Sunday, August 16, 2009

For Whom Did Christ Die? - Paul Helm (Calvinist View)

According to Paul Helm (Highland Theological College):

‘Definite atonement’ is an improvement on ‘Limited atonement’, but neither phrase clearly captures and expresses the idea, which is not exclusively to do with the atonement. The view is that the Triune God ensures the salvation of men and women, boys and girls. He does not merely make possible their salvation, leaving it to the sinner to make up his own mind. Rather, whom he intends to save, he saves, through the distinct but inseparable work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As Augustine puts it in his letter to Simplicianus in AD 396, God’s grace is effectual, effective, actually ensuring that those ordained to eternal life believe, secured by the golden chain of Romans 8.

What is at issue is an estimate of divine grace. The biblical basis for the view does not rest upon a single proof verse, or a few of these, (though verses such as John 6.37 and Acts 13.48 and of course Romans 8 28f should be borne in mind). Rather it is founded on the implications of Scripture’s overall witness to God’s powerful love, to the spiritual death of fallen mankind, and to the actual salvation of countless people.

By contrast, the Arminius-inspired view leaves the outcome of the work of redemption uncertainly suspended upon human choice, even though valiant efforts are made to link it to the divine foreknowledge, though in a weaker-than-biblical sense. And the Amyraldian view is in danger of upsetting the unity of the Trinity, and confounding the work of the preacher, heralding the grace of God indiscriminately to all, with the work of God. Through such means as preaching, God brings his elect to be justified, and to be sanctified, and to be glorified, calling them all out of darkness into his marvellous light.


Ryan Hamilton said...

Could the texts which infer definite atonement, as Paul Helm asserts, perhaps be referring not to the extent of the atonement but to the nature of divine election? I think that could be said for the texts Helm specifically cited, Jn. 6:37 and Acts 13:48. I think these latter texts presuppose general atonement just as easily as definite atonement. These texts assume general atonement and then assert that God saves a select number of people through unconditional election.

Jn. 3:16, 1 Jn. 2:2, and 1 Tim. 2:4-5 pose significant challenges to the definite atonement view. (Yes, Jn. 10:11 suggests definite atonement but at the very least it seems that the general atonement “proof texts”—i.e., texts that are problematic for one’s theology—out number those in support of limited atonement.) Basically, if I understand him correctly, I’m a fan of Michael Jensen’s view.

lukeisham said...

Two other points should be said for the "Limited Atonement" view.

1) Specific sins and certain individuals are atoned for there is no "treasury of merit."

2) It would seem odd if someones sin's were paid for and then they were condemned to hell.

Erick White said...

One of the issues that crops up when we say that "specific sins and certain individuals are atoned" is that we are infering that Christ's substituationary work is corresponding to a certain amount of sin and guilt.

For example, in the definite atonement view, only the certain selected people are died for and atoned. Would we say that if (theoretically speaking) God were to add a couple more to that previous selected number, that Christ would have had one more flogging? Just a bit of a more harsh death? A longer last breath?

You see, if we correspond the wrath of God which Christ received with the amount of guilt of only a certain amount of people, then we are saying that Christ's substitutionary work was only sufficient to atone their sins and nothing else.

Or, another way of putting it is to view the debt of sin as infinite (which I still don't see this from scripture only from philosophy) and so even if Christ only came to die for one man, it would have been the same death as if he came for the whole world.

My response to this would be as follows: If Christ's death (as an atoning work) seeks to satisfy an infinite debt, then there cannot be a limit to it in SUFFICIENCY, only in INTENTION and EFFICACY.

Aaron Fenlason said...

I was not sure whether you were trying to support or refute this view of the atonement until your last comment. That reminds me of Owen's comments on the same subject.

"He was able to bear, and did undergo, the whole curse of the law and wrath of God due to sin. And this sets out the innate, real, true worth and value of the blood-shedding of Jesus Christ... That it should be applied unto external to it, doth not arise from it, but merely depends upon the intention and will of God. It was in itself of infinite value and sufficiency to have been made a price to have bought and purchased all and every man in the world. That it did formally become a price for any is solely to be ascribed to the purpose of God, intending their purchase and redemption by it" (Owen, Works, Volume 10, p. 296).

So the issue here is not the sufficiency of the death of Christ. It is sufficient for all but efficient for the elect - and efficient because intended.

Erick White said...


Thank you for that clarification.

I hold to what is called limited atonement, but I find myself often in loving differentiation with others who teach it, strictly in the way it is explained.

I do believe that we can proclaim to all peoples that there is a place of atonement opened for them in Jesus Christ.

of course, from eternity past to eternity future, this is limited in it's intention and efficacy to the elect of God.


Erick White

Aaron Fenlason said...

"I do believe that we can proclaim to all peoples that there is a place of atonement opened for them in Jesus Christ."

I agree. Owen differentiates between making an absolute, universal proffer to all and one that is indefinite and without respect to outward differences.

It is the second that he argues is the correct approach. We are required to preach the gospel to every person indefinitely, or, as he calls it elsewhere, promiscuously. This is based on two things:

"The Scripture sets forth the death of Christ, to all whom the gospel is preached unto, as an all-sufficient means for the bringing of sinners unto God, so as that whosoever believe it and come in unto him shall certainly be saved."


"The death of Christ is of such infinite value as that it is able to save to the uttermost every one to whom it is made known, if by true faith they obtain an interest in therein and a right thereunto."

This is what our proclamation of the gospel needs to be. There is definitely a place of atonement opened (and sufficient) for all. If they are thirsty, they may come and drink freely.

Erick White said...


Thanks for the quotes.

Unknown said...

I dont know if you meant to imply this or not, but your first comment hints at something I believe to be problematic.
You say that if Christ had died for more sins than what actually took place on the cross, if he had intended to save more persons than originally intended, than his earthly death would have been more painful(extra whips, spitting etc.) Your understanding hints that the full cup of God's wrath, which Jesus prayed would be removed from him, was a physical death.
In this situation Christ's beatings and death if only done by human beings would not have sufficed for the atonement of sin. It was God's omnipotent wrath that was poured out on his son that atones for our sin. I dont think that human beatings can equate fully with the outpouring of the wrath of God.
Therefore, your understanding of limited atonement is scewed because of your understanding of what took place on the cross (ie. more than a cruel death) to atone for our sins. If Christ had died for one solitary person it would have been the same earthly beating and same rugged cross. When someone is sent to hell, they experience the wrath of God because of his profaned name and stolen glory. God is infinitely valuable because of his perfect holiness, and only one offence against a infinitely holy God is needed to be in an infintely endebted position to Him. It is because we can never repay the infinite debt to God that we are in need of a Saviour who is infinitely valuable to stand in our place.

Erick White said...

I understand what you are saying.

And I was not affirming that sort of view, I was trying to show the problem in viewing Christ's atoning death in perfect correspondence to a limited amount of sin/guilt of the elect.

There have been debates throughout the centuries concerning God's wrath and it's relation to physical death. There is just an enormous amount of literature on the topic, and views vary even within the equivalent traditions.

For 1, I do not understand the death sentence pronounced by God in Genesis 3 to be a "spiritual" death, to somehow read Eph 2 back into Genesis. I understand "death" or "Dying" in Genesis to be what it means throughout the whole, which is the physical put down of the body into the ground. There is obvisouly more to death than simply "unconsciousness". Our physical deaths symbolize the utter ruin and destruction to which humanity has fell under.

The human body has tremendous significance. God formed the man making him a physcial body to live and breath. This is a special design for a special purpose. Humanity was to live and be fruitful, carrying around the glorious bodies that God so wonderfully made.

And to see this magnificent aspect of God's creation cease to live (have breath in nostrils as the Heb norm) is horrific. This is what death is.

Now, this is not to deny that disfellowship with God has nothing to do with death, it is the essence of death. But physical death was a must for God to atone human sin.

Jesus could not have faced the wrath of God apart from dying a physcial human death. If all that "death" meant in Genesis was a spiritual seperation from God, then we would be able to conceive of a way that Christ could have been spiritually seperated from God and yet somehow not die physically.

This is contrary to the truth. In fact, it is by Christ's physcial dying that mets out the wrath of God. His work of consuming God's wrath and physcially dying are not two seperate events or acts rooted in two different origins. They are together united in what it means to die.

Ryan Hamilton said...

I’m not sure I’m understanding the phrase correctly but “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” seems to suggests that Christ’s death was sufficient for the sin of the world in some theoretical sense.

But 1 Jn. 2:2 says that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” In other words, Christ’s death was sufficient for all in a real and intentional way. The text implies that Christ did not intend to die just for the elect but for the world. I think any attempt to argue for definite atonement needs to come to terms with this text.

mark said...

Ryan, completely agree mate. In fact, Calvin agrees too, which is reassuring! Here's what he says in his commentary on 1 John 2:2

“And not for ours only. He added this for the sake of amplifying, in order that the faithful might be assured that the expiation made by Christ, extends to all who by faith embrace the gospel. Here a question may be raised, how have the sins of the whole world been expiated? I pass by the dotages of the fanatics, who under this pretense extend salvation to all the reprobate, and therefore to Satan himself. Such a monstrous thing deserves no refutation. They who seek to avoid this absurdity, have said that Christ suffered sufficiently for the whole world, but efficiently only for the elect. This solution has commonly prevailed in the schools. Though then I allow that what has been said is true, yet I deny that it is suitable to this passage; for the design of John was no other than to make this benefit common to the whole Church. Then under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world.”

John McClean said...

Hang on. Isn't Calvin allowing that "sufficient for all, efficient for the elect" true but saying that "the whole world" in 1 Jn 2:2 is the elect, that is 'us' those believers who read the epistle and those yet to believe? I don't think Calvin supports Ryan's view.

mark said...

Oh, thanks John. I hastily wrote that last post. My agreement was with the last bit of Ryan's thought: "I think any attempt to argue for definite atonement needs to come to terms with this text."

Thus, I completely agree (with that!). And Calvin does too. Here's how his coming to terms with this text supports definite atonement!

Maurice Harting said...

It is clear from scripture that the word "world" has a variety of meanings and when the Bible uses the word "world" it has to be understood in its proper context.

The word "world" in John 3: 16 or 1 John 2: 2 clearly does not refer to every human being that ever lived in time and space for that would leave hell empty apart from the devil and his demons and we would end up with "universal atonement" or "decisional regeneration" both of which are wrong. The only people that are saved as seen in 1 Peter 2: 9 are those chosen by God, belong to God, and called by God. It is God's work in the hearts of sinful men who He has chosen. Any attempt at self-righteousness, even man's exercised faith robs Jesus Christ of His glory. For He is the only Saviour and we need to be saved from that which we cannot save ourselves! To Him be all the glory, now and always!

Every attempt by man to reach God in salvation is a waste of time and effort. God's plan is and always has been to reach down and save those whom He has callen and chosen in Christ. And they are called the "remnant" or "chosen ones".

Maurice Harting said...

The problem, as I see it, is that semi-pelagianism, arminianism, and amyraldianism end up limiting God and exalting man's abilities. And that feeds our fallen human nature to the point that we attempt to create God in our own image rather rest in the God of the Bible who is the Saviour and Lord.
Five point calvinism, especially Limited Atonement aka Particular Atonement fits very well with the other four points.

And those who question five point calvinism's limited atonement would be very wise to study the various meanings of the word "world" as it relates to John 3: 16 and 1 John 2: 2. It certainly cannot and does not mean "every human being that lives (lived) in time and space in context of John 3: 16 or 1 John 2: 2 for that would leave hell empty apart from fallen angels and we would be adopting Roman Catholic universalism.

You may respond to me directly at:

Dr. James Willingham said...

A particular redemption, limited atonement, definite atonement, of infinite value, should allow us to suspect that God intends to save a great many more than we imagine. While considering I Chron.16:15 and Jonathan Edwards' Humble Attempt, I came to the conclusion that we could have 20,000 more years especially devoted to a visitation, a Third Great Awakening in which the whole world and every soul in it is soundly converted for a 1000 generations and, perhaps, encompassing the possibility to which John Ownen refers, "If there were a thousand worlds, the gospel of Christ might, upon this ground, be preached to them all, there being enough in Christ for the salvation of them all, if so be they will derive virtue from him by touching him in faith; the only way to draw refreshment from the this fountain of salvation."(Death of Death,1963,p.185). Could it be that mankind will spread to the stars, and the sum of the saved reached truly astronomical numbers? The great multitude in heaven, Rev.7:9, which no one can number, sounds like a bit of divine humor, a light heartedness of joyful encouragement in the midst of apocalyptic miseries and forbodings, like the silver linings of dark storm clouds beginning to break away afte a tempest. For 38 years I have been praying for a viitation, a Third Great Awakening, and toward the ned of the period, I have been praying for the whole earth and now I wonder about a 1000 worlds out there in the future yet awaiting.