Atonement 1: Confession of an ex-“Highper” Calvinist

Preface: This document is the first of four. This one precedes the next ones two by about 3 years. As a result, much of what is below, has been modified and expressed in much better terms especially in the  paper “Discussing the Atonement – a lot!”. It is the 4th paper which most accurately contains my view to date. But I have left this paper here since it is good for getting a solid background in how my thinking progressed, and since it is the basis of the critique which #3 contains my responses to.   RAF 8/19/2K8

Before you read the following, I should make it clear that I was never HYPER-Calvinist. That is a very specific designation. For one to be a hyper-Calvinist, there are some very specific criteria which must be met. Phil Johnson in his excellent “A Primer of Hyper-Calvinism” discusses them in the following paragraphs:

Notice three very crucial points in that definition: First, it correctly points out that hyper-Calvinists tend to stress the secret (or decretive) will of God over His revealed (or preceptive) will. Indeed, in all their discussion of “the will of God,” hyper-Calvinists routinely obscure any distinction between God’s will as reflected in His commands and His will as reflected in his eternal decrees. Yet that distinction is an essential part of historic Reformed theology. (See John Piper, “Are There Two Wills in God? Divine Election and God’s Desire for All To Be Saved” in Thomas R. Schreiner, ed., The Grace of God and the Bondage of the Will, 2 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995, 1:107-131.)
    Second, take note of the stress the above definition places on hyper-Calvinists’ “denial of the use of the word ‘offer’ in relation to the preaching of the gospel.” This is virtually the epitome of the hyper-Calvinist spirit: it is a denial that the gospel message includes any sincere proposal of divine mercy to sinners in general.
    Third, mark the fact that hyper-Calvinism “encourages introspection in the search to know whether or not one is elect.” Assurance tends to be elusive for people under the influence of hyper-Calvinist teaching. Therefore, hyper-Calvinism soon degenerates into a cold, lifeless dogma. Hyper-Calvinist churches and denominations tend to become either barren and inert, or militant and elitist (or all of the above).”

Given what Phil wrote there, I would have classified myself as a HIGH Calvinist (with a very narrow concept of Christ’s atonement – i.e. He died ONLY for the elect), which resulted in a Hyperesque discomfort with the free offer of the Gospel, without denying it outright. I knew instinctively and Biblically that all should be called, but had diminished zeal in the calling when I preached. I was like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis, it wasn’t supposed to hurt, the disconnect was all supposed to be in my mind, but it REALLY hurt!

Let me add here too that just because someone retains the view that Jesus died ONLY for the elect, somehow they are automatically Hyper-Calvinists – isn’t true. I do believe it not only can but often leads to Hyper tendencies – I might even say most often. But there is not a one-for-one necessary correspondence.

What you have below is the substance of a letter I wrote to the other Elders where I serve as senior pastor, to give them a handle on where I shifted to. I hope it will prove beneficial to some others who may be wrestling with the same issues as I have.

We begin…

In the spirit of Semper Reformanda (always reforming) I’ve been looking for an opportunity to dialogue with you as a group over the nature (or more precisely the extent) of the atonement. Historically, this has been a subject for great discussion within Reformed and Calvinistic circles.

In order to give you a solid grasp of where my thinking has gone, I will site W. G. T. Shedd’s position on the critical areas which have affected me most. They are the closest I can find to my own view. I would especially call your attention to section 8 which I underlined. In short form, with Shedd, Charles Hodge, R. L. Dabney, John Davenant, Bishop Ussher, Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge, John Bunyan, J. C. Ryle and a host of other Reformed men – I am constrained by the Scripture to adopt a view of Universal Atonement/Particular Redemption, affirming God’s love to all mankind as well as His secret counsels in election. In other words, an atonement that provides so that “whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:41 / Also Acts 2:21, 10:43 & John 11:26 and others), but of course, is applied salvifically only to the elect when they believe. Or, to quote the Heidelberg Catechism – Q37: What do you understand by the word “suffered”? A37: That all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race;

In a nutshell, the view takes the texts which appeal to a universal aspect to Christ’s atonement as just that – universal. And it allows the doctrines of election and justification by faith alone carry the burden for determining who gains the salvific application of the atonement (who, is determined by unconditional election before the foundations of the world) and how they come to have their part in it (how, is by faith as a gift imparted to the elect alone – not to all mankind). It is a subtle change in some ways, but a true shift from the way I used to understand it. I would categorize my former position as virtually hyper-Calvinistic, making the doctrine of the atonement perform virtually the same function as election. In other words, Christ dies solely for the elect without any consideration for the non-elect and that the atonement holds nothing for the non-elect whatever. Let me try to outline a couple of the key ideas before I turn you over to Shedd’s treatment of this question.

When we ask the question “for whom did Christ die?” we tend to ask it in a way that prevents us (I believe) from answering it in full concert with the Scripture. We normally state our answer by saying: “He either died for all men and failed to save all men, or He died only for the Elect and certainly saved them.” But the very way the question is asked assumes the atonement could only do one thing. That God’s design in it was absolutely single. That He had only one intention in offering up Christ and thus only one thing was accomplished. Instead, I’m convinced now that the atonement accomplished a number of things. Some of those benefits are applicable to all mankind, and others only to the elect by virtue of the fact that they are obtained only by faith, which is given to the elect alone. Yes, Jesus came to die “for His people”, to infallibly accomplish the salvation of the elect – those sovereignly and unconditionally elected unto salvation by the Father before the worlds began. Yet, I do not believe that is ALL His atoning work was to do.

(I might note here that Owen’s – The Death of Death in Christ is often cited on this, but Owen both had a minority view at the time, AND, and as I read more of his material, I am convinced he made several serious errors. Neil Chambers’ excellent work on Owen clearly shows Owen’s exegesis of John 3:13 & I John 2:2 cannot possibly be limited to the elect – as well as challenging Owen’s logic errors in his famous Triple Choice. The one who takes the heaviest handed approach is Arthur Pink. He virtually has God holding nothing but contempt for the lost. A view he modified a good deal before his death – but one which much influenced me previously. And yet, here is how Arthur Pink closed one sermon preached in 1927: “Why not believe in him for yourself? Why not trust his precious blood for yourself, and why not tonight? Why not tonight, my friend? God is ready, God is ready to save you now if you believe on him. The blood has been shed, the sacrifice has been offered, the atonement has been made, the feast has been spread. The call goes out to you tonight. ‘Come, for all things are now ready.’” (Studies in the Scriptures 1927)

This articulates the offer of the Gospel (I believe) in a much more Biblically balanced form. The concept of “all things are ready” speaks to all impediments on God’s side having been removed. Man’s will alone being the obstacle. An insurmountable obstacle overcome only by God’s regenerating grace at work in the Elect.

Even though Jonathan Edwards was theologically of the more narrow view, he nevertheless called sinners to Christ from a different paradigm than the narrow view would ordinarily imply: “Come to Christ and accept salvation. You are invited to come to Christ, heartily to close with Him, and to trust in Him for salvation. If you do so, you shall have the benefit of His glorious contrivance. You shall have the benefit of all, as much as if the whole had been contrived for you alone. God has already contrived everything that is needful for your salvation; and there is nothing wanting but your consent. Since God has taken this matter of the redemption of sinners into His own hand, He has made a thorough work of it. He has not left it for you to finish. Satisfaction is already made; righteousness is already wrought out; death and hell are already conquered. The Redeemer has already taken possession of glory, and keeps it in His hands to bestow on them who come to Him. There were many difficulties in the way, but they are all removed. The Savior has already triumphed over all, and is at the right hand of God to give eternal life to His people. Salvation is already brought to your door; and the Savior stands, knocks, and calls that you would open to Him so that He might bring it to you. There remains nothing but your consent. All the difficulty now remaining is with your own heart. If you perish now, it must be wholly at your door. It must be because you would not come to Christ that you might have life, and because you virtually choose death rather than life.” – This when he preached on Matt. 23:37.

Consider the following by R. L. Dabney on this question. He too held that the Atonement did more than only save the elect. / Nature of Christ’s Sacrifice by R. L. Dabney

There is no safer clue for the student through this perplexed subject, than to take this proposition; which, to every Calvinist, is nearly as indisputable as a truism; Christ’s design in His vicarious work was to effectuate exactly what it does effectuate, and all that it effectuates, in its subsequent proclamation. This is but saying that Christ’s purpose is unchangeable and omnipotent. Now, what does it actually effectuate? ‘We know only in part;’ but so much is certain:

1. The purchase of the full and assured redemption of all the elect, or of all believers.

2. A reprieve of doom for every sinner of Adam’s race who does not die at his birth. (For these we believe it has purchased heaven). And this reprieve gains for all, many substantial, though temporal benefits, such as unbelievers, of all men, will be the last to account no benefits. Among these are postponement of death and perdition, secular well-being, and the bounties of life.

3. A manifestation of God’s mercy to many of the non-elect, to all those, namely, who live under the Gospel, in sincere offers of a salvation on terms of faith. And a sincere offer is a real and not a delusive benefaction; because it is only the recipient’s contumacy which disappoints it.

4. A justly enhanced condemnation of those who reject the Gospel, and thereby a clearer display of God’s righteousness and reasonableness in condemning, to all the worlds.

5. A disclosure of the infinite tenderness and glory of God’s compassion, with purity, truth and justice, to all rational creatures.

Note Dabney’s reference in #2 to “a reprieve of doom for every sinner of Adam’s race who does not die at his birth.” And #3 – the “manifestation of God’s mercy to many of the non-elect.” Such concepts have been virtually absent from the Calvinistic & Reformed groups I’ve interacted with. I believe that is a sad and grave error. It forces us to take passages like John 3:16 and perform exegetical gymnastics to avoid wrestling with the idea that God might actually love all men – and yet still not choose to save some. Clearly both are true. The balance of Dabney’s article deals directly with that as well – you can read the whole of it at http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/etc/printer-friendly.asp?ID=269

(At this point I will recommend purchasing Neil Chambers’ thesis for his Th. M. done at Reformed Theological Seminary in 1998. To my knowledge it can only be found at http://www.tren.com) (Since my first writing of this I have interacted with Chambers and he has given me permission to freely distribute his thesis if you would like a copy).

Charles Hodge writes in a similar vein on this same issue: “it does not follow from the assertion of its [the atonement’s] having a special reference to the elect that it had no reference to the non-elect. Augustinians readily admit that the death of Christ had a relation to man, to the whole human family, which it had not to, the fallen angels. It is the ground on which salvation is offered to every creature under heaven who hears, the gospel; but it gives no authority for a like offer to apostate angels. It moreover secures, to the whole race at large, and to all classes of men, innumerable, blessings, both providential and religious. It was, of course, designed to produce these effects; and, therefore, He died to secure them. In view of the effects which the death of Christ produces on the relation of all mankind to God, it has in all ages been customary with Augustinians to say that Christ died “sufficienter pro omnibus, efficaciter tantum pro electis;” sufficiently for all, efficaciously only for the elect. There is a sense, therefore, in which He died for all, and there is a sense in which He died for the elect alone. The simple question is, Had the death of Christ a reference to the elect which it had not to other men? Did He come into the world to secure the salvation of those given to Him by the Father, so that the other effects of his work are merely incidental to what was done for the attainment of that object? (SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY, Vol. II, Page 546)

But in terms of God’s disposition toward all men, hear Calvin himself on John 3:16 – “Christ opens up the first cause, and, as it were, the source of our salvation, and he does so, that no doubt may remain; for our minds cannot find calm repose, until we arrive at the unmerited love of God. As the whole matter of our salvation must not be sought any where else than in Christ, so we must see whence Christ came to us, and why he was offered to be our Savior. Both points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish… Let us remember, on the other hand, that while life is promised universally to all who believe in Christ, still faith is not common to all. For Christ is made known and held out to the view of all, but the elect alone are they whose eyes God opens, that they may seek him by faith.”

Calvin knew how to balance the dynamic, while so often today we are unable. Faith is “not common to all”. This of course is one of Amyrault’s chief errors which we much avoid. Nor do we posit a hypothetical atonement which seeks to avoid allowing for unconditional election or the necessity of faith in the Gospel message while trying to reckon with some universal aspects. Calvin had it right.

In fact, Calvin is really bold when he speaks about God’s disposition concerning even the non-elect. Contrary to Pink who asserts God has almost no species of love for the lost, Calvin writes the following when commenting on Ezekiel 18:32 – “Meanwhile Ezekiel announces this very truly as far as doctrine is concerned, that God wills not the death of him that perishes: for the explanation follows directly afterwards, be you converted and live. Why does not God delight in the death of him who perishes? Because he invites all to repentance and rejects no one. Since this is so, it follows that he is not delighted by the death of him who perishes: hence there is nothing in this passage doubtful or thorny, and we should also hold that we are led aside by speculations too deep for us. For God does not wish us to inquire into his secret. Counsels: His secrets are with himself, says Moses, (#De 29:29), but this book for ourselves and our children. Moses there distinguishes between the hidden counsel of God, (which if we desire to investigate too curiously we shall tread on a profound abyss,)and the teaching delivered to us. Hence let us leave to God his own secrets, and exercise ourselves as far as we can in the law, in which God’s will is made plain to us and to our children.”

I dare say, very few if any of the Calvinists I’ve hung around with would agree with what Calvin says on Ezek. 18:23 – “He confirms the same sentiment in other words, that God desires nothing more earnestly than that those who were perishing and rushing to destruction should return into the way of safety. And for this reason not only is the Gospel spread abroad in the world, but God wished to bear witness through all ages how inclined he is to pity. For although the heathen were destitute of the law and the prophets, yet they were always endued with some taste of this doctrine. Truly enough they were suffocated by many errors: but we shall always find that they were induced by a secret impulse to seek for pardon, because this sense was in some way born with them, that God is to be appeased by all who seek him. Besides, God bore witness to it more clearly in the law and the prophets. In the Gospel we hear how familiarly he addresses us when he promises us pardon. (#Lu 1:78). And this is the knowledge of salvation, to embrace his mercy which he offers us in Christ. It follows, then, that what the Prophet now says is very true, that God wills not the death of a sinner, because he meets him of his own accord, and is not only prepared to receive all who fly to his pity, but he calls them towards him with a loud voice, when he sees how they are alienated from all hope of safety.

Again, there is a wonderful and sweet balance here which delights in the fact that God can truly and earnestly desire all men to repent, and yet still does not grant them that repentance. I agree it is a mystery – but it is a Biblical tension that ought not to be ignored.

This Universal/Particular tension in the atonement was built into the OT Day of Atonement. The sacrifice was given and God’s anger against the entire community was assuaged. Not just of the believer, but of the unbeliever too. Whether or not all were actually regenerate, all of Israel benefited. Not salvifically in the eternal sense, but certainly in the temporal sense. Here, the sacrifice (typical of Christ) died for all, yet all were not saved (eternally). (Note: I will not take the time to develop this at present, but in a cursory survey of all the passages in the O.T. regarding atonement – from Gen. 6:14 where kopher is first used, as the pitch for Noah’s Ark – in the majority of citings it has some reference to God’s wrath being suspended, averted or forestalled. I do not believe I have seen any truly thorough analysis of this fact used to develop our concept of atonement in general. And since the only N.T. use of the word is in Rom. 5:11, this needs to be a controlling factor. Someone really needs to do this work.)

And additional aspect of the typological issues demonstrated in Israel’s Day of Atonement has to do with the fact that the blood being shed, in and by itself, was not even portrayed as sufficient there. Indeed, it still needed to be APPLIED to the altar and especially the Mercy Seat. We have a hint here to the need of application above and beyond the mere sacrifice. The Spirit must apply the blood to the believing one for salvation to be appropriated as it is by faith. Calvin also hints at this some, but does not develop it very much (as much as I’ve been able to tell so far).

When the brazen serpent was raised up by Moses in the wilderness – ALL who looked upon it might live. Not all did. Not all were appointed to. But it was provided for all who had been afflicted, whether they looked or not.

All of Israel was delivered from Egypt, but a great number were “unable to enter because of unbelief.” (Heb. 3:19-14)

When Jesus feeds the 5000, 12 baskets of over-abundance are taken up. This is not reckoned as waste, but as a symbol of His abundant grace. 7 more baskets than are necessary are shown at the feeding of the 4000 as well. He does “exceedingly abundantly above all that are able to ask or think.”

When Spurgeon comments of the parable in Matthew 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” – he writes: “To obtain a right to the treasure-trove, the finder must buy the field, and to do this he parts with “all that he hath.” So do men act when they discover the riches of the gospel. So did Jesus himself, at the utmost cost, buy the world to gain his church, which was the treasure which he desired. The special application of the parable we leave to the reader.”

This I must agree with, that Christ dying to purchase all men did not mean all would be saved, but He DID indeed purchase all that He might gain His elect. In this sense, He bought ALL men. (Again, this makes easy sense of passages like 2 Peter 2:1).

Note too that Christ is presented to us as the last or second Adam (Heb. 2:5-9 / 1 Cor. 15:22, 45 / Rom. 5:14). This places Him at the head of the entire human race. I would argue this explains much more easily how John 15:1 & 2 works (in my estimation) “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” What in the world is a branch of His which does not bear fruit and is taken away? Not a believer losing his salvation for sure. But what DOES it mean? Nothing less than unbelieving humanity under its new Adam. He purchases all and is Lord of All (Acts 10:36) and as such purges those who are His by conquest, but who nevertheless do not share His spiritual life. (Mention should be made here of the Covenantal view taken by many of this passage, which posits the branches which are taken away as those baptized in the Church later proved to be unbelievers. This view parallels the view I am advancing in that is SOME way it pictures lost men “joined to Christ” – though not salvifically).

I am convinced that at Calvary, Christ indeed paid the penalty for every man. Or, to quote Calvin in his Commentary on Colossians 1:14 – “This is our liberty, this our glorying in

the face of death — that our sins are not imputed to us. He says that this redemption was procured through the blood of Christ, for by the sacrifice of his death all the sins of the world have been expiated.” But that does NOT mean every man is saved or gets off scot-free. Why? First and foremost, because of election. Only the elect have the gift of and can and do exercise saving faith. Secondly, because more than the debt is included in our fallenness. Let me try to illustrate.

Lets say the bank up the street has $500,000.00 inside. One night, I break in, steal the $500,000.00 and run. A dear friend who loves me, agrees to pay the bank all the money I’ve stolen, so that they decide not to press charges. Even though they refuse to press charges, the Bank’s security cameras recorded my actions for all time, and the Law Enforcement Agencies as well as the Judicial system still proceed to charge me with the crime of armed robbery. Even though the Bank has in effect been satisfied or made whole, I am still not free. Why? For two reasons. 1- I now owe this friend who paid the debt for me. But 2 – No matter whether the bank was made whole or not, the police will still arrest me, because I am STILL GUILTY of having committed the crime. I am still liable to be charged with the crime of armed robbery even though the money has been returned by my gracious benefactor. Even if I have no other benefactor and the Bank simply forgives the debt – the guilt remains and must be dealt with judicially.

I believe this is at least part of how it is with Christ’s propitiation for all mankind. Man, made in God’s image, owed Him the glory He is due – we were made FOR His glory (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). We robbed Him. Christ, in His active obedience has paid the Father in full for the glory which was due Him from mankind. On the basis of His own death, He forgives our debt. As the second Adam, He made satisfaction, propitiation. But there is more here than just the debt. Christ has removed that particular impediment from being reconciled to the Father by virtue of His death. He removed the flaming sword (if you will) from the entrance to the Tree of Life. The Father will not demand of us what is due because of Christ. However – the Father is not just the one sinned against, He is also the righteous Judge. And though the debt has been forgiven, I am still guilty of having committed the crime. I am not righteous. Now in another amazing act, the Father commits the discharge of this judgment to the Son (John 5:22). Which judgment, if I would escape it, Christ requires I place my faith in Him for. Faith – it is true I cannot have unless He gives it to me – but that is the condition under which He places us all. While my sin was imputed to Him at the Cross – as it was for all – nevertheless His righteousness is not imputed to any until they believe.

I might add here that the example of the bank robbery and repayment versus the removal of guilt helps solve the “double payment” logic which troubles so many. This is but one part of several resolutions to that problem. A second, Shedd’s argument that while payment is made, if one has no faith in it, it cannot save – also removes this obstacle. A third is the transfer of debt to Christ. He paid our debt to the Father, but we still need to reckon with Him! He will be the judge of all mankind (John 5:22 The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son). And a fourth is the plain fact that there is no double jeopardy because the SINNER does not suffer twice – but rather Christ suffers, and if they do not repent and believe – then they suffer as well. No one suffers twice.

Again, another dimension to this could be illustrated this way. Say the bank who holds my house mortgage sells it to another bank – a fairly common practice today. The first bank discharges my debt to them – but I still owe the balance to the new mortgagor. Christ made the way to the Father clear, but I can still only get there THROUGH Him. Will there be men in Hell whom Christ died for? Yes. And the nature of their suffering will be finely attuned by the one who suffered for their sins at Calvary and who therefore knows exactly – by personal experience – what their punishment ought to be, the punishment He will personally exact from them. His payment, though full and free, did not expunge their guilt. I must still have the imputed righteousness of Christ if I am to be saved. I must still personally believe upon Him as my substitute. I am not saved until I believe.

Thus it is I feel constrained by Scripture to affirm Christ’s true love for all mankind, and the universality of His atoning work, while at one and the same time, affirming that Redemption is particular for the elect alone. For me, this all and at the same time keeps safeguarding the free offer of the Gospel, the more natural reading of passages like John 3:16, and yet preserves the absolute sovereignty of God in unconditional election. Christ’s OBEJECTIVE work of reconciliation satisfies the Father, so that He is not at present hunting us down, while the SUBJECTIVE part of reconciliation must yet take effect, when by the Spirit we are convinced of sin and righteousness and judgment, and come seeking the forgiveness Christ has provided for us in His death.

One last thought. Some object to this line of reasoning, arguing that it makes the death of Christ merely provisional. That He simply made salvation possible, and did not actually save. To that I need to reply that in one sense His death was certainly provisional. If Eph. 2:3 is correct, even the elect are “by nature, children of wrath even as the rest” until we come to faith in Christ in space and time. We do not come into the world saved, though the elect are earmarked for that day when Christ’s atoning sacrifice will be applied to us savingly by the Spirit. Nor were we saved at Calvary. Election is designation, not actuation. We are lost until sovereignly regenerated, divinely granted saving faith, and we exercise that faith on Christ and his death in our place. So in that sense, yes, His death was provisional, but it was not ONLY provisional. For in terms of the elect, it certainly and absolutely secured our salvation. There is no guesswork in this as though the salvation of any individual is subject to question in God. It is always in question to us until one either repents and believes or dies in unbelief. Thus we call all men to faith and repentance because provision HAS been made for all. “‘Come, for everything is now ready.” While in God’s sovereignty only 8 humans were ultimately going to be saved on the Ark, the Ark nonetheless – built by God’s specifications – was sufficient for a vast number more. Many more could have been cured in the wilderness had they looked upon the brazen serpent. Time reveals to us who were destined to and who were not. But nothing of the provision was wasted. It was offered to all, and sufficient for all, but effectual only for those who looked – by God’s grace. The provisional element shouldn’t scare us, when we consider that where sin abounded, grace did “much more abound.” Why didn’t it only abound to the exact measure of the sin?

Here then is Shedd. I cite him not as authority, but simply because he states the view so well. He in fact goes beyond my understanding (so far) in terms of how the atonement canceled all legal claims. But I believe his essential balance and understanding is so Biblical as to warrant a very close inspection. Remember, he was considered one of the premier Reformed and Calvinistic theologians of the 19th century.

For further inquiry on how the Reformed Church historically has wrestled with this idea and who was on which side of the argument – I highly recommend Curt Daniel’s History and Theology of Calvinism. I would also recommend John Davenant’s fine work on the question. Davenant was on the Synod of Dordt and felt the formulation on Limited Atonement was skewed. Davenant has been wrongly accused by some of being Amyrauldian. But Davenant never posits that all men either have or are capable of saving faith or that God had a conditional decree of election for all men, and an additional unconditional decree for the elect. In fine, his final argument regarding Dordt’s article is simply that when it was formulated, it went overboard in trying to deny universalism (i.e. that all are eventually saved), and thus overstepped and forgot that (as Shedd will mention below) we are saved by grace THROUGH faith. No matter HOW Christ atoned, if one has no faith in it, it is ineffectual for salvation. We must not leave this crucial aspect out. We preach (because the Gospel is) justification by faith, not justification by an automatic result of Christ’s death.

Very often in my estimation, the Reformed and Calvinistic view as popularly articulated collapses the ordo salutis so as to make justification by faith virtually unnecessary, and posits all in election itself.

Shedd: In Rom. 5:10 believers are said to be “reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” Here the reconciliation is described from the side of the offending party; man is said to be reconciled. Yet this does not mean the subjective reconciliation of the sinner toward God, but the objective reconciliation of God toward the sinner.[1]

God’s justice is completely satisfied for the sin of man by the death of Christ. This is an accomplished fact: “Jesus Christ the righteous is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). The instant any individual man of this world of mankind believes that divine justice is thus satisfied, his conscience is at rest. The belief of a fact is always needed in order to a personal benefit from it. Belief is not needed in order to establish the fact. Whether a sinner believes Christ died for sin or not will make no difference with the fact, though it will make a vast difference with him: “If we believe not, yet he abides faithful: he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13)[2]

In the third place, atonement, either personal or vicarious, naturally and necessarily cancels legal claims. This means that there is such a natural and necessary correlation between vicarious atonement and justice that the former supplies all that is required by the latter. It does not mean that Christ’s vicarious atonement naturally and necessarily saves every man; because the relation of Christ’s atonement to divine justice is one thing, but the relation of a particular person to Christ’s atonement is a very different thing. Christ’s death as related to the claims of the law upon all mankind cancels those claims wholly. It is an infinite “propitiation for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). But the relation of an impenitent person to this atonement is that of unbelief and rejection of it. Consequently, what the atonement has effected objectively in reference to the attribute of divine justice is not effected subjectively in the conscience of the individual. There is an infinite satisfaction that naturally and necessarily cancels legal claims, but unbelief derives no benefit from the fact.[3]

This reasoning applies to vicarious atonement equally with personal. Justice does not require a second sacrifice from Christ in addition to the first: “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many” (Heb. 10:28). This one offering expiated “the sins of the whole world,” and justice is completely satisfied in reference to them. The death of the God-man naturally and necessarily canceled all legal claims. When a particular person trusts in this infinite atonement and it is imputed to him by God, it then becomes his atonement for judicial purposes as really as if he had made it himself, and then it naturally and necessarily cancels his personal guilt, and he has the testimony that it does in his peace of conscience. Divine justice does not, in this case, require an additional atonement from the believer. It does not demand penal suffering from a person for whom a divine substitute has rendered a full satisfaction, which justice itself has accepted in reference to this very person. By accepting a vicarious atonement for a particular individual, divine justice precludes itself from requiring a personal atonement from him. Accordingly, Scripture represents the noninfliction of penalty upon the believer in Christ’s atonement as an act of justice to Christ and also to the believer viewed as one with Christ: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9); “who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? Who is he that condemns? It is Christ that died” (Rom. 8:33–34). The atoning mediator can demand upon principles of strict justice the release from penalty of any sinful man in respect to whom he makes the demand. And if in such a case we should suppose the demand to be refused by eternal justice, we should suppose a case in which eternal justice is unjust. For, by the supposition, justice has inflicted upon the mediator the full penalty due to this sinner and then refuses to the mediator that release of this sinner from penalty which the mediator has earned by his own suffering and which is now absolutely due to him as the reward of his suffering. Says Edwards (Wisdom in Salvation in Works 4.150):

It is so ordered now that the glory of the attribute of divine justice requires the salvation of those that believe. The justice of God that [irrespective of Christ’s atonement] required man’s damnation and seemed inconsistent with his salvation now [having respect to Christ’s atonement] as much requires the salvation of those that believe in Christ, as ever before it required their damnation. Salvation is an absolute debt to the believer from God, so that he may in justice demand it on the ground of what his surety has done. (see also Edwards, God’s Sovereignty in Works 4.552)[4]

It may be asked: If atonement naturally and necessarily cancels guilt, why does not the vicarious atonement of Christ save all men indiscriminately, as the universalist contends? The substituted suffering of Christ being infinite is equal in value to the personal suffering of all mankind; why then are not all men upon the same footing and in the class of the saved, by virtue of it? The answer is because it is a natural impossibility. Vicarious atonement without faith in it is powerless to save. It is not the making of this atonement, but the trusting in it, that saves the sinner: “By faith are you saved” (Eph. 2:8); “he that believes shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). The making of this atonement merely satisfies the legal claims, and this is all that it does. If it were made but never imputed and appropriated, it would result in no salvation. A substituted satisfaction of justice without an act of trust in it would be useless to sinners. It is as naturally impossible that Christ’s death should save from punishment one who does not confide in it as that a loaf of bread should save from starvation a man who does not eat it. The assertion that because the atonement of Christ is sufficient for all men therefore no men are lost is as absurd as the assertion that because the grain produced in the year 1880 was sufficient to support the life of all men on the globe therefore no men died of starvation during that year. The mere fact that Jesus Christ made satisfaction for human sin, alone and of itself, will save no soul. Christ, conceivably, might have died precisely as he did and his death have been just as valuable for expiatory purposes as it is, but if his death had not been followed with the work of the Holy Spirit and the act of faith on the part of individual men, he would have died in vain. Unless his objective work is subjectively appropriated, it is useless so far as personal salvation is concerned. Christ’s suffering is sufficient to cancel the guilt of all men and in its own nature completely satisfies the broken law. But all men do not make it their own atonement by faith in it by pleading the merit of it in prayer and mentioning it as the reason and ground of their pardon. They do not regard and use it as their own possession and blessing. It is nothing for them but a historical fact. In this state of things, the atonement of Christ is powerless to save. It remains in the possession of Christ who made it and has not been transferred to the individual. In the scriptural phrase, it has not been “imputed.” There may be a sum of money in the hands of a rich man that is sufficient in amount to pay the debts of a million debtors; but unless they individually take money from his hands into their own, they cannot pay their debts with it. There must be a personal act of each debtor in order that this sum of money on deposit may actually extinguish individual indebtedness. Should one of the debtors, when payment is demanded of him, merely say that there is an abundance of money on deposit, but take no steps himself to get it and pay it to his creditor, he would be told that an undrawn deposit is not a payment of a debt. “The act of God,” says Owen (Justification, chap. 10), “in laying our sins on Christ, conveyed no title to us to what Christ did and suffered. This doing and suffering is not immediately by virtue thereof ours or esteemed ours; because God has appointed something else [namely, faith] not only antecedent thereto, but as the means of it.” (See supplement 6.2.7.)[5]

Says Owen (Satisfaction of Christ):

The satisfaction of Christ made for sin, being not made by the sinner, there must of necessity be a rule, order, and law constitution how the sinner may come to be interested in it and made partaker of it. For the consequent of the freedom of one by the sacrifice of another is not natural or necessary, but must proceed and arise from a law constitution, compact, and agreement. Now the way constituted and appointed is that of faith, as explained in the Scriptures. If men believe not, they are no less liable to the punishment due to their sins, than if no satisfaction at all were made for sinners.[6]

Atonement must be distinguished from redemption. The latter term includes the application of the atonement. It is the term redemption, not atonement, that is found in those statements that speak of the work of Christ as limited by the decree of election.[7]

Since redemption implies the application of Christ’s atonement, universal or unlimited redemption cannot logically be affirmed by any who hold that faith is wholly the gift of God and that saving grace is bestowed solely by election. The use of the term redemption, consequently, is attended with less ambiguity than that of “atonement,” and it is the term most commonly employed in controversial theology.137 Atonement is unlimited, and redemption is limited. This statement includes all the scriptural texts: those which assert that Christ died for all men, and those which assert that he died for his people. He who asserts unlimited atonement and limited redemption cannot well be misconceived. He is understood to hold that the sacrifice of Christ is unlimited in its value, sufficiency, and publication, but limited in its effectual application. But he who asserts unlimited atonement and denies limited redemption might be understood to hold either of three views: (1) The doctrine of the universalist that Christ’s atonement, per se, saves all mankind; (2) the doctrine of the Arminian that personal faith in Christ’s atonement is necessary to salvation, but that faith depends partly upon the operation of the Holy Spirit and partly upon the decision of the sinful will; or (3) the doctrine of the school of Saumur (hypothetic universalism) that personal faith in Christ’s atonement in the first arrangement of God depended in part upon the decision of the sinful will, but since this failed, by a second arrangement it now depends wholly upon the work of the Spirit, according to the purpose of election.

The tenet of limited redemption rests upon the tenet of election, and the tenet of election rests upon the tenet of the sinner’s bondage and inability.[8]

The difference between the Calvinist and the Arminian appears at this point. Both are evangelical in affirming that salvation is solely by faith in Christ’s atoning blood. This differentiates them from the legal Socinian, who denies the doctrine of vicarious atonement and founds salvation from condemnation on personal character and good works. But they differ regarding the origin of faith. The Calvinist maintains that faith is wholly from God, being one of the effects of regeneration; the Arminian, that it is partly from God and partly from man. The Calvinist asserts that a sinner is unconditionally elected to the act of faith and that the Holy Spirit in regeneration inclines and enables him to the act, without cooperation and assistance from him. The Arminian asserts that a sinner is conditionally elected to the act of faith and that the Holy Spirit works faith in him with some assistance and cooperation from him. This cooperation consists in ceasing to resist and yielding to the operation of the Spirit. In this case, the Holy Spirit does not overcome a totally averse and resisting will, which is the Calvinistic view, but he influences a partially inclining will.[9]

In summary, at the heart of this discussion from my point of view is the need to more carefully recognize the very important difference between Atonement and Redemption, and not to use them as indiscriminately interchangeable. Redemption is the effect of the Atonement applied. Atonement is the more general term and Redemption the more particular one. Only the elect are redeemed, but all have been atoned for. For myself, this very necessary nuance prevents us from losing the large-heartedness of God in the glorious work of Christ at Calvary to be preached (in Calvin’s words) “indiscriminately to all” (Comm. on Gen. 19:12), and thus “The blame lies solely with ourselves, if we do not become partakers of this salvation; for he calls all men to himself, without a single exception, and gives Christ to all, that we may be illuminated by him.” (Comm. on Isa. 42:6) while safeguarding the doctrine of unconditional election.

Perhaps the tension I argue for can be found in its best expressed form in 1 Tim. 4:10 “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” The Savior of all people (all men – KJV) but ESPECIALLY, in particular, of those who believe.

This is my own position, and Shedd has expressed better than I can for sure. I leave it up to you to decide where that leaves us.

I hope I have neither made a mountain out of a molehill, muddied the waters, nor brought any undue stress upon you all. But I am constrained to go where the Scriptures lead.

I have waited long, studied hard, and prayed without ceasing over this, and trust this is useful to you.

I have changed significantly in my understanding of the doctrine of Christ’s atonement. Yes, it is still well within the pale of orthodox, Reformation thought, but it is not the way I came in, as Pastor of this Church. Sooner or later I knew I was going to bump into it when I preached. Obviously, when that happens it is going to raise questions. So I want to get everything out on the table for us to think, pray, study and talk through. What I have come to believe the Bible teaches on this subject, is different than many here, and I do not wish to bring either confusion or division. It is not a new view, and has long been an accepted view within Calvinistic & Reformed circles historically – but not the circles we’ve run in.

For additional Reformed men who at least wrestled with some universal effects of the atonement see: Berkoff, R. B. Kuiper (For Whom Did Christ Die?), Andrew Fuller, Thomas Boston, B.B. Warfield & Charles Hodge. All conceded at least some universal effects and to varying degrees came close to what I have cited above in Shedd. Though I believe Shedd the most complete of the group.

See also Phil Johnson’s excellent article on this topic at: http://ondoctrine.com/2joh0001.htm


[1] Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. 2003. Dogmatic theology. “First one-volume edition (3 vols. in 1)”–Jacket. (3rd ed. /) . P & R Pub.: Phillipsburg, N.J.

[2] Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. 2003. Dogmatic theology. “First one-volume edition (3 vols. in 1)”–Jacket. (3rd ed. /) . P & R Pub.: Phillipsburg, N.J.

[3] Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. 2003. Dogmatic theology. “First one-volume edition (3 vols. in 1)”–Jacket. (3rd ed. /) . P & R Pub.: Phillipsburg, N.J.

[4] Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. 2003. Dogmatic theology. “First one-volume edition (3 vols. in 1)”–Jacket. (3rd ed. /) . P & R Pub.: Phillipsburg, N.J.

[5] Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. 2003. Dogmatic theology. “First one-volume edition (3 vols. in 1)”–Jacket. (3rd ed. /) . P & R Pub.: Phillipsburg, N.J.

[6] Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. 2003. Dogmatic theology. “First one-volume edition (3 vols. in 1)”–Jacket. (3rd ed. /) . P & R Pub.: Phillipsburg, N.J.

[7] Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. 2003. Dogmatic theology. “First one-volume edition (3 vols. in 1)”–Jacket. (3rd ed. /) . P & R Pub.: Phillipsburg, N.J.

1 37 137. WS: Owen in his treatise against Arminianism presents “arguments against universal redemption.”

[8] Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. 2003. Dogmatic theology. “First one-volume edition (3 vols. in 1)”–Jacket. (3rd ed. /) . P & R Pub.: Phillipsburg, N.J.

[9] Shedd, W. G. T., & Gomes, A. W. 2003. Dogmatic theology. “First one-volume edition (3 vols. in 1)”–Jacket. (3rd ed. /) . P & R Pub.: Phillipsburg, N.J.

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12 thoughts on “Atonement 1: Confession of an ex-“Highper” Calvinist

  1. I have been thinking much of this, and will the more. As to the offer of Christ, I have merely thought of as (1) the dynamic by which it may be said the man is ‘working out’, while it is God who is ‘working in’ (php 2:12,13), BOTH works being real and of the true will of each (though such a will in the man is of grace through faith (Eph. 2:8), and (2) the dynamic by which the non-elect REFUSE Christ and willingly make themselves ‘fitted to destruction’ thus Paul declaring that the offer is BOTH a savour of life AND death, and ‘who is sufficient for these things?!’

  2. The other thing I forgot to add was how I was thinking about the atonement accomplished or merely provisional argument.

    John says Christ IS our propitiation. If the cross propitiated, Owen for example argues, then nothing is left to do except the Spirit to work in the elected beneficiaries in space/time history via the gift of faith. If the cross propitiation was merely provisional, requiring faith space/time history as the operative humanly added condition, then does the Bible support propitiation (an intensely personal relational change on God’s part) occurirng between God & individual continuously through history? – would appreciate thoughts on how my thinking is going!

  3. By and large – your thinking seems to moving into alignment with Calvin’s. He would say:

    “The other difference is, that the benefit of Christ does not come to all men, while Adam has involved his whole race in condemnation; and the reason of this is indeed evident; for as the curse we derive from Adam is conveyed to us by nature, it is no wonder that it includes the whole mass; but that we may come to a participation of the grace of Christ, we must be ingrafted in whim by faith. Hence, in order to partake of the miserable inheritance of sin, it is enough for thee to be man, for it dwells in flesh and blood; but in order to enjoy the righteousness of Christ it is necessary for thee to be a believer; for a participation of him is attained only by faith. ” From Calvin’s commentary on Rom. 5:17.

  4. My understanding of propitiation is that it simply has reference to the whole world-of whom believer were included. God’s wrath is presently turned away,in such a way as befits a realized,moment-in-time objective reconciliation of God to man. This is the ground for whosoever will to approach a God willing to receive any sinner-whose goodness in this leads men to repent from their dead works and receive salvation-and to personally realize that propitiation in an eternal,salvific way.

  5. I think faith can only be called ‘a condition’ in the sense that,if one appreciates the salvation provided for them,then he is from that moment in personal possession of that salvation. Faith is not our saviour,but faith sees the merit of the atonement laid up with a Prince and Saviour ready to bestow them-and when he sees their worth in the Saviour’s,the Saviour applies their worth along with the gift of his own Self…we have to steer away from making ‘faith’ a ‘work’,or reducing it to mere assent.

  6. After being a Christian–extremely “Reformed”, WCF–for 40 years I am beginning to question just as you have. I’ve always had a gut feeling about Limited Atonement and the free offer. John Murray’s Free Offer doesn’t synch with limited atonement so I found myself going in the direction of Hoeksema and Gordon Clark. I recently read that someone names Strele described Luther’s view as Jesus atoning for the whole world and this is how God defeats the powers of darkness completely. If limited, then the victory is limited. Another interesting “take” on it. I’ve just begun to read your blog and will continue eagerly to see if what you say will make sense as I think it will!

  7. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Godith. This is a very complex issue WITHIN the Reformed Camp. Unfortunately, I (I think like many) were led to believe that “the” Reformed view was one of strict limited atonement. The massive amount of historical research I’ve done since reveals this simply is not true. A broader view of the atonement has in fact been the majority view historically. And the evidence is overwhelming. Do check out David Ponter’s website: Calvin and Calvinism for an extraordinary collection of Reformed thinking on the matter. It will be worth your time.

  8. “Since my first writing of this I have interacted with Chambers and he has given me permission to freely distribute his thesis if you would like a copy” – it applies to me, too? 🙂 In fact I want to study that work at lenght, and translate it to my mother tongue, Portuguese.

  9. It’s hard to find experienced people on this topic, but you sound
    like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  10. Greetings Reid,

    I appreciate your writing gift and the spirit with which you communicate. I came here through the NCG fb page where you post occasionally. I used to be quite Calvinistic in my understanding of Scripture but I came to reject it (i.e., Calvinism), mainly due to what the doctrines necessarily say about the character of God relating to his love, especially as it is revealed in Jesus. That said, I’d like to interact with you a bit concerning God’s love. In the article above, you wrote:

    //Such concepts have been virtually absent from the Calvinistic & Reformed groups I’ve interacted with. I believe that is a sad and grave error. It forces us to take passages like John 3:16 and perform exegetical gymnastics to avoid wrestling with the idea that God might actually love all men – and yet still not choose to save some. Clearly both are true.//

    //Again, there is a wonderful and sweet balance here which delights in the fact that God can truly and earnestly desire all men to repent, and yet still does not grant them that repentance. I agree it is a mystery – but it is a Biblical tension that ought not to be ignored.//

    I’ll just be blunt. I find it hard to conceive of a notion of love that would leave multitudes of those so loved to die in their sins, without the slightest intention of ever providing the necessary gift of regeneration and faith (on your view) by which they might be saved. How can you reconcile a God who desires all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, with a God who has determined from before the foundation of the world, not based on anything in the man good or evil, not to save all?

    I would appreciate your thoughts regarding this issue.

    Thanks.

  11. Hi John. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. Also for your kind words.

    When we consider how it is that God can genuinely love the lost and yet not extend saving grace to all effectually, we are probing into things that are not (in my humble opinion) either entirely revealed Scripturally, nor fully within our fallen hearts and minds to grasp.

    What I believe we need to keep in mind are the following:

    1. The testimony of Scripture is both that God has a true love for all, and yet does not save all.

    2. That God has a special love for His elect, which in no wise is unjust to the non-elect. It is amazing to me that we reserve the right to love specially whom we please, but balk at God having the same freedom. No doubt, this is part of what makes it that He is to be feared.

    3. That men are not lost because they are non-elect, but because they are in rebellion against God. John Bunyan labors over reminding us that had the race not fallen, a lack of election would not have prevented all from remaining in felicity. Non-election does not damn – fallenness does.

    4. God’s giving grace to some is not irrespective of the fall. While some (supralapsarians by name) posit election without reference to the Fall, the majority Reformed position is that God chose unto salvation freely by grace having first considered all of the race as fallen and in need of grace if any were to be saved.

    5. God owes salvation to none, but justice (because it is of His nature) to all. The miracle is that any are saved when all deserve damnation.

    6. As per Edwards and others, we must never forget that man does lack the capacity to believe and be saved, except morally. In other words, because he WILL not, when it is freely offered in the Gospel. As Jesus said to Jerusalem “How I would have gathered you like a hen gathered her chicks, but you WOULD not.” It is unwillingness, not inability that keeps men lost. Salvation is to be preached to all.

    Now are there tensions which remain in all of this? Certainly. Our recourse is to trust the revelation of God’s perfections, and to trust that tho it escapes our logic, because of His holiness, there can be no defect in it. I must submit my notions of love and fairness to Him, and assume it is good and just and right because this is how He has done it, rather than try to wrest the facts into a form more compatible with my own thoughts and feelings. And why? Because my thoughts, feelings, reasonings and logic have all been impacted by sin in ways that prevent me from saying “amen” to God’s revelation.

    Admittedly, that is an uncomfortable place. But I believe He has revealed enough of His character that in the perfections of His heart and mind – all of this is good, and right and just.

    I hope that helps some. But there is no question, we have many questions left open at this point.

    In obsequium Christi – Reid

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