Limited Atonement in Saint John Cassian

“For the purpose of God whereby He made man not to perish but to live for ever, stands immovable. And when His goodness sees in us even the very smallest spark of good will shining forth, which He Himself has struck as it were out of the hard flints of our hearts, He fans and fosters it and nurses it with His breath, as He “willeth all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” for as He says, “it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish,” and again it says: “Neither will God have a soul to perish, but recalleth,” meaning that he that is cast off should not altogether perish. (1 Tim 2:4, Matt 18:14, 2 Sam 14:14) For He is true, and lieth not when He lays down with an oath: “As I live, saith the Lord God, for I will not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his way and live.” Ezek 33:11) For if He willeth not that one of His little ones should perish, how can we imagine without grievous blasphemy that He does not generally will all men, but only some instead of all to be saved? Those then who perish, perish against His will, as He testifies against each one of them day by day: “Turn from your evil ways, and why will ye die, O house of Israel?” And again: “How often would I have gathered thy children together as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not;” and: “Wherefore is this people in Jerusalem turned away with a stubborn revolting? They have hardened their faces and refused to return.” (Matt 23:37, Jer 8:5) The grace of Christ then is at hand every day, which, while it “willeth all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” calleth all without any exception, saying: “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” (Matt11:28) But if He calls not all generally but only some, it follows that not all are heavy laden either with original or actual sin, and that this saying is not a true one: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God;” nor can we believe that “death passed on all men.” (Rom 3:23, 5:12) And so far do all who perish, perish against the will of God, that God cannot be said to have made death, as Scripture itself testifies: “For God made not death, neither rejoiceth in the destruction of the living.” (Wisdom 1:13) And hence it comes that for the most part when instead of good things we ask for the opposite, our prayer is either heard but tardily or not at all; and again the Lord vouchsafes to bring upon us even against our will, like some most beneficent physician, for our good what we think is opposed to it, and sometimes He delays and hinders our injurious purposes and deadly attempts from having their horrible effects, and, while we are rushing headlong towards death, draws us back to salvation, and rescues us without our knowing it from the jaws of hell.”

The Conferences 13:7

20 Responses to Limited Atonement in Saint John Cassian

  1. David B says:

    JLB —

    This is what I get for reading a blog of this caliber on too little sleep. Thanks.

    Perry —

    Looking forward to the zingers.

  2. David,

    There are a number of reasons why I posted this. First to show that the concept of limited atonement was known in some form. That this concept has implications that strike the average Calvinist as counter intuitive. That is, most Reformed folk would be astonished at the claim that limited atonement implies that there are some people free from original sin, namely Pelagianism. But Cassian draws that conclusion and he’s not alone in seeing a connection there. That all by itself is ironic, particularly in light of the fact that most Cavlinists class Cassian as a semi-Pelagian heretic.

    Just wait. I have some real zingers lined up in the near future.

  3. JLB says:


    If you read the highlighted portion, it seems quite clear, at least to me, that St. John explicitly affirms that salvation is meant for all, and those who are not saved go against God’s will.

    That does not sound to me like Calvinism.

  4. David B says:


    I’m interested in why you posted this. To me, this doctrine is the main reason why I view Calvinism as one of the most horrible heresies out there. Was this just to show that St. John unfortunately taught this?

  5. Don Bradley says:

    Monk Patrick,

    Your long answer a few posts back used the word “completely” a few times, which initially I read too much into. The questions I posed next were to see if you allowed degrees based on infirmities not of the person’s doing, which you more than clarified by saying the Theotokos is our best example of total salvation with the rest of us falling behind that somewhere(which I had never heard stated that way, I found that an excellent point).

    In my own life, and in what I can observe in others around me, is a “just enough” approach to our union with God. I know I should seek God more, don’t, fall into sin, repent, etc.; and the cycle goes on. Sometimes I say no to God in little ways, sometimes in big ways, and I do so knowing it will cost in the end because of the lost opportunities I’ve squandered. I have limited successes along the way also, but I can’t help but lament my failures.

    I think I need to go back and do some reading in the Fathers to get my mind right about a few things on death and sin. I pulled “On the Soul and the Resurrection” by St. Gregory of Nyssa off the shelf; I think I’ll strike up this conversation again with you when I have questions after I read him.

  6. MG,

    The thief’s death could support two but it could also support three by qualifying what it means to be baptised. As you are undoubtably aware, baptism includes the symbolic sharing of the death of Christ in the faith of Christ. Someone who is martyred shares directly in the death of Christ with faith in Christ, and so martyrdom is also considered a form of baptism. The thief also shared the death of Christ, almost exactly, while repenting and believing in Christ. So, this would be his baptism. Therefore the thief cannot be an example that negates (3).

    Nevertheless, the thief is evidence, as well as the martyrs whom are baptised in their blood, that the eucharist is only necessary to those who are able to partake of it. However, this doesn’t necessarily also apply to baptism. One must also account for why there is a baptism of necessity for those unable to receive standard baptism, if it was understood that it is impossible to receive the standard baptism so there is no longer a necessity for baptism at this time.

  7. MG says:

    Father Deacon Patrick–

    Might the theif on the cross be evidence for (2) that the sacraments are only necessary for those that are able to receive them?

  8. Don,

    I hope Perry doesn’t mind going off thread a bit.

    In my thinking, while the ideal is perfection, only the Mother of God is said to have reached this, so there must be degrees of salvation or union in some form just as star differs from star in glory.

    The general rule of thumb of salvation, in my thinking, is that as long as someone does not refuse to move towards perfection then they are liable to be saved, by grace, no matter how righteous or exact in understanding of the faith they may be when they die. Once someone refuses to repent or believe then they are in danger of judgement because God will not force them to repent or believe, but as long as they are willing, even if ignorant, then God can act by His grace to save them. This would account to some extent for those with mental illness or disability, who may not be judged on their extent of knowledge but on an open heart, even if it is sometimes mislead by others. God knows all.

    The more difficult question is raised with the issue of the mysteries, where Christ is quite strong in His comments on the necessity of them, especially baptism and the eucharist, and the Church in history has strongly emphasised their necessity, yet it seems many have little or no chance of receiving them, which seems unfair or unjust. There are a few options that I can see: one) is that they are not essential despite the words and God can save people in spite of them; two) that they are only necessary for those that are able to receive them; or three) that God cannot deny Himself in the need for holistic union with Him, including physical union via the mysteries; the necessity of baptism and the eucharist is a unavoidable aspect of our humanity, and the fault for the non-salvation, of those that are disadvantaged, lies with their forebears who fell into heresy or refused to accept the gospel. Undoubtably, there are other options.

  9. Don Bradley says:

    Two things;

    1. Is there allowance in your thinking for various degrees of union with him, thereby in effect saying there are degrees of salvation?

    2. I see a lot of mental illness because of the town I live in, as well as family members. Many do not have the capacity to distinguish truth from error, but are not completely intellectually disabled. Many recieve some small rays of light and truth and embrace them, but have a fragmented religious mindset. They have so many heretical groups preaching at them that they are confused. Any thoughts on such people?

    I’ll need to contemplate your long answer for a day before asking more questions. Thank you for your responses.

  10. Also, one thing that I think is often overlooked when speaking about salvation and eternal life is the God is not only holy and righteous but He is also One. Thus, we must be one in Him to be united to Him and to share His life. We must be of one mind, that is have one faith, one will, that is be obedient to His commandments, and one flesh with Him, that is in one Church through one Baptism. If we are not so united as one in, with and by Him, such as we are not so united at birth, then we cannot live in, with and by Him.

  11. Don,

    Also as I understand it, death caused all to sin meaning that because we are/were all subject to death then we cannot maintain life and we will inevitably sin. Death is separate from Life, that is God, only in whom we can have life and sinlessness. This does not mean that man is not free to do good or be virtuous and that he is not accountable for his own sin but, that apart from God, he cannot have the fullness of life and righteousness being detached from the source of these things. Christ healed the rift caused by death thus allowing man to share in the fullness of life and righteousness when he unites himself to Christ in Baptism and the Eucharist. This does not alter mans free will and accountability for how he lives, thus man can still sin, but it means that man is now able to participate in life to its fullness and unceasingly by being united to the source of life, God.

    So, I see that there are two distinct aspects to death and sin, that which is inherited from Adam that passes on a condition of death and sin for man (to which I referred as physical death), which has been healed in Christ, and that which arises from our free will for which we are responsible and for which we will be judged (to which I referred as death of the soul). The healing of the former means that all men will be resurrected to exist(live) eternally, although to participate in the life of God requires complete union with Him via the mysteries, and the latter means that those who effectively reject life by sinning, whether unbaptised or baptised, or by failing to be united completely with Him via the mysteries, will continue eternally in the torment of death, whether this results for a lack of participation or an unwilling participation in the life of God.

  12. ioannis says:


    I think that nobody will be separated from God. Some will experience God as heaven and some others as damnation.

  13. Don,

    The death of the body came through the sin of Adam and then passed on to all. The death of the soul results from the sin of each person. So, they are both from the same source, sin, but from different sources, the sin of different persons.

  14. Don Bradley says:

    Monk Patrick,

    Your response made a distinction between the death of the body and the death of the soul. Do they not have one and the same source?

  15. The reason for the emphasis in the text is because I could not think of a satisfactory definition of “orders of men” that would encompass all the types of people that I knew other an defining it as every individual.

  16. This passage is quite different to Calvin’s understanding, which I rejected, as a Protestant, immediately I first read it as it turns out the same reason as Cassian. I also felt that Calvin’s position was blasphemous.

    Here is a quote from Calvin’s argument.

    16. The second passage adduced is that in which Paul says that “God will
    have all men to be saved,” (1 Timothy 2:4.) … I answer, first, That the
    mode in which God thus wills is plain from the context; for Paul connects
    two things, a will to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
    … It will now be easy to extract the purport of Paul’s statement. He had commanded Timothy that prayers should be regularly offered up in the church for kings and princes; but as it seemed somewhat absurd that prayer should be offered up for a class of men who were almost hopeless, … he adds, that it was acceptable to God, who will have all men to be saved. By this he assuredly means nothing more than that the way of salvation was not shut against any order of men; that, on the contrary, he had manifested his mercy in such a way, that he would have none debarred from it. Other passages do not declare what God has, in his secret judgment, determined with regard to all, but declare that pardon is prepared for all sinners who only turn to seek after it. For if they persist in urging the words, “God has concluded all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all,” (Romans 11:32,) I will, on the contrary, urge what is elsewhere written, “Our God is in the heavens: he has done whatsoever he has pleased,” (Psalm 115:3.) we must, therefore, expound the passage so as to reconcile it with another, I “will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy,” (Exodus 33:19.) He who selects those whom he is to visit in mercy does not impart it to all. But since it clearly appears that he is there speaking not of individuals, but of orders of men, let us have done with a longer discussion….

    Here is a link to the full text Book 3, Chapter 24, Section 16:


    Death is not a thing but the result of separation from life. It is not something created, such as man, neither is it something uncreated such as God. It is not something, so those terms are not applicable to it.

  17. Don,

    All men are freed from physical death eternally; all will be resurrected on the last day. However, I assume you are referring to the death of the soul because there will be no more sin. There will be no more sin after the resurrection but this does not mean that all will be alive in Christ and free from the torments of Hades. This depends on the disposition of the soul and its union with Christ.

  18. Don Bradley says:

    Maybe I can phrase this a little better:

    It appears to me (a novice to be sure) that the West focuses on guilt as man’s problem (guilt brings death). Death is destroyed in the end, but the guilt of many remains, hence damnation of many. Guilt is the root, so when death is destroyed the root (guilt) remains.

    The East comes at it another way. Death is the focus for what the East sees as the problem for man, and indeed the root of sin and guilt is death (death brings sin and guilt). But when the root (death) is destroyed in the end, and if this is applicable to all men, why are not all men freed from death eternally when death is destroyed?

  19. Don Bradley says:

    I keyed on the same sentence when I read the article. But I’m interested in why you chose to view death as a “thing” as opposed to a lack of something?

    To everybody else,
    If death is a lack of something, how is it that the final enemy, death, is to be destroyed at the Judgement yet leaving some separated from God? If death is destroyed in the end, and death is what is destroying each of us individually, would that not leave open the charge of universalism because there would no longer be death left in any individual so as to damn them?

  20. Carl says:

    “For God made not death, neither rejoiceth in the destruction of the living.” (Wisdom 1:13)

    I take it though that in spite of this, it’s wrong to call death “uncreated.” Could you briefly explain the distinction at work here? Is it that death relies on life for its existence, so even though it’s not created, it’s still parasitic on being?

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