Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On Limited Atonement and John Calvin

"You know John Calvin did not hold to Limited Atonement." This was the statement that was made to me as I sat at dinner during a conference not long ago. Most of the people who attend a conference in which I have the honor of speaking know that I am an unashamed 5 point Calvinist. The thing about having written a book is that people think they know what you think without having to ask or get to know you. So, the gentleman very politely and graciously sat down next to me, and before he could take a bite made a statement that he thought would challenge my view of Limited Atonement, or at least make me think twice about it. What he must not have considered is that I had already thought twice about it. In fact, I have thought 7 times 70 times about it, and will continue to think about it until the Lord sees fit to take my thoughts of faith and make them sight.
Nevertheless, as I pondered his statement between bites of dinner, I knew he was eager for my response. So I looked at him and responded. I did not want to come across as totally disregarding his study of this matter, for I knew that he had probably read some very learned people with whom he agreed. Nevertheless, he was looking for a response and this is the one I gave him. I told the gentlemen that there are three things I would say to that statement.
1. I don't believe that John Calvin disagreed with Limited Atonement. Most people will look at Calvin's Institute and conclude that Calvin had little or nothing to say about the design of the atonement being only for the the elect. However, as Roger Nicole has made clear, the scope of Calvin's theology is more than the Institutes and when you read his commentaries and correspondences you read one who understood the implications of election and the sacrifice necessary for their salvation. Read Nicole on Calvin's View.
2. For me, it was not John Calvin who settled the issue of Limited Atonement, but rather another John, namely John Owen. In his well known treatise on the doctrine of Limited Atonement, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, John Owen set forth biblical and theological arguments for a particular redemption that have stood the test of time. I have the utmost respect for John Calvin, but John Owen, as a theologian, takes a back seat to no one.
3. Lastly, though John Owen and John Calvin are incomparable theologians, ultimately I believe Limited Atonement because the Bible clearly teaches it, both explicitly and implicitly: Matt 1:21; John 6:35-40; 10:11-18; Eph. 5:25; Heb. 7:27; et al.
After I had spoken my peace, I am not sure if I had convinced him of my position, but one thing is for sure, the conversation quickly turned to the delightful buffet meal we both were enjoying. Discussions of Limited Atonement and seemingly limitless southern comfort is my kind of conference.


Scotty J. Williams said...

Thank you for posting this, because I struggle with Limited Atonement quite a bit though I am proud to be a Calvinist. I find that this is the point that really turns people off from Reformed theology, because most want to believe that Christ shed His blood for all other than His elect. The issue I find myself having with it is balancing it out with God's love for all His creation, but in the end I am always reminded that when it comes to love it is not just an issue of His love for us, but our love for Him. And as we all know humanity as a whole has rejected God, chosen radical depravity, and declared open warfare against Him. In the end I always feel God reminding me that He owes no human being salvation, and that even if Christ shed His blood for the reprobate what good would it do. I also think that when we say limited atonement people think that we are saying that Christ blood lacks some power and can only do so much. But as you once put it to me, God set forth from the very beginning to accomplish the redemption of the elect.

Thanks and God bless,

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post Tony - it's always refreshing to see the biblical doctrine of atonement well spoken of and spoken well for.

I only wish people would view the atonement not from a purely sentimental evangelistic lens - but from the lens of God Himself and His love for His own. I believe the weakness of our ecclessiology and peoples' lack of commitment to the Body of Christ in this time is because they sorely misunderstand the extent of the atonement.

When I ask myself - why am I giving my life for the ministry? The answer is simple because it is why Christ humbled Himself and laid down His life - for His bride. I love the Church because Christ died for her with infinitely precious blood and I share the gospel faithfully and boldly because God has paid and infinite price for His own and none of them will be lost.

Scotty...keep that thought from Tony close to you - because when you understand sovereign election - it is easy to maintain particular redemption.

Also, I don't think it's a hard balance with God's love for all of mankind - because Scripture declare's it over and over. God is constantly expressing love to man (Ps 145:9; Acts 17:28; Matt 5:45). His patience in withholding wrath and allowing mankind to enjoy the riches of His creation even in the height of obstinate rebellion is a great gesture of the infinite love of God. As it pertains to Christ the love of God is in the sending of His son. The very presence of the Son in the world as a means of salvation for those who believe and that the world was not abandoned to itself is the greatest gesture of love.

It's a misnomer to say that if Christ did not shed his blood to pay for the sins of all men then John 3:16 is not true. God's love is in the sending of the son through whom the world receives the great benefits of God's patience and kindness while the elect are being saved. Behold then the kindness and severity of God...

Jude 2-3,


ajcarter said...


That's a great word, my friend. Thanks for your comments. Also, thanks for agreeing to have Michael Leach and Keith Tolbert use a sample from one of ChristCentric's songs for their radio program. It should prove to be just what they need. May God continue to have favor upon the works of your hands (Ps. 90:17).

Anonymous said...


Bless you bro...thanks for the words of encouragement. Truly may the Lord establish the works of our (yours and "mines") hands...for by grace we are who we are and by grace we labor!

Thinking more about the love of God for the unbelieving (for Scotty) - I was reading Genesis this morning and was reminded of the love of God in the Noahic covenant. This was an "everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth." Earlier it says that the covenant was for "all future generations"...ohhh if we only understood the grace of God the world experiences daily...there wouldn't be the need to make the false claim that Christ died for all men particularly just to convince folks that God loves them. But, we can say in some sense (as I mentioned in last comment) that the love of God for all people was extended in the sending of Christ to the world.

To add - the extent of the atonement can even be implied from the difference in apostolic gospel preaching and popular contemporary gospel preaching. Particularly we see Paul appealing to the conscience of the Athenians with God's goodness in creation and maintaining their lives (Acts 17:28). The apostles never appealed to the extent of the atonement in their gospel preaching...ohhh if we would only get back to biblical gospel preaching!

Ok...I think I'm done preaching now!

Jude 2-3,