27 September, 2016

The History of the Free Offer: Chapter Two: “The Reformers”

Prof. Herman C. Hanko

Martin Luther

It ought not to come as a surprise that the whole issue of the free offer of the gospel was not an issue in the controversies between the Reformers and the Romish church. The question of the preaching of the gospel, and the controversy between the Reformation and Rome over preaching was not so much what constitutes the character and content of the preaching; it was rather: is preaching an integral part of the life of the church? Throughout the Middle Ages, with the growth of Romish sacerdotalism and with increasingly strong emphasis on the mass, very little preaching was to be found in Romish worship services. And if it were present, it was often little more than the recitation or reading of homilies from preachers of an earlier age. Expository preaching of the Scriptures simply did not exist in the Romish church prior to the Reformation.

The Reformers, without exception, restored preaching to its rightful place in the worship services. This “radical” transformation of the worship services by the Reformers was a necessary consequence of their view of Scripture and of the office of all believers as it functioned within the church. Thus it was that the questions of the character and content of the preaching (questions which are of the heart and essence of the issue of the free offer of the gospel) were not specifically faced as the Reformers concentrated their attention on opposing the false views of Rome.

It is interesting to note, however, that when preaching was restored to its proper place in the worship services, the Reformers, guided exclusively by the biblical givens and considering the Scriptures to be the rule of faith and life also in their preaching, returned to preaching as it originally existed in the Christian church. They began anew a tradition of preaching which was present in the church in her earliest New Testament history and which continues to be the distinguishing mark of all churches of the Reformation that are faithful to their heritage. Preaching has, since the Reformation, been the outstanding feature of genuinely Protestant churches and has been the real and only strength of those churches for almost five hundred years. If in today’s ecclesiastical world, radical changes are coming about in the place which the preaching occupies in the worship services, in the nature and character of the preaching, and in the contents of the preaching, this is because today’s church refuses be faithful to her Reformation heritage, indeed, consciously departs from it.

In our consideration of the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian controversy, we noticed that, while the question of the free offer of the gospel was not one of the issues, nevertheless, doctrinal questions that are inseparably connected to the question of the free offer were faced. Some of these questions were: the extent of the atonement, the particularity or universality of grace, the intention of God with respect to salvation
whether His intention is to save all or only those whom He Himself had chosen, and the related question of God’s will of decree and God’s will of command and how these two stood in relation to each other. Some of these doctrinal questions were issues at the time of the Reformation; some of them were not. Although the Romish Church had adopted the Semi-Pelagian position, also with respect to the doctrine of the extent of the atonement, this question concerning the atonement was not on the foreground during the battles of the first half of the sixteenth century. Generally speaking, however, both the Reformers and the Romish Church stood on the Anselmian tradition.4 But other issues that stand connected with the free offer were discussed at considerable length. We must be careful, however, that we do not attempt to interpret the Reformers and their views in the light of our modern times and modern theological controversies. This is a great danger whatever may be one’s personal views of the free offer. All who wish to appeal to Calvin especially and to the Reformers in general as their spiritual fathers ought to be honest enough not to put words in the mouths of the Reformers and appeal unjustly to them in support of views which we now believe and cherish, but which were far from the minds of those who brought reformation to the church in the sixteenth century. We can well bear in mind the remarks of William Cunningham, whom we quote at some length because of the importance of what he has to say on this question.5

In almost all theological controversies, much space has been occupied by the discussion of extracts from books and documents adduced as authorities in support of the opinions maintained; and there is certainly no department of theological literature in which so much ability and learning, so much time and strength, have been uselessly wasted, or in which so much of controversial unfairness has been exhibited. Controversialists in general have shown an intense and irresistible desire to prove that their peculiar opinions were supported by the fathers, or by the Reformers, or by the great divines of their own church; and have often exhibited a great want both of wisdom and of candor in the efforts they have made to effect this object . . . . There is no man who has written much upon important and difficult subjects, and has not fallen occasionally into error, confusion, obscurity, and inconsistency; and there is certainly no body of men that have ever been appealed to as authorities, in whose writings a larger measure of these qualities is to be round than in those of the Fathers of the Christian church....

In adducing extracts from eminent writers in support of their opinions, controversialists usually overlook or forget the obvious consideration that it is only the mature and deliberate conviction of a competent judge upon the precise point under consideration that should be held as entitled to any difference. When men have never, or scarcely ever, had present to their thoughts the precise question that may have afterwards become a matter of dispute, when they have never deliberately examined it, or given a formal and explicit deliverance regarding it, it will usually follow, 1st, That it is difficult if not impossible to ascertain what they thought about it,to collect this from incidental statements, or mere allusions, dropped when they were treating of other topics; and, 2nd, That their opinion about it, if it could be ascertained, would be of no weight or value. A large portion of the materials which have been collected by controversialists as testimonies in favor of their opinions from eminent writers, is at once swept away as useless and irrelevant, by the application of this principle, the truth of this principle is so obvious, that it has passed into a sort of proverb, "Auctoris aliud agenis parva est auctoritas." And yet controversialists in general have continued habitually to disregard it, and to waste their time in trying to bring the authority of eminent writers to bear upon questions that they have never examined; and have not scrupled, in many cases, to have recourse or to make them speak more plainly. The opinion even of Calvin, upon a point which he had never carefully examined, and on which he has given no formal deliverance, is of no weight or value, and would scarcely be worth examining; were it not that so much has been written upon this subject, and that his views upon many points have been, and still are, so much misrepresented.

In dealing with authorities, then, it is necessary to ascertain, whether the authors referred to and quoted have really formed and expressed an opinion upon the point, in regard to which their testimony is adduced. It is necessary further to collect together, and to examine carefully and deliberately, the whole of what they have written upon the subject under consideration, that we may understand fully and accurately what their whole mind regarding it really was, instead of trying to deduce it from a hasty glance at partial and incidental statements. And in order to conduct this process of estimating and applying testimonies in a satisfactory and successful way, it is also necessary, that we be familiar with the whole import and bearing of the discussion on both sides, as it was present to the mind of the author whose statements we are investigating. Without this knowledge, we shall be very apt to misapprehend the true meaning and significance of what he has said, and to make it the ground of unwarranted and erroneous inferences.... To manage aright this matter of the adduction and application of testimonies or authorities requires an extent of knowledge, a patience and caution in comparing and estimating materials, and an amount of candor and tact, which few controversialists possess, and in which many of them are deplorably deficient.

With these preliminary remarks we turn to a brief consideration of Luther’s views on these matters relating to the free offer, and the views of subsequent Lutheranism.

One can search Luther’s writings in vain for references either to the free offer of the gospel or to those doctrines that have been related to the free offer. There is no solid evidence that Luther himself wanted any part of any of these views.

In our search in Luther’s writings for anything which relates to the question of the free offer of the gospel, we came across one interesting passage in his Bondage of the Will which might at first glance suggest something similar to a free offer. Luther writes:

Therefore it is rightly said, “If God does not desire our death, it is to be laid to the charge of our own will, if we perish.” This, I say, is right, if you speak of GOD PREACHED. For he desires that all men should be saved (emphasis ours), seeing that, He comes unto all by the word of salvation, and it is the fault of the will which does not receive Him: as He said (Matthew 23:37).6

Now it is interesting that one has to search far and wide in the writings of this prolific author to find even one statement that seems to suggest the idea of the free offer. But even here there is no reference to the free offer as such, although Luther does express here that it is God’s desire to save all men. We ought to note, however, that this statement is found in a section dealing with a discussion of Ezekiel 18:23, a passage which Erasmus appealed to in support of the doctrine of free will. Erasmus argued that this passage teaches that God desired all men to be saved, that only some are saved, that, therefore, the decision concerning salvation rests with the free will of man. Luther repudiates this interpretation with all his soul and insists that the expression, “God desires not the death of the sinner,” is simply that promise of God, found in a thousand places in Scripture, which is intended to comfort the hearts of those who are troubled by their sin and fearful of the wrath of an Almighty God (pp. 166-168). But these are those who are already saved by the power of God’s grace in their hearts, i.e., those in whom the law has brought sorrow for sin and fears of death, and in whom, therefore, the promises of the gospel are now worked (p. 170). But why is it that some are so affected by the law and others are not? Luther himself answers:

But why it is, that some are touched by the law and some are not touched, why some receive the offered grace and some despise it, that is another question which is not here treated on by Ezekiel; because, he is speaking of THE PREACHED AND OFFERED MERCY OF GOD, not of that SECRET AND TO BE FEARED WILL OF GOD, who, according to his own counsel, ordained whom, and such as, He will to be receivers and partakers of the preached and offered mercy: which WILL, is not to be curiously inquired into, but to be adored with reverence as the most profound SECRET of the divine Majesty, which He reserves unto Himself and keeps hidden from us, and that, much more religiously than the mention of ten thousand Corycian Caverns (p. 171).

It is clear from all this that Luther interprets Ezekiel 18:23 as referring to God’s people alone. This is very striking since this is exactly one of the passages in Scripture that the defenders of the free offer have often appealed to in support of their view. Nevertheless, Luther does not teach here that this passage must be interpreted to mean that God wants all men to be saved. That he seems indeed to contradict himself is true, but it must again be remembered that Luther was not facing squarely the questions which later theologians faced after the whole doctrine of man’s free will had been taught and defended in the church.

Not only was Luther very strong on this question throughout his book, The Bondage of the Will, but he also was strong on such doctrines as the particularity of the atonement, the harmony between the hidden and revealed will of God, and the particularity of grace. All his writings that deal with these subjects reflect this emphasis.

Nevertheless, Lutheranism itself did not remain in this tradition. This was in large measure due to the influence of Melanchthon, Luther’s co-worker and fellow reformer. We cannot enter into this question in detail, but it is a well-known fact that Melanchthon, especially after Luther’s death, drifted away from the strong and sharp truths of sovereign grace as maintained by Luther and introduced into Lutheran thinking synergism in the place of sovereign grace, a synergism which taught that salvation was the cooperative work of God and man. This weakness in later Lutheranism was reflected in the Lutheran Confessions, particularly The Formula of Concord. In Article XI, dealing with the subject of eternal predestination, paragraphs 7 & 11, we read:

VII. But Christ calls all sinners to Him, and promises to give them rest. And He earnestly wishes that all men may come to Him, and suffer themselves to be cared for and succored. To these He offers Himself in the Word as a Redeemer, and wishes that the Word may be heard, and that their ears may not be hardened, nor the Word be neglected and contemned. And He promises that He will bestow the virtue and operation of the Holy Spirit and divine aid, to the end that we may abide steadfast in the faith and attain eternal life.

XI. But as to the declaration (Matt. xxii. 14), "many are called, but few are chosen," it is not to be so understood as if God were unwilling that all should be saved, but the cause of the damnation of the ungodly is that they either do not hear the Word of God at all, but contumaciously contemn it, stop their ears, and harden their hearts, and in this way foreclose to the Spirit of God his ordinary way, so that he cannot accomplish his work in them, or at least when they have heard the Word, make it of no account, and cast it away. Neither God nor His election, but their own wickedness, is to blame if they perish (II Pet. 2:1 sqq.; Luke 2: 49, 52; Heb. 12:25 sqq.).

These ideas come out perhaps even more strongly in the negative section of this article:

. . . We therefore reject all the errors which we will now enumerate:

1. That God is unwilling that all men should repent and believe the Gospel.

2. That when God calls us to Him He does not earnestly wish that all men should come to Him.

3. That God is not willing that all should be saved, but that some men are destined to destruction, not on account of their sin, but by the mere counsel, purpose, and will of God, so that they cannot in any wise attain to salvation.

Luther himself would have violently disagreed with these statements, and it is striking that the theology of the free offer does not appear as an integral part of Luther's thought, but as a doctrinal formulation brought into Lutheranism under the weakening influence of Melanchthonian synergism.

John Calvin

It is not our purpose to enter into detail on the question of the teachings of John Calvin on this subject of the free offer. Much ink has been spilled, much fierce argumentation has echoed in ecclesiastical halls, and much disagreement has torn apart Reformed believers on this question. Our relatively short discussion of Calvin’s views is justified on three grounds. First, Calvin himself never faced specifically and concretely the question of the free offer of the gospel any more than did Luther. As we remarked in the early part of this chapter, the nature and character of the preaching was not an issue between the Reformers and the Romish church. Although there are innumerable passages in Calvin’s writings which make use of the word "offer,"and we shall comment on this a bit laterthe actual theology of the free offer was a question which Calvin did not face. The issue of the free offer arose over a half-century later. To interpret Calvin, therefore, in the light of subsequent controversies over the free offer is to read into Calvin something that is not there. We remind our readers of the warnings of Wm. Cunningham which we quoted earlier. 

Second, it is clear from all Calvin’s writings that he militated against all the ideas that have become such an integral part of free offer theology. We hope to show this briefly, but it can safely be said that every one of the doctrines which form a part of the teachings of the free offer were expressly and specifically refuted by Calvin at one point or another in his writings. Taking all of Calvin’s views into account and the whole genius of his theology, one can only conclude that present day ideas of the free offer were foreign to Calvin’s thinking. The most that can be said is that in some respects Calvin used ambiguous language, especially if we are determined to weigh this language in the light of subsequent theological discussions, and that Calvin made, again in the light of modern-day controversies, statements which appear contradictory to the main emphasis of his theology.

Third, there have been others who have written on this subject and who have proved beyond doubt that Calvin wanted no part of what today goes under the name of the free offer. We refer to such writings as: Calvin, Berkhof and H. J. Kuiper: A Comparison, by Rev. H. Hoeksema (published in pamphlet form by the Reformed Free Publishing Association); De Kracht Gods Tot Zaligheid, Genade Geen Aanbod, (A Power of God Unto Salvation, Or, Grace Not An Offer), also by H. Hoeksema (published in pamphlet form by the R.F.P.A.); Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel, by Prof. D. Engelsma (published in book form and available from the R.F.P.A.).

Concerning Calvin’s use of the term “offer,” we agree with Engelsma when he writes:

It is of no consequence, therefore, that the term “offer” appears in Calvin, in other Reformed theologians, and in such Reformed creeds as the Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession of Faith. The word “offer” had originally a sound meaning: “serious call,” “presentation of Christ.” We are fundamentally uninterested in warring over words. No, but we are interested to ask concerning the doctrine of the offer: is it Reformed?7

To demonstrate our contention that Calvin inveighed against all doctrines associated with the free offer, we quote first of all from Calvin’s Institutes.

In Book III, Chapter 22, Section 10, Calvin writes:

It is objected by some that God will be inconsistent with Himself, if He invites all men universally to come to Him, and receives only a few elect. Thus, according to them, the universality of the promises destroys the discrimination of special grace . . . . How the Scripture reconciles these two facts, that by external preaching all are called to repentance and faith, and yet that the spirit of repentance and faith is not given to all, I have elsewhere stated, and shall soon have occasion partly to repeat. What they assume, I deny as being false in two respects. For he who threatens drought in one city while it rains upon another, and who denounces to another place a famine of doctrine, lays himself under no positive obligation to call all men alike. And he who, forbidding Paul to preach the Word in Asia, and suffering him not to go into Bithynia, calls him into Macedonia, demonstrates his right to distribute this treasure to whom he pleases. In Isaiah, he still more fully declares his destination of the promises of salvation exclusively for the elect; for of them only, and not indiscriminately of all mankind, he declares that they shall be his disciples (Isaiah 8:16). Whence it appears, that when the doctrine of salvation is offered to all for their effectual benefit, it is a corrupt prostitution of that which is declared to be reserved particularly for the children of the church.

In Chapter 24, Section 1 of the same Book, Calvin writes:

But, in order to a further elucidation of the subject, it is necessary to treat of the calling of the elect, and of the blinding and hardening of the impious. On the former I have already made a few observations, with a view to refute the error of those who propose the generality of the promises to put all mankind on an equality. But the discriminating election of God, which is otherwise concealed within himself, he manifests only by his calling, which may therefore with propriety be termed the testification or evidence of it.

Calvin then goes on to show how the Scriptures teach that there is a perfect unity between the truth of sovereign election and the calling of the gospel.

Calvin even speaks in more than one place of the sovereign purpose of God in the preaching of the gospel to harden the reprobate. For example, he writes in Section 8 of the same chapter:

The declaration of Christ, that "many are called, and few chosen," is very improperly understood. For there will be no ambiguity in it if we remember what must be clear from the foregoing observations, that there are two kinds of calling. For there is a universal call, by which God, in the external preaching of the Word, invites all, indiscriminately, to come to him, even those to whom he intends it as a savour of death and an occasion of heavier condemnation (italics ours).

In Section 12 he writes:

As the Lord by his effectual calling of the elect, completes the salvation to which he predestinated them in his eternal counsel, so he has his judgments against the reprobate, by which he executes his counsel respecting them. Those, therefore, whom he has created to a life of shame and a death of destruction, that they might be instruments of his wrath, and examples of his severity, he causes to reach their appointed end, sometimes depriving them of the opportunity of hearing the Word, sometimes, by the preaching of it, increasing their blindness and stupidity (italics ours).

In Section 13 he writes:

Why, then, in bestowing grace upon some, does he pass over others? Luke assigns a reason for the former, that they “were ordained to eternal life.” What conclusion, then, shall we draw respecting the latter, but that they are vessels of wrath to dishonor? . . . . It is a fact not to be doubted that God sends his Word to many whose blindness he determines shall be increased. For with what design does he direct so many commands to be delivered to Pharaoh? Was it from an expectation that his heart would be softened by repeated and frequent messages? Before he began, he knew and foretold the results. He commanded Moses to go and declare his will to Pharaoh, adding at the same time, “But I will harden his heart, that he shall not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21).

In Section 15 Calvin writes concerning a passage referred to often by defenders of the free offer of the gospel.

But as objections are frequently raised from some passages of Scripture, in which God seems to deny that the destruction of the wicked is caused by his decree, but that, in opposition to his remonstrances they voluntarily bring ruin upon themselves,let us show by a brief explication that they are not at all inconsistent with the foregoing doctrine. A passage is produced from Ezekiel, where God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). If this is to be extended to all mankind, why does he not urge many to repentance, whose minds are more flexible to obedience than those of others who grow more and more callous to his daily invitations? Among the inhabitants of Nineveh and Sodom, Christ himself declares that his evangelical preaching and miracles would have brought forth more fruit than in Judea. How is it, then, if God will have all men to be saved, that he opens not the gate of repentance to those miserable men who would be more ready to receive the favor? Hence we perceive it to be a violent perversion of the passage, if the will of God, mentioned by the prophet, be set in opposition to his eternal counsel, by which he has distinguished the elect from the reprobate. Now if we inquire the genuine sense of the prophet: his only meaning is to inspire the penitent with hopes of pardon. And this is the sum that it is beyond a doubt that God is ready to pardon sinners immediately on their conversion. Therefore he wills not their death, in as much as he wills their repentance. But experience teaches, that he does not will the repentance of those whom he externally calls, in such a manner as to effect all their hearts. Nor should he on this account be charged with acting deceitfully; for, though his external call only renders those who hear without obeying it inexcusable, yet it is justly esteemed the testimony of God’s grace, by which he reconciles men to himself. Let us observe, therefore, the design of the prophet in saying that God has no pleasure in the death of a sinner; it is to assure the pious of God’s readiness to pardon them immediately on their repentance and to show the impious the aggravation of their sin in rejecting such great compassion and kindness of God. Repentance, therefore, will always be met by Divine mercy, but on whom repentance is bestowed, we are clearly taught by Ezekiel himself, as well as by all the prophets and apostles.

While we could multiply similar passages from the Institutes, we turn now to Calvin’s treatise on The Eternal Predestination of God.8

In this treatise on predestination Calvin writes:

All this Pighius loudly denies, adducing that passage of the apostle (I Tim. 2:4): who will have all men to be saved and, referring also to Ezekiel 18:23, he argues thus, “That God willeth not the death of a sinner,” may be taken upon His own oath, where He says by that prophet, “As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the wicked that dieth but rather that he should return from his way and live.” Now we reply, that as the language of the prophet here is an exhortation to repentance, it is not at all marvelous in him to declare that God willeth all men to be saved. For the mutual relation between threats and promises shows that such forms of speaking are conditional. In this same manner God declared to the Ninevites, and to the kings of Gerar and Egypt, that He would do that which in reality, He did not intend to do, for their repentance averted the punishment which He had threatened to inflict upon them. Whence it is evident that the punishment was denounced on condition of their remaining obstinate and impenitent. And yet, the denunciation of the punishment was positive, as if it had been an irrevocable decree. But after God had terrified them with the apprehension of His wrath, and had duly humbled them as not being utterly desperate, He encourages them with the hope of pardon that they might feel that there was yet left open a space for remedy. Just so it is with respect to the conditional promises of God, which God has decreed in His secret counsel, but declare only what God is ready to do to all those who are brought to faith and repentance.

But men untaught of God, not understanding these things, allege that we hereby attribute to God a two-fold or double will. Whereas God is so far from being variable, that no shadow of variableness appertains to Him, even in the most remote degree. Hence Pighius, ignorant of the Divine nature of these deep things, thus argued; “What else is this but making God a mocker of men, if God is represented as really not willing that which He professes to will, and as not having pleasure in that in which He in reality has pleasure?” But if these two members of the sentence be read in conjunction, as they ever ought to be—“I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked;” and, “But that the wicked turn from his way and live”—read these two propositions in connection with each other, and the calumny is washed off at once. God requires of us this conversion, or “turning away from our iniquity,” and in whomsoever He finds it He disappoints not such an one of the promised reward of eternal life. Wherefore, God is as much said to have pleasure in, and to will, this eternal life, as to have pleasure in the repentance; and He has pleasure in the latter, because He invites all men to it by His word. Now all this is in perfect harmony with His secret and eternal counsel, by which He decreed to convert none but His own elect. None but God’s elect, therefore, ever do turn from their wickedness. And yet, the adorable God is not, on these accounts to be considered variable or capable of change, because, as a Lawgiver He enlightens all men with the external doctrine of conditional life. But in the latter case, He brings unto eternal life those whom He willed according to His eternal purpose, regenerating by His Spirit, as an eternal Father, His own children only.

It is quite certain that men do not “turn from their evil ways” to the Lord of their own accord, not by any instinct of nature. Equally certain is it that the gift of conversion is not to all men; because this is that one of the two covenants which God promises that He will not make with any but His own children and His own elect people concerning whom He has recorded His promise that “He will write His law in their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). Now a man must be utterly beside himself to assert that this promise is made to all men generally and indiscriminately. (This italics is ours.)9

It is clear from these quotes, and they could be multiplied, that Calvin expressly repudiates the theology of the free offer of the gospel.

An integral part of the theology of the free offer of the gospel is the doctrine of a certain universality of the atonement of Christ. It has been maintained in recent times that Calvin taught a universal atonement, and various references in Calvin’s writings have been quoted to substantiate this view. That the question of a universal atonement is closely connected to the question of the free offer of the gospel is evident from the fact that wherever the free offer of the gospel has been taught the universality of the atonement of Christ has become an inseparable companion doctrine. It is true that those who wish to remain identified as Calvinists in distinction from Arminians will point out that they do not believe certainly in a universal efficacy of the atonement. But they will still defend a universal atonement at least with respect to sufficiency and almost always with respect to intention and availability. The question, often debated, is: Did Calvin teach such a universal atonement? W. Cunningham has an interesting discussion of this very subject in his book, The Reformation and the Theology of the Reformation.

It has been contended very frequently and very confidently, that Calvin did not sanction the views which have been generally held by Calvinistic divines, in regard to the extent of the atonement,that he did not believe in the doctrine of particular redemption, that is, that Christ did not die for all men, but only for the elect, and for those who are actually saved,but that, on the contrary, he asserted a universal, unlimited, or indefinite atonement. Amyraut, in defending his doctrine of universal atonement in combination with Calvinistic views upon other points, appealed confidently to the authority of Calvin. 

It is certain that Beza held to the doctrine of particular redemption, or of a limited atonement, as it has since been held by most Calvinists, and brought it out fully in his controversies with the Lutherans on the subject of predestination, though he was not, as has sometimes been asserted, the first who maintained it. It has been confidently alleged that Calvin did not concur in this view, but held the opposite doctrine of universal redemption and unlimited atonement. Now it is true, that we do not find in Calvin’s writings explicit statements as to any limitation in the object of the atonement, or in the number of those for whom Christ died . . . . Of all the passages in Calvin’s writings bearing more or less directly upon this subject,which we remember to have read or seen produced on either side,there is only one, which, with anything like confidence, can be regarded as formally and explicitly denying an unlimited atonement; and notwithstanding all the pains that have been taken to bring out the views of Calvin upon this question, we do not recollect to have seen it adverted to except by a single popish writer. It occurs in his treatise, De Vera Participatione Christi in Coena, in reply to Hushusius, a violent Lutheran defender of the corporal presence of Christ in the eucharist. The passage is this:“Scire velim quomodo Christi carnem edant impii pro quivus non est crucifixa, et quyomodo sanguinem bibant qui extiandis eorum peccatis non est effusus.” This is a very explicit denial of the universality of the atonement. But it stands alone, so far as we know, in Calvin’s writings . . . . The topic was not then formally discussed as a distinct subject of controversy; and Calvin does not seem to have been ever led, in discussing cognate questions, to take up this one and to give a deliverance regarding it. We believe that no sufficient evidence has been brought forward that Calvin held that Christ died for all men, or for the whole world, in any such sense as to warrant Calvinistic universalists,that is, men who, though holding Calvinistic doctrines upon other points, yet believe in a universal or unlimited atonement,in asserting that he sanctioned their peculiar principles.

There is not, then, we are persuaded, satisfactory evidence that Calvin held the doctrine of a universal, unlimited, or indefinite atonement. And, moreover, we consider ourselves warranted in asserting, that there is sufficient evidence that he did not hold this doctrine; though on the grounds formerly explained, and with the one exception already adverted to, it is not evidence which bears directly and immediately upon this precise point. The evidence of this position is derived chiefly from the following two considerations.

1st. Calvin consistently, unhesitatingly, and explicitly denied the doctrine of God’s universal grace and love to all menthat is, “omnibus et singulis,” to each and every man,as implying in some sense a desire or purpose or intention to save them all; and with this universal grace or love to all men the doctrine of a universal or unlimited atonement, in the nature of the case, and in the convictions and admissions of all its supporters, stands inseparably connected. That Calvin denied the doctrine of God’s universal grace or love to all men, as implying some desire or intention of saving them all, and some provision directed to that object, is too evident to anyone who has read his writings to admit of doubt or to require proof. We are not aware that the doctrine of a universal atonement ever has been maintained, even by men who were in other respects Calvinistic, except in conjunction and in connection with an assertion of God’s universal grace or love to all men. And it is manifestly impossible that it should be otherwise, if Christ died for all men, pro omnibus et singulis,this must have been in some sense an expression or indication of a desire or intention on the part of God, and of a provision made by Him, directed to the object of saving them all, though frustrated in its effect, by their refusal to embrace the provision made for and offered to them. A universal atonement, or the death of Christ for all men,that is, for each and every man, necessarily implies this, and would be an anomaly in the divine government without it. No doubt, it may be said, that the doctrine of a universal atonement necessitates, in logical consistency, a denial of the Calvinistic doctrine of election, as much as it necessitates an admission of God’s universal grace or love to all men; and we believe this to be true. But still, when we find that, in point of fact, none has ever held the doctrine of universal atonement without holding also the doctrine of universal grace,while it is certain that some men of distinguished ability and learning, such as Amyraut and Daillee, Davenant and Baxter, have held both these doctrines of universal atonement and universal grace, and at the same time have held the Calvinistic doctrine of election; we are surely called upon in fairness and modesty to admit, that the logical connection cannot be quite so direct and certain in the one case as in the other. And then this conclusion warrants us in maintaining, that the fact that Calvin so explicitly denies the doctrine of God’s universal grace or love to all men, affords a more direct and certain ground for the inference, that he did not hold the doctrine of universal atonement, than could be legitimately deduced from the mere fact, that he held the doctrine of unconditional personal election to everlasting life. The invalidity of the inferential process in the one case is not sufficient to establish its invalidity in the other; and therefore our argument holds good.10

With this important statement of Cunningham we are in complete agreement. But in the course of proving that there is, in Calvin’s writings, abundant proof that Calvin did not hold to the doctrine of universal atonement Cunningham makes several other important observations to which we ought briefly to call attention. In the first place, Cunningham, and correctly so, insists that Calvin “consistently, unhesitatingly, and explicitly denied the doctrine of God’s universal grace and love to all men.” We have earlier called attention to the fact that there are more recent defenders of the free offer of the gospel who have attempted to prove that Calvin indeed taught a universal grace and love of God. Cunningham denies this, and we believe Cunningham is right. In the second place, Cunningham also points out that Calvin in no sense of the word taught a desire or purpose or intention of God to save all men, an idea that is the very heart of the theology of the free offer. In fact, Cunningham insists that he can rest his case of Calvin’s denial of universal atonement upon Calvin’s repudiation of this entire idea. How much more strongly can it be put? That Calvin denied all this “is too evident to anyone who has read his writings, to admit of doubt or to require proof.” Cunningham understood Calvin. Would that more modern defenders of the free offer would have the same clear conception of what Calvin taught. And history has proved Cunningham correct that the idea of a free offer of the gospel is inseparably connected with the idea of a general grace and love of God to all men and a universal atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ.

Cunningham further proves his thesis that Calvin repudiated the doctrine of a universal atonement by quoting from Calvin’s commentary on I Timothy 2:4 and I John 2:2. Cunningham’s argument is that Calvin interprets some “of the principle texts on which the advocates of that doctrine rest it, in such a way as to deprive them of all capacity of serving the purpose to which its supporters commonly apply them.” We give here the pertinent quotations from Calvin’s commentaries rather than directly from Cunningham because Cunningham quotes them in Latin.11 We quote only that part of Calvin’s remarks on this verse which are quoted in Cunningham.

The apostle simply means, that there is no people and no rank in the world that is excluded from salvation; because God wishes that the gospel should be proclaimed to all without exception. Now the preaching of the gospel gives life; and hence he justly concludes that God invites all equally to partake of salvation. But the present discourse relates to classes of men, and not to individual persons, for his sole object is, to include in this number princes and foreign nations. (Commentary on I Timothy 2:4)

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 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 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. (Commentary on I John 2:2)

Cunningham concludes his discussion of this subject with the remarks:

He gives the very same explanation of these two passages in his treatise on Predestination. Now this is in substance just the interpretation commonly given of these and similar texts, by the advocates of the doctrine of particular redemption; and it seems scarcely possible, that it should have been adopted by one who did not hold that doctrine, or who believed in the truth of the opposite one.

From all this it is clear that Calvin did not only not teach the doctrines which form an inseparable part of the free offer of the gospel, but that he was at great pains to contradict such doctrines and refute them with the power of the Scriptures. Anyone who has read Calvin will have to admit that efforts to appeal to him in support of the free offer are useless.

From all this, several conclusions can be made. 1) Calvin repeatedly used the word “offer” and by it often meant to express the fact that the Christ in Whom alone is salvation is presented to men through the preaching of the gospel. With this no one disagrees. 2) Calvin emphasizes very strongly that, through the general proclamation of the gospel to all, the command comes also to all to repent of sin, turn from evil and believe in Christ. Also with this truth no one disagrees. 3) But with respect to the doctrines of the offer, the genius of Calvin’s theology repeatedly militates against the offer. Calvin wants no part of a double will in God that is in conflict with itself, according to which God, on the one hand, determines to save only His elect, but, on the other hand, wills to save all. Calvin, if Cunningham is right, and we believe that he is, wanted nothing of a universal love or grace of God that is shown to all. Perhaps passages can be quoted here and there in Calvin’s writings to suggest such ideas but Calvin’s theology militates against it. 4) While, finally, Calvin did not write extensively on the question of the extent of the atonement, what he did write surely shows conclusively that Calvin taught an atonement limited only to the elect.


4. It is basically the position of Anselm on the atonement that is incorporated into the Heidelberg Catechism in its discussion of the need for a Mediator in Lord’s Days 4-6. This basic agreement between the Reformers and Rome is also one reason why the question of the extent of the atonement is not extensively discussed in the writings of the Reformers. Some have laid hold upon this fact to claim that especially Calvin taught a certain universality of the atonement; or at least, that he did not specifically teach a particular redemption. This is a misinterpretation of Calvin, as we shall see when we discuss this matter somewhat more in detail.

5. W. Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation (Banner of Truth, 1979), pp. 400ff.

6. Edition of 1931 by Win. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 173.

7. D. Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel, p. 81.

8. We quote from the edition of Henry Cole, published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956, in the book, Calvin’s Calvinism. This book contains two treatises of Calvin, the other, “A Defence of the Secret Providence of God.” The former, on predestination, was written particularly in connection with the Bolsec controversy. Bolsec disrupted the ecclesiastical life of Geneva with sometimes violent attacks against the truth of sovereign predestination. Calvin’s treatise was sent to the other Protestant cantons of Switzerland but never received full approval from them. It has become known as the Consensus Genevensis, and is perhaps Calvin’s clearest statement on the truth of sovereign predestination. A reprint of Calvin’s Calvinism is available from the R.F.P.A. publishing.

9. Op. cit., pp. 98-100.

10. Op. cit., pp. 395ff.

11. We quote from the translation of Rev. W. Pringle, published by Win. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. in 1948.

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