In our last article we were busy with Calvin’s presentation of the atonement in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter 16. We noted that he does not emphasize the particular character of the suffering and death of Christ, but also observed that this was not a burning issue in his day. We did call attention to the fact that the Genevan reformer stressed the elements of satisfaction and the vicarious nature of the passion of our Lord. Calvin, when treating the death of Christ, follows the order in the Apostles’ Creed, namely that Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and that He descended into hell.
Incidentally, Calvin explains the expression, “descended into hell,” in the same sense in which it is understood by our Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 44 of Lord’s Day 16. He refutes the idea that “hell” here refers to the grave, inasmuch as then we would have mere tautology in the Apostles’ Creed, and he also opposed the presentation that Christ, descending into hell, descended to the souls of the fathers who had died under the law, for the purpose of announcing the accomplishment of redemption, and liberating them from the prison in which they were confined. Calvin writes, in his explanation of the words, “descended into hell:”
Therefore it is no wonder, if He be said to have descended into hell, since He suffered that death which the wrath of God inflicts on transgressors. It is a very frivolous and even ridiculous objection to say that by this explanation the order of things is perverted, because it is absurd to make that subsequent to His burial, which really preceded it. For the relation of those sufferings of Christ, which were visible to men, is very properly followed by that invisible and incomprehensible vengeance which He suffered from the hand of God; in order to assure us that not only the body of Christ was given as the price of our redemption, but that there was another greater and more excellent ransom, since He suffered in His soul the dreadful torments of a person condemned and irretrievably lost.
These words speak for themselves. Notice, in these words, that Calvin writes that Christ’s descension into hell must be explained as occurring before His burial. The reformer believed that our Lord’s descension into hell means that He suffered the eternal horrors and torments of hell, as also set forth in our Heidelberg Catechism.
Calling attention to the words, “suffered’ under Pontius Pilate,” Calvin writes:
For the name of the governor is mentioned, not only to establish the credit of the history, but that we may learn, what is taught by Isaiah, that “the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.” For to supersede our condemnation it was not sufficient for Him to suffer any kind of death; but, to accomplish our redemption, that kind of death was to be chosen, by which, both sustaining our condemnation and atoning for our sins, He might deliver us from both . . . . For when we are told, that Christ was sent from the tribunal of the judge to the place of execution, and suspended between two thieves, we see the completion of that prophecy, which is cited by the Evangelist, “He was numbered with the transgressors.” For what reason? To sustain the character of a sinner, not of a righteous or innocent person. For He died, not for His innocence, but on account of sin . . . He suffered, then, under Pontius Pilate, after having been condemned as a criminal by the solemn sentence of the governor; yet not in such a manner, but that He was at the same time pronounced to be righteous, by the declaration of the same judge, that he found in Him no cause of accusation. This is our absolution, that the guilt, which made us obnoxious (exposed, H.V.) to punishment, is transferred to the person of the Son of God. For we ought particularly to remember this satisfaction, that we may not spend our whole lives in terror and anxiety, as though we were pursued by the righteous vengeance of God, which the Son of God has transferred to Himself.
Also in these words of the reformed, the emphasis is laid upon the vicarious, substitutionary character of Christ’s death. He died, we read, on account of sin, was loaded with the guilt of others, having none of His own. And he also writes that the guilt, which made us exposed to punishment, was transferred to the person of the Son of God. The death of Christ is therefore the death of a substitute, is vicarious, suffering the sins and guilt of His own.
And Calvin continues in this same vein, when he discusses the species of death which Christ suffered and is fraught with a peculiar mystery. He writes that the cross was accursed, not only in the opinion of men, but by the decree of the Divine law; when Christ is lifted upon that cross, He renders Himself obnoxious, exposed to the curse. He writes, and we quote him at length:
Moreover, the species of death which He suffered, is fraught with a peculiar mystery. The cross was accursed, not only in the opinion of men, but by the decree of the Divine law. Therefore, when Christ is lifted up upon it, He renders Himself obnoxious to the curse. And this was necessary to be done, that by this transfer we might be delivered from every curse which awaited us, or rather was already inflicted upon us, on account of our iniquities. This was also prefigured in the law. For the victims and expiations offered for sins were called by a word which properly signifies sin itself. By this appellation the Spirit intended to suggest that they were vicarious sacrifices, to receive and sustain the curse due to sin. But that which was figuratively represented in the Mosaic sacrifices, is actually exhibited in Christ, the archetype of the figures. Wherefore, in order to effect a complete expiation, He gave His soul an atoning sacrifice for sin, as the prophet says; so that our guilt and punishment being as it were transferred upon Him, they must cease to be imputed to us. The apostle more explicitly testifies the same, when he says, “He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” For the Son of God, though perfectly free from all sin, nevertheless assumed the disgrace and ignominy of our iniquities, and, on the other hand, arrayed us in His purity. He appears to have intended the same, when he says concerning sin, that it was “condemned in the flesh,” that is, in Christ. For the Father destroyed the power of sin, when the curse of it was transferred to the body of Christ. This expression therefore indicates, that Christ at His death was offered to the Father as an expiatory sacrifice, in order that, a complete atonement being made by His oblation, we may no longer dread the Divine wrath. Now, it is evident what the prophet meant, when he said, “The Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all”; namely, that when He was about to expiate our sins, they were transferred to Him by imputation. The cross, to which He was fixed, was a symbol of this, as the apostle informs us: “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree, that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ.” Peter alluded to the same, where he said, “He bare our sins in His own body on the tree”; because from the visible symbol of the curse, we more clearly apprehend, that the burden, with which we were oppressed, was imposed on Him. Nor must we conceive that He submitted to a curse which overwhelmed Him, but, on the contrary, that by sustaining it, He depressed, broke, and destroyed all its power. Wherefore faith apprehends an absolution in the condemnation of Christ, and a benediction in His curse. It is not without reason, therefore, that Paul magnificently proclaims the triumph which Christ gained for Himself on the cross; as though the cross, which was full of ignominy, had been converted into a triumphal chariot. For he says, that “he nailed to His cross the hand-writing, which was contrary to us, and having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly.” Nor should this surprise us; for, according to the testimony of another apostle, “Christ offered Himself through the eternal Spirit.” Hence arose that change of the nature of things. But that these things may be deeply rooted and firmly fixed in our hearts, let us always remember His sacrifice and ablution. For we certainly could have no confidence that Christ was our redemption, ransom, and propitiation, if He had not been a slaughtered victim. And for this reason it is, that when the Scripture exhibits the method of redemption, it so often makes mention of blood; though the blood shed by Christ has not only served as an atonement to God, but likewise as a laver to purge away our pollutions.
From this lengthy quotation it is very evident how John Calvin conceived of the atonement. It is true that the reformer does not state specifically that Christ dies only for His own and not, head for head, for all men. But this is surely clearly implied in what he writes here. No man can set forth the cross of Calvary in this light and also believe that the atonement of Calvary is universal in its scope, for all men, head for head. Calvin writes that that Christ rendered Himself obnoxious, exposed to the curse. He speaks of the transfer of our curse to Him. He calls attention to the victims and expiations offered for sins throughout the Old Dispensation, and he calls them vicarious sacrifices, and that Christ is the archetype of these figures. He declares that our Lord gave His soul an atoning sacrifice for sin, and underscores this expression. And we read that the Son of God, though perfectly free from all sin, nevertheless assumed the disgrace and ignominy of our iniquities, and, on the other hand, arrayed us in His purity, and this latter expression can be understood only in the light that the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ was strictly limited and particular in its scope. And there it is obvious from this quotation that Calvin conceived of the sufferings and death of Christ as atoning, expiatory, vicarious, and as only in behalf of His own. Calvin, we know, was surely a believer in the unconditional predestination of God. Indeed, according to Calvin, our salvation has become an established fact in Christ. Listen to him as he writes in Chapter 17 of Book II:
For I assume this as granted: if Christ has satisfied for our sins; if He has sustained the punishment due to us; if He has appeased God by His obedience; in a word, if He has suffered, the just for the unjust,—then salvation has been obtained for us by His righteousness, which is the same as being merited.
This is the clear testimony of the reformer of Geneva. And this same conception and presentation of the atonement of Christ is also set forth in the Protestant and Reformed creeds and confessions, to which we will call attention in due time.