“… if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” I Cor 7: 12-16
The extract below is a part of an opening chapter in what may become a book entitled “Covenant and Church” dealing with the implications of the Covenant for the modern Church. I welcome your comments.
Some of us today find it hard to imagine there was a time when written contracts were unnecessary. Yet as far as the early part of last century such was that case in many parts of the world. As the traveler leaves Geelong (in Victoria, Australia) there is a place where the road goes through a cutting and the hills on each side of the road are quite steep. Near the top of the hill there is a wide, level area near where the bypass road digresses, which has been cut into that siding. One day I had the opportunity to ask an old resident about that area, which seemed to me to have been the site of a long-vanished building. He said that, in olden times, the bullock teamsters used to unload their cargo in that place while they took a break on their journey to visit the town.
The loads of cargo might sit there unattended for days before the teamster returned to reload and head off on their journey to their destination and no one ever touched them nor was there ever anything stolen. That might sound a bit far-fetched to those of us who live in cities and towns today. It was not so long ago, however, when few locked their homes or thought to lock their vehicles when traveling. In those days honesty was important and it used to be said: “A man’s word is his bond.”
It is this which helps us understand why we may talk about a covenant existing in the Garden of Eden. There are none of the formal elements we have come to recognize as characteristic of covenants, basing our concept on formal legal contracts. That is even true when compared with those God made with, say, Abraham or Moses. In both the later examples we find a formal ceremony with vows taken by the people of God and the shedding of blood. Viewed from this perspective we can understand the reason for the covenant definition made by O Palmer Robertson. A covenant is, he says, “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.”1 Yet, as we shall see, there are some significant differences between the covenant made in Eden and all those following the fall. The chief of these is the fact that there was no shedding of blood in the making of the covenant in Eden.
Also unique to the covenant in the Garden is that God does not promise any blessings if Adam keeps the covenant – he only says what will happen if it is broken. It does not take very much thought to see why that is so. Adam was made in the image of God, he met with God every evening at the cool of the day. After he was given Eve, he had nothing more that he could desire or need because the world he lived in was perfect and provided all his heart could desire as long as he continued to love and obey God. He obeyed not out of obligation but from love. God’s fellowship was his because God condescended to make it so. All that we gain because of the sacrificial death of Christ was Adam’s (and Eve’s as well) before he fell.
It seems hard to believe that something so perfect could become the ground for such bitter debate as has occurred in the past few years. Yet such is nearly always the result when speculation creeps into the way we interpret Scripture. The fault is not necessarily in the speculations or deductions themselves it is that, by not recognizing that’s what they are, allowance cannot be made for an alternative interpretation. There has been debate about whether there was grace in Eden, some have been unhappy with the idea that God would determine such a terrible result (the fall of the whole human race) for the disobedience of one man. Such attacks are warranted only if the penal, substitutionary death of Christ is rejected.
Some would even consider it controversial to use the term “covenant” to describe the relationship between God and Adam in the Garden. The word covenant was never used. Adam was not required to swear that he would obey. God gave no promise of blessing if he kept the solitary command he was given and there is only the description of the result of breaking the command. All these considerations we are told make it improper to use the word covenant in regard to the events in the Garden of Eden.
Perhaps the first question for consideration, therefore, is whether there was actually a covenant at all in the Garden of Eden. The confession says that there was and that God always deals with man by covenant. If we are to test the reality of the confession’s statement, it must surely hold up here even as it does in other places in the Bible. Does the Bible, in fact, support the contention that “man could have no fruition of God as his blessing and reward unless by some voluntary condescension on God’s part” and was the means God used in that condescension to be described in terms “of a covenant?” This is where it is helpful to remember that in the past it was considered that a man’s word is his bond. There may be no formal contract or covenant but, if a man said “I will do such and so,” then he was bound to do it. The Bible recognizes such bonds pronouncing a blessing on he who swears and performs it even where it is to his own disadvantage.
It is manifestly clear that Adam owed God obedience as his creator. It is also clear that, having been given the role as God’s vice-regent over creation, that obligation of obedience was rather enhanced. We may even expect that there would be some expectation for Adam to report to God about the way he had fulfilled his work on God’s behalf. Among those of like mind such matters may be described as covenantal in spite of the fact that there is no formal expression of the obligation. The sole prohibition on Adam does not negate the myriad expectations laid upon the vice-regent of the Creator and accepted, by him, as welcome opportunities for spending time with God. Clearly the confession is right to point to Adam’s enjoyment of God as his blessing and reward. There was condescension on God’s part for the Creator could have made the world and left it to run itself as the deists have argued in the past.
Adam’s role as God’s representative in caring for and ruling over the creation led to that enjoyment. We too often fail to recognize the joy that people in love find in each other’s company as a reflection of the joy Adam had when he met with God “having heard the sound Of God in the Garden in the cool of the day.” It is surely significant that we find the expression of the joy of heaven couched in just such expressions of fellowship and enjoyment of each others’ company.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’”2
This joy in God’s presence Adam already had and would continue to have as long as he refrained from eating from the “tree in the midst of the Garden.” He did not have to act in any way different from the way he had been created to act. So we cannot in all fairness describe the relationship of Adam and God in the Garden of Eden in terms of a covenant where Adam earned the blessing of fellowship with God on the basis of his works. The terminology “Covenant of Works” as used in the confession implies a reward was, or could have been, earned which the Bible does not clearly describe. The parallel between Christ and Adam is to do with their covenant headship and the result of their deeds even though Hebrews does remind us that, in Christ’s case, he knew the shame he would endure and chose to do so for our sakes.
Created in God’s image, Adam enjoyed a relationship with God before the fall which we cannot imagine from our fallen perspective. But it is clear that, wonderful though it was, that relationship was not his because his actions in conformity with his holy nature placed an obligation upon God to respond in any particular way. God was not obliged to become his blessing and reward but condescended to do so.
It would also be wrong, however, to describe the relationship between Adam and God as one without obligations on Adam’s part as if that relationship did not imply the idea of a covenant. The command to refrain eating the fruit of one of the trees accepted by Adam as a guide for his behavior is, at heart, the essence of a covenant. Described in later covenants as “do this and you will live,” a covenant lays an attitude and behavior upon the recipient which we recognize.
When two honorable men agree over the purchase of a piece of land the land belongs to the purchaser from the time of the agreement, though the payment of the purchase price may be delayed. The seller is then not able in good conscience to treat it as his even if another comes along with a better offer. The agreement has the force of a covenant even if nothing is signed – the character of the people involved demands it to be treated so.
God made several promises to Abraham before ever he made the formal covenant with him. Each of them was binding because of the character of God. God’s word ought to have been sufficient. Adam may not have had a formal obligation to honor God as his Creator in the way he dealt with God’s creation but the obligation was as real as one because both he and God were holy. His obedience to God had the force of a covenant even without the formal ceremony. Surely we cannot argue against the existence of a covenant between God and Adam because the relationship was informally expressed when even today such informal relationships have the force of law.
Now should we argue against the use of the term Covenant of Works because of the implication that the works earned Adam a blessing he did not already possess. That there was a relationship between Adam’s continued good favor with God and his obedience to the command makes it clear that Adam’s actions had consequences. It was in this sense a covenant involving works in precisely the same way as the later covenant of grace. The works of that covenant are not required in order to gain the blessing of God as a reward, in fact, because of our fallen nature we are unable to merit anything but God wrath and condemnation. Any blessings we receive from the covenant of grace come alone from the unmerited good favor of God.
We cannot, however, have a good relationship with God without it affecting the way we live. God’s nature, when properly perceived, demands our love and obedience – responses we give without coercion because our nature has changed. The effect of the New Birth is that we have become spiritually alive even as Adam was before the fall. Our continued obedience is a demonstration of that spiritual life, even as Adam’s obedience demonstrated his.
1 “The Christ of the Covenants,” Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. p. 15
2 Revelation 21: 3, 4
There has been a certain amount of hesitation in the past 100 years to oppose the prevailing scientific opinion on the question of origins. In spite of the clarity with which the Bible represents God as speaking and the creation came into being out of nothing, evolutionary determinism with its natural selection and genetic mutation theories has continued almost unopposed in institutions of Christian scholarship. There are a few exceptions and it is possible, today, to provide some scientific evidence which suggests accommodations to modern science are not necessary in biblical interpretation.
Since this was written I was given this link to a good presentation by Al Mohler. You will find it on YouTube here:
I would like to raise a matter for discussion. In the Reformation Societies handout given away by members of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals there are a couple of articles about the practice known as “the Exercise.” For many this practice is a foreign concept. Yet the Alliance sees it as a method of encouraging pastors and laymen of all denominations to be better able to both handle and explain the Word of God. By comparing and discussing what the text of Scripture actually means, apart from denominational bias, “the Exercise” would seem, at least according to the handout materials, to be key in achieving that aim. Which raises a question of where1 can we find a Church in Northern Michigan where such a practice has become a regular part of the congregational life.
The reason this is important:
According to Dr Roy Blackwood,2 the exercise
“… was a “most important” factor in Reformation history. John Calvin in his Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541) prescribed such a meeting every Friday evening. Knox required it for the English congregation in Geneva (1556). John Lasco (1550) required it in London. Calvin probably learned of it from Martin Bucer in Strasbourg. The French Book of Order called it the ‘Colloquy.’ For the Dutch it was an important part of their ‘Consistory.’”
Further on he describes John Knox’s reason for holding these meetings. Knox is quoted as saying its purpose was:
“that the Church of God may have a trial of men’s knowledge, judgment, graces and utterances … And also such as somewhat have profited in God’s Word may from time to time grow to more full perfection to serve the Church as necessity shall require.”
Dr Blackwood includes enough information to see that for Knox this was the same kind of meeting that Paul called prophesying in I Cor. 14.
The Puritans, when they were being persecuted, had meetings, which they also called “prophesyings,” based on the same passage of Scripture. William M Hetherington describes them, and the reason for instituting them as follows:
“… as Dr Scambler, Bishop of Petersborough, was less intolerant than many of his order, the ministers within his diocese, particularly those of Northhampton, with his approbation, and that of the mayor of the town, formed an association for promoting the purity of worship and the maintenance of discipline. The regulations of this association were very temperate, involving no departure from the established modes of worship, nor any rigid disciplinary arrangements. And as they were aware of the extreme inability to preach instructively, which characterized very many of the clergy, they endeavoured also to provide a remedy for this evil. For this purpose they instituted what they called ‘prophesyings,’taking the designation from I Cor. xiv. 31, ‘ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all be comforted.’ In these prophesyings one presided, and a text previously selected by one of the ministers to whom it had been assigned. After his exposition, each in turn gave his view of the passage; and the whole exercise was summed up by the president or moderator for the day, who concluded by exhorting all to persevere in their sacred duties.3
Now, if the purpose of the Alliance is to bring about the same kind of revival of Christianity that was characteristic of the founding of the Protestant Church, then surely that which the Reformers saw as “important” ought to be granted at least the same value by those of us who are wanting to bring about the same end result. That this seems to be the purpose is clear from the Alliance-promoted formation of Reformation Societies to encourage those who see their task as expounding the Word of God. They want such preachers to know they are not alone in this great task. Granted God is the one who brings about Reformation but surely we cannot expect him to bless us when we neglect a means he has so signally blessed in the past.
The present need
Thesis One of the Cambridge Declaration, the founding document of the Alliance, declares that the signatories
“… reaffirm the inerrant Scripture to be the sole source of written divine revelation, which alone can bind the conscience. The Bible alone teaches all that is necessary for our salvation from sin and is the standard by which all Christian behavior must be measured.
“We deny [they added] that any creed, council or individual may bind a Christian’s conscience. That the Holy Spirit speaks independently of or contrary to what is set forth in the Bible, or that personal spiritual experience can ever be a vehicle of revelation.”4
If we accept the Declaration’s explanation of the reason for this thesis, failure to accept the sufficiency of Scripture,5 (spelled out in the article “Erosion of Authority”) then the great need for our day is men who are ready and able to rightly handle the Word of God. It is one thing to declare that the Bible contains all that is necessary for faith and life but, if we are not encouraging pastors to train the average member of the Church to use it properly, are we not perpetuating the problem? And, if the pastors are not sure they are doing exposition to the best of their ability where can they go to improve their skills?
The Church today is in desperate need of those who can both understand the Bible and explain its teaching. The Exercise was instituted by the Reformers to meet such a need so, again I ask, how many of those who are Church leaders have instituted the exercises as a regular part of congregational life (or how many are in the process of doing so)?
Dr Blackwood’s solution:
Having described the persecutions that took place in the “Killing Times” (1660-1690) in Scotland’s history, Dr Blackwood goes on to say:
“… If the face of the Church is to continue reforming today, she must find the kind of Reformation Society meeting that the Apostle Paul was calling for in I Corinthians 14, where men who are not exegetes or historians or philosophers can meet in the presence of an accurate exposition of God’s Word to find God’s answers and plans for the current problems and opportunities of life. These will be meetings where men and women can come to ‘Conclusions’ which will be so closely related to convictions that they would be willing, if necessary, to die for them.”6
It seems clear from this extract that what Dr Blackwood refers to as the “conclusions” are the same as the summaries made by the president or the moderator for the day of the Puritan associations, mentioned by Hetherington (above).
Looking at the face of our society at present the thought of persecution for our beliefs does not sound anywhere nearly as remote as it may have seemed, even ten years ago. The increasing ignorance and divisiveness of the Church, the growing movement of people towards Islam, the increasing moves of a government to wipe out the remaining signs of Christian belief and the growing worldliness and apathy in the Church are all contributing to the likelihood.
Where, we might ask, will there be found those who can stand firm and call the nation back to the faith of the fathers? Dr Blackwood suggests the Exercise as a good place to start. He implies that those who are trained by its discipline will be well prepared for the (possible) difficult times ahead. The trouble is that it appears only Alliance members are even aware of the practice. Now, to be fair, this short article may be crying out about something which is already in progress – even Elijah could be wrong about the faithful in his time – it may be I am just not aware of the Churches in our area that are already doing what I am hoping can come to pass.
There is, however, one other element of the exercise which Dr Blackwood speaks of and which I have not seen any evidence to date – forgive me if the fault is I don’t yet know where to look. Having made it clear that the Exercise under Knox had come to be called the “Society” by the 1660s, the good Dr goes on to say:
“These Reformation Societies organized themselves into a ‘Correspondence.’ Each society would study the same passage and then the societies in one Shire [about the equivalent of a large county] would collect their ‘Conclusions’ and send them to Loch Goin, John Howie’s home, and there they would be reviewed and synthesized or condensed to form ‘The Conclusions of the United Societies of Southwest Scotland.’ This Correspondence of United Societies held the Reformation Church together.”
A note from US History:
According to “America’s Providential History”7 a theologically aware history of the USA and published by the Providence Foundation, one of the key factors in bringing the country together to face the threat of the British tyranny, in the time of the Revolutionary War, was the correspondence that was carried on by the ministers of the Church who were concerned to help their parishioners understand the difficulties of the times. It may be a little far-fetched to imagine this correspondence was the same kind as that Dr Blackwood referred to above but, even if not, there is surely nothing from stopping us from following the same practice. If it was helpful to the Church in the 1660s surely we can gain at least some benefit from it today. After all, they did not have the benefit of the new communications systems we do today.
If nothing else sharing the conclusions of the Reformation Bible Study meetings will encourage those who are finding the concept exciting and who wish to know how this has benefited their fellow Christians. Then, also, there would be (with a little reworking) the possibility of using the materials for Bible Studies in Churches where the Society (or Exercise) has not yet taken root. Provided cheaply enough such studies could even lead some Churches who have no in-depth knowledge of Protestant history or theology to decide to use this material.
And, what better tool for evangelism than the findings of those who have labored to make the meaning and application of the Word of God plain! Surely there are many evangelism programs which would gain from access to such materials!
1There are infrequent Reformation Bible Study meetings (which are modeled on the Exercise) and the monthly pastors’ fellowship meetings, where a short exposition of Scripture has been common which allows for discussion of Bible interpretation by those who attend.
2Reformation Societies, published by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, p 14.
3Hetherington “History of the Westminster Assembly,” Mark H. Newman, 199 Broadway (New York, 1843) p. 41. from Stype’s “Life of Grindal” pp. 175,176.
4Cambridge Declaration, (1996), published by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, p 4.
5Evangelicals, are almost always prepared to stand for Bible inerrancy. The doctrine of Bible Sufficiency says the Bible is also the sole rule necessary for faith and practice. The Alliance believes many Evangelical Churches now compromise over this doctrine.
6Reformation Societies, p 16
7America’s Providential History by Mark A. Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell
The question of evangelism seems to be a topic which has little interest among our Reformed brethren. They are very good at supporting overseas and home missionaries and some even are quite interested in the debates undertaken by apologists for the Reformed Faith. Both these areas, missions and apologetics are the fields we associate with those who are especially trained for the task. When it comes to evangelism, however, it is a different matter.
Some imagine it is the minister, with his years of theological training, who is best suited for the task. “After all,” they say to themselves, “isn’t that why we called him and isn’t that what he is paid to do?” And, so, when the Church is languishing and they have “done their bit” by inviting a friend or two to come and hear him preach, they sit back and relax, knowing it can’t be their fault if, either the friend did not come or the minister’s sermon didn’t cause the friend to continue to come to Church.
There is one incident in the old Testament, in II Kings 7, which has a great bearing on evangelism and which is, perhaps, not mentioned as often as it might in connection with our subject. Samaria was under siege (yet again) and there were four lepers who were siting outside the gates of the city. In talking things over they decided that if they stayed where they were they would die from starvation. And if they went to the Syrian camp they may be killed but they might even be fed. They chose to go the Syrians.
When they arrived at the camp they discovered the Syrians had fled even throwing away they weapons and armor so they could run faster. But, as far as the lepers were concerned, the most important thing was they had left all their supplies behind as well. The lepers had a great feast and looted several of the Syrian tents … until one of them stopped and said:
“We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, but we are keeping silent; if we wait until morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come, let us go and tell the king’s household.”
And they did. At its simplest, this is a perfect description of the essence of evangelism. It is one person who has discovered a source of food telling others who are starving where to go to get the food. It does not require a great deal of skill nor does it require a great theological education. I does, however, require being able to recognize your own need of Christ and a willingness to recognize when others know they have a need for him too so that specific need can be met by your description of who Christ is and what he has done. Of course, the better you know the Bible and can refer to it (without quoting it word for word) the easier it is to recognize how Christ meets your needs and the needs of the person you are talking to.
Have you ever wondered why it was that Abraham did not personally receive what God had promised when he was still in Ur of the Chaldees? God had said to him:
“Go forth from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12: 10-3). When he arrived there, Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. … The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” (Genesis 12: 6-7)
There were three parts to the promise (one was implied but was later made explicit, when he obeyed). God said he would make Abram a great nation, God would be his shield and protector (he would be Abram’s God) and Abram would be given (implied in the foregoing) the land God would show him. On arriving in Canaan he was told his descendants would be given the land. He only ever had one “child of promise.” But God was certainly his protector and shield. He blessed him with flocks and herds, he kept him safe (even when Abram did not trust him to) and was Abram’s friend.
The promise was made clearer in the years that followed. So for example, the Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him,
“Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever. I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered. Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you.” (Genesis 13: 14-17)
Now the promise of the land includes Abram where previously it had been given to the descendants only and now God promises that one mark of the nation’s greatness will be the great number of people in it, all Abram’s descendants. As we read on through the Old Testament it becomes plain that God kept his promises with respect to the descendants of Abraham although they were unfaithful for their part. Yet, we cannot help but notice that the way the promise was fulfilled was more in terms of potential. It is always in principle and we are left with the feeling that there should be more of the promised blessings for the people of Israel. More which was not realized because of their sin, yes, but because God had prepared something better.
When Christ comes to earth, we can almost hear in the angels’ rejoicing the final fulfillment of the promises of God. Paul goes so far as to say that Christ was the promised seed of Abraham, implying that none of the others – though marked with the sign of the covenant (Genesis 17) – were ever the intended ones to inherit. Yet, in spite of all the great crowds who cane to hear him speak, this one died alone as a criminal in spite of his being the Messiah of promise. To all appearances the promises of God to Abraham of the blessings to come through the Messiah seem to have come to nothing.
We can really empathize with the two on the road to Emmaus who were despairing and confused as they explained to the one who met them on the road and asked what they were so downcast about:
“The things about Jesus the Nazarene, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word in the sight of God and all the people, and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to the sentence of death, and crucified Him. But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel. Indeed, besides all this, it is the third day since these things happened. But also some women among us amazed us. When they were at the tomb early in the morning, and did not find His body, they came, saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said that He was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just exactly as the women also had said; but Him they did not see.” (Luke 24: 19-24).
The tiny band of what was left of the disciples was to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and the conversion of the one who took the most active role in persecuting them. Surely God was still the shield and protector of those who shared the same faith that Abraham had in God. And as Peter discovered, and as Paul made plain the Gentiles are now a part of Israel by their faith. A faith given them by God and witnessed by the Holy Spirit (see Acts 11 and 15). Paul’s description was that the middle wall of partition (those regulations of the Law which had always kept them apart) had been broken down and that the two were now one, in Christ.
But the description given by John of the Holy City – the place where God dwells with his people forever – shows the final piece of the promise given to Abraham so long ago. It is the hope of glory to which not just the saints desire and strive to attain, but even the earth itself:
“I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. In the daytime (for there will be no night there) its gates will never be closed; and they will bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
Here is the description of the fulfilled promises of God. Here we find the promised blessing of the descendants of Abraham being a great number whom no man can number, of every tribe and tongue and nation. Here, too is the promised presence of God with nothing to mar the joy of the saints where we are all the friends and family of God himself. And, finally, the blessing of the land – not just a small strip of that which had been owned by the Canaanites of old but the new heavens and the new earth where in dwells righteousness. And here, too, the fullest expression of Paul’s statement to the Hebrews:
“And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect” [or as the word implies “complete].” (Hebrews 11:39, 40)
The question to be considered in this weblog post is: “What theological or Scriptural warrant can be found for saying the Atonement of Christ was sufficient for all?” We are not talking about the effect of the atonement. The effect is that the elect, and only the elect, are saved. Nor are we claiming that the elect are saved because of something intrinsically good in themselves (either foreseen or actual). We are talking about the distinction made by older writers between the sufficiency and the efficiency of the atonement.
A brief background:
The idea that we may only speak of the atonement won by Christ in terms of the sovereign decree of God has missed an aspect of the atonement which older writers did not ignore. The error lies in being unable to conceive of God as both compassionate and wrathful towards man at the same time. Some have even been led to deny there is any such thing as common grace where God does good things to the wicked, like sending the rain to water their crops, because he cares for them. Nor can we be allowed to imagine that our actions are taken into account when it comes to man’s reprobation or salvation. That being the case the cause of man’s reprobation cannot be seen as residing in man’s rebellion as well as in the decree of God, but only in the decree of God. The whole question has a bearing on the character of God in making what has been called the “Free Offer of the Gospel” as well as some of the things God has revealed in the Word.
In John 3: 16, for example, Jesus tells Nicodemus that such is the love of God that he sent his only-begotten son into the world so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but has everlasting life. Firstly this representation of the effect of the atonement is limited. Not everyone will be saved from perishing. Only those who believe will. Second, salvation comes about because the atonement was a part of God’s plan to save whoever believes. He decreed that salvation would come about because of the atonement wrought by the son he had sent for that very purpose. Third, and most importantly, considering Jesus was talking to a teacher in Israel, God’s love was such that it did not matter who they were, whoever believed would be granted everlasting life. It is true the words in the Greek are “the one believing” will not perish but the force of the language is the same.
It is from considering the implications of that passage (among others) that we talk of the sufficiency of the atonement. It would be impossible, in human terms, to make the claim that anyone who believes can gain the blessing if (at least hypothetically) there was anyone who could believe and be lost. Clearly not all who are told the gospel will believe. And, equally clearly, the focus of the passage – indeed of the whole discussion with Nicodemus – is on the results of being born again. It is legitimate, therefore, to argue that (because only the elect are born again) those who will believe are the elect. But that is not all the passage says. It says God’s love is such that anyone who believes has everlasting life and that implies compassion and grace extending to every human – in spite of their rejection of that compassion and grace.
We see the same thing in Matt. 23:37,38. Jesus speaks to the reprobate Jerusalem which was about to be destroyed telling them that the generation he was talking to would see the city destroyed (this did happen in AD70) and says: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wing and you were unwilling. Behold you house is being left to you desolate!” First, they deserved the coming punishment – they killed God’s prophets and those he sent to them. Second he pronounces the sentence – your house is being left desolate! But he also speaks in particularly moving words to the reprobate the very ones who would be destroyed – I wanted to gather you … but you were unwilling.
Since we believe God does not make these statements unless he is willing to gather the rebellious to himself it surely must be possible to infer that provision has been made for any and all men to be saved as long as they fulfill the condition of believing in Christ. Considering the value of the sacrifice of Christ (as an infinite being must have infinite worth) is what leads to the distinction between the sufficiency – its value or worth – and efficiency – to whom it is applied – of the atonement.
WGT Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology:
“The distinction between the ‘sufficiency’ of the atonement and its ‘extent’ in terms of ‘intent’ or effectual application [a description he later applies to ‘redemption’ as opposed to atonement] is an old and established one. It is concisely expressed in the dictum that Christ died ‘sufficienter pro omnibus sed efficaceter tantum pro electis.’ [enough for all but effective only for the chosen] The following extracts from Owen (Universal Redemption, IV, i) illustrate it.
“‘It was the purpose and intention of God that his son should offer a sacrifice of infinite worth, value and dignity, sufficient in itself for the redeeming of all and every man, if it had pleased the Lord to employ it for that purpose; yea, and of other worlds also, if the Lord should freely make them, and would redeem them. Sufficient we say, then, was the sacrifice of Christ for the redemption of the whole world, and for the expiation of all the sins of all and every man in the world. This is its own true internal perfection and sufficiency; that it should be applied unto any, made a price for them, and become beneficial to them, according to the work that is in it, is external to it, doth not arise from it, but merely depends on the intention upon the intention and will of God. It was in itself of infinite value, and sufficiency, to have been made a price to have bought and purchased all and every man in the world. That it did formally become a price for any, is solely to be ascribed to the purpose of God intending their purchase and redemption by it. The intention of the offerer and acceptor (of the sacrifice) that it should be for such, some, or any, is that which gives the formality of a price unto it; this is external (to the sacrifice). But the value and fitness of it to be made a price arises from its own internal sufficiency.’
“In respect to such phraseology as a ‘ransom price for all’ (I Tim. 2:6), Owen remarks that it must be understood to mean that Christ’s blood was sufficient to be made a ransom for all, to be made a price for all; but that the terms ‘ransom’ and ‘ransom-price’ more properly denote the application than the value of Christ’s sacrifice. He adds that ‘the expression “to die for any person” holds out the intention of our Saviour in the laying down of the price, to be their redeemer.'”
— “Dogmatic Theology,” Volume II, Soteriology, Chapter II, pp 468,469.
Though brief, it seems to me that (bearing in mind the distinction he makes between redemption, which is effectual application of the atonement and, thus, limited to the elect and atonement, which refers to the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice) Shedd has made the point well that theologically the sacrifice was of infinite worth and it is merely the intent and will of God that makes it a ransom price to be applied to any.
For further reading (thanks to Jim Charnock for drawing my attention to the link) see here.