11. Was the atonement general, or particular; universal, or limited? In other words; was the atonement provided for all men, or only for a part ? Did Christ die for the whole world, or only for the elect?

This question, as generally stated and discussed, has the attribute of remarkable indefiniteness and ambiguity; and hence it is adapted to create a warm and fruitless controversy–a controversy which may very easily be continued, as long as men can be found who take pleasure in strife. But the controversy may, I think, be quickly brought to a conclusion, if men will cherish a real desire to be agreed, and will take pains to understand one another, and especially if they will be content to make the Scriptures their guide.

In the discussion of this subject, we should do all we can to exclude logomachy, to prevent a needless expense of time, and to bring ourselves in the shortest way to the most satisfactory result. In order to this, let us see how many things we can lay out of the question, and so reduce the discussion to the most simple and intelligible form, and to the narrowest compass. In pursuance of this plan, let me say that the point at issue is not, whether the atonement was so provided for all men, that all will actually be saved. As the controversy, so long agitated among evangelical Christians respecting the extent of the atonement, does not relate to the question of universal salvation, this point is to be wholly excluded from the discussion. Those who are enlisted in this controversy, are united in the belief, that salvation will not be actually experienced by all men. So that the question whether Christ died for all men is to be understood as entirely distinct from the question whether he will actually save all.

Again. The point at issue is not, whether God actually intended or determined to save all men. Those who manage this controversy are united in the belief, that it is the purpose or determination of God to save only a part of the human race. The parties then agree that Christ did not die for all men in such a sense, that they will all actually obtain forgiveness through his blood; and they agree too that he did not die for all men with a purpose or determination actually to save all.

There are other points also, which we shall find it easy to dispose of satisfactorily, if we take pains to avoid obscurity in our thoughts and in our language, and to place the subject in a clear and distinct light.

One of these points is whether Christ died for his chosen people absolutely or unconditionally?

It is difficult to give a direct answer to this question, merely because it is difficult to know exactly what is meant by it. If the meaning is, whether Christ by his death so purchased or procured salvation for his chosen people, that nothing else is necessary and nothing ever to be admitted, as a meritorious cause or ground of their forgiveness; the answer is easy. Christ’s death is a perfect cause or ground of our forgiveness. So far as merit is concerned, our righteousness, our good works are not needed, nay, they are expressly excluded from having any influence. Those

who are saved do nothing which renders them deserving of the divine favor, or gives them any claim to it on the ground of justice. They are saved wholly through the blood of Christ. His obedience unto death laid a complete foundation for our forgiveness, and we can add nothing to it. If this is what is meant by Christ’s dying for his people absolutely or unconditionally, then undoubtedly he did this. And if the meaning is that he died for them with an unalterable purpose actually to save them, there is no doubt that this was the case. But if the meaning of the question is, whether he so died for them, and so purchased and so designed to purchase salvation for them, that nothing is required of them in order to their actually possessing eternal life; then the answer must be negative. For the word of God everywhere requires a duty of sinners, and represents it as absolutely necessary that they should repent and believe in order to their obtaining salvation; and that which is required of them in order to their obtaining salvation, may very properly, and in accordance with good usage, be called a condition of salvation. A condition, in this use of the word, is that which is to be done as requisite to some other thing ; that which must exist as a necessary adjunct of something else. The word terms is often used in a similar sense. When the Scriptures require repentance of sinners in order to their forgiveness r and declare that except they repent they shall perish, the exact sense of condition, as here employed, is clearly suggested. All idea of merit is excluded. A condition may be meritorious in some cases, but not here. In this sense, then, Christ did not die for the elect or procure salvation for them absolutely and unconditionally; that is, he did not do it so as to supersede the necessity of repentance and faith on their part, as requisite to their enjoying eternal life.

Another point of inquiry is, whether there is any important sense, in which Christ died for his chosen people in distinction from others. The parties in the controversy generally agree that there is. He died for his peculiar people with a gracious and unalterable design actually to save them;–not however to save them unconditionally, that is, whether they repent and believe or not, but to save them in the manner, or on the conditions or terms stated in the gospel–their compliance with those terms being secured by his purpose, as a part of the free and full salvation which he gives. In this respect then there is a marked distinction. He died for those who were given him of the Fatherhe laid down his life for the sheep, with an ultimate design or  destination which related to no others.

We come then to the question which is of so much special interest, whether Christ died for the world at large, or for human beings indiscriminately, in any sense? And if so in what sense? This is the main question, and, as it seems to me, the only important question, upon which there can be any difference of opinion among those who have any proper belief of the Scripture doctrine of atonement. They are agreed that Christ died for the elect, and that he died for them in a peculiar sense. They are agreed that notwithstanding this peculiar sense in which he died for them, repentance and faith are required of them in order to their obtaining forgiveness and eternal life. They are agreed, too, that he did not so die for all men that they will all be finally saved, and that he did not die with a determination actually to save all. What point of any consequence then remains, except the one just stated, namely, whether Christ in any sense whatever died for the whole world.

For the sake of making the point now under consideration as plain as possible, I shall, for the present, lay aside the word atonement, which has become ambiguous, its common use being somewhat different from its use in Scripture; and I shall state the question thus: Had the death of Christ any respect whatever to the human race generally? Had it any influence–did it produce any effect, and if so, what effect, upon the condition of mankind at large–upon those who will not be saved, as well as upon those who will be saved ? This, I think, frees the question from needless obscurity, and presents it in the clearest light possible. Accordingly, if it appears from the word of God, that the state or condition of the world at large is in any respect different from what it would have been, had not Christ died,–if it appears that his death has had any influence upon the condition of all men; then his death had a real and manifest relation to all men, ana, in this respect, he died for all. Is then the condition of the whole world–are the circumstances of human beings universally different in any respect from what they would have been, had there been no death of a Mediator? Has Christ’s death had any influence upon the state of the world at large? Those who will submit to be guided by the word of God, and will take pains to think and judge candidly on this subject, will, I apprehend, find no difficulty in admitting the following positions.

1. The death of Christ had such an influence, that forgiveness and eternal life may be truly and consistently offered to all men. This offer of salvation is actually made to all by the inspired writers, and is made in a variety of the most explicit declarations. This is fully admitted by those who hold most strictly to a limited atonement, and say that Christ died only for the elect.1 Nor do the sacred writers merely offer salvation. They invite and beseech all to whom the gospel comes, to receive the gift of eternal life. Now had there been no Savior provided, and had the divine administration proceeded directly and only according to the principles of law, there would have been no such proposal of mercy to offenders–no offer of forgiveness and no gracious invitation and entreaty to accept it. We hear of no offer or invitation of this kind to the angels who fell. And no man who soundly believes the general principles of revelation, can suppose that such an offer would ever have been made to fallen men, had it not been for the intervention of a Savior. Now surely the condition of those transgressors who have this free offer of salvation presented to them, and who are thus invited and entreated to accept it, is widely different from those to whom no such overture is or can be made. And this difference is caused by the mediation of Christ; it is the effect of his expiatory death. Thus far then it is clear, that the death of Christ has had an influence upon the condition of all men. And in this sense he died for all–that is, he so died for all, that in consequence of his death, the gracious offer of salvation may be and is made to all.

2. In consequence of Christ’s death, any sinners, all sinners, may have eternal life if they will believe, consistently with the perfections of God and the principles of his government. This is implied in the fact above stated, that salvation is offered to all, and that all are invited to receive it. Who can think it consistent for any king or ruler to make a public offer of forgiveness to offenders, and to send forth a messenger to urge them to accept it, when, after all, that king knows it would be incompatible with his justice and honor, and the good of his kingdom, actually to forgive those to whom the offer is made? Who especially can think such a procedure consistent with the character of God? The free offer he makes of forgiveness to sinners in general most certainly implies, that they may safely and properly have forgiveness, if they will accept it. But how could they be safely and properly forgiven, and how could anything be said or done implying that they may be forgiven, without the shedding of blood? Whatever they might do, they could have no exemption from punishment, if Christ had not died. Here, then, is an effect of the death of Christ, which is as extensive as the human race. In consequence of that momentous event, salvation may be offered to sinners indiscriminately; and any sinners who will comply with the terms proposed, may consistently be saved. Those who do comply are saved. Others might, on the same terms, be saved as consistently as they. The offer is the same to all. The conditions of salvation required of all, are also the same. From this we conclude, that the principles of the divine government would admit of the salvation of all, on the same conditions. The death of Christ, then, must have had a general influence, an influence which respected mankind at large, and which opened the door of mercy for the whole fallen race, and which rendered it as consistent for one sinner to be actually saved, as another, for all as for any, on the same terms. In this respect, the death of Christ evidently affected all alike; that is, it put all into a state in which they may obtain salvation, on the terms and in the manner prescribed.

If I rightly understand the teachings of revelation, the death of Christ did then, in the respect above mentioned, relate to all men alike. It prepared the way for all, on the same terms, to be forgiven consistently with the honor of God’s law. It procured the free offer of salvation for all–an offer stamped with divine sincerity and truth; an offer which might consistently and properly, be carried into effect on the terms prescribed. And it rendered it proper, that the messengers of Christ should make the proclamation of mercy to human beings in every place, without distinction, and should invite and entreat them, one as well as another, to receive it.

But this general design of the atonement, and the equal respect, above stated, which it had to the case of sinners universally, does not by any means imply, that all will be treated alike by the providence of God, or that all will share alike in the influence of the Holy Spirit. It does not imply, that the purpose of God respecting the actual bestowal of spiritual blessings, was the same as to all men. The general provision is one thing; the divine influence which disposes men to avail themselves of that provision, is another thing. The first has such an effect upon the condition of men in relation to the violated law and its penalty, chat any of them may, in the way pointed out, be consistently pardoned and saved. The other has an effect upon their personal character. It renews their heart, and unites them to Christ by faith. The one, therefore, may be general; the other must be limited and particular,–just as much so as actual salvation is. What I would say on this subject may be summarily expressed thus: The death of Christ, as to its direct influence in vindicating the law and justice of God, so far as to open the door of mercy and to procure the offer of forgiveness and eternal life, affects all alike. As to its application, or its actual results, and as to the design of God in regard to its ultimate efficacy, it has an essentially different respect to those who are given to Christ, and who will be saved, from what it has to others.

Thus far I have discussed the subject on the ground of general principles derived from the word of God. But I much prefer a method which is more directly and more obviously Scriptural. Let us then examine the Bible, and see how this subject is treated there.

First. There are many passages which represent, that a merciful provision is made by Christ for the salvation of men in general.–for men indiscriminately, and without any limitation, except in the terms on which its blessings are to be enjoyed. John 3:16; “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him should not perish, but have eternal life.” No words could more clearly and unequivocally set forth a general measure of divine mercy–an act of God’s love towards the human race at large. If the expression that ” God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” leaves any doubt as to the general bearing of the gift, that doubt is removed by the expression which immediately follows, and which teaches the wide reach of the merciful provision. God–” gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” It is as much as to say; if any sinner, whoever he may be, will believe in Christ, he shall be saved. This general act of God’s love towards mankind is expressed in various ways in other texts. John 1:29; “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.”It might, as I have before signified, be more properly rendered; Behold the Lamb of God which makes expiation for the sin of the world. The expiation in one respect is general–it has a relation to the world at large, to sinners indiscriminately. The declaration of Christ, John 6:51, is of the same import; “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any man eat of this bread he shall live forever. And the bread which I will give him is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” 2 Cor. 5:19; “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. 1 John 2:2 ; ” And he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world.” He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world in such a sense, that to any sinners and to all sinners forgiveness may be freely offered, with the assurance, that they shall actually enjoy the blessings of eternal life, if they will comply with the necessary conditions. 1 John 4:14 ; “God sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.”

Secondly. The inspired writers speak familiarly of this work of divine mercy, as actually relating to those who perish, or who may he supposed to perish. Rom. 14:15; “Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ died.” 1 Cor. 8:11; “And through thy knowledge shall thy weak brother perish, for whom Christ died.” Peter speaks of false teachers, who deny the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. 2 Pet. 2:1. They are false teachers and bring destruction upon themselves, and a very aggravated destruction, because they denied the Lord that bought or redeemed them. Is it conceivable that the inspired writers would speak in this manner, if the death of the Redeemer had no relation whatever to those who will finally perish, and produced no effect upon their circumstances?

Thirdly. It appears irreconcilable with sincerity, for God to offer salvation to perishing sinners, and to invite and command them to accept it, unless Christ so died for them, and so expiated their sins, that they may consistently be saved: to offer them what was never, in any sense, provided for them–to invite them to receive a gift, which he could not consistently bestow, though they should comply with the conditions proposed–to command his servants to go into all the world and proclaim glad tidings to every creature, when there could be no glad tidings except to a part.

Thus far as to the provision which God has made by the appointment of a Mediator for the benefit of the world–the human race in a general view. This provision is stated in the Scriptures in various forms, and in language very definite and emphatic. And the inspired writers treat it as a practical truth, that is, they make it the ground of a free offer of forgiveness and eternal life to all men without distinction; which offer they could never have made, had not Christ by his death prepared the way for the free exercise of divine mercy. On this same ground, ministers of the gospel make a proclamation of peace on earth and good will to all men. Wherever they find human beings, they tell them that Christ has died for sin, the just for the unjust, and endeavor to persuade them to come and partake of the blessings which he has procured and offered. They lift up their voice in the name of God and proclaim the glad tidings to men. “Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life.” “Turn ye, for why will ye die?” Wherever we find human beings, we are authorized to make these overtures to them, without knowing or inquiring whether they are elected to salvation or not. And God, who knows who are elected, and who are not, makes these overtures equally to all. “Come, for all things are ready.” Such is the general provision–such the influence which Christ’s death has upon the circumstances and prospects of this apostate world.

But every general provision is subject to be qualified by specific conditions, or to be otherwise limited. And both the general provision and the qualifying conditions and other limitations, are expressive and equally expressive of the mind of God–the general provision in one point of view, the qualifying conditions and limitations in another point of view. As to the present case, some texts state the general provision made by Christ’s death, and also the particular conditions on which that provision will turn to our benefit. Such is the passage John 3:16; “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The provision was general, for the world; but the enjoyment of its blessings is limited in the manner specified. There are some texts which represent the general provision only. But all such texts are to be qualified by other texts, which point out the particular limitations. For example. Some texts affirm that Christ gave himself a ransom for all–that he is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. But these texts must not be taken in the most extensive, absolute sense, as though the Scriptures said nothing else on the subject, but are to be qualified by those which bring into view the particular limitations, such as these: “He that believes shall be saved.” “Let the wicked turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him.” “Repent and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” You observe that in these texts the particular terms of salvation on man’s part are mentioned, without any express reference to the death of Christ, or the provision he made for our salvation. But if we would interpret the Bible justly, we must not derive our opinion from texts of one particular character, to the neglect of other texts relating to the subject, but from all the texts taken together. This connected view of different texts is required by a due reverence for the authority of God’s word ; and it cannot be neglected by any sincere inquirers after the truth. It is obvious that any other way of handling the subject must expose us to palpable error on the one side or the other.

While then we admit the propitiation for sin to be, in one respect, general; while we admit that the atonement is all-sufficient, and without any limitations arising from its own nature; we must still remember, that the actual benefits of that provision are necessarily connected with conditions, and of course limited to those by whom the conditions are performed. If the conditions are neglected, it is certain that the blessings of redemption cannot be enjoyed. It is utterly impossible for sinners to partake of a holy salvation, without holiness of heart; and holiness of heart in this case will operate in the way of repentance and faith. Whatever may be the case, therefore, as to the sufficiency of the atonement, and the extent of the propitiation by which salvation was procured and proffered; the actual salvation of any of the human race, even of those who are in the divine counsels destined to enjoy it, must be conditional. They must forsake sin and believe in Christ, or they cannot enjoy happiness in the presence of God. These conditions are not arbitrarily imposed. The nature and circumstances of the case render them indispensably necessary. Requiring men to perform these conditions is in truth only requiring them to be saved–it is only requiring them to receive salvation and to enjoy eternal life.

I have referred to other limitations besides those which are indicated by the express conditions connected with the general proffer of salvation. The limitations intended are set forth in various passages of Scripture, which plainly teach, that the mission and death of the Mediator had a special reference to the chosen people of God; that Christ died for them in particular–died for them with a gracious and unalterable design to save themdied for them, I may say, efficaciously. The following are some of the texts which express this limited and definite designation of the atonement, or, more exactly, of Christ’s death. Isa. 53:8 and 11; “For the transgression of my people was he stricken.” “By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.” Matt. 1:21; “He shall save his people from their sins.” Acts 20:28; “To feed the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.” Ephes. 5:25; “Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it.” John 10:11, 15; “I am the good shepherd.–The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”–”I lay down my life for the sheep.” Tit. 2:14; “Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” Rom. 5:8; “But God commends his love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Rom. 8 : 32 ; ” He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things.” 1 John 4:10; ” Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” The words we, us and our in these passages are very evidently used not with reference to mankind at large, but with a special and restricted reference to those who are saved. The writer is speaking to and of believers.

Now it seems to me evident, that this special and restricted reference or designation of Christ’s death is perfectly consistent with the general design and influence of it, as above explained. Nor is there anything singular in such a two-fold sense of the same word or phrase. Take for example the expression, God loves the world. There is abundant evidence that he does love all and every one of the human race; that he has true benevolence towards them that he takes pleasure not in their misery, but in their happiness; and that when we have a hearty love and kindness towards all men, we do but imitate, in a humble measure, the unbounded goodness of our heavenly Father. He truly loves all men. But he loves the elect, those whom “he has chosen to salvation,” in a special manner. His love towards them has in it a purpose to give them eternal life. He loves them efficaciously and savingly. Now surely this love of God to those whom he has given to Christ as his peculiar people, is none the less special and discriminating, and none the less precious, and none the less certainly productive of saving good to their souls, because he truly loves the whole human race, though not with the same special and gracious purpose. In like manner, Christ’s dying or making atonement for his chosen people specially, and with a gracious purpose to save them, does not interfere in the least with his dying in a general sense for the whole world, and thus laying a foundation for the offer of salvation to all, and opening wide the door of mercy, so that whosoever will may enter in and be saved. The views which have been taken of this subject, will help us at once to see the utter fallacy of the argument, by which men sometimes attempt to prove universal salvation. One class of Universalists urge in defense of their scheme that Christ died for all–was a ransom for all, etc., and that this design and extent of the atonement imply that all men will actually be saved. To expose the inconclusiveness of this argument, it is only necessary to consider the Scripture representations which have already been noticed. The substance of what they reveal is, that God has given his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him might be saved ; that Christ so died for all, that all may have the offer of salvation, and may actually be saved, if they will repent and believe. These conditions are as real as the general provision, and are always to be taken in connection with it. Of course the general provision can avail nothing as to individuals, except where the conditions are, through divine grace, actually fulfilled. If then we would determine whether all men are to be saved, we must determine whether all men repent and believe. For, according to the word of God, it is as true, as it would be if there had been no atonement, that the impenitent and unholy shall perish. Just as it is in the natural world. Although God has provided the sun to enlighten the world ; if any man should choose to live in a dark dungeon, he would fail to enjoy the advantages of the light. And although God has provided an abundance of water, if any man should refuse to drink, he would die of thirst. The Scripture representations imply the same thing, as to the general provision which God has made for the spiritual welfare of men, and as to the way, and the only way, in which we are to secure the benefits of that provision to ourselves. A rich man provides a great supper, and invites many to come and partake. But those who refuse to comply with the invitation, lose the benefits of the general provision and the general invitation. A man entrusts his servants with various talents; but none can enjoy his approbation, except those who make a right use of the talents. In other places, the Scriptures lay aside metaphors and allegories, and teach plainly, that although Christ has, in an important sense, died for all, and made propitiation for the sins of the world, sinners cannot be saved unless they repent–that they cannot escape, if they neglect so great salvation. It is perfectly clear then, from the word of God, that the salvation of all men cannot by any means be inferred from the extent and all-sufficiency of the provision made by the death of Christ, or from the unlimited offers of the gospel, and that it can be proved in no other way, than by proving that all men do actually repent and believe. Just so far as there is a want of evidence that all men are penitent and holy, there is want of evidence that all will be saved. And if we have reason, either from the Bible or from a knowledge of facts, to conclude that any of the human race live and die impenitent, we have just so much reason to conclude, that they will fail to enjoy the benefits of Christ’s death. For Christ died for all in such a sense only, that whosoever believes on him shall have eternal life. There is no evidence from the Scriptures, taken as a whole, that Christ died with a purpose or expectation actually to save all. But there is abundant evidence to the contrary. The fault of Universalists is, that they infer from a few passages, pressed to an extreme construction, a doctrine which is plainly contradictory to the general current of Scripture, and which is by no means warranted even by the passages on which they rely. Their opinion is nothing but conjecture, and it is a conjecture totally irreconcilable with facts, and with the obvious, practical teachings of revelation.



From the remarks which I shall now offer, it will, I hope, be made to appear, that, notwithstanding the difference in phraseology and the manner of reasoning, there is in fact a substantial agreement among evangelical Christians as to all points of consequence respecting the atonement; that, if the parties are to continue the dispute, they ought to take pains to determine beforehand, what they are to dispute about; and that, if both parties will endeavor to promote union among the followers of Christ by exerting that measure of pacific influence which they may do consistently with Christian fidelity, the way will soon be prepared to drop the controversy altogether, and thus to save for other and more important objects, the time and strength which would otherwise be spent in strife.

There are two recent and well-known writers, Symington and Jenkyn, who may properly enough be taken as representatives of the two parties that have been engaged in this controversy. These authors are highly respectable, and they lay before us very clearly the amount of what has been said on both sides of the question at issue.

Symington thinks proper, as many others do, to use the phrase, Christ died for us, as including not only the general provision of divine blessings, but the design of Christ actually to bestow them; as not only opening the door of mercy, but designing to bring those for whom he died, actually to come in at that door. Thus the author holds that Christ died for those only, who are chosen to salvation, and who will actually be saved. And he uses the word atonement in the same limited sense. He carries along with him the literal meaning of the original word, translated atonement, in Rom. 5:11; “By whom we have now received reconciliation.” So the translators render the word in the preceding verse: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God, (katallagemen) by the death of his Son, much more being reconciled (katallagenetes) we shall be saved through him.” This reconciliation is by the death of Christ. It is a reconciliation which believers have actually received. A derivative of the word is used in the same sense, 2 Cor. 5:18, 19; “All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself (katallaxantos), and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation (katallages); to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” This primary sense of the word is regarded by Symington as a conclusive argument in favor of the doctrine of a limited atonement, the doctrine that Christ died only for the elect.

Now what I have to remark, is this; that if the word atonement is understood exactly in the sense in which it is used in Rom. 5:11, and in the sense in which the same word in the original is used in other places, where it means actual reconciliation, such as believers have experienced ; then, of course, it is limited to those who are thus reconciled. And it is evident that Symington understands other expressions, such as, Christ died for our sins–died for us–is the propitiation for our sins, etc., as denoting that influence of his death, which is effectual to salvation. The sense in which he employs the words makes a limitation necessary. But it is nothing uncommon that a word, which ordinarily denotes a particular thing which is accomplished, is used to denote the means of its accomplishment. So the word katallage, reconciling, is used in Rom. 11:15. The casting away of the Jews is said to be the reconciling of the world,–that is, the means of reconciling the world. And why may we not use the word atonement in theological discourse, in the same way, that is to signify the means of reconciling us to God, namely, the death of Christ? And why may we not consider his death as having a relation to all those, whose condition was in any important respect favorably affected by his death? And why may we not properly say, in that respect he died for all men, leaving it to other texts to determine how far the saving efficacy of his death extended? And why may we not hence come to this conclusion, that Christ in a more general though very important respect, died for the whole family of man, but that he died for his chosen people in a definite and peculiar sense? This manner of speaking would convey the idea intended in a manner which is just and intelligible, and which is frequent in other matters. The use of terms in different senses is rendered necessary by the poverty of language. You will find it impossible to discourse freely on any important subject, without giving different meanings, or different shades of meaning, to the same words and expressions. And if it is asked how we can on this principle be sure of rightly understanding the sacred writers, the answer is, that intelligent, candid men will easily discover their meaning from the general current of their thoughts, and the drift of their discourse ; from the nature of the subject, and from what they say of it in other ways. Accordingly, when they declare at one time, that Christ died for the whole world, or made propitiation for the sins of the world, and at another time, that he laid down his life for his sheep, that is, his chosen people, we are under no necessity of making out, that the world means only his chosen people in every part of the world, and that the two expressions are not only to be applied to the same subject, but that they mean precisely the same thing. So far as the language and the consistency of the writers are concerned, Ave may just as well consider the first expression as relating to all human beings without distinction, and the last, as relating to those who will be saved; the first implying, that he died for all men in one respect, the latter, that he died for those who will be saved in another and special respect. No reason can arise against such an interpretation of the language used in the first case, from the doctrine of election, or the doctrine that Christ died for his own people in a special sense. Nor is this interpretation any departure from good usage. The general principles of philology will fairly admit of it. I say then, that Symington and those who agree with him, have in reality no occasion to object to the position, that Christ, in a certain sense, died for all men. For they may hold just what they mean by a definite or limited atonement, and yet may consistently admit, that he died for all men in another and more general sense. They may hold that the death of Christ had that peculiar relation to the elect which their doctrine implies, and yet may consistently admit, that it had a relation of another kind to the whole world. And is not this the view, and the only view, which fairly agrees with the various representations of the Bible taken together? If those who believe the doctrine of a limited or definite atonement should come into this view of the subject, as I apprehend they may consistently, they would not feel it necessary to put an unnatural and forced sense upon the various texts which teach that Christ died for all men. Their doctrine, maintained with Christian candor, would perfectly harmonize with the doctrine for which I have contended, as to the bearing of Christ’s death upon the whole human race. I am thus led to think that there is no need of any controversy on this subject among those who embrace the great doctrines of the gospel on other subjects.

But I must further and very particularly remark, that Symington himself really admits all that we mean by the doctrine, that Christ, in an important sense, died for all men,–commonly called the doctrine of a general atonement.

Our doctrine is precisely this, that Christ’s death had such a relation to the whole human race, that eternal life may be offered to all ; that the door of mercy is opened to all ; that all may be invited to believe in Christ; and that whosoever believes in him shall, on the ground of his expiatory sacrifice, be pardoned and saved. We mean that Christ’s death had this most important influence upon the human race at large,–upon the non-elect as well as the elect. The day of salvation is given to all who hear the gospel. Pardon is offered to all alike. Opportunity to be saved is, under the gospel dispensation, afforded to all alike; so that now, where revelation is enjoyed, those who perish will perish not merely because they have transgressed the moral law, but because they refuse the salvation provided and offered.

Now Symington, and others who embrace his opinions, do really admit and maintain all this. Symington says; “We hold that the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus possessed an intrinsic value sufficient for the salvation of the whole world. In this sense, it was adequate to the redemption of every human being.” “The worth of Christ’s atonement,” he says, “we hold to be, in the strictest sense of the term, infinite, absolute, all-sufficient.'” “We regard the atonement of Christ as sufficient for all. This all-sufficiency is what lays the foundation for the unrestricted universality of the gospel call. And from every such view of the atonement, as would imply that it was not sufficient for all, or that there was not an ample warrant in the invitations of the gospel for all to look to it for salvation, we utterly dissent.” Symington adopts the following language of Wardlaw: “Such is my impression of the sufficiency of the atonement, that were all the guilt of all mankind concentrated in my own person, I should see no reason, relying on that blood which cleanses from all sin, to indulge despair.”

The following expressions of Symington show still more clearly what his views are. “It is not said in the gospel that Christ died with the intention that all should be saved, but that his atonement is a sufficient ground of salvation to all, and that all who rest on this ground by faith shall be saved.” “The atonement of Christ being sufficient for all, is with propriety made known and offered to the acceptance of all.” “A sufficient ground of salvation exists; the appropriate means of salvation are provided.” And the reason why men perish in their sins is not, in any sense, because Christ did not die for them, but because they would not avail themselves of the merits of his death.” He says, too, that “the free, full, unhampered proclamation of mercy to all men proceeds on this ground,–that it derives all its consistency and power from the perfect, all-sufficient atonement of Christ.”

It will be seen that in these and other passages, Symington asserts the very thing intended by those who hold to the doctrine that Christ died for all men. And it will be difficult to find in their writings any stronger or more unequivocal expressions than what are found in the work of this excellent author, of the sufficiency of the atonement for the salvation of all men, the abundant provision which was made by the death of Christ for the eternal life of all who will accept it, and the obligation of all who hear the gospel to receive Christ as their Savior. Nor do those who advocate an unlimited atonement declare more explicitly than Symington, that unbelievers will perish, not because Christ did not die for them, but because they reject Christ and refuse his offered salvation. In short, the practical treatment which both parties give to this part of the subject is, in all important points, the same. Both parties tell sinners in the same language, that by the death of Christ the door of mercy is open for them; that salvation is Freely and sincerely offered ; that whosoever will may come and take of the water of life; that the merit of Christ’s death is infinite and all-sufficient ; that they all have a full warrant to believe in him; and that if any of them, even the chief of sinners, perish, it will be because they would not believe. The advocates of a definite or limited atonement are, in their feelings and in their preaching, as far as any others from circumscribing the value or sufficiency of the atonement, and from denying or concealing the fact, that Christ’s death had this real and momentous effect upon all men, namely, that it secured to them the offer of a free and full salvation, and made it proper that we should invite and beseech all alike, the non-elect as well as the elect, to come to him that they may have life.

This being the case, an important question arises, namely, what is still wanting in order to the salvation of all sinners now living, if they should repent? As the atonement is of infinite worth, and is allowed to be sufficient for the salvation of the whole world, can anything more be necessary in the way of atonement? Suppose it were the design of God, (I make the supposition for the sake of illustrating the principle concerned, as Paul did, Gal. 1:8), suppose it to be God’s gracious design to save all the non-elect population of the earth, would a new atoning sacrifice be required on their account? Would it be necessary that the Son of God should again suffer and die for their sins, in their stead, and that in a manner essentially different from the manner in which he died before? And if so, then how can it be said that the atonement already made is sufficient for all? As God has given the free offer of salvation to all on the ground of the atonement which Christ has made, might he not also give his Spirit to work repentance and faith in them on the same ground? Might not the blood of the cross operate in this way, as well as in the other? In a word, would not the atonement, just as it is, be all that would be called for in order to the salvation of any sinners on earth, if they should repent and believe? Or would it, after all, be indispensable that atoning blood should be again shed, and shed for them in a new and special sense, before they could be saved? Is it indeed true, notwithstanding the free offer of mercy to them, that, if they should believe in Christ, as they are commanded to do, the want of a sufficient atonement would still stand in the way of their eternal life? And if so, then would not honesty and truth require that this important circumstance should be plainly announced, and that, in the universal offer of salvation which we make to sinners, we should distinctly declare that, although we present to them the gracious proposals of the gospel, and tell them, without distinction, that if they will accept those proposals, they shall have everlasting life, it is still true of all the non-elect, that if they should accept they could not be saved, inasmuch as Christ had not died for their sins, and had made no atonement for them? But if this principle should be proclaimed by the ambassadors of Christ, it would tend directly to neutralize their message; and sinners, unless they could somehow think themselves of the number of the elect, would feel that they were mocked by the offers of mercy, seeing they could not be saved even if they should accept those offers.

To accomplish my object, I shall now proceed to show that the advocates of a general atonement hold to the very limitations, which are asserted by the advocates of a particular or limited atonement. While they maintain that Christ died for all men, they also maintain that it was the divine purpose to bestow the blessings procured by his death on a part only. Symington expressly mentions this as the main point of the controversy. He says the question between the two parties ” hinges solely on the divine intention respecting the subjects of the atonement, or what is called the destination of Christ’s death.” And then he proceeds to support his views respecting the atonement by the special and immutable purpose of God respecting the subjects of salvation. He says “if God in the matter of salvation acts according to design, and it so happens that salvation is limited in its application to some, does it not follow that it was the design of God that it should be limited?” Again he says, “As God cannot fail in any of his designs, the actual effect shows us the extent of the designed effect.” “And as the effects of atonement, namely, redemption, reconciliation, and glory extend only to some, we are bound to apply to the atonement itself a similar restriction in the designed extent of its subjects.” The ablest advocates of a general atonement hold strongly to the same restriction in the designed application of it. So that it is with very good reason that Symington suggests, that the difference is more in words than in opinion. I might name to you a great number of divines of high reputation, both here and abroad, who hold to the doctrine that Christ died for all men, and yet maintain that it is the divine purpose to make his death effectual to the salvation of only a part; that the atonement, as to sufficiency, is without limits, that it opened the door for the salvation of all men; but as to the design of God in regard to its saving application, it is limited.

This limitation is much insisted on by Jenkyn, the other writer whom I mentioned above ; an author of great ingenuity and force, not at all biased in favor of a rigid orthodoxy, and quite enough inclined to maintain high notions of man’s freedom, agency and ability. In his book on the Atonement, he contends very earnestly for the doctrine that Christ died for all men. But as to the designed application of the atonement in the salvation of the people of God, he expresses himself with as much decision as Symington, or any other Calvinist. ” It is,” he says, ” an awful fact, that unless God will sovereignly exercise his gracious influence on the hearts of men, not one–will ever avail himself of the benefits of the atonement, and consequently no flesh can be saved.” Again he says; “All mankind are of themselves so opposed to the designs of the mediation of Christ, and so inclined to persevere in sin, that unless God, in his sovereign will, exercise his influence in special and personal cases, no one of all the human race will ever be saved.” “For it is in the physical and moral constitution of the nature of man, that what he is unwilling to do, he never will do. Hence the Scriptures speak of that, of which a man is unwilling to do, as a thing impossible to come to pass. When Christ charges the Jews with this unwillingness, he represents their coming to him as impossible.” “Ye will not come unto me;”–and “no man can come unto me unless the Father draw him.” He says, past ages ” do not furnish one instance of a man, who has ascribed his conversion to his own agency and goodness of heart.” ” The cases are innumerable, in which the best means have been used in vain. * * Yet among men of the same character, means, apparently less likely to succeed, have prospered mightily.” He proceeds to say; “On any other principle than the sovereign application of divine influences, it is impossible to account for the conversion of man. The theory of “common grace” will not account for it; for it leaves the question behind–how comes one man more than another, to make a right use of this common grace ? The self-determining power of the will will not account for it, for there is no such thing. A will, not determined by motives, is not the will of an intelligent, accountable being.” “God alone changes the heart. And he has a sovereign, independent right to impart divine influences in what degree and on whomsoever he pleases, according to the counsel of his own will.” Jenkyn says, the total failure of the atonement “would not have been effectually prevented by leaving it entirely to the liberty of free agents ; for in such hands the failure would have been entire and total.” “Nothing can prevent this failure, but the determination of God to impart sovereign influences to make some differ from others, and to give unto them, for the sake of Christ, to believe in him.” “The Lord Jesus was deeply interested in the subject. It was by the exercise of this sovereignty that he was to see of the travail of his soul. He never thought that his harvest would have been larger, if it had been left to the self-determining sovereignty of the human will. He regarded it as more sure in the hands of his Father. Divine sovereignty settles every jewel in the mediatorial diadem.” I give one more quotation. The instances of the actual success of the atonement ” are not,” he says, “matters of chance,–they are the result of a definite purpose, and of an adjusted plan settled in eternity. God will direct that–the atonement shall infallibly issue in the personal salvation of a multitude which no man can number.” “Jesus Christ knew THESE DEFINITELY AND PERSONALLY, AND HAD A DIRECT AND SPECIAL REFERENCE TO THEM IN HIS SUFFERINGS AND DEATH.”

The quotations which I made from Symington are sufficient to show, that although he strenuously maintains the doctrine of a definite and limited atonement, he maintains also that Christ by his death actually made a general provision for the exercise of mercy to the human race on specified conditions, and prepared the way for an unlimited offer of pardon to sinners in every part of the earth, whether elect or non- elect. He asserts this general, unlimited provision as explicitly and emphatically, as any advocates of a general atonement. And the quotations from Jenkyn show, that he decidedly maintains the doctrine of election, that is, that it was the sovereign purpose of God to render the death of Christ effectual to the salvation of only a limited number;–or, to express it in another manner, that the death of Christ, or the atonement he made, as to its designed and saving efficacy, as limited and definite. Jenkyn and the most respectable advocates of a general atonement maintain all this as fully, as the advocates of a particular atonement.

You may now ask what difference there can be between the two parties, if both really hold to the same doctrines. To this I reply, that, notwithstanding the substantial agreement which appears, there is a real and not unimportant difference between them in the following respects.

First; as to the use of terms. The advocates of a general atonement make use of the phrase, Christ died for sinners, or made atonement for the world, to denote that general work of Christ and that offer of salvation, respecting which the parties agree. But the advocates of a definite and limited atonement use the same phrase to point out not only the atoning merit of Christ’s death, which they allow to be sufficient for all, but his purpose to bestow the benefits of it upon the elect. Accordingly if you propose the question, whether Christ died for all; one party answers it in the affirmative, the other in the negative. Ask whether Christ made atonement for all, or only for a part; one party answers, for all, the other, only for a part. And they answer thus differently, merely because they attach different meanings to the same words and phrases, and not, as it seems to me, because they differ materially in the ideas they entertain. For if you lay aside the particular words and phrases, which they use in different senses, and make use of others which they cannot but understand alike, you will find that no substantial difference remains. The difference then is in words, rather than in belief or to say the least, the difference is in words far more than in belief.

If you inquire, which party uses the words and phrases referred to most correctly ; my answer is, that one party adopts what appears to me to be the Scriptural and correct usage in some instances, and the other party, in other instances. The sacred writers seem often to speak of Christ’s dying for all in order to denote the general provision he made. And in regard to such cases, the advocates of a general atonement do, as I think, conform to Scripture usage. But in other cases, the Scriptures speak of Christ’s dying in a special sense for those who will actually be saved; that is, they use the expression with a particular and limited meaning, implying the designed application of the atonement, or the designation of Christ’s death; and in regard to such cases, the advocates of a definite and limited atonement conform to Scripture usage. In this, as in many other instances, Scripture usage evidently varies. The sacred writers sometimes use the expression, Christ died, or made expiation, in the larger sense, and sometimes in the definite, limited sense. It follows, then, that we shall most perfectly follow the free and artless manner of the sacred writers, if we speak of Christ’s dying for men, sometimes in the large and general sense, and sometimes in the special and restricted sense, while our exact meaning in each case is to be made evident by circumstances, or, if necessary, by particular explanations.

I have already noticed, that the word atonement is used in our version only twice in the New Testament. First, in Rom. 5:11, by whom we have received the atonement (katallagen), reconciliation, that is, restoration to the divine favor. Here atonement evidently means the special blessings, which believers actually receive, through the death of the Mediator. Of course the atonement as here spoken of, must be definite and limited. And when Symington and others speak of the atonement as limited, their language is plainly conformed to the example of the Apostle in this passage. And this is the only place in the New Testament where the word atonement is used in relation to this subject. The verb, katallasso, is generally used in the New Testament in a sense equally special and restricted. Those, therefore, who speak of the atonement as general and unlimited, use the word atonement in a sense obviously different from the sense of the original in the passages referred to.

In regard to the other words employed in the New Testament, or in common religious discourse, in relation to the work of Christ, as that he died for the sins of men, made propitiation, expiation, etc., they evidently admit of being used both in a more general and in a more definite sense. And if men would exercise the same intelligence and candor here, as they do in cases where there is no controversy, this variety of meanings would occasion no great difficulty. But if one party insist upon it, that the words and phrases above mentioned shall be used invariably and exclusively in one sense, and the other party insist that they shall be used exclusively in another sense; then controversy ensues; and the controversy, which at the outset is a war of words, will in its progress produce real differences of opinion. Or if the opinions of the two parties continue to be substantially the same, still the appearance of a difference, occasioned by such a different use of words, will be followed by many of the unhappy consequence of a real difference.

But secondly; there is a disagreement between the two parties, as to the comparative importance of the different portions of truth which appertain to the subject.

Men of one party give great prominence to the special design of Christ’s death in regard to those who are chosen to salvation. They delight to dwell upon the eternal love of God, and his purpose actually to save sinners; upon his grace in renewing and justifying them; upon the special influence of his Spirit in giving them repentance and faith; upon his faithfulness towards them, and his unchangeable determination to restore them to his image, and to train them up for heaven; and upon their dependence on his sovereign grace for the whole of salvation. They neither deny nor overlook the goodness of God in providing a Savior for the world, and offering him to all sinners, and inviting them to believe in him. They do not overlook the opportunity which sinners have to obtain eternal life, nor the powerful motives which urge them to accept offered mercy, nor their high obligations to comply with the conditions of eternal life, nor their utter inexcusableness if they neglect the great salvation and perish in unbelief. I say they do not either deny or overlook these gospel truths. They acknowledge and exhibit them. But in general they do not make them prominent. They do not declare them in all their fullness. They do not take pains to present them in a clear and strong light, lest they should supersede or overshadow those doctrines which they regard as preeminently important. These remarks are specially applicable to the preaching and the writings of those who lean towards Antinomian sentiments.

The other party take ground which is in some respects the reverse of this. They give the greatest prominence to those parts of divine truth, which others comparatively disregard. They insist often and earnestly upon man’s endowments as a free moral, accountable agent, and a proper subject of divine law, and upon his perfect obligation to obey; upon the expansive benevolence of God, and the general and full provision he has made, by the death of Christ, for the salvation of the whole world; upon the free and sincere offer of pardon, the power and willingness of Christ to save, the all-sufficiency of his atonement, and the guilt and inexcusableness of those who continue in unbelief. But as to those particular truths, which the other party regard as preeminently important,–they generally keep them in the back ground, and often make the impression that they do not believe them. You will seldom hear them speak, in a truly Scriptural manner, of the doctrine of election, of God’s having mercy on whom he will have mercy, of his having given a people to Christ to be saved through his death, of the deep depravity of our moral nature, of the utter ruin and helplessness of sinners, and their dependence on divine grace for the beginning and continuance of holiness. They do not reject these doctrines ; but they generally keep them out of sight. And when they mention them, they do it, not directly to establish and inculcate them, but rather in the way of concession. They appear to be reluctant to bring them clearly into view, lest they should interfere with that class of truths, to which they attach so much more importance. In short, they make Christianity consist chiefly of their favorite doctrines. When they allow the other truths some place in their system, it is a very subordinate place. And they appear sometimes to do even that, rather to vindicate their claim to orthodoxy, than from any strong impulse of the heart.

The foregoing remarks do, I think, truly exhibit the general features of the two parties described; though they are applicable to individuals belonging to the parties in very different degrees. Accordingly one of these parties generally and very naturally adopt Symington and others agreeing with him, as favorite authors; while the other party adopt Jenkyn. And these two authors show you the general forms and aspects of the two systems in regard to the atonement and other related subjects.

I cannot quit the subject without suggesting a few things in the way of free and affectionate counsel to those who are candidates for the sacred office.

Guard then against overrating the comparative importance of particular portions of divine truth, and underrating the importance of others. We are not in danger of overrating the real, intrinsic importance of any of the truths of religion, as they are in themselves. But Ave may overrate their importance comparatively; and we may really as well as comparatively, undervalue other truths. Now a wrong judgment as to the value of different divine truths, is error, and, if acted out, will have the influence of error. It is like a portraiture of a man’s face which is false because it makes some of the features too large and prominent, and others too small. If you would avoid this error, you must learn the truths of religion chiefly from the word of God. Neglect not other means of knowledge, but rely principally on that book which is infallible. When you speak of any portion of divine truth, do as the sacred writers do–declare it freely and earnestly, maintain it and enforce it with all your heart, and show that you decidedly hold it, as a part of the counsel of God. For example; hold forth the depraved and lost state of man by nature, as the inspired writers do,–not hesitatingly, or circuitously, and with a studied smoothness or reserve, but seriously, freely and earnestly; and let it appear, that your own heart has been penetrated with it. Hold forth God’s eternal purpose to save a part of our race and his sovereign mercy in their effectual calling, as the Scriptures do. Repeat freely those passages of the Bible, which most plainly teach the doctrine. Speak unreservedly of the eternal purpose of God, of election, of those whom the Father has given to Christ, of his having mercy on whom he will have mercy, of salvation by grace, etc. And have no more fear than the apostles had, that this portion of truth will interfere with our moral, accountable agency, or with Christ’s willingness to save, or with any other truth. And when you come to the other part of evangelical truth, still copy the inspired writers. Declare unhesitatingly and earnestly, that God sent his Son to die for mankind, to make propitiation for the sins of the whole world, that there is in Christ an abounding of grace, an all-sufficiency for the salvation of a fallen world ; and that whosoever will, may come and take of the water of life freely. And never fear that a full declaration of these truths will displace the doctrine of election, or the special design of the atonement in regard to the elect. And when you call upon sinners to repent and accept of salvation, do it heartily and zealously ; urge it as a most necessary and reasonable duty,–the duty which a holy God requires sinners to perform, and on which their eternal salvation depends. And never be troubled with any fear, that, by thus earnestly inculcating upon sinners the work which God commands them to perform, you will interfere with the doctrine of the special and sovereign influence of the Spirit in the renewal of the heart. And learn from the example of Christ and the apostles, that no particular labor of yours is called for to reconcile these different portions of divine truth with one another. Christ and the apostles never labored for this; and there was no occasion for their doing it.

God has so formed the mind, that, when it is in any good measure in a right state, it will of itself work out a reconciliation among the different truths of revelation. Though in speculative reasoning there may be difficulties and apparent inconsistencies; there will be none in right moral feeling. The effect which a good man will experience in his own mind from each divine truth, will harmonize with the effect of every other truth. All the truths of the gospel, received into the heart, will work there consistently, and produce a united result in the sanctification of the whole man. Our intelligent and moral nature really demands every part of divine truth, and we suffer loss if any part is withheld. The neglect of any important truths will be likely to produce a real interference and jargon, which might be effectually prevented by the appropriate influence of the whole system of truth rightly apprehended. And your experience will show, that the more fully all parts of divine truth are held forth and received, the more consistency will there be in the effect produced in the sanctified mind. A partial, defective exhibition of the various doctrines of revelation tends to an unharmonious result. Inconsistencies spring up from the very fact, that some of the truths of the gospel are kept back, while other truths, being left alone, act upon us with difficulty and irregularity. The very circumstance, which may be intended to prevent inconsistency, occasions it. We do most for the glory of God, the harmony of divine truth, and the sanctification of believers, when we faithfully and fully declare all the doctrines of God’s word, and leave it to the Holy Spirit and the illuminated heart to show their consistency with each other.

Leonard Woods, ‘Lectures” in The Works of Leonard Woods, (Boston: John P. Jewett & Company, 1851), 490-521.  [Some reformatting; some spelling modernized; footnote values modernized; italics original; Greek words transliterated; and underlining mine.]

[Brief Biography:

WOODS, Leonard (19 June 1774-24 Aug. 1854), Congregational minister and professor of theology, was born in Princeton, Massachusetts, the son of Samuel Woods and Abigail Whitney, farmers. As a child Woods preferred books and school to farm work. After a serious illness left him unable to do physical labor, Woods was allowed to study for college in preparation for a career in the ministry.

After rudimentary preparation in his home town, Woods entered Harvard in 1792 and graduated at the top of his class in 1796. During his years at Harvard Woods was heavily influenced by the rationalist writings of Joseph Priestley and his interest in the ministry waned. After graduation he continued his studies at Harvard while teaching school at Medford, Massachusetts. There he developed a friendship with a young pastor, the Reverend Joseph Russel, and the two spent many hours discussing religion and theology. As a result, Woods was converted in 1797, and his desire to enter the ministry was renewed.

Woods abandoned his teaching position to study theology with the Reverend Charles Backus in Somers, Connecticut, during the winter of 1797-1798. In the spring he was licensed to preach by the Cambridge Association and was ordained late in 1798 as the pastor at Newbury, Massachusetts. In 1799 he completed his study for the master’s degree at Harvard and was married to Abigail Wheeler, daughter of the Reverend Joseph Wheeler; the Woods had ten children. Abigail Woods died in 1846, and Woods later married the widow of Dr. Ansel Ives; she outlived him.

Perhaps Woods’s greatest contribution to American church history was his work in uniting the two warring Calvinist factions in the Congregational church in the early 1800s. Congregationalist theology of the day was based largely on the theology of John Calvin as modified by Jonathan Edwards: When Woods entered the ministry the Congregational church was split into three theological groups: two factions of Calvinists, Moderate or Old Calvinists and the Consistent Calvinists or Hopkinsians (named for their mentor, Samuel Hopkins), and a liberal faction, later known as Unitarians. Discontent among the three factions over the degree of Calvinism necessary to be called a Congregationalist simmered for nearly a generation until 1805, when the Unitarian Controversy, which led in 1825 to the creation of a separate Unitarian denomination, began.

Before 1805 each group of Calvinists had taken tentative steps to counter the growing liberal sentiment of many of the clerics in and around Boston. Both factions had founded organizations (the Massachusetts Missionary Society in 1799 by the Consistent Calvinists and the Massachusetts General Association in 1803 by the Moderates) and magazines (the Hopkinsian Massachusetts Missionary Magazine in 1803 and the Old Calvinist Panoplist in 1805) to counter liberal theology in the churches. When Harvard, which became a bastion of Unitarianism, appointed a liberal to the Hollis Professorship of Divinity in 1805, the Calvinist factions launched separate movements to lay plans for theological seminaries.

Well respected by the leaders of both the Moderate and Consistent Calvinists, Woods was in a unique position to bring about a reconciliation between the two factions, and he and Jedidiah Morse proposed a plan for union. Their plan found favor among the Moderates, but the Consistent Calvinists, led by the Reverend Samuel Spring, held out for greater assurance of theological purity. After many months of negotiations a compromise was reached in May 1808. The two movements joined together to establish Andover Theological Seminary, located at Andover, Massachusetts. The seminary was subject to the control of the Moderate Calvinist trustees of Phillips Academy but also came under the supervision of a board of visitors comprising Hopkinsians. It was further stipulated that each professor of theology should subscribe to the Westminster Shorter Catechism and a creed (Andover Creed) prepared by Spring. The union was completed with the merger of both magazines into a single publication in June and the appointment of Leonard Woods as the first professor of theology.

Woods served as the sole professor of theology for thirty-eight years. Although he was not given to brilliant or original thinking, Woods was nonetheless a competent and influential instructor. His style of teaching was cautious but thorough, delivered in a simple, clear manner. What he lacked in originality he made up for in kindness and compassion for his students. Aside from his teaching duties, Woods was extremely active in the vast network of religious voluntary societies that flourished in early nineteenth century America. He served in positions of leadership on the boards of directors for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Tract Society, the American Education Society, and the American Temperance Society.

Woods also authored numerous theological books and essays. Of his many writings, two stand out as most significant. The pamphlets constituting the Wood ‘n Ware Controversy (1820-1822) has been called the “best theological discussions of human nature in American church history” by the eminent church historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom. Initiated by Woods’s appraisal of William Ellery Channing’s manifesto-like Baltimore sermon (1819), Woods and Henry Ware engaged in a four-year, five-volume debate over the origin of sin and the basic nature of man, with Woods defending the Calvinists’ insistence that the inherent depravity of man was part of God’s divine plan for good in the world and Ware defending the Unitarians’ view of the “essential sameness” between God and man and the impossibility of God creating sin for the good of mankind. This paper controversy marked the opening phase of the Unitarian Controversy, which, as previously noted, would rend the Congregational church in two.

The second dispute sprung indirectly from the first. Nathaniel W. Taylor, professor of theology at Yale University, reviewed Woods’s defense of Calvinism and stated that Woods had set the cause of Calvinism back fifty years with his archaic defense of the doctrine of Original Sin. In the major work of his career, Conico ad Clerum (1828), Taylor argued that sin is man’s free choice, not a result of the original sin of Adam. In Letters to Taylor (1830), Woods charged that Taylor’s scheme denied the sovereignty of God by granting man an omnipotent power to choose a power that God could not override. As a result of the Taylor-Woods dispute, the Congregationalists of Connecticut divided into supporters and opponents of “Taylorism.” The opponents, led by Bennett Tyler, eventually severed their ties to Yale and founded the Hartford Theological Seminary in 1834. It is a sad irony that the pivotal figure in preserving the unity of Calvinistic Congregationalists during the early days of the Unitarian Controversy would also be an important player in the fracturing of that unity in the 1830s.

Woods retired from Andover in 1846. He then spent the remaining years of his life in Andover writing a history of the seminary and compiling his lectures, essays, and sermons into a five-volume work. He died in Andover.       Source: American National Biography, (New York, OUP, 1999), 23:813-814.]


1I am happy to quote here a passage from the Rev. R. S. Candlish, D. D. of Edinburgh, who earnestly maintains the doctrine of a limited atonement. In his recent work on the Atonement he says: “That the death of Christ has a certain reference to all men universally–that it has a certain bearing even upon the lost–we must hold and maintain; because we maintain that it lays the foundation for the offer of the gospel to all men universally, and lays the foundation for that offer being honest and free on the part of God. This could not be, without some sort of relation existing between the death of Christ and every impenitent and unbelieving man who is called to receive the gospel.”He does not undertake to explain that relation, only that it is such as to lay a foundation for the gospel offer. See his work on the Atonement, p. 137, 2d edit. Edinburgh, 1845.

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