor indiscriminately to the whole human race; that the Jews might not think that he had been sent to them alone. But hence we infer that the whole world is involved in the same condemnation; and that as all men without exception are guilty of unrighteousness before God, they need to be reconciled to him (Commentary on John 1:29-34).
Calvin did not understand Jesus’ taking away the ‘sin of the world’ in any limited way. All were guilty of unrighteousness and needed to be reconciled to God through Christ’s death for all. Calvin is sounding more like Amyraldians who support a universal atonement.
John 3:14-16 (ESV):
Calvin’s commentary on John 3:16 was:
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.
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 (Commentary on John 3:16).
So, all are invited to Christ to partake of the Christian life and unbelievers are without excuse. However, while all people ‘without exception’ are invited to faith in Christ, but there is one brick wall for them: Only the elect have eyes opened by God.
There we have a violation of the Law of Noncontradiction again: All are invited to come but all do not have a chance of responding positively to the invitation. I could paraphrase Calvin’s position: ‘Yes, all of you can come to Christ but all of you can’t come because you are not elected to salvation’.
John 12:48 (ESV): ‘The one who rejects me [Jesus] and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day’.
How is it possible for anyone to reject Christ if he or she is included in TULIP theology? What did Calvin have to say about this verse? ‘And receiveth not my words…. We must therefore attend to this definition, that Christ is rejected when we do not embrace the pure doctrine of the Gospel’ (Commentary on John 12:47-50).
So, individual people can reject or embrace the Gospel. This excluded unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace. Since Calvin believes there is this choice for people, he is affirming some dimension of free-will, the power of alternate choice for or against Jesus.
John 16:8-11 (ESV): ‘And when he [the Helper] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgement, because the ruler of this world is judged’.
Will the Helper, the Holy Spirit, convict the whole world of sin and righteousness or only part of the world because the other part is not included in Jesus’ salvation?
Calvin’s interpretation was:
He will convince the world; that is, he will not remain shut up in you, but; his power will go forth from you to be displayed to the whole world. He therefore promises to them a Spirit, who will be the Judge of the world….
Under the term world are, I think, included not only those who would be truly converted to Christ, but hypocrites and reprobates. For there are two ways in which the Spirit convinces men by the preaching of the Gospel. Some are moved in good earnest, so as to bow down willingly, and to assent willingly to the judgment by which they are condemned. Others, though they are convinced of guilt and cannot escape, yet do not sincerely yield, or submit themselves to the authority and jurisdiction of the Holy Spirit, but, on the contrary, being subdued they groan inwardly, and, being overwhelmed with confusion, still do not cease to cherish obstinacy within their hearts (Commentary on John 16:8-15).
Holy Spirit convincing will happen to the entire world with two kinds of responses, according to Calvin, they willingly agree with the Holy Spirit’s conviction while the rest do not yield. There is no U or I here.
Isaiah 53:12 (ESV): ‘Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors
Calvin’s comment was: ‘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”’ (Commentary on Isaiah 53:1-12).
Therefore, he adopts the view that the Messiah’s bearing the punishment ‘of many’ means He had ‘the guilt of the whole world’ laid on him. If ‘many’ sometimes indicates ‘all’, as in Romans 5, the Messiah took on himself the punishment for the whole world (of sinners).
Thus, Calvin supported universal atonement.
Galatians 5:12 (ESV): ‘I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!’
This is an unusual verse to attract this kind of comment by Calvin:
Would that they were even cut off. His [Paul’s] indignation proceeds still farther, and he prays for destruction on those impostors by whom the Galatians had been deceived. The word, “cut off,” appears to be employed in allusion to the circumcision which they pressed. “They tear the church for the sake of circumcision: I wish they were entirely cut off.” Chrysostom favors this opinion. But how can such an imprecation be reconciled with the mildness of an apostle, who ought to wish that all should be saved, and that not a single person should perish? So far as men are concerned, I admit the force of this argument; for 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 (Commentary on Galatians 5:7-12).
Here he supports the view it is God’s will for all people to seek salvation and that refers to every single person in the world, without exception. How is this possible? ‘Christ suffered (atonement?) for the sins of the whole world’.
Nothing could be clearer. He supports unlimited atonement. However, in Institutes 3.24.16 he makes ‘all men’ mean all ‘order of men’. I find this to be manipulation. He seems confused, indicating salvation is for all people but then he tempers it to the limit of ‘order of’ people – groups, ethnicity, etc. This is nonsensical eisegesis of the biblical texts.
Colossians 1:14 (ESV): ‘in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’.
Calvin’s commentary on 1:14 could not be clearer on the extent of expiation of sins:
Unquestionably, when God remits our transgressions, he exempts us from condemnation to eternal death. This is our liberty, this our glorying in the face of death — that our sins are not imputed to us. He says that this redemption was procured through the blood of Christ, for by the sacrifice of his death all the sins of the world have been expiated (Commentary on Colossians 1:12-17).
So Calvin supported expiation for the sins of the world, thus confirming his rejection of limited atonement.
1 Timothy 2:3-4 (ESV): ‘This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’.
This passage should challenge the extent of Calvin’s understanding of the atonement. He wrote:
How comes it that many nations are deprived of that light of the Gospel which others enjoy? How comes it that the pure knowledge of the doctrine of godliness has never reached some, and others have scarcely tasted some obscure rudiments of it? It will now be easy to extract the purport of Paul’s statement. He had commanded Timothy that prayers should be regularly offered up in the church for kings and princes; but as it seemed somewhat absurd that prayer should be offered up for a class of men who were almost hopeless (all of them being not only aliens from the body of Christ, but doing their utmost to overthrow his kingdom), he adds, that it was acceptable to God, who will have all men to be saved. By this he assuredly means nothing more than that the way of salvation was not shut against any order of men; that, on the contrary, he had manifested his mercy in such a way, that he would have none debarred from it (Institutes 3.24.16).
Note the difference between what Scripture states that God our Saviour ‘desires all people to be saved’ but Calvin interprets it as salvation ‘not shut against any order of men’. The difference is crucial – and cunning manipulation, in my view.
All people include every single person in the world while ‘any order of men’ can refer to different classes and races of people instead of individual people. In his commentary on 1 Tim 2:4 Calvin stated that ‘all’ does not mean ‘all’:
Hence we see the childish folly of those who represent this passage to be opposed to predestination. “If God” say they, “wishes all men indiscriminately to be saved, it is false that some are predestined by his eternal purpose to salvation, and others to perdition.” They might have had some ground for saying this, if Paul were speaking here about individual men….
There is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake [of] salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and not to individual persons; for his sole object is, to include in this number princes and foreign nations (Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:1-4).
‘God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved’ does not refer to every single person in the world but only to groups of people such as classes of people, princes of foreign nations, but definitely not ‘individual persons’.
That’s Calvin’s view and I’d put it in the class of Calvinistic spin where these interpreters make it comply with their presuppositions against universal atonement, conditional election and the free grace of Titus 2:11 (ESV), ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people’.
Hebrews 5:9 (ESV): ‘And being made perfect, he [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him’.
For Calvin, his interpretation was that benefits of salvation came to those who chose to obey him:
To all them that obey him. If then we desire that Christ’s obedience should be profitable to us, we must imitate him; for the Apostle means that its benefit shall come to none but to those who obey. But by saying this he recommends faith to us; for he becomes not ours, nor his blessings, except as far as we receive them and him by faith. He seems at the same time to have adopted a universal term, all, for this end, that he might show that no one is precluded from salvation who is but teachable and becomes obedient to the Gospel of Christ (Commentary on Hebrews 5:7-11).
There is no unconditional election, limited atonement or irresistible grace here. Nobody is disqualified from salvation except those who do not want to obey the Gospel of salvation through Christ alone.
Overall, Calvin is straddling the fence between limited atonement and unlimited atonement. He can’t make up his mind.
(image courtesy The Remarkable Blog)
See my articles opposing limited atonement:
1.4 Irresistible Grace
John 6:44 (ESV) states: ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day’.
This verse is used by Calvin to expound his gospel of irresistible grace:
Christ declares that the doctrine of the Gospel, though it is preached to all without exception, cannot be embraced by all, but that a new understanding and a new perception are requisite; and, therefore, that faith does not depend on the will of men, but that it is God who gives it.
Unless the Father draw him. To come to Christ being here used metaphorically for believing, the Evangelist, in order to carry out the metaphor in the apposite clause, says that those persons are drawn whose understandings God enlightens, and whose hearts he bends and forms to the obedience of Christ. The statement amounts to this, that we ought not to wonder if many refuse to embrace the Gospel; because no man will ever of himself be able to come to Christ, but God must first approach him by his Spirit; and hence it follows that all are not drawn, but that God bestows this grace on those whom he has elected. True, indeed, as to the kind of drawing, it is not violent, so as to compel men by external force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant. It is a false and profane assertion, therefore, that none are drawn but those who are willing to be drawn, as if man made himself obedient to God by his own efforts; for the willingness with which men follow God is what they already have from himself, who has formed their hearts to obey him (Commentary on John 6:41-45).
In light of that interpretation, how does Calvin interpret the prevenient grace of John 12:32 (ESV), ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’.
Following Calvin’s decision on the meaning of John 6:44, he is required to provide an interpretation at 12:32 that is in harmony with 6:44. I wasn’t disappointed:
I will draw all men to myself. The word all, which he employs, must be understood to refer to the children of God, who belong to his flock. Yet I agree with Chrysostom, who says that Christ used the universal term, all, because the Church was to be gathered equally from among Gentiles and Jews, according to that saying,
There shall be one shepherd, and one sheepfold, (John 10:16) [Commentary on John 12:27-33].
I find this to be fiddling with the data of exegesis to fit into Calvin’s theological framework of only the elect (the children of God) being drawn. Calvin could reach a harmonious conclusion if he accepted:
Only God provides salvation (Eph 2:8-9; 2 Tim 1:9);
Since Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has extended his grace (his drawing power) to all people (John 6:44; 12:32; Titus 2:11). It is not irresistible grace. It can be rejected or accepted.
Since the time of Adam and Eve, God has given all human beings the power of alternate choice (free-will). They can choose for or against God’s salvation (John 1:11; 12:48; Acts 16:31).
Calvin further supports irresistible. Is God’s grace extended to all sinners to enable them to repent? Not according to Calvin:
Hence it is that the whole world no longer belongs to its Creator, except in so far as grace rescues from malediction, divine wrath, and eternal death, some, not many, who would otherwise perish, while he leaves the world to the destruction to which it is doomed (Institutes 3:22.7).
It is agreed that all human beings suffer from the curse (malediction) of sin. Why, then, would the Creator choose only a portion of these cursed sinners while allowing the rest to be damned forever? It sounds awfully unjust to me?
The fundamental problem with this comment from Calvin is that he ignores the extent of God’s grace to all people: ‘For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people’ (Titus 2:11 ESV). See my exposition of this verse: How to interpret ‘appeared’ in Titus 2:11.
Calvin wrote that there was zero chance of anyone anywhere resisting God. This citation could just as easily be placed under unconditional election and the sovereignty of God:
Scripture proclaims that all were, in the person of one, made liable to eternal death. As this cannot be ascribed to nature, it is plain that it is owing to the wonderful counsel of God. It is very absurd in these worthy defenders of the justice of God to strain at a gnat and swallow a camel. I again ask how it is that the fall of Adam involves so many nations with their infant children in eternal death without remedy unless that it so seemed meet to God? Here the most loquacious tongues must be dumb. The decree, I admit, is, dreadful; and yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknew what the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew, because he had so ordained by his decree. Should any one here inveigh against the prescience of God, he does it rashly and unadvisedly. For why, pray, should it be made a charge against the heavenly Judge, that he was not ignorant of what was to happen? Thus, if there is any just or plausible complaint, it must be directed against predestination (Institutes, 3.23.7).
I react negatively to this view when examining the logical consequences of the Lord God Almighty and his ‘wonderful counsel’ being ‘dreadful’ and ‘impossible to deny’. It makes God the author of horrible evil. Calvin’s teaching is that salvation is irresistible through grace extended to the elect but that God decreed all that happens in our world.
That makes God responsible for child sexual abuse, rape, murder, genocide, the Holocaust, terrorism, etc. He would be a monster God. See my articles:
(1) God sovereign but not author of evil,
(2) Is a Calvinistic God a contradiction when compared with the God revealed in Scripture?
(3) Salvation by grace but not by force: A person chooses to believe
(4) Prevenient grace – kinda clumsy!
(5) Does God create all of the evil in the world?
See my articles opposing irresistible grace:
Now to the last point of TULIP. Did Calvin teach and promote it?
1.5 Perseverance of the Saints
For although adoption was deposited in the hand of Abraham, yet as many of his posterity were cut off as rotten members, in order that election may stand and be effectual, it is necessary to ascend to the head in whom the heavenly Father has connected his elect with each other, and bound them to himself by an indissoluble tie (Institutes 3.21.7).
In Institutes 3:22.10 Calvin wrote:
Why does the Lord declare that our salvation will always be sure and certain, but just because it is guarded by the invincible power of God? (John 10:29). Accordingly, he concludes that unbelievers are not of his sheep (John 10:16). The reason is, because they are not of the number of those who, as the Lord promised by Isaiah, were to be his disciples. Moreover, as the passages which I have quoted imply perseverance, they are also attestations to the inflexible constancy of election.
Rieske (2016) in
citing data from Calvin supporting penal substitution, from such places as Institutes, 126.96.36.199.5 and 188.8.131.52, on the definite scope of the atonement, the distinction was made between Calvin’s being committed to definite atonement and committing himself to that view.
Calvinism has been called “the archenemy of soul-winning” and rightly so…. Failure to present the gospel of Christ is the real problem. One can easily notice that Calvinists discuss and present Calvinism with the notion that they are presenting the gospel.
How can they do that when their theology states that not all people are thoroughly depraved, offered the Gospel without reservation when they don’t accept conditional election? How can a TULIP people be true to their calling when their theology states that Jesus died only for the elect and not for all. Imagine an evangelist on the street preaching, ‘Seek forgiveness from God for your sins, repent – but you may not be able to do this as you are not in God’s elect. Unless the Calvinists are honest with their theology, they should keep quiet on evangelism, not preach for all within listening distance. They could do letter box drops and engage in Internet evangelism where they don’t have to be honest about their TULIP beliefs.
I find that to be a dishonest approach to evangelism in my community. I attended 2 different Presbyterian churches for 6 years and preached semi-regularly in another. None of these TULIP Calvinist churches conducted evangelistic outreach. I asked one pastor why there was no evangelism in his church and his response was, ‘God will bring them in.’ He sometimes does in dribs and drabs but they are most often from other churches and not new converts.
I recommend this printed interview with Austin Fischer by Jonathan Merritt on Religion News Service, Author says Calvinism can’t make sense of the cross (3 April 2014). Fisher tells of his journey into the young, restless and reformed Calvinists and his journey out of them.
See my articles in support of perseverance of the saints:
I am convinced the Bible does not teach OSAS where a person makes a decision for Christ, does not persevere in the faith, and is considered saved forever. See: Once Saved, Always Saved or Once Saved, Lost Again?
I also am convinced by the biblical teaching on total depravity.
Calvin taught total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. He presented contradictory messages on the atonement. At times he stated that Jesus’ death was for the whole world. In other instances, Jesus’ atonement was for the elect of God.
Therefore, Calvin was a ‘leaky’ TULIP theologian because of his double-mindedness on the atonement.
I am a TP Calvinist, which makes me a Reformed Arminian in my doctrine of salvation.
I highly recommend Roger E Olson’s article, ‘What’s wrong with Calvinism?‘ (Patheos, March 22, 2013).
3. Works consulted
Barnett, T 2015. Can We Escape the Law of Non-Contradiction? Stand to Reason (online), 31 October. Available at: https://www.str.org/blog/can-we-escape-the-law-of-non-contradiction (Accessed 30 June 2019).
Geisler, N 2004. Systematic theology: Sin, salvation, vol 3. Minneapolis, Minnesota: BethanyHouse.
Helm, P 2013. Calvin, Indefinite Language, and Definite Atonement. In D Gibson & J Gibson (eds), From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (online), 97-120. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. Available at: http://s3.amazonaws.com/churchplantmedia-cms/new_covenant_presbyterian_church_ga/from_heaven_he_came_and_sought_her_1.pdf (Accessed 21 June 2019).
Hendriksen, W 1975. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel according to Mark. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.
Lenski, R C H 1943/1961.Commentary on the New Testament: The interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. The Wartburg Press. This limited edition licensed by special permission of Augsburg Fortress to Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. Edition.
Lumkins, P 2011. John Calvin on Limited Atonement. SBC Tomorrow (online), 15 April. Available at: https://peterlumpkins.typepad.com/peter_lumpkins/2011/04/john-calvin-on-limited-atonement-by-peter-lumpkins.html (Accessed 15 June 2019).
Rieske, K R 2016. Calvinism: False doctrines from the ‘Pope’ of Geneva. Bible Life Ministries (online). Available at: https://biblelife.org/calvinism.htm (Accessed 15 June 2019).
 Available at: http://www.thecaveonline.com/APEH/calvinTULIP.html (Accessed 29 June 2019).
 Vitiate means to ‘spoil or impair the quality or efficiency of’ (Lexico/Oxford Dictionary 2019. s.v. vitiate).
 Post-redemptionism and Amyraldianism are synonymous terms for belief in Jesus’ universal atonement and are opposed to limited atonement (particular redemption).
 These Scriptures were raised and expounded by Peter Lumkins (2011).
 Barnett (2015).
 See Eph. 4:15; Rom. 6:5; 11:17; 8:29; Gal. 3:27.
 I am indebted to Geisler (2004:182-185) for some of the research in this section.
Copyright © 2019 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 02 July 2019.