In a video entitled "John MacArthur: Calvinism vs. Arminianism", Todd Friel of Wretched gives a short introduction before showing a clip of John MacArthur at some event several years ago, allegedly attempting to bring a little harmony to the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. Long story short, MacArthur asks the crowd some leading questions in an attempt to convince them that deep Biblical truths are often paradoxical and above human reasoning. He provides the following examples:

  • Individual election to salvation contrasted with the universal gospel offer to all mankind
  • Scriptures written fully by man but also fully by God
  • Guarantee of eternal security contrasted with the responsibility of every believer to persevere

MacArthur states that "in every major doctrine of the Bible you have an apparent paradox that you cannot resolve." I assume that most mainstream Calvinists would agree with MacArthur on this issue. Extreme Calvinists, not content with mystery or paradox, unashamedly push Calvinist theology to the limits of its logical implications (double-predestination, God the author of sin, no sincere gospel offer to the reprobate, etc.) This is radically unorthodox doctrinal territory where most mainstream Calvinists don't dare to tread. So, I believe I have established the fact that appealing to paradox or mystery when asked to explain the inexplicable is not foreign to the Calvinist tradition.

However, when it comes to advancing their doctrine of limited atonement, Calvinists apparently have no tolerance for paradox or mystery. Because there is not a single verse in the Bible that plainly and clearly states that Jesus died only for the elect, the Calvinist typically frames his defense of limited atonement based on a logical argument, John Owen's 'double-jeopardy' argument arguably being the most popular. Owen argued that only one of the following can be true:

Christ made atonement for:

a) Some of the sins of all men

b) All of the sins of all men

c) All of the sins of some men

Since nobody believes a) and b) implies universalism, c) is the only logical conclusion. If one argues that Christ died for all the sins of all men, but not all are saved due to unbelief, then Owen would counter with the fact that their unbelief was itself a sin that would have been atoned for, so God would have no grounds to damn the unbeliever to Hell. Calvinists claim that limited atonement is the only logical and rational view of the atonement, lest God be considered unjust for punishing the same sins twice, once on Christ and a second time on the unbeliever.

Based on their understanding of certain Biblical passages, Calvinists typically advocate for the 'penal substitution' or 'vicarious substitutionary atonement' view of Christ's cross-work. Within this theological structure, it would be irrational and paradoxical to conclude that, on one hand, Christ made atonement for the sins of all men, but on the other hand, only those who believe (a minority of men) will be saved. However, the Bible contains an abundance of verses which, taken at face value, strongly seem to suggest that Christ did in fact make a sin-offering for the sins of all mankind. At this point, the Calvinist has two options:

1) Accept the paradox and believe both 'penal substition' and 'universal atonement'.

2) Deny the paradox and invent creative ways to interpret the 'universal atonement' verses according to their theology.

While 4-point Calvinists accept option 1), 5-point Calvinists unanimously accept option 2). Why are Calvinists willing to accept paradox or mystery when explaining the origin of evil, predestination contrasted with genuine human responsibility, etc. but on the subject of atonement, they adopt an excluively rationalist view of Biblical interpretation? Given the plethora of Bible verses clearly stating that Christ's sacrifice was for 'all men', 'every man', 'whole world', why have Calvinist's rejected a paradoxical understanding of the atonement in favour of a purely rationalistic understanding even when they are perfectly willing to appeal to paradox or mystery concerning other major Biblical doctrines?

How do Calvinists answer these charges of inconsistency?

  • 1
    A specific example would form a better question.
    – aska123
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 7:26
  • 2
    I doubt that most Calvinists would agree that in every doctrine there's a paradox. Rather, there's one paradox that affects many things, how there can be truly separate beings to God who make real choices while God remains fully sovereign over everything. That impacts lots of things, but that doesn't mean everything has a paradox.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 15:11
  • 1
    "How are Calvinists able to appeal to paradox or mystery when explaining the origin of evil, predestination contrasted with genuine human responsibility, etc. but on the subject of atonement, they charge non-Calvinists with holding to illogical or irrational views?" Citation needed. Which Calvinists say that non-Calvinists are irrational? There are many entirely rational non-Calvinist theologies. What matters to Calvinists is whether they think those theologies are exegetically justifiable.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 15:13
  • 1
    "I claimed that Calvinists believe that all non-Calvinist explanations of the atonement are irrational." This just isn't true. There's a difference between wrong and irrational. They might disagree with others, but Calvinists don't believe everyone else's view of the atonement is irrational. That would be ridiculous. Calvinists don't think Arminian resistable prevenient grace is irrational, just wrong.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 15:30
  • 1
    @Destynation Y Hebrews 10 speaks pretty contrary to what you said. Sacrifices certainly were not efficacious for the forgiveness of sins.
    – Birdie
    Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 3:57

1 Answer 1


Study or Surmise ?

Since my conversion at the age of sixteen, in 1967, I have noticed that many people comment on the Institutes of the Christian Religion who have not properly read them. And thereby comes much confusion and misunderstanding.

Legal or Evangelical ?

John Calvin makes it clear that he believes there are two kinds of repentance - a legal kind and an evangelical kind. And of the evangelical kind he says :

The term repentance is derived in the Hebrew from conversion, or turning again; and in the Greek from a change of mind and purpose; nor is the thing meant inappropriate to both derivations, for it is substantially this, that withdrawing from ourselves we turn to God, and laying aside the old, put on a new mind. Institutes of the Christian Religion Chapter III - Regeneration of Faith. On Repentance. (Sub-Section 5.)

It is clear in this whole chapter that John Calvin sees repentance and faith, together, as conversion. In his doctrine, they are inseparable. One leads to another. It is the 'baptism of repentance unto [Gr eis]the forgiveness of sins'.

Penitence or Paradox ?

It is clear to myself, from the past fifty years of my Christian profession, that the truly repentant have no difficulties with paradoxes for they have, in the words of John Calvin, 'put on a new mind' and they have experienced - first hand - regeneration.

It is the impenitent and the unbelieving who struggle - all their lives, it seems to me - with intellectual and paradoxical difficulties.

But as to the penitent, Calvin says of them in his commentary on Mark 1:1-3 (regarding the baptism of repentance administered by John the Baptist) :

Pardon of sins is bestowed upon us in Christ, not that God may treat them with indulgence, but that he may heal us from our sins. And, indeed, without hatred of sin and remorse for transgressions, no man will taste the grace of God.

Thus, those who repent and are baptised and who believe on Jesus Christ are those who (in the words of John Calvin) 'taste the grace of God' - in their own experience, personally. Otherwise 'no man will taste the grace of God'.

As to those others :

I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am, ye shall die in your sins.

John 8:24

'If ye believe not' must indicate that, as well as unbelief, these are also guilty of unrepentance. For had they repented, they would - also - have believed. But, like the unbelieving Pharisees who refused to admit that John's ministry was of God, Luke 20:4, they neither repented nor believed.

But Andrew followed John the Baptist, John 1:40. And, thereafter, Andrew followed Jesus, John 1:39, first fetching Peter, who was also in the vicinity, attending the ministry of John in the same area.

Following John the Baptist, they also found Jesus (see the whole of John chapter one).

The Unbelieving.

If Jesus says that certain will die in their sins if they believe not that he is, and if there are (as there evidently are) many who do not believe that he is what he is (the Son of God), then, ergo, some people will die in their sins. Logically, it follows, that there must be some whose sins are still in existence.

But they who repent, and who believe in Jesus Christ and endure to the end, Matthew 24:13, shall be saved from their sins and shall have eternal life, John 3:16.

And when the Book of Life is opened there shall be their name, written in it. Revelation 3:5.

But those who never repented, and never believed, and never fell at the feet of Jesus Christ that they might be healed of their spiritual diseases and cleansed of their own, personal sins, and continued therein unto the end, steadfast - in the day of reckoning, the Book shall be opened ... and their name shall not be there. And they shall be cast into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:15.

For whom did Christ die ?

There is that in the death of Christ which extends to all humanity. Else would the entire world have perished in the Flood. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. And Noah made a sacrifice when he exited the ark. And a new covenant (witnessed by the rainbow) was made - an extension in grace.

An extension made by a sacrifice yet to come.

The gospel is now preached to all nations, Matthew 28:19. God now gives life and breath in every way to all humanity, Acts 17:25. That is to say, the potential of eternal life by the breathing of the Holy Spirit (beginning at Pentecost) received through the word of the apostles (who were thus moved) whereby the nations are taught and (if they respond) are thereafter baptised. None is exempted.

Unless they exempt themselves.

It is evident from a multiplicity of scriptures that, as well as the above matter which affects the whole of humanity, there is also that in the sufferings of Christ on the cross that resolves the matter of individual transgressions committed during this life. God himself, personally, makes this known to individuals who, personally, approach him regarding this matter. It is personal.

Will few be saved ?

The question is in Luke 13:23. The answer is in verse 24, given by Jesus :

Strive to enter in at the strait gate for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter therein and shall not be able.

They shall not be able because they did not, first, repent. In what John Calvin calls 'an evangelical repentance'. Not just the fear of deserved punishment. Not just self-pity. Not a hypocritical pretence in front of others. But a real receiving of another understanding about their very existence and what their existence is actually for.

This is what John the Baptist teaches - he that hath two coats, give to him that hath none, and likewise food. Tax is to be collected, but those who gather it are not to overcharge the populace. Soldiers are required but they are not to do any personal violence beyond their proper authority. And if someone (like Herod) has married improperly, he is to be rebuked for it (even if the rebuker is executed for the rebuke). [See Matthew 3 and Luke 3].

This first - before being baptised. Repentance, and fruits brought forth to prove it.

Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance Matthew 3:8.

The Chosen

Many are called - the whole of humanity is called - but few are chosen.

The chosen know who they are.

Because they were chosen.

Paradox ? What paradox ?

  • Simple question: did Christ make atonement for the sins of the non-elect? Yes or no? The notion that the atonement of Christ makes the sun shine and the rain fall and it is in this manner that it can be said that Christ died for 'all' is an invention wholly unsupported by Scripture made by Calvinists attempting to explain why the Bible states that Christ tasted death for every man when their philosophy states that he didn't.
    – pr871
    Commented Jun 5, 2018 at 18:33
  • @pr871 I do not know what your term 'the non-elect' means. I cannot find that term in my bible.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 2:56
  • If you don't know what the term 'non-elect' means, then you're not familiar with Calvinism, which I find strange considering you've apparently read John Calvin. So either you're unfamiliar with Calvinism, in which case you had no business answering this question, or you're just playing dumb. Which is it?
    – pr871
    Commented Jun 6, 2018 at 14:03
  • @pr871 Could you please refer me to where John Calvin uses the term. Thank you.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 2:58
  • @pr871 and Nigel J, I believe Calvin used the word "reprobate", not "non-elect".
    – Birdie
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 1:39

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