Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
On the atonement, part 2: the grounds for the universal gospel call

Part 2 of 6, in which I argue that particular satisfaction is inconsistent with the universal gospel call—whether conceived of as an invitation, or as a command only.

Continued from part 1, on headship and imputation

It is a truth universally recognized that a sinner under God’s wrath must be in want of the gospel. See, for example, Romans 1:16. This is the very reason it is called the gospel—the god spel, Old English for “good news,” as translated from the Greek euaggelion. This is “the good news about Jesus;” namely peace with God, since “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” if they should “repent and turn to God” (Acts 8:35; 10:36,43; 26:20). As the ESV Study Bible observes in its commentary of 2 Corinthians 5:18–20, “ ‘Be reconciled to God’ is a summary of the gospel message Paul proclaims to unbelievers; it is a call to receive the reconciliation that God has wrought (Rom 5:11).” In short, the gospel is a promise of reconciliation to the sinner via faith in Jesus.

This is certainly prima facie good news to every sinner to whom the gospel is proclaimed. And we know it is to be proclaimed to every sinner (Matthew 28:19) because it is for every sinner (Acts 17:30). The gospel is, in fact, proclaimed as an invitation to all—although it’s an invitation which places the invitee under obligation to respond favorably, as illustrated in the parable of the wedding feast. It is thus a universal call, even though few are chosen to believe it (Matthew 22:14).

Now, Owenists would say that this universality in proclamation does not reflect the scope of the satisfaction made on the cross. Since Christ did not die for all, the promise of salvation through his death cannot be actually extended to all. Rather, it is extended only to the elect, but is proclaimed indiscriminately to all people because we don’t know who the elect are. (Some would add that another reason for it to be proclaimed indiscriminately is to further condemn those who reject it.)

God’s sincerity impugned

However, if this is the case, then how can a sinner trust the gospel as genuinely good news? If I am such a sinner, the call to trust the promise seems to imply that the promise is actually made to me. So a universal call to take hold of the promise seems to imply a universal applicability of that promise (though not necessarily a universal application).

The problem is, the Owenist says that the promise of salvation is only actually extended to the elect. How, then, can God call everyone indiscriminately to trust it? Just what exactly are they being called to trust? If Christ died for the elect exclusively, then there is no sense in which the promise of salvation can be extended to the non-elect, whether as an invitation, or purely as a command. Consider what exactly the sinner is being called to do. Is it not to trust in the work of Jesus on the cross, and the promise that he thereby can be reconciled to God? Is it not, in fact, to thereby be reconciled to God? Certainly it is. The promise refers to the atonement, to the satisfaction of sin—and so if someone (anyone) is called to trust it, he needs to know that there is something to trust. If satisfaction was made only for the elect, and the promise is thereby commensurately only for the elect, then a sinner would have to first know that he is elect before he can trust the promise. It does no good to say to him, “Trust the promise and you will know that you are elect,” because the very issue at hand is whether there is anything in which he can trust. What is he being asked to place his faith in? In the work of Jesus? For whom? For the elect? But he doesn’t know he’s elect. So how can he be asked to trust the promise?

God simply cannot promise to save someone for whom Christ did not die. Such a promise would be empty; insincere; a lie—and it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). Therefore, if the Owenist is right, he cannot say to all people without exception, “Be reconciled to God”—because God has not made provision for all people to be reconciled to him. He cannot say to the reprobate sinner, as the ESV Study Bible would have it, “Receive the reconciliation that God has wrought”—for no such reconciliation exists for that sinner. He cannot tell a non-elect man, “Believe and you will be saved.” That would be, quite flatly, a lie. He can only say these things to the elect. The moral inability of the reprobate sinner to respond to the call is irrelevant because the reality, the satisfaction which would save him, does not exist. There is nothing for him to trust.

In this way, the universal gospel call is utterly undermined and shown to be without basis under Owenism. In fact, if Owenists follow their view of the atonement through to its logical conclusion (most do not), they find themselves forced into the most extreme hyper-Calvinism to avoid misrepresenting God, and they become crippled in their evangelism.

God’s justice impugned

Not only is the gospel call undermined, but so is God’s justice in condemning those who refuse it. Just as a non-elect sinner cannot be asked to take hold of a satisfaction which was not made for him, so he equally cannot be punished for failing to do so. Owenists agree that disbelieving the gospel is culpable—after all, it is a command, and defying God’s commands carries a penalty. But how can we say a reprobate man is “defying” the command to take something—when there is nothing for him to take? What sense is there in speaking of “rejecting” something which was never sincerely offered him to begin with? May he not actually turn around and, without any impertinence, point out that God is manifestly dishonest to call everyone to believe a promise which is not made to everyone, and manifestly unjust to punish those who disbelieve when there is nothing for them to believe in? Yet John says, to the contrary, that “whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:10–12). Eric Svendsen further expands this point by bringing to bear passages which describe the additional condemnation of those who profess the faith, but later fall away. In part 1 of his dialog with James White, ‘When Does Our Union With Christ’s Death Occur?’ he asks, why are they condemned if the gospel was not for them? But Peter says that they deny the Master who bought them (2 Peter 2:1).

Given these two considerations—the impugning of both God’s sincerity, and his justice, by removing the grounds for the universal call—the Owenist ought to concede that the satisfaction just wasn’t limited in its scope. However, there is also another problem which flows directly from what I’ve outlined above. I’ll explain it in the final argument of this series—before moving on to deal with objections to my view.

Continued in part 3, on the objective grounds for faith

19 comments

  1. Nancy

    There are a lot of arguments that sound pretty good on the surface…but, what do you do with John 17, Romans 9 and the Book of Jude? (Not an exhaustive list.) There are also specific people mentioned that were not meant to be covered…Esau, Pharaoh, and Judas…God has had a specific plan of election since before the foundation of the earth…Sure the qualitive sacrifice of Jesus paid the price for the Whole World…but God limited it’s effectiveness to those who would accept the offer of free grace and faith in the Blood of Jesus, and insuring his specific plan of election through the irresistible grace of the calling of the Holy Spirit and the hardening of the hearts of some…Esau and Judas are mentioned as having a change of mind…yet no place of repentance was found for them, even though it was sought with tears and as a result of repulsion of their actions. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened to the point that he never considered repentance.

    A decree is proclaimed through out the land to every creature…The War is over for all men of good will…proclaimed in the heavenlies by none else that the angels of God…the creation rejoices that redemption is nigh…yet there are many not given eyes to see or ears to hear by the very Creator of all things. It is His choice…He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy…Yet the message WAS AND IS PRESENTLY BEING PROCLAIMED TO ALL…

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Nancy. I in no way deny election or irresistable calling; I simply deny that the atonement’s scope is limited to the elect.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. Nancy

    If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, did it make a sound? If it did does it make any difference?

    If only the elect will ever be called, and be able to respond? Does the scope actually make a difference, since the intended results are in fact the same…

    Unless. you don’t believe the elect to be a predetermined number set before the foundation of the world. In such a case, it would make a difference. Then the question is the definition of “ALL” as in ALL who call upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved…with ALL equaling an undertermined number.

  4. Martin

    “If only the elect will ever be called, and be able to respond? Does the scope actually make a difference, since the intended results are in fact the same…”

    Nancy,

    That is the very point of this post! You presuppose only one intended result of the atonement whereas does not scripture teach several? Dabney, for example, lists the following:
    “(a.) The purchase of the full and assured redemption of all the elect, or of all believers.

    (b.) A reprieve of doom for every sinner of Adam’s race who does not die at his birth (For these we believe it has purchased heaven). And this reprieve gains for all, many substantial, though temporal benefits, such as unbelievers, of all men, will be the last to account no benefits. Among these are postponement of death and perdition, secular well being, and the bounties of life.

    (c.) A manifestation of God’s mercy to many of the non elect, to all those, namely, who live under the Gospel, in sincere offers of a salvation on terms of faith. And a sincere offer is a real and not a delusive benefaction; because it is only the recipients contumacy which disappoints it.

    (d.) A justly enhanced condemnation of those who reject the Gospel, and thereby a clearer display of God’s righteousness and reasonableness in condemning, to all the worlds.

    (e.) A disclosure of the infinite tenderness and glory of God’s compassion, with purity, truth and justice, to all rational creatures.”

    He goes on to say:
    “Had there been no mediation of Christ, we have not a particle of reason to suppose that the doom of our sinning race would have been delayed one hour longer than that of the fallen angels. Hence, it follows, that it is Christ who procures for non elect sinners all that they temporarily enjoy, which is more than their personal deserts, including the sincere offer of mercy. In view of this fact, the scorn which Dr. William Cunningham heaps on the distinction of a special, and general design in Christ’s satisfaction, is thoroughly shortsighted. All wise beings (unless God be the exception), at times frame their plans so as to secure a combination of results from the same means. This is the very way they display their ability and wisdom. Why should God be supposed incapable of this wise and fruitful acting? I repeat, the design of Christ’s sacrifice must have been to effectuate just what it does effectuate. And we see, that, along with the actual redemption of the elect, it works out several other subordinate ends. There is then a sense, in which Christ “died for” all those ends, and for the persons affected by them.”
    (http://www.pbministries.org/R.%20L.%20Dabney/Systematic%20Theology/chapter35.htm)

    Grace and peace,
    Martin

  5. Nancy

    “…And we see, that, along with the actual redemption of the elect, it works out several other subordinate ends. There is then a sense, in which Christ “died for” all those ends, and for the persons affected by them.”

    Martin,

    I agree…my statements were in regard to eternal life…of course there are many benefits, besides eternal life for the elect, included in the atonement. For this reason was the Son of God manifest, to destroy the works of the evil one….Just as the whole of creation was made subject to the enemy in the fall. The whole world benefited from the work of Christ on the cross, but eternal life (knowing God the Father and His son Jesus Christ) is a benefit procured specifically for the elect.

    “That is the very point of this post! You presuppose only one intended result of the atonement whereas does not scripture teach several? ”

    The unfortunate problem with our posts/responses is that we all come to the keyboard assuming what the other believes. Sometimes it takes a lot of back and forth before the truth comes forth…evidenced in my unfortunate use of the word “scope” in my post above….*: ) And my understanding /definition of the word “universal” as used by Bnonn in his posts in section one.

  6. David

    Hey Dominic,

    You say: “God simply cannot promise to save someone for whom Christ did not die.”

    David: this is the critical line. Most of the polemics for “particularism” are wrapped around the assumption that the ministerial offer, ie the offer of the evangelist seem to exhausts the biblical data on the offer. Thus: The evangelical offer of the evangelist can be a offered conditional promise to all because of the minister does not know for whom Christ did and did not die for. Locating the the question of the sincerity of the offer here does suggest plausibility, but when you think about it, offering something to someone you whom you have no knowledge that the thing offered is “for them” is still a little dodgy.

    However, the agnostic problem is not a problem for God when he makes the offer: so for God, to offer Christ to someone for whom no provision was made, is not plausible.

    There are two counters I hope you may address too.

    1) From one blog it has been proposed that a conditional truth statement can be sincere. While true, the verbalizing of a bare conditional truth statement is not an offer, not an invitation, not a promise, not a call, not a command. I can only conclude that the reduction of the offer to the verbalizing of a bare conditional truth statement is not adequate to Scripture.

    2) Will you deal with the counter that if limited expiation undercuts the free offer, then why is it not the case that election also undercuts the free offer? The conclusion then would be, as we accept the problematic of the one, we should also simply embrace the problematic of the other.

    Thanks,
    David

  7. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi David, your point 1 doesn’t seem worth rebutting at any length; you just did it very adequately yourself. Point 2 is worth more attention, and I hope to fit it in, but I do think it’s incidental to the question of the scope of the atonement itself.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  8. James

    Someone said: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, did it make a sound? ”

    The better question – If a man speaks and there is no woman to hear him, is he still wrong?

    But seriously Bnonn, what is the bottom line here? God offers salvation to those He never intended to save? Am I missing something?

  9. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Jim. Yeah, basically. My primary focus here is not to reconcile God’s desires; remember, I’ve done that elsewhere. I’m mostly concerned with proving the inconsistency of particularism, and the need for a universal atonement.

  10. James

    Ok Bnonn, in a nut shell – why would God provide atonement for those he has no intention of saving? So they receive more guilt and punishment?

  11. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Not necessarily Jim. That may be one reason; there are others:

    1. Because that is the nature of federal headship. Christ can’t not represent all mankind.
    2. Because God genuinely wishes to offer the atonement to all sincerely; meaning that it is benevolently extended with a real, but contingent desire that it be accepted; thus it is really for all men, and all men really can accept it. Recall that every man has a natural ability to believe unto salvation; it is only his sin which prevents him—just as every man has a natural ability to obey the law. He is not held less accountable, or the law less good, in the event that he fails. Neither, then, should God be held less good because the reprobate despise his overtures.
    3. Apropos (2), God wishes to evidence the bountiless extent of his benevolence and mercy.
    4. The atonement doesn’t merely purchase eternal redemption, but also vindicates God’s justice in even granting not only a temporary reprieve upon sinners, but even many temporary blessings, rather than destroying them immediately. Thus, it is the foundation for common grace.

    Although I tend to be critical of Dabney for taking the anthropomorphism of God too far, he does make good points as in comment #4 above. If he makes God too human, at least this provides a counter-balance to many other Calvinist theologians who make God too inhuman.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  12. James

    Ok Bnonn,

    Here is the problem: “thus it is really for all men, and all men really can accept it. Recall that every man has a natural ability to believe unto salvation; it is only his sin which prevents him—just as every man has a natural ability to obey the law.”

    How do we, born with a sin nature, have the natural ability to repent or keep the law? Where does that natural ability lie in a man born totally depraved?

  13. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Jim, I’m using “natural ability” in the standard Calvinistic way, to refer to a faculty of man; in this case, the faculty of choice. Natural ability is normally contrasted with moral ability, so as to draw a distinction between a faculty and an inclination. Another way to put it would be to say that, in principle, all men are able to believe; but in practice none are inclined to. By way of example: all normal people have the natural ability to walk; yet not everyone walks all the time because they are not inclined to.

    So, all people are naturally able, by merit of being made in God’s image with the faculty of choice, to believe in the gospel. In the same way, all people are naturally able to obey God’s law—for the same reason. This is why I used that analogy: since all people are naturally able, but morally unable, to obey God’s law; yet God is not insincere in giving the law, and the law itself is good: so in the same way all people are naturally able, but morally unable (besides regeneration), to believe unto salvation; yet God is not insincere in offering them the gospel, and the gospel itself is good.

    Hope this helps;
    regards,
    Bnonn

  14. Michelle Renee

    All people are naturally able to understand the gospel, indeed, even a child may understand it, but not all people are given the faith to repent and embrace the gospel.

    HEB 11:1 “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

    Since the things which are hoped for are not seen, it is impossible for man, using his natural faculties, to attain to the sure belief in divinely revealed truths which is faith. Not even simple belief rises to the level of faith, which is so sure that the author of Hebrews calls it “substance”. Faith is a surety so certain that as Hebrews 11:1 teaches, faith itself is the evidence of its sole source, which is the invisible God. Since God is the sole source of this faith, only he may initiate the grace of conversion, which escapes our knowledge and can only be understood by faith.

  15. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    No Calvinist would disagree with your conclusion, Michelle; were you aiming to make an objection?

  16. Michelle renee

    My objection is to your doctrine that regeneration restores humanity to a state in which he is able to receive the gospel and “believe unto salvation”, and it is this:

    The things which we must “believe unto salvation” (that Christ is God the Son, and that he died and rose again) come to us in the gospel as a set of facts which we are told we must believe to be saved, and it is possible for both the unregenerated and the regenerated to believe these things with a purely mental assent without faith. But only when God takes the initiative and bestows the supernatural gift of faith can a believer “capture” grace. Until that moment, grace escapes all human reason, even if the reason is restored to the pre-Fall regenerated state. Because even Adam, in an unfallen state, lacked the faith to believe God, and he believed the woman and the serpent instead.

  17. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Michelle. Perhaps if you could explain what you believe faith is, I’d be better positioned to answer this. As it stands, your position appears to entail (i) that faith is distinct from belief; and (ii) that it is therefore irrelevant to salvation. You say that

    The things which we must “believe unto salvation” […] come to us in the gospel as a set of facts which we are told we must believe to be saved, and it is possible for both the unregenerated and the regenerated to believe these things with a purely mental assent without faith.

    This being the case, since it is belief on which salvation is predicated, your view entails that the unregenerate man can believe and be saved. This, of course, is false: salvation is by faith. Because you drive an artificial wedge between belief and faith, you are led to this erroneous conclusion. Again, I think you’d have to explain what you think faith is. If it isn’t a mental assent to certain facts, then what is it?

    even if the reason is restored to the pre-Fall regenerated state.

    I don’t believe that the condition of the regenerated believer is equivalent to the condition of original man.

    even Adam, in an unfallen state, lacked the faith to believe God, and he believed the woman and the serpent instead.

    What does this sentence even mean? It’s either incoherent or tautologous to say someone “lacks the faith to believe God”—it’s the equivalent to saying he “lacks the belief to believe God” or “lacks the faith to have faith in God”. It sounds like you think faith is some kind of bestowed faculty by which we believe. Of course, that is manifestly not what faith means in the Bible. Faith is itself belief (Greek: pistis)—that is why we “believe unto salvation”, given that “salvation is by faith”. Refer to Crosswalk, ‘pistis’:

    1. conviction of the truth of anything, belief; in the NT of a conviction or belief respecting man’s relationship to God and divine things, generally with the included idea of trust and holy fervour born of faith and joined with it

    a. relating to God
    i. the conviction that God exists and is the creator and ruler of all things, the provider and bestower of eternal salvation through Christ

    b. relating to Christ
    i. a strong and welcome conviction or belief that Jesus is the Messiah, through whom we obtain eternal salvation in the kingdom of God

    c. the religious beliefs of Christians

    d. belief with the predominate idea of trust (or confidence) whether in God or in Christ, springing from faith in the same

    2. fidelity, faithfulness

    a. the character of one who can be relied on

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  18. Michelle renee

    Belief means creed, but creed is not equivalent to trust in God, which is faith. The living faith, delivered once to the saints, has led to a body of beliefs which are the truths we find in scripture. A convert may examine scripture with his intellect and assent to them, but the object of faith is infinite and so remains beyond the grasp of the finite mind. Final assent must be assisted by grace. Thus it is the pure gift of God. Our reason and the gospel will lead us to the very door of justification, but there our reason leaves us, and God asks us to make a final act of submission “Into thy hands I commend my spirit” even in a moment of intellectual doubt “My God why has thou forsaken me”. It is a leap into the dark, after which the light of faith fills our soul.

  19. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Michelle, this will be my last response, since this discussion is now entirely off topic.

    You keep equivocating. Basically all of your doctrinal errors are, at root, errors of equivocation. For example, “belief” does not mean “creed”. A creed is a formal statement of religious belief. Similarly, in what sense do you assert that the object of faith is infinite? In the qualitative sense? Then your consequent assertion that it is beyond the grasp of finite minds is false. In the quantitative sense? Then it is necessarily and always beyond the grasp of finite minds, and impossible. But the object of faith is the person and work of Christ, so the notion is absurd to begin with. In the same vein, you flagrantly misuse the two verses you cite; they are not referring in any way to epistemological or ontological issues surrounding faith. And finally, no, faith is not a leap in the dark, and reason does not leave us at the point of justification. In fact, Christ is the very reason of God (Greek: logos), and the exemplar (founder and perfecter) of the faith by which we are justified.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

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