Saturday, September 20, 2008

Phil Johnson on the Nature of the Atonement

Modern Calvinist circles seem to be filled with guys who insist that Christ’s death had no benefit whatsoever for anyone other than the elect and God’s only desire with regard to the reprobate is to damn them period. Too many Calvinists embrace the doctrine of limited atonement, they finally see the truth of it but then they think, “Oh that’s that.” Christ died for the elect and in no sense are their any universal benefits in the atonement, so the atonement is limited to the elect in every sense and it has no relevance whatsoever to the non-elect. I think that’s an extreme position and it’s not supported by many of the classic Calvinist theologians and writers if you read carefully what Calvinists have said throughout history. I want to encourage you read Andrew Fuller and Thomas Boston. Read what people like Robert L. Dabney and William G. T. Shedd and B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge wrote on the subject of the atonement. Read John Owen too, but don’t imagine that John Owens’s book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ represents the only strain of Calvinist thought on the issue. It doesn’t. In fact, far from it.

If you begin to study this issue in depth you will quickly discover that the classic Calvinist view on the extent of the atonement is a lot less narrow and a lot less cut and dried than the typical seminary student Calvinist on the Internet wants to admit. Historic Calvinism, as a movement has usually acknowledged that there are universal aspects of the atonement. Calvin himself had a view of the extent of the atonement that was far more broad and, and far more extensive than the average Calvinist today would care to recognize. And I’ll show you some of that if time allows.

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I would argue that if the atonement Christ offered is substitutionary, then it had to be of infinite value for two reasons:

1. One, in the words of the Synod of Dordt, “because the person who submitted to the punishment on our behalf was not only really man and perfectly holy but also the only begotten Son of God, the same eternal, and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the person who died on the cross was infinite in His glory and His goodness and therefore it was an infinite sacrifice. That’s the first reason.

2. Second, the price of each person’s sin is infinite wrath. And if the price of atonement is infinite than the atonement itself in order to be accepted had to be of infinite value. In other words, if you had to suffer the price of your own sins you would spend eternity in hell and still you would not exhaust the infinite displeasure of God against sin. There’s an infinite punishment for sin. And that infinite wrath is the very thing Christ bore on the cross. So if Christ’s death was not sufficient to atone for all, then it wasn’t sufficient to atone for even one. Because atonement for sin even for one person demands an infinite price. Now again the overwhelming majority of Calvinists would agree with that. That is exactly what the canons of the Synod of Dordt say. That is mainstream historic Calvinism.

So the real debate between Calvinists and Arminians is not about the sufficiency of the atonement. The real issue under debate is the design and the application of the atonement. And the question we are asking is not merely, for whom did Christ die? The real question is for whom did God ordain the atonement? In other words, the real issue in the extent of the atonement debate comes down to the very same issue as election itself. Did God purpose to save specific people or was He trying indiscriminately to save as many people as possible? What was His intent? What was His design? And if you accept the truth of election I can’t understand why you would balk at the truth that the atonement had specific people in view. So that’s the real question not was Christ’s death sufficient to save all but what was the design and the goal of the atonement? What did God intend to do through it? Did He intend to save specific people through Christ’s work on the cross? And if you answer that question, yes, you’ve affirmed the principle behind the Calvinistic position.

Here’s an even more important question. Will all of God’s purposes for sending Christ to die ultimately be accomplished? Did God intend something by the atonement that will not come to pass? Is there any purpose in Christ’s dying that will ultimately be frustrated? And if you ask those questions it puts the importance of the whole issue in a totally different, clearer light. And I believe that Christ’s atoning work on the cross ultimately accomplishes precisely what God designed it to accomplish, no more no less. If you believe God is truly sovereign you must ultimately come to that position. The fruits of the atonement are no less than what God sovereignly intended. God is not going to be frustrated throughout all eternity because He was desperately trying to save some people who just could not be persuaded. If that’s your view of God than your God isn’t really sovereign. Pharaoh fulfilled exactly the purpose God raised him up to fulfill. God is not wringing His hands in despair over Pharaoh’s rebellion and unbelief.

But on the other hand, Christ’s atoning work accomplishes no more than God intended it to accomplish. If benefits accrue to non-believers, reprobate people, because of Christ’s death, than it is because God designed it that way. If Christ’s dying means that the whole, the judgment of the whole world is postponed, than unregenerate people reap the blessings and the benefits of that delay. They reap the benefits and the blessings of common grace through the atonement. And if that’s the case than that is exactly what God designed. It didn’t happen by accident. And for that very reason it is my position and the position of most Calvinists throughout history that some benefits of the atonement are universal and some benefits of the atonement are particular and limited to the elect alone.

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So, to sum up, unbelievers receive a number of benefits from the atonement: Delayed judgment, All the blessings of common grace, The free offer of salvation through the Gospel. Those are universal effects of Christ’s atoning work and that is why Charles Hodge, the great Calvinist theologian said this, “There is a sense therefore in which Christ died for all. And there is a sense in which He died only for the elect.” Curt Daniel suggests that Calvinists ought to say, not that Christ died only for the elect but rather that He died especially for the elect. I agree and I think we would all prefer the words of 1 Timothy 4:10, “He is the Savior of all men, specially of them that believe.”



read more of this great article here!


5 Comments:

At September 21, 2008 at 10:31 PM , Blogger WatchingHISstory said...

“There is a sense therefore in which Christ died for all. And there is a sense in which He died only for the elect.”

..don't make sense.

Charles

 
At September 23, 2008 at 4:05 PM , Blogger MarieP said...

WatchingHISstory,

R. L. Dabney says the atonement accomplished the following:

(a.) The purchase of the full and assured redemption of all the elect, or of all believers.

(b.) 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.

(c.) 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.

(d.) 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.

(e.) A disclosure of the infinite tenderness and glory of God's compassion, with purity, truth and justice, to all rational creatures.

Had there been no mediation of Christ, we have not a particle of reason to suppose that the doom of our sinning race would have been delayed one hour longer than that of the fallen angels. Hence, it follows, that it is Christ who procures for non-elect sinners all that they temporarily enjoy, which is more than their personal deserts, including the sincere offer of mercy.

...

The great advantage of this view is, that it enables us to receive, in their obvious sense, those precious declarations of Scripture, which declare the pity of God towards even lost sinners. The glory of these representations is, that they show us God's benevolence as an infinite attribute, like all His other perfections. Even where it is rationally restrained, it exists.

Nature of Christ's Sacrifice

 
At September 23, 2008 at 7:06 PM , Blogger WatchingHISstory said...

Marie
I am nor sure what your post implies but I found this by Dabney

"The Scriptures tell us that those who are to be saved in Christ are a number definitely elected and given to him from eternity to be Redeemed by his mediation. How can anything be plainer from this than that there was a purpose in God's expiation, as to them, other than that it was as to the rest of mankind? See Scriptures. The immutability of God's purposes. (Isa. xlvi. 10; 2 Tim. ii. 19.) If God ever intended to save any soul in Christ (and he has a definite intention to save or not to save towards souls), that soul will certainly be saved. (John x. 27, 28; vi. 37-40ú) Hence, all whom God ever intended to save in Christ will be saved. But some souls will never be saved; therefore some souls God never intended to be saved by Christ's atonement. The strength of this argument can scarcely be overrated. Here it is seen that a limit as to the intention of the expiation must he asserted to rescue God's power, purpose, and wisdom. The same fact is proved by this, that Christ's intercession is limited (See John xvii. 9, 20). We know that Christ's intercession is always prevalent. (Rom. viii. 34; Jn xi. 42.) If he interceded for all, all would be saved. But all will not be saved. Hence, there are some for whom he does not plead the merit of his expiation. But he is the "same yesterday and to-day and forever." Hence, there were some for whom, when he made expiation, he did not intend to plead it. Some sinners (i. e., elect) receive from God gifts of conviction, regeneration, faith, persuading and enabling them to embrace Christ, and thus make his expiation effectual to themselves, while other sinners do not. But these graces are a part of the purchased redemption, and bestowed through Christ. Hence his redemption was intended to effect some as it did not others."
http://www.reformed.org/calvinism/index.html

Dabney was opposed to hypothetical universal atonement
http://www.bringthebooks.org/2008/01/rl-dabney-on-hypothetical-universalism_13.html

"If he interceded for all, all would be saved. But all will not be saved. Hence, there are some for whom he does not plead the merit of his expiation."

Charles

 
At September 23, 2008 at 7:37 PM , Blogger MarieP said...

WatchingHISstory,

That is just one part of an entire article, which also includes these words:

"But sacrifice, expiation, is one--the single, glorious, indivisible act of the divine Redeemer, infinite and inexhaustible in merit. Had there been but one sinner, Seth, elected of God, this whole divine sacrifice would have been needed to expiate his guilt. Had every sinner of Adam's race been elected, the same one sacrifice would be sufficient for all. We must absolutely get rid of the mistake that expiation is an aggregate of gifts to be divided and distributed out, one piece to each receiver, like pieces of money out of a bag to a multitude of paupers. Were the crowd of paupers greater, the bottom of the bag would be reached before every pauper got his alms, and more money would have to be provided. I repeat, this notion is utterly false as applied to Christ's expiation, because it is a divine act. It is indivisible, inexhaustible, sufficient in itself to cover the guilt of all the sins that will ever be committed on earth. This is the blessed sense in which the Apostle John says (1st Epistle ii. 2): 'Christ is the propitiation (the same word as expiation) for the sins of the whole world.'"

Agree or disagree on his use of 1 John 2:2, his thoughts seem clear to me.

And you have these words, immediately preceding the ones you quoted:

"But we cannot admit that Christ died as fully and in the same sense for Judas as he did for Saul of Tarsus. Here we are bound to assert that, while the expiation is infinite, redemption is particular. The irrefragable grounds on which we prove that the redemption is particular are these: From the doctrines of unconditional election, and the covenant of grace. (The argument is one, for the covenant of grace is but one aspect of election.)"

Particular Redemption

 
At September 23, 2008 at 8:11 PM , Blogger MarieP said...

Also note the words of Dabney immediately following your quote:

"Hence, there are some for whom he does not plead the merit of his expiation. But he is the 'same yesterday and to-day and forever.' Hence, there were some for whom, when he made expiation, he did not intend to plead it. Some sinners (i. e., elect) receive from God gifts of conviction, regeneration, faith, persuading and enabling them to embrace Christ, and thus make his expiation effectual to themselves, while other sinners do not. But these graces are a part of the purchased redemption, and bestowed through Christ. Hence his redemption was intended to effect some as it did not others. (See above.)"

 

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