Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

On the atonement, part 6: unlimited satisfaction fails to actually accomplish redemption for anyone

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7 minutes to read Part 6 of 6, in which I consider and confute the objection that an unlimited satisfaction would not actually secure or guarantee salvation for anyone.

Continued from part 5, on the double jeopardy fallacy

The last objection I’ll look at is the claim that an unlimited satisfaction is really an impotent satisfaction. In the words of one private email correspondent, people such as myself

clearly cannot say that the satisfaction of Christ secures the salvation of all those for whom it was made […] The atonement itself does not guarantee the salvation of those for whom it was made […] All the satisfaction can do is make it possible for God then to choose whom to save and then to secure their salvation by some other means. Moreover, since there is no other satisfaction made to his justice, this other means (eg, irresistible grace) is simply an exercise of God’s sovereign will, not an act stemming from the justice of God (eg, to fulfill the obligation arising from the satisfaction of his justice).

Let’s clarify the language here, because terms like “guarantee” and “secure” are ambiguous. Even using a rather pecuniary example, I can go to the cinema and secure a ticket to a movie, which guarantees that I will have a seat—if I show up. But it doesn’t guarantee that I will show up. The objection as stated thus gains little traction against the unlimited view, where Jesus purchases tickets for everyone, but only the elect bother to show up for the movie.

But I take it that the Owenist is angling at a much stricter kind of “securing” and “guaranteeing.” He seems to be worried about whether or not the atonement ipso facto liberates from God’s judgment. And this is because he sees the satisfaction of Jesus as something akin to a commercial transaction. In his mind, God’s claim is on our debt—the debt of sin. As Hodge states it:

When a debtor pays the demand of his creditor in full, he satisfies his claims, and is entirely free from any further demands. In this case the thing paid is the precise sum due, neither more nor less. It is a simple matter of commutative justice; a quid pro quo; so much for so much. There can be no condescension, mercy, or grace on the part of a creditor receiving the payment of a debt. It matters not to him by whom the debt is paid, whether by the debtor himself, or by someone in his stead; because the claim of the creditor is simply upon the amount due and not upon the person of the debtor. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (GLH Publishing, 2015), loc. 20440.

However, as Hodge goes on to point out, the demand of God is not against our debt; it against us. That is the essential difference between pecuniary, commercial debt, and penal, judicial debt: in the one, justice requires the debtor to pay with the amount owed; in the other, justice requires the debtor to pay with his own person. But this is the very nature of penal substitution: Jesus’ suffering was neither in kind nor degree the concatenation of what every elect sinner would have suffered. It was not a quid pro quo; indeed, its value, as Hodge puts it, infinitely transcended theirs. The death of an eminently good man would outweigh the annihilation of a universe of insects. So the humiliation, sufferings, and death of the eternal Son of God immeasurably transcended in worth and power the penalty which a world of sinners would have endured. Idem., loc. 20466. Thus, Jesus’ satisfaction was adequate for the demands of justice against any and every man. What his work on the cross does, with respect to any given person, is make that person’s justification consistent with God’s justice. But it does not make that person’s justification a requirement of God’s justice, because it was not a quid pro quo that ipso facto commuted our debt.

To put it into causal language, the Owenist wants the satisfaction to be the sufficient cause of our justification. Bluntly, he wants the cross to actually justify us. But we are not justified by the cross; we are justified by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). If the atonement was pecuniary, then in everything following there is no grace. I cannot make the point better than Hodge here:

There is no grace in accepting a pecuniary satisfaction. It cannot be refused. It ipso facto liberates. The moment the debt is paid the debtor is free; and that without any condition. Nothing of this is true in the case of judicial satisfaction. If a substitute be provided and accepted it is a matter of grace. His satisfaction does not ipso facto liberate. It may accrue to the benefit of those for whom it is made at once or at a remote period; completely or gradually; on conditions or unconditionally; or it may never benefit them at all unless the condition on which its application is suspended be performed… The application of its benefits is determined by the covenant between the Father and the Son. Those for whom it was specially rendered are not justified from eternity; they are not born in a justified state; they are by nature, or birth, the children of wrath even as others. To be the children of wrath is to be justly exposed to divine wrath. They remain in this state of exposure until they believe, and should they die (unless in infancy) before they believe they would inevitably perish notwithstanding the satisfaction made for their sins. Idem., loc. 22037.

The Owenist puts his hands up at this point and says, “Arg, you see—an unlimited satisfaction doesn’t really do anything! Even an elect person could theoretically perish in their sins!”

But this is actually to shift the certitude and application of salvation away from God and onto a mechanism. It is, quite simply, to deny the power and work of the persons of the Trinity in salvation. What forbids the elect perishing in their sins? Is it the rule of commutative justice—or the covenanted persons of God? Remember, people like me who disagree with Owenists are not “four point Calvinists”—we believe that the atonement was limited. But it was limited by the inter-Trinitarian covenant. It was limited by the Father’s intention to give only a specific people to his Son; it was limited in the Son’s intention to take divine judgment on himself especially for those people; and it is limited in the Spirit’s application of that work to those people in time. This is what makes our salvation certain. Yet equally, because the Father bids all people without limit be reconciled (Acts 17:30; 2 Corinthians 5:20); and because the Spirit convicts all people without limit of sin (John 16:8); so equally the Son satisfied justice without limit, so that all people could justly be called and convicted.

Under the unlimited view, the atonement is a necessary cause of our justification. It had to happen for anyone to be justified, because justification must be grounded in an actual satisfaction of God’s justice. But it does not itself effect that justification, because there are still other conditions which must be fulfilled for it to be applied to anyone: namely regeneration and faith. Faith is the instrument of our justification (Romans 5:1)—not the cross. And faith itself is a gift of grace (Romans 3:24)—not a mechanical entailment of the cross. That the Owenist objects to this is thus utterly bizarre, not just because he seems to be motivated by a confused intuition about the satisfaction of justice, but most especially because he is ultimately objecting to the unimpeachable Reformed view on justification itself—the rejection of which is heresy.

The Owenist might try to salvage his objection by amending it to say that the atonement must be the sufficient cause of faith. Transitively, then, it is also the sufficient cause of justification. But this won’t do either. Once more, without emotion: the atonement is the grounds for faith and for justification. It is what makes them possible—but it isn’t what makes them actual. It is the indwelling of the Spirit which makes faith actual; and it is faith which makes justification actual. To deny this is to deny the Holy Spirit one of his key roles in salvation.

The Owenist’s atonement that “secures salvation” thus results in a confluence of doctrinal confusion and even damnable heresy. On Owenism, God’s wrath toward all the elect was appeased around 30 AD; since then, no elect person can therefore be under his wrath; he owes us, as it were, justification. But we know from Scripture and from experience that, in fact, we are all “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3) until we are made a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) by the rebirth in the Spirit, and that this is of grace—it is completely undeserved. Not just the atonement was undeserved, but everything afterwards that God does for us also. Regeneration is undeserved. Faith is undeserved. Justification is undeserved. If the Owenist is right, then he has some hard questions to answer regarding the purpose of the rebirth, the ordo salutis, and in what way God’s favor toward us is undeserved after an atonement which ipso facto liberated us from his disfavor.

In short, Owenism entails a nexus of extremely serious theological errors:

  1. The false doctrine of eternal justification
  2. The implicit denial of sola fide
  3. The subsequent abrogation of sola gratia

Add to this the further problems discussed:

  1. The removal of the grounds for a universal gospel call
  2. The subsequent impugning of both God’s sincerity and his justice
  3. And the undermining of Christian assurance

To conclude, then, I can find no good reason to believe that the atonement was limited in the sense which most Calvinists today seem to mean: that Jesus satisfied the demands of God’s justice only against the sins of the elect. Rather, it is the historical alternative which is both reasonable and scriptural: namely, that Jesus, in his death, satisfied the demands of God’s justice against any human being who might appeal to it.

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