Recovering the Gospel — Why Belief in an Unlimited Atonement Matters

March 18, 2014

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

Article 3 (of the Traditional Statement) addresses the Atonement of Christ. It consists of one proposition in affirmation and three in denial. I expect there will be no disagreement on the affirmation regarding the penal substitution of Christ. The penal substitutionary atonement, though often attacked and vilified in modern theology, is the bedrock doctrine for explaining the work of Christ on the cross for the sins of the world. Sin can only be atoned by the shed blood of Christ on the cross as our substitute. The word “penal” connotes legal imagery. Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied the justice and wrath of God against our sin. Apart from Christ, there is no salvation. Apart from his atonement, there is no salvation. Only the cross of Christ provides an available and effective sacrifice for the sins of every person.

The first proposition in the denial states: “We deny that this atonement results in salvation without a person’s free response of repentance and faith.” The operative word here is “free.” The Scripture teaches that the atonement is only applied to those who meet the condition of repentance and faith. When it comes to the question of free will, all Calvinists affirm some form of divine determinism along with free will.[1]

One key aspect of divine determinism is the doctrine of God’s eternal decree which affirms that God predetermined from eternity who will be saved (the elect) and who will be damned.[2] Most affirm compatibilism, by which is meant all human actions are determined by God and yet humans are free and responsible for their actions. With respect to salvation, in a compatibilist framework, God changes the will of the individual by means of irresistible grace, such that having been regenerated, one genuinely and freely desires to trust Christ. According to compatibilism, the individual does not have the ability to choose any differently. Compatibilism is heavily dependent on Jonathan Edwards’s concept that we always act according to our greatest desire.[3]

We do not believe that compatibilism comports with genuine freedom. The reason should be obvious. In this construct, God imposes regeneration, and the individual is “free” to exercise faith but he is not free to choose any differently. By any normal understanding of freedom, this is not freedom. In order to have freedom, there must be the opportunity for a genuine choice between at least two options, and there must be no coercion made with respect to the choice. Acts committed under compulsion are not truly free acts. Compatibilists maintain that their version of free choice is not “imposition” or “compulsion.” We maintain that in essence, given the description of how one chooses to have faith in a compatibilist framework, such choices are not, in fact, genuinely free. Furthermore, Scripture (Romans 7) and human experience illustrate that we do not always act according to our desires. In fact, sometimes we act against our desires. This question of free will is a difficult issue in theology. The first proposition in the denial should be understood to mean that we deny compatibilism and affirm genuine (libertarian) freedom.4 This is with the understanding that there is no such thing as absolute freedom, and that the freedom we do possess in no way conflicts with or ever overrides the sovereignty of God.

The second proposition in the denial states: “We deny that God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person’s free will.” This denial must be understood in light of the meaning of the first statement of denial and its explanation. While compatibilists argue that no one is saved apart from an exercise of their free will, we are simply saying that irresistible grace vitiates free will for reasons stated above. In the Calvinist system, the elect are regenerated by an act of God which it is impossible for them to resist or decline. It seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that God is indeed “imposing” salvation. However divine sovereignty and human responsibility interact, we must affirm both, for Scripture affirms both, and we must not go against Scripture nor should we go beyond Scripture.

The third proposition in the denial states: ….

[1]Westminster Confession, III, 1.
[2]Westminster Confession, III, 3.
[3]For a description of compatibilism from a Southern Baptist theologian, see Bruce Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004).
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