The Extent of the Atonement

Does the Passover Demonstrate Definite Atonement?

At various point through the years, I have investigated the idea of “definite atonement.” As I’m now reading through From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective a few reactions have come to mind. I recognize the topic is broad, and takes in many different aspects of theology, so I don’t want to diminish the complexity of it by coming to some summary conclusions in this post. The book moves to discuss the scriptural evidence for definite atonement in the second section, and the chapter by Paul R. Williamson entitled “Because He Loved Your Forefathers: Election, Atonement, and Intercession in the Pentateuch” considers (among other things) whether the Passover institution foreshadows it. I say foreshadows because Williamson forthrightly notes “while definite atonement is nowhere explicitly mentioned, [in the Pentateuch] there are certainly hints of the concept embedded within this body of literature.”[1]

One of the first he considers is the Passover. Williamson says:

“The amount of flock animal consumed was to be directly proportionate to the number in each household (Ex. 12:4), suggesting that each animal slain provided for only a limited number of individuals. Its apotropaic effects were thus restricted to a carefully qualified group of people within each household. Each lamb served a specific body of people and redeemed a prescribed household. Moreover, only those who actually participated in the Passover meal could find refuge behind the blood-smeared door frames (12:7–13, 21–23).15 There is thus no idea here of an all-embracing sacrifice, but rather one that served a specific goal for a specific group.”[2]

Williamson finds at least an impression of particularity, and limitation, but I wonder if he has imposed this on the text. The instructions to Israel were that they should be careful that there be no lamb left over, but the idea of limitation—there there is only so much lamb to go around—is not there. If a house had more people than a single lamb could feed, the instructions are, get another lamb, and create another family unit to eat that lamb. There is a natural limitation on how many people a lamb could feed, and Williamson seems to draw from this the idea that there is only so much atonement available in the Lord Jesus (?) But advocates of definite atonement have almost always agreed that any consideration of the idea is not because there is a lack, or an insufficiency in the death of Jesus. They almost always say that had God wanted to, he could have designed an atonement sufficient for all. The instructions are the opposite of Williamson’s suggestion. As many Israelites as there are, this determines how many lambs are needed. The distribution is “according to the number of persons.” Ex. 12:4.

Secondly, Williamson speaks of a “carefully qualified group of people within each household.” But where is this in the instructions to Israel? On the contrary, “Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb.” (12:3) and “the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” (12:6) It is, rather, an indiscriminate group, an all-encompassing command—all the congregation and the whole assembly. What would fit here is an affirmation of the formula of Peter Lombard, the medieval theologian who is first credited with the explanation that the death of Christ is sufficient for all, but efficient for some. It is easy to see in the command to the whole assembly a “sufficient for all” idea.

The other point Williamson makes is that “only those who actually participated in the Passover meal could find refuge behind the blood-smeared door.” Here, too, it is easy to see this as the exercise of faith, the very thing that those on the other side of the question from Williamson aver to be happening in the atonement. To partake in it requires faith. In the Passover, there is no merit in the Israelites, and there is no idea of election of some only. Later in the chapter, Williamson does expand on the idea that to be part of the nation of Israel alone was not enough to be truly elect. This comes as he discusses the covenant idea, and that there are those in the covenant, who are not truly elect. But whatever support there is for this in the history of Israel, it is not shown by the Passover. Why? Because the Passover is all-inclusive, and the distinction is not whether one is truly elect or not, but simply whether one is in the house. The Israelites who believed God’s Word were in a house with blood smeared on the door.

But we should also note that the Passover itself is not a general judgement, that is, it wasn’t all those in the house who were subject to death, but only the firstborn. Nor was it all the Egyptians who were killed, but only the firstborn. This further removes the rite from a one to one equivalency with atonement and redemption as Williamson wants to posit.

Finally, the New Testament clearly indicates the Passover as a type. “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us.” One can run into difficulties in constructing doctrine from pictures, that is, from being specific about New Testament doctrines from Old Testament types. There is simply not this level of equivalency. In the establishment of the Davidic covenant, God tells David
“I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” (2 Sam. 7:12-14)

Solomon is thus a type of Christ. The Psalms contain this idea as well. But if we insist that the details of the type must reflect the antitype exactly, then we have this: “When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men.” (2 Sam 7:14) This was true of Solomon, but it is certainly not true of Christ. Seeking doctrine from types is thus fraught with challenges.

There are some arguments for definite atonement—but the Passover is not among them. Indeed, I think Williamson has, if anything, scored a basket in the other team’s hoop. The details in Exodus 12 would make a better case for unlimited atonement. I continue my study of the topic, and I know many writers and scholars I respect hold to definite atonement. I’m not there, and the Passover won’t get me there.

[1] Paul Williamson, “Because He Loved Your Forefathers: Election, Atonement, and Intercession in the Pentateuch” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, eds. (Wheaton, Crossway, 2013), 228.

[2] Williamson, 231-232.

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