October 5, 2006

One of My Favorite Calvin Quotes: 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.—John Calvin on Romans 5:18
1) Calvin says that the gospel call is an "offer."

Some may object to the notion that the gospel is an "offer" or an "invitation," but not Calvin. He understood the conditionality of the gospel call and/or man's responsibility to believe. Though Christ died for you, he must be voluntarily "received" through faith in order to be justified.

2) Calvin says that the gospel is offered "through God's benignity."

God's offer of Christ to all that hear the gospel call is grounded in his goodness, kindness and love (or benignity). In other words, according to Calvin, it's a well-meant or sincere offer.

3) Calvin says that God benignantly offers Christ "indiscriminately to all."

It's not merely the case that we, in our ignorance of who is elect and who is not, are to offer Christ indiscriminately to all, but that God himself offers Christ through our gospel call in an indiscriminate fashion (to both elect and non-elect). God is not ignorant of his chosen ones, but he still offers Christ to all indiscriminately, i.e. even to the non-elect.

See this R. B. Kuiper quote for more on this subject.

4) Calvin says that Christ suffered "for the sins of the whole world."

Some may try to escape what Calvin is saying here, but the honest mind can see that the "all" who "do not receive him" are a subset of the "world." Calvin does not equate the "world" with the elect scattered abroad here. He clearly says that Christ suffered for the sins of some who do not receive him (i.e. the non-elect). One can find other quotes from Calvin where he says that Christ died for some who finally perish.

It does not follow that he thinks that Christ suffered for all with an equal intent to save all, so let not that straw man be erected. There are more options other than 1) Christ suffered only for the salvation of the elect or 2) Christ suffered for all with an equal intent to save all. The tertium quid is 3) Christ intended to suffer for the whole world sufficiently, but he especially (unequal intention) suffered for the elect. This is why Charles Hodge says in his Systematic Theology that, "it has in all ages been customary with Augustinians to say that Christ died 'sufficienter pro omnibus, efficaciter tantum pro electis;' sufficiently for all, efficaciously only for the elect. There is a sense, therefore, in which He died for all, and there is a sense in which He died for the elect alone." Richard Baxter rightly says in his work on Universal Redemption that:
When God saith so expressly that Christ died for all [2 Cor. 5: 14–15], and tasted death for every man [Heb. 2: 9], and is the ransom for all [1 Tim. 2: 6], and the propitiation for the sins of the whole world [1 Jn. 2: 2], it beseems every Christian rather to explain in what sense Christ died for all, than flatly to deny it.
My Concluding Remarks:

The righteousness of Christ propounded in the gospel is only efficaciously "extended" to the elect because they are morally enabled to believe by the renewing work of the Holy Spirit, and thus they alone appropriate Christ's merit unto justification. This is the result of God's special, efficacious and eternal decree. There is a limitation in God's special intent (but this special intent does not negate the other intent to satisfy for all) that concerns the elect and also in the application of Christ's satisfaction, but there is no limit in the expiatory satisfaction itself.

He who does not speak according to the 4 doctrines above has departed from classical Calvinism. Does that make them wrong in their biblical interpretations or in their systematic theology? No, not on that basis. It will only make them historically wrong if they claim that Calvin said something different than the above. God requires that we be honest in all things, and that at least includes our interpretation of writings throughout church history.

This is one of my favorite Calvin quotes because it ties together the concepts of common grace/love, the ground of the well-meant gospel offer, and duty-faith. These are a cluster of biblical truths that stand or fall together, and the undermining of them (however subtle and gradual) besmirches the very heart and character of God as revealed in the gospel.

Update on 11-23-14:

On this Calvin comment, Beach writes:
In his Romans commentary, Calvin, commenting on Romans 5:18, writes the following: “Paul makes grace common to all men, not because it in fact extends to all, but because it is offered [exposita est] to all.”56 Then he adds, “Although Christ suffered for the sins of the world, and is offered [offerre] by the goodness of God without distinction to all men, yet not all receive Him.”57 Calvin uses two different terms here: to set forth and to offer. The Latin term offerre can likewise mean to show or to exhibit. No doubt, a case could be made that Calvin is using these words as synonyms in this context. But a case can also be made that Calvin employs different terms in order to enrich and capture the full idea he wishes to convey. Indeed, the term offerre can also mean to offer, to present (for the taking or for acceptance); and in ecclesiastical Latin it gains the sense of to offer to God, to consecrate or dedicate, to devote.58 Consequently, we must let context determine meaning. Here Calvin draws a distinction between the offer of grace to all and the extending or receiving of what is offered. What is to be noted is that the offer is according to “the goodness of God” to all people “without distinction.” Hence his use of the phrase “Paul makes grace common to all men.” Also to be noted is that to limit the word offerre to the idea of a mere “exhibit” or “display” renders Calvin's sentence meaningless. Key is the phrase, “not all receive Him [Christ].” If Christ's sacrificial work is merely “displayed” to all people and not “offered,” the question of receiving Christ is irrelevant, for there is nothing to be received in a mere display. Calvin appears to use the word offerre as it corresponds to the word receive (apprehendere), a term that means to take hold of, to seize.59 Thus, his meaning is that what is offered is to be received, is to be seized, but of course not all do.
56. “Communem omnium gratiam facit, quia omnibus exposita est, non quod ad omnes extendatur re ipsa,” John Calvin, Ioannis Calvini Opera quae supersunt omnia, ed. J. W. Baum, A. E. Cunitz, and E. Reuss, 59 volumes, Corpus Reformatorum (Braunschweig: Schwetschhke, 1863-1900), 49:101, hereafter cited as CO; English translations of Calvin‟s commentaries are taken from the Calvin Translation Society edition (Edinburgh, 1843-1855), cited as CTS, and from Calvin‟s New Testament Commentaries, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, 12 volumes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963-74), cited as CNTC (here, CNTC, Rom. 5:18 [1540/‟51/‟56], 117-118).
57. Calvin, Comm. Rom. 5:18 [1540/‟51/‟56], “Nam etsi passus est Christus pro peccatis totius mundi, atque omnibus indifferenter Dei benignitate offertur, non tamen omnes apprehendunt.” CO, 49:101; CNTC, 117-118.
58. See Charlton T. Lewis, ed., A Latin Dictionary: Lewis and Short (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1879), 1259; P. G. W. Glare, ed., Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 1242-43; Leo F. Stelten, Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995), 179.
59. See Charlton T. Lewis, ed., A Latin Dictionary, 143.
J. Mark Beach, "Calvin's Treatment of the Offer of the Gospel and Divine Grace," MAJT 22 (2011): 63–64.


Kurt said...

This interpretation seems to flow much easier and simpler from the Biblical text than the doctrine of limited atonement as is taught by most Calvanists today. When we have to start working overkill to fit verses into our theology we need to beware and start inspecting our theology to see if there may be another more Biblical answer.

Aaron Mills said...

Hi Tony,

I think you attribute the modern misunderstanding of limited atonement primarily to John Owen, am I correct? Since later writers such as C. Hodge, Shedd, Dabney, Spring, and others writing in the 19th century had a more accurate understanding of this doctrine, why do you think Owen's position is prevalent today? (you can give the short answer of course, if there is one :-). With regards to Kurt's comments above, I agree. There is this tendency to fit the verses into our theological system rather than embracing the teaching of the texts. This resolves the tension, to be sure, but doesn't lead us to the biblical truths we all hold dear. Hope you're doing well, God bless...

Tony Byrne said...

Hi Kurt,

I agree. When so many texts affirm that God desires to save all sinners and that he sent his Son to die for the whole world, we should not deny it, but seek to explain in what sense he died for all, just as Baxter says. As I see it, the strict particularist paradigm cannot satisfactorily account for many passages, which is why they have to employ sophisticated hermeneutical tricks to sustain the system at all costs, and label what they're doing as "exegesis" and reading the "context."

Belief in the doctrine of Total Depravity does not make one immune to the remaining effects of depravity on the mind. Even Calvinists, who affirm Total Depravity, can still fall into many soteriological errors themselves.

Tony Byrne said...

Hi Jon,

There has been more than one stream or understanding of the design of Christ’s death within Reformed circles, but the modern resurgence of Protestant Scholastic writings has significantly influenced many important thinkers toward a more strict view. Popular Calvinism today comes from the writings of High Federalist Puritans and other high Calvinists, as it’s filtered through certain teachers like R. C. Sproul (whom I respect) and his ilk. The later writers you mention, such as C. Hodge, Shedd and Dabney, were significantly influenced by Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was not afraid to think of the revealed will of God as an active principle and desire in God. That’s huge. However, these men were not charting new territory. They were more or less returning to the older Reformational views that were compatible with statements from the church fathers. The strict view that’s so dominant today only arrived on the historical scene at the time of Beza. The Reformed church, from it's start, had to combat free will theology from Rome and the Socinians, but once Arminianism and Amyraldism surfaced (new "heresies"), it tended to go more and more decretal in its theology. Thus, the secret will is deemed the actual and the revealed is the virtual (only appears to be real). It’s as if certain systematicians were striving for a God’s eye perspective, i.e. to get behind what’s revealed and speculate about hidden decrees and their logical order.

I think Owen’s view is so popular because 1) his works have recently been reprinted (Banner republished his Death of Death in the 60's), and men like J. I. Packer have been advocating his views on the matter, 2) older views are either misunderstood or wrongly labeled, and 3) only a few people are pausing to think critically about Owen’s arguments. The strict view is now virtually canonized in Reformed institutions.

One might compare it to the institutionalization of naturalistic (nature is all that is real) evolution within scientific circles. There are certain scientists who function as mandarins or gatekeepers (like some Reformed leaders today). Naturalistic presuppositions go unquestioned (like certain decretal presuppositions do in some ecclesiatical circles). It’s just assumed as the only thing that is authentically scientific (or as the only thing that is “truly Reformed,” so to speak). If you do research that might further the agenda of naturalism, then you will get a degree, you'll receive funds and maybe an academic position(s). You'll be elevated to a prominant position. If one attacks naturalistic orthodoxy, you will be silenced through smear tactics (a comparison would be like “You’re an Amyraldian! Or semi-Arminian! Just admit it already!") and condescended to (“you don’t really understand Calvinistic theology! Read Helm or Nicole on Calvin’s views! Clearly you have not read them!”). That’s just the history of how dominant paradigms and/or traditions are propagated.

I hope that helps :-) If not, feel free to ask more questions.


David Ponter said...

Hey Tony,

This is a good one too. Note how he connects the phrases with "as"

37. "Would that they were even cut off." His indignation proceeds still farther, and he prays for destruction on those impostors by whom the Galatians had been deceived. The word, “cut off,” appears to be employed in allusion to the circumcision which they pressed. “They tear the church for the sake of circumcision: I wish they were entirely cut off.” Chrysostom favors this opinion. But how can such an imprecation be reconciled with the mildness of an apostle, who ought to wish that all should be saved, and that not a single person should perish? So far as men are concerned, I admit the force of this argument; for it is the will of God that we should seek the salvation of all men without exception, as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world. But devout minds are sometimes carried beyond the consideration of men, and led to fix their eye on the glory of God, and the kingdom of Christ. The glory of God, which is in itself more excellent than the salvation of men, ought to receive from us a higher degree of esteem and regard. Believers earnestly desirous that the glory of God should be promoted, forget men, and forget the world, and would rather choose that the whole world should perish, than that the smallest portion of the glory of God should be withdrawn. Calvin, Galatians, 5:12.


Tony Byrne said...

Hi David,

Thanks for the additional quote. Once again, an honest mind can't help but see the force and sense of these words:

"for it is the will of God that we should seek the salvation of all men without exception, as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world."

David clearly hasn't read Paul Helm, Roger Nicole, Robert Godfrey and Jonathan Rainbow on Calvin! :-)

I particularly like how "the whole world" in that quote is put together with "all men without exception."

Aaron Mills said...


Thanks for your response, it was helpful. So you think Beza was perhaps one of the earliest proponents of the Protestant Scholastic view? He was Calvin's successor and first biographer, correct? They must have had some interesting discussions about this issue :-)

Tony Byrne said...

Hi Jon,

I would say that Beza is the first KNOWN proponent of the strict view. We're unable to find out any of the details of Gottschalk's views on the atonement.

You're correct about Beza being Calvin's successor and biographer. Whether or not they discussed this matter, we don't know. There's no record of any collaboration on the nature and intent of Christ's death. Some people make too much out of Beza's relationship to Calvin, as if their closeness proves theological continuity on the atonement issue. Bullinger also interacted with Calvin alot, and he seems to have held a classical view, i.e. that Christ suffered sufficiently for all, but efficaciously only for the elect.

Even though I am inclined to think that Calvin knew of the differences of opinion, I don't think he brought it up since he was very concerned about unity within the Reformed church. The theological disputes that came in the mid to late 1600's and 1700's brought the issue(s) into sharper focus, as theologians sought to reason out the implications of their systems in greater detail. Those who went higher in their decretal theology were charting new territory. One doesn't find a tripartite Federalism or lapsarianism in Calvin. He was working within a premodern theological framework which viewed God through the revealed will, and he was also content to leave some matters to mystery.