Arminius vs. Calvin on Limited Atonement

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Theologians are divided as to whether Calvin held to an Unlimited or Limited view of the Atonement. And while most Christians, whether Arminian, non-Calvinist, Amyraldian, or four-point compatibilist Calvinist, would agree that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was sufficient for all but efficient only for the elect, hard determinist, supralapsarian, five-point Calvinists insist that the intent of the atonement was ever and only for the unconditionally elect.

Also, five-point Calvinists charge the proponents of an Unlimited view with promoting a “double payment” (that since Christ “paid the price” for the sins of all, it would be unjust of God to make sinners “pay the price” for their own sins in hell). It should be admitted initially that all theories of the atonement find their basis in the teachings of Scripture. Though, it should also be admitted, the focus of certain passages in Scripture warrants greater attention in some theological circles than they do in others. This is to be expected.

For example, an Arminian, Wesleyan, non-Calvinist or Amyraldian tends to shed a greater light on such biblical passages that emphasize Christ’s sacrifice for the world, rather than on particular people. Five-point Calvinists, however, tend to highlight biblical passages which emphases are placed upon Christ’s sacrifice for believers, i.e. the unconditionally elect, or the Church. And while this latter admission is true, it is alleged by others that it does not admit enough to the biblical witness.

When John the baptizer saw Jesus coming towards him he said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NIV) What did John mean by “the world”? Calvin comments (all emphases in Calvin’s and Arminius’s quotes are original):

      And when he says,

the sin

      OF THE WORLD, He extends this favour indiscriminately to the whole human race; that the Jews might not think that He had been sent to them alone. But hence we infer that the whole


      is involved in the same condemnation; and that as all men without exception are guilty of unrighteousness before God, they need to be reconciled to Him. John the Baptist, therefore, by speaking generally of

the sin of the world

      , intended to impress upon us the conviction of our own misery, and to exhort us to seek the remedy. Now our duty is to embrace the benefit which is offered to all, that each of us may be convinced that there is nothing to hinder him from obtaining reconciliation in Christ, provided that he comes to Him by the guidance of faith.


Calvin makes an irrefutable point. It seems logical, to say nothing of biblical, to insist that since “the whole world is involved in the same condemnation,” then Jesus’ sacrifice had its intent on atoning the whole world, whether or not such intent was actualized. Paul uses the same conception to the Corinthians. He writes: “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:14-15 NIV). Clearly, Christ’s death for “all” involved “all” people without discrimination, for, as Paul insisted, “all” without discrimination “died.” That “all” people are indiscriminately dead in sins and trespasses was insisted on at Ephesians 2:1. Since “all” are dead, argues Paul, then Christ died for “all.”

If Calvin explicitly held to a Limited atonement position, then his comments at John 1:29 were quite inconsistently maintained. The same could be said of his comments at John 3:17, which states, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (NIV). Here we find God’s intent for sending Christ Jesus into the world: it was not for condemnation but for salvation. Calvin comments:

      He came not to destroy; and therefore it follows, that it is the peculiar office of the Son of God, that

all who believe

      may obtain salvation by Him. There is now no reason why any man should be in a state of hesitation, or of distressing anxiety, as to the manner in which he may escape death, when we believe that it was the purpose of God that Christ should deliver us from it. The word


      is again repeated, that no man may think himself wholly excluded, if he only keep the road of faith.



The only “particular” comment Calvin made on this verse is what follows; however, he then followed the statement with a “universal” one:

      When he declares that

he did not come to condemn the world

      , he thus points out the actual design of His coming; for what need was there that Christ should come to destroy us who were utterly ruined? We ought not, therefore, to look at any thing else in Christ, than that God, out of His boundless goodness, chose to extend His aid for saving us who were lost [which could be a particular statement, though doubtful]; and whenever our sins press us ~ whenever Satan would drive us to despair ~ we ought to hold out this shield, that God is unwilling that we should be overwhelmed with everlasting destruction, because He has appointed His Son to be the salvation of the




Thus far we find no contradiction between that of Calvin with the sentiments laid down by Arminius. The opponents of Arminius, however, charged him with teaching heresy regarding the atonement, making his arguments intent on teaching universalism. (The doctrine of Unlimited atonement is not vying for the actual salvation of all people, for we know that is not possible. The doctrine supports the intention of the atonement, even if that intent is not fulfilled.) Arminius’s opponents purported him as teaching, Christ has died for all men and for every individual (thus all will be saved). Arminius responds:

      This assertion was never made by me, either in public or private, except when it was accompanied by such an explanation as the controversies which are excited on this subject have rendered necessary. For the phrase here used possesses much ambiguity: Thus it may mean either that “the price of the death of Christ was given for all and for every one,” or that “the redemption, which was obtained by means of that price, is applied and communicated to all men and to every one.”

(1.) Of this latter sentiment I entirely disapprove, because God has by a peremptory decree resolved that believers alone should be made partakers of this redemption. (2.) Let those who reject the former of these opinions consider how they can answer the following scriptures, which declare, that Christ died for all men; that He is the propitiation for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2); that He took away the sin of the world (John 1:29); that He gave His flesh for the life of the world (John 6:51); that Christ died even for that man who might be destroyed with the meat of another person (Rom. 14:15); and that false teachers make merchandise even of those who deny the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction (2 Peter 2:1, 3).4

The ironic aspect of Arminius’s accusers was that Calvin made much the same arguments as did Arminius, but the latter was charged with heresy and the former was praised as the prince of exegetes!

John wrote that Jesus Christ is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2 NIV). The word our obviously refers to believers, which included John, the author, and the church to whom he was writing. He then insisted that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was meant not only for believers but also for “the sins of the whole world.” Notice the emphasis: the whole world. Again, Calvin comments: “Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated?”5

Now, in all fairness, we could have asked somewhat the same question on his commentary at John 1:29: how has the sin of the world been taken away? Nonetheless, he continues:

      I pass by the dotages [feebleness] 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 common to the whole Church. Then under the word


      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.


I find it rather peculiar that here at 1 John 2:2, Calvin argued so strongly against universalism (which he should), but not so at John 1:29. At 1 John 2:2, Calvin is seen as promoting a Limited atonement view (i.e. God’s intent was ever and only for the elect). Yet at John 1:29, Calvin is seen as promoting an Unlimited atonement view. Dodderidge, editor of Calvin’s Commentaries, in a footnote to 1 John 2:2, adds: “It seems to me that the Apostle is to be understood as speaking only of all who believe, whether Jews or Gentiles, over the whole world.”7

Because of the footnote of Dodderidge, I am led to believe that Calvin espoused a Limited atonement view. Also, someone who promotes an Unlimited atonement view would never admit that “all” or “whole,” at 1 John 2:2, refers to “all future believers as a whole,” as did Calvin. His precise argument at 1 John 2:2 seems to overwhelm any universal aspect of his comments at John 1:29. I could be wrong. But of this I am most convinced: a person who holds to an Unlimited atonement view would not agree with Calvin on his interpretation of 1 John 2:2.

Arminius is right to assert:

      All the controversy therefore lies in the interpretation: The words themselves ought to be simply approved, because they are the words of Scripture. I will now produce a passage or two from Prosper of Aquitaine [(c. 370-465), pupil of Augustine], to prove that this distinction was even in his time employed: “He who says that the Saviour was not crucified for the redemption of the whole world, has regard, not to the virtue of the sacrament, but to the case of unbelievers, since the blood of Jesus Christ is the price paid for the whole world. To that precious ransom they are strangers, who, either being delighted with their captivity, have no wish to be redeemed, or, after they have been redeemed, return to the same servitude. . . .”

In another passage he says: “With respect both to the magnitude and potency of the price, and with respect to the one [general] cause of mankind, the blood of Christ is the redemption of the whole world. But those who pass through this life without the faith of Christ, and without the sacrament of regeneration, are utter strangers to redemption.” Such is likewise the concurrent opinion of all antiquity: This is a consideration to which I wish to obtain a little more careful attention from many persons, that they may not so easily fasten the crime of novelty on him who says any thing which they had never before heard, or which was previously unknown.8

What many five-point Calvinists demand from their four-point Calvinist and non-Calvinist brothers and sisters is how could God send unbelievers to hell if Christ’s atoning sacrifice was made for them. This erroneous question has two very basic problems: 1) the assumption that Christ’s atonement is automatically applied to anyone; and 2) the assumption that the application of Christ’s atonement is unconditional.

1) Christ Jesus died on behalf of the whole world. That much has been sufficiently proved from Scripture thus far. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself (2 Cor. 5:19). Humanity was separated from God because of sin (Eph. 2:1). God reconciled the world back to Himself through Christ’s sacrifice, so that, and this is crucial for a proper understanding of the Arminian or non-Calvinist position, only by faith in Jesus Christ is one atoned and counted righteous by God. Christ Jesus did the work of atonement for all people, but only those whose faith in Him will have that atonement applied to them personally.

The Holy Spirit is now at work in the hearts and minds of sinners, convicting them of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8-11), setting sinners free from their bondage to sin in order for them to freely trust in Christ Jesus. Though the world has been reconciled back to God through Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:19), only by faith in Christ Jesus is one saved and atoned by His blood. Paul admitted that God reconciled the world through Christ, and then urged the Corinthians to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20). Clearly, there is a distinction between the work God did in Christ generally for all people, and that each person is responsible to be reconciled personally to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

2) We must not assume that Christ’s sacrifice saves anyone apart from personal faith in Him. Salvation, atonement, justification and forgiveness, imputed righteousness, adoption, etc. depends upon, and solely upon, faith in Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus Christ “paid the price” for the sins of all people, but not automatically. The atonement, the “price,” is applied only to the one whose faith is in Christ Jesus. Hence there is no such thing as a “double payment.”

Admittedly, the theory of Limited atonement would never have been philosophically conceived were it not for another philosophcial theory: Unconditional election. What Calvinists want to know is this: if God has unconditionally elected to save only some, then to what benefit is the atonement for the non-elect? From such philosophical reasoning, Limited atonement becomes, for some, a necessary doctrine, whether or not it has explicit scriptural warrant or support. It is, in my opinion, like other Calvinistic theories, a presupposition in search of biblical authority.

1 John Calvin, “Commentary on the Gospel According to John,” in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XVII, trans. Rev. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), 64.

2 Ibid., 126.

3 Ibid.

4 James Arminius, “Apology against Thirty-One Theological Articles: Article XII,” in The Works of Arminius, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 2:9-10.

5 Calvin, “Commentaries on the First Epistle of John,” 173.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Arminius, 10.