If there’s one thing anybody knows about Calvin’s doctrine of salvation it’s that he taught the doctrine of double-predestination. If people venture beyond that, according to the popular picture of 20th-century theology, Calvin is basically the creative chap who invented penal substitutionary atonement as a variation on Anselm’s theme, and most of his thought was concerned with Christ satisfying the wrath of God. End of story, right?
Contrary to this opinion, Calvin was not a one-trick pony when it came to the expansive work of Christ’s cross. Robert Peterson wrote an excellent book on Calvin’s Doctrine of the Atonement, attempting to exposit the great reformer’s thought in order to display the multi-faceted, biblical character of theology of salvation. In three early chapters, Peterson establishes a foundation that Christ’s work first of all rooted in the free love of God. He didn’t need to be persuaded to care for us, but of his own initiative, God sent the Son to save us. What’s more, it is a work grounded in a solidly soteriological and Chalcedonian doctrine of the incarnation of the Son; the Son became the Godman that he might save sinners. Then, he moves on to show the way that Christ’s atonement accomplished this in his role as the mediator who redeems us in each of his offices of prophet, king, and priest.
Beyond that, Peterson highlights six key biblical themes Calvin used to explain Christ’s work on the cross. While the six are clearly intertwined, nonetheless, they all do specific work in Calvin’s thought. Following Peterson’s framework, I’d like to introduce and highlight selected quotations from Calvin in order to show that he taught a densely woven tapestry bright with the many threads of our redemption.
1. Obedient Second Adam
Christ was the Obedient Second Adam, who undoes the destruction our forefather wrought on his race:
The second requirement of our reconciliation with God was this: that man, who by his disobedience had become lost, should by way of remedy counter it with obedience, satisfy God’s judgment, and pay the penalties for sin. Accordingly, our Lord came forth as true man and took the person and the name of Adam in order to take Adam’s place in obeying the Father, to present our flesh as the price of satisfaction to God’s righteous judgment, and, in the same flesh, to pay the penalty that we had deserved. (Institutes, II.xvi.3)
Calvin clearly sees Jesus as the answer to Adam’s fall, in other passages making clear that he comes as the second root of humanity itself (Commentary on 1 Cor. 15:45). This is similar, yet distinct from Ireneaus’s doctrine of recapitulation.
Unlike many who tend to downplay the element of Christ’s triumph over the powers of sin, death, and the Devil in favor of penal categories, Calvin exults in Christ the victor who saves his people. His comment in the Institutes II.xvi.7 is one of many excellent examples:
Death held us captive under its yoke; Christ, in our stead, gave himself over to its power to deliver us from it. So the apostle understands it when he writes: “He tasted death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). By dying, he ensured that we would not die . . . redeemed us to life by his own death. He differed from us, however, in this respect: he let himself be swallowed up by death, as it were, not to be engulfed in its abyss, but rather to engulf it [cf. 1 Peter 3:22, Vg.] that must soon have engulfed us; he let himself be subjected to it, not to be overwhelmed by its power, but rather to lay it low, when it was threatening us and exulting, over our fallen state. Finally, his purpose was “that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the Devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15).
This is why Calvin can call the cross Christ’s “triumphal chariot” (Inst. II.xvi.6), where he has vanquished the Devil by removing his power of accusation through his sin-bearing death (ibid. II.xvi.7; cf. Col. 2:14-15). And of course, Calvin makes sure to note how important the resurrection is for securing this victory over death and the powers (Inst. II.xvi.13, Commentary on Matthew 28:1). For Calvin, Christ’s atonement results in Christ the victor.
3. Legal Substitute
Of course, Calvin clearly taught a legal theme in Christ’s work of atonement. In ourselves, we stand condemned before the bar of God’s justice, under the curse, and liable to God’s just wrath. Christ, though, obeyed and fulfilled the law, stood under no curse himself, but on our behalf suffered judgment that we might go free. Commenting on Romans 8:34 he writes:
As no one by accusing can prevail, when the judge absolves; so there remains no condemnation, when satisfaction is given to the laws, and the penalty is already paid. Now Christ is he, who, having once for all suffered the punishment due to us, thereby declared that he undertook our cause, in order to deliver us: he then who seeks hereafter to condemn us, must kill Christ himself again. But he has not only died, but also came forth, by a resurrection, as the conqueror of death and triumphed over all its power.
Calvin also taught that Christ’s work on the cross was a fulfillment of the sacrificial system as a means of dealing with sin (Commentary on 1 Peter 1:19). Christ’s sacrificial work has many dimensions effecting both a redemption from the bondage of guilt, the propitiation of God’s wrath, the expiation of sin, and the reconciliation of happy relations between God and man:
But that these things may take root firmly and deeply in our hearts, let us keep sacrifice and cleansing constantly in mind. For we could not believe with assurance that Christ is our redemption, ransom, and propitiation unless he had been a sacrificial victim. Blood is accordingly mentioned wherever Scripture discusses the mode of redemption. Yet Christ’s shed blood served, not only as a satisfaction, but also as a laver [cf. Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5; Rev. 1:5] to wash away our corruption. (Inst., II.xvi.6)
For Calvin this was not simply a theme to be taught and checked off a list, but one to meditate on so that we might be assured of God’s grace, his good will, and his deep love for us.
A less central theme, but one that figures nonetheless for Calvin was the idea of Christ as our merit, the one who, in a sense, earns our salvation for us in cross. Calvin dealt with this at length in the last chapter of book 2 of the Institutes, pointing out that the idea is eminently scriptural and there’s nothing inherently contradictory about the idea:
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. (Inst., II.xvi.3)
As Peterson points out, Christ as our merit is, in a way, the inverse of Christ our legal substitute. He not only takes away the negative condemnation standing against us, but he merits a positive grace and salvation, not for his own sake, but for ours.
Finally, while not strictly speaking an “atoning” dimension to Christ’s work on the cross, following the New Testament, Calvin had a strong place for Christ setting an example for believers to follow. Indeed, one of Calvin’s sections on the Christian life was titled “Bearing the Cross” (Inst. III.vii). Though carefully noting that Christ could not be imitated in every respect (Commentary on John 13:14), Calvin still forcefully argues that Christians should look to Christ’s cross to learn our way in the world:
For the apostle here reminds all the godly in common as to what the condition of Christianity is, as though he had said, that we are called by the Lord for this end, patiently to bear wrongs; and as he says in another place that we are appointed to this. Lest, however, this should seem grievous to us, he consoles us with the example of Christ. Nothing seems more unworthy, and therefore less tolerable, than undeservedly to suffer; but when we turn our eyes to the Son of God, this bitterness is mitigated; for who would refuse to follow him going before us? (Commentary on 1 Peter 2:21)
Whatever his followers may have done with his work, no one can say that Calvin leaves us without an ethic of the cross. Christ’s costly suffering does not exclude us from the cost of discipleship.
This is but a snapshot of Calvin’s doctrine of the cross. May Calvin’s thought instruct us today as we strive to preach and teach a more beautiful and complete doctrine of atonement.