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James Richards on the Extent of the Atonement

December 7, 2007

WHETHER Christ died for all men, or for a part only? is a question which has been much agitated, since the Reformation, though, according to Milner, the Church, from the earliest ages, rested in the opinion that Christ died for all. He does not except even Augustine, whom Prosper, his admirer and follower, and a strict Predestinarian, represents as maintaining that Christ gave himself a ransom for all [*Vol. II, page 445]; so far, at least, as to make provision for their salvation, by removing an impediment which would otherwise have proved fatal. The early Christians seemed to go upon the principle, that as salvation was indiscriminately tendered to all, it must havebeen provided for all, and thus made physically possible to all, where the Gospel comes; otherwise, the Deity would be represented as tendering that to his creatures which was in no sense within their reach, and which they could not possibly attain, whatever might be their dispositions.

Among those who leaned strongly to what are called the doctrines of grace, the maxim was adopted, “That Christ’s death was sufficient for all, and efficient for the elect” By which they seem to have intended, that while Christ’s death opened the door for the salvation of all, so far as an expiatory sacrifice was concerned, it was designed, and by the sovereign grace of God, made effectual, to the salvation of the elect. Their belief was, that Christ died intentionally to save those who were given to him in the covenant of redemption; but it does not appear that they supposed his death, considered merely as an expiatory offering, had any virtue in it, in relation to the elect, which it had not in relation to the rest of mankind. With respect to the ultimate design of this sacrifice, or the application which God would make of it, they doubtless supposed there was a difference; but in the sacrifice itself, or in its immediate end, the demonstration of God’s righteousness, they could see no difference. In this view, it was precisely the same thing, as it stood related to the elect and to the non-elect. The sacrificial service was one and the same, appointed by the same authority, and for the same immediate purpose, and performed by the same glorious Personage, at the very same time. It wanted nothing to constitute it a true and perfect sacrifice for sin, as it stood related to the whole world; it was but this true and perfect sacrifice, as it stood related to the elect. Any other view would have overturned its sufficiency for all mankind; for it was not the sufficiency of Christ to be a sacrifice, but his sufficiency as a sacrifice for the whole world, that they maintained. And in perfect accordance with this, they held that this most perfect sacrifice was efficient for the elect. But how was it efficient? Not by its having in it anything in regard to the elect which it had not in regard to others; for, intrinsically considered, it was the same to both, a true and perfect sacrifice for sin; but it was the purpose of God, in appointing it, that it should issue in the salvation of his chosen. This was the use he intended to make of it; nay, it was a part of the covenant of redemption, that if the Mediator performed the sacrificial service required, he should see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied. There was, therefore, an infallible connection between the death of Christ and the salvation of his people; and, of course, his death was efficient in procuring their salvation, it being the great medium through which the saving mercy of God flowed, and connected both by the purpose and promise of God with the bestowment of that mercy.

But even all this does not suppose that the death of Christ, considered simply as a sacrifice for sin, had anything in it peculiar to the elect, or that in and of itself it did anything for them which it did not do for the rest of mankind. The intention of God, as to its application, or the use he designed to make of it, is a thing perfectly distinct from the sacrifice itself, and so considered, as we believe, by the Church antecedent to the Reformation. In no other way, can we see, how their language is either intelligible or consistent. Whether the Reformers, as they are called, were exactly of one mind on this subject, is not quite so certain. But that Luther, Melancthon, Osiander, Brentius, OEcolampadius, Zwinglius and Bucer, held the doctrine of a general atonement, there is no reason to doubt. We might infer it from their Confession at Marpurge, signed A . D. 1529, as the expressions they employ on this subject are of a comprehensive character, and best agree with this sentiment. From their subsequent writings, however, it is manifest that these men, and the German Reformers generally, embraced the doctrine of a universal propitiation.

Thus, also, it was with their immediate successors, as the language of the Psalgrave Confession testifies. This Confession is entitled, “A Full Declaration of the Faith and Ceremonies professed in the dominions of the most illustrious and noble Prince Frederick V., Prince Elector Palatine.” It was translated by John Rolte, and published in London, A.D, 1614.

“Of the power and death of Christ, believe we,” say these German Christians, that the death of Christ (whilst he being not a bare man, but the Son of God, died,) is a full, all-sufficient payment, not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world; and that he by his death hath purchased not only forgiveness of sins, but also the new birth by the Holy Ghost, and lastly everlasting life.” But we believe therewith, that no man shall be made partaker of such a benefit, but only he that believeth on him. For the Scripture is plain where it saith, ” He that believeth not shall be damned.” It would be unnecessary to take up your time to show that the Lutheran divines, with scarcely a single exception, from that period to the present, have declared in favor of a universal atonement. It could scarcely be otherwise when we consider the great reverence in which they held their distinguished leader, who, on various occasions, expressed himself most decidedly upon this subject. To give but a single instance. While speaking of the blood of Christ, the inestimable price paid for our redemption, (in his commentary on 1 Peter, i. 18,) he remarks that no understanding or reason of man can comprehend it: so valuable was it, “that a single drop of this most innocent and precious blood was abundantly sufficient for the sins of the whole world. But it pleased the Father so largely to bestow his grace upon us, and to make such abundant provision for our salvation, that he willed that Christ his Son should pour forth all his blood, and at the same time to give this whole treasure to us.”

We know what the opinion of the Church of England was, by the language of her thirty-first article, which is in these words: “The offering of Christ once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone;” and with this agree the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, in the thirty-seventh question, which state that ” Christ bore, both in body and mind, the weight of the wrath of God, for the sins of all mankind,” to the end that by his sufferings as a propitiatory sacrifice, he might redeem our bodies and souls from eternal damnation, and acquire for us the grace of God, justification and eternal life.” We are well aware that many who have expounded this catechism, have adopted more limited views; and that towards the close of the sixteenth century, there was not a little zeal displayed, in some of the Reformed Churches, in Germany and Holland, and other parts of Europe, in defense of what was called particular redemption. Yet, in the Synod of Dort, there were many able advocates for the doctrine that Christ died for all, in the only sense in which it is contended for now, by that part of the Calvinistic school who plead for a general propitiation. The delegates from England, Hesse and Bremen, were explicit in their declaration to this effect. But all were not of the same mind; and, therefore, though they agreed upon a form of words, under which every man might take shelter, still it wears the appearance of a compromise, and is not sufficiently definite to satisfy the rigid inquirer.

James Richards, Lectures on Mental Philosophy and Theology, (New York: M.W. Dodd, 1846, 302-306.

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