Did John Calvin believe in “Limited Atonement” – the L in the famous TULIP acronym, which teaches that Christ did not die as an atonement for the sins of the whole world, but only for the elect?
I don’t know.
There are contradictory signals in Calvin’s writings. At times, it seems very clear that he did not believe in limited atonement. At other times, there is hardly any choice but to assume that he did.
I am not going to debate Calvin’s view of limited atonement. Instead, I’d like to point out what I find most fascinating about Calvin on this subject: his willingness to speak in ways that the Bible itself speaks when it comes to these matters.
Take this Trinitarian prayer for example:
We offer up our prayers unto Thee, O most gracious God and most merciful Father, for all men in general, that as Thou art pleased to be acknowledged the Savior of the whole human race by the redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ Thy Son…
Or consider his thoughts on the pardoned thief:
Our Lord made effective for the thief his death and passion which he suffered and endured for all mankind.
Or his thoughts on Christ’s suffering:
Indeed, our Lord Jesus was offered to all the world… Our Lord Jesus suffered for all and there is neither great nor small who is not inexcusable today, for we can obtain salvation in him.
Again, my point is not to make the case that Calvin believed in universal redemption. Calvinist scholars can whip out passages that seem to indicate otherwise. I merely want to point out that Calvin had no qualms about speaking of Christ dying for the sins of the world. As a careful biblical scholar, Calvin demonstrated a willingness to use the vocabulary of Scripture.
In recent years, I have noticed a tendency in some Reformed circles for Calvinists to bristle at the very mention of Jesus dying for the sins of the world or at an evangelist’s call to choose Christ. Other Calvinists can’t stomach the song, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” After all, they might say, doesn’t this type of language mislead people into thinking they can decide for Christ apart from the Holy Spirit?
I recommend that Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike follow the example of John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon and others in not refraining from using biblical language when speaking of these matters.
Yes, people are dead in their sins. But the truth is… telling people to repent and believe, or to choose Christ and live, or to follow Jesus, not the world – these types of exhortations do not shoot an arrow through God’s sovereignty. The Bible itself speaks in these ways.
Saying that Christ has died for the sins of the world is not necessarily a denial of limited atonement. It is simply the way that the Bible speaks of redemption. Interpret those verses however you want, but don’t be afraid to speak the way the Bible speaks.
Is it wrong to call people to make a decision for Christ? Not at all. The language of “decision” or “surrender” is biblical. Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike believe that the lost sinner, under the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, actually does “make a decision” at the point of conversion. We do indeed respond to the preaching of the gospel. Therefore, we should not refrain from using the language of “following Jesus” or “choosing Christ,” etc.
Read through the sermons of Charles Spurgeon and you will find these kinds of exhortations. Read through the sermons of John Calvin and you will find references to Christ’s death for the whole world. Why? Because the Bible itself contains these types of exhortations and references. Calvin, Spurgeon and others are not afraid to speak in ways the Bible speaks.
Don’t put a straitjacket on your theological vocabulary. You are free to speak as the Bible speaks.
In the end, you are not being more biblical for avoiding such terminology; you are being less biblical. And that’s why John Calvin is more biblical than some Calvinists today.