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The Great Divide: Atonement & Apostasy

The Great Divide: Atonement & Apostasy

In my last post on Jordan Cooper's The Great Divide, I focused on the differences on election between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. I postulated that disagreements on the atonement are what most forcefully keep the two traditions apart. I will take some time now to talk about the atonement and see how this plays out in apostasy.

The Extent of the Atonement

"The universalistic texts in the New Testament are clear, and Calvinistic arguments to the contrary remain unconvincing" (60)

The Lutheran position on the atonement is that it is universal. The confessional Reformed position is a little less clear. There has been a wide variety of Reformed Positions on the atonement, but none of the views are as universal as the Lutheran perspective. For the sake of simplicity, Cooper addresses the common "TULIP" expression "limited atonement."

Cooper starts the chapter quoting the Canons of Dort Article 2.8 to define "limited atonement." The quote confirms the Reformed position that God works effectively to redeem the elect — "the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all the elect." Though perhaps contradictory in the minds of some, this section is preceded by the affirmation of the universal call of the gospel (CD 2.5) as well as the affirmation that "unbelief is not because the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross is deficient or insufficient" (CD 2.6). I find this wording particularly interesting. Christ's death is neither deficient nor insufficient towards those in unbelief. 

In this vein, many different vintages of "Hypothetical Universalism" have existed in the Reformed tradition (see Deviant Calvinism or this interview by Mark Jones). The important difference seems to be that while many Reformed people can speak "Christ died for the world" (we will see this specifically in Calvin in the next section) they cannot speak in the sense of the atonement working itself out in the non-elect the same way as the elect. The Lutheran position affirms this saying that all have been reconciled to God through the work of Christ (see Jordan Copper more detailed on universal objective justification here and here). For Lutherans, this means actual salvation is worked our in the non-elect even though they will eventually fall away of their own free will. I will return to this conclusion after taking a look at some Scriptures.

The Atonement in Scripture

Ultimately, the Scriptures need to be the source of our understanding about the atonement. Cooper wastes no time getting into the Scriptures that support the Lutheran position. It would take a book sized work to address every detail so I will make only a few comments.

Cooper's evaluation of the Scriptures is thorough. He engages multiple Reformed positions on most of the Biblical texts that expound a universal atonement. He also provides some quality questions about Reformed exegesis in defense of limited atonement. I particularly appreciate Cooper's insistence that we not funnel atonement discussions through the lens of one atonement theory. I am not convinced that Jordan changes lenses or merely tacks on another vantage point for observing the work of Christ on the cross. I spent significant time on the atonement over two years ago. Perhaps it is time for me to refresh my thoughts and language as they seem to be closer to Cooper now than they were then. 

I personally have been greatly impacted in my opinion on the atonement by the commentaries and sermons of John Calvin — so basically by Scriptural exegesis, not propositional affirmations. In Galatians Calvin said, "It is the will of God that we should seek the salvation of all men without exception, as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world." In speaking of the Lord's Supper Calvin said, "Therefore, when we approach to the holy table, let us not only remember in general that the world has been redeemed by the blood of Christ, but let every one consider for himself that his own sins have been expiated."

I have been heavily influenced by this language type of language. John Calvin agrees with Cooper on 2 Peter 2:1 when he says the apostates "are not unjustly said to deny Christ by whom they have been redeemed." I imagine Cooper and Calvin would also agree on this sermon on 2 Timothy, "We ought also to have a care of our brethren, and to be sorry to see them perish; for it is no small matter to have the souls perish, who were bought by the blood of Christ" [emphasis added]. This text, in particular, has interesting ramifications for our speech on apostasy.

Calvin would also agree on Mark 10:34 when he says, "The word many (πολλῶν) is not put definitely for a fixed number, but for a large number; for he contrasts himself with all others. And in this sense it is used in Romans 5:15, where Paul does not speak of any part of men, but embraces the whole human race." In Romans 5:18 Calvin says, "He makes this favor common to all, because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all; for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God’s benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive him."

Unless Calvin is incapable of being ordained as a Reformed minister, it seems to me that the Reformed position can say very positive things about the death of Christ for the non-elect. However, the trip up comes in the extension and working out of the atonement. Ultimately, what is undeniably "limited" in the Reformed sense is the extent of the application of the atonement. Hence, the language "sufficient for all; effective for some" has become a mantra of more balanced Reformed speech. Still, no Reformed confession permits the bestowal of the atonement's work (e.g. justification and regeneration) to a person who ultimately falls away.


"The Lutheran teaching on perseverance does not make sola gratia and the possibility of falling away mutually exclusive claims, but seeks to confess both, though the manner of harmony between the two doctrines is left a mystery" (86)

It has been shown that Lutherans affirm unconditional election unto salvation. They also affirm a universal atonement in the extent of its application. For Lutherans, it then follows that true saving faith can occur in the elect and non-elect. But because preservation is bestowed by the Holy Spirit on the elect only, the non-elect are left to their own free will and will eventually reject the faith and grieve the Holy Spirit. These propositions are able to take seriously the warning passages that riddle the New Testament. Cooper is right when he states that the Lutheran position is essentially Augustinian.

Let me state that I agree with Cooper a lot in this chapter. For starters, the Lutheran and Reformed tradition hardly disagree at all on the preservation of elect. So the only room for disagreement becomes what we say can occur in the non-elect. Many of my own readings of the Scriptures used to defend apostasy differ very little from Cooper. This especially is true of his understanding of the parable of the soil as depicted in the gospel of Luke (72-73). Both of us would affirm the category of "temporary faith" (Canons of Dort 3.9). Any attempt to make the warnings of apostasy into "hypotheticals" should be rejected. It turns God and His word into a psychology experiment of "scare into obedience" — though the WCF does speak of "trembling at the threatenings" (WCF XIV.II). But on the whole, this is not how Paul speaks — "God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance" (Rom. 2:4).

Where the two traditions clearly depart from each other is the nature of this "temporary faith." For Lutheranism, sometimes this temporary faith is not "false faith" but true, saving faith that ultimately does not endure. The Reformed are categorically simplified as affirming that all "temporary faith" is "false faith." This makes many passages about apostasy rather difficult to read. In perhaps one of the more progressive assertions of temporary faith, Calvin says on Hebrews 6,

"I cannot admit that all this is any reason why he should not grant the reprobate also some taste of his grace, why he should not irradiate their minds with some sparks of his light, why he should not give them some perception of his goodness, and in some sort engrave his word on their hearts."

Calvin clearly affirms God-given insights and grace. This is not self-deception of belief. Yet, he draws the line at the telling spot in these theological differences,

"God indeed favors none but the elect alone with the Spirit of regeneration, and that by this they are distinguished from the reprobate."

It is helpful to emphasize this as the real distinction of apostasy in the two traditions. Some Reformed individuals will be able to say stronger things than Cooper depicts. However, in systematic speech, the line stops at the gift of regeneration. There is no monolithic Reformed approached to drawing this line while affirming the faith and fruit of some soils (Luke 8:13-14). Nor does the term "regeneration" map perfectly to the shared "rain" that produces crops or thistles (Heb. 6:7-8). In both cases, it seems that what God provides is the same as the inherent quality of the soil is the main difference. This does seem to match Calvin's view that the offer of the gospel is universal as well as the Canons of Dort's understanding that unbelief is in no part because of a deficiency in Christ's death.

In the end, I think the Westminster Confession of Faith errors when it says all non-elect men "vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions" (XVIII.I). I agree with Cooper that this language does not do just to the Biblical account of all those with temporary faith. How the Reformed Tradition affirms this though is rather varied.

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