Affirming the Reformed Distinctive
Having outlined the several aspects pertaining to the nature of Christ’s atonement (found here and here) we come now to address the heart of the Reformed distinctive, or that which separates our view from all other schools of thought. To state it concisely, the biblical and Reformed doctrine is that God had a definite saving purpose in the mission of His Son, so that Jesus Christ was sent into the world – not merely to make the salvation of all men possible, nor simply to remove the legal obstacles which stood in the way of their full acceptance with God — that he certainly did.
More specifically though, the satisfaction of Jesus Christ was designed to infallibly secure the total salvation of his own people (Matthew 1:21). This affirmation is not just unique to the Reformed Faith; it is indispensable to the biblical doctrine. In other words, the atonement of Jesus Christ was a purpose driven atonement. It was for this reason our Savior said to his Father, “I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do,” and again “that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him” (John 17:4, 2). The connection between the definite saving purpose of God, and the definite saving work of the Son cannot be denied. Again and again we see these two points linked together.
For example, in John 10:11 Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” Then in verse 18 he adds, “this commandment have I received of my Father.” Likewise in Romans 8:31-34 we find that the death of Jesus Christ was not only instrumental, but indispensable to the saving purpose of God. “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect… It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us.” Clearly, the atonement of Jesus Christ had a definite reference to God’s elect.
Avoiding Unnecessary Consequences
It is important to note, however, that while these positive biblical statements show us that God indeed had a special saving purpose in the death of His Son, they do not necessarily prove that this saving purpose exhausts the design of the atonement. In other words, the positive statements in Scripture which teach that Jesus died for his “sheep,” or his “Church,” or his “people,” do not eliminate the possibility that he died for others as well. This conclusion, however tempting to adopt, does not follow with deductive certainty.
Therefore, as others have pointed out, we must take special care to avoid insisting on “unnecessary consequences” of this sort, since technically speaking such an inference is formally invalid – being founded upon the error of a well known logical fallacy (viz. the negative inference fallacy).
D.A. Carson, on page 101 of his book Exegetical Fallacies writes,
It does not necessarily follow that if a proposition is true, a negative inference from that proposition is also true. The negative inference may be true, but this cannot be assumed, and in any case is never true [simply] because it is a negative inference.
In his Lectures (p. 521), R.L. Dabney shows the importance of sound logic in the formulation of biblical doctrine when he reminds us that,
The proof of a proposition does not disprove its converse.
To repeat the point, we cannot turn positive statements into exclusive statements no matter how justifiable it may appear to be. There is simply no warrant to infer a negative (the death of Christ had no reference to group B) from a bare positive statement (the death of Christ had reference to group A).
Applying this very principle to the death of Christ, Charles Hodge writes,
It does not follow from the assertion of its having a special reference to the elect, that it had no reference to the non-elect.¹
It may be helpful to point out that Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees included their tendency to draw invalid theological conclusions. For example in Matthew 5:43 Jesus condemns their teaching, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy.” While the first half of the statement is expressly commanded in Scripture (Lev. 19:18), the second half is not.
By an inadvertent slip of logic then, the Pharisees contradicted the teaching of Scripture (Ex. 23:4). They wrongly inferred that because they were commanded to love one group of people, they were to therefore hate every other group of people. But this was faulty reasoning and such a teaching was directly opposed by our Lord, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Mt. 5:44, 45).
With a better sense of discretion Charles Hodge writes,
In answer to this question, it may be remarked in the first place that [the Reformed] do not deny that Christ died for all men. What they deny is that he died equally, and with the same design, for all men.²
In other words,
In view of the effects which the death of Christ produces in the relation of all mankind to God, it has in all ages been customary with [the Reformed] to say that Christ died “sufficienter pro omnibus, efficaciter tantum pro electis,” sufficiently for all, efficaciously only for the elect. There is a sense, therefore, in which He died for all, and there is a sense in which He died for the elect alone.³
The Death of Christ for All?
As it was stated at the outset of this series, we must recognize that not everybody agrees that the sufficient/efficient construct is an adequate summary of the biblical doctrine; some for one reason, and some for another. But again, it nevertheless remains true that for others of us this traditional Reformed formula is the only reasonable and satisfactory expression which can account for the whole of the biblical data.
For how else, we might argue, should we summarize the distinction so clearly embedded in passages like 1 Timothy 4:10, “God is the Savior of all men, especially of them that believe” if not by affirming that “Christ died sufficiently for all, but efficiently only for the elect?” And again, what better phraseology could we consistently employ to explain how the Man digging in the field “bought the whole field” with a special view to the buried treasure, when “that field was the world” (Mat. 13:38) and that treasure was God’s elect (Ex. 19:5; Psa. 135:4; Mal. 3:3, 17)? Robert Hawker, commenting on this passage, likewise grants that the Merchant-Man seeking goodly pearls, “may perhaps be designed to set forth the Lord Jesus Christ, who is seeking and must gather the goodly pearls, even his redeemed, which are the jewels of his mediatorial crown.”
To be sure, the fact that the death of Christ acquired the whole world is no point of contention in Reformed Theology. But nowadays, that seems to be true only when the “world” is viewed as either “the material cosmos” or a reference to “specific Gentiles.” With these definitions everyone can agree that Christ has redeemed “the whole world.”
But is that all the Bible is saying? That Christ died for the elect and then the rest of the cosmos? Doesn’t Scripture teach that his blood also purchase them that ultimately deny him, and perish in unbelief?
In 2 Peter 2:1 we read,
But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.
Commenting on this verse, Calvin writes,
They, then, who throw off the bridle, and give themselves up to all kinds of licentiousness, are not unjustly said to deny Christ—by whom they have been redeemed.
And again in his commentary on Jude 4, Calvin writes,
He means that Christ is denied, when they who had been redeemed by his blood, become again the vassals of the Devil, and thus render void as far as they can that incomparable price.
In his sermon on 2 Timothy 2:19, where the apostle Paul warns his readers, “let all them that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity,” Calvin adds, “for it is no small matter to have souls perish who were bought by the blood of Christ.” Then, commenting on Romans 5:18, he writes, “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.” The point is that Calvin is operating under a construct that allows him to affirm that the death of Jesus Christ in some sense extends to them that perish.4
Accordingly, the Synod of Dort declared that if any man perish, it was not due to any limitation in the atonement itself. Instead, he only perishes because he himself rejects that atonement and does not receive it by faith.
Article 16 of Head 2 reads,
Whereas many who are called by the gospel do not repent nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief, this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.
1. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. II, Ch. VII, found here
4. In his “Common Places” (1583, part 2, p., 611) Peter Martyr Vermigli, the great Italian Reformer, and contemporary of Calvin wrote: Seeing by the mercy of God, through the death of Christ, we are so steadfastly placed; we must take heed, that through wicked and shameful acts, we throw not ourselves down headlong from thence. For they, which after they have been once reconciled, persist in defiling themselves with vices, do not only fall headlong from their most excellent state and condition; but also (as it is written unto the Hebrews) do tread under foot the Son of God (Heb. 10:29), and pollute his blood, which was shed for them.