We shall consider the Calvinistic views under three modifications:– 1. Hyper-calvinism; 2. Calvinism as more generally held by the orthodox; and, 3. Moderate, or what may be designated modern Calvinism, as held and ably elucidated by the late Andrew Fuller, Dr. Edward Williams, and others, and now embraced by a growing proportion of Calvinistic ministers and professing Christians.

1. Of the hyper-calvinistic views on the present subject I have already indicated my opinion. They are the views of the exact equivalentists, of those who hold a limited atonement in the sense of its being sufficient only, in the way of legal compensation, for the salvation of the elect; so that, if more in number had been to be saved, more suffering must have been endured; that Christ, standing in the room of the elect, and appearing as their substitute and representative, bore their sins exclusively, making an atonement adequate for their remission and for no more; paying precisely (to use the ordinary but much abused phraseology) their amount of debt. This view of the atonement has been held by not a few, and has been advanced anew, and maintained as the only just and scriptural view, by some modern writers.

I have before expressed my unqualified reprobation of this doctrine, as having in it a littleness, a meanness, and an utter incongruity with the divine dignity of the Mediator, utterly revolting to both my judgment and feelings. My objections to the doctrine are these:–

(1.) That it is altogether irreconcilable with the infinite worth of the Savior’s sacrifice as arising from the infinite dignity of His person. The union of the divine and human natures imparted to it this infinitude of value. It was infinite, because it was divine. But every system which proceeds upon the supposition of its rising or falling in its amount of value, according as the substitute suffers for a greater or a smaller number, for a larger or a less amount or aggregate of guilt, is entirely at variance with this. That cannot be unlimited in intrinsic value, that is susceptible of increase and diminution. It may possibly be objected to this, that in that case any measure of suffering, howsoever small, might have sufficed. And perhaps we might be warranted in saying that whatever was done or suffered by a person sustaining the dignity of Godhead must in itself have possessed infinite value. But in the proper idea of atonement there is included, we ought not to forget, not the mere payment of a debt or settlement of an account, which equally cancels all claim, whatever may be the degree of either privacy or publicity with which the settlement is made; but a visible and impressive manifestation of the evil of sin, and an open and public vindication of the righteousness of God in its forgiveness. Now, in order to this, it would seem, the substitute must not only suffer, but appear to suffer, and to suffer deeply and shamefully, and in a way with which the idea of curse was implicated. This was necessary to effect what the apostle calls “declaring God’s righteousness for the remission of sins;”1 making such a public manifestation of it as should fully maintain and even augment its credit in the eyes of the intelligent creation; making it conspicuous, and deepening the conviction and impression of it. God Himself knew best the degree of visible and apparent suffering requisite for securing this end. That which makes the atonement of Jesus sufficient is not the fact that sufferings were endured in His human nature (which alone could suffer) equal in degree to the concentrated sufferings of the multitude of the finally saved. Were that the case, then it would not be from the association of divinity with humanity that the real value of His sacrifice arose; but the sole use of that association must have been merely to enable the human nature to bear this required equivalent of suffering. If it be granted, as it generally is, by the advocates of atonement, that it was from the divinity of Jesus that His sacrifice derived its value; I might, I apprehend, go a step further, and affirm the idea of an exact equivalent for the deserts of the elect alone an impossibility in the very nature of things. The infinite dignity of His mediatorial person put it necessarily and for ever out of the question that the value of His propitiatory sufferings should be measured and bounded by the amount of penalty due to finite creatures. His substitution and obedience unto death must, of necessity, have infinitely exceeded an equivalent for the penal sufferings of any conceivable number of the race of men.

(2.) If this pitiful process of commercial reckoning, this weight-and-measure system of atonement, be admitted, it will follow that the eternal perdition of all mankind would have been a greater manifestation of the divine righteousness and detestation of sin than the sufferings of the Son of God. For it is evident, more would have been endured; and if the satisfaction and manifestation of justice are to be calculated upon this principle, to be estimated by the quantum of suffering actually borne, I see not how the inference can be evaded. To remind me that Jesus was a divine person, will not repel or elude it. It is a truth, indeed, an all-important truth. But it is, at the same time, a truth, that, if this consideration be taken into the account, it makes the value of His sacrifice unlimited, and therefore proves too much for the exact equivalent hypothesis, of which the principle is, a limited amount of suffering for a limited amount of sin. There is, indeed, one way in which the cases might be reduced to an equality. On the supposition of exact equivalent, the proportion of suffering endured in the person of the surety for the sins of the saved, is the same with the proportion endured in their own persons for the sins of the lost. But still it holds good, that the penal sufferings of all mankind, taken collectively, must have contained a greater manifestation of the evil of sin and the righteousness of God, than the sufferings of the Son of God, taken by themselves. But I shrink from saying more on a subject that sickens my very soul.

(3.) That the exact equivalent hypothesis renders the salvation of any besides the elect a natural impossibility. We are accustomed to say, and we say truly and scripturally, to sinners of mankind without exception, that if they are not saved, the fault is entirely their own, lying solely in their own unwillingness to accept the salvation offered to them, or to have it on the terms on which it is presented. But on the supposition of limitation in the sufficiency of the atonement, this is not true. Indisposition, indeed, on their part there is, and it is their sin. But if the atonement be in its intrinsic amount limited, it becomes, in the nature of the thing, absurd and contradictory so much as to imagine any beyond the number, to the desert of whose sins it has been restricted, deriving any benefit from it. All others are necessarily excluded by the limitation of the remedy. For them to seek salvation would be to seek an impossibility. A payment has been made, but it is only to a certain amount; and it is no more possible that they should have the charges against them cancelled on the ground of such payment, than it is possible, by the advance of one thousand pounds, the exact amount of the debts one has contracted, to provide a fund from which the twenty thousand of the debts or as many others may be discharged on their applying for their remission. On the principle of this equivalent system, were other sinners ever so desirous to obtain salvation, they could not; inasmuch as the impossibility would arise, not from anything in themselves, but in the very nature and constitution of the plan of redemption. If the atonement be necessary to forgiveness, and if at the same time it has been so constituted as to be equivalent only for a certain amount of sin; then it is clear, that beyond that limited amount no sin can be forgiven. Ere it can, a new atonement must be offered for it.

(4.) This being the case, it will be more than difficult, on this hypothesis, to vindicate the sincerity of those addresses in which sinners universally are invited to believe and be saved. If in the propitiation made, there do not exist what has, with sufficient appropriateness, been termed objective sufficiency for all, there really exists no ground on which such universal invitations can consistently be founded, no foundation on which sinners generally can be called to trust. Such invitation amounts to no more than a tantalizing of poor perishing creatures with the offer of what has no existence. There is no fund from which their debts can be paid; no provision for them at the feast to which they are invited; no water for them in the wells of salvation. The phrase, an all-sufficient Saviour, becomes, in addressing sinners indiscriminately, a designation destitute of truth, a mere “swelling word of vanity.”2

(5.) It is necessary to repeat that, in the view which this hypothesis takes of the substitution and atonement of Christ, nothing is taken into account but the desert of the sinner. It balances a certain proportion of deserved punishment on the part of the transgressor, by a corresponding proportion of vicarious suffering on the part of the atoning substitute. But it appears to be entirely forgotten that there is another party, a party whose claims are infinitely superior in importance to any interests of the sinning creature; that the glory of God, violated by transgression, requires to be secured, and vindicated, and displayed, irrespectively of the mere numerical amount of sinners and of sins; that, in truth, this was the grand end of atonement; that the question is not one of commutative or commercial justice, what measure of suffering must be endured, to be a precise equipollent for the measure of sin to be forgiven; how many drops of expiatory blood for so many trespasses to be remitted? that it has no such principle in it of wretched day-book and ledger calculation, but that the principal and most essential part of its object (as already more than enough insisted upon), was to give such a manifestation of the united glories of the truth and love, the righteousness and mercy of Jehovah, as would fully secure the honor of His character and government in forgiving sin and saving sinners; and that the true question was: What was requisite for this end?

I might have added to these considerations, that if the atonement were to be regarded as proceeding on the principle of commutative or commercial justice, or of the strict and proper payment of debt, the only room for grace must have been in the appointment of the surety to take upon Him the payment of it; there could be none for the subsequent exercise of it, in pardoning sin for the sake of the atonement, any more than there is grace in not exacting a debt that has been actually paid.

Ralph Wardlaw, Systematic Theology, (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1857), 2:439-444.  [Some spelling modernized, footnote values modified; and underlining mine.]

[Notes: 1) Even while it is remarkable that Wardlaw was able to intellectually penetrate the problematics of the “equivalentist” model, it must be remembered that equivalentism had two forms in Reformed theology. 2) The most common we know of is the view that ‘had more sin been imputed to Christ, Christ would have suffered more.’ We see this in Dagg, Styles and others. However, the original source of this idea lay in the claim that Christ suffered the exact idem and quanta of the law’s curse against any given single man (Owen); as opposed to Christ suffering a fair and just equivalent suffering of the law’s curse against any given single man.  The ‘strict equivalentist’ and/or hypercalvinist took the next step by quantifying the sins of sinners collectively.  3) Thus, while the original equivalentist view did say that Christ suffered the exact quanta and idem of suffering due to a single sinner (which because of the divine nature, was externally sufficient, exclusively, for all elect sinners), they did not take the next step of arguing that Christ suffered the exact quanta and idem of suffering due to a plurality of sinners. 4) in other words, by taking the next step, the strict equivalentists calculated the weight of sin of many sinners, and then claimed that the corresponding suffering by Christ was properly proportionate; such that had more sin been quantified, the suffering of Christ would have increased proportionately.  5) What is often not acknowledge is that this extreme position arose out of the earlier idea that Christ suffered the exact same idem of suffering due from any given sinner. However, both forms equivalentism have always been rejected, respectively, by the mainstream Reformed, (for example, Manton).]


1Rom. iii. 25.

22 Pet. ii. 18.

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