Discussing the Atonement As Co-Heirs of Life

In discussions of the atonement, it is far too easy to lapse into lines of reasoning that have an appeal to emotion, or to what seems logical, but for which Scriptural warrant may be lacking. Some of this can be seen even in the terms used through the centuries.

In this debate, there has been an evolution of terms: “limited atonement”, “particular redemption” and “definite atonement.” At various points in history throughout the discussions of the extent of Christ’s atonement, different terms have been used to express the position that Christ died only for the sins of the elect. The origins of the “TULIP” acronym are unclear, but it almost certainly is later than the early contentions over the issue. That is, it did not emerge from Dort or even from the Westminster Assembly. The “L” refers to Limited Atonement, and expresses this position of Christ dying only for the elect, to be specific, that he provided an atonement only for those who will ultimately be saved. For all others, no atonement exists. I am speculating, but it seems that the term garnered some bad press, and in the minds of some may have implied a kind of insufficiency in Christ’s sacrifice.  Adherents of this view would reject this. To be fair, I do not understand their position to at all imply any insufficiency in Christ’s sacrifice. They believe “particular redemption” better expresses God’s intent to redeem for himself a particular people.

Similarly, the term “definite atonement” means to express the purpose of God in redeeming those for whom Christ died. It aims to portray the link between the provision of atonement and application of atonement that those who hold the view believe to be inexorable and unbreakable. I desire to be charitable to those who hold a view different from mine, and thus while I think there is some sense of marketing involved in using “definite atonement” versus “limited atonement,” I will adopt the term as the one preferred by its adherents. Nevertheless, I do not believe the converse of this is logically “indefinite atonement.” Here, too, there has been a fair bit in the defense of definite atonement that tends to applause lines and a kind of playing to the crowd.  For example, “[God] is not glorified when his salvation is reduced to mere opportunity. He is not glorified when his redemption of lost sinners is abridged to being simply a possibility. God is glorified when he is seen and savored and enjoyed for what he actually bestows: saving grace.”[1]

Without question, adherents of definite atonement believe this to be the case, but it falls into the category of opinion—editorial commentary. One can easily rewrite this from another perspective such as “ God is not glorified when his salvation is reduced to a few. He is not glorified when his redemption is abridged to include only some lost sinners. God is glorified when his love for the lost is seen and savored and enjoyed for what it is: as wide as the atonement he has provided.”

One may disagree with this, but the point is it is similarly posturing, short on exegesis and dealing with the biblical data, trafficking instead in polemics.

Not everyone is as incautious as R. C. Sproul, who famously said that a four point Calvinist is an Arminian.[2] Indeed, in the book that some now consider to be the ultimate presentation and defense of definite atonement, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, several contributors acknowledge the diversity within the Reformed tradition. Amar Djaballah notes this about Moïse Amyraut: “In all this, we should remember that Amyraut wrote as a professor of theology in a confessional Reformed academy and that he was cleared of accusations of heresy by a national synod and allowed to teach theology until his death. Hence, notwithstanding the Wirkungsgeschichte (reception history) of his theses in the history of Reformed thought, he should be studied as a member of the Reformed theological community, with whom one may differ, not as an adversary to reduce to silence.”[3]

Or, as Garry Williams says, “As the examples of Ussher and Knox will show, the Reformed have disagreed among themselves over the intent of the atonement. My argument for definite atonement should not be taken as an attempt to disenfranchise others who share central Reformed convictions, and for whom I am grateful to God for many reasons. Enough Reformed blood has been spilled by friendly fire.”[4]

My appeal is that as much as possible we eschew the kind of hyperbole that can seem partisan. Note well, I do not decry any forceful presentation of a deeply held view, nor strong convictions about what Scripture teaches. Indeed, I encourage this, and engage in it myself, but let these presentations be based on the biblical data alone, not on confessional formulas, nor on unproven or indemonstrable entailments.

[1] David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, “Sacred Theology and the Reading of the Divine Word” in David Gibson et al., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013). P. 53.

[2] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/sproul-on-four-point-calvinism/

[3] Amar Djaballah, “Controversy on Universal Grace A Historical Survey of Moïse Amyraut’s Brief Traitté De La Predestination” in David Gibson et al., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013). P. 168-169.

[4] Garry J. Williams, “The Definite Intent of Penal Substitutionary Atonement” in David Gibson et al., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013). P. 462.

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