According to its critics, including the Remonstrants, the great fault of the Reformed doctrine of the atonement is that it is too exclusive. That, however, is not how the Reformed Churches presented their understanding of Scripture. Their opening note under the Second Head of Doctrine (“Concerning the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Man Thereby”) was on the grace of God in saving sinners at the cost of the life of the Son of God.
The doctrine that, in the atonement, God intended to save his elect, is not a Reformed peculiarity.1 It is a mainstream doctrine which has been held by some of the greatest teachers in the Christian tradition, among them Augustine, Prosper of Aquitaine, Gottschalk, Peter the Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Bradwardine, Gregory of Rimini as well as Calvin and the entire Reformed tradition. One should also remember that the nature of the controversy over the extent of the atonement has changed somewhat since the rise of Arminianism, the Remonstrants and the response by the Synod of Dort (1618–19). In the discussions before Dort, one often finds the elements of the doctrine of definite atonement, but because the question is not as sharply focused as it became in the early 17th century, the answers are not as detailed as they later were. This is the nature of the development of Christian doctrine, controversy often produces theological precision.
Augustine of Hippo, the greatest of all the church fathers, taught most of the elements of definite atonement and was the “first great defender of the efficacy and particularism of God’s grace.”2 In his controversy with Pelagius and later the semi-Pelagians Augustine, of course, rejected the doctrine of free will (liberum arbitrium) in favor of absolute predestination and with his doctrine of predestination he also taught that Jesus had not died for everyone who ever lived.3
Augustine had a cadre of supporters, among them was a French theologian, who was living in Marseilles at the time of the outbreak of the semi-Pelagian controversy in 426. From 431–34 he wrote a number of books against the semi-Pelagians. Prosper was explicit that, in one sense, with respect to his incarnation and the fall of all humans, Christ can be said to have died for the entire world. Yet, it can also be said that Christ “was crucified only for those who were to profit by his death.”4
Some think that he softened somewhat in the years following 432, that he could not reconcile those passages in Scripture in which God reveals himself as desiring the salvation of all, with his earlier notions of double predestination.5 He did teach (450) that sinners have the power to reject divine grace, and they are the same who are passed over. Those who believe, however, are those who are elect.6 Only those who are elect come to faith.7
It appears that they misunderstand his inchoate argument about what would later come to be called “The Free Offer of the Gospel.”8 God reveals himself as willing what we know he has not decreed, the salvation of all.9 Some he passes by and some he elects to faith. Proof that he was teaching a seminal version the free offer is that in several of the same passages where he affirms the universal divine will to save, he immediately moves to a discussion of preaching.10 Likewise, when he says that Christ died for all men, he made it clear that the all equals “sinners” so that he was not necessarily teaching universal atonement.11
In the midst of controversy over the nature of God’s sovereignty, Godescalc of Orbais defended Augustine vigorously and suffered for it. He taught that there are two “worlds,” that which Christ has purchased with his blood and that which he has not. Thus when Scripture says that Christ died for the “world” (e.g., John 3:16) it is extensive of all those Christ has actually redeemed, but it does not include everyone who has ever lived.12In the same way, those passages which seem to say that Christ died for all, in all times and places must but understood to refer to all the elect. Thus he saw 1 John 2:2 not as a problem passage, but a proof-text for definite atonement.13
The Lombard’s teaching on the atonement is most famous for his use of the distinction between the sufficiency of Christ’s death and its efficiency. Though they are not familiar to many of us today, from their publication in the late 12th century until the late 16th century, Peter’s Sentences were the most important theological text in the Latin-speaking world. Theological students even earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Sentences.
In Book 3, distinction 20 he taught that Christ’s death was “sufficient” to redeem all (quantum ad pretii) but it is “efficient” only “for the elect” (pro electis).14 This distinction, though not followed by all Western theologians after Lombard, was adopted by most until the nominalist movement (e.g., William of Ockham, d. 1347) overturned the “Old School” (via antiqua).15
In his great work, Summa Theologiae, Thomas distinguished between God’s will considered as his antecedent will, by which he could be said to have willed the salvation of all; and his will considered as consequent, i.e., what he actually decreed to exist, i.e., that only the elect would be saved and that some will be reprobated (damned).16 Later, Protestant theologians would revise this distinction to refer to his revealed and hidden will. With respect to his revealed will, God is said to desire certain things (i.e., that none should perish). It is his revealed will that we should know the existence of a hidden decree (who will be saved and who will perish) but the content of that decree is part of his hidden will. Thomas also made it very clear that he adopted Lombard’s sufficient/efficient distinction but also taught unambiguously that Christ died effectively only for the elect.17
It is not our claim that everyone everywhere has held this doctrine, but the doctrine of definite atonement has been widely held and taught by some of the most important Christian theologians in the history of the church. We do not think that this is conclusive, but this fact does help to put the discussion of the doctrine in context.
The structure of the doctrine of the atonement taught by Synod is essentially that of Athanasius (296–373), in his great work On the Incarnation of the Word and Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) in his great work, Cur Deus Homo (Why The God-Man): It is humans who sinned but it is only God who is able to save thus it was necessary for God the Son to become incarnate in order to save his people.
At the Synod of Dort, in their Opinions, The Remonstrants rejected the Athanasian and Anselmian doctrine that Christ actually accomplished redemption for his people and the Augustinian doctrine that the Spirit efficaciously applies redemption to those for whom he obeyed and died. In its place they proposed:
The price of redemption which Christ offered to God the Father is not only in itself and by itself sufficient for the redemption of the whole human race but has also been paid for all men and for every man, according to the decree, will, and the grace of God the Father; therefore no one is absolutely excluded from participation in the fruits of Christ’s death by an absolute and antecedent decree of God.
Here they addressed directly and rejected the traditional distinction between sufficient (the death of Christ is enough to satisfy for all) and efficient (the death of Christ was intended for the elect) but asserted that Christ actually died for “all men” and “every man.” The Remonstrants were (and remain) unequivocal universalists regarding the atonement. In their view, God ordained for all eternity to make salvation available to all conditionally. In this, in the Reformed analysis, the Remonstrants turned the grace of God into works. Christ is not said to have died unconditionally, which is the essence of grace (i.e., divine favor) but for all—so long as they do their part. Remember, the background to their doctrine of universal atonement is their doctrine of conditional election on the basis of foreseen faith and faithfulness (good works and perseverance).
This is what the Remonstrants had confessed in 1610:
ART. II. That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness ef sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John iii. 16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”; and in the First Epistle of John ii. 2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only. but also for the sins of the whole world.” (emphasis added)
To the Remonstrant revisions, the Reformed Churches replied:
Art. I. God is not only supremely merciful, but also supremely just. And his justice requires (as he hath revealed himself in his Word) that our sins committed against his infinite majesty should be punished, not only with temporal, but with eternal punishments, both in body and soul; which we can not escape, unless satisfaction be made to the justice of God.
According to the Reformed, what the Remonstrants were actually teaching is that in dying for “all” and “every” Christ died for no one in particular: “That God the Father has ordained His Son to the death of the cross without a certain and definite decree to save any…” (Rejection of Errors, 2.1).
As they tried to reconfigure Reformed theology to make it more reasonable, more palatable to those who were offended by the traditional doctrine, they turned the covenant of unconditional grace and a certain atonement into a covenant of works. According to the Remonstrants, what Christ did on the cross was to earn the right to make a new, conditional covenant:
We Reject the Errors of Those Who teach: That it was not the purpose of the death of Christ that He should confirm the new covenant of grace through His blood, but only that He should acquire for the Father the mere right to establish with man such a covenant as He might please, whether of grace or of works (RE 2.2).
The Remonstrants were sounding a very different note than the Reformed, whose doctrine of the atonement was focused on God’s favor toward sinners. For God so loved sinners that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. We say:
Art. II. Since, therefore, we are unable to make that satisfaction in our own persons, or to deliver ourselves from the wrath of God, he hath been pleased of his infinite mercy to give his only-begotten Son for our surety, who was made sin, and became a curse for us and in our stead, that he might make satisfaction to divine justice on our behalf.
When we say “surety” we are echoing Hebrews 7:22, which characterizes Jesus as our surety (ἔγγυος). This is the language of the covenant of redemption. God the Father gave a people to the Son, who pledged himself to be the surety for them, the guarantor or the Sponsor of the better covenant. In other words, Jesus did not die to make salvation possible for those who meet the terms of a new covenant of works but to accomplish their salvation, which is graciously applied in the providence of God to all those for whom Christ died. Christ really bore the wrath of God for all of his people and everyone of his people out of mercy (that they might not receive the justice due them) and out of grace, the free favor of God toward them in Christ.
Believer, you have been saved by the blood of the lamb and not because Christ made salvation possible for those who do their part.
1. This section is taken from an earlier essay, “Limited Atonement.”
2. W. R. Godfrey, “Tensions Within International Calvinism,” Ph.D. Diss.,(Stanford University, 1974), 72.
3. Godfrey, ibid., 9–22.
4. Defense of St. Augustine, trans. P. DeLetter, in Ancient Christian Writers vol.32 (London, 1963), 16. See also Godfrey, “Tensions,” 75.
5. De Vocatione, 2.1–2.
6. De Vocatione, 1.24
7. De Vocatione, 2.12
8. De Vocatione, 1.20; 2.3–4.
9. De Vocatione, 2.25.
10. De Vocatione, 2.2–4
11. De Vocatione, 2.16.
12. See Rainbow, The Will of God, 26.
13. Rainbow, ibid, 27.
14. Godfrey, “Tensions,” 76.
15. Though I have not listed him, Anselm of Canterbury (c.1033–1109), whom all the Reformers followed in their substitutionary doctrine of the atonement, seems to imply a definite atonement throughout his work, Why the God-Man? (Cur Deus Homo). See Cur Deus Homo, 2.19.
16. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1a.19.6.
17. Thomas Aquinas, ST 3a.48.1,2,6; 3a.49.1. See also Rainbow, 34-46 where he shows that Wycliffe and Hus also taught definite atonement.