Click on the section header below to view brief descriptions of the chapters within each section
1. Sacred Theology and the Reading of the Divine Word: Mapping the Doctrine
of Definite Atonement (David Gibson & Jonathan Gibson)
How is definite atonement to be defined, and why has it courted so much controversy? More than simply setting the scene or summarizing the book’s content, this introductory chapter offers a fresh approach. In conversation with John Calvin’s theological method, it seeks to provide the reader with a framework for reading this volume and, more importantly, for reading the Bible and thinking theologically in relation to the atonement. A new methodology is proposed for approaching this sensitive topic. Definite atonement is a biblico-systematic doctrine that arises out of holding together the various biblical texts relating to the atonement, alongside synthesizing internally related doctrines (such as hamartiology, soteriology, eschatology, christology, and the doctrine of God). When this “domain of discourse” is respected, definite atonement emerges as the most plausible and coherent position to hold on the intent and nature of the atonement.
I. Definite Atonement in Church History
2. “We Trust in the Saving Blood”: Definite Atonement in the Ancient Church (Michael Haykin)
Using John Gill’s monumental work The Cause of God and Truth as a window on the tradition, Michael Haykin investigates the issue of definite atonement in the Ancient Church. Statements and arguments from key figures in the Ancient Church (Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Prosper of Aquitaine) are shown to be tendential to the doctrine of definite atonement. His findings demonstrate that the stress on a specific, particular defined purpose of God in salvation, so prominent from the Reformation and beyond, was not the invention of Reformed scholastics, but had its beginning in the Early Church Fathers. Some of the key arguments used by late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformers in defense of definite atonement are shown to be present in seed form in the Ancient Church.
3. "Sufficient for All, Efficient for Some": Definite Atonement in the Medieval Church (David Hogg)
David Hogg assesses the works of Gottschalk of Orbais, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas. These Medieval theologians wrote about predestination, divine foreknowledge, free will, and the atoning death of Christ in a manner that is not only consistent with later Reformed expressions of definite atonement, but are in fact preparatory and foundational for this doctrine. The inductive study of this period supports the thesis that there is a continuous trajectory running from the Ancient Church through the Medieval Church that stresses a specific, particular and defined purpose of God in salvation.
4. Calvin, Indefinite Language, and Definite Atonement (Paul Helm)
The presence of indefinite or indiscriminate language with respect to the scope and efficacy of the atonement in John Calvin’s writings is often taken to provide strong evidence that he denied definite atonement. Holding to an important distinction between Calvin committing himself to definite atonement and being committed to definite atonement, Paul Helm argues that Calvin’s language is thoroughly consistent with the doctrine of definite atonement. Helm investigates Calvin’s views of (1) divine providence and the future, (2) his language of aspiration, and (3) his commitment to universal preaching (providing two test cases in Ezekiel 18:23 and 1 Timothy 2:4). He concludes that Calvin’s use of indefinite language cannot be used as an argument against his commitment to definite atonement.
5. Blaming Beza: The Development of Definite Atonement in the Reformed Tradition (Raymond Blacketer)
Did John Calvin teach “limited atonement,” or did later Reformed thinkers, such as Theodore Beza, concoct this allegedly harsh doctrine by substituting Calvin’s restrained biblical exegesis with a deterministic, rationalistic, and deductive system? Raymond Blacketer brings a wealth of historical knowledge to bear on this question and answers it with accuracy and nuance. He provides a brief historical tour of how Calvin has been read or misread and the methodological cul-de-sacs in much recent Calvin scholarship. Using Theodore Beza as his main test case, Blacketer demonstrates that there is more continuity with Calvin in the late-sixteenth Reformer than previous scholarship has allowed.
6. The Synod of Dort and Definite Atonement (Lee Gatiss)
Definite atonement achieved confessional status at the international Synod of Dort (1618–1619). Rather than treating them as a collection of abstract doctrinal documents, this chapter puts the formularies and deliberations of that famous gathering of theologians and pastors into historical context, and particularly notes some of the diversity amongst the delegates, not least on the issue of atonement. There was no monolithic Reformed consensus but in their refutations of Arminianism, Reformed theologians used a variety of approaches and exegetical tactics. Lee Gatiss focuses especially on the classic sufficiency-efficiency distinction as it was employed in the debates and final statements at Dort, and the concept of divine intention. Since they have been unduly neglected in the scholarship to date, he also examines the biblical annotations commissioned by the Synod to see how Reformed doctrine was grounded textually by Reformed biblical scholars in their rejection of Arminian impositions upon the text.
7. Controversy on Universal Grace: An Historical Survey of Moïse Amyraut’s
Brief Traitté de la Predestination (Amar Djaballah)
The purpose of this chapter is to present an historical survey of Amyraut and his writings and the controversy that ensued as a result of their publication. To date, there is no detailed, published presentation of Amyraut’s main theses in the English language. Djaballah provides a brief overview of Amyraut’s background and upbringing, his education and theological training, before presenting the main tenants of Amyraut’s thesis on predestination as contained in his infamous Brief Traitté de la Predestination et de ses principales dependances. He then traces the subsequent historical controversy over grace in France and beyond, concluding with some brief examples of Amyraldianism in evangelical theology in the last century.
8. Atonement and the Covenant of Redemption: John Owen on the Nature of Christ’s Satisfaction (Carl Trueman)
In this chapter, Trueman explores the complexity of doctrinal formulation and the inter-connectedness of one doctrinal locus to another in relation to the nature of Christ’s satisfaction. In conversation with John Owen and Richard Baxter, Trueman tackles the issue of whether Christ’s atonement ipso facto rendered the elect justified, and thus whether faith is a mere awakening to a justified state that already belongs to the elect. The discussion turns on the nature of the payment that Christ rendered to the Father: was it an equivalent payment or an identical payment? By advocating an identical payment, Baxter believed that Owen’s theology pushed towards a doctrine of eternal justification or, if not that, at least justification which took place at the cross and whose objectivity and effectiveness thus stood independent of any need for individual repentance, faith, and a disciplined Christian life. Trueman demonstrates how Baxter’s concerns were ill-founded because of the way Owen, in an exemplary fashion, located the identical payment within a wider theological framework: that of the covenant of redemption and the unity of the office of Christ’s mediatorship.
II. DEFINITE ATONEMENT IN THE BIBLE
9. “Because He Loved Your Forefathers”: Election, Atonement, and Intercession in the Pentateuch (Paul Williamson)
This chapter investigates the relationship between election, atonement, and intercession within the Pentateuch. The relationship between Israel’s election and their subsequent redemption out of Egypt is presented as the larger biblical-theological framework in which any analysis of sacrifice and redemption must take place. Particular attention is given to the key redemptive moments in the Pentateuch of the Passover and Day of Atonement—the latter in sensitivity to the covenant-elect distinction. The corporate and individual nature of atonement is also discussed. The material that is surveyed demonstrates that, though not fully developed, the seeds of definite atonement have been sown in the early stages of the Bible’s story.
10. “Stricken for the Transgression of My People”: The Atoning Work of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (Alec Motyer)
An inductive exploration into Isaiah 53 reveals the resources that it holds for the doctrine of definite atonement. Setting the fourth “Servant song” in its literary context, Alec Motyer shows how this famous passage presents key theological concepts that are complementary to the doctrine of definite atonement. The Servant’s death exhibits a penal substitutionary atonement that has several ramifications for its intent and nature. Motyer provides insight into the accomplishment of the Servant’s redemptive death, while also illuminating the Servant’s role in applying that same redemption. The chapter closes with an insightful note on “the many” for whom the Servant brings salvation.
11. For the Glory of the Father and the Salvation of His People: Definite Atonement in the Synoptics and Johannine Literature (Matthew Harmon)
Rather than simply describing the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Synoptic Gospels and Johannine Literature situate the work of Christ within the larger framework of an agreement in eternity past between the Father and the Son. In the light of that agreement, this chapter demonstrates that the ultimate purpose of the atonement is to display the glory of God. The Son accomplishes this ultimate purpose by successfully completing the work the Father sent him to do, which was to effectually accomplish the redemption of the people whom the Father gave to him. This claim is supported by the numerous texts that refer to Jesus specifically dying for his people and consistent with those texts that assert God’s love for the world.
12. For Whom Did Christ Die? Particularism and Universalism in the Pauline Epistles (Jonathan Gibson)
This chapter takes up the task of analyzing the particularistic, universalistic, and “perishing” texts to see how they might contribute to Paul’s overall soteriological framework. Gibson investigates these three sets of texts in the Pauline corpus, before making important qualifications in the interpretation of the terms “many,” “all,” and “world.” The practical relationship between Paul’s soteriology and evangelism is briefly explored. The chapter demonstrates that the universalistic elements in Paul’s soteriology complement rather than compromise the possibility for a definite atonement within his atonement theology.
13. The Glorious, Indivisible, Trinitarian Work of God in Christ: Definite Atonement in Paul's Theology of Salvation (Jonathan Gibson)
In discussions on the intent and nature of the atonement, particularistic, universalistic, and “perishing” texts are often employed in a textual quid pro quo as each respective side tries to support their position. It is no different in the Pauline corpus. In this chapter, Gibson seeks to plot a new course for the discussion, one that understands Paul’s doctrine of the atonement through the lens of his soteriology. Integral to the Apostle’s soteriology is a collection of texts that concern doctrinal loci which impinge upon his atonement theology, such as election, eschatology, union with Christ, christology, Trinitarianism, and the glory of God. It is these doctrinal loci that are often neglected, and this chapter lets their voice be heard in the debate over the intent and nature of the atonement. In so doing, it becomes clear that Paul’s soteriological framework can point in no other direction than that of a definite atonement.
14. “Problematic Texts” for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles (Thomas Schreiner)
Proponents of a universal or general atonement often marshal universalistic texts in the Pastoral and General Epistles to show how limiting the scope of the atonement is biblically unwarranted. In this chapter, Tom Schreiner deals with these “problematic” texts (1 Tim. 2:4–6; 4:10; Titus 2:11–14; 2 Pet. 2:1; 3:9; Heb. 2:9). By close work on individual words and terms, as well as being sensitive to their historical, literary, and theological contexts, Schreiner demonstrates that none of these texts tells against the doctrine of definite atonement.
III. DEFINITE ATONEMENT IN THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
15. Definite Atonement and the Order of Decrees (Donald Macleod)
The focus of this chapter is the link between the divine intention of the atonement and its extent. Was it the eternal design of God that the cross should redeem every human being? Or was it his design to redeem the elect, a multitude so vast that no one can count them (Rev. 7:9), but still only a proportion of the human race? Macleod takes up these questions and responds in conversation with Arminianism, the Reformed confessions, Karl Barth’s unique presentation of “purified” supralapsarianism, and Hypothetical Universalism. With warmth and clarity, Macleod offers a fluent account of the centrality of God’s elect multitude to his administration of the universe.
16. The Triune God, Incarnation, and Definite Atonement (Robert Letham)
The doctrine of definite atonement affirms that, in accordance with the loving eternal decree of the triune God, Christ the Son took human nature in the incarnation, and offered himself through the Holy Spirit to the Father so as to make atonement for his elect people. Entailed in this is an unbreakable connection between the Holy Trinity, the incarnation of the Son, and the atonement. At the heart of this connection is the doctrine of the indivisibility of the being and acts of the triune God. Respectfully but firmly, Robert Letham engages three prominent models of the atonement that exhibit either discord in the Trinitarian relations (Amyraut), inversion of the divine attributes (J. B. Torrance), or theological incoherence (T. F. Torrance). The chapter ends with a positive statement about how the incarnation and atoning death of Christ is the outflow of a loving decision by the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
17. Penal Substitution and the Intent of the Atonement (Garry J. Williams)
Penal substitutionary atonement rightly understood entails definite atonement. Conversely, insistence on an atonement made for all without exception undermines belief in penal substitutionary atonement. This chapter illustrates these connections by means of a close engagement with two advocates of the view that the atonement itself was intended for all and was narrowed only in the limitation of its application to believers (James Ussher and D. Broughton Knox). With discussion of select New Testament texts and detailed exegetical work on Leviticus 4–5, Williams demonstrates the specificity of the atonement in Scripture, before applying his findings to Ussher and Knox. The exercise exposes the inherent weakness in Ussher’s understanding of human nature as the object for which Christ atoned and Knox’s flawed account of Christ’s penal suffering as indistinguishable. By contrast, penal substitutionary atonement in Scripture is definite atonement, made for the specific sin and sins of particular people.
18. Punishment God Cannot Twice Inflict: The Double Payment Argument Redivivus (Garry J. Williams)
The double payment argument is often rejected on the ground that it depends on commercial concepts that are inapplicable to the atonement. Williams examines whether the argument is so inextricable from commercial concepts and their dangerous implications that it must be abandoned. He cuts fresh ground in exploring the grounds and gaps of the commercial metaphor in relation to the atonement. In conversation with Socinus, Grotius, Owen, and O’Donovan he demonstrates that a mutually informing combination of the metaphors of God as ruler and creditor should be employed in the doctrine of the atonement, and that punishment is not simple restoration, restitution, an identical return for sin, or quantifiable. Rather, it is an answer returned to specific sins committed by specific people, or else it is meaningless. When God has given an answer to a sin, it has been given: therefore, God cannot twice inflict punishment. The payment metaphor expresses this deeper argument from the nature of punishment.
19. The New Covenant Work of Christ: Priesthood, Atonement, and Intercession (Stephen Wellum)
One crucial biblical-theological issue at the center of the doctrine of definite atonement is the priestly work of Christ. Yet, many who affirm that Christ’s work is a priestly work, including general atonement advocates, deny the repeated argument by defenders of definite atonement that Christ’s high priesthood necessarily entails a particular redemption. Setting the discussion within the methodological context of typology and covenant, Wellum skillfully presents the unified work of the Old Testament priest, comparing and contrasting it with the work of Christ, our Great High Priest. In doing so, he argues that as the Great High Priest of the new covenant, Christ offers an atonement for a particular people and effectively secures everything necessary to bring those people to eternal salvation.
20. Jesus Christ the Man: Towards a Theology of Definite Atonement (Henri Blocher)
Commencing with a necessary prolegomena on systematic theology and its essential components, Blocher helps to set definite atonement within a framework of proper theological method. A glance at past exchanges highlights motives and arguments for and against definite atonement in writers such as Augustine, John Calvin, Andrew Fuller, and Charles Hodge, as well as Karl Barth and Bruce McCormack. A central section then revisits issues that appear to be cardinal in debate: the use of Scripture, the love of God, Trinitarian harmony, the universal preaching of the gospel, personal assurance, “double payment,” and the sufficiency of the atonement. The final two sections offer suggestions which may contribute new material to the debate: (1) Blocher provides a moving explanation of the representative nature of Christ’s substitutionary death; (2) he irenically argues that we respect historical sequence by allowing openness to terms such as “all” and “world” to bear their full weight in relation to Christ’s death.
IV. DEFINITE ATONEMENT IN PASTORAL PRACTICE
21. Slain for the World? The “Uncomfortability” of the “Unevangelized” for a Universal Atonement (Daniel Strange)
This chapter exposes the problematic relationship between the “unevangelized” and a universal atonement. Strange contends that unless proponents of universal atonement deny the fides ex auditu (faith comes by hearing) and embrace some form of soteriological inclusivism (with its deeply problematic ramifications for evangelical exegesis, doctrine, and mission), universal atonement is in actuality a “limited” atonement, not simply in its “quality” (in offering only the “possibility” of salvation), but also in its “quantity” or “scope.” More provocatively, for those who never hear the gospel, not only is universal or “unlimited” atonement susceptible to the claim of not presenting a sincere or “well-meant” offer of the gospel, but actually for this category of humanity, it makes no offer at all, thus making it “limited.” Using John Owen’s classic argument in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Strange presses home the logic of the dilemma with clarity and force, showing how the “unevangelized” remain an “uncomfortable stone in the shoe” for advocates of a universal atonement.
22. “Blessèd Assurance, Jesus is Mine”? Definite Atonement and the Cure of Souls (Sinclair Ferguson)
Jesus’ description of himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep carries with it pastoral implications for gospel ministers who serve as under-shepherds and assistant bishops to Christ. The analogy implies definite atonement. Jesus dies for his own whom the Father has given him. But surely definite atonement is a sophisticated and controversial point of theology, and therefore one unlikely to impact pastoral ministry? More pointedly, in the nineteenth century, John McLeod Campbell, a Scottish Presbyterian Minister, argued that the doctrine of “limited atonement” robs a Christian of their assurance. In this chapter, Sinclair Ferguson engages with Campbell’s seminal work The Nature of the Atonement, exposing the main tenets of his arguments. In conversation with Calvin and the Westminster Divines, Ferguson demonstrates how assurance is the singular fruit of the gospel and the birthright of every Christian. The grounds for this assurance is found, contrary to Campbell, not in a universal atonement but in a definite atonement, one in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have worked in harmony to secure. And this is a true cure of souls.
23. “My Glory I Will Not Give to Another”: Preaching the Fullness of Definite Atonement
to the Glory of God (John Piper)
With clarity and passion, John Piper portrays the glory of the atonement and its ramifications for preaching. The cross of Christ is the climactic revelation of the glory of his grace, which is the apex of the glory of God. The glory of God’s grace includes the glorious design and power of the atonement to secure the faith and salvation of his elect. Connected to this are the issues of God’s love and the efficacy of the new covenant which is obtained by the blood of Christ. Piper engages firmly but fairly with modern Reformed expressions of “unlimited limited atonement” (Mark Driscoll) and “multiple-intentions view” (Bruce Ware), exposing how the dilemma of a “double payment” attends both schemes. Piper concludes his essay with the very real and practical issues of the sincere and universal offer of the gospel for everyone, and the benefits of preaching definite atonement to God’s people.