Did John Calvin Believe in an “Unlimited Atonement?”

Sometimes in our zeal to prove our case we can over emphasis a point, take things out of context, and make erroneous assumptions. Such is the case with the following statement by Haden Clark: “However, if you have followed my writing, you’ll know that I am not a Calvinist and believe in an unlimited atonement, as even John Calvin did!” (If Jesus died for…, 2nd line; italics mine).

I try to read as often as I can, but no one person can read everything. Yet, as I pondered Clark’s claim, I found myself asking, “Where have I heard something similar before?” So, I began looking through some of the books in my library and low and behold I find the following statements by Norman Geisler in his book entitled Chosen But Free:

“An extreme Calvinist is defined here as someone who is more Calvinistic that John Calvin (1509-1564), the founder of Calvinism. Since it can be argued that John Calvin did not believe in limited atonement (that Christ died only for the elect; see appendix 2), then it would follow that those who do are extreme Calvinists.”[i]

Then in Appendix 2, which you can see Geisler referenced, he said the following:

“At first blush, it may seem absurd to ask whether John Calvin was a Calvinist. But he was not the first in the history of thought to have his views be distorted by his disciples…If Five-Point Calvinism (T-U-L-I-P) …is taken as the definition of ‘Calvinism’ in this question [i.e., Was Calvin a Calvinist?], then it seem clear that Calvin was not a Calvinist, at least on one crucial point: limited atonement.”[ii]

Geisler then lists a number of texts with Calvin’s statements/reflections on them to buttress the position that he has laid out in his book (one of many). Namely, that Calvin didn’t believe in a “Limited Atonement.”

I’m not saying that Mr. Clark got his information from Norman Geisler. More than likely he received this teaching from Dr. David Allen who has written extensively on the subject of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Allen, like Geisler, rejects the concept of a limited atonement. And both men have held the opinion that there is a distinction between Calvinist: “extreme Calvinists,” and “moderate Calvinists.”

What I would like to do is this post is entertain the claim provided by Clark, by those he has evidently learned from. In other words, my aim is to weigh the proposal provided by Clark, rather than interacting with his article cited above. Did Calvin believe in an “Unlimited Atonement?”

**NOTE TO READER: My wife asked that I put this disclaimer in this post. My last few posts have been quite lengthy. I do not expect anyone to read them in one sitting. They have various headings to provide breaks to the busy reader. If you can’t finish in one sitting, that’s fine. Come back and read some more later. If these last few posts aren’t your cup of tea, I understand that as well. Obviously, you are free to read them or not. The material is lengthy on purpose since I’m trying to be fair and thorough with those I’m interacting with. Also, I should add this qualifier as well: “I have no ill intent towards those I am critically examining, but I am attempting to weigh and offer a counterargument to what they have presented.” Like it or not that is part of the learning process. Something that has been unfortunately vilified in our day. Thank you in advance for your readership. I hope something I have written will be to some extent beneficial and enjoyable to you. God bless!”

The Popular Acronym that Causes Spastic Fits: T. U. L. I. P.

Calvinism or Reformed Theology is popularly known by the designation “TULIP.” The marrying of the two terms “Calvinism” and “TULIP” came about as the result of an ecclesiastical court hearing known as the Synod of Dort. This occurred early in the 17th century when students of the late Jacob Arminius (A.K.A. the Remonstrants) formed a protest against certain doctrines of Reformed theology specifically pertaining to the subject of “the salvation of man” (i.e., soteriology).

For now, all you need as the reader is a brief explanation of what the acronym “TULIP” stands for. After which we shall look to see what John Calvin actually said regarding the subject of the “atonement of Christ.” The place that we are going to turn is found in his magnum opus—the Institutes of the Christian Religion. This is the definitive work of Calvin, but it is by no means “all” of what he said about the Christian faith. For the French Reformer was a prolific writer and continual speaker during his days of the 16th century.

T—for Total Depravity. This speaks of the corrupting and encompassing nature of sin’s curse upon humanity. Another way you might express this doctrine pertaining to “original sin” is radical corruption. From the vantage point of people, humans are capable of doing many good, perhaps even righteous things. However, from God’s vantage point revealed in the Holy Bible, humanity only has a veneer of righteous goodness, but lacking the Holiness of God fails to do what is good in God’s sight.

U—for Unconditional Election. This speaks of God’s response to a certain sect of Adam’s race. The two terms are sometimes misunderstood. Unconditional does not mean that there is “no condition” whatsoever, but that there is no condition in fallen man that God would elect them. Election speaks of God’s specific act in eternity (i.e., pre-history) wherein He has chosen a specific person(s) to put His love upon in a redemptive sense. This doctrine stresses both the personal and corporate choosing (i.e., adopting) of the Sovereign Creator.

L—for Limited Atonement. This also speaks of God’s response to a certain sect of Adam’s race. But this time the emphasis is on the means God has provided for this adoption process to be possible. Atonement, means covering. It speaks of substitution. Of paying a ransom payment. Of providing redemption. Here God’s provision for a particular sect is found in the life of Jesus Christ. Again, personal and corporate aspects may be seen in this doctrine, sense: 1) Jesus died for specific individuals, 2) Jesus died for His church (congregation, assembly) identified metaphorically as His bride or body.

I—for Irresistible Grace. Once more we see that this too speaks of God’s response to a certain sect of Adam’s race. However, this time it is the active role of the Holy Spirit in history, wherein He applies the blood of the Lamb upon those for whom Jesus died on the cross that is being emphasized.  Irresistible, may be better understood as effectual grace. That is to say, the “effect” that God has purposed has come to fruition through the Holy Spirit’s regenerative effort, raising the spiritually dead to spiritual life.

P—for Persevering Grace. This doctrine shows the intent of God for those whom He has called to be conformed into the image of the Son—Jesus Christ. This doctrine highlights not only that those who are saved will continue in this blessed state, but the reason for this state’s continuity is because of God’s preserving power. His promise endures and the work He has started in His people will reach its intended end. This doctrine does not teach a sinless-state in this life, nor does it teach that the Christian will never face doubts or temporarily fall, but that they will not continue in that condition. Persevering, they will finish the race (or life) that they started in Christ.


These five doctrines, which have been the defining light of the Reformed faith, emphasize one truth—God Saves. They do not touch all of what Reformed theology (or what is nicknamed Calvinism) believes and/or teaches, but these five truths are how it is popularly known. Primarily, because if you do not embrace these truths you seek to smash them. Ironic really, when the defining mark of the Christian faith that separates it from the rest of all other religious systems of thought is that God does for Man what Man cannot do for Himself (or herself).

Does the Argument Stand?

Now it is being argued by those mentioned in the opening that John Calvin may have believed in all the letters in the acronym except for the “L.” That nefarious doctrine he did not believe in. Does the argument stand? Did Calvin believe in an “unlimited atonement?”

From a Logical Standpoint…

Geisler in “Chosen but Free” refers to a variety of instances in Calvin’s writings where he insists proves his argument. He, and others like him, admit that Calvin was at least a four-pointer if nothing else: “Whatever Calvin may have said…he certainly denied limited atonement…For Calvin, the Atonement is universal in extent and limited only in its application, namely, to those who believe.”[iii] An interesting consideration to be sure, since Geisler realizes that all five-points logically stand or fall, if rightly understood: “That is, they are an interdependent unity. If one point is accepted, then logically all should be embraced. Likewise, if one is rejected, then logically all should be.”[iv]

Rightly stated. For if it is true that man has been so radically corrupted due to the curse of sin introduced through Adam’s rebellion, the logical question ensues: “Who would dare turn to God?” In systematic fashion then we find that man’s spiritual inability leads to the necessity of God’s elective activity. For if one were looking for a condition where the fallen sinner might seek for God, attempting to do good by drawing near to the Father in heaven, we would be found waiting a long time indeed. Thus, God elects according to His desire not man’s. Leaving, then the only logical conclusion—Christ offered His life for a specific people, the sheep of His pasture, making atonement for them.

From a Historical Standpoint…

The argument presented against Limited Atonement in favor of Unlimited Atonement makes little sense in Reformed Theology. The concept of Unlimited Atonement is sourced from outside, based on presuppositions not held by Reformed thinkers. To then attempt to argue that though Calvin’s predecessors may have held to such things, “Surely he would not!” is nothing short of ridiculous. The truth of the matter is that if Calvin were alive today, he would not doubt offer some corrective words to individuals like Geisler, Allen and even Clark.

Why would I say that? Because there does not seem sufficient evidence in the man’s writings to justify the claim. The ironic thing is that Calvin had an opportunity during his own lifetime to rebut the position now being debated: Is Christ’s atonement limited?  And yet, when contemporaries of his “formulated the view [of a limited-atonement] during his life-time”[v] we have no evidence he ever challenged them.

Is it possible that he wrote private letters to them rebuking them behind closed doors for promoting a teaching that he did not believe? Sure…”anything is possible” as the kids like to say, but it is highly unlikely. If you’ve read much of what Calvin wrote it will not be long before you come upon a section where he is quick to correct those whose teaching he views as deviating from the pure Word of God.

From a Theological Standpoint—the Institutes…

HAIL & FIRE REPRINTS: “Institutes of the Christian Religion,
pic provided by Hail and Fire

For the most part Geisler cited a few excerpts from Calvin’s Commentaries, and the Institutes. Since the Institutes lay the ground work for understanding how Calvin would have interpreted the Bible, we will only focus on the material provided in them. Particularly book 3: “The mode of obtaining the grace of Christ. The benefits it confers, and the effects resulting from it” (p. 460, 462).[vi]

To aid the reader I will provide some key point from Calvin as a synopsis of the subject matter in the Institutes third chapter. Please note it is not on the nature of the “atonement,” but on the operation of the Spirit in applying the atonement on the “elect.” Thereby, a discussion on the nature of God’s election (choosing activity in history):

“The two former Books treated of God the Creator and Redeemer. This Book, which contains a full exposition of the Third Part of the Apostles’ Creed, treats of the mode of procuring the grace of Christ, the benefits which we derive and the effects which follow from it, or of the operations of the Holy Spirit in regard to our salvation…

I. As it is by the secret and special operation of the Holy Spirit that we enjoy Christ and all his benefits, the First chapter treats of this operation, which is the foundation of faith, new life, and all holy exercises…

VI. As all do not indiscriminately embrace the fellowship of Christ offered in the Gospel, but those only whom the Lord favours with the effectual and special grace of his Spirit, lest any should impugn this arrangement, Chapters Twenty-First to Twenty-Fourth are occupied with a necessary and apposite discussion on the subject of Election” (p. 461).

Referring to 3.1.1 of the Institutes

Geisler writes, “Christ suffered and provided salvation for the whole human race.”[vii]

The question we will seek to answer in this section is what Calvin actually meant by “the human race.” It is noteworthy to realize that Calvin’s subject matter is on the operation of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers, NOT the “atonement.”

Thus, Calvin writes,

“We must now see in what way we become possessed of the blessings which God has bestowed on his only-begotten Son, not for private use, but to enrich the poor and needy” (3.1.1; opening sentence; italics added).

Notice that the concern is on how “we” Christians came to be possessors of the blessings that come through Christ Jesus. Not for personal or private use (gain), but “to enrich the poor and needy.” Who is poor and needy? Only those that recognize their sin and need of a Lord and Savior found only in Jesus Christ.

On this Calvin explains,

“And although it is true that we obtain this by faith, yet since we see that all do not indiscriminately embrace the offer of Christ which is made by the gospel, the very nature of the case teaches us to ascend higher, and inquire into the secret efficacy of the Spirit, to which it is owing that that we enjoy Christ and all his blessings” (3.1.1; italics added).

Which means what precisely? That faith is the means to which we come to Christ, but since the normal response is not to embrace the gospel we ought to look “higher”—into the counsel of God revealed in Scripture—inquiring into the effectual work of the Holy Spirit that enables those who believe (in a continual sense) in the gospel of Christ. Calvin puts the emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s inner, secret work as the true foundational reason why people become believers.

Geisler, who believes in a universal atonement, reads into Calvin’s statement in this same section his own presuppositional framework (i.e., biases). But when Calvin insinuates that all are initially without Christ and remain “separated from him, nothing he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race” (3.1.1) is limited by Calvin’s own assumptions derived from studying Scripture. This is perhaps best seen when one compares what Geisler added before “human race” in his heading for this section, the word “whole.”

“Yes, but didn’t you see what Calvin said? That Christ suffered to provide salvation for the ‘human race,’” you proclaim, as in the “whole” of humanity as Geisler insinuates. I can perceive why someone would understand it that way if they’ve never read the rest of what Calvin wrote. Or, if they’d never given consideration to Calvin’s own worldview. I can discern the reasoning behind it, but “human race” in Calvin’s thinking does not appear to mean “all people,” or “everyone.” Instead, “human race” in the context of this work means “all kinds of people” or the “human race in general” but not specific to all.

As seen in his closing of this particular section:

“The whole comes to this that the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually binds us to himself” (3.1.1).

Salvation is the result of God’s work, the Father choosing, the Son sacrificing, and the Holy Spirit quickening the reprobate to salvation. Something that He does not do for the entire human race.

Referring to 3.24.17 of the Institutes

Geisler writes, “Salvation is limited in its effect, not in its offer.”[viii]

Of course, salvation is limited in its effect if Christ only died for the elect. The reason why we offer the gospel to all, is not because we expect all to believe, but in the hope that some might. We do not know who will be saved.

If I tell you that you are a sinner, how do you respond? Do you believe it or deny it? If you believe it, then what if I told you that Christ died upon the cross for sinners so that they might have life through Him? Do you embrace it or reject it? If you embrace it, then what if I tell you your effort in this life is not what saves you—it doesn’t matter how good you are—but only what God has done? Do you say, “Yes…Jesus save me, because I cannot save myself?” Or do you say, “Yes, Jesus died for me, but I must also make myself better?” How people respond to the gospel, I do not know. Some enjoy it, some are enraged by it. I will leave such matters in the hand of the God who formed me, and entrust that His power is sufficient to save regardless of the rebel confronted by it. Knowing that it is only through a heart transplant—something that the Holy Spirit alone can do—and nothing else.

As I read through Book 3 in Calvin’s Institutes, I kept wondering whether or not Geisler put forth much effort in understanding what was written. (I also wondered whether Clark read Calvin as a primary source or merely depended upon secondary sources?) Geisler is right in the quotation I provided above, but the conclusion he draws from it—Christ died for all people without distinction—is not drawn from Calvin’s work, but comes from Geisler’s own understanding of things.

Earlier in the work referenced by Geisler we find Calvin making statements that seemingly offer support. But the reader must be aware that all these comments by Calvin are situated in his understanding of the doctrine of election (what would later in history be called—Unconditional Election at the Synod of Dort).

On the universal calling Calvin writes,

“for there is a universal call, by which God, through external preaching of the word, invites all men alike, even those for whom he designs the call to be a savour of death, and the ground of severer condemnation. Besides this there is a special call which, for the most part, God bestows on believers only, when by the internal illumination of the Spirit he causes the word preached to take deep root in their hearts. Sometimes, however, he communicates it also to those whom he enlightens only for a time, and whom afterwards, in just punishment for their ingratitude, he abandons and smites with greater blindness” (3.24.8).

 “The former call is common to the wicked, the latter brings with it the spirit of regeneration, which is the earnest and seal of the future inheritance by which our hearts are sealed unto the day of the Lord (Eph 1.13, 14)” (3.24.9).

 “For the elect are brought by calling into the fold of Christ not from the very womb, nor all at the same time, but according as God sees it meet to dispense his grace” (3.24.10).

“Therefore, since by the Gospel the mercy of God is offered to both, it is faith, in other words, the illumination of God, which distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked; the former feeling the efficacy of the Gospel, the latter obtaining no benefit from it. Illumination itself has eternal election for its rule” (3.24.17).

Herein is spoken the general call that goes out to all, but is only effectual to those who have been given the Holy Spirit. Only those given the seal of Christ’s name engrained upon their hearts by the Spirit’s quickening work do we find salvation—i.e., eternal life—granted. This quickening is sometimes referred to as a heart change (heart of stone removed; heart of flesh given), but in this case is referenced as the light shown in the darkness by which a person might see (discern, comprehend, and understand) the truth of reality as a whole.

Are we to then believe that Christ, the good Shepherd, when he said “the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10.11; NASB), meant all without qualification? Does He not also provide the qualification for who the “sheep” are? Yes, He does:

  • “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10.26-30; NASB; cf. Isa 43.13).

Closing Remarks…

Now to be fair Mr. Clark is not Norman Geisler, or David Allen for that matter.[ix] He cannot answer for what others have said, even if he endorses what they have written (He does with Allen, with Geisler I’m not sure?). But their views appear to be similar.

Clark thinks Calvin believed in an atonement that was for “all.” Easy to make a claim, quite another to provide contextually consistent information that backs it up. If he would like to do so, so that, we his readers could weigh the information, then I would be more than happy to make the effort. In any event, I thank him for opportunity to reflect on this matter myself.

There is one key point I would like to leave my readers with. It does not matter what people (that others hold dear) might say, if their own testimonies cannot be validated with a consistent rendering of the Word of God. God’s Word carries the final authority on such matters, and the moment we deviate from that in order to push our own agenda any authority that we might have formerly possessed as a Christian, a minister, a philosopher, or an apologist goes right out the door.

The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ died for specific people: Those He lovingly called (his) sheep, those given to Him by the Father, raised to new life by the Spirit through the application of His atoning work on the cross.


[i] Norman Geisler, Chosen but Free: A Balanced view of Divine Election, 2nd edition (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2001), 56. Italics added.

You may be wondering, “Why I added them?” Here’s my reasoning. Geisler is right to say that something “can be argued.” Arguments are like opinions…everybody has them. Therefore, anyone can “argue their case,” but the real question is “can they establish them?” If you understand Calvin’s own thoughts pertaining to the subject in question, you will find that Geisler does not have a leg to stand on. He, like many before him, was spouting his own opinion.

[ii] Ibid., 160.

[iii] Ibid., 166.

[iv] Ibid. 57.

[v] Roger Nicole, “John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement,” Westminster Theological Journal, 47:2 (Fall 1985), 198.

[vi] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Henry Beveridge, Reprint (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993).

[vii] Geisler, Chosen but Free, 161.

[viii] Ibid., 162.

[ix] Norman Geisler I’ve read, Mr. Clark I’ve read, but Dr. Allen I haven’t read much of his work, so I will leave it to another to attribute the claim (for or against).

Image by <a href="http://Image by katalin csák from Pixabay“>Katalin Csak