This blog is having an
existential crisis

While I tinker with a new design, I’m also pondering how, what, and why I write here. I don’t know how long that will take, but you’re welcome to email me and see how things are progressing.

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 3: the objective grounds for faith

Part 3 of 6, in which I forward the argument that limited satisfaction undermines the assurance of salvation at exactly the times we most need it, by removing the objective grounds for faith.

Continued from part 2, on the grounds for the universal gospel call

I’ve argued that if Jesus’ satisfaction was limited, there is no way for any given person to know that it covers their sins. There is no way for them to know if they can “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). In this way, Owenism removes the objective grounds for faith.

We must be careful not to overstate our case on this point. I’m afraid that some classical Calvinists, in their zeal to refute Owenism, very much do overstate this case—and I myself have overstated it in the past. My contention is that Owenism removes the objective grounds for faith—not all grounds for faith.

Faith defined

Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1) It further observes that faith was both authored and perfected by Jesus himself (12:2)—in other words, he is the exemplar of Christian faith. I’ve argued in the past that the assurance and conviction which set the benchmark for our own, being grounded in his perfect communion with the Godhead, were without even a glimmer of uncertainty, wishful thinking, doubt, or unbelief. Faith, at least in its paradigm form, thus involves a warranted and true belief—i.e., knowledge. (When I speak about a belief being warranted, I mean, in a nutshell, that a person believes it because it is true.)

I am not saying this is all faith is—far from it—but it is certainly not less. In particular, faith entails a knowledge of God’s favor toward the believer. Or, viewed from another angle, faith entails a warranted trust that God will vindicate the believer. Since God’s favor is availed to us by the satisfaction of Jesus, since his vindication of us is contingent on Jesus’ representation of us, the object of our knowledge and our trust is Jesus and his work. In either case, in order for faith to be faith, a believer needs to have a warranted and true belief that the work and the promise are actually availed to him.

What is faith rooted in?

The problem with grounding such faith under Owenism should be obvious. Just as the work and the promise of Jesus, under a limited satisfaction, can only be extended sincerely to those actually covered by it, so belief in the work and the promise is only jwarranted in the case of those covered by it. The work and the promise can only be extended to, and believed by, the elect. But how are we to know who the elect are? How, in fact, are the elect themselves to know who they are, that they might have the requisite warrant for believing the promise or trusting the work?

Thus, Owenism removes the objective grounds for faith: there is no external evidence that we can rely on to know that the satisfaction of Jesus is for us; there is nothing I can look to in the work of Jesus itself, nor in the word of God, that tells me that he represented me on the cross.

This does not mean I have no grounds for faith. It just means I have no objective grounds—nothing out there in the world, in history, in God’s word, that I can rely on. There certainly is still a subjective ground for knowing it: namely, the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. God himself testifies in my heart of his favor toward me, that I am his son (Romans 8:15–16; Galatians 4:6)—which in turn assures me (under Owenism) that Jesus died for me. Under Owenism, my faith cannot be based on the public, objective nature of the atonement; it can only come from the private, subjective conviction of God’s favor toward me, by way of the indwelling Spirit.

In my experience, Owenists are willing to bite the bullet on this; but if you will permit me to mix my metaphors, I believe it is a much more bitter pill than they are willing to admit. They need to say that an external assurance in reference to the atonement—in the form of the knowledge that it can cover me—is unnecessary. All I need is the internal assurance given by the Spirit, in the form of the knowledge that it does cover me.

While this seems reasonable at first blush, it is actually a pastorally dangerous position that leaves assurance essentially impotent against the attacks of the devil. Faith which is not grounded in an external and objective knowledge that Jesus made a satisfaction sufficient for me, that in practice represented me; but rather in an internal and subjective perception that he did so, is an anemic faith. If the satisfaction was unlimited, my faith is rooted in the infallible promise of God in Scripture that it extends to me, because Jesus represented me (as he represented all people)—and I need merely receive that satisfaction. Even in my darkest moments, in the times when I most feel the weight of sin and I most doubt God’s favor toward me, I know that his cross-work extends to me if only I fall upon his mercy. That is all I need to do—and indeed all I can do.

But under Owenism, this assurance is deeply undermined, even though I have the Spirit testifying to me. This is because it is precisely during the low points of our spiritual lives that our perception of the Spirit is most impaired, when our communion with God is most weakened, when our inward sense of Jesus’ presence within us is at its lowest ebb—when God, indeed, most distances himself from us (cf. 2 Chronicles 15:2; James 4:8). Yet it is also precisely during these low points that assurance is most needed. In other words, under Owenism, it is exactly when I most need the assurance of God’s favor being available that I will least have it—because my perception of God’s favor toward me is not rooted in a knowledge that the atonement extends to me: rather, my knowledge that the atonement extends to me is rooted in my perception of God’s favor toward me!

Now, I am not saying that the private testimony of the Spirit is insufficient for faith. God forbid. I am saying that the private testimony of the Spirit points us to, is about, the public testimony of Scripture. It is there that we discover God’s favor toward us. If our assurance of that favor is not grounded in the external, public testimony of God, then we have a serious pastoral problem, because it will be precisely when we most need the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things unseen, that we will have the most reason to doubt them. Our faith will only be as sure as our inward convictions, rather than as sure as the word of God itself. Indeed, I think this leads easily into a violation of sola fide and sola scriptura, because it can be difficult to distinguish our own fallible intuitions from the testimony of the Spirit himself—especially in times of crisis. If our faith is only as strong as our internal perceptions of God’s favor towards us, rather than the external certainty of that favor grounded in Jesus’ work, then our assurance of salvation is derived ultimately from our own spiritual lives. When we feel we’re doing well, we feel God’s favor towards us. But if we feel spiritually depressed or weak, if we are failing to overcome sin, if we think we are backsliding, then our assurance is undermined and damaged and potentially even removed entirely. And many Christians will attest that there are times in their lives when they do not feel God’s presence at all; to persevere, they have to ground their faith in the Bible. But under Owenism, there is nothing in the Bible on which to ground their faith. The less confident they feel about themselves, the less confident they feel that God really has availed salvation to them, and there is no “backup” in the word. Speaking for myself, I would begin to doubt that I ever was saved; that I ever was God’s; that I ever was atoned for. Maybe God loves me and Jesus died for me. But maybe not. Sometimes I feel that way. Sometimes I don’t.

This is a pastoral danger that I don’t feel I can really overstate.

An objection anticipated

Some Owenists, at this point, will say that I’m hugely misrepresenting their view. They’ll say that their faith is not based on some burning in the bosom; some subjective sensation of their own salvation. Rather, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” and they have called on the name of the Lord. Their doing so is evidence that the atonement extends to them. In other words, they merely recognize that the promise of salvation is conditional:

  1. If you believe, then you will be saved.
  2. You believe.
  3. Therefore, you will be saved.

A parallel argument can then be constructed:

  1. If you will be saved, the atonement extends to you.
  2. You will be saved (from (iii)).
  3. Therefore, the atonement extends to you.

But I think it goes without saying that the Owenist is playing a bit of a game here. The first premise is conveniently incomplete. “If you believe, then you will be saved”—but believe what? Obviously “the promise of salvation.” But that either refers to the very statement at hand, or to the promise that salvation is availed to him. It can’t be the former, namely that “if you believe you will be saved,” because that leads to a vicious infinite regress: if you believe that if you believe you will be saved; if you believe that if you believe that if you believe you will be saved; and so on. But it can’t be the latter either, since that would run afoul of the impossibility of believing the promise without prior knowledge that you’re elect.

Thus, I believe my objections all succeed: limited satisfaction is incompatible with federal headship and forensic imputation; it makes a universal gospel call impossible and impugns God’s justice and truthfulness; and ultimately—pressed consistently—it removes God’s word as the grounds for Christian faith, and turns assurance into something alarmingly similar to wishful thinking.

Does this mean that the satisfaction has to be unlimited? It certainly seems to imply it; but there are some objections against that view which must be considered on their own merits. The next three parts of this series will therefore attend to that task.

Continued in part 4, on whether God’s desires are frustrated

5 comments

  1. nathan ruble

    Hi Bnonn,

    I have come to this position on the atonement some years ago. I really enjoyed your comments, especially concerning how faith enters into this subject.

    I was wondering if you have thought much on just how the Father could justly lay the guilt of sin on his Son? In a nut shell it seems to me to be by his being under the Old Covenant and hanging on a tree and becoming cursed. We talk pretty causually about Christ bearing our guilt but I don’t think that the Father just laid on him the iniquity of us all without certain conditions being met.

    I find very little written about it and was just wondering if you have any insight into this subject. Thanks

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Nathan—that’s a good question, though perhaps less of a tricky one than it initially appears. I think that the Father could justly lay the guilt of sin on the Son simply because the Son voluntarily accepted this burden. Jesus was a willing sin-bearer. The Father did not impose the imputation of sin, as if by some kind of judgment—the imputation was taken on by Jesus, as part of the eternal covenant within the Godhead to save a covenant people. Keeping the end in sight, the means (namely the atonement) was not inherently unjust. It would have only been so if Jesus had not willingly given himself for us.

    To be fair, I haven’t read much on this either, and this is more a prima facie conclusion than a considered position. What are your thoughts?

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  3. nathan

    I agree that I am not taking any stand on this in a dogmatic form, just trying to better understand the glorious gospel. I agree that Jesus had to submit to the cross for this to happen but I am not sure that this alone means that the Father could “arbitrarily” lay our guilt on him. I know it happened but how could “he who knew no sin be made sin for us?”

    What got me to questioning this was why Paul lays such stress on Jesus being born under the law in Galatians 4:4. In 3:13 he speaks of redeeming us from the curse by being made a curse in our stead by being hung on a tree which could only happen to a Jew under the Old Covenant. This would seem to point to his later remark in 4:4.

    I know the usual explanation is he was born under the Old Covenant so that he could earn life by perfect obedience to it and I do not discount that reasoning. But some in the reformed camp debate that he had to actively obey the law so that his obedience to the law could be imputed to us. They maintain that his “passive” obedience in going to the cross was all that was needed. I tend to think he did have to live a life of Old Covenant obedience for us but my point is that if this wasn’t particularly necessary then his being hung on a tree moves into the forefront of why he had to be born under the law and couldn’t come before Moses.

    Anyway, something to think about.

    Nathan

  4. Andrew

    While reading part 1, it occurred to me that the real “justice” question we need to ask is “Why is God not unjust in raising Christ from the dead?”. If Christ is dying in place of all of humanity, why is he then granted life again?

    There’s a sense where Christ’s death is symbolic, because physical death is itself symbolic.

    Remember the warning to Adam: “for in the day you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). Adam eats of it, and, in that day, he is sent from the garden. Did God speak falsely? No, because in that day he is cut off from God, and placed on a trajectory for hell. A “dead man walking”, so to speak. In a sense, physical death is but a symbolic reminder, and a transition point on our trajectory towards the 2nd death (Rev 20:14).

    In the same way, Christ’s death is symbolic, and this fits with a judicial rather than pecuniary notion of the atonement. Christ doesn’t bring some quantity of righteousness to the table, dole it out to sinners until all are sufficiently imputed, and then use the remainder to secure his own resurrection. Instead, Christ dies as a man to represent the act of God the Father and God the Son bearing in between themselves mankind’s death and punishment. Christ dies physically because death is the sign of God’s punishment being meted out against humanity, and Christ’s death is the sign that God is bearing it himself.

    Following that, Christ’s resurrection is the sign that it has been borne.

  5. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I agree; I’ve made a similar point myself elsewhere. I think death in the Bible, as a theological concept, is much broader than a physical event; the physical event is a pointer to what death as a whole means.

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