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from-heaven-he-cameFrom Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, is a major publication. It is hard to imagine someone weighing in on this debate henceforth without interacting with this volume. I suspect that it will convince those who are open and correct many caricatures.

David Wells says, “This is the definitive study. It is careful, comprehensive, deep, pastoral, and thoroughly persuasive.”

Michael Horton calls it “the most impressive defense of definite atonement in over a century.”

D. A. Carson writes, “I cannot imagine that this book could have been published twenty-five years ago: there were not at that time enough well-informed theologians working in the Reformed heritage to produce a volume of such clarity and competence. Whatever side you hold in this debate, henceforth you dare not venture into the discussion without thoughtfully reading this book, which, mercifully, makes argument by stereotype and reductionism a great deal more difficult. Above all, this book will elicit adoration as its readers ponder afresh what Jesus achieved on the cross.”

John Frame adds: ”There is a conventional wisdom that seems to believe definite atonement is the weakest of the five heads of doctrine confessed at the Synod of Dort. But you may come away from this book believing it is the strongest, in its historical attestation, biblical basis, and spiritual blessing.”

Finally, Kelly Kapic points out that this book is for both fans and critics: “Whether you are sympathetic to or suspicious of definite atonement, this book will surprise you. Here are historical details, exegetical links, theological observations, and pastoral perspectives that are fresh and fascinating, even though there is also plenty that will prove controversial.”

The book now has a website where you can explore more about it. And at the end of this post you can watch a short video that contains some introduction to the argument and focus.

I had the privilege of interviewing the editors and some of the contributors

It took you guys six years to acquire and edit contributions from 21 contributors for this massive project. What motivated you to tackle a project of this size and scope?

David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson: Since John Owen’s classic work The Death of Death there has not been a thoroughly comprehensive, contemporary treatment of the doctrine from all the theological disciplines: historical, biblical, theological, and pastoral. Some of the traditional “Calvinistic” approaches can be too forced, too hasty in trying to prove the doctrine; some are more biblicist than biblical and fail to see the doctrine as a biblico-systematic conclusion. The same problem of biblicism also attends some of the objections to definite atonement (e.g., Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears in Death by Love: Letters from the Cross).

Assembling the line up of scholars we wanted and giving them a substantial amount of time to write their chapters made for a lengthy project. As essays came in, there was a lot of sharpening of arguments and feedback among the contributors. So the completed manuscript took longer than expected. The benefit of this, however, is that each chapter has effectively been peer reviewed and exhibits real quality in the argumentation. We wanted a volume written at the highest academic level. We also desired a warmth and winsomeness that might diffuse some of the heat associated with definite atonement and allow the glory of this truth to sparkle and shine. We don’t want to win an argument; we want to help the convinced and win the unconvinced.

What unique contributions does this book make that won’t be found elsewhere?

David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson: The breadth of scope is balanced with detail of focus. There are close readings of individual biblical texts (Alec Motyer on Isaiah 53, for example), as well as fluent treatments of key theological issues connected to the doctrine (Donald Macleod on the divine decree, or Garry Williams on the nature of punishment). Many of the chapters plough fresh furrows. The book also shows the practical usefulness of definite atonement for the Christian life, something which detractors are often quick to challenge: see the chapters by Daniel Strange on mission, Sinclair Ferguson on assurance of salvation, and John Piper on preaching.

But mainly this volume attempts a new approach by arguing the four sections of the book work together to provide the right kind of lens for looking at the doctrine. In our Introduction we take our cue from John Calvin’s theological method and argue that Bible readers need a Bible map drawn with historical awareness, exegetical care, theological coherence and pastoral insight. We’re saying the four sections need each other in order to sketch a pathway to definite atonement and that travelling along this road allows the reader to see the reality and beauty of definite atonement in the Scriptures.

What historical pedigree does the doctrine of definite atonement have?

Raymond Blacketer: Like all theological topics, questions about the universal and particular scope of the satisfaction Christ rendered on the cross arose from biblical exegesis: the attempt to make sense of apparently dissonant texts.

So Jerome commented on Matthew 20:28 that Jesus “does not say he gave his life for all, but for many, that is, for all those who would believe.”

The medieval Glossa Ordinaria further specified “the many” as “those predestined to life.”

Peter Lombard formulated the classic distinction that Christ’s satisfaction was sufficient to redeem every person, but effective only for the elect.

Following Augustine, who frequently emphasized the particularity of Christ’s redemption, Thomas Aquinas interpreted 1 Timothy 2:4 to mean God desires the salvation of all classes of humanity.

Martin Luther insisted it pertains “to the elect only . . . For in an absolute sense Christ did not die for all . . .”

Reformers Calvin and Beza continued in this exegetical trajectory.

The Synod of Dordt drew upon the Christian exegetical and theological tradition to clarify that God intended Christ’s redemption for the elect. It rejected Arminian assertions that the cross makes salvation available to all, yet specific to none, and conditional upon any individual’s choice to believe and persist in faith.

Some critics of definite atonement argue no one would ever come to believe in it merely by reading the Bible. On top of this there are several “problematic” biblical texts for definite atonement. How does this book deal with those issues?

Thomas Schreiner: Three things can be said in reply.

First, the Bible often explicitly teaches definite atonement. For instance, Christ laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:11, 15), gave himself up for the church (Eph. 5:25), and purchased some from every people group by his death (Rev. 5:9).

Second, some doubt we can place such weight upon these verses, but these texts must be interpreted along with what scripture teaches about God’s election and other soteriological realities. In other words, the Son dies for those whom the Father elects, and the Spirit applies his efficacious work to the same.

Third, texts that are alleged to teach unlimited atonement are often cited superficially. When we examine 2 Peter 2:1 and consider it in the context of 2 Peter 2 (esp. vv. 20-22), we see that the redemption posited there is phenomenological. Similarly, the context of 1 Timothy 2:4 indicates that Paul thinks of people groups (cf. 2:7), so that the verse doesn’t contradict what Paul teaches elsewhere about unconditional election. Hebrews 2:9 says that Christ tasted death for every person, but a closer look at the chapter reveals that the reference is to Jesus’ brothers and sisters (2:11-12), to the children God gave him (2:13), to the offspring of Abraham (2:16). Each of these passages are considered more closely in the book along with a host of other texts so that our aim, in fact, is to suggest that definite atonement is what one should believe from reading the Bible.

Some within evangelicalism wish to defend penal substitution but not definite atonement. In your chapters you argue this cannot be done. Why not?

Garry Williams: The argument of the first chapter is that if the penalty borne by Christ was a true penalty, then it must have been borne for specific sins committed by specific people. Otherwise, it is not a proper penalty but is simply some kind of unspecified suffering. Scripture teaches, for example in Leviticus, that sacrifice is made for specific offerers and their sins. It thus precludes a doctrine of general ransom.

In the second chapter I argue that the traditional “double payment” argument (God cannot punish the same sins twice, once in Christ at the cross and again in the impenitent in hell) needs to be expressed carefully, but it is valid. It does not rely on over-applying the financial metaphor for punishment and atonement. A description purged of such language and cast in terms of the biblical image of punishment as God’s answer to sin would sustain the impossibility of double punishment just as well.

What is the connection between Christ’s priestly ministry and definite atonement?

Stephen Wellum: In Scripture, the relationship between the role of the High Priest and the act of atonement is tight. Under the old covenant, the High Priest serves as the mediator for a particular covenant people. We see this on the Day of Atonement where the High Priest has the incredible privilege of entering into the Holy of Holies, on behalf of the people and as the covenant mediator of Israel. But it is important to note that the Priest’s act of sacrifice and intercession is a definite work.

As our Lord Jesus brings all of this to fulfillment, this same particular work is stressed. Christ is the new covenant head, mediator, and its great High Priest. As the new covenant head, his work is specific and effective for all those in that covenant. However, Scripture also teaches that everyone without exception is not in the new covenant. All people enter this world in Adam and under the dominion of sin, and it is only by Christ’s priestly work and the Spirit’s application, that we are transferred from Adam to Christ. The priestly and covenantal categories of Scripture demand that we view Christ’s work as definite.

How does definite atonement help us in the task of world mission and in thinking about the fate of the “unevangelized”?

Daniel Strange: In my chapter I argue that those who hold to an unlimited atonement get themselves into some inevitable and ultimately insoluble theological knots when it comes to the category of the unevangelised, that is those who have never heard the gospel. Believing in a definite atonement avoids these knotty problems and dilemmas. Moreover a definite atonement gives us a great confidence in the missionary task. It is said that the song sung in Revelation 5:9-11, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, . . . ” was the passage that sent William Carey to India because he knew that there were people ordained to life there. God has chosen to call a people to himself and he has given us the awesome privilege and responsibility of being inextricably involved in this urgent rescue mission. As servants of the king, we have been commanded to go and invite to the wedding feast as many we can find. We have confidence, in that we know that the message of the cross we proclaim does not merely offer people the possibility of salvation, but offers salvation itself, Christ himself. Confidence, that because the Father, the Son and the Spirit have complete unity of purpose, that those whom the Father has chosen, those for whom Christ died, are now those being prepared by the Spirit to hear the gospel message, repent and believe, and come to the feast.

You have recently retired after 33 years as a pastor. What advice would you give to younger pastors and preachers about the place of this doctrine in ministry?

John Piper: When I came to Bethlehem 33 years ago, I was wobbly on the atonement. That’s not a good thing to be wobbly on. So I resolved to work through Owen’s Death of Death. I came out with my feet on solid, biblical ground. I am glad I did. So my first advice would be: Don’t stay wobbly on this. Dive into the deeps, and don’t come up till you have the pearl.

Second, I would emphasize that particular redemption affirms more, not less, about the atonement. We all agree that the death of Christ warrants the free offer of the gospel to everyone: “If you receive Christ, his death covers all your sins.” But the more is that there is a particularly “great love” (Eph. 2:4) for the elect that “made us alive,” and this too was purchased by the blood of Christ. He died to secure for his sheep the living heart of faith.

Third, I would plead: Don’t let your blood-bought flock fail to enjoy the logic of Romans 8:32. If the “us” of that verse is all human beings, then the promise is void.


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35 thoughts on “The Definitive Work on Definite Atonement: A New Website, New Interview, and New Video”

  1. Stuart says:

    It seems that David Wells and Michael Horton’s comments are remarkably similar. I’d guess this is a typo?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Great catch, Stuart. It was my copying-and-pasting error. Fixed now.

  2. Kenton says:

    I look forward to getting this.

  3. Daryl Little says:

    Not sure if I can swing it…but man I’d love to read this book!

  4. taco says:

    Really looking forward to this!

  5. Marty says:

    Another export of Northern Ireland!

  6. Bobby Grow says:

    I’ll have to read this of course. But unless these authors received a new revelation sent from heaven on this doctrine, there is nothing new to be found in the annals of church history or historical theology that isn’t known already. It sounds, to me, as if this is simply a re-presentation, a re-packaging of “old truth.” And after listening to the sampling provided by the promo video, it seems to me that my initial impression is the case. The issue here is really an issue of hermeneutic. Are we going to follow a Calvinian soteriological approach, or a Barthian christological approach? If the former, then we might end up with the conclusions represented in this book; if the latter, we won’t. Here is how David Gibson describes the soteriological V christological differences that inhere between Calvin and Barth, respectively:

    […] Calvin’s hermeneutical approach to the biblical text is christologically extensive: although he reads the whole of the Bible’s plot-line in connection with Christology and finds the gospel which the text reveals to be inseparably connected to Christology, he does not always read every aspect of election through a christological lens. Underlying this approach is Calvin’s doctrine of revelation. Calvin has a conception of revelation which never exclusively identifies the Word of God with the person of Jesus, but sees revelation more extensively as also a property of the biblical text. This is different from Barth. His hermeneutics of election may be described as christologically intensive: he both finds the text to speak about Christ at those moments where Calvin speaks more generally about God or the decree, and finds the text to speak about election where Calvin would find the text to speak only about Christology. Likewise, we will see that driving this hermeneutical approach is a doctrine of revelation which more intensively identifies revelation with Jesus the Word of God than does Calvin. [emboldening mine] [David Gibson, Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth, 16.]

    This is taken from Gibson’s published PhD dissertation.

    Justin, do any of the authors/contributors to this book engage with the alternative approach to election/reprobation provided in principle by Karl Barth’s reification of the doctrine? Or, does this book simply deal with the historical binary of a purported classical Calvinism V. classical Arminianism and maybe Amyrauldianism? This will help me know what kind of priority I place on actually reading this book. Thanks.

    1. Simon says:

      Bobby,

      The book is from Crossway – meaning probably a Calvinistic ra ra book.

      Great quote from Gibson. Actually shows the folly of Calvin. Unambiguously the term “Word of God” refers to Christ, both by NT itself and by Christians as expressed liturgically.

  7. steve hays says:

    Well, there’s nothing new about the doctrine of special redemption. I assume what’s supposedly new in this book consists of new supporting arguments. New arguments in defense of an old revealed truth.

  8. Bobby Grow says:

    And I’m happy to read these new arguments. Oliver Crisp offers a new argument, for example, for hypothetical universalism that is interesting. But in the end, the material reality, is not new; that was my only point. Reading new arguments, though, is always fun. I just would hope that a whole swath of *After Barth* consideration is not overlooked. One of the editors, David Gibson, spent considerable time studying Barth’s view of election; so maybe the book does engage with this aspect of election/reprobation reification–this is really what I am curious about.

  9. steve hays says:

    Actually, your only point was to use this post as a pretext to lobby for your Barthian hobbyhorse. We’ll see if Gibson shares your reactionary, myopic infatuation with all things Torrance and Barth.

    BTW, hope your health is better.

    1. Jarvis says:

      ~ Regardless its still good to see the issue raised because it does relate and there is not much written on it.

      I am not an expert on the issue but became concerned with it because my now-ex-denomination ran with C.Baxter Kruger, Thomas Torrance and Barth.

      The problem is that even if these guys are not themselves universalists (on pain of inconsistency?) yet still their thinking seems to lead people to it or at least is one contributing factor to theirs embracing universalism.

      Don’t believe me? Here is one example:

      “I hadn’t really thought about it. I used to be a 5 point Calvinist until the night C. Baxter Kruger preached at my church and I became convinced that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the entire world. With the L knocked out of TULIP, I slid into universalism. Conditionalism greased the way because those brave theologians proved exegetically that hell is not eternal.”

      from http://caroline.blogs.com/carolines_blog/

      ~ Now with this lady it is not a direct cause and effect thing and it took some years before she became a universalist however the Torrance/Barthian line of thinking found in Kruger was I would say a strong contributing factor.

      ~ This is my issue and not enough has been written on it. I am glad to see this book raise the issue because the stuff does make the rounds. I hope to get it in the future.

      In Christ,
      – Jarv

  10. Bobby Grow says:

    I will admit infatuation (as you have your own). Myopic? Sure, we all have myopic focuses at some level; time and space help with that (delimiting). But, yes, like you, Steve, I speak from a certain theological vantage point; and clearly, like you, I am going to attempt (just as Gibson&Gibson) to persuade people one way rather than the other[s]. Folks should realize, though, that there is more than one alternative (or at least more than just what is classically on offer: i.e. Arminian/Calvinist binary, Amyrauldianism, Hypothetical Universalism, etc.). The only reason I chimed in here (and wasn’t just content to keep my comments limited to Justin’s FB wall) was because I thought it important for people to realize that, truly, there are other ways to think about this. If people were just left with the caricature that Gibson&Gibson open up with in their Introduction of this book, of Barth’s view of salvation, then that would be a travesty (at least to me!). Anyway, this is a public space, and we all bring our myopicnesses to the table. Thanks for declaring what mine is. I am not apologetic about that at all. Just as I don’t think others should be about their’s, including you, Steve.

    I didn’t realize you even knew about my health. Thanks. I have been cancer free, now, for over 3.5 years, and I pray that that continues :-). People need a pest around like me, it is good for their souls :-). pax.

  11. Jonny Gibson says:

    Hi Bobby,

    In my second chapter on Paul’s atonement theology I engage with Karl Barth’s presentation of God’s saving work in Christ, and in my first chapter I provide an in-depth critique of McCormack. Letham assesses the Torrances’ views in his chapter.

    Best,
    Jonny

    1. Bobby Grow says:

      Hi Jonny,

      Thank you for the heads up–that was really all I was interested in finding out, and maybe letting people know of an alternative approach to things. I look forward to reading your engagement with Barth. And I will also look forward to reading how you critique McCormack’s constructive appropriation of Barth.

      I have read Letham in his book The Westminster Assembly critique TFT’s work in Scottish Theology (which I’ve written about elsewhere); I am hopeful that Letham demonstrates a more thorough understanding of TF’s theology, in general, in this edited book of yours than he did in his ‘The Westminster Assembly’.

      Thanks for the work you guys did in putting this book together. I look forward to engaging with it, and reviewing it (maybe I could get a review copy for my blog, or something :-).

      Blessings,

      Bobby

      PS. I should say, David’s work in his PhD diss has helped me immensely in seeing the different types of christocentrisms informing the so called intensive/extensive approaches. So tell him thank you for me :-). Best.

  12. Wayne Roberts says:

    The guys at Reformed Forum did a show last week with David and Jonathan Gibson, along with Carl Trueman. You can find it here http://reformedforum.org/podcasts/ctc307/

    1. Bobby Grow says:

      thanks Wayne, listening now.

  13. Stephen Norris says:

    I think there’ll be plenty in this volume to interact with the claims of your “Evangelical Calvinism”, even if not explicitly – I see Ferguson’s chapter deals at length with John McLeod Campbell.

    1. Bobby Grow says:

      Stephen,

      I will look forward to see how Ferguson engages with Campbell, and for that matter Letham with the Torrance brothers. But as I said, Letham’s engagement with TFT’s book Scottish Theology, in his book (Letham’s) The Westminster Assembly was rather abysmal (e.g. in his grasp of Torrance’s theology). Anyway, I do look forward to interacting with the book once I fully read it :-).

  14. Si Johnson says:

    Folks who haven’t read the book yet are writing responses to it, or are going to write responses to it (@justandsinner), or are writing pre-responses to the response they’re going to write (Bobby Grow!)

    1. Bobby Grow says:

      Well, Si,

      At the point I put my pre-response up, I had already read the Introduction–which actually, by way of tone (if one has the ears to hear) says a lot!–and listened to the hour long interview that Gibson&Gibson did on Reformed Forum. My pre-response did not go beyond what I have read of the book at this point, nor heard of it from its editors and one of its contributors (Trueman).

  15. David (NAS) Rogers says:

    Why is the first section about historical analysis in church history rather than biblical analysis?

    1. Richard Hutto says:

      That is probably to demonstrate that this beleif is not new or novel but has been widley held in church history. It functions as a context in which to understand this particular interpretation of the biblical text.

      I don’t think it matters which is first but at least in my mind if your doing both it makes sense to me to start with the past and then move to the present (which would be the argument they are putting forth as rooted in the biblical text).

      It is always helpful to examine history, hermeneutics, presuppostitions, etc. And sometimes its best to start there.

      1. Simon says:

        Richard, Reformed attempts to show the Reformed position of the atonement were widely held in Church history are nonsense as attested to every other Christian Tradition – particularly those who take the Fathers seriously.

        1. Richard Hutto says:

          Simon, I guess your convictions regarding church history are exactly why they chose to start there. They seem to beleive the facts prove otherwise.

  16. Ho-Sin Yun says:

    Is this the same Jonathan Gibson who authored “The Story of a Kingdom?”

  17. To-Nei says:

    Yes it is the same person.

  18. Tim says:

    Got my copy ordered at ETS today.

  19. Simon says:

    Another Crossway publication for the Reformed enterprise. Of course we already knew what types of conclusions were going to be reached in this analysis.

    It doesn’t settle anything with those who disagree. It’s a publication for the Reformed and for the Reformed gravy train(along with the countless conferences and talks organised).

    The Church has never pronounced a dogmatic statement about how Christ’s sacrifice is salvific. There’s a reason for that. The folly that is the Reformed position of elevating one theory to the level of dogma is plain to see from a historical Christian perspective. After Aulen’s epic work, should there be any more debate on this? He caught the Protestants out red handed. Penal Sub was definitely not the dominant way the atonement was understood in the Early Church and by the Fathers – particularly the Greek Fathers. Attempts by Crossway to prop up such a view of the atonement does nothing to explain these facts away.

    “Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

  20. Kaleb says:

    “Some critics of definite atonement argue no one would ever come to believe in it merely by reading the Bible.”

    I grew up in a certainly Arminian church, and in an arminian family. I was a smart kid with good logic, and it became apparent to me at a very young age that Jesus could not have died for all people in the same way. All I ever heard was that Jesus loved everybody the same, wanted to save everyone the same. I never heard of reformed theology until I was in my 20’s, but as a kid with a brain, I read the Bible and understood that God had a people he had chosen, and that there was no getting in to that group, and no getting out; and that all of his saving graces flow from election in Christ, by the work of Christ, through the word of Christ, to the bride of Christ. This is all of God.

    I knew it as a child from the bible before I ever heard it.

    I also knew that a God who couldn’t save me if he truly wanted me was a useless God, and not really a God at all. In fact, I remember thinking it was totally stupid that anyone would believe that! What a joke. A God who can’t do what he wants!

  21. Kaleb says:

    “Some critics of definite atonement argue no one would ever come to believe in it merely by reading the Bible.”

    I grew up in a certainly Arminian church, and in an arminian family. I was a smart kid with good logic, and it became apparent to me at a very young age that Jesus could not have died for all people in the same way. All I ever heard was that Jesus loved everybody the same, wanted to save everyone the same. I never heard of reformed theology until I was in my 20’s, but as a kid with a brain, I read the Bible and understood that God had a people he had chosen, and that there was no getting in to that group, and no getting out; and that all of his saving graces flow from election in Christ, by the work of Christ, through the word of Christ, to the bride of Christ, (though certainly not in those terms yet). Believers had the blessing of eternal trinitarian relationship before they even existed, for just as the Father knows the Son and the Son knows the Father does Jesus know his Own. (John 10:14-15).

    I mean think about that. Really. Can it mean anything else?

    I knew it as a child from the bible before I ever heard anyone speak it or hear anyone read it.

    I also knew that a God who couldn’t save me if he truly wanted me was a useless God, and not really a God at all. In fact, I remember thinking it was totally stupid that anyone would believe that! What a joke. A God who can’t do what he wants!

    Arminian theology is the source of SO much mockery, I truly believe that.

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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