Reforming Calvinism: Why Universal Atonement Does Not Entail Universal Salvation

In a post in which I explained T.F. Torrance’s contention that the traditional Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement implies a heretical Christology, specifically that of Nestorianism. Following Torrance, I argued that a fully orthodox Christology, resting on the twofold concept of anhypostasia (the Word assumed the flesh and nature common to all humanity) and enhypostasia (the Word become a particular human, Jesus of Nazareth), requires us to affirm that what Christ did on the cross he did for everyone who shares the humanity that he assumed in the incarnation, meaning that he made atonement for all people.

Usually one of the first questions (and objections!) that arises in response is this: will then all people be saved and, if not, why? I have heard this rejoinder countless times, and it was once again expressed in a comment on the aforementioned post. From the perspective of a traditional Reformed soteriology, it seems illogical, unless one falls back on the notion of libertarian free will, to affirm universal atonement but deny, as Torrance adamantly does, final universal salvation. If Christ died efficaciously for all, then why are not all saved? I am sympathetic to those who respond this way because it is precisely how I would have reacted myself a few years ago! So I think it would be beneficial to sketch out an answer to this question (which is the purpose of this post), but with the caveat that I can only torrance_2-1address, given the constraints of a blog post, one particular part of what could (and perhaps should) be a much longer answer.

I would like to quote a section from the introduction to Torrance’s book Atonement written by his nephew Robert Walker. Walker, who edited the lectures that comprise the book, helpfully summarizes Torrance’s resolution to this seeming conundrum:

The fact that God has become man and that the whole life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a real act of man, means that God has not come half way to humanity as it were, leaving humanity to go the other half, but that he has so come to humanity that in time and in human flesh he has actually completed for humanity their whole salvation. In the humanity of Jesus, the word of God has become truth in the heart of man, the covenant has been fulfilled from the side of God and from the side of man, and the kingdom of God has begun on earth…

It is the radically substitutionary nature of salvation in Christ which makes his entry into times even more decisive and eschatological. If Jesus has acted on behalf of all humanity and completed the salvation of all inside his person, then whether they will or not he has made it a fait accompli and something they are confronted with in his person. If by contrast salvation is simply on offer in his person, then there is a sense in which people can take it or leave it and pass by on the other side. But if Jesus has actually taken the place of each and every single human being before God, and in their place and on their behalf has achieved salvation for them, then they are inescapably involved. The radically substitutionary and representative nature of Jesus’ action for each and every person means that they have been set aside and something has been done in their name. They have been signed up for salvation by the action of God and of man in Christ while they were still enemies. The ground has been taken from under their feet and in the person of Christ they are confronted with their own salvation, inescapably involving them in decision.

If is the fact Jesus is not only God but God acting as man for humanity, and not only as man but as individual man, achieving salvation for us in the reality and individuality of his person and meeting us individually in personal encounter, that involves us in existential decision and in eschatological tension between reality of what-and-who he is for us and what we still are in ourselves. It is the fact that Jesus has done something in our name and in our place for each person individually that means we are inescapably involved in decision as he meets each person individually in personal encounter, in the reality of what he is for us in his love and grace and in his calling us to follow him in faith.[1]

If we pay close attention to what Walker says, we can begin to see why Torrance’s understanding of the atonement, far from logically terminating in universalism, actually grounds the stark reality of eternal damnation and intensifies the evangelistic call to faith and repentance. While this may seem like a paradoxical statement, Walker shows us why it is the necessary correlate to “the radically substitutionary nature of salvation in Christ”. It is only because in Christ a divine decision has been irrevocably made regarding every single human being – a decision not ultimately for damnation but salvation – that every single human being is called to make a decision for Christ. Had Christ not vicariously substituted himself in the place of all humanity, then it would not be true that all humanity bears the responsibility of repenting of sin and trusting in Christ.

Why is this? Because, as Torrance himself reminds us numerous times in his works, the cross was just as much judgment on sin as it was salvation from sin. As Paul affirms in Romans 8:3, God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” and thereby “condemned sin in the flesh”. In Christ, God has passed his divine sentence once for all on human sin, pouring out upon it the full measure of his judgment and wrath. It is precisely for this reason, and only for this reason, that Paul, two verses prior (Rom. 8:1), can exclaim that in Christ condemnation for sin now no longer exists. That is to say, the atonement must first pass judgment on sin before it can save from sin. Better still, the atonement must pass judgment on sin in order that it might save from sin.

This, in turn, has significant ramifications for how we construe the relation of the atonement to the final destiny of humanity. If atonement is inextricably bound up with judgment, then, in order to affirm the universality of judgment, we must also affirm the universality of the atonement. If Christ died efficaciously for only a limited number of human beings, then judgment has likewise only been passed on a limited number of human beings. But this would contradict, among other biblical passages, Paul’s exhortation to the Athenians in Acts 17:3o-31:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

Notice the logic of Paul’s discourse. Prior to the coming of Christ – “the times of ignorance” – there was a sense in which God “overlooked” the sin of the nations of the world. The coming of Christ, however, changed all that. The coming of Christ means that now God is commanding “all people everywhere to repent” through the preaching of the gospel. What accounts for this change? It is because, as Paul makes clear, God will “judge the world in righteousness” in Jesus Christ, a reality attested publicly by his resurrection from the dead after his shameful execution at the hands of the Romans. In other words, Paul draws a direct correlation between the person and work of Christ, the final judgment, and the necessity laid upon every single human being to repent. Yet this correlation would atonement-torrancemake little sense if that which Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection had been intended to have ultimate validity only for a select number of humanity. It is only because Christ represented and substituted himself for “all people everywhere” that all now stand under the divine judgment manifested in the cross and thus bear the responsibility to obey God’s command to repent and believe. As illustrated by the Athenians’ reaction to Paul’s sermon, not everyone will, however, repent and believe, and for such people there remains nothing but the consummation of that very judgment at the end of the age.

Again, as indicated by Walker’s introduction, this is only one piece of a much longer and more nuanced answer that the question to which it responds requires (involving, among other things, the positive role of the salvation Christ achieved in himself and the implications of his vicarious humanity), but hopefully this much allows to see better why Torrance’s view of universal atonement does not lead to universal salvation. Before it ever means salvation, atonement means judgment. Hence, only universal atonement means universal judgment. Because in Christ all are judged, all are commanded to repent and believe the gospel. Tragically, not all will repent and believe, and thus not all will be saved.

One final point: If we press Torrance as to why not all will repent and believe, he will not respond with the typical answer given by those who hold to an Arminian soteriology (which is one reason why we cannot accuse him of Arminianism!), namely, that such is the result of libertarian free will. Torrance will have nothing of that, precisely because he knows that the will that we suppose is free is merely self-will, a will curved in on itself intent on sinfully usurping the place of God. Free will is a mirage that upon close inspection dissolves into a rebellious will hell-bent on its own destruction. Rather, the refusal to repent and believe can only be attributed to the irrational and absurd nature of sin before which, Torrance says, we can only stand aghast and tremble. Were we able to explain the sin that lies at the root of humanity’s rejection of the gospel, then sin would no longer be sin, for sin is by nature inexplicable. However unsatisfying an answer this may be, it is the only one that can be given in the face of the “mystery of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:7).


[1] Robert T. Walker, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ in T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), pp. lxvi-lxvii. Emphasis mine.

7 thoughts on “Reforming Calvinism: Why Universal Atonement Does Not Entail Universal Salvation

  1. Richard Jamison 26 January 2017 / 23:20

    What is the difference between this and Wesley’s concept of prevenient Grace?


    • Jonathan Kleis 27 January 2017 / 09:56

      The difference is huge! Prevenient grace is the idea that grace takes a person only so far, but then the person must freely choose (still presumably in an unregenerate state) to repent and believe. Thus there’s an element of synergism. God does his part, we do our part. That is totally opposed to what Torrance advocates. He repeatedly states that salvation is “grace all the way down”. Grace doesn’t bring us only so far and then leave it up to us. Grace takes us every step of the way, from beginning all the way to the end. This is what I was getting at with the “final note” at the end of the post. On the prevenient grace view, the reason people reject the gospel is because they have exercised their free will and have simply chosen to reject it. In Torrance’s view, by contrast, there is no explanation, because if sin is, by nature, irrational, then the sinful choice to reject Christ cannot, by definition, be accounted for by any rational explanation. Thus, what Torrance offers is an asymmetric view of things. When people respond positively to the gospel, it is utterly and completely the work of grace overcoming the rebellion their depraved and hell-bent self-will. On the flip side, there is no corresponding explanation as to why people reject the gospel. Such is the nature of the mystery of sin and evil. I think Torrance is absolutely right here: to try and explain why people make the sinful choice to reject the gospel is to empty sin of the very thing that makes it so abominable and heinous. If we could explain sin, then sin would no longer be sin. Torrance is content to leave it at that, and so am I.


  2. Richard Jamison 27 January 2017 / 14:43

    According to Torrance, after Christ’s atoning work for all, is a particular person’s fate still indeterminate until after that person has made a decision, whether a grace-determined positive response or an irrational rejection?

    Also, does Torrance address the case of a baby that dies just after delivery?


    • Jonathan Kleis 28 January 2017 / 11:16

      I think that Torrance would demur from the language of “determinacy”, at least in the sense that it seems you are using it. To really appreciate what he is after, we have to really wrestle with how radically Christological salvation is for him. He attempts to draw out the full implications of the fact that Christ’s person and work were vicarious, substitutionary, and the repeated New Testament emphasis that our salvation is “in Christ”. Christ is the new Adam, the new humanity, indeed the new creation as Paul puts it in 2 Cor. 5:17! Everything is concentrated in Christ, and what we shall be is hidden in him (Col. 3). What this means for TFT is that it doesn’t make sense to speak of determinacy or indeterminacy with regard to the destiny of individual persons apart from the reality that is now in Christ and that one day will be all in all. It also doesn’t make sense for him to speak of determinacy apart from the essentially personal nature of salvation. We are not cogs in a machine that spin according to some mechanistic determination, but persons whose identity now can only be found in Christ. Christ is, simply put, THE one true human, and apart from union with him we can only be sub-human, as it were.

      So the upshot of all this is that for TFT, the vicarious nature of Christ’s humanity means that every single human being is implicated in what he has accomplished in himself as the last Adam. In that sense, the destiny of all humanity as been “determined” in a way, but vicariously in the person of Christ himself. After the resurrection, it will be revealed that there is simply no other way of being human that by being fully conformed to the image of Christ. For now, our true being is hidden with God in Christ. We do not yet know what we shall be, but when we see him, we shall be made like him, as John put it. So because of Christ’s vicarious humanity, every single person is implicated in this new reality, whether they want to be or not. But this means, that each person must be confronted with that reality, with that determination, precisely because they are persons. Again, we are not cogs in a machine, but persons-in-relation. This is TFT’s idea of “onto-relationality”: we are who we are only in relation to other persons, never as individuals simply considered. Therefore, when a person is confronted with the determination of their humanity in Christ, they are brought to a point of decision to either submit to that determination in repentance and faith or resist it. Those who submit do so only because of the grace of the Holy Spirit who has united them with the life of Christ, as a branch becomes alive when grafted into the vine. The fact that some resist, however, must remain a mystery, because that is the irrational nature of sin.

      So I guess I would say that for TFT, the asymmetry that we see at work in conversion is identical to that which we see at work in the “determination” of our destiny. Positively, we must affirm on the basis of Christ’s vicarious humanity that everyone is positively “determined” for conformity to the last Adam, because human being, strictly speaking, is found only in Christ. On the other hand, the reason why some do not ultimately experience this reality must remain a mystery: it is not that they were not determined to be conformed to Christ, neither is it that their destiny was indeterminate until they made a decision to reject Christ. Rather, due to the incomprehensible irrationality of sin, they have rejected the determination made about them in Christ and have cut themselves off from the life that is found only in him. Why this occurs is inexplicable. Again, this isn’t very satisfying for those of us who like neat, tidy answers, but it is the only response in the face of the abomination that is sin.

      About your final question, I have not yet encountered any place where TFT addresses the question of infant death, but my hunch is that he would unflinchingly say that such infants are saved, precisely because it is Christ’s vicarious humanity, including his faith, that avails for them.


      • Richard Jamison 28 January 2017 / 17:05

        >> On the other hand, the reason why some do not ultimately experience this reality must remain a mystery: it is not that they were not determined to be conformed to Christ, neither is it that their destiny was indeterminate until they made a decision to reject Christ. Rather, due to the incomprehensible irrationality of sin, they have rejected the determination made about them in Christ and have cut themselves off from the life that is found only in him. Why this occurs is inexplicable.

        I get that there can be mysteries. I even get that there must be mysteries given that God cannot be fully comprehended. That is not what is making me uncomfortable here. It is the ambivalence of the language. If our determination can be resisted successfully, it was never really “determined” in the normal sense of the word. Something that either can be submitted to or else successfully resisted is better called an offer rather than determination.

        Also, if submission to the determination is necessary to be saved and since babies are not able to do that submission, how can they be saved? Isn’t that why Baptists do not baptize babies?


      • Jonathan Kleis 28 January 2017 / 17:24

        This is precisely why I don’t like the language of “determination” at all. It too often gets confused with the “normal sense of the word”, as you put it. We have to assiduously remind ourselves that we are not talking about cogs in a machine, but personal relations.

        Moreover, in relation to infants, you once again make the error of thinking about “submission to determination” in terms of the individual simpliciter without prior reference to Christ as the one in whom all humanity is represented. It is ultimately Christ’s vicarious life for us by which we are saved, and thus the need for infants to believe for themselves is no longer an issue.


Comments are closed.