In this series, I forward a considered case for a universal atonement, presenting what I find to be the most compelling arguments for it, defining what exactly it entails, and interacting with the most common and persuasive objections against it.
This is part 6 of 6, in which I consider and confute the objection that a universal atonement would not actually secure or guarantee salvation for anyone.
The last objection I’ll interact with in this series is the one which tries to show that a universal atonement is really an impotent atonement. In the words of one correspondent, in a private email exchange, people such as myself
clearly cannot say that the satisfaction of Christ secures the salvation of all those for whom it was made [...] The atonement itself does not guarantee the salvation of those for whom it was made [...] All the satisfaction can do is make it possible for God then to choose whom to save and then to secure their salvation by some other means. Moreover, since there is no other satisfaction made to his justice, this other means (eg, irresistible grace) is simply an exercise of God’s sovereign will, not an act stemming from the justice of God (eg, to fulfill the obligation arising from the satisfaction of his justice).1
At first glance, this seems like a good objection. It certainly gave me pause for thought. But upon reflection, it begins to appear rather confused. I think there are at least three obvious difficulties with it:
I. Huh? And, so what?
Firstly, what does it mean to say that the atonement does not guarantee or secure the salvation of all those for whom it was made? These terms are ambiguous. I can, for instance, go to SkyCity Chartwell and secure tickets for myself to see a movie. This guarantees that I will have a seat if I show up and present my ticket. But it doesn’t guarantee that I will show up and present my ticket. So, with that analogy in mind (even if it is a rather pecuniary one), it doesn’t appear that the objection—as stated at least—gains much traction against the universal view, under which Christ purchased movie tickets for everyone, but only the elect bother to show up at the cinema.
In light of this, I think the objection needs to be rephrased. What actually seems to be at issue is whether or not the atonement is a sufficient cause of justification. Under the universal view, of course, it is only a necessary cause—it had to happen in order for anyone to be justified, because it provides the grounds for justification by providing satisfaction to God’s justice. But it does not itself effect that justification, since although the satisfaction was made on the cross, there are still other conditions which must be fulfilled in order for it to be applied to anyone. This seems to be what the particularist is objecting to—yet it’s hard to see why he considers it a problem. It looks rather like he is just begging the question again. There aren’t any clear reasons for rejecting the view that the atonement is a necessary-but-not-sufficient cause of justification—except that it it doesn’t fit into the framework of particular atonement.
II. The alternative is unscriptural…
Secondly, as I’ve covered already in this series, the view that the atonement is, in and of itself, the sufficient cause of justification is highly problematic. If it were the case that the atonement “secured” salvation for the elect in the sense which is apparently intended by this objection—namely, that it satisfied the demands of God’s justice against all the elect, and this satisfaction itself guarantees their salvation—then it follows inevitably that the elect are justified from the cross. Since God’s wrath toward all the elect was appeased in about 29 AD, no elect person after that time could be under his wrath. But we know from Scripture and from experience that, in fact, we are all “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3) until we are made a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) by the rebirth in the Spirit. If the particularist is right in his objection, then he has some hard questions to answer regarding the purpose of the rebirth and the ordo salutis.
III. …while the view being objected to is scriptural
Thirdly, on the other side of that coin, the view which the particularist is objecting to is manifestly biblical. Indeed, it is the Reformed view—so he seems to be contradicting himself. Notice how the objection is that, under the universal view, the satisfaction of Christ only makes it possible for God to choose whom to save, and that he then has to secure their salvation by some other means. Well, maybe this is stating the obvious, but…“other means” such as faith? If, in fact, we are “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1), then plainly it is impossible that we are justified by the atonement as the particularist seems to want to say—that is, that the atonement itself is the sufficient cause of our justification. This is why we aren’t justified from the cross—because justification is by faith. (Unless the particularist is suggesting that we are justified twice—and it’s very hard to see what that even means.) Certainly, the atonement is a necessary cause of justification, since it provides the very grounds for satisfying the demands of God’s justice against us. And certainly, even, the work of Christ (whether in the atonement or not) is a necessary cause of our faith also, since Jesus is both its founder and perfecter (Hebrews 12:2). But just as certainly, the particularist cannot turn around and say that what he means is that the atonement must be the sufficient cause of faith, and by this relationship is then also the sufficient cause of justification. Clearly it is not. The atonement does not, in and of itself, bring about faith. Once more, without emotion: the atonement is the grounds for faith and for justification. It is what makes them possible—but it isn’t what makes them actual. It is the indwelling of the Spirit which makes faith actual; and it is faith which makes justification actual.
So this final objection once again highlights why it is so unreasonable to treat the atonement as a simple pecuniary transaction, as the particularist view is wont to do. Rather than gaining any real traction against universal atonement, it tends rather to discredit itself—as has been the case with all the rest of the objections I’ve handled.
To conclude, then, I can find no good reason to believe that the atonement is limited in the sense which most Calvinists today seem to mean. Rather, it is the historical alternative which is both reasonable and scriptural: namely, that Christ, in his death, represented all mankind, satisfying the demands of the law before God, and so made salvation possible for everyone without distinction who might appeal to that atonement—though it is apprehended only by the elect, through faith.