One of the clearest expressions in Scripture pertaining to the infinite worth of Christ’s sacrifice is found in the Apostle of Love’s first little letter. He writes: “He Himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins—and not only for our sins but the sins of all the world” (2:2 NLT). This post is meant not to be an exhaustive exposition of this text. Rather, my desire is to allow the Word of God to simply speak for itself through honest evaluation of the text sufficiently showing John’s basic intent that Jesus was “Savior of the world” (1John 4:14; John 4:42). Before actually dealing with John's assertion about the Atonement, allow me to offer a few observations about Atonement according to historic Calvinism >>>
In addition, not only is 1 John 2:2’s explicit reference to the universality of God’s provision for sin the most common rendering offered by average Bible readers, but taking its face value reference to God’s full provision for sin is also the majority position of the historic church. The question is worth asking: were there any substantial faith communities in the Christian church before the Synod of Dort which embraced Limited Atonement? Or, stated another way, how prominent was Limited Atonement in Christian dogma prior to its doctrinal development in post-Calvin Calvinism?
On the other hand, strict Calvinists routinely claim that texts like 1 John 2:2 are simply ripped out of their context by people who hate God’s Sovereignty in salvation. Furthermore, strict Calvinists insist that Limited Atonement—or, some prefer Particular Redemption--is so well founded in Scripture that it is hard to see how any could miss the clear teaching of Scripture. R.C. Sproul writes:
One of the most controversial points of Reformed theology concerns the L in TULIP. L stands for Limited Atonement. It has been such a problem of doctrine that there are multitudes of Christians who say they embrace most of the doctrines of Calvinism but get off the boat here. They refer to themselves as “four-point” Calvinists. The point they cannot abide is limited atonement. I have often thought that to be a four-point Calvinist one must misunderstand at least one of the five points. It is hard for me to imagine that anyone could understand the other four points of Calvinism and deny limited atonement. There always is the possibility, however, of the happy inconsistency by which people hold incompatible views at the same time"1
Does the claim for clarity stand up to historical analysis?
Clement of Alexandria, a second century theologian, wrote of Christ’s sacrifice: “Christ freely brings… salvation to the whole human race” (Paedagogus, ch. 11). The great Church historian, Eusebius (260-340 AD), penned these words about the Atonement: “it was needful that the Lamb of God should be offered for the other lambs whose nature He assumed, even for the whole human race.” (Demonstratio Evangelica, ch. 10, preface).Gregory of Nazianzen (A.D. 324-389) said that “the sacrifice of Christ is an imperishable expiation of the whole world.” (Oratoria 2 in Pasch., i.e., Passover).
Cyril of Alexandria (A.D. 376-444) taught that “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). Indeed, Millard Erickson remarks that unlimited atonement was held by virtually all the writers before the Reformation, with the possible exception of Augustine (who evidently held conflicting views on the subject). Incidentally, while Erickson fully self-identifies as a Calvinist, he rejects Limited Atonement.
It is often assumed that with the dawn of the Reformation, Limited Atonement as a Biblical doctrine once again came to light. However, many--indeed if not most--of the Reformers did not embrace Limited Atonement. For example, hear Martin Luther (A.D. 1483-1546) thunder about the sacrifice of Christ:
“Christ is not a cruel exactor, but a forgiver of the sins of the whole world…He hath given Himself for our sins, and with one oblation hath put away the sins of the whole world…Christ hath taken away the sins, not of certain men only, but also of thee, yea, of the whole world…Not only my sins and thine, but also the sins of the whole world … take hold upon Christ.” (Commentary on Galatians).
Millard Erickson lists other Reformation lights who held to the universality of God’s provision in the Atonement including Melanchthon, Bullinger, Latimer, Cranmer and Coverdale. David Allen's more recent monograph in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinismremains a devastating critique on Limited Atonement. Of interest in Allen's historical analysis is the discouraging reality--discouraging at least to strict Calvinists--that he only uses Calvinist sources. In other words, Calvinists rejecting Calvinism!
And, one only needs to read Calvin’s commentaries to understand why many scholars question his unwavering belief in Limited Atonement. One comment from an endless stream in Calvin's commentaries will suffice.In his commentary on “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” the Baptist’s introduction of Jesus the Messiah (John 1:29), Calvin writes:
“He uses the word sin in the singular number, for any kind of iniquity; as if he had said, that every kind of unrighteousness which alienates men from God is taken away by Christ. And when he says, the sin Of The World, he extends this favor indiscriminately to the whole human race...”2
It’s comments like these that leave historical theologians baffled as to both what Calvin taught about Limited Atonement and why Calvinism itself developed “limitedism” in the Atonement as a non-negotiable aspect of Calvinism proper.
In my next post, we will look specifically at the text of 1 John 2.2.
With that, I am...
1Sproul, R. C. (1996). Chosen by God. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers
2due to several reputable challenges in Calvin scholarship, it's becoming increasingly problematic to hold, without serious reservation, that John Calvin himself held to what Calvinists dub Limited Atonement