Did John Calvin believe in limited atonement?

John Calvin: Barcelona, Spain (1554)

Courtesy Wikipedia

By Spencer D Gear PhD

Did John Calvin (AD 1509-1564) support limited atonement? In the early days of his writing when he was aged 26, he completed the first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. In the Institutes, he wrote:

I say with Augustine, that the Lord has created those who, as he certainly foreknew, were to go to destruction, and he did so because he so willed. Why he willed it is not ours to ask, as we cannot comprehend, nor can it become us even to raise a controversy as to the justice of the divine will. Whenever we speak of it, we are speaking of the supreme standard of justice (Institutes 3.23.5).

Here Calvin affirmed that God willed the destruction of unbelievers. Calvin continues:

their perdition depends on the predestination of God, the cause and matter of it is in themselves. The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should: why he deemed it meet, we know not. It is certain, however, that it was just, because he saw that his own glory would thereby be displayed (Institutes 3.23.8)

While this description is tied up with Calvin’s view of double predestination, it is linked with the doctrine of limited atonement in that it would be impossible for God to predestine unbelievers to eternal damnation and yet provide unlimited atonement that was available to them, unto the possibility of salvation. That is the logical connection, as I understand it.

Roger Nicole has written an article on “John Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement”. This indicates that Calvin did not believe in limited atonement, but that it was a doctrine originated by Calvinists following Calvin. But at the end of the article he stated, ‘Our conclusion, on balance, is that definite [limited] atonement fits better than universal grace into the total pattern of Calvin’s teaching’.

Calvin’s first edition of The Institutes was in Latin in 1536 and this was published in a French edition in 1560.

John Calvin did progress in his thinking when he wrote his commentaries on the Bible later in life. His first commentary was on the Book of Romans in 1540 and his commentaries after 1557 were taken from stenographer’s notes taken from lectures to his students.

Calvin wrote in his commentary on John 3:16,

Faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish….

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 (bold emphasis added).

Thus, John Calvin himself is very clear here. He believed in unlimited atonement because a limited atonement would not make sense in light of his statement about John 3:16 that ‘he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers’. If unbelievers were destined for eternal destruction by the predestination of God, they would have an excuse, ‘God destined it that way, so I have no alternative but to go to eternal condemnation’. Calvin’s language is unequivocal in John 3:16 that the ‘whosoever’ meant ‘all indiscriminately’ and that no unbeliever would have an excuse before God.

What about his commentary on 1 John 2:2? This verse states, ‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’ (ESV). This is speaking of Jesus’ blood sacrifice. Was his suffering for the sins of the entire world or only for the elect, as Calvinists teach?

Calvin believed unlimited atonement

In his commentary on 1 John 2:2, John Calvin wrote:

Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world and in the goodness of God is offered unto all men without distinction; His blood being shed not for a part of the world only but for the whole human race. For although in the world nothing is found worthy of the favor of God yet He holds out the propitiation to the whole world, since without exception He summons all to the faith of Christ which is nothing else than the door unto hope.[1]

I was alerted to this content of Calvin in Augustus Hopkins Strong’s systematic theology (1907:778). I have the hardcover edition, but it is available online at: Google Books (Accessed 28 August 2012). Strong begins his introduction to this quote from Calvin in 1 John 2:2, ‘In later days Calvin wrote in his Commentary on 1 John 2:2….’ (Strong 1907:778). However, I have not been able to source this quote from Calvin online, although one poster in a Forum stated that it was from an earlier edition of Calvin’s commentaries published by Eerdmans.

However, Strong’s statement is not what Calvin wrote earlier in his commentary on this verse as the succeeding quote demonstrates.

Roger Nicole’s assessment of Calvin on the atonement is in, ‘Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement’.

To try to uncover the original source of Calvin’s quote, I started a thread on Christian Forums, ‘Calvin on the Atonement’ (29 August 2012). The only helpful comment in trying to identify this quote has been from LamorakDesGalis:

I believe Eerdman’s was founded in 1911, so its unlikely that they were the publisher. I think it likely that Strong had access to Calvin’s Opera Omnia[2], a massive Latin work of 59 volumes, and probably translated it from the Latin.
The quote from Strong is consistent with what Calvin has stated in many places. The early Reformers – Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger – held to universal atonement. Calvin was no exception, and his comments throughout his works are very clear. For example Calvin’s commentary for Romans 5:18 where he states that Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world:

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.[3]

Also Calvin’s commentary for Mark 14:24, where Calvin clarifies what is meant by “many”:[4]

Which is shed for many. By the word many he means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race[/b]; 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.[5]

How would a Calvinist reply to these citations from Rom. 5:18 and Mark 14:24 in support of universal atonement? Here is one example:

This is the quote from Calvin’s Commentaries on Romans 5:18:
“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.”

What Calvin is saying is that the OFFER is to all, but all do not receive him, so even though the offer is to all, the atonement is not extended to all.

[Of Mark 14:24],

What Calvin means is simply that Christ died for the world, in the sense that He died not just for Jews, or for the French, etc. but that He died for peoples from every nation tribe and tongue, which together represent the entire human race. Similar to reading Scripture, to properly understand an author, we have to read them in their proper context. To say that John Calvin held to a “universal atonement” is simply not consistent within the context of his writings as a whole.[6]

Why would Augustus Strong do this?

It is important to understand that Augustus Strong was a Calvinist. The Reformed Reader states:

Augustus Hopkins Strong is perhaps the most notable Baptist theologian of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  His place in a compendium of Baptist theologians is central.  In some cases he must be read in order to understand the theological writings of others.   Strong taught and wrote his orthodox theology from a committed, reformed, Baptist perspective, while at the same time rigorously engaging intellectual developments within his cultural context.  Strong’s magnum opus, the Systematic Theology, embodied the best of his own theological reflection and of Baptist theological thought prior to the momentous crisis (the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy).

The Hall of Church History: The Baptists notes that ‘Augustus Strong, another well-known Baptist theologian, was an Amyraldian (four-point Calvinist)’. Elwell’s Handbook of Evangelical Theologians states that ‘The dominant influence at Rochester Theological Seminary when Strong was a student there was Ezekiel Robinson. As a preacher and theologian, Robinson made a great impression on Strong, shaping his theology into a Calvinist mold’.

Strong was writing from a perspective of sympathy with Calvinism. We don’t know the reasons for this amalgamation of Calvin’s teaching against limited atonement (from a synthesis of comments in his commentaries), but it may have been to show that Calvin did not support limited atonement. We know this from Calvin’s commentaries on Mark 14:24, John 3:16, Romans 5:18 and 1 John 2:2.

Calvin believed limited atonement

However, Calvin’s online edition of 1 John 2:2 states:

And not for ours only He added this for the sake of amplifying, in order that the faithful might be assured that the expiation made by Christ, extends to all who by faith embrace the gospel.

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[7] 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.

In earlier days, did Calvin believe limited atonement? See the Institutes.

See the quotes at the beginning of this article from Institutes 3.23.5 and Institutes 3.23.8. However, these have to do with double predestination and not limited atonement. In Calvin’s works, I cannot read support for limited atonement, but I have not read all of his voluminous writings.

On Christian Forums a person alerted me to this article that helps to explain how Strong got his quote, ‘Augustus H. Strong (1836-1921) on Calvin on the Extent of the Atonement’. This is part of what that author wrote:

There is no evidence that Calvin held to limited atonement early in his life, and then moved to embrace unlimited atonement later. 2) Regarding the second comment, Strong’s formatting leaves much to be desired. At first glance, it may appear that Strong is extracting a single quotation from Calvin, and that from his commentary on 1 John 2:2. Strong is quoting free separate sources from Calvin’s commentaries. Firstly, Calvin’s comments on 1 John 2:2, and then the three separate references: Romans 5:18, Mark 14:24, and lastly John 3:16. For the last, Strong appears to be citing an older unknown translation of Calvin on John 3:16, or perhaps his own translation. Early English translations of Calvin on John 3:16 translated propitium as reconciliation or propitiation. 4) Thus Strong has extracted multiple comments from Calvin and then collapsed them into an apparently single quotation string.

That helps me to understand that Calvin never believed in limited atonement and that Strong’s assessment is from a variety of Calvin’s commentaries.

Here is further information on Calvin’s teaching on unlimited expiation.

Here I update the above assessment where further research has discovered that Calvin did not believe Jesus’ death was for the whole world of sinners. See my further assessment in:

Was John Calvin a TULIP Calvinist?

Further research

In my further investigation of Calvin on his view of the atonement, I discovered he was a fence-sitter. Sometimes he believed in universal atonement for the whole world and at other times it was limited to the elect. See the further research at: Was John Calvin a TULIP Calvinist?

I am left to conclude this was his conclusion concerning the atonement:


(photo courtesy Linda Sumruld)

What did the early church fathers say?

Church Fathers, 11th century Kievan minature: Wikipedia

Quotations from the Early Church Fathers

In this link you will find quotations by Ron Rhodes from church fathers affirming universal atonement. However, Ron has gathered these quotes from secondary sources. Not once in this link does he acknowledge the primary sources for these quotes. However, he does give secondary sources (in footnotes) in ‘The extent of the atonement’, but he is quoting other Christian authors and not directly from the church fathers. In what follows, I have attempted to follow up his quotes from the primary sources available on the www. What I found in some cases was that many of these quotes from the secondary sources were not confirmed in a www search. But Rhodes’ quotes from the early church fathers seem to have been accepted by many people using his quotes from his article.[8]

Let’s check out the primary sources online to see if some of the early church fathers (the ones mentioned by Ron Rhodes) supported unlimited atonement!

clip_image002Clement of Alexandria (150-220):‘He bestows salvation on all humanity abundantly’ (Paedagogus 1.11). ‘For instruction leads to faith, and faith with baptism is trained by the Holy Spirit. For that faith is the one universal salvation of humanity’ (Paedagogus 1.6). Elsewhere it has been stated by Ron Rhodes that Clement of Alexandria taught, ‘Christ freely brings… salvation to the whole human race’.[4][9] However, I’ve been unable to find these exact quotes in the writings of Clement of Alexandria.

clip_image002[1]Eusebius (260-340): ‘the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, and of His human body…. This Sacrifice was the Christ of God, from far distant times foretold as coming to men, to be sacrificed like a sheep for the whole human race’ (Demonstratio Evangelica, Bk 1, Introduction, ch. 10). ‘His Strong One forsook Him then, because He wished Him to go unto death, even “the death of the cross,” and to be set forth as the ransom and sacrifice for the whole world…. to ransom the whole human race, buying them with His precious Blood from their former slavery to their invisible tyrants, the unclean daemons, and the rulers and spirits of evil’ (Demonstratio Evangelica, Bk 10, ch 8).

clip_image002[2]Athanasius (293-373), in The Incarnation of the Word, wrote: ‘None could renew but He Who had created. He alone could (1) recreate all, (2) suffer for all, (3) represent all to the Father’ (7, heading). ‘all creation was confessing that He that was made manifest and suffered in the body was not man merely, but the Son of God and Saviour of all’ (19.3); ‘or who among those recorded in Scripture was pierced in the hands and feet, or hung at all upon a tree, and was sacrificed on a cross for the salvation of all?’ (37.1)

It has been quoted frequently across the www that Athanasius stated, ‘Christ the Son of God, having assumed a body like ours, because we were all exposed to death [which takes in more than the elect], gave Himself up to death for us all as a sacrifice to His Father’.[5] [10]However, I have been unable to find this exact quote in Athanasius.

clip_image002[3]Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386): ‘And wonder not that the whole world was ransomed; for it was no mere man, but the only-begotten Son of God, who died on its behalf’ (Catacheses – or Catehetical Lectures 13.2).

clip_image002[4]Cyril of Alexandria (A.D. 376-444) taught that we confess that he is the Son, begotten of God the Father, and Only-begotten God; and although according to his own nature he was not subject to suffering, yet he suffered for us in the flesh according to the Scriptures, and although impassible, yet in his Crucified Body he made his own the sufferings of his own flesh; and by the grace of God he tasted death for all…. he tasted death for every man, and after three days rose again, having despoiled hell.’ (Third epistle to Nestorius). ‘Giving His own Blood a ransom for the life of all’ (That Christ is one).

On the Internet, I have read many examples of this quote, “The death of one flesh is sufficient for the ransom of the whole human race, for it belonged to the Logos, begotten of God the Father.” (Oratorio de Recta Fide, no. 2, sec. 7). I have not yet located it on the www.

clip_image002[5]Gregory of Nazianzen (324-389): ‘He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only for thirty pieces of silver; but He redeems the world, and that at a great price, for the Price was His own blood.  As a sheep He is led to the slaughter, but He is the Shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also’ (Oration XXIX, The third theological oration on the Son, XX).

I was unable to locate the quote, ‘the sacrifice of Christ is an imperishable expiation of the whole world’, allegedly from Oratoria 2 in Pasch., i.e., Passover.

clip_image002[6]Basil of Caesarea, Basil the Great(330-379): “But one thing was found that was equivalent to all men….the holy and precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He poured out for us all” (On Ps. 49:7, 8, sec. 4 or Psalm 48, n.4). I have been unable to track down this quote on the www.

clip_image002[7]Ambrose (340-407): “Christ suffered for all, rose again for all. But if anyone does not believe in Christ, he deprives himself of that general benefit.” He also said, “Christ came for the salvation of all, and undertook the redemption of all, inasmuch as He brought a remedy by which all might escape, although there are many who…are unwilling to be healed” [supposedly from Ps. 118, Sermon 8]. I have not yet located it online.

clip_image002[8]Augustine (AD 354-430): Though Augustine is often cited as supporting limited atonement, there are also clear statements in Augustine’s writings that are supportive of unlimited atonement. For example: ” The Redeemer came, and gave a price; He poured forth His Blood, and bought the whole world. You ask what He bought? You see what He has given; find out then what He bought. The Blood of Christ was the price. What is equal to this? What, but the whole world? What, but all nations?” (Exposition on Psalm 96.5). He also stated, “For the blood of Christ was shed so efficaciously for the remission of all sins” (Tractates on the Gospel of John, Tractate 92.1).

clip_image002[9]Prosper of Aquitaine (a friend and disciple of Augustine, ca. AD 390-455): “As far as relates to the magnitude and virtue of the price, and to the one cause of the human race, the blood of Christ is the redemption of the whole world: but those who pass through this life without the faith of Christ, and the sacrament of regeneration, do not partake of the redemption” (Responses on Behalf of Augustine to the Articles of Objections Raised by the Vincentianists, 1, part of this quote is available at, Classical Christianity). Unfortunately, I have not been able to source this online from a site for Prosper of Aquitaine.

He also wrote: ‘Wherefore, the whole of mankind, whether circumcised or not, was under the sway of sin, in fetters because of the very same guilt. No one of the ungodly, who differed only in their degree of unbelief, could be saved without Christ’s Redemption. This Redemption spread throughout the world to become the good news for all men without any distinction’ (Prosper of Aquitaine, The Call of All Nations, p. 119).

The following are citations from secondary sources for Prosper of Aquitaine, but I have been unable to locate primary sources on the www: He also said, “The Savior is most rightly said to have been crucified for the redemption of the whole world.” He then said, “Although the blood of Christ be the ransom of the whole world, yet they are excluded from its benefit, who, being delighted with their captivity, are unwilling to be redeemed by it.”

For an assessment of the biblical material, see my article, ‘Does the Bible teach limited atonement or unlimited atonement?

See also:


Strong, A H 1907. Systematic Theology, three vols in one. Philadelphia: The Judson Press.


[1] This quote also is cited by other writers online but no reference is given to the primary source by Calvin, examples being:

(1) http://www.theologyweb.com/campus/showthread.php?4239-Did-John-Calvin-Change-his-views-on-Limited-Atonement;

(2) http://www.theologyonline.com/forums/showthread.php?t=80286&page=3;

(3) http://ronleigh.com/bible/calarm/index.htm;

(4) http://www.biblestudymanuals.net/1jn2.htm;

(5) http://www.baptistbanner.org/Working /What%20Should%20Southern%20Baptist%20have%20to%20do%204884.htm;

(6) http://www.doffun.com/index.cfm?article_num=493;

(7) http://the212partnerscalvinism.blogspot.com.au/;

[2] He gave this information about this source: Ioannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia. Edited by G. Baum, E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss. 59 vols. Corpus Reformatorum 29–87. Brunswick: Schwetschke, 1863–1900. Calvin’s Opera Omnia is available online at PRDL | Welcome to The Post-Reformation Digital Library – in Latin. I’m not really aware of any English translations.

[3] I located this quote online from Calvin’s commentary on Romans 5:18, available at: http://m.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom38.ix.x.html?highlight=romans#highlight (Accessed 31 August 2012).

[4] I sourced this quote of Calvin from: http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/calvin/cc33/cc33028.htm (Accessed 31 August 2012).

[5] Christian Forums, General Theology, Soteriology, ‘Calvin on the atonement’, LamorakDesGalis#18. Available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7683551-2/ (Accessed 31 August 2012).

[6] Apologetic Warrior #19, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7683551-2/#post61293992 (Accessed 31 August 2012).

[7] The footnote at this point was, ‘“It seems to me that the Apostle is to be understood as speaking only of all those who believe, whether Jews or Gentiles, over the whole world.” — Doddridge. — Ed’. This seems to be an imposition on the text in light of Calvin’s comments about “all the world”, “the whole human race”, “extended to all”, etc. in Mark 14:24; John 3:16; Rom. 5:18 and 1 John 2:2.

[8] Here are a few examples: http://www.gracemessenger.com/index.php?id=612;; http://www.baptistboard.com/showpost.php?p=938642&postcount=27.

[9] Ron Rhodes 1996. The extent of the atonement: Limited atonement versus unlimited atonement (Part 2), available at: http://chafer.nextmeta.com/files/v2n3_rhodes.pdf (Accessed 28 August 2012). Rhodes gives the reference as Paedagogus, ch. 11. However, there is no such reference as there are three books (online) each with a ch. 11, but the quote is not to be found in any of these chapters.

[10] One example is in Ron Rhodes cited above at: http://chafer.nextmeta.com/files/v2n3_rhodes.pdf (Accessed 28 August 2012).

Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 21 July 2019.