[This is tight reasoning and requires careful and attentive reading; see notes below.]


III. The third view, then, as has been already observed, holds the atonement to have been a general remedy, with a particular application; a vindication or display of the righteousness of God, such as to render forgiveness honorable to that perfection of the divine character; leaving the supreme Governor and Judge, in the free exercise of the mercy in which He delights, to dispense it according to His sovereign pleasure, more or less extensively. Dr. Symington states the difference between the two theories thus; and, with very slight exception, we should not object to the statement: “On the extent of Christ’s atonement, the two opinions that have long divided the church are expressed by the terms definite and indefinite. The former means that Christ died, satisfied divine justice, and made atonement, only for such as are saved.

The latter means that Christ died, satisfied divine justice, or made atonement for all mankind without exception, as well those who are not saved as those who are. The one regards the death of Christ as a legal satisfaction to the law and justice of God, on behalf of elect sinners; the other regards it as a general moral vindication of the divine government, without respect to those to whom it may be rendered effectual, and of course equally applicable to all.”1 The extent of such exception to the view given in this statement may appear in discussing the respective claims to preference of the two theories, which, while they differ in expression, come as near to one in reality as can well be.

Let it be observed, then, that by denying the restriction of the atonement’s efficiency to be in its application alone, he must be considered as affirming the definiteness to be, in some sense, in the atonement itself. Now, I must at once acknowledge myself at a loss to conceive how an atonement admitted to be infinite, can with any consistency be, at the same time, affirmed to be a definite atonement; how the atonement can be held to have been made “only for such as are saved;” “as a legal satisfaction to the law and justice of God on behalf of elect sinners;” while yet, in the atonement made, a value is admitted to have been contained, infinitely beyond the actual amount of salvation that shall arise from it. The explanation given is, that it is definite in its destination. But does not this come as near as possible to a purposed restriction in its application? The difference appears to me very slender; and, so far as there is a difference, the latter view seems to be the more self-consistent of the two. For observe the sense in which the restriction is in the atonement. It is not in its value, but in its destination, that is, in the circumstance of God’s having meant it as an atonement for a certain number only, and of its having been made for them alone. But, with all deference, this is a very different thing from definiteness in the atonement itself. With what propriety can the epithet definite be applied to that of which the author writes in the following terms:–”For these reasons” (reasons urged against the exact equivalent scheme), “we reject the theory of atonement against which the objection is pointed, and hold by the view already explained, namely, that the sufferings of Christ are to be regarded in the light of a moral satisfaction to the law and justice of God, which would have been requisite had there been but one sinner to be saved, and had that sinner had but one sin; and which would have been adequate had the number to be saved been to any conceivable extent greater than it is.”2 Is there any propriety in calling this a definite atonement, which must have been the same for one sin as for the sins not only of the actually saved, but of any indefinite number more? Does it not follow, that the definiteness must lie in the purposed application, seeing in itself it was so indefinite as to be necessary for one and enough for millions? Is the difference at all material, or deserving of the eagerness and the copiousness with which it is insisted upon, between the purposed application of the atonement and its divine destination? It seems to me a hardly divisible hair’s breadth, and to approach as near as may be to a logomachy. This may the more appear to you, when you hear a few sentences more: “It” (the exact equivalent scheme) “is at variance with what we have before established, namely, the infinite intrinsic value of the atonement of Christ. It overlooks the grand design of the atonement, which was, not simply to secure a mere commutative satisfaction to the justice of God, but to glorify all the divine perfections, and to make an illustrious manifestation of the principles of His government before the whole universe of moral creatures. It leaves no room for such an unlimited offer of Christ in the Gospel, as to render without excuse those who reject Him; for if the atonement of Christ bore an exact proportion, in point of worth, to the sins of those who are actually saved by it; then the salvation of any others was a natural impossibility, and no blame could attach to such for neglecting to embrace the proffered boon: indeed there would be no ground on which such an offer could be made.”3 This is surely as near as it is possible to come to the hypothesis of a general remedy with a limited application, or, as he defines an indefinite atonement, a “general moral vindication of the divine government,” such a vindication as leaves the Divine Governor free to extend the benefits of it to whom He will. When the definiteness is made to lie in the atonement itself, and in answer to the question, ” What is the atonement of Christ?” the following answer is given: “It has been ‘already defended and explained as that perfect satisfaction to the law and justice of God, on account of which sinners are delivered from condemnation. Or, in other words, it is that which removes the offence subsisting between God and men, and procures a reconciliation. It supposes a compensation to be made to the lawgiver, in consideration of which certain specific blessings flow out to men. From its very nature, then, all for whom the atonement is made must reap its fruits. It is no atonement without this.” When the admissions made are remembered, namely, of the infinite value of the atonement, and of its grand design as being “to glorify all the divine perfections, and to make an illustrious manifestation of the principles of His government before the whole universe of moral creatures,” what more can this mean, consistently with itself, than that all those whom it was the sovereign purpose of God to save on the ground of the atonement, must be saved. If it does go further, if it means that there was any thing in the atonement itself by which this limitation was necessitated, no matter by what designation it be called, then does it come under the objection formerly shown to hold against the commutative justice, the personal compensation, the debt and credit system; the same objection which contributes to the explosion of the scheme of exact equivalent. And, accordingly, as might also have been anticipated, the idea of destination in the atonement, or of its being an atonement exclusively for the elect considered individually, comes to be so associated, I might say identified, with that of personal compensation, as naturally to lead to the placing of the actual virtue of the atonement in procuring the pardon and salvation of those whom the destination included, and for whom alone it was intended, on the ground of commutative justice. The following passage will show this. The object of it is to show that the distinctive and limited destination of the atonement is required by the rectitude of the divine character.

“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” A God of truth and without iniquity; just and right is He. Reason, conscience, revelation, providence, all concur in attesting the perfection of His nature. The Supreme Being gives to every one his due. This principle cannot be violated in a single instance. He cannot, according to this, either remit sin without satisfaction, or punish sin where satisfaction for it has been received. The one is as inconsistent with perfect equity as the other. If the punishment for sin has been borne, the remission of the offence follows of course. The principles of rectitude require this, nay, peremptorily demand it. Justice could not be satisfied without it. Agreeably to this reasoning, it follows that the death of Christ being a legal satisfaction for sin, all for whom He died must enjoy the remission of their offences. It is as much at variance with strict justice or equity that any for whom Christ has given satisfaction should continue under condemnation, as that they should have been delivered from guilt without a satisfaction at all. But it is admitted that all are not delivered from the punishment of, sin, that there are many who perish in final condemnation. We are, therefore, compelled to infer that for them no satisfaction has been given to the claims of divine justice, no atonement has been made. If this is denied, the monstrous impossibility must be maintained, that the infallible Judge refuses to remit the punishment of some for whose offences he has received a full compensation; that He finally condemns some, the price of whose deliverance has been paid to Him; that, with regard to the sins of some of mankind, He seeks satisfaction in their personal punishment, after having obtained satisfaction for them in the sufferings of Christ; that is to say, that an infinitely righteous God takes double payment for the same debt, double satisfaction for the same offence, first from the surety and then from those for whom the surety stood bound.”4 On this statement I offer the following strictures:

(1.) It must not be forgotten, that, on the hypothesis now under review, there is the admission of atonement infinite in value; more, therefore, even by infinitude, than a compensation for the sins of the actually saved. There exists, then, this infinite atonement. The question is: Whence the limitation in its actual efficiency, or saving results? This hypothesis answers: It arises from the divine destination of the atonement. The third hypothesis, that of modern Calvinism, regards the atonement as indefinite, a transcendently glorious manifestation of the united perfections of the Godhead, more especially of His pure and holy righteousness, such as to render the exercise of mercy (still free, or only bound by engagement to the substitute) honorable to all God’s other attributes, and consistent with the full maintenance of the rightful and necessary authority of His moral government and His eternal and immutable law; and affirming the restriction in its final results to spring entirely from the divine will in its application. Here you see at once the full amount of the difference between the two. It lies simply in this, namely, in the difference between a divine purpose in the making of the atonement, and a divine purpose respecting the application of the atonement when made. And let it be remembered, that when we speak of a purpose respecting the application of the atonement when made, the words have a prospective as well as a retrospective import; including the application of it before the fullness of time as well as after it, and indeed the designed application of it from eternity. Thus narrow is the difference. The question, then, comes to be:–Whether of the two is the more consistent with itself and with admitted general principles, leaving Scripture passages to be afterwards examined in the light of both, or rather both in the light of them.

(2.) The limited destination scheme, as stated in the preceding quotation, is identical, to a great extent, with the personal compensation scheme; and as far as it is so, it is exclusive of all grace from the application of the atonement, and confines it entirely to its appointment. There is grace in the fact of an atonement being appointed at all, when all were guilty and deserving death; but the atonement having been made, made in destination for a certain number only, and made in the way of “legal compensation” for their offences, grace ceases. There is no grace in the bestowment of pardon, or of any of the blessings of salvation, on those for whom the compensation has been made. The whole tenor of the passage, both in the spirit and the letter of it, maintains this; that God is bound in justice to pardon those sinners, “the price of whose deliverance has been paid to Him;” and it is reprobated as a “monstrous impossibility” that the Just One should be guilty of the injustice of exacting twice the payment of the same debt, of inflicting twice the punishment of the same offences. It is surely very clear, then, that there can be no grace in bestowing what it would be an act of injustice to withhold. I confess myself, with Andrew Fuller, more than disposed to doubt whether we should consider “the Moral Governor of the world as laid under such a kind of obligation to show mercy to sinners as a creditor is under to discharge a debtor, on having received full satisfaction at the hands of a surety.” The terms in which justification is spoken of by the inspired writers harmonize better with the scheme which regards the atonement as leaving the Sovereign Ruler free in the exercise of His mercy to whom He will, on the ground of it, as the grand manifestation of His righteousness in the remission of sins.5 Grace is represented, not merely as appointing the atonement, but as exercising itself in the justification of sinners on account of it, “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” But, according to the present hypothesis, the grace must have lain exclusively in the sovereign determination of God that the redemption price or ransom should be paid. When it had been paid, God could not, consistently with this hypothesis, be said to “justify freely by His grace” those for whom it had been paid, but was laid, by the payment of it, under an obligation of justice to pardon and save them. There might be grace in admitting the proposal of a surety to pay the debt; but there was no grace, when the debt had been paid, in absolving the debtor. There might be grace in allowing a voluntary substitute to bear the merited penalty; but there could be none, when the substitute had borne the penalty, in remitting it to the transgressor. But–

(3.) The vindicator of the hypothesis under review admits the exact equivalent scheme to be inconsistent with the universality of Gospel invitations, and to leave no consistent ground on which they can be addressed to sinners of mankind at large. Now, it appears to me more than questionable whether his own hypothesis be not encumbered with a similar difficulty. Observe how the case stands. According to the hypothesis, the Divine Being, acting on the principles of justice, “cannot either remit sin without satisfaction, or punish sin where satisfaction for it has been received.” On the ground that satisfaction has been received for the sins of the elect, he concludes, as we have seen, that it would be a violation of justice to punish them in their persons. And on the principle just stated, he consistently infers from the fact “that all are not delivered from the punishment of sin, that there are many who perish in final condemnation,” that” for such no satisfaction has been given to the claims of infinite justice, no atonement has been made.” But, if so, and if God “cannot,” consistently with justice, remit sin without a satisfaction; then it follows that the pardon or salvation of a single individual beyond the number of the elect was prevented, not merely by a sovereign limitation in the divine purpose, but by a barrier of a different kind; that it is rendered impossible by the principles and claims of justice. God could not, on this hypothesis, save an individual of those who shall actually perish, on the ground of the atonement actually made, without a violation of these principles and claims; no satisfaction having been given, no atonement having been made for them. But, if so, if the restriction of the atonement by destination has been such as to render the salvation of more than those for whom it was destined impossible in justice; as impossible, that is, as that the Just One should act unjustly; do not we feel ourselves as much tied up in making the universal offer of pardon, as we did on the scheme of exact equivalent or limited sufficiency. If in such a sense no atonement has been made for mankind, so that it would be actually unjust in God to save one of them, how can we feel at liberty, in proclaiming the grace of the Gospel as free to all? If, no atonement having been made for them, they cannot be saved without an infraction of divine justice, is not the natural impossibility as real and as great as on the principle of exact equivalent and limited sufficiency? If no atonement has been made for them, is not the exclusion from the possibility of salvation as complete, as on the supposition of an insufficient atonement having been made for them? Do we not, on either supposition, invite them to what has no existence? tantalize them with the offer of what the very justice of God interdicts their obtaining? An atonement, it is true, has been made, and an atonement infinite in the amount of its value; but it has been made for a certain definite number only; and although there is an infinite superfluity of merit in it, there stands between them and an interest in that superfluity the insuperable barrier of the justice of heaven, which would be violated were they to obtain it. In these circumstances, do we not feel as if the word stuck in our throat when we say: “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely?”

On such grounds it appears to me much more consistent and satisfactory to regard the atonement as a great moral vindication of the divine character, and especially of the divine righteousness, not binding God to forgive any, but rendering it honorable to His perfections and government, should He so will it, to forgive all; leaving no insuperable barrier in the way of the forgiveness of any, whether arising from limited sufficiency in the atonement itself, or from such restriction in its destination as to leave the claims of justice unsatisfied beyond the extent of the destination; both suppositions equally involving natural impossibility in the existence of no atonement beyond a certain limit. Dr. S. startles greatly at the idea, as if it were almost or even altogether an anti-scriptural heresy, that the atonement was made for sin rather than for sinners an idea which he conceives to be implied in atonement that is indefinite. Yet I am incapable of discerning any heresy in such an idea. I fully concur with Dr. Payne when he says: “Strictly speaking, the atonement was not made for one man, or for all men; it was made to God for sin, i.e., on account of sin. It was designed to remove those obstacles which sin had set up to any gracious communications from God to man. There was doubtless a speciality of intention in reference to the individuals to whom the highest species of such communications should be made; but the breaking down of the barrier permitted the free access of mercy to every individual of the human family.”6 I am far from saying that by this view of the matter all difficulties are removed, all metaphysical puzzles solved. But I cannot but regard it as by much the most simple and self-consistent hypothesis, and the one that is embarrassed with the fewest and the smallest of the “things hard to be understood.” If we take along with us the idea of this “speciality of intention,” the idea, that is, of election or sovereign restriction in the application of the general or indefinite atonement, the following language of Dr. Dwight is quite in harmony with that of Dr. Payne: “If the atonement of Christ consisted in making such amends for the disobedience of man, as should place the law, government, and character of God in such a light that He could forgive sinners of the human race without any inconsistency; then these amends, or this atonement, were all absolutely necessary, in order to render such forgiveness proper or consistent with the law and character of God: in a single instance the forgiveness of one sinner without these amends would be just as much a contradiction of the declarations of law as the forgiveness of a million. If, then, the amends actually made were such that God could consistently forgive one sinner, He might, with equal consistency and propriety, forgive any number, unless prevented by any other reason. The atonement, in other words, which was necessary for a world, was equally necessary, and in just the same manner and degree for an individual sinner.”7 If this be the true statement of the doctrine, I am at a loss to imagine the atonement definite in any other sense than as it precisely corresponded to what the infinitely wise God saw to be necessary for the maintenance of the claims of His law in the remission of its penalty. If, in the accurate language of Dr. Payne, “to make satisfaction for sin is to do that which shall preserve to the moral government of God that powerful control over its subjects which the entrance of sin endangered, and which its unconditional forgiveness would have entirely destroyed;” then this end is answered by an atonement which, in itself considered, is altogether independent of the numbers to be actually benefitted by it. It is the necessary preparation or clearing of the way, to the exercise of forgiveness at all, on the part of the righteous Lawgiver, Ruler, and Judge; whether that forgiveness shall be extended to one individual, or to a ” multitude which no man can number.”8 “He that is unjust in the least, is unjust also in much.”9 In either, principle is violated; and with God the least is as impossible as the greatest. The atonement is made ” that He might be just, and the justifier of him who believeth in Jesus.”10 Not that He might be just in justifying a certain number, but that He might be just in justifying any, in justifying “whom He will.” In order to this, the supposition of special and limited destination in the atonement itself, restricting it as an atonement for a specific number, so as to render their justification consistent with justice, (their merited penalty having been borne for them, but their justification alone), so that justice would be violated were the pardon to extend even to one individual more, (that individual’s penalty not having been borne for him); the supposition, I say, of such destination is altogether unnecessary. It is enough that, by an indefinite atonement, an atonement for sin, that is, such an atonement as to render the pardon of sin consistent with divine justice, and so an atonement for sinners such an atonement as to render the pardon of sinners (of any or of all) consistent with divine justice, the way has been opened for the free and honorable exercise of that mercy in which Jehovah delights; and then, Jehovah being left to the exercise of His sovereignty, after having provided for the security of His righteousness, the limitation arises from this source alone He “has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and compassion on whom He will have compassion.”11

The view which I have thus given does appear to my mind much more self-consistent and free from embarrassing difficulties than either the exact equivalent scheme or the special destination scheme. Its great advantage is, that it leaves all open; and thus, by introducing no previous restrictions having reference to the atonement itself, it preserves, free of all encroachment, a basis for the universal obligation of sinners of mankind to accept the offered mercy, and for the sincerity of the universal offer of it, in order to such acceptance. On neither of the other schemes do we feel our way clear; the restriction, whether in the way of limited sufficiency or of limited destination in the propitiation itself. The following statements of the late Dr. Williams appear to me substantially correct, and, in a great degree, applicable to the principles of both the schemes we have been reviewing:–”Every one to whom the Gospel is addressed is under obligation to seek the blessings it proposes, as well as to obey the precepts it contains such as remission of sin by repentance, acceptance into divine favor by faith, gracious assistance by prayer, holy conformity to Jesus Christ by the use of all appointed means, and everlasting life by walking in the ways of wisdom and universal obedience. These blessings flow through ‘Jesus Christ and Him crucified.’ And were there no sense in which Jesus Christ ‘gave Himself a ransom’ for all those who are morally obliged to seek these blessings for His sake, I acknowledge that there would not be an adequate basis for their obligation to do so. If Jesus Christ in no sense lived and died for their sake, how can they be obliged to seek these blessings for His mediation’s sake? Without adequate means, or objective sufficiency of merit ready to be laid to their account on compliance, how could they be consistently exhorted to seek them; since it is unworthy of God to propose to them, on any terms, what was in no sense intended for them? It is idle to say that they are obliged to obey the command of God, until it can be shown that He requires men to believe a falsehood. I know it has been observed, that God requires no man to believe that Christ died for him in particular, but for sinners. But if He died for sinners indefinitely, is not each individual included in that indefinite number? And if by ‘sinners’ be meant a definite number, how can every sinner to whom the Gospel comes be laid under an indefinite obligation to seek those blessings for the sake of what Christ has done and suffered?

“These considerations, among many others, constrain me to regard the blessed Savior, in the whole of His mediatorial undertaking, as the great ordinance of God, proposed to mankind without limitation, for the sake of whom they are encouraged to seek all the blessings which they require. If they need an atoning sacrifice, a justifying righteousness, in short, a perfect meritorious character as their substitute, these blessings are proposed to the destitute sinners indefinitely, and consequently to them. If it be said that the proposal is made to those who feel their need, and on this condition; if they experience their case to be miserable, and sincerely desire to obtain the blessing; it is granted that there are special encouragements to such characters, as in our Lord’s sermon on the mount. But how can others be threatened for rejecting what was never in any sense intended for them? If it be again urged that no sinner knows but that Christ died for him, or does not know but that he is included in the atonement made, I reply: Does God require the ignorance of His creatures as the basis of His government, or is it worthy of His character to make it the ground of human obligation?

“The question is not, whether special promises are made to persons under certain gracious exercises of mind, but whether any impenitent and unbelieving persons are condemned, finally condemned, for not accepting what God graciously offers, or for not seeking to obtain Gospel blessings through the mediation and meritorious sufferings of Christ? If none were in any sense designed for those who eventually perish, how can they be said to reject them? or how can they be condemned for not seeking an impossibility, and an impossibility, too, founded in the appointment of God, and not merely in their own impotence?”

We may seem now to be speculating without a sufficiently direct appeal to our only light; following our own course of thought, without our guide. Where has been the question all this while: “What saith the Scripture?” “What is written in the law; How reads thou?” But we have not forgotten these primary and most essential questions. Our general answer to them is: That in the word of God there are two classes of texts which seem as if they spoke opposite language; some employing terms of universality, others the terms of limitation.

Ralph Wardlaw, Systematic Theology, (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1857), 2:445-458.  [Some spelling modernized, footnote values modified; and underlining mine.]

[Notes: 1) In the previous sections, Wardlaw identifies three basic versions of satisfaction. The first being a raw pecuniary model of ‘Christ suffering so much for so much sin,’ in which the satisfaction is construed along pecuniary and quantitative lines of a creditor-debtor model. The second view, as outlined by Wardlaw, is the position which denies the supposition of ‘so much suffering for so much sin,’ but yet still locates the referents (for whom Christ made satisfaction) along quantitative lines. Like this, not ‘so much suffering for so much sin,’ but an ‘infinite suffering for so much sin.’ The third position, says Wardlaw, is to be described more like this, ‘infinite suffering for infinite sin.’ For more on this see Fuller on Substitution and Imputation. 2) And so the double payment dilemma, for it to work, must fall back into, ie default to, a pecuniary-quantitative model of satisfaction: the very thing originally repudiated by its proponents. 3) The consequence of this is that God does not actually pardon as an act of grace, but as an act of justice, given the assumed transactionalist view of Redemption. 4) Further, double-payment proves too much: it says the balance of mankind still remain legally and penally unsavable. For the offer of legal pardon is a chimera, as there is no possibility of legal pardon for the balance of mankind. 5) As Wardlaw uses some descriptors in a way in which the modern reader may not understand and which are unfortunate. However, the thing to keep in mind that Wardlaw is not saying that one position holds to satisfaction for God’s penal justice, while the other holds to a mere satisfaction to to God’s rectoral justice, with the former held by Symington, the latter held by Wardlaw. The issues are more complex than that. What Wardlaw is saying is that Symington’s position operates upon the blending of proper penal categories and proper pecuniary categories. 6) Lastly, on its own, this response to the famous double-payment dilemma (as posed by Owen) may not convince, but appreciated along with the other rebuttals by Polhil, C. Hodge, Dabney, and Shedd, the repudiation of the double-payment fallacy is sure and firm.]


1Symington, p. 237.

2Symington, p. 269.

3Symington, pp. 268, 269.

4Symington, pp. 244, 245.

5Rom. iii. 24.

6On Divine Sovereignty, etc., pp. 213, 214.

7Theology, Serm. xxx.

8Rev. vii. 9.

9Luke xvi. 10.

10Rom. iii. 26.

11Rom. ix. 15.

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