Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Are Substitution and Unlimited Satisfaction Compatible?

If we are to maintain that Jesus died for all men, or that somehow His death was a general satisfaction pertaining to all of mankind, then some will immediately object, claiming that one cannot truly believe in a substitutionary, vicarious death and hold to a general satisfaction. Why? Because it is believed that a true substitution means that, if He died for all, that all would be saved -else God would be unjust.

The problem here is that the person making this objection is assuming a commercial type of satisfaction. If Jesus substituted in a commercial sense, literally paying our debt in our place, then of course all for whom it was done would be automatically liberated -God would be unjust to exact justice on a person for whom Christ substituted (paid) in this sense, but the question is...is the satisfaction commercial or a true penal substitution?

In a previous post, I did my best to briefly outline the difference between a commercial satisfaction and a penal satisfaction. To briefly restate, a commercial satisfaction looks at the thing owed and, once a commercial payment is made, the debtor is legally freed -without any room for any conditions or obligations. With a penal satisfaction, the issue is the person as a criminal. The fact that the Judge would even agree to accept someone as a stand-in is pure grace. And the Judge is free to stipulate any conditions upon which He will legally credit that satisfaction to the criminal and pardon them. God stipulates that we repent and trust in Christ, and then Christ's merits are legally credited to us. It is by faith that it would accord with grace (Rom 4:16). God is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Notice that in the penal understanding, the difficulty of the above objection goes away. First, the doctrine of justification now makes sense: people are liberated as the satisfaction or substitution of Christ is legally applied to them through faith, not ipso facto. Second, Christ's substitution can be for all men, for all mankind, and yet only those who believe will benefit: penal substitution doesn't imply application. Third, we can say with no contradiction at all, because of the sovereign intent to save the elect, that this substitution was especially designed for the elect. It will save them. They will be brought to faith and united to it.

Thus, a true penal substitution that is a general satisfaction does not at all imply universalism.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Alan Clifford on John Owen's Commercialism

Since I have been discussing limited atonement in view of the distinction between a commercial satisfaction and a penal satisfaction, I thought this quote from Clifford on John Owen's view of limited atonement would be good to include. This is particularly important since the "stock" Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement today is basically taken from Owen's thought. Most Calvinists of today, even if they don't know it, rely heavily on his logic and his same assumptions.

When Owen comes to discuss the concept of 'satisfaction', he is well aware that , unlike redemption and reconcilliation, 'satisfaction is not found in the Latin or English Bible applied to the death of Christ'. However, he rightly insists that there are 'other words in the original languages' which are equivalent in meaning. Consequently, he employs all the 'commercialist' implications of Anselm's theory of the atonement, expounding it in his rigidly particularist manner. Thus sin and guilt are given strictly quantitative connotations. Observing commercial metaphors in the Bible, Owen argues that man is the debtor, sin is the debt, the obligation to pay is demanded by the law, God is the creditor, and the ransom is paid to the offended party on behalf of the offender by Christ. This is the conceptual framework by which Owen establishes his doctrine of limited atonement: 'the debt thus paid was not for this or that sin, but for all the sins of all those for whom and in whose name this payment was made.' He asks, with rigorous logic, 'If the full debt of all be paid to the utmost extent of the obligation, how comes it to pass that so many are shut up in prison to eternity, never freed from their debts?' In other words, if Christ has died for all, any any perish, then God is demanding double payment for sin. Therefore Christ did not die for all, but for the elect alone; his sufferings were commensurate with 'the whole punishment due to... all the sins of all those that he suffered and offered himself for.'

Many orthodox Calvinist theologians have objected to the commercial theory of the atonement, including William Cunningham, Charles Hodge, and Robert L. Dabney. Others have drastically modified their Calvinism because of their objections, such as Joseph Bellamy, Andrew Fuller, A. H. Strong, Ralph Wardlaw, Albert Barnes, and Thomas Chalmers. The general criticism of the theory is that it overworks the analogy between sins and debts; it fails to realize that 'analogy is not identity'. After all, strictly speaking sin is crime, not debt; it is guilt, not actual failure in financial obligation. In short, the theory fails to distinguish between commercial and ethical categories. Excessive application of commercial concepts to the atonement treats sin in quantitative rather than qualitative terms.

Notwithstanding the justice of these criticism, it is to Owen's credit that he saw the commercial theory as the raison d'etre of the doctrine of limited atonement. Unlike others, he realized that the entire particularist edifice stands or falls by it. Indeed, as was noted in the previous chapter, it clearly explains why Owen modified the sufficiency-efficiency distinction. In reality, since the atonement provides only a limited satisfaction for the sins of the elect, it is only sufficient for those for whom it is efficient; thus the 'credit facilities' of the gospel are only available for the elect. As we have seen, this consideration poses difficulties for Owen's doctrines of common grace and the free offer of the gospel.

Had Richard Baxter been aware of the uneasy alliance between the doctrines of common grace and a limited satisfaction in Owen's writings, he might have exposed Owen's embryonic hypercalvinism more readily.

This excerpt is from pages 126-127 of Clifford's book, Atonement and Justification. Notice the following things:

1. As I have indicated, Clifford notes that Owen's doctrine of limited atonement rests heavily, if not entirely, upon commercial categories. The whole "double-jeopardy" argument falls apart if you look at the satisfaction of Christ from outside of Owen's commercial categories. With a penal satisfaction, for example, there is a very clear distinction between satisfaction made and satisfaction applied. Unless or until it is applied, no sinner receives any legal benefits, and thus God is not unjust at all to punish him for his sins, since the penal satisfaction has not been counted to him (what we call "justification").

2. Clifford says that Owen modified the "sufficiency-efficiency" distinction. The death of Christ becomes really only sufficient for whom it is efficient. This marks a departure from much of classical Reformed and Reformation thought, which taught that Christ's death was sufficient for all but efficient for the elect only. The main issue here is that you lose the ground of the universal offer of the Gospel (and the warrant of faith, too, I think). There isn't actually anything available or applicable to all, and thus there is nothing really to "offer" except to the elect. There are only 'credit facilities' for them. Owen's understanding of "sufficiency" dealt solely with the intrinsic value of Christ's payment, which is not what the original formula meant. Owen's sufficiency was basically hypothetical -it would be sufficient for you, if you were elect.

3. Clifford calls Owen's doctrine "embryonic hypercalvinism." This sounds harsh, but I believe it is accurate. It is my opinion that the hypercalvinism, especially in English Calvinism, grew in large part with Owen's thought on issues like this. I don't think it had the theological grounds to exist in the Calvinism of John Calvin, himself. In fact, if you take Owen's commercialist particularism through, logically, I believe you end up no free offer of the Gospel at all and only "good news" for those you think are elect, somehow. It is great that Owen still affirmed common grace and the free offer of the Gospel -I just believe that he totaly forfeited the theological grounding for these doctrines (such as a true general sufficiency in the satisfaction of Christ) in his doctrine of limited atonement, which future generations within high and hyper-calvinism ran with.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Limited Atonement and the Gospel Offer

Here are a few thoughts on the issue of limited atonement and the offer of the Gospel. The doctrine of limited atonement teaches that Jesus died for the elect and only the elect. He made actual provision for their sins and their sins only. Commonly this is expressed, as I indicated in my previous post on commercial versus penal satisfaction, in terms of a commercial understanding of satisfaction (such that, somehow, God's wrath was propitiated by the fact of Christ's death, and therefore if He died for everyone, then all would be saved -a thought which I have come to reject in light of a penal understanding of satisfaction... and the Biblical doctrine of justification). If we assume this view of the nature and extent of Christ's death, then there are a number of questions which arise. One of the most important, in my estimation, is this:

If Jesus only made provision for the salvation of the elect, then what exactly is offered to the world?

In other words, if Christ's death only has a relation to the sins and salvation of the elect, then how can we indiscriminately offer it to all men knowing that many of them are likely reprobate? To me, we can't. It makes no sense to offer something to someone if it wasn't provided for them. There is nothing to offer.

This is not a new problem. Berkhof, for example, acknowledges the problem in his systematic theology. He more or less resolves to affirm both sides, paradoxically, (a true offer in the gospel and limited atonement), as does Charles Spurgeon. I don't think I am smarter than them... I just don't buy it, and I think there are other options. I absolutely affirm that Jesus died particularly for the elect, in some sense, but I think that cannot be the whole story by any stretch.

Analogies always lose something, somewhere, but I will attempt to illustrate this by paraphrasing an analogy I have read elsewhere: If a doctor has created a cure for a horrible disease which affects humans of every kind, yet this cure is genetically coded to only work for people of Irish decent, then the cure is not sufficient for everybody. If the doctor was to offer this cure to the people of the world, knowing this, it would be insincere.

It is the same with the Gospel. If the "cure" only has reference to a certain class, the elect, then to offer the remedy to all of mankind is not a sincere offer. You are offering some people nothing at all. Imagine you were dying of this disease, and you are Italian or something. The doctor comes to you and says, "I have a cure, and if you will take it, you will be saved." Thanks, jerk! It is insincere. I would tell the doctor to leave immediately and never return.

Some will point out, "But the offer is always conditional." Yes, it is. In this case, are you saying that the condition is being Irish? That is where a problem exists, I believe, for the condition of the Gospel offer is not that you be elect. It was not by mistake that I made a distinction between "receiving" the drug and being Irish. My analogy clearly fails in that I don't have a connection between being Irish and receiving it, but the fact still stands. The "condition" for enjoying the benefits of the "cure" is that you receive that which is offered by faith.

Election and faith are not the same, even though there is a relationship between them. Just because election results in some people receiving Christ by faith doesn't mean that you treat "elect" and "believer" as synonyms. God demands faith, not election. Unbelief is a sin, being non-elect doesn't even come into that realm. Again, the real condition of the offer is merely the humble reception of Christ crucified as a gift, just like the condition of the doctor's offer of the cure would be receiving the remedy and having it administered.

Now, if the cure has no reference to everyone to whom it is being offered, if it is not sufficient to save them and could not, even if they were to receive it somehow, then it is an insincere offer. That is the bottom line.

Here is another analogy that considers the more commercial understanding of limited atonement. If we go out to lunch, you don't have the money to pay for your lunch, so I pay it, then how much sense does it make for me to stand up and say to the crowd in the restaurant, "The $53 I paid for him is sufficient all of you such that, if you would come and receive it, your lunch will be paid for?" It makes no sense. I already paid for my friend. What I paid for him has absolutely no reference to anybody else in the eating establishment. Any kind of offer, conditional or otherwise, makes no sense. The only kind of conditional statement that would fit is, "If you are my friend that I paid for, then I have paid for you." But obviously that is nonsense to tell the crowd.

Another way to look at it is this: the promise of the Gospel, "If you believe on the Lord Jesus, you will be saved" is only true for the elect. I don't mean it only comes true for the elect -we know that. I mean that it is a lie for the non-elect: if they received Christ, somehow, they wouldn't be saved, because there is no satisfaction for their sins at all. Keep in mind that although election leads to faith, I am re-asserting the fact that "believing" is not merely a code-word for being elect. They relate but aren't synonymous... to make them synonymous is dangerous, unScriptural, and collapses the revealed will into God's will of decree. Thus, the Gospel proclamation must be making a true statement, unless we are to accuse God of insincerity, again. If you, whoever you are, will rest upon Christ by faith, you will be saved. The fallen sinner's problem is that he won't, not that there is nothing for him to trust in. Human inability is unwillingness, and in election God chooses, among other things, to open their eyes by the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the Gospel. But with limited atonement, there is nothing for the non-elect sinner to rest upon at all. The promise not only can't come true for him because he is unwilling, it isn't true because there is no saving provision for him at all.

Some might say, "But it all comes out in the wash because we don't know who is elect and who is not." Well, ok, it comes out in the wash, but not without the Gospel being insincerely proclaimed and false promises made. I will grant that only the elect are saved, anyway, and only they believe, but it still doesn't address the problem. Election explains who believes, but God demands that all who hear believe. He promises that if they do they will be saved. That is an insincere promise to make to a person if there is no provision applicable to their sins by which they can be saved. Even the Canons of Dort affirm that "no man perishes for want of an atonement," but that is exactly what limited atonement says happens.

To make matters worse, the fact that the Bible portrays rejecting Christ and His Gospel as something blameworthy is further evidence that something is being truly offered or extended even to those who reject it. Rejecting the testimony of Christ (the Gospel) is calling God a liar (1 Jo 5:10), and it is something worthy of severe condemnation (Matt 11:21). Blame in this context only makes sense if something is being extended which God wills that we turn and humbly receive.

To be able to universally proclaim the Gospel, to me, demands that there is a reference in the death of Christ to all men as sinful men. There is an objective, general applicability. It is truly extended to them in the Gospel. It is sufficient for them. They are responsible for repenting and believing in it. They are guilty of horrible sin for rejecting Christ crucified. I see these things in Scripture, yet I don't believe the common conception for limited atonement can account for these things at all.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Satisfaction of Christ: Penal or Pecuniary?

In my wrestling through the issue of the extent and nature of Christ's death, I began to see more fully why many of my held beliefs were causing me confusion. I took for granted a lot of argumentation received from books, booklets, and articles on the issue of limited atonement. Over and over, so many of them said the same things: "If Jesus really paid for the sins of all, then why isn't everyone saved?" or, if you even considered questioning that, the retort would be, "Well, aren't you saying that Jesus didn't accomplish anything on the cross?"

Yet I couldn't get past some of the problems found in accepting the common position. If Jesus "paid for" our sins and that means we have no sin-debt, then what is justification, what is faith? What is the point of those? We would have been free 2,000 years ago, technically.

I will not deal with the extent of the atonement in this post, but I will deal with the difference in the nature of the atonement and why it is important. The thing that is tough is using technical terms -I had more than a few people look at me like I'm crazy or looking in too much detail by using such technical words. The assumption is that fancy language represents minute details which are of little consequence. For me, seeing the difference between a penal and pecuniary satisfaction made a world of difference.

Let me first say that the Bible does use language that relates to both ideas -penal, with His satisfaction pertaining to moral crimes and law; and pecuniary or commercial, with His satisfaction being like a payment of debt. In my studies, I have come to believe that while His satisfaction may be like (metaphorically) a payment of debt in some ways, it is properly a moral or penal satisfaction, not a literal debt payment. Below I will try to explain the difference.

Commercial or pecuniary satisfaction: With a pecuniary matter, the claim is on something owed. It is a debt, and there is a debtor and a Creditor. The "satisfaction" is a literal payment of the debt. It really doesn't matter who pays the debt, so long as the amount is paid, and then the debtor is legally freed ipso facto once payment is made. In fact, the Creditor cannot legally add any conditions or qualifications or anything. If the debt was paid for you, you are freed from all obligation, and you, legally, have to be. The Creditor (God) can't legally refuse it. I believe most argumentation that posits things like the "double-jeopardy" argument is coming from commercial assumptions about the death of Christ.

Here is an example: We go out to lunch together and decide to pay each our own way. You are feeling hungry, so you rack up a bill of $50. You don't have that. Being a gracious and generous person, I go up to the cashier and pay your bill. Now, the manager cannot come up to you and say, "Wait... You have to do this for me to take his payment for you." If I pay your bill with my money, it makes no difference to the cashier. Your debt is gone. In fact, maybe you decided the food was terrible and left early. You don't even know that I paid for you. You don't have to be thankful, you don't have to "sign here," you don't have to accept it. I paid your debt, and the obligation is immediately dissolved by the very act of my payment. The "creditor" no longer has any just claim because the thing owed has been paid.

One obvious problem should come up... how do you avoid making faith and conversion and justification meaningless? If your debt was paid and you were freed, legally, by that payment itself, then does that mean you were justified even before you were born? Were you justified before you believed? Were you justified in eternity past (historical heresy alert)? Is faith just a name-tag that says, "I'm elect?" Or is it a true instrument which joins us to the merits of Christ? I hope you can see that there is no place for being "joined" to any merits if we are assuming the commercial schema. Jesus paid the debt, and it was paid -you are free. That's it. I don't believe this is what the Bible says at all, yet many Calvinists assume these categories without even knowing it and without seeing how taking them consistently really challenges the doctrine of justification through faith alone.

Penal satisfaction: With this type of satisfaction, the legal claim is on the person and not on a thing or amount owed. You are a traitor, and you are sentenced to death. The Lawgiver is not bound to even consider pardoning you -to even consider it is gracious. Yet, the Lawgiver makes an arrangement with a Substitute who will suffer that which is morally suitable to your sentence. The way or conditions upon which the merits of the Substitute accrue to you, the guilty person, are purely at the discretion of the Lawgiver and His arragement. He can construe of any conditions He wishes for legally crediting the Substitute's satisfaction to you and thus pardoning you. What "condition" does He set forth? That you pay for it? That you try really hard? That you self-flagellate? No... that you humbly turn to Him and accept of this Substitute by faith. This "legal crediting" through the instrumental "condition" (don't be confused and assume that a condition implies merit) is what we call "justification." And, as Paul wrote in Romans 4:16, it is by faith so that it may accord with grace. The application of the merits of the legal Substitute is through faith... so that it may accord with grace, a gift received rather than something earned.

I hope you can see a few things about this right away. First, it does justice to the fact that Jesus actually accomplished something on the cross. His satisfaction was a full satisfaction to God's justice and applicable and equitable to our fallen human curse due both to Christ's infinite worth and to God's gracious arrangement to take the sufferings of His Son as a legal Substitute. Second, it does justice to the clear Biblical distinction between Christ's satisfaction and the application of it to a sinner (justification). It doesn't confuse or confound the offering of Christ with its application. Third, it means that the double-jeopardy argument doesn't really fit. Under the penal model, the Substitute can suffer as a substitute, and it may, at least hypothetically, never benefit anybody. It would be an injustice and fall under "double-jeopardy" only if the Lawgiver justified a sinner and then condemned him later for the same crimes. I hope you can see this is different from the usual line of reasoning.

In case what I have explained is still not making sense, here are the words of Charles Hodge on the subject:

"Now there are two kinds of satisfaction, which, as they differ essentially in their nature and effects, should not be confounded. The one is pecuniary or commercial, the other is penal or forensic. When a debtor pays the demand of his creditor in full, he satisfies the claims and is entirely free from any further demands. In this case the thing paid is the precise sum due, neither more nor less. It is a simple matter of an exact exchange, so much for so much. There can be no condescension, mercy, or grace on the part of a creditor receiving the payment of a debt. It matters not to him by whom the debt is paid, whether by the debtor himbself or by some one in his stead, for the claim of the creditor is simply upon the amount due and not upon the person of the debtor. In the case of crimes [penal] the matter is different. The demand is then uopn the offender. He himself is liable. In human courts substitution is out of the question. The essential point in matters of crime is not the nature of the penalty, but who shall suffer. The soul that sins, it shall die... Provision of a substitute to bear the penalty in the place of the criminial would be to the offender of a matter of pure grace enhanced in proportion to the dignity of the substitute and the greatness of the evil from which the criminal is delivered. Moreover, in the case of crimes [penal, still] the penalty need not be (and very rarely is) of the nature of the injury inflicted. All that is required is that it should be a just equivalent... Another important difference between pecuniary and penal satisfaction is that in the former case the very act serves to liberate; that is, the moment the debt is paid, the debtor is completely free. There is no dely, nor are any conditions attached to his deliverance. But in the case of a criminal, as he has no claim to have a substitute take his place, if one be provided, the terms on which the benefits of his substitution shall accrue to the offender are matters of agreement or covenant between the subsitute and the magistrate who represents justice. The deliverance of the offender may be immediate, unconditional, and complete; or it may be deferred, suspended on certaion conditions, and only gradually bestowed." (Systematic Theology.. abridged edition, Soteriology, definition of terms, satisfaction)

Hodge goes on to continue discussing the penal view, which he believes is the Biblical view (and I agree :) ). To me, understanding that there are other categories and another way of thinking about the nature of the atonement, one which fits the Biblical data and clears up a lot of confusion, has been paramount in my theological shift away from the more common conception of limited atonement (Owen-style) to the arguably more historical Reformed position.... which is that Jesus died for all, but especially for the elect.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Ingratitude is a subtle killer. In my experience, it sneaks up on me. It saps your joy. Perhaps a better way to say it is that ingratitude is the vacuum created when our joy is not placed primarily in Jesus Christ. We see, and we see that we do not have what we want or what we believe would be better to have (in order to be more fulfilled, more joyful, etc.), and thus our gaze departs from the blessings we presently enjoy and looks upon the void where the thing we want (we believe) should be. Ingratitude, as far as I understand it, never stems from simply not liking what we have -it is birthed through desiring something additional, something more, something which we think will make everything so much more how we believe it should be. It sees present blessings and situations and struggles only as inconvenient obstacles or unfortunate shackles keeping us from what would really make us happiest.

So ingratitude involves many things... unbelief, lack of trust in God's providence, pride, covetousness, and idolatry. What is that idol we so desire, which brings us to disdain or take for granted the blessings God has already brought to us? What is it we want so badly that we do not believe that God has us right where He wants us, in struggles and trials of His design to conform us into what He wants... which may not be what our lusts want? These are the kinds of questions I need to ask myself. I realize that I am often ungrateful, and my ungratefulness is only the shadow of my idolatrous desire for a thing, a situation, a way of life, a hear, a vocation, or anything which I do not currently have. Ingratitude is like its shadow because, while not the thing itself, the ingratitude is inseparable from it.

O Father, may I lose this ingratitude, trusting in every situation as a gift from Your hand to confirm me into the image of Jesus Christ. May I see Jesus Christ, alone, as my treasure. May I not fall prey to my lusts which see the "grass" as "greener" on my brother's "yard." May I rejoice in Jesus Christ, no matter what the circumstances, and joyfully give thanks for the multitude of blessings given to me besides Him which I am so blind to every day. I give thanks for you, Jesus, for my wife, my kids, my job, my home, my friends, my church, my struggles, my challenges, my weakness, so that I might depend upon Christ as my Highest Treasure all the more.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

What's our Problem... as Christians?

Which one of the following is the most significant issue we struggle with as Christians?
a) Which presidential candidate to endorse
d) Whether to home-school our children or not
c) Our enormous propensity, which we are often ignorant of, to wander from the cross and the centrality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our lives every single day
d) Which church to go to this week

What's our Problem?

Which one of the following represents our most serious and earnest problem as people?
a) We aren't living up to our potential for happiness and success.
b) We weren't loved enough somewhere along the line, and now we lash out because we have low self-esteem
c) We are depraved creatures who have, universally, rebelled against God. We do not just do bad things, we love darkness -we prefer just about anything more than the True and Living God.
d) Global warming


Which of the following represents the solution to our most serious and earnest problem?
a) We need to realize how much God loves us and then implement His principles and plan for blessing and change and success so that we can live happy and full lives right now.
b) We need to learn how much God loves us so that our "love cup" can be full and we can start being better people.
c) Nothing we can do. The God of the universe condescended to save His enemies by sending the Divine Son of God in human flesh, living the righteous life we should live, dying on the cross as a satisfaction to divine justice for all our wickedness and rebellion, and rising from the grave in victory over sin and death... making a way of peace with Him for His enemies such that all who turn and believe in that Divine Son of God, Jesus Christ, will be saved and brought into His Kingdom, as His people, forever.
d) Al Gore