John Calvin's Teaching on the Vicarious Sin-bearing of Christ

Dr. Brian Allison


John Calvin's (AD 1509-1564) teaching on the vicarious sin-bearing of Jesus Christ is the subject matter of this paper. Nowhere in his works does Calvin articulate a systematic formulation of the doctrine, though the atonement itself is extensively treated. Our approach has been to examine Calvin's writings on the doctrine of the atonement and to extract the data pertinent to our present inquiry. Some questions which we have sought to answer are: Why does Christ bear our sin? Is it necessary for Christ to bear our sin? What is the nature of vicarious sin-bearing? Does the vicarious sin-bearing of Christ impinge upon His divine nature? What are the prerequisites for Christ to bear the sin of men? Does the vicarious sin-bearing of Christ create an antithesis within the Godhead? What are the benefits of Christ's vicarious sin-bearing? What is the extent of Christ's vicarious sin-bearing? Is Calvin's teaching relevant and useful for today?

Two elements characterize Calvin's interpretation of the atonement, namely, substitution and penal satisfaction. These elements are not original to Calvin, but are elements which he adopted and further developed. The formal development and explication of these elements must be attributed to the Medievals. Anselm of Canterbury (AD 1033-1109) presented the first complete theory of the atonement. Berkhof succinctly states Anselm's position:

His fundamental assumption was that man by sinning offended the honour of God. Now God could either punish man or demand satisfaction of him. Since the former alternative would have involved the destruction of man, His handiwork, He chose the latter, in order that man might be saved. The satisfaction required was an infinite satisfaction, such as no mere man could render; and therefore it became necessary for the Son of God to become man, in order to satisfy the divine honour. The God-man could not render to God the required satisfaction by consecrating His life to him since He already owed this to God for Himself. He could do it only by submitting voluntarily to sufferings and death, for as a sinless being He was not obliged to suffer and to die. The gift thus offered to God was of infinite value and therefore called for a reward. Since the Son of God, who already possessed all things, did not need anything for Himself, He passed the reward on to the sinner in the form of redemption. Thus the work of Christ accrues to the benefit of man (Vicarious Atonement, 22f.).

Calvin's interpretation of the atonement is not Anselmian. He does not aver that the appeasement payment was in exchange for the punishment, but rather that the appeasement payment was involved in the punishment.

Hugo of St. Victor (d. AD 1141), who structured the first complete medieval system of the atonement, defining the medieval conception of Christ's redemptive work, "explains the view of Christ's work as a vicarious endurance of our punishment" (Franks, Work of Christ, 158, 162). Thomas Aquinas (d. AD 1274) presents a similar view. He contends that the Son of God assumed flesh in order to make penal satisfaction for the sins of mankind; "now one satisfies for the sins of another when he takes upon himself the penalty (poena) due for the sin of the other" (Franks, op. cit., 216). In the writings of Martin Luther (AD 1483-1546), the teaching of substitution and penal satisfaction is quite pronounced. Luther's exposition greatly approximates that of Calvin. Luther, in his early writings, asserts:

No law is able to transform the will and make it good; but the life of Christ effects this, moving our will to imitation (4.646; I.121). The Christ in us is not idle, but most active (I.140). But it is only one aspect of the work of Christ that is described. The same Christ has also fulfilled the law for us, endured for us the wrath of God and death, and overcome the devil (I.35,59; 4.609). 'Thou, Lord Jesus, art my righteousness, but I am thy sin; thou hast assumed mine and given thine to me; thou has assumed what thou wast not . . . Therefore not except in him, by sincere despair of thyself and thy works, canst thou find peace' (De W., I.17). Christ's blood cleanses us (I.189, 121) (Seeberg, History of Doctrines, 231).

This then is a brief and general historical framework in which we are to understand Calvin's teaching on the atonement; and more specifically, Calvin's doctrine of vicarious sin-bearing. Vicarious sin-bearing underscores Calvin's view of the atonement, and essentially defines it. He writes:

When we hear that Christ was led from the judge's seat to death and hanged between thieves, we possess the fulfillment of the prophecy to which the Evangelist referred: 'He was reckoned among the transgressors' (Mark 15:28, Vg.; cf. Isa. 53:12). Why so? Surely that he might die in the place of the sinner, not of the righteous or innocent man. For he suffered death not because of innocence but because of sin . . . Thus we shall behold the person of a sinner and evil-doer represented in Christ, yet from his shining innocence it will at the same time be obvious that he was burdened with another's sin rather than his own (II.xvi.5).

According to Calvin, Christ the Redeemer was divinely appointed to be a representative for the sinner by assuming identity and solidarity with him (II.ii.4). For Calvin, identity and solidarity are prerequisites for substitution. Christ represents man as man in order to legitimately assume the liabilities of man, and thus to deliver Himself up on behalf of man. In order for Christ to die the death of man, He had to become liable for the sins of man. Thus, before God, Christ was condemned through substitution as a sinner. As Calvin insists: "Let us note well, then, that the Son of God . . . willed in full measure to appear before the judgement seat of God His Father in the name and in the person of all sinners, being then ready to be condemned, inasmuch as He bore our burden" (Deity of Christ, 52).


The Nature of Vicarious Sin-Bearing

Calvin avers the necessity of the vicarious sin-bearing of Christ for the procurement of full atonement and the reconciliation of God with man. Only righteousness commends a man to God; but all have sinned and have inherited death through sin. The holy and righteous character of God forbids Him to dismiss sin lightly, but on the contrary He must judge it. For Calvin, full satisfaction must be rendered to God because God Himself has been offended. Accordingly, full satisfaction was rendered when sin was judged and condemned in Christ. Calvin affirms: "Since all men are sinners, [the apostle] Paul infers that they are deficient or completely lacking in the praise of righteousness. There is, therefore, according to his teaching no righteousness except that which is perfect and absolute. It is, therefore, certain that there is no righteousness where there is sin, until Christ abolishes the curse" (Romans, 74); also, "We have to remember that when our Lord Jesus was put into such an extremity, as if God His Father had cut off from Him all hope of life, it is inasmuch as He was there in our person, sustaining the curse of our sins, which separated us from God" (Deity of Christ, 157).

Calvin views the vicarious sin-bearing of Christ as consisting of three aspects, namely, the forensic, the experiential, and the sacrificial. These aspects are not to be considered as independent and mutually exclusive, but rather as inclusive and interdependent. Thus, Calvin can talk about the removal of men's guilt (a forensic concept) by the act of expiation through the offering of Christ (a sacrificial concept) in order to appease the Father's righteous wrath (II.xii.3). Before we examine these three aspects individually, their relation with each other first must be delineated.

The experiential aspect of the vicarious sin-bearing of Christ, which concerns the actual enduring of suffering because of sin, can never be divorced from the forensic aspect which concerns the juridical administration. The experiential aspect may appropriately be subsumed under the forensic aspect. Furthermore, the forensic aspect, including the experiential aspect, must be fully apprehended within the context of the sacrificial. So Calvin claims: "In short, the only reason given in Scripture that the Son of God willed to take our flesh, and accepted this commandment from the Father, is that he would sacrifice to appease the Father on our behalf . . . Here he clearly indicates why he assumed flesh: that he might become a sacrifice and expiation to abolish our sins" (II.xii.4). For Calvin, the sacrificial aspect of the atonement is intrinsic to, and derivative of, the priesthood of Christ; and the institution of the priesthood is the mediation through which reconciliation is accomplished. The priest "is appointed as an intermediary to intercede between God and men (Heb. 5:1)" (II.xii.4); and for Calvin, mediation performed by Christ transcends and embraces all juridical administration. Calvin writes: "Surely, since in every age, even when the law had not yet been published, the Mediator never was promised without blood, we infer that he was appointed by God's eternal plan to purge the uncleanness of men: for shedding of blood is a sign of expiation (cf. Heb. 9:22)" (II.xx.4). Willis remarks: "Mediator as Head of the angels, and Mediator as expiator of sin: these two form a paradigm for Calvin's understanding of the style in which the Eternal Son mediated for unfallen creation and for rebellious creation" (Calvin's Catholic Christology, 71). The institution of the priesthood is the means of accomplishing atonement; and for Christ to discharge His priestly office effectually and faithfully, He had to present a sacrifice (II.xv.6). He presented Himself. The right to the priestly office belongs to Christ alone "because by the sacrifice of his death he blotted out our own guilt and made satisfaction for our sins (Heb. 9:22)" (II.xvi.6).

Van Buren differs with the preceding analysis arguing that in Calvin's teaching of substitutionary atonement the priestly aspect is of secondary significance claiming that the forensic setting is the main thrust of Calvin's thought (Christ In Our Place, 65). Kehm propounds a similar viewpoint, writing: "To this writer [Kehm], it seems that the idea of a sacrificial death as a 'just punishment' is a second order explanation that is built upon a more archaic idea of such a death as involving exposure to the divine curse" (Calvin on Defilement and Sacrifice, 41). Yet, as argued, the concepts of priesthood and sacrifice dominate Calvin's conception of the means of atonement accomplishment. For Calvin, even the obedient observance of the law is a function of the priestly office. Christ accomplishes 'priestly redemption'. Thus, Calvin asserts that there could be no firm belief "that Christ is our redemption, ransom, and propitiation unless he had been a sacrificial victim. Blood is accordingly mentioned wherever Scripture discusses the mode of redemption" (II.xvi.6). We concur with Robert Paul's interpretation of the forensic-sacrificial relationship in Calvin's atonement doctrine that the sacrificial aspect of the atonement provides the context in which the penal ideas are set, and not vice versa (Atonement and the Sacraments, 103). We may now proceed to examine the three aspects of vicarious sin-bearing – the forensic, sacrificial, and experiential – in isolation.

a. The Forensic Aspect

For Calvin, the curse of God rests upon all men because all collectively and individually have transgressed God's law. All have committed the sin of disobedience. Calvin contends: "It is, therefore, a memorable truth of the first importance that no one can obtain righteousness by keeping the law. Paul has given his reason for this, and he will presently repeat it – all men without exception are guilty of transgression and condemned of unrighteousness by the law" (Romans, 70). Thus, man as a lawbreaker can have no access or acceptance with God while being in a state of unrighteousness. For Calvin, in order to accomplish reconciliation and liberate man from the curse, and subsequent judgment, Christ had to subject Himself to that same curse, which is only achieved through being identified as a transgressor of the law. Calvin writes:

It follows, therefore, either that He [Christ] was crucified in vain or that our curse was laid upon Him that we might be delivered from it. Now he [the apostle Paul] does not say that Christ was cursed, but something more, that He was a curse, signifying that the curse of all was placed on Him . . . But how does it happen, someone may object, that a beloved Son is cursed by His Father? I reply, there are two things to be considered, not only in the person of Christ, but even in His human nature. The one is that He was the unspotted Lamb of God, full of blessing and grace. The other is that He took our place and thus became a sinner and subject to the curse, not in Himself indeed, but in us; yet in such a way that it was necessary for Him to act in our name (Galatians, 55).

Christ is wholly identified with the curse. Only this prescribed redemptive means could vindicate and magnify the justice of God which was demonstrated fully as he unleashed his wrath and judgment upon the Son. To be identified with the curse is synonymous with identification with sin itself; this was Christ's condition as He was nailed to the cross. Calvin notes:

Hence, when Christ is hanged upon the cross, he makes himself subject to the curse – which, on account of our sins awaited us, or rather lay upon us – might be lifted from us, while it was transferred to him . . . Now it is clear what the prophet's utterance means: "The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:6). That is, he who was about to cleanse the filth of those iniquities was covered with them by transferred imputation. The cross, to which he was nailed, was a symbol of this, as the apostle testifies: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, when he became a curse for us" (II.xvi.6).

Calvin asserts unequivocally that sins were actually imputed to Christ. This act of imputation is administered by the Father God. The Father God judicially reckoned Christ to be a sinner. Sins against God had to be imputed to the sinless Christ in order that God's justice might be realized and His judgment fully dispensed, so that the law itself might be established as good and holy ((Niesel, Theology of Calvin, 99f.). Christ (as a reckoned sinner) extinguished in His person the full weight of the wrath of the Father God.

b. The Experiential Aspect

The experiential aspect of the vicarious sin-bearing of Christ is sequential, yet intrinsic, to the forensic aspect. The experiential aspect involves the actual suffering sustained because of sin, which was retribution due to sinners. Punishment is the natural corollary of sin. Hence, the imputation of sin and guilt necessitate the transference of the punishment. So, Calvin states: "For when we say that he [Christ] bore all our sins in his body upon the tree (1 Peter 2:24), we mean only that he bore the punishment and vengeance due for our sins" (III.iv.30). Hence, the teaching of the incarnation is fundamental and conspicuous in Calvin's interpretation of the atonement because of the penal requisite. Deity cannot suffer. Christ suffered in His humanity (Deity of Christ, 157). Christ experienced true anguish of soul, as well as real torment of body. Calvin takes pains to articulate and delineate the distinction between the humanity and deity of Christ, while simultaneously insisting on His unity of being. Christ, though having two natures, is only one person. Calvin asserts:

We ought not to understand the statement that 'the Word was made flesh' (John 1:14) in the sense that the Word was turned into flesh or confusedly mingled with flesh. Rather, it means that, because he chose for himself the virgin's womb as a temple in which to dwell, he who was the Son of God became the Son of man – not by confusion of substance, by unity of person. For we affirm his divinity so joined and united with his humanity that each retains its distinctive nature unimpaired, and yet these two natures constitute one Christ (II.xiv.1).

Thus, for Calvin, there is no admixture or confusion of flesh and deity; and accordingly, there is no antithesis or confusion between the divine and the human natures of Christ when He is subjected to suffering. Christ became a sinner as man, and as a sinner suffered as man. Calvin remarks: "Now it is said that He cried, 'My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?' In the first place it is very certain that Jesus Christ, insofar as he was God, could have no such apprehension. No, no. But when He suffered His Deity had to give place to His death and passion which He had to endure" (Deity of Christ, 157).

It should be noted that Calvin claims that Christ vicariously bore or assumed a variety of things, which we should briefly consider for the sake of clarity. The designations 'for he had taken upon himself our weaknesses' (II.xvi.5) and 'he bore our nature' (II.xvi.2) simply refer to Christ's essential and comprehensive solidarity with the human physical constitution. Christ experienced all the actualities peculiar to human nature, sin excepted. Christ is seen as rigorously struggling while His obedience is being tested (II.xvi.5), tenaciously wrestling with fear amidst torment (II.xvi.5). These experiences qualify Him to intercede on behalf of His people as the great high Priest (II.xvi.6). The designations 'bore our stain' (II.xvi.6) and 'took upon himself the shame and reproach of our iniquities' (II.xvi.6) and 'the burden . . . was laid upon him' (II.xvi.6) simply mean that Christ assumed our liabilities – our quilt. He was reckoned a sinner through representation and substitution. Kehm interestingly notes: "It will become evident that he [Calvin] does not take terms like 'stain', 'spot', 'dirt', 'pollution' literally when he uses them to speak about human sinfulness. Hence, it is appropriate to speak about his treatment of the 'symbolism' of defilement" (Calvin On Defilement and Sacrifice, 44f.). The designation 'the burden of condemnation was laid upon' (II.xvii.4) means that Christ suffered through punishment. The designation 'he in every respect took our place' means that Christ made plenary substitution on behalf of man, actual sin excepted, in order "to pay the price of our redemption" (II.xvi.7).

c. The Sacrificial Aspect

Christ bore our sins in that He expiated our sins through the offering of Himself as a sacrifice. Calvin most likely received the germinal form of this dogma from his mentor Augustine. Sabourin affirms:

[Augustine] fully understood that Christ's incarnation and atoning death combine in the mystery of sacrificial redemption . . . The formula, "God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Rom. 8:3) lies then, in a way, at the very heart of Augustine's Christology. It is closely related to 2 Cor. 5:21, since it can be said that God made Christ to be "sin" when he assumed the flesh of our mortality brought about by sin. As a rule, however, Augustine understands "God made Christ to be sin" as meaning "God made him to be sacrifice for sin." . . . Augustine combines the two interpretations in a remarkable statement: "Because of the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3) in which he came, he was himself called 'sin' and was made sacrifice for the washing away of sins" (Sin, Redemption, and Sacrifice, 211f.).

Calvin deems the sacrificial aspect of the atonement as foundational to the whole scheme of redemption. He endeavors to establish clearly the relationship, as well as the typical-antitypical structure, between the Levitical administration and the high priestly administration of Christ. Christ as sin-bearer is Christ as sacrifice – a sacrifice to be offered to God for appeasement. For Calvin, Christ is the sacrificial Lamb of God Who is set forth as an expiatory offering for the procurement of redemption. Christ removes the sins of the world in His very Person. Christ's death was an expiatory sacrifice. Calvin states:

The chief office of Christ is explained briefly and clearly. By taking away the sins of the world by the sacrifice of His death, He reconciles men to God . . . 'Taketh away' can be expounded in two ways. Either that Christ took upon Himself the burden under which we were crushed, as it is said in I Pet. 2.24 that He 'carried our sins on the tree'; and Isa. 53.5 says that the correction of our peace was put on Him; or that He absolves our sins. But since the latter depends on the former, I willingly accept both – that Christ, bearing our sins, takes them away . . . He who was nailed to the cross is the only sacrificial victim by whom all our guilt is removed (St. John, 32ff.).

From an understanding of the Hebrew word ashmoth, Calvin concludes that the Old Testament sacrifices and expiations offered for the sake of sin could be justifiably identified with sin itself (II.xvi.6). For Calvin, these offerings were similar to sacrifices of purification "which take upon themselves and bear the curse due to sins" (II.xvi.6). Subsequently, what was foreshadowed in the Mosaic dispensation is realized and fulfilled in Christ. "Therefore, to perform a perfect expiation, he gave his own life as an Asham, that is, as an expiatory offering for sin, as the prophet calls it (Isa. 53:10; cf. v.5), upon which our stain and punishment might somehow be cast, and cease to be imputed to us" (II.xvi.6). In the one offering up of Himself, Christ completely destroyed sin. Christ died once for sin, in that His sacrificial death has eternal effect and benefit.

Again, it is Christ as man, clothed in true humanity, Who is the sacrificial victim. We observe (and will discuss in more detail later) how pervasive and fundamental is the humanity of Christ in Calvin's theory of the atonement. Christ condemned sin in His very flesh. "He offered as a sacrifice the flesh he received from us" (II.xii.3). For Calvin, Scripture reveals that the primary reason why Christ assumed flesh was to be a sacrifice in which, and by which, sin would be abolished (II.xii.4). Only as man could justifiable imputation of sin, through representation, be achieved, as well as the execution of the offering of a sacrificial death. "The sins of the world had to expiated in our flesh" (II.xii.1). For Calvin, only the intervention of expiation could appease the wrath of God and render Him favourably disposed toward men (II.xv.6). Thus, assuming God's will to redeem, a sufficient sacrifice is necessarily required (ii.xv.6).

For Calvin, expiation implicates the Biblical concept of blood; "for shedding of blood is a sign of expiation" (II.xii.4). Blood is the mark of deliverance and cleansing. So, Calvin remarks: "For this reason the apostle defines the redemption in Christ's blood as 'forgiveness of sins' (Col. 1:14). It is as if he were saying, 'We are justified or acquitted before God, because that blood corresponds to satisfaction for us'" (II.xvii.5). The concept of blood parallels the concept of sacrifice. The shedding of blood and the offering up of the sacrifice are synonymous acts. The effect of Christ's blood shedding is that sins are no longer imputed to us for "God's judgement was satisfied by that price" (II.xii.4).


The Pre-requisites of Vicarious Sin-Bearing

Vicarious sin-bearing necessitates true representation, and true representation necessitates the incarnation and obedience of Christ.

a. The Incarnation

For Calvin, the incarnation is indispensable for the accomplishment of redemption. As Willis writes: "Calvin never tires of insisting on the reality of Christ's humanity, without which there would be no salvation for us" (Calvin's Catholic Christology, 78). Niesel concurs: "By taking upon Him our flesh the Son of God substitutes Himself for us. He bears the punishment for our violation of the majesty of God and shows Himself obedient to the will of God as though it were we ourselves who performed all that. The true humanity of the Son is indispensable to His work of satisfaction" (Theology of Calvin, 115).

Because man had sinned in the flesh, the atonement for sins had to be accomplished in the flesh. Man himself had to make restitution with God. Calvin writes: "The sins of the world had to be expiated in our flesh" (II.xii.1). Sin was condemned in the very flesh of Christ. Calvin argues that only God can save man because all men are born spiritually dead in trespasses and sin; notwithstanding, true representation was required, and only man can eligibly represent man. Thus, for Calvin, salvation could only be realized through the God-man. Calvin contends:

Christ has been sent, in order to remind usthat righteousness by no means resides in us, since it must be sought from him . . . Although the flesh of Christ was unpolluted by any stain, it had the appearance of being sinful . . . Paul adds here, 'in the flesh', in order to increase the certainty of our confidence when we see that sin has been conquered and abolished in our nature itself. Thus it follows that our nature is truly made partaker of His victory (Romans, 159f.).

Also, we maintain, with Tylenda, that for Calvin, all the actions which Christ performed to reconcile God and man refer to the whole person, and are not to be restricted to only one nature ("Christ the Mediator: Calvin Versus Stancaro", 15).

Furthermore, Calvin emphatically affirms that although the Son of God had assumed the likeness of sinful flesh, and although He had borne our sins, He was never contaminated with actual sin. His humanity remained untainted and unpolluted. Van Buren notes: "Calvin takes pains whenever he speaks of Christ as a sinner, to stress the innocence of His perfect obedience that kept Him 'free from every fault and stain' (In II.16.12), for it is only because He is Himself pure that we may be assured that He was condemned for sins other than His own – that is, for our sins" (Christ in Our Place, 47).

b. The Obedience of Christ

For Calvin, Christ obediently bore our sins and condemnation. The obedience of Christ holds a dominant place in Calvin's understanding of the atonement in general, and of vicarious sin-bearing in particular. For Calvin, man had become alienated and had incurred the curse of God through wilful disobedience; and accordingly, perfect obedience was requisite to satisfy divine justice and render God well-disposed towards sinners (II.xii.3). This perfect disobedience could only be achieved by Christ, the sinless one. Calvin remarks: "Now someone asks, How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favourable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience" (II.xvi.5). Perfect obedience was necessary for redemptive substitution because perfect obedience constitutes sinlessness, and sinlessness is a requisite qualification for satisfying God's justice leading to atonement.

For Calvin, the obedience of Christ is correlative to His humanity, for it is through the suffering (of humanity) that true obedience is demonstrated. Calvin comments: "The first purpose of the sufferings of Christ was that in this way He should be made accustomed to obedience" (Hebrews, 65). Willis, in commentary, notes: "The full humanity of Christ is absolutely indispensable because it constitutes the instrument of Christ's redemptive obedience" (Calvin's Catholic Christology, 84). Van Buren adds: "We cannot speak of the obedience of Christ in Calvin's theology without speaking of the strong emphasis he puts on the idea that this obedience was performed in Christ's human nature only" (Christ in Our Place, 38). Moreover, for Calvin, obedience should be construed not only as pre-requisite for vicarious sin-bearing, but also as integral to it. The supreme act of obedience, which discloses both it perfection and value, is the act of death, for it was then that Christ attained to the pinnacle of self-denial (Hebrews, 66). Christ offered up Himself as a willing sacrifice to God according to the will of God (II.xvi.5). A prescribed death was demanded in order to eradicate condemnation, a death that would lend itself to transferred imputation (II.xvi.5,6).


The Godhead and Vicarious Sin-Bearing

Though Christ was the object of God's wrath, having borne the guilt and the curse of a broken law, the persons of the God-head, for Calvin, were not in a state of antithesis. When the sins of men were imputed to Christ and He was hanged before God as a sinner, the love and favour of God rested upon Him. "Faith was firm set in His heart, for by it He saw God present, while He complained of His absence" (Matthew, 208). Calvin avers: "Although Christ feared death, he did not fear God's curse and wrath, from which he knew himself to be safe" (II.xvi.12). It was through God's good pleasure and ordination that Christ was set forth to appease God's wrath and to blot out transgression (II.xvii.1). Calvin asserts that though Christ was faultless, the Father God was pleased that He should suffer; the Father God was pleased "because he stood in our room, and in no other way than by his death could the justice of God be satisfied" (Isaiah, 123). As it was the Father's will that Christ represent man substitutionally, it was equally Christ's will. Christ's assumption of humanity for the bearing of sin unto death was voluntary. Christ's voluntary submission to the incarnation was the commencement of the whole course of His obedience which culminated in His willing obedience to death (Conditt, More Acceptable Than Sacrifice, 40). Christ had come to do the Father's will willingly.

When Christ bore our sins – that is, the quilt and punishment for our sins – Calvin claims that the divine nature of Christ became 'passive'. The humanity of Christ was pre-eminent. Calvin states: "Although the divine power of his [Christ's] Spirit remained hidden for a moment to give place to weakness of the flesh, we must know that the trial arising from the feeling of pain and fear was not contrary to faith" (II.xvi.12). However, though Calvin unequivocally claims that the power of the Spirit receded during the anguish and torment of the cross, he claims paradoxically that Christ "came out Victor, by the marvelous power of the Spirit" (Matthew, 208). Wallace notes that through the consecration of the Spirit, Christ as priest was made acceptable to God (Calvin's Doctrine of the Christian Life, 8). Notwithstanding, Calvin advocates the abandonment of the Son by the Father at Golgotha. On the cross the Son "was now against God and doomed to ruin" (Matthew. 208). During this confrontation the "Godhead yielded to the infirmity of the flesh, in the interests of our salvation, that Christ might fulfil the whole role of Redeemer" (Matthew, 208). So as Conditt notes: "Calvin sees the mystery of the cross in the concealment, if not the withdrawal of His divine nature" (More Acceptable Than Sacrifice, 49).


The Effect of Vicarious Sin-Bearing

Because satisfaction is the only means for full atonement, Calvin considers vicarious sin-bearing as absolutely fundamental to the atonement. He concisely states: "The chief thing to consider in His [Christ's] death is His expiation, by which He appeased the wrath and curse of God. But He could not have done that without transferring to Himself our guilt" (St. John, 39). Because Christ effected full satisfaction to the justice of God, God has been rendered well-disposed toward men. Men are provided with full justification and access. Thus, Calvin writes: "If, then, we would be assured that God is pleased with and kindly disposed toward us, we must fix our eyes and minds on Christ alone. For actually, through him alone we escape the imputation or our sins to us – an imputation bringing with it the wrath of God" (II.xvi.3). For Calvin, the Father God abolished the force and power of sin in the atonement; but this abolition materialized only "when the curse of sin was transferred to Christ's flesh" (II.xvi.6). Calvin does not state explicitly when our sins were actually imputed to Christ, but it is quite discernible that Calvin teaches that such a transaction occurred while Christ hung on the cross. Likewise, Calvin restricts all 'atoning suffering' incurred by sin to the cross. Tylenda interestingly notes:

The name 'sacrifice of propitiation and expiation', for Calvin, can only be applied to Christ's sacrifice on the cross. That action took place at a definite point in time and in a particular place, and since the victim of that sacrifice was one who was capable of effecting redemption by a single historic act, it follows that there is no need of nor can there be another sacrifice of propitiation and expiation (A Eucharistic Sacrifice in Calvin's Theology, 458).

So Calvin writes: "God, to whom we were hateful because of sin, was appeased by the death of his Son to become favourable to us" (II.xvii.3).


The Benefits of Vicarious Sin-Bearing

Calvin believes that spiritual blessings freely flow from the satisfaction Christ rendered to God through the expiatory sacrifice of death. Hence, Christ not only bears our sins, but also destroys them; and "having washed away our sins, sanctifies us and obtains for us that grace from which the uncleanness of our transgressions and vices debars us" (II.xv.6). Through Christ's abolition of sin issues purification. This purification is not only by Christ, but also is of Christ. "The Son of God, utterly clean of all fault, nevertheless took upon himself the shame and reproach of our iniquities, and in return clothes us with his purity" (II.xvi.6). Christ has become sin legally, and we become righteousness legally and experimentally in Him. For Calvin, sacrifice cannot be separated from spiritual and moral cleansing. He states:

For we could not believe with assurance that Christ is our redemption, ransom, and propitiation unless he had been a sacrificial victim. Blood is accordingly mentioned whenever Scripture discusses the mode of redemption. Yet Christ's shed blood served, not only as a satisfaction, but also as laver (cf. Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5; Rev. 1:5) to wash away our corruption (II.xvi.6).

Complete reconciliation is achieved because now we are constituted righteous and hence "may show ourselves righteous and holy in his sight" (II.xvi.3).

Furthermore, in bearing our sins and abolishing sin in His death, Christ similarly abolished death. The necessary consequence of sin is death, and Christ's death was of such infinite and eternal dimensions, thereby enveloping all sin, that He consequently extinguished death itself through His own death. Christ died our death because He became our sin; and thus, through liberation from sin, we are liberated from its consequences. "By dying, he ensured that we would not die, or – which is the same thing – redeemed us to life by his own death" (II.xvi.7). Not only do we enjoy the purchased life of Christ by His death, but "by our participation in it, his death mortifies our earthly members so that they may no longer perform their functions; and it kills the old man in us that he may not flourish and bear fruit" (II.xvi.7).


The Design and the Extent of Vicarious Sin-Bearing

For Calvin, the righteousness which believers receive results from their sin having been imputed to Christ. It is not a righteousness of habit or discipline. It is imputed righteousness, resulting in righteous practice. We receive the very righteousness of Christ. Commenting on 2 Corinthians 5:21, he writes:

We may now return to the contrast drawn in this verse between righteousness and sin. How can we become righteous before God? In the same way as Christ became a sinner. For He took, as it were, our person, that He might be the offender in our name and thus might be reckoned a sinner, not because of His own offences but because of those of others, since He Himself was pure and free from every fault and bore the penalty that was our due and not His own. Now in the same way we are righteous in Him, not because we have satisfied God's judgment by our own works, but because we are judged in relation to Christ's righteousness which we have put on by faith, that it may become our own (II Corinthians, 81f).

Just as Christ has been judicially declared unrighteous, sinners are judicially declared righteous, and that by faith. This is "transferred imputation" (II.xvi.6).

Calvin's teaching of transferred imputation is more easily discernible within the context of federal headship and representation. For Calvin, all men are born with original sin. This original sin consists of both guilt and corruption of nature. This original sin is a result of being "in Adam." As the head and representative of the human race, Adam's initial sin against God is imputed to all posterity. All died "in Adam." For Calvin, Christ also is the head and representative of a people. Christ, the second Adam, restores that which was lost in the first Adam. Though Calvin does observe remarkable parallelism between Christ and Adam in this respect, he also observes distinctions between them. First, "We are condemned by Adam's sin not by imputation alone . . . but we suffer his punishment because we too are guilty, since God holds our nature, which has been corrupted in Adam, guilty of iniquity" (Romans, 116f.). We are not accounted righteous because of righteousness within us "but because we possess Christ Himself with all His blessings" (Roman, 117). Imputation of righteousness is wholly by grace, through the good pleasure of God. Second, Christ's benefits are not afforded to all men as Adam's sin affected the whole of mankind. Participation in Christ's benefits is solely by faith. For Calvin, the curse derived by Adam is conveyed to us by nature, involuntarily. Christ, however, assumed this curse for a people and conveys to them His blessings.

For Calvin, the expiatory sacrifice of Christ was offered on behalf of the whole world, yet the efficacy of the sacrifice is exclusively applicable to those over whom Christ is the appointed head. He asserts: "Although Christ suffered for the sins of the world, and is offered by the goodness of God without distinction to men, yet not all receive Him" (Romans, 118). God Himself must draw men to His Son and enlighten them. For Calvin, God, according to the good pleasure of His will, chooses out of the world those whom He desires to inherit the benefits and blessings acquired by Christ's atoning death. This divine selection occurred before the creation of the world. The chosen ones are the ones who are "given to" Christ. He is the Shepherd; they comprise the flock. Calvin states: "It is certain that they who are given to Him [Christ] belong to the Father. It is certain that they are given that they may believe, and that faith flows from this giving. If the origin of faith is this giving, and if election precedes it in order and time, what remains but to confess that those whom God wishes to saved out of the world are elected freely" (St. John, 141).

The vicarious sin-bearing of Christ must be viewed from two perspectives, namely, from its sufficiency and from it efficiency. Commenting on I John 2:2, Calvin remarks:

But here the question may be asked as to how the sins of the whole world have been expiated . . . Those who want to avoid [the] absurdity [that all will be saved] have said that Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world but effectively only for the elect . . . Although I allow the truth of this, I deny that it fits this passage . . . Therefore, under the word 'all' he does not include the reprobate, but refers to all who would believe and those who were scattered through various regions of the earth (I John, 244).

Thus, the actual extent of the vicarious sin-bearing of Christ is restricted. Christ offered Himself up for a particular people. The analogy and type are clearly observed within the Old dispensation. The Levitical priests made intercession and sacrifice for a particular people, although it was feasible for foreigners to enter into reconciliation with Yahweh through the prescribed sacrificial system.



The various aspects of the vicarious sin-bearing of Christ which are found in Calvin's writings are essentially Biblical and valid. He clearly espouses both the forensic and sacrificial aspects of the atonement. He guards the purity and sinlessness of Christ, while contending for the experiential character of the atonement in the suffering and death of Christ because of sin. Calvin candidly treats the Trinitarian involvement in the atoning work. His considerations of the humanity of Christ in the atonement are reasonably comprehensive and adequate. His stress on the necessity of the incarnation, which is pre-requisite for representation, is foundational for any adequate understanding of the atonement. Calvin's treatment of Christ's vicarious sin-bearing is generally sound and respectable.

As mentioned, Calvin does not present a systematic formulation of the doctrine; such teaching is apparent only through his general consideration of substitutionary atonement. Hence, we do not have as definitive a statement as we would like concerning some elements of the doctrine. Some areas call for greater elucidation. For instance, questions arise concerning Calvin's teaching of the recession of deity during the anguish of the cross. Van Buren, though justified in his criticism, is slightly misrepresentative of Calvin. He observes: "He [Calvin] says, for example, that 'the divine nature was in a state of repose,' and did not exert itself at all whenever it was necessary in discharging the office of Mediator, that the human nature should act separately, according to its peculiar character" (Christ in Our Place, 12). For Calvin, the divine nature was not in a state of repose but had to 'give way' to the humanity. The Spirit, however, was not inactive, for Calvin unequivocally asserts that it was through the work and power of the Spirit that Christ triumphed on the cross. Willis notes: "One of the strengths of Calvin's Christology and of his Pneumatology is his representation of the person and work of Christ in constant reference to the Spirit, and the reality and work of the Spirit in constant reference to Christ" (Calvin's Catholic Christology, 82).

Van Buren also criticizes Calvin for the distinction he makes between Christ and Adam as representatives. He argues: "Our Substitute has put Himself in our place, and He is able to do so on the basis of a human nature that He has in common with us. Yet has not Calvin endangered this basis by suggesting that between Christ, as man, and Adam (not to speak of sinful man) there is a difference of 'kind of condition'?" (Christ in Our Place, 32). When Calvin contends that there is a difference of 'kind of condition', he is not advocating a difference in the constitution of human nature between Christ and Adam; but rather he is advocating a difference in divine influence. The difference in divine influence does not suggest a difference in constitution. Christ is truly man. The manifest difference is that Christ is also truly God. Christ as the second Adam came to accomplish that which the first Adam failed to do.

Another minor criticism is that Calvin fails to distinguish clearly between the Biblical concepts of 'sin' and 'sins'. Calvin does distinguish between these two concepts in his discussion of original sin and man's transgressions, but in his exposition of the atonement, delineation and explication are lacking. Notwithstanding, it is uncertain whether Calvin's immediate concerns of the atonement warranted such a detailed and particular emphasis.


Calvin's teaching on the vicarious sin-bearing of Christ is consonant with his teaching on the atonement in general. Two essential elements of the atonement are substitution and penal satisfaction. These concepts had been progressively formulated through the Middle Ages and were articulated more fully by the Reformers. Calvin views the atonement as consisting of three aspects, namely, the forensic, the experiential, and the sacrificial. The experiential aspect is subsumed under the forensic aspect, and the forensic aspect is involved in the sacrificial aspect. Hence, for Christ to bear our sins is for Christ to bear the guilt and punishment of our sins. For Christ to bear our sins is for Christ to expiate our sins through the offering of Himself as a sacrifice – a sacrifice designed to propitiate God and reconcile Him to man. Our sins are no longer imputed to us.

Accordingly, the vicarious sin-bearing of Christ necessitates the incarnation, for sin must be abolished in the flesh; true satisfaction and justice can only be rendered in this way. The death of Christ was an expiatory sacrifice in order to appease the wrath of God and to remove the curse of a broken law. The expiatory sacrifice of the death of Christ was made acceptable through His obedience sustained in His flesh. Through the expiatory sacrifice issued the divine promises of eternal life and purification. The whole of the Godhead was active and united in the procurement of reconciliation. Calvin concisely summarizes his teaching of vicarious sin-bearing by stating: "As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by His obedience, He has wiped off our transgressions; by His sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by His blood, washed away our sins; by His cross, borne our curse; and by His death, made satisfaction for us" (A Reformation Debate, 66).

The areas in Calvin's teaching which raise questions are the areas which concern the recession of deity at the cross, the relationship between Christ and Adam, and the Biblical concepts of 'sin' and 'sins'. These areas must be further explored and developed in order to achieve any progress in a consistent formulation of this doctrine. Notwithstanding, we would do well to remain within Calvin's general framework as continued research and interpretation proceed.



I. Primary Literature

Calvin, John. A Reformation Debate (Calvin's Reply to Jacopo Sadoleto). Edit. by John C.

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b. Articles

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. "Christ the Mediator: Calvin Versus Stancaro." Calvin's Theological Journal. Vol. 8, Apr. 1973 (p. 5-16).

. "The Controversy on Christ the Mediator: Calvin's Second Reply to Stancaro." Calvin's Theological Journal. Vol. 8, Nov. 1973 (p. 131-157).