This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig,
Thank you so much for your ministry and the work you do for the kingdom; I really appreciate the work that you've done. I am also glad that you have chosen to take on the atonement, as I have had just this past school year some puzzlement about the philosophical issues of the atonement, particularly Penal Substitution. In reading to try and find some answers, it happened that most of the resources on Penal Substitution are written from a reformed perspective, and my question is over your views on the extent of the atonement. If the atonement is "definite" or "limited" as Calvinists believe, it seems perverse of God to command us to offer the gospel indiscriminately, when most people couldn't even possibly be saved by it. On the other hand, one of the principal arguments against taking an universal atonement perspective is basically that, given penal substitution, it would either result in universalism to be true, or it would be unjust of God because the penalty of an unsaved person's sin would be borne both by Christ and by the person, which is double jeopardy. How do you address this objection? I agree with you that the Bible teaches both Penal Substitution and unlimited atonement, but am struggling on putting these together.
My sincere thanks,
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
The question of the extent of the atonement is one that I would rather avoid, as it seems so secondary an issue when it comes to the atonement. I want to focus on the really central questions raised by the doctrine of the atonement. Nevertheless, one can’t help running into this issue when one reads widely on the subject of the atonement, so I’ll share here some tentative thoughts on the matter.
At face value, it seems incredible to think that Christ died only for the elect. You couldn’t get a much clearer repudiation of this view than I John 2.2: “he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Reformed thinkers are forced into exegetical acrobatics in order to explain away the prima facie meaning of such scriptural statements.
So what in the world would compel someone to re-interpret such passages in order to make them compatible with the view that Christ died only for the sins of the elect and not for the sins of every human being? The reason is a theological inference that forces one into such contrived exegesis. One is forced into this position by a theological argument that implies the limited extent of the atonement.
The argument is this: at the cross Christ by his death wins our actual redemption. For he satisfies the demands of God’s retributive justice, which had condemned us for our sins. The demands of justice having been met, there no longer remains any punishment for our sins to be exacted. Christ did not win for us merely potential redemption; rather he secured our actual redemption at the cross. Therefore, if Christ died for all people, everyone would be saved, which we know from Scripture to be false.
I think you’ll agree that this is a pretty powerful argument. Nevertheless, it remains an inference, and if it leads to a conclusion that flies in the face of scriptural teaching, then we need to question whether this is a sound inference. Rather than embrace universalism or limited atonement—both of which seem clearly unscriptural—we need to call this theological inference into question.
It seems to me that the questionable assumption of this argument is the presupposition that Christ’s death achieves our actual redemption rather than our potential redemption. True, Christ suffered what would have been the punishment for our sins, thereby meeting the demands of God’s justice. But that payment of our debt needs to be freely received by faith in order to accomplish our actual redemption. It is as if Christ has made a massive downpayment sufficient to pay for anyone’s sins, which we must then appropriate in order to become a beneficiary.
In fact, Reformed thinkers themselves recognize this truth in distinguishing between redemption asaccomplished and as applied. They will say that our redemption was accomplished at the cross but that it is applied individually when persons are regenerated and place their faith in Christ. This distinction is vital because otherwise the elect would be born redeemed! They would never be unregenerate sinners but would be justified and saved from the instant of their conception. But Scripture teaches that we once were “children of wrath like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2.3), and many of us recall our pre-Christian days. But how can such a distinction make sense if Christ won our actual redemption at the cross? If I was actually redeemed in AD 30 (never mind that I didn’t exist then!), how can I not be redeemed at every moment that I do exist? The undeniable distinction between redemption accomplished and applied makes sense only if we say that Christ’s death wins our potential redemption and that that potential is actualized in individual lives through repentance and faith.
I don’t see any problem of “double jeopardy” here. That is a convention of our human criminal justice system in the United States which cannot be automatically applied to God’s dealings with humanity. In any case, it is not as if the unrepentant person is being tried twice for the same crime. There is only one Judgement Day, and that is the only time a person is tried. If he has freely rejected the pardon Christ offers him, there is no one else to pay for his crimes.
Isn’t the view I suggest biblical? The Old Testament sacrifices availed for nothing unless they were conjoined with a contrite and repentant heart on the part of the person for whom they were offered. Similarly, Paul says, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3. 23-25). Those who are not in Christ, who do not believe, have no redemption. That is not because Christ did not die for them. Paul compares Christ to Adam, commenting, “as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” (Romans 5.18). This statement does not imply universalism, since the benefits of Christ’s death come only to those who have faith in him. So in Romans 6 Paul describes how the benefits of Christ’s death are individually appropriated through believer’s baptism, which epitomizes the conversion process: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6.3-4). Actual redemption takes place when an individual identifies with Christ through faith.
So I think the theological inference made by advocates of limited atonement and by universalists alike is faulty because it is based on a false assumption.
But suppose you do think that Christ dies only for the elect. Does that imply that “most people couldn't even possibly be saved”? I don’t think so. There are two ways in which salvation could be universally accessible. First, if we take election to be primarily corporate, then it is up to us whether we want to be part of that corporate body which is the object of Christ’s redemption. Christ died only for the elect, but anyone can be part of the elect by repentant faith. Or, second, we could adopt a middle knowledge perspective, holding that God knew who would freely receive God’s grace and be saved, and so He sent Christ to die for them alone but not for those persons who He knew would freely reject Him. If someone who remains unrepentant were to place his faith in Christ, then God would have included him in Christ’s atoning death. Thus, salvation and the benefits of Christ’s death are available to everyone, even though Christ died only for some but not all persons. This would also make sense of the Reformed insistence that Christ’s death has the power and worth to save everybody. Once again, we see the astonishing power of the doctrine of middle knowledge to open up unexpected options theologically. Via middle knowledge, we could, if we wanted, combine a doctrine of limited atonement with the universal availability of salvation.