Who did Jesus die for? Review by Fred Zaspel
Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement: Three Views. Edited by Andy Naselli and Mark Snoeberger. Nashville: B&H, 2015.
As we set ourselves to read another “Perspectives” book many of us have already staked out our own position on the question. I don’t recall ever reading a reviewer confess that as he opened the book he held to A, but afterwards he now holds to B. And I confess that after reading this book I remain a Calvinist (and thus my reflections will be tainted accordingly!). But there is genuine profit in reading an exposition and defense of varying views that goes beyond the needs of the beginning student. We choose (or assume?) “our side” and often read little from any other, but we cannot but profit from hearing opposing views when they are expressed well. And when it comes to the debate over the extent of the atonement, it seems too often that misunderstanding of the other side reigns.
As the editors and contributors of this volume all acknowledge, this is an in-house debate. All sides hold to the penal, substitutional character of Christ’s death, and all acknowledge that individually we realize the benefits of his atoning work only by grace through faith. All sides in this debate are brothers in every gospel sense, and in a way that is too often uncharacteristic of this discussion the contributors here all manage to conduct themselves accordingly. This is of course not to say that the discussion is therefore unimportant. There are weighty theological and pastoral entailments, and this is what so often and so notoriously fuels the emotion and the rhetoric. But the contributors here, recognizing both the seriousness of the issues at hand and the deeper truths held in common, provide a conversation that is both informed and courteous, and they are to be congratulated on a helpful accomplishment.
Mark Snoeberger provides a helpful Introduction that frames out the discussion well, defining the question, surveying the three views presented in the book, and identifying the major issues involved in the debate. Snoeberger describes the three views as follows:
1. A Definite Atonement
2. A Universally Sufficient Atonement
3. A Multiple-Intention Atonement
The wording of the second point above may need some clarification, for virtually all sides would affirm that the Christ’s death is “universally sufficient” in and of itself considered (even if some would want to nuance the statement carefully). What is meant is, simply, General or Universal Atonement – the Arminian view (but to be distinguished from Universalism).
Carl Trueman defends “Definite Atonement,” arguing that Christ died with the intention of saving his elect. His essay consists of two primary planks: 1) The Particularity of Intention in Christ’s Saving Mission, and 2) The Objective Efficacy of Christ’s Work. Under each of these categories he examines an array of passages to demonstrate his point exegetically. His expositions in the former category are relatively brief, but sufficient, and he devotes a generous amount of space to an examination of the familiar handful of passages that may be used to oppose his view. Under the latter category he presents an extended treatment of Leviticus 16 with Hebrews 9-10 and also of Isaiah 53 with 1 Peter 2:22-25, and of Romans 5:12-21.
Grant Osborne defends the “General Atonement” view in a series of steps that Christ died for everyone, even those who perish. He begins by sketching out his (classic) Arminian perspective of the “five points,” providing the broader theological context for his handling of the question of the extent of the atonement. The body of his essay is largely exegetical, proceeding in two steps. First, he gives extended attention first to those passages that would seem to favor particularism and that present Christ’s intercessory work as limited to the elect, offering an Arminian handling of each. Then he turns to those passages that in his judgment favor universal atonement.
John Hammett’s essay is the lengthiest of the three, defending the “Multiple-Intentions ” view. He argues that God intended in the death of Christ 1) to him forth as the substitute for all humanity in order to provide forgiveness of sins for all (God’s “universal” intention); 2) to secure the salvation of some (God’s “particular” intention); and 3) to reconcile all things to himself (God’s “cosmic” intention). There is little dispute regarding the third point, so Hammett devotes relatively little space to it, but it rounds out the discussion nicely. His approach under each heading is largely exegetical while giving due attention to larger theological considerations.
Toward the conclusion of each essay the contributors address the implications of their respective views on pastoral questions such as evangelism, assurance, and so on. And of course each devotes space to anticipated objections to their views. Following the traditional format of this “Perspectives” series, each essay is followed by a critique from the other contributors.
Andy Naselli concludes with a crisp summary of the three positions staked out in the course of the book and then exhorts us, whatever our view on this question, to keep the matter in perspective so as to maintain peaceful fellowship among gospel brothers – the largest section of the essay exposing ten ways we tend to create unhealthy schism over this question.
Definite Atonement: Trueman
Both planks of Trueman’s case are presented with his usual precision and clarity. The Particularity of Intention in Christ’s Saving Mission is a theme he presses often and with vigor, and for obvious reason: there is a large stream of teaching in Scripture regarding the Son’s saving mission, and we ought to expect this larger biblical structure to give definition to his death. God sent his Son and Christ came to save his people. Trueman’s second plank – The Objective Efficacy of Christ’s Work – is important also. Christ died not to make salvation possible or even probable but to save, and expressions to this effect must not be drained of their soteric content. We will run into all this throughout the interaction with the others below,
Perhaps most surprising in Trueman’s essay is his concession up front that his position is not taught in any single verse of Scripture.
The case for particular redemption, like that for the Trinity, does not depend on the understanding of any single text, nor does any single text explicitly teach it. Instead, it is the result of the cumulative force and implications of a series of strands of biblical teaching (p.23).
Trueman might have offered Revelation 5:9, which plainly asserts a selective (ek) redemption by the blood of Christ. Or perhaps Romans 8:32, which directly asserts that all for whom Christ died receive all of the attending benefits. Or Romans 8:34, in which Paul employs the “Calvinist” logic of double jeopardy exactly: none for whom Christ died can possibly be condemned (simply because Christ was condemned for them). In fairness, Trueman does present a strong exegetical case from Leviticus 16 / Hebrews 9-10; Isaiah 53 / 1 Peter 2:22-25; John 6:37-40; 10:14-16; 17; Acts 20:28; Romans 5:12-21; Ephesians 5:25-27; Titus 2:14; and 1 Peter 2:22-25. And he (rightly) stresses the New Testament teaching of the effectuality of Christ’s death and the actuality of substitution, considerations that in my view show every verse on substitution to demand particularism. His point that the doctrine finds overwhelming support in the broader structures of Scripture is well made, but given all his careful exegetical work it is not clear why he felt the need to make such a “no proof-text” concession. But it is one he emphasizes more than once, and, predictably, he is made to hear of it in the response of the other contributors. Still, his expositions are lucid and cogent, and with them the concession becomes more formal than actual, and his interlocutors make relatively little of it.
Given my agreement with him from the start, of course, I find little here to critique. There are points of exegesis I would want to add here and there, but I will try to get to these below in my interactions with the others.
General Atonement: Osborne
Osborne devotes several initial pages not to the question of the extent of the atonement, specifically, but to a broader discussion of the “five points,” which he surveys from an Arminian perspective. For him the many verses that “appear” to speak of an election to salvation efficaciously given must be understood in terms of God’s foresight of those he knew would believe. This broader Arminian perspective provides for him the backdrop of a universal salvific will of God which, in turn, for him, points to a universal atonement.
It is helpful for Osborne (and the reader) to begin with this wider perspective in order to shape his discussion, but emphasizing the universal purpose of God in order to define the intent of the atonement does raise the question of how to avoid outright universalism (the teaching that everyone will be saved). Of course Osborne leans heavily on passages that employ universal language in connection to the atonement, but the difficult question of universalism remains, for in each of these “universal” passages it is actual salvation that is in view. For example, he points us to John 1:29, where Christ is said to “take away the sin of the world.” On the face of it this verse would seem to teach either that, 1) all will be saved, because the sin of all people has been expiated, or 2) “world” is to be understood in comprehensive rather than exhaustively inclusive terms. The second option seems pretty easy to me, both exegetically and theologically. But Osborne takes a third option: 3) When John says that Christ “takes away” sin he does not indicate the removal of sin after all but something less – the potential or offer to take away sin for those who choose to accept it. But of course this is not what the verse says. Or, if Osborne would object to this characterization, we must ask (given his understanding) what it would mean for Christ to “take away” sin from those who in the end will in fact be condemned for their sin? Osborne does not consider these questions but takes for granted that universal language must be taken in an absolute sense, in which case the soteriological content of the verse is reduced significantly.
Similarly, Osborne argues that John 3:17 indicates a universal atonement also – God sent his Son not to condemn the world but to save it. But we must ask, was this saving purpose of God in sending his Son accomplished? All sides here would surely want to answer in the affirmative; it is part of our great hope to see, in the end, a redeemed world rejoicing in its Redeemer, and Revelation 5:9, for example, tells us of it. But if so, then either the word “world” does not have the exhaustively inclusive meaning Osborne attaches to it, or we have outright universalism.
Or again, if Christ is said to be the propitiation for the whole world (1 John 2:2) we must conclude either, that 1) all will be saved, for God is propitiated with regard to all; or 2) “propitiation” in this case does not in fact describe an actual satisfaction but only a potential one; or 3) “the whole world” must be understood in a sense other than “every person without exception.” Once again, for my money the third option is the easiest to handle exegetically and within Scripture’s broader theological context. Osborne chooses the second option, but he does not explain how the use of universal language reduces the meaning of “propitiation” to “making redemption available for all.”
Osborne posits the Wesleyan-Arminian understanding of “prevenient grace” as a major factor in the discussion. He acknowledges that Scripture teaches total depravity, but he contends that by his death Christ has restored humanity from sin’s enslavement so that all are able to believe or not. I have always thought this is a convenient fix to the problem, but, as Hammett summarizes,
This view has two problems: (1) no text affirms such a universal, restorative gift, and (2) descriptions of humans, even after the atonement, suggest that they still need a special work of God to bring them to repentance and faith (see Eph 2:1, which views the Ephesian Christians as formerly “dead” in their sins) (p. 192).
Osborne objects to this brief dismissal (pp. 200-202), but the fact remains, as Trueman observes, this notion of prevenient grace effectively nullifies the biblical teaching of total depravity while giving mere lip-service to it. If the Spirit of God is still needed to bring about human faith, then the human factor is not decisive and the atonement has not brought all equally to the same savable point after all. And more to my point, this doctrine of prevenient grace cannot be demonstrated from the biblical text except by implications drawn from soteriological terminology that has been emptied of its meaning – when Scripture affirms that Christ died “for” us / the world, it does not mean that Christ actually bore the curse of sinners in their place but that he only potentially took their place if they will believe. Or again, it means that many “for” whom Christ died nonetheless perish. I cannot see how this allows for a doctrine of substitution in any meaningful sense.
Osborne admits that his preparation for this essay brought him into new acquaintance with Reformed theology, but still it is evident that his acquaintance with it is not close, as his misunderstanding of sublapsarianism (p.105), total depravity (p. 83, 122, 124), and “hyper-calvinist” (p.111) betray. This necessarily weakens his response, especially given his decision to approach the question from the context of the broader theological discussion.
To his credit, Osborne seeks at length to establish his position exegetically. And of course some of his arguments that certain passages which seem at first blush to endorse particularism, alone considered, could in fact be taken otherwise seem plausible. But again he fails to address details that are more decisive. For example, in 1 John 2:2, as I have briefly mentioned above, if “the whole world” is to be understood as a reference to every individual everywhere, then what of the meaning of “propitiation”? In what meaningful sense is Christ the propitiation for those who are condemned under God’s wrath? It would seem that we are forced to understand either “whole world” less inclusively or “propitiation” less soteriologically. Yet soteriology is the whole point. And what of the indicative? John is not speaking of mere potentialities but of realities. A mere citing of universal terminology, which all sides admit is used with a great degree of flexibility, cannot be made to change the meaning of soteriological terminology employed.
So also in his handling of Romans 8:32, Osborne’s plea that that the verse does not specify “only believers” misses the point: Paul’s plain assertion is that all those for whom Christ died receive all the attending benefits, which leaves us with either outright universalism or particularism. So also he cites 2 Corinthians 5:19 but only partially, assuming that “reconciling the world to himself” ipso facto demands the Arminian understanding of universal atonement. But he give no attention at all to the rest of the verse and the fact that Paul himself defines this universal saving work in terms of the non-imputation of sin – “not imputing their trespasses against them.” How, on a universalistic reading of this verse, are we to understand the non-imputation of sins in reference to people who are in fact condemned for those sins?
What Osborne advocates is an atonement that guaranteed the salvation of no one but an atonement that made salvation possible for those whose “faith-decision” take advantage of it. Put in larger terms, the success of God’s redemptive program hinges on human assent. Expressions such as “reconciled by his death,” “justified by his blood,” and “obtained eternal redemption for us,” on the Arminian understanding, are to be understood in mere potential terms. This of course will make every Calvinist wince. Indeed, this is often fodder for the more heated rhetoric, for, ironically, it places a far greater “limit” on the atonement than any Calvinist ever dreamed of. Stated more gently, to understand statements of expiation, redemption, reconciliation, propitiation (etc.) in merely potential terms does not seem to measure up to the demands of the language.
The bottom line in all this is that universal language is regularly (dare I say, “always”?) used in a less than exhaustively inclusive sense. All sides will acknowledge this at least at some points. Universal terminology has a wide degree of flexibility. But instead the Arminian chooses to interpret universal terminology in a rigid, absolute sense and instead give flexibility to the soteriological terminology. I don’t see how it can possibly work.
Multiple Intentions: John Hammett
John Hammett provides a careful and clear articulation of a third alternative. He shows himself widely informed on this particular (no pun intended!) subject, and his essay is quite comprehensive. Even though (as I confessed at the outset) I began reading this book already convinced of a differing position I was eager and even open to read Hammett’s “multiple intentions” view, and throughout the essay I was very impressed to find how broadly informed he is on the subject. And at certain places in particular I felt challenged. Still, I was scarcely past his definitions before I felt confusion.
Hammett argues that in the death of Christ God intended both 1) “to provide forgiveness of sins for all” and give Christ “as the substitute for all humanity,” and 2) “to secure the salvation of some.” It is not clear how Hammett’s two intentions can each find a place within the larger saving purpose of God. He affirms with every Calvinist that God has chosen a people to save for his own name’s sake, and within this larger perspective the definiteness of the atonement that Hammett affirms fits very well. But what of this other, universal purpose of providing Christ as a substitute for those who perish? How does this fit within the broader trajectory of God’s saving purpose? This is where Trueman is perhaps strongest, both in his exposition and in his critique of the others, and it is a problem for which Hammett provides no solution.
My confusion begins on the level of understanding the compatibility of two (at least seemingly) competing wills and intents in the mind and Persons of God and in the person of Christ himself. God intended to set forth Christ as a substitute for every person, and at the same time and by the same event God intended to set him forth as a substitute for his elect. He intended by him to provide forgiveness for the world, and he intended by him to provide forgiveness for the elect. Christ went to the cross bearing the sin as penal substitute for everyone, and he went to the cross bearing the sin as penal substitute for his elect. In each case the sacrifice is objective and “removes obstacles to fellowship with God on the divine side.” But because of divine election only the elect are actually saved by it.
The more I thought on this the more confusing it seemed. Does Christ at the same time offer himself as a substitute for everyone yet in reality only for his elect? If so, then in each case “substitute” means something very different. For the elect it means that Christ actually took their sins to himself, bore their curse, and thus made satisfaction to God on their behalf so that they could not and would not be condemned – Christ was condemned “for” them. But for the world it means something else – something much less (but exactly what, we are not told). These are two very different kinds of substitution – on that actually substitutes and one that does not, one that saves and one that does not. Hammett nowhere explains this equivocation.
Likewise, Hammett argues that in its universal aspect Christ’s death is an “objective accomplishment that removes the obstacles to fellowship with God on the divine side.” But if this language does not entail actual salvation I’m not sure what meaning it has at all. If Hammett were arguing for outright universalism it would make perfect sense, but he is not. As such, it just is not clear what these words can mean. If Christ is the penal substitute providing forgiveness for those who perish, then just what is “penal substitution” and “forgiveness”? Of course Hammett will argue that all this becomes personally realized only upon faith, a point on which all sides agree. But the question is not the time of application but the meaning of words. Was Christ a true substitute, a stand-in and surety or not? And did that substitutionary death pay the redemption price of forgiveness or not? If so, then (discounting universalism) we are left with particularism, and I don’t see how Hammett can have it both ways.
Again, Hammett rightly argues that Christ in his death accomplished an “objective” atonement. By “objective” he (rightly) means that “the focus is outside the human subject: something happens objectively” with reference to God, “apart from any human response” (italics mine). Just what is it that “happens” “objectively”? Hammett answers: “Objectively the cross satisfies the wrath of God.” And this Christ does for all people. Interestingly, it is Osborne, the Arminian in this debate, who (justifiably) remarks here, “it still is not entirely obvious to me that he can completely escape the charge that universal atonement entails universal salvation” (p.196). Indeed, for if the objective satisfaction of the wrath of God does not entail rescue from wrath and constitute salvation, what do words mean? But of course Hammett is no universalist, and so we are left with a “satisfaction” that (for the world) makes no satisfaction after all. Hammett himself goes on to speak of “actual” salvation accomplished for the elect in the death of Christ, and this “actual” salvation consists in the actual forgiveness of sins through the actual substitutionary death of Christ, and on this score he is on firm exegetical and theological ground. But I cannot get my mind around his concept of an objective substitution, satisfaction, and forgiveness that for the world neither substitutes nor satisfies nor forgives.
Hammett contends that it is no inconsistency to affirm that Christ died to save the elect and to save all. But he accomplishes consistency only by equivocation – “to save” (and related terminology) means one thing for the elect and something else for the world. Even though this view is very different from the Arminian approach, at this point the two make the same mistake: in passages that speak in universal terms, soteriological terminology is stripped of actual soteric content. The Calvinist is right to ask how such expressions as substitution, reconciliation, justification, redemption, and “for” (substitution) are allowed their meaning in particularistic passages only and how they can be made to mean something less in universal passages.
Concluding essay: Naselli
Naselli’s concluding essay expounds ten ways we (on all sides) tend to create unhealthy division over this issue. His point is well made and merits rehearsing here:
1. Uncharitably denigrating other positions
2. Setting up and tearing down straw men
3. Viewing other evangelical views as heresy
4. Insufficiently defining a personal position
5. Claiming that a personal view is the result of exegesis and biblical theology but not systematic theology
6. Overemphasizing importance of the atonement’s extent
7. Assuming that only non-Calvinists can tell a non-Christian “God loves you” or “Jesus died for you”
8. Requiring that others adhere to a particular view when flexibility is appropriate
9. Giving the impression that complete understanding is possible regarding the extent of the atonement
10. Holding a personal position with sinful pride
This wise pastoral exhortation is needed, and we all would do well to take it to heart. Let the discussion be frank, but this is, after all, a discussion among brothers. I do hope my critique here has not been offensive or disrespectful. My interaction of course cannot be exhaustive but only selective, and I has taken a largely critical approach as I have tried to focus on what I view as of more central concern in this debate. This is the nature of a critical review and especially so with a book of this kind.
This book needed to happen, and all sides can be happy for its arrival. It will prove of genuine value especially to those who want to sharpen their understanding of the various perspectives, their leading arguments, and their handling of specific passages. Very honestly, I confess that it has been a good while since I have read a committed Arminian approach to this question, and I found Osborne a very worthy spokesman for it. Hammett’s alternative offered a comprehensive discussion with some particulars especially that are helpfully challenging. And yes, given my own commitments I was pleased to read Trueman’s robust exposition and defense also. All told, in Perspectives on the Extent of the Atonement: Three Views each viewpoint is represented well. It is a helpful contribution to the discussion, a single resource that provides clear and competent exposition and interaction on this important issue from all sides.
This in-house debate is not likely to be settled until our Lord returns. But in the meantime a fair understanding of all sides is critical to honest investigation, and this new book will serve very well to that end. When I can teach on the subject I will certainly require this book for the class!
*This review first appeared Books At a Glance.