This article is about limited atonement, substitution and satisfaction in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1998. 3 pages.

The Extent of the Atonement Revisited

The republication of J. McLeod Campbell's The Nature of the Atonement 1 occasions comment, not least because his deposition from the ministry by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1831 on the grounds that he taught, amongst other things, 'the doctrine of universal atonement', still provokes strong response. In a 'new' introduction to the volume, J. B. Torrance argues that for Campbell, the doctrine of a limited atonement, 'destroyed the Gospel offer to all humanity, and undermined the basis of the assurance of faith.' 2 On the horizon, argues Torrance, lies the error of 'Federal Calvinism', — a view which suggests that 'the Father has to be conditioned into being gracious by the obedience and the satisfaction of the Son' — a view which, according to Torrance, men like Samuel Rutherford, David Dickson and James Durham (and, of course, the Westminster Confession) defended, but which Calvin and the Marrowmen emphatically rejected.

Not that any of this is new. J. B. Torrance wrote over twenty-five years ago a similar charge against the Westminster Confession, alleging that, 'the doctrine of the Covenant of Works' (whose conditions Christ fulfils for the elect) implies that God is a contract-God, and denies that God is related to all men in Love (Agape). John Owen and Jonathan Edwards took this to its logical conclusion that 'Justice is the essential attribute by which God is related to all as Judge, but the love of God is arbitrary. But what doctrine is that? It is a concept of God derived from "reason", "the light of nature" and Western notions of "natural law" and "the law of contract" and read back into the Bible. But it is not the biblical view that God is Love (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) in his innermost Being, and that his Being is manifested in all his activities, in Creation, Providence as well as Redemption.''3 What becomes clear in the republication of The Nature of the Atonement is that this was Campbell's point, too. 'Surely...,' writes Campbell, 'if any one attribute might be expected to shine full-orbed in a revelation which testifies that "God is love", that attribute is love.' 4 Campbell's charge comes at the point when he is dealing with John Owen and Jonathan Edwards in particular. His point? That Owen and Edwards, by turn, do scant justice to the attribute of God's love in their defence of the doctrine of limited atonement. This, of course, is hugely difficult to sustain. Is God bound to reveal mercy in the same way as he is bound to exercise justice? Owen meets the charge head on: 'God is bound to exercise mercy to none, but ... he cannot but exercise his justice towards sinners.' 5 To cite the title of a sermon by W. G. T. Shedd, The Exercise of Mercy is Optional with God.6

The relevance of all of this becomes apparent as we consider once again the validity of the Westminster Confession for the twenty-first century. Can we really sustain the formulation of the mid-seventeenth century Assembly in the new millennium? What doctrine of God lies behind the formulae that Christ lath purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, 'for all those whom the Father hath given unto him' (WCF 8:v); and, 'to all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same' (WCF 8:viii)? For Douglas Murray, these statements are 'unsatis­factory as a statement of belief because of the prominent place it gives to the doctrine of limited atonement'.7 It is doubtful if the charge of 'prominence' can be sustained; but in these two brief statements the Confession gets, firstly, at the heart of what the death of Christ means, and secondly, draws the biblical connection between the accomplishment of the atonement and its application.

The Westminster formulation answers the question: What does the Scripture mean when it says that Christ died for someone? Does the death of Christ make salvation possible, or does it guarantee the salvation of an individual? Did the death of Christ make salvation possible so long as some­thing is added to it (human faith)? Or, did the death of Christ secure the salvation of an individual, because those for whom Christ died would be guaranteed the gift of faith according to the plan and purpose of God? Is the 'might' of the hymn certain or uncertain when it says: 'He died that we might be forgiven...'? If Christ's death was an atonement made for every­one (the logic of hypothetical universal atonement implies such), then no assurance can be drawn as to final deliverance — an interesting point since a part of Campbell's polemic was to suggest that Federal Calvinism denied the possibility of assurance! But, such a guarantee is precisely what the Scriptures encourage us to believe: 'He will save his people from their sins' (Matthew 1:21). The apostolic persuasion was to the effect that nothing in life or death could separate believers from Christ (Romans 8:38-39) — a persuasion drawn from the fact that Christ had been 'delivered up for us all' (Romans 8:32). The nature of Christ's death ensures that we are 'more than conquerors' (Romans 8:37).

The key words are substitution and satisfaction. Luther encouraged those who wavered in their assurance of salvation: 'Learn to know Christ and him crucified. Learn to sing to him: "Lord Jesus, I am your righteousness, you are my sin; you took upon yourself what was mine; you set upon me what was yours; you became what you were not that I might become what I was not."' This is the logic of penal substitution and satisfaction. Jesus takes the sinner's place and receives the judgment due to sin. The judgment which sin deserves is taken by Christ. 'He (God the Father) made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him' (2 Corinthians 5:21). In my place he stood condemned. He sealed my pardon with his blood. The safest place in all the universe, insisted Owen, is in Christ.

What this means is that Jesus saves. He doesn't make God reconcilable; he reconciles us to God (2 Corinthians 5:20). As William Cunningham wrote in the mid-nineteenth century: 'The nature of the atonement settles and determines the question of its extent.' 8 This is why it is important to retain the biblical language of propitiation. As it disappears from the common theological vocabulary, so the words 'atonement', 'redemption' and 'recon­ciliation' are similarly threatened. 'It seems plain,' wrote R. L. Dabney, 'that the vagueness and ambiguity of the modern term "atonement" has very much complicated the debate.' 9 Cunningham expands:

Substitution, satisfaction, and reconciliation may be so explained, — that is, may be wrapped up in such vague and ambiguous generalities, — as to suggest no direct reference to particular men, considered individually, as the objects contemplated and provided for in the process; but the statements of Scripture, when we carefully investigate their meaning, and realise the ideas which they convey, — and which they must convey, unless we sink down to Socinianism, — bring these topics before us in aspects which clearly imply that Christ substituted Himself in the room of some men, and not all men, — that all those for whose sins He made satisfaction to the divine justice and law, certainly receive reconciliation and pardon, — and that, when they do receive them, they are bestowed upon each of them on the ground that Christ suffered in his room and stead, expiated his sins upon the cross, and thereby effectually secured his eternal salvation, and everything that this involves. 10

The notion that the propitiation Christ rendered included appeasing God's wrath even for the reprobate is, by definition, misguided. Com­menting upon the possibility as he reflected upon 1 John 2:2, 'He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world,' Calvin could say, 'Such a monstrous idea is not worth refuting.' 11

It has to be granted that we do not enter into the benefits of Christ's accomplishment until we, with empty hands, embrace Christ. Equally, it needs to be appreciated that the redemption is already achieved, before we exercise faith. It is the argument of Romans 5. Christ died for the ungodly (v. 5), for us (v. 8); his death saves from God's wrath (v. 9); we were recon­ciled to God through the death of his Son (v. 10); but all that achievement does not actually become ours until we exercise faith: 'And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation' (v. 11). The reconciliation was there to be received; and that, because Christ had secured it for us, and we receive it because Christ himself, by the Holy Spirit, draws us to himself. The crown rights of King Jesus ensures that all for whom he paid the ransom are released from their bondage. In Augustus Toplady's language:

Payment God cannot twice demand,
First from my bleeding Surety's hand,
And then again at mine.

It is the implication of Jesus' own words: 'I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep ... As the Father knows me, ever so I know the Father, and I lay down my life for the sheep' (John 10:11, 15). This is, like the doctrine of election, a family secret with nothing to say to those who are not yet believers, but everything to say to those who are. Election guarantees glorification. This, only God's people know. So the truth that Jesus died for sinners, individually and specifically, is another secret. His death procured more than a potential salvation; it actually saves by dealing with the problem of sin once and for all, and thereafter applying its efficacy to those for whom he died. Is limited atonement a logical necessity derived from the doctrine of election? Not according to Millard Ericksen. 'For even if one holds that God has from all eternity chosen some members of the human race to be saved and others to be lost,' he writes, 'it does not follow that the decision as to who are to be saved is logically prior to the decision to provide salvation in the person of Christ.' 12 Whatever we may think of Ericksen's order of the decrees, it solves nothing. The crucial question is: What does he mean by salvation? Evidently something less than a rescue from sin and guilt!

Where does all this bring us to? According to one reviewer of Campbell's work, 'The doctrine of the atonement lives again.' Campbell's notion of vicarious repentance — that Christ repented on our behalf in loving sympathy with us — is, however, a denuding of what is at the very centre of the Christian faith: the Cross and the necessity for it.


  1. ^ J. McLeod Campbell, The Nature of the Atonement (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans; and [jointly in the UK] Carberry: The Handsel Press Ltd, 1996).
  2. ^ Ibid., p. 8.
  3. ^ Strengths and Weaknesses of the Westminster Theology', in The Westminster Confession in the Church Today, ed. Alasdair I. C. Heron (Edinburgh, 1982), p. 48.
  4. ^ The Nature of the Atonement, p. 73.
  5. ^ Works, X. 581.
  6. ^ W. G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), p. 358.
  7. ^ Douglas Murray, 'A Personal View' in The Westminster Confession in the Church Today, p. 117.
  8. ^ William Cunningham, Historical Theology, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1969), p. 349. 
  9. ^ R. L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), p. 528. 
  10. ^ Historical Theology, pp. 354-5.
  11. ^ Calvin's New Testament Commentaries, The Gospel According to St. John, [Part Two pp. 11-21] and The First Epistle of John, trans. T. H. L. Parker, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1959), p. 244.
  12. ^ Millard Ericksen, Christian Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 834.

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