Monday, December 6

Definite Atonement and the Open Invitation of the Gospel

One objection some people have to the doctrine of definite atonement (a.k.a. limited atonement or particular redemption) is that they don't see how there can be a genuine free offer of the gospel if there is particularity in the atonement. The idea that the two things are incompatible comes, in part, from considering the atonement to be simply a commercial kind of transaction, the same sort of transaction I make when I go to the grocery store to buy groceries. If I buy 3 boxes of Cheerios, then I pay 3 times the price of one box. If I pay for my order, and then decide at the last minute that I need another box of Cheerios (my kids like them, okay?), I can't just slide that extra box by the cashier without paying more for it.

Those who raise this objection seem to consider the purchase made in the atonement to be much like my Cheerios purchase. The atonement is thought of as a certain quantity of atonement that has paid for a certain number of people, and if anyone were to be added to the number of those redeemed, then more atonement would have to be paid. Therefore, a genuine offer of forgiveness on condition of repentence cannot be made to those who are not among "the certain certified sinners"* for whom Christ died.

Charles Hodge answers this objection in his classic discussion of the extent of the atonement, For Whom Did Christ Die?, by reminding us that this is not payment that is "so much for so much", but payment by sacrifice:
The Scriptures teach that Christ saves us as a priest, by offering Himself as a sacrifice for our sins. But a sacrifice was not a payment of a debt, the payment of so much for so much. A single victim was sometimes a sacrifice for one individual; sometimes for the whole people. On the great day of atonement the scape-goat bore the sins of the people, whether they were more or less numerous. It had no reference at all to the number of persons for whom atonement was to be made. So Christ bore the sins of his people; whether they were to be a few hundreds, or countless millions, or the whole human family, makes no difference as to the nature of his work, or as to the value of his satisfaction. What was absolutely necessary for one, was abundantly sufficient for all.
In other words, it's not really the number of people that counts, but the relationship of those people to Christ. Christ represented the people or his brethren in the propitatory sacrifice he made before God (see Hebrew 2:17). The sacrifice made would serve as propitiation for all of the people, no matter how many or few they were, but would not be propitiation for anyone outside of that represented group.

If you need to think of it as a commercial transaction, then think of it as something like a buying a lifetime family pass to the zoo. The pass will admit anyone in the family. If a family has 2 children, the pass will work for the parents and the children of that family. A family of 15 can also enter the zoo on the same sort of family pass. They don't pay more because they are larger. If a family who starts out with 2 children were to adopt 7 more, they wouldn't have to purchase more passes. This pass, however, won't work for the next door neighbour's child, because neighbour children are not covered by that one family pass. The pass works for all those of a certain relationship, not for a certain maximum number.

The invitation of the gospel is an invitation to be adopted into the family--to become part of the group that holds the pass. This group is open to absolutely anyone who responds in faith to the invitation of the gospel. And anyone who believes--who is adopted into that family group--has already been atoned for when Christ stood before God and represented his brethren.

The pass doesn't apply to those who never believe, who are not part of Christ's brethren, and who remain always outside of this represented group. This absence of a pass for those who are never united to Christ is not because the one pass that exists would not work for them if they were to become one of the brothers or sisters of Christ, but because they remain outside the particular group (Christ's brethren) for whom the pass was purchased.

This is what is meant by the phrase "sufficient for all, efficient for the elect". The one sacrifice is sufficient for any number of people--Spurgeon says even "ten worlds"--and would work for ten worlds worth of people if that many were to be united with Christ. It is, however, efficient only for those who are actually united with Christ. The call of the gospel is simply a call to be united with Christ through faith, and anyone who answers that call has been atoned for by the one representative sacrifice of Christ.

By the way, the belief that a definite atonement and a free offer of the gospel are incompatible is not exclusive to those who don't adhere to the doctrine of definite atonement. There are also a few who affirm definite atonement; and then, based on how they percieve definite atonement, conclude that there is no free offer of the gospel. In both cases, it seems that the root of the objection is the idea that the atonement is the payment of "so much for so much".

*The phrase "certain certified sinners" is one that I've heard bandied about by those who oppose the doctrine of definite atonement. I'm not sure anyone arguing for definite atonement has ever actually used that phrase. Perhaps they have; I just haven't read or heard it.

[I already linked to Jollyblogger's article on limited atonement. Adrian Warnock has one as well.]

[Update: Tim illustrates particular redemption from another angle.]

[Update 2: Also dealing with this specific objection, but in a different way, is Crusty Curmudgeon.]

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