When one discusses Christ’s atonement and the relation between God’s wrath and love many questions and themes emerge. In this respect one can find at least three major themes in Calvin’s view of the atonement/redemption as discussed in the Institutes: the substitutionary dimension of Christ’s atoning work, the atonement as a sacrifice, and Christ’s triumph over sin and the powers. These themes not only emerge from Calvin’s understanding of the redemptive work of Christ but also are considered being central in such discussion.
Atonement as Substitution
In a few words, the atonement understood as substitution deals with the fact God finds humanity guilty due to Adam’s disobedience. Consequently, humanity deserved death as punishment. Under this situation, Christ acts as a substitution of Adam to free humanity from the wage of sin. Once this point is clarified it is important to note that Calvin begins his atonement discussion by highlighting the need of mediator and the importance of why God and humankind must be reconciled. It is in light of the need of a mediator that Calvin interestingly writes: Christ would still have become man even if no means of redeeming mankind had been needed. (Institutes II.12.4) This statement shows the great importance Calvin gives to Christ’s role in the atonement suggesting this work should be understood in a broad perspective. In Calvin’s view, Christ’s redemption is not limited to his atoning work and its particular application to humanity, but it also deals with other areas such as the restoration of the created order, divine wrath, and the need of a redeemer/mediator between God and humanity. Of interest of this post is Cavin’s emphasis on the existence of divine wrath: Christ takes our place with the purpose of appeasing God’s wrath related to the disobedience of Adam. Not a surprise Calvin highlights the substitutionary dimension of Christ’s suffering where he takes our guilt and condemnation taking it upon himself. This is so because humanity became liable before God’s justice. By being obedient (and free of curse) Christ then fulfilled the law. As Calvin notes Christ adopted human nature in order to take our place and pay the penalty humanity deserved because of the disobedience of Adam in the Garden: “Our Lord came forth very man, adopted the person of Adam, and assumed his name, that he might in his stead obey the Father; that he might present our flesh as the price of satisfaction to the just judgment of God, and in the same flesh pay the penalty which we had incurred.” (II.12.3). Calvin seems here to connect Christ’s atoning work with Adam’s failure to be obedient to God. One observes Calvin emphasizes the legal dimension of the atonement since Christ not only substitutes the first Adam but makes possible the forgiveness of sin when he satisfies God’s justice. The satisfaction dimension is significant because Christ is not being punished by God but satisfying divine justice on behalf of humanity. Finally, one notes Calvin does not dichotomize satisfaction vs. punishment in his understanding of the atonement: Besides acting as a substitute of Adam, Christ also takes the penalty which arose out of his failure.
Atonement as a Victory over Sin
In this same passage Calvin also connects Christ’s work with the victory reached on the cross, that is, the triumph of Christ had over the devil and the powers. He writes “[S]ince as God only he could not suffer, and as man only could not overcome death, he united the human nature with the divine, that he might subject the weakness of the one to death as an expiation of sin, and by the power of the other, maintaining a struggle with death, might gain us the victory.” (II.12.3). In Calvin’s view, Christ appeases divine wrath and at the same time satisfies divine judgment. (Cf. II.16.10). One observes that when referring to Christ’s sacrificial work as redemption, Calvin seems to have in mind to the incarnation, ministry, and death/resurrection of Christ as the means by which God redeems humanity and the cosmos. In the same line of reasoning, in II.16.7, Calvin also highlights that death had kept captivated humanity and one aspect of Christ’s work was to release us from such captivity. So, by his own death Christ raises us from death to life, an aspect that it became secure through Christ’s resurrection. For Calvin by conquering death Christ overcame the power of the Devil and his yoke to humanity. In this sense, the resurrection of Christ constitutes a significant role in Calvin’s presentation of the atonement as a victory over the powers. The resurrection demonstrates Christ was indeed the Son of God and that his atoning work was efficacious. The benefits of this Is not only humanity but the whole cosmos. Christ redeems humanity but his atoning work does not stop there, but also it will cover the whole creation which it will be redeemed from all curse in the eschaton. There will not be evil which damages the goodness of God’s creation, and the plans God has in store for cosmos, including humanity but not limited to it.
Atonement as a Sacrifice
Another central theme that Calvin connects with Christ’s atonement is his understanding of the atonement as a sacrifice. For Calvin Christ’s sacrifice shared a continuity with the sacrificial and religious system of the Old Testament. In II.16.6 Calvin suggests the sins of the people are transferred to the sacrificial victim. In this respect by fulfilling the law Christ is able to free us from the curse by expiating sin. In this regard, Calvin emphasizes Christ as a sacrificial victim. The victim and shredded innocent blood were necessary elements of the atonement. Without them, cleaning from corruption and redemption from sin would not be possible. (Cf. II.16.6). Noteworthy is that it is out of love God sends Christ to the world in order he can takes away sin. This also allows humanity to be reconciled to God in order to cease the hostility that existed between the two because of sin. One issue which emerges whether Calvin’s view of the atonement allows the idea that God’s wrath might turn into love through Christ’s blood sacrifice. This answer must be negative because although Calvin believes Christ experienced divine wrath, such wrath is not against Christ. Christ’s sacrifice does not change something in God but the relationship between humanity and God. The emphasis Calvin makes regarding divine wrath is to make us aware about our condition as condemned people and need for a savior. Calvin’s emphasis on the idea that it is out of love that God offers his Son to die on behalf of humanity. And because it is out of love that God offers his Son to die for our sins, there is no room for a conversion from wrath to love in the atonement. As Calvin argued in II.16.3, Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin. As one appreciates, the atonement, therefore, is shaped by divine love since the beginning.
Calvin’s understanding of the atonement must be interpreted as a multi-perspective presentation of his views and not assuming it is a systematic or linear discussion. The atonement as substitution seems to be strongly emphasized by Calvin. Despite the fact Calvin embraces a legal aspect of Christ’s sacrifice, he however does not reject the victory dimension in the atonement. On the contrary, there is not only room for understanding the atonement as a victory over the devil and the powers, but Calvin also incorporates other lenses to enrich his position. This also applies to the other perspectives Calvin offers such as understanding the atonement as sacrifice, substitution, for example. In the end the different perspectives Calvin uses to explain Christ’s atoning work strengthens his belief that God offers himself to rescue both humanity and the fallen creation from the consequences of sin. In summary, for Calvin the atoning work of Christ has a universal scope which goes from humanity until the restoration of the whole cosmos and all things.