Category Archives: Atonement
The Nature and Scope of the Atonement in the Calvinist – Arminian Debates (Interview with Mark Jones)
In November I was invited to speak at Westminster Theological Seminary, and my dates in Philadelphia happened to coincide with Mark Jones’s presence on campus. Mark is a pastor in Vancouver, and the co-author of A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, so I was eager to meet him.
We ended up meeting and dined one evening with Scott and Jared Oliphint. In a peacefully dim corner of a wonderful Philly restaurant (Iron Hill), a heady historical-theological conversation kicked up over the logical connections between definite atonement and substitutionary atonement. Jones highlighted various characters and debates over the years, weaving together a fascinating verbal history of how theologians wrestled with the nature and extent of Christ’s atonement. Later I asked him to develop this into a written interview, which he obliged.
Mark, I’ll start by asking you this: just how different are the Arminian and Reformed traditions?
The differences between Reformed (Calvinist) and Remonstrant (Arminian) traditions extend well beyond questions of “free will” or the extent of the atonement. Ranging from topics such as God’s attributes and knowledge to justification by faith alone to the nature — not just the extent — of the atonement, the Calvinists and Arminians crossed swords.
For example, Jacob Arminius eventually rejected the Reformed understanding of justification. The Arminians seemed to agree with the Reformed that the formal cause of justification was the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, but they openly disagreed on the material cause of justification. What is imputed, our act of faith (so, the Arminians) or the righteousness of Christ apprehended by faith (so, the Reformed)? In the Arminian scheme, imputation is an aestimatio — God regards our righteousness (i.e., faith) as something what it is not (i.e., perfect). In the Reformed scheme, however, imputation is always secundum veritatem — God regards Christ’s righteousness as our righteousness because it really is ours through faith and in union with Christ.
When did Remonstrant theologians begin to reject the Reformed view of the nature of the atonement?
On the question of the nature of the atonement, the Remonstrants adopted the objections raised by the Socinians against the Reformed view of the atonement. By the seventeenth century, the dominant Reformed view of the nature of the atonement was a refinement of Anselm’s concept of satisfaction. Satisfaction through punishment (satisfactio poenalis) incorporates the “both/and” approach to viewing Christ’s death, whereby he satisfies the Father’s justice by acting as our penal substitute. But the Remonstrants by and large rejected this view. They “denied that Christ suffered all the penalties that God had placed on sin, that he suffered eternal death, that his active obedience was vicarious . . . Even [Christ’s] suffering and death were not a full satisfaction for sins” (Bavinck, RD 3:349).
An example of this from the seventeenth century comes from the Remonstrant theologian, Philippus van Limborch. He rejected the Reformed view of the nature of Christ’s satisfaction. He does not merely differ on the extent of the atonement, but rather vigorously denies the Reformed position that Christ suffered all the punishments due to our sins, and thus satisfied divine justice (Bk. III, Sec. 4).
Grotius provides another example: he rejected the idea of Christ’s death as an “exact payment” (solutio eiusdem), which was affirmed by John Owen. Instead, Grotius affirmed the concept of “equivalent payment” (solutio tantidem). An “equivalent payment” does not free ipso facto but rather requires an act of acceptance on the part of God after payment. God and Christ are then free to set up conditions for salvation in whatever manner they see fit. So because of Christ’s “equivalent payment,” God causes forgiveness to be offered to all — as in “Christ died for you,” not the typical Reformed view that “God is able to save you.” The application of Christ’s death depends on the human act of faith, by one’s free will. In Arminius’s view, the remission Christ merited by his life and death was a potential remission, not an actual remission.
In essence, then, the Remonstrants basically denied the legal exactitude of penal substitution. As some scholars have noted, the Remonstrants believed that Christ’s death was for our sake and for our benefit, but not in our stead. Which is why the language of Dort (Second Head, sec. 2) shows that in Christ’s satisfaction for his people he “was made sin and became a curse on the cross for us and in our place.”
How did later Arminian theologians understand the connection — or dis-connection — between the nature of the atonement (penal substitution) and the extent of the atonement (definite atonement)?
Now, to the credit of many later Arminian theologians, they understood these points, and so rejected penal substitution. John Miley, a nineteenth-century Arminian theologian, understood that Reformed theology requires an atonement that “must be effectual in the salvation of all for whom it is made,” and thus it must be substitutionary (The Atonement in Christ, 22). J. Kenneth Grider, in the next century, notes: “A spillover from Calvinism into Arminianism has occurred in recent decades. Thus many Arminians whose theology is not very precise say that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. Yet such a view is foreign to Arminianism, which teaches instead that Christ suffered for us. Arminians teach what Christ did he did for every person; therefore what he did could not have been to pay the penalty, since no one would then ever go into eternal perdition” (“Arminianism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 80). Grider makes the connection between the nature of the atonement and the extent of the atonement.
Another Arminian nineteenth-century theologian, William Burt Pope, contends: “Arminianism holds that the Sacrifice was offered for the whole world: it must therefore for that reason also renounce the commutative theory of exact and mutual compensation; since some may perish for whom Christ died, and He would be defrauded of His reward in them” (A Compendium of Christian Theology, 2:314). Pope understands that penal substitution, understood in terms of solutio eiusdem, cannot fit in the Arminian model, for it would necessarily mean either universalism or that Christ’s blood was spilled in vain for many.
The idea of connecting the nature of Christ’s death to the extent of his death requires further investigation. Is there are necessary connection between the two? I happen to think so. Thus if an avowed Arminian holds to “penal substitution” it must be said he isn’t a very good Arminian.
One curious fact is that Jacob Arminius seems to have himself held to penal substitution. How do you account for this?
On the question of the nature of the atonement, Arminius did in fact hold to substitutionary atonement, but in a way that was different from the Reformed, particularly on two points.
1) Arminius placed Christ’s universal atonement prior to the decree of election.
2) Arminius distinguishes between the sufficiency and principal efficiency of the atonement.
For him, the atonement was sufficiently made for all people indiscriminately, whereas the effective application of it pertains to the elect (i.e., those who by their own free assent accept the grace of Christ). This sounds like Reformed Hypothetical Universalism; but we should note that the effective application pertains to the elect because they embrace Christ by their own free will.
For Arminius, if we believe, Christ’s death has efficacy for us; but the Reformed held that we believe because Christ died for us. This, again, gets to the nature of the atonement. Even though Arminius holds to “substitution,” Christ’s death does not actually achieve redemption.
Reformed theologians like Owen and Turretin, for example, have contended that in dying for the elect, and them alone, Christ acquired faith for his people. Frequently, many today who hold to universal atonement and substitutionary atonement claim that sinners are not saved because they do not believe. But unbelief is the mother of all sins, and Christ died for that sin, too. Because he died for that sin, his death has a certain efficacy whereby those for whom he died must necessarily believe because his death and his intercession are two inseparable parts of his priesthood. Intercession always leads to belief (i.e., salvation). How can God refuse the requests of his exalted Son?
This is to say, if Christ died for everyone without exception, everyone would surely believe without exception because of the nature of Christ’s satisfaction.
Thank you, Mark, for parsing out this controversy.
Here’s the takeaway, in the words of Gary Williams: “penal substitution and definite atonement are two sides of the same coin.” And for more on the relationship between the two, see Williams’s contribution, “Penal Substitution and the Intent of the Atonement,” in the new book, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Crossway; 2013), pages 461–82.
J.I. Packer, who turns 85-years-old today, wrote these words:
An evangelical theologian, dying, cabled a colleague: “I am so thankful for the active obedience (righteousness) of Christ. No hope without it.” As I grow old, I want to tell everyone who will listen: “I am so thankful for the penal substitutionary death of Christ. No hope without it.”
If I had a list of favorite books for 2009 I would likely put this one at the top.
Graham A. Cole, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 2009), 229-230:
The God of the Bible is the righteous God of holy love. The trouble is, however, that we have become paradoxically the glory and garbage of the universe. Our great need is peace with God, and not just with God but also with one another. …
There is no shalom, however, without sacrifice. Peace is made through the blood of the cross. The atoning life, death and vindication of the faithful Son bring shalom by addressing the problem of sin, death the devil and wrath definitively. Sacrifice, satisfaction, substitution and victory are key terms for understanding God’s atoning project in general and the cross in particular. Eschatologically speaking, the realization of the triune God’s reconciling project will see God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule living God’s way enjoying shalom in God’s holy and loving presence to God’s glory. …
The broad notion should humble us at the thought of a righteous God of holy loving purpose who, in love, has never abandoned his wayward creatures but in a plan of rescue has begun to reclaim the created order and will in the end restore creation to himself and to his glory. Love is the motive, glory the goal. The narrow one brings us to Christ and his cross. He is the linchpin of the plan. We are brought to a real Christ, to a real cross, to a real cost.
Occasionally I’ll catch the Metro south and ride into the heart of D.C., jump off the train and hit the retro two-story Starbucks at 7th and E with just enough remaining time in my walk to finish my venti Americano before reaching the front door of the National Gallery of Art. It’s a great museum (over 30 Rembrandts, including The Apostle Paul).
Inside the museum I’m struck by the number of paintings and sculptures that feature Christ, very often portraying Him as a baby. Popular are portraits of the nativity, and the virgin with the Child. This is a glimpse into church history. Study the writings of the early centuries and you’ll notice that the incarnation of Christ often trumps the crucifixion in its redemptive priority. But why? Why does the manger trump the cross?
The reason, says Reinhold Niebuhr, can be traced to the influence Greek and Hellenistic philosophy on the early theology of the Church. Greek philosophy centered man’s greatest need, not around freedom from personal sin nor freedom from God’s judgment, but around freedom from human finiteness. Man is limited in his humanity, and of course Jesus’s incarnation, rather than His atonement, answers this time-eternity question. Thus, being influenced by Greek philosophy, Christians like Gregory could write: “The word became man in order that thou mayest become a god.” It’s not uncommon to find Greek-influenced statements that point to the incarnational center of redemptive history and I believe you can pick up on this theme in modern literature like in the writings of Pope John Paul II (see his Redemptor hominis [Latin: "The Redeemer of Man"] for one example).
“The issue of Biblical religion,” Niebuhr writes, “is not primarily the problem of how finite man can know God but how sinful man is to be reconciled to God” (1:147). Very true. And when the center of redemptive history moves away from the atonement to anything else, we should be aware that secular philosophy is at the wheel determining the problem of man. And that problem will sound strangely different than the problem of personal sin, for which we need a crucified Savior.
You can read Niebuhr’s argument for yourself in The Nature and Destiny of Man (Westminster John Knox, 1941), in several places but especially in 1:144—147 and 2:59—60.
The incarnation, as glorious and magnificent as it is in the divine act is in itself, cannot be separated from the atonement. The connection between the two is unmistakable in passages like Matthew 1:21, John 3:16, Romans 8:3, and Galatians 4:4-5. Herman Bavinck insightfully wrote:
The incarnation is the beginning and introduction to the work of Christ on earth, it is true, but it is not the whole meaning, nor the most important meaning of that work. It is good to try to get a true understanding and a right idea about this, for there are those who think that the assumption of the human nature itself completes the full reconciliation and union of God and man. … The incarnation of the Son of God, without anything further, cannot be the reconciling and redeeming deed. It is the beginning of it, the preparation for it, and the introduction to it, but it is not that deed itself.
The nativity paintings are a good reminder of the historicity of Christ’s incarnation. But they are also a reminder that if we center redemptive history on the incarnation we will have missed the full scope of God’s redemptive plan, most likely misunderstood the holiness of God, and failed to understand man’s greatest problem and greatest need.
A very important book will be published this winter and should be on your radar. In December Graham Cole’s book, God the Peacemaker: How Atonement Brings Shalom (IVP, Dec. 2009; 320 pgs), will be published in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series. This will be a valuable contribution to the discussion of how God brings peace and justice to the world through Christ’s death. In discussions on the topic of Shalom I fear the atonement is often forgotten.
Here’s the publisher’s description:
What does God intend for his broken creation?
In this book Graham A. Cole seeks to answer this question by setting the atoning work of the cross in the broad framework of God’s grand plan to restore the created order, and places the story of Jesus, his cross and empty tomb within it. Since we have become paradoxically the glory and garbage of the universe, our great need is peace with God and not just with God, but also with one another. Atonement brings shalom by defeating the enemies of peace, overcoming both the barriers to reconciliation and to the restoration of creation through the sacrifice of Christ. The “peace dividend” that atonement brings ranges from the forgiveness of sins for the individual to adoption into the family of God.
D. A. Carson, from the preface: “Few if any themes are more central to the Bible than atonement. . . . My hope and prayer is that this volume will become a ‘standard’ contribution in the field, informing and enriching its readers as to what God achieved by sending his dear Son to the cross on our behalf. Eternity itself will not exhaust our wonder at these truths. This book, I am sure, will establish many in the right direction.”
1. The Righteous God of Holy Love
2. The Glory and Garbage of the Universe
3. The Great Need: Peace with God, with One Another and for the Cosmos
4. Foundations and Foreshadowings
5. The Faithful Son
6. The Death and Vindication of the Faithful Son
7. The ‘Peace Dividend’
8. Life Between the Cross and the Coming
9. The Grand Purpose: Glory
Appendix: Questioning the Cross: Debates, Considerations and Suggestions
The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
by John Piper
N.T. Wright is a British New Testament scholar and the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England. He’s become known for his controversial teaching on justification and for his statements like: “The discussions of justification in much of the history of the church, certainly since Augustine, got off on the wrong foot – at least in terms of understanding Paul – and they have stayed there ever since.”
Enter pastor and scholar John Piper.
Piper’s highly anticipated new book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (Crossway: 2007) is framed around eight fundamental questions raised in the theology of Wright:
- The gospel is not about how to get saved? (ch. 5)
- Justification is not how you become a Christian? (ch. 6)
- Justification is not the gospel? (ch. 6)
- We are not justified by believing in justification? (ch. 5)
- The imputation of God’s own righteousness makes no sense at all? (ch. 8 )
- Future justification is on the basis of the complete life lived? (ch. 7)
- First-century Judaism had nothing of the alleged self-righteous and boastful legalism? (chs. 9, 10)
- God’s righteousness is the same as His covenant faithfulness? (ch. 11)
Obviously these are monumental questions, bearing heavy consequences for the Church.
As expected, Piper walks slowly through these questions raised in Wright’s theology and returns frequently to biblical exegesis for his responses. Piper remarks in the intro that he dialogued with Wright during the process of writing the volume, even receiving an 11,000-word response on the first draft to clarify and prevent distortions (p. 10).
But before jumping into the debate, Piper opens the book with very humble words. He is too close to glory to waste his time winning debates and scoring publicity points. It’s a beginning that we can all learn from (see p. 13). This humble introduction is followed by an entire chapter – “On Controversy” – to explain why true Christian unity is not to be found in avoiding disagreements. Taking his cue from Machen, the Church has risen to new heights when celebrating truth within the context of controversy (p. 29).
Where Wright is right
Piper is clear and quick to point out areas of agreement. These include mutual convictions of Scriptural authority, the resurrection of Christ, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the opposition to homosexuality, and a big-picture understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant (pp. 15-16). And even in elements more closely related to the Gospel, Piper points out continuity. Piper writes, “There is nothing unclear about Wright’s commitment to penal substitution” (p. 48). And later, “Wright’s own words concerning penal substitution seem clear and strong” (p. 52).
Where Wright is wrong
The debate may appear to some as a trifle between one pastor/scholar and another pastor/scholar. But the implications run deep for all Christians. “This book took its origin from the countless conversations and e-mails with those who are losing their grip in this great gospel” (p. 10). Piper’s overriding argument is not that the gospel is being lost by outright dismissal, but in a gradual, incremental relaxing of the gospel due to a blurring of the biblical understanding of justification. So dangerous is this blurring, according to Piper, that at the end of the day, Wright may in fact be reinforcing Roman Catholic soteriology (p. 183)!
Piper is concerned that Wright’s biblical theology has become a grid that brings in too many extra-biblical resources to make interpretive decisions. Piper believes this approach, when it comes to understanding justification, “has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing” (p. 38).
Wright’s removal of justification from the gospel is also a big problem. Piper writes, “I find it perplexing that Wright is so eager not to let the message of justification be part of the gospel” (p. 82) and “Wright’s zeal to remove justification from the event of becoming a Christian” is “remarkable” (p. 95). Later, Piper highlights the missing element of Christ’s imputed righteousness in Wright’s theology.
Piper takes time clarifying the nature of legalism and the careful distinction of works and justification, a distinction not easily seen in Wright’s writings. In the end, Piper is forced to make the following clarification:
“If we make the mistake of thinking that our works of love (the fruit of God’s Spirit) secure or increase God’s commitment to be completely for us, now and in the last judgment, we compromise the very reason that these works of love exist, namely, to display the infinite worth of Christ and his work as our all-sufficient obedience and all-sufficient sacrifice.
Our mind-set toward our own good works must always be: these works depend on God being totally for us. That’s what the blood and righteousness of Christ have secured and guaranteed forever. Therefore, we must resist every tendency to think of our works as establishing or securing the fact that God is for us forever. It is always the other way around. Because he is for us, he sustains our faith. And through that faith-sustaining work, the Holy Spirit bears the fruit of love” (p. 186).
Piper devotes many pages to the Law-Court theme in justification, where great disparity between Piper and Wright becomes obvious. The book gives the reader a great overview of the most important features of the biblical gospel. A series of six related and helpful appendices conclude the book (pp. 189-225).
I’m thankful for the care taken by Piper to stay close to the issues that directly impact the clarity of the gospel message.
The overriding concern for Piper is not that Wright has evil intentions or is viciously dangerous. The problem is that Wright’s message confuses the gospel and breeds confusion where the Church needs to be strongest.
“I am not optimistic that the biblical doctrine of justification will flourish where N. T. Wright’s portrayal holds sway. I do not see his vision as a compelling retelling of what Saint Paul really said. And I think, as it stands now, it will bring great confusion to the church at a point where she desperately needs clarity. I don’t think this confusion is the necessary dust that must settle when great new discoveries have been made. Instead, if I read the situation correctly, the confusion is owing to the ambiguities in Wright’s own expressions, and to the fact that, unlike his treatment of some subjects, his paradigm for justification does not fit well with the ordinary reading of many texts and leaves many ordinary folk not with the rewarding ‘ah-ha’ experience of illumination, but with a paralyzing sense of perplexity” (p. 24).
Later Piper writes, “This book exists because of my own concern that, specifically in the matter of justification by faith, Wright’s approach has not been as illuminating as it has been misleading, or perhaps, confusing.” (p. 38). Even the most straightforward passages on imputation (like 2 Corinthians 5:21) are “shrouded in Wright’s misleading comments” (p. 178).
And most notably, the gospel in its application to sinners becomes vague.
“But there is a misleading ambiguity in Wright’s statement that we are saved not by believing in justification by faith but by believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The ambiguity is that it leaves undefined what we believe in Jesus’ death and resurrection for. It is not saving faith to believe in Jesus merely for prosperity or health or a better marriage. In Wright’s passion to liberate the gospel from mere individualism and to make it historical and global, he leaves it vague for individual sinners” (pp. 85-86).
Piper is rightly concerned that this vagueness will spread into the pulpit. “Following N.T. Wright in his understanding of justification will result in a kind of preaching that will at best be confusing to the church” (p. 165).
A fitting summary of Piper’s entire case is found early in the book.
“My conviction concerning N.T. Wright is not that he is under the curse of Galatians 1:8-9, but that his portrayal of the gospel – and of the doctrine of justification in particular – is so disfigured that is becomes difficult to recognize as biblically faithful. It may be that in his own mind and heart Wright has a clear and firm grasp on the gospel of Christ and the biblical meaning of justification. But in my judgment, what he has written will lead to a kind of preaching that will not announce clearly what makes the lordship of Christ good news for guilty sinners or show those who are overwhelmed with sin how they may stand righteous in the presence of God” (p. 15).
It’s right for the Church to jealously guard the clear and biblical understanding of how sinners are brought into a right relationship with God. And it’s at this critical place, over the battle for our understanding of justification as the personal application of Christ’s work to a sinner’s soul, where Wright’s theology simply falls apart. This is an error the Church cannot afford to entertain.
Whether Piper has clearly and fairly represented Wright at every detail is a conclusion I’ll leave for those more connected to the discussion. What is certain is that The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright is a book thoroughly centered on clear exegesis of Scripture on the topic of justification. You don’t need a background in the Wright/Piper debate to gain a better appreciation of – and a firmer hold on – the biblical message of the gospel.
Title: The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright
Author: John Piper
Reading level: 3.0/5.0 > moderately difficult at times
Dust jacket: no
Paper: white and clean
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type
Price USD: $11.99 from Monergism
ISBN: 9781581349641, 1581349645
“If you take away the blood of sprinkling from the gospel, you have silenced it. It has no voice if this be gone. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘the gospel has lost its power!’ What wonder when they have made it a dumb gospel! How can it have power when they take away that which is its life and speech?
Unless the preacher is evermore preaching this blood, and sprinkling it by the doctrine of faith, his teaching has no voice either to rouse the careless or to cheer the anxious. If ever there should come a wretched day when all our pulpits shall be full of modern thought, and the old doctrine of a substitutionary sacrifice shall be exploded, then will there remain no word of comfort for the guilty or hope for the despairing.
Hushed will be forever those silver notes which now console the living, and cheer the dying; a dumb spirit will possess this sullen world, and no voice of joy will break the blank silence of despair. The gospel speaks through the propitiation for sin, and if that be denied, it speaketh no more. Those who preach not the atonement exhibit a dumb and dummy gospel; a mouth it hath, but speaketh not; they that make it are like unto their idol. …
Would you have me silence the doctrine of the blood of sprinkling? Would any one of you attempt so horrible a deed?
Shall we be censured if we continually proclaim the heaven-sent message of the blood of Jesus? Shall we speak with bated breath because some affected person shudders at the sound of the word ‘blood’ or some ‘cultured’ individual rebels at the old-fashioned thought of sacrifice?
Nay, verily, we will sooner have our tongue cut out than cease to speak of the precious blood of Jesus Christ. For me there is nothing worth thinking of or preaching about but this grand truth, which is the beginning and the end of the whole Christian system, namely, that God gave his Son to die that sinners might live.”
- C.H. Spurgeon, sermon 1888, “The Blood of Sprinkling” in volume 32 of sermons (1886).