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Does Definite Atonement Undermine Our Zeal for Evangelism?

This is a guest post by Dr. Jonathan Gibson, coeditor of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective.

The Achilles Heel of Reformed Theology?

The doctrine of definite atonement, known historically as “limited atonement” or “particular redemption”, has always courted controversy. It has been called a grim and textless doctrine, the Achilles heel of Reformed theology (see, for example, Karl Barth and Broughton Knox). Of the many objections to the doctrine, one of the strongest is that definite atonement undermines a zeal for evangelism. If Christ died only for the elect, can we sincerely offer the gospel to everyone?

However, when definite atonement is placed alongside other biblical truths, the question does not follow. Particularity of grace in election or atonement does not mitigate a universal gospel offer.  This is where we should follow Christ’s example.

Biblical Examples

In Matthew 11, Jesus explains that no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (v. 27). The particularity is explicit. Yet in the very next verse, Jesus gives a universal offer to everyone to come to him and find rest (v. 28). In John 6, Jesus claims that he has come from heaven to do his Father’s will, which is to lose none of those given to him but to raise them up on the last day (v. 39). This is actually the reason why (“For”) whoever comes to him will never be turned away (v. 38). The Father’s will is that “everyone” who looks to the Son and believes will have eternal life (v. 40). Christ’s purpose in coming was particular; the work he performed in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension was particular (cf. John 17); and yet his invitation was universal. It was also sincere.

Did Christ know all those whom the Father had given him as he encountered the many crowds during his ministry? Of course. Did he still sincerely offer himself to everyone in the crowd? Yes. So we should be like Christ in relation to this issue. Calvin put it well: “Since we do not know who belongs to the number of the predestined, and who does not, it befits us so to feel as to wish that all be saved. So it will come about that, whoever we come across, we shall study to make him a sharer of peace.”

Why It Matters

But here’s the take-home value in definite atonement. When we offer Christ to sinners, we aren’t offering them the mere opportunity or possibility of salvation (as those who hold to an unlimited atonement can only do if they are consistent); rather, we offer them a Christ whose first name really means “Savior” (Matt. 1:21). And this is only so because God presented him as a propitiation for sinners—not potentially or possibly or hypothetically, but actually.

Let’s get even more practical. If one believes in definite atonement, can we say to people, “Christ died for you”? What’s interesting is that the phrase “Christ died for you” does not appear in the NT and yet the Apostles turned the world up-side-down with their preaching, as did many “Calvinist” ministers and missionaries: George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, David Brainerd—to name but a few. So the efficacy of gospel preaching is not dependent on including the phrase “Christ died for you”. J. I. Packer is most helpful here:

The gospel is not, ‘believe that Christ died for everybody’s sins, and therefore for yours,’ any more than it is, ‘believe that Christ died only for certain people’s sins, and so perhaps not for yours.’ The gospel is, ‘believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for sins, and now offers you Himself as your Saviour.’ This is the message which we need to take to the world. We have no business to ask them to put their faith in any view of the extent of the atonement; our job is to point them to the living Christ, and summon them to trust in Him.

Embracing the Tension

When it comes to definite atonement and evangelism, it’s not either/or but both/and.  Christ made a definite atoning sacrifice for those whom the Father had given to him; and we are commanded to proclaim Christ indiscriminately to all people.

How should we live between these two points of tension? On our knees, as we plead with our Triune God to do for others what he has so graciously done for us.

Jonathan Gibson (PhD, Cambridge University) is the is author of historical and biblical articles in Themelios and Journal of Biblical Literature, as well as “Obadiah” in the NIV Proclamation Bible, and is a coeditor of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (excerpt).


The Meaning of Christmas

The following post is adapted from One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation by Marcus Peter Johnson.

The Necessity of the Incarnation

Without the incarnation—that is, without the Son of God truly assuming our flesh-and-blood humanity—the death and resurrection of Jesus would be unreal and merely hypothetical; salvation would remain in the abstract. After all, it is human beings—flesh-and-blood, corrupted human beings—who need salvation. If the Son of God had not joined himself to us in our humanity, what could it possibly mean to say that Jesus is Savior? Unless he bore in himself our true human flesh and blood as he lived faithfully before the Father; as he experienced wrath and alienation from his Father in crucifixion, forsakenness, and death; and as he was raised in victory over death to newness of life—unless he bore our humanity in all that he did—why should we believe that Christ is our Savior?

Joined to Flesh and Blood

But incarnation is precisely what we find: “And the Word,” John writes, “became flesh and dwelt among us . . .” (John 1:14). Amazingly, John tells us just a few verses earlier that the Word who became flesh is God himself, who created everything that is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1–3). The Word who “became flesh” is God himself, the eternal Son of God who has eternally existed in perfect oneness with the Father as God. This same Word created and sustains the whole universe: “By him all things were created . . . and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16–17; cf. Hebrews 1:2). The eternally existing, universe-creating Son of God and self-same God joined himself to our humanity, flesh and blood.

The Foundation of Our Salvation

The incarnation of the Word of God, by which he became fully human without ceasing to be fully God, explains what it means for us to be saved. We can participate in the eternal-life-giving relationship between the Father and the Son because the Son has assumed our humanity into his person. We may be joined to God because he has already joined himself to us. In Richard Hooker’s exquisite wording: There can be “no union of God with man, without that mean between both which is both.”

Marcus Peter Johnson (PhD, University of Toronto) is assistant professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute. Along with writing his doctoral dissertation on union with Christ in the theology of John Calvin, he is also the author of several scholarly essays. He and his wife, Stacie, live in Chicago with their son, Peter, and are members of Grace Lutheran Church. He is the author of One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation.


December 25, 2013 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Holidays,Jesus Christ,Life / Doctrine,Salvation,The Christian Life,Theology | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:30 am | 0 Comments »

Does Definite Atonement Undermine Our Assurance of Salvation?

This is a guest post by Dr. David Gibson, minister of Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. He is a coeditor of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective.

You’re Fired!

Do you know about the Church of Scotland minister who lost his job for not believing in limited atonement?

The life and work of John McLeod Campbell (1800–1872) illustrate very clearly the problems that many people have with the doctrine.

In 1830, after five years of parish ministry, McLeod Campbell was charged with teaching two things against the Westminster Confession of Faith. He taught that Christ died for all humanity (universal atonement); and that assurance of salvation always went hand in hand with faith and was necessary for salvation.

He came to these views partly from his own pastoral experience. His parishioners seemed to suffer a terrible lack of assurance of the love of Christ and he concluded what many others have also suspected: to teach limited (definite) atonement destroys our ability to come to Christ fully convinced that he ‘loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal 2:20).

McLeod Campbell published his views in The Nature of the Atonement (1855). The book was an unrelenting attack on the doctrine of penal substitution, but he was convinced that penal substitution and definite atonement are so intimately connected that one could not exist without the other. J. I. Packer regards McLeod Campbell’s work as containing potentially the most damaging criticisms of penal substitution the church has ever faced.

Defending Definite Atonement

In From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, preacher-theologian Sinclair Ferguson provides a masterful engagement with McLeod Campbell as a way of helping those who today believe definite atonement undermines the love of Christ and destroys the comforting knowledge of certain salvation.

There are three key lessons we can learn:

1. The problems we so often have with assurance come from our hearts, not from a Calvinist theological framework in general, or the doctrine of definite atonement in particular.

The medieval system of indulgences thrived because of a lack of assurance and it continues all over the world in Christian circles where definite atonement is unknown or disbelieved. Lack of assurance is ‘the natural bent of fallen men and women who are at heart legalists and who therefore see the way to salvation in terms of their efforts to fulfill the demands of the law’ (Ferguson, 625). When we doubt our salvation, it’s simply the fruit of our natural tendency to look inwards.

2. This means that believing in a universal atonement (the opposite of definite atonement) is no immediate cause of assurance.

That’s because faith is always the means of obtaining the benefits of what Christ has done for us. Without faith, there is no personal knowledge of his goodness, however we conceive of the atonement. The assurance of salvation is not attainable apart from the exercise of faith. Asking ‘did Jesus really die for me?’ is like asking ‘how do I know whether I am elect or not?’ That sort of enquiry into God’s decree is not where the Bible puts the emphasis of what we must do.

Knowledge of my election does not come from looking into God’s book of life, turning to page 455 and seeing whether my name is there or not. It comes from simply trusting Christ. So it is with the death of Christ. The ‘warrant for faith and the assurance it brings in its exercise is not the knowledge that Christ died for us but the promise that he will save to the uttermost those who come to God through him’ (Ferguson, 624). The Christ a sinner comes to is the Christ who bore the specific sins of his particular people, and in that act of faith the sinner is numbered among those people.

3. Assurance of salvation is not only compatible with definite atonement but in fact flows from it.

Understanding the cross as the propitiation of God’s wrath for all of my sins helps me to see that I cannot experience God’s wrath on the last great day of judgment. The price has been paid, the penalty borne, the law satisfied, and condemnation removed. Calvin commented on Romans 8:32 that the death of Jesus ‘anticipates’ the judgment of God—it is that end-time judgment brought forward in time and spent on Christ instead of his people. God will not and cannot punish the same sins twice. The punishment inflicted on the Son by the Father for my sins has removed any punishment for me.

*See Sinclair B. Ferguson, ‘“Blessèd Assurance, Jesus is Mine”? Definite Atonement and the Cure of Souls’, in David Gibson & Jonathan Gibson, eds., From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, IL: 2013), 607–631.

David Gibson (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is minister of Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. Previously he served as a staff worker for the Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship (part of UCCF) and as an assistant minister at High Church, Hilton, Aberdeen. Gibson is also a widely published author of numerous articles and books, and the coeditor of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (excerpt).


December 20, 2013 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Biblical Studies,Biblical Theology,Life / Doctrine,Salvation,Theology | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:30 am | 0 Comments »

An Interview with David Wells

We recently asked David Wells, author of God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World (Jan. 2014),  a few questions about what he hopes to accomplish with his new book and why he thinks a renewed appreciation for God’s “holy-love” is important for evangelicalism.

How does God in the Whirlwind contribute to the work you’ve already done in No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland, Losing Our Virtue, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, and The Courage to Be Protestant?

Christianity Today has dismissed this new book as being a mere retread of these prior works with lots of hurrumphing, they say, along the way! Oh, dear. I am sorry that they were unable to see that this book is actually quite different from what I have written in the past. It is true that my understanding of modernized culture remains substantially the same as before. In this book, though, I have focused most of my attention, not on the culture, but on developing a biblical understanding of the character of God. This is something I have not done before and some of my critics have said that while I have exposed the problems in the church, I have not given the answers. Well, the answers are all tied up in knowing God and obeying him. This book is really a biblical theology of God’s holy-love showing how that holiness and that love are progressively revealed through the O.T., are embodied in Christ, and come together in the cross that God’s love provided and that his holiness required. This is what grounds and defines our sanctification, worship, and service in the world.

In the introduction, you write that the primary thing that evangelical theology lacks is an understanding of God’s character that carries “weight.” What do you mean by this?

What gives weight to God in our lives is two things. First, he has to be enthroned in the center and not merely circling on the periphery. Second, the God who is enthroned must be the God who has revealed himself in Scripture. This God is not simply the supplier of everything we want, our concierge, and our therapist dispensing comfort as we feel the need for it. He is the God of burning purity as well as of burning love. That God, as he rules our own private universe, will wrench around what happens in that universe to conform us to who he is in his character. The “god” who is there only for our needs as we define them will be a “god” who is light and skinny.

You’ve coined the term “holy-love” as a way to refer to the essential union of God’s holiness and love. You write, “Today, our constant temptation, aided and abetted as it is by our culture, is to shatter the hyphen.” How does this happen and why is it dangerous?

We have to hold God’s holiness and his love together in our understanding because that is how he is! His holiness and his love are never incompatible with each other. Just the reverse. Let’s think about it this way. His holiness is his utter moral purity. If it did not include his love, then that holiness would be far less than what we know God’s holiness to be. Without his love, his holiness would be emptied of what is essential to being holy. In fact, his love is his holiness in action. That is why his love always seeks what is right and what is morally pure. It is never indifferent to what is wrong in life. At the same time, God’s holiness is essentially redemptive in nature, just like his love.

But this hybrid, this holy-love, is hard for us to practice consistently in our own lives. We tend to fall to the one side or the other—holiness without love or love without holiness. Legalists err by focusing on the demands of God’s holiness and then lose sight of his love. The result is a hard, unattractive moralism. Antinomians err on the side of his love and lose sight of his holiness. The worst form of this was the old Protestant liberals who were so taken with God’s love and its inclusiveness that they jettisoned his holiness. So, Christian faith was emptied out of any atonement because God was no longer seen as wrathful in response to sin. Neither legalism nor antinomianism are good—though for entirely different reasons. The truth is that God’s holiness, as expressed in the law, gives us the moral norms for life, and God’s love fills us with the desire so to live and thus to please him. Love in the service of what is true and right is a beautiful thing!

How should Christians answer the charge that we are intolerant and exclusive in our thinking about God and salvation?

There is no way to soften the truth that Christ is the only incarnate Son of God, uniquely the way to God, and the only source of saving grace. But why would anyone who belongs to Christ want to soften this? The uniqueness of Christ is, in fact, what makes the Christian faith so glorious. What can be tempered, though, is the way that we relate to people as we tell them this gospel. I am quite certain that if unbelievers saw in us more authenticity, more of the character of Christ, more of the spirit of service, their hostility to Christian faith would subside quite a bit.

You argue that our thinking is fundamentally flawed if we seek to understand God’s love through the lens of our own experiences related to loving and being loved. Why is that? Doesn’t such a claim negate the importance of the imago Dei?

There is nothing wrong and, indeed, everything right with loving and being loved! By creation, we have been made social beings for whom giving and receiving love is at the heart of our families and relationships.

But here is the problem. Our need for a relationship with God is often understood in therapeutic ways. We need answers to our sense of emptiness, to the bruises life gives us, and to disappointments. The answers we really want are for God to make those things go away and to restore us to full happiness, fulfillment, and wholeness. God, no doubt, is gracious to us in the midst of our pressure-filled lives, with their fast pace and debilitating anxiety. But what we are thinking about as his love may be very different from what it really is. We are often looking only for therapy, for comfort. God, though, is about building our character. He loves us, but his love goes hand-in-hand with his holiness. That is why he is more interested in our character than in our comfort! So, God’s love may be very different from what we are thinking we want and very different from how God relates to us in grace!

What is the biggest challenge the evangelical church will face in the next 50 years?

The evangelical church is in different situations in different parts of the world. Since I have traveled to Africa a lot, I can tell you that while Christianity is spreading rapidly, there is a deep need now for that faith to be instructed in the truth of God’s Word. In some places, Bibles are scarce. In almost all places, educational materials are non-existent, and often pastors have had no opportunity to receive training.

But here in the U.S., we have Bibles, theological education, literature, a surfeit of education, organizations, and churches. What is astonishing today is that despite this surfeit, there is a growing literature pointing out the obvious: the church seems to be losing ground and people more and more seem to be losing interest. I think of Julia Duin’s quick, journalistic trip around the religious world called Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What To Do About It or Eddie Gibbs new book which begins at the same point, The Rebirth of the Church: Applying Paul’s Vision for Ministry in Our Post-Christian World. In my view, the greatest challenge that stands before us is that Christian faith, for too many, has lost its reality. It is no longer on the same moral and spiritual scale as the world around us but has become a much smaller and more comfortable thing than it actually is. It has been domesticated in ways that are really very injurious to its nature.

I am, however, greatly heartened by the fact that more and more people are understanding this. There is a younger generation that is arising that really wants the real thing. And we can be assured that, if we do want the real thing, God, in his grace, will ensure that we find it!

David F. Wells (PhD, University of Manchester) is the Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  In addition to serving as academic dean of its Charlotte campus, Wells has also been a member of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and is involved in ministry in Africa.  Wells has written numerous articles and books, including a series that was initiated by a Pew grant exploring the nature of Christian faith in the contemporary, modernized world. He is the author of God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World.


The Gospel: An “It” or a “He”?

This guest post was written by Dr. Marcus Johnson, assistant professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (excerpt).

Can “the Gospel” Do All that We Say it Can?

The gospel saves. The gospel transforms. The gospel heals. The gospel renews. The gospel liberates.   Such are the familiar refrains that issue forth from our faithful preachers and teachers. But are they right? Can the gospel do all this?

The answer is, of course . . . no, it cannot. Only Jesus himself can.

Wait a Second…

But, it seems right to ask, isn’t the gospel “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes …” (Romans 1:16)? Yes, of course it is.  But surely it makes all the difference what we mean when we so echo the Apostle Paul, especially given that his own experience of salvation was an encounter with the crucified, resurrected Lord himself (Acts 9).  So, which would be more accurate to say: that Paul was saved by the gospel (it), or by Jesus Christ (he)?

If it is the former – that Paul was indeed saved by his experience of the risen Lord – then how shall we think of his assertion that the gospel is the “power of God” for salvation?  Are we to think of the gospel as intrinsically able to save us, that is, apart from the presence of the Savior himself?

Although questions such as these might strike some as mere theological semantics, I submit that the way we conceive of the relationship between Jesus Christ himself, and the good news regarding him, is crucial for how we understand salvation.  In our faithful insistence that the gospel (it) is the power of God for salvation we must be careful never to lose sight of the One who alone can save us (he).

In other words, there may be a danger in how we speak which suggests that something rather than someone is the proper subject of our salvation.

The Gospel and the Real Presence of Jesus Christ

The danger for many Christians – who no longer think of salvation as constituted by a union with the crucified, resurrected, incarnate Son of God – is that the living presence of the Savior becomes unnecessary to the good news about him. In such a case, the gospel about Jesus Christ may begin to assume a role in our language and thought that only Christ can and should bear.  As our evangelical forefathers knew well, we must be able to distinguish between the gospel, which bears witness to Christ, and Christ who is the living reality of that gospel.  “To preach the gospel,” Martin Luther once wrote, “is nothing else than Christ’s coming to us or bringing us to him.”  Similarly, John Calvin noted that God ordained the preaching of his Word “as the instrument by which Jesus Christ, and all his benefits, is dispensed to us.”  Thus, while the preaching of the gospel is never less than revelation about Christ and his saving work, it always involved much more. 

That much more was the self-giving of Christ in and through his gospel; his real presence mediated through the proclamation of the good news. The Reformers knew that unless Christ was truly present through the gospel, preaching would be but an exercise in spiritual reflection or religious instruction, as opposed to the medium of his saving presence. Given our present cultural milieu, in which knowledge is essentially reducible to information—suffering as we do from the hangover of post-enlightenment rationalism—the distinction between knowledge about Christ in his gospel (mental appropriation or assent) and knowing Christ himself through the gospel (experiential intimacy) seems well worth marking.

In the Bible, “knowledge” is characterized by personal and life-giving union, not informational data (though it certainly includes the latter).  Think here of Adam’s knowledge of his wife, Eve; or, more importantly, the Son’s knowledge of his Father. So too, to have saving knowledge of Jesus Christ is to experience intimate union with him, not merely to know about him. Thus, knowledge about the gospel, imperative as it is, can no more save us than can its preacher, unless Jesus Christ is himself present to be experienced as the living reality of that very good news.

The Confusion of Means and Ends

The failure to emphasize the real presence of Christ in his gospel is often characterized by a resultant confusion of means and ends. The gospel is a divinely-ordained means for which Jesus Christ, and union with him, is the end (or goal).  Thus, the gospel can only be called “saving” because it functions as a means through which the Savior is present to bring us into his existence as the crucified, resurrected Lord (e.g., Colossians 1:24-29; Galatians 2:20).

To make the gospel an end rather than a means would be to lose the significance (literally, “the signifying purpose”) of that gospel: to bring us to partake of the One whose gospel it is.  As the Apostle Paul proclaimed it, the gospel ushers us into mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27), the mystery of Christ’s union with his Bride (Ephesians 5:32).

The gospel is the gloriously good news about what Jesus Christ has accomplished in his life, death, resurrection and ascension to reconcile us to God and recreate the world.  The offer of the gospel, however, is not enlightened data about what he has done.  The offer of the gospel is none other than Jesus Christ himself, who (through faith and by the Spirit) brings us into his very life as the incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended Savior.  To say or suggest otherwise leaves the sinner (and the church!) without her only comfort.

By all means, then, let us proclaim the saving significance of the gospel, but may we never forget that “it” is not very good news at all unless “he” is truly present to save.

Marcus Peter Johnson (PhD, University of Toronto) is assistant professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute. Along with writing his doctoral dissertation on union with Christ in the theology of John Calvin, he is also the author of One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation. He and his wife, Stacie, live in Chicago with their son, Peter, and are members of Grace Lutheran Church.

One with Christ is currently on sale for 40% at Crossway.org.


November 22, 2013 | Posted in: AAA - BLOG UPDATE,Jesus Christ,Life / Doctrine,The Gospel,Theology | Author: Crossway Author @ 8:00 am | 0 Comments »