The sufficiency of the atonement: So what!


The Arminian says that Christ’s death is sufficient to save all sinners, that is, everybody in the world; and that his death also becomes efficient (comes into effect) in salvation when sinners decide they want to be born again.

Most Calvinists also say that Christ’s death is both sufficient for everybody and efficient for those who are born again. The difference between the two views is the Calvinist says that the ultimate decision of one’s rebirth lies with God (with “election” to salvation) not with man’s decision, as recorded in John 1:12-13

“As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: 13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” The Arminian says that the “will of man” here means the will of the husband (the prospective believer’s father). (See Of being born again and a husband’s one track mind).

For a Calvinist, if one is elected to the rebirth, of what theoretical import or practical use is the sufficiency of Christ’s death to save the non-elect, in other words, so what? Here is Carl Trueman on John Owen:

He (Owen) certainly allows that there is nothing in the death of Christ, considered in isolation, to prevent its being sufficient for all; the question is whether such sufficiency has any real meaning in the actual economy of salvation. This is clear in his reflections on the Lombardian notion of universal sufficiency/particular efficacy:”

That the blood of Christ, says Owen, was sufficient to have been made a price for all” . . . is most true, as was before declared: for its being a price for all or some doth not arise from its own sufficiency, worth, or dignity, but from the intention of God and Christ using it to that purpose, as was declared; and, therefore, it is denied that the blood of Christ was a sufficient price and ransom for all and every one, not because it was not sufficient, but because it was not a ransom.(Note 48).

In Note 48 is the nub of the argument (in my italics):

Owen, Death of Death, in Works, 10:296. Cf. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, 3 vols. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1993), 2:458–59: “It is not asked with respect to the value and sufficiency of the death of Christ—whether it was in itself sufficient for the salvation of all men. For it is confessed by all that since its value is infinite, it would have been entirely sufficient for the redemption of each and every one, if God had seen fit to extend it to the whole world. . . . But the question properly concerns the purpose of the Father in delivering up his own Son and the intention of Christ in dying.”).

This point, says Trueman, is extremely important: for Owen, abstract discussions of universal sufficiency are just that: abstract and irrelevant. It is not a question of whether the death of the Son of God could be sufficient for all; it is a question of what that death was intended to accomplish. That intention was determined by God in the establishment of the covenant of redemption.”

I add, there is a way in which the atonement is indeed sufficient. It is when Jesus says “come” those who have been given by the Father:

John 6

39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

So far, Arminians and Calvinists agree. But soon after comes verse 44No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”

So, those who are raised on the last day (saved) are those who come. Why do they come? Because the Father draws them (compels them) to come. No, not scratching and screaming, but smitten and overcome with joy, “for the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

Luke 19:5. “And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zaccheus, make haste and come down; for this day I must abide at your house.”

When Zaccheus thought of no such thing, nay, thought that Christ Jesus did not know him; behold, Christ does what we never hear he did before or after, I mean, invite himself to the house of Zaccheus, saying, “Zaccheus, make haste and come down; for this day I must abide at your house.” Not pray let me abide, but I must abide this day at your house. He also calls him by name, as though he was well acquainted with him: and indeed well he might; for his name was written in the book of life, he was one of those whom the Father had given him from all eternity: therefore he must abide at his house that day. “For whom he did predestinate, them he also called.” George Whitefield’s Sermon 35 The Conversion of Zaccheus).

I end with further quote on the efficiency/efficaciousness of God’s grace from Whitefield’s sermon, which a;so gives the lie to the popular idea that Calvinists don’t take preaching seriously. The greatest preacher of all time, after Paul of Tarsus, is George Whitefield, who like Paul had a full-orbed view  of the Gospel’s efficiency, which is the free offer of the Gospel flowing from the sovereign purposes of God – to save those elected to salvation:

“Make haste then, O sinners, make haste, and by faith to Christ. Then, this day, even this hour, nay, this moment, if you believe, Jesus Christ shall come and make his eternal abode in your hearts. Which of you is made willing to receive the King of glory? Which of you obeys his call, as Zaccheus did? Alas! why do you stand still? How know you, whether Jesus Christ may ever call you again? Come then, poor, guilty sinners; come away, poor, lost, undone publicans: make haste, I say, and come away to Jesus Christ. The Lord condescends to invite himself to come under the filthy roofs of the houses of your souls. Do not be afraid of entertaining him; he will fill you with all peace and joy in believing. Do not be ashamed to run before the multitude, and to have all manner of evil spoke against you falsely for his sake: one sightof Christ will make amends for all. Zaccheus was laughed at; and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution. But what of that? Zaccheus is now crowned in glory; as you also shall shortly be, if you believe on, and are reproached for Christ’s sake. Do not, therefore, put me off with frivolous excuses: there’s no excuse can be given for your not coming to Christ. You are lost, undone, without him; and if he is not glorified in your salvation, he will be glorified in your destruction; if he does not come and make his abode in your hearts, you must take up an eternal abode with the devil and his angels. O that the Lord would be pleased to pass by some of you at this time! O that he may call you by his Spirit, and make you a willing people in this day of his power! For I know my calling will not do, unless he, by his efficacious grace, compel you to come in. (Italics added) O that you once felt what it is to receive Jesus Christ into your hearts! You would soon, like Zaccheus, give him everything. You do not love Christ, because you do not know him; you do not come to him, because you do not feel your want of him: you are whole, and not broken hearted; you are not sick, at least not sensible of your sickness; and, therefore, no wonder you do not apply to Jesus Christ, that great, that almighty physician. You do not feel yourselves lost, and therefore do not seek to be found in Christ. O that God would wound you with the sword of his Spirit, and cause his arrows of conviction to stick deep in your hearts! O that he would dart a ray of divine light into your souls! For if you do not feel yourselves lost without Christ, you are of all men most miserable: your souls are dead; you are not only an image of hell, but in some degree hell itself: you carry hell about with you, and you know it not. O that I could see some of you sensible of this, and hear you cry out, “Lord, break this hard heart; Lord, deliver me from the body of thisdeath; draw me, Lord, make me willing to come after you; I am lost; Lord, save me, or I perish!” Was this your case, how soon would the Lord stretch forth his almighty hand, and say, Be of good cheer, it is I; be not afraid? What a wonderful calm would then possess your troubled souls! Your fellowship would then be with the Father and the Son: your life would be hid with Christ in God.”

Luke 19:9-10, “And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house; forasmuch as he also is the Son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and save that which was lost.”


Related post: James White on the atonement: Take your dirty little fingers off God’s glory