Charles Bell on Calvin and 1 John 2:2

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Because the extent of Christ’s work is universal, it is offered likewise to every person, as noted above. However, the most common doubt among men is that the benefit of Christ’s death, which is ‘available and ready for all’, is personally available for them.14 Although Christ is offered to all, we readily see that not all receive him. This, states Calvin, is due to their hardness and unbelief.15 However, Calvin teaches that those who so reject Christ are ‘doubly culpable’ since they have rejected ‘the blessing in which they could share by faith’.16 It would be inexcusable to argue from this that Satan and his demons, as well as the ungodly, benefit from Christ. Nevertheless, Calvin maintains, an important distinction exists between the demons and the ungodly, and that is that ‘the benefit of redemption is offered to the ungodly, but not to the devils.’17 Even the ungodly are included precisely because Calvin consistently teaches that ‘no one is excluded from this salvation’ wrought for all by the death of Christ, provided they believe.18

Were this all Calvin had written on the subject, we might expect more agreement as to the universal character of Christ’s atonement in his teaching, for clearly he taught that Christ died for all. Unfortunately, Calvin complicates matters by stating in several places that ‘all’ does not mean each individual, but rather all ‘kinds’ of men. For instance, concerning I John 2:2, Calvin excludes the reprobate from the term ‘all’ and refers it to ‘those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered’ throughout the world.19 Letham thinks that this statement places Calvin’s so-called universalist passages in a new light. ‘If “all” means all without distinction as he says it does, rather than all without exception, Calvin cannot be said to have taught universal atonement in any sense.’20 In fact, in one instance Calvin does insist that the term must always be understood to refer to ‘classes of men but never to individual.21

How, then, is this tension to here solved? Some have sought a solution in the scholastic formula that the power of Christ’s death is sufficient for the salvation of all, but effectual only for the elect. Calvin allows the truth of this statement22 but rejects its use because the issue is not the power of Christ’s death, but those for whom it was intended.23 Letham offers another solution, suggesting that Calvin is so bound by Scripture that he follows the Word ‘even where there is apparent contradiction. Consequently, he can make statements that seem contradictory’.24

Calvin’s ‘strong biblicism’ does lead him to make statements that are only ‘apparent’ contradictions. For example, he often stresses that the unbelief of sinners is solely their responsibility.25 Yet, just as frequently, we find him emphasizing that some do not savingly believe, and this is God’s doing.26 Calvin is simply being faithful to the tension between these two ideas represented in Scripture. On the other hand, are there statements which go beyond apparent biblical contradictions (such as his statement concerning the term ‘all’)? For instance, he can ask how the wicked can eat Christ’s flesh ‘which was not crucified for them’ and how they can drink Christ’s blood ‘which was not shed to expiate their sins’.27 By itself, this is a clear statement of limited atonement. Yet, as we have seen, he also states that ‘it is no small matter to have the souls perish who were bought by the blood of Christ’.28

In light of this ‘confusion and contradiction’, Letham concludes that Calvin was uncommitted as to the extent of the atonement, and that it was likely a matter which was not significant for his teaching.29 However, there is evidence to suggest otherwise. To begin with, Calvin does make use of the term ‘all’ to mean each individual and not just classes of men. At Comm. Is. 53:12, Calvin writes that he approves of ‘the ordinary reading, that he alone bore the punishment of many, because on him was laid the guilt of the whole world’, and then continues with the significant comment that ‘It is evident from other passages, and especially from the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, that “many” sometimes denotes “all”‘. At Comm. Rom. 5:18, we read ‘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’.30

Does this mean that Calvin’s teaching at Comm. 1 John 2:2 is contradictory? It does not! Calvin’s use of the term ‘all’ becomes consistent when we bear in mind the relation between atonement and faith in his writings. In several places he maintains that while Christ’s atonement is universal, the gift of faith is limited to the elect.31 This is precisely the situation at 1 John 2:2. Concerning the words ‘and not for ours only, but also for the whole world’, Calvin states that these are included ‘for amplification’, to convince believers that Christ’s expiation ‘extends to all who by faith embrace the Gospel.32 The key term in his entire discussion here is ‘faith’. Because faith is given only to the elect, Calvin rejects the idea that salvation extends ‘to all the reprobate and even to Satan himself. He rejects this idea not in light of the extent of the atonement, but of the extent of saving faith. Because faith is the interpreting factor in this passage, Calvin can state that under the term ‘all’, John ‘does not include the reprobate, but refers to all who would believe.’33 Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 1985), 14-16. [Some spelling modernized; footnote values original; italics original; and underlining mine.]

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14Institutes, 3.2.15.

15Instruction in Faith, 35.

16Sermons on Isaiah’s Prophecy, 141.

17Comm. Col, 1:20.

18Comm. Hebrews 5:9.

19Comm. 1 John 2:2.

20Op. cit., 2.67, n. 76.

21Comm. 1 Tim. 25.

22As we shall see, it is true not because the scope of Christ’s death is limited but because saving faith is limited to the elect. This is Calvin’s point against Georgius in Etemal Predestination, 148f. where he states, ‘it is incontestable that Christ came for the expiation of the sins of the whole world. But the solution lies close at hand, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but should have eternal life. (John 3:15). For the present question is not how great the power of Christ is or what efficacy it has in itself, but to whom He gives Himself to be enjoyed. If possession lies in faith and faith emanates from the Spirit of adoption, it follows that only he is reckoned in the number of God’s children who will he a partaker of Christ.’

23Eternal Predestination, 103. 148f.

24Op. cit., 1.125.

25Comm. Matt. 16:19

26Comm. Matt. 15:13; Institutes, 3.3.21.

27Theological Treatises, 285. Quoted by Letham, but absent in Kendall.

28The Mystery of Godliness 83; Quoted by Kendall, but absent in Letham.

29Op. cit.. 1.125. 126. and contra Kendall.

301t is interesting to note that Calvin’s nineteenth-century recorded in a footnote to this quotation that ‘It appears from this sentence that Calvin held general redemption’, Calvin translation Society edition, 211 f.n. 3. Cf. also Comm. Mk. 14:24, where, commenting on Christ’s blood having been shed for ‘many’, Calvin states that “The word ‘many’ does not mean a part of the world only, but the whole human race.”

31Comm. Matt. 15: 13; Institutes, 3.3.21. Cf. Comm. Rom. 10: 16; Eternal Predestination, 148.

32Comm. 1 John 2:2, italics are mine.


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