Atonement: A shift in focus

March 17, 2010 — 2 Comments


[This post is part of the Atonement series]

After reading a bit further (roughly to where I had gotten before), I decided that the idea to study the atonement was indeed a good one and a good use of time (or a good donation of time for a kind of quasi-lent). However, I’ll be honest, The Death of Death is not an easy read (not that anyone was potentially confused that it was), and rather to confine the topic just to Owen’s thoughts on it, I thought it might be better to broaden the scope to study the atonement in general, mainly addressing the limited/unlimited question.

From a comment on the post explaining Owen’s dilemma, it was noted his argument really could only be applied in a penal sense. In reflecting on this, I began thinking about how my recent forays into multi-perspectivalism (a la John Frame) might be helpful here.

By now, you may or may not be wondering about the book cover to the right. If so, hold those thoughts for just a minute, and we’ll wrap up referencing that book.

Alongside appropriating Frame’s insights, I have been progressively reading through Calvin’s Institutes for a class I’m auditing (read as: it will show up on my transcript but I don’t actually attend class). I heard this before, but it was interesting to actually read for myself in the appropriate section (the end of Book 2) that Calvin seems rather mute on the idea of limited atonement. It is not even close to being explicitly affirmed, and he even hints in the opposite direction in parts of his commentaries (Galatians 5:12, Colossians 1:14, and Romans 5:15 specifically). I’ll return to this point in detail later, but it was at least interesting that Calvin himself did not seem to teach limited atonement in the sense that usually ends up bearing his name.

Now to be fair to Calvinism, scholars such as Robert Peterson in his article for the Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes think that limited atonement is an implication of Calvin’s theology that while not explicitly stated, nonetheless follows from what he explicitly affirmed elsewhere. It is still interesting though that the theologian who so often eschews speculation and making affirmations beyond what Scripture teaches would be rather silent on this specific point.

When this is coupled with what David brought up in the comment thread on the intro to this series (about the lack of solidarity to Owen’s own position in The Death of Death even at the time of writing), I thought it might be time to go back to the drawing board.

In church on Sunday though it struck me.

Maybe there was a way to reconcile the ideas in a way that takes into account the different perspectives one can have on the atonement. While it is definitely a working thesis, this is the idea I had:

  • Jesus died for the sin of the whole world
  • Jesus died for the sins of the elect

This may seem like some to be splitting hairs (which is exactly how Arthur Custance put it in the above book), but it may actually make sense of the seeming contradiction in the way Scripture addresses who Christ died for. The idea springs from the study that Custance offers on called “The Compelling Logic of the Plan of Salvation: A Study of the Difference between ‘Sin’ and ‘Sins'”

Briefly (since this will probably need much more exposition than a single blog post can offer), sin is a root disorder that all humanity is afflicted with. Sins on the other hand, are the specific actions (or symptoms) that arise from this disorder. Sin is what leads to physical death, whereas sins lead to spiritual death (this is from Custance, we’ll examine if that’s accurate). For more that I’ve written on this elsewhere, see the posts here and here

If this is true, it makes some sense of the atonement. From a penal perspective, Christ’s death atoned for individual’s sins that is there specific actions that condemned them. It is not really possible for Christ to stand in the place of an individual to atone for the sins and yet they also go to hell forever for the same punishment.

On the other hand, by atoning for the sin of the world, it ensures that everyone will one day be resurrected and will live forever. In that sense, Christ died for the sin of the whole world and reconciled all to himself, but obviously if He only died for the disease, it doesn’t take away the guilt that the symptoms have already procured. Because of that, it is not double jeopardy for an individual to be died for by Christ in one sense, but to then suffer themselves eternally. Christ died for their sin, but not their sins. For the elect, Christ dies for their sin and their sins, and so they live forever and enjoy the benefits of being counted righteous in Christ.

Now, this may be a bit too hard to defend, but it will certainly be interesting to see how this breaks out in a study of what others have written and what the Scriptures say. Hopefully it will be a fruitful endeavor.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 responses to Atonement: A shift in focus

  1. Brandon Melton March 18, 2010 at 1:51 am

    I’m looking forward to following this series. I’ve been re-thinking about and re-working through the atonement myself recently. Interestingly, my thoughts have gone in a similar direction that you seem to be going. I just haven’t spent the time really thoroughly working everything out and seeing if this possible theory holds water. Now, though, I will. We’ll see where this goes.

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