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,“1 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.2 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 spake 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.”
The statement of the doctrine of a general atonement given in the following extracts may not be absolutely faultless; but a statement of it less exceptionable could not easily be selected. Assuming what, it is apprehended, the Author has abundantly proved, that his doctrine, at least in all its essential peculiarities, is accordant with Scripture, that doctrine suggests various important remarks and inferences, some of which it may not be improper to specify.
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 authorised 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.”
Assuming the general correctness of the representation given in the following pages, of the designs and results of the death of Christ, it leads us to rem. ark, in the next place, that in this controversy, as in almost every other, there are perilous extremes on both sides, into which the disputants have been betrayed. By some it is asserted that Christ died and made atonement for the elect solely, and in no sense whatever for the rest of mankind. But, not to mention other decisive objections to this opinion, it may be sufficient to remark, that if it be well-founded, the death of Christ can not constitute an adequate basis for the universal overtures of the gospel; and multitudes are invited to the “feast of fat things” for whom that feast was never intended.
On the other hand, it has been maintained that he died alike for all; and that his atonement was intended in precisely the same sense for Judas as for Peter, or James, or John. In vindication of this language it may perhaps be alleged, that an atonement, viewed in itself, is just a satisfaction, something in virtue of which pardon and other blessings may be dispensed in consistency with the claims of law and justice. But if the death of Christ has removed all legal obstacles to the salvation of all, it must be an atonement, and a complete atonement for all; and to speak of it as being only a partial and imperfect atonement for any, would be most derogatory to its character. In vindication of the language under consideration it might be farther alleged, that the sacrifice of Christ does not of itself remove internal as well as external and legal obstructions; that it does not of itself confer, nor was it ever intended that of itself, and apart from other causes, it should confer pardon, sanctification, and life eternal; and that if it did, it would supersede entirely the work of the Spirit, and all the other operations of Christ himself.
In reply to this reasoning it may be admitted, that in one sense, and that perhaps the most strict and proper sense, a sense sanctioned not only by the practice of orthodox writers, but by Scripture, the death of Christ is a true and perfect satisfaction or atonement for all. It accomplishes on behalf of all the grand and essential objects of an atonement rendering it consistent with the Divine character and government to grant to all pardon, and every other blessing. In this view, it is a true and perfect satisfaction for mankind-sinners as such. Indeed the very notion of an imperfect satisfaction involves an incongruity and a contradiction; and hence it follows that for every man for whom the death of the Savior was an atonement at all, it was a true and complete atonement.
But it must be remarked farther, that while the sacrifice of Christ may be contemplated simply in itself, that is, as a satisfaction to justice, and as the means or basis of pardon, there is another aspect in which it must be viewed. It must be contemplated not only in connexion with the Divine appointment ordaining it, and without which it could not have been an atonement for any man, but with the Divine purposes and arrangements regarding it. It must be contemplated, in short, in connexion with all the results which it was intended to effect or ensure, whether by its direct or its indirect, its exclusive or combined operation. When the subject is thus viewed, it would obviously be most unwarrantable to assert that the Savior died alike for all: or that his death, while it was a true and proper atonement for all, was intended for all in precisely the same sense. To the elect it secures, and was intended to secure, the communication of all saving blessings; the rest of the race it merely puts into a salvable state, bringing salvation within their reach. To affirm, then, that the Son of God died equally for Judas and Nero as for Peter and Paul, is to use language which, if true in a certain sense, is absolutely false in the sense in which it is most likely to be understood; language which is not only not sanctioned, but which is discountenanced by the general current of Scripture phraseology, and which is much more likely to offend good taste, and outrage pious feeling, than to instruct ignorance or remove prejudice. These remarks pave the way for another observation of no small importance, and that is, that there is good ground for apprehending that various questions at present agitated respecting the extent of the atonement are little better than ”strifes of words,” injudicious, if not “perverse disputings of men,” who, though not wholly “ignorant of the truth,” do not discern it clearly and fully. Indeed it may well seem strange that on this subject there should be any controversy among moderate Calvinists. They all admit, on the one hand, the doctrines of sovereign election and special grace; and from these doctrines it follows, as an obvious corollary, that in the eternal appointment and the actual accomplishment of the atonement, the Father and the Son must have contemplated the elect with special views and sentiments, with a peculiar love. On the other hand, they admit not less explicitly the sincerity and universality of the gospel offer; and they admit, farther, that that offer is based entirely on the Savior’s sacrifice; and, from these admissions, it follows plainly that his sacrifice must, in some sense, have been offered for all. Is it not, then, but reasonable to suppose, that when it is asserted by one class of these theologians, that the atonement was intended for “mankind-sinners as such,” and that it was “made equally for all,” the term atonement is used in its most restricted acceptation, as denoting merely that which satisfies divine justice, which removes legal obstacles, which renders it consistent with divine honor to dispense pardon? And when it is asserted by the other class that the atonement ensures infallibly the eternal salvation of the elect, is it not equally evident that the atonement is contemplated not in its peculiar or exclusive functions, but in connexion with the decree of election, and as the fulfillment of the stipulations of the eternal covenant, the fulfillment of which secures pardon, and every other blessing, not to all, but to a limited and definite number? These suppositions require no great stretch of charity; indeed not to admit them demands a considerable portion of perversity or uncharitableness. But if these suppositions are admitted, it follows that the parties referred to are fighting in the dark; that they contradict each other chiefly because the former view the atonement simply in itself, the latter view it in connexion with other arrangements; and of course that the controversy betwixt them is little better than a mischievous logomachy. “How is it that we do not understand?” If there be any truth in the preceding observations, they inculcate most forcibly the propriety of reconsidering the subject without passion or prejudice; and they inculcate farther the propriety of mutual forbearance. To those who allow that the offer of salvation is founded only on the sacrifice of Christ, and that this offer is universal, but who recoil with terror from the idea of a universal atonement, it might not unfitly be said, Why object to the name, when you virtually admit the thing? “You are terrified and affrighted, and suppose that you see a spirit. But why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?” Examine the features, and listen to the voice of the object of your dread; and you will recognize the looks and tones of one whose presence will fill you with wonder and joy. “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” On the other hand, let those who maintain formally and explicitly, that Christ died for all men, “suffer the word of exhortation.” To object to the phrase, a universal atonement, for which you cherish so strong a predilection, may seem as unreasonable as to object to the parallel expressions, “a ransom for all,” and “a propitiation for the sins of the whole world.” But while you vindicate your liberty, “take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling-block to them that are weak.” Recollect that though it would be most preposterous and iniquitous to “make a man an offender for a word,” yet if a man employ on almost every subject an ambiguous and offensive phraseology, a phraseology which, though susceptible of a scriptural sense, will almost certainly convey an unscriptural impression: and if, “after a first and second admonition,” he refuse to be corrected, he ought to be “rejected.” He is ”a heretic” in the scriptural, if not the popular sense of the term; he “causes divisions and offenses;” in the indulgence of his own senseless pride, he manifests an utter disregard for the spiritual comfort and edification of others; and he deserves suspension, not perhaps for his ignorance or his errors, but for his incapacity to teach, for his incorrigible folly, vanity, and self-conceit. A cautious and prudent, if not a reserved and sparing use of the expression more particularly referred to, may the more reasonably be required from those who prefer it, when it is considered that in all probability the time is not distant when the employment of it will give no offense whatever. Twelve years ago, the supreme court of the United Secession church passed an Act condemning the doctrine of a universal atonement, and forbidding the use of the phrase. But how great the change effected within the last two years. The doctrine of a general reference in the death of Christ has been officially recognized,–such a reference as necessarily implies a universal atonement, for surely nothing but a universal atonement could have opened the door of mercy for all, unless God can pardon sin without a satisfaction. And though the expression is not yet stamped by the seal of judicial approbation, the chief lets to the use of it are taken out of the way; and already it is sanctioned by such authority as will speedily ensure its all but universal adoption. In such circumstances, the individuals more immediately addressed in the preceding observations need much more to be warned against impatience and precipitation than to be stimulated to boldness and activity. These advices may perhaps be deemed impertinent and presumptuous; they are tendered, however, not only wit’-out any pretension to superiority, but with all due deference and respect. At the risk of giving offense, an additional observation of an admonitory character may be hazarded. Let all the teachers and rulers of the church remember, that while they are required to contend earnestly for the truth on every subject in religion, they cannot perform this duty aright unless they know clearly what the truth is; and unless they know farther, and know accurately, the sentiments of those with whom they contend. Let them recollect too, that they are to “assert the truth in love;” and that they must take special care not to invade the prerogative of the great Head of the church, by adding to the terms of ministerial or Christian fellowship prescribed in his word. “Receive ye one another, as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.”
The treatise reprinted in the following pages will serve to corroborate and reinforce both the doctrinal conclusions and the practical lessons now suggested. In combination with other kindred causes, it will perhaps contribute, not to produce a radical change of sentiment respecting the extent of the atonement, but to facilitate the transition of our language and ideas on this subject from a state of comparative confusion and contradiction, to a state of clearness and consistency. By the Divine blessing it may serve also to restrain those who are in danger of running too far; and thus it may accelerate the general adoption of that view of the subject towards which many intelligent and devout spirits are visibly tending; in which, it may be hoped, they will find rest; and in which, it may be farther hoped, our “churches will have rest, and be edified, and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, will be multiplied.” Judging from present appearances, it may be confidently anticipated that some who now differ will “soon speak the same thing, will be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment;”and that, “with one mind and one mouth they will glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”This is doubtless “a consummation devoutly to be wished;” but should this consummation fail to be realized, there is another result scarcely less desirable, which may surely be expected, and that is, the toleration, the explicit toleration of a slight diversity of expression, on a point respecting’ which the two parties, if they understand the other principles which they mutually avow, cannot differ widely in sentiment, if they differ at all.
In addition to what has already been stated, it may be proper to mention, that Edward Polhill, the Author of the Essay here reprinted, was a layman, a Justice of peace for the county of Sussex, in the period of the Commonwealth, or soon after the Restoration, His treatise on the “Divine Will,” &c., from which the following pages are extracted, seems to have been first published in 1673; and it is recommended in strong terms, though with a slight exception, by one whose recommendation will have, as it deserves to have, great weight, and who has been characterized as “the prince of theologians.” “The modesty,” says Dr. Owen, “wherewith he dissents from others, or opposes their sentiments, without severe reflections on persons or opinions, is also another thing which deserves both commendation and imitation; and the consideration thereof gives me the confidence in these few lines, designed unto another end, to express my own dissent from some of his apprehensions, especially about the object and extent of redemption. Had I seen this discourse before it was wholly printed, 1 should have communicated to the author my thoughts upon that subject, and upon some few other passages in it; but where there is an agreement in the substance and design of any doctrine, as there is between my judgment and what is here solidly declared, it is our duty to bear with each other in things circumstantial, or different explanations of the same truth, when there is no incursion made upon the main principles we own.” In terms not less laudatory, and much more striking. are the work and its author commended by Dr. Lazarus Seaman, who was a member of the Westminster Assembly, and not likely to countenance any doctrine regarded as grossly heretical by that venerable convocation. “I have had a knowledge of him,” says Dr. S., “from his childhood, and have been certified of his domestical piety and exemplariness in all which appertains to the practice of piety. Concerning the book, it needs not patron or advocate; let it speak for itself. ‘Ætatem habet.’ It is of age. It quickly shows ‘arma vinimque,’ the spirit of the man and his weapons. This pleases me above all the rest, that though it treats of most intricate and mysterious controversies, yet that is done humbly, reverently, freely, and with candor.”
Perhaps it may not be unnecessary to repeat, that it is not for a moment intended to insinuate that the following performance is free from faults or imperfections. Some of its expressions and statements are certainly unguarded; and some of its reasonings are inconclusive. On the whole, however, it contains an admirable discussion of a question which is not unimportant in itself, and which is intimately connected with some of the most vital portions of sacred truth. While this discussion is conducted with great clearness and ability, it is conducted also in a tone and spirit eminently Christian, with distinguished piety, humility, and charity. In addition to its cardinal and substantial excellencies, the following Essay possesses “a double portion” of those attractions, which, though only of inferior, are yet not of little value. The composition, notwithstanding its antiquated cast, is singularly beautiful; being embellished with a profusion of graceful and striking images, and of most felicitous Scripture allusions. It may therefore be hoped that this republication, while it will serve its more immediate object of throwing light on a much-agitated question, will aid also in reviving a taste for the illustrious authors “who flourished in the most momentous epoch of our political and religious history, and whose works contain an inexhaustible mine of most precious doctrinal and practical instruction.
With a short extract from another of these authors this Preface may be appropriately concluded. The extract is interesting and valuable as an unequivocal expression of the opinion relative to the extent of the atonement, entertained by a man whose preaching and writings have been more signally blessed of Heaven than those of almost any other preacher or writer that Britain has ever produced. And it is still more interesting and valuable as concentrating into a focus a large portion of the light reflected on this subject from that Sun, of whose beams human luminaries are merely the media of transmission, and severed from which the light in them is but darkness. “Would you believe,” says Richard Baxter, “that Christ died for all men, if the Scriptures plainly speak it? If you would, do but tell me what words can you devise, or would you wish, more plain for it, than are there used? Is it not enough that Christ is called ‘ the Savior of the world?’ You will say, But is it of the whole world? Yes; it says, ‘ He is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world.’ Will you say. But it is not for all men in the world. Yes; it says he died for all men as well as for the world. But you will say. It means all the elect; if it said so of any non-elect, I would believe. Yes; it speaks of these that ‘denied the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.'”
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-xvii. [Some spelling modernized; some reformatting; footnote values modernized; footnote content original; and underlining mine.]
[Notes: 1) In 1842, Robert Balmer republished an extract of Edward Polhil on the extent of the death of Christ. Polhil was an articulate classic-moderate Calvinist and puritan in the 17th century. The above is Balmer’s original preface, entire and complete. 2) The reader should take note his attempts to walk between the two extreme claims, that Christ died equally for all, on the one hand, or, this, any sense that Christ died for anyone, he only died for the elect, on the other hand. 3) Note also Balmer’s reference to moderate Calvinists.]
[Balmer, Robert, D.D., 1787-1844, Prof, of Systematic Theology to the United Secession Church. Academical Lectures and Pulpit Discourses, 2 vols.,Edin., 1845.]
1See Dr. Brown’s Opinions on Faith, &c. p. 68.
2Confession viii. 5.