This series has been significantly updated in July 2016. The main change to note is that I previously referred to my view as “universal atonement,” and the opposing view as “particular atonement.” This is confusing at best, since I hold to particular redemption. Therefore, I now refer to unlimited versus limited satisfaction, and refer largely to “my view” and the “Owenic view.” This will be important to remember if you read the comments, which have not been commensurately updated. Otherwise, feel free to ignore it.
Every now and then I raise the question with another Calvinist about how the atonement was “limited.” Usually I am then beaten over the head with John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, an excellent work worthy of all respect, but also very heavy—making such beatings discouraging—and mistaken on some crucial points—making such beatings exasperating.
For the record, I am a “5-point Calvinist;” I agree that the natural man is totally unable to do anything but sin; that on account of this God unconditionally elects those he will save; that the Son then makes an atonement in history which is limited to the elect in its intention and efficaciousness; that the Spirit then in due time irresistibly calls them through regeneration and the gift of faith; and that because they are new creations they cannot then permanently return to their old ways, but will finally persevere in the faith until death.
These are the five points of Calvinism—TULIP. I agree with them. However, as a friend has observed, that agreement all depends on who is explaining them.
With regard to the L specifically, if I had to fit my view into a nutshell here, I’d say that I agree with how Charles Hodge explained it, and disagree with how John Owen did. By which you might notice I have considerably cheated, and also engaged in gross anachronism, since neither Hodge nor Owen talked about TULIP at all, that being an acronym that came into vogue only in the 20th century. Thus, I shall not refer to “limited atonement” any further, but rather “particular redemption.” This point now slyly made, I shall move on.
The view of particular redemption I am questioning
In this series I’ll be opposing the view most notably defended by John Owen, and now represented by I think the majority of Calvinists. It affirms that:
- God’s desire, as regards human salvation, is exclusively for the elect, with no attending desire for the salvation of the reprobate; therefore,
- Jesus, in his death, satisfied the sin of the elect only, thus making provision for their salvation, but not for the salvation of the reprobate.
I’m going to call this the Owenic view, or Owenism, since Calvinists of this stripe tend to champion Owen’s articulation of the atonement. It is, simply put, particular redemption with limited satisfaction.
The view of particular redemption I am defending
What I plan to articulate in this series has often been called unlimited or universal atonement. Robert Dabney describes it as an unlimited expiation and limited redemption. Since “expiation” is a very technical word, I am going to call it simply particular redemption with unlimited satisfaction—or “my view.” In short, I affirm that:
- God’s desire, as regards human salvation, is for the elect especially, but with an attending (though contingent) desire for the salvation of the reprobate also; therefore,
- Jesus, in his death, satisfied the sin of all mankind, thus making provision for the salvation of both the elect and the reprobate—though with the intention of saving only the elect.
If you’re immediately thinking that this isn’t Reformed, and that Jesus can’t satisfy the sin of someone who nonetheless goes to hell, you should keep reading; I will canvass both issues comprehensively. For now, suffice to say that what I’m defending is represented widely throughout the history of Reformed theology, and though superficially similar to Arminianism, is quite obviously contradictory to it. The Reformed doctrine of unlimited satisfaction ought to be evaluated on its own grounds, and not conflated with the Arminian’s universal atonement. Sadly, Owenists are known to say that anyone who believes it is an Arminian who has cherry-picked some Calvinist doctrines. I want to head off this mendacious strategy of victory through labels at the outset. The list of great Calvinist theologians who have affirmed some version of unlimited satisfaction is long, and I shall quote many of them to make the point. I’ll have no name-calling here. Such tactics ought to be beneath those I’ve seen employ them. Calvinists who believe in a unlimited satisfaction are no more Arminians than Calvinists who believe in a limited satisfaction are hyper-Calvinists.
My view is sometimes described as “sufficient for all; efficient for some.” I’ll avoid this phrase since (a) it doesn’t distinguish my view from the Arminian one; and (b) it can be used by Owenists anyway, who say that in principle the atonement was sufficient for all, even though in practice it’s only efficacious for the elect. As with the word “limited,” both sides can use the same term but mean different things. I affirm that the satisfaction Jesus made was sufficient for all in practice, and I’ll explain the distinction here in due time.
What I am not defending
To be sure I’m accurately representing myself, let me also immediately head off some bad inferences I’ve known people to make about my view. I deny that:
- God equally desires the salvation of both the elect and the reprobate,
- God has “two wills” in the sense of having two, incongruent sets of intentions, or that he has frustrated desires in the sense that human beings do;
- The presentation of the gospel must involve telling sinners that Jesus died for them.
These denials should give some indication of the way in which I’ll couch this discussion. This series is largely about God’s salvific desires and intentions toward people, and how these play out in the atonement.
It should go without saying that I also deny Amyraldism. Amyraut’s view reorders the decrees of God, so election falls after redemption—God decrees to redeem all people and then, knowing that no one will respond to the gospel, he elects whom to save. I am a supralapsarian Calvinist, so any charge of Amyraldism is scurrilous and I repudiate it. Neither do I accept the label “four-point Calvinist,” as if theologians like Davenant, Fuller, Hodge, Dabney, Shedd and arguably Calvin himself were somehow deficient in their understanding of the doctrines of grace.
The following three reasons are, in my opinion, the strongest for believing in an unlimited satisfaction over and against Owenism:
- Owenism is incongruent with federal headship and forensic imputation;
- Owenism removes all grounds for the universal gospel call (either as a command or as an invitation);
- Owenism removes the objective grounds for Christian faith.
There are three main objections against my position which, in my estimation, are compelling enough to warrant discussion. These are:
- Unlimited satisfaction implies that God’s desires are frustrated in some sense;
- Unlimited satisfaction implies either universal salvation or double payment for sins;
- Unlimited satisfaction fails to actually accomplish redemption for anyone.
Exegetical arguments for and against
Although I will refer to the text of Scripture as I consider the arguments and objections outlined above, I won’t be delving deeply into any purely exegetical arguments. The reason is simply that I think the Bible underdetermines for either view. There is no passage that clearly teaches one or the other—it is in how the overall teaching of Scripture fits together that the views must be tested. So I am going to concede that both views have some support in Scripture, and given this, we must turn to systematic theology to discover which is more consistent with the Bible.