Reforming Calvinism, pt. 12: Limited Atonement (Incarnation and Ontology)

In the previous entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I proposed that the traditional understanding of ‘limited atonement’ would be better served by, in one sense, ‘limiting’ the atonement even further, from a select group of human beings to a single human being: Jesus Christ himself. Rather than conceiving the atonement exclusively or primarily as a transaction or merit provided external to Christ, I believe that, in accordance with Scripture and the inner logic of the incarnation, we should think of the atonement in terms of what Christ Limited-Atonement-AVATARaccomplished within his own incarnate person as the divine-human mediator. Following the language of T.F. Torrance, then, we could call this revised view ‘incarnational’ or ‘ontological’ atonement.

These terms are helpful because this view holds together, as does Scripture, who Christ is ontologically in his incarnation with what he did redemptively in his atoning work. When we do so, we discover that the atonement was not merely a form of payment that Christ offered an a way external to himself, as though that payment could have been paid by another, but that it was primarily an act that he vicariously accomplished in the depths of our humanity within his own incarnate constitution as the Son of God and Son of Man.

This is what we find clearly taught by many of the church fathers such as Athanasius whose classic work On the Incarnation has served generations of Christians as a powerful explication of orthodox Christian faith. In this work, Athanasius labored to articulate and defend the meaning of Christ’s incarnation against various dissenters who in some form or another tried to undermine this central gospel truth. Near the beginning of his treatise, Athanasius asks us to imagine, from God’s point of view, the situation presented by human sin:

…what possible course was God to take? To demand repentance of men for their transgression?..Now, if there were merely a misdemeanour in question, and not a consequent corruption, repentance were well enough. But if, when transgression had once gained a start, men became involved in that corruption which was their nature, and were deprived of the grace which they had, being in the image of God, what further step was needed? or what was required for such grace and such recall, but the Word of God, which had also at the beginning made everything out of nought?…

And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death [the Word] gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.

For the Word, perceiving that no otherwise could the corruption of men be undone save by death as a necessary condition, while it was impossible for the Word to suffer death, being immortal, and Son of the Father; to this end He takes to Himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word Who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all, and might, because of the Word which was come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible, and that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the Grace of the Resurrection.[1]

Putting aside the question of Athanasius’ conception of Christ’s human nature, it is important to note that while Athanasius acknowledges that the guilt of sin entails condemnation, he also recognizes that the corruption of sin involves death, and thus a merely ‘transactional’ work of atonement or satisfaction of divine justice would not fully suffice to save sinners. For this reason, Athanasius highlights two corresponding aspects of Christ’s atoning work. First, corresponding to the condemnation of sin, Athanasius refers to the moral/forensic aspect of the atonement according to which Christ ‘undid’ the law thereby delivered sinners its penalty. Second, corresponding to the corruption of sin, Athanasius underscores the ontological aspect of the atonement according to which Christ also dealt with the inherent corruption to which all have become subject by “banishing death from them like straw from the fire”.

This, in other words, bespeaks a decidedly internal view of the atonement. Christ did not simply pay a penalty external to his person; he also penetrated into the ontological depths of humanity in virtue of his incarnation, and there he purged our sin and corruption from the inside. This leads to a very realistic view of the atonement, one that avoids any sense of it creating a mere ‘legal fiction’ and that stresses the atonement’s sanctifying power. As Louis Markos explains:

Athanasius immediately shakes us out of our doctrinal stupor by allowing us to view the incarnation from God’s point of view. Imagine you’re God, he seems to say, and you’ve created a whole world out of nothing (ex nihilo). Imagine further that you’ve created a special type of creature (mankind), on whom you have bestowed reason, purpose, and desire. What do you do when these rational creatures reject your direction and, as a result, fall into corruption?…

Sin is not a thing that stands alongside man; it is buried deep within him, interwoven in his very being. If you are to stay this corruption, you must do a work not of creation but of re-creation. You can’t simply make again as you made in the beginning; you must remake, restore, renew. And that renewal must be effected from the inside out. Yes, you must enter, yourself, into the body of man and realign it: take that nature that was once interwoven with sin, death, and corruption and weave it instead around virtue, life, and immortality…For Athanasius, this divine restorative work is brought to completion only through the crucifixion and resurrection, but it begins with Christmas.[2]

This, I would argue, is the truly orthodox view of salvation which recognizes the interlocking nature of Christ’s person and work, of his incarnation and atonement, of his ontological constitution and redemptive action. Contrary to many theologians who view Christ’s atoning work almost exclusively in terms of the cross, Athanasius argues that Christ’s atoning death would be ineffectual were it not intrinsically related to his incarnate person, just as his incarnation would not likewise not be salvific apart from the atonement. Unless the atonement took place within Christ’s person rather than as a payment offered, as it were, ‘over his head’, then the inherent corruption of humanity remains untouched. A payment might satisfy the demands of God’s justice, but it certainly could not deal with human corruption or deliver from death.

For this reason, Athanasius rightly perceives that the atonement occurred within Christ himself whereby he not only absolved us from our guilt but also purged us from our corruption and raised us from death. He did this not by remaining distant from us; rather he vicariously penetrated in the depths of our humanity through his incarnation and cleansed and healed us from within. Thus, his atonement was ‘incarnational’ and ‘ontological’ in that he actualized in himself our complete and utter redemption from sin and recreation in the image of God. There is literally no aspect of human redemption that he has not fully accomplished in himself. Christ has not only freed us from condemnation but has also, as the book of Hebrews insists, destroyed sin, purged all corruption, and raised humanity to the indestructible life of the new creation.

From this, we can see how the traditional Reformed view was constructed on a key insight: the atonement’s efficacy and power increase when its extent is limited. It committed a fatal error, however, when it failed to take this insight with utmost seriousness and stopped short of limiting the atonement to only one human being, Jesus Christ himself. Had it done so, it may perhaps have realized that not only has Christ’s atonement actually removed condemnation in a forensic sense, but it has also accomplished redemption to the uttermost degree. This is why Paul can, in 1 Corinthians 1:20, say that Christ in his resurrection is the ‘firstfruits’ of our salvation. He is, in the most literal sense possible, the one in whom human salvation has been actualized to its fullest degree. He alone has passed through death, condeming and putting sin to death in his own flesh, and has been raised to the eternal resurrection life of the new creation, and therefore the full extent of his atoning and redemptive work can be properly said to have occurred only in him.

Paradoxically, however, such a drastic limitation not only maximizes the atonement’s power to the greatest degree, but it also has a universalizing effect. When we understand that the atonement took place in Christ himself because of the indissoluble connection between his incarnate being and salvific work, we come to understand that the atonement is likewise unlimited in its extent. Why is this so? Stay tuned to my next post to find out.


[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 39–41.

[2] Markos, L.A., 2005. ‘An Evening with Athanasius: Meditations on the Incarnation’, in Theology Today, 62(2), pp.241-242.


4 thoughts on “Reforming Calvinism, pt. 12: Limited Atonement (Incarnation and Ontology)

  1. Matt B 16 August 2016 / 04:03

    Patiently awaiting more on this subject!!


    • Jonathan Kleis 16 August 2016 / 04:13

      There is definitely more coming! Glad to hear you appreciate these posts!


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