Atonement and Common Grace

How do we reconcile the notion of a limited, personal, substitutionary atonement with a universal non-saving favor? If God is favorably inclined toward all, how can one say that Christ did not die for them? And if Christ did not die for all, how can God be favorable toward them in any way? Read more»

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  1. “general benevolence toward humanity that is not saving”

    -God did not cease to be the one from whom all get their food, breath, etc. once Adam fell. “Common” is in regards to all men. All men are sustained through life by God even if they never receive the Gospel. “Grace” is in regards to the forbearance of God with those who, had God not anything, would be in Hell. The forbearance is specifically directed to those who have obligations to the 1st covenant whose federal head is Adam. The forebearance is not deserved, yet it is there. That God didn’t toss us headlong into the lake of fire immediately is amazing. What men do with providence post fall, if they are left to themselves, is rendering it to be that the creation goes on like it has since the beginning, no regard for Christ, etc.
    -Would the phrase “forebearing Providence” be better received than the questioned “common grace”?
    -Is part of the problem with those who maintain that there’s no such thing as common grace their view of the covenant(s)?

  2. Dr Clark,
    Thanks for this. I continue to struggle with such questions.
    My question concerns whether there is a “common” aspect to the atonement too. I have heard it said that in the work of Christ there is a universal aspect and a particular aspect. Universal in that there is a promise to all, albeit one that is conditional on faith to receive it, and particular in respect to the elect. Would you affirm that? If so, is there a sense in which we can affirm that Christ died for all?

    • Stephen,

      This is a difficult question and I’ve struggled with it (and continue to struggle with it) myself.

      The way some of the old orthodox writers put it was to say that the atonement is sufficient for all but intended by God only for the elect. Some of our writers (e.g. Van Mastricht) spoke quite strongly in favor of the notion that God may be said to love all men. In response to the universalism of modernity, however, some writers have abandoned those ways of speaking in favor of only speaking of the particular. Others deny any notion of common grace at all.

      I think it’s most helpful to distinguish between nature and grace here. As a matter of creation (nature) we can speak of God’s universal love and general providence for all creatures. Calvin said something to the effect that all the natural gifts in the world are gifts given by the Spirit and that’s true, if we’re thinking in creational categories but under the heading of grace (salvation) it’s more difficult to do so. Redemption was accomplished for those whom the Father gave to the Son from all eternity. It is applied to those whom the Father gave to the Son and for whom the Son obeyed and died.

      Personally I prefer to speak of God’s general providence rather than common grace even though I support the Three Points of Synod Kalamazoo (1924).

      I don’t know that we can resolve the issue entirely but through making some distinctions we can reduce the scope of the problem perhaps.

  3. “Nevermind that common grace can and does lead to neo-orthodoxy, theistic evolution, and theological liberalism.”

    Yes, and heat and fuel lead to arson.

  4. Dr Clark,
    Thanks for the response. What you say about writers responding to the universalism of modernity is interesting. (Can you point me to any books or articles dealing with this in its historical context?) I can’t help but wonder whether the move to speak only or primarily in terms of the particular has given up too much. As someone who grew up in the reformed tradition, it has fascinated me to discover older writers who were prepared to speak in universalistic ways. Thanks again,

    • Well, take a look at the Classic Reformed Theology series published by Reformation Heritage Books. Look at Witsius, Turretin, Owen etc. That’s where I would begin.

  5. Was it Hoeksema who said somthing like: “Mankind has everything in common … except grace” ?

    Therefore I also prefer to speak about ‘providence’ (HC LD 9 and 10)

  6. Is there any Scripture in the Bible that would support Charles Hodge’s contention that Christ died in some sense for every single individual? Universal atonement and particular atonement?

  7. For Whom Did Christ Die: The State of the Question, Charles Hodge

    “The whole question, therefore, concerns simply the purpose of God in the mission of his Son. What was the design of Christ’s coming into the world, and doing and suffering all He actually did and suffered? Was it merely to make the salvation of all men possible; to remove the obstacles which stood in the way of the offer of pardon and acceptance to sinners? or, Was it specially to render certain the salvation of his own people, i. e., of those given to Him by the Father? The latter question is affirmed by Angustinians, and denied by their opponents. It is obvious that if there be no election of some to everlasting life, the atonement can have no special reference to the elect. It must have equal reference to all mankind. But it does not follow from the assertion of its having a special reference to the elect that it had no reference to the non-elect. Augustinians readily admit that the death of Christ had a relation to man, to the whole human family, which it had not to the fallen angels. It is the ground on which salvation is offered to every creature under heaven who hears the gospel; but it gives no authority for a like offer to apostate angels. It moreover secures to the whole race at large, and to all classes of men, innumerable blessings, both providential and religious. It was, of course, designed to produce these effects; and, therefore, He died to secure them. In view of the effects which the death of Christ produces in the relation of all mankind to God, it has in all ages been customary with Augustinians to say that Christ died “sufficienter pro omnibus, efficaciter tantum pro electis;” sufficiently for all, efficaciously only for the elect. There is a sense, therefore, in which He died for all, and there is a sense in which He died for the elect alone. The simple question is, Had the death of Christ a reference to the elect which it had not to other men? Did He come into the world to secure the salvation of those given to Him by the Father, so that the other effects of his work are merely incidental to what was done for the attainment of that object? “

  8. Oddly, I do find anything in Scripture to support the idea that Christ died for every single individual or that Christ died to secure common grace for the reprobate.

  9. “This, e.g., is the whole argument of R. Scott Clark in an article entitled “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology.” He writes, “This essay contends that the reason the well-meant offer has not been more persuasive is that its critics have not understood or sympathized with the fundamental assumption on which the doctrine of the well-meant offer was premised: the distinction between theology as God knows it (theolologia archetypa) and theology as it is revealed to and done by us (theologia ectypa). In making the biblical case for the claim that God reveals himself as desiring what he has not secretly willed to do, Murray and Strimple assumed this distinction which they did not articulate explicitly.”

    This proposed solution is a rather fancy and Latinized way of saying that the conflict in God’s will to save the elect only and God’s will to save all men is only in our theology and not in God’s theology. God’s theology is fundamentally different from revelation and from our theology.”

    Professor Herman Hanko, PRTS at:

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