Review, part 2: “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her.”

December 10, 2013

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by Dr. David L. Allen
Dean of the School of Theology
Professor of Preaching
Director of the Center for Expository Preaching
George W. Truett Chair of Pastoral Ministry
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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“Review of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, David Gibson & Jonathan Gibson, eds. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013) – Part 2
(Read “Review, part 1,” HERE.)
Part 2 of this review will address the key elements of the six chapters in the biblical section.
A detailed assessment of each of these sections awaits a multi-part review I intend to post on my new website www.DrDavidLAllen.com, which will be launched later this month.

Definite Atonement in the Bible

These chapters all focus on the biblical data impinging on the question at hand. Key to most of them is the attempt to argue that the so called “universal” language in atonement passages such as “all” or “world” do not mean “all without exception” but “all without distinction,” and, conjoined with the Reformed doctrine of unconditional election, indicate Christ’s death for elect people of all nations, Jews and Gentiles. The authors read the “universal” texts (“all,” “world,” etc.) in light of the “limited” texts (“his people,” “the church,” etc.), and are thus forced to mitigate the meaning of words like “all” and “world.” Moderate Calvinists and non-Calvinists read the limited texts as a subset of the universal texts.

Little consideration is given to the possibility that many of these limited texts are expressed in this fashion due to the fact that the biblical authors are writing specifically to believers. For example, it would be natural for Paul to say on occasion “Christ died for us” when speaking to a Christian congregation without meaning to imply Christ died only for his specific audience. To assert such is to invoke the negative inference fallacy.

These chapters also fail to note the salient fact that not once in the Old or New Testament is there a direct statement that says Christ died only for the elect. The authors inform us that the actual texts that speak of the universality of the extent of the atonement must be interpreted in light of the larger context of biblical theology which, according to them, indicates a limitation in Christ’s sin-bearing for the elect only. But surely this move is in danger of falling into the problem of petition principia, that is, begging the question. There is also the constant refrain, assumed or stated, that the intent and the extent of the atonement are coextensive, though this is also a deduction made without a single biblical text that asserts this to be the case.

Paul Williamson addresses the issue of election, atonement, and intercession in the Pentateuch in chapter 9. He admits up front that “definite atonement is nowhere explicitly mentioned” in the Pentateuch, but that there are “certain hints” of this concept embedded within it (228). “. . . It would be inappropriate to infer some kind of general atonement from Israel’s corporate experience of atonement. Any such atonement is accomplished and applied on the basis of Israel’s divine election…. This does not imply, however, that each individual Israelite was thus equally atoned for and thus ‘eternally forgiven’” (229). In response, I would point out that no one says that each individual Israelite was equally atoned for and eternally forgiven, any more than the unlimited passages in the NT imply that each individual person for whom Christ died was equally atoned for and thus eternally forgiven. The last four words smuggle in the notion that the atonement’s extent and application are coextensive and confuse the issue. This presumes that all for whom atonement is made must, ipso facto, be “eternally forgiven.”

It is difficult to conclude that the Day of Atonement ritual (Leviticus 16) was in any sense limited. In fact, Williamson must admit that it was in some sense “all-inclusive” (234). Yet he makes the assumption that in Israel there were “elect” and “non-elect.” “Covenant and election circumscribed atonement. So a particular atonement may still be maintained for a ‘mixed’ covenant community” (235). He also states: “…to deduce a general, universal atonement in the NT from an atonement for a ‘mixed’ Israel in the OT is a non sequitur.  . . . Atonement in the OT is therefore necessarily particular” (238). But these statements are problematic. First, they retroject a presumed Reformed understanding of individual election back into the text. But even granting this for the sake of argument, there is no necessity that election of some within Israel should preclude atonement being made for all. Second, by what logic is OT atonement “necessarily particular”?

The bronze snake episode of Num 21:4-9 to which Williamson appeals (241) actually works against his case. Anyone who looked, lived. There was a remedy for all Israel, if they would only look. There is a remedy in Christ’s death for all, if they will only believe. The extent is universal; the application is limited.

Contrary to Williamson’s conclusion, there is no idea of definite atonement, even an undeveloped one, to be found in the Pentateuch (245). His assertion that election is the crucial theological prerequisite for atonement, even if true, does not entail definite atonement. It merely entails there is an atonement for those who are elect. It does not preclude an atonement made on behalf of those who never believe.

In chapter 10, J. Alec Motyer treats us to an excellent exegesis of Isaiah 53. Motyer avoids the clutter of quotations from other commentators, and stays directly with his exegesis of the text. It’s smooth sailing until we come to page 261: “The theological implications are profound: the atonement itself, and not something outside of the atonement, is the cause for any conversion.” But this fails to consider further NT revelation on the role of the HS in conversion; fails to recognize that the atonement saves no one until it is applied; fails to reckon with numerous reformed theologians who disagree such as Charles Hodge; and fails to properly distinguish between the oblation and the application of the atonement. Even Paul clearly indicates in Eph. 2:1-3 that the believing elect he is addressing were under the wrath of God until they believed. Notice the many times Paul makes the point that believers were once enemies, but now through faith we have peace, are justified, experience no condemnation, etc. Such language necessitates an intervening condition.

Motyer builds on the “many” statements in Isaiah 53 to argue definite atonement (264-65). The many nations for whom the atonement is made “does not, however, commit us to universalism (“all without exception”), … so that even when ‘many’ seems to imply ‘all,’ it still effectively applies only on the individual level – to some in contrast to all” (265). Of course that is the case because the application is not coextensive with the extent. This does not, however, negate universal atonement.

Motyer errs in this statement: “ ‘Many,’ then, has a certain specificity to it, while also retaining its inherent numerousness; it refers to those for whom the Servant made atonement and to whom he applies that same atonement (cf. Rev. 7:9)” (265). Here again Motyer assumes what he is trying to prove, namely, that the extent of the atonement is coextensive with the application. The text does not state this. Furthermore, this is a misinterpretation of the Revelation passage, which has nothing to do with the extent of the atonement.

Motyer’s chapter is an example of good exegesis, but with the wrong conclusions drawn. As an aside, though Motyer does not quote others to support his exegetical conclusions, it is interesting that Calvin himself clearly affirms that the “many” of Isaiah 53:6 means “all without exception.”[1] More importantly, Paul uses “many” and “all” interchangeably in Romans 5.

Matthew Harmon authors the chapter on definite atonement in the Synoptics and Johannine Literature. Harmon intends to argue three things: 1) Jesus died to display God’s glory; 2) Jesus died to accomplish the salvation of his people; 3) Jesus died for the sins of the world (where “world” does not mean “all without exception” but all without distinction”). I will address this distinction at the end of this review.

Harmon’s attempt to find definite atonement in John 6:22-58, John 17:1-26, and Rev. 4:1-5:14 is misguided. Details here will have to wait for my in-depth review later. Harmon takes “his people” in Matt 1:21, coupled with Matt 20:28 and Matt 26:28, and deduces definite atonement. He does not consider the possibility that the referent of “His people” is likely the Jews viewed ethnically and not some abstract later Reformed notion of election. He avoids passages like Luke 22:20-21 where Christ includes Judas in the group of those for whom his blood is shed. Likewise, Harmon’s attempt to blunt Jeremias’ explanation of the use of “many” does not succeed (276).

At this point, Harmon shifts to the Johannine literature where he spends the most time.

He points out how John includes statements about God’s election of a particular people to receive the benefits of Jesus’ death in John 10. There is no statement in John 10 that asserts definite atonement. One has to engage in the negative inference fallacy to get definite atonement out of John 10.

Harmon’s statement that God’s love for the elect is no mere “afterthought as it must be in the Amyraldian scheme” (278) is a straw man. His statement is based on his own understanding of the decrees, a speculative endeavor at best.

In the final section of his chapter, the author correctly states: “Particularism and universalism are complementary realities, not contradictory ones” (281). Precisely. But Harmon’s comment is in reference to the extent of atonement combined with universal proclamation. He means to argue for the intrinsic sufficiency (value) of the atonement as the grounds for a universal preaching of the atonement. Since this is the burden of Piper’s final chapter in the book, I will address this issue at that point.

Harmon concludes by noting the key for the universal language in John is not that the atonement is for all people, but that it extends beyond Jews to include people from every tribe and tongue (281). He attempts to support this point by a discussion of the word “world” (282-87). Something of his faulty methodology is evidenced by his comment on John 1:29: there is nothing in the context to restrict the usage of “world,” but the “numerous other restricted uses must be brought to bear” (283). But why “must” this be so? How is it that in every single atonement passage that uses the word “world,” high-Calvinists inform us that the word must be restricted because in some other contexts it is restricted?

With respect to the use of kosmos in the Gospel of John, the word characteristically means human beings in rebellion against God. See John 1:29 where it is the sins of the “world” that must be atoned for. In John 3:16, the world is spoken of as being loved, condemned and then some are saved out of it. The latter two outcomes occur because of either belief or unbelief according to 3:18. John 3:19 is consistent with this.

Harmon should have followed his own advice: “Only the context can determine what kosmos means, not a priori assumptions” (287).

Like all the chapters in this section, Harmon bases virtually his entire case on the distinction between the meaning of “all without distinction” and “all without exception.”

Jonathan Gibson considers the issue of particularism and universalism in the Pauline letters in chapter 12. Gibson’s first sentence is problematic: “It is obvious enough that the apostle Paul does not directly address the question ‘For whom did Christ die’” (289). Not so fast my friend! There are several passages where Paul does indeed clearly address this question: Rom 5:12-21; 2 Cor 5:14-21; 1 Tim 2:4-6, to name three. Gibson sees a tension in Paul between particular and universal atonement texts (290). His thesis he will defend is found on page 291: “…I will demonstrate that the universalistic elements in Paul’s atonement theology complement rather than compromise the possibility of interpreting Christ’s death as definite atonement.”

Gibson attempts to make the point that Paul absolutizes the universality of sin with “all” language that is “indisputably unambiguous.” He then states there is no statement in Paul such as “there is not one for whom Christ did not die.” Gibson fails to note there is also not one statement that says Christ died only for the sins of some, or the elect, etc. He then makes an odd statement: “Yet when it comes to Paul’s universalizing the target audience of Christ’s atonement, he employs deliberately ambiguous language: ‘many,’ ‘all,’ and ‘world,’ may mean ‘all without exception,’ but the terms may equally mean ‘all without distinction.’ Context must determine the meaning in each particular case” (293). What is ambiguous about “all” and “world”? Gibson notes the terms may equally mean “all without exception” or “all without distinction,” and only context can be the determining factor.

Gibson speaks of the “Amyraldian Hypothetical Universalist schema” (294), which conflates the two views and is historically inaccurate as was demonstrated in the previous historical chapters. Gibson finds support for definite atonement in Rom 3:24-26; Rom 5:12-21; 2 Cor 5:14-19; Col 1:20; 1 Tim 2:4-6; 1 Tim 4:10; Titus 2:11-14 (295-321). He covers the so called “perishing texts” (321-23) and the “all” and “world” texts (323-327).

Gibson fails to discuss one of the most important Pauline texts that speaks to the question of the extent of the atonement: 1 Cor 15:1-11. Here Paul informs his readers of the content of the gospel which he preached to them before they were converted. A part of that kerygma was “Christ died for our sins.” Note this was what Paul preached to them pre-conversion. If Paul held to definite atonement, he could not have stated with any consistency to an unregenerate audience “Christ died for your sins.”

In chapter 13, Jonathan Gibson attempts to demonstrate definite atonement in Paul’s soteriology. His basic thesis is that definite atonement emerges from the Pauline letters when one  approaches the issue in a biblico-systematic fashion. Definite atonement is a theological conclusion reached on the other side of comprehensive synthesis (332).

Yet Gibson attempts this synthesis without the benefit of a single text in Paul that directly affirms definite atonement. From Rom 8:29-30, he builds on election and the indivisible saving work of God. He rightly critiques Barth for collapsing redemption applied into redemption accomplished, but seems utterly oblivious to the fact that this is what he and all high-Calvinists do (344). Gibson critiques what he considers to be the opposite error from Barth, namely, forcing a disjunction between the moments of redemption (as is the case in Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism, Amyraldianism, and Hypothetical Universalism) (345). Yet does Gibson want to argue for justification at the cross or in eternity? Unless there is an intervening condition before one is justified, there seems no escape from this position. Both John Murray (high-Calvinist) and Charles Hodge (moderate Calvinist) distinguish between redemption accomplished and redemption applied.

In the final pages, Gibson treats the subjects of union with Christ, the Trinitarian nature of the saving work of Christ, and theological reflections on the Trinity and atonement. He argues there are Trinitarian problems within any universalistic scheme (368). But here Gibson is trading on a false dilemma. He wrongly assumes that the Father did not intend for the Son to provide a satisfaction for all sin, and thus imports dissonance in the Trinity that does not exist.

The final chapter in the biblical section is authored by Tom Schreiner, who addresses problematic texts for definite atonement in the Pastoral and General epistles: 1 Tim 2:4-6; 1 Tim 4:10; Titus 2:11-14; 2 Peter 2:1; 2 Peter 3:9; Hebrews 2:9. As in previous chapters, Schreiner bases virtually his entire argument on forcing all the universal language in these texts into the “all without distinction” mold. While he presents a helpful survey of the various approaches to 2 Peter 2:1, his phenomenological reading of is strained at best. Finally, Schreiner collapses the atonement’s intent, extent and application into one (392).

At this point, I will address the fallacy of this “all without distinction” vs. “all without exception.” Let’s begin with Augustine, who speaking of 2 Corinthians 5:18-21, states:

Of this death the Apostle Paul says, “Therefore all are dead, and He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him which died for them and rose again.” Thus all, without one exception, were dead in sins, whether original or voluntary sins, sins of ignorance, or sins committed against knowledge; and for all the dead there died the one only person who lived, that is, who had no sin whatever, in order that they who live by the remission of their sins should live, not to themselves, but to Him who died for all, . . .”[2]

Here it is evident that Augustine makes no use of the “all without distinction” concept, and in fact states clearly that the extent of Christ’s death extended to “all” who were dead in sins.

Let’s continue with Spurgeon on 1 Tim 2:3-4 in his sermon (No. 1516). Spurgeon stated:

What then? Shall we try to put another meaning into the text than that which it fairly bears? I trow not. You must, most of you, be acquainted with the general method in which our older Calvinistic friends deal with this text. “All men,” say they,—”that is, some men”: as if the Holy Ghost could not have said “some men” if he had meant some men. “All men,” say they; “that is, some of all sorts of men”: as if the Lord could not have said “all sorts of men” if he had meant that. The Holy Ghost by the apostle has written “all men,” and unquestionably he means all men. I know how to get rid of the force of the “alls” according to that critical method which some time ago was very current, but I do not see how it can be applied here with due regard to truth. I was reading just now the exposition of a very able doctor[3] who explains the text so as to explain it away; he applies grammatical gunpowder to it, and explodes it by way of expounding it.  . . . My love of consistency with my own doctrinal views is not great enough to allow me knowingly to alter a single text of Scripture. I have great respect for orthodoxy, but my reverence for inspiration is far greater. I would sooner a hundred times over appear to be inconsistent with myself than be inconsistent with the word of God. I never thought it to be any very great crime to seem to be inconsistent with myself; for who am I that I should everlastingly be consistent? But I do think it a great crime to be so inconsistent with the word of God that I should want to lop away a bough or even a twig from so much as a single tree of the forest of Scripture. God forbid that I should cut or shape, even in the least degree, any divine expression. So runs the text, and so we must read it, “God our Savior; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”[4]

Attempting to force the meaning of “all without distinction” on the universal texts is to explode them with “grammatical gunpowder.” The “all without distinction” concept often becomes code for “some of all without distinction.” Thus, “all” becomes “some of all sorts,” an unwarranted move by Owen[5] and followed by many high-Calvinists since.

With respect to the NT texts which use universal language, the bifurcation of “all without distinction” and “all without exception” is ultimately a distinction without a difference. If I speak of all men without racial, gender, or other distinctions, am I not speaking of all men without exception? Whatever the distinction is and whatever the scope of the “all” is must be supplied by the context. The two phrases simply cannot be compartmentalized linguistically. The distinction is artificial.

Ask yourself what the statement “all without distinction” means in the context of the atonement passages. The answer is it means “all kinds of people,” that is, all people of every kind, not some people of every kind. The problem with applying this distinction to passages like 1 Tim 2:4 is the use of “all” in the text gets transmuted into meaning “some of all kinds of people.” Since the adjective “all” modifies “men” in the Greek text of 1 Tim 2:4, it is not possible to change “all” into “some men of all kinds,” thus making the “all” modify “kinds of men,” not “men” properly considered. Yet this is the semantic shift that all high-Calvinists make: “all” becomes “some.”[6] Apparently, for high-Calvinists, since “all” sometimes means “all of some sorts” or “some of all sorts,” it can never mean in any atonement context all humanity including each and every person. The logical fallacy of such an approach is evident.

Thankfully, the authors in this section do not resort to the exegetical error of John Owen in arguing that “world” means the elect in places like John 3:16. Yet, once it is understood that “all without distinction” and “all without exception” are misused by most of the authors in this section, the load bearing wall for the argument of definite atonement is removed and the superstructure erected on it collapses.

The strength of any theological position is only as strong as the exegetical basis upon which it is built. Unfortunately, the authors of this section of the book have not succeeded in shoring up definite atonement’s faulty exegetical foundation. Hermeneutics, exegesis, and logic undercut definite atonement biblically.


[1] John Calvin, Sermons on Isaiah, 66, 70, 78–79.

[2] Augustine, “The City of God and Christian Doctrine,” in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series. 2:245.

[3] Probably John Gill.

[4] Charles Spurgeon, “Salvation By Knowing the Truth,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 26 (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1972), 49-50.

[5] John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, in The Works of John Owen, vol. 10, ed. by W. H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 197.

[6] See David Ponter’s discussion of this issue: http://calvinandcalvinism.com/?p=12502].