The Atonement

One of the central facets of the moral government of God, and the primary theme of scripture, is the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ in order to provide the basis upon which God may grant the forgiveness of sinners. Having sinned, we placed ourselves forever outside the satisfaction of the law of God that states unequivocally, “The soul who sins will die.” The death referred to here of course is not merely physical or moral death but the eternal death of hell. The punishment for sin is eternal damnation in hell. The letter of God’s law allows no exceptions.

On what basis then may God grant forgiveness, and pardon a sinner without repealing his law and making it of no effect? Clearly God’s law is not based solely on the arbitrary desires of his will but rather is founded in his eternally existing reason and character. Therefore God is bound to uphold his law at all costs and in no way is he free to arbitrarily put aside the penalty incurred through the violation of its precepts by any of the subjects of his universe. Therefore if God were to grant forgiveness, it must be done through a provision which completely satisfies the purpose of his law, upholding its precepts in the eyes of his subjects, continuing to discourage any disobedience, yet at the same time allowing the setting aside of the penalty. Scripture declares that this God has accomplished through the atonement.

Philosophy Of Atonement

Very important to the question of the Calvinistic versus what I believe to be the scriptural view of salvation is one’s philosophy of the atonement. What is its true nature? What is its extent? Upon what conditions may it safely be applied to the case of an individual in granting pardon? Did the atonement alone secure the salvation of any individual irrespective of his response? To most of these questions scripture does not address itself directly in speaking of the atonement. It merely states that Christ died for sinners, was made sin (or a sin offering), died the righteous for the unrighteous, had our sins cast upon him, etc. Such statements alone do not convey the nature, extent, conditions, or efficacy of this sacrifice, but merely state its intent. Christ died so that sinners might be saved. It is only upon the basis of our understanding of other passages of the Bible that we develop our understanding of what the atonement entailed.

We recognize that the atonement had many purposes and effected many things, some of which we may not understand or realize. Still we would expect that the central purpose of the atonement, to accomplish the just forgiveness of sins, ought to be intelligible to us since we are called upon in view of this sacrifice to make a rational committal of faith for our own forgiveness. It is of course possible for a person to exercise faith in the atonement on the simple basis of God’s statement that it is sufficient for his forgiveness, without having a clear idea of the nature of this transaction. But statements like the one found in Romans 3:25-26 seem to indicate that this need not be the norm. Paul says that God made Jesus a sacrifice of atonement to show that he was right in not punishing those who sinned prior to Jesus’ death and to demonstrate that now he can justly forgive anyone who believes on Christ. He claims that we should be able, in looking at the atonement, to understand the need it was designed to meet and to see that it actually did meet it. In seeking to understand what this need was and the nature of the solution, let us establish the difference between the Calvinistic and the Biblical view.

The Calvinist View

According to Calvin and his followers, the nature of the atonement is like a financial transaction in which the exact penalty for sin has been paid. This group believes that when Christ suffered on the cross he was actually punished for sins, bearing in his body the exact punishment that was due to the sinners he died to save. This being the case the law of God was satisfied exactly and the elect are pronounced just according to the law, their debt being paid to the penny. Jesus purchased the elect from the Father, satisfying his wrath and paying what was due. Thus the sinner for whom Christ died must be saved, for if he was punished in hell this would mean the penalty was paid twice, once by Christ and then by the person himself as if it had not been paid. This of course would be unjust of God to demand the penalty twice over.

Since this is the nature of the atonement for the Calvinist, it becomes clear the extent of the atonement. Clearly Christ did not die for the sins of every man but only for the elect, those who from the beginning God chose to save unconditionally. How could he have died for the whole world? We know from clear statements of scripture that not all will be saved, that in fact the major part of mankind is being lost. Yet if Christ died for them and paid their penalty as well, how could God be just in sending them to hell? Conversely, the doctrine of Universalism would be true which teaches that all will be saved. Given this view of the nature of the atonement this must be so if Christ died for all men. Thus for the Calvinist the extent of the atonement was limited, not simply in its efficacy, but in its sufficiency. If it was sufficient for all men then all men must be saved. If it is efficient only for some then these some must be the only ones for whom it was intended and sufficient. Thus the “L” of TULIP. Limited atonement.

What then is the condition for granting pardon? Clearly it is unconditional. God does not grant pardon because the sinner repents, the sinner repents because God has paid his penalty and applies this to him irresistibly. The sole ground of the person’s salvation, the only determining factor, is the atonement. Consequently, further disobedience in the life of a believer can in no way endanger his justification before God. He is justified once for all and once he is brought to faith he can thus never again come under the condemnation of the law. His past, present, and future sins are forgiven now and forever. This has Antinomian implications. If obedience is not now required then no amount of sin is inexcusable in the life of a Christian. While no Calvinist would allow this conclusion since scripture warns constantly that such is not the case, all the Calvinist can say is that if there are gross sins in a professing Christian’s life, he is displaying that he may never have truly believed. Personal assurance is still conditional upon progressive sanctification, although sanctification does not affect one’s true standing before God. The purely logical conclusion of an unconditional atonement is that sin is excusable, any amount of sin. To warn a believer about his sins is inconsistent. For him to feel condemned when he sins is inconsistent. He is justified by Christ’s death, period.

Thus the atonement secures the salvation of each individual for whom Christ died. Since Christ paid the penalty, the elect are no longer guilty. Since this was done irrespective of their choice, God’s grace applies this salvation to each and every elect person irrespective of her desires, which are all toward sin anyway. Since this is applied irresistibly, all the elect will be saved and the atonement itself is the full securing of each person’s salvation. It does not rest with her and it cannot fail.

Logical Implications

This in short is the Calvinist position on the atonement. One can see how this view and its logical implications correlate with Calvin’s view of moral depravity and election. If man cannot repent then God has to choose him unconditionally. Consequently, the atonement has to be the sole condition whereby God could be just in saving some. The penalty paid, God has to apply this salvation irresistibly, for man cannot repent. He is constitutionally bound in sin. God has to force his salvation. Since it is God’s choice, not man’s, and since the penalty of the elect’s past, present, and future sins has been paid, God could not leave the choice in man’s hands, or he would not receive that for which he paid.

How does one reply to this view? Is this the scriptural view, or is it simply a logical extrapolation of Calvin’s view of moral depravity and election applied to the area of the atonement? What would the scriptural view be? Is there support in scripture for a contrary view? I believe there is a more than satisfactory philosophy of atonement given in scripture that adequately explains the differences needed to embrace a universal atonement with limited efficacy. Let us begin again with our four questions. What is the nature of the atonement? What are its extent, conditions, and efficacy?

Central Principles Of Justice

To understand the nature of the atonement, one needs to have an understanding of the nature of God and the principle of justice upon which his government rests. The Bible tells us that God is love. Very simply put, love is choosing the greatest good of all for its own sake. It is intending this good in every act and situation. Since every being is valuable in itself we perceive ourselves to be obligated to choose this good for its own sake. To do otherwise would be wrong. The fact that God is love means that he also chooses to act in conformity to the value he perceives all beings to have. All his moral attributes are merely modifications of his dedication to the good of all. His justice is his intention to give to everyone their due, for their good. His mercy is his desire to show compassion toward those who have warranted punishment by forgiving them, for their good. His righteousness, kindness, faithfulness, are all modifications of love.

When God gave his law, he did not simply decide what right and wrong would be by an arbitrary act of his will. Since he perceived the intrinsic value of all beings and that their good ought to be chosen for its own sake, he declared his law based on his absolute knowledge of the tendency of all actions either to promote or hinder the greatest good. What is right and just is what will promote and secure the greatest good of all. Any action that would endanger this good is wrong action and blameworthy. Love is the spirit of the law.

In declaring his law God also attached to the precepts a penalty. The greatest good of all demanded that there be a penalty in order to prove God’s authority to rule through the giving of his law. God did not have the right to rule men simply because he created them. No one has the right to rule someone else unless the person’s circumstances make such a rule necessary for their greatest good to be achieved. God’s right to rule men arises from the fact that men are limited in their knowledge of what will best promote their good, do not share the same views on what is right, and are limited in the power to accomplish this end. God is qualified to rule because his knowledge is perfect. He knows exactly what actions will promote our good and which actions will hinder it. In addition, because God has absolute power he is able to promote our good to the fullest.

These two natural attributes are an important part of what gives God the right to rule, but they alone are not enough. Just because someone knows absolutely which actions are for our good, and have the power to promote our good to the fullest, this is no guarantee he will use this knowledge and power for our good. Unless he also has a moral character that is perfectly dedicated to our good, he would not have the right to rule us. History is replete with examples of tyrants who had the necessary power, or knowledge, or both, but who used their position to serve their own ends instead of the good of the public. We all recognize the need for rulers to be committed to the good of those they serve. This is why people are so unsatisfied with government today. Politicians seem more concerned for themselves than for their constituents. We all recognize such government as illegitimate. So God’s right to rule arises from the fact that such government is necessary, and God has the natural attributes of perfect knowledge, absolute power, and he is perfectly dedicated to the good of all.

Establishing God’s Authority

But if God is to exercise his legitimate authority over men and men are to recognize their obligation to obey him, then God must give men evidence that he has the qualities that give him the right to rule. His natural attributes of absolute knowledge and power are testified to by his creation. No one but a being of such attributes could have created the universe in all its wonder. What is required then is for God to show his character as perfectly committed to the greatest good of all. How can he do this? He must show it in what he does as a moral governor. It is not enough that he simply give us the best law. A selfish person could do this in order to get people to follow him. All rulers in history who have ruled for their own selfish ends have sought to make it appear that they had the good of the people in mind. They recognized that only then would the public consider their rule to be one with authority. What is required is that God give evidence that he truly hates disobedience and that which would hinder the greatest good and that he hates it as intensely as he could. And he must show that he loves righteousness as much as he can. This could only be accomplished by God annexing to his law a penalty and reward which showed his highest disapproval of disobedience and his highest approval of obedience. Only through this could his law be shown to have authority and to have the right to men’s obedience. By showing himself to have the feelings which a truly benevolent person would have toward those actions which hinder and promote the good of all, God has shown himself to have the right to rule. God has pledged to punish sin with death, and reward obedience with eternal life. These show his highest disapproval of disobedience and his highest approval of obedience.

So the penalty of God’s law is not a matter of some kind of exact justice where certain acts in and of themselves deserve to be rewarded or punished. Since what is right is what will promote the good of all, no one can be punished just because his act is a wrong act. Unless his punishment would serve some good either to him or to the public, this would be nothing but vindictiveness, evil for evil’s sake. His punishment is necessary in order to uphold the authority of God’s law. Someone’s doing what is right is not worthy of a reward just because it is right. Jesus said that after we had done our duty we should recognize that we are simply unprofitable servants. Right action is our duty; we deserve no reward in and of itself for doing right. A person’s right to reward arises from the necessity under the government of God that his law be shown to have authority. God rewards the obedient not because they deserve it but because this alone will show that he has the feelings toward obedience which give him the right to rule. If God were not to reward obedience and punish disobedience this would undermine his authority and destroy the influence of his government.

The problems God faced and sought to overcome through the atonement were not judicial, but governmental. The mistake Calvinism has made is to see exact retributive justice as the ruling principle of God’s moral government rather than public justice. If exact retributive justice is the ruling principle then no pardon can be extended unless the exact penalty is paid. The problem is, if the exact penalty is paid then there is no pardon. To pardon means to forgive the debt and show mercy. Exact retributive justice and mercy cannot be exercised simultaneously.

But retributive justice, the justice of rewarding obedience, and punishing disobedience, is not the fundamental justice of God’s law. Rather, it is subordinate to public justice, God’s commitment to do whatever is necessary to promote the good of all. It was this fundamental justice which required God to sanction his law with retributive reward and penalty to prove his authority. The penalty was not an end in itself, but a means to an end. Mercy is also a legitimate action on the part of God, since this is seeking the good of the sinner. But such mercy must be exercised in a way which does not violate the greatest good of all.

God can set aside the claims of retributive justice if in doing so he still upholds the claims of public justice, that the greatest good be preserved. Unless this can be done God must punish sin and reward obedience. The problem God faced then was how to set aside the penalty of his law without leaving the impression that he somehow approved of sin and did not really love righteousness. If he left this impression he would destroy the authority of his law since the public would have to conclude that his character did not give him the right to rule. What God needed was to do something which would as effectively demonstrate his commitment to the greatest good, that he hated sin as much as he could, and loved obedience as intensely as possible.

The Solution

God sought to overcome these difficulties by becoming a man himself, living a perfect life under his own law, dying a terrible public death for the sins of men, and then declaring that only upon condition of faith in this sacrifice may sinners be pardoned and their debt set aside. Through this means, God has accomplished the same purpose which the infliction of the penalty would have accomplished, showing himself to hate sin and love righteousness, and thus making it right to set the penalty aside in forgiveness. When a person sees Christ’s death as the only basis for forgiveness, no question remains concerning God’s dedication to the greatest good of all and to the extent he is willing to go to uphold his law. Since the atonement accomplishes the same end as the infliction of the penalty would have in securing the greatest good of all, giving to God’s law its rightful authority, God is just in forgiving sinners who look to the atonement for salvation.

The word atonement means “an exchange” or “substitute.” It is substituting the suffering of one for the infliction of punishment upon the guilty party. It is not an exact payment to satisfy retributive justice, but is a substitutionary suffering which may become the sufficient basis of pardoning the offender, upon the condition that he repents and returns to complete obedience to the law. It is not substituting the obedience of Christ to us, while he is punished for our sins. Such a concept assumes that Christ did not owe obedience for himself under God’s law. Such is not the case. Had Christ sinned, he would also have become guilty, but his obedience did nothing more than justify himself before God. No person’s righteousness can become another’s. Ezekiel 18 is clear on this.

When scripture speaks of Christ becoming our righteousness, it does not mean his righteousness is imputed to us, but that his suffering is considered sufficient to grant forgiveness upon the further condition of repentance and future obedience. His death pronounces us just and we no longer disobey. Therefore, the nature of the atonement is not a judicial satisfaction of retributive justice, but a governmental satisfaction of public justice. The goal of the law was the greatest good of all. If this may be produced then past sins may be forgiven. We are considered justified because Christ suffered and we have repented and returned to complete obedience to God, trusting in the atonement as the only way God can justly grant our pardon.

Ground or Condition?

The mistake of the Calvinist is to consider the atonement as the ground rather than as a condition of salvation. This mistake has resulted in seeing salvation as a gift from Christ, but that the Father got what he was owed. Thus salvation is not given as pardon and forgiveness, as scripture everywhere states it is, but is owed to the elect whose debt was paid to the exact penny. In Calvinism God is obligated to forgive those for whom Christ died. Thus they are justified by the law and not outside of the law as Romans 3:21 states. So although there is grace in Christ’s coming, there is no grace in the pronouncement of the sinner as just. This is exact retributive justice. The fundamental error is in supposing that punishment somehow “pays” for sin. It suggests that the punishment of sinners is equivalent to their having obeyed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Punishment has nothing to do with making up for what has been lost through disobedience. Punishment is solely to uphold the authority of God’s government, where the act of disobedience has placed this authority in question. The punishment does not pay for sin. It is not something the sinner or someone else could do to make right his wrong. It is something God does to uphold his government and the influence of his law. What was lost through disobedience is lost forever and no amount of punishment could “satisfy” justice. Justice required that the greatest good be secured. Sin has made this impossible.

The Calvinist would have it that since Christ died for sins, paid the penalty, this places God in the position of owing salvation to the elect. But in the Biblical view God is no more obligated to forgive, having provided an atonement, than he was before. It merely makes it consistent for him to extend forgiveness to sinners. Scripture shows the ground of salvation to be the love of God. God desired a way to forgive sin and pardon sinners. Christ did not have to overcome any unwillingness in the Father to save us. God himself sought through the atonement to make a way to save men from the retributive sentence of the law by upholding the spirit of the law and satisfying public justice in pardoning sinners. So God’s love is the reason we are saved. Nothing in us motivated him, it was all because he is rich in mercy and grace.

Conditions of Salvation

But if God was to pardon sinners, certain conditions had to be met. First, an atonement had to be put in place, a vicarious sacrifice, the suffering of a sinless substitute which would forever stand as a testimony to God’s seriousness about upholding his law. This God did by becoming the sacrifice himself, living as a man, being tempted on all points just like us, yet without sin. No greater sacrifice could have shown how God seeks to extend mercy and forgiveness and yet uphold his law.

But the atonement is only one condition. Along with this is required the repentance of the guilty party. This means not simply remorse, but willingly condemning ourselves and justifying God. It means willingly turning from rebellion against God and returning to complete obedience to God. This involves the will forsaking selfishness and living for God and his will. This is loving God with all our heart and loving our neighbor as ourselves. But even this is not enough. Future disobedience must also come under the condemnation of the law, for the atonement is not the ground, but a condition of salvation. Therefore perseverance in obedience is also required in order to remain justified before God. The atonement is not a satisfaction of retributive justice but of public justice, which allows pardon but not further disobedience.

This does not of course mean that the first sin after justification results in our being eternally lost. What it does mean is that we are presently under condemnation and remain so until we repent. It also means that if we are to be finally saved, we must be finally saved from sin. We must be holy, for without holiness no one will see the Lord. Hence, the warnings of the New Testament to lay hold of the promises for our sanctification. To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect and to be holy as God is holy. The holiness required of course is not a complete conformity to all the letter of the law, which would require absolute knowledge. What is required is complete conformity to the spirit of the law, which is to love God with all our heart (our will set completely on him) and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This entails doing nothing from selfish motives and thus complete obedience to all known truth.

Understanding the nature of the atonement as a condition for the satisfaction of public justice, the spirit of the law, upon the further conditions of repentance, faith, and perseverance, we are in a good position to detail our other three questions.

What is the extent of the atonement? It is sufficient for all men, since it is not an exact payment of debt but a substitutionary suffering put in place to satisfy the interests of the spirit of the law in granting forgiveness. But it is efficient only for those who repent, believe, and persevere to the end. This being the case scripture teaches both that Christ died for all men (Hebrews 2:9), the whole world (John 3:16, I John 2:2), and also that he died specifically for his sheep, his people, the elect. Since it is only efficient for those who do believe, he did die for the elect, and for them only in one sense. But since it is sufficient for all men, he also is said to have died for the whole world. Perhaps the most concise verse is I Timothy 4:9-10 where we are told that God is “the savior of all men, especially those who believe.” Of course Calvinists have explanations for all the universal passages in order to preserve their system. These are mere dodges that ignore the true nature of the atonement and also fail to harmonize with the passages which warn of apostasy and falling away from faith, which cannot be harmonized with Calvinism and its view of the atonement.

Upon what conditions may the atonement be safely applied? Clearly from all that has gone before, only upon condition of repentance, faith, and perseverance does the atonement become the basis for the granting of pardon, and clearly no longer than the forgiven sinner obeys is he justified. Thus sanctification, not just at the moment of conversion, but permanently through life becomes a necessity for the atonement to be applied to the sinner’s need. Does the atonement alone secure the salvation of any individual, irrespective of her response? It does not. It is only one of the conditions that make salvation possible. She must personally respond. Some have said that if this is true then the atonement might have been a failure. In no sense is this so. It stands eternally as the greatest demonstration of love, and mercy, and grace imaginable! Had no man repented, still it provides great good to the universe. Love is love. Love does not give because it is certain of a return. Love gives because that’s what love is! It is its own reward.

Particular But Universal

It is in light of the above statements then that we would see the verses dealing with universal and specific salvation. It does nothing to the point to show that Jesus died for “us,” “the church,” “the elect,” “his sheep,” etc. For all of “us,” “members of the church,” “the elect,” “his sheep,” were once not his people but by nature objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:3) and a part of “the ungodly” for whom Christ died (Romans 5:6). Since all of “us” were of the world, it proves nothing to say Christ died for the church. He died to make those who would repent the church. Since salvation is conditional he had to get us into him if the atonement was to become ours efficiently. But it is all men’s sufficiently.

The preceding should be sufficient to clarify the distinction between Calvinistic and what I believe to be the scriptural view of the atonement. Those who teach limited atonement are guilty of the same error in argument as those who deny the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, and so forth. They focus only on those scriptures that teach its specific nature, for the church, and deny or explain away those scriptures that teach its universal nature. In the same way we may choose to hold only to Christ’s humanity by ignoring those passages teaching his Divinity, and may deny the Trinity by focusing solely on those passages teaching the unity of God, while explaining away those which teach a plurality of personages in the Godhead. This method of scriptural analysis stems from the incorrect views of moral depravity and election that drove Calvin to postulate a limited atonement in order to be consistent.

Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (

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