*Zach Howard interacts with a chapter by Tom Schreiner in the book, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective. Zach is the director of admissions for Bethlehem College & Seminary and can be found on Twitter @zachahoward.
Charles Spurgeon once quoted George Whitefield as saying, “We are all born Arminians,” to which Spurgeon followed: “It is grace that turns us into Calvinists.” (Charles Spurgeon, Sermons, Vol. 2, p. 124). Perhaps Whitefield had in mind the doctrine of definite atonement, since it is one of the more difficult doctrines to grasps both intellectually and biblically. Definite Atonement—the doctrine that Jesus died for the elect and his death was effective for only them—troubles many Christians, especially in light of several biblical texts that seem to describe God’s desire for everyone to be saved. Paul writes: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people” (Titus 2:11) and “the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim 4:10). Peter says that God is patient, “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet 3:9). And the author of Hebrews proclaims that Jesus suffered death “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). At first reading, many of these texts appear to make definite atonement an impossible position to maintain in Scripture.
In the recent volume From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, Thomas R. Schreiner, NT professor at Southern Seminary, offers exegetical and theological explanations for each of these passages in his chapter on “’Problematic Texts’ for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles.” Schreiner argues that in each of these texts “God’s desire for people to be saved and his intention to save only the elect are compatible elements in biblical soteriology” (375). He demonstrates this by first showing that reading several of these texts in a way that supports definite atonement is “more persuasive exegetically and theologically.” Second, he argues that the texts which describe “God’s stance to all kinds of people (1 Tim. 2:4; 4:10) or to everyone (2 Pet. 3:9) do not in fact disprove the doctrine of definite atonement” (375). For Schreiner, the most important distinction is deciding whether “Paul refers to every person without exception or every person without distinction” (my emphasis, 378). With each text Schreiner carefully presents the reading offered by defenders of general/unlimited atonement and then offers his careful response.
Schreiner spends the most space (7 pages) addressing Paul’s statement in 1 Tim. 4:10: God “is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” What is admirable about Schreiner’s work is that he not only responds to those who offer a reading of this texts that supports general/unlimited atonement but he also demonstrates that two defenders of definite atonement (T. C. Skeat and Steven Baugh) present misleading interpretations of the text as well. Schreiner himself argues that Paul in 1 Tim. 4:10 describes “God’s salvific stance” to “all kinds of people,” meaning all without distinction of people group or ethnicity. The addition of the phrase “especially those who believe” describes how the possibility of the living God being the Savior for all kinds of people “becomes a reality for those who believe” (emphasis original, 386). Paul is not saying that Christ died to make everyone redeemable and then his blood is only applied to the elect. That would split atonement, making Christ blood ineffective for many and effective only for some. “The issue in 1 Timothy 4:10 is not two levels to the atonement,” Schreiner argues, “but rather the twin truths that God (the Father) is the available Savior for all kinds of people—God’s salvific stance—while at the same time being the actual Savior for only those who believe (in Christ)” (emphasis original, 386).
The load-bearing wall of Schreiner’s argument (and of many other authors in this volume) is the distinction between “all without exception” and “all without distinction.” Therefore it merits careful consideration. There seem to be two possible problems. First, why is “all kinds of people” a legitimate gloss for Paul or Peter’s statements about “all people” or “all men”? Is Schreiner importing this gloss because of theological bias? Schreiner defends this gloss by quoting an advocate for unlimited atonement, I. Howard Marshall, saying “The pastor [Paul] is emphasizing that salvation is for everybody, both Jew and Gentile.” Marshall gets it exactly right. Paul emphasizes that Jesus did not just die for Jews but for all kinds of people, both Jew and Gentile. Given Paul’s specific mission to the Gentiles, it makes complete sense that Paul would mean that Jesus died for all kinds of people without distinction of ethnicity. The second potential problem is that Paul could be construed to say that Jesus died for all people of every kind not some people of every kind. In other words, even if we accept the gloss that Jesus died for all kinds of people, it does not seem to rule out the possibility of meaning of unlimited atonement. In response, Schreiner points to J. Alec Motyer’s argument that “many” in Isaiah 53:11-12 “encompasses an undefined yet numerous group of people” and yet “is still necessarily limited” to those from whom redemption is accomplished and applied (379). Thus, Isaiah teaches us that the Messiah came to save many not all, making the statement Jesus died for all people of every kind—or all without exception—incompatible with the biblical witness. Jesus accomplished redemption for this elected, who are from all people without distinction.
John Piper explained in a chapel message to Bethlehem College & Seminary that wrestling with biblical texts that do not seem to agree offers great fruit for the exegete who believes that Scripture is infallible and profitable for all of life. I think Schreiner’s work to reconcile the problematic texts in the pastoral and general epistles with the clear teaching of definite atonement from the rest of Scripture is exactly what Piper was recommending. This sort of careful, faithful work in the text is what pastors and churches need to see and do. Thus, Schreiner’s chapter offers help to the church. First, it provides a model for reconciling seemingly contradictory texts in a biblically faithful and exegetically sound manner. Second, it upholds the glory of God by not diminishing Christ’s sacrifice to mere potentiality. The apex of God’s grace is demonstrated at the cross. And if we defend that what Christ’s accomplished on the cross is only potentially effective it becomes proportionately less glorious. Thus, for Christ’s cross-work to be maximally glorious to God it must be entirely and completely effective in its accomplishment for sinners and application to sinners.