Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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

About Answering Error Salvation Mechanics

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

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8 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.

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 is against us. That is the essential difference between pecuniary, commercial debt, and judicial, covenantal 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 his 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 adoption of those people into God’s family 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. The Owenist, by contrast, would have the Son’s work be incommensurate with that of the Father and Spirit in the economic trinity.

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—or, better, other work for God to do—in order for it to be applied to anyone: namely, the Spirit’s gifting of regeneration and faith. It is the Spirit’s working of faith in us which is the instrument of our justification (Romans 5:1)—not the Son’s working of atonement. And that faith itself is a gift of grace (Romans 3:24)—not a mechanical entailment of the cross. That the Owenist objects to this is 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 the work of the economic trinity, and the mechanism of 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, and is only the sufficient cause of justification by transitive relationship. 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.

It is perhaps worth adding that the Owenist’s focus on the death of Jesus is itself rather strange in view of Scripture’s focus on his resurrection. Although Jesus was delivered up for our transgressions, without which God’s justice could not be satisfied, he was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). I am not sure Owenists can explain what this means; their defective understanding of imputation makes them blind to how our identification with Jesus’ own justification—that is to say, his resurrection in which God repealed his death sentence—is the basis of our own.

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.


Reid Ferguson

Dominic – thanks so much for stopping by my blog. Your entire series has been refreshing. I’ve become a big fan.

Now if I had a REAL solution for the terminology – I’d have coined it and made my millions. “Objective” is still the word I cling to most. But that doesn’t communicate well without qualification. Hey – I know! Let’s not put anything before it at all – and just call it the “atonement” – the way Scripture does! Naw, that’ll never work.

Keep thinking and writing. You are helping many of us out here. As a former near-hyper-Calvinist (hence my HIGH-per Calvinism label) recovery is not easy. The obstacles are many. Friends in the dialog are most welcome.

Blessings brother.

Ken Pettit

I am happy to have found your site and ideas so readily and abundantly available to me! While I have not skimmed through your website as of yet, I am pleased with this one article.

I have one question, and it does apply to the subject of this article, though it could be treated in its own, and that is, Why is faith necessary for justification?

Since Christ represented all mankind by becoming sin, becoming a curse, and bearing the full cup of the wrath of God for sin, burying the flesh and the sin of man by sacrificing His body unto death, why isn’t this transaction not made for all men, and only to those who follow the example of Abraham and believe?

I have thought a little about this, and all that has come to my mind is this: faith is necessary only to make the actual atonement and the subsequent peace with God subjectively real and experienced by the sinner. Apart from the consent of faith, of course this reality couldn’t be experienced and enjoyed.

For example, if ten men committed a crime and were sentenced to prison for life, but all of them were told by the Sheriff that an innocent man has stepped forward to go to prison for them, they could not and would not walk out free men until they believed this.

So until we believe Christ has paid it all, we cannot and will not believe on the grounds of the truth, that we are free from the law and sin and death. In this way, I can see why faith is necessary for salvation (justification).

But, why, as universalism claims, won’t Christ’s atoning work cover all our sins and save us all from condemnation and death, since His transaction is sufficiently paid for it all? Why is our faith necessary for the eternal salvation of our souls?

Thanks for reading. I would love to hear what you think!

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Hi Ken—good question. I’m not sure we are explicitly given an answer in Scripture, but let me make some comments:

1. It doesn’t appear that faith is logically necessary to salvation. That is, God could have made the mechanism of justification entirely objective, with no involvement on our part at all. He could have simply applied the atonement to everyone he chose, and declared them righteous, even if they never knew about it. There isn’t anything logically difficult with that view, as far as I can see.

2. Apropos (1), evidently faith is a teleological requirement rather than a logical one. That is, in God’s plan, faith has a certain indispensable purpose. It isn’t logically necessary to justification per se, but it is necessary to the kind of salvation that God wants. Faith, then, appears to be a stipulation based on God’s specific purposes in redemption.

3. This purpose appears to be to glorify a covenant people. God does not want to merely forensically justify sinners so as to save them from hell. He wants to forensically justify them as the grounds and starting point for then sanctifying and glorifying them. As you correctly point out, the subjective apprehension of this justification in the sinner is a necessary condition for further sanctification.

4. In line with (3), faith itself is a return to the proper order of things. This is the way man was designed to be—in a relationship of trust with God, where he is epistemically grounded on God. That relationship was destroyed in the fall, but is restored by faith. Sanctification would be impossible without that foundation. I would say that faith, itself, is a form of sanctification in that respect.

Hope this helps,


I think Dominic is right. What we have to remember is that God’s intention in saving us or his goal is not just justification. This is a mistake Arminians tend to make. Rom. 8:30 says he predestined to glorify us; to conform us to Christ’s image. This is to live solely unto God. God isn’t as much interested in justifying us so that we can escape Hell but continue to live as we want as he is in saving us so that we can begin to really live; and true life is to know and love God.

Thus faith must be the condition or means of justification because as soon as one has a proper view of himself and God, faith is the only possible response. We cast ourselves on God completely. I think this supports Dominic’s last two points.

I tend to shy away from thinking about God’s works as if he had more than one way of doing things. Since he is perfect, he will and thus can only do the perfect thing, so he saved through faith because there is no other option. This, I am sure, will be debated and I am not being dogmatic, but sometimes the “of all possible worlds” form of thinking seems to be a little presumptuous to me. But I would love to hear other peoples’ take on it.

Ken Pettit

I actually misunderstood the meaning of your term “universal atonement” and understood you to be talking about the part of the unbiblical doctrine of universal reconciliation. Now, as I have read more of the series, I get what you mean. Sorry about that.

Both of you are right, and honestly, how refreshing it is to hear such knowledge pouring forth in a concise and systematic way. Probably being less disciplined as yourselves, and not yet so trained in the Word of God, I tend to be more visual and conceptual (or right-brained) in my thinking. So I appreciate what I see is a clear impression of your careful use of terms and phrases in explaining truth.

I agree God intends not only on a partial salvation, such as mere justification and peace now, but a full salvation, increasing in knowledge and love unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (i.e. Christ-likeness), consummating in glorification. And without faith this “growth in grace” would be impossible, since justification is the ground for sanctification.

What I was touching on, however, was why, in the end, faith is necessary for Christ’s atonement to apply to all men in the day every unbeliever stands before the great white throne. If Christ represented man as a transgressor of the holy law of God, and as a substitute He suffered the wrath of God for sin, will any man suffer the same, though a representative paid the penalty of sin and died in his stead?

I know the answer is yes because Scripture is clear that all who are not written in the Lamb’s book of life will be cast into the lake of fire and suffer the second death. But if Christ represented every man, since every man is a transgressor and under condemnation, and He put those things away, burying them in His death, why do many stand outside of this universal propitiation to be judged at the last day?

In other words, why doesn’t the atonement cover all peoples apart from faith, since Christ’s death and resurrection is exclusive to no one in its representativeness?

Perhaps there is a more specific boundary or limit to the atonement. It seems to me that unless a person’s spirit is washed by regeneration and the renewal of the holy Spirit while there is life in his body, his spirit will remain unclean because of sin when his body dies, and eventually when his body is raised, the same sin which still remains and the unclean spirit that was not washed will again defile the second body, thereby making any salvation impossible, and the only appropriate response of a holy God is to consume such in fire and brimstone. Maybe this is it’s logical explanation? I don’t know. Does any of this even make sense? Both of your thoughts are appreciated.

nathan ruble

Hi Ken,

I don’t think that I really disagree with what you are saying for the most part. I am not sure I would explain it quite like you did in your last paragraph. Let me comment, though, on your statement in your fourth paragraph where you seem to use the reasoning that if Christ was representing all men on the cross why aren’t all saved. Of course this is the classic Universalist’s mistake because it assumes that his work is automatically applied to all at the same time. I think Dominic addressed this to some extent in his article and would suggest rereading it again.

My quick answer would be found in Romans 5 where Paul explains Federal Headship by showing the correlation between becoming sinners in Adam and becoming righteous in Christ. One thing I had to struggle with before coming to the view that Dominic writes about is when did I get “in Christ” or how does Federal Headship work.

I was initially taught that we (the elect) were in Christ while he was on the cross so when he died, I died. Thus, conversion is merely me finding out about the fact that my sins were already forgiven in Christ. The problem with this is I didn’t exist when Christ died, so I couldn’t be a sinner, let alone a justified sinner when I didn’t exist. I wasn’t justified until I was united to Christ at conversion by the Holy Spirit. Rom 16:7 Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellowprisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me. Notice that Paul understands that that some were in Christ before him because they were saved before he was.

Now let’s think about how this works in the first Adam. When did I become a sinner? When Adam sinned? No, I didn’t exist then. I became a sinner when I recieved his life at conception. So when did I become righteous? When I recieved Christ’s life at conversion. Both at the time of Adam’s and of Christ’s work it was set in stone that I would become a sinner and justified, yet it didn’t happen until I was joined to them.

The reason I think this applies somewhat to your post is that we have to understand that Christ’s death gave the potential for God to justify sinners but by itself does not accomplish justification. I am pretty sure Dominic addresses this in his article. In this way double jeapordy doesn’t enter into the equation because no one sins but the elect are forgiven because they are the only ones enabled to partake of Christ by faith.

Charles Hodge has a quote that I find helpful if you understand what he is saying. “If the nonelect should believe, he would be saved and if the elect does not believe he will be lost”. Some have a hard time with this because it is somewhat theoretical but he is merely pointing out that Christ’s death is of no value until the means of justification is applied in faith. Hope this helps and doesn’t confuse, if it confuses I will refrain from posting. Thanks

Dominic Bnonn Tennant

Hi Ken—as Nathan says, I do deal with this question several times during the course of the study. Look in particular at parts 1 and 5. But his explanation is a good one also.



Well that’s interesting.

While I do believe the Christian died at the time of his regeneration, which is what you’re saying, I do not refrain from believing the death which the Christian dies indeed occurred before he was ever born.

Because it is the death Christ died in time two thousand years ago that we participate in now when we die two thousand years later in our baptism (not referring here to water baptism). It is Christ’s death which makes our death substantial and powerful. Our death is not our own. “We died with Him” seemed to be a favorite expression of Paul’s. Were we “in Christ” when He died? No, we weren’t, for like you said, we didn’t exist. But did we die with Christ? Yes, and that’s not just to say He died and sometime later we died, but there is an inextricable reality of oneness when a Christian is suddenly baptized into Christ and into His death.

In conclusion, the Christian dies a death, which happens when any sinner repents, but the death he dies is Christ’s death, which happened on the cross. If I read you right, Nathan, you would agree with this. I don’t feel filling up this webpage with more posting would suit its purpose, but if you would like to discuss these things any further you may ask Dominic for my email.

I haven’t ever heard of Federal Headship or Forensic Imputation till now, for which I thank God for Dominic and this part of the website. I believe John MacArthur takes a similar position. He has taught me much of what I know about Biblical doctrine, but he doesn’t use these terms on a normal basis, so they were unknown to me.

I agree with your arguments. I think the challenge for me is to find arguments or an explanation of the atonement and Federal Headship that touches a different part of the mind. Anyways, Grace and peace to you both.

nathan ruble

Hi Ken,

If you are saying that the death we die is the participation of the death of Christ two thousand years ago, I have no problem with tisi. But like you said also, it doesn’t happen until we are saved in time so it didn’t happen when Christ died, it happens when we participate in it. I think we are saying the same thing but it seems almost like you are trying to say two different things at once. At least this is what it sounds like; please let me know where I am missing your point.

“We died with him” might mean that in the mind of God we are as good as “dead” but we don’t die until the Spirit does his job in us. All this might be symantics but as long as we don’t fall into the trap of eternal and cross justification, then it is OK.

I don’t mind getting your email address if Dominic wants to send it to me, if you would like to discuss this some more.

thanks, Nathan