Unlimited Atonement is not a Reformed Doctrine

David Ponter writes: “What is clear now, beyond any doubt whatsoever, is that the doctrine of unlimited atonement was a Reformed doctrine. The evidence now is of such efficacy that only a proverbial fool would insist otherwise.” (source)

a) Mr. Ponter should not use big words he doesn’t understand. Evidence is not “of … efficacy” (at least, not this sort and not in this context). It might of “weight” or of “volume” or something like that. It might even be of “of … sufficiency.” “Efficacy,” however is simply the wrong English word.

b) Perhaps this is part of the overarching problem that Mr. Ponter has: since he doesn’t understand what the word “efficacy” means, he has trouble dealing with the old axiom apparently endorsed by Calvin at one point that the atonement is “sufficient for all, efficient for the elect.”

c) In fact, Mr. Ponter seems to exhibit a profound inability to deal with the terminology of the Reformed writers, particularly on his pet subject of the atonement. Consider, for example, the words of Bullinger, who Mr. Ponter thinks is a Universal Atonement advocate:

But the scripture setteth forth unto us Christ, as the only mediator of redemption, so also of intercession. The office of a mediator touching redemption and intercession is one and the selfsame. A mediator putteth himself in the midst between them that are at variance or disagreement; and he is joined to each in disposition and nature. An intercessor putteth himself in the midst between them that are at strife and dissension; and unless he be indifferent for either side, he cannot be an intercessor.

But, as you can see, Bullinger properly interrelates the roles of redemption and intercession. And furthermore, when Bullinger encounters the key passage upon which universal atonement advocates hang their hat, we seem him give the Calvinist explanation:

And the holy evangelist John, agreeing with Paul, doth say: “The blood of the Son of God doth cleanse us from all sin. For he is the propitiation for our sins; not for our sins only, but for the sins of all the world.” Therefore the merit of Christ his redemption doth extend itself to all the faithful of both the testaments.

(and the student of Calvin will recall that Calvin likewise does not interpret this key verse in a universalistic sense)

d) Perhaps a better example of Mr. Ponter’s inability to grasp Reformed theological terminology comes in his infamous “Calvin file,” a massive compilation of quotations alleged to be related to the issue of the atonement, and particularly to its scope. For example, Mr. Ponter seems to think that Calvin means by “world” each and every man, and cites a number of places where Calvin refers to Christ as dying for the world. The problem is, if Ponter is right, then we have some odd results, for Calvin is quoted as saying:

But the usefulness of this doctrine extends much farther; for never are we fully confirmed in the result of the death of Christ, till we are convinced that he was not accidentally dragged by men to the cross, but that the sacrifice had been appointed by an eternal decree of God for expiating the sins of the world. For whence do we obtain reconciliation, but because Christ has appeased the Father by his obedience? Wherefore let us always place before our minds the providence of God, which Judas himself, and all wicked men–though it is contrary to their wish, and though they have another end in view–are compelled to obey. Let us always hold this to be a fixed principle, that Christ suffered, because it pleased God to have such an expiation… In short, God’s determination that the world should be redeemed, does not at all interfere with Judas being a wicked traitor. Hence we perceive, that though men can do nothing but what God has appointed, still this does not free them from condemnation, when they are led by a wicked desire to sin. John Calvin, Matthew 26:24.

And again:

However, this is not to exclude what is shown in all other passages, and even to derogate from the article that the death and passion of our Lord Jesus would not have served to wipe away the iniquities of the world except insofar as He obeyed, indeed, abasing Himself even to so frightful a death. Sermons on the Deity of Christ, Sermon 9, Matt 27-45-54, p., 156.

And again:

“Which is shed for many.” By the word “many” he means not a part of the world only, but the whole human race; for he contrasts many with one; as if he had said, that he will not be the Redeemer of one man only, but will die in order to deliver many from the condemnation of the curse. It must at the same time be observed, however, that by the words for you, as related by Luke–Christ directly addresses the disciples, and exhorts every believer to apply to his own advantage the shedding of blood 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. John Calvin, Mark 14:24.

Thus, if Mr. Ponter had properly understood “world” in Calvin to mean the exhaustive sense of the word to which it is ordinarily put by Amyraldian and Arminian folks today, we have an interesting problem, for Calvin does not say that Christ simply died for the world, Calvin also says that Christ has, by his blood, “redeemed” the world, and “expiated” (or “wiped away”) its sins.

And furthermore, as Mr. Ponter quotes:

“To bear,” or, “take away sins”, is to free from guilt by his satisfaction those who have sinned. He says the sins of many, that is, of all, as in Romans 5:15. It is yet certain that not all receive benefit from the death of Christ; but this happens, because their unbelief prevents them. At the same time this question is not to be discussed here, for the Apostle is not speaking of the few or of the many to whom the death of Christ may be available; but he simply means that he died for others and not for himself; and therefore he opposes many to one. John Calvin, Hebrews 9:28.

If – in the exhaustive sense – the world is freed from guilt for its sins, then there can be no hell at the hands of a just God. If the sins of the world have been expiated and wiped away, they do not any longer remain. If the world has been redeemed, it is Christ’s and he is its. But we need not stop there:

The bread which I will give is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world. I wish they had been less accustomed to unbridled license in lacerating Scripture. I not only admit their postulate, that the bread is truly flesh, but I go farther, and add what they injuriously and shamefully omit, that this bread is given daily, as the flesh was offered once on the cross for the salvation of the world. Nor is the repetition of the expression, I will give, superfluous. The bread, therefore, is truly and properly the flesh of Christ, inasmuch as he is there speaking not of a corruptible or fading but of heavenly aliment. John Calvin, “Second Defence of the Pious and Orthodox Faith Concerning the Sacraments in Answer to the Calumnies of Joachim Westphal,” in Selected Works, vol, 2, p., 425.

and likewise:

Christ doth not only declare his power, but also his goodness; to the end he may allure men unto himself with the sweetness of his grace. For he came to save the world, and not to condemn it. John Calvin, Acts 5:12.

So, indeed, if Christ died to save the world (and if world = each and every person) then Christ failed to accomplish what he intended or we have universalism. Yet Calvin both clearly taught the reality of hell and the concept of reprobate men who end up in hell, as Mr. Ponter does not deny.

Furthermore, Calvin taught, in a passage not quoted by Mr. Ponter:

That God can do whatsoever he pleaseth is a doctrine of great importance, provided it be truly and legitimately applied. This caution is necessary, because curious and forward persons, as is usual with them, take the liberty of abusing a sound doctrine by producing it in defense of their frantic reveries. And in this matter we daily witness too much of the wildness of human ingenuity. This mystery, which ought to command our admiration and awe, is by many shamelessly and irreverently made a topic of idle talk. If we would derive advantage from this doctrine, we must attend to the import of God’s doing whatsoever he pleaseth in heaven and on the earth. And, first, God has all power for the preservation of his Church, and for providing for her welfare; and, secondly, all creatures are under his control, and therefore nothing can prevent him from accomplishing all his purposes. However much, then, the faithful may find themselves cut off from all means of subsistence and safety, they ought nevertheless to take courage from the fact, that God is not only superior to all impediments, but that he can render them subservient to the advancement of his own designs. This, too, must also be borne in mind, that all events are the result of God’s appointment alone, and that nothing happens by chance. This much it was proper to premise respecting the use of this doctrine, that we may be prevented from forming unworthy conceptions of the glory of God, as men of wild imaginations are wont to do. Adopting this principle, we ought not to be ashamed frankly to acknowledge that God, by his eternal counsel, manages all things in such a manner, that nothing can be done but by his will and appointment. John Calvin, Psalm 115:3

Likewise, Calvin taught (in yet another passage that Mr. Ponter omits from his list):

That is, “That I should not suffer it to be taken from me or perish;” by which he means, that he is not the guardian of our salvation for a single day, or for a few days, but that he will take care of it to the end, so that he will conduct us, as it were, from the commencement to the termination of our course; and therefore he mentions the last resurrection. This promise is highly necessary for us, who miserably groan under so great weakness of the flesh, of which every one of us is sufficiently aware; and at every moment, indeed, the salvation of the whole world might be ruined, were it not that believers, supported by the hand of Christ, advance boldly to the day of resurrection. Let this, therefore, be fixed in our minds, that Christ has stretched out his hand to us, that he may not desert us in the midst of the course, but that, relying on his goodness, we may boldly raise our eyes to the last day. John Calvin, John 6:39

In short, this is how we are to understand Calvin’s words, namely that the salvation of the whole world is the salvation of elect.

Thus, Calvin’s editor wisely provided this footnote on Romans 14:15:

From the words “destroy not,” etc., some have deduced the sentiment, that those for whom Christ died may perish for ever. It is neither wise nor just to draw a conclusion of this kind; for it is one that is negatived by many positive declarations of Scripture. Man’s inference, when contrary to God’s word, cannot be right. Besides, the Apostle’s object in this passage is clearly this, — to exhibit the sin of those who disregarded without saying that it actually effected that evil. Some have very unwisely attempted to obviate the inference above mentioned, by suggesting, that the destruction meant was that of comfort and edification. But no doubt the Apostle meant the ruin of the soul; hence the urgency of his exhortation, — “Do not act in such a way as tends to endanger the safety of a soul for whom Christ has shed his blood;” or, “Destroy not,” that is, as far as you can do so. Apostles and ministers are said to “save” men; some are exhorted here not to “destroy” them. Neither of these effects can follow, except in the first instance, God grants his blessing, and in the second his permission; and his permission as to his people he will never grant, as he has expressly told us. See Joh 10:27-29. — Ed.

Finally, Calvin explains the death of the reprobate in a way that does not fit with Mr. Ponter’s Universal Atonement thesis:

Now as salvation depends solely on the election of God, the reprobate must perish, in whatever way this may be effected; not that they are innocent, and free from all blame, when God destroys them, but because, by their own malice, they turn to their destruction all that is offered to them, however salutary it may be. To those who willingly perish the Gospel thus becomes, as Paul assures us, the savor of death unto death, (2Co 2:16;) for, though it is offered to all for salvation, it does not yield this fruit in any but the elect. It belongs to a faithful and honest teacher to regulate every thing which he brings forward by a regard to the advantage of all; but whenever the result is different, let us take comfort from Christ’s reply. It is beautifully expressed by the parable, that the cause of perdition does not lie in the doctrine, but that the reprobate who have no root in God, when the doctrine is presented to them, throw out their hidden venom, and thus accelerate that death to which they were already doomed.

Notice that it is the doctrine that is presented to them – not the blood of Christ itself, as though Christ were offered to men, rather than to God – but the doctrine and promise that if they trust in Christ they will be saved.

The bottom line is this, Mr. Ponter is mistaken in his theory that Unlimited Atonement is “a” Reformed Doctrine. It is an Amyraldian and Arminian doctrine. It is specifically condemned by the Westminster Confession of Faith:

VI. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected being fallen in Adam are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power through faith unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

And even more clearly the same is condemned by the London Baptist Confession:

As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so He hath, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto; wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ, by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power through faith unto salvation; neither are any other redeemed by Christ, or effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

And in the Savoy Declaration:

As God bath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he by the eternal and most free purpose of his will fore-ordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, or effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified and saved, but the elect only.

Likewise also in the Canons of Dordt:

For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father; that he should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, he acquired for them by his death); that he should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins, both original and actual, whether committed before or after their coming to faith; that he should faithfully preserve them to the very end; and that he should finally present them to himself, a glorious people, without spot or wrinkle.

The Westminster Larger Catechism states:

Q. 59. Who are made partakers of redemption through Christ?

A. Redemption is certainly applied, and effectually communicated, to all those for whom Christ hath purchased it; who are in time by the Holy Ghost enabled to believe in Christ according to the gospel.

These are the leading confessions of the Reformed churches. Mr. Ponter’s view of Calvin that has Calvin claiming that Christ redeemed each and every person places Calvin outside of the Reformed position, and in logical inconsistency with Calvin himself.

This is not the first time that Ponter’s false thesis has been rebutted. For example, I found this excellent rebuttal over at the PuritanBoard (link). Christ’s purpose in coming to die was to save the elect. Those who continue to doubt that Calvin agreed should read his commentary on John 6:34-40 (about midway or so through the page linked here).

It is distressing that Mr. Ponter continues to muddy the Reformational water with his propaganda campaign against Limited Atonement. It is even more distressing to see him leading others astray (example).

Mr. Ponter’s final word, “It’s time that our uber-calvinists out there on the big wide web leave behind their sectarianism and arrogance and rethink their approach to Reformed theology and to those who deviate from them the merest nanometer,” just demonstrates the problem. The issue of the atonement may not divide gospel from heresy, but it is not an issue of the “merest nanometer.” But supposing that it were, though, shame on Mr. Ponter for devoting some much energy on such an inconsequential doctrinal difference (in his evaluation). Of course, I don’t believe for a second that Mr. Ponter honestly considers this matter to be of “the merest nanometer” difference – and if that is the case, then shame on him for the other obvious reason. Either way, I hope he will reconsider his approach of trying to shoehorn the Reformation into his pet theory. He is in a position to do research on so many more useful issues – issues that actually would help to defend the gospel from false gospels: issues on which apparently he and we Calvinists are in agreement. So here is my exhortation to Mr. Ponter: find a new hobby. This one is doomed to failure. Calvin did not address the Amyraldian and Arminian errors because they had not yet developed in his lifetime, just as Calvin did not address the Federal Vision or the New Perspective on Paul. But Calvin taught particular redemption and did so in his Institutes, where he was trying to be precisely theological:

39. The sum of evangelical doctrine is, to teach, 1. What Christ is; 2. Why he was sent; 3. In what manner he accomplished the work of redemption.

40. Christ is God and man: God, that he may bestow on his people righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; Man, because he had to pay the debt of man.

41. He was sent to perform the office, 1. Of a Prophet, by preaching the truth, by fulfilling the prophecies, by teaching and doing the will of his Father; 2. Of a King, by governing the whole Church and every member of it, and by defending his people from every kind of adversaries; 3. Of a Priest, by offering his body as a sacrifice for sins, by reconciling God to us though his obedience, and by perpetual intercession for his people to the Father.

42. He performed the office of a Redeemer by dying for our sins, by rising again for our justification, by opening heaven to us through his ascension, by sitting at the right hand of the Father whence he will come to judge the quick and the dead; and, therefore, he procured for us the grace of God and salvation.


N.B. All emphases in the quotations above were added by TurretinFan.

UPDATE: Mr. Ponter, showering us with his kindness, has made some more bold assertions

Mr. Ponter provides two alleged quotations from Bullinger that are supposed to justify his bizarre behaviour:

1) He never sacrificed in the temple at the holy altars either of incense or of burnt-offerings. He never used priestly garments, which were figurative; whereof I spoke when I expounded the ceremonial laws [Heb. 8]. Therefore, when he would sacrifice for the satisfaction of the sins of the whole world, he suffered without the gate, and offered himself a lively and a most holy sacrifice, according as in the shadows or types, prophecies and figures foreshewed in the law of Moses: whereof in like manner I have entreated in the discourse of ceremonial laws… And that only sacrifice is always effectual to make satisfaction for all the sins of all men in the whole world… Christians know that the sacrifice of Christ once offered is always effectual to make satisfaction for the sins of all men in the whole world, and of all men of all ages: but these men with often outcries say, that it is flat heresy not to confess that Christ is daily offered of sacrificing priests, consecrated to that purpose. Decades, 4th Decade, Sermon 7, vol 2, pp., 285-286, 287, and 296. [His reference to these men is to Rome’s priests and to the Mass.]

The key phrase for Mr. Ponter’s purposes, of course, is “for all the sins of all men in the whole world.” Let us examine this:

a) Note that this bundle is the object of “is always effectual to make satisfaction.” Always effectual! So if Bullinger meant that bundle to include the rebrobate, we have the odd view by Bullinger that Christ’s death is not only sufficient to make satisfaction for the reprobate, but always effectual as well. If anyone is so foolish as to imagine this is what Bullinger believed, let him wallow in his ignorance.

b) Note that “the sins of the whole world” is the secondary phrase of interest, but again this is in reference to satisfaction.

c) One can hardly see the context here, but what Bullinger is opposing here are the papist defects in understanding Christ’s sacrifice: to wit the Mass and Penance/Purgatory. Thus, Bullinger is emphasizing with Scripture the one-time nature of Christ’s offering (against the Mass) and the “for all sins of all men” aspect (against the notion of Penance/Purgatory).

Even if some petulant person will disagree with the analysis above, surely the reasonable person can see how Bullinger can mean something other than “Universal Atonement” by his comment.

Continuing to the second quotation:

2) Also they declare by the way, whom he has redeemed: that is to wit, men of all tribes, &c. In which rehearsal he does imitate Daniel in the 7. chapt. and signifies an universality, for the Lord has died for all: but that all are not made partakers of this redemption, it is through their own fault. For the Lord excludes no man, but him only which through his own unbelief, and misbelief excludes himself. &c. Henry Bullinger, A Hvndred Sermons Vpon the Apocalipse of Iesu Christ. (London: Printed by Iohn Daye, Dwellyng ouer Aldersgate, 1573), 79-80.

The key phrase here, for Mr. Ponter, is “signifies an universality, for the Lord has died for all: but that all are not made partakers of this redemption, it is through their own fault. For the Lord excludes no man….” Let us discuss:

a) Bullinger is speaking of the redeemed. If then, as Mr. Ponter supposes, this is a reference to all of mankind exhaustively, then Bullinger is plainly at odds with the standard Reformed works identified above, which limit redemption to the elect.

b) Notice, however, that Bullinger adopts the sense of all as in “men of all tribes,” the normal explanation of “all” used by particularists, not universalists.

c) Finally, note that Bullinger himself states, “but that all are not made partakers of this redemption,” which again is fully consistent with a particularist qualification and explanation, and not with a view that Christ actually redeems each and every man exhaustively.

Additionally to these two quotations from Bullinger (apparently the best examples he could muster, for Mr. Ponter states: “Now, if these two comments from Bullinger do not convince, then nothing will.”), Mr. Ponter quotes from another work of Bullinger’s against the Anabaptists where evidently Bullinger speaks of Christ being the “mediator for all sinners,” which one supposes Bullinger means to refer to the category not only of adults, but also of infants.

Finally (though Mr. Ponter places it as his principle testimony), Mr. Ponter quotes from a secondary source, which states:

Clear statements of nonspeculative hypothetical universalism can be found (as Davenant recognized) in Heinrich Bullinger’s Decades and commentary on the Apocalypse, in Wolfgang Musculus’ Loci communes, in Ursinus’ catechetical lectures, and in Zanchi’s Tractatus de praedestinatione sanctorum, among other places. In addition, the Canons of Dort, in affirming the standard distinction of a sufficiency of Christ’s death for all and its efficiency for the elect, actually refrain from canonizing either the early form of hypothetical universalism or the assumption that Christ’s sufficiency serves only to leave the nonelect without excuse.

Mr. Ponter, however, has provided what he views as the best such “clear statements” from the decades and from the commentary on the Apocalypse, and neither has proved to say what Mr. Ponter would seem to need it to say.

In short, Universal Atonement is not the doctrine of the Reformation. As Bullinger himself declared:

The sacrifice of confession, is of praise and thanksgiving, which we offer to God for the redemption and benefits of God freely bestowed upon His church.

And we better understand Bullinger’s seemingly Universalistic tones when we recall that he wrote:

And it is not amiss in this place fist of all to mark, that Christ is called a propitiation, or satisfaction, not for sinners or people of one or two ages, but for all sinners and all faithful people throughout the whole world. One Christ is sufficient for all: one intercessor with the Father is set forth unto all. For how so often thou sinnest, so often thou hast ready a righteous intercessor with the Father. Not that we should imagine in heaven, as in a court, the Father upon his throne to sit as a judge, and the Son our patron so often to fall down on his knees, and to plead or entreat for us, as we sin and offend: but we understand with the apostle, that Christ is the advocate and the universal priest of the church, and that he only appeareth in the presence of the Father: because as the power and force of his death, (albeit he die not daily,) so the virtue of his intercession, is always effectual. Let us therefore draw near and come to God by Christ, the only mediator of our redemption and intercession, our only intercessor and advocate. We cannot but be acceptable unto God the Father, if we be commended unto him by his only-begotten Son.

So, as noted above, Bullinger maintains the Reformed position that the work of Christ as Priest is one: both offering himself as a sacrifice for the church and also interceding for them. Bullinger does not illogically sever Christ’s role as redeemer from Christ’s role as intercessor, but declares boldly against the papists of the day the perfect work of Christ.

3 Responses to “Unlimited Atonement is not a Reformed Doctrine”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    If – in the exhaustive sense – the world is freed from guilt for its sins, then there can be no hell at the hands of a just GodHow do you know there is a hell?

  2. Turretinfan Says:

    a) Because the Bible says so, and the Bible is the inspired Word of God.b) For the purposes of this post, however, it’s mostly relevant that Calvin and the Reformers believed in the literal reality of hell. That is undisputed, even if certain folks wish now to question the reality of hell.c) Hell will be no less real to those who refuse to believe in its existence in this life.-TurretinFan

  3. GeneMBridges Says:

    c) One can hardly see the context here, but what Bullinger is opposing here are the papist defects in understanding Christ’s sacrifice: to wit the Mass and Penance/Purgatory. Thus, Bullinger is emphasizing with Scripture the one-time nature of Christ’s offering (against the Mass) and the “for all sins of all men” aspect (against the notion of Penance/Purgatory).This is an excellent point, and, if I might elaborate for those who need this spelled out more clearly…What this means is that Bullinger is emphasizing that Christ’s work alone is sufficient for the redemption of a sinner from damnation. It needs nothing added to it. That is what it means for the atonement to be “sufficient for all.” It doesn’t refer to the scope of the atonement, rather it refers to the perfection of of the work of Christ, specifically, it does not need prayers to saints, purgation, congruent merits of oneself, saints, or others, sacramental infusion(s) of grace, etc. added to it. Thus “sufficient for all” refers to the perfection of the Victim and His work – nothing more, nothing less.And notice here what isn’t even considered…namely the possibility that Davenant and the minority party at Dort were reading Bullinger, et.al. anachronisitically themselves. This never seems to be considered.Ah, but who are you and I, Turretinfan but “proverbial fools.” Yes, we are the ones who limit the love of God in Christ to the elect, yet we’re also the ones who are engaging the false gospels on the internet…where, pray tell, may we find such as the writer you have cited doing the same?

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