Silly Rabbit, Trix are for Kids: The Mythology of the Salvation-Atonement Distinction, ‘Sufficient for All, Efficient for the Elect’

Amongst the classically Reformed amongst us, it is common parlance to refer to a distinction, relative to the extent of the atonement of Jesus Christ (i.e. for whom did he die?, etc.), which goes like this: Christ’s death on the cross was sufficient to save and redeem the whole world, but in reality it is only efficient to save the elect; those whom God gratuitously chose to be saved from before the foundations of the world. So there is recognition of the fact that God’s life in Christ for us has the potential capacity and power to save all, but it only has the actual reach to affect salvation in those whom God particularly chose to reach. There is a somewhat devious (I think) conception of God, and his wills or acts that stands behind this kind of distinction between the ‘sufficiency’ of the atonement Versus its ‘efficiency’; maybe we will get into that at a later date.


Following is part of an argument and description of this ‘distinction’ provided by R. Scott Clark of Westminster Theological Seminary California’s faculty; he writes of this sufficient/efficient dichotomy:

In the midst of controversy over the nature of God’s sovereignty, Godescalc of Orbais defended Augustine vigorously and suffered for it. He taught that there are two “worlds,” that which Christ has purchased with his blood and that which he has not. Thus when Scripture says that Christ died for the “world” (e.g., John 3:16) it is extensive of all those Christ has actually redeemed, but it does not include everyone who has ever lived. 18 In the same way, those passages which seem to say that Christ died for all, in all times and places must but understood to refer to all the elect. Thus he saw 1 John 2:2 not as a problem passage, but a proof-text for definite atonement.19

The Lombard’s teaching on the atonement is most famous for his use of the distinction between the sufficiency of Christ’s death and its efficiency. Though they are not familiar to many of us today, from their publication in the late 12th century until the late 16th century, Peter’s Sentences were the most important theological text in the Latin-speaking world. Theological students even earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Sentences.

In Book 3, distinction 20 he taught that Christ’s death was “sufficient” to redeem all (quantum ad pretii) but it is “efficient” only “for the elect” (pro electis).20 This distinction, though not followed by all Western theologians after Lombard, was adopted by most until the nominalist movement (e.g., William of Ockham, d. 1347) overturned the “Old School” (via antiqua).21

In his great work, Summa Theologiae, Thomas distinguished between God’s will considered as his antecedent will, by which he could be said to have willed the salvation of all; and his will considered as consequent, i.e., what he actually decreed to exist, i.e., that only the elect would be saved and that some will be reprobated (damned).22 Later, Protestant theologians would revise this distinction to refer to his revealed and hidden will. With respect to his revealed will, God is said to desire certain things (i.e., that none should perish). It is his revealed will that we should know the existence of a hidden decree (who will be saved and who will perish) but the content of that decree is part of his hidden will.

Thomas also made it very clear that he adopted Lombard’s sufficient/efficient distinction but also taught unambiguously that Christ died effectively only for the elect.23 [full argument available here]

So as we can see, this distinction is a reality in theological parlance, first articulated by the seminal Roman Catholic theologian, Peter Lombard, in his infamous Sentences (which were the basis for subsequent Medieval and Protestant Reformed theologies to follow); and as observed, continue to have conceptual force for contemporary classically Reformed historians and theologians like Scott Clark. I thought of highlighting this distinction because I came across a rebuttal of it by Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bently Hart as I have been reading (10 pages from completion now) Matthew Levering’s book Predestination. Reference is made to this ‘rebuttal’ of Hart by Levering in a footnote on the first page of the last chapter of the book. Let me share that now, and we will see what you think:

Hart, ‘Providence and Causality’, 47. Hart explains further: “This entire issue, of course, becomes far less involved if one does not presume real differentiations within God’s intention towards his creatures. For, surely, scripture is quite explicit on this point: God positively “wills” the salvation of “all human beings” (1 Tim. 2.4). That is, he does not merely generically desire that salvation, or formally allow it as a logical possibility, or will it antecedently but not consequently, or (most ridiculous of all) enable it “sufficiently” but not “efficaciously”. If God were really to supply saving grace sufficient for all, but to refuse to supply most persons with the necessary natural means of attaining that grace, it would mean that God does not will the salvation of all. If God’s will to save is truly universal, as the epistle proclaims, one simply cannot start from the assumption that God causes some to rise while willingly permitting others to fall; even if one dreads the spectre of universalism, one cat at most affirm that God causes all to rise, and permits all to fall, and imparts to all—the ability to consent to or to resist grace he extends while providentially ordering all things according to his universal will to salvation. Or, rather, perhaps one should say that God causes all to rise, but the nature of that cause necessarily involves a permission of the will’. [Cited by Matthew Levering, Predestination, 177-78 n. 2.]

I would like to elaborate further, especially on what Clark refers to as God’s antecedent and consequent will and how that relates to this soteriological distinction of ‘sufficient/efficient’. Hart, as you read his quotable, also refers to this supposed distinction between God’s ‘antecedent’ and ‘consequent’ will; apparently, and to be sure, it is this prior distinction, made by theologians, in God’s life that funds the conceptual hangers upon which these ‘theologians’ hang the ‘sufficient/efficient’ distinction relative to the extent of the atonement. Suffice it to say for now, to appeal to this sufficient/efficient distinction introduces a rupture or break into God’s life, into his will for us (I don’t like appealing to the language of ‘Will’, but I will for sake of discussion). The important thing, and this is what we as Evangelical Calvinists do, is to maintain a unity in God’s Triune life; so following Rahner, Barth, Torrance & co. the ontological Trinity is the economic Trinity (and vice versa)— or, there is a unity to God’s life. The ‘antecedent’ life of God is the ‘consequent’ life of God Self revealed in Jesus Christ—so then there is ‘no God behind the back of Jesus’! If we dispose of these ‘two-wills’ in God, then we dispose of the foundation upon which the sufficient/efficient distinction is built, where it lives, moves, and has its breath. And, if we follow Hart’s rebuttal of this distinction it is even more simply stated than I just did; i.e. it cannot be said that God genuinely wills the salvation of all, and at the same time hold that God only provides the means for some to be saved (unless you want to affirm prior to this discussion by logical priority, that God has such a thing as an ‘antecedent’ will and a ‘consequent’ wherein the former is somehow distinct from the latter—this has terrible problems, doctrine of God-wise for you–so I can understand why you want to fall back into a strict apophaticism and mystery at this point, but God’s Self-revelation in Christ won’t let you retreat so fast!). He either truly desires all to be saved or he doesn’t (pace the modal law of logic: e.g. the law of non-contradiction).

We should discuss, at a later date, this idea and impact of God’s singular will, and the fact that who he is, how he acts in his inner (some would use the language of eternal) life, is exactly, univocally the same way he acts in Christ and the Holy Spirit in his outer life revealed in salvation history for us. We will talk about this soon, I have written on this in the past; but I will revisit it in the near future. Suffice it to say, ‘you don’t really believe that the atonement is sufficient for all, but only efficient for the elect’, do you? Silly rabbit, trix are for kids.

This entry was posted in David Bently Hart, Evangelical Calvinism, Matthew Levering, Predestination, Provocateur, R. Scott Clark, Reformed Theology, Salvation, Soteriology. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Silly Rabbit, Trix are for Kids: The Mythology of the Salvation-Atonement Distinction, ‘Sufficient for All, Efficient for the Elect’

  1. Bobby,
    I think I solved my issue with being able to comment on WordPress blogs. I created a WordPress account, and a clickthrough goes to a blog post that links to my “real” blogs. It was the only way I could find to comment. So, now I have access to your comments section once again! Ha!


  2. Cal says:

    I guess I’m confused at your response to sufficiency and efficiency. There is something of it in Paul where he says, roughly, Christ is savior of all men but especially for those who believe.

    Is the issue that salvation, whether calvinism or arminianism, posits salvation as a thing rather than participating in Christ’s life. He bore and destroyed all sin, those who are not apart of Him blaspheme the Spirit who brings Union and die outside of the fountain of life.

    Essentially the language of sufficiency and efficiency take atonement, and thus salvation, outside of Christ? That’s my problem with Aquinas, and the scholastics, who commodify it as a thing rather than Jesus.



  3. Kevin Davis says:

    The efficient/sufficient distinction at least has some conceptual coherence. However, the revealed/hidden (antecedent/consequent) distinction is utterly meaningless. Of course, the limited atonement guys are forced to make this latter distinction because, oh geeze, the Bible says that God’s desire is for none to perish. In order for them to retain the first distinction (limited atonement) with the unfortunate fact that God desires all to be saved, then you have the magical formula of the “revealed/hidden” distinction!

    Bobby, if you haven’t given it a thorough study yet, I’d encourage you to read or re-read Barth’s “determination of the rejected” in CD II.2. Also take a look at the earlier criticism of the decretum absolutum, especially his question directed to Calvin at the top of page 111. There really is no better way forward on this topic. I understand that Levering has some criticisms of Barth, so I’m looking forward to future posts involving his book. Keep it up.


  4. Bobby Grow says:

    Welcome back, Steve 🙂 !


    No, I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying at all; in fact I understand that passage to be asserting that, if anything, the atonement is inclusive and universal. It is equivocal and anachronistic to try to impose the scholastic usage of metaphysics that are used in order to try and read a sufficient/efficient reading from Scripture anywhere. It is unnecessary to appeal to something like Lombard and Clark do, if passages like I Tim and others can be explained in better ways w/o having to appeal to some sort of philosophical construct that is incompatible with the inner logic of the incarnation etc.


    Your analysis in your first paragraph on antecedent/consequent and the reason this has been posited to begin with is right on! I agree with you, this kind of appeal is way too convenient for our scholastic Reformed brethren to have at their disposal. I agree, there is a self-referential inner integrity to the sufficient/efficient distinction, but then it is when it is measured against other criteria (like the integrity of the Incarnation itself) that its inner coherence is found wanting.

    I will post more from Levering’s book. His critique of Barth is very weak, and I’m not just saying that because I am sympathetic to Barth; he doesn’t really launch into a serious critique of Barth, other than to make a kind of ad hoc assertion that Barth is wrong–his argument against Barth seems to be an argument from the consequence, and thus not a serious argument.

    I haven’t read that section from Barth’s CD; I’ll have to. Of course I have read TFT and his stuff against the absolutum decretum, which itself, is devestating for the ‘ad’ and that whole approach.


  5. Cal says:

    Then what is Paul saying? Is it that the language of suffiency/effiency is not helpful when discussing the universality of atonement and union/participation in that life? Otherwise, there is a real distinction of those whose life is hidden in Christ.

    As a note on Levering: I thought the book as a whole was rather weak. Augustine is more complex than he allows. I think it’s his Thomism that sets the stage, though I generally agree with the conclusion of tension. It just depends where you tie the knot I suppose.


  6. Bobby Grow says:


    Sufficient/efficient like I said has metaphysical connotations associated with it that I don’t think are as denotative as you seem to be presuming. The sufficiency efficiency thingy supposes that Christ died only for the elect; so a limited atonement, a particular redemption–tied to a logical causal even thomistic and I would say stoic understanding of determinism and causality. If that’s what an exegete believes Paul to be saying then I guess that’s what Paul was saying. But there is a simpler understanding, and one that I believe fits with the theo-logic of the incarnation and homoousion itself; that is, if anything, this passage would fit better with the belief of universal atonement, but not universal salvation. This is our view as evangelical Calvinists, and I think it is the required theology behind Paul’s assertion.

    Do you believe in limited atonement, Cal? Do you believe God has an antecedent and consequent will?

    Yeah, I think Levering was trying to do too much in to little of a space. Have you already finished reading his book as well? Although I don’t agree with his tension, like I said, that is to fall too quickly back into mystery and a negative theology.


  7. Cal says:

    Maybe you’re not understanding what I’m saying here.

    I agree entirely with Universal Atonement, that Jesus bore all the sins of the world on Himself, for everyone. I also don’t like the logic that goes into trying to force limited atonement into Scripture by deterministic causes. I have no time for the twisting of revealed/hidden will because, while there is a hidden will, rather God Himself is hidden, He is revealed fully and totally in Christ. You can’t go outside Jesus.

    I’m asking, seriously, if the reason why sufficient/efficient is not right is because of its language. There is certainly a union with Christ that not everyone has, and it takes the Holy Spirit sealing us with Him. So in a sense, God is the Savior for all (sufficient) but especially for those who believe (efficient). However, this portrays grace as a commodity and that is just wrong. Life is in Christ, not anywhere else.

    I’m trying to bridge an understanding between vocabularies.

    Am I making sense here?


  8. Bobby Grow says:


    No I understand you, but what I am suggesting or just bluntly asserting is that I don’t think that what Christ did was simply sufficient, I believe what he did is actually efficient; I have to believe this because I believe that true humanity, Christ’s archetypical humanity is efficiently saved. And so I must reject the sufficient or antecedent jibe, theologically. Evangelical Calvinists believe that all humanity is carnally united to Christ’s humanity and some by faith are united spiritually. But I also believe that this union is actual and complete in Christ for all of humanity.when speaking of this, like Calvin, I see an asymmetry between election reprobate on when discussing individuals; such that election and life are what is being emphasized when we reference humanity simpliciter. In other words I think a positive theology ultimately leaves no room for discussing nothingness or death relative to the recreated humanity of Christ. So I resist trying to answer the negative question about the lost in a way that sees that category on the same revealed plan as discussion about life and salvation inhabit.


  9. Bobby Grow says:

    Why do people reject their election in Christ? Like Calvin all I can say is I don’t know. Like Torrance says this is a surd in light of what Christ has done. To try and explain the irrational inscrutable nature of sin, logically, is irrational, since by definition, sin as nothingness can have no rational explanation. So all I can say is that the lost love the darkness rather than the light. In light of what Christ has done for all of humanity this shouldn’t be the case, but it is; sin is not reflectable. But we do know why people believe and are saved, because Christ did all of that first for us as our priest and mediator in his enhypostatic humanity for us. This is what I was referring to with my asymmetry point.


  10. Cal says:

    Right, I totally agree on the asymmetry of it. Though I’m not sure what Calvin would think of that (who cares in the end though).

    So I’m still not sure if you’ve answered my question. Is the sufficient/efficient distinction eliminated because it is unhelpful language? Part of the reason I dislike scholasticism is the specialization it invokes. The piling of jargon just confuses people right out of their own thoughts.

    The issue is, simply (ha!), whether or not you are in union with Christ and taking part of His work and life. Not being united to Christ by His Spirit has nothing to do with whether or not He bore the sin of all. So Universal Atonement without Universal Salvation?

    Why I’m asking is that I don’t want to invent a new Barth/Torrance dictionary to talk. Some people, familularly, will talk of sufficiency/efficiency and in a sense (one) that’s true but without commodifying grace into a thing which becomes subject to deterministic laws of logic that ends in limited atonement, and “problem passages”.

    Again, it’s all about building bridges and not new castles.

    Side note: Between you/Torrance and Levering, it’s all where you tie the knot of mystery. Levering says it’s somewhere in understanding freewill and predestination, you have to hold both; you/Torrance say its in irresistable grace/depth of sin. I just don’t know.


  11. Bobby Grow says:


    I know what Calvin thought, all you have to do is read his commentary on II Corinthians 2:15.

    Yes, the distinction is eliminated for me; like I said, my theological commitments require that to be so. Everyone has jargon, even people who say they don’t; if they are too lazy to learn new jargon, jargon that acutally signifies something real and concrete, then there isn’t a lot to do.

    No, I don’t agree that there is no relation to atonement, the incarnation and the extent of the atonement. I follow the dictum, the unassumed is the unredeemed; and so I do see a correlation between Christ’s incarnation and the affect that had upon humanity and their sin. This is why we follow the ontological theory of the atonement. One that flows from the dictum I just noted. If there is no correlation between whether all of humanity is represented by Christ or not, then Christ becomes a mere instrument who simply pays for the sin of some; and his person is not necessarily tied into God’s life, Christ’s economic person becomes inconsequential. So no, I don’t agree with you. I follow a more actualistic metaphysic than you seem to, Cal; and so I can’t conceive of a kind of atonement that does not actually impact all of the humanity who Christ represents in his vicarious humanity; which is all. I can only conceive of a “saved humanity,” Christ’s humanity which is tied into his incarnation, which is tied into the ontology of humanity itself.

    Like I said, I don’t care whether or not people want to follow this, conceptually; that’s up to them. I’m willing to try and explain it in ‘familiar’ terms (whatever that is!), but people need to be willing to learn something. It’s not about bridges or castles; I don’t see anything new here, I see old truth being re-introduced and constructively engaged. People just need to be willing to learn. Bridges and Castles are better suited for stories about Robin Hood and Lancelot, and not about the truth of Jesus Christ ;-).

    There is a point where some sort of mystery takes hold. But what you seem to be failing to appreciate, Cal, is that the difference between say Levering, and me, and better, Torrance, is one of theological method and hermeneutics. These are worlds apart! Levering follows natural theology, analytical theology, philosophical theology, and the analogy of being. We follow ‘special’ theology, dialectic theology, revealed theology, and the analogy of faith. This has huge implications towards the disparity you seem to be oversimply trying to observe between us. The difference between Levering and us is that he is interpreting things through a dualism that abstracts human thought and epistemology (i.e. foundationalism) from the lens that we see principally grounded in Christ. I don’t see any kind of appeal to mystery in my approach, only because I’m not trying to construct theological grammar upon the mystery of sin—which Levering is. I am simply recognizing that it is a surd in itself, and thus rejecting the mode that Levering embraces the via negativa, or the negative way. This is a substantial difference.


  12. Kevin Davis says:


    Yes, the distinction is “way too convenient,” and it reveals a significant weakness within (certain forms of) scholastic theology that such a distinction can hold sway. As long as you can get everything categorized and labeled, even when it’s a contradiction, you can move-on with the appearance of intellectual sophistication!

    As for CD II.2, you can make your reading load easier and focus on pp. 410-458. This is where Barth looks at the elect and rejected, not just the Election/Rejection of Christ but the “on the ground” elect and rejected in Scripture and in our world today. This section dispels the nonsense, still heard from evangelical critics, that Barth only cares about the Election/Rejection of Christ, to the neglect of what this means for us who believe and for those who reject Christ. This section will also help your understanding of how Christ’s atonement can be “effective” for those who follow the path of rejection (Esau, Saul, Judas, etc.).


  13. Bobby Grow says:


    Thanks. Yes, intellectual sophistication seems to be a huge driver!

    I will read that section, thanks for highlighting that for me! I have just finished John Webster’s Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought which gets at what you say here “… to the neglect of what this means for us who believe and for those who reject Christ.” And then just before that I finished George Hunsinger’s recently released edited book Thy Word Is Truth: Barth On Scripture which gets at what you note here, “… This section will also help your understanding of how Christ’s atonement can be “effective” for those who follow the path of rejection (Esau, Saul, Judas, etc.).” Hunsinger’s book has all kinds of awesome essays specifically directed at Barth’s hermeneutics, and then finishes with an appendices A.) On I Samuel 25: David and Abigail, B.) On the Gospel of John: The Prophetic Work of Christ, & C) On the Barmen Declaration: How Scripture Continually Saves the Church. If I had time I’d like to share a bunch of stuff from Webster’s book on what Cal and I have been discussing, and then from Hunsinger’s book on election/reprobation and the hermeneutics tied up with that; and not just in abstraction, but with detailed looks at how Barth exegeted particular passages of Scripture (beyond Romans). I will read Barth himself as well though, thanks for the heads up on the particular area I should read.


  14. Cal says:

    Well, ok, I think we’re driving right past each other because I have no fault with your disagreement with me. I don’t know what you think I’m trying to say, I’m not arguing from hidden/revealed decrees or technicalities. I have no love for scholasticism.

    You say yourself there is a way in that not everyone is united to Christ. Carnally, yes; Spiritually, no. That’s what I’m trying to say. I was just trying to understand why sufficient/efficient is wrong, in your eyes, and offered a thought. That it commodifies Christ’s life and makes His grace a “thing” to attain (be it orthodox reformed or thomist catholicism)

    I was being a bit general with tying the knot for mystery. It is important because where you tie it depends on method. However it still is in response to the same question: “why are not all saved?”.

    No, I don’t think what Barth/Torrance does is more than calling on men like Irenaeus and Athanasius. I just don’t like the language, I feel like I’m being bamboozled by an Abelard.

    I don’t care if we’re not talking about Robin Hood. I don’t want any more castles and I’m still in the business of building bridges. Maybe fill in a couple of moats while I’m at it.


  15. Bobby Grow says:


    I appreciate that you and I both do not want to see grace as a thing, but a person, Jesus Christ.

    As far as why people reject their election in Christ, and are thus judged by the life they reject. I am just not willing to give that category the same shrift as a discussion about election, eternal life, etc. And so this is where I really disagree with even the tact that Levering is taking in his ‘tension’ position. I understand that if reduced my view might look similar, but then I just don’t think that is truly appreciating the distinction and asymmetry I am trying to maintain relative to election/reprobation. But I understand why it is somewhat difficult to appreciate what I am saying, because this is a blog after all, and there isn’t enough space or time to try and develop my point beyond a thesis statement. Our book does develop it though, through various chapters, and then through a more developed thesis that I haven’t shared yet.

    I’m sorry that you don’t like the language of Barth/Torrance, that seems to be a stumbling block for lots of folk with them. Interestingly though, all theological language, at one point, was unfamiliar and seemingly obtuse. But over time and usage it became the familiar tongue of the Protestant people. So we can talk about election/reprobation, atonement, incarnation, with a certain amount of familiarity and ease; with relative ease. So, if I/we just give up talking about theology the way that Barth/Torrance did/do then they are destined to be left to the abstract and bambozooled. They use their words, for precision’s sake, just like other theologians do; it just takes time to become familiar with their lexicon, and then the material conceptual stuff that said lexicon is intended to symbolize. People need to be willing to be patient.

    I’m glad that we can agree on the most important point though, about Jesus and grace.

    Blessings, Cal.


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