Definite Atonement and Assurance Compared: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her Style with Evangelical Calvinist Style

I am continuing to engage with David Gibson’s and Jonathan Gibson’s just released book From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective. At the Urgent, Prayer Request!end of their introductory chapter which they co-wrote, they close with a summary of what is offered in the ‘pastoral’ section of their volume; in it, they describe how ‘definite atonement’ (i.e. ‘limited atonement’) is actually a pastoral strength and not an ostensible weakness.

It is often alleged that in the pastoral domain the weaknesses of definite atonement become most acute. This is not so. We contend that, precisely because it is a definite atonement that gives greatest glory to God, so it is this understanding of the atonement that affords church and world the greatest good. The drama of the Son-King who was promised the nations as his inheritance (Ps. 2:8) adds motivation for the evangelization of the peoples of the world. The Lamb has purchased people for God (Rev. 5:9–11). Conversely, the “unevangelized” become an uncomfortable “stone in the shoe” for advocates of a universal atonement: Christ has provided a de jure salvation for all but which de facto is not accessible to all and, inadvertently, ends up in reality limited in its scope. Definite atonement ensures that what is offered in the proclamation of the gospel is the actual accomplishment of redemption. To herald the gospel is to herald a Savior who has by his blood established the covenant of grace which all are called to join. Proponents of a general, universal atonement cannot in fact, if being consistent, maintain a belief in the sincere offer of salvation for every person. All that can be offered is the opportunity or the possibility of salvation—and that not even to all in reality.

An atonement symbolized by the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep provides pastoral riches of motivation, joyful obedience, and perseverance for pastor and people alike. Atonement which radiates from the union of Christ with his people and which is set within the wider paradigm of the triune operations cannot but give assurance to the believer. If God—Father, Son, and Spirit—has worked indivisibly for us in Christ, who then can be against us? Models of the atonement that make salvation merely possible fail to provide this robust assurance and comfort. Assurance of salvation necessarily becomes detached from the secure source of what Christ has done and lodges itself in the unstable realm of our response. Atonement has been made, yes—but knowledge of it sufficient to calm our fears and assure us of our adoption is grounded in human action, not divine. We are salvation’s decisive donors.[1]

They fear a few things: 1) Universal atonement, 2) That salvation is could only be possible and not actual thus undercutting God’s sovereign action in salvation, 3) That human agents (given the prior two fears) become determinative in the actualization of the salvation process (thus undercutting, again, the sovereign action of God), and 4) That assurance of salvation will always be elusive of universal atonement is affirmed, because salvation will always only be possible and not actual if left to the ‘decisive donor[ship]’ of human agents.

Their fears might well be founded if the only alternative scheme for universal atonement was what appears to be their target; Arminianism. But Arminianism is not the only alternative. Evangelical Calvinism affirms a universal atonement, but not a universal salvation; and we do so by, ironically, limiting the atonement to Christ’s particular humanity, which is universal and for all in its reality. Here is the alternative way we as Evangelical Calvinists would counter what the Gibson’s are offering through their Westminsterized understanding of definite atonement, and the attendant view of assurance of salvation they think they can offer (which I do not think they actually can without inventing some sort of mechanism to provide assurance—i.e. practical syllogism). What I am sharing is thesis 7 from Myk Habets’ and my edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (2012). I will share this, to simply identify the contrast, and an alternative that eludes the critique of the Gibson’s in regard to universal atonement and the attendant view of assurance of salvation. I will share this, and leave off with it (since this will make this post rather lengthy). Here it is:

Thesis Seven.Assurance is of the essence of faith.

Coordinate with theses 2 and 3, Evangelical Calvinism understands assurance of salvation to be inseparably linked with union with Christ. Salvation is not understood as “our” salvation so that our subjectivity over-rides the objective ground in Christ; instead it is of upmost importance that we see both the objective and subjective sides of salvation rooted in the person of Jesus Christ. The basis for assurance of salvation, then, flows from the faith that is founded in Christ’s vicarious faith/fullness for us; so the subjective side of Christ’s faith becomes ours as we are united to Christ “spiritually” by the Holy Spirit’s inveterate movement of gracious action, co-extending from the once for all faith realized in the person of Jesus Christ. Commensurate with this understanding, John Calvin framed “assurance” through similar foci; as Charles Partee points out:

The conviction that salvation is not conditional but certain is an almost forgotten mark of the Protestant Reformation. According to Calvin, doubting the certainty of one’s salvation is sinful. We do not understand the goodness of God apart from full assurance (III.2.16). “[F]aith is not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion . . . but requires full and fixed certainty” (III.2.15). If salvation were not certainly known to believers, election “would have been a doctrine not only lacking in warmth, but completely lifeless.” In summary, Calvin insists, “Our faith is nothing, unless we are persuaded for certain that Christ is ours, and that the Father is propitious to us in Him. There is, therefore, no more pernicious or destructive conception than the scholastic dogma of the uncertainty of salvation” (Com. Rom. 8:33, 34). . . . Union with Christ is exactly the direction Calvin’s theology moves. For Calvin certainty is not to be found in a principle or a book but a person. That is, in union with Jesus Christ. Our task is “to establish with certainty in our hearts that all those who, by the kindness of God the Father, through the working of the Holy Spirit, have entered into fellowship with Christ, are set apart as God’s property and personal possession” (IV. 1. 3). . . .[2]

With Calvin and early Reformed thought generally, assurance teaches us we are elect. Tony Lane clearly shows how Calvin considered assurance to be of the essence of faith and how this was coordinated with various other aspects of this theology, notably with the doctrine of election.[3] Salvation is not salvation if one is unsure of possessing it. That, at least, was Calvin’s argument when he wrote:

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.[4]

As it is for Calvin at this point, so it is for the Evangelical Calvinist. The root of assurance is found in Christ himself, and Christ’s faith and faithfulness is mediated to us through our union with him by the personal work of the Holy Spirit, a work which brings humanity into the effervescent and indestructible life of God’s eternal Logos.


[2] Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 205–6.

[3] Lane, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Assurance Revisited,” Tributes to John Calvin: A Celebration of His Quincentenary, 270–313.

[4] Calvin, Inst., 3.2.7.


[1] David Gibson and Johnathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 51-2.

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27 thoughts on “Definite Atonement and Assurance Compared: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her Style with Evangelical Calvinist Style

  1. Hermonta,

    Hi. What do you mean? Do you mean because Crossway is hard core Gospel Coalition people? I would say it is because Marcus’ book is largely based on his status as a Calvin scholar. And so I am sure someone like Justin Taylor has no idea where Marcus is coming from in toto. Plus there is expansiveness in “Evangelical Calvinism,” I am more pointed in my differences with “classical Calvinism,” than some of us :-).

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  2. My point is that traditional federal Reformed theology, has no problem with the foundational concept of union with Christ as expressed by Dr. Johnson and others (P&R has published two books on the subject within the last 12 months).. It seems that you spend a nice amount of time defending the position that one can either be a federal calvinist or be about Christ-centered theology. I think the Federal Calvinist would put forward the position that if you attempt to be Christ-centered but reject Federal Calvinism, then one is simply confused.

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  3. I think union with Christ can be couched in various frames. I would argue that Federal Calvinists have a metaphysic that does not allow them to fully appreciate union with Christ theology. The difference that I highlight, often, and that seems to be not appreciated very much, is a hermeneutical difference–which also illustrates how it is possible to be Christ centered in different ways (methodologically). This post should help underscore this: https://growrag.wordpress.com/2011/07/20/the-men-the-method-barth-calvin/

    It is not a matter of simple confusion, there is more going on indeed.

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  4. So if I understand correctly, Barth and yourself assume a discontinuity between what God has revealed in General Revelation/Natural law/OT and what God has revealed in/through the incarnated second person of the Trinity while the Federal Calvinists assume no such discontinuity?

    Now I never stated that there were no differences between your approach and the Federal Calvinist approach, I simply stated that they would consider the Evangelical Calvinists to be simply confused.

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  5. But, Hermonta, confused in what way? And to be honest, I don’t care what they might perceive or assert, but what they can materially substantiate in order to demonstrate that there is actual theological confusion. If Evangelical Calvinists are dialectical in method, and Federal Calvinists are analytical in method; then I could see why a Federal Calvinist would presume that an Evangelical Calvinist is “confused” if they are determined to read our conclusions through their analytic/scholastic premises, and not the dialectical ones that we operate from. So the confusion, I would contend, would be, if how you speak of the Federal Calvinists perception is so, would be at the level of Federal Calvinists capacity to accept the fact that there are other formal ways (prolegomena level) to do Christian Dogmatics.

    Interestingly, Roger Olson, Robert Letham et al, indeed have come to the conclusion, when engaging either directly with our book Evangelical Calvinism, or TFT’s book Scottish Theology, that there is confusion. But the confusion, again, is not materially theological, but because Letham and Olson (for example) fail to grasp the alternative prolegomena at play for Barth, Torrance, and my expression of Evangelical Calvinism (I would say that Marcus Johnson’s is probably a bit different from mine, by way of emphasis, and because he largely thinks through a Calvinian lens–albeit highly sympathetic to Thomas Torrance).

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  6. And no, I don’t assume a discontinuity between general and special revelation. I think all of revelation is special ipso facto, and that it has always already been accessible only through the lens of faith.

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  7. Bobby,
    If there is no discontinuity, then on what basis can you object to Federal Calvinism’s direction of approach? If there is no discontinuity but still disagreement, then one side or the other did not properly follow their approach. Either the Federalist misunderstand Salvation history etc or the Evangelicals have a messed up Christology.

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  8. I said no discontinuity between my view of general and special revelation; since I only have one category. Christology is salvation history (which reflects my understanding of pre-destination and election and flows from an/enhypostasis).

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  9. Bobby,
    It seems that you posiition implies either a discontinuity on the ontological level or the epistemological level or both. If you reject both types then I can not see how you can have any apriori objection to Federal Calvinism.

    Next, as far as Christology is salvation history, I think that I disagree. I would be okay with saying that Christ/Christology is the fullness of salvation history; but salvation history exists without/before the incarnation of the second member of the Trinity and is continuous with Christ/Christology both ontologically and epistemologically.

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  10. Happy Thanksgiving, Hermonta.

    I dont see any problems with my approach; if God is the inner ground of the covenant and creation the covenant’ s external reality, then grace is understood as the reality upon which nature is contingent. Federal Calvinism has the problem of somehow avoiding a concept of pure nature–which they can’t–which then makes God’s incarnate life in Christ contingent or subordinate to or a predicate of nature/creation.

    And your second point on Christology labors under the same dualistic problem I just described.

    I will have to check out Mark Jones. In my view though the problem with Federal theology is not with its desire to be robustly christological, but it is with what funds their christology metaphysically–and the pure nature problem.

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  11. Bobby,
    I don’t use a nature vs. grace framework (I am not Roman Catholic), so I am unsure that I am following completely. I would say that God is the reality upon which nature rests. Next, I dont see how I can be dualistic if I hold that there is a continuity between general and special revelation. Next, are you saying that Federal Calvinism makes the incarnate Christ contingent to the nature that is dependent on God to be what it is?

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  12. Hermonta,

    I do not have any idea which Federal theologians you apparently follow. But to follow a classical derived salvation history model means that such adherents follow the dogmatic order of: creation, covenant, fall, redemption versus the (Barth inverted proposal) of covenant, creation, etc.

    I have some stuff from federal historian/theologian, Richard Muller, for example that substantiates what i just claimed about the classic federal order. If this is so–and it is not hard to demonstrate that it is– then I don’t know how the Federal theologian can avoid Barth’s critique and correction.

    What metaphysic do you follow? And what metaphysic do the post Reformed orthodox/Federal theologians follow today? Do the still think thru the absolute decrees and first and secondary causation? I do not think Federal theology has repudiated their past conceptual heritage; in fact just the opposite, they are repristinating it. And, for example, the so called 3 Three Forms of unity (and its theology) only illustrates this.

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  13. Bobby,
    I have no problem with such an order or the heritage of such things as absolute decrees and first and second causation; but you keep repeating a charge of dualism etc. Nothing in that conceptual heritage contradicts anything revealed in the incarnation. And if you believed that such did, then it would seem that you would either have to embrace some sort of discontinuity between general and special revelation or that the Federal Calvinists simply have allowed errors into their understanding of general revelation/natural law/OT, and said X when they should have been saying Y.

    If it is the latter, then it would seem to be very easy to come to an agreement over what our disagreements are and where they enter. But from everything that I have read from you, this just doesn’t seem to be the case. It seems that you would say that it is not simply that the Federalists have misunderstood things here but that such things cannot be understood except if you start with Christ and work backwards. This would entail that general revelation etc is not clear and that there is an epistemology break between general and special revelation.

    As far as I can see, these are all the options. If you can tell me, which one that you hold to, I could at least follow you better.

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  14. Hermonta,

    I have answered you and your questions. I want you to answer the questions I just gave you above before I answer your further questions.

    The way you are responding makes me think you aren’t following the classical Federal theology categories that you seem to want to defend. When you continue to speak of general revelation preceding special revelation as if I have not already offered a bit of critique of that, makes me wonder if you are really grasping the dualist (indeed) problem latent in federal theology. I am speaking from an admitedley dogmatic order of things (including a place for scripture which is part of creation). I am not reading back into the OT, I am reading both the OT and NT as if they are equally witnessing to Jesus in a dialectical way.

    You claim that apparently my approach has a discontinuity between ontology and epistemology; and I am saying that ontology and epistemology are grounded in Christ’s hypostatic life. I see Jesus standing over Scripture as its reality, just as I see him standing over all of creation from within it by the Holy Spirit.

    But anyway, I really need to know what your understanding of federal theology is, and who is helping to give it shape. You have mentioned Mark Jones, but are there others? And how do you see your understanding of Federal theology informed by its historical antecedents given a kind of authoritative and codified status through the Westminster standard? Is your view of Federal theology able to be enclosed and explained by Westminster theology, or not?

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  15. Bobby,
    I fully accept the Westminster Standards, so any critique of it, I would consider a critique of my position.

    Next, I dont have problem offhand with your description of your grounding of ontology and epistemology, but I am interesting in how you would think that the Westminster Divines etc would disagree with it?

    Lastly, if you could clarify your critique of my understanding of the relationship between general and special revelation, it would be appreciated. My position if if there is no discontinuity then there is no room for a dualistic view.

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  16. Bobby,
    From your post critiquing Oliphint’s God With Us book https://growrag.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/k-scott-oliphint-misses-karl-barths-critique-god-with-us/, you write this – “In fact he makes Barth’s point, it is a simple one; you cannot conceive of a concept of God before you meet Jesus.”

    Given such what do you believe that a person can know about God by way of General Revelation?

    Next, in the same post, it really seems that you are giving a priority to God’s threeness over His oneness. The orthodox doctrine of God supports the belief that God is just as essentially one as He is essentially three. Or to put it another way, tri-theism is just as much a heresy as modalism.

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  17. Hermonta,

    1) My critique of Federal Calvinism is basically this: it starts chronologically where Scripture starts–i.e. in salvation history; in other words it starts in a doctrine of creation (epistemically) before it starts with a doctrine of God. It operates with a conception of grace that is seen in qualitative terms instead of personal (i.e. by grounding grace in the being in act of God in Christ). And so because it starts with a doctrine of creation (and because of the metaphysic it uses), it is necessarily dualist. But there is more to be said, and I have little time to spare on this (esp. since this is pretty far off topic from this post).

    2) I already told you; I reject natural theology. And so I don’t think people can know anything by way of “general revelation.”

    3) No, I give priority to threeness and oness. In that post I am seeking to counter the substance metaphysics–that by definition–that must emphasize oneness given its concept of pure being, or monad. I am critiquing Thomas Aquinas’ synthesis of Aristotle with Christian theology and how that has served formative for various expressions within both Roman Catholicism and Protestant theologies. I am not even close to modalism or tri-theism. I hold that God’s life is a subject-in-being distinction; that the oneness is shaped by the threeness, and the threeness is shaped by the oneness. I employ perichoresis as the reality the avoids either modalism or tri-theism.

    You just need to read some of Barth for yourself, Hermonta. You need to read Thomas Torrance’s: 1) The Trinitarian Faith, 2) Doctrine of God, 3) Theological Science etc.

    You also need to, apparently read (if I can be so bold), some of your own Federal theologians, particular Cornelius Van Til, and his vehement critique of Karl Barth’s theology. These two posts (one from me, and one from my friend, Dr. Darren Sumner) on Van Til and Barth ought to be helpful:

    https://growrag.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/cornelius-van-til-on-karl-barth-grace-and-nature-worship-creation-or-creator/

    and Darren’s: http://theologyoutofbounds.wordpress.com/2012/01/25/revelation-and-history-cornelius-van-tils-critique-of-karl-barth/

    I honestly don’t see any light of day between Federal theology, and at least my understanding of Evangelical Calvinism.

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  18. Bobby,
    1)It does not matter where one starts, it only matters if one starts with truth about God. If one starts with the truth of creation revealed by God through General Revelation etc. then one can move on from there to others truths. There is no inherent dualism in such a system because there is continuity between general and special revelation.

    2)In your rejection here, are you rejecting it because you believe that the Bible says that there is no general revelation or something else? At the very least could you point me in the direction of a Barthian or Torrencian analysis of Romans 1? Also I would appreciate it, if you could point to how far back a rejection of natural theology/revelation goes back in Church History?

    3)Aquinas definitely made some errors in his merging of Aristotelian metaphysics with Christian Theology, but such does not overturn the many things that Aristotle was correct on and in agreement with General Revelation. It seems that because you do not believe in General Revelation, then you infer that those who do must be making some philosophical abstraction in order to talk about God and His oneness. The Oneness revealed in General Revelation is the same oneness revealed in Deut. 6:4, which is in no way contradictory towards God’s threeness.

    Lastly, as far as Van Til goes, I do not confess what he wrote or believed and dont consider him the paradigm of federal theology. I respect him, but he definitely made errors in various places.

    I will read the two articles and hopefully, they will allow me to see more into where you are coming from and attempting to go.

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  19. 1) Where the truth of God starts is in His Self-revelation and Self-exegesis in Jesus Christ.

    2) Romans 3 would be a good place to start for a rejection of natural theology.

    3) Indeed, the history of ideas demonstrates this kind of philosophical abstraction at play in post-Reformed orthodox theology. I am not rejecting the totality of Scripture, instead I am affirming it as witness to Christ; and more, Triune speech.

    4) Van Til affirms, ardently, your apparent type of appeal to general revelation/natural theology; so I don’t really think you guys would be that far apart. I noted Van Til because he is the guy that all of the Westminster Theological Seminary types go for their understanding and actual spite for Karl Barth.

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  20. 1)You can know various things about God through His self revelation in creation even if you have never heard about the Bible or Jesus. See I can make a counter assertion to your assertion 🙂

    2)Romans 3 is fantastic in defense of natural/general revelation/natural theology. If there is no natural revelation then talking about rebellion/refusing to seek after God would be meaningless because there would be nothing to know/seek. I would be happy to see a Barthian analysis of Romans 1 or 3.

    3)You can only defend the claim of philosophical abstraction after you have defended your rejection of natural revelation. Otherwise, it seems like a bare assertion.

    4)My disagreement with Van Til begins at the beginning – https://www.dropbox.com/s/gwy3rs8plu6vv8h/inex_.pdf – You wont find a Vantillian writing in such a fashion.

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  21. The reason I’m getting short, is because I really don’t feel like offering a defense of such things in a comment meta that is dedicated to another topic (assurance).

    a. I’m pressing depravity, and its noetic effects hard! I don’t take Romans 1 to be speaking of true knowledge of God, but the kind that results in natural theology (worshipping the creation as the Creator). So, no, I see no salvific knowledge of God directly available in creation.

    2) If you want to read more on what I think about natural theology and the analogy of being. You can also buy our book, my whole personal chapter is on this very topic. With Barth I see natural theology as anti-Christ.

    3) actually my claim about philosophical abstraction is not contingent upon natural theology, or not. It is contingent upon understanding the impact that a dogmatic order of things has upon the way we do theology. I have already noted the order and inversion of things by Barth; you failed to appreciate that. I have also written massively here on the blog on such things.

    But I am done with this for now, Hermonta. I would like my comment threads to stay as specific as possible to the topic of the post. We have strayed.

    Thanks.

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  22. a)There is no salvific knowledge in creation because there is no Jesus in the created order. The only way to heaven is through Christ. No orthodox theologian has ever said otherwise. Also if there is no true knowledge of God through the created order, then what does being without excuse even mean?
    2)I really do need to check it out, but it is so expensive…Is it ever going to come out for kindle?
    3)I read and understood what you said about Barth’s position about inversion. But unless one rejects the clarity of General Revelation, then his critique has no teeth because the orthodox ordering is no longer problematic because true knowledge of God is available through the created order. As far as abstraction goes, the claim would only have teeth if the knowledge that one claims to only come by way of abstraction could not be had by way of natural revelation. If such knowledge is available by way of natural revelation, then to assert philosophical abstraction has no weight.

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  23. Hermonta,

    Like I said: this thread is way off target at this point. Usually when I post on a particular point or doctrinal emphasis (like in this post: assurance — election/reprobation), I am interested in discussing that with someone. So I am going to close comments on this post, after I take the last word 😉 , and you’ll just have to wait until I post on natural theology next time, and we can get into this further then.

    a) Check this section of Barth’s der Romerbrief on Romans 1-18-20. http://books.google.com/books?id=dCEDzQhI4R4C&pg=PA42&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

    2) It is expensive. No, I doubt that there will ever be a kindle version.

    3) Barth and that analogy of faith approach thinks a posteriori, the “General Revelation” approach thinks a priori, and idealistically. The idea of abstraction is a point that has to do with prolegemona, as I’ve already mentioned somewhere above. To say that the “general revelation” approach is abstract, is to assert (and argue later) that unless an approach is grounded a posteriori, and the knowledge under consideration is intensively driven by the categories and emphases provided by the subject/object under consideration–by Jesus; then all is left with is an approach that preconstructs (a priori) categories and emphases about godness etc. that are not necessarily driven by what is given by God in His Self Revelation in Jesus Christ. This is exactly what Thomism did; this is exactly what the Aristotelian synthesis with Christian theology is; and this reflects exactly what has happened in post Reformed orthodoxy through their Agricolan and Ramist locus approach (Richard Muller fully accepts and argues that this is indeed the case, historically, and he even accepts the impact of Thomist reality in scholasticism Reformed. So my point has weight, especially sense definitionally and historically it is easy to demonstrate (I get into this by a critique I make of the Westminster and Belgic Confession of faith, and the way that both of these confessions, by way of their order, separate the Trinity of God from His Oneness–they start with oneness, and this would make sense given their a priori commitment to a conception of God that starts with monad.

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  24. Pingback: Why I Reject ‘Natural Theology’: Faith Alone: Grace Instead of Being, The Difference Between the Analogy of Faith and Being | The Evangelical Calvinist

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