Leonard Woods – “…he wills that all men should be saved.”

A Selective Review and Critique of Whomever He Wills – Part 3G

Dr. Tom Ascol’s chapter “Calvinism Foundational For Evangelism and Missions” by David L. Allen


In the waning pages of the chapter under the heading of “Testimony of History,” Dr. Ascol treats Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice. Ascol implies that their Calvinism was commensurate with his own commitment to TULIP. Such is not the case, particularly with respect to limited atonement.

Judson was not a writing theologian and most of what he did write he destroyed or requested that it be destroyed. Since Judson was trained in the New Divinity tradition at Andover, and it appears his Congregationalist pastor father was cut from the same cloth, it is highly likely his influencers did not hold to limited atonement. Ascol’s quotation of Judson (286) does not support limited atonement. Judson only speaks about election. Interestingly, Judson’s liturgy, Article III, to which Ascol makes appeal, speaks of an inherited sin nature from Adam but not inherited guilt (neither the Baptist Faith and Message nor the Traditional Statement on Soteriology speak of inherited guilt as well). Article V of Judson’s liturgy states that Christ “laid down his life for man . . . by which he made an atonement for all who are willing to believe” (286). This phrase is at least ambiguous as stated and does not indicate Judson believed in limited atonement. In fact, it would appear that the statement that Christ “laid down his life for man” would indicate universal atonement since “man” here probably refers to “mankind.” Notice Judson does not say anything about Christ dying only for the elect but he does speak of the application of the atonement as being “for all who are willing to believe.” None of the quotations of Judson which Ascol uses state that the atonement is limited in its extent. The same applies to Luther Rice as well.

It is interesting to note that Leonard Woods, the preacher who preached the missionary ordination sermon for Judson and Rice on February 6, 1812, clearly articulated a belief in general atonement and furthermore, developed this theological point as an important motive for missions and evangelism. This is all the more interesting since Woods was a Calvinist. For confirmation of this, one can check Sermon Preached at the Tabernacle in Salem February 6, 1812, on Occasion of the Ordination of the Rev. Messrs. Samuel Newell, Adoniram Judson, Samuel Nott, , Gordon Hall, and Luther Rice, Missionaries to the Heathen in Asia, Under the Direction of the Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (Boston: Samuel T. Armstrong, 1812), which can be accessed here: archive.org/details/sermondelivereda00wood.

Woods’ text was Psalm 67. In the first paragraph, Woods points out that the Psalmist expresses the heartbeat of God himself that all men may be saved (10). Woods states the purpose of his sermon: “I would persuade you to act, decidedly and zealously to act under the influence of Christian love” (11). The whole tenor of this sermon is wrapped around God’s love for every human being on planet earth and how our love for the unsaved should motivate our missionary endeavors. The outline of his sermon consists in 7 motives for missions and evangelism, the first of which is “the worth of souls” (Ibid.). “The souls of all these are as precious as your own. The wisdom of God, — the blood of the dying Savior has so declared” (12). Woods’ second motive which he urges on his hearers is “the plenteousness of the provision which Christ has made for their salvation” (13). “Were there anything scanty in this provision, — any deficiency in divine grace, — any thing circumscribed in the evangelic offer; our zeal for propagating the gospel would be suppressed” (Ibid.). The following statement by Woods clearly reveals his own affirmation of Christ’s death for the sins of all people.

But my brethren, the word of eternal truth has taught us that Jesus tasted death for every man; that he is the propitiation for ours sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world; that a rich feast is prepared, and all things ready; that whosoever will may come and take of the water of life freely. This great atonement is as sufficient for Asiatic and Africans, as for us. This abundant provision is made for them as well as for us. The door of Christ’s kingdom is equally open to them and to us. Unnumbered millions of our race have entered in; and yet there is room. The mercy of God is an ocean absolutely exhaustless; and so far as his benevolence is a patter for our imitation, and a rule to govern our exertions and prayers, he wills that all men should be saved (13-14).

Notice here Woods affirms God’s universal saving will for all men and that God has provided the propitiation for the sins of all men. He quotes Hebrews 2:9 that Jesus “tasted death for every man.” All of this is grounded in God’s saving love for humanity. Woods pleads with his hearers to “exert yourselves to the utmost for the salvation of mankind; your exertions will fall far below the height of redeeming love” (14-15). This is not limited atonement.

Woods’ third motive for missionary action is the biblical command to take the gospel to “every creature” which is “an exact expression of the heart of Jesus; a display of the vastness of his love (15). None of Woods’ seven motives for evangelism include the usual things in contemporary reformed writings and sermons such as the glory of God, God’s sovereignty, or the doctrine of election. There is no doubt he believed these things. Woods does not delve into the so called “secret will” of God when it comes to motives for missions; he rather stays within the revealed will of God and speaks of what the Bible clearly speaks about when it comes to why we should do missions and evangelism: the fact that God loves all people, desires all to be saved, has made provision in the death of Christ for the sins of all people so they can be saved should they repent and believe, and that we should give ourselves to missions and evangelism because of God’s love for every lost soul on planet earth, our love for Christ and our love for every single lost soul. As Woods said to Judson and Rice in his concluding charge in the sermon: “You go, we believe, because the love of God is shed abroad in your hearts by the Holy Ghost

. . . . The cause in which you have enlisted, is the cause of divine love” (26).

When one compares this sermon and these specific motives for missions and evangelism with Dr. Ascol’s chapter (and Schrock’s chapter as well) in WHW, the contrast is often stark. Missing in Ascol’s chapter is a clear affirmation of God’s universal saving will, God’s universal saving love, and of course, the importance that Christ died for the sins of all people such that a door of mercy and love is thrown wide open to all people should they repent and believe. I will say more about this and its implications for evangelism, missions and preaching in the final concluding installment.

Woods’ own sermon coupled with what we know of the writings of Judson and Rice make it clear that, as Calvinists, Judson and Rice clearly held to the doctrine of election and they believed in the sovereignty of God in missions and evangelism. Whether they held to limited atonement is another question. Evidence that Judson probably did not affirm limited atonement can be found in one of his addresses delivered while on furlough to the United States in March, 1846. Speaking of the death of Christ, he states: “But he did not yield; he suffered on for three more awful hours, until the Father saw that all was accomplished – that the price of our redemption was paid – that enough suffering had been endured to render it possible for every individual of our lost race to find salvation” (Robert T. Middleditch, Burmah’s Great Missionary, 387). The sentence could not be uttered consistently by one who held to limited atonement. The reason is obvious. According to limited atonement, Christ did not die for the sins of the non-elect. Thus, it is not possible that “every individual of our lost race” could find salvation. No atonement was made for the non-elect and salvation is not possible apart from the atonement of Christ.

In his section on “The Testimony of History,” Dr. Ascol has built memorials to great Baptist Calvinists of the past, and rightly so. But he has not demonstrated that such Baptist stalwarts as Carey, Fuller, Judson and Rice held to his brand of five-point Calvinism. In fact, it is clear that some of them did not, and it is likely, in light of what we do know of their writings, that none of them did. To my knowledge, not a single statement in any of the writings of Carey, the later Fuller, Judson or Rice clearly affirms limited atonement.