There is a debate regarding whether John Calvin himself held to the doctrine of limited atonement, that Christ died for the elect alone, or whether he actually held to the view that Christ died to redeem the entire human race. The evidence from his own writings seems to strongly suggest that he held to the latter view, namely, that he believed that Christ died for the salvation of the entire world, to redeem every man without exception, while also maintaining that the saving benefits of his death are only applied the elect since they alone shall believe.
In this series I will be quoting from Calvin’s writings on specific passages which speak to the issue of the extent of Jesus’ atoning death. All bold and capital emphasis will be ours.
The Witness of Isaiah
We see that here none are excepted, for the Prophet includes “all.” THE WHOLE HUMAN RACE would have perished, if Christ had not brought relief. He does not even except the Jews, whose hearts were puffed up with a false opinion of their own superiority, but condemns them indiscriminately, along with others, to destruction. By comparing them to sheep, he intends not to extenuate their guilt, as if little blame attached to them, but to state plainly that it belongs to Christ to gather from their wanderings those who resembled brute beasts.
Every one hath turned to his own way. By adding the term every one, he descends from A UNIVERSAL STATEMENT, IN WHICH HE INCLUDED ALL, to a special statement, that every individual may consider in his own mind if it be so; for a general statement produces less effect upon us than to know that it belongs to each of us in particular. Let “every one,” therefore, arouse his conscience, and present himself before the judgmentseat of God, that he may confess his wretchedness. Moreover, what is the nature of this “going astray” the Prophet states more plainly. It is, that every one hath followed the way which he had chosen for himself, that is, hath determined to live according to his own fancy; by which he means that there is only one way of living uprightly, and if any one “turn aside” from it, he can experience nothing but “going astray.”
He does not speak of works only, but of nature itself, which always leads us astray; for, if we could by natural instinct or by our own wisdom, bring ourselves back into the path, or guard ourselves against going astray, Christ would not be needed by us. Thus, in ourselves we all are undone unless Christ (John 8:36) sets us free; and the more we rely on our wisdom or industry, the more dreadfully and the more speedily do we draw down destruction on ourselves. And so the Prophet shows what we are before we are regenerated by Christ; for ALL are involved in the same condemnation. “There is none righteous, none that understandeth, none that seeketh God. All have turned aside, and have become unprofitable. There is none that doeth good; no, not one.” (Psalms 14:3) All this is more fully explained by Paul. (Romans 3:10)
I have followed the ordinary interpretation, that “he bore the sin of many,” though we might without impropriety consider the Hebrew word Mybr (rabbim,) to denote “Great and Noble.” And thus the contrast would be more complete, that Christ, while “he was ranked among transgressors,” became surety for every one of the most excellent of the earth, and suffered in the room of those who hold the highest rank in the world. I leave this to the judgment of my readers. Yet 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.” (http://www.biblestudyguide.org/comment/calvin/comm_vol16/htm/vi.htm)
A Harmony of the Synoptic Gospels
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. 13 (http://www.biblestudyguide.org/comment/calvin/comm_vol33/htm/xxviii.htm)
It comes now to be inquired, what advantage did Christ gain by praying? The apostle, in writing to the Hebrews, says that he was heard ( ἀπὸ τὢς εὐλαβείας ) on account of his fear: for so ought that passage to be explained, and not, as it is usually explained, on account of his reverence, (Hebrews 5:7.) That would not have been consistent, if Christ had simply feared death; for he was not delivered from it. Hence it follows, that what led him to pray to be delivered from death was the dread of a greater evil. When he saw the wrath of God exhibited to him, as he stood at the tribunal of God CHARGED WITH THE SINS OF THE WHOLE WORLD, he unavoidably shrunk with horror from the deep abyss of death. And, therefore, though he suffered death, yet since its pains were loosed —as Peter tells us, (Acts 2:24,)—and he was victorious in the conflict, the Apostle justly says, that he was heard on account of his fear. Here ignorant people rise up and exclaim, that it would have been unworthy of Christ to be afraid of being swallowed up by death. But I should wish them to answer this question, What kind of fear do they suppose it to have been which drew from Christ drops of blood? (Luke 22:44) For that mortal sweat could only have proceeded from fearful and unusual horror. If any person, in the present day, were to sweat blood, and in such a quantity that the drops should fall to the ground, it would be reckoned an astonishing miracle; and if this happened to any man through fear of death, we would say that he had a cowardly and effeminate mind. Those men, therefore, who deny that Christ prayed that the Father would rescue him from the gulf of death, ascribe to him a cowardice that would be disgraceful even in an ordinary man. (https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/matthew-26.html)
Which shall be to all the people Though the angel addresses the shepherds alone, yet he plainly states, that the message of salvation which he brings is of wider extent, so that not only they, in their private capacity, may hear it, but that others may also hear. Now let it be understood, that this joy was common TO ALL PEOPLE, BECAUSE, IT WAS INDISCRIMINATELY OFFERED TO ALL. For God had promised Christ, not to one person or to another, BUT TO THE WHOLE SEED OF ABRAHAM. If the Jews were deprived, for the most part, of the joy that was offered to them, it arose from their unbelief; just as, at the present day, God invites ALL INDISCRIMINATELY TO SALVATION through the Gospel, but the ingratitude of the world is the reason why this grace, WHICH IS EQUALLY OFFERED TO ALL, is enjoyed by few. Although this joy is confined to a few persons, yet, with respect to God, it is said to be common. When the angel says that this joy shall be to all the people, he speaks of the chosen people only; but now that, the middle wall of partition” (Ephesians 2:14) has been thrown down, the same message has reference TO THE WHOLE HUMAN RACE. (149) For Christ proclaims peace, not only, to them that are nigh, “but to them that are, far off,” (Ephesians 2:17,) to “strangers” (Ephesians 2:12) equally with citizens. But as the peculiar covenant with the Jews lasted till the resurrection of Christ, so the angel separates them from the rest of the nations. (http://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/luke-2.html)
The Catholic Epistles
2 Peter 2:1
Even denying the Lord that bought them. Though Christ may be denied in various ways, yet Peter, as I think, refers here to what is expressed by Jude, that is, when the grace of God is turned into lasciviousness; for Christ redeemed us, that he might have a people separated from all the pollutions of the world, and devoted to holiness and innocency. They, then, who throw off the bridle, and give themselves up to all kinds of licentiousness, are not unjustly said to deny Christ BY WHOM THEY HAVE BEEN REDEEMED. Hence, that the doctrine of the gospel may remain whole and complete among us, let this be fixed in our minds, that we have been redeemed by Christ, that he may be the Lord of our life and of our death, and that our main object ought to be, to live to him and to die to him. He then says, that their swift destruction was at hand, lest others should be ensnared by them. (164) (https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/2peter-2.html)
2 Peter 3:9
9. But the Lord is not slack, or, delays not. He checks extreme and unreasonable haste by another reason, that is, that the Lord defers his coming that he might invite ALL MANKIND to repentance. For our minds are always prurient, and a doubt often creeps in, why he does not come sooner. But when we hear that the Lord, in delaying, shews a concern for our salvation, and that he defers the time because he has a care for us, there is no reason why we should any longer complain of tardiness. He is tardy who allows an occasion to pass by through slothfulness: there is nothing like this in God, who in the best manner regulates time to promote our salvation. And as to the duration of the whole world, we must think exactly the same as of the life of every individual; for God by prolonging time to each, sustains him that he may repent. In the like manner he does not hasten the end of the world, in order to give TO ALL time to repent.
This is a very necessary admonition, so that we may learn to employ time aright, as we shall otherwise suffer a just punishment for our idleness.
Not willing that any should perish. So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them ALL TO BE SAVED, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost. But the order is to be noticed, that God is ready to receive ALL TO REPENTANCE, so that none may perish; for in these words the way and manner of obtaining salvation is pointed out. Every one of us, therefore, who is desirous of salvation, must learn to enter in by this way.
But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches forth his hand WITHOUT A DIFFERENCE TO ALL, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.
But as the verb χωρὢσαι is often taken passively by the Greeks, no less suitable to this passage is the verb which I have put in the margin, that God would have all, who had been before wandering and scattered, to be gathered or come together to repentance. (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom45.vii.iv.iii.html; http://www.biblestudyguide.org/comment/calvin/comm_vol45/htm/vii.iv.iii.htm)
The only Lord God, or, God who alone is Lord. Some old copies have, “Christ, who alone is God and Lord.” And, indeed, in the Second Epistle of Peter, Christ alone is mentioned, and there he is called Lord. (194) But He means that Christ is denied, when they WHO HAD BEEN REDEEMED BY HIS BLOOD, become again the vassals of the Devil, and thus RENDER VOID as far as they can THAT INCOMPARABLE PRICE. That Christ, then, may retain us as his peculiar treasure, we must remember that he died and rose again for us, that he might have dominion over our life and death. (https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/jude-1.html)
The Pauline Epistles
10.This is an explanation of the former verse, amplified by introducing a comparison between life and death. We were enemies, he says, when Christ interposed for the purpose of propitiating the Father: through this reconciliation we are now friends; since this was effected by his death; much more influential and efficacious will be his life. (162) We hence have ample proofs to strengthen our hearts with confidence respecting our salvation. By saying that we were reconciled to God by the death of Christ, he means, that it was the sacrifice of expiation, by which God was pacified towards the world, as I have showed in the fourth chapter.
But the Apostle seems here to be inconsistent with himself; for if the death of Christ was a pledge of the divine love towards us, it follows that we were already acceptable to him; but he says now, that we were enemies. To this answer, that as God hates sin, we are also hated by him as far as we are sinners; but as in his secret counsel he chooses us into the body of Christ, he ceases to hate us: but restoration to favor is unknown to us, UNTIL WE ATTAIN IT BY FAITH. Hence with regard to us, we are always enemies, until the death of Christ interposes in order to propitiate God. And this twofold aspect of things ought to be noticed; for we do not know the gratuitous mercy of God otherwise than as it appears from this — that he spared not his only-begotten Son; for he loved us at a time when there was discord between him and us: nor can we sufficiently understand the benefit brought to us by the death of Christ, except this be the beginning of our reconciliation with God, that we are persuaded that it is by the expiation that has been made, that he, who was before justly angry with us, is now propitious to us. Since then our reception into favor is ascribed to the death of Christ, the meaning is, that guilt is thereby taken away, to which we should be otherwise exposed.
18. Therefore, etc. This is a defective sentence; it will be complete if the words condemnation and justification be read in the nominative case; as doubtless you must do in order to complete the sense. We have here the general conclusion from the preceding comparison; for, omitting the mention of the intervening explanation, he now completes the comparison, “As by the offense of one we were made (constitute) sinners; so the righteousness of Christ is efficacious to justify us. He does not say the righteousness — dikaiosunhn, but the justification — dikaiwma, 1 of Christ, in order to remind us that he was not as an individual just for himself, but that the righteousness with which he was endued reached farther, in order that, by conferring this gift, he might enrich the faithful. He makes this favor common to all, because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all; for though Christ suffered for the sins OF THE WHOLE WORLD, and is offered through God’s benignity INDISCRIMINATELY TO ALL, yet all do not receive him. (http://www.biblestudyguide.org/comment/calvin/comm_vol38/htm/ix.x.htm)
12. Would that they were even cut off. His 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. But devout minds are sometimes carried beyond the consideration of men, and led to fix their eye on the glory of God, and the kingdom of Christ. The glory of God, which is in itself more excellent than the salvation of men, ought to receive from us a higher degree of esteem and regard. Believers earnestly desirous that the glory of God should be promoted, forget men, and forget the world, and would rather choose that the whole world should perish, than that the smallest portion of the glory of God should be withdrawn. (https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/galatians-5.html)
14. In whom we have redemption. He now proceeds to set forth in order, that all parts of our salvation are contained in Christ, and that he alone ought to shine forth, and to be seen conspicuous above all creatures, inasmuch as he is the beginning and end of all things. In the first place, he says that we have redemption (300) and immediately explains it as meaning the remission of sins; for these two things agree together by apposition (301) For, 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. Let us, therefore, bear in mind, that this is the sole price of reconciliation, and that all the trifling of Papists as to satisfactions is blasphemy. (302)
Both upon earth and in heaven. If you are inclined to understand this as referring merely to rational creatures, it will mean, men and angels. There were, it is true, no absurdity in extending it TO ALL WITHOUT EXCEPTION; but that I may not be under the necessity of philosophizing with too much subtlety, I prefer to understand it as referring to angels and men; and as to the latter, there is no difficulty as to their having need of a peace maker in the sight of God. As to angels, however, there is a question not easy of solution. For what occasion is there for reconciliation, where there is no discord or hatred? Many, influenced by this consideration, have explained the passage before us in this manner — that angels have been brought into agreement with men, and that by this means heavenly creatures have been restored to favor with earthly creatures. Another meaning, however, is conveyed by Paul’s words, that God hath reconciled to himself. That explanation, therefore, is forced.
It remains, that we see what is the reconciliation of angels and men. I say that men have been reconciled to God, because they were previously alienated from him by sin, and because they would have had him as a Judge to their ruin, (313) had not the grace of the Mediator interposed for appeasing his anger. Hence the nature of the peace making between God and men was this, that enmities have been abolished through Christ, and thus God becomes a Father instead of a Judge.
Between God and angels the state of matters is very different, for there was there (314) no revolt, no sin, and consequently no separation. It was, however, necessary that angels, also, should be made to be at peace with God, for, being creatures, they were not beyond the risk of falling, had they not been confirmed by the grace of Christ. This, however, is of no small importance for the perpetuity of peace with God, to have a fixed standing in righteousness, so as to have no longer any fear of fall or revolt. Farther, in that very obedience which they render to God, there is not such absolute perfection as to give satisfaction to God in every respect, and without the need of pardon. And this beyond all doubt is what is meant by that statement in Job 4:18, He will find iniquity in his angels. For if it is explained as referring to the devil, what mighty thing were it? But the Spirit declares there, that the greatest purity is vile, (315) if it is brought into comparison with the righteousness of God. We must, therefore, conclude, that there is not on the part of angels so much of righteousness as would suffice for their being fully joined with God. They have, therefore, need of a peace maker, through whose grace they may wholly cleave to God. Hence it is with propriety that Paul declares, that the grace of Christ does not reside among mankind alone, and on the other hand makes it common also to angels. Nor is there any injustice done to angels, in sending them to a Mediator, that they may, through his kindness, have a well grounded peace with God.
Should any one, on the pretext of the universality of the expression, (316) move a question in reference to devils, whether Christ be their peace maker also? I answer, No, not even of wicked men: though I confess that there is a difference, inasmuch AS THE BENEFIT OF REDEMPTION IS OFFERED TO THE LATTER, but not to the former. (317) This, however, has nothing to do with Paul’s words, which include nothing else than this, that it is through Christ alone, that, all creatures, who have any connection at all with God, cleave to him. (https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/colossians-1.html)
To bear, or, take away sins, is to free from guilt by his satisfaction those who have sinned. He says the sins of many, THAT IS, OF ALL, as in Romans 5:15. It is yet certain that all receive no benefit from the death of Christ; but this happens, BECAUSE THEIR UNBELIEF PREVENTS THEM. At the same time this question is not to be discussed here, for the Apostle is not speaking of the few or of the many to whom the death of Christ may be available; but he simply means that he died for others and not for himself; and therefore he opposes many to one. (161) (https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/hebrews-9.html)
The Johannine Literature
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. John the Baptist, therefore, by speaking generally of the sin of the world, intended to impress upon us the conviction of our own misery, and to exhort us to seek the remedy. Now our duty is, to embrace the benefit which is offered to all, that each of us may be convinced that there is nothing to hinder him from obtaining reconciliation in Christ, provided that he comes to him by the guidance of faith. (http://www.biblestudyguide.org/comment/calvin/comm_vol34/htm/vii.vii.htm)
That whosoever believeth on him may not perish. It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. For he intended expressly to state that, though we appear to have been born to death, undoubted deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ; and, therefore, that we ought not to fear death, which otherwise hangs over us. 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…
17. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world. It is a confirmation of the preceding statement; for it was not in vain that God sent his own Son to us. He came not to destroy; and therefore it follows, that it is the peculiar office of the Son of God, that all who believe may obtain salvation by him. There is now no reason why any man should be in a state of hesitation, or of distressing anxiety, as to the manner in which he may escape death, when we believe that it was the purpose of God that Christ should deliver us from it. The word world is again repeated, THAT NO MAN MAY THINK HIMSELF WHOLLY EXCLUDED, if he only keep the road of faith. (http://www.biblestudyguide.org/comment/calvin/comm_vol34/htm/ix.iii.htm)
1 John 2:2
Calvin held the view that the whole world in 1 John 2:2 meant the believers scattered all over the world as opposed to the reprobate. However, he did acknowledge that the schools of theological learning believed that this text taught that Christ’s death was sufficient to save the whole world, a view he claimed was undoubtedly correct:
Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretense extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation. They who seek to avoid this absurdity, have said that Christ (63) 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. (https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/1-john-2.html)
1 John 5:19
He also admitted that the same phrase in 1 John 5:19 does refer to the whole human race:
Under the term world, the Apostle no doubt includes the whole human race. By saying that it lieth in the wicked one, he represents it as being under the dominion of Satan. There is then no reason why we should hesitate to shun the world, which condemns God and delivers up itself into the bondage of Satan: nor is there a reason why we should fear its enmity, because it is alienated from God. In short, since corruption pervades all nature, the faithful ought to study self-denial; and since nothing is seen in the world but wickedness and corruption, they must necessarily disregard flesh and blood that they may follow God. At the same time the other thing ought to be added, that God is he who has called them, that under this protection they may oppose all the machinations of the world and Satan. (http://www.biblestudyguide.org/comment/calvin/comm_vol45/htm/v.vi.vi.htm)
Lord willing, I will have more citations from the works of Calvin in the next installment of the series.