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Questions About the Atonement and Justification

Part 2 of Matthew Pinson’s book, 40 Questions About Arminianism, answers questions nine through fourteen, and it deals with questions about the atonement and justification, in two sections. Section A discusses “The Nature of the Atonement and Justification,” and Section B treats “The Extent of Atonement.”

Q 9: Did Arminius Affirm Penal Substitutionary Atonement?

Pinson has encountered many Calvinists who believe that Arminians believe in the governmental theory of the atonement, and this is true of some of them, but others follow Arminius in his affirmation of the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Appealing to Hebrews, Arminius affirmed “the classic Reformed doctrine of the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. In his office as priest, Christ fulfills the demands of the law and suffers sin’s penalty on behalf of the believing sinner” (Pinson, p. 84). Arminius taught that God has a twofold love, for the creature and for God’s own justice. God satisfied his love for justice, and his hatred against sin, by imposing on his Son the office of Mediator by the shedding of his blood and by the suffering of his death (Heb 2:10; 5:8-9).

God satisfies his creature-love through forgiveness of sin, while satisfying his justice-love by the punishing of sin. God “rendered satisfaction to himself, and appeased himself in the Son of his love” (Arminius, Works, 2:221; cited by Pinson, p. 85). Arminius then used this concept to “argue against Calvinism’s election unto faith rather than in consideration of ‘one’s in-Christ status.” According to Arminius, “in Calvinism’s doctrine of unconditional election, God sets his elective love on people without respect to the merit of Christ or individuals’ union with him,” but this damages God’s divine justice (Pinson, p. 85).

Although many Arminians have taught a governmental view of atonement, Arminius “held fast to the Reformed view of penal substitutionary atonement articulated in the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism” (Pinson, p. 87).

Q 10: What Have Later Arminians Believed About Penal Substitution?

The penal substitutionary understanding of atonement subsided in much of subsequent Arminian theology, but “penal substitution persisted in the theology of the English General Baptists, as seen in the writings of Thomas Grantham” (Pinson, p. 89). Grantham’s view is summarized in his book Christianismus Primativus: “According to the will of God, and his eternal wisdom, Christ did, in the place and stead of mankind, fulfill that law, by which the whole world stood guilty before God” (Pinson, p. 89).

Like Grantham’s modern-day descendants, Leroy Forlines and Robert Picirilli, Grantham affirmed two aspects of atonement, passive and active obedience, but there were other perspectives within the Arminian heritage. John Goodwin, a 17th century Arminian Puritan, was one of the most influential Arminian voices outside the General Baptists, and he followed the road taken by Hugo Grotius, who developed his Arminianism in much less Reformed directions, after the death of Arminius. One of those directions was the governmental view, and most Wesleyans have followed that route. “For Goodwin, the atonement is an exhibition of public justice. It is not a penal satisfaction, as Arminius and Grantham taught” (Pinson, p. 91).

John Wesley took great pains to affirm a penal substitutionary view of Christ’s atonement, but he “modified the penal substitutionary doctrine in two ways. First, for Wesley, the atonement consisted of Christ’s passive obedience, his bearing the divine penalty for sin, not his positive fulfillment of the law” (Pinson, p. 92). Second, Wesley distinguished between past and future sins. He asserted that Christ atoned only for the believer’s past sins, rather than for the condition of sin (Pinson, p. 92).

Although the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement has been a minority view among Wesleyan Arminians, particularly those who hold to a governmental theory of the atonement, Wesley’s affirmation of penal substitutionary atonement has been continued in the work of important modern Arminian theologians such as I. Howard Marshall and Thomas Oden. This “makes it possible for Wesleyan Arminians to explore these more-Reformed motifs” (Pinson, p. 93), and that has continued within the General/Free Will Baptist tradition, dating back to the seventeenth century. It is clearly taught in F. Leroy Forlines’ systematic theology, The Quest for Truth. Forlines affirms both Christ’s active obedience, which is Christ’s fulfilment of the law on the sinner’s behalf, and his passive obedience, in which Christ suffered the penalty for sin on the cross. Together, these forms of obedience constitute the righteousness of God, which is the righteousness of Christ (Pinson, p. 94).

Q 11: Do Arminians Affirm the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness in Justification?

Typically, Wesleyan Arminians have answered this question negatively, but Reformed Arminians have said “yes.” These two systems agree on how one comes to be in a state of grace, but they disagree about what it means to be in a state of grace. Pinson suggests that the discussion has been encapsulated in an exchange between N. T. Wright (representing the New Perspective on Paul) and John Piper (representing the classic Reformed position on justification) (Pinson, p. 97).

Arminius expressed wholehearted agreement with Calvin on the doctrine of justification, which he described as “being placed before the throne of grace which is erected in Christ Jesus the Propitiation.” This is “accounted and pronounced by God, the just and merciful Judge, righteous and worthy of the reward of righteousness, not in himself but in Christ, of grace, according to the Gospel” (Pinson, p. 99). Arminius viewed justification as forensic, and Pinson considers it ironic “that one of the few confessional documents in the early modern period that directly affirms the imputation of the active obedience of Christ is an Arminian one: the Orthodox Creed, a General Baptist confession.” Arminius never denied that doctrine (Pinson, p. 100).

Pinson identifies Leroy Forlines and Robert Picirilli as “the foremost modern proponents of this pre-Wesleyan Arminian tradition,” which had been put forward by Thomas Helwys, the first Baptist, and his theological descendant, Thomas Grantham. Helwys had left his mentor, John Smyth, because the latter had veered into semi-Pelagianism. Smyth had taught that people are justified partly by the righteousness of Christ, apprehended by faith, and partly by their own inherent righteousness, but Helwys affirmed that people are justified “only by the righteousness of Christ, apprehended by faith” (Pinson, p. 101). Thus, Forlines, in strong affirmation of a penal-satisfaction understanding of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to believers, affirms both the active and passive obedience of Christ as essential aspects of his work of justifying believers.

There were two key ways in which John Wesley’s doctrine of justification differed from that of Arminius. (1) Wesley believed that the atonement can only be applied to pre-conversion sins. To be re-justified, believers must reappropriate the atonement, by repentance. (2) Eventually, Wesley entirely rejected the doctrine of imputation, in regard to both the active and passive obedience of Christ. This makes the assurance of salvation tenuous, and it led to the doctrine of a second work of grace climaxing in entire sanctification or perfection. Reformed Arminians, however, believe that, “because Christ’s own active and passive obedience are imputed to believers for their right-standing before God, ebbs and flows in sanctification do not bring about apostasy. Only a one-time irremediable defection from justifying faith can do that” (Pinson, p. 106).

In Section B, Pinson deals with “The Extent of Atonement,” starting with

Q. 12: Does God Want Everyone to Be Saved?

Arminians, following the lead of Arminius himself, believe in universal grace, and Article 9 of the 1812 “Abstract” made that clear. It repeated the 1660 Standard Confession of the General Baptists, which stated that no one will “suffer in hell for want of a Christ who died for him, but as the Scripture has said, for denying the Lord that bought them” (Pinson, p. 109). At some time in everyone’s life, God’s grace will make it possible for everyone to be saved, not just for the elect, because God desires that everyone be saved. Arminians wonder how anyone who believes that Christ died only for the elect can explain Scripture passages like Jeremiah 22:29; Ezekiel 33:11; Joel 2:28; Lk 2:10; John 1:9; 1:29; 3:14-17; 6:1, 44; 12:32; 16:8; Acts 10:34; 17:30; Romans 2:4; 11:32; 14:15; 1 Timothy 2:4; Titus 2:1; 1 John 2:2; and 2 Peter 2:1, 3; 3:9 (Pinson, p. 110).

Pinson considers 2 Peter 3:9 and Timothy 2:4 to be “the most important texts for understanding God’s sincere, universal purpose to save all people . . . . The will described in these texts is God’s ‘antecedent will’ as distinguished from his ‘consequent will’” (Pinson, pp. 111-112). In God’s antecedent will, “he desires everyone’s salvation, but in his consequent (after the fact) will, he desires that those who reject his gracious offer of salvation be separated from him” (Pinson, p. 111). God desires that everyone come to repentance, but he also wills that those who do not repent will experience God’s justice against them.

John Calvin was willing to appeal to mystery in this matter, and he regarded 2 Peter 3:9 as a reference to God’s public will revealed in the gospel, not his secret will. Arminians, however, differ from Calvin, with their proposal that “God wills everyone’s salvation through repentance.” Thus, they rule out universalism, but they do not posit two contradictory wills in God, which is what they hear in Calvin’s proposal. Rather, they propose that, in God’s antecedent will, he purposes that humanity should all be saved through repentance, but in his consequent will, he purposes that those who reject him will not be saved (Pinson, p. 112).

Charles Spurgeon (along with many present-day Calvinists) followed Calvin’s appeal to mystery. He believed that it is God’s “wish ‘that all should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth,’” but he also knew that God would save only those who believe in his Son, and he believed that God “has a people whom he will save, whom by his eternal love he has chosen.” Spurgeon acknowledged frankly that he did not know how to square all these factors (Pinson, p. 113, citing Spurgeon, “Salvation by Knowing the Truth,” in the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, 26:50-52).

Pinson carefully restates John Piper’s way of speaking about this mystery, and this is helpful because Piper is highly respected in classic Calvinist circles, such as the Gospel Coalition. Pinson proposes that “Piper’s whole argument to explain the contradiction between God’s secret and revealed wills is simply an assertion of determinism, not an explanation why, in Calvinism, God’s two wills are not contradictory” (Pinson, p. 115). That sounds true to me, because I have long struggled to formulate my own understanding of the will and action of the omnipotent God who rules the world, and I feel strongly the draw of what I dub “mysterian Calvinism.”

[An excursus on the helpfulness of “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism.”

My work on the comprehensive providential governance of the world has led me to a construct which I dub “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism,” and I think that this improves on the classical Calvinistic explanation of God’s will, at work in the history of the world. I think that the approach proposed by Molinists is incoherent because of the “grounding objection,” but I have been helped considerably by this suggestion. The fundamental flaw of Molinism is that, if God were to give libertarian freedom to moral creatures, it would be impossible for him to know what any particular moral agent would certainly do, in a hypothetical situation. I think that Gregory Boyd’s suggestion is correct, that God can know only the degree of probability of what a particular moral creature would do, in any hypothetical situation. This significantly reduces the control of God, as compared to the comprehensive sovereignty that divine determinism posits.

Working within the framework of Boyd’s proposal, I suggest that God’s governance within the world is greatly helped by his knowledge of the principles of human moral agency. God has this knowledge naturally or necessarily, not, as Molinism proposes, at a middle moment. It is the soft-compatibilistic nature of human freedom (rather than an incompatibilist construction of libertarian freedom) which grounds the truth value of the counterfactuals which God knows necessarily. By contrast, Molinists assert humans to be libertarianly free and this is why they are unable to explain what grounds the truth value of the counterfactuals concerning the acts of those free creatures, which they propose God knows in his middle knowledge.

What I find particularly helpful in the concept of hypothetical divine knowledge is that it approaches divine election from within the context of God’s comprehensive plan for the whole of world history, rather than focusing on the elect individuals. As I see it, from among the immense number of possible worlds which God could choose to actualize, he chose the world history in which particular individuals choose to respond positively to God’s gracious invitation to everyone, and to the work of God’s Spirit within individuals. When contemplating the reprobation of the non-elect, I find it comforting not to think simply of the individuals whom God graciously saves, and I believe it highly likely that the number of the saved will be greater than of the lost. I’ve argued this in my book Who Can Be Saved?]

Q 13: Does Scripture Teach That Christ Died for Everyone?

Pinson suggests that “classical Calvinists argue that the intent of the atonement is to save only the elect,” but “the wider Christian tradition, including Arminians, has argued that the intent of the atonement is to provide salvation for both the elect and everyone else” (Pinson, p. 119). He recognizes that “many Calvinists do not hold to limited atonement.” These are sometimes called “hypothetical universalists” or “four-point Calvinists,” but they put forward an understanding which “five-point Calvinists and the rest of Christians’ consider to be incoherent,” because it portrays God as imploring sinners to come to him even though “in the secret counsel of the divine will it pleases the Lord to deprive most of them” of the grace which they need to repent of their sin and accept God’s forgiveness  (Pinson, pp. 120-121).

Pinson does very well in laying out for us the clear biblical teaching concerning God’s love for all sinners, in sending his Son to die for the whole world (Pinson, pp. 121-127). I am a Calvinist who affirms the free offer of the gospel to everyone and, during my years as a missionary in the Philippines, I frequently worked alongside Arminians in evangelistic meetings. Together, we presented people with the wonderful news about what God did in sending his son to die for sinners, making an atonement sufficient to procure the salvation of every human being, even though we knew that not everyone would accept God’s gracious gift. At that time, I was less knowledgeable of the Canons of Dort, and I could work harmoniously with missionaries who, like Arminius, would probably have been able to affirm the statements of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, although we did not consciously talk about that history.

Q 14: Are Calvinists Inconsistent in Freely Offering the Gospel to Everyone?

Jonathan Edwards was an ardent Calvinist, and he preached the gospel freely and indiscriminately to all sinners. But Pinson observes that Edwards saw this preaching as the external call of God, and he differentiated that gospel call from the internal call, which God gives to the elect. The latter is an aspect of special, not common, grace, but Edwards posited that this convicting and awakening grace was not restricted to the elect. The reprobate are still recipients of God’s offer of divine mercy. So, “Arminians see this as a gross inconsistency” (Pinson, p. 130). They ask: “Why all the free offers of the gospel when God has always had every intention of reprobating these people?” (Pinson, p. 131). Edwards’ response to that question would have been: “The reason God calls so freely to the reprobate, only to turn them away when they bang on the door of the ark, is to enlarge their punishment to give himself greater glory”(Pinson, p. 131).

I am not an Edwards scholar, and I am unable to explain Edwards’ reasons for affirming this perspective, but I am glad that Pinson observes that “most contemporary Calvinists, not being Hyper-Calvinists, support the notion of the free offer of the gospel and the revealed will and external call of God universally” (Pinson, p. 133). It appears to me, however, that Arminians (including those who are Reformed), should also struggle with inconsistencies in their own system.

When I hear evangelical Arminians testify to their salvation, I am frequently delighted to observe that they gratefully attribute this to God’s gracious work, since their commitment to libertarian freedom might naturally have led them to self-congratulation for having chosen more wisely than others who rejected God’s gracious invitation, which they had accepted. For both Calvinists and Arminians, the mystery of the relationship between human and divine actions in the salvation of sinners is difficult to explain. From the perspective of Arminiansism, however, the decisive action in their salvation is human, not divine. That looks to Calvinists to be a significant inconsistency, since Arminians should regard very highly the praise-worthiness of human response to God’s gracious invitation.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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