“The church’s one foundation
is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is his new creation
by water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her
to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her,
and for her life he died.”
-Samuel J. Stone (1839-1900)
Tulip. What does it mean to you? To some, it’s their favorite bulbous flower. To others, it’s their favorite city in Indiana. To you, it might be your favorite Bloc Party song. To others, it’s a much avoided class discussion. Maybe it’s not your cup of tea; maybe it’s the only way of life you’ve known.
What this book has been set forth to do is provide an updated resource for the legitimacy of definite (limited) atonement. In case you’re unsure of what that means, it views the atonement through the lens of election, “teaching that Christ died only for the elect, to secure infallibly the salvation of the elect” (37).
Why call it ‘definite’ instead of ‘limited’ atonement?
To quote J. I. Packer, “Limited is an inappropriate emphasis that actually sounds menacing. It is as if Reformed Christians have a primary concern to announce that there are people whom Christ did not die to save, whom therefore it is pointless to invite to turn from sin and trust him as Savior….But perhaps I may say that in my view it is time to lay TULIP to rest, since its middle item does so much more harm than good” (Packer, J. I., Foreword, p. 15-16). And it includes, as the above statement says, to teach that Christ definitely died to secure the infallibility of the salvation of the elect.
Why did I ask for this book?
I requested to review this book because I know very little about definite atonement [D.A.] and anything about TULIP. I thought I’d look into what it means to those who have studied it themselves.
The book is divided into 4 main sections:
- Definite Atonement in Church History: Which goes over definite atonement’s controversies and nuances in church history
- Definite Atonement in the Bible: Which shows to prove definite atonement’s presence or absence in the Bible
- Definite Atonement in Theological Perspective: What are definite atonement’s theological implications?
- Definite Atonement in Pastoral Practice: What is a pastor to do with the consequences of definite atonement?
Clearly, I cannot give this book an “adequate” review (consider it’s size). It’s massive! It’s 704 pages (front-to-back) full of 23 different essays of different exegetical, theological, pastoral, and historical issues, many of which are intertwined together. What I will try to do, is speak on each section as a whole, give some scribbles on parts that stood out, and end with a final note. Considering the size of this book, the time I’ve had to read this thing, and other responsibilities I have, I haven’t not been able to read this whole book. That being said, I read every essay except for the section on Church History and one essay in the Theological Perspective.
So again, you may already know I don’t know how to be concise, but I will try to be as brief as I can on each section so as to make this entry readable (as a whole).
Definite Atonement in the Bible
This was easily my favorite part of the book. There were 6 essays, dealing with how D.A. is seen in the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy), in Isaiah’s suffering Servant, in the Synoptic Gospels and Johannine literature, in the Pauline epistles, in Paul’s theology of salvation, and in the Pastoral and General epistles.
D.A. in the Pentateuch was intriguing. I had come to the understanding that D.A. could easily be refuted because even though Israel underwent the Day of Atonement, not all of Israel was saved. However, I realized it was more tricky than that because Israel was called “out of the world” by God. Ah, there’s that election status. Alright Williamson (author), you got me there.
In the Suffering Servant, J. Alec Motyer does a fantastic job explaining how D.A. is seen in Isaiah 53 [and the surrounding chapters]. I say “fantastic” not because I necessarily agree with him, but because he is so clear (which, unfortunately, not every author is. Just wait until I get to the Theological section). Motyer goes through the dimensions of salvation seen in the Suffering Servant passage, along with the “many” intended recipients of salvation and what “many” means in context.
Harmon does a good job showing D.A. in the Synoptics, but his real focus is seen in the Johannine literature where he points to and elaborates on many of Jesus’ discourses (Bread of Life [Jn 6:22-58], High Priestly Prayer [Jn. 17:1-26], and the Throne Room Vision [Rev. 4:1-5:14]). He shows how Christ died for His people, how Jesus died for the “world”, and what those “universal” texts (may) mean. He does a good job (though I was hoping for more) of explaining 1 John 2:2 and shows a parallel between it and John 11:52 giving more backdrop to the situation.
Gibson’s first chapter on the meanings of Christ dying for “me,” for “us,” for “the church,” for “His people,” for “all,” for the “world,” was particularly interesting, including the section on the “Perishing” texts [Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:11; and Acts 20:28-30] which was particularly illuminating.
However his next essay was a bit more obtrusive. Maybe that’s harsh, because it was good. However, I felt like there were so many side-roads or new discussions popping up that I felt lost at times. “Karl Barth? Who invited you?” His thoughts on the Trinity and D.A. were helpful, though the format still led to some confusion.
Finally, Thomas Schreiner. He covers topics such as how God desires to save all [1 Tim. 2:1-7]; God is the Savior of all, especially of those who believe [1 Tim. 4:10]; the false teachers who fell away from Christ who “bought them” [2 Pet. 2:1], and more. After reading Gibson, Schreiner was a breath of fresh air. He is a very clear and coherent writer. Though, I will say that there are times when he gives ideas that sound right, and in the next paragraph scraps the whole idea. But aside from that, I appreciated his input into this topic (D.A. in the Pastoral/General epistles).
The Chocolate Milk
What I liked about this section is that the authors go to the source itself (the Bible), and show you what they believe it says. You can take it or leave it from there. You can look for yourself in your own Bible and see if you agree or not, why or why not, and what you think about their conclusions. But a least you can see who they arrived there. This is also what had a hand in making the next section so much harder to read.
Definite Atonement in Theological Perspective
There are six essays n this section, yet this section won’t be as long because I had some problems reading this section. Sometimes I would just think it’s because I don’t know enough (which is accurate), but then I read Wellum and “The New Covenant Work of Christ” and think, “Well, how come this is so easy?”
Quite frankly, this section was hit or miss for me. You have different topics on D.A. and the Divine Decree (Williams), the Triune God and the Incarnation (Letham), Penal Substitutionary Atonement (Williams), the Double Payment Argument (Williams), The New Covenant Work of Christ: Priesthood, Atonement, and Intercession (Wellum), and Jesus Christ the Man: Toward a Systematic Theology of Definite Atonement (Blocher).
The Spoiled Milk
Passing through Macleod’s essay (I didn’t read it due to time), I felt Letham was difficult to read because much of his discussion was theory and I was left thinking, “What’s the point?” It quickly runs together into one heap of technical wording.
Much of William’s first chapter was difficult to understand. His section on the Specificity of the Atonement in Scripture was helpful, but the ideas were then entangled when he arrived at Leviticus. At that point it was a matter of looking at some chapter constructs/outlines.
Dealing with the double payment argument, Williams goes through six different metaphors on punishment, but I wasn’t quite sure of how it really related to D.A. Parts of his chapters were fine, but it seemed William’s took the long way around to explain his points. I understand the concept of why God can’t demand a double payment, or inflict punishment twice, but from William’s reasoning I couldn’t give a good reasoning for or against it.
I suppose Blocher fulfills his journey in showing the systematic theology of D.A., but I saw little of how it had anything to do with Jesus Christ the Man except for a few pages (unfortunate considering it’s a 43 page essay).
The Chocolate Milk
It wasn’t all bad. There were a few good points:
Letham showed the loving provision of the atonement.
Overall, Williams cases a good point on the double payment augment: can God inflict punishment for the sin of the lost a second time when Christ has already atoned for the world? It is something to think about.
Wellum’s essay on Christ’s New Covenant work was a a sigh of relief! Finally, an essay I understood and could take something away from. I felt like I didn’t have to work to understand this chapter. Wellum shows the connections between Christ’s atonement for His people and His High Priestly ministry for His people (Priesthood, typology, the old and new covenants) and how Christ fulfills the office of the OT High Priest. I found this to be a very good mixture between the Theological Perspective and the Biblical Exegesis.
Definite Atonement in Pastoral Practice
How does the doctrine of D.A. work out in the pastoral ministry to the church? Here, three pastors spell out the significant of D.A. to many a congregation. Daniel Strange writes on if Jesus was really slain for the world, Sinclair Ferguson on the assurance of salvation that D.A. brings, and John Piper writes on how D.A. ultimately brings glory to God.
Strange’s chapter was fairly good. If we believe in the universal atonement of Christ to every person, what happens to those who never hear the gospel? In the end I felt like I was left on a cliffhanger. I’m not really sure if all the ends were tied at the conclusion or not.
Ferguson’s essay dealt with Jesus’s teaching on D.A. in John 10, which was an interesting read. However, I felt he spent more time talking about the other sides deficiencies rather than the assurance that DA provides. Campbell? Federal theologians? Older Calvinism? How does help me to assure my flock if I’m a pastor? His conclusion made sense, but it felt like I took the long road there and was then left wanting.
John Piper: Of course Piper’s essay will be good. And it was. It was long (34 pages), but not too long. He broke it down into mini-sections, but handled well what many of the other authors couldn’t seem to: in dealing with other points of view, I knew who’s view I was reading and who’s I wasn’t reading. To be clear, when I was reading Piper’s view, I knew it was his view of D.A. When he spoke on Driscoll’s view or Ware’s view, I knew he was talking about Driscoll or Ware. There was no confusion. I never stopped to think, “Wait, what is he talking about? How did I get here?” And for that I am thankful.
Two points I was glad to see Piper touch one were as such:
- Piper goes to explain how one, believing in D.A., could preach a sincere and valid Gospel to the entire, unevangelized world.
- Piper explains how one who was atoned for my Christ’s blood could be under the wrath of God before being saved. If they are really atoned for, how are they still under the wrath of God at all (even before salvation)? Piper gives a pretty good explanation. Not perfect or amazing, but it makes sense to a degree.
All in all, this is a huge book. You will see a lot of names. You will see a lot of Greek (though not an overwhelming amount). This book is written for Bible college, seminary, scholars, and not the layman (unless you really know your stuff). In that case, have at it. You’ll understand more than I did. Though I wish some scholars could have been more clear or concise in their writing, I understand this is a tough subject to write on, and I am but one reader trying to understand the aspects of this doctrine so that I can better speak with and understand those around me. I won’t understand everything. This book is an incredible resource that will hold for years to come on the doctrine of Definite Atonement. Now, I’m waiting for the other side (Unlimited Atonement) to come out with a book so I can see their position. We’ll see.
One last note though, no matter which side you do take, Arminian, Calvinist, unlimited atonement, definite atonement, any mix in-between, if you even ascribe on a certain field, or your just trying to figure out what the Bible says, please don’t use this book to beat other people over the head with your ideas and beliefs. Whether the world or only the elect, Christ still died for His bride, and the last thing He would want is for His bride to be divided over who He died for. We are one body in Him. Hopefully this book will help encourage conversation rather than build up walls. Please, be mature. Use this as a resource for your beliefs, but be open and willing to talk to those who differ from you in love. That’s the only way people will ever see our great Deliverer.
- Hardcover: 704 pages
- Publisher: Crossway (November 30, 2013)
- Audience: Those who want to better understand the position of Definite (Limited) Atonement; yet the reading level is at least Bible college.
- Amazon: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her
- Sample: PDF