For some, definite atonement is a ‘grim doctrine’ (Karl Barth), containing ‘horrible blasphemies’ (John Wesley); for others, it is a ‘textless doctrine’ (Broughton Knox), arrived at by logic rather than by a straightforward reading of the Scriptures (RT Kendall).
1. Definite atonement is a way of speaking about the intent and nature of Christ’s death.
The doctrine of definite atonement states that, in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past, and to apply the accomplishments of his sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit. In a nutshell: the death of Christ was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone; and not only was it intended to do that but it effectively achieved it as well. Jesus will be true to his name: he will save his people from their sins. In this regard, the adjective ‘definite’ does double duty: Christ’s death was definite in its intent—he died to save a particular people; and it was definite in its nature—his death really does atone for sin.
2. Definite atonement has courted controversy in the Christian church.
For some, definite atonement is a ‘grim doctrine’ (Karl Barth), containing ‘horrible blasphemies’ (John Wesley); for others, it is a ‘textless doctrine’ (Broughton Knox), arrived at by logic rather than by a straightforward reading of the Scriptures (RT Kendall). Pastorally, definite atonement is viewed as the Achilles’ heel of the Reformed faith, quenching a zeal for evangelism and inviting despair rather than assurance for the believer. With such a checkered history, one may well ask why we should even discuss the doctrine, never mind believe it. But just because a doctrine is controversial does not mean it should not be discussed, defended or embraced. Were that the case, we would not be Trinitarian Christians who hold to justification by faith alone!
3. The Bible itself asks the question of the intent and nature of Christ’s death.
As you read the Bible, you see that it speaks of Christ’s death being for many, for all, for the world; and yet it also speaks of Christ’s death being for me, for us (believers), for a people, for his church. So whether we like it or not, the Bible forces us to think about the intent and nature of Christ’s death, by presenting us with an apparent tension. It is our task to work out how to handle that tension as we interpret these different texts.
4. No one Bible verse answers the question of the intent and nature of Christ’s death.
Christian doctrine is not arrived at by providing a few proof texts here or there. If we treated doctrine like that, then we would have to affirm justification by works and not justification faith alone, as there is a text clearly stating the former (James 2:24) but no such text stating the latter. The same may be said about other important doctrines like the Trinity or the two natures of Christ in one person. These doctrines are arrived at by holding together a range of biblical texts, while at the same time synthesizing internally related doctrines that relate to the doctrine in view. In the case of definite atonement, this includes doctrines such as union with Christ and the Trinity. For example, when we consider the atonement in light of our union with Christ, then locating the particularity of the atonement at the moment when Christ died begins to make sense; or when we consider that the work of each person of the Trinity is always performed in harmony with the other persons of the Trinity, we realize that when Christ died there could not be ‘cross’ purposes (pun intended) in the Godhead.