4 Things That Might Hinder You from Embracing Definite Atonement

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ScottS's picture

His points he gives may be valid reasons "that put people off the doctrine of atonement," but some of his points do not accurately address the issues between the views. Now I hold to a definite atonement, just one that involves a universal aspect, and so is distinct from the definite atonement Gibson is holding. In my dissertation, I argue against many points in the book Gibson contributed to and edited, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, while also acknowledging some points that need addressing from that book regarding atonement.

With respect to his statements as posted here:

  1. Definitions are important, but it is not just the definition of the whole concept of definite atonement that is at issue in atonement discussions, but rather definitions about a whole host of other related ideas. In his example, for instance, he notes God's "love for the nonelect," but behind that is whether one conceives of that love as making any move toward saving the nonelect or not. That is just one instance of many where nuanced definitions underlying the arguments relate to the overall argument.
  2. How one "casts the problem" makes a huge difference in viewpoint. Is it as Gibson states, merely "in redemptive history, we’ve been waiting for an atonement for Jew and Gentile, and here it is in the death of Christ, and now we're trying to limit it?" This casts the problem as merely a Jew/Gentile issue, where definite atonement then tries to show itself as "inclusive" of both groups. Whereas a universal atonement advocate is very likely to cast the problem as a humanity issue, that "we [sinners] have been waiting for an atonement, and here it is in the death of Christ."
  3. In his third point, Gibson concludes "So, people think that a single biblical text knocks the doctrine over," which is a straw man argument and also a non sequitur to his initial statement of "Some people feel that there are too many biblical texts that seem to speak against definite atonement." It is the totality of many "single biblical texts," not any one text, that lead people to believe they prove the doctrine in error.
  4. I know that some hyper-Calvinist groups limit evangelism because of definite atonement, but Gibson is right that holding to definite atonement need not limit evangelism. However, what one actually perceives is the gospel (the good news) to be preached can be quite distinct between those holding definite atonement and those not.

 

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

G. N. Barkman's picture

Whenever the subject of Definite Atonement appears, someone usually declares that John Calvin was ambiguous about this, and evidently didn't think it all that important.  Perhaps we can lay that common misconception to rest at the beginning.  Here's what I find in Calvin's commentary on I John 2:2.

"And not for ours only."   "He added this for the sake of amplifying, in order that the faithful might be assured that the expiation made by Christ, extends to all who by faith embrace the gospel...I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretense extend salvation to all the reprobate... Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation...for the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church.  Then under the word "all" or whole, he does not include the reprobate but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world."

 

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

You're right. In seminary, I was taught that Calvin was ambiguous about definite atonement. I haven't looked it up to see for myself, because I don't particularly care what Calvin thought about the atonement. The man wrote so much, over so many years, that I wouldn't be surprised to see inconsistencies in his writings over time. And, of course, his commentaries are largely printed sermons - which are a very different medium than a systematic theology!    

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

ScottS's picture

Bro. Barkman,

Just as with Scripture, one should not take a single statement of Calvin's as definitive when there are many other statements to integrate with respect to his thoughts to see the whole picture, as well as some of the context of his statements on 1 John 2:2. There is good reason many scholars today are convinced that Calvin had some ambiguity on the topic. An accessible piece showing both sides of Calvin is Paul Hartog's A Word to the World: Calvin on the Extent of the AtonementI would also point to the less accessible (i.e. not free on the internet) work of David Allen, The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review who has an extensive discussion of Calvin's writings as well.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

G. N. Barkman's picture

I'm no Calvin scholar, but I've read a fair amount of his writings over the years.  I have yet to read a statement that called his belief in Definite Atonement into question.  The one I quoted above on I John 2:2 is clear in support of Definite Atonement.  I haven't read the books you listed above, and probably will not have time to do so.  However, over the years, the statements I have read questioning Calvin's position seemed to boil down to something that could have been stronger, but none that embraced unlimited atonement. In other words, they depend upon what he did not say, rather than what he said. 

I have read similar treatments of Charles Spurgeon questioning his belief in limited atonement and other doctrines of grace.  I find these efforts lacking.  Anyone who studies Spurgeon knows that he was an enthusiastic and robust defender of the five points of Calvinism.  Nobody says everything they believe in every sermon.  Nobody gives their full position every time they mention a subject.  Does anyone have a Calvin statement they believe defends universal atonement?  If so, let's take a look, and see if that's what it actually says.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

My class notes from seminary have a few quotes that allegedly prove Calvin was ambiguous on the matter. I'll post the excerpts when I get home, this evening.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

I believe his John 3:16 note seemed to suggest an unlimited atonement view but, as above, it's basically irrelevant. 

G. N. Barkman's picture

In light of Josh's statement above, I took time to read Calvin's comments in the Eerdman's "Calvin's New Testament Commentaries" volume 4, pages 73-75.  I find nothing teaching Universal Atonement, nor is there anything specifically teaching Definite Atonement.  However, there are statements that agree with Definite Atonement, such as, "Moreover, let us remember that although life is promised generally to all who believe in Christ, faith is not common to all.  Christ is open to all and displayed to all, but God opens the eyes only of the elect that they may seek Him by faith."  (Page 75)

Some might see universal atonement in the following:  "For although there is nothing in the world deserving of God's favor, He nevertheless shows He is favourable to the whole world when He calls all without exception to the faith of Christ, which is indeed an entry into life."  (Page 74)  However, this is nothing more than a statement about the General Call, which all five point Calvinists with which I am acquainted firmly believe.  There is a General Call whenever the Gospel is preached to any and all without distinction.  The Effectual Call, however, is heard only by the Elect.

I find nothing here defending Universal Atonement.  Am I missing something?

G. N. Barkman

ScottS's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

Does anyone have a Calvin statement they believe defends universal atonement?  If so, let's take a look, and see if that's what it actually says.

These are quotes from Calvin taken from Hartog's work, noted above. Again, Hartog analyzes both universal and non-universal statements in his work. Also realize that there are various forms of universal atonement, and as Amyrant noted (who held a form of hypothetical universalism), he believed his views were more in line with Calvin than those of others holding more definite views. That type of idea can be found in these quotes (initial page numbers are from Hartog, with his note information on where it is found in Calvin's writings; bold is added by me for emphasis):

Calvin declares that “the solution of the difficulty lies in seeing how the doctrine of the Gospel offers salvation to all. That it is salvific for all I do not deny. But the question is whether the Lord in His counsel here destines salvation equally for all." (21; Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination, 103)

We see here two things that are distinct from a typical definite atonement view, and more in line with a hypothetical universalist. (1) That there is a "salvific" provision for all. (2) That the extent ("salvific for all") is distinct from the intent ("whether ... destines salvation equally for all").

"It is not enough to regard Christ as having died for the salvation of the world; each man must claim the effect and possession of this grace for himself personally.” (21; Calvin, Galatians 2:20, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, 44)

"For it is nothing if the fruit of this redemption, which was purchased for us, does not show itself by faith: for otherwise, it will become a thing of naught, and for our parts utterly perish." (21; Calvin, Sermons of M. John Calvin, on the Epistles of S. Paule to Timothie and Titus, 612)

Calvin affirms, “First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.” (22; Calvin, Institutes III.1.1)

"Christ is in a general view the Redeemer of the world, yet his death and passion are of no advantage to any but such as receive that which St Paul shows here.... we must also be joined to him by faith." (22; Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians, 55)

"Whereas it is said that the Son of God was crucified, we must not only think that the same was done for the Redemption of the world: but also every of us must on his own behalf join himself to our Lord Jesus Christ, and conclude, It is for me that he has suffered." (22; Calvin, Sermons on Galatians, 299)

We see here that Calvin made statements that indicate the effect of the salvation is dependent on "each man" claiming both the "effect" and "possession" of God's saving grace in Christ "for himself personally" and that such a purchased redemption can "become a thing of naught" if one does not come to faith, so that what was done for the "human race" becomes "useless" and "of no value" to any particular individual, for as "Redeemer of the world" it ends up as "no advantage" to those without faith." This is against the standard definite atonement view that God's grace cannot come to naught or be frustrated by unbelief (since the grace only extends to the elect, not the non-elect, and the purchase is only made for the elect, not the non-elect).

Calvin had more explicit statements on the atonement itself:

Calvin notes that “the salvation provided by Christ is common to all mankind. For Christ, the Author of salvation, was begotten of Adam, the common father of us all.” (23; Calvin, Institutes II.13.3)

Jesus is “Redeemer of the world . . . since He was there, as it were, in the person of all cursed ones and of all transgressors, and of those who had deserved eternal death . . . and bears the burdens of all those who had offended God mortally.” (23; Calvin, The Deity of Christ and Other Sermons, 95)

Calvin’s “Last Will” refers to “the blood of our great Redeemer, as it was shed for all poor sinners.” (23; ]Hartog notes] "Translation of the French version, as quoted in Clifford, Calvinus, 37.")

“This redemption was procured by the blood of Christ, for by the sacrifice of His death all the sins of the world have been expiated." (23; Calvin, Colossians 1:14, Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, 308)

So these are statements where Calvin grounds the universal aspects in humanities/Christ's relation to Adam, and so did something for "all transgressors ... who had deserved eternal death," and that the blood was shed for "all poor sinners," which "expiated" the "sins of the world." These are statements and concepts that tend to be shied away from in most expressions of definite atonement, for it shows some idea of a real payment made for all people, which (as previously noted in this post) is only applied to believers, but was available and made for all people.

Hartog states regarding Calvin and 1 John 2:2, Calvin was fighting against true universalists (not hypothetical or potential ideas), people who were trying to argue that all people would be saved:

As Calvin’s argumentative sights were set upon the “universalists” who used 1 John 2:2 to espouse the ultimate, efficacious salvation of the reprobates and even Satan (41).

So that he did not read 1 John 2:2 as referring to a universal expiation, even though in other passages (some noted above) he did speak of such extent in expiation.

There are more that can be quoted, but I think this is enough to demonstrate that Calvin's views contained a number of statements that hold to some universal aspect of atonement. And that is why and where the debate resides on Calvin's ambiguity; in what way did he deem atonement universal versus not, and how does that differ from what has become the more standard defenses of definite atonement, which tend to allow little to no universal aspect at all.

(PLEASE NOTE: I am obviously using a secondar source here to Calvin, via Paul Hartog's book, so I have not taken the time to check the validity of all the quotations or whether the citation information is correct, but have merely attempeted to communicate what Hartog noted in context of the discussion here on whether Calvin made any statements that can be deemed related to a universal atonement).

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

G. N. Barkman's picture

I thank Scott for offering several statements from Calvin relating to his view of the extent of the atonement.  Time does not allow me to offer an analysis of each one today, though I hope to be able to address others tomorrow, time permitting.  However, I would like to comment on the first statement now.  The statement indicates that Calvin does not believe the atonement was intended for everyone equally.  "But the question is whether the Lord in His counsel here destines salvation equally for all."

Calvinists have long contended that the issue hangs upon the intent of the atonement, not its value.  Calvin positions himself here with those who believe the atonement was not divinely intended for everyone equally.  That is a statement of Definite Atonement, not Universal Atonement.  If the complete statement is examined from this perspective, much of the ambiguity disappears.  There is nothing in this first statement to indicate Calvin believed in Universal Atonement.

G. N. Barkman

ScottS's picture

I was anticipating and expecting a reply along these lines about the first statement I quoted from Calvin:

G. N. Barkman wrote:

The statement indicates that Calvin does not believe the atonement was intended for everyone equally.  ...

Calvinists have long contended that the issue hangs upon the intent of the atonement, not its value.  Calvin positions himself here with those who believe the atonement was not divinely intended for everyone equally.  That is a statement of Definite Atonement, not Universal Atonement.  If the complete statement is examined from this perspective, much of the ambiguity disappears.  There is nothing in this first statement to indicate Calvin believed in Universal Atonement.

I agree with Bro. Barkman that intent vs. value has often been the focus of definite atonement proponents. But the unfortunate point of that focus is that it is a misunderstanding of the real issue being debated. By focusing only on the final salvific intent (who does God intend to ultimately save), it removes one from where the real discussion resides about the extent (whose sins did Christ die for). As a consequence, it is not true that just definite atonement advocates hold "the atonement was not divinely intended for everyone equally," as most universal atonement positions (and definitely those of the hypothetical/provisional type) agree that God's ultimate intent is only to save believers/elect, and so the ultimate application is not "for everyone equally." 

So the point of that first quote by Calvin is that he does make a distinction between what the Gospel offer states about the atonement work ("salvific for all"), while also holding that the ultimate intent is such that it does not result in ultimate salvific universalism ("salvation equally for all"). That is the same expression that a universal atonement position would hold where God has provided for atonement for all, but not applied atonement to all. So recognition of ultimate intent does not uniquely define one as holding definite atonement, and therefore does not prove of itself the position one holds on atonement.

David Allen in his book I noted above makes a clear statement about how the question needs to be framed if one is to have a real discussion on extent of the atonement between a universal and definite atonement position (emphasis added):

What exactly is the question we are asking concerning the extent of the atonement? The question is "For whose sins did Christ die?" It is surprising how often those on both sides of the theological fence don't seem to understand the actual state of the question. For example, A. A. Hodge stated: "The question does truly and only relate to the design of the Father and of the Son in respect to the persons for whose benefit the Atonement was made." [me: he later follows with similar statements from Berkhof, Buswell, et al.] But stating the question in this fashion fails to reckon with the distinction between the intent and extent of atonement. The question does not "only" relate to the design of the atonement. ("Introduction," xxiii)

Later Allen further clarifies his question, "for whose sins did Christ substitute?" (xxiv). The discussion derails when only ultimate salvific intent is considered, as that is not where the discussion resides on the nature of the extent of the atonement. When theologians attempt to frame the question that way, they immediately eliminate the views of a vast number of theologians who do not dispute that point, yet hold to a form of universal atonement view.

Now remember, the particular discussion here is not to prove one way or the other if Calvin holds to a definite or universal atonement, but rather simply to show whether Calvin's writings do in fact show whether he was "ambiguous" or not, and hence why many consider him to be so, and why many in history from both sides of the atonement debate have called on Calvin as support for their view.

In many ways, I align with Tyler's view: "I don't particularly care what Calvin taught about the atonement," what I care about is what the Bible states about atonement. Looking at historical theology for other people's views is useful to see how they perceived Scripture's revelation on that, but it does not mean they were correct in how they perceived it or were clear in how they articulated it. We are all human and fallible in our understanding and our communication. The challenge is discovering through our own study or the views of others what parts of what views fit to Scripture better, since that is the sole source of revelation about God's atoning work in Christ.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

G. N. Barkman's picture

Scott,

Thanks for your detailed reply.  I think I understand your position, but I'm not clear about what you mean by "who does God intend to ultimately save."  If you are framing that as a future accomplishment, no doubt the most rank Arminian agrees that God intends to ultimately save only those who believe.  However, Calvinists believe the question is not who does God intend to ultimately save, but who did God intend to save before He created the world?  When that is the question, the answer is, "the elect."  The question then, for whom did Christ shed His blood is the same, "for the elect."  Christ did not shed His blood to save those whom God did not intend to save.  There is no disparity of purpose within the three members of the Triune God-head.

G. N. Barkman

ScottS's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

If you are framing that as a future accomplishment, no doubt the most rank Arminian agrees that God intends to ultimately save only those who believe. 

We agree here, and that is part of my point, intent does not get to the heart of the issue on extent. Though some Arminian's might also frame their position as God intends to save all, but His intent is thwarted by man failing to believe. Really, I'm more discussing the hypothetical universalist/provisionalist position (i.e., 4-point Calvinist) where intent is clearly still bound to the elect.

G. N. Barkman wrote:

However, Calvinists believe the question is not who does God intend to ultimately save, but who did God intend to save before He created the world?  When that is the question, the answer is, "the elect." 

I do not see a distinction in those two positions. That is to me (and to a hypothetical universalist, which I am not one):

Who does God intend to ultimately save = who did God intend to save before He created the world

Framing the question the second way does not change the question away from intent. The intent is always from "before He created the world" and the result is always future from that intention (and currently future from where we are today). But that the answer is "the elect" still does not solve the question of extent. An Arminian can claim that (but they will define differently how the elect are chosen), and a 4-point Calvinist can claim that (with the same view that a 5-point would have, that God has preselected individuals from eternity past to be saved), and yet both hold a universal atonement position on the extent (that Christ paid for the sins of everyone, not just the elect).

G. N. Barkman wrote:

Christ did not shed His blood to save those whom God did not intend to save.  There is no disparity of purpose within the three members of the Triune God-head.

That is more to the heart of the question. A definite atonement position is exactly as you state here, but that is not a universal atonement position. That more standard universal atonement positions (see * below) would say Christ did shed His blood to provide a way of salvation even for those God did not intend to save, and such positions would argue that there is still "no disparity of purpose within the three members of the Triune God-head" for doing so.

So the heart of the question is again at that point of "for whom did Christ shed His blood and for what specific purpose(s) was it shed?" You have answered how a definite atonement person would answer; I'm expressing a standard position of universal atonement views. But it is not the ultimate intention that generally differs, it is the perception of the process God is using to bring about His ultimate end, specifically how the atonement does or does not relate to the non-elect/unbeliever.

So again, Calvin's statements across his writings shows some affinity for the idea there is a hypothetical salvific aspect that is not gained by those without faith, or at least enough to leave his position ambiguous since he did not write in the same terms as we who have discussed it since his days on earth.

* My definite universal atonement position is different from most standard universal positions, because I do hold there is an actual (not just hypothetical/potential) salvific aspect that is universally planned and achieved by the Triune God-head through Christ's atonement, namely the resurrection. So the bodies of all people are saved from the first death (physical death) because of the penal substitutionary atonement, while only the elect/believers are saved from second death (lake of fire) by being cleansed by the blood of the atonement and having righteousness applied by faith.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

G. N. Barkman's picture

Thank you, Scott, for taking time to explain your position carefully and charitably.  As a five point Calvinist, I have long believed that Christ's atonement had a purpose beyond the salvation of the elect. I think John 17:2 indicates that Christ's death earned authority over "all flesh" which enabled Him to secure eternal life for those whom the Father gave to him.  (the elect)

But I fail to see how Christ's death securing the bodily resurrection of all men can be equated with either shedding His blood for the salvation of all men (unlimited atonement), or dying for the sins of His people (definite atonement).  Bodily resurrection is not salvation.  It seems to me that your position, when all is said and done, is really a five point, definite atonement position.  I must be missing something here.

As to Calvin, I believe we should interpret his position from the unambiguous statements, not the ambiguous ones.  Just like we must in interpreting Scripture.  Calvin's comments on I John 2:2 are clear.  The ambiguous statements can be explained in different directions. Unless Calvin waffled in his position on the atonement (which some contend), we ought to take the clear statements as his true position, and interpret the unclear ones in that light.  In my limited reading of Calvin, I find a  man who was amazingly definite about his views from an early time in his life.  He continued to refine and expand throughout his lifetime (note the several editions of his Institutes), but was unusually consistent in his doctrine.  At least that's the way it seems to me.

G. N. Barkman

ScottS's picture

Thank you for the discussion as well.

First, regarding Calvin, it is not that his universal statements are ambiguous and his definite ones not, but rather it is that he made both unambiguous universal and unambiguous definite statements that made his total position on atonement ambiguous (at least from the perspective of many scholars today).

Now as an aside to this point, I agree when you say:

I believe we should interpret his position from the unambiguous statements, not the ambiguous ones.  Just like we must in interpreting Scripture. 

However, regarding your last part on Scripture, my contention with the definite atonement view is that they do not read the many (and there are many) universal scriptures as universal, which to me and other universal advocates are unambiguously stated. They instead approach the "all" and the "world" passages already having concluded definite atonement, and then from my perspective do exegetical gymnastics (i.e., eisegesis) to try to make those passages not be a universal statement to fit their concept of what they expect the extent of atonement to be, limited to the elect. But my view on that is nothing new to the argument between universal and definite atonement views, as a large part of the battle ground between the views is over interpretation of the "universal" passages. I side with the straightforward, universal reading of those passages.

Second, regarding my particular view, I would contend that "bodily resurrection is [part of] salvation." The bodily resurrection is a necessary aspect to what it means for God to save anyone. Without it, there would be no salvation of any of humanity. But also, it is the salvific portion of atonement that God intends to apply to all people based on Christ's death. It is the universal part of the atoning work. So to answer your question:

But I fail to see how Christ's death securing the bodily resurrection of all men can be equated with either shedding His blood for the salvation of all men (unlimited atonement), or dying for the sins of His people (definite atonement). 

You probably fail to see it because it does not fit what you have come to believe about atonement. That is understandable. Perhaps to clarify and maybe help you see my view, I'll restate it similarly to how you stated your failure to see:

Christ's death on the cross for all people as a penal substitute for their sins is what allows God to righteously free all people from His penalty of sin, physical death, by a resurrection from that death (a definite, universal/unlimited atonement for the penalty of sin). Christ's shedding of blood on the cross provides what is needed to wash clean all who come to the cross, believing in God's work through Christ and thus receiving God's righteousness, which cleansing and righteousness frees all believers from God's wrath, second death, by not casting them into the lake of fire and instead giving them eternal life (a definite, particular/limited atonement of the uncleanness and unholiness of sin).

That's how I view the atoning work. With both a universal and a non-universal salvific aspect connected to it. I think you can see that it is not "a five point, definite atonement position," but I would contend it is a more scriptural understanding of atonement than the standard definite atonement position, and one that still fits with the standard view of election for those holding such a definite atonement position. It requires a shift in thought to the universal salvific aspect included in the atonement, but still allows holding that God elected to cleanse by His blood only those He chose, keeping the particular aspect. (It also leaves open the debate about election itself, the how God chooses, so it fits multiple views of election; but it disassociates the extent of the atonement work from that debate.)

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

G. N. Barkman's picture

Scott, yours is an interesting perspective, and demonstrates a lot of thought.  I'm not sure that I can follow the reasoning that believes Christ's death atoned universally to mitigate the penalty of physical death, but not for the penalty of spiritual death, which is as much the sentence for sin as is physical death.  How can you separate these two aspects of the one sentence of death?

Regarding the "all" and "world" passages being taken at face value, there are too many other instances where these words do not communicate a universal meaning that have nothing to do with the extent of the atonement.  (Luke 2:1 is just one of many examples.)  To interpret the Bible correctly, we must let Scripture show us how particular words are used. It seems to me that those espousing universal atonement are the ones imposing a universal definition on these terms in order to satisfy their pre-conceived interpretation.  In my experience, showing such people the numerous times these terms demand a limited meaning does little to dampen their "all always means all, and that's all it means" mentality, substantial evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

I used to embrace universal redemption, and it was not my preconceived position that caused me to understand that a substantial number of "all" and "world" passages do not communicate a universal extent.  It was my weekly exegetical pulpit preparation that forced me to re-visit my previous misconceptions.

G. N. Barkman

ScottS's picture

We had some deaths in the family over the last couple of months and those, plus work duties made it so that I just have not had the time to get back and answer your questions. So let me do so now.

Regarding your question here:

I'm not sure that I can follow the reasoning that believes Christ's death atoned universally to mitigate the penalty of physical death, but not for the penalty of spiritual death, which is as much the sentence for sin as is physical death. How can you separate these two aspects of the one sentence of death?

Here is how I answer that. First, I believe "spiritual death" is a phrase that has caused much theological confusion in the discussion of soteriology and the atonement in particular. When one really looks at the use of "death" in the OT, it is physical death that is the topic. When one looks at the other uses of the "death sentence formula" (as found in Genesis 2:17, "you shall surely die" [NKJV]), it is a statement about physical death and is merely the statement of what is deemed the just sentencing for the particular infraction (whatever the consequence). So in Genesis 2:17, God is only stating that in the day they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that day they are placing themselves under a death sentence (i.e. placing themselves under the legal penalty of physical death for their sins; God is guaranteeing they are going to die). This is the only aspect of the sentence of death at this point in the text of Scripture, one's physical body will cease to be vital, cease being active and functioning in the realm of the living. This cessation of vital activity is death, specifically the first death.

Second, what we have theologically labeled as "spiritual death," I prefer to call "relational rift" (to avoid what I believe is the wrong association of this issue with the legal penalty for sin, physical death). This rift is a natural consequence of the sin, not a legal penalty. Mankind naturally becomes separated from God relationally because at the time of sinning (1) mankind immediately became unlike Him, unrighteous (opposite of what God designed us to be per Gen 1:26), (2) mankind immediately evidenced an unbelief in Him, counting Him as untrustworthy and even unkind in "holding back" this knowledge from man (so we deem God as our enemy, and hide from [Gen 3:8] or attack him [Gen 3:12]), and (3) mankind immediately became unclean, physically and spiritually (we are tainted by sin; something God did not want to become permanent by the eating of the tree of life, and so He expelled them [Gen 3:22]). None of these things are a "judgment" on humanity, but rather natural consequences of their actions that result in relational issues with God.

However, because of these things—unrighteous, unbelieving, and unclean—God then is in a balance between His merciful long-suffering and His wrath (relational terms) toward humanity, and at what times He chooses to suffer no more, He ends mercy and unleashes wrath, enacting His justified legal penalty of physical death.

So mankind has a number of issues that need handling with respect to sin. I believe God handles each of these in different ways:

  1. He solves the legal penalty, physical death, by paying the price of death on the cross for every human being as show of His great grace—this is a universal aspect of atonement—that will result in all people being raised from the dead. Note: this is the legal reconciliation of mankind, God propitiating His own righteous requirement of death for sin (1 Jn 2:2), something done for the whole world and to be proclaimed as such (2 Cor 5:18-19).
  2. He solves the unbelief by bringing one to faith—this is a particular aspect. Note: this is the relational reconciliation of mankind, something each individual must come to through proclamation of what He did in #1 for them (2 Cor 5:20, Rom 10:17)
  3. He solves the uncleanness in two ways:
    • Spiritual uncleanness only for those who come to faith—this is a particular aspect—and He does so by the cleansing application of the blood of the atonement on the believer's behalf (Heb 9:14, 1 John 1:7, Rev 1:5, 7:14) and spiritual regeneration (Titus 3:5).
    • Physical uncleanness through death (elimination of the flesh corrupted by sin; Rom 6:6-7, 7:18) and/or (or in the case of rapture) the resurrection into an immortal body (1 Cor 15:42)
  4. He solves the unrighteousness in two ways:
    • Presently, while still living in a sinful body, by accounting the believer righteous through the faith of #2 (Rom 4:5, et al.), a gift from Him (Rom 5:17).
    • Future, at the resurrection, by finishing the making of believers to be righteous (Rom 5:19), having then both a right spirit and a right body, all free from sin's effects.

As you can see, numbers 2-4 all relate particularly to believers, because those not having those things corrected are still under God's wrath, and when the legal penalty for sin is lifted by the resurrection, because they do not have part in the first (chief) resurrection, they will face that wrath eternally in the second death (Rev 20:6), the casting into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14, 21:8), which I believe is an immersion into the very presence of God, experiencing Him eternally as a consuming fire (Dt 4:24, Heb 12:29, 2 Thes 1:8-9 [I take the "from" in v.9 as an ablative of source, not separation: God is the source of the fire by His presence to judge them]; cf. Rev 14:10-11 where the torment by fire of those with the mark occurs "in the presence of the Lamb" forever; God is always present, but never more so than in eternity, when people are either immediately present with Him in glory or in flames).

Now about the use of "world" and "all."

I have no issues with the fact that context can determine extent of those terms. However, equally true is the fact which particularists ignore is that "world," unqualified, can refer to the whole of humanity (or, in most contexts, especially with John, the whole of unbelieving humanity), and in one context key to the atonement, it is even qualified with the word "whole" (1 Jn 2:2), which is often ignored or attempted to be explained way by particularists (because they cannot fit into their soteriological scheme the idea that this propitiation could have happened for the whole world.). Additionally, of the term "all," it still is true that "all always means all, and that's all it means," but what one has to look at in context is all of what "set" to determine the meaning. That is, "all" will have in context the defining "set" of what it is being used to refer to quantify. So in Luke 3:15, "all" in context refers to "all people that had been listening to John the Baptist preach," and Mark 1:37, "all" is "all people from the city where Christ healed the night before" (Mark 1:32-34). What I take issue with is that particularlists do not let the "all" be qualified as it states in some of the atonement contexts, but rather as they think it should be (again, to try to fit their soteriological scheme). If God explicitly says "all men" and contrasts that with believers, then He clearly means "all people" (1 Tim 4:10) are in some way to experience God as a Savior (in my view, saved from physical death by resurrection [#1 above], hence why believers are especially saved [getting #2-4 above]), something that is done so that "all men" in that salvation will "come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4; though the unbeliever and believer will relate to that truth differently in eternity), and so God has given Christ as a "ransom for all" (1 Tim 2:6, in context, "all" is referring back to "all men," who we are to be praying for [1 Tim 2:1] and who God desires saved from death and who He plans to insure learn the truth; whether they would like to know it or not, they will all bow [Rom 14:10-12; Phil 2:7-11 (this passage explicitly tying that fact to the work of paying the penalty of death on the cross)]).

So I, like you, have come to my conclusions from reading Scripture. But I do so reading the passages that clearly do indicate a universal extent as such, not trying to avoid them, but embracing them as helping come to the understanding of what God means by how He is working His plan of salvation for humanity generally, and believers specifically.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16