The Extent of the Atonement

Atonement Views and Trinitarian Disharmony

Among the arguments made in favor of definite atonement is that it represents a harmony among the persons of the Trinity. Unlimited atonement, on the other hand, undermines and indeed, destroys this harmony because it separates extent from application; that is, the collection of those for whom extent exists differs from those to whom the atonement is applied. The editors of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her make this argument.

 photo by Ali Arif Soydaş on Unsplash

“The Trinity orchestrates the symphony of salvation in all its movements: the Father elects and sends, the Son becomes incarnate and dies, the Spirit draws and vivifies. But while their works are distinct they are not indepen­dent: the Father elects in Christ, the incarnate Son offers himself on the cross through the eternal Spirit to the Father, and the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to draw and seal the elect. Grounded in the mutual indwelling of their persons, the Father, Son, and Spirit together serve the shared goal of our salvation.

If, however, as some might argue, Christ’s atoning work on the cross is intended for everyone without exception, while its application is limited only to those who believe by the power of the Spirit, then, we contend, a fatal disjunction is introduced.”[1]

This claim is more rhetorical than substantial. Who is to say what truly represents disharmony if God has designed the atonement as he has? Such a claim gives the impression of mankind umpiring God’s counsels, of objecting to his design because we see it introducing disharmony into the Trinity.  That it represents disharmony to have extent differ from application may rely on prior assumptions or inferences, rather than exegesis of the texts. The editors and contributors to From Heaven He Came and Sought Her all affirm penal substitutionary atonement, but claims similar to theirs about definite atonement have been made about PSA. Greg Boyd, for example, says “the penal substitutionary view of the atonement does not make clear how our guilt could be transferred to Jesus, not how God the Father’s decision to pour out his wrath on Jesus that than us is just.”[2] The editors would doubtless say that Boyd is mistaken, and improperly reading the texts that speak of substitution and justification. Boyd has assumptions behind his view that shape his readings. In the same way, might advocates of definite atonement import assumptions about the purposes of God?

An Exegetical Foundation for the Covenant?

In most presentations of definite atonement, the covenant of redemption is either assumed or explicitly taught, but not necessarily with direct biblical support. Horton observes

“Most biblical covenants are historical pacts God has made with creatures. The covenant of redemption, however, is an eternal pact between the persons of the Trinity. The Father elects a people in the Son as their mediator to be brought to saving faith through the Spirit.” [3]

Horton here offers no exegsis to support this view, but to be fair, he later exposits some passages about the divine decrees, and draws the conclusion from these that the covenant of redemption is a biblically valid idea. But whether that move from exegesis surrounding decrees to inference of a covenant of redemption is a valid one is again a matter of opinion. In other words, can one read the existence of divine decrees (which are themselves not necessarily explicitly outlined in Scripture) as equivalent to a covenant of redemption?

As scriptural support for the covenant of redemption, Fesko offers the following.

“One key text that regularly appears in exposition: of the pactum salutis is Luke 22:29: ‘And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me.’ At a minimum, the text addresses Christ’s appointment as mediator in terms of his kingly reign, and the common translation of this statement dates back to Jerome’s Vulgate and was repeated by Erasmus (1466-1536) in his translation of the New Testament: ‘Ego dispono vobis sicut disposuit mihi Pater meus regnum.'”[4]

Here, too, it is a hermeneutical question whether “as my Father hath appointed unto me” can be extended to include the idea of a covenant made in eternity past. Indeed, some in the Reformed tradition question whether this is feasible. While acknowledging the fact of God’s decrees, O. Palmer Robertson is skeptical of casting this in covenantal terms.

“But affirming the role of redemption in the eternal counsels of God is not the same as proposing the existence of a pre-creation covenant between Father and Son. A sense of artificiality flavors the effort to structure in covenantal terms the mysteries of God’s eternal counsels. Scripture simply does not say much on the pre-creation shape of the decrees of God. To speak concretely of an intertrinitarian ‘covenant’ with terms and conditions between Father and Son mutually endorsed before the foundation of the world is to extend the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety.”[5]

Challenges to a Covenant of Redemption

The language of covenant brings some assumptions that one should question before accepting the idea of a pre-temporal covenant within the Godhead. There are nuances to consider. If a covenant of redemption exists, what are the terms of it? What access do we have to these terms? Indeed, no Scripture explicitly sets forth the terms. Among ten problems David A. Allen identifies with a covenant of redemption, the first two are significant.

“1. There is no covenant within the Godhead revealed in Scripture. All covenants in Scripture are between God and men. What we have here is the positing of legal or contractual dealings within the Godhead—the Father demanding payment; the Son making the payment.

2. Covenants imply a prior state of non-agreement. How this could be posited within the Trinity is difficult to conceive.”[6]

Allen’s observation about the biblical data is important: When Scripture speaks of covenants, there is no evidence for a covenant within the persons of the Godhead. In addition to what Allen outlines here, one can see a covenant between men‚ (Jacob and Laban upon the former’s departure from Paddan-Aram) but this has no bearing on the claim of a covenant of redemption.

Some have noted that the covenant of redemption is but another way of speaking of God’s eternal plan, and all Christian theology includes the belief that God has such a plan. As a defense of definite atonement, John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ is frequently offered as an unanswerable presentation of the view. Owen heavily relies on the covenant of redemption, and not simply as a way to encompass the eternal decrees, for his view includes not the language of grace, but of obligation. This feature is prominent in his understanding of the atonement. He affirms that “every one for whom he died and offered up himself hath, by virtue of his death or oblation, a right purchased for him unto all these things, which in due time he shall certainly and infallibly enjoy.”[7]

“Are not the fruits of the death of Christ by his death as truly procured for us as if they had been obtained by our own working? And if so, though in respect of the persons on whom they are bestowed they are of free grace, yet in respect of the purchase, the bestowing of them is of debt.”[8]

Pardon and forgiveness are cast as a right, a thing God is obligated to confer, because the Lord Jesus has purchased it for them. God the Father is in the debt of the Son, and must pay this debt by saving the elect. But presenting the gift of salvation as something God is required to give runs contrary to the many places in Scripture where it is a gift, entirely of grace. Is there any gospel appeal in the New Testament that frames the call to believe as claiming what is a person’s by right?

Allen’s second point is that covenants present a change, the ratification of a new agreement where there was previously enmity or at a minimum, a different state of things. Neil Chambers summarizes the difficulty of Owen’s position (and any who affirm a pre-temporal covenant of redemption.)

“Thus we have something ‘new’ in eternity in the relation of the Father and the Son [not the Spirit] which arises from a consideration of humanity considered as needing to be saved. Even though it is ‘freely taken on’ this appears to be a change wrought in the Creator by the creature, and one wonders how this sits with Owen’s understanding of immutability.”[9]

One can readily see this as Trinitarian disharmony writ large. The Father and Son enter into a new pact, and one where the Father is put under obligation by the Son’s actions at Calvary. The claim of the covenant of redemption is that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all united in their cause of saving the elect—but what was their stance prior to this? How can we speak of the persons of the Trinity entering into an agreement, a covenant? What does this say about divine immutability? Even if one claims that there is now agreement within the Godhead, was there previously disagreement? These are difficulties that come with speaking in covenantal terms.

My purpose here is not to defend against claims of trinitarian disharmony in an unlimited atonement view. Rather, it is to demonstrate that definite atonement is by no means free from such disharmony. The question itself is not solved by exegesis, for it is inference and implication, no text speaks directly to the question. For anyone examining the question has to carefully assess any claim which says “You can’t believe that, because it would mean there is disharmony in the trinity.”


[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), 49.

[2] Gregory A. Boyd, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2017), 138.

[3] Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2009), 78.

[4] J. V. Fesko, The Covenant of Redemption: Origins, Development, and Reception. (Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015), 39.

[5] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1980), 54.

[6] David L. Allen, The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review (Nashville, B&H Academic,2016), 689.

[7] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh/Carlisle, Banner of Truth, 1967), 91.

[8] Owen, 95.

[9] Neil Chambers, “A Critical Examination of John Owen’s Argument for Limited Atonement in ‘The Death of Death in the Death of Christ,’” (ThM thesis, Reformed Theological Seminary, 1998). 300-301.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *