Definite Atonement and Christ’s Intercession (Owen)

One of the major biblical reasons why I believe and teach the doctrine of limited atonement (better: definite atonement) has to do with Jesus’ work of salvation.  Specifically, the Bible teaches that Jesus’ obedience, suffering, and death is very much connected to his resurrection, ascension, and intercession (Is. 53:12b, Rom. 8:33-34).  Those for whom Jesus obeyed, suffered, and died are the same ones for whom he rose, ascended, and intercedes.  John Owen made this argument in The Death of Death, where he says that Christ’s oblation and his intercession are intimately connected:

“…They are both alike intended for the obtaining and accomplishing the same entire and complete end proposed, that is, the effectual bringing of many sons to glory, for the praise of God’s grace.  …The object of the one is of no larger extent than the object of the other.  In other words, Christ intercedes on behalf of the ones he offered himself for, and only those, as he says himself in John 17:19.

…The sole end why Christ procured anything by his death was that it might be applied to them for whom it was so procured.  The sum is, that the oblation and intercession of Jesus Christ are one entire means for the producing of the same effect, the very end of the oblation being that all those things which are bestowed by the intercession of Christ, and without whose application it should certainly fail of the end proposed in it….”

We cannot say that Christ died for all and only intercedes for some, since Paul said that Christ who died for us also intercedes for us (Rom. 8:33-34).  Again, here’s Owen:

“That he died for all and intercedeth only for some will scarcely be squared to this text, especially considering the foundation of all this, which is (verse 32) the love of God which moved him to give up Christ do death for us all; upon which the apostle infers a kind of impossibility in not giving us all good things in him;  which how it can be reconciled with their opinion who affirm that he gave his Son for millions to whom he will give neither grace nor glory, I cannot see.

The extent of Christ’s atonement matches the extent of his intercession.  His atonement is limited to the elect, as is his intercession.  It’s not theological nitpicking; this has to do with the glorious work of Christ!  We never want to detract or subtract from Christ’s work.  Furthermore, it is a great comfort to know that Jesus definitely died for me and now definitely intercedes for me! He left nothing undone in the work of redemption.  So I can rest comfortably in his finished work.

The above quotes (edited for readability and length) are found in Owen’s The Death of Death, p. 68-70.

Shane Lems

A Dilemma of Universalism (Owen)

John Owen’s classic, The Death of Death, is not the easiest book to read, but it sure is worth the effort!  Since I’ll be preaching through the doctrines of grace later this Summer, I’m reading Owen’s book again as part of sermon preparation.  Here’s a helpful section I ran across this morning.  Owen said this is one of the dilemmas of Universalism:

God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for
1) either all the sins of all men,
2) all the sins of some men,
3) some sins of all men.

If the last (3), some sins of all men, then  all men have some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved; for if God enter into judgment with us, though it were with all mankind for one sin, no flesh should be justified in his sight: “If the LORD should mark iniquities, who should stand?” Ps. 130:3. We might all go to cast all that we have “to the moles and to the bats, to go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for fear of the LORD, and for the glory of his majesty,” Isa. 2:20, 21.

If the second (2), that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world.

If the first (1), (all the sins of all men) why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.” But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not? If it is not sin, why should they be punished for it? If it is sin, then either Christ underwent the punishment due to it or he did not. If he did, then why must that hinder them from partaking of the fruit of his death more than their other sins for which he died?  If he did not undergo the punishment do to the sin of unbelief, then did he not die for all their sins.

Let them choose which part they will.

NOTE: I’ve edited the above a bit to make it easier to read.  The quote can be found in John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 10 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 173–174.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

He Does Really and Actually Save!

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 2 What does Reformed theology teach about the extent of Christ’s atonement?  Francis Turretin (d. 1687) explained definite atonement well:

“The common opinion of the Reformed is that Christ – from the mere good pleasure of the Father – was appointed and given as a Redeemer and head, not to all men, but to a certain number of men.  By the election of God, these compose his mystical body.  For these alone, Christ, in order to fulfill the decree of election and the counsel of his Father, was willing and determined to die, and also to add to the infinite price of his death a most efficacious and special intention to substitute himself in their place and to acquire faith and salvation for them.”

Turretin then  went on to mention the texts in Scripture that talk about Christ’s death being for “his people,” “his sheep,” “his friends,” “his church,” and “his body” (Mt. 1:21, Eph 5:23, Jn 10:15, Jn 15:13, etc.).  Turretin also noted how the acquisition and application of redemption are inseparable from the extent of it.  In other words, Jesus redeemed his people and applied redemption to the same ones, his elect.

“It is gratuitous [unwarranted] to say that Christ is the Savior of those for whom salvation is indeed acquired, but to whom it will never be applied.  Even the very word ‘to save’ denotes the actual communication of salvation, and Christ is Jesus, not only because he is willing and able to save and because he removes all obstacles out of the way of salvation, but because he does really and actually save his people, not only by his merit acquiring salvation for them, but also efficaciously applying it to them, which was the intent of God in sending Christ and the end of his mission (as the angel clearly intimates by the imposition of the name ‘Jesus’).

Jesus is not possibly a Savior; he’s not a potential Redeemer.  He actually saves and is a true Redeemer!

The above quotes are found in volume 2 of Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 458 & 461.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Definite Atonement and Christian Comfort (Owen)

In Chapter seven of The Death of Death John Owen showed how Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (his “oblation”) is tightly connected with his intercession.  Owen argued that rather than say Jesus died for all and failed in his aim and design, we should agree with Paul, “grounding the assurance of our eternal glory and freedom from all accusations upon the death of Christ, and that because his intercession for us does inseparably and necessarily follow it.”  Owen then quoted Rom. 8:33-34 and wrote,

“Here is an equal extent of the one and the other; those persons who are concerned in the one are all of them concerned in the other.”

In other words, those for whom Jesus died are the same people for whom he intercedes.

A few pages later Owen noted that if a person separates and divides Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (oblation) from his intercession, that person cuts off all comfort the Christian has of assurance that Christ died for him.  Positively speaking,

“The main foundation of all the confidence and assurance whereof in this life we may be made partakers (which amounts to ‘joy unspeakable, and full of glory’) ariseth from this strict connection of the oblation and intercession of Jesus Christ – that by the one he has procured all good things for us, and by the other he will procure them to be actually bestowed, whereby he does never leave our sins, but follows them into every court, until they be fully pardoned and clearly expiated (Heb. 9:26).  He will never leave us until he has saved to the uttermost them that come unto God by him.”

This isn’t theological nitpicking or dry, dusty doctrine that is irrelevant.  To say that Jesus’ death is tightly connected with his intercession echoes biblical truth, glorifies Christ and his saving power, and it gives the Christian firm comfort and assurance that Jesus who died for us will also intercede for us, that our faith will not fail (Lk. 22:32).

The above quotes are found in John Owen’s The Death of Death (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), chapter 7.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WZI

Definite Atonement and The Free Offer of the Gospel

Sometimes people wrongly think that the doctrine of limited/definite atonement means we can’t preach the gospel to all people because we don’t know if Christ died for them or not.  In hyper-calvinistic circles this might show up from time to time.  However, in solid Reformed theology, we don’t focus on God’s hidden decree and will, but his revealed decree and will.  God’s revealed will (Scripture) tells us that Jesus died for sinners, and that whoever repents and believes in him will be saved.  While we don’t look people in the eye and say, “Jesus died for you, believe in him and be saved,” we do look them in the eye and say, “Jesus died for sinners, believe in him, and be saved!”

Louis Berkhof talks about this well in his book Vicarious Atonement Through Christ.  In the paragraphs below, Berkhof quotes William Cunningham.  It’s quite helpful:

It is very evident that our conduct, in preaching the gospel, and in addressing our fellow men with a view to their salvation, should not be regulated by any inferences of our own about the nature, extent, and sufficiency of the provision actually made for saving them, but solely by the directions and instructions which God has given us, by precept and example, to guide us in the matter — unless, indeed, we venture to act upon the principle of refusing to obey God’s commands until we fully understand all the grounds and reasons of them. God has commanded the gospel to be preached to every creature; He has required us to proclaim to our fellow men, of whatever character, and in all varieties of circumstances, the glad tidings of great joy — to hold out to them, in His name, pardon and acceptance through the blood of the atonement — to invite them to come to Christ, and to receive Him — and to accompany all this with the assurance that ‘whosoever cometh to Him, He will in no wise cast out.’

God’s revealed will is the only rule, and ought to be held to be the sufficient warrant for all that we do in this matter — in deciding what is our duty —in making known to our fellow man what are their privileges and obligations — and in setting before them reasons and motives for improving the one and discharging the other. And though this revelation does not warrant us in telling them that Christ died for all and each of the human race — a mode of preaching the gospel never adopted by our Lord and His apostles — yet it does authorize and enable us to lay before men views and considerations, facts and arguments, which, in right reason, should warrant and persuade all to whom they are addressed, to lay hold of the hope set before them….

William Cunningham, quoted in Louis Berkhof, Vicarious Atonement through Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1936), 173–174.

shane lems

For Those He Came To Save

Vicarious Atonement through Christ Most of our readers know of Louis Berkhof’s excellent Systematic Theology.  But Berkhof also has some other gems out there, including Vicarious Atonement Through Christ.  In just under 200 pages, Berkhof discusses the doctrine of Christ’s satisfaction, including the necessity of the atonement, the objective and vicarious nature of the atonement, the subjective effects of the atonement, and so forth.  One section very much worth reading is his chapter on what has been called “Definite Atonement” or “Limited Atonement.”  The chapter is titled, “The Restricted Design of the Atonement.”  It is basically an outstanding 13 page outline and summary of this truth (one of the best short summaries that I’ve read, by the way!).

One biblical proof Berkhof gives to explain particular redemption is proof from the doctrine of election:

The doctrine of sovereign election, as taught in Scripture, may certainly be regarded as expressive of the purpose of God respecting the redemption of sinners. It is to the effect that God from all eternity decreed to save a certain definite number of the fallen human race, and at the same time determined the means by which He would effectuate their salvation. It is but reasonable to suppose that He adapted the means precisely to the end which He had in view. Since the election was clearly personal in decreeing the salvation of certain persons who stood out clearly in the mind of God, we can only suppose that He designed the necessary means also for those and for no other persons and made them effective for the end in view.

What consistency would there be in God’s electing certain persons unto life everlasting, then sending Christ into the world to make salvation possible for all men but certain for none, and finally leaving it entirely to man to accept or reject the offered salvation, perhaps only to find that others than those whom He had elected made use of the opportunity. And it does not help matters much to substitute foreknowledge for predestination, as the Arminian does. If God knows precisely, as He does, who will and who will not accept the offer of salvation, does it seem reasonable to think that He would send Christ into the world to suffer and die for the purpose of saving those of whom He is sure that they will never meet the conditions and be saved?

The question of Boettner is quite pertinent: “Who can believe that He, like a feeble mortal, would ‘shoot at the convoy without perceiving the individual birds?’ ” Moreover, it should be borne in mind that the positive will of God, His eternal decree, cannot be frustrated by men. “The counsel of Jehovah standeth fast forever,” Ps. 33:11. “My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.… I have purposed. I will also do it,” Isa. 46:10, 11. “In whom we also were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His will,” Eph. 1:11. According to the doctrine of universal atonement the very purpose of God is frustrated. While He purposes to save all men, only a limited number is actually saved. The purpose of God is defeated through unbelief. Man rather than God is in control of the destinies of life.

Logos Edition: Berkhof, Louis. Vicarious Atonement through Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1936.

Or, find it on Amazon (HERE).

shane lems
hammond, wi

A Triune Perspective on Limited (Definite) Atonement

The Five Points of Calvinism: A Study Guide Edwin Palmer (d. 1980) wrote a helpful book called The Five Points of Calvinism.  This is a good resource for those who want a detailed yet readable and relatively brief explanation of the doctrines of grace.  Here’s an edited summary of Palmer’s discussion of Limited (Definite) Atonement which he explains in a Trinitarian and biblical way.  The doctrine of Limited Atonement is based on:

1) The Father’s Election.  Since the objects of the Father’s saving love are particular, definite, and limited (Amos 3:2, Rom. 1:7, 8:29, 9:13, Col. 3:12, 1 Thess. 1:4, Jude 1) so are the objects of Christ’s death.  Because God has loved certain ones and not all, because he has sovereignly and immutably determined that these particular ones will be saved, he sent his Son to die for them, to save them, and not all the world.  Because there is a definite election, there is a definite atonement.  Because there is a particular election, there is a particular atonement.  God’s electing love and Christ’s atonement go hand in hand and have the same people in view.  There is unity between the work of the Father and the Son.

2) The Son’s Atonement.  The Bible teaches the death of Jesus in at least four different ways.  When Christ died, 1) he made a substitutionary sacrifice for sins (Heb. 9-10); 2) he propitiated, that is, appeased or placated, the righteous wrath of God (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17, 2 John 2:2; 4:10); 3) he reconciled his people to God – that is, he removed the enmity between them and God (Rom. 5:10, 2 Cor. 5:20, etc.); and 4) he redeemed them from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13). …The nature of the atonement – what did Christ actually do? – answers the question: For whom did Christ die?  The noun (atonement) defines its adjective (limited).  If the atonement does not actually save, does not really remove God’s curse from people, does not actually redeem them, then it indeed can be for all the world, even for those who are in hell.  But if the death of Jesus is what the Bible says it is – a substitutionary sacrifice for sins, an actual and not a hypothetical redemption, whereby the sinner is really reconciled to God – then obviously, it cannot be for every man in the world.  For then everybody would be saved, and obviously they are not.

3) The Spirit’s Indwelling. In 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Paul notes (in line with Romans 6) that if Christians are dead to sin, then they are made alive in Christ.  If they are spiritually buried with Christ, they will spiritually rise with him.  Although Paul does not state it explicitly in this passage, we know from the rest of Scripture that this is possible only through the Holy Spirit’s work.  …There is an inexorable chain of events in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: a) Christ died for all believers; therefore b) all believers die spiritually in Christ; and c) they all rise again spiritually in Christ.  If (a) is stated, (b) and (c) must follow.  …The Holy Spirit does not apply the death of Christ to all people, leaving it in their hands ultimately as to whether or not they would be saved.  Rather, the Spirit comes to those people whom the Father had chosen and for whom the Son had died and he causes them to die to sin and be born again.

In summary, the purpose of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit coincide.  They strive for and accomplish the same purpose: The salvation of those whom the Father has loved with a special love.

To read these three points in their entirety, see pages 52-60 in The Five Points of Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010).

shane lems