From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, is a major publication. It is hard to imagine someone weighing in on this debate henceforth without interacting with this volume. I suspect that it will convince those who are open and correct many caricatures.
David Wells says, “This is the definitive study. It is careful, comprehensive, deep, pastoral, and thoroughly persuasive.”
Michael Horton calls it “the most impressive defense of definite atonement in over a century.”
D. A. Carson writes, “I cannot imagine that this book could have been published twenty-five years ago: there were not at that time enough well-informed theologians working in the Reformed heritage to produce a volume of such clarity and competence. Whatever side you hold in this debate, henceforth you dare not venture into the discussion without thoughtfully reading this book, which, mercifully, makes argument by stereotype and reductionism a great deal more difficult. Above all, this book will elicit adoration as its readers ponder afresh what Jesus achieved on the cross.”
John Frame adds: ”There is a conventional wisdom that seems to believe definite atonement is the weakest of the five heads of doctrine confessed at the Synod of Dort. But you may come away from this book believing it is the strongest, in its historical attestation, biblical basis, and spiritual blessing.”
Finally, Kelly Kapic points out that this book is for both fans and critics: “Whether you are sympathetic to or suspicious of definite atonement, this book will surprise you. Here are historical details, exegetical links, theological observations, and pastoral perspectives that are fresh and fascinating, even though there is also plenty that will prove controversial.”
The book now has a website where you can explore more about it. And at the end of this post you can watch a short video that contains some introduction to the argument and focus.
I had the privilege of interviewing the editors and some of the contributors
It took you guys six years to acquire and edit contributions from 21 contributors for this massive project. What motivated you to tackle a project of this size and scope?
David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson: Since John Owen’s classic work The Death of Death there has not been a thoroughly comprehensive, contemporary treatment of the doctrine from all the theological disciplines: historical, biblical, theological, and pastoral. Some of the traditional “Calvinistic” approaches can be too forced, too hasty in trying to prove the doctrine; some are more biblicist than biblical and fail to see the doctrine as a biblico-systematic conclusion. The same problem of biblicism also attends some of the objections to definite atonement (e.g., Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears in Death by Love: Letters from the Cross).
Assembling the line up of scholars we wanted and giving them a substantial amount of time to write their chapters made for a lengthy project. As essays came in, there was a lot of sharpening of arguments and feedback among the contributors. So the completed manuscript took longer than expected. The benefit of this, however, is that each chapter has effectively been peer reviewed and exhibits real quality in the argumentation. We wanted a volume written at the highest academic level. We also desired a warmth and winsomeness that might diffuse some of the heat associated with definite atonement and allow the glory of this truth to sparkle and shine. We don’t want to win an argument; we want to help the convinced and win the unconvinced.
What unique contributions does this book make that won’t be found elsewhere?
David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson: The breadth of scope is balanced with detail of focus. There are close readings of individual biblical texts (Alec Motyer on Isaiah 53, for example), as well as fluent treatments of key theological issues connected to the doctrine (Donald Macleod on the divine decree, or Garry Williams on the nature of punishment). Many of the chapters plough fresh furrows. The book also shows the practical usefulness of definite atonement for the Christian life, something which detractors are often quick to challenge: see the chapters by Daniel Strange on mission, Sinclair Ferguson on assurance of salvation, and John Piper on preaching.
But mainly this volume attempts a new approach by arguing the four sections of the book work together to provide the right kind of lens for looking at the doctrine. In our Introduction we take our cue from John Calvin’s theological method and argue that Bible readers need a Bible map drawn with historical awareness, exegetical care, theological coherence and pastoral insight. We’re saying the four sections need each other in order to sketch a pathway to definite atonement and that travelling along this road allows the reader to see the reality and beauty of definite atonement in the Scriptures.
What historical pedigree does the doctrine of definite atonement have?
Raymond Blacketer: Like all theological topics, questions about the universal and particular scope of the satisfaction Christ rendered on the cross arose from biblical exegesis: the attempt to make sense of apparently dissonant texts.
So Jerome commented on Matthew 20:28 that Jesus “does not say he gave his life for all, but for many, that is, for all those who would believe.”
The medieval Glossa Ordinaria further specified “the many” as “those predestined to life.”
Peter Lombard formulated the classic distinction that Christ’s satisfaction was sufficient to redeem every person, but effective only for the elect.
Following Augustine, who frequently emphasized the particularity of Christ’s redemption, Thomas Aquinas interpreted 1 Timothy 2:4 to mean God desires the salvation of all classes of humanity.
Martin Luther insisted it pertains “to the elect only . . . For in an absolute sense Christ did not die for all . . .”
Reformers Calvin and Beza continued in this exegetical trajectory.
The Synod of Dordt drew upon the Christian exegetical and theological tradition to clarify that God intended Christ’s redemption for the elect. It rejected Arminian assertions that the cross makes salvation available to all, yet specific to none, and conditional upon any individual’s choice to believe and persist in faith.
Some critics of definite atonement argue no one would ever come to believe in it merely by reading the Bible. On top of this there are several “problematic” biblical texts for definite atonement. How does this book deal with those issues?
Thomas Schreiner: Three things can be said in reply.
First, the Bible often explicitly teaches definite atonement. For instance, Christ laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:11, 15), gave himself up for the church (Eph. 5:25), and purchased some from every people group by his death (Rev. 5:9).
Second, some doubt we can place such weight upon these verses, but these texts must be interpreted along with what scripture teaches about God’s election and other soteriological realities. In other words, the Son dies for those whom the Father elects, and the Spirit applies his efficacious work to the same.
Third, texts that are alleged to teach unlimited atonement are often cited superficially. When we examine 2 Peter 2:1 and consider it in the context of 2 Peter 2 (esp. vv. 20-22), we see that the redemption posited there is phenomenological. Similarly, the context of 1 Timothy 2:4 indicates that Paul thinks of people groups (cf. 2:7), so that the verse doesn’t contradict what Paul teaches elsewhere about unconditional election. Hebrews 2:9 says that Christ tasted death for every person, but a closer look at the chapter reveals that the reference is to Jesus’ brothers and sisters (2:11-12), to the children God gave him (2:13), to the offspring of Abraham (2:16). Each of these passages are considered more closely in the book along with a host of other texts so that our aim, in fact, is to suggest that definite atonement is what one should believe from reading the Bible.
Some within evangelicalism wish to defend penal substitution but not definite atonement. In your chapters you argue this cannot be done. Why not?
Garry Williams: The argument of the first chapter is that if the penalty borne by Christ was a true penalty, then it must have been borne for specific sins committed by specific people. Otherwise, it is not a proper penalty but is simply some kind of unspecified suffering. Scripture teaches, for example in Leviticus, that sacrifice is made for specific offerers and their sins. It thus precludes a doctrine of general ransom.
In the second chapter I argue that the traditional “double payment” argument (God cannot punish the same sins twice, once in Christ at the cross and again in the impenitent in hell) needs to be expressed carefully, but it is valid. It does not rely on over-applying the financial metaphor for punishment and atonement. A description purged of such language and cast in terms of the biblical image of punishment as God’s answer to sin would sustain the impossibility of double punishment just as well.
What is the connection between Christ’s priestly ministry and definite atonement?
Stephen Wellum: In Scripture, the relationship between the role of the High Priest and the act of atonement is tight. Under the old covenant, the High Priest serves as the mediator for a particular covenant people. We see this on the Day of Atonement where the High Priest has the incredible privilege of entering into the Holy of Holies, on behalf of the people and as the covenant mediator of Israel. But it is important to note that the Priest’s act of sacrifice and intercession is a definite work.
As our Lord Jesus brings all of this to fulfillment, this same particular work is stressed. Christ is the new covenant head, mediator, and its great High Priest. As the new covenant head, his work is specific and effective for all those in that covenant. However, Scripture also teaches that everyone without exception is not in the new covenant. All people enter this world in Adam and under the dominion of sin, and it is only by Christ’s priestly work and the Spirit’s application, that we are transferred from Adam to Christ. The priestly and covenantal categories of Scripture demand that we view Christ’s work as definite.
How does definite atonement help us in the task of world mission and in thinking about the fate of the “unevangelized”?
Daniel Strange: In my chapter I argue that those who hold to an unlimited atonement get themselves into some inevitable and ultimately insoluble theological knots when it comes to the category of the unevangelised, that is those who have never heard the gospel. Believing in a definite atonement avoids these knotty problems and dilemmas. Moreover a definite atonement gives us a great confidence in the missionary task. It is said that the song sung in Revelation 5:9-11, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, . . . ” was the passage that sent William Carey to India because he knew that there were people ordained to life there. God has chosen to call a people to himself and he has given us the awesome privilege and responsibility of being inextricably involved in this urgent rescue mission. As servants of the king, we have been commanded to go and invite to the wedding feast as many we can find. We have confidence, in that we know that the message of the cross we proclaim does not merely offer people the possibility of salvation, but offers salvation itself, Christ himself. Confidence, that because the Father, the Son and the Spirit have complete unity of purpose, that those whom the Father has chosen, those for whom Christ died, are now those being prepared by the Spirit to hear the gospel message, repent and believe, and come to the feast.
You have recently retired after 33 years as a pastor. What advice would you give to younger pastors and preachers about the place of this doctrine in ministry?
John Piper: When I came to Bethlehem 33 years ago, I was wobbly on the atonement. That’s not a good thing to be wobbly on. So I resolved to work through Owen’s Death of Death. I came out with my feet on solid, biblical ground. I am glad I did. So my first advice would be: Don’t stay wobbly on this. Dive into the deeps, and don’t come up till you have the pearl.
Second, I would emphasize that particular redemption affirms more, not less, about the atonement. We all agree that the death of Christ warrants the free offer of the gospel to everyone: “If you receive Christ, his death covers all your sins.” But the more is that there is a particularly “great love” (Eph. 2:4) for the elect that “made us alive,” and this too was purchased by the blood of Christ. He died to secure for his sheep the living heart of faith.
Third, I would plead: Don’t let your blood-bought flock fail to enjoy the logic of Romans 8:32. If the “us” of that verse is all human beings, then the promise is void.