Calvin and the Atonement

Founders Journal 75 · Winter 2009 · pp. 10-19

Calvin and the Atonement

The Necessity and Nature of the Atonement:
Insights from Calvin

Tom Ascol

Excerpt from John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, & Doxology edited by Burk Parsons, published by Reformation Trust in 2008.

The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the hinge on which all biblical revelation turns. Together with the resurrection of Christ, it is the apex of redemptive history. Everything prior to it anticipated it and was calculated by God to set it up and bring it to pass in just the right way at the right time. Everything after the death of Jesus derives its meaning and significance from it.

Despite its centrality the cross remains a “folly” and “stumbling block” to many who hear of it but do not understand its necessity or nature. Yet, as the Apostle Paul also notes, for those who are called, Christ crucified is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). John Calvin deeply appreciated the centrality of the work of Christ. “Our salvation,” he stated, “consists in the doctrine of the cross.”[1] His insights help us appreciate why Jesus had to die and what He accomplished.

The Necessity of Atonement

What is it that makes atonement for sin necessary? Calvin is careful to ground every aspect of salvation on the decree of God so that we recognize that all that comes to us is by divine mercy and grace. Thus he rejects the idea that the incarnation and atoning work of Christ were due to any kind of “absolute necessity.”[2] In a sermon on the death of Christ he declared, “God was well able to rescue us from the unfathomable depths of death in another fashion, but he willed to display the treasures of his infinite goodness when he spared not his only Son.”[3]

Given God’s gracious determination to save sinners, Calvin establishes the foundation of our need of atonement in his Institutes of the Christian Religion long before he formally addresses the redeeming work of Christ. In fact, the reason atonement is necessary is found in the famous opening line of that work. “Nearly all the wisdom that we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”[4]

Where God’s self-revelation is muted and the biblical testimony about human sin and depravity is rejected the atoning work of Jesus loses its raison d’etre. H. Richard Niebuhr’s apt criticism of liberalism shows the close connection. “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”[5]

Superficial knowledge of God and human nature prevents the cross from being regarded as the saving wisdom of God. Atonement is necessary because the creatures’ sin has provoked the wrath of a holy Creator. Those two biblical ideas–divine wrath and human depravity–are fundamental to understanding both the necessity and nature of the atonement that was accomplished by the sufferings and death of Jesus on the cross.

It would be hard to find an evangelical description of the atonement that does not highlight the love of God in providing it. That emphasis is certainly justified in light of New Testament teaching (John 3:16, Romans 5:8, 1 John 4:10). However, the glorious reality of God’s love in sending His Son to atone for sin must never be construed in a way that negates any of His other attributes, such as His jealousy and wrath, particularly when the work of Jesus on the cross is being considered.

If there is one aspect of God’s nature that most often is ignored when contemplating the atoning work of Christ, it is His wrath. Some have difficulty with the concept altogether, believing it to be in conflict with God’s love. Divine wrath is, however, clearly taught in both Old and New Testaments. Over twenty different Hebrew words are used nearly six hundred times in the Old Testament to describe God’s wrath.[6] Any inability to reconcile God’s love and wrath stems from unbiblical notions of morality. As Leon Morris notes, “It is a necessary part of moral character to abhor evil as well as to love good. God is actively and strongly opposed to all forms of evil; and the biblical writers express this opposition, in part at least, by speaking of the wrath of God.”[7]

Divine wrath should not be reduced to the mere natural retribution that occurs in a moral world as if it were some kind of impersonal effect that automatically follows certain causes.[8] Rather God’s wrath is personally and purposefully directed against human sin. Scripture describes God as “being angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11), as threatening to pour out His wrath and “spend” his anger against people for their stated “abominations” (Ezekiel 7:8), as “burning with his anger” and “his lips … full of fury” (Isaiah 30:27) and as having a day of wrath when his righteous judgment will be revealed (Romans 2:5). There is little doubt in the minds of biblical writers whose wrath it is that is being expressed.

There is nothing capricious about God’s wrath. It is simply “his response to sin.”[9] This means that there is a predictable consistency about what provokes God to anger. One need not wonder when or for what reasons divine wrath is aroused. When His law is violated His response to the violator is wrath. Granted, God’s wrath is not usually expressed immediately as it was in the cases of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), Uzzah (1 Chronicles 13:3-11) and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). Those dramatic displays are illustrative of God’s response to sin but, fortunately, are not a pattern of how His response is always or even usually executed. Precisely because God does not always respond immediately in this way to sin, many are skeptical about the whole idea of divine wrath. However, as Paul warns in Romans 2:1-11, those who practice unrighteousness are “storing up wrath for [themselves] on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”

Calvin explains that even though God does not immediately punish every outbreak of sin, He “cannot bear injury or wrong” and “will yet be the defender of his own glory.” At the right time, God will carry out his judgment against sin.

God is not to be rashly judged of on account of his delay, when he does not immediately execute His judgments; for he waits for the seasonable opportunity. But, in the meantime there is no reason for us to think that he forgets his office when he suspends punishment, or for a season spares the ungodly. When, therefore, God does not hasten so very quickly, there is no ground for us to think that he is indifferent, because he delays his wrath, or retains it, as we have already said; for it is the same thing to retain wrath, as to be the Lord of wrath, and to possess it.[10]

God’s response toward all sinners is anger and opposition. His wrath is provoked and being stored up against all sin. The distinction that Roman Catholicism makes between venial and mortal sins is baseless. While Protestants rightly reject that kind of distinction theologically, too often it subtly informs much of the thinking about sin and judgment. God’s wrath in general, or hell in particular, is reserved for those guilty of “major sins,” like Hitler or Hussein. Lesser sinners are tempted to hope that their case is significantly different. This is why even the title of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” so often evokes such scorn. While it might be conceivable that some sinners would be in that horrible position, surely it is not true of all.

To this Calvin answers, “Every sin is a deadly sin!”[11] He is merely echoing the prophet Ezekiel who teaches, “the soul who sins shall die” (18:4, 20) and Paul who writes in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” Calvin exhorts Christians to acknowledge this fundamental, vital point of biblical teaching, “Let the children of God hold that all sin is mortal. For it is rebellion against the will of God, which of necessity provokes God’s wrath, and it is a violation of the law, upon which God’s judgment is pronounced without exception.”[12]

This is true even for those whom God has elected before the foundation of the world to receive salvation. Though the objects of eternal, divine love, they are nevertheless liable to God’s anger because of their sin. Paul reminds the Ephesians of this fact when he writes that Christians were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (2:3).

What this means is that, before their conversion, Christians are both deeply loved by God and opposed by Him simultaneously. Calvin states the matter quite starkly by quoting Augustine after invoking Romans 5:8.

Therefore, [God] loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.[13]

This apparent contradiction, or “duality,” within God in His attitude toward sinners is seen elsewhere in Scripture, most graphically in the prophet Hosea. In the eleventh chapter God speaks passionately both about the wrath that Israel justly deserves from Him and the love He has for her that will not allow Him to “give [her] up” or “hand [her] over” (vv. 8-9). John Stott notes, “we must never think of this duality within God’s being as irreconcilable.” While we may “find it difficult to hold in our minds simultaneously the images of God as the Judge who must punish evil-doers and the Lover who must find a way to forgive them,” nevertheless “he is both, at the same time.”[14]

It is because of this that atonement had to be secured in the way that it was, by the death of Jesus Christ. For divine love to be fulfilled in the salvation of sinners someone must pay for their sins. The holy love of God can be neither compromised nor thwarted. It must be satisfied by the atoning death of One who represents those who are beloved. This is precisely what took place in the crucifixion of Jesus.

The Nature of the Atonement

The New Testament speaks of the atoning work of Jesus in objective and definite terms. His death on the cross actually accomplished something definitive. By considering its accomplishment a clearer understanding of the nature of the atonement emerges. Three New Testament words are particularly important in explaining what actually took place on the cross–redemption, propitiation and reconciliation.


Calvin recognizes the whole course of Jesus’ life as complicit in the work of redemption. “From the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us.”[15] This is in keeping with Paul’s consideration of the whole life of Christ–including his death–as “one man’s obedience” by which “the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). Nevertheless, the Scripture does speak more precisely in defining salvation by ascribing redemption as “peculiar and proper to Christ’s death.”[16]

In the first century the word “redemption” did not have the religious connotation that it does today. It was primarily used to describe deliverance that came through payment.[17] This applied to prisoners of war who were ransomed from captivity as well as to slaves who were granted freedom through the payment of a set fee. This same idea is found in the Old Testament in the laws governing the redemption of firstborn sons and male animals (Exodus 13:12-13, Numbers 3:40-49). Their freedom could be gained through the payment of a price.

In the New Testament the concept of redemption is found primarily in Paul’s writings. He associates it closely with the death of Christ, “in whom,” he writes, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; cf. Galatians 3:13). His work on the cross (“his blood”) is the means by which our redemption is accomplished.

This accords perfectly with Jesus’ teaching that he came to “give his life as a ransom [lutron] for many” (Mark 10:45). The freedom that is gained by payment is redemption. The actual payment itself is the ransom and Jesus says the giving of His life (on the cross) is the payment that results in the deliverance of many.

So the death of Jesus was redemptive. It secured the deliverance of sinners by providing the payment necessary for their deliverance. As Calvin put it, Christ “made himself a ransom” and thereby has provided redemption.[18]


There are only four undisputed texts in the New Testament where the Greek word-group associated with propitiation (ila¿skomai) is used in connection with the atoning work of Jesus on the cross (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). The concept, however, is pervasive.[19] It is a personal idea (some one must be propitiated) and means more than the impersonal notion of expiation, which means to take away or remove something (as in sin and guilt). To propitiate someone is to “appease or pacify his anger.”[20]

Propitiation, then, necessarily presupposes anger that needs to be appeased. When the death of Christ is described in propitiatory terms it is the holy wrath of God against sin that is in view. Jesus propitiates God by substituting Himself in the place of sinners and enduring divine wrath that is justly unleashed on them. Calvin explains how this took place on the cross.

He placed himself in our room, and thus became a sinner, and subject to the curse, not in himself indeed, but in us, yet in such a manner, that it became necessary for him to occupy our place. He could not cease to be the object of his Father’s love, and yet he endured his wrath. For how could he reconcile the Father to us, if he had incurred his hatred and displeasure? … Again, how would he have freed us from the wrath of God, if he had not transferred it from us to himself? Thus, “he was wounded for our transgressions,” (Isaiah 53:5,) and had to deal with God as an angry judge. This is the foolishness of the cross, (1 Corinthians 1:18) and the admiration of angels, (1 Peter 1:12,) which not only exceeds, but swallows up, all the wisdom of the world.[21]

This understanding of the atonement is repulsive to many modern sensibilities. Steve Chalke has scandously charged the propitiatory, substitutionary, sacrificial death of Jesus with “cosmic child abuse.”[22] Apart from draining biblical texts that speak of the cross as redemption and propitiation this accusation betrays a superficial appreciation of the sinfulness of human sin and the wrath of God against it. Sin has made us the objects of divine wrath. “Christ,” Calvin writes, “was the price of our ‘chastisement,’ that is, of the chastisement which was due to us. Thus the wrath of God, which had been justly kindled against us, was appeased.”[23]


Because the cross is a work of redemption and propitiation, it accomplishes reconciliation between God and sinners. Because of sin, the original friendship between God and man that was established at creation has been exchanged for enmity. Sinners are thus regarded by God as His enemies. For reconciliation to occur, the cause for the enmity must be removed–sin must be taken away.

Christ has accomplished exactly this in his death. Paul writes that it was “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10). What Jesus did on the cross removed the cause of the breach in the relationship between God and sinners. His death has expiated our sins. Calvin’s comments on the announcement of John the Baptist upon seeing Jesus for the first time underscore this point.

The principal office of Christ is briefly but clearly stated; that he takes away the sins of the world by the sacrifice of his death, and reconciles men to God. There are other favors, indeed, which Christ bestows upon us, but this is the chief favor, and the rest depend on it; that, by appeasing the wrath of God, he makes us to be reckoned holy and righteous. For from this source flow all the streams of blessings, that, by not imputing our sins, he receives us into favor. Accordingly, John, in order to conduct us to Christ, commences with the gratuitous forgiveness of sins which we obtain through him.[24]

In the old covenant expiation of sins was portrayed by means of animal sacrifice. All of the ceremony surrounding the sacrificial offerings was designed to point to the work of Christ on the cross. Calvin elaborates,

The sacrifice was offered in such a manner as to expiate sin by enduring its punishment and curse. This was expressed by the priests by means of the laying on of hands, as if they threw on the sacrifice the sins of the whole nation (Exodus 29:15). And if a private individual offered a sacrifice, he also laid his hand upon it, as if he threw upon it his own sin. Our sins were thrown upon Christ in such a manner that he alone bore the curse.… [This describes] the benefit of Christ’s death, that by his sacrifice sins were expiated, and God was reconciled towards men.[25]


Without the right starting point it impossible to come to a right conclusion about what Jesus accomplished by His death on the cross. God’s holy love that issues forth in wrath against all that is unrighteous–both sin and sinners–along with mankind’s universal and all pervasive sinfulness assure us that there can be no salvation without atonement. God must be appeased, sin must be removed, and peace must be reestablished in the relationship between the two. Jesus has secured all of this through His sacrificial death. Those who, by faith, entrust themselves to Him receive all of these benefits of His work on the cross.

It is in the cross that we discover the depth of both God’s love for us and His wrath against us. Because of sin, He is hostile to us. Because of His grace, he loves us. His wrath we deserve. His love comes to us freely. By delivering up His Son on the cross God satisfies them both. This led Calvin to call the cross of Christ “a magnificent theatre” for the glory of God.

[In it], the inestimable goodness of God is displayed before the whole world. In all the creatures, indeed, both high and low, the glory of God shines, but nowhere has it shone more brightly than in the cross, in which there has been an astonishing change of things, the condemnation of all men has been manifested, sin has been blotted out, salvation has been restored to men; and, in short, the whole world has been renewed, and every thing restored to good order.[26]


1 John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, vol. 3. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), 274-75.

2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. Library of Christian Classics, 20-21 (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960), 2.12.1

3 Cited in Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1988), 221.

4 Calvin, Institutes, 1.1.1.

5 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1959), 193.

6 New Dictionary of Theology, s.v. “Wrath of God.”

7 Leon Morris, The Atonement, its Meaning and Significance (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1983), 153, 156.

8 In the last century C. H. Dodd was the most prominent spokesman against this view, arguing that the wrath of God should be regarded as impersonal. For extensive refutation of this view see Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 145-213 and Roger Nicole, “C. H. Dodd and the Doctrine of Propitiation” in Standing Forth (Ross-Shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 343-85.

9 John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), 464.

10 John Calvin, Commentary on the Twelve Minor Prophets, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), 420-21.

11 Calvin, Institutes, 2.8.59. In his commentary on Habakkuk 1:13 (Minor Prophets, vol. 4, 45), Calvin paraphrases the prophet’s complaint to God by saying, “It is not consistent with thy nature to pass by the vices of men, for every iniquity is hateful to thee.”

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., 2.14.4.

14 John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1986), 131. Stott treats this subject very helpfully on pages 129-32.

15 Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.5.

16 Ibid.

17 Morris has an excellent study of the lutron word-group in both its biblical and extra-biblical usage in Apostolic Preaching, 11-64.

18 John Calvin, Commentary on Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), 94. See also Robert Peterson, Calvin and the Atonement (Ross-Shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1999), 91-99.

19 Morris, Apostolic Preaching, 144.

20 Stott, Cross of Christ, 169. Stott continues with a helpful, brief summary of the debate over the meaning of the ila¿skomai word-group on pages 169-73.

21 John Calvin, Commentary on the Twelve Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), 92.

22 Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 182-183.

23 John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), 116.

24 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), 63.

25 Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 4:124-25. Calvin further explains his point: “Hence it follows that nowhere but in Christ is found expiation and satisfaction for sin. In order to understand this better, we must first know that we are guilty before God, so that we may be accursed and detestable in his presence. Now, if we wish to return to a state of favor with him, sin must be taken away. This cannot be accomplished by sacrifices contrived according to the fancy of men. Consequently, we must come to the death of Christ; for in no other way can satisfaction be given to God. In short, Isaiah teaches that sins cannot be pardoned in any other way than by betaking ourselves to the death of Christ. If any person think that this language is harsh and disrespectful to Christ, let him descend into himself, and, after a close examination, let him ponder how dreadful is the judgment of God, which could not be pacified but by this price; and thus the inestimable grace which shines forth in making Christ accursed will easily remove every ground of offense (Ibid., 125).

26 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), 73.