Calvin and Calvinism
(For those who covet what I perceive to be a sound theology!)
Those who have followed my ministry for very long will likely know three things about me: (1) I am a Calvinist, (2) my coming to this way of thinking immediately followed my baptism of the Holy Spirit on 31st October 1955 – an event to which I have referred countless times and (3) I do not make an issue of this when I preach. These things said, I have recently felt an urge to write about such lately in some tweets in which I have spoken against the traditional reformed teaching of limited atonement. I have also mentioned that my mentor Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was very uneasy with this teaching and admitted to me, “I only preached it once – when dealing with Romans 5:18 – and I remember being in great difficulty then”.
Why is this important? First, for one’s own assurance of salvation. If Jesus died only for the elect, no person alive can honestly say, “Jesus died for me”. There is simply no way a person can know infallibly that Christ died for him or her if Jesus died for a limited number of people but not all. Those who “conclude” that Jesus died for them because of they see the fruit of sanctification in their lives are the most presumptuous of all! They are basing the assurance of their salvation on their good works – a horrible thing to do, said John Calvin. The truth is, the only way anybody can assuredly say, “Jesus died for me” is if Jesus died for every single person, as taught by verses such as 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 and Hebrews 2:9.
Second, for evangelism. If Jesus died only for the elect, no evangelist can say to people, “Jesus died for you”. The evangelist can merely say, “Christ died for sinners” – but never “you”. The only way a person can be transparently honest and say, “Jesus died for you” is if Christ died indiscriminately (Calvin’s word) for all men and women.
Third, that people might know John Calvin’s own teaching on this matter. If you ask, “Who cares?”, I would answer: there are a lot of people who would be more attracted to the doctrines of grace if they knew they did not have to embrace limited atonement in the package. It is a pity that limited atonement was ever conceived when the plain, natural, unbiased, unprejudiced and obvious reading of the New Testament is that Jesus died for everyone. Those who reply that Jesus died only for the “church” or for the “sheep” would never have thought to argue this were it not for a need to be defensive for the teaching of limited atonement.
What my experience of 31st October 1955 showed me that very same day was that it was a work of the Spirit. This means that what happened to me cannot be worked up or hastened by the flesh. That – to me – also meant predestination and election. Perhaps you would not come to that conclusion, but I did, even though I had not read a single word of any Calvinist in my whole life (being brought up a Nazarene). This led to my reading Romans 9:11-18 without being defensive but just accepting those exceedingly plain words. And yet there was no hint of limited atonement in these verses – only God’s sovereign choice of Jacob and His elect people.
When I discovered for myself that John Calvin did not believe in limited atonement I was both thrilled and sobered. It was a thoughtful process – a story in itself – that led to my being convinced that Calvin really believed this. And yet when Dr. Lloyd-Jones read my Oxford DPhil thesis he chided me for not quoting Calvin more than I did. I remember it as though it were yesterday. He phoned me on a Monday morning. “I was not able to preach this weekend so, having read your thesis, you got me to reading Calvin. I have discovered many statements of Calvin that you did not use”. He started in with one statement after another. I replied, “I know about those”. “But why didn’t you use them?” “It is because the Oxford rules limited me to a maximum of 100,000 words and I had to leave them out”. “This is a pity. You can prove your case to the hilt”, he said. Then he proceeded to quote more, either from Calvin’s Institutes or his commentaries.
Many of my quotations from Calvin in my Oxford thesis are in the footnotes. I knew that my examiners would read the footnotes as carefully as they read the main text and these examiners are the ones who awarded me my doctorate. But most people don’t read the footnotes. I also wish I had somehow been able to put more of Calvin’s many statements in my thesis, as Dr. Lloyd-Jones discovered. My only regret now is that I did not put all of Calvin’s statements in the main text. But I have never been so clear about anything in my life as I am about Calvin’s view of the atonement of Christ – and, for that matter, the Apostle Paul’s view!*
*For those who want to read further see my Calvin and English Calvinism to 1648 (Oxford University Press, since republished by Pater Noster). Now out of print. We have a limited number available.
Here are my recent tweets again in case you missed any…
Limited atonement is the theory that Jesus died on the cross for the elect alone – not everybody.
The five points of Calvinism are easily understood by TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, and Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints.
When I say I am a four and a half point Calvinist people think it is a joke. It is not a joke; I don’t accept limited atonement.
I got my teaching on the atonement from John Calvin himself – not from the Synod of Dort (origin of TULIP).
Calvin taught that Jesus died indiscriminately for all people.
Calvin taught that although Jesus died for all people, He made intercession for the elect only. That is four and a half point Calvinism.
TULIP Calvinists cannot say Jesus died for you or even Jesus died for me; they can only say Jesus died for sinners.
I can say Jesus died for me, Jesus died for you. Why important? It makes a complete difference in evangelism and one’s personal assurance of salvation.
Dr. Lloyd-Jones told me how he struggled having to defend limited atonement.
“I only did it once – my exposition of Romans 5:18; I was in real difficulty.”
Mrs. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said to me, łI have never believed in limited atonement and never will. The Doctor sat there and smiled.
The limited atonement people make a big deal of Jesus dying for many (Isa.53:12; Rom.5:19): the many being the elect but not all. Calvin: many means all.