A Selective Review and Critique of Whomever He Wills – Part 2D

David L. Allen

Matthew Barrett and Thomas Nettles, eds. Whomever He Wills: a Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2012), 401 pgs.

(Ed.’s note: What follows below is Part 2D. This follows Part 2C that appeared on Aug. 15.)


6) The Efficacious Nature of the Atonement.

On pages 85-90, Schrock moves from the discussion of the particular nature of Christ’s atonement to the efficacious nature of it. Here there is less to disagree with, but some troublesome spots occur. Schrock writes, “Historically, those who have defended penal substitution have usually embraced definite atonement” (88). In light of the large variety of Calvinists throughout Reformed history who have affirmed a form of unlimited atonement, coupled with the large number of non-Calvinists like John Wesley who affirmed unlimited atonement along with penal substitution, this statement needs qualification. In the footnote, he mistakenly cites Shedd who was actually moderate on the question of the extent of the atonement. (I am here assuming Schrock is citing Shedd as a proponent of Limited Atonement.)

On 88-89, Schrock in a lengthy footnote appeals to Owen’s famous “trilemma argument.” He cites Clifford’s critique of it along with my approving appeal to Clifford, then cites Trueman’s critique of Clifford. As I have noted in Whosoever, Owen’s trilemma argument has been criticized by Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike. Schrock’s last sentence in the footnote is especially egregious: “It is the text of Scripture that must be ‘defeated’ in order to deny definite atonement.” (89). See my comments in part one of my review of WHW for this kind of mindset and its inappropriateness for theological dialogue. Schrock is confusing his interpretation of Scripture with Scripture itself.

Owen’s trilemma argument faces some problems, two of which appear to be insurmountable.

The first is the problem of the issue of original sin. Notice it is not original “sins” but original “sin.” If Christ died for original sin, then he died for at least one of the sins of the non-elect. If this is the case, then Owen’s argument is defeated for Owen must admit that Christ died for some of the sins (original sin) of all men. Calvinist James Daane, in arguing that we can tell all in a lost audience that “Christ died for you,” approached this type of argument. He wrote:

Moreover, if we wholly reject every possible meaning of the statement, Christ died for you, what shall we do with original sin? Christ’s death atoned for original sin, that one sin which is the fountain of all other sins, that one sin which entered the world, and as Paul teaches, brought death upon all men, that one sin which is every man’s sin. One can, conceivably, say that Christ did not die for all the sins of every man, but one cannot say – and remain within Biblical teaching – that Christ did not die for that one sin which is every man’s sin. Not every meaning of “for” can be rejected in the statement, “Christ died for your sins. (James Daane, “What Doctrine of Limited Atonement?” The Reformed Journal 14:10 [December 1964], 16.)

At the foundation of this problem is Owen’s second problem which is thinking of the imputation of sin to Christ as a transference of the guilt of specific trasgressions. Would Owen consider the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers as the transference of so many acts of law-keeping? It would seem not. Are believers credited with specific acts of righteousness on Christ’s part? No, we are credited with a quality of righteousness. All of Christ’s acts of obedience fall under the somewhat abstract class of “righteousness.” Just as believers are not imputed with something like so many bits of righteousness but rather with righteousness, so also Christ was not imputed with “sin-bits” but rather with sin in a comprehensive way. He was treated as though he were sinful. Owen, and it would seem Schrock as well, has a faulty notion of imputation. Christ died one death that all sinners deserve under the law. In paying the penalty of what one sinner deserves, he paid the penalty of what every sinner deserves. He suffered the curse of the law as defined by the law. Owen’s trilemma argument undermines the true meaning of imputation and operates on the assumption of the transference of specific sins.

Charles Hodge, in contrast, has retained the proper understanding of imputation:

What was suitable for one was suitable for all. The righteousness of Christ, the merit of his obedience and death, is needed for justification by each individual of our race, and therefore is needed by all. It is no more appropriate to one man than to another. Christ fulfilled the conditions of the covenant under which all men were placed. He rendered the obedience required of all, and suffered the penalty which all had incurred; and therefore his work is equally suited to all. (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993], 2:545.)

At the end of this section (89), Schrock writes: “If Christ really gave His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), if He really bore the curse in our place (Galatians 3:13), if He really became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21); then it must hold that there are some for whom He did not die. Otherwise, how could the ones He ransomed, freed from the curse, and imputed righteousness perish, unless the extent of His propitiation was less than universal. [sic]”

Schrock’s argument here entails that all the elect as a class (believing and unbelieving) were actually “freed from the curse” and “imputed with righteousness,” at the cross. This is the error of justification at the cross of all the elect.

He then quotes Letham. Of course this is an appeal to Owen’s famous “double payment” argument which I have critiqued in my chapter in Whosoever. Schrock mentions in footnote 48 my critique of Owen’s dependence on the double payment argument as relying heavily on a scholastic double-payment for sins to defend definite atonement (89). He then states “Greg Wills sets the record straight.” Wills stated Owen “relies not so much on the double-payment argument as on the Bible’s teaching . . . .” On page 15 of Wills’ review, he states that Owen placed “little weight” on the double payment argument. But the greater point Wills’ misses is that the concept of a “literal payment” for sins by Christ to God undergirds Owen’s entire argument for double payment and for limited atonement. On page 16 of the review Wills states that “Owen concluded repeatedly, all persons should be redeemed” if Christ atoned for the sins of all. Note the use of the word “repeatedly.” On page 15 Wills says Owen “relies not so much on the double-payment argument” then on page 16 asserts “Owen concluded repeatedly” based on the use of the double payment argument. These statements would appear to be incompatible.

A careful reading of Owen reveals he did indeed rely heavily on the double payment argument. It is one of the key linchpins of his whole attempt to argue for limited atonement. Virtually every contemporary Calvinist attempting to support limited atonement does so by appeal to Owen’s double payment argument. Remove the errant commercial notion of a “literal payment” for sins and Owen’s double-payment argument collapses.

There are four key problems with the double payment argument. First, it is not found in Scripture. Second, it confuses a commercial view of debt and the atonement with a legal or penal view of debt and atonement. Third, it fails to take account of the fact that the elect are still under the wrath of God until they believe according to Ephesians 2:1-3. Fourth, it negates the principle of grace by entailing that the application of the atonement is owed to the elect by God himself since Jesus has literally purchased it from God on their behalf. Neither Schrock nor Wills address these problems (See pages 83-86 in Whosoever for my critique of Owen’s double payment argument and note I quote or reference the following Calvinists who critiqued it: Ursinus, Davenant, Lazarus Seaman, Polhill, Dabney, A. A. Hodge, Charles Hodge, Shedd, and Curt Daniel.). Neither Schrock nor Wills address what these fellow Calvinists have said in critique of the double-payment argument.

In a forthcoming part two installment, I will evaluate the rest of Schrock’s chapter.