Tag Archives: limited atonement

Calvin’s “Predestination” flows from his “Limited Atonement” and both, in turn, from his “Penal Satisfaction”

For Calvinists to run down the Scofield Reference Bible for “imposing” Dispensationalism on its unsuspecting readers (which it most certainly does!) is the pot calling the kettle black, since Calvinists were the very first Protestants to perpetrate such a mind-twisting imposture in the Geneva Bible. [8/15/09]

Those who posit an eternal degree in God by which He has ordained some to life and the rest to death make of Him a tyrant, and in fact an idol, as the pagans made of Jupiter.” — Jerome Bolsec, M.D. “Arrested and banished from Geneva with the warning that if he ever returned he would be flogged” for declaring the above words. Dave Hunt, What Love Is This? Calvinism’s Misrepresentation of God (Sisters, OR: Loyal Publishing, 2002), p. 85. [8/15/09]

The actual logic of the matter (which Arminius, alas, did not yet quite see) is that the erroneous “predestination” of Calvin followed from limited atonement,” not the other way around. This fact was not clearly visible due to the powerful, invisible undercurrent of penal satisfaction upon which all sides unquestionably, uncritically agreed. But it was only this penal “payment that placed a “limit” on the graciousness released by the Atonement. For all sides concurred with the notion that Jesus’ suffering on the cross was the soteric commodity needing to be “economized” for its “exchange value” in ransoming/redeeming sinners by “paying for their sins.” If it was not to be improvidently “wasted” on ungrateful reprobates, it would have to be calculated, parceled out, and rationed with a thrifty eye to a 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 CALVIN’S INSTITUTES, etc. Thus did Augustine’s toxic dogmas come to re-infect the world and more thoroughly overturn the apostle Paul, arguably, than perhaps any other single factor in history. [8/15/09]

A gospel that does not exult and boast in the restorative, rewarding, i.e., premial justice or righteousness of God is a grossly deficientgospel”—Paul would not recognize it as good news at all! A gospel that dares to boast and pride itself in merely penal justice—no matter what the proposed mechanism (e.g., “substitution” and “imputation”) he would anathematize as “a different gospel, which is NOT [truly] ANOTHER” but rather a distortion that disturbs the saints! (Galatians 1:6-9)




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“Double Jeopardy” Dissolved.

The Calvinistic boast of the “hard, clear logic” of their system necessarily evokes its dialectical opposite—the assertion of “mystery” wherever the system violates Scripture. This is an inescapable paradox of their violence to the clarity (“perspicuity”) of the Scriptures themselves. [8/10/09; from my note at the bottom of p. 357 of Robert Shank, Life in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Perseverance (1961), annotated in 1985 or 1986, Pella, Iowa.]

The alleged problem of “double jeopardy” would be an authentic concern only if God “exacted judgment” at the Cross in the first place! But a premial atonement dispels that concern 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 winning FRIENDSHIP FROM SINNERS! But if they should reject the invitation, it’s no skin off Christ’s back, because he did not suffer from a discrete measure of divine wrath in penal judgment in economic exchange for “just so much” human sin. CHRIST WON A FAVORABLE JUDGMENT! The Judge RULED IN HIS FAVOR, so any divine punishment incurred by those who reject and resist the 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. [8/11/09]

Pity the agonizing young dissenter from Calvinism who only disbelieves their harsh, errant dogmas, yet still believes them when they say “There’s nothing better out there.” Such a person is tormented by half-hearted disbelief. Their only salvation (and it must be hard won!) is in WHOLE-HEARTED DISBELIEF OF CALVINISM IN WHATEVER IT CLAIMS AS “UNIQUE” TO ITSELF IN DISTINCTION FROM HISTORIC ‘CATHOLIC’ CHRISTIANITY. [8/11/09]

Even a crucifixespecially a crucifix, with the Savior forever mounted and pinned in NON-AVENGING AGONY WHEN HE MIGHT HAVE SAVED HIMSELF THE TROUBLE BY A SPECTACULAR RESCUE is the very image of God’s love. A cross without a bleeding, thorn-crowned, stark naked Savior leaves too much to the imagination. Like, how did the cross become…“empty”? Or did his disciples steal his body? Or was he somehow resuscitated from a swoon?

So, may every crucifix-honoring Roman Catholic take heart that this piece of religious art indeed represents, against the backdrop of the worst that Satan could do, the true, non-vindictive love exhibit of our Savior enduring torture, however long, until God Himself showed up to save him with enough salvation for all his enemies too!  True grace with true grit!  [8/11/19; 8/13/09]

It is always notoriously easy for Evangelicals to fall back into one or more prickly points of Calvinism, because so long as they continue to hold on to Calvin’s invention of penal satisfaction, all the other points follow consistently—but the more consistent the less Biblical. And the tension can be paralyzing! Not even Calvin could cross the final hurdle of ultra-Calvinism—limited atonement. By the time people convince themselves, over all the objecting testimony of the apostles and early church, that strict Calvinism is correct, their conscience is seared. Can such Calvinists be ‘redeemed’? [8/11/09]

A penal atonement must be substitutionary for the simple reason that Jesus DID NOT DESERVE the treatment he received, leading to his death. By the same token, a premial atonement cannot be substitutionary, precisely because Christ DID DESERVE his resurrection and the premium/reward that followed necessarily from God’s avenging the wrong of the Cross. That resurrection was certainly not ‘substitutionary’, of course. However, it was FOR (huper) US! Yet even the Cross was not ‘substitutionary’ since each of us too must carry our own cross! [8/11/09] Both of these epicenters of the Gospel narrative are accordingly—in diametric opposition to the popular substitutionary spin—INCLUSIONARY. And it is this unifying feature of PREMIAL INCLUSION that baptism so precisely depicts. It is this act that pictures us safely IN CHRIST when we believe the Gospel. [4/27/17]

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The Weakest Link in Calvinism’s ‘Five Points’ of Penal Satisfaction

The extent of the Atonement was the weakest link in Calvinism’s system of penal satisfaction [as I explain in the paper, “Anselm, Calvin, and Arminius:  Reconciliation by Resurrection?” at the top of this blog site]. When Theodore Beza closed that link securely in the next generation in order to be more consistent with penal payment (and his devotee, William Perkins, to be more “reasonable” than John Calvin himself!), Jacob Arminius pried it back open—in fact all the way open to embrace potentially the whole fallen race.

However, all unintentionally Arminius’s passion for consistency with Scripture started to burst the whole chain of penal bondage, especially from that weak link. He was not finished by the time he died, but a proper, solid 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 by not reinstating premial justice in the essential role and so brought some disrepute on the basically correct direction in which Arminius had worthily launched. [8/06/09]

Arminius held (in full agreement with the ante-Nicene authors, 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 is “bad news” to you, then you have not quite firmly grasped the Good News, which is our only abiding assurance of salvation! GET A GRIP!  Then enjoy the trip. [8/06/09]

Yes, believers can (sadly) become unbelievers; 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 (not to mention slander) the Spirit so that it departs; those having gotten regenerated by the powerful Seed of the Explanation may find it languishes, gets choked by the cares of this world, or gets snatched from their hearts; the saved may become no longer safe; indeed, the elect (only due to their faith!) may become the tragically unchosen if they do not remain in the faith-nourishing Word and keep walking in the Spirit of faith

Oh, I had almost forgotten, those destined to sonhood so long as they remained in the Word, stayed in the True Vine, grew and persisted in the faith, stood in God’s graciousness, and walked in the Spirit, if they should be “shrinking back into destruction” (Hebrews 10:38-39), never finally arrive at that destiny of sonship, but become “children of darkness” and “of wrath” instead. It would have been “better for them not to have recognized the way of righteousness/justice, than recognizing it, to go back to what was behind, from the wholesome precept given over to them. Now that in the true proverb has befallen them: ‘A cur turning to its own vomit’ and ‘A bathed sow to her wallowing in the mire’” (2 Peter 2:21-22).


This is not novel doctrine; the entire early church before Augustine is virtually unanimous (i.e., ‘catholic’!) on the matter, precisely because the entire apostolic corpus is in solidarity on the issue.

But under the terrorizing regime of penal satisfaction, the character and motivation of the Father is so twisted and caricatured that the contingency takes on a sinister, malign ambience that is not at all natural to the joyful Proclamation of the Father’s graciousness as rooted in His premial justice toward the appointed Savior, Jesus Christ. The Father desires children whom He may nurture and shepherd toward a destiny of mature sonship to inherit allotments of a many-sided salvation.  IS IT AT ALL LIKELY THAT HE WOULD NOT BE SOLICITOUS FOR THEIR STAYING WITHIN HIS GRACIOUS AND LOVING EMBRACE?! Yet if they insist on somehow wriggling out to go play in the street…on the freeway…in the fast lane of the world, He will not, after due warning and repeated loving admonitions, hold them against their will. He treats them as children so long as they are willing to remain His offspring, and He promises to take them back if they should change their minds, turn about, and return to their Father’s house (provided they do so 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 fatherly “sovereign” graciousness to the diselect? Tragically, they may turn themselves out of the Father’s graciousness, indeed, out of His house altogether. For, after all is said and done, “many are called [by the intrinsically powerful Gospel], but few are chosen.” God chooses all who “remain in [Christ’s] Explanation” (John 8:31-47) to become His children permanently. But others are ‘free’ to come…and go, since they are human beings, for God’s sake! [8/06/09]

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Overcompensating Restitution Covers ALL Sins

To speak of Christ’s “fulfillment of Scripture” or even “fulfillment of the Law” as meaning primarily (much less exclusively “meeting all its DEMANDS” is to prejudice the discussion from the start, in a merely legal direction instead of a fully covenantal one. [7/22/09]

The “governmental view of the Atonement” first articulated by Hugo Grotius was an acknowledgement of a serious flaw in Calvin’s “penal payment” view—an economic problem. Grotius backed off of the strict equivalence between Christ’s sufferings and the sins thereby presumably “paid for.” And Grotius was correct in his demurring from that severity. However, even so, his solution is defective. For only the righteousness of God, understood as His supercompensating premial justice to Jesus Christ in exchange for the latter’s obedient surrender to a wrongful death, which reward was progressively unfolded starting with his resurrection, I repeat, only this divine righteousness ushered into the world a “payment” sufficient to provide salvation for ALL THE WORLD OF MANKIND on grounds that JUSTIFIED GRATUITOUS BESTOWAL WITHOUT IMPUGNING EITHER THE EFFICACY OF THE GIFT OR THE SELF-DETERMINATION OF HUMANS.

Hereby we are operating on a level that transcends the problematics of a strict economic equivalence supposedly reflecting a “sovereign election” of a “limited number” without any “wastage,” (which would allegedly reflect badly on God’s wisdom and foreknowledge), for OVERCOMPENSATING RESTITUTION COVERS ALL SINS WITHOUT REMAINDER…AND SOME! Premial justice explodes a “commercialatonement to shameful oblivion. It is assuredly not God’s way of doing atonement. We are not dealing in the realm of “penal payment” but of “premial reward,” and the two conceptions are incommensurable. “Wastage” is never so much as calculated in the premial concept of apostolic Scripture. In fact, it would dishonor God the Father to do so! For when He deigns to award His beloved Son, He was evidently uncalculating in His lavish munificence! His royal splendor is tarnished by such prattle! Oh that we would exult to the max in the majesty of His SUPEREROGATORY GENEROSITY!

Within this magnificent conception, not only the Atonement is understood as general, unlimited, and universal, but even the variegated benefits it procured (no longer conceived as merely commercial acquisitions) are recognized as enjoyed by any and all as soon as they believe and so long as they continue to believe. This includes regeneration, i.e., getting the Holy Spirit, along with forgiveness, cleansing, justification, sanctification—the whole shot! IT ALL MAY BE TASTED, SAMPLED, ENJOYED, even by those who may later fall out of this UNREGRETTED GRACIOUSNESS only to return as dogs to their vomit and sows to their wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:22), AND ALL WITHOUT THE LEAST BESMIRCHING OF GOD’S WISDOM OR “SOVEREIGNTY”! GOD’S RESTORATIVE JUSTICE AND BENEFICENCE ARE THAT EXPANSIVE!!

The bottom line is that God’s premial justice, utterly eclipses the crabbed limitations of penal payment in all its usual guises and many varieties, whether Calvin’s own authentic mix or Beza’s more consistent and severe form, followed by Perkins, Ames, Owen, and many other English Puritans and all the Reformed standards, whether Swiss, Dutch, Scottish, along with all their epigones down to the present. Arminius and Amyraldus issued noble objections, to be sure, but without THE POWER OF THE RESURRECTION, THE FULL AND GLORIOUS MAGNITUDE OF THE GIFT OF SALVATION JUST KEPT GETTING SWATTED DOWN TO THE PUNY SIZE PERMITTED BY A PENAL MENTALITY AND VENGEFUL SPIRIT. THAT IS THE SHRUNKEN LEGACY OF ORTHODOX PROTESTANT ATONEMENT. [7/22/09]

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Resurrectionary Justice slices through the Gordian Knot of Calvinism/Arminianism

The resurrectionary or restorative justice view of the Atonement slices right through the Gordian Knot of Calvinism/Arminianism, which at the core are one in their agreement with their Anselmian and Augustinian false assumptions.  On that problematic legacy they agree, but take divergent exegetical routes to mutually repellent half-truths on the topic of “the extent of the Atonement.”  [03/12/08]

God paid Satan exactly what he thought he wanted:  the death of Jesus.  But that surrender of His beloved Son to Satan’s cruelly unjust assaults unto death itself triggered divine justice to act swiftly on Christ’s behalf by raising him up from the grave and thus to utter triumph over Satan in the bargain.  [03/12/08]

It’s not because Satan had any “right to demand anything from God” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 581) that “the ransom Christ paid to redeem us was paid to Satan” (ibid.), but BECAUSE SATAN WANTED HIM DEAD.  There was of course, no “deal cut with” Satan by God “in the counsels of eternity” or at any other time!  There was no covenant, no treaty, no secret pact, “no nothing” between the deity and the deep blue sea!  God simply gave His beloved Son into Satan’s bloody hands…but what happened after that has ransomed multitudes from Satan’s grip ever after!  The wooden thinking of penal substitution advocates ensnares them into tripping over the obvious and getting all tied up in verbal knots.  May God have mercy upon their good intentions, because their verbal productions are horribly guilty of sin.  [03/12/08]


The “limitations” implied in both the so-called “limited atonement” or “particular redemption” position as well as the “general redemption” or “unlimited atonement” stance, namely, the limitation of the number of the saved in the first case and the power of the salvation in the second, are both alike and equally embedded in the very nature of that atonement in the first place.  We will find the font of both errors when we retrace back to the more fundamental error of atonement as an earning or purchasing of salvation by a paying for sins.  For only then does the divisive issue of “quantity” vs. “quality” of salvation even make its entrance.

Sin was never dealt with in Scripture by “paying for” it vicariously.  We are taught simply to let it go, for God is well able to restore the loss–if not now, then later.  Such superabundant repayment is precisely what the resurrection was intended to demonstrate in no uncertain terms.  This is what God’s graciousness is all about and where it is most visibly and decisively seen in history.  That glorious event is the apex of the Gospel proclamation for it explodes any human reckoning of an exchange rate between the prize that the Messiah won for all his efforts—a SUPERNOVA OF WHOLESOME, LIFE-GIVING SPIRIT—and the discrete magnitude of sin to be obliterated thereby.  The very attempt is exposed as pretentious, calculating, penurious, the appraising of a gift horse!

Thus Scripture never portrays salvation, in whole or in any of its parts, as “EARNINGS,” for Jesus did not “earn just so much” of God’s graciousness!  That would be to completely overlook the positive, proactive, voluntary contribution of the Father Himself in response to the positive, proactive, voluntary subjection of His Son to all His desire!  Such covenantal mutuality totally shatters every economic trade theory of the Atonement to smithereens.

God help us to grasp the length and breadth and depth and height of this kind of love!  It has NO LIMITS OF QUANTITY OR QUALITY, OF NUMBER OR POWER, OF MAGNITUDE OR MIGHT!  PRAISE BE TO THE LORD GOD ALMIGHTY AND TO THE LAMB!  [03/14/08]


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I Have Good News and Bad News

June 29, 2013

Today is my daughter Karis’s BIG 21st BIRTHDAY!  So I decided to celebrate, in part, by publishing here the up-to-the-minute result of the incipient ideas she planted almost two months ago when we went out for breakfast.  She asked me on the drive there, “Dad, when we get to the restaurant, can you please explain to me in just a few paragraphs your view of the Atonement?”  She was just finishing her junior year at Calvin College, so I thought I’d start with Calvin.  I gave it the old college try, and here’s what I came up with, in the guise of a “news” report.  Okay, it turned out to be more than a few paragraphs!  But I did try to take her other strong editorial suggestions, for which I am extremely grateful.  Verily, there’s nothing human that can’t be improved.  I await your comments for improvements.



GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Perhaps the most widespread account propagated in recent centuries concerning the meaning of the climactic events surrounding the last days of Jesus of Nazareth has lately been exposed as a corruption of earliest doctrine.  We have been fed a line.  A fresh and candid look at the original documents reveals a radically different rationale behind the story.

The original written reports about the unusual origins and public career of  Jesus — birth, teaching, miracles, trial, execution, resurrection, and ascension to Heaven — during the era of ancient Israel’s imperial Roman occupation, contain their own interpretation of this extraordinary course of events.  These four ‘Gospels’ of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John build upon the prophetic foundation laid by the ancient Hebrew Scriptures.  ‘The Gospel’ was understood as the ‘good news’ that God had finally fulfilled His ancient covenanted promise of a Savior to Israel, and thence to all other nations as well.  Accordingly, these unique historic events and their implications ought now to be proclaimed to the whole world.  Luke further elaborated the original interpretation in The Acts of the Apostles — his recounting of key incidents and apostolic speeches over the next three decades or so.  The remaining documents developed the apostolic interpretation through occasional letters (‘epistles’), a theological treatise (‘Hebrews’), and a prophetic vision (‘The Revelation’).  All these writings expounded the “new covenant” that Jesus the Messiah founded, so were eventually collected into what became called the “New Testament.”

First, the bad news

What many of us have traditionally been catechized and taught about the meaning of the final climactic events of Jesus’ life on earth, ought to be held suspect as misinformation, and in that sense, ‘bad’ news.  More specifically, the explanation we have been led to believe about the theological meaning of Christ’s cross and resurrection appears to be a severe declension from apostolic doctrine.  Let’s consider the matter more closely.

We’ve been told that when Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate in 30 A.D., he simultaneously came under God’s condemnation.  He suffered God’s wrath in order to both demonstrate God’s holiness and hatred of sin before human eyes and also pay God our debt for sins.  Out of love, Christ identified with sinners by actually being ‘made sin’, substituting himself at the cross in the place of sinners who, by their sinful conduct, properly deserved God’s wrath.  In this way, he satisfied God’s law and justice, thereby propitiating or appeasing God’s wrath.

By suffering vicariously and dying in the place of sinners, even experiencing the eternal torments of hell, Jesus paid the eternal penalty they deserved.  This satisfied God’s justice so that He could then be righteous in showing grace to forgive sinners of their transgressions.  Also, He imputes Christ’s own personal righteousness to them so as to count them legally righteous in God’s eyes, even though they are actually still sinful.  Being hereby justified, they are given the right to eternal life.  Thus Jesus paid God the ransom price of his shed blood to redeem sinners from the latter’s righteous indignation against wrongdoing.

However, it is insisted, Christ could not have paid for all sins, or all sinners would necessarily be saved.  And since we know that all are not saved, Christ could only have suffered, and thereby atoned, for a limited number of sinners — the elect, who had been, by an eternal, sovereign, gracious divine decree, particularly predestined for salvation.  All others have been reprobated, or passed by, and must suffer the divine wrath of eternal conscious torment on account of their own sins.  So although the redemption is sufficient for all mankind, it is efficient or effective only for the elect.

Furthermore, because human beings are dead in sins, or totally depraved, it is impossible for them even to believe the Gospel unless they additionally receive the gift of faith.  No human act can be a condition of salvation, not even the act of faith.  God bestows faith as a gift exclusively on those whom He previously selected from eternity, by His sovereign grace, for salvation.  This gracious choice is unconditional and cannot be revoked or altered by human beings.  Therefore, whenever God’s efficacious call to faith comes to them, they cannot resist, for God’s grace is invincible.  They are at that moment regenerated by the Holy Spirit, which only then enables them to believe.  All others sinners will necessarily resist the Gospel, to their own eternal damnation, yet for the glory of God.  If Christ had suffered for their sins, too, God could not exact eternal punishment from them or He would be subjecting them to double jeopardy, exacting the same payment from them that He had already received from Christ, which would be unjust.

In a nutshell, there’s the disinformation, the bad news that has been passed off as good news for nearly half a millennium.  Yet unless we clearly grasp the inner logic of the apostolic original, the above corrupt departure will retain its credibility to many minds.  So instead of analyzing it piecemeal first, I offer the following retelling of the basic New Testament position in order to provide some holistic leverage against it.  Thereafter, I will highlight the differences more particularly, in several ways.

Now for the good news

When Jesus was condemned to the cross in A.D. 30, he was experiencing the bruising of his heel of Gen. 3:15 — the fury and wrath of “the Great Dragon . . . the ancient serpent called ‘Adversary’ and ‘Satan’” of Rev. 12:9-17.  Israel’s Messiah, unlike any human being before him, was under the grace of God nonstop — a status he came to earth to confer on others.  In fact, especially when he was under severest opposition from his murderous foes, reeling from the cup of diabolical affliction, God was decidedly on his side and would, by an ideally timely maneuver, lift him up, victorious over all enemies, with extraordinary rewards.

However, a perfectly just and holy person — one qualified to receive sovereignty and authority — poses a distinct threat to political establishments of earth.  Self-interest and self-survival drive these regimes.  Their liquidation of potential opposition becomes simply a cost of doing business — the business of graft, bribery, misappropriation, even trafficking in human lives — while devoted to the worship of mammon.

Predictably, then, after Jesus finished his celestial assignment of testifying on earth to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth from Heaven about immortal life, so help him God, the establishment summarily convicted him for plotting to overthrow both sacred and civil establishments.  They could hardly have been more correct, in spite of themselves!  And God did help him, not only with miraculous powers and narrow escapes, but also by entitling him to become the ultimate escape artist.

Besides, the power of love, Christ’s strategy for cosmic subversion, needed some ultimate proof so that people could really believe it.  Accordingly, the plot to dispatch Jesus ran afoul of the incomparably more potent, life-making truth that he dared to submit to the test of falsification — a life-and-death toss for the daring challenger.  He surrendered to his enemies and allowed them to inflict torment and even shed his blood.  However, in consideration of his flawless loyalty to God, he ipso facto invoked his Father to do him justice and save him out of his fatal fait accompli, ex post facto and pronto!  This would prove him correct. Thus his trainees would have fresh courage to strike out yet further along his Way of worldwide conquest.

Jesus’ lifelong faithful obedience to God’s desire rendered him wrath-proof, and ultimately invincible even in death.  This is how his innocent blood, unjustly shed, would become the active ingredient for giving protective cover to believing sinners, after God’s resurrecting power justly and peaceably avenged the cross.  Alive again, he would qualify to rule as the promised Messiah of Israel, and much, much more.

It worked, too!  Jesus, having suffered death, even the official, public, disgraceful, excruciating, and certain death on a cross, although absolutely innocent of any sin whatsoever, shot back to life on the third day, just as he had predicted many times, without the dubious aid of any human contrivance or needless fanfare.  Why?  Simply because it was right!  This climactic sin of his cross — the ancient sin-offerings prophetically depicted this sin-to-end-all-sins — was immediately redressed by the justice of God in the judicial decree to raise him immortal from his abject death to the pinnacle of glory!  Being thus justified by his faithfulness so as to win superabundant life, he was authorized by God to relay it as a sheer gift to whoever would simply believe he was who he claimed to be — the Messiah, Son of God.

The short-term payoff:  sinners who believe may receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit seeks to convey the very justness of God’s Kingdom to earth, cleansing believing hearts from all sin and making them holy and fit for divine service in this world, in preparation for the next.  Long-term, they benefit by inheriting an allotment within that peaceful Kingdom:  a personal abode, for which the Holy Spirit is the down payment in kind.

The power to believe this Good News resides in the very news report itself, which is designedly the power of God for human salvation.  The story of God’s exalting Jesus through wrongful crucifixion to rightful resurrection, and beyond, vibrates with divine magnetic energy to induce the spark of faith in the human breast.  It is accompanied by corroborating eyewitness testimony and crowned with the added inner witness of God’s Holy Spirit, plus confirming signs and miracles.  Yet this Benefits Package can still be spurned by any human being in virtue of God’s primal gift of inherent self-determination.  This capacity reflects God’s own image and likeness of mastery, control, and authority over one’s environment, including oneself.  This gift is irrevocable and unregretted on God’s part, effaceable only by death.

What’s the difference?

A.  The logic of “penal satisfaction”

  1. The Atonement must be limited, otherwise Christ’s satisfaction would entail excessive penal suffering of God’s wrath.  Therefore Christ died only for a select number of sinners, not for all.
  2. Election to salvation must be unconditional, otherwise some of Christ’s penal suffering would have no redemptive effect or payoff, so would be pointless.  But if unconditional, then God must predestine those chosen without consideration of any choice they themselves might make to believe or not, which might jeopardize its certainty.
  3. Human depravity from sin must be so total that human beings cannot even believe the Gospel, otherwise God would not get all the credit for giving faith purely as a gift without any human decision, disposition, etc.  Christ’s sufferings must have purchased even that gift of faith.  If people, to the contrary, have the inherent power to believe or not believe — to receive salvation or not receive it — then  they are capable of resisting the power of God.  This would be an intolerable affront to God’s sovereign will.
  4. God must therefore be sovereign, that is, none can resist his decisions.  He foreknows all things because he predestines all things.  Hence God’s grace is likewise irresistible or invincible so that all whom God elects actually end up saved, otherwise God’s economy would collapse, bankrupt.  God’s grace is sovereign.
  5. The pre-chosen saints must persevere in the gift of faith and the enjoyment of God’s grace, otherwise God’s economy of salvation is fatally destabilized, and He reveals incompetence.  If any whom He predestined to salvation were able to fall away, that would indict God’s wisdom as fruitless and His power as feckless.  God would lose face.  It would ill befit His glory, making Him look like a fool in the eyes of the universe.
  6. All non-chosen people remain under God’s wrath, which is consummated when they pay the eternal debt of their own sins by eternal conscious punishment in hell.  It follows that Christ could not have suffered the pains of hell on their behalf, otherwise that suffering would have overshot its goal and hence be foolishly uneconomical and unproductive, which is unthinkable.  To the contrary, God maintains a strict balance of payments so that his economy of salvation is preserved.

In this “penal satisfaction” model, the Savior must necessarily play the role of a “substitute” who suffers God’s wrath in the place of sinners; he cannot be experiencing God’s justice on his own behalf because justice is exclusively penal, and he did not deserve that on his own account, being sinless.  This is why penal satisfaction is often equated with “penal substitution.”

However, if in those climactic salvation events of Christ’s career God was in reality enacting or ‘satisfying’ a rewarding or restorative justice, instead of a penal justice, then substitution, in the proper sense of the word, was not present or necessary in the event.  In fact, the idea only confuses the issue and misleads our thinking about Christ’s mediation.  We might better speak of “premial inclusion” (via baptism) instead of “penal substitution.”

B.  The logic of “premial inclusion”

Premial justice exposes the preceding novel system of salvation as guilty of fiction in the first degree.

First of all, God brought salvation to earth by doing justice directly to one man, Jesus.  Thereupon, God channeled Christ’s own just deserts to believing sinners through him.  The justice due him was extraordinary in God’s reckoning because of his faithful obedience under the most severe trials of faith.  His sinless perfection alone qualified him to win the prize of the Kingdom from God.

Moreover, God’s graciousness to Jesus was super-compensatory and thus capable of extending to every individual in the whole world, without exception.  There is no limit to the Atonement in extent, application, or operation.  Whoever wants protective cover from their sins can have it simply by faith in Christ and baptism for remission of sins.  Thereupon, they obtain the gift of the Holy Spirit.

God makes this superabundant graciousness available to whoever trusts Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, without favoritism, exception, or exclusion, yet it is not irresistible or invincible.  Grace can be resisted by any creature fortunate enough to have been made in the image of God.  In fact, God’s graciousness can be resisted as easily as His Holy Spirit can . . . but not without similar harmful consequences.

Human depravity is by no means total, nor is any living human being declared in Scripture to be “dead in sin” except by a guilty mistranslation.  The capacity to believe is an inherent human faculty that remains intact and only awaits sufficient testimony or other proof for its persuasion.

God designed the Gospel with inherent power of persuasion.  For good measure, He threw in credible human testimonies plus miraculous corroboration by the Holy Spirit to induce sturdy faith.

God chooses to save all who choose to concur with the solid but non-coercive proof that the Holy Spirit has collected between the covers of the Bible.  Yet if we subsequently unchoose God, He remains free to unchoose us, as well, yet without discomfiture or disgrace to Himself, although not without sorrow.  In the final analysis, God leaves our own choice up to us.  Thus He honors His own likeness reflected in our good created structure.

God predestines no one to salvation or to damnation.  Much rather, He destines everyone who believes His story about the cross and resurrection of Jesus to become His own beloved children.  He further bequeaths them, as His daughters and sons, an inheritance in His impending Kingdom.  That delightful future is their destiny if they stay faithful, otherwise that destiny is aborted and, sadly, they get redestined to termination in the Lake of Fire.  Whoever persists in faith to the end of their present life will be saved for agelong life.

Protestant insecurities about salvation were triggered and aggravated by its punitive image of God.  Get rid of that and the relationship normalizes.  Then we can return to authentic, rugged early Christian teaching (which, however, does not resemble the usual mediating variations of “eternal security” — by comparison, sadly threadbare eternal security blankets).

The phrase ‘sovereignty of God’ never occurs in Scripture.  This idea is a Trojan horse that has smuggled a horde of deterministic evils into Christian theology and practice.  The Lord Jesus Christ was given sovereignty, authority, and more, as tangible fruits of his successful obedience.  It is this true Sovereign who declares, “Let him who is thirsting come.  Let him who wills take the water of life freelyRev. 22:17.

The back story about the differences

As you can see, the good news and the bad news are worlds apart in vocabulary, concept, and ambience.  It may be helpful to provide some account of the historic background to the emergence of the latter.

The approach to salvation that I have dubbed ‘bad news’ will be broadly recognizable as Calvinism.  Its famous principal points all turn on a single bipolar axis — that of woodenly commercial economic metaphors in combination with exclusively penal ideas of justice.  This pivotal doctrine is commonly known as “penal satisfaction” or “penal substitution” and was assembled in its classic form by the genius of John Calvin (1509-64).  He was an ardent devotee of Aurelius Augustine (354-430), and all too often emulated him at his worst, when he was echoing the gnostic theology of his Manichaean pre-conversion training — impulses that surfaced like shingles under the stress of his famous controversy with Pelagius (c. 354-418).

Calvin’s soteriology (doctrine of salvation) is daunting, not to be underestimated in its persuasive impact, despite its irresolvable contradictions and repugnant effects.  That said, I would argue that, generally speaking, all those elements by which Calvinism distinguishes itself from other streams of Christian soteriology are flatly false and harmful.

The main distinctives, usually summarized as “the Five Points of Calvinism,” were distilled at the Synod of Dordt in 1618-19 as the official response to the five criticisms articulated by the Remonstrants, whose most able champion had been James Arminius (1560-1609).  The heart of these distinctives is the notion that Jesus paid for or “satisfied” (in its secondary, economic sense) the debt of human sins by suffering the wrath of God that they deserved.  Every one of the Five Points flows directly and rigidly from this single compound error.  However, both of its elements — that Jesus paid the debt of sins, and that he suffered the condemnation and wrath of God — are foreign to the Bible and were foisted onto it unnaturally.  Nevertheless, their compound penal-economic logic is so seemingly rigorous that it has overshadowed and suppressed the actual New Testament system for explaining salvation.  Mounting human traditions had over the centuries already obscured its central thesis.  The Lord explicitly warned of such dangers from accumulating traditions.

The New Testament assumes the Old Testament position that God’s justice is two-fold, both penal (punishing) and ‘premial’ (rewarding; adapted from Latin by Anglican pastor and theologian John Balguy in An Essay on Redemption, London, 1741), each executed toward appropriate objects in God’s pedagogical wisdom and timing.  Accordingly, His justice both punishes evil (penal) and rewards good (premial), as circumstances may require.  God’s punitive wrath is revealed in destructive judgments, after long patience, with those who stay resistant to doing what is right.  His restorative graciousness is manifested toward those who stay upright, and more so in the face of extreme provocation.

Historically, and most tragically, the doctrine of the Atonement fell prey to attempts to explain its operation as dependent on God’s penal justice.  Such an idea was reinforced by linking it with economic metaphors concerning discharge of debts, satisfaction of obligations, fulfillment of conditions, payment of reparations, and so forth.  These comported well with prevalent theories of criminal law (Calvin was trained in law).

At an earlier milestone, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) had explained the Atonement in terms of the feudal metaphors of his own day concerning repaying infractions of honor.  He thereupon elaborated his famous theory of “vicarious satisfaction,” whereby Christ, being sinless, repaid God by his undeserved death for the debt that sinners owed instead.  His excess sufferings were said to be supererogatory (exceeding his own needs) and vicarious (for the sake of sinners, who did need them).  Thus Christ satisfied the human debt vicariously, in place of sinners.  This Anselmian economy of salvation was itself far removed from that of the New Testament, but it was not yet “penal satisfaction/substitution.”  Worse was to come.

When these economic concepts of medieval civil law were transposed into the context of criminal law contemporary with Calvin, their character was altered in the direction of much greater severity.  Anselm had articulated such a penal option clearly enough, yet he as clearly repudiated it.  Calvin, however, by deliberately transferring the debtor from a civil to a criminal court, rendered him liable to the death penalty under divine wrath as the only sufficient satisfaction for sin.  So the work of Christ was interpreted as paying that death penalty in order to repay God for human sins.  And since Christ did not deserve to pay that penalty on his own sinless behalf, his suffering was said to be substitutionary (subject to the punishment that others deserve, in exchange for their release from the penalty).

In accordance with such a system, however, this payment needed to be economized in a rational manner so as to eliminate waste, which would reflect badly on the wisdom of God.  Did Christ pay only for the sins of those who would eventually be saved, or did he pay on behalf of every sinner, regardless of their eventual destiny?  So long as penal justice and commercial economics alone provide the leading analogies, they perforce catapult Calvinism into this dilemma and its consequences, from which there is no real escape.

The post-Reformation morphs of Calvinism by Calvin’s epigones, Theodore Beza (1519-1605), Johannes Piscator (1546-1625), William Perkins (1558-1602), William Ames (1576-1633), John Owen (1616-83), Francis Turretin (1623-87), et al, were even more consistently wrong than he was, especially concerning the limits of the Atonement and whether or not the wrath of God could actually be said to have fallen on His beloved Son.  Here, Calvin, at least, mightily equivocated and was not completely overwhelmed by the undertow of his own penal satisfaction theory.  Not so his zealous “followers” of later generations, right down to the present.  Toward serious objectors to his contradictory reasoning, Calvin would simply have launched his customary withering vituperations and public censure.  Toward those who dared more insistently, he would have commenced proceedings to prosecute and banish, if not execute.  Subsequent generations of Calvinists likewise used civil authority to make their creedal opinions official, disestablish opposition, and persecute dissidents.  The turmoil has never fully abated, either within the ranks or outside, so influential has been this penal payment paradigm.

Penal satisfaction atonement logic creates dilemmas that can never be surmounted or harmonized with Scripture.  Every option fails.  Most were played out within a century after Calvin’s death by such worthy scholars as Arminius, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Moses Amyraldus (1596-1664), Richard Baxter (1615-91), and eventually John Wesley (1703-91).  But that’s another story.  Only to say that none of them, nor any of their followers, ever overcame the internal dilemmas of the fundamental theory of atonement that, ironically, they all, in principle, agreed on.

By a further irony, only Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) — the key scholar they one and all anathematized — had it right that penal satisfaction was misconceived from the start and should be jettisoned.  However, even he, whose powerful arguments literally kept theological students busy for centuries performing vain exercises in refutation (collected in massive volumes by their professors), although never successfully vanquished, yet did not achieve the needed breakthrough to the high ground of premial justice.  Thus his atonement theory was scarcely more valid than theirs, although it could legitimately boast often worthier ethical fruits in significant spheres of life, with its more endearing image of God (unitarian though it was) and more imitable image of Christ (merely humanitarian though it seems to have been).

During the intervening centuries, numerous theologians and Protestant leaders exerted further strenuous efforts somehow to ameliorate the severity of Calvinism.  Consequently, many people now label themselves, for example, “two-point” or “three-point” Calvinists.  This is because they still adhere to penal satisfaction, the continuous font of all five points (plus a few others).  It is impossible, in principle, to cast off the incubus of any of these points for long without dismantling penal satisfaction first, otherwise the same old points, or at least their ghosts, will forever return to haunt.  Thus dissenters may claim disagreements with Calvin or later Calvinism, after a fashion, holding out against the “points” they dispute.  Yet for their part, Calvinists often respond by claiming to be “more consistent.”  And they actually are, but more consistently wrong.  The partial objectors are less consistently wrong.

So pick your poison or, in a more salutary vein, prepare to reevaluate penal satisfaction/substitution root and branch, including the sum of its prickly points.  This vagrant TULIP will not wither by simply plucking its petals; its bulb must be eradicated . . . or abandoned like tares to grow up amid the grain, awaiting the angels of judgment to sort out.

All these classic and mediating positions alike remain enmeshed in mutual conflict and needless animosities.  The time is long overdue to get reconciled by returning to the native, integral rationale of God’s positive, rewarding justice — ‘the rest of the Story’ proclaimed by Christ’s apostles so variously yet unitarily.  Only restorative justice can bring lasting peace to the perennial ‘atonement wars’ that still smolder.  Only premial justice can put the ‘good’ back in the Good News.

I conclude with queries:  Is “penal substitution” inerrant, or is the Bible?  Then what about “The Five Points of Calvinism”?

(May 6, 9, 12, 16-17, 19, 21, 24, 27-30, June 1-6, 10-13, 15-17, 25, 29, July 7, 10-11, 14, 21-22, 2013)

© 2013, Ronald L. Roper

With initial inspiration, invaluable advice, and some copyediting by Karis.

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