on the 900th Anniversary of the death of Anselm of Canterbury
the 500th Anniversary of the birth of John Calvin
(July 10, 1509)
the 400th Anniversary of the death of James Arminius
(October 19, 1609)
the 400th Anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims in Leiden
Ronald L. Roper
Dedicated to the theological community of Western Michigan—
Hope College • Western Theological Seminary • Andrews University
Calvin College and Seminary • Aquinas College
Protestant Reformed Theological School
Grace Bible College • Kuyper College • Cornerstone University
Grand Rapids Theological Seminary • Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary
Origins, Implications, and Problems of Penal Atonement
Anselm of Canterbury, John Calvin, and Jacob Arminius held significant theological ground in common. For instance, it can be shown that Arminius defended certain of Calvin’s undoubted tenets, notably, unlimited atonement, against the field of the latter’s epigones. While such examples of common ground are of some significance for my purpose, I wish to focus primarily on the doctrinal ramifications that proliferated necessarily, though with widely varying consistency among theologians, from Calvin’s novel elaboration of penal substitution, or what I shall call “penal satisfaction,” which better highlights both its juridical and economic concerns. Thereafter I wish to propose a polar shift of orientation for that system of doctrines orbiting penal atonement and then draw out some implications for Christian theology and practice.
To be sure, Calvin did not originate the theory of penal satisfaction. It was the Italian Roman Catholic theologian Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, who first articulated it. However, Anselm only posed it as one of two possible options to atone for sins, but he did not elaborate, because, according to him, it was not the alternative God chose anyway. Rather, God opted for “vicarious satisfaction,” which did not entail His expenditure of wrath for its efficacy. Instead, vicarious satisfaction focused on the restoration or legal satisfaction of God’s honor, which had suffered infraction by human sin. Accordingly, Jesus, being divine as well as human, restored God’s honor by repaying with his infinite merit whatever God had lost due to the debt of human offenses, an achievement impossible for any fallen human being. His obedience to the death of the Cross was the ultimate repayment or satisfaction to God. This approach drew on prevalent feudal concepts of civil law. It is surely noteworthy that Christ’s Resurrection played no role whatever, indeed, is scarcely mentioned, in Anselm’s famous book on the Atonement, Cur Deus homo (“Why the God Man?” or “Why God Became Man”) published in 1098 A.D. We shall have occasion to recur to this striking neglect.
By the time Calvin was writing, 450 years later, with the rise of nation states, the legal culture had changed dramatically. Now criminal law took on a more prominent role and Calvin, a lawyer by training, picked up and dusted off the alternative Anselm had rejected, penal substitution, and abandoned, in turn, Anselm’s preferential option of vicarious satisfaction. However, in line with Calvin’s choice sin still continued to be conceived after the economic analogy of debt needing to be repaid, although the required satisfaction was now construed in criminal rather than civil terms. Both agreed on the vicarious nature of Christ’s death, since he was not undergoing the rigors of his divine mission for his own benefit but for those who were sinfully impotent to acquire salvation for themselves. Yet Calvin’s version went beyond Anselm’s simple vicarious deed of martial and heroic dimensions to a full-bore substitutionary deflection of a divine penalty for sin away from the guilty and onto the innocent. There were both legal and economic analogies to juggle along with moral/ethical ones. Accordingly, Christ was theorized as paying for the debts (economic) of others by suffering in their stead the penalty (juridical) of God’s wrath upon their sin, in exchange (economic) for their forgiveness (moral/ethical) by the Father.
In both Anselm’s and Calvin’s constructions, some sort of strict economic equivalence was generally understood to obtain between the amount paid and the goods purchased. But this necessarily posed a dilemma when applied to the Atonement: Did Jesus pay for the debts of the whole human world, or only a part? Once the rigid logic of penal satisfaction was accepted, it ineluctably imposed its own terms on the discussion, and there could be no graceful exit. Defenders were saddled with polar opposites contending vigorously within an inescapable dualism. Debates over the extent (economic analogy) of the Atonement have surged continuously ever since. The alternatives sorted out as “limited,” “definite,” or “particular” atonement on the one hand, and “unlimited,” “indefinite,” “general,” or “universal” atonement on the other (the latter eventually spawning also a “conditional” or “hypothetical” variety). Each of these two foundational alternatives, in turn, forced adjustments in several other doctrines and in predictable ways, as we shall see.
One of Calvin’s great virtues was systematic comprehensiveness of Scriptural treatment, but not necessarily systematic consistency. He placed matters in apposition that were boggling to harmonize, for instance, his assertion of God’s penal wrath toward His innocent Son, despite His evident delight in his innocence. The fervent Faustus Socinus later pointed out such irregularities, although he proposed an inadequate alternative to replace the underlying penal theory responsible. Notorious also was Calvin’s dizzying oscillation between God’s willing of all that happens, including evil, in tandem with his emphatic abjuring of divine evil, including guilt. When Calvin’s rationalizations proved too irrational to some minds, he could appeal to “mystery” and proceed to level objectors with withering and frightfully pious stock anathemas. Yet inelegant splicing lay on the very surface of his system, posing nettling incompatibilities that drove later attempts by his followers to iron out the dogmatic wrinkles, e.g., Johannes Piscator’s and William Ames’s development of imputation theory to account for the substitutionary mechanism in penal satisfaction. Whereas Copernicus had assayed to simplify the top-heavy theories of medieval astronomy by cleansing them from “retrograde motion” and “epicycles” in a single revolutionary displacement of the center of the solar system by some 93 million miles, Reformed theologians, ironically, were just commencing retrograde motions toward stultifying complications in the increasingly mundane science of theology.
One of the most famous and protracted controversies involved a backlash to the teaching of an unlimited atonement, which Calvin himself everywhere taught without apology or reservation in his Sermons, Commentaries and Institutes. Not surprisingly, however, under the spell of an incipient, deterministic system, his affirmation of the Atonement’s universal “sufficiency” was darkened by the shadow of an “efficacy” restricted by an arbitrary decree, and we’ve come back around in an epicycle. It was Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at the Academy in Geneva, who was especially concerned to resolve the inconsistency by denying unlimited atonement altogether, in diametric opposition to his mentor, and even passing off his alteration under the name of Calvinism. His protégé, William Perkins, followed this trend and placed Beza’s indelible stamp on many an English Puritan and Independent throughout the 17th century, most notably, John Owen. This was the origin of so-called “high,” “ultra-” or (more pejoratively) “hyper-” Calvinism, which was a decisive step away from Calvin himself, yet arguably toward a more internally consistent position, but consistent with what, exactly?
Jacob Arminius, a former student of Beza’s at the Academy, became the first pastor to be ordained among the Reformed in Amsterdam after the overthrow of Spanish rule in that city. He was a moderate Calvinist, subscribing to the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism, as expected. He soon encountered refugees from the south who were ultra-Calvinists, honing to a strict supralapsarian version of predestination, and he learned to deal with them pastorally. After fifteen moderately peaceful years in the pastorate, he was appointed professor of theology at the University of Leiden. There he was precipitously forced by an irregular and ill-meant academic challenge from the ultra-Calvinist Francis Gomarus to devote more time to unraveling this skein of post-Reformation Calvinism, in particular by engaging yet again the imbroglio of predestination. He thereby came to unreel a concatenation of other elements linked to it, including, most famously, “free will,” divine grace, and perseverance. Indeed, one might argue that it was on the strength of the mutual coherence of Calvin’s positions on these other topics (drawing massively, even more than Luther or Rome itself had, on Augustine’s novel precedents) that Beza had closed ranks further against an atonement unlimited in any sense, no matter that such a move contradicted a host of the plainest scriptures taken in context and aggregately.
Thus both Beza and Arminius were attempting to be more consistent than Calvin, who for his part had often been content to let perceived incompatibilities (for he also registered discomfort on occasion) coexist side by side. But whereas Beza was compelled toward an inner logical consistency with penal satisfaction, and virtually achieved it, Arminius, primarily an exegetical and biblical theologian with a systematic penchant, sought consistency with the text of Scripture supremely (“conformable to the Word of God”) and would doubtless have proceeded further but for being harried by bitter foes to an early grave. Yet the direction he was tending is not a matter of conjecture. The outcome of the challenge may have been a draw, logically speaking, but politically speaking Beza’s devotees won in the Netherlands. After maneuvering successfully to lock out anyone of Arminian persuasion, the Synod of Dort (1618-19) ensconced their opinions in its Canons and bound the state church and hence many generations of otherwise free consciences from indulging in further free and open exegesis, much less outright reformation of the disputed doctrines. In England, where Beza’s synthesis also made great strides, it was always challenged by many Puritans, Independents and Latitudinarians alike. In France, it was contested by the theological school at Saumur, influenced by the Scot, John Cameron, and especially by his student, Moses Amyraldus, and his followers, the Amyraldians.
At a subsurface level, insufficiently acknowledged from any side explicitly, there was a single driving force, a powerful undertow—the riptide of penal satisfaction assumptions. The broad variants in Calvin’s line—Beza, Arminius, Amyraldus, and beyond—held that course without a murmur. It has therefore controlled them all profoundly to a degree quite unacknowledged; it imperiously dictated the rules of the sober game they played, but who could have foreseen a wearisome centuries-long stalemate? The main contenders of the second and third generations did not always quite reflect Calvin’s own particular blend of these basic ingredients. But this nevertheless testifies to the uneasy dialectical tension between Scripture and the inherited presupposition of penal satisfaction that was prompting these restless, inconclusive shifts along a broad front over time. This might have led to further reformation of doctrine, but the Constantinian impulse that the Reformers learned all too well from the mother church that nurtured them married their opinions to the sword and drew blood at signs of any further movement, thus halting the mounting Dutch Reformation at the point where it ran stuck in 1619. They settled for “Reformed.”
If the theory of penal satisfaction was truly in accord with Scripture, why should such tensions and attendant bitterness arise to split the ranks and prevent the corollary doctrines from coming to a well-deserved rest on the Ararat of Scripture alone? As events unfolded, a host of terms and distinctions unrooted in Scripture came to dominate the discussion. These could only partly be accounted for by the new dichotomous logic of Peter Ramus that was gaining popularity with scholars across Europe, or by the revered old categories of Aristotle that reasserted themselves among post-Reformation Calvinists, nor for that matter by the empirical sciences and “age of reason” that were dawning. Looming above all these, on the Dutch front, were the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism, which held the advantage of religious clout. As a consequence, Scripture was all too easily and routinely marginalized as but one of several competing authorities for deciding controverted matters. It was this relativizing tendency that Arminius not just nominally, but methodologically and resolutely resisted, at considerable cost to his reputation for being Reformed. In official assemblies, God’s Word was not infrequently outvoted.
The pivotal characteristic of the penal satisfaction paradigm was its explanation of the Atonement in terms of “paying for sins” (a woodenly financial analogy never found in Scripture), using the currency of penal sufferings and necessarily applying it through a substitutionary mechanism, since Christ did not deserve such treatment on his own account. Given the constraints of other biblical teachings, such a model could spin out only a couple of basic alternatives, logically speaking, as applied to the extent of the atonement: either Christ paid for the sins of only a few sinners, who were irresistibly saved as a consequence, or he paid for the sins of all sinners, and hence all must somehow benefit redemptively. However, a third view, daring to be inconsistent with that logic and preferring a greater consistency with Scripture, took the position that Christ paid for the sins of all, yet only a few would be saved. This was Calvin’s own position, i.e., that the Atonement was “sufficient” for all but “efficacious” only for the elect. That outlook was shared by the majority of the first generation of reformers, however worded, as well as the general Dutch population, especially of the northern provinces. I am necessarily abbreviating the complexity of the situation in order to zoom in on the key elements I wish to treat below, not to overlook the existence of complicating nuances (e.g., the so-called “order of decrees”).
It was becoming apparent that the inner logic of penal economics was at odds, somehow, with the comprehensive logic of Scripture. The Bible would rest comfortably in neither of the procrustean beds offered by the penal satisfaction theory; it could be affirmed in its totality only at the cost of seeming either to exceed or fall short of the logic of penal payment itself, which none of the contending parties ever seriously considered surrendering. Under the constraints of this ill fit, Reformed opinions sorted themselves out, none too politely, in terms of a dialectical tension between the total witness of Scripture and the logical polar necessities of penal satisfaction. Several mediating variants also emerged as well-meant compromises. Yet not one of the proposed solutions could make the claim of being apostolic or catholic. Indeed, historic Christianity had never resolved the nature of the Atonement in any creedal settlement. The authors of the immediate post-apostolic and ante-Nicene era could be claimed for none of these positions. And all are with us today, yet with no happy agreement in sight.
Proposal of a Premial Atonement
It is the contention of this paper that without bringing back into prominence the obverse side of justice, namely, the rewarding, restorative, or premial element of Biblical teaching, the Atonement remains a conundrum and mystery. That is to say, without comprehending the justifying role of Christ’s Resurrection as the supreme manifestation of God’s righteousness and justice (“apart from the Law”), the true nature of the Atonement remains fundamentally incomprehensible. Without the integral theological (and not merely apologetic) role of Christ’s Resurrection, the Atonement simply will not compute with “satisfaction.” That singular historic event sets every commercial calculation on its head, for it amounts to God’s gift to His beloved Son of a spectacular, super-compensating award in repayment for the wrongful abuse he endured on behalf of the whole world at the Cross. Such a rightful super-compensation virtually explodes all metaphors slavishly bound to commercial exchange, because the proper ruling metaphor is not payment for sin but reward for faithful obedience. To rectify a wrong of such magnitude as the crucifixion of the Savior demanded a cosmic eruption of graciousness to him that is beyond calculation. Its fallout we know as the manna of gratuitous forgiveness and salvation.
That said, it seems no coincidence that a penal payment theory of atonement cannot adequately explain the grounds for a gratuitous outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—the vital reality of the New Covenant within human experience, indeed, the advent of “Jehovah our righteousness.” Pentecost cannot, any more than Christ’s Resurrection itself, be properly understood without grasping that both are aspects of God’s overcompensation package in righteous response to the injustice of Christ’s crucifixion. If we get this right, all else follows as from a horn of plenty. The teaching that the Father accepted a “payment” for sin from the Son as a settlement of human debts so that forgiveness could be just and legal leaves the Father’s own wealth and gracious disposition out of the computation entirely. It is all too human to calculate this way, but not at all apostolic. Furthermore, and profoundly telling, neither can it be corroborated from early Christian authors where we should expect to find at least a few solid hints of its robust existence, given their proximity to the apostolic generation and the course of performance then set in motion. If traditions die hard, how come Christian authors from the first few centuries, analyzed in line with a solid concordant hermeneutic and a fair eye for context, are mute about penal satisfaction?
Naturally, if the biblical teaching about the Father justly repaying his Son for obediently enduring his unjustly inflicted suffering of abuse for our sakes is displaced by a doctrine of the Son “paying for sins” (raising the inevitable questions of “how many?” and “whose exactly?”) that inevitably shrinks the extent of the Atonement, which is only the beginning of fateful repercussions throughout the corridors of theology (not to mention Christian practice). Not only the “limited atonement” of ultra-Calvinism, but every point of Calvinism as such draws sustenance from the taproot of Calvin’s new theory of penal satisfaction, directly or indirectly. Arminius just happened to blow the whistle on the ominous development…and pay the price. Lest this doctrinal solidarity of elements be regarded as a cause for boasting among the Reformed or other penal substitution advocates, we should take the measure of a more verifiably authentic Biblical alternative.
I am herewith arguing that the unresolved (indeed, irresolvable) Reformed struggles with the nature and extent of the Atonement are necessarily a reflex of their commonly and uncritically assumed theory of penal satisfaction. For if one holds that at the Cross God’s exact and proper justice was revealed in the punishing of our divine “substitute” with a discrete amount of suffering for a particular quantity of sins and that unless God were to waste Himself there could not be enough suffering to be efficacious for “all mankind” in the bargain, then the alleged limitations and hedging do make some sense. But what if there was no divine justice at the Cross at all? What if that was only the foil of diabolically perverted human justice against which God could gain historic leverage and creational foothold to overturn the Cross of Christ by the spectacle of his glorious Resurrection and exaltation to his universal throne, followed by sending the Holy Spirit with signs and miracles? What then? Then the various Reformed calculations of atoning extent would appear to evaporate completely, with no residue.
Perhaps it is the case that without an Anselm there would never have been a Calvin, much less a Beza and the multiplying progeny of further variations on that underlying theme—penal satisfaction. And maybe Augustine would even have been left to rest, since Luther himself eventually departed from him respecting the central concern of justification and was thereby released from his overweening thrall. Yet Anselm can hardly be held responsible for the innovations on a penal satisfaction he rejected, although his own theory of honorial satisfaction certainly cleared the way for it conceptually by nearly vanquishing the earlier options.
At first blush, this all may appear quite disturbing. What might a closer look turn up? By way of brief review, if Jesus suffered God’s fatal wrath and died “instead of us,” “in our place,” “as our substitute,” in order to “pay for our sins,” the three main alternatives that result are: 1) Everybody’s sins are paid for, so all will escape God’s ultimate wrath and destruction; this is universalism. 2) Only a few people’s sins are paid for, and only they will escape God’s wrath and ultimate destruction, and that by an irresistible certainty; this is classic ultra-Calvinism. 3) Everyone’s sins have been paid for, but only a few people will escape God’s ultimate wrath and destruction; this seems to be Calvin’s own view and is the position of most evangelical Protestants.
Yet none of these options turns out to be satisfactory. Universalism is in denial over the final destruction of multitudes of human beings, despite the full efficacy of the Atonement, although Scripture clearly prophesies it. Classic high Calvinism, following Beza, is in denial over the universal sufficiency of the Atonement and the sincere offer of salvation to all, although Scripture is abundantly clear about that too. Evangelicalism is in denial about the ineffectiveness or wastefulness of the atoning payment, assuming its universal purchasing intent and scope. Now, while this latter may seem eminently consistent with Scripture, it does not seem consistent with the economy of penal satisfaction, so it ostensibly imputes a blemish to God’s wisdom and providence. Much more could be said, indeed, whole libraries have been written to untie this contentious Gordian knot of doctrine.
I reiterate that the essential conundrums posed by all sides derive from what they unquestionably hold in common—the penal satisfaction method of atonement. That teaching points to the Cross as the time when and the place where God’s wrath against human sins was expended and exhausted on a sinless Victim who serves as a penal substitute for truly guilty human beings, so that they can escape the “guilt and penalty” of their own sins. (In passing, be it noted, this theory does not explain how anything more than judicial suspension of the sentence of death might accrue to the escapees of deadly wrath—such benefits as capacious divine grace, the gift of the Holy Spirit poured out richly, a substantial inheritance in God’s Kingdom, life agelong, the splendor of glorification, etc., whereas the solution becomes crystal clear on the grounds of rewarding justice.) That such an exhibit of the diametric opposite of graciousness could somehow serve as a “substitute” for God’s graciousness in the process of salvation does not compute. That the vile, vicious, and vindictive assault of the great Dragon, Satan, and his pawns has somehow metamorphosed into the “vicarious punishment” inflicted by a God of grace is a puzzle that has not failed to scandalize the champions of penal satisfaction. Its defenses ring hollow to many honest interpreters, and adequate analogies from Scripture, history, or experience have not been forthcoming.
The theory of penal satisfaction substitutes the deadly Cross of Christ (but denatured from its actual potency) for his glorious Resurrection from the dead. A vicarious penal payment steals the thunder of God’s righteousness from the tomb on the third day—His booming “No!” to the evil of the Cross—and transposes it, but in name only, to the Cross in place of what actually took place there. Amid the transferences and exchanges of this theory, the beckoning Truth gets lost in the shuffle and trampled. God’s bright sun of restorative or premial justice at the Resurrection was completely eclipsed by the penal justice allegedly revealed at the Cross. This obscuration has been perpetuated notably by the historic stream of advocates, since Luther’s day, of the so-called “theology of the Cross,” and this despite the startling fact that neither New Testament term for the cross ever appears in the most systematic and sustained treatment of salvation, Paul’s epistle to the Romans, although the resurrection appears there repeatedly and integrally. That should have served as a hint and a warning.
All this leads to the observation that the doctrines which comport with penal satisfaction are not exclusively Calvinistic. Martin Luther also engaged in significant debate with Erasmus over “free will” and famously championed “the bondage of the will,” even though he ranged among several extant conceptions of atonement throughout his ministry. This agreement of Luther and Calvin concerning the will points us back to Augustine, who is the acknowledged source of so many doctrines that perfectly segued with Calvin’s theory of penal satisfaction—a hand-in-glove fit, five fingers and all (where the opposable thumb is certainly “limited atonement,” if we can stretch the glove a bit). Calvin assumed the task of ramifying penal satisfaction on several fronts into a doctrinal system possessing beguiling internal consistency, yet only at the high cost of distorting the analogy of the faith and Scripture. Accordingly, Augustine’s doctrine of the human will—a corollary of his new doctrine of “original sin”—was conveniently absorbed into Calvin’s teaching concerning what the next generation was to label “total depravity.” And that’s only the beginning. It may not be too much to say that the Reformed system could fairly be dubbed “The Five Points of Penal Satisfaction.” Calvin exploited Augustine’s extreme views on several topics to accomplish it. What Augustine had inaugurated in defense of the Constantinian revolution away from apostolic Christianity on multiple fronts, Calvin completed under the impulse of a penal theory of atonement frightfully compatible with the violent spirit of Constantinian policies and their corrupt fruits, for which Augustine provided theological justification.
The starting point for Arminius in addressing the panorama of penal satisfaction as systematically and quite uniformly expressed in post-Reformation Geneva by Beza and his disciples was the teaching that had most afflicted the Reformed churches of Amsterdam and repeatedly disturbed their peace: “predestination.” On occasion, he had expressed himself on the subject as he preached through the book of Romans over the span of his pastorate. Chapters seven and, as could be expected, nine were the occasions for deepening his exegesis and systematic acumen, but also for arousing hostile responses from stricter Calvinists, most notably, his fellow pastor in Amsterdam, Peter Plancius (also a famed cartographer). The real surge came, however, when Arminius read a pamphlet by another former student of Beza, the Englishman William Perkins, by now a professor at Cambridge University. Perkins, explicitly to be more “reasonable” than Calvin, therein presented Beza’s further elaboration of predestination as a full-blown theory of supralapsarian “double predestination,” encompassing both the elect and the “reprobate.” He had been swept farther out by the undertow of penal satisfaction.
Arminius composed a lengthy examination of Perkins’s pamphlet, but the latter died just as Arminius was finishing it. Since it was intended as a private and “friendly” conversation with Perkins, whom he had previously admired, the irenic Arminius never made the manuscript public, so it was not published until a few years after his own death. In 1603, Arminius accepted a post as professor of theology at the University of Leiden. Here he continued to labor over the many-faceted subject for the next six years, until his premature death from tuberculosis in 1609, aggravated by unrelenting harassment from ultra-Calvinists. Much controversy was to attend his teaching during this volatile era in Dutch political, commercial, and ecclesiastical history. The Heidelberg Catechism and even the Belgic Confession were not documents native to the northern Dutch provinces of what was to become the Netherlands proper; they contained ambiguities just at points where non-native Calvinists of Genevan persuasions were using it as a cover for their more penally rigorous interpretations and were further inclined to impose them by synodical fiat on all Reformed churches of the newly liberated Dutch provinces.
It would be tedious and, for my immediate purposes, quite unnecessary to delve into each of the five points of Calvinism at this juncture to show how they are inextricably linked with one another and all together chained to the anchor of penal satisfaction. It will be easier and more pedagogical (and hopefully more charitable) to start from the other end—to present the Atonement more completely in the light of restorative justice, as touched on above, and let that light do the job of exposing the darkness. The quite evident, even startling, implications for all five basic objections issued by the Remonstrant movement following Arminius should help minimize encumbering argument. However, I should clarify here that Arminius no more appeared to perceive the decisive link between penal satisfaction and the doctrines to which he objected than Beza or any other post-Reformation Calvinist. So he was not actuated by a self-conscious alternative to penal atonement but by more exegetical considerations, as he everywhere ardently affirmed and demonstrated. This fact plays large in subsequent developments.
At this transition it may be helpful to summarize what will follow by stating the proposition that without the taproot of penal satisfaction, the superstructure that has flourished upon it—especially the traditional points of Calvinism, whether grafted in from Augustinian slips or differentiating natively, and which subsequently hardened up in self-defense by the time of the Synod of Dort—should be expected to wither and die back. Provided this thesis turns out to be, in the main, correct, this treatment would hardly be complete, “consistent,” or “satisfying” without proceeding to several other distinctives of Calvinism (beyond the traditional five points) that must likewise be numbered among the formulations nourished by penal satisfaction and which must similarly topple in the wake of its supersession. Indeed, one current proponent has come up with “ten points.” I have no objections to escalating the number for the sake of a clean sweep, so long as they bear a plausible relation to penal satisfaction, for that is the engine propelling the rest. I include separate treatment of one or two such additional points below.
Moreover, light is thrown on various corollary issues, either as proliferating within or derivative from the five most prominent points, some of them being echoes of earlier historic debates. These include disputes over “divine sovereignty” vs. “human free will”; “original sin”; Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism; the “order of the decrees”: “supralapsarianism” (specifically, “double predestination”—both election and “reprobation”) vs. “infralapsarianism” vs. “sublapsarianism”; “hypothetical”/”conditional” universalism; “double jeopardy” of the reprobate; God’s “secret” vs. “revealed” will; “equal ultimacy”; “preterition”; “common” vs. “special” grace; “prevenient,” “preventing,” or “preceding” grace; regeneration (baptismal, etc.); “universal” vs. “special” call; “external” vs. “internal” call; “effectual” calling; “monergism” vs. “synergism”; “double imputation”; “active” vs. “passive” righteousness; “perfectionism” vs. “antinomianism”; assurance of faith; and that’s only for starters. Clearly, matters veered off into the exotic instead of adhering to the simple, salutary truths of apostolic testimony and proclamation. Doubtless, Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Aristotelianism, demythologized currents of gnosticism, as well as the pedagogical methods of medieval scholasticism and the burgeoning Ramist logic may be discerned in some of these disputes. However, there was something yet more dominant in the mix—the tough thread of penal satisfaction that strung them all together and gave them a family identity.
Significantly, also the “governmental” theory of atonement articulated by the younger contemporary and supporter of Arminius, Hugo Grotius, falls into this category of adjustments extruded from the pressure exerted between penal satisfaction and Biblical faithfulness. I can only mention in passing that this famous attempt to relax the demands of penal economic rigor still did not outright challenge the appropriateness of applying such logic to the Atonement in the first place. Not surprisingly, its innovations were widely perceived as declensions from the strict punitive necessity of Calvin’s doctrine. Without a more compelling necessity to put in that place it could not win general approval any more than other attempts had. However, it did come to exert considerable and profound influence on Protestant America during the early- and mid-19th century, mainly through revivalists such as Charles Finney and a contingent of the Stone-Campbell or Restorationist movement, along with their colleges and seminaries.
All quite sobering. Yet there is something funny about how we got it so wrong when God went to all the trouble of publishing His own Book to explain salvation at length. As if that weren’t enough, the reality of the Atonement is so joyous that it is honestly difficult to suppress outbursts of laughter, without malice and forethought! God saves us by giving Jesus Christ, at the Resurrection, what he deserved in repayment for Satan unjustly giving him, at the Cross, a taste of “what we deserved” (all without a hint of economic quid pro quo). In other words, it is not God’s penal justice in the least that saves sinners from their sins, but God’s premial justice alone (a term coined in the early 18th century from the Latin for “rewarding,” and in precisely this connection). These are the two distinct facets of God’s integral justice, and they have different functions. Penal justice is executed against the wicked in order to correct them, if possible, by appropriate punishments and, failing that, to destroy them. With qualifications, God’s fatherly hand also dispenses disciplinary punishment to His dear children to correct them and nudge them on to the behaviors that deserve accolades and applause. Premial justice, on the other hand, is meant for the righteous in order to reward them for doing good as well as to recompense the injustices done to them. More than two-thirds of the Psalms either plead or extol this side of God’s covenantal righteousness/justice, but it is also marbled throughout Scripture and not in hiding! Accordingly, in order to portray this latter, almost universally neglected facet of justice in proper perspective, we must pan back and refocus on its larger Biblical context. (With apologies, I shall not burden the following summary with the hundreds of Scripture citations implicit within it; available on request.)
The Larger Panorama of Divine Justice
Before the ages of time began, before the universe was created, before the disruption of sin, the Father made a covenant with the Son, both to create all things in and through him, and to reconcile all things in and through him. Permitting and providing for the disruption of the world by sin was an indispensable element in the plan of God, serving to allow the unveiling of depths of His resources and wisdom and love that must otherwise remain utterly unknowable to His creatures. Satan was created as the highest of the messengers of God to be an Adversary powerful enough to pose a genuine threat of destruction to a creature made in God’s Image and placed within a covenantal, hence contingent, universe.
Due to the necessary intelligence and power given to this opponent, God in his wisdom concealed the deepest strategies of his plan for salvation in a secret that remained hidden and hushed between the Father and His Explanation during the ages before his advent as the Son in human flesh. Although solid hints of this secret were revealed to Israel’s prophets in fragments and shadows, its full unveiling awaited the effectual disarming of Satan that occurred at the Resurrection of God’s Son. Had this precaution not been taken, Satan might well have countered the divine strategy and sabotaged the plan of salvation. Once the strategy achieved success, the secret was fully manifested, revealed, and made known: the Gospel concerning our Lord Jesus Christ. This proclamation of the News about how God accomplished salvation was now to be communicated to all mankind so they could believe and be saved. By this Explanation of the Evangel, Satan could be bound and restrained from deceiving those who come under its hearing and obey it by trust.
Before the disruption of the world, in full anticipation and cognizance of the entrance of sin, the Father designated not only the incarnation of His Image and Explanation—His own Son—but also his surrender as Lamb of God to death and his Resurrection from among the dead. These matters were subsequently revealed to the prophets of Israel and documented in writing. The Law and the Prophets were all along unveiling, little by little, that Explanation and Image of God. Jehovah was therein characterized as a God of uncompromised wholesomeness, righteousness, trustworthiness, benignity, mercy, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and generosity. Nevertheless, Israel was continually going astray and activating the curses of the Sinai covenant against herself. The entire sacrificial system had been designed to direct them to God as the One who alone was forgiving, forgetting, taking away, casting aside, blotting out, cleansing, subduing, and not imputing to them their sins. In other words, it was Jehovah their God who was all along justifying them from sins. All these things He was doing for His own name’s sake—for the credit of His own reputation.
Regardless of this growing revelation throughout Israel’s history of God’s perpetual love and fatherly favor toward them while they continued to turn to Him, trust Him, and so pay attention to His directions for life, still Israel went astray and thus defamed God’s reputation among the nations of mankind, whom God desired to save, too. This condition, due to the impotence of the covenant at Sinai to truly motivate Adam’s, Noah’s, and Abraham’s descendants after the flesh, called for a much deeper solution. Since Israel’s and all mankind’s wholesale slavery to sin and corruption resulted from their ban from the Tree of Life and the consequential reign of terror ushered in by the specter of death, only a victory over death could light up and identify to mankind the way of safety, peace, and favor with God. This unheard-of strategy was Satan’s undoing, by simultaneously vanquishing death and its sting.
Throughout his ministry on earth, Jesus manifested the character of his Father in heaven, both by his explanations and his actions as the living Image or “moving picture” of God—Immanuel, God-with-us. In his explanations persons could hear God; in his actions they could see God. God’s very reputation, as delineated in Scripture, was in him; God was in him. In his many miracles God was reversing the evils of the curse and offering a solid taste of what His rule, His kingdom, would really look like at its consummation. All this could be brought to light because the Spirit of holiness and power was operating in him without measure, and its vivifying power was conspicuously spilling over into the decaying world.
This debut of God’s Son engendered envy and jealousy among the chiefs, scribes, and sectarian leaders of the Jews, and aroused the more fundamental opposition of Satan, who sought to kill him and thereby destroy his only rival for the control of human civilization. The stage was set. Jesus was instructed by his Father to play into their hands and become subject to their sovereignty and authority. This would be a suicide mission and meant certain death. No one could have taken his earthly existence from him; he laid it down himself. The Father gave him this right or authority. Therefore, in obedience to the Father and in subjection to His desire Christ surrendered himself to his arch-enemy, the slave master of mankind. Christ started to wrongly experience the curses of the covenant and to suffer unjustly at the hands of his own people in concert with outsiders and, seemingly, even of his God.
Christ’s suffering of abuse, including a tortured death at the stake, demonstrate God’s love for us because when Christ had the full authority and right to call down the righteous anger of God—the force of some twelve legions of celestial messengers—on his enemies and tormentors who were doing him such an enormity of injustice, still he refrained, even forgiving his Roman executioners, exerting patience, enduring the despised shame, foregoing their destruction, exhibiting forbearance and kindness to the bitter end. This was not God’s anger he was experiencing at all—for in the favor of God Christ tasted death for the sake of everyone—but rather the anger, fury, and hatred of human beings under the impulse of the raging Dragon, which Christ’s followers must also suffer, and that too in the consoling favor of God. Here was the Judge of all, deferring his right to judge his foes, proving that God loves them and that God’s anointed Messiah loves them and would not exercise his messianic prerogatives to destroy them in their sin just yet. Although he had every right to save himself, he did not use his right but surrendered to the desire of Him who is judging justly, demonstrating divine patience in order that none should perish and that all should come to repentance and be saved from the impending indignation of heaven. Thus did God himself love His enemies and demonstrate His kindness, patience, tolerance, goodness, and fondness for mankind, sparing not even His own Son, but surrendering him to his vicious foes to die for us while we were still weak, irreverent, in step with the times, sinful, and enemies of God. He did all these things because He is righteous/just; they are expressions of His justness toward His human creatures, not His hostility in any respect.
At the Cross, once and for all time, Christ suffered in the graciousness of God and died to sin, concerning sin, and on behalf of sins, by offering up his body as a sacrifice for the repudiation of sin, thereafter entering into the true celestial holy places through his own blood, in order to cleanse our consciousness of sin, hallow us, redeem us, and lead us to God. This one historic sacrificial offering supplied the one thing needful for the agelong treatment of sin—the blood of the new, better, and agelong covenant.
The blood of Christ signifies his soul or bodily existence. Rather than save his own existence at our expense, Christ poured it out in his own blood. Because Christ’s bodily existence was sinless, flawless, undefiled, unspotted, separated from sinners, without guile, benign, pure, innocent, and just, so also his blood, which represents that just existence, is figured as innocent and just, and therefore has the power to cleanse us and our conscience from sin and dead works, to eliminate sins, to pardon or forgive sins and offenses, to loose us out of our sins, to obliterate our sins, to justify us from our sins, to make us holy, and to whiten the robes of saints, thus making peace with God, reconciling Jews and other nations to one another, and conciliating all of them wholesale to God, enabling the nations to draw near the covenantal promises that God historically had made to Israel alone, and thereby rendering it possible at last for all to have the boldness to approach the God of holiness via a then recently-slain and now ever-living way that was similarly dedicated by his blood.
The blood of Christ, by virtue of his obedience and faithfulness, was so valuable in God’s estimation that it called forth the execution of God’s arm of justice to send the wealth of the Holy Spirit to ransom Jesus out of Death into a greatly magnified resurrected life and, through him, to ransom, redeem, and liberate us even from our sins, thus buying and procuring us for God. This means that whereas we had been auctioned off into slavery to sin and were under the reign and lordship of death and sin, yet now we belong to Another, who paid us his own lifeblood, enabling us to turn back to God, the ultimate source of his and, through him, our life.
The method of our cleansing is the spattering of Christ’s blood on our hearts through our trust in him, figured by drinking from the cup of this New Covenant. This means that the antidote for sin is the reception of divine life itself, from Heaven. Death entered mankind because Adam’s sin banned him and his heirs from the merely terrestrial Tree of Life; the counteraction of sin entailed the unique introduction of celestial life via another Tree, whose fruit, produced by One passing through a dread curse successfully, gives superabundant vitality and power to all who desire to partake, and for free! The pouring out of the Spirit is prefigured in the pouring out of Christ’s blood that made it possible; the drinking of his blood in the Lord’s Supper signifies the trusting of his declarations, which are Spirit and are life by virtue of God’s responding to his murder with death-defying justice. The Spirit of wholesomeness, the water of immersion, and the blood of communion all testify to one thing: cleansing from sin by the advent of agelong life-making power into the world via Christ’s extraordinary Resurrection from the dead.
Thus it is that the blood of Christ is the means for our conquering Satan and the world with all its cravings and decadence, for it is the blood of the agelong covenant that testifies to the agelong life in Christ, speaking better than the blood of Abel, because the existence which it represents, unlike Abel’s, is always alive now to be interceding before the Father on our behalf. Therefore, the meaning, significance, and efficacy of Christ’s blood poured out in his sacrificial death does not actually lie in his death per se at all, but exclusively in God’s avenging his blood by his powerful Resurrection to immortal life, whereby he conquered death. And because sin can reign only where death reigns, sin thereby gets eliminated and obliterated as well.
Even as the Exodus (and not the suffering in Egypt) liberated the children of Israel, so the Resurrection (and not the suffering of Christ) liberates us. Christ’s Resurrection was the mighty Exodus of the New Covenant. God demonstrated His love not by venting His anger on Christ as a substitute for us, but by not using His right and authority to vent His anger on those who wickedly and wrongly condemned His only-born Son to death when He would have been within His rights to have done so as a recompense for their highhanded injustice. The wonder of Resurrection morning rather is that God did not unleash His fury on the combined evil forces of the Jews and Romans, but instead raised Jesus from among the dead to show the full extent of His love, justice, and graciousness.
That Christ should be sinless was absolutely necessary for his sacrifice to be effective, otherwise his death would have been simply the fruit (whether early or late) of his own sin, so God could not have revealed, manifested, and demonstrated justice in summarily raising him up. But since he was sinless, his being put to death was itself a sin; hereby God made him a sin-offering. In no other case in human history could a human death, per se, be reckoned as a sin (the act of murder could be, of course, but the victim’s death, per se, no, since death was the appointed penalty for sinners eventually anyway). Such a sin against the blameless Lamb provided by God Himself necessarily had to be avenged by Justice, and so it was—but by his Resurrection and exaltation, not by their swift destruction. Thus was Christ’s just spirit justified, i.e., by Resurrection into a new, immortal body. Hereby, superabundant life itself was justified for all sinners without exception. Jesus had prayed for his Father to forgive the Romans crucifying him—which was fully in accord with God’s desire—so the only thing left to do that would accomplish both forgiveness and rightful avenging was to raise Jesus Christ His Son up from the dead! This was the Resurrection solution, the ultimate historic exhibit of premial, in contrast to penal, justice.
Therefore it is not the case that Christ paid for sin, but that God repaid Christ for the suffering and injustice done against him; resurrection and exaltation above all powers, plus an inheritance of all created things were his repayment. This payment was so superabundant and excessive that it overflows richly to all who trust him. Christ’s death did not atone or obliterate sin, only his blood does that. Nor is his blood a payment to the Father in any sense whatever, but represents the superabundantly recompensed life that is the Father’s payment of rightful damages to His Son for his faithfulness, obedience, and subordination to His desire. Christ owed God nothing less than loyal obedience and filial subjection, and this he fully rendered, even to the extent of the most shameful, humiliating, and egregiously wrongful death. Furthermore, Christ owed us nothing, yet he loves us, even to the extremity of his own death, for what it alone could procure for us—torrents of graciousness on rebound from heaven! Christ was sent by the Father to do a work, and he finished that work. That heroic and irreplaceable work could save all human beings singlehandedly, in the total absence of their work (ever deficient in glory, due to sin) but not without their response of faith when confronted by the inherent power of the proclaimed News about his exaltation by cross and resurrection, in tandem with the forensic testimony of the apostles, documented in the New Testament. Consequently, the Father repaid, or judicially awarded, Jesus with the graciousness of resurrection, immortality, exaltation, and a reputation above every reputation, as his just due. These benefits were some of the agreements or promises of the agelong covenant, the better covenant, the New Covenant in his blood.
God saved us from Satan, death, and sin for His own reputation’s sake, including His reputation as Creator. The universe is out of Him and through Him and into Him, therefore it is impossible for any creature to pay Him for damage inflicted on His property, nor does He ask it. The loss, destruction, and evil that our sins bring upon God’s creation and reputation can never be avenged or compensated or repaid or requited by dependent, self-insufficient creatures. Neither did God commission His bosom Son (hence far more than a creature of His hand) to “pay Him back” for the sins of his fellow human beings. To repay a fellow human being for our violation of rights or destruction of property is always right but often impossible, as with what is unique and irreplaceable; all the more so in the case of a murder, for we have no power to create and, all too often, little to truly and fairly compensate. The Creator and Owner of all things without exception alone has such power. Equally, it is always right for an injured party to forgive debts owed by their debtors when it is impossible for them to repay, and indeed, to do so gratuitously. Such forgiveness requires trust that God can restore and repay, giving us whatever we need in spite of our loss (and not that He will instantly execute vengeance toward the injuring party, for He desires their repentance, welfare, and salvation, too). This kind of behavior is truly loving and right and gracious; it images God’s own love and righteousness and graciousness.
Accordingly, the only expectation worthy of God’s staggering reputation as Creator, in the wake of the futility, destruction, and death brought by Adam’s sin, is that He Himself would re-give, re-endow, re-bestow, re-bequeath, re-provide, re-invest, re-supply, re-furnish, re-bless, re-offer, re-do, re-make, restore, replace, or in a word, re-create what has been lost and destroyed as a result of sin. Christ did not pay for our sins; he paid for our new abundant life! Christ, in laying down his old mortal existence over us, was repaid a new, immortal existence for us. In laying down and surrendering his old humanity—the likeness of the mortal body and flesh of sin—he was paid a new humanity. In laying down the scepter over the nation of Israel, he was handed the scepter over all nations. In sacrificing his old creation, he was requited with a new creation. In giving up his old body, he got awarded a new body—the church. God faithfully delivered all He had promised in the covenant, and much more than we dared expect. Christ paid for our cleansing and being made holy; that is, he paid or gave out his own blood. He therefore paid us! To buy us for God he paid us his valuable blood, his very existence; Christ gave us himself! Christ paid us, and God repaid him with the highest exaltation plus the promised gift-wrapped present of the Holy Spirit. This amounts to graciousness in exchange for graciousness! The beauty of this celestial economics dazzles sinful human minds. [Cue: Applause! Laughter! And maybe a little weeping…]
By murdering God’s only-born Son, Satan ‘forced’ God’s hand; God must now do a new thing—make a new creation! For the first time since the beginning of the universe, God re-created a human being so that he was thereafter immortal. This move utterly demolished all Satan’s aspirations, pre-empting his ultimate usurpation; Christ was now far beyond Satan’s reach and grasp. This act of God most central to the Gospel—to the coming of the Kingdom of God—that is, the Resurrection of Messiah Jesus from among the dead, was necessary if God was to remain just and maintain His reputation. Therefore God acted swiftly to avenge the injustice against His Son. Murdering a sinner might be avenged by the swift death of the criminal, but assassinating the Sinless One could only be truly avenged by immortal life to the Victim. Thus the very first person, Adam, became a living existence, while the ‘last Adam’ became a lifemaking Spirit. This was the substance of Christ’s just award; this is how God favored him for his humiliation. This is the premial righteousness of God in glorious action!
The slaying of God’s Son, whose keeping and fulfilling Moses’ law (being himself the very norm of truth and graciousness underlying it) had qualified him for the covenantal right to agelong life, was such a heinous crime that, by human standards of righteousness, it justified God in destroying all his enemies forthwith. Instead, both Father and Son waited in patience and forbearance, in love and righteousness higher than human conception. The Cross was by far the greatest trial of Christ by Satan since that which commenced his official ministry. Here his Father virtually abandoned him, although not in wrath, but in graciousness, as with Joseph, Job, David, Jeremiah, et al. Yet unlike the story of Job, this time God did not spare his existence short of death. Thereafter, God did the unprecedented, the unimaginable! Job’s generous reimbursement by God was but a faint foreshadowing of it—one that must have escaped Satan’s notice! God saved and justified Christ not by putting his assailants to a well-deserved death but by making him the firstfruit from the dead, even as he was the firstfruit of every creature by virtue of his being brought forth first by God (“after His own Kind”), so that in everything Jesus Christ might become first. God spared not His own Son.
God gave His Son a resurrected life so superabundant that it overflowed to sinners in the coming of the same Holy Spirit that raised him from the dead. The Holy Spirit is the indescribable present or gift that had been promised by God through the last and greatest of the prophets, John the Baptist. This is the Counselor that Jesus could not send until he was glorified on the promised throne of his father, David, at God’s right hand.
The Holy Spirit came in such overwhelming volume on that first momentous Pentecost (Festival of Firstfruits) after Christ’s resurrection that the event could only be pictured by an immersion. Moreover, the Spirit came initially to the temple and holy of holies in Jerusalem, as prophesied in Scripture. The Spirit of holiness is, in fact, the earnest, guarantee, down payment, or pledge-in-kind of our inheritance of every promise of the New Covenant, by which we are sealed for the day of final liberation of all that Christ procured—the ultimate salvation or glorification of the bodily existences of his people, the church. Therefore, of everything which we shall eventually inherit at the consummation, we presently have a foretaste in the Holy Spirit. This marvelous inheritance is depicted in terms of “allotments” (as in ancient Israel the tribes cast lots for their apportioned inheritance in the Promised Land) within God’s Kingdom of agelong life, of salvation, of righteousness, of incorruption, of blessing, of the world, of the earth—in short, of all things that were promised in the Father’s agelong covenant with the Son.
God has given us His Holy Spirit to console us as we endure the tests, trials, abuses, afflictions, and persecutions of this present vicious age of the world, and He does so by testifying to the objective historic transcript of the Gospel, which is the confirmation of all the ancient promises that, in turn, raise our expectation of our inheritance of agelong life, salvation, righteousness—in sum, of the advent of the very glory of God and our glorification with Christ, our Expectation.
The inheritance is now kept and reserved for us in the heavens above. This is none other than the New Jerusalem above that shall one day descend to earth where it most properly belongs, so that we inherit allotments of all things, including the new earth or world, jointly with Christ. Thus a person must at present be birthed above, in the Jerusalem above, which is mother of us all who trust the promise and are generated according to Spirit, and so have entered or been immersed into the Kingdom of God. Only Christ, who was once above and is now there again, could have descended to testify of these celestial realities. Consequently, we are to save up wages or hoard treasures in heaven, where Christ is presently sitting at the right side of God. In sum, to become a citizen of the Kingdom of God one must be begotten or born above, where that kingdom originates. For the Kingdom of God is in the world but not from the world, even as Christ was in the world but not from the world, and so also we who are born above, in the capital of that Kingdom, although still in the world, are no longer from the world.
Implications of Premial Justice for the “Five Points of Calvinism”
Having now elucidated the nature of salvation (the “Atonement” broadly considered) exclusively from the standpoint of God’s restorative, rewarding, or premial justice, apart from His destructive, punishing, or penal justice, it is now possible to explore how this radical polar shift of justice affects each point where post-Reformation Calvinism resisted the attempts of the Remonstrants to reform doctrine according to Scripture. I shall proceed according to an “order of unraveling” that premial justice itself seems to suggest. The new acronym is hereby altered from the famous “TULIP” to “LITUP.” If at the conclusion this approach has happily “lit up” the subject, I shall feel sufficiently rewarded. Subsidiary topics will be covered briefly as they arise within the main categories. Although penal atonement is foundational to these unique sub-developments of Calvinism, the extent of that atonement actually holds priority in their sequential unraveling, as I hope to show.
The whole inter-referential system of these five doctrines represents a regrettable impoverishment of the Gospel, assessed from a premial perspective. Every one of its distinctives amounts to crimping a straightforward truth into a bent and denatured caricature. Witness the following overview of this poverty mentality:
1. “Limited Atonement”—There is not enough power in the Atonement to save all mankind, therefore an atonement has to be postulated just strong enough to save only a specially pre-chosen few.
2. “Irresistible Grace”—There is not enough grace from God to go around without a whole lot of it getting wasted on those who don’t deserve it, which would impugn God’s Wisdom and Providence in matching Christ’s suffering with an exactly equivalent purchase of goods. Therefore God has to make sure His grace is irresistible so none of it goes down the drain.
3. “Total Depravity”—There is not enough structural integrity remaining in divinely created but fallen human nature to render a person capable of believing the Gospel, even though proclaimed with its native, God-breathed power, nor even with added demonstrations of Spirit and power from on high. The human will is too moribund to register even an “efficacious” inclination toward any possible magnetism of the Gospel.
4. “Unconditional Election”—There is not enough intrinsic charm and attraction in the Gospel to draw a person to faith, so a kind of predestination must be postulated that “elects” even against the resistant human will, regardless of all contingencies, including any later “seeming” departures from God’s ways and explicit desires.
5. “Perseverance of the Saints”—There is not enough endurance in people who are simply under the influence of the Gospel alone for them to make it all the way through the tests and trials of faith they will encounter, so God has to make sure there are no slip ups (backslides) by coddling them with extra provisions He doesn’t expend on the reprobate.
In the following expansions and responses there will be overlaps. It’s one thing to get our doctrine tangled, and quite another to untangle it. And this is only a start.
The economics of Calvin’s (and even more so, Beza’s) view of the extent of the Atonement was “predestined” by the ironclad logic of his penal payment theory, and it took more than the passage of time for that logic to rust through. Premial justice needed to be reinstated. Accordingly, if it was actually unnecessary for Christ to pay for sins at all, then neither was it necessary for an economic equivalence to obtain between his sufferings and the sins allegedly paid for. If instead, the repayment to the Son by his Father amounts to a gigantic award of rightful damages because of what he wrongfully suffered, then all the limitations, all the haggling, all the niggling, all the calculations are just so much ungrateful wastes of valuable time we ought to be redeeming. In fact, this stupendous act of judicial repayment to Christ for everything he endured reflects most properly on his Father’s very own judgment concerning what He thought it was worth for His Loved One to suffer such unparalleled injury. For we must include in that formula everything Jesus was worthy of receiving had he not been miserably cut off from that divine right. We seldom see it this way because penal theory blows smoke in our eyes.
Romans chapter five teaches that as many as suffer death because of what only one man did—Adam—can enjoy life because of what only one man did—Jesus Christ. This means that “the extent of the Atonement” is at least as great as the putative measure of the Sin for which it provides indemnity or coverage. It’s most fitting, then, that this rightful overcompensation of Resurrection should have a right to be deployed to the fullest extent of Death’s cold reach. The upshot of premial justice is that the whole sinful mass of mankind was taken up in God’s embrace of his mutilated Son on Resurrection morning. The power transmitted from on high in that event, not to mention subsequent outpourings, has absolutely nothing whatever to do with any number, amount, volume, size, intensity, or other measure of sins. It has only to do with the obedience and faithfulness of the Son of God throughout a life where he was surrounded by the sins, corruptions, diseases, and other evils consequent upon the original sin of Adam, yet never succumbed to sinning. In the midst of that milieu, he always responded with graciousness and truth, along with willingness to suffer whatever abuse and punishment sinners could dish out in response. God’s own final response was to supervene with a copious graciousness that far exceeded anything theretofore experienced by his maligned and assaulted Son. Graciousness was multiplied in exchange for graciousness! It defied the entropy of the entire fallen cosmos and reentered it with uncreated life and blessings supernal.
“Limited atonement” was the weakest link in Calvin’s outworking of penal satisfaction, and he personally hedged on it. When Beza closed that link securely in order to be more consistent with penal payment (and his devotee William Perkins explicitly to be more “reasonable” than Calvin himself!), Arminius simply pried it back open, indeed, all the way open to embrace the whole fallen race! All unintentionally, Arminius’s passion for consistency with Scripture started to unloose the whole chain of penal bondage from that initial point. He was not finished by the time he died, but a proper start had been made. Hugo Grotius attempted to go further when he saw the implications of “relaxing” the severe restraints of Calvin’s logic. But his incipient beginning faltered because he had not reinstated premial justice to its place of primacy, hence his attempt reflected some disrepute on the basically sound advance that Arminius had happily launched against daunting opposition.
On a slightly different note, Arminius did not quite see that Calvin’s ardor concerning Augustine’s construction of predestination (which we shall touch upon below) followed from limiting the Atonement (recall his decretal “epicycle”), and not the other way around. This fact was not clearly visible due to the powerful invisible undercurrent of penal satisfaction upon which all parties unquestioningly agreed. But it was only this penal “payment” that placed a “limit” on the graciousness released by the Atonement. All sides concurred that Jesus’ suffering at the Cross was the redemptive commodity needing to be “rationed” for its “exchange value” to ransom or redeem sinners by “paying for” their sins. If it was not to be improvidently “wasted” on pre-doomed reprobates, it would have to be calculated, rationed, and parceled out with a thrifty eye to productive investment and profitable payoff in dividends for the “Sovereign” Investor. It was to insure this postulated investment that Augustine’s wayward brainchild of absolute double predestination was, at last, completely exhumed and placed on public display in the Institutes, etc. The effluvium was all over Calvin’s theology, but those who stuck around evidently got used to it. Thus did Augustine’s toxic dogmas come to re-infect the world and, by claims of being genuinely Pauline, come to actually eclipse the Apostle Paul’s authentic teaching.
A gospel that fails to exult and boast in the restorative, rewarding, or premial justice of God is a grossly deficient gospel, one that Paul would scarcely recognize as good news. But a gospel that loudly boasts and actually prides itself in merely penal justice, no matter what the proposed mechanism of operation (“substitutionary,” “forensic,” “rectoral,” whatever), he would surely have anathematized as a “different gospel” beside the one he proclaimed, and which is not truly another at all, peddled by those who want “to distort the Gospel of the Messiah.” The substitution of the Cross for the Resurrection at the most decisive point of the divine plot—its historic turning point— essentially deprives the story of its power punch by denaturing its resurrectionary rescue. This move effectively sabotages its climactic denouement, reducing it to a comparatively insipid anticlimax—from a necessary advent of God’s own righteousness to a bureaucratic rubber stamp on whatever “saving” virtue can be coaxed out of the deadly Cross on account of its exhibition of punitive “divine” justice against the Innocent, Sinless, Just, and Holy One. Therefore, is it any wonder that only such paltry “grace” can be imagined as flowing from such “penal satisfaction” of “infinite” wrath by an “infinitely” just Judge to cause “infinite” suffering to His “infinitely” divine and “infinitely” innocent Son, that it cannot be conceived by Calvinists as itself being infinite? Believe it or not! In “Reformed” mathematics all those “infinites” only add up to a pathetically finite atonement. Strange, but true, very sadly true. This is another compelling evidence that penal satisfaction is a travesty of the Truth.
The perennially alleged problem of “double jeopardy” can also be tackled anew in the light of premial justice. That concern would be legitimate only if God had “exacted judgment” at the Cross in the first place. But a premial atonement dispels that difficulty entirely. Since the Cross was an event of wrongful Satanic exaction of punishment on the Sinless One, God was justified in exacting a Resurrection by way of reparation. The torrent of graciousness that ensued has the aim of conciliating and winning the friendship of sinners. But if they should reject the open invitation, it’s no skin off Christ’s back since by no means did he suffer a discrete measure of divine wrath and penal judgment in economic exchange for “just so much” human sin. Christ won a favorable judgment! The Supreme Judge overruled in his favor, so any divine punishment incurred by those who reject and resist this exuberant favor overflowing to us is certainly not a “second” exaction of “divine condemnation,” but only a first, and a tragically needless one at that.
Here a word should be said about the use of the term “merit” in explaining atonement and its postulated limits. The term as applied to Jesus Christ is problematic, in part due to the incommensurable assumptions of Anselm’s feudal culture. That context of speculative dogmatizing conjures up misleading thoughts that actually derogate from the glory of God’s accomplishment at the Cross/Resurrection events. The New Testament term for “worthy” or “deserve” might be called into service to work a transformation upon the idea of merit and perhaps dispel its equivocal liabilities. The “Lamb of God” as portrayed in John’s Gospel and Revelation “is worthy” of honor, credit, praise, worship, thanks, wealth, thrones, dominion, and more, because he “was slain,” i.e., suffered demeaning abuse which he did not deserve. In other words, he “merited” messianic acclamation but submitted to his Father’s mediate and strategic desire that he experience the aggravated injustice of sinners under the inspiration of the Adversary in order that he might attain God’s ultimate intention of super-compensating vindication, which would be impossible without his being made a sin-offering (prophetically depicting the paramount sin of his crucifixion). It is precisely the contents of that ultra-compensation package that constitutes our salvation, by releasing gratuitous wealth from heaven as spoils of Messiah’s conquest of Satan and death. Without the boon of the Holy Spirit our sins could never actually get taken away.
Did Jesus “merit” such munificent payback? Absolutely! In fact, without the “merit” of his having “learned obedience through the abuses he suffered,” he could not have become “the cause of agelong salvation,” and we would still be groveling in slavery to sin and Satan from mortal fear. The “merits” of Jesus’ whole life plus sacrificial death won glory for us too. We might even dare to speak here of the “transference” of such “merit(s)” via the gift of the Holy Spirit, for this is the down payment of our individually “unmerited” inheritance within the Kingdom of God. Of course, that’s a far cry from the medieval concept of a “treasury of merit” facilitating deposits by “saints” and withdrawals by sinners! There is no commercial credit/debit mechanism underlying the Biblical teaching on atonement. If this turns Anselm on his head, so be it. Such a Proclamation once turned the world upside down.
God’s overabundant repayment to Jesus for the sin of his crucifixion actually blows all the fuses of Anselm’s tidy calculus of satisfaction. The “merit” Jesus “earned” (more accurately, “won”) by dying a death he did not “owe” overran all the borders of those actuarial account books. Our Master merited incalculably more than enough to abstemiously pay off a conjectured cosmic “debt of sin” (about which Scripture is conspicuously silent). Jesus was “paid” a whole new creation, new humanity and all! This corpulent salvation can hardly be corseted to fit Anselm’s and Calvin’s diminished image of what was “fitting” for humanity, according to God’s accounting (as presumptuous mortals reckoned!). The power of Christ’s Resurrection burns out the overrated, under-capacity circuitry of medieval categories. Biblical language—the language of the Spirit—must not be dismissively “surpassed” by such flourishes of systematizing. God, moreover, was not dealing in mere “equivalencies” of quid pro quo in the Atonement. He did not pay Jesus back just enough to settle the arrearage that “the elect” had accumulated; He was unaccountably (!) lavish, even prodigal in generosity toward him. And that’s capital for us who are united to him by a faith even as tiny as a mustard seed. To carry this line of thought a step further, we might even say that God “imputes” our faith as “merit,” since faith is in accord with the superabundant graciousness poured out to Christ on account of his faithful and perfect obedience, i.e., his “merits.” But we’ve had enough fun for one paragraph.
Moving right along, we could emphasize that these magnanimous outpourings are “supererogatory” benefits from God the Father Himself through and because of Jesus the Lord. Let’s play a moment with “supererogation” (i.e., doing more than is required or expected). Anselm explained the Cross of Christ as an act of supererogation whereby Jesus, because of his sinlessness, merited legal (civil) satisfaction for the sins of others since he did not need it for himself. But whereas Anselm is correct that because Jesus was sinless he did not “need” to suffer the “penalty for sin” and therefore his death was a magnificent and noble act of supererogation and hence was worth a very great amount indeed, yet its modus operandi had nothing whatever to do with being a “medium of exchange” for paying back satisfaction to God’s offended honor. This point is crucial. The worth of the sacrifice that the sinless Son of God allowed himself to become at the hands of the vicious men who nailed him down and trussed him up was that the balance of God’s premial justice went on tilt. God’s response was to recompense Jesus in a gigantic cosmic exhibit of supererogation. Whatever supererogation the Son manifested was simply a reflex of his being “a Chip off the Old Block.” And no surprise, for the Son was commissioned specifically to reveal his Father’s personality and disposition and desire in toto, in the flesh. That explains why his Father endorsed his entire earthly career—manger, workshop, Cross and all—with His own supervening response of munificent supererogation: extricating Jesus from the Unseen, vivifying him to immortality, exalting him to the highest heaven, enthroning him on David’s seat, handing him the scepter over all the nations, giving him the inheritance of the created universe…and more!
God’s actual modus operandi, therefore, grounded firmly in His righteousness/justice, was to execute judgment by restitution to Jesus so that what he won as his just deserts could be shared with us impoverished and mortal sinners for our sustained enrichment. What a colossal salvation! Furthermore, the whole package is ours absolutely free! What’s more, there’s enough for absolutely everyone! That’s because regardless of who exactly was humanly responsible for putting Christ to death, his own sinless virtue and perfect obedience to God, surviving the most extreme testing without cracking, “merited” his being given authority over his entire species! This one Man bought the whole race; in other words…he became a ransom in exchange for everybody. So whom did he pay, in turn? Us! Is it so strange that Jesus should pay us his lifeblood to leave our wrongdoings and follow him into the path of righteousness and holiness? Having gotten freed from misdeeds, we are now enslaved to righteousness, employed to grow wholesome fruit. Everlasting life is our bonanza!
These few hints at how God’s premial justice gets us light years beyond a “limited atonement” prepare us to segue into its application to the nature, power, and function of God’s graciousness in the process of salvation. Fasten your seat belt.
Clearly now, if God’s graciousness is as grand as all that, shouldn’t it be irresistible too? For sure, it should be irresistible! Or, more correctly, God’s Proclamation about how He magnified His graciousness to His Son so that through him any sinner who believes the eyewitness testimony about it gets access to that graciousness and escapes His indignation against her sins—now that should be irresistibly attractive, at least enough to generate both a strong presumption of credibility and a healthy desire to respond accordingly, which is to say, by trusting Him. He’s counting on it. He’s published a narrative so fetching that it draws everyone who hears it toward Him. Still, it’s not foolproof. It wasn’t meant to be. It’s intended to win over everyone foolish enough to believe the story is true and live accordingly, but leave the rest free to persist in their own stubborn ways. Pretty clever. The Story is self selective. It is designed to evoke our love for the main Character and win our loyalty and obedience to His beneficial desires for us.
However, on the grounds of penal satisfaction God has to pull in His belt and economize his grace. Not only is there too little grace to spare for the likes of just anyone, there aren’t enough samples to go around so anyone could know what they’re getting into and whether it’s “for them.” Consequently, so it goes, God made sure that once he hooked a select few, they couldn’t get off the hook and waste all His efforts. Everyone was free to resist his grace except His target population. It’s called the bondage of the elect.
Am I overstating the case? It is easy to lampoon, that’s for sure, and history is full of this. But it’s defenders can be humorless and penally spiteful against any trifling with their sacred cows. It should now be clearer why that is. “Sovereign” grace (as they like to call it) isn’t real graciousness at all, it’s favoritism. It’s arbitrary, capricious partiality. That also explains why Calvinism has an attitude. And it ain’t gracious! Remember the grace of apartheid? But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Here, I shan’t get into the story of Calvin’s and Farel’s Geneva, Knox’s Scotland, Cromwell’s England, our own New England, Paisley’s Northern Ireland, etc. Enough to say, there seems to be a remorseless connection between the doctrine of God’s penal satisfaction and the human satisfaction taken in penal attitudes and behaviors by its more ardent advocates.
It’s high time to declare that God’s graciousness is no more irresistible than His Holy Spirit is. Perhaps that’s why hardcore champions of penal satisfaction so often leave something to be desired when it comes to expressing God’s graciousness, which may well grieve, not to say quench, His Spirit. There’s many a sad lesson in all this. But for the present purpose, it brings us around to asking how God’s premial justice might alter the drama. This line of thought leads us to consider the nature, power, and role of God’s Proclamation concerning His graciousness in Christ.
This Explanation about God’s graciousness is His power, designed to reach into the human heart for the sake of salvation. This is the centerpiece of apostolic testimony. Roman Catholic soteriology (in particular, “analytic justification”), by contrast, places regeneration front and center, teaching that without it we cannot have the power of the Holy Spirit to help us do the righteous deeds and become the holy persons whom God can judge as righteous at the Judgment. The soteriology of Calvinism likewise positions regeneration in front, but their reason is because without the Holy Spirit we cannot even have faith, which is the “gift of God” by which He “imputes to us the merits of Christ’s righteousness” so we can be saved. In the first case, regeneration comes through means of the Church’s baptism; in the second, it comes even before the hearing of the Gospel, by which those whom God has particularly elected by His own “sovereign” choice, for no reason existing within them, will irresistibly come to faith. The common denominator of both Romanism and Calvinism—the priority of regeneration—dishonors the foolishness of faith, which God Himself has chosen and honored as the door of salvation and every other blessing in His kingdom. The doctrines of Rome and Geneva ironically unite to systematically disestablish the highly honored biblical role and function of trust.
God, by securing the justification of eternal life for us in the objective, external, past-historical work of Jesus Christ, thereby nullifies any necessity of His then having to first infuse His Spirit within us by regeneration before we are able to believe. For the glorification of Jesus Christ in his Resurrection and ascension is precisely the objectively observed and witnessed verification and vindication from God that is sufficient to arouse trust in all who hear, even before they are baptized (i.e., regenerated) by the Spirit of God. For the historic career of Jesus Christ effects a gratuitous justification of believers into the status of sonship entirely apart from anything of Himself which God might detect inside a human heart. It is not His-Spirit-inside-of-us that God justifies, but Jesus-Christ-outside-of-us, 20 centuries ago; his obedient faithfulness was actual, while our righteousness is gratuitous: by faith reckoned as righteousness. Consequently, for God to impute righteousness only to those persons who have somehow previously gotten His Spirit (i.e., the “elect,” by prior “regeneration”) would hardly be superior to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification by works performed by the Holy Spirit in the saints, as regards personal assurance (but this I shall take up under “Perseverance of the Saints”).
Much of the Pauline polemic hinges on annulling human boasting. But he never goes as far as the Calvinist either by denying the legitimate instantiation of trust within the human being, or by denying that trust arises naturally within human personality, in spite of sin, in response to perceived proof. Paul would give the credit for trust to the external testimony provided by God Himself in the career of Jesus of Nazareth (which is now recorded for all generations in the New Testament documents). Thereby we are saved from future wrath, through Christ, and simultaneously saved for future favor, in Christ. God’s favor is a fruit of Christ’s mighty deliverance or liberation, effected by his Resurrection from among the dead; it is not some instrumental cause of that redemption. Calvinists stand this mighty truth on its head, presumably to deprive humans of any grounds for boasting. But all their talk about “sovereign grace” actually empties the resurrection of Christ of its redemptive meaning and proper impact. This twist on grace also undermines the clear Biblical connection between his Resurrection and the effects of that favor (charismata), such as healing. Is healing to be found in “redemption”? It most certainly is to be found in redemption construed as resurrection! For if the ultimate resurrection and vivification of our bodies constitutes their redemption or deliverance from death, the present “grace (charisma) of healing” is an earnest of the fullness of that future grace (charis) which we are to expect at our glorification. The Biblical language is perfectly articulated to make this crystal clear. Underlying this whole system is God’s love, which makes the whole world go round. But Calvinism has crosswired love and grace.
One popular misapprehension of this topic is that it simply refers to human sinfulness. Actually, it was an attempt to make sin seem so pervasive and powerful that it prevented people even from exerting saving faith. So—bottom line—it really reduces to “total inability” to believe. And because believing was considered to be an “act” dependent on a “free will” agent, then this latter concept came up for review as well and had to be declared illusory. Right in line with this trend of thinking is the habit of calling faith a “gift”; perhaps that seemed a handy way to demote it from being the God-appointed condition of salvation to being a mere result of God’s choosing particular individuals for salvation “apart from anything within themselves.” Just for good measure, Calvin added, for greater consistency with penal theory, that without the Holy Spirit, it is impossible to believe. Let us examine this assemblage more closely to sort out matters a bit more validly.
By calling faith a “gift” and by stressing this identification in sermonic, devotional, and polemical discourse, attention is diverted away from what the apostle emphasizes as the Gift of God: the Holy Spirit. This is His supreme Gift or Present to the human race. The covenantal terminology and explanatory framework of the Old Testament leads us here and nowhere else. The last and greatest prophet of the Old Covenant, John the Baptist, prophesied that the Messiah would immerse repentant believers in Holy Spirit. The stubborn penchant to call faith a gift may seem pious but turns out to be another basic error of Calvinism, impelled by a penal motive. Not only does it draw attention away from the covenantal importance of the coming of the Spirit, but it also deprives faith of its rugged in-created status as a structural faculty and natural function of all human beings. Without this subjective organ, what is there to trigger our reception of the true Gift of God? Or, to switch ground momentarily, what within us could trigger our reception of the alleged “gift of faith”? This false question deserves a false answer: “Nothing whatever. God’s particular, supralapsarian election of individuals is without regard to anything in them.” But this leads us right back to the existential uncertainty of medieval Christianity, against which Luther so notably overreacted. Here we’ve snagged another epicycle. Far different is the framework of the New Testament Gospel.
God’s agelong purpose is to save all who trust His Proclamation. He chooses the “foolishness” of trust because it is something anybody can do, given proper testimony or proof. Trust is not an action that makes God indebted to the person who exercises it. He chooses trust, therefore, because it is fair to all, and He desires all to be saved. The capacity to trust is an in-created human faculty—a function of human nature that God created structurally good. It has not “fallen” into disrepair. To be able to trust is a reflex of our being fashioned in God’s own image and likeness, entailing sovereignty and lordship over the created order, including the functioning of one’s own volition and decision-making. The Christian authors of the post-apostolic period massively escalated the use of a classical term to pinpoint precisely our authority (exousia) over our own human faculties such as the fiducial capacity to believe: autexousiotes—“one’s own authority,” “self-authorization,” “self-determination,” “one’s own discretion,” “personal judgment,” “initiative.” This extensively used patristic Greek term is most common, by far, in its adjectival form, autexousios— “of one’s own authority,” “self-authorized,” “self-determining,” “at one’s own discretion.” This family of terms is customarily translated by some variation on the confusing English compound expressions, “free will” or “freewill,” or simply “free choice,” or even simply “free.” Yet it is extremely significant that the Greek word families for “free/freedom” (eleuther-) and “will” (thel– and boul-) were not customarily placed together to convey this concept within early Christian literature. Therefore, the expressions “free will”/”freewill” are not only misleading translations, but the upshot has been wearisome confusion, leading to regrettable and often preventable controversies within theology.
In the Proclamation of His Kingdom, indeed, in all Scripture, God has provided abundant testimony of His nature and character, in addition to what is readily available to every human being through observation of the created universe alone. Of course, God is also free to give direct revelation in visions and dreams to all those without ready access to His written Explanation. Such occurrences are beyond dispute, abundantly verified from many a mission field. Yet none of this testimony, proof, and evidence is so overwhelming as to be coercive. For God wants voluntary acquiescence to His invitation of love and offer of agelong life.
Nor does the exercise of trust in God presume regeneration by God’s Spirit. Rather, the Proclamation itself has been invested with the power to engender trust by virtue of its gripping story line and eyewitness testimony. So if God Himself and His Spirit refuse to coerce trust, would He approve human beings forcing it? And although He modeled, trained, authorized, and commanded His commissioned proclaimers to perform signs, miracles, and powerful deeds of restoration to corroborate the nature of His creation-regenerating reign, yet even those are not so persuasive as to shake every stubborn sinner out of habitual wickedness against their will.
Furthermore, even those who have tasted these powers of the impending age and have received the pledge of God’s own Holy Spirit may still ultimately fall out of God’s graciousness if they do not endure in trust all the way to the end. God’s covenantal, fatherly affection will not allow anyone to be tried above what they are able, for He does not desire to destroy anyone at all, but to nurture everyone through duly moderated afflictions, opposition, and downright hatred from others. A God who can bring overwhelming good out of heart-rending evil is obviously qualified to handle the task. A Lord who was himself subjected to the very same indignities is qualified to sympathize and moderate with clueless sinners. Yet none of these contingencies can separate us from God’s love and—as with Jesus at the Cross—regardless of what may look for all the world like “divine wrath.” Only one’s own heart, quite “within one’s own authority,” willfully shrinking back into distrust, contrary to God’s testimonies, witnesses, proofs, evidence, signs, miracles, powers, goodness, kindness, patience, mercy, tolerance, and even human nature itself (which needs and craves a father, a savior, a lover, a provider, a god, one to worship and thank), indeed, only our own fondness for this ephemeral age and our sovereign (though mortal) love of the darkness can separate us from a God of such graciousness and truth. Out of love He has given each human being sovereignty and authority, within limits, and this includes the irrational option to choose death instead of life.
In addition, God has sufficiently warned those who have been taught Scripture that there are powerful spiritual forces of darkness attempting to destroy His handiwork, whose real agenda is always and only to lie, steal, defile, and murder. If we do not remain in His Explanation of Truth and Life, His Spirit can be grieved, quenched, even insulted enough to withdraw. We then become prey to the deceptions of the Destroyer. Thus there is no guarantee that everyone who starts believing will end up staying in the Truth. Since God chooses the foolishness of trust, we are chosen only so long as we stay that “foolish.” Since the means He has also chosen for inducing trust is His Proclamation, we must keep getting nourished by it regularly, according to the directions!
Thus God’s graciousness is by no means “sovereign” and the “elect” can be “unelected,” as the Old Covenant sadly illustrated. This is so because God has “sovereignly elected” it to be so according to His unimpeachable Wisdom. Because His ultimate plan, intention, and purpose is to save all who remain faithful and trustworthy, and since He even “sovereignly” provides the very means to do so by His abundant testimonies in creation, Scripture, the Holy Spirit, plus His miraculous manifestations, this goal of saving all who trust Him can never be thwarted. All who, accordingly, persevere in trust are destined to become God’s children and inheritors of allotments in His future kingdom. However, He does not choose or destine anyone to persevere, for He enjoins endurance as our human task. Without exercise, faith atrophies, yet God loves believers!
The call of God’s Proclamation goes out to all, so it is our duty and privilege to co-operate with God’s agenda of proclaiming His Kingdom. Yet only those who trust it and keep trusting it to the finish line are chosen to inherit the Kingdom. He stated as much, repeatedly. There’s no mystery why God chooses whom He chooses. It is His revealed will. Everyone who ends up a believer gets chosen. Sweet. Whoever hears this Message and thirsts for the life of the Kingdom may come and drink. Then God graciously starts treating them as His dear children. He foreknows those who will endure to become His children permanently. Yet He grieves over the others who, after all His graciousness and the privilege even of tasting the heavenly Gift, experiencing God’s ideal declaration, and sampling the powers of the future age—having actually partaken of His Holy Spirit—yet use their temporary and mortal powers to turn away from Him to destruction after all. Such ingratitude! God’s evangelistic calling card and invitation is this tasting of the future kingdom via sampling the presents and fruits of this Gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ won for us! Sadly, these persons are all the more guilty for their turning away because nothing else in heaven or earth, present or future, could have caused them to make such a fateful decision or could have snatched them out of God’s loving hand. They alone bear that responsibility—that sin. Their agony in the unseen will be saddest of all as they await their conclusive end.
The doctrine of total depravity, by depriving human beings of their proper in-created sovereignty and self-authorization, can hardly escape a disempowering, even dehumanizing, tendency. This cannot but have serious consequences in practice and in proclamation of the Gospel.
Provided the extent of the Atonement is as grand as God’s stupendous reward to His Son suggests, according to the Gospel story, then God’s choice of whom to save should employ a method that comports with such a gracious restitution. Scripture, as we have seen, endorses risk-taking faith. Here, also, Calvinism veers far from the path under the urge for consistency with penal satisfaction. A penal payment has an inherently limited range and power of exchange. Accordingly, there must be a limited number of chosen beneficiaries. Unless God’s providentially circumscribed power is to be impugned, those chosen must not be able to get away. Any contingent means of access to salvation, such as faith, would therefore be unsuited to this rigid economy. On those premises, faith must be a result of salvation rather than a “free-will” response of “sovereign” mortals to God’s Message of His graciousness to Christ and thence to all others who may believe it. Therefore, even such “free will” must be foreclosed upon, in overreaction to Pelagianism—hence the severe preventive measures taken by the doctrine of “total depravity.” God is perceived as choosing—an arbitrary choice that has nothing to do with “anything in” sinful human beings—those who are to be saved. This selection is typically equated with “predestination.”
Then come the variations: supralapsarianism, infralapsarianism, and sublapsarianism, differing with respect to which side of the Fall God’s choice for particular individuals comes. The second two theories agree that the choice came after the Fall but differ with regard to whether the choice came before or after the postulated “decree” to provide salvation. Such complications then extruded the notion of “preterition” or “passing over” whoever didn’t get elected, as an amelioration of an outright “decree of reprobation.” It’s all very tedious and all very wrong. Penal satisfaction has made hash of an exceedingly simple and solid salvation.
With a premial justice, the extent of the Atonement is more than universally sufficient; it only needs a fair and adequate means of distribution. That chosen means is simply more “foolishness”—the Gospel story! God has Himself chosen the “foolishness” of that Story as the power to generate faith. When, in His supremely wise provision, He engineered the events that exalted His Son via the Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension, He supplied the very means to draw all mankind to Himself. He declares His pleasure with the authentic human response of faith. Accordingly, He chooses all who merely believe that Proclamation and endure in that faith to the very end, come what may. Naturally, God has a vested interest in “making sure” those who start believing His wonderful narrative are not peremptorily snuffed out by trials of faith that are too severe. So He declares right up front that faith is what He desires from us and furnishes a host of testimonies by those who were sorely tried yet made it through (and a few of the other sort…). But He also foreknows who will endure. No matter, He is magnanimous enough to “waste” His graciousness on all who believe, and for the duration of their faith. In fact, any adventitious loss of favor may happily serve as yet another incentive for rushing back to Him in renewed faith! That’s the wonderful, gracious way it appears to work.
Understandably, this raises a flurry of objections in minds thoroughly imbued with penal satisfaction. Yet we have already seen how sinners can believe even though they are sinful, since human nature, conscience, etc., are not fallen but stand as God’s intact witnesses against our own fleshly cupidity. God chooses a people in order that they may know and believe and understand who He really is, that is, to know His name or reputation, and in turn that they may observe His mighty saving activities and proclaim Him to all the world, generation after generation.
It is also understandable, though hardly justifiable, that Calvinism stepped beyond the bounds of sound explanation by denying that God’s foreknowledge concerns our faith in, and love for, Him (that is, because He had graciously chosen these factors within the human heart, corresponding to His choice of Jesus Christ—a merciful correlation!). The Roman Catholic tradition had taught that God foresees whether a person will become just, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, throughout her lifetime. This doctrine of “analytic justification” was rightly rejected by the Protestant Reformation as caricaturing the Pauline teaching, for it depended on this subjective process of justification within a human being—a sinner at that!—being foreknown (and in its less subtle form depended on human acts as evidence of becoming more just). Consequently, the same artillery of explanatory formulas that Protestants launched to demolish this falsehood were directed against the truth that God chooses a non-act of the human heart, namely, faith, as the privileged saving response to His own historic act for our sakes, i.e., exalting His only-begotten Son in the climactic Cross/Resurrection events. It is, therefore, this act especially that Scripture declares God knew or foreknew, and which His own wisdom and power accomplished in human history. Moreover, all persons who participate in this historic act by the appropriate response, faith and baptism, are likewise foreknown by God in Christ. This faith is the Sabbath rest from our own acts. The Calvinistic regarding of faith as an act (“act of faith,” “act of believing”) virtually cross-wires the Biblical vocabulary, short-circuiting the power of God’s Explanation to some degree. A theological re-wiring is long overdue to restore full power to our teaching and proclamation.
The notion of faith, per se, being a “gift” was a theological overreaction to the perceived falsehood of salvation by acts or works. But the error in the teaching that faith should be styled the “gift of God” becomes visible (among other ways) from a consideration of the truly helpful analogy of faith as a mere hand opening up to simply receive the actual Gift! Certainly it is supremely proper to give thanks and express gratitude to the Giver for the Gift. But what if, instead of thanking God for His indescribable Gift of Holy Spirit, we started thanking God for the faith itself, i.e., the “hand”? In that case the credit would be deflected from its proper external object and focused on a subjective, intra-human, merely created faculty! This is the ironic result of alleging faith to be God’s gift instead of the Savior, the Spirit, and their salvation. This improper focus leads to insecurity and unhealthy introspection rather than joyful acknowledgment of God’s completed work in Christ. What a tragic irony that a doctrine ostensibly intended to deprive humans of egotistical boasting in salvation and redirect all credit to God has had, historically and personally, such slippery and often bitter consequences.
The flip side of election is said to be “reprobation,” an antiquated term for “disqualification,” whose antonym in Scripture is not election but qualification. It is not necessary to retroject back into some supralapsarian decree God’s decision to “reprobate” anyone. For He has openly declared by apostolic testimony what the disqualifying factor really is: distrust of His Proclamation of salvation. We have seen that He invested the power of our salvation in that Narrative; it generates the faith by which we gain access to His graciousness. Ergo: all who resist that drawing power will be disqualified and ultimately condemned. God has made His “decree” quite explicit; we have no excuse for proliferating complicated hypotheses.
“Perseverance of the Saints”
None of the above reconsiderations of Reformed doctrine, however, should be taken to imply that we are “insecure” in God’s love. It is especially the contorted theory of penal satisfaction that breeds deep insecurities and arouses unsettling suspicions that we are like spiders held over a flame, that God is fundamentally hostile to the human race at large and “must be propitiated,” his “justice appeased,” his “holy law pacified,” his “wrath placated” (none of which expressions are biblical), or, moreover, that Christ’s suffering “reconciled God to man” rather than the other way around (the only way Scripture explains it). The teaching of “eternal security” is simply a popular version of Calvin’s Augustinian (ultimately gnostic) teaching that falls under the rubric, “perseverance of the saints.” The Biblical truth of God’s premial justice dispels our existential phobias at a profoundly bedrock level, but not by forcing us into any such artificial theological prosthetics.
The Holy Spirit’s inward reminder about God’s outward graciousness to us through His rectifying Resurrection of Jesus Christ has a naturally comforting effect on our apprehensions. Simply the fact that we have been legitimized as children and released of all our debts to His proper demands, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, and that, consequently, even our faulty doing of those demands is still well-pleasing to Him as we keep and stay in them from sheer loyalty, is a tonic to our motivation and desire to please! If we stay in God’s invigorating Explanation, we stay in God’s hand, and nothing can snatch us out. His Explanation is that powerful. People who possess authority have power over the wills of their subordinates by the mere expression of their favor or indignation, without ever laying a hand on them or influencing them by some extrinsic incentive.
It was precisely because Calvinist theologians dared not regard faith as an in-created human function subject to variable direction at the behest of tangible proof, that they were stalemated on the issue of perseverance. For if God Himself elected particular individuals not on account of their attaching their own trust to the sufficient proof given by God in His Proclamation (now inscripturated), but by His own arbitrary, unaccountable, “sovereign decree” (need I mention that neither “sovereign” nor “decree” is ever used in Scripture in any such connection, but are vestiges of medieval scholastic cultural baggage?), then of course He could not ever withdraw his regenerating Spirit, regardless of anything whatever in the behavior or heart of these “elect,” for that would introduce a contradiction into God’s very nature. Naturally, any token of subsequent distrust or shrinking of faith away from Christ, or of disobedient behavior—to human observation—only serves as proof that such persons were never, after all, “elect” in the first place, but were disqualified (“reprobated”) ahead of time! This doctrinal point concerning perseverance rounds out the logically closed circle of the “doctrines of grace,” falsely so called.
The truth of the matter would appear to be, rather, that God has “sovereignly decreed” that all who persist in trusting Jesus Christ, His elect Son, according to God’s Proclamation—the Explanation of power whose very structure and message was pre-designed and “decreed” to stimulate trust in the sinful human heart—shall be saved and grow in character like Jesus. Nevertheless, a person can—and many do—resist the wholesome drawing power of God’s Explanation, even when brought by communicators full of God’s Wholesome Spirit and accompanied by demonstrations of extraordinary power. This certainly entails their resistance to the Spirit that both inspired the Scriptures and empowered those witnesses.
The passage of Scripture used in connection with the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, “that the Scriptures might be fulfilled,” was not intended to teach that God (as reflected by Scripture) made Judas do this thing, but that God has foreknowledge of human hearts. That someone so close to Jesus should have perpetrated such a heinous act of betrayal, especially after being an intimate recipient of his kindnesses and an observer of their distribution to so many others, is a stunning revelation of the viciousness in many a human heart, and even of our own mortal danger lest we ourselves fall away after having tasted God’s wondrous favors, even his very own Spirit.
In Christ’s resurrection, God proved Himself trothful, faithful to His covenanted promises of rescue. That relationship is sometimes likened to marriage. God would never “divorce” those who preserve His covenant. So why should we ever “divorce” Him? Nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from Him when we trust Him, so why should we ever want to separate ourselves from Him? This may be an enigma, but it’s not an impossibility in view of how God saved Jesus so that we can experience the spillover of graciousness. The security of saints is not threatened in the least from God’s side for all our falls and residual sins, but only from our side. God has given every token of good and clarity of insight (including many a warning story, such as that about Judas) to keep us attached to Him. Yet some folks may still dis-attach themselves in spite of all efforts. Caveat lector!
Furthermore, having believed God’s Word of saving power, we are then immersed into Christ by the Holy Spirit and thereby regenerated as members of the ‘Second Adam’, the New Humanity. From the standpoint of the resurrectionary Atonement, both uprightness and wholesomeness are ours to be worked out throughout our lives (and deaths if need be) by that Wholesome Spirit, which operates and empowers within all of us whom Jesus Christ procured by the worthiness of his obedient faithfulness throughout his living-and-dying. Another beneficial result of the premial Atonement is that we need not be concerned whether a “works righteousness” is being smuggled into the camp, for in fact every virtue and every saving benefit is understood to be an outflow of the power of the Spirit of wholesomeness dwelling within us, as it was in Christ Jesus, our Head. We can truly, heartily mimic our Master, knowing that the graciousness of the Holy Spirit is both “desiring and operating” his delight as we trust Christ and conduct ourselves under his Spirit’s lead.
Yes, believers can (sadly) become unbelievers if God’s graciousness is resistible; those who stand in faith may fall away from the faith; those who stand in graciousness may fall from graciousness; those who have tasted of the Holy Spirit may so grieve, resist, and quench (or worse, slander) the Spirit that it departs; those who have gotten regenerated by the powerful seed of the Explanation must beware lest it languish, get choked by the cares of this world, or get snatched from their hearts; the saved may no longer be safe; indeed, the elect (by their faith) may become the tragically unchosen if they do not stay in the Word but stop walking in the Spirit. What’s more, those destined to sonhood so long as they remain in the Explanation, stay in the True Vine, grow and persist in the faith, stand in graciousness and walk in the Spirit, if they should start shrinking back to destruction, never arrive after all at that destiny of sonship but revert to children of darkness and wrath instead. The apostle Peter, who had a front row seat, warns that it would have been better for them not to have recognized the way of uprightness than recognizing it to return to what was behind, from the wholesome direction given over to them. What was in the true proverb befell them: “A dog turning to its own vomit” and a bathed sow to her wallowing in the mire. Frightful! Shall we remove the divine warnings? Tone them down? Relegate them to feckless advice for “reprobates”? Woe, the wicked webs we weave!
Thus: being destined to sonhood is conditional, and God foresees how every individual will handle the challenge. This is no novel doctrine; the entire early church prior to Aurelius Augustine was unanimous (i.e., “catholic”) on the matter, precisely because the entire apostolic corpus is in solidarity on the issue. Weren’t there any dissenters? Absolutely. History knows them as the Gnostic sects. They originated “eternal security without regard to works,” and Augustine, in overreaction to Pelagius, reverted to that doctrine of his Manichaean youth and set the heretic “straight” at the cost of dooming many a future disciple of his devotee, John Calvin, to a perilously crooked and slippery path indeed! It should therefore come as no surprise that Augustine is no saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which, however, actually has little to do with his being a Western, Latin bishop. He is considered as heretical as his opponent on the issues that separated them. Can we hear from our brothers and sisters in that communion anymore? Premial justice may just possibly separate us from strange doctrinal bedfellows and restore some more honorable semblance of unity to Christians worldwide, provided we’re all in a repentant mood.
Under the terrorizing regime of penal satisfaction, the character and motivation of the Father is so twisted and caricatured that the contingency of destiny takes on a sinister, malign cast that is not at all natural to the joyful proclamation of the Father’s graciousness as displayed in His premial righteousness toward His commissioned Savior, Jesus. Since the Father desires children whom He may nurture and shepherd toward a destiny of mature sonship, readying them to inherit allotments of a many-sided salvation, is it at all likely that He would not be solicitious for their staying in the embrace of His gracious and affectionate household? Yet if they insist on wriggling out to go play in the street…on the freeway…in the fast lane of the world, He will not, after due warnings and repeated, loving admonitions, hold them against their will (a component of their ineffaceable self-authorization). He treats them as His children so long as they are willing to remain His offspring, and He promises to take them back if they change their minds, turn around, and come back into the Father’s house (provided they make it in time!).
But what shall we say about elder brothers who take offense at such non-Calvinistic (that is to say, non-penal) generosity, indeed, at such paternally “sovereign” graciousness to the “dis-elect”? Tragically, they can turn themselves out of the Father’s graciousness, in fact out of His house altogether! For after all is said and done, many are those called “saints” (by the intrinsically powerful call of the Gospel), but few are actually chosen. God chooses all who remain in His Son’s Explanation to become His children permanently. Yet others are “free” to come…and go, since they are human beings, for God’s sake! Grace is that amazing! Yet not to be trifled with. Arminius held (correctly, I might add) that there is no present assurance of final salvation. This means we have to be ever wary lest the Adversary snatch away the good seed of God’s Explanation, which is the power for salvation. If this proviso comes as “bad news” to us, then we have not been fully or firmly grasped by the Good News, which is our only abiding assurance of ultimate salvation. Let’s get a grip on what grasps us! Still, we can’t “lose” our salvation; to get rid of it, we would have to deliberately discard it. Neither can anyone else steal it from us (i.e., from the mighty hand—Spirit—of God) or somehow alienate us from it if we stay in Christ (where our baptism put us) and walk in his anointing Spirit of wholesomeness.
Many of the nettling problems concerning perseverance that arise from Calvinism are because the apostolic role of the Holy Spirit has not been realized to the full. It has become sidelined, marginalized as more of an “add-on” than as a fully integral component of New Covenant salvation. This still might not have happened (regardless of traditional Roman Catholic suppression of the Holy Spirit by cessationism, a hold-over, at least in part, of residual Augustinianism) but for the further developments of so-called forensic justification, particularly the notions of “forensic imputation,” incipiently by Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin, then more full blown by Johannes Piscator and William Ames, a couple of generations later. These doctrines cut an alternative furrow so that the contents of salvation relating to righteousness were somehow communicated to believers apart from the internal operation of the Holy Spirit (in evident overreaction to Roman Catholic errors) via “imputation.” And that brings us to the threshold of my penultimate topic.
“Justification by Faith Alone”
Although not strictly speaking one of the effluences of penal satisfaction, the Protestant doctrine of “justification by faith alone” could hardly have remained aloof from its influence. Therefore one could scarcely deal with the main features of Calvinism without touching on it, especially in view of the controversies currently sweeping over it, not to mention the impending 500th anniversary of Luther’s alleged “rediscovery” of it. Even so, in light of what has been unfolding thus far, we might suspect that the raging controversy over justification, lo, this half a millennium later, may actually be yet another tempest in a teapot, stoked by the deeper assumptions of atonement by penal satisfaction.
The Reformers themselves, perhaps feeling the inadequacy of a mere deflection of God’s wrath away from sinners “at the Cross,” attempted to bolster up the vulnerable doctrine with a somewhat misplaced truth, namely, “imputation of merits.” By echoing the medieval concept of merits rather than further exploring the apostolic pattern of sound explanations, these partial reforms unleashed yet another theological novelty that had the baneful effect of stalling progress in holiness/wholesomeness among God’s flock (despite talk about “honoring God’s holiness”). Scripture teaches nothing about such imputation, either of Adam’s “original sin” to the whole race, or of human sin to the Savior, or of Christ’s “merits” or “righteousnesss” to sinners. It is spurious and actually subversive of our proper, diligent exertion against the remaining corruption of our flesh in the power of God’s Spirit.
In radical opposition to this whole substitute gospel is the stirring truth of God’s glorious overturning of the gross miscarriage of justice at the Cross when He finally brought justice on the third day by raising Christ to immortal life—an ultra-compensation that included a superabundant proliferation of Holy Spirit to actually generate what Protestant theologians asserted could only be “forensically imputed.” The emergent disputes about the relative “perfection” of such righteousness and the “necessity” thereof before God were intrinsic to the penal way of posing the whole nature of God’s righteousness and justice. By adding necessarily mystifying theological terms to the “inadequate” terms and usages that the Wholesome Spirit had made wholesome for inclusion in Wholesome Scripture, these partial reformers are belatedly convicted of dishonoring Scripture and much of their theological wisdom turns sadly to dust.
It was part and parcel of Jesus’ personal agony on the Cross to have been falsely imputed wrongdoing by his people and to have been deemed subject to God’s personal wrath due to misdeeds. And in this peculiar kind of torment, Job was the biblical type. Joseph, imprisoned in Egypt, no doubt tortured himself with such thoughts. David and other Psalmists record such mental anguish. Isaiah 53 is yet another of this genre, yet observe, the voice is not God’s but the clueless onlookers’, reported faithfully by the seer. This tragic sort of evil need not have been prolonged in Messiah’s case beyond his Resurrection, when the truth came out and gloriously dispelled such unworthy reckonings. Yet they have been exhumed by the penal satisfaction doctrine that obtruded its defaming sentiments into the darkened heart of “Christendom” during its prolonged dark ages. Western Christianity has never quite recovered from this corruption of central apostolic teaching, but in many quarters is still stubbornly, enthusiastically serving it up to the next generation as essential and impeccable truth. May God blaze anew with wholesome Light to clear this blindness from our proclamation, from our instruction, and from our mission. I fear lest the ardent advocates of so-called “forensic righteousness” ironically suffer forensic blindness to God’s authentically redemptive premial righteousness.
The error was early planted. To accept Augustine’s novel dogma of “original sin”—the “imputation” of Adam’s sin to the whole human race—was to start down the slippery slope leading to Anselmian vicarious satisfaction, Lutheran imputed righteousness “of Christ,” Calvinistic penal substitution, “double imputation,” the five points of the counter-Remonstrance, and the whole punitive image of the Atonement. From the history of the dispute about “righteousness” in Western Christianity it will be helpful to distinguish three conceptions. By the era of the Reformation, the “righteousness of God” mainly referred to His demands on human beings. It was this interpretation that so frightened Luther, because he correctly perceived that if justification was dependent on his attaining perfection in terms of these demands (conceived especially in relation to the Ten Commandments and penance for transgressions, even leaving out of account the welter of ecclesiastical laws that also burdened the church) his case was hopeless.
Luther’s solution, in a direct line of conceptual succession from Augustine’s newly minted teaching about “original sin” and Anselm’s novel doctrine of “vicarious satisfaction,” was a further innovation concerning the imputation of Christ’s own righteousness to sinners. In stark contrast to these interpretations of divine righteousness is the apostolic heralding of God’s righteousness/justice as the special outworking of His love that awarded Jesus for his faithful obedience with the resurrecting power and life of the Holy Spirit—an award so superabundant and variegated that it overflows to sinners as a sheer gift, on the condition of mere trust, thereby liberating them from fear of death, and hence from captivity to sin and Satan, and even entails their righteousness via forgiveness, plus their holiness of conduct! (It is noteworthy that early Reformation confessions—Lutheran, Anglican, Anabaptist, and Reformed alike—simply equate justification [of sinners] with forgiveness [of sins], without explanation or complication.)
This contrast of positions suggests that the developed Protestant concept of forensic justification is a quickie shortcut that traverses many a hazardous minefield in the Christian life, for it lures us into satisfaction with a “substitute” righteousness. What it calls “Christ’s righteousness” (an expression found exactly nowhere in Paul’s writings, to which it makes the highest appeal) is alleged to become ours by “imputation” (a simple word which it misappropriates for the purpose), not in actuality. This interpretation, then, discounts the full meaning of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit because it is blind to Christ’s Resurrection as God’s perfect righteousness/justice in execution. If theologians of this “forensic justification” could see, even for one brief shining moment, that Jesus’ Resurrection was precisely God’s justification of him, they could be well on their way to seeing how the further outflow of that ultra-compensating payment to Christ justifies us too, by supplying the Holy Spirit to simply rid us of sin on account of our obedient response of faith to the Proclamation. Our immersion-into-Christ-by-the-Holy-Spirit is our regeneration. It happens in a flash. Here is where contention over the “perfect righteousness of Christ” versus the “imperfect righteousness of believers, wrought by the Holy Spirit” continues to run on the fumes of Augustinian doctrines. God’s own premial righteousness perfectly revealed at Christ’s Resurrection completely dispels the fumes and quenches the raging flames of controversy in one fell swoop.
The Reformation tradition wants a “once-for-all” justification of believers “objectively in the past” where it is out of reach and therefore “secure.” But that’s an illusion, a phantom. This development is a fruit of Luther’s overreaction to the miserable insecurity of medieval Roman Catholic dogma and vain works of penance. Such security is not to be had. Yet there is a way—a much better way—of coming to solid, rooted, grounded trust in our Father in heaven. It comes by understanding the authentic once-and-for-all achievement of Calvary and its aftermath. Jesus made a cleansing of sins by the “circumcision” or off-stripping of his whole body of flesh and the out-pouring of his blood (figuring his just existence afflicted to a wrongful death by cruel sinners) as a ransom to redeem sin’s slaves. This sacrifice of his body voluntarily to God, executed by bloodthirsty men envious of his power and authority, pleased God immensely, for it permitted Him to display His own supreme justness unambiguously in eye-witnessed history, thereby both vindicating His own sullied reputation at the hands of corrupt leaders and teachers, and also vindicating His beloved, bosom Son, who was so egregiously disgraced and brutalized.
It was this once-and-for-all, unique act of Jesus that triggered the celestial machinery to start churning out free life to sinners for the low, low cost of faith—a virtual non-act on our part. The Spirit of life (Christ’s just deserts from God’s bar of justice) is what actually frees us from our sins (depicted by the blood of Jesus and the water of baptism, as well as the oil of healing). To a devotee of Protestant doctrine this may seem the long way around, but it is assuredly the right way to sinless life, to authentic human righteousness on this side of Adam’s sin. To sons of the Reformation, this method may not seem “objective.” Indeed, it is not. For our righteousness is our “subjective” experience (yet absolutely real, for all that) of Christ’s “objective” experience of God’s justness at his Resurrection. There can be no more objective experience of God’s rectitude than Christ’s personal experience of getting raised from the dead amid the undeniably historic confluence of eye-witnessed public execution, burial, and escape from a Roman-guarded tomb! To demand more objectivity than that is to show an indecent degree of ingratitude toward a God who could dream up such a fool-proof rescue operation.
Therefore, when we receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, we are ipso facto tasting the righteousness of God. Empirically! This is the source of our assurance of faith, tangibly speaking. The continuous presence of this Spirit of God within us, witnessing with our own spirits that we are daughters and sons, and therefore heirs, of God is all the token of righteousness (and, conversely, of forgiveness of sins) that we need. We need no more than this, provided we don’t arbitrarily exclude the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit meant as tangible signs of God’s favor. This is our ticket into God’s Kingdom…a free ticket in the bargain!
From the perspective of the resurrectionary Atonement, the distinction between Christ’s so-called “active” and “passive” righteousness (his life of flawless rectitude “vs.” his voluntary death on the Cross) is moot. No commercial payment for sins (as “debts” to God) is even in view. Rather, his sinless life included his sinless dying (its culminating crown of success); he got overcompensated for the whole of it via resurrection, exaltation, and the bequest of the Spirit.
Another of the many good fruits of the resurrectionary Atonement is that since it unmasks and dismantles the double-imputation theory of justification and restores the proper role of the Holy Spirit as conveying to us the contents of salvation, including righteousness (arguably in the sense that Paul intends, even if not as “perfect” as penal substitution insists), there is no distorting pressure to force some ethical payoff out of the erroneously supposed imputation of Christ’s own moral rectitude to us (his so-called “active” righteousness). Historically, wherever this doctrine has been taught it nurtures “antinomianism” (so called). In contrast, premial Atonement contains no secret, subtle tendency toward antinomianism, because there is no substitutionary “payment” of our sins or performance of righteousness “in our stead,” “transferred” (i.e., the “merits” thereof) to us via “imputation” that would render us free of our obligation to do right. Much rather, Christ’s just and holy life and death in its seamless entirety won him the vast award of agelong life, in the power of the Holy Spirit, which he can now give away graciously to us to empower our own just and holy emulation (flawed though it is). However, along with this new power does come a new law to replace the old, even as Jesus surpasses Moses. But this is scarcely a burden since we are adopted sons, no longer slaves under threat of capital punishment.
Yes, Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses in every respect, and every Scripture pertaining to him came to pass ineluctably. But where do the Law and Prophets ever require the Messiah to be punished by God, under His wrath, in the place of others, as their “penal substitute”? Moreover, his actual fulfillment of the Law’s demands for righteousness he more than fulfilled by his unequalled love and self-sacrifice, yet that was not “as our substitute,” “in our place,” and certainly not “imputed to us” or “transferred” in any way (i.e., his “active righteousness” or “merits”). Rather, it won him a reward from God that he could give away with God’s fullest approval, namely, the indescribable Gift of the Holy Spirit, to make us simultaneously wholesome priests and righteous/just kings on the earth to proliferate bountiful good works for God’s credit. This is how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together become “Jehovah our righteousness.”
“Eternal Conscious Punishment”
I have kept the last things till last. The doctrine of penal satisfaction necessarily carries over to one’s view of the final state. And again it is no surprise that the most punitively extreme views of the subject are to be found in Calvin and in his theological progeny. So although “eternal conscious punishment” didn’t make the cut for inclusion in the handful of Remonstrant topics for theological reform that Dort overreacted to, it certainly belongs there. Eternal conscious punishment fits hand in glove with penal satisfaction, and they are mutually reinforcing. It is, of course, possible to separate them technically and assert their relative independence so as to affirm one while denying the other, and we should applaud such happy inconsistencies. Yet the attempts have conspired to the weakening of a consistent elaboration of apostolic teaching, and sometimes have evoked needless ridicule from those who champion full consistency with penal satisfaction. How might a restoration of God’s premial justice to its Biblical place of honor in human salvation fare on this highly contested battlefront?
First of all, it would dissolve the “necessity” of punishing the unsaved on the scale that the postulated “penal justice” seems to demand. If during this present vicious age of the world God does not need to “punish every sin” and could show moderating mercy and divine tolerance, carrying with much patience the vessels that were steadily and unrepentantly adapting themselves for destruction and treasuring up final wrath; and if at the Resurrection, God was indeed exhibiting the other side of justice altogether, and could bypass, for the time being, his penal justice in hopes of some good fruit from His evident kindness in not trouncing his enemies—indeed, we are admonished to deem such kindness salvation—then God clearly has more options than traditionally imagined. Others scholars have already labored faithfully to highlight the consistent Old Testament usage and background of virtually every image used in the New Testament regarding divine punishment in its various phases. There is no need to rely on contorted exegesis to conflate passages which under premial skies would sort out harmoniously among “the Abomination of Desolation,” “the intermediate state,” and “the final state.” The ante-Nicene authors were remarkably uniform and consistent with the New Testament on the subject of the intermediate state, but the Protestant Reformation didn’t bother to restore that teaching. Isn’t it about time we got back to work repairing the breaches? Here’s a sample of how one might go about it.
The final end of all who remain stiff-necked, calloused, hard-hearted, and stubborn to the Proclamation of God’s Kingdom, is extermination from the face of the Lord, in other words, utter destruction, annihilation. There’s no escaping the truth that despite God’s desire that none should get destroyed, many will be destroyed regardless. God Himself has “sovereignly” determined that humans get their own responsible share of sovereignty (arche) and self-authorization (autexousiotes) to co-determine their future. This all implies that God feels such loss as grief, so He shares even this tender emotion with His highest creatures. Having generously lavished on them the good things of this old creation, plus His kindness, tolerance, and patience toward their sins, if they should decide after all to rebuff the overture, well then, they have had their day. Having despised its immense promise of a yet greater good, they now must suffer whatever pain God’s penal justice determines is fair for whatever havoc they may have wreaked during their careers, and finally be consigned to agelong oblivion. Enough is enough. God will not indulge in agelong conscious torment of these lost and wasted human beings. Instead, He will have them escorted to a Lake of Fire, not originally designed for them at all, there to suffer penal measures and, at length, be utterly consumed, for our God is also a consuming fire. Their end is agelong punishment, not endless conscious punishing. Defenders impelled by the goad of penal satisfaction would insist otherwise, quite understandably, but now we know why. Better yet, now we know the authentic apostolic antidote to such dismal theories and tendentious exegesis. Thus, at the last, “eternal conscious punishment” is shown to be insulting to God’s creative Wisdom, redemptive Word, and demonstrated character of love. By contrast, Satan and his angels, in accord with their unique natures and deeds will, according to Scripture, suffer torment for the ages of the ages.
I have attempted to show by the foregoing treatment of some controversies spawned by Calvinism that, whether by direct or more roundabout influence, penal satisfaction has been the life-support system for Calvin’s revival and rearticulation of Augustinian soteriology. I have also tried to show how what I take to be the authentic apostolic or premial view of God’s justice at the messianic climax of history not only takes the wind out of the sails of the penal craft, but provides a much more “satisfying” and “propitious” solution, both with respect to God’s own character and with respect to our human sense of justice. Without the counterweight of premial justice, the grim incubus of penal justice creates a darkening overcast, a heavy “lake effect” that depresses the human spirit and casts a pall over the worth and meaning of human action in general. It would appear, if history and experience can be brought to the witness stand, that strict Calvinism nurtures doubts, ill-ease, restlessness, cheerlessness, and even abusiveness.
I have tried to illustrate that every point of Calvinism’s doctrine of salvation that makes it unique has been deleteriously affected by penal satisfaction. To be sure, there are often happy inconsistencies in the outworking; those should be acknowledged and even welcomed. Moreover, at a popular level, it is only to be expected that wherever God’s people are feeding on Scripture for themselves, they will often be able to rise above dietary imbalances and deficiencies of traditional professional dispensing.
A New Reformation?
It may appear to many readers by now that I have an ax to grind against the Reformed tradition wholesale. Not so. During my college years, I became an enthusiastic student of Reformational Christianity of a neo-Kuyperian variety and have pursued that line of thought and action for many years. Within that vigorous stream of Calvinism there has always been stress on continuing the Reformation and bringing the good fruits to bear on every sphere of human activity. I have not veered from this ideal. However, it has troubled me to observe shortfalls in various areas. The excellence of scholarly reformation in an astonishingly wide range of academic fields, combined with a unique approach to Christian organization across the cultural horizon, are wonders to behold and ought to be pursued with even greater enthusiasm in the future. It is to this end that authentic reformation within the field of theology ought not to be neglected while pressing forward on other fronts. With that objective in view I make this contribution.
I did not choose the doctrine of Atonement; it chose me. When everything started to unravel, I was caught. I never expected to start seeing what came excruciatingly yet joyously clear. Now that I have seen premial justice throughout Scripture, supremely exhibited in God’s raising the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, along with incipient implications for Reformed theology, the time seems ripe to communicate some results. This fledgling attempt is accompanied by the awareness that no great truth has an easy road to success. It must win its stripes the hard way. My Reformational mentors long ago made that clear; history and experience corroborate the fact in spades. This means there will be a price to pay for pursuing ramifications of the premial understanding of the Atonement throughout the loci of theology and beyond. The prospect is not made easier by the realization that this may look like a revolutionary move to many readers. Although the very articulation of Christ’s Atonement as premial is intrinsically non-violent from God’s side, in diametric antithesis to penal satisfaction, yet obviously there could hardly be a more radical move than to scrap every vestige of the latter, deeply entrenched theory from our theology, but that is precisely what needs to be done. This is not simply a personal opinion of mine. The subject itself demands it, regardless of what I might prefer. Many of the greatest truths began their careers as small “heresies.” Christ paid dearly for laying it on the line before the stubborn leaders of his day. He set the pace for the career of Christianity. Paul followed right in sync. Will things be different for us? Should we even expect it? Each of us will have to count the cost and consider what actions are right for us in relation to the doctrinal reformation I have heralded above. This shakes the foundations. This calls for a New Reformation, and the initial agenda is clear. Could we maybe have a peaceful earthquake this time around?
Take the doctrine of God as a test case. If the Father did not act toward His Son the way penal substitutionary satisfaction teaches, then Calvinism actually has a different image of God than the apostles proclaimed. Can we escape this shocking implication? People will notice something distinctly different about the countenance on this “Trinity.” Anyone can see the facelift. Apologetics will have a different texture and weave if the Atonement is premial. Some of our worship will never be the same again if we really take this to heart. And what about evangelization and missions? How about all the other business of life? Marriage, child rearing, schooling, sports, social work, welfare, policing, mediation, criminal justice, litigation, politics, international relations, diplomacy, military, war? Dare I mention Christian-Muslim relations? Now there’s a promising topic. The light of premial justice gives God’s supremacy and Christ’s Resurrection a whole new ambience. It’ll make waves. I wouldn’t want to prophesy possible global tsunamis.
Moreover, this seems a most propitious moment in history to get started on the task, with the celebration of John Calvin’s 500th birthday. Let this 500th Anniversary be proclaimed a JUBILEE! Would Calvin himself warm up to such a liberation? I have virtually characterized penal substitution and the five classic points of Calvinism as a ball and chain. But although this appears to me the sad truth of the matter, a premial atonement has vast reservoirs of gracious oil to pour on stormy waters. I think the fun is just beginning. Who wouldn’t fall for the love of God as manifested by His restorative justice to His beloved Son, such that it stormed past all the grim forces of Satan, Slavery, Sin, and clammy Death to wash over the vicious, the depraved, the corrupt, and worse, in a tsunami of love and graciousness that holds nothing back and pardons all. Sinners, come home! All is forgiven!
I have attempted to show, in brief, that the opinion, so prevalent within evangelical Christianity, that the “penal satisfaction” doctrine of atonement alone has justice on its side, and that there is no viable alternative, is emphatically invalid. The opinion has been given a semblance of plausibility due to the historic fact that, with the exception of the moderating governmental or rectoral theory, virtually every major opponent of vicarious satisfaction has abandoned the high ground of justice per se and has sought some other way of atonement. Peter Abelard, in the generation following Anselm, repudiated the latter’s civil law conception of justice in favor of love and, contestedly, mere “moral influence.” Faustus Socinus, following in the generation after Calvin, by far the most trenchant critic of the latter’s penal law concept of justice, presumably abandoned it to pursue the path of an “exemplary” atonement.
In addition to a resurgence of Grotius’s rectoral/governmental theory among many revivalists and not a few Restorationists in the U.S., the nineteenth century proliferated a dazzling variety of alternatives to justice, often variations on the above themes, yet adding a selection of other ‘creative’ options. Some deflected toward regeneration as central. Several replaced the judicial setting with a familial one of fatherly love. Sacrificial theories stressed the priestly setting. There was “perfect confession” and “vicarious repentance.” Others championed the sacramental. The early twentieth century saw Gustav Aulén’s revival of an ancient martial or military sitz im leben. Anders Nygren developed the most ambitious alternative of all to justice, culminating the long tradition emphasizing the centrality of love instead. Many later twentieth century theologians have conceded a legitimate place to penal satisfaction but have sought some other metaphor as more central. Increasingly, blended or patchwork imagery has come to the fore. Following René Girard, a host of creative theologians are advancing sophisticated non-violent alternatives to penal satisfaction/substitution.
Nevertheless, with dreary uniformity, whenever justice has been at all accorded a legitimate place in the theology of the Atonement, it is of a penal (and hence necessarily substitutionary) kind. Yet where punishment has been abjured, for whatever reasons, justice is expelled along with it. Herewith, I have labored to rehabilitate the authentic restorative, rewarding, or premial variety of justice found throughout the Bible, all but universally neglected by theologians of the Atonement. I have hereby made a start at reinstating integral justice to its proper office and wish to urge and invite others to join in the task of retaking the high ground on behalf of reforming all our doctrines in light of God’s astounding execution of due justice for our Lord Jesus Christ by raising him to superabundant life from his wrongful death on the Cross, in order to provide all mankind full remission of sins and multi-faceted salvation, free for the taking.
Have I succeeded in the challenge of my subtitle, “Reconciliation by Resurrection?” Can Anselm, Calvin, and Arminius really be brought into harmony with one another? Actually, I was thinking more of their descendants. So that will be up to us to determine. If the Reformed tradition is courageous enough to jettison the dead weight of ancient traditions (as not ancient enough!), it can forge full speed ahead into the challenging adventures of the 21st century, the 3rd millennium, with fresh energy and vision to pursue its daunting world-transforming agenda. It is obvious by now, ruefully for some readers, that I have come to see the theological labors of Jacob Arminius as worthy attempts at continuing the Reformation in theology. John Calvin was much too dependent on Augustine, so recycled even his errors. Arminius seems to be addressing especially those parts, and by appeal to Scripture supremely. He bore no personal umbrage against Calvin. Yet his theological heirs were boycotted at the Synod of Dort, and his doctrinal reforms rejected. If I am correct, the Reformation that would have continued had this not happened—a nearer approach to ancient apostolic teaching—needs to pick up again among Calvinists where it stalled in 1618-19. To be sure, Arminius did not by any means complete even that reformation. It is certainly instructive to search subsequent history and observe the many worthy fruits of John Wesley’s remarkable adaptation of his theology in 18th century England. The restoration of the premial Atonement is only one more step in the Reformational direction. I would hope that the multiple streams issuing from those several heads could one day soon find one another again and unite on the main things and the plain things so that we all together can get on with the beckoning unfinished agenda of our Lord to bring his gracious Kingdom into fullest realization in all the world and in every sphere of human action.
Whether this manifesto heralds the end of Reformed theology as we know it, I cannot say, but for the proclamation of the resurrectionary Atonement and the advance of premial justice, this is certainly just…
~ The Beginning… ~
“Brethren, we are now erelong to part asunder, and the Lord knoweth whether I shall live ever to see your faces more; but whether the Lord hath appointed that or not, I charge you before God and His blessed angels to follow me no farther than I have followed Christ. If God should reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you ever were to receive any truth by my ministry; for I am very confident that the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of His Holy Word. For my part, I cannot sufficiently bewail the condition of the Reformed churches, who are come to a period in religion, and will go no farther than the instruments of their reformation. The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go any farther than what Luther saw, and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented; for though they were burning and shining lights in their time, yet they penetrated not into the whole counsel of God, but were they now living, would be as willing to embrace further light as that which they first received.”
Conclusion to Pastor John Robinson’s
farewell address to the Pilgrims at their
departure from Leiden for the New World in 1620,
following the fateful decisions of the Synod of Dort, 1618-19.
“The truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.” — Emily Dickinson
© 2009, 2012, 2014, 2017 Ronald Lee Roper
Revised Sept. 1, 2012, Jan. 22, April 19, 26-28, May 8-9, 14-20, 2014, June 7, 2017.