Definite atonement

Definite AtonementPaul Levy interviews David and Jonathan Gibson for EN about the new book they have edited on the purpose of Christ’s death

en: You have edited a book over 700 pages long on an obscure doctrine known as definite (‘limited’) atonement? How did it come about?

DG/JG: Some of the traditional ‘Calvinistic’ approaches to the doctrine of definite atonement can be a bit forced and too hasty in trying to prove the doctrine; some are more biblicist than biblical and don’t see the doctrine as a biblico-systematic conclusion. There also exists a lot of caricatures of the doctrine from opponents, which reveal that it has not been properly understood. So we felt there was a need for an in-depth, comprehensive, but careful treatment, one which looked at the doctrine from a number of perspectives – historical, biblical, theological and pastoral. We assembled a line-up of leading scholars to produce a volume written at a rigorous level. We also wanted the book to have a warmth and winsomeness that might diffuse some of the heat associated with definite atonement and allow the glory of this truth to sparkle and shine. We didn’t want to win an argument; we wanted to help the convinced and win the unconvinced.

en: How would you define definite atonement? Is it another name for what some call ‘limited atonement’?

DG/JG: Here’s a succinct definition: the doctrine of definite atonement states that, in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past, and to apply the accomplishments of his sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit. In a nutshell: the death of Christ was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone; and not only was it intended to do that, but it actually achieved it as well. Jesus will be true to his name: he will save his people from their sins.

We want to move away from ‘limited’ atonement for two reasons. First, because ‘limited’ carries an innate negativity, when in fact this doctrine is immensely positive; and,secondly, because everyone limits the atonement. As John Murray put it: ‘Unless we believe in the final restoration of all mankind, we cannot have an unlimited atonement. On the premise that some perish eternally we are shut up to one of two alternatives – a limited efficacy or a limited extent; there is no such thing as an unlimited atonement’. So we prefer ‘definite atonement’, where the adjective definite does double-duty: it conveys that the atonement is specific in its intention (Christ died to save his people) and effective in its nature (it really does atone).

en:There are doctrines that divide and doctrines that unite. Why edit a book on a doctrine that seems to have produced more heat than light over the years?

DG/JG: Andrew Fuller said ‘if all disputed subjects are to be reckoned matters of mere speculation, we shall have nothing of any real use left in religion’. But the main reason why we wrote on this controversial topic is because we believe the doctrine, properly understood, produces more light than heat.

There are immense theological riches that come from believing in definite atonement. The doctrine illuminates the glorious indivisible Trinitarian work of God in Christ. The cross reveals the glory of the whole blessed Trinity, and understanding that Jesus did not die as a mere substitute but as a representative substitute – as King, Husband, Head, Shepherd, Master, Firstborn, Second and Last Adam – brings our union with Christ into a whole new light.

If we are united to Christ, then we are united to him at all points of his activity on our behalf. There are missional and pastoral benefits too from believing in definite atonement: we can do the work of evangelism and missions with confidence, knowing that Christ will redeem people from every tribe because he actually died for them; there is also the wonderful personal assurance that God’s love is particular and not just general: ‘the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’. As Luther said: ‘The sweetness of the gospel is found in the personal pronouns’.

en: Definite atonement has been called a ‘textless doctrine’ (Dr. Broughton Knox, Late Principal of Moore College, Sydney). How do you respond to that criticism?

DG/JG: Broughton Knox was a good man, and did great good for Moore College, the Sydney diocese, and George Whitefield College in South Africa. However, his comment fails to understand the kind of teaching that definite atonement is. Like so many other doctrines in the Bible, such as the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, or Christ’s imputed righteousness, definite atonement is a biblico-systematic doctrine. No one text proves or disproves many of the doctrines of the Christian church. Rather, Christian doctrines are constructed by holding together a whole range of texts, while at the same time synthesising internally related doctrines that connect to the doctrine in view.

So, in the case of definite atonement, all the atonement texts in the Bible must be held together, while at the same time, synthesising internally related doctrines – such as eschatology, election, union with Christ, christol-ogy, Trinitarianism, and doxology – that directly impinge upon the intent and nature of the atonement. In short, to speak of ‘doctrines’ being ‘textless’ is to misunderstand the theological discipline of doctrine.

en: If definite atonement is true, how then should we preach the gospel? More pertinently, can we say to unbelievers, ‘Christ died for you’?

DG/JG: We should preach the gospel exactly as we would if unconditional election is true or if God’s foreknowledge of who will come to believe in him is true. In other words, no one knows who the elect are or who God knows ahead of time will choose him, or, in this case, those for whom Christ died. It’s none of our business. The secret things belong to the Lord our God. The Father has his elect, Christ knows his church, the Spirit knows those whom he will draw – we will have to wait until eternity to know who exactly these people are. In the meantime, our job is to get on with preaching the gospel universally and indiscriminately to all.

We encourage people to follow the example of the Apostles in preaching the gospel, and from the records we have in Acts and the Epistles, the phrase ‘Christ died for you’ does not appear. Therefore, the question becomes mute, because we know that, in their preaching, the Apostles turned the world up-side-down – 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’.

en: What would you say to those readers who remain sceptical about the doctrine?

DG/JG: We have not always believed in definite atonement and we each arrived at the doctrine via different theological journeys. At first, we were both hesitant about the doctrine. But it was faithful expositions of the Scriptures in different churches that, over time, led us to see the truth, beauty and goodness of the Triune God’s saving work for a particular (and undeserving) people. lege! Tolle, Listen to Augustine: ‘Tolle, lege!’, which being translated means, ‘Buy this book from Amazon and read it for yourself.’ What have you got to lose? Why not read it with an open mind and give it a fair hearing? If you still disagree, then at least you’ll have an even clearer view of Christ’s atoning death. The book is not just for scholars; it is scholarly, but it is primarily written for pastors, theological students, and lay folk who enjoy being stretched.

en: Okay, but it’s a big book, and most folk are unlikely to read all of it, so where should they start?

DG/JG: With the Preface, as it sets the tone for the book. After that, the Introduction, Garry William’s two chapters on the intent of penal substitutionary atonement and the problem of double payment for an unlimited atonement. Henri Blocher’s chapter is a very helpful overview of the whole doctrine – it sort of encapsulates the argument of the book as a whole. Finally, John Piper’s chapter will stir the affections as well as the mind.

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057