It has been justly remarked, that ” there are three questions ‘respecting what has been termed the extent of the death of Christ, all of them of deep interest, though not of equal importance. Some hold that Christ died for all men, so as to secure their salvation;–this is a question between the Universalists and the great body of Christians, whether Calvinists or Arminians. Some hold that he died for all men, so as to procure for them easier terms of acceptance, and sufficient divine aid to enable them, to avail themselves of these terms;–this is a question between Arminians ‘(or rather perhaps between those Arminians who verge towards Pelagianism)’ and Calvinists. Some hold that not only did Christ die with the intention of saving the elect, but that he died for all men, so as to remove all the obstacles in the way of man’s salvation, except those which arise out of his own indisposition to receive it;–this is a question among Calvinists,”2 a question belonging to that category of controversies sometimes designated ” controversies among the orthodox.” It is well known that the last of these questions has recently attracted a considerable portion of attention in Scotland, particularly among the ministers and members of the United Secession. That there should not prevail among them a perfect identity of sentiment and speech on this topic, will seem less surprising, if it is considered that their subordinate standards leave room for some slight diversity. The Confession of Faith, and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, if they do not explicitly inculcate, seem evidently to countenance the doctrine of a limited atonement, the doctrine that the Savior died solely and exclusively for the elect.3 But the Testimony last emitted, like some former official documents, teaches, that so far as the requisitions of law and justice are concerned, he has removed all obstacles to the salvation of all; a principle which lies at the basis of the preaching probably of every evangelical minister in Scotland.

There can be little doubt that in the Secession, and indeed in almost every other Christian community, the present tendency of opinion is towards that view of the Savior’s sacrifice, which regards it as having a general or extended reference, as wearing a benignant aspect to the race at large. Many who, a few years ago, would have been shocked at the assertion that Christ died for any besides the elect, will now admit that in some sense he died for all. Even of those, however, who concede this, the greater proportion repudiate the expression, if not the notion, of a universal atonement: while there are still many who maintain confidently that the Savior suffered and made atonement only for a limited and definite number.

There is reason to think that the prejudice against the doctrine of what is called a universal atonement originates in misapprehensions respecting it; misapprehensions engendered in part by the errors and extravagancies which have been blended with it by some of its professed friends. It would therefore be a service eminently seasonable, and of no small value, to furnish a distinct statement of the doctrine, and to separate it from the doubtful speculations and mistaken opinions which have been engrafted upon it. Such a statement, it is apprehended, will be found in the following Essay, extracted from an old and valuable treatise, which unhappily is now comparatively little known. The fragment here reprinted divides itself into two parts. The first is occupied in proving that ” Christ died for all men;” the second in proving that ” he did not die for all equally; that, while his death secures infallibly the salvation of the elect, it merely places the rest of mankind in what is called a salvable state–a state ill which they may be saved on gospel terms.”

Such is a summary of the doctrine advanced in the following pages relative to the design and extent of Christ’s death. And such in substance is the doctrine of general redemption, or atonement, as maintained by Bp. Davenant, by Truman, by Richard Baxter, and by various other authors of the seventeenth century. This seems to be nearly, if not identically, the doctrine which the Marrow divines were seeking, “if haply they might feel after it and rind it,” when they spoke of the ” universal deed of gift and grant of the Savior,” and represented saving faith as consisting in ” a person believing that Christ died for him in particular.” It seems probable also, that of this doctrine Ebenezer Erskine, the venerable father of the Secession, had not indeed a distinct apprehension but a dim glimpse, not a firm faith but a faint belief, when he asserted that ” all mankind, and especially gospel hearers, have such an interest in Christ’s death as warrants [each of] them to say in faith, ” He loved me, and gave himself for me.” It is probable too that some such doctrine as this was the mark at which our forefathers of the Secession aimed, when they declared that ” the Lord Jesus Christ, in the glorious constitution of his person as God-man, doth stand in an equal or undistinguished relation of a Kinsman-Redeemer to mankind-sinners as such; and that the atonement and righteousness of Christ are in themselves of a justice-satisfying and law-magnifying nature, containing the utmost of what law and justice can require for repairing the whole breach of the covenant of works, and fulfilling the same, in order to the justification of mankind-sinners as such.” In thus expressing themselves they evidently overshot the mark; and, as if destined to furnish an instructive proof of human fallibility, countenanced an Arminian dogma in their very “Act against Arminian errors.”

First, then, from the statement here given it follows, that the doctrine that Christ died, or made atonement for all men, ought not to be identified or associated with any particular theory respecting the order of the divine purposes. Some of the recent advocates of this doctrine have most injudiciously encumbered it with extraneous difficulties, by incorporating with it tenets exceedingly questionable, if not positively erroneous. In particular, they have connected with it the tenet, that while the purpose of atonement and that of election are simultaneous, having each existed in the Divine mind from eternity, the former is to be conceived of as prior in what is called the order of nature. This is an assertion which, even if true, is somewhat “hard to be understood.” The atonement is a means for the accomplishment of an end; and the ends which it was to accomplish were twofold; one respecting mankind generally, another relating to a select and limited number. In human schemes the idea of the end precedes that of the means; and therefore it may reasonably be presumed that what the abettors of the assertion in question intend to affirm is this, that the first of the ends just mentioned is to be conceived of as in the order of nature prior to the other; not surely that the atonement was resolved on irrespectively of its objects and results. Even in this modified view, the tenet is liable to great, if not to insurmountable objections. It seems to be at variance with several statements of Scripture, and it relates to a subject which is almost altogether above the sphere of the human faculties, namely, the mode of the operations of the Infinite mind. If it is not to be classed with those questions of which Bishop Butler says that “there is a great impropriety even in asking them,” and that “they have been rashly determined, and perhaps with equal rashness contrary ways,” it is at least a subject on which no man of wisdom and humility will permit himself to dogmatize.

But whether this tenet be true or false, and whether it be within or beyond the range of our knowledge, it must not be considered either as an integral part, or a necessary concomitant of the doctrine of a general atonement. It is scarcely, if at all mentioned in the following essay; an omission the more remarkable that the Essay is extracted from a treatise on the very subject of the Divine decrees. Bishop Davenant, who has written at great length, and with great learning and ability, in defense both of a general and special reference in the death of Christ, adverts to this question, but for what purpose? Simply that he may decline the discussion of it; and accordingly he characterizes it as “a thorny question, which has been tossed about by many, and which has vexed all who have undertaken to discuss it.” And we shall do well to imitate the caution and modesty of this excellent writer; lest, in attempting to penetrate the arcana of the Supreme Ruler, we transgress the salutary maxim of the son of Sirach, “Seek not after that which is too hard for thee: and search not into the things that are above thy strength.”

It may just be added, that even if it could be demonstrated, (which probably it cannot,) that an atonement intended both for general and special purposes, implies necessarily some sort of priority in the former, we should not be authorized to attribute this opinion to any except those by whom it is explicitly avowed. “if,” says Mr. Fuller, “if a principle be proposed to us for acceptance, it is right to weigh the consequences; but, when forming our judgment of the person who holds it, we should attach nothing to him but what he perceives and avows.”

Robert Balmer, “Preface,” in Essay on the Extent of the Death of Christ from the Treatise on the Divine Will, by Edward Polhil, Esq. (Berwick: Thomas Melrose, 1842), iii-viii. [Some reformatting; some spelling modernized; footnote values modernized; Footnote #1 mine; and underlining mine.]

[Note: 1) The simple point is, contra Warfield, et al,  that the alleged connection between an unlimited expiation and any given lapsarian ordering of the decrees is an irrelevant, indeed, speculative and unnecessary connection, which sadly is often pejoratively intended by detractors.  For example, Warfield’s “post-redemption decree” characterization is a rabbit hole leading to nowhere. 2) On the other hand, moderate Calvinists in the past who have bought into lapsarian speculation have also performed a disservice to themselves and to others.]

[Credit to Tony for the link find.]


1[Balmer, Robert, D.D., 1787-1844, Prof, of Systematic Theology to the United Secession Church. Academical Lectures and Pulpit Discourses, 2 vols., Edin., 1845.]

2See Dr. Brown’s Opinions on Faith, &c. p. 68.

3Confession viii. 5.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 20th, 2010 at 8:40 am and is filed under God who Ordains. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

Comments are closed at this time.