Reforming Calvinism, pt. 17: Irresistible Grace (The Vicarious Humanity of Christ)

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I. But Christ lives in me, and the life which I now life in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

I begin this entry in my series Reforming Calvinism with Galatians 2:20 because it succinctly states everything that I hope to say in this post regarding an Evangelical Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARCalvinist revision of the fourth point of TULIP: ‘irresistible grace’. In my previous post, I stressed the vital importance of the axiom ‘the gift of grace is identical with the divine Giver’. As I said there, this is the key insight upon which a reformed version of ‘irresistible grace’ must be constructed. What I want to do in this entry is flesh this axiom out specifically in relation to Christ before moving on to the Spirit.

To begin, I would like to quote T.F. Torrance for whom the doctrine so critical to correctly reframing ‘irresistible grace’ was especially precious. The doctrine of which I speak is the ‘vicarious humanity of Christ’, and nothing that I could say would improve upon how Torrance explains it here:

I believe that it is concentration upon the vicarious humanity of Christ in the incarnation and atonement, in death and resurrection, that is particularly important for us today. It is curious that evangelicals often link the substitutionary act of Christ only with his death, and not with his incarnate person and life – that is dynamite for them! They thereby undermine the radical nature of substitution, what the New Testament calls katallage, Christ in our place and Christ for us in every respect. Substitution understood in this radical way means that Christ takes our place in all our human life and activity before God, even in our believing, praying, and worshipping of God, for he has yoked himself to us in such a profound way that he stands in for us and upholds us at every point in our human relations before God.

Galatians 2:20 has long been for me a passage of primary importance…”The faith of the Son of God” is to be understood here not just as my faith in him, but as the faith of Christ himself, for it refers primarily to Christ’s unswerving faithfulness, his vicarious and substitutionary faith which embraces and undergirds us, such that when we believe we must say with St. Paul “not I but Christ,” even in our act of faith. This is not in any way to denigrate the human act of faith on our part, for it is only in and through the vicarious faith of Christ that we can truly and properly believe. Faith in Christ involves a polar relation between the faith of Christ and our faith, in which our faith is laid hold of, enveloped, and upheld by his unswerving faithfulness. No human being can do that for another, far less give himself as a ransom from sin, but this is precisely what the Lord Jesus does when in giving himself for us he completely takes our place, makes our cause his very own in every respect, and yields to the heavenly Father the response of faith and love which we are altogether incapable of yielding.[1]

Lest we think that Torrance exaggerates the claim that evangelicals have neglected the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, we need only consider the reaction that many might have to that which he says regarding not only Christ’s death for us, but also his believing for us. From my perspective, Torrance is dead on in his observation that evangelicals have a well-developed understanding of the vicarious nature of Christ’s death but not of his life. Although some might demur, protesting that Torrance’s critique is misplaced given that many evangelicals affirm the doctrine of imputed righteousness (which obviously necessitates some sense of the vicarious nature of Christ’s life), I think it can be safely affirmed that very few have a firm grasp on the totality of what this means. How so? While many are quick to agree that Christ obeyed for us, they will say that his obedience does not avail for our salvation unless we fulfill the condition of faith. In other words, they do not go so far as to affirm that not only did Christ offer perfect obedience to the Father on our behalf, but that he also perfectly fulfilled the ‘condition’ of faith for us as well. In other words, Jesus did not only accomplish the objective side of our salvation as the Son of God, he also accomplished the subjective side of our salvation as the Son of Man. That is to say, he not only offers us, as God, the gift of salvation, but he also vicariously lays hold of that gift in our flesh and on our behalf through his own perfect faith and faithfulness. This, as Torrance notes, is truly radical. It is also, I believe, truly biblical.

First, it is, in my view, the clear teaching not only of Galatians 2:20 but also of other passages, such as Romans 3:22 and Philippians 3:9, where Paul explicitly identifies as justification as occurring on account of the “faith/faithfulness of Christ”. Although this is not the place to delve into the exegetical arguments, I do believe that the Greek of these texts is best translated in this way. Moreover, it is the vicarious nature of Christ’s entire life of obedience and faith that the author of Hebrews has in view when he writes in 2:10-18 and 5:7-9:

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted…

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.

As these passages clearly indicate, the Son of God in his incarnation became like us in every respect, assuming into union with himself our very flesh and blood, that he might save us to the uttermost, including presenting himself before the Father as our great high priest who sings God’s praise and puts his trust in God for us and on our behalf! In his sufferings, tears, obedience, and prayers, he became the source of our eternal salvation. This means that we are thus not saved because we have properly appropriated Christ’s objective work, we are saved inasmuch as Christ also subjectively prayed, believed, and obeyed perfectly for us and thereby offered the perfect response to God in our place. As fallen human beings, we are incapable in and of ourselves of rightly appropriating divine gifts, and thus Christ not only brought salvation within our reach but also vicariously laid hold of it in our flesh and on our behalf. As Khaled Anatolios states, “the unsurpassable gift of the Incarnation is that we were given the very reception of the gift”.[2]

Although the strangeness of this idea may make it seem unorthodox to some, it actually boasts a long and distinguished pedigree, going back to orthodox church fathers such as Irenaeus and Athanasius. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is arguably what lies behind Irenaeus’ concept of recapitulation according to which “Christ ‘recapitulated in Himself the long sequence of mankind’, and passed through all the stages of human life, sanctifying each in turn”.[3] Moreover, it played an indispensable role in Athanasius’ argument against the Arian heresy inasmuch as the Arians adduced Christ’s human state as evidence of his creaturely nature. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is that which enabled Athanasius to counter the Arian claim by saying, for example, that when Christ received the Holy Spirit at his baptism, it was not primarily for his sake that he did so; rather he received the Holy Spirit vicariously for us knowing that we were unable to do so:

And if, as the Lord Himself has said, the Spirit is His, and takes of His, and He sends It, it is not the Word, considered as the Word and Wisdom, who is anointed with the Spirit which He Himself gives, but the flesh assumed by Him which is anointed in Him and by Him; that the sanctification coming to the Lord as man, may come to all men from Him…Therefore ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever,’ remaining unalterable, and at once gives and receives, giving as God’s Word, receiving as man. It is not the Word then, viewed as the Word, that is promoted; for He had all things and has them always; but men, who have in Him and through Him their origin of receiving them. For, when He is now said to be anointed in a human respect, we it is who in Him are anointed; since also when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized. [4]

The practical importance of this doctrine is further emphasized by Torrance who writes:

There is a kind of subtle Pelagianism in preaching and teaching which has the effect of throwing people back in the last resort on their own act of faith, so that in the last analysis responsibility for their salvation rests upon themselves, rather than on Christ. In far too much preaching of Christ the ultimate responsibility is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and put on the shoulders of the poor sinner, and he knows well in his heart that he cannot cope with it…

Hidden deep down beneath all that there is a failure to take the New Testament teaching about the power of the cross of Christ and his substitutionary role seriously, a reluctance to allow it to apply to the whole of their being and to all their human activity before God, even to their believing and praying and worshipping. We need to learn and learn again and again that salvation by grace alone is so radical that we have to rely upon Christ Jesus entirely in everything, and that it is only when we rely on him alone that we are really free to believe: “Not I but Christ” yet “Christ in me.” Because he came as man to take our place, in and through his humanity is radically transformed, and we become truly human and really free to believe, love, and serve him That is the wonderful message of the cross and resurrection. [5]

The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is thus not only true but indescribably precious. It assures that our salvation is not in the end dependent upon us – neither upon our righteousness and good works nor even upon the quality of our faith and repentance – but totally, completely, and eternally dependent on Christ alone – solus Christus.

This, then, is the Christological aspect of our fundamental axiom ‘saving grace is identical with the divine Giver’. Rather than understanding faith as a quality or action of our regenerate will that is given to us by but ultimately distinct from God (for it is our faith), the faith by which we are saved is, in the final analysis, that of Christ. This is the meaning of Galatians 2:20: when I believe unto salvation, it is not I but Christ who lives in me. It is Christ who believed for me and in my place, and it by his faith – the faith of Jesus Christ – by which I am reconciled and redeemed. This is why the New Testament writers emphasize the completeness of our salvation. Not only has God’s objective work been accomplished, but so has our subjective reception of that work by Christ!

This is also why we can say, in a revised Evangelical Calvinist way, that grace is irresistible. It is not irresistible in the classic sense, namely, that it infuses in us a new disposition by which we cannot do other than believe. Rather, it is irresistible in the sense that it is grounded and actualized in the person of Christ. In the incarnation, the eternal Son of God united himself once and for all with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ (the hypostatic union), and this incarnational union occurred wholly prior to and independent of our response. Inasmuch as Christ represents all humanity in his incarnation, the existence of every human being is thus irrevocably grounded in and determined by him. As such, grace is wholly irresistible.[6] Grace is also irresistible in the sense that Christ never once resisted the will of the Father but always lived in perfect faith and obedience. Grace cannot be resisted anymore than Christ could have resisted his Father. It is therefore his ‘irresistible’ union with humanity in the incarnation (God’s downward movement to us) and his ‘irresistible’ obedience to and trust in the Father in our flesh and on our behalf (our upward movement to God) that fully achieves our salvation, both objectively and subjectively. Calvin thus spoke truly when he said that “Christ left nothing unfinished of the sum total of our salvation”.[7]

At this point, a question most certainly arises: if it is Christ who fulfilled the ‘condition’ of faith on our behalf to secure not just the accomplishment but also the ‘application’ of our salvation, then what need is there for us to believe ourselves? Doesn’t this idea downplay or eliminate the importance of our own faith? Wouldn’t this ultimately lead to universalism? These are all important questions, and I will tackle them in subsequent posts.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.30-31.

[2] Anatolios, K., 1996. ‘The Soteriological Significance of Christ’s Humanity in St. Athanasius’ in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 40(4), p.286.

[3] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. p.173.

[4] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Four Discourses against the Arians. 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. 334–335.

[5] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.35, 37.

[6] I am grateful to Bobby Grow for stimulating my thinking on this point.

[7] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. II.ix.3.


What is Dialectical Theology in Evangelical Calvinism and Why is it Important?

Image courtesy of David Hayward

One of the distinguishing marks of Evangelical Calvinism as articulated by Myk Habets and Bobby Grow in Vol. 1 of the same title is that its theological approach can be described as ‘dialectical’ and ‘dialogical’ rather than primarily ‘philosophical’ or ‘analytical.’ For anyone interested in learning about or engaging with Evangelical Calvinism, it is absolutely crucial to understand its dialectical/dialogical aspects lest, as often happens, it is dismissed as incoherent or objections are raised that simply do not follow from its premises. From my own (somewhat limited) experience interacting with people about EC, it seems to me that apart from a biblical hermeneutic and theological methodology that is principially christocentric (i.e. EC attempts to think out everything in strict accordance with how God has revealed himself in Christ), the dialectical/dialogical way of thinking constitutes one of, if not the, primary stumbling block that causes people, especially those schooled in theologies or traditions that favor logically-precise systems, to come to the conclusion that EC is unsatisfactory or incomprehensible.

What I want to do in this post, therefore, is explain, by way of T.F. Torrance and Bruce McCormack, why Evangelical Calvinists follow (not uncritically) the dialectical approach of Karl Barth. It is not because we appreciate Barth (though we do) or because we think a dialectical approach is pragmatically useful (which in many situations it isn’t). Primarily, EC adopts a dialectical/dialogical approach to theology because it is that which seems to be pressed upon us by the nature of the truth into which we are inquiring. T.F. Torrance helpfully explains what this means:

Dialectical thinking indicates the basic reversal that takes place in our thinking as we are confronted by God: we know God or rather are known by God. It is God who speaks, man who hears, and therefore man may only speak of God in obedience to what he hears from God…In Revelation God gives himself to us as the object of our faith and knowledge, but because he remains God and Lord, he does not give himself into our hands, as it were; he does not resign himself to our mastery or our control as if he were a dead object. He remains the living Lord, unqualified in his freedom, whom we can only know in accordance with his acts upon us, by following his movement of grace, and by renouncing on our part any attempt to master him by adapting him to our own schemes of thought or structures of existence; that is, whom we can know only by knowing him out of himself as an objective reality…standing over against us, as the divine Partner and Lord of our knowing of him…

Theological thinking, then, is inescapably dialectical because it must be a thinking by man not from a centre in himself but from a centre in God, and yet never seeks to usurp God’s own standpoint. It is dialogical thinking in which man remains man but in which he meets God, listens to him, answers him, and speaks of him in such a way that at every point he gives God the glory. Because it is dialogical it can only be fragmented on his side, for it does not carry its co-ordinating principle in itself, but derives it from beyond itself in God’s Word…

Dialectical theology stands for the fact that toward the Truth itself all our statements must remain essentially open, in humble acknowledgement of the fact that it is not in our competence to capture the Truth or to enclose it in our formulations, in frank admission that our thinking and speaking of God have their finite boundaries over which they cannot transgress.

In this sense, dialectical thinking is a correlate of justification by grace alone, in its epistemological reference. That is to say, it is a form of thinking which acknowledges that the only legitimate justification or demonstration of Christian truth is that which is in accordance with its nature, as truth and grace of God, and that to seek justification of it on any other ground is to falsify knowing at its very basis. Dialectical thinking is therefore thinking which combines statement and inquiry, for it makes statements not from a vantage point above the truth where it is the master but from a point below it where it never leaves its position of humble inquiry. Hence in dialectical thinking we let our knowledge, our statements, or our theological formulations be called into question by the very God toward whom they point or are directed in inquiry, for he alone is the Truth. Hence theological doctrines or formulations essentially contingent; they do not claim to have the truth in themselves for by their very nature they point beyond themselves to the Truth in God. Dialectical thinking, therefore, as Barth employed it, is to be considered as a form of combining statement and inquiry with the intention of letting the Truth declare itself to us, and therefore it indulges in a deliberate abstention from final judgments lest by breaking off or foreclosing the inquiry we should block our vision of the truth or be tempted to image that we have caught it in the net of our formulations.[1]

What Torrance says here is extremely important. Rather than imposing a framework (logical, philosophical, analytical) on Scripture and forcing it to conform its witness to the Truth which is God himself accordingly, a dialectical/dialogical approach endeavors not only to question the text to exegete its meaning but, first and foremost, to allow the text to question the approach itself and prescribe its own inner logic and coherency. It never views theological statements or systems as complete, as though we could every capture the fullness of who God is in human language, but rather constantly seeks to repentantly submit itself to change and development under the scrutiny of the Word. For this reason, it seeks to offer a faithful response to the Word, not by conforming the Word to its own patterns of thought, but by adapting its patterns of thought to the authority and majesty of the Word. Dialectical theology, in other words, is the approach we must take when we realize that God is God and we are not.

Addressing the age-old debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, Bruce McCormack provides a helpful example of what this looks like in practice:

There is a tension, I want to suggest, that runs through the very heart of the New Testament witness, between those passages that bear witness to the saving intentions of God in setting forth a Mediator and the passages that bear witness to the Final Judgment at the end of time. The first are characterized by a universalism of divine intent; Christ died for all. The second are often (though not exclusively) characterized by particularism, a separation in the Final Judgment of the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:31-46). Faced with this tension, evangelical exegetes have typically sought to remove it through one of two strategies. “Calvinist” exegesis has taken the eschatological passages as a clear and definite starting point for thought and treated the atonement passages as obscure and requiring careful explanation if they are to be harmonized with the eschatological passages. “Arminian” exegesis, too, has taken the eschatological passages as a clear and definite starting point but regarded the universality of God’s saving intentions as witnessed to in the atonement passages as equally so. So their strategy for harmonizing rests in the introduction of a third factor between God’s intentions and the final outcome – viz. a human will, which God allows to trump His will to save. God wants to save all but cannot because He places too high a priority on human freedom to be willing to impose faith irresistibly. Though these strategies differ, they share two things in common: (1) both presuppose that faith in Jesus Christ is an absolutely necessary condition which must be met if any individual is to be numbered among the eschatologically saved and (2) both presuppose that elimination of the tension is necessary if the New Testament is to retain its authoritative status in Christian theology.

In relation to these two presuppositions of traditional evangelical exegesis, I would like to say that I agree with the first but disagree with the second. I think there are good and sufficient reasons not to eliminate the tension but to allow it to stand…And because I think that to be the case, I also think that both traditional Calvinist and traditional Arminian exegesis misfire – and misfire fire at precisely the same point. Both treat the propositions found in Scripture as standing in a strictly logical relationship to one another, so that any tension that might exist among them must finally be regarded as a contradiction – which would obviously threaten biblical authority. My own view is that the tension I have identified is not rightly understood as a contradiction. Rather, it is a function of the tension between history and eschatology, between time and eternity, between certitudes and mysteries, between what may be said with great definiteness and what must finally be left open-ended and unresolved.[2]

McCormack helps us to see how a dialectical approach to biblical interpretation and theology may just open new vistas in our understanding. Rather than presuppose, as McCormack observes vis-à-vis Calvinist and Arminian exegesis, that the authority of Scripture rests finally on our ability to eliminate any tensions we find, a dialectical approach acknowledges that Scripture speaks as it does for a divinely determined reason, and thus it is to our peril if we try to fit its teaching into a particular logic or system by sanding down its rough edges. It just may be, however, that we could break through some longstanding theological stalemates were we to allow the Word to reveal its own inner rationality, centred on God’s self-revelation in Christ and by the Spirit, and thereby permit it, and not us, to determine the logical forms to which our thinking about its teaching should adhere.

This is how we as Evangelical Calvinists are attempting, however imperfectly, to speak about all the ways and works of God as attested in Scripture. If there is difficulty in understanding us, I would suggest that part of the problem (apart from our own shortcomings!) may stem from a failure to understand the dialectical and dialogical way in which we operate. Until this is clearly grasped, we will likely just end up talking past each other.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1962. Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1920-1931. London: SCM Press, pp.80, 82-83, 87-88.

[2] McCormack, B.L., 2011. ‘So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.229-230.

When Orthodoxy Becomes Innovation

After linking my recent series of posts on the atonement to various Facebook groups, I have received, perhaps unsurprisingly, a significant amount of pushback. Some of the critiques have been thoughtful and engaging, while others have evinced an astonishing lack of a basic awareness of historic Christian orthodoxy. While I would claim to be a ‘Protestant of Protestants’ in my commitment to sola Scriptura, I would eschew any notion that this frees us from the responsibility of hearing Scripture, as John Webster said, in communion with the ‘church’s exegetical fellowship’. Reading Scripture and doing theology, not as private individuals, but in proper relationship to the church universal is essential, for not only does God address us in his Word bigstock-Old-Book-2207732primarily as a corporate people, but also because without accountability to the great cloud of witnesses that has preceded us, we become susceptible to any number of errors that we would otherwise know to avoid.

To illustrate this, I would like to reproduce here a specific example of the kind of pushback to which I am referring (the specific post in question can be found here) and the response that I offered in return. Although my interaction with this person ultimately proved unfruitful, I hope that it can serve here as a sobering reminder of what can happen when we lose touch with the church’s exegetical fellowship and start to think that orthodox Christian belief is theological innovation!

So here is the extended objection that I received:

In NO place does scripture set forth the Atonement of Jesus as accomplished “only IN Himself” – meaning in His two-natures, as the article states. This is a theological invention. The ONE God-Man Jesus accomplished redemption. I can’t speak to the sincerity of the author, and have no reason to doubt it. Only God can judge that. However, when it comes to the truth of a doctrine, that must be addressed.

The author says
“What I have been saying with regard to a Christ-limited atonement refers specifically to the de jure aspect of human salvation. That is to say, the redemption that Christ accomplished, he vicariously accomplished de jure FOR all, but he accomplished it de facto ONLY WITHIN himself. In other words, redemption has been utterly realized in Christ FOR every human being in principle, but only in one human being – Christ himself – in actual fact.”

Um, yeah, Jesus did NOT require redemption! He was the offerer and the offering FOR redemption. Nothing about this statement, that I can see, is in keeping with scripture or orthodox Reformed doctrine.
Jesus personally accomplished redemption.
Jesus accomplished redemption BY Himself.
Jesus accomplished redemption FOR a specific people. WHO?
– “Every…believing one” (Jn 3:16)
– “All…those the Father gives Him” (Jn 17:2)
– “The church” (Acts 20:28; Eph 5:25)
– “Men FROM every nation, tribe” (Rev 5:9)

Jesus said, “For THEIR sakes I sanctify Myself THAT THEY too may be sanctified” (Jn 17: 19). The “they” in context, is HARDLY all men, nor the whole world! Sorry, no “in principle atonement FOR the world here”. Jesus stated plainly, “I do NOT pray FOR the world” (Jn 17:9) – but presumably He “in principle” was about to die for every person? C’mon! 😉

A redemption that HAS BEEN “in principle” realized in Christ FOR every person without exception (Arminianism), is NOT consistent at all with sovereign-election in ANY regard. And in fact, as Arminianism insists, undermines EVERY aspect of sovereign-grace.

>> Jonathan Kleis argues that the author seeks to solve the dilemma by NOT postulating “two wills in God, one revealed, one secret”, yet, both end up doing just that!
Q. For WHY then would God who supposedly does NOT have a “secret will”, NOT elect every person FOR whom “in principle” His Son died?
The GLARING contradiction here is quite an elephant in the room.

As for there being “two wills” in God – a secondary, but as Mr. Kleis argued, a necessary corollary to the OP, the following two examples OUGHT to settle the question: I. The death of Jesus II. The selling of Joseph into Egypt.In both cases, the ultimate mover was said to be God. In both cases, the one to whom the act was ultimately attributed was, to God. In both cases, it was HIS will which was being fulfilled by the sinful acts of men.

So for example, while God revealed commanded “Thou shalt not bear false witness”, Jesus was BY GOD’s will, sentenced with the assistance of false witnesses. Etc. If GOD secret could NOT will a thing that God revealed commanded not to be done, THEN Christ would never be crucified by WICKED men. The paradox is true and clearly upheld by scripture. I am not denying that truly “wicked men” conspired, and killed Jesus. I only affirm what the Apostle’s did “THEY did what YOUR power and will decided beforehand should be done”. As Joseph categorically declared to his brothers, “It was NOT YOU, but God who sent me here”

After reading these comments, I wrote the following response (with minor edits):

[Name omitted to protect the not-so-innocent], based on the strident and triumphalistic tone of your comments, I have little hope of having any mutually beneficial dialogue with you as befits brothers in Christ, so I will probably just make some points in response and leave it at that, unless you are willing to tone down the condescension and follow James 1:19 by being “quick to listen” in order to really understand what I am trying to say rather than setting up straw men.

First, locating the atonement within the person of Christ is not a theological invention. Paul clearly states this in Romans 8:3 when he says that God sent Christ “in the likeness of sinful flesh” in order to “condemn sin in the flesh”. There it is: condemnation of sin IN the flesh of Christ. This is why great theologians like Calvin similarly locate the sum total of our salvation IN Christ rather than outside of him. Calvin specifically states at a certain point in the Institutes that our salvation is found “in the flesh” and “in the person” of Christ alone. So this is not at all a theological invention. In fact it was THE position of the orthodox church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, etc. Your comment seems to indicate that you may be unfamiliar with patristic theology, for if you were, then although you still might disagree, you certainly wouldn’t call this a theological invention because this, historically speaking, is simply untenable.

I would add that the council of Constantinople in 381 (responsible for the final form of the Nicene Creed as we know it today) and the theologians responsible for the defeat of Apollinarianism (such as Gregory of Nazianzus) ardently opposed Apollinarius’ teaching in order to defend precisely the understanding of redemption that you seem to reject. Apollinarianism defined the incarnation in such a way that it eliminated the possibility of our redemption taking place in the person of Christ himself. Therefore, I would say that any notion of atonement and redemption that views these things as having been accomplished outside of Christ represents, if not outright heresy in line with Apollinarianism, at least a ‘backdoor denial’ of the orthodox theology that the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed was designed to protect.

Second, I never stated that Jesus himself required redemption. I said that he vicariously accomplished it in himself. These are two vastly different things. By the way that you frame the discussion, it seems that you want to describe redemption as a ‘thing’ that in theory is distinct from Christ himself that can be ‘given’ to us. Again, this, I think, is both unbiblical and unorthodox. Paul says in 1 Cor. 1:30 that Christ doesn’t provide or offer or give us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; rather he says that Christ IS our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, and that we partake of these benefits when we are, as Paul says, IN Christ. This was strongly emphasized, once again, by the orthodox church fathers, not to mention Calvin who hammered this point home repeatedly in the Institutes over against the Catholic Church that understood grace and salvation as ‘things’ that could be conceptually distinguished from the person of Christ himself. What I articulate in my post is simply the necessary corollary of holding together Christ’s person as the Word become flesh and his vicarious work on our behalf. Whenever we separate incarnation from atonement, we run into all kinds of trouble.

Third, your approach of simply citing verses from Scripture that seemingly prove that Christ died only for a limited group of humanity is unpersuasive, because it is precisely the interpretation of those texts that is in question. It is just as easy to cite a large number of texts that insist that Christ died for all, especially from the Gospel of John that has a decidedly universal bent. Moreover, just because certain texts speak specifically of the efficacy of Christ’s death for his people does not exclude the possibility of the same being said for all. Paul says in Galatians 2:20 that Christ gave himself “for me”. We do not conclude on this basis that Paul teaches that Christ therefore died only for him. Likewise, we should not automatically conclude from the texts that you cite that only a limited elect humanity falls within the scope of Christ’s atoning work.

Fourth, the fact that you seem to want to pigeonhole me into Arminian theology shows me that you haven’t really grasped what I am saying, which is nothing like Arminianism. Unfortunately, if you are operating with strict binary categories between Calvinism and Arminianism, then you may not be aware of this. Once again, this may be a symptom of a lack of knowledge of historical theology? Many of the early orthodox church fathers certainly were neither ‘Calvinist’ nor ‘Arminian’ classically defined. Furthermore, your assertion that what I am saying undermines sovereign grace as does Arminianism  is also completely misplaced. What I say may seem to undermine a Thomistic or voluntaristic view of grace, or an Aristotelian view of God (suggested by your designation of God as the ‘ultimate mover’ which is classic Aristotelianism), but it certainly doesn’t undermine what I believe is the biblical teaching on God’s grace and sovereignty. Your claim that my position evinces a glaring contradiction shows me that, once again, you haven’t really understood what I am saying. I would encourage you to click on the link provided in the post Reforming Calvinism and read previous entries in the series where I specifically address election. I don’t doubt that you will still disagree with me, but if you truly understand my position, then at least you wouldn’t write it off as glaringly contradictory, for what I say about the atonement coheres perfectly with what I believe about election, although in neither case does this mean that I am a universalist, because I am most certainly not.

Fifth, regarding the issue of the two wills of God: the notion of two wills in God is a contradiction, in my view, of the theology represented by the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. It introduces a rupture either between the revealed God and the hidden God or into the eternal life of God himself (depending on the way in which it is articulated). But this is precisely why the pro-Nicene theologians opposed Arianism. The Arian heresy did not involve simply a denial of Christ’s deity, but it also logically entailed a denial that who Christ reveals himself to be for us in time is somehow different or distinct from God as he is eternally and antecedently in himself. There’s a lot that goes into this of course, and I don’t have time to explain it here. But suffice it to say that if you do some research on Arianism vs. pro-Nicene theology, you will discover that the logical consequences of the ‘two wills of God’ notion comes dangerously close to what some of the Arian heretics said.

Just to be clear, I am by no means am calling you a heretic. I am saying that what you have articulated regarding the two wills of God, one revealed that is potentially or actually different from one that is secret, is eerily similar to one of the necessary corollaries of Arianism, and thus it was one of the major errors that the pro-Nicene theologians such as Athanasius opposed. The famous Nicene homoousion (consubstantial with) signified precisely this: that the being, will, and act of the Triune God revealed in the history of Jesus Christ is, without distortion, remainder, or differentiation, self-same with the being, will, and act of the Triune God in himself before creation and from all eternity. I would argue that the specific biblical examples you raised do not entail what you think they do, though I need to cut of my remarks at this point.

From this exchange, I hope that the importance of interpreting Scripture and doing theology in close communion with the church’s exegetical fellowship is absolutely indispensable. It is certainly frightening to think what might be the consequences for Protestant and evangelical churches if they begin to think that orthodoxy is innovation! May we continually labor to know our history so well that we are not tempted to repeat its mistakes.

(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring in part this post.)

The Evangelical Calvin: Atonement Edition


In this post, I would simply like to offer a selection of quotations from John Calvin on what Christ accomplished in the atonement and its implications for the world. I do not want to offer any comments or reflections but just allow the cumulative weight of these statements have their effect. Without further adieu, here is Calvin:

The Holy Spirit commands us to pray for all, because our only Mediator admits all to come to him; just as by his death he reconciled all to the Father.[1]

[T]hough Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God’s benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive him.[2]

[I]t is the will of God that we should seek the salvation of all men without exception, as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world.[3]

Luke emphasizes this even more, teaching that the salvation provided by Christ is common to all mankind. For Christ, the Author of salvation, was begotten of Adam, the common father of us all [Luke 3:38].[4]

[The] Redeemer of the world . . . was there, as it were, in the person of all cursed ones and of all transgressors, and of those who had deserved eternal death . . . and bears the burdens of all those who had offended God mortally.[5]

[Christ] willed in full measure to appear before the judgment seat of God His Father in the name and in the person of all sinners, being then ready to be condemned, inasmuch as He bore our burden.[6]

But here there is a special regard. It is that He must be the Redeemer of the world. He must be condemned, indeed, not for having preached the Gospel, but for us He must be oppressed, as it were, to the lowest depths and sustain our cause, since He was there, as it were, in the person of all cursed ones and of all transgressors, and of those who had deserved eternal death.[7]

It is also a fact, without controversy, that Christ came to atone for the sins of the whole world.[8]

This is our liberty, this our glorying in the face of death—that our sins are not imputed to us. He says that this redemption was procured through the blood of Christ, for by the sacrifice of his death all the sins of the world have been expiated.[9]

Thus his flesh, which proceeded from the seed of Abraham, since it was the temple of God, possessed a vivifying power; yea, the death of Christ became the life of the world.[10]

Hence it follows, that what led him to pray to be delivered from death was the dread of a greater evil. When he saw the wrath of God exhibited to him, as he stood at the tribunal of God charged with the sins of the whole world, he unavoidably shrunk with horror from the deep abyss of death.[11]

Now, then, the blame lies solely with ourselves, if we do not become partakers of this salvation; for he calls all men to himself, without a single exception, and gives Christ to all, that we may be illuminated by him.[12]

Christ opens up the first cause, and, as it were, the source of our salvation, and he does so, that no doubt may remain; for our minds cannot find calm repose, until we arrive at the unmerited love of God. As the whole matter of our salvation must not be sought any where else than in Christ, so we must see whence Christ came to us, and why he was offered to be our Saviour. Both points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish.[13]

Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favour of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.[14]

When he declares that he did not come to condemn the world, he thus points out the actual design of his coming; for what need was there that Christ should come to destroy us who were utterly ruined? We ought not, therefore, to look at any thing else in Christ, than that God, out of his boundless goodness, chose to extend his aid for saving us who were lost; and whenever our sins press us—whenever Satan would drive us to despair—we ought to hold out this shield, that God is unwilling that we should be overwhelmed with everlasting destruction, because he has appointed his Son to be the salvation of the world.[15]

It was God who appointed his Son to be the Propitiator, and who determined that the sins of the world should he expiated by his death.[16]

It is, as I have already said, that, seeing that men are created in the image of God and that their souls have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, we must try in every way available to us to draw them to the knowledge of the gospel.[17]

For it is no small matter to have the souls perish which were bought by the blood of Christ.[18]

Behold the Turks which cast away the grace which was purchased for all the world by Jesus Christ: the Jews do the like: the Papists, although they say not so openly, they show it in effect. . . . And thus we see now, how men are not partakers of this benefit, which was purchased them by our Lord Jesus Christ.[19]

Also we ought to have good care of those that have been redeemed with the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we see souls which have been so precious to God go to perdition, and we make nothing of it, that is to despise the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.[20]

And what shall we do when we see souls in peril, which are so precious before God, as he has shown in that he has ransomed them with the blood of his own Son?[21]

Because to see souls created in the image of God move toward their own damnation is hardly a light matter, especially souls that were redeemed at such a cost by the blood of God’s son.[22]

And indeed, our Lord Jesus was offered to all the world. . . . Our Lord Jesus suffered for all and there is neither great nor small who is not inexcusable today, for we can obtain salvation in Him.[23]

It was God who appointed his Son to be the Propitiator, and who determined that the sins of the world should he expiated by his death.[24]


[1] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. p.59

[2] Calvin, J. & Owen, J., 2010. Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. p.211

[3] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. p.157

[4] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. II.xiii.3

[5] Calvin, J., 1997. The Deity of Christ and Other Sermons. Audubon: Old Paths. p.55

[6] Ibid., p.52

[7] Ibid., p.95

[8] Calvin, J. & Cole, H.H., 1856. Calvin’s Calvinism: A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God, London: Wertheim and Macintosh. p.150

[9] Calvin, J. & Pringle, J., 2010. Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. p.148

[10] Calvin, J. & Owen, J., 2010. Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. p.180

[11] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol.3, p.234

[12] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol. 3, p.295

[13] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol. 1, pp.122-123

[14] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol. 1, p.125

[15] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol. 1, p.126

[16] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol. 2, p.106.

[17] Calvin, J., 2008. Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1–7, trans. Rob Roy McGregor, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, p.593

[18] Calvin, J., 1983. Sermons of M. John Calvin, on the Epistles of S. Paule to Timothie and Titus. Carlisle: Banner of Truth, p.817.

[19] Ibid., p.177

[20] Calvin, J., 1973. Sermons on Ephesians, trans. A. Golding; rev. S. M. Houghton and L. Rawlinson. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, p.521

[21] Ibid. pp-684-685

[22] Calvin, J., 2003. Sermons on the Book of Micah, trans. and ed. Benjamin Wirt Farley. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, p.371

[23] Calvin, J., 1956. Sermons on Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Death and Passion of Christ, trans. T. H. L. Parker. London: Clarke, p.141.

[24] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol. 2, p.106.

*Special thanks to Paul Hartog for directing me to these quotes.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 10.1: Limited Atonement (Critique)

In this tenth entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism (which will be split into two for the sake of length), I begin to tackle the third element of TULIP, the doctrine of ‘limited atonement’. As with the previous parts of this series, I would like to begin by examining and critiquing the doctrine traditionally conceived prior to proposing my own Evangelical Calvinist correction. As before, R.C. Sproul will provide us with a brief summary of the classical conception (the original article in its entirety can be accessed here):

I think that of all the five points of Calvinism, limited atonement is the most controversial, and the one that engenders perhaps the most confusion and consternation. This doctrine is chiefly concerned about the original purpose, plan, or design of God in sending Christ into the world to die on the cross. Was it the Father’s intent to send His Son to die on the cross to make salvation possible for everyone, but with the possibility that His death would be effective for no one? That is, did God simply Limited-Atonement-AVATARsend Christ to the cross to make salvation possible, or did God, from all eternity, have a plan of salvation by which, according to the riches of His grace and His eternal election, He designed the atonement to ensure the salvation of His people?…

I don’t think we want to believe in a God who sends Christ to die on the cross and then crosses His fingers, hoping that someone will take advantage of that atoning death. Our view of God is different. Our view is that the redemption of specific sinners was an eternal plan of God, and this plan and design was perfectly conceived and perfectly executed so that the will of God to save His people is accomplished by the atoning work of Christ.

As Sproul notes at the very beginning, ‘limited atonement’ is certainly the most controversial of the five points of Calvinism, largely due to the fact that it seems to run counter to the numerous biblical texts which appear, on the surface, to assert the universal extent of Christ’s atoning work: “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16). Sometimes the arguments between proponents of ‘limited’ versus ‘unlimited’ atonement simply stay on the surface level of the text, resulting in debates that tend to consist in a reciprocal volley of biblical quotations. Defenders of ‘limited atonement’ will cite passages referring to, for example, Christ laying down his life specifically for his sheep (John 10:11) or his bride the Church (Eph. 5:25), while defenders of ‘unlimited atonement’ point to the numerous passages that speak of Christ’s death for all (John 12:32; 2 Cor. 5:14). The problem, of course, is that this results in a fairly unproductive interaction, the outcome of which is that each side walks away merely exasperated with the other’s failure to accept what Scripture ‘clearly teaches’.

As I indicated in a previous post on the contemporary influence of Reformed scholasticism, it is often not the ‘clear teaching’ of Scripture that actually determines our interpretation but rather the underlying assumptions, of which we are perhaps not even aware, that condition our reading of Scripture and lead us to believe that our reading is clearly what Scripture teaches. Indicative of this is the fact that despite the seemingly irreconcilable differences between ‘limited’ and ‘unlimited’ atonement, these positions actually share quite a bit of common ground in terms of the ways in which they both use a logico-deductive approach to the issue of causality.

Notice, for example, how Sproul argues for his position by posing a question that dichotomizes the possible views: “did God simply send Christ to the cross to make salvation possible, or did God, from all eternity, have a plan of salvation by which, according to the riches of His grace and His eternal election, He designed the atonement to ensure the salvation of His people?” According to Sproul, there are essentially only two options. Either Christ died for all people in order to make it merely possible for them to be saved (roughly speaking the Arminian view), or he died for a predetermined few in order to guarantee that they will certainly be saved (the classic Calvinist view).

For all the differences between these two positions, it is important to note that they share at least one thing in common: neither one believes that Christ’s death was both universal in extent and fully efficacious in actually accomplishing salvation. In other words, both sides believe that it is necessary to ‘limit’ the atonement in some sense. In order to universalize its extent to all people, Arminians ‘limit’ the atonement’s efficacy by conceiving its intent and outcome merely in terms of the possibility that it creates that is actualized only on condition of faith (i.e. all will be saved if they believe). On the other hand, in order to absolutize the atonement’s efficacy in not merely making salvation possible but in actually guaranteeing its actualization, classic Calvinists ‘limit’ the atonement’s extent in order to maximize its effect and ensure not that a few will infallibly believe and be saved. In neither case, however (and this is the key point), is the atonement both universal in extent and fully efficacious in its intent and accomplishment.

The reason for this seems obvious. An atonement both universal in extent and fully efficacious would seem to inevitably lead to universal salvation. Proponents of both ‘limited’ and ‘unlimited’ atonement typically want to avoid universalism and thus, in their own unique ways, ‘limit’ the atonement. But the critical question to be posed to both sides is this: why would an atonement that is both universal in extent and fully efficacious inescapably lead to universalism? On the surface, this might seem like a ridiculous question the answer to which should be obvious. Is it not clear that if Christ died not only to make it possible that all could be saved but also to ensure that all will be saved, then the only logical outcome is universalism?

I would like to suggest, however, that the answer to this question may not be so obvious as it may first appear, especially given the fact that Scripture seems to affirm both: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died…All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:14, 18-19). Regardless of how we may judge his logic, Paul’s teaching seems to be clear: Christ died for all, and so all have died. This has happened for all, and thus it is universal in extent. But it has also actually happened, and thus it is fully efficacious in intention and power. Thus, we see in these verses that Paul appears to affirm both the universality of the atonement as well as its full efficacy.

I would suggest that our difficulty when encountering passages like this is that we interpret them within a logico-deductive schema that, in accordance with an Aristotelian view of causality, assumes that it is possible to understand something of the nature of causes in terms of the effects that they produce. In other words, we observe things that occur and then logically reason backward from those things as effects in order to deduce what we believe must be the cause or causes that are commensurate with those effects. As Thomas Aquinas stated, “any perfection which occurs in an effect must occur in its efficient cause” (Summa Theologica, Q.4, A.2).

If we presuppose such a logico-deductive schema, and if we believe that the ultimate outcome of the atonement will not be universal salvation, then it is clear that we have only one of two choices when encountering a text such as 2 Corinthians 5:18-19. Either we must say that God did not actually reconcile the world in Christ but only made such reconciliation possible (for we know that the whole world will not be ultimately reconciled and thus, reasoning backward, we must logically limit the atonement’s efficacy if we want to preserve its universality), or we must say that God did actually reconcile the world, but the ‘world’ in question is redefined in terms of a limited number that he predestined (for we know that the whole world will not be reconciled and thus, reasoning backward, we must logically limit the atonement’s extent if we want to preserve its efficacy).

My question, therefore, is this: what would happen if, instead of superimposing a foreign logico-deductive notion of causality onto Scripture, we sought to allow Scripture itself, specifically as it witnesses to God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus Christ, to reveal to us its own inner logic and rationality and thereby determine the ways in which we interpret texts such as 2 Corinthians 5? What if we assumed, taking passages like 2 Corinthians 5 at face value, that it would be possible to affirm both elements of Scripture’s witness to the atonement – its universal extent and full efficacy, without logically and deductively requiring a universal salvation? What if we allowed Scripture’s witness to Christ to reshape and transform our ideas of what is actually possible?

This is what I hope to do as I move forward in exploring an Evangelical Calvinist revision of ‘limited atonement’.

(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.)