Monday, January 3, 2011

Am I Still a Calvinist?

This post is long and won’t be for everyone…

Andrew Fuller once made this declaration on the extent of the atonement:

“If I speak of it [Christ’s death as a substitute for sinners] irrespective of the purpose of the Father and the Son, as to its objects who should be saved by it, merely referring to what it is in itself sufficient for, and declared in the gospel to be adapted to, I should think that I answered the question in a Scriptural way by saying, It was for sinners as sinners; but if I have respect to the purpose of the Father in giving his Son to die, and to the design of Christ in laying down his life, I should answer, It was for the elect only”  (Brewster, Andrew Fuller: Model Pastor-Theologian , p92-93)

I tend to agree with Fuller and I think John Calvin would too.  My views on the extent of the atonement have been developing (or regressing in the mind of some).  I recently wrote a paper on Calvin’s view of the extent of the ilasmos (propitiation/atonement) in 1 John 2:2.  You can read it here.

In a section of that paper I argue that there are really two streams of Calvinists that hold to limited atonement.  There is the strict particularist stream that denies the “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” statement and then a stream that still holds to limited atonement (in a meaningful sense) but approves of the “sufficient, efficient” language.  Calvin, I argue, was in the latter stream. 

Many would argue that I am no longer a 5 point Calvinist because I deny limited atonement.  In their mind I am now a 4 point Calvinist.  But my retort is an encouragement to read the synod of Dort:

“The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.”

Calvin is, in my opinion, in the Dortian stream--and I believe Fuller is too.  And honestly I think Calvinists could speak more honestly of the atonement if we followed the sentiment of Dort (and many Puritans) instead of the more strict particularist variety. 

Owen’s Triple Choice

Furthermore, and this would take some time to explain, I do not agree with John Owen’s argumentation in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.  I do not think that Calvin saw the atonement the same way as Owen.  I doubt Calvin would have agreed with Owen’s triple choice:

"The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either: All the sins of all men, All the sins of some men, or Some of the sins of all men; In which case it may be said: That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so none are saved; That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth; But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins? You answer, Because of unbelief. I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, then He did not die for all their sins!

You can read my argumentation on page 4-5 of my paper.  Calvin clearly stated, “as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us”.  Owen doubtfully would speak that way.  But I think Calvin is closer to the using the language of Scripture than Owen. 

Where the real difference is…

For me the discussion about the “limit” of the atonement has everything to do with unconditional election.  If asked the question, Who Did Christ Die For (and meaning that in an effectual sense), my response would clearly be “all those that respond to the gospel in repentance and faith”.  I doubt anyone Calvinist or Arminian would disagree with that. 

The difference then is not in the atonement but in the prior work of God in election and regeneration.  Who Did Christ Die For?  Everyone who responds in repentance and faith.  Who will respond in repentance and faith?  Those whom the Father has elected before the foundation of the world; namely, those whom the Spirit regenerates the heart of. 

Thoughts?  Am I Still a 5 Point Calvinist?


  1. Are you a genuine Christian no matter what the answer to your question is?

  2. uhmmm...absolutely.

    The point of this post isn't really that I care what label you put on's just an exploration of developing my views on the extent of the atonement.

  3. If the answer to my question is "yes," it helps me to enjoy the conversation in peace. Just trying to have a little fun with you, to be honest. I would add, though, that your post is full of labels and is primarily about people whose writings are used to produce the labels. But I see what you are getting at. -- 2 Cents: In my experience, the answer people might give to your question about "what you are" totally depends on who you are talking to. To some Calvinists, if you are not a "five-point Calvinist" then you are simply NOT a Calvinist, because it is a logical system that they believe is dependent upon each of the points to stand. You said "all those that respond," while some Calvinists would say "all those that will have and will respond." Calvinism is driven by very concrete, linear notions of time. Some Armenians I've read actually agree with this, and so they argue against every point of Calvinistic doctrine. Dispensationalists and Prog Disp I've read have a tendency to be somewhere in between on the points, but still consider themselves Calvinists because they agree with more of the points than they disagree with. Limited atonement usually being the one that they disagree with. Hence, "unlimited, not universal" atonement. (Sorry about all the labels). -- A "particularist" would probably say you are not a Calvinist. You seem to be arguing that Calvin would say you are a five point Calvinist because he would agree with your view of the atonement. To which I can only say, "Hmmmmmm."

  4. Thanks for the comment.

    I'm actually trying to make the argument (but I'm beginning to think not clearly, LOL) that Calvin's view of the atonement is limited and that there are two streams that fall under that which you could call limited atonement.

    And I'm also aware that the post is full of labels. Hence my first sentence. My hope was that this post would be more a discussion between Calvinists about limited atonement. I think I should have chosen my title more my facebook page got lit up!

  5. In my honest opinion, Mike, you are. Christ's atonement is indeed super-abundantly sufficient for the Salvation of all, yet God intends to apply it for some (namely, the elect) efficaciously. I've also read somewhere that Aquinas hold to the same position.



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