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James Richards (1767-1843) on Calvin on the Atonement

December 10, 2007


But some may be curious to know in what light this subject was viewed by Calvin, a man who, from the extent of his erudition, and the vigor of his faculties, exerted a mighty influence over his cotemporaries, and the generations which succeeded him. Seldom, indeed, has the world seen such a man. Fearless, as he was able, he examined every subject with care, and penetrated farther into the great doctrines of the Gospel, probably, than any other divine of that or of preceding ages. What did he think of the doctrine of atonement? Did he consider it in the light of a universal provision for the whole human race, or did he suppose it restricted in its very nature to the elect? In his Institutes, which he wrote in early life, and which display an astonishing measure both of talent and research, some have supposed that he favored the doctrine of a particular or limited atonement. The truth, however, is, so far as I can judge, that he carefully avoids committing himself on this point, and uses language on all occasions of such a general and indeterminate character, that it is not easy to discover what were his real sentiments. The probability is, that the subject had not then been much agitated, and that he thought it enough to keep to the language which was generally adopted by the Church. He often asserts that the death of Christ was a full and perfect sacrifice for sin—that it takes away sin—that he died for us—and that we are purged by his blood; but he does not teach that any man’s sins are put away until he believes, but he plainly teaches the contrary. Having occasion to quote these words of the Apostle, “Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood,” he remarks, “Here Paul celebrates the grace of God, because he has given the price of our redemption in the death of Christ; and then enjoins us to betake ourselves to his blood, that we may obtain righteousness, and may stand secure before the judgment of God.” But why betake ourselves to his blood, that we may obtain righteousness or justification, if his death, considered simply as a sin-offering, actually took away our sin, and reconciled us to God? For myself, I have no doubt that he considered the sprinkling of Christ’s blood as essential to a real and effective propitiation as the shedding of it. His blood shed was the meritorious cause of our reconciliation, or the grand means by which it was effected; but this effect was never actually produced but in cases where his blood was sprinkled or applied, and that this blood is applied in no case antecedent to faith, and without faith. His doctrine, then, appears to me to be this: That Christ’s death was the only full and perfect sacrifice for sin; that as such, it laid the foundation for God to be propitious to a world of sinners, even the whole human family; but that it actually reconciled him to none, so as to take away their sin and entitle them to life, till they repented and believed; but that to all such there is an actual propitiation, an effective reconcilement or at-one-ment, because by faith they lay their hands upon the head of the bleeding victim, and his blood is sprinkled upon them or applied to their souls. But whatever might have been his opinions in early life, his commentaries, which were the labors of his riper years, demonstrate in the most unequivocal manner that he received and taught the doctrine of a general or universal atonement. This is distinctly asserted by Dr. Watts, and several striking examples of his interpretation given. But having examined for myself, I am prepared to say that he takes the ground of an universal atonement in almost every controverted text on this subject in the New Testament. Hear him on Matthew xxvi. 28: “This is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” “Under the name of many,” says Calvin, ” he designates not a part of the world only, but the whole human race. For he opposes many to one, as if he should say he would be the Redeemer, not of one man, but would suffer death that he might liberate many from the guilt of the curse. Nor is it to be doubted that Christ, in addressing the few, designed to make his doctrine common to the many. Nevertheless, it is at the same time to be noted, that in distinctly addressing his disciples in Luke, he exhorts all the faithful to appropriate the shedding of his blood to their own use. While, therefore, we approach the sacred table, not only this general thought should come into the mind, that the world is redeemed by Christ’s blood, but that every one for himself should reckon his own sins to be expiated.” He expounds John iii. 16 in accordance with the same views. ” God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.” By the world, according to him, we are to understand “genus humanum,” the human race collectively, and not the elect as a distinct portion of the world. God hath affixed, saith he, a mark of universality to his words on this occasion,” both that he might invite all promiscuously to the participation of life, and that he might cut off excuse to the unbelieving;” and this universality is indicated, he tells us, not only by the term whosoever, but by the term world. ” For though God finds nothing in the world worthy of his favor, nevertheless he shows himself propitious to the whole world, since he calls all men without exception to faith in Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.”

His remarks on 1 Corinthians viii. 11, 12, are still more decisive. “And through thy knowledge shall thy weak brother perish for whom Christ died.” Here the question is, what is meant by the weak brother perishing? Calvin’s paraphrase is, “If the soul of every weak person was the purchaser of the blood of Christ, he that for the sake of a little meat plunges his brother again into death who was redeemed by Christ, shows at how mean a rate he esteems the blood of Christ.” His observations on Hebrews x. 26, are of the same decisive character. Paul declares “that if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.” This Calvin interpreted of those who openly apostatize from the truth and renounce their Christian profession—and to such, he says, there is no more a sacrifice for sins, because they have departed from the death of Christ and treated it with sacrilegious contempt—to sinners of any other description, even to lapsed Christians “Christ daily offers himself, so that no other sacrifice need to be sought for the expiation of their sins.”

It is obvious that Calvin considered apostates as standing in a different relation to the death of Christ from what they once did, and different from that of other sinners under the dispensation of the Gospel. That once his death might be regarded as a sacrifice for sin, available for them, but now it was otherwise ; having despised him and being rejected of God, there remained to them neither this sacrifice nor any other, but only a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation which shall consume the adversaries.

Again, on 1 John ii. 2, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.” Here,” says Calvin, “a question is raised, how the sins of the whole world were atoned for? Some have said that Christ suffered for the whole world sufficiently, but for the elect alone efficaciously. This is the common solution of the schools, and though I confess this is a truth, yet I do not think it agrees to this place.”

See also on 2 Peter ii. 1, “There shall be false teachers among you who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.” Upon this, Calvin remarks, “Though Christ is denied in various ways, yet, in my opinion, Peter means the same thing here that Jude expresses, namely, that the grace of God is turned into lasciviousness. For Christ has redeemed us that he might have a people free from the defilements of the world, and devoted to holiness and innocence. Whoever, therefore, shake off the yoke and throw themselves into all licentiousness, are justly said to deny Christ, by whom they were redeemed.” To the same purpose are his remarks on Jude, verse fourth: ” Turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.” “His meaning is,” says Calvin, “that Christ is really denied when those who were redeemed by his blood again enslave themselves to the devil, and as far as in them lies, make that incomparable price vain and ineffectual.” It is but candid, however, to allow that in some passages where the word all is brought into question, this writer supposes that it signifies all of every kind, or all sorts, rather than all, every one. But this he might easily do and consistently maintain as the doctrine of the New Testament, that the death of Christ was a full and perfect sacrifice for the sins of all men absolutely. This doctrine he most certainly did maintain, as several of the extracts from his writings now presented clearly evince. We need not be afraid, therefore, that our Calvinism will be essentially marred by holding the doctrine of a general propitiation, unless we wish to be more Calvinistic than John Calvin himself. But as we should call no man master, upon earth, but examine for ourselves, and take our opinions from the living oracles, let us hear what the Scriptures say upon this subject. To facilitate our inquiries, I propose to consider the truth of the following positions: First. That the death of Christ was a true and proper sacrifice for sin. Second. That though his death was of vicarious import, as were the ancient sin-offerings, yet it was not strictly vicarious. Third. That this sacrifice bore such a relation to the sins of men, that a way was thereby opened for the restoration of the whole human family to the favor of God.

James Richards, Lectures on Mental Philosophy and Theology, (New York: M.W. Dodd, 1846), 306-311.

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[Notes: 1) For more on Richard’s theology as a moderate Calvinist on the expiation see: Welsh, R.B.  “Rev. Dr. James Richards and His Theology,” The Presbyterian Review 5, no 19 (1884) : 401-442.

2) Supporting documentation from Calvin:

When ‘the many’ means all:


1. That, then, is how our Lord Jesus bore the sins and iniquities of many. But in fact, this word “many” is often as good as equivalent to “all“. And indeed, our Lord Jesus was offered to all the world. For it is not speaking of three or four when it says: ‘For God so loved the world, that he spared not His only Son.” But yet we must notice that the Evangelist adds in this passage: “That whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but obtain eternal life.” Our Lord Jesus suffered for all, and there is neither great nor small who is not inexcusable today, for we can obtain salvation through him. Unbelievers who turn away from Him and who deprive themselves of him by their malice are today doubly culpable. For how will they excuse their ingratitude in not receiving the blessing in which the could share by faith? Calvin, Sermons on Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Death and Passion of Christ, 52:12, p., 140-1.


2. I have followed the ordinary interpretation, that “he bore the sin of many,” though we might without impropriety consider the Hebrew word (rabbim,) to denote “Great and Noble.” And thus the contrast would be more complete, that Christ, while “he was ranked among transgressors,” became surety for every one of the most excellent of the earth, and suffered in the room of those who hold the highest rank in the world. I leave this to the judgment of my readers. Yet I approve of the ordinary reading, that he alone bore the punishment of many, because on him was laid the guilt of the whole world. It is evident from other passages, and especially from the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, that “many” sometimes denotes “all.” Calvin, Isa. 53:12.

3. “And to give his life a ransom for many.” Christ mentioned his death, as we have said, in order to withdraw his disciples from the foolish imagination of an earthly kingdom. But it is a just and appropriate statement of its power and results, when he declares that his life is the price of our redemption; whence it follows, that we obtain an undeserved reconciliation with God, the price of which is to be found nowhere else than in the death of Christ. Wherefore, this single word overturns all the idle talk of the Papists about their abominable satisfactions. Again, while Christ has purchased us by his death to be his property, this submission, of which he speaks, is so far from diminishing his boundless glory, that it greatly increases its splendor. The word “many” (pollon) is not put definitely for a fixed number, but for a large number; for he contrasts himself with all others. And in this sense it is used in Romans 5:15, where Paul does not speak of any part of men, but embraces the whole human race. Calvin, Matt 20:28.

4. “Which is shed for many.” By the word “many he means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race; for he contrasts many with one; as if he had said, that he will not be the Redeemer of one man only, but will die in order to deliver many from the condemnation of the curse. It must at the same time be observed, however, that by the words for you, as related by Luke–Christ directly addresses the disciples, and exhorts every believer to apply to his own advantage the shedding of blood Therefore, when we approach to the holy table, let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but let every one consider for himself that his own sins have been expiated. Calvin, Mark 14:24.

5. “To bear,” or, “take away sins”, is to free from guilt by his satisfaction those who have sinned. He says the sins of many, that is, of all, as in Romans 5:15. It is yet certain that not all receive benefit from the death of Christ; but this happens, because their unbelief prevents them. At the same time this question is not to be discussed here, for the Apostle is not speaking of the few or of the many to whom the death of Christ may be available; but he simply means that he died for others and not for himself; and therefore he opposes many to one. Calvin, Heb. 9:28.

Calvin on John 3:16, cf.

Redeemed brothers perishing:

1. The next thing is–that when the weak conscience is wounded, the price of Christ’s blood is wasted; for the most abject brother has been redeemed by the blood of Christ: it is then a heinous crime to destroy him by gratifying the stomach. Calvin, Rom. 14:15.

2. There is, however, still greater force in what follows–that even those that are ignorant or weak have been redeemed with the blood of Christ; for nothing were more unseemly than this, that while Christ did not hesitate to die, in order that the weak might not perish, we, on the other hand, reckon as nothing the salvation of those who have been redeemed with so great a price. A memorable saying, by which we are taught how precious the salvation of our brethren ought to be in our esteem, and not merely that of all, but of each individual in particular, inasmuch as the blood of Christ was poured out for each individual… For if the soul of every one that is weak is the price of Christ’s blood, that man, who, for the sake of a very small portion of meat, hurries back again to death the brother who has been redeemed by Christ, shows how contemptible the blood of Christ is in his view. Calvin, 1 Cor 8:11 & 12.

Suffered sufficiently for the whole world:

1. Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotages 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 all 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. Calvin, 1 John 2:2.

Apostates redeemed:

1. Though Christ may be denied in various ways, yet Peter, as I think, refers here to what is expressed by Jude, that is, when the grace of God is turned into lasciviousness; for Christ redeemed us, that he might have a people separated from all the pollutions of the world, and devoted to holiness ,and innocency. They, then, who throw off the bridle, and give themselves up to all kinds of licentiousness, are not unjustly said to deny Christ by whom they have been redeemed. Calvin, 2 Peter 2:1.

2. “The only Lord God,” or, God who alone is Lord. Some old copies have, “Christ, who alone is God and Lord.” And, indeed, in the Second Epistle of Peter, Christ alone is mentioned, and there he is called Lord. But He means that Christ is denied, when they who had been redeemed by his blood, become again the vassals of the Devil, and thus render void as far as they can that incomparable price. Calvin, Jude 4.]

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