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Definite Atonement in Perspective

The doctrine of definite atonement is the subject of this week’s episode, which features guests David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, editors of the forthcoming From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Crossway), and Carl Trueman, a contributor to the book and former guest on Christ the Center. The 700-page book features essays from twenty-one scholars and pastors and is intended to be a definitive treatment of the topic. In the episode, we consider definite atonement in church history, in the scriptural witness, in relation to the doctrine of the trinity, with a view to common objections.

David Gibson ministers at Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland and received his Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen. Gibson has also written Rich: The Reality of Encountering Jesus and Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth.

Jonathan Gibson is currently working on a Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies at Cambridge University. He studied at Moore Theological College, in Sydney, Australia, and has been published in Themelios, in the Journal of Biblical Literature, and in the NIV Proclamation Bible.

Participants: , , , ,


Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

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Meine Veldman

6 years ago

Thank you for the helpful audio exchange. Hopefully the book is soon to be in the mail. From the exchange I just wondered whether it could have been helpful (perhaps it is somewhere in the book) to have dealt with and/or mentioned the Lutheran confessional and theological tradition. As you present the book it seems that is written primarily through a Reformed lens. How the Lutheran dealt with this issue is and remains a powerful and influential other perspective.

Philip Walker

6 years ago

Meine Veldman: it’s probably fair to note that Lutheranism will not in fact have been as significant an issue for many of the authors or the editors. Their contexts (many in the UK, for example) have far smaller Lutheran populations than does the US, so what you perceive as a powerful alternative perspective will not have been for them.

Jonny Gibson

6 years ago

Meine, Philip.
See Garry William’s chapter on double payment for a short exchange/engagement on Lutheran perspective.

Baus

6 years ago

Bill

6 years ago

The doctrine of definite atonement is a tragic and dark issue that haunts Reformed theology. I would go as far as saying that this doctrine obscures and obliterates the gospel. How can I preach the gospel to the unbelieving world if Christ only died for a few? When a lutheran preaches the gospel he proclaims God’s truth, “Christ died for your sins, your sin is forgiven in Christ”. This preaching creates faith. The forgiveness of sin (objective justification) precedes faith. As a matter of fact is the preaching of the forgiveness of sins that creates faith. The reformed on the other hand will never tell somebody that has not made a profession for Christ that “Christ died for your sins”. So where’s the good news for unbelievers so that they can be converted? The fact of the matter is anybody that holds to definite atonement has no good news to preach, no gospel announcement that will create faith in the unbeliever through the work of the holy spirit. The arminians, just like the calvinists, also don’t have a grasp of the gospel since they make the forgiveness of sins conditional on faith instead of proclaiming the unconditional forgiveness of sin as lutherans do.

Now with regard to the chapter of double payment, that Jonny mentions. Without having read the book it troubles me when I hear Calvinists saying that if Christ paid for the sins of the whole world then nobody can be sent to hell otherwise there is a double payment for sin. Why are lutherans not concerned about double payment? Mainly because those that reject Christ have rejected the payment made for their sin. But most importantly because salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. It is the highest of arrogance to think for one second that God as a result of Christ’s death on the cross is obligated to save a certain number of people. This abhorrent calvinist doctrine makes God a debtor to man, let it be clear God is free to save whosoever he wills, for anybody to think that God owes salvation to some men otherwise there would be a double payment and God would be unjust is a perversion of the doctrine of penal substitution. It destroys the biblical doctrine of grace, and instead replaces it with a doctrine of salvation by works. Sure the calvinist will say it is the work of Christ, nevertheless the fact that the calvinist teaches that the work of Christ has made God a debtor to save some men (otherwise there is a double payment) completely obliterates the doctrine that salvation is a free gift of God. Karl Barth also stood for God’s freedom in election, while the calvinist takes away God’s freedom and makes God a slave of the elect. This is not only a perversion of salvation by grace as a free gift as I explained but also a perversion of the doctrine of unconditional election.

Jeff Downs

6 years ago

Bill,

Sounds to me that you are mistaken on preaching within the reformed community. You ask ” How can I preach the gospel to the unbelieving world if Christ only died for a few?” First, you skew things by using this term “few.” Can you point to anyone who holds to limited atonement, that would say that “Christ died for a few?”

Second, the simple answer to your question Bill is that we have no clue who God will save, when he will save them, etc. So, we can and do preach, Christ died for the sins of his people.

Blessings,
Jeff Downs

Bill

6 years ago

Also having heard the podcast I do agree with Jonny that this book interacts with the lutheran view of the atonement. In the broadcast it is mentioned that a lot of time is spent with the view of Thomas Torrance. As a lutheran I can say that there is no difference between Torrance and lutheran theology on the atonement. They both teach that the atonement has effectively won the redemption of the whole world, Christ blood was shed for all, the whole human race. And I would go further as Romans 8 points out the atonement refers to the whole creation, all of nature, animals included. In the new earth and the new heavens lions will not be prone to killing human beings, this is a result of the fall which has affected the entire creation, and Christ died for the redemption of the world. Just like through Adam the whole world fell, so through Christ the whole world was redeemed. His blood purchased the redemption of the world. Through one man (Adam) sin and death entered the world and through another (Christ) grace and eternal life entered the world as Romans 5 clearly teaches. Both Adam and Christ are two types, both are heads and representatives of the whole human race (not only of the elect as calvinists teach). The fact that narrow is the path that leads to salvation and broad the road that leads to destruction, this does not nullify the universality of God’s grace. That some men are damned is solely due to their sin and rebellion, it is not due to a lack of God’s grace which extends to all. That the elect are saved can solely be ascribed to God’s grace since there is nothing in man that merits salvation, except for God’s mercy. The payment for sin that Christ has made needs to be received through faith, it is not that the payment hasn’t been made that causes the damnation of man but it is man’s rejection of the payment that condemns them.

With regard to the trinity working in unison we agree. The trinity works for the salvation of the whole world. But some resist the holy spirit and are not converted, not because the holy spirit is not working for their salvation, but because they are rebellious Acts 7:51.

Finally with regard to election lutherans believe in unconditional election. However we do not teach that there is a decree that so and so must be saved and so and so and so must be condemned. The doctrine of election as Luther correctly points out is for the comfort of the believer and it follows the gospel. This is the proper order that Paul uses in the book of Romans. The doctrine of election should never be preached to unbelievers and it is always misunderstood by those that teach of an eternal decree of election by which some are saved and others are not. Election is in Christ and is only a comfort to believers that have already accepted Jesus, as Paul comforts the Ephesian believers that they were predestined IN CHRIST JESUS before the foundation of the world.

Bill

6 years ago

Jeff, you asked the question “Can you point to anyone who holds to limited atonement, that would say that “Christ died for a few?””

I will answer your question that except for Wayne Grudem who in his systematic theology clearly teaches that a preacher that tells unbelievers “Christ died for you” is consistent with definite atonement as long as he also points out that those that don’t receive this truth will not be saved is preaching correctly.

So you are right there are a few like Wayne Grudem, but very few in the Reformed camp that would in a casual conversation with an unbeliever or in preaching to unbelievers clearly tell them “Christ died for your”. I heard Abraham Kuyper is another example although I don’t have first hand confirmation. Now even the most lutheran in the Reformed such as Michael Horton in his systematic theology teaches that you can not tell an unbeliever “Christ died for your sins”. You can only say that to those that have made a profession of faith according to Horton. I am a Mike Horton fan, the White Horse Inn is amazing, nobody does more for the gospel in North America than Mike Horton today, I can’t even name a lutheran pastor that has his influence in spreading the gospel through books and his program the White Horse Inn. And yet he makes the fatal mistake that there gospel is only for the elect, only for believers in the covenant community. Mike Horton refuses to preach the gospel to the unbeliever, he refuses to tell an unbeliever, non-professing christian, “Christ died for you”. As Pastor Tom Baker of the program Law and Gospel http://www.kfuoam.org/category/law-and-gospel/ correctly teaches only lutherans proclaim the gospel and preach the truth to the unbeliever that “Christ died for you”. I would have to add that the neo-orthodox like the Torrance brothers mentioned in this program also preach the gospel in a lutheran way proclaiming the universal work of salvation of Jesus Christ.

Bill

6 years ago

Jeff I addressed your first point in my last point but realize forgot to address your second point. You wrote: “Second, the simple answer to your question Bill is that we have no clue who God will save, when he will save them, etc. So, we can and do preach, Christ died for the sins of his people.”

Well Jeff, this is the problem with Calvinism. As the founder of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod C F W Walther wrote in his oustanding book Law and Gospel, the power of the keys are on earth and not in heaven. The authority to forgive sins has been given to the church, in particular the pastor when he proclaims the absolution of his congregation and when he preaches the gospel to unbelievers he proclaims the remission of sins. He does it with Christ’s authority of course who told his disciples whatever you bind on earth is bound and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in heaven. The gospel proclaims the unconditional remission of sins to everybody, those that receive this truth are saved those that reject it are damned. But the remission of sins of every single person has been accomplished by Jesus Christ on the cross. Otherwise we could not proclaim the good news of the gospel to anybody. And if it is like you say that we don’t know who the elect and Christ died for the elect only we can not even proclaim absolution in the church. As I said in my first post definite atonement is a denies the gospel and deprives of comfort and proper assurance of salvation to both believer and unbeliever alike.

Jeff Downs

6 years ago

Bill,

I was referring to this idea that you import on the reformed community that Christ only died for a few. Few is the key. I agree that Christ did not die for all, but that does mean that he died only for a few. I’m not sure why you use that language.

Thanks,
Jeff

Bill

6 years ago

OK Jeff, I get what you are saying. I think it is critical that every person hears that Christ died for me personally. And even if the Reformed don’t use the phrase Christ died for a few, at the same time they don’t extend the sacrifice of Christ personally to all they fail to preach the gospel. C F W Walther says it beautifully in his book Law and Gospel that I mentioned, he puts it this way. The Reformed have left the Power of the Keys in heaven while the Lutherans have brought the power of the keys to earth as God commanded. Lutheran pastors in the stead and by the authority of Christ exercise the power of the keys and pronounce the remission of sins to each and every one of the hearers of the gospel when they preach the gospel. They do the same when they issue absolutions. And let me tell you why this is so important. That Chris died for mankind as you and the Reformed claim is not going to save me, I need to be fully assured by the Preacher that Christ died for me otherwise I can not be saved. The Reformed fail to preach such assurance and as such fail to preach the gospel. A Reformed preacher telling me Christ died for the sins of the world doesn’t do it, I need to know he died for me, it is this personal assurance, this application of the gospel to myself that creates faith. And it’s only the lutheran and neo orthodox (Barthian) preachers that truly preach the gospel. You see, how did Luther and Wesley get converted? From the book of Romans which is addressed to believers, to Saints, and assures them of their salvation. But the book of Romans contains as far as it relates to the gospel doctrine that is effective both for assuring believers of their salvation and for converting the unbeliever as well. Even though it is addressed to believers, it is a blueprint to preach to unbelievers as well, this is why so many have benefited from this book both existing believers and unbelievers like Luther and Wesley prior to their conversion. The point I am trying to make is that the same gospel that sustains the believer is the one that converts the unbeliever, and the gospel when properly preach assures the hearers of their salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ. The hearer of the gospel needs to hear that he is forgiven, before he can believe that he is forgiven. It’s like let’s say you owe money, let’s say this debt is forgiven, in order for you to believe that the debt was forgiven, this debt needs to be forgiven first. This is why Christ had to pay the penalty for everybody’s sin, otherwise the gospel would be preached in vain. I like the Canons of Dort when it says that the atoning work of Christ made salvation possible for all. What the Canons of Dort misses is that the only way salvation is made possible for all is if Christ paid the penalty of sin for all. Otherwise salvation is impossible, nobody can be saved by the law. As a matter of fact we need to be honest with the unbeliever and tell him that through the law there is knowledge of sin, and the only reason it is possible for the unbeliever to be saved is because Christ has paid in full for his sin. Now when the unbeliever hears this good news the holy ghost creates faith in some, others though reject the gift of salvation (the payment for sin already made by Jesus Christ). But if the sins of everybody are not already paid as I said I can not even preach the gospel.

Bill

6 years ago

Jeff, also look at how Nathan assured David his sin was forgiven, see how Christ assured the adulteress that was being stoned that her sin was forgiven, or how the prophet Issaish received the gospel that his sin was taken away. You see the gospel when properly preached offers the remission of sin unconditionally and proclaims the sinner forgiven. Now it is true that Christ didn’t tell the rich young ruler his sin was forgiven, but this is because the rich young ruler asked what must I do to be saved. So Christ gave him law. We ought not to cast pearls to the swine, those that think they don’t need a physician will not believe the gospel. And in such cases the law needs to be administered first to prepare them for the gospel. Nevertheless the sins of the rich young ruler were forgiven as well, although he never received that forgiveness in the sense that Christ did not preach the gospel but the law to him. But wherever Christ preached the gospel he proclaimed the remission of sin and he has commanded us to the same in his stead. You see to an unbelieving prostitute to hear that Christ forgave the sins of the world will do nothing. She’s already rejected by society, she needs to hear she has been forgiven not that the world but herself is fully clean. Just like the adulteress that was being stoned and it is the job of the pastor to assure her of this forgiveness. The same applies to a member of a congregation that sins gravely, he needs to hear from his Pastor like David heard from Nathan that his sin is forgiven. Otherwise we are not preaching the gospel if we do not apply it individually to comfort those that are cut to the heart and desperately need to hear they are forgiven. You see it is no use to command an unbeliever to repent and believe, or to tell him if you believe your sins will be forgiven but you have to believe first. We are giving the unbeliever law and not gospel, and we know that the unbeliever can not obey the law. Unless we tell him he is already forgiven, his sins fully paid, we are not giving him the gospel, we are not giving him any good news at all.

John

6 years ago

Bill.
You said, “We are giving the unbeliever law and not gospel, and we know that the unbeliever can not obey the law. Unless we tell him he is already forgiven, his sins fully paid, we are not giving him the gospel, we are not giving him any good news at all”

“the commandments are not given inappropriately or pointlessly; but in order that through them the proud, blind man may learn the plague of his impotence, should he try to do as he is commanded.” Martin Luther, pg. 160, Bondage of the Will

“Does it follow from: ‘turn ye’ that therefore you can turn? Does it follow from “‘Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart’ (Deut 6.5) that therefore you can love with all your heart? What do arguments of this kind prove,but the ‘free-will’ does not need the grace of God, but can do all things by its own power…But it does not follow from this that man is converted by his own power, nor do the words say so; they simply say: “if thou wilt turn,telling man what he should do. When he knows it, and sees that he cannot do it, he will ask whence he may find ability to do it…” 164

It is our job to herald to summons to, believe the gospel. It is God’s prerogative to determine whether or not he will open their eyes, ears and heart to the gospel or not (Deut 29:4, 30:6; John 3:8, 6:63,65,37). Fact is, in Christ’s blood God does not treat us as our sins justly deserve. For on that cross Jesus fully absorbed the wrath of God in the place of all sinners who will trust in Him. Those who, by grace, believe in Him, can know with certainty, based on the sure promise of God (1 John 5:1-13), that their sins are forgiven. Therefore believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.

If his sins are ALREADY forgiven as you claim, then what need is there for them to do anything else? So it is you who are making God’s love conditional … that sinners must first meet a condition (faith) before God will love them and save them. But the Scripture teaches that Christ did EVERYTHING we need for salvation, including give us a new heart to believe (Ezek 36:26).

Bill

6 years ago

OK John I agree with a lot of what you say by the way, but let me address it:

1) I am not saying you shouldn’t command everybody to repent and believe. There are plenty of biblical passages where Israel as well as gentiles are commanded to repent and believer. But like with the philippian jailer after he was commanded to repent and believe Acts 16:31, the gospel was given and the word of God explained that his sins are already forgiven Acts 16:32. We can’t stop at repent and believe, we need to open the scriptures and show sinners that they are already forgiven in Christ as Jesus himself did with his disciples on the road to Emmaus and Philip did to the ethipian Eunuch that couldn’t understand scripture. We ought to command sinners to repent and believe which is law but immediately afterwards or even before that we need to explain that they are already forgiven and when they hear this good news the holy spirit creates faith.

2) What you wrote here is perfect except for one thing:

“For on that cross Jesus fully absorbed the wrath of God in the place of all sinners who will trust in Him. Those who, by grace, believe in Him, can know with certainty, based on the sure promise of God (1 John 5:1-13), that their sins are forgiven. Therefore believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”

I believe the above that you wrote is a perfect gospel presentation, I didn’t think Reformed folks would preach the gospel like that. Because what you are basically saying is that Christ died for all sinners and only those that reject Christ will perish. So I loved it how you put it “Jesus absorbed the wrath of God in the place of all sinners who will trust in him”. Very similar to John 3:16 God so much loved the world (all sinners, not just the elect) that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

3) I also agree 100% with what you wrote here, except that you misunderstood me. I am not making God’s love conditional on faith. You wrote:

“If his sins are ALREADY forgiven as you claim, then what need is there for them to do anything else? So it is you who are making God’s love conditional … that sinners must first meet a condition (faith) before God will love them and save them. But the Scripture teaches that Christ did EVERYTHING we need for salvation, including give us a new heart to believe (Ezek 36:26).”

Agree with you that the remission of sins is not conditional on faith as Arminians teach. Lutherans acknowledge that the objective remission of sins precedes faith. Where we differ with calvinists is that we teach that this remission of sins has been accomplished for all men at Calvary and needs to be received by faith. Those that reject Christ and are eternally condemned is because they rejected the gift of the forgiveness of sins and not because Christ did not forgive them. So hell is populated with forgiven sinners, just like heaven. the difference is that those in hell rejected the gift while those in heaven received Christ. Now when man accepts the gospel is not on account of anything he does, lutherans teach that the holy spirit creates faith in the elect without any human cooperation, so man contributes nothing to his salvation.

Bill

6 years ago

Further to my last post John you see lutherans believe in unconditional election. At no point will I say that a sinner needs to make a condition (faith) in order to be saved. Faith is evidence of salvation, faith as the apostle Paul teaches is a fruit of the holy spirit, the three most important ones are faith, love, and, hope as Paul teaches in his letter to the Corinthians. So faith is not a condition of salvation but evidence that we have been saved. It is the fruit of the holy spirit in that the holy spirit creates faith through the preaching of the gospel. Just like in adoption a child doesn’t do anything to get adopted, it is solely his parents that make the decision and carry out the adoption procedures. And so is with faith, God alone creates faith in the sinner without any human cooperation. None of the charges that calvinists throw at arminians, which by the way we lutherans for the most part agree with calvinists in their criticism of arminian theology, but none of what calvinists charge arminians with applies to lutheranism.

With that said even though lutherans believe in unconditional election we do not agree with how calvinists speak of a decree of election and reprobation. Election is only for the comfort of the believer to know that God elected him in Christ before the foundation of the world. God sent his Son to die on the cross for the sins of the world, God creates faith in the elect, and God keeps that faith and causes the elect to persevere till the end. The whole work of salvation is God’s work and man contributes nothing to his own salvation.

Now we seriously disagree with how calvinists preach election, not to mention the covenant of redemption between the members of the Trinity. This is clearly false teaching and I have pointed this out to Mike Horton who majorly disappointed me this last weekend when spoke about Covenant theology. See this White Horse Inn program and my comment to Mike Horton that I heard no good news, no gospel in the whole program http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2013/12/08/whi-1183-covenant-theology-explored/

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