John 3:16 and John Calvin

calvinpreaching

INTRODUCTION

John 3:16 is undoubtedly the most famous verse in all of Scripture.  This is likely to be true in large part due to the verse’s succinct summary of the Gospel.  The verse teaches that God gave His only son according to the manner in which He loved the world.  It further explains that, whoever believes in the Son will inherit eternal life.  Due to verses that teach all of the saved were chosen to be so (John 10:15, Eph. 1:4, etc.), a question arises when reading John 3:16.  That is, just who did Christ die for?  Did He die for every single person, including those such as Jezebel or those who were distinctly identified as going to Hell such as Judas (Acts 1:25)?  Or did Jesus only specifically die for those who were chosen before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4)?   When attempting to properly understand this verse, there is a third option that is argued for here.  This is that the atonement alluded to in John 3:16 is limited not in invitation but in who God gives faith.  It is primarily through the writings and views of John Calvin by which this is explored.  Specifically, the prima facie views of Calvin on the atonement are demonstrated as being in harmony.

Included in his commentary on John 3:16, Calvin writes:

“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.”  (Calvin 2009, Kindle Edition: Paragraph 2, Location 2151)

The above text is extremely important as a point of reference for much of this work.  It is shortly contrasted with Calvin’s broader view on Limited Atonement.  However, a few things need to be initially covered.  Calvin’s understanding of this section of the verse is naturally one that looks to the work of faith.  It is especially crucial to note that Calvin equates “whosoever” with an invitation to all.  Calvin is in no way speaking here about different types of men.  Rather, he is distinctly identifying that the invitation is given to every single human being.  To make this even clearer to the reader, Calvin further explains that all men are invited to eternal life without exception.  This invitation results in no person being able to claim that he never had a chance to obtain eternal life.

Based on this reasoning, it is proper to say that Jesus died, “for” the unsaved for the purpose of cutting off their excuse.  This prevents the reader of John 3:16 from concluding that Jesus dying for the world is supposed to be speaking only to the dispensing of salvation.  Indeed, if Calvin is correct then the concept of an excuse by unbelievers being cut off, then Christ dying for the world in this verse must be understood in a general sense.  For the verse never speaks of Christ dying in two different contexts.  An invitation being given to every single human would allow for the death of Christ in John 3:16 to be general without contradicting the fact that not all people are saved.  This may seem a surprise to some with preconceived notions of what Calvin actually believed.  However, “Calvin did not express himself on the controverted points in the same manner or with the same degree of precision as did the later orthodox scholastics…”[1]

CALVIN’S DOUBLE PREDESTINATION

Based on the above commentary alone, it would be reasonable to conclude that he held to a position close to unlimited atonement.  Yet, the following text from his Institutes is philosophically opposed to that position.

“It is plain that it comes to pass by God’s bidding that salvation is freely offered to some while others are barred from access to it…A baffling question this seems to many.  For they think nothing more inconsistent than that out of the common multitude of men some should be predestined to salvation, others to destruction…We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from eternal election, which illumines God’s grace by this contrast: that he does not indiscriminately adopt all into the hope of salvation but gives to some what he denies to others.”  (Calvin 1960, 921)

Not only does Calvin explain that salvation is offered to only some, but that others still are actually prevented from accessing it.  In attacking those who disagree with his teaching on election, Calvin affirms that some are predestined to salvation and others to destruction.  In classic Calvin fashion, he makes a point to repeat himself in a different manner.  Calvin does not believe that all men are adopted into the hope of salvation and God even denies it to others.  It is useful to note Calvin’s repetition here as the prima facie contrary position of Calvin must be certain for this overall study to be effective.

Calvin’s view here would not allow for singular predestination.  This needs to be said as that position would be easier to reconcile with his John 3:16 commentary than would be double predestination.  This is because an invitation given to every single human being does not immediately harmonize with some individuals actually being barred from salvation.

FAITH IS GIVEN TO THE ELECT

How can Calvin hold to an invitation being given to every single person in the context of John 3:16, while also holding to double predestination?  It may not be a contradictory position, but is it at the very least contrary.  Calvin does address this concern with additional commentary on the verse.  Calvin explains, “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.”[2]

Calvin affirms once again that life is promised not just to all who believe, but in a universal fashion.  He juxtaposes the commonality of the invitation to eternal life with the particularity of who has faith.  Furthermore, this faith is not inherent to those who come to believe.  Rather, it is given to the elect (I.E. God opens their eyes).  Once the elect are given faith, they may seek out Christ and thus believe in Him, obtaining eternal life.

At least in the context of John 3:16, Calvin’s view of the atonement is one that is limited.  It is in fact limited only to the elect.  However, it would be wrong to attribute κόσμον as meaning the “world of the elect” as opposed to the “world of all men” in John 3:16 to John Calvin.  Recall Calvin saying, “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…”[3]  Calvin identifies the same use of “world” with the idea of nothing being worthy as does he with what Christ was reconciled to.  And the reconciliation to the “world” is defined as all men being invited without exception.

How then is the atonement limited in John Calvin’s understanding of John 3:16?  Based on his own words, it cannot be limited in who Christ died for.  Rather, the limitation is based on who God determines to give faith.  The verse does not speak to this directly, although it is implied.  If Calvin’s reasoning (and this writer’s interpretation of it) is thus far correct then all of the believing ones are to be granted faith to do so, while the reprobate are not.  Such a conclusion in no way diminishes Calvin’s teaching that an invitation is given to every single person.  The reprobate are simply not empowered by faith to be able to accept the invitation.  That does not result in it never being offered.

CALVIN’S NUANCE ON THE ATONEMENT

There is yet a problem with reconciling Calvin’s writings on John 3:16 with his teaching on double predestination.  Just how is it possible for an invitation to be reasonably given to those who are barred access from it?[4]  Admittedly, such a problem seems rather serious based on Calvin’s teachings presented in this work.  Calvin does however provide at least some clarification.  In his Institutes, Calvin writes:

“The fact that the reprobate do not obey God’s Word when it is made known to them will be justly charged against the malice and depravity of their hearts, provided it be added at the same time that they have been given over to this depravity because they have been raised up by the just but inscrutable judgment of God to show forth his glory in their condemnation.  Similarly, when it is narrated of Eli’s sons that they did not heed his wholesome admonitions, “for it was the will of the Lord to slay them” [I Sam. 2:25], it is not denied that their stubborness arose out of their own wickedness, but at the same time it is noted why they were left in their stubborness, even though the Lord could have softened their hearts-because his immutable decree had once for all destined them to destruction.”  (Calvin 1960, 981)

The invitation to salvation emanates from God’s Word and therefore the implications of Calvin’s discussion on the matter above are of use in dealing with the problem this section is interested in addressing.  Calvin explains that those who deny God’s Word are damned due to their own sin.  This line of thinking leans closer to singular predestination.  However, Calvin is quick to include that the reprobate are also in such a state of depravity because God gave them over to it.  This is really a remarkable thing for Calvin to say when carefully considered.  It almost seems as if Calvin is teaching a hamartiological version of Semi-Pelagianism.  Calvin appeals to God’s glory for why certain people deny God’s Word and are subsequently punished.  Surely though all things are done by God for His glory.  Therefore, to appeal to God doing something for His glory is not necessarily the best answer (true as it is).  However, at times men either lack the information to further explain why God does as He does, or they are not capable of understanding the details.

Calvin uses the example of Eli’s sons not listening to the admonition of their father.  It is accurate to say that they did not listen due to the LORD desiring to put them to death (1 Sam. 2:25).  Calvin understands God’s desire to kill these sons as coming from one of His eternal decrees.  This may very well be the case.  However, it cannot then be concluded that there is a general decree that has God barring the reprobate from accessing the invitation to salvation.  That would be a hasty generalization or even a fallacy of composition.

Calvin’s views on double predestination can only be reconciled with his John 3:16 commentary by appealing to his teaching that the reprobate are guilty due to their own wickedness and that God is choosing not to soften their hearts.  Therefore, their refusal to accept the invitation to salvation is due to their own nature.  God actually determining to not to soften the reprobate’s hearts may still logically co-exist with a legitimate invitation.  However, this is only the case because Calvin is unclear on what logical priority he believed the decrees were arranged in (lapsarianism).  It is quite possible Calvin did not even have such a position as he appeals to Augustine’s teaching that the reason the reprobate’s hearts are not softened is known only to God.[5]  Therefore, there is enough mystery to allow Calvin to have some flexibility in reconciling some of his differing views.  This is well balanced as he usually only looks to mystery when he perceives that Scripture is silent on a given issue.

Calvin is a Careful and Nuanced Exegete

After interpreting Matthew 22:14 as a verse that is primarily concerned with perseverance of the saints, Calvin says, “I enter no farther, at present, into the question about the eternal election of God…”[6]  Such a verse seems like it would be the perfect opportunity for Calvin to teach on election.  Yet, in explaining why he does not wish to he says, “…we infer, that we ought not to attempt an ingenious explanation of every minute clause.”[7]  This writer infers from this that Calvin did not feel the need to force every verse into fitting into perfect harmony with his doctrinal beliefs.  Indeed, even some modern Calvinists do not feel the need to be absolutist with every verse.  For example, John Piper believes that Christ died for the entire world in the sense that every single person may hypothetically posit that Christ died for him or her.[8]

Calvin’s nuanced approach is an excellent way to understand his view on the atonement in John 3:16.  Calvin avoided the hasty generalization that would have resulted in teaching that the verse was a proof-text for Limited Atonement.  The Calvin scholar Kevin Kennedy was aware of Calvin’s views on John 3:16 and their seemingly inconsistent nature with Calvin’s soteriology.  He too provides a solution to this problem with:

Calvin was able to hold to a universal/substitutionary view of the atonement because he did not view Christ’s death as securing some “commodity” labeled “atonement” or “salvation.” Rather, Christ, in the flesh which he received from humanity, died for the sins of all humanity and thus became salvation and life for all those who through faith are united to him through the Spirit. Thus, Calvin separates believer and reprobate theologically at the point of union with Christ and not at the point of the cross.  (Kennedy 1999, Abstract)

In teaching that Christ died for the sins of all humanity for purposes other than securing atonement, Kennedy is able to reconcile Calvin’s views.  In Kennedy’s explanation, Calvin must have died “for” every single human being in the sense that they are invited to salvation.  This is largely the same as what has been concluded thus far.  However, Kennedy provides further clarification in dealing with Calvin’s teaching on the elect and reprobate.  Kennedy believes that the best way to understand Calvin on the atonement is to view the separation of believers and reprobate in union with Christ as opposed to the cross.  Put another way, John 3:16 is not a verse that is primarily concerned with separating the believers and the reprobate.  The focus is on Jesus’ overall reconciliation of humanity with Himself.  While logical conclusions regarding the elect may be drawn from the verse, it should be done with the rest of Scripture’s teachings in mind.

THE LAST ADAM

Calvin’s teaching on John 3:16 as providing an invitation to all men is congruent with a major area of both the work of Jesus and who He is.  Paul refers to Jesus as, “the last Adam” in 1 Corinthians 15.  Paul mentions this in comparing Jesus with the first Adam (v. 45).  The first Adam was a being made from dust and as such those who have his nature will become dust as well (v. 48).  The last Adam is from Heaven and is a spiritual being.  Those who have the nature of this Adam will live forever because they will be of Heaven (v. 48).  The saved were born in the image of the first Adam but will also put on the image of the last Adam (v. 49).

This commentary on the two Adams is provided to illustrate a point.  That is that the juxtaposition suggests that the last Adam has fixed the damage that the first Adam created.  If Jesus has fixed the damage done by Adam, then it needs to be identified how much damage was done.  Romans 5:12 teaches that all men are infected by sin because of the initial sin of Adam.  The first Adam’s disobedience led to the many being made sinners (Rom. 5:19).  The last Adam’s obedience led to the many being made righteous (Rom. 5:19).  “The many” is a phrase used in regards to who Adam harmed and to who Christ helped.  Because all men became condemned through Adam (Rom. 5:18), then it follows that they are “the many” in the next verse.  This being the case, it logically follows that Jesus is making the group of all men righteous.  That is not to mean that all men are saved, for that would contradict other Scripture (E.G. Rev. 20:15).  It simply means that Jesus has provided the opportunity for all people to come to know Him.  This is the only way to harmonize the idea of Jesus healing the same group that Adam infected.  Jesus could not have satisfactorily fixed all the damage caused by Adam if an invitation to salvation to every single human being is not the intended meaning of John 3:16.

Calvin confirms this with his view on the last Adam.  In his commentary on Romans 5:19, Calvin says, “…every one is condemned because he is a sinner. And then, as he declares that we are made righteous through the obedience of Christ, we hence conclude that Christ, in satisfying the Father, has provided a righteousness for us.”[9]  Calvin’s is being consistent with his view on John 3:16.  He identifies all men being condemned with those to whom righteousness is provided.  A righteousness provided is consistent with an invitation to all men.  “Provided” is not the same as “imparted.”

Ante-Nicene Atonement

The idea of the last Adam was a pivotal concept in ante-Nicene soteriology.  It is useful to engage in a cursory review if for no other reason than to look to demonstrate that the idea of the last Adam fully repairing the damage of the first Adam is not a novel concept.  It is not meant as ad hoc support for Calvin’s teaching on John 3:16.

Cyprian writes, “…a plan of salvation it is provided for us…For when the Lord at His advent had cured those wounds which Adam had borne, and had healed the old poisons of the serpent, He gave a law to the sound man and bade him sin no more, lest a worse thing should befall the sinner.”[10]  Cyprian’s language regarding the healing of wounds is an appropriate illustration.  If John 3:16 is to be understood as Jesus dying only “for” the elect, then how could all of the wounds Adam bore be healed?  Would it not just be some of the wounds?

Another good example is that of Methodius.  He writes:

“For with this purpose the Word assumed the nature of man, that, having overcome the serpent, He might by Himself destroy the condemnation which had come into being along with man’s ruin. For it was fitting that the Evil One should be overcome by no other, but by him whom he had deceived, and whom he was boasting that he held in subjection, because no otherwise was it possible that sin and condemnation should be destroyed, unless that same man on whose account it had been said, “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shall return,” should be created anew, and undo the sentence which for his sake had gone forth on all, that “as in Adam” at first “all die, even so” again “in Christ,” who assumed the nature and position of Adam, should “all be made alive.”” (Methodius 1994, Kindle Edition: Paragraph 1, Location 17143)

Methodius says that it was the very purpose of the Logos becoming incarnate to correct the condemnation that was created by man.  Man here can either be speaking directly to Adam and his act, or to him indirectly (given the source of man’s fallen state as found in Romans 5:12).  The condemnation could only be fully destroyed and sin defeated if the invitation to eternal life was issued to every single individual.  If this was not the logical consequence of Methodius’ view then he would have had to say here that the Logos would have only destroyed part of the condemnation.  Methodius quotes Genesis 3:19 and then explains its relevance to 1 Corinthians 15 (verse 22 in particular).  Methodius understood that Jesus assumed the role of Adam and was able to repair all the damage that he had done.

There are several more early church fathers that could be called upon for assistance in demonstrating the early belief on Jesus repairing all of the damage brought by Adam.  For the sake of brevity, let one more example serve to solidify the point.  Justin Martyr taught that, “…the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all…”[11]   Martyr does not speak directly to the issue of the last Adam.  However, his comment is even more directly aimed at the primary concern.  Christ dying for the entire human race is consistent with Calvin’s treatment of John 3:16.  Moreover, every father mentioned is concerned with Christ being reconciled with humanity.  Only through the concept of an invitation being given to all of mankind can this reconciliation occur (without resorting to universalism).

PARADIGM SHIFT

Calvin’s view on the atonement can be understood as follows.  An invitation is given to all men to come to the salvific knowledge of Christ.  At the same time, not only are some men elected to receive faith, but others are denied it.  These contrary positions are reconciled by both men resisting Christ out of their own sinful state and a certain degree of mystery concerning the ways of God.  Therefore, Calvin’s position still leads to the ultimate conclusion of Christ dying with the intended purpose of saving only some.  At the very least, Calvin is holding to a theory of atonement with a definite purpose in mind.  Ultimately determining to save only some results in the same conclusion as would be the case if Christ did not give an invitation to all.

Identifying what a paradigm shift is and how the position of this paper fits such a description is of use in understanding what is happening here.  Essentially a paradigm shift is a move from interpreting the same data in one manner to doing so in another.  It is primarily concerned with scientific methods or theories.  That applies here as systematic theology is an area of science.[12]  Though Calvin’s view on the atonement in John 3:16 predates modern Calvinist views on the subject, it would certainly come off as novel to most who hold to reformed soteriology.  Calvin’s view then represents a more satisfying paradigm.  Calvin’s position may indeed have the same results as to the elect being saved.  However, in his paradigm there are advantages.  In addition to harmonizing with the last Adam, the evangelist can honestly tell the prospect that Jesus died for him or her.  A paradigm that has less problems and answers questions more satisfactorily is a classic example of why it should replace the older model.  The originator of the paradigm shift theory Thomas Kuhn explains, “…the scientist’s world is quantitatively transformed as well as quantitatively enriched by fundamental novelties of either fact or theory.”[13]

CONCLUSION

Christ dying for every single human being in the sense of issuing an invitation to all is the most preferable and accurate way to understand John 3:16 and its teaching on the atonement.  This interpretation not only survives Calvin’s double predestination, but is even favored by him.  It has been shown that it supports Jesus being a fully successful last Adam.  More specifically, it allows for the reconciliation of God to His created man.  Trinity Lutheran Seminary professor George Murphy explains, “Atonement” is necessary because God and humanity are not “at one.””[14]  With the concept of the “last Adam” in mind, Murphy’s explanation appears to be the sine qua non of the need for the atonement.  That being the case, it becomes essential that Calvin’s view of the atonement in John 3:16 be considered.  Indeed, it represents a preferable paradigm and should thus be accepted as correct.


[1] Karlberg, Mark W. “The Extent of the atonement: A Dilemma for Reformed Theology from Calvin to the Consensus (1536-1675),” Trinity Journal 20 (1999): 17.

[2] John Calvin, Commentary on John-Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2010), Kindle Electronic Edition: Paragraph 3, Location 2151-2161.

[3] John Calvin, Commentary on John-Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2010), Kindle Electronic Edition: Paragraph 2, Location 2151.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 921.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 979.

[6] John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke-Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2010), Kindle Electronic Edition: Paragraph 3, Location 3381.

[7] John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke-Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2010), Kindle Electronic Edition: Paragraph 1, Location 3381.

[8] David Wenkel, “A Palatable Calvinism: Limited Atonement in the Theology of John Piper,” The Journal of Dispensational Theology 11 (2007): 11.

[9] John Calvin, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2010), Kindle Electronic Edition: Paragraph 1, Location 3221.

[10] Cyprian, Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 5, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), Kindle Electronic Edition: Paragraph 2, Location 26350-26362.

[11] Justin Martyr, Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), Kindle Electronic Edition: Paragraph 1, Location 14117.

[12] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology vol. I (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1976), 7.

[13] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Third Edition (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1996) 7.

[14] George, Murphy. “Atonement as Fiducial Insurance,” Currents in Theology and Mission 37 (2010): 23.

Comments

  1. keith turner says:

    In his commentary on Romans 5:19, Calvin says, “…every one is condemned because he is a sinner. I just noticed that John the Baptist received the Holy Spirit “from his mothers womb”15 For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.
    Did John receive a special dispensation of grace or some other mechanism(?) that allowed him to receive the Spirit of Holiness right of the bat?

    • Thank you for the comment. In short, I do believe that John the Baptist being filled with the Holy Spirit is distinct from those brief moments the Holy Spirit came upon men in the Old Testament. We are told that John was, “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). The implication is that the Holy Spirit stayed with John throughout his entire life. Is this the same as being baptized by the Holy Spirit a la Acts 2? Frankly, I’m not entirely sure. In any case, I agree that what happened was a special dispensation so that God’s purpose for John would occur.
      Blessings to you Keith!

      In Christ,
      Matthew Ervin

Leave a Reply