Grace Bible Church

What Was Jesus Doing? Lesson Six

Author: Mark Webb

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Subject: Atonement

What Was Jesus Doing?

 

The Extent, Intent & Effect of the Atonement—Lesson Six

From the Early Church Fathers to Calvin”

 

Introduction

 

We’ve now come to a second major division in our study. Thus far we’ve been asking “What was Jesus doing on the cross” – i.e. what was its nature. We categorized the various major views on this matter according to the referent of the atonement – i.e. to whom was the atonement directed. We’ve seen that the view that most closely dovetails with the testimony of scripture is called the “Penal Substitution” view – i.e. that Christ bore the punishment for sin and rendered a satisfaction to Divine Justice.

 

There remains a major question to ask: “For whom was Christ doing what He was doing on the cross?” And by the words “For whom”, we’re no longer asking “Who is the referent?”, but “Who is the beneficiary?” In other words, with reference to the matter of salvation, “For whom did Christ die on the cross?” Did He die for all rebellious moral creatures, including angels? Did He die for all men? Did He die for some men? Did He die the same way for all those for whom He died, whoever they might be?

 

Additionally, wrapped up in the discussion of for whom the atonement was performed is the sister question of what, exactly, was accomplished by Christ’s death? Did He actually save all those for whom He died? Did He simply make salvation possible for those for whom He died? Did He make salvation possible for some of those for whom He died, but made it effectual for others of those for whom He died?

 

Finally, another field of inquiry is this: For whoever He died, how do they actually obtain the benefits of His death? Do these benefits flow automatically or conditionally? And what is the condition for their application? And when do they accrue to those for whom they were designed?

 

All these questions are interrelated. For instance, it’s almost impossible to discuss the question of the extent of the atonement while ignoring the question of its effect! The two go together hand in hand. This adds an additional layer of complexity to this problem.

 

Testimonies from Church History

 

One way to begin this discussion is to inquire as to the way the extent of the atonement has been understood in Church History. The difficulty with this is that, as we’ve seen, the early Church Fathers didn’t speak with a concerted voice concerning the nature of the atonement. The idea of “Penal Substitution”, while sometimes present in the background of their thoughts, was certainly not the most normal or natural way the saints of old expressed themselves on the subject. Commonly, the death of Christ as a victory over Satan, or, even, His death as exemplary for us, is in the forefront of their expressions. So, when we seek to evaluate statements made by the early church we need to keep this in mind!

 

Further, in many cases the argument is not so much about the extent of the atonement as whether or not faith and repentance is necessary to enjoy its benefits. In other words, the argument set forth is intended to counter Universalism—the idea that since Christ died for all, all will be saved regardless of their relationship to Christ.

 

In this light, consider the following statements:

 

1. Ignatius, ~107, in his epistle to Philadelphia, wrote, “…for whom, instead of a dowry, he poured out his own blood, that he might redeem her.”

 

2. The confession of the church of Smyrna,~160, writing to the churches of Pontus concerning the martyrdom of Polycarp, stated, “Neither can we ever forsake Christ, him who suffered for the salvation of the world of them that are saved, nor worship any other.”

 

3. Cyprian, ~250, in his epistle to Demetrian writes, “This grace hath Christ communicated, subduing death in the trophy or his cross, redeeming believers with the price of his blood.” He also writes, “Of so great dignity was the oblation of our Redeemer, that it alone was sufficient to take away the sins of the world.”

 

4. Ambrose, ~339-397, states that If thou believe not, Christ did not descend for thee, he did not suffer for thee.” Again he writes, “Although Christ suffered for all, yet He suffered for us particularly, because He suffered for the Church.” In yet another place he writes, “The people of God hath its own fulness. In the elect and foreknown, distinguished from the generality of all, there is accounted a certain special universality; so that the whole world seems to be delivered from the whole world, and all men to be taken out of all men.”

 

5. Gregory of Nazianzus, ~324-389, states this: “Take, in the next place, the subjection by which you subject the Son to the Father. What, you say, is He not now subject, or must He, if He is God, be subject to God? You are fashioning your argument as if it concerned some robber, or some hostile deity. But look at it in this manner: that as for my sake He was called a curse, Who destroyed my curse; and sin, who taketh away the sin of the world; and became a new Adam to take the place of the old, just so He makes my disobedience His own as Head of the whole body. As long then as I am disobedient and rebellious, both by denial of God and by my passions, so long Christ also is called disobedient on my account. But when all things shall be subdued unto Him on the one hand by acknowledgment of Him, and on the other by a reformation, then He Himself also will have fulfilled His submission, bringing me whom He has saved to God. For this, according to my view, is the subjection of Christ; namely, the fulfilling of the Father’s Will.”

 

6. Athanasius, ~293-373, states ”But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all,surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man's account with death and free him from the primal transgression.”

 

7 Augustine, ~354-440 says, “He often calleth the church itself by the name of the world; as in that, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself;’ and that, ‘The Son of man came not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.’ And John in his epistle saith, ‘We have an Advocate, and he is the propitiation for [our sins, and not four ours only, but also for] the sins of the whole world.’ The whole world, therefore, is the church, and the world hateth the church. The world, then, hateth the world; that which is at enmity, the reconciled; the condemned, the saved; the poluted, the cleansed world. And that world which God in Christ reconcileth to himself, and which is saved by Christ, is chosen out of the opposite, condemned, defiled world.”

 

8. Jerome, who lived from 347-420, a contemporary of Augustine, wrote about Matthew 20:28: “He does not say that He gave His life for all but for many, that is, for all those who would believe.”

 

9. Prosper ~440 says that “He is not crucified with Christ who is not a member of the body of Christ. When, therefore, our Savior is said to be crucified for the redemption of the whole world, because of his true assumption of the human nature, yet may he be said to be crucified only for them unto whom his death was profitable. Diverse from these is their lot who are reckoned amongst them of whom it is said, ‘The world knew him not.’” Also, Prosper states, “The death of Christ is not to be so laid out for human-kind, that they also should belong unto his redemption who were not to be regenerated.”

 

10. Theodorette of of Cyrus, who lived from 393-466, said concerning Hebrews 9:27-28: “It should be noted, of course, that Christ bore the sins of many, not all, and not all came to faith. So He removed the sins of the believers only.”

 

Problems

 

While these statements seem to resound with the same type of language we would employ from the standpoint of “Penal Substituion”, they are often based on something quite different. Note the following statements from some of the Church Fathers we quoted above.

 

Athanasius

 

At first read, the statement quoted above seems to dovetail with the Penal Subsitution view. But now read the context from which it was taken:

 

We have dealt as far as circumstances and our own understanding permit with the reason for His bodily manifestation. We have seen that to change the corruptible to incorruption was proper to none other than the Saviour Himself, Who in the beginning made all things out of nothing; that only the Image of the Father could re-create the likeness of the Image in men, that none save our Lord Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality, and that only the Word Who orders all things and is alone the Fathers' true and sole-begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worhship of idols. But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all,surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man's account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection.”

 

While there are some statements here that seem to blend with “substitution” language, his view is clearly the Recapitulation view, coupled with a Christus Victor theme as well!

 

Gregory of Nazianzus

 

There is a particularly famous passage in Gregory's writings rejecting a form of the Ransom from Satan view (highly unusual in this period, and interesting because his friend Gregory of Nyssa endorsed the form of the Ransom from Satan view being here rejected) which also equally rejects out of hand in passing any type of Penal Substitution: “We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a "ransom" belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim?” (Orations 45:22)


From elsewhere in his writings we find out that Gregory Nazianzus held a combination of Moral Exemplar, Recapitulation and Christus Victor. Gregory was also a strong advocate of Origen's theological views, and these included the view that God only ever gave punishments for the purposes of morally improving people (thus, Origen's view was that hell was not eternal and comprised sufferings inflicted to achieve moral reform). Obviously such a view has incompatibility problems with Penal Substitution.

 

Further, when it comes to the extent of the atonement, the early Church Fathers often speak in very general terms:

 

Clement of Alexandria (150-220): "Christ freely brings...salvation to the whole human race."

Eusebius (260-340): "It was needful that the Lamb of God should be offered for the other lambs whose nature He assumed, even for the whole human race."

Athanasius (293-373): "Christ the Son of God, having assumed a body like ours, because we were all exposed to death, gave Himself up to death for us all as a sacrifice to His Father."

Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386): "Do not wonder if the whole world was ransomed, for He was not a mere man, but the only-begotten Son of God."

Gregory of Nazianzen (324-389): "The sacrifice of Christ is an imperishable expiation of the whole world."

Basil (330-379): "But one thing was found that was equivalent to all men....the holy and precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He poured out for us all."

Ambrose (340-407): "Christ suffered for all, rose again for all. But if anyone does not believe in Christ, he deprives himself of that general benefit." He also said, "Christ came for the salvation of all, and undertook the redemption of all, inasmuch as He brought a remedy by which all might escape, although there are many who...are unwilling to be healed."

Augustine (354-430): Though Augustine is often cited as supporting limited atonement, there are also clear statements in Augustine's writings that are supportive of unlimited atonement. For example: "The Redeemer came and gave the price, shed His blood, and bought the world. Do you ask what He bought? See what He gave, and find what He bought. The blood of Christ is the price: what is of so great worth? What, but the whole world? What, but all nations?"
He also stated, "The blood of Christ was shed for the remission of all sins."

Cyril of Alexandria (376-444): "The death of one flesh is sufficient for the ransom of the whole human race, for it belonged to the Logos, begotten of God the Father."

Prosper ~(390-465): "As far as relates to the magnitude and virtue of the price, and to the one cause of the human race, the blood of Christ is the redemption of the whole world: but those who pass through this life without the faith of Christ, and the sacrament of regeneration, do not partake of the redemption." He also said, "The Savior is most rightly said to have been crucified for the redemption of the whole world." He then said, "Although the blood of Christ be the ransom of the whole world, yet they are excluded from its benefit, who, being delighted with their captivity, are unwilling to be redeemed by it."

 

According to Curt Daniel, it would be a monk named Gottschalk in the 9th century who would be the first to really teach what we call today, “Limited Atonement”, i.e. for the elect only.

What Was Jesus Doing?

 

 

The Extent, Intent & Effect of the Atonement—Lesson Six

From the Early Church Fathers to Calvin”

 

Introduction

 

We’ve now come to a second major division in our study. Thus far we’ve been asking “What was Jesus doing on the cross” – i.e. what was its nature. We categorized the various major views on this matter according to the referent of the atonement – i.e. to whom was the atonement directed. We’ve seen that the view that most closely dovetails with the testimony of scripture is called the “Penal Substitution” view – i.e. that Christ bore the punishment for sin and rendered a satisfaction to Divine Justice.

 

There remains a major question to ask: “For whom was Christ doing what He was doing on the cross?” And by the words “For whom”, we’re no longer asking “Who is the referent?”, but “Who is the beneficiary?” In other words, with reference to the matter of salvation, “For whom did Christ die on the cross?” Did He die for all rebellious moral creatures, including angels? Did He die for all men? Did He die for some men? Did He die the same way for all those for whom He died, whoever they might be?

 

Additionally, wrapped up in the discussion of for whom the atonement was performed is the sister question of what, exactly, was accomplished by Christ’s death? Did He actually save all those for whom He died? Did He simply make salvation possible for those for whom He died? Did He make salvation possible for some of those for whom He died, but made it effectual for others of those for whom He died?

 

Finally, another field of inquiry is this: For whoever He died, how do they actually obtain the benefits of His death? Do these benefits flow automatically or conditionally? And what is the condition for their application? And when do they accrue to those for whom they were designed?

 

All these questions are interrelated. For instance, it’s almost impossible to discuss the question of the extent of the atonement while ignoring the question of its effect! The two go together hand in hand. This adds an additional layer of complexity to this problem.

 

Testimonies from Church History

 

One way to begin this discussion is to inquire as to the way the extent of the atonement has been understood in Church History. The difficulty with this is that, as we’ve seen, the early Church Fathers didn’t speak with a concerted voice concerning the nature of the atonement. The idea of “Penal Substitution”, while sometimes present in the background of their thoughts, was certainly not the most normal or natural way the saints of old expressed themselves on the subject. Commonly, the death of Christ as a victory over Satan, or, even, His death as exemplary for us, is in the forefront of their expressions. So, when we seek to evaluate statements made by the early church we need to keep this in mind!

 

Further, in many cases the argument is not so much about the extent of the atonement as whether or not faith and repentance is necessary to enjoy its benefits. In other words, the argument set forth is intended to counter Universalism—the idea that since Christ died for all, all will be saved regardless of their relationship to Christ.

 

In this light, consider the following statements:

 

1. Ignatius, ~107, in his epistle to Philadelphia, wrote, “…for whom, instead of a dowry, he poured out his own blood, that he might redeem her.”

 

2. The confession of the church of Smyrna,~160, writing to the churches of Pontus concerning the martyrdom of Polycarp, stated, “Neither can we ever forsake Christ, him who suffered for the salvation of the world of them that are saved, nor worship any other.”

 

3. Cyprian, ~250, in his epistle to Demetrian writes, “This grace hath Christ communicated, subduing death in the trophy or his cross, redeeming believers with the price of his blood.” He also writes, “Of so great dignity was the oblation of our Redeemer, that it alone was sufficient to take away the sins of the world.”

 

4. Ambrose, ~339-397, states that If thou believe not, Christ did not descend for thee, he did not suffer for thee.” Again he writes, “Although Christ suffered for all, yet He suffered for us particularly, because He suffered for the Church.” In yet another place he writes, “The people of God hath its own fulness. In the elect and foreknown, distinguished from the generality of all, there is accounted a certain special universality; so that the whole world seems to be delivered from the whole world, and all men to be taken out of all men.”

 

5. Gregory of Nazianzus, ~324-389, states this: “Take, in the next place, the subjection by which you subject the Son to the Father. What, you say, is He not now subject, or must He, if He is God, be subject to God? You are fashioning your argument as if it concerned some robber, or some hostile deity. But look at it in this manner: that as for my sake He was called a curse, Who destroyed my curse; and sin, who taketh away the sin of the world; and became a new Adam to take the place of the old, just so He makes my disobedience His own as Head of the whole body. As long then as I am disobedient and rebellious, both by denial of God and by my passions, so long Christ also is called disobedient on my account. But when all things shall be subdued unto Him on the one hand by acknowledgment of Him, and on the other by a reformation, then He Himself also will have fulfilled His submission, bringing me whom He has saved to God. For this, according to my view, is the subjection of Christ; namely, the fulfilling of the Father’s Will.”

 

6. Athanasius, ~293-373, states ”But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all,surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man's account with death and free him from the primal transgression.”

 

7 Augustine, ~354-440 says, “He often calleth the church itself by the name of the world; as in that, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself;’ and that, ‘The Son of man came not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.’ And John in his epistle saith, ‘We have an Advocate, and he is the propitiation for [our sins, and not four ours only, but also for] the sins of the whole world.’ The whole world, therefore, is the church, and the world hateth the church. The world, then, hateth the world; that which is at enmity, the reconciled; the condemned, the saved; the poluted, the cleansed world. And that world which God in Christ reconcileth to himself, and which is saved by Christ, is chosen out of the opposite, condemned, defiled world.”

 

8. Jerome, who lived from 347-420, a contemporary of Augustine, wrote about Matthew 20:28: “He does not say that He gave His life for all but for many, that is, for all those who would believe.”

 

9. Prosper ~440 says that “He is not crucified with Christ who is not a member of the body of Christ. When, therefore, our Savior is said to be crucified for the redemption of the whole world, because of his true assumption of the human nature, yet may he be said to be crucified only for them unto whom his death was profitable. Diverse from these is their lot who are reckoned amongst them of whom it is said, ‘The world knew him not.’” Also, Prosper states, “The death of Christ is not to be so laid out for human-kind, that they also should belong unto his redemption who were not to be regenerated.”

 

10. Theodorette of of Cyrus, who lived from 393-466, said concerning Hebrews 9:27-28: “It should be noted, of course, that Christ bore the sins of many, not all, and not all came to faith. So He removed the sins of the believers only.”

 

Problems

 

While these statements seem to resound with the same type of language we would employ from the standpoint of “Penal Substituion”, they are often based on something quite different. Note the following statements from some of the Church Fathers we quoted above.

 

Athanasius

 

At first read, the statement quoted above seems to dovetail with the Penal Subsitution view. But now read the context from which it was taken:

 

We have dealt as far as circumstances and our own understanding permit with the reason for His bodily manifestation. We have seen that to change the corruptible to incorruption was proper to none other than the Saviour Himself, Who in the beginning made all things out of nothing; that only the Image of the Father could re-create the likeness of the Image in men, that none save our Lord Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality, and that only the Word Who orders all things and is alone the Fathers' true and sole-begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worhship of idols. But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all,surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man's account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection.”

 

While there are some statements here that seem to blend with “substitution” language, his view is clearly the Recapitulation view, coupled with a Christus Victor theme as well!

 

Gregory of Nazianzus

 

There is a particularly famous passage in Gregory's writings rejecting a form of the Ransom from Satan view (highly unusual in this period, and interesting because his friend Gregory of Nyssa endorsed the form of the Ransom from Satan view being here rejected) which also equally rejects out of hand in passing any type of Penal Substitution: “We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a "ransom" belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim?” (Orations 45:22)


From elsewhere in his writings we find out that Gregory Nazianzus held a combination of Moral Exemplar, Recapitulation and Christus Victor. Gregory was also a strong advocate of Origen's theological views, and these included the view that God only ever gave punishments for the purposes of morally improving people (thus, Origen's view was that hell was not eternal and comprised sufferings inflicted to achieve moral reform). Obviously such a view has incompatibility problems with Penal Substitution.

 

Further, when it comes to the extent of the atonement, the early Church Fathers often speak in very general terms:

 

Clement of Alexandria (150-220): "Christ freely brings...salvation to the whole human race."

Eusebius (260-340): "It was needful that the Lamb of God should be offered for the other lambs whose nature He assumed, even for the whole human race."

Athanasius (293-373): "Christ the Son of God, having assumed a body like ours, because we were all exposed to death, gave Himself up to death for us all as a sacrifice to His Father."

Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386): "Do not wonder if the whole world was ransomed, for He was not a mere man, but the only-begotten Son of God."

Gregory of Nazianzen (324-389): "The sacrifice of Christ is an imperishable expiation of the whole world."

Basil (330-379): "But one thing was found that was equivalent to all men....the holy and precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He poured out for us all."

Ambrose (340-407): "Christ suffered for all, rose again for all. But if anyone does not believe in Christ, he deprives himself of that general benefit." He also said, "Christ came for the salvation of all, and undertook the redemption of all, inasmuch as He brought a remedy by which all might escape, although there are many who...are unwilling to be healed."

Augustine (354-430): Though Augustine is often cited as supporting limited atonement, there are also clear statements in Augustine's writings that are supportive of unlimited atonement. For example: "The Redeemer came and gave the price, shed His blood, and bought the world. Do you ask what He bought? See what He gave, and find what He bought. The blood of Christ is the price: what is of so great worth? What, but the whole world? What, but all nations?"
He also stated, "The blood of Christ was shed for the remission of all sins."

Cyril of Alexandria (376-444): "The death of one flesh is sufficient for the ransom of the whole human race, for it belonged to the Logos, begotten of God the Father."

Prosper ~(390-465): "As far as relates to the magnitude and virtue of the price, and to the one cause of the human race, the blood of Christ is the redemption of the whole world: but those who pass through this life without the faith of Christ, and the sacrament of regeneration, do not partake of the redemption." He also said, "The Savior is most rightly said to have been crucified for the redemption of the whole world." He then said, "Although the blood of Christ be the ransom of the whole world, yet they are excluded from its benefit, who, being delighted with their captivity, are unwilling to be redeemed by it."

 

According to Curt Daniel, it would be a monk named Gottschalk in the 9th century who would be the first to really teach what we call today, “Limited Atonement”, i.e. for the elect only.