The Extent of the Atonement

Atoning for Unbelief?

Does the “Double Payment” Argument have merit?

In a prior post, I looked at the idea of faith purchased on behalf of believers. This argument is often central to a defense of definite atonement. Seeing such a purchase seems to require a commitment to the covenant of redemption—at least, in the thinking of John Owen it does. Faith and the transfer of it to the elect is included in the death of Christ, and this is part of the compact that Father and Son entered into in eternity past. Such a covenant is problematic, for the scriptural basis for it does not exist.

Here, I want to look at another aspect, that of unbelief as a sin atoned for. For some, this is another significant argument in pressing the necessity of definite atonement. The argument is usually presented as a conundrum:

Is Unbelief a sin?

If Jesus died for the sins of all, how can some be punished for the sin of unbelief?

The conclusion is that since not all believe, and some will indeed be punished for their sins, it follows that the sin of unbelief for some was not paid for by Jesus on the cross. But this conclusion is not warranted, and there are at least two points to consider. First, whether it accords with the New Testament teaching to conceive of faith as a “thing” an object and thus its opposite, unbelief, as also a sin (in the singular) that is atoned for. Secondly, the argument hinges on an assumption that atonement accomplished equals atonement applied, but this too is false.

Unbelief Reified

The first question assumes that belief is a “thing,” an object, something that is made into a commodity, and in keeping with the covenant of redemption idea, it is then transferred to the elect. But is it correct to consider faith in this fashion? Is this the way the New Testament regards faith? If it is, how do we understand weak faith, something which the apostles acknowledge? Is it that some are given stronger faith than others? Is this a defect in the gift of faith itself, or some deficiency in our reception of it? If it is a deficiency in us—yet God has seen to everything regarding the faith of the elect—why did he not remove this deficiency?

If faith is seen in this way, what do we make of the many exhortations to have faith, to act in faith, to not waver in our faith? Should we understand these as but different ways of encouraging us to receive the gift of faith? And if we can impede or prevent the reception of the gift, does it not put us in the place of negating what God has decreed? Arguments for seeing faith as an entity must deal with this multifaceted way in which faith is presented in the New Testament.

Noting this distinction, Neil Andrew Chambers comments “unbelief is not just an offence like any other, it is also a state, which must be dealt with not only by forgiveness but by regeneration. Sin bears a direct relation to the cross, which is the enduring of the penalty for sin; the change of state an indirect relation, dependent upon preaching and regeneration by the Spirit.”[1]

Chambers highlights that to consider unbelief as one might consider theft or murder is to misunderstand how the New Testament speaks of faith and its opposite. To affirm without any further elucidation that Christ died for the sin of unbelief risks a reductionist understanding of this, “potentially distorting the nature of faith and the reception of grace by taking a relational term predominantly seen as a human activity and responsibility and transferring it into a different field of relations, that of commerce and rights, placing it in an entirely different frame of reference.”[2]

Commercializing the Atonement

At the crux of the double payment argument is the idea of our sin as a quantified debt, for which Christ rendered an equal payment. To state it in these terms, if over his lifetime, a person committed 1,347,556 sins, then it was for 1,347,556 sins Christ offered himself and died. If we multiply this by the number of elect, we have the totality of the debt Jesus paid. But this takes the metaphor too literally. R. L. Dabney comments on this misconception of the nature of Christ’s death. “Christ’s satisfaction is not a pecuniary equivalent, but only such a one as enables the Father, consistently with His attributes, to pardon, if in His mercy He sees fit. The whole avails of the satisfaction to a given man is suspended on his belief. There would be no injustice to the man, if he remaining an unbeliever, his guilt were punished twice over, first in his Savior, and then in Him.”[3] In short, Dabney, a Calvinist, sees no injustice because the payment is not applied to unbelievers.

Dabney is not alone among Calvinists in seeing Christ’s satisfaction for sin in this way. Charles Hodge likewise says “Another important difference between pecuniary and penal satisfaction, is that the one ipso facto liberates. The moment the debt is paid the debtor is free, and that completely.  No delay can be admitted, and no conditions can be attached to his deliverance.”[4] This raises the question one can ask of those who put forth the double payment argument. Are the elect free at the moment satisfaction is made? If not, why not? Faith is the condition, but this highlights a shortcoming of the argument. The wrath of God remains even on the elect until they believe. They are under condemnation, but if their unbelief has been atoned for, how can this be? A distinction between atonement acquired and atonement applied explains this. Hodge makes this clear a few pages later. “It [the death of Christ] does not ipso facto liberate. The people of God are not justified from eternity. They do not come into the world in a justified state.  They remain (if adults) in a state of condemnation until they believe.”[5]

Failure to see the difference between atonement accomplished and atonement applied makes it seem to some that the double payment argument has merit. The advocate of this argument really wants to say that atonement accomplished must lead to atonement applied—and for the very same group. Those for whom atonement was accomplished will unfailingly be the same set of people to whom atonement is applied. But this is to assume the conclusion of the argument. It requires scriptural demonstration, and this is lacking. Every argument that links acquisition and application must rely on this sort of presupposition. For example, “God desires all men to be saved” means all kinds and classes of men, or “all means from every tribe and tongue, not all, full stop.”

Both Dabney and Hodge held to definite atonement, but the point is neither of them considered the double payment argument to be a solid foundation for this. They looked elsewhere, because they saw the inherent challenges in viewing the atonement in commercial terms.





[1] Neil Andrew 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), 235-236.

[2] Chambers, 352.

[3] R. L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), 521.

[4] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, (New York, Charles Scribner, 1872), 470.

[5] Hodge, 472.

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