Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation, Part 6

From Tom Ascol’s blog, reprinted by permission:

Response to A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation, Part 6

[Part 1 of this series]

[Part 2 of this series]
[Part 3 of this series]
Could W.A. Criswell have signed this statement?
[Part 4 of this series]
[Part 5 of this series]

Article Three: The Atonement of Christ

We affirm that the penal substitution of Christ is the only available and effective sacrifice for the sins of every person.

We deny that this atonement results in salvation without a person’s free response of repentance and faith. We deny that God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person’s free will. We deny that Christ died only for the sins of those who will be saved.
Psalm 22:1-31; Isaiah 53:1-12; John 12:32, 14:6; Acts 10:39-43; Acts 16:30-32; Romans 3:21-26; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:10-14; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:13-20; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 9:12-15, 24-28; 10:1-18; I John 1:7; 2:2

I appreciate the claims of exclusivity and efficacy that are made for the atonement in this article along with its affirmation of penal substitution. I also agree with the first sentence of the denial. No one is saved without responding (to the gospel) with repentance and faith. Beyond these points of agreement, however, I find some of the language confusing and imprecise and simply disagree with authors on what actually happened on the cross.

The positive affirmation makes two claims for the penal substitution of Christ: 1) it is “the only available…sacrifice for the sins of every person” and 2) it is “the only…effective sacrifice for the sins of every person.” The exclusivity of Christ as the only Savior that anyone in the world has available is an important point to express in this day of ideological pluralism and theological inclusivism. Acts 4:12 and 1 Timothy 2:5-6 plainly teach this. But the authors clearly mean to say more than this.

By coupling “effective” with “available” the article affirms that Christ has effectively provided a penal, substitutionary atonement for “the sins of every person.” In other words, this statement affirms universal atonement–that Christ actually paid for the sins of every person. The first sentence of the denial shows how the signers avoid actual universalism (the belief that everyone will be saved) because it states that the effective sacrifice (atonement) will not result in salvation “without a person’s free response of repentance and faith.” While I am glad for this rejection of universalism, I am left wondering what exactly is the nature of the atonement’s efficacy. In what sense is the penal substitution of Christ an “effective sacrifice for the sins of every person” if it does not effectively (actually) save? Would you call a mission “effective” that did not accomplish what it claimed to accomplish? I wouldn’t. I would say its effectiveness was limited by the response of the people for whom it was intended.

The debate over the extent of the atonement has a long history among evangelical Christians. The Baptist Faith and Message allows room for both the Calvinistic and Arminian view of atonement when it states in article II that “in His substitutionary death on the cross He [Jesus] made provision for the redemption of men from sin.” I have no illusions that in this forum I will convince the proponents of universal atonement that what Christ accomplished on the cross was objective, definite and intended actually to save particular sinners rather than merely make salvation possible for all sinners. What I would like to point out, however, is that everyone “limits”or particularizes the atonement in some way, unless true universalism is affirmed. Either the atoning work of Jesus is limited in its scope–that is, intended only for particular people–or it is limited in its efficacy–that is, not able to save the very people for whom it was intended.

The framers of this document have plainly declared themselves to be in the latter camp. While asserting that the death of Christ is “an effective sacrifice for every sin of every person” they go on to deny that it actually saves every sinner. They have a purportedly “effective” sacrifice that does not actually save some of the people for whom it was made. Their view of Christ’s atonement limits its power.

In John 10:11 Jesus describes himself as “the good shepherd” who “lays down his life for his sheep.” He later says to the Jews who were around him, “You do not believe because you are not part of my flock” (John 10:26). In John 6:38-39 Jesus says that He came to do the Father’s will, “and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” All that Jesus was entrusted to do–including his atoning work on the cross–was to be effectually accomplished. The question must be asked then, “Did Jesus do the Father’s will?” “Was He successful in his mission?” I believe that he was and that this is exactly what he meant when he said from the cross, “It is finished!”

Wisdom from Spurgeon on this point might be helpful. In his sermon entitled, “Particular Redemption” (#181), he made the following remarks.

All Christians hold that Christ died to redeem, but all Christians do not teach the same Redemption! We differ as to the nature of Atonement and as to the design of Redemption. For instance, the Arminian holds that Christ, when He died, did not die with an intent to save any particular person. And they teach that Christ’s death does not, in itself, secure beyond doubt the salvation of any man living. They believe that Christ died to make the salvation of all men possible, or that by the doing of something else, any  man who pleases may attain unto eternal life! Consequently, they are obliged to hold that if man’s will would not give way and voluntarily surrender to Divine Grace, then Christ’s Atonement would be worthless! They hold that there was no particularity and specialty in the death of Christ. Christ died, according to them, as much for Judas in Hell as for Peter who mounted to Heaven! They believe that for those who are consigned to eternal fire, there was as true and real a Redemption made as for those who now stand before the Throne of the Most High! Now we believe no such thing! We hold that Christ, when He died, had an objective in view and that objective will most assuredly and beyond a doubt, be accomplished! We measure the design of Christ’s death by the effect of it. If anyone asks us, “What did Christ design to do by His death?” We answer that question by asking him another—“What has Christ done, or what will Christ do by His death?” We declare that the measure of the effect of Christ’s love is the measure of the design of it! We cannot so belie our reason as to think that the intention of Almighty God could be frustrated or that the design of so great a thing as the Atonement can by any way whatever, be missed of. We hold—we are not afraid to say what we believe—that Christ came into this world with the intention of saving “a multitude which no man can number.” And we believe that as the result of this, every person for whom He died must, beyond the shadow of a doubt, be cleansed from sin and stand, washed in His blood, before the Father’s Throne. We do not believe that Christ made any effectual Atonement for those who are forever damned! We dare not think that the blood of Christ was ever shed with the intention of saving those whom God foreknew would never be saved—and some of whom were even in Hell when Christ, according to some men’s account, died to save them!…

Now, beloved, when you hear any one laughing or jeering at a limited atonement, you may tell him this. General atonement is like a great wide bridge with only half an arch; it does not go across the stream: it only professes to go half way; it does not secure the salvation of anybody. Now, I had rather put my foot upon a bridge as narrow as Hungerford, which went all the way across, than on a bridge that was as wide as the world, if it did not go all the way across the stream.

While the authors of the document do not want to be described as Arminians, and I want to honor that desire, their view of the atonement does have more in common with Arminianism (as Spurgeon illustrates) than with the understanding of the churches and leaders who founded the Southern Baptist Convention in1845.

The second sentence of the denial highlights two of the issues that are a recurring problem for me in this document: “We deny that God imposes or withholds this atonement without respect to an act of the person’s free will.” First, beyond the whole of “Article Eight: The Free Will of Man,” the entire document seems to be more concerned to protect the integrity of man’s free will than to defend the glory of God. In fact, one will search in vain for any reference to the glory of God in the Preamble or articles. Obviously, this does not mean that the authors and signers have no regard for the glory of God but it does suggest how out of alignment with the great emphasis of Scripture their thinking is at this point.

I cannot imagine the Apostle Paul submitting for public review his understanding of salvation while failing to emphasize, much less mention, the glory of the God who saves. A cursory reading of his symphony on salvation by grace in Ephesians 1:4-14 underscores this.

He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world…he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace…7 In him we have redemption through his blood…11 [and] have been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory…[and we have been] 13 sealed with the promised Holy Spirit…14 to the praise of his glory” (emphasis added).

The second recurring concern that I have with the document is what seems to be a confusing of categories and imprecise language. For example, where in Scripture do we read of God ever “imposing or withholding” atonement from someone? “God put [Jesus] forward as a propitiation by his blood” (Romans 3:25). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). These two verses are representative of the whole New Testament’s teaching that the atoning work of Jesus on the cross is finished. It happened. It is the accomplishment of salvation.

I could possibly understand speaking of God “imposing or withholding” salvation, or even more specifically, forgiveness, from someone. Paul even entertains the prospect that God might withhold repentance from some who oppose the ministry of the gospel in the church (2 Timothy 2:25). But to use such language when speaking of the atonement is confusing. It does, however, highlight one reason that I believe theological discussion in general and regarding salvation in particular can be difficult to engage profitably. We need to have a careful definition of terms and make sure that we are reading out of the same dictionary. To the degree that we can do that with biblical, theological and historical terminology, mutual understanding will be promoted.

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