On the Insufficiency of the Notion of Sufficiency Among Some Calvinists, part 2 of 3

by David L. Allen
Dean, School of Theology
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

(Ed’s. note: A careful researcher and Southern Baptist statesman, Dr. Allen does not ascribe a singular view of Christ’s atonement to all Calvinists, universally; however, his sensitive use of qualifying terms provide both clarity and distinction regarding the topic at-hand.)

IV. John Owen’s Problematic Revision of the Lombardian Formula

When John Owen formulated his argument for limited atonement, he did so using the problematic categories of a commercialistic sense of the atonement where the sins of the elect only were imputed to Christ. This approach led Owen to modify the traditional sufficiency-efficiency model originally promulgated by Peter Lombard and accepted by all the Schoolmen and the early Reformers: “sufficient for all; efficient for the elect.” This modification prompted Richard Baxter, who himself held to an unlimited atonement, to call Owen’s sleight-of-hand “a new futile evasion.”[5] For Owen, as for all who affirm limited atonement, the atonement can only be sufficient for those for whom it is efficient. Forget the fact, according to all Calvinists, that the non-elect will not be saved given God’s discriminating purpose of election; this particular problem involves the fact that there is no atonement made for them in the first place! Double jeopardy indeed!

V. John Owen Contrasted with Calvin and the Early Reformers

Owen’s difference with Calvin and the first generation of Reformers on the question of the extent of the atonement becomes evident. For Calvin, Christ’s death sufficiently paid the price for the sins of all people, and so all may receive God’s offer of salvation. Muller correctly noted: “Yet, as we have seen, Calvin also consistently points to Christ’s death as full payment for the sins of the world, undergirding, as it were, the indiscriminate proclamation of the gospel.”[6]

This was also the view of all first generation Reformers, and has been the view of all moderate Calvinists since. Behind this was a particular understanding of the Lombardian formula “sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect only,” namely, that Christ’s death paid for the sins of all people, yet “efficient for the elect alone” in the sense that the benefits of the atonement are applied only to those who believe, namely, the elect. Calvin and all the early Reformers understood the Scriptures to teach that people perish not for a lack of an atonement for their sins, but because of their own unbelief. Of course, all Calvinists, regarding the efficiency side of the formula, affirm that the special grace necessary to bring the unbelieving elect to a state of belief is, at the time of the Spirit’s effectual calling, “irresistible.”

For John Owen, on the other hand, Christ’s death had no direct relationship or reference to the sins of the non-elect. There is a limited sin-bearing in the death of Christ: he died only for the sins of the elect. Owen and Calvin differ with respect to the “sufficiency” aspect of the Lombardian formula.

VI. Andrew Fuller Contrasted with Abraham Booth on Sufficiency

Andrew Fuller came to see the problem of the free offer of the gospel from the platform of limited atonement in his debates with the General Baptist Dan Taylor. Fuller came to reject limited atonement and rewrote the section on the extent of the atonement in his second edition of The Gospel Worthy accordingly.[7]

Fuller and Abraham Booth clashed over this issue. Booth also revised the language of the Lombardian Formula to make the sufficiency of Christ’s death a hypothetical sufficiency. For Booth, the death of Christ is only sufficient for those whom Christ substituted for on the cross: the elect. He wrote:

While cheerfully admitting the sufficiency of Immanuel’s death to have redeemed all mankind, had all the sins of the whole human species been equally imputed to him; and had he, as the Universal Representative, sustained that curse of the law which was due to all mankind; yet we cannot perceive any solid reason to conclude, that his propitiatory sufferings are sufficient for the expiation of sins which he did not bear, or for the redemption of sinners whom he did not represent, as a sponsor, when he expired on the cross. For the substitution of Christ, and the imputation of sin to him, are essential to the scriptural doctrine of redemption by our adorable Jesus.–We may, therefore, safely conclude, that our Lord’s voluntary substitution, and redemption by his vicarious death, are both of them limited to those, for whom he was made sin–for whom he was made a curse–and for whose deliverance from final ruin, he actually paid the price of his own blood.[8]

Notice Booth’s two kinds of sufficiency: hypothetical and actual. Booth, like Owen before him, has knowingly revised the Lombardian Formula.

[5] Richard Baxter, Universal Redemption of Mankind by the Lord Jesus Christ (London: Printed for John Salusbury at the Rising Sun in Cornhill, 1694), 345. The revision of the Lombardian formula has been noted by many Calvinists themselves, including, for example, L. Berkhof, A. Booth, J. Walker, and W. Cunningham.

[6] Richard Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 82. See also Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition, 105: “…since Christ paid the price for all sin and accomplished a redemption capable of saving the whole world, his benefits are clearly placed before, proffered, or offered to all who hear….”

[7] See David L. Allen, “Preaching for a Great Commission Resurgence,” in The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Time, eds. C. Lawless and A. Greenway (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 281-98.

[8] Abraham Booth, “Divine Justice Essential to the Divine Character,” in The Works of Abraham Booth (London: Printed by J. Haddon, 1813), 3:61.