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Thomas Chalmers on Particular Redemption and the Well-meant Gospel Offer

July 10, 2008

The following lecture from Chalmers is certainly provocative. I suspect I may lose a few readers for posting this. In the hope of that not happening I offer these few remarks.

Firstly, Chalmers was one of the leaders of the emerging Free Church of Scotland in the 1840s, he is no one who should be rejected off-hand.

Secondly, regarding the doctrine of an “arithmetical view of the atonement” our modern responses to this must be measured. As far as I know, there are no academic discussions (theses, dissertations, etc) which document the rise and progress of this version of limited atonement. I can speculate that its original roots are in Owen, that it was perverted and morphed in the writings of Crisp and Gill. We do know that it was an issue as documented by Owen Thomas1 in Wales in the 18th century. We know that men in the 19th century such as W.J. Styles picked up and expanded upon this idea.2 It is present in Dagg, in his Manual of Theology. What we don’t know exactly is, against whom was Chalmers reacting. Who, of his opponents, of the “orthodox,” does he wish to denounce on this point? Nor do we know why or how some of the “orthodox” had come to adopt this position. If a reader can shed light on this, you are more than welcome. And so against this extremist view of limited atonement, the modern reader should read Chalmers with empathy. We can speculate that perhaps some of these “orthodox” proponents were anti-Marrow theologians, some of whom were rather extreme in their denunciations of the Marrow theology. I do not think, however, it is just a case that he misunderstood the orthodox on this point.

Thirdly, while I am sure reading Chalmers will generate some negative emotion from some readers, I would ask that historians and sensitive readers seek to get beyond emotional responses and look to penetrate the internal logic Chalmers is setting out. In the comments sections I am willing to attempt an explanation, even defend if I can, his assertions and conclusions. There are unstated assumptions within his thinking that are not made explicit in the following lecture. A discussion in the comments may be able to bring these out for consideration.

Fourthly, Chalmers’ citation of Douglas does show us one again that there was some push-back against the emphasis by some limited atonement advocates to cast the expiation along concrete pecuniary lines of thought. This does seem to be an interesting historical thread that is picked up time and time again, wherein a subtle conversion of a penal atonement into a pecuniary satisfaction was either adopted or rejected.

Fifthly, regarding my formatting: I have retained all the original spelling and basic formatting. I have not included any footnote references. I have indented Chalmer’s two extended quotations towards the end. Any typographical errors are probably mine, and corrections welcome.

Chalmers:

BOOK IV. CHAP. VI.
PARTICULAR REDEMPTION.

THE PRAYER.
WE rejoice, God, in the fulness of that revelation which Thou hast given to the world. May all the wealth and all the wisdom of it be ours. Save us, while engaged in the study of it, from our own imaginations. Give us to sit, with the docility of children, to the lessons and the informations which are there laid before us; and make us to feel that, when God speaks, it is the part of man to listen, and to believe, and to obey. Through Thy word may we become wise to salvation through Thy word may we become perfect, and thoroughly furnished to all good works.

This seems the proper place for the introduction of a question, whereof it is greatly to be lamented that the necessity should have occurred for its ever being raised at all, as a topic of speculation. The question relates to the amount or value of the sufferings of Christ. It proceeds on an arithmetical view of the ransom which He paid for sin, and hinges on the consideration whether it was equivalent, looking at it in the character of a price, or a purchase-money whether it was equivalent to the salvation of all men, or only to the salvation of that limited number who pass under the denomination of the elect. I have ever felt this to be a distasteful contemplation, and my repugnance, I feel no doubt, has been greatly aggravated by my fears of the danger which might ensue to practical Christianity, from the injudicious applications that might be made of it, especially in the work of the pulpit, and when urging hearers to accept of the offered reconciliation of the gospel. It is always to be dreaded, and if possible shunned, when a transcendental question, relating to the transactions of the upper sanctuary, or to the part which God has in our salvation, should be so treated, or take such a direction as to cast obscuration over, or at all threaten to embarrass, the part which man has in it. There may not merely be an intruding into things unseen, when thus scrutinizing into the agreement or terms of the bargain, as it were, between the offended Lawgiver and the Mediator, who had undertaken to render satisfaction for the outrage inflicted on the authority of His government; but the argument might be so conducted as to mislead and perplex the heralds of salvation in the execution of their plainly bidden task–which is to go and “command all men everywhere to repent”–to “go and preach the gospel to every creature.”

It is not that I am prepared to condemn the admission of this subject as an article into the Confessions of Reformed Christendom. You have heard my repeated explanations of the origin of Confessions, and their gradual extension to the magnitude which they have now attained. Had it not been for the perversions of heresy, they would never have been called for; and, in the present instance, had it not been for the dogma of those who contended for the final salvation of all men, we might never have heard of any counter-dogma, in the precise form and designation of particular redemption. It is not that by the article of a confession, we superinduce anything new upon the Bible, or make any addition to the things which are contained in this book. Every article has, or ought to have, a scriptural basis, and is in fact a proposition constructed on the sayings of Scripture; or, more identical still, it is but the translation of these sayings from one language to another from the language, if you will, of the temple to that of the academy the one used for the instruction of worshippers and practical disciples; the other used for the correction of scholastic or sophistical gainsayers. The great evil to be apprehended is that which might arise from the confounding of these two offices. We have no quarrel with the truth of the article, and indeed look upon it as the legitimate consequence of certain other doctrines regarded systematically and comprehensively in their bearings on each other, and to which doctrines both human philosophy and the Word of God lend their concurrent attestation. If by particular redemption it be meant that Christ so died for men, as that the salvation obtained by His death only took effect on a particular number, this we cannot question; but if it be meant by particular redemption that the salvation may not be made the subject of a universal proclamation, may not be tendered honestly, while urgently tendered, to all men, or severally and individually to each of them, this we promptly and indignantly deny, resenting it as we would any mutilation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is because these two propositions are so apt to be confounded that we do feel a sort of sensitive antipathy, the dread of a great practical evil, on the mention of either of them. And then what daring as well as distasteful language is often employed by the defenders of the orthodox proposition. Even when I consent to their doctrine, I abominate some of their arguments. I cannot bear this great and solemn transaction, the decease that was accomplished in Jerusalem, to be spoken of in the terms of a mercantile negotiation between the Father and the Son. I think they transgress the limits of a becoming and reverential silence when they as sign a precise arithmetical value to the blood that was shed, and then tell us that this must only form a commensurate price, or a commensurate expiation, for the guilt of those who were saved actually, else there must have been a superfluous expense of suffering–the injustice, as it were, of laying more upon Christ than He obtained a return for as the fruit of the travail of His soul. This whole nomenclature of the market and the counting-house I utterly dislike; and my repugnance thereto is not the less violent, that it bears the character of a presumptuous and inter-meddling speculation. I should feel it a most unwarrantable inroad on a region too high for us did we attempt to reason on the matters contained in the book of life. And really, if I may say it without irreverence, judging from the style of certain theologians on this topic, they seem to me as if they could scarce have spoken otherwise though they had access to a ledger-book kept in the upper sanctuary, and where the worth of the ransom, or amount of the redemption-money, and number of the redeemed, had been set off as equivalents against each other. It is monstrously revolting to my ears, when I hear certain statements, almost in the form of calculation, respecting the blood of the atonement, as if it were computable and divisible like purchase-money, as the price paid and told out, under the old economy, in shekels, for the redemption of the souls of the children of Israel. The simple majesty of the truth as propounded in Scripture has often undergone sad desecration at the hands, I will not say of merely unphilosophical, but of most unsavoury and untasteful theologians, whose speculations on this subject are often absolutely hideous. Enough for us to learn the terms of the New Covenant viewed as a covenant between God and man. We step beyond our province when we presume to in quire into the terms or overlook the accounts of this great transaction, viewed in the light of a covenant between the Father and the Son.

But it is not merely because of the offence done by it to the true Christian philosophy that we deprecate many of the views which have been given, and many of the expressions which have been uttered by theologians in their treatment of this question. A still more serious calamity is the practical disturbance which it has given to the work of the pulpit, as well as the initial perplexities which it has thrown across the path of the inquirer at the outset of his religious earnestness. I have heard my deceased friend, Robert Hall, say of the great majority of evangelical preachers in England, that they were so encumbered with the dogmata of their creed, as positively not to know in what terms so to lay down the gospel as that a plain man should know how to take it up. And this dogma of particular redemption, ill understood, forms the main cause of their embarrassment. If Christ died not for all, how I can make a tender of His salvation to all? If He died only for the elect, in what terms can I declare the readiness of God to take into acceptance the multitude before me? How can I represent Him as waiting to be gracious, if, in the exercise of a discriminating grace, He has purposes of mercy only for certain some who are unknown to me, while He has no such purpose for certain others, who are alike unknown to me? In these circumstances, it would appear as if I could neither single out those to whom I might deliver the overtures of reconciliation, nor am I free to cast these overtures abroad in the hearing of all the people. It is thus that clergy men, manacled and wire-bound in the fetters of their wretched orthodoxy, feel themselves impeded and restrained in the exercise of their functions as the heralds of mercy to a guilty world. They know not to whom they should deliver the message, or from whom they should withhold it, and are uncertain of the very first footstep they should take in prosecution of the work which lias been given them to do. They cannot properly limit their proposals to the elect, for they do not know them; and, after all, this is not the proposal wherewith they have been charged, which is, to preach the gospel to every creature under heaven, to call on all men everywhere to repent and turn unto God, and do works meet for repentance.

Now this is a sore evil; and is fitted, if anything, to spoil the gospel, or rather the declaration of the gospel, of all its efficacy. Yet to make this declaration, and to make it freely or without exception to all, is one of the plainest injunctions in the New Testament. What then ought to be the inference, but that this doctrine of particular redemption is either not a doctrine at all, or is grievously misunderstood if in virtue thereof, a minister feels himself restrained from making the open proclamation of its offered forgiveness to all within his reach, or from beseeching every man to enter through Jesus Christ into peace and fellowship with the Lawgiver whom he had offended.

Now, which term of this alternative do we take–whether that Particular Redemption is not a doctrine, or that it is grievously misunderstood? We take the latter term. It is a doctrine, but a doctrine sadly misunderstood and misapplied. We shall endeavour to demonstrate the former; that is, exhibit the proof for the doctrine through the medium of the text-book, and by our commentary on its various lessons. We shall endeavour to evince the latter; that is, expose, and if possible rectify, the abuse which has been made of the doctrine, in our Supplementary Lectures. And this, by the way, is perhaps the most palpable exemplification which occurs of the respective departments in our course–when the main and direct lesson is often given in our colloquial treatment of the class-book, and the illustrations or corollaries of the lesson are as often given in original preparations of our own. I wish by this remark to im press on you the great importance of your own private studies on the successive chapters of Dr. Hill, as well as to assure you that I lay fully as great a stress on the frequent and lengthened notes which I append to various of its passages, as on the more elaborate compositions of my own, by which the three first days of our week are occupied. There will be a great failure in the object of your attendance here, there will be the foregoing of a principal benefit, if you pass over carelessly or superficially the work of its two last days–whether by a laxer attention to what is then delivered from the Chair, or by the remissness of your own preparatory readings at home.

But while thus stating what I hold in the general to be the relative importance of the two great co-ordinate branches of our course, let me at the same time state, that in regard to the particular doctrine before us, as well as to the rest in order I mean the doctrine of Predestination, I think it of fully greater necessity to guard against their abuses than even to establish their truth. When viewed in relation to God, these doctrines, if prosecuted beyond a certain limit, become transcendental mysteries, and speedily pass into the description of matters too high for us. When viewed in relation to man, they have their uses no doubt, for who can question that all Scripture is profitable–but a deadly mischief has often arisen from the perversions which have been made of them. To ward off the mischief which has arisen from these doctrines, I hold to be a service of greater practical value than even to come forth with their evidences and their claims to be admitted into the theological system as articles of our creed. There is at the same time one difference in our treatment of these two dogmata. For the proofs of the first, Particular Redemption, we refer you chiefly to the text-book, while we reserve to ourselves the exposure, and I hope rectification, of the practical errors which have sprung from it. In our treatment of the second, again, or of Predestination, we shall bestow more of direct labour on it in our own person, both on the establishment of it as a theory, and when viewing it in connexion with the interests of practical religion.

But returning now to our topic of Particular Redemption, let us proceed on the altogether sound and safe principle of Bishop Butler, that it is our true wisdom to attend more to the part which man has in any question, than to speculate on the part which God has in it. In reference to God, we cannot refuse in the face both of Scripture and reason, that known to Him are all things from the beginning; nay, further, as we shall afterwards demonstrate, that by Him all things are not only foreseen but determined–and more especially the final number of those who shall be saved. These are undoubted premises, yet I would for bear to ground thereupon the arithmetic of our Particular Redemptionists. The truth is, that save for the purpose of framing a counter-proposition to meet some heresy capable of being turned to a practically mischievous application, I should feel disinclined for any further prosecution of the question, at least on this side of it. I would abstain from any numerical consideration of the value of Christ’s sufferings, nor entertain the difficulty whether they were equivalent for the salvation of all, or only of the elect. This is a matter which belongs rather to the transaction between the Surety and the Lawgiver–a supernal or transcendental theme, therefore, and which, as lying in that direction, it is both our philosophy and our piety not to intrude into. It is our part to look in the other direction, to view it as a question between God and man, or rather as a question between God and each man individually: and it is thus, that in every case of real practical earnestness, the question is generally entertained. We read that Christ died for the world; but did He die for me in particular? Is the foundation laid in Zion by His atoning death, a foundation broad enough for me to rest upon? Are the overtures of reconciliation that have come from heaven such as I can entertain in the form of overtures addressed to myself? How can I so take them up, after being told that Christ died only for some; and it is nowhere said that I am included in the happy number? The perplexity felt by a minister in the pulpit as to the terms in which he should propose the message of reconciliation, is the very perplexity felt by the individual hearer as to the terms in which he should receive it. It is thus that the trumpet has been made to blow uncertainly; and that many a spirit, mystified and bewildered among the difficulties of a theme too high for it, has been unable to grope its way to a place of enlargement and safety.

We see no other method of resolving the perplexity than just by disentangling the celestial from the terrestrial of this whole speculation, and, foregoing all curiosity about the part which God has in it, to look singly and intently on the part which man has in it. If salvation be not destined for all, of this at least we may be very sure, that salvation is proposed to all. If Christ did not so far die for me, as that He is yet mine in possession, He at least so far died for me, as that He is mine in offer. This is truly the matter on hand; this is the word nigh unto us. I cannot run the speculation upward to the heights of the past eternity, nor onward to the depths of the future ever lasting. But with neither have I at present or practically to do. The thing immediately before me the only thing I am called at this moment to entertain–is the invitation of the gospel, which invitation, I, as minister, have the full warrant to throw abroad without limitation or reserve among all and every of an assembled congregation; and they, as hearers, have each individually for himself as full a warrant to close with and confidently to appropriate as an invitation to him in particular. He may not be able to reconcile the absolute with the relative in this question–the whole and just perspective thereof as seen from the point of view in heaven, with the partial, though, as far as it goes, the equally just perspective thereof, as seen from the point of view on earth–the wide and general contemplation taken of it by God above, who looks from beginning to end, from one extreme to the other of the scheme universal, with the lower and limited contemplation taken of it by man below, who may cast a far and wildering look on both sides of him, yet can see no further into the scheme than to the brief evolution of it in his own little day–the ephemeral and intermediate passage where upon his own history is cast, and wherewith he himself is closely and immediately implicated. And it were his wisdom to be satisfied with thus seeing–it were truly his wisdom to recall himself from the distant to the near–from gazing on the infinite, behind and before him, to the besetting realities of his present condition–to the urgency and plain meaning of present calls. His business is not with the counsels which were fixed upon before the world, nor yet with the consummations which take place after it; his business is not even with the matter as it respects the species, but with the matter as it respects himself. He may not be able to adjust all the parts of the complete and comprehensive whole; but enough if he is able to discern his own part in it, and rightly to proceed thereupon. Let all the perplexities of the general speculation be what they may, they affect not what to himself should be the weightiest and yet the most applicable of all truths–that God is beseeching him to be reconciled–that in reference to him, God is waiting to be gracious–that He is now plying him with the offers and entreaties of the gospel, saying, “Come now, let us reason together;” and, “Turn thee, turn thee, for why shouldst thou die?” This is the topic for the minister to preach, and for the people to listen to; this is the revealed thing which belongs to them and to their children; this is the right demonstration to make from the pulpit, extricated and set free from the demonstrations of an ambitious philosophy. It is the sounder and better philosophy which keeps a man within his own sphere, and leads him to take the part which the great Artificer and Governor of all has specially assigned to him. His business is to look to himself: his concern is not with the scheme universal, or that part of it which is out of sight in heaven, but with that part of it which, brought nigh to him on earth, is made to bear on the fears and the feelings of his own heart, or on the urgent interests of his own little home–the question, so often exemplified at the first promulgation of the good tidings, What shall I do, that I and those of my household might be saved? The materials, most ample and satisfying materials, for the solution of this question, are within the reach of every man who himself is within reach of the Bible. He needs only attend to its plain lessons, and forego his own adventurous and most unfruitful speculations. Instead of roaming over the wide expanse in pursuit of the distant and the indeterminate, he has only to busy himself with the distinct and definite matters which are brought to his own door. The some who are ordained to eternal life–the sheep out of all the species, for whom Christ died–the elect for whom the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world; it is his part to recall himself from the perplexity of his spirit upon these, and turn him to the sayings which serve for the guidance of his own footsteps: “Repent and be converted, every one of you.” Let whosoever believe, and he shall not perish. God is not willing that any should go into perdition; He beseeches every man; He willeth all to repent; He willeth all to come to the knowledge of the truth, and be saved.

The things of the spiritual are often illustrated by correspondent things of the natural or the material economy. Did we look only to our world as a planet, as the member of a great and gorgeous universe, and more especially to the vast rapidity of its movement in space, we might well tremble for the safety of its tiny inhabitants, and wonder how it is that our earth can take a part in these larger evolutions of the firmament, and yet the people who live in it can walk without disturbance as on a stable platform, and keep their footing upon its surface. We know what the physical laws are which reconcile this seeming incongruity, and in virtue of which it is that man, though placed and borne along in the vortex of immensity, can prosecute his homely and familiar goings with as great security as if all were at rest. And even though we had not known, and our philosophy been inadequate for the explanation, the same would have been our experience, and the same wondrous harmony between the absolute and the relative would still have been realized. Now, what is true of the cycles in the heavens, is alike true of the cycles of eternity. There is a transcendental theology which labours to sever them, and to adjust all seeming discrepancies between the incumbent part which belongs to man upon the one hand, and on the other the sublime mysteries of all the foreknowledge and all the pre-ordination on high. Whether it may succeed or it may fail in this daring enterprise, let us never forget that there is a patent and practicable way for the humblest of Zion’s way farers, who, if they but simply betake themselves to the gospel’s bidden walk, will at length make good their entrance on that region of immortal light and blessedness, where they shall know even as they are known.

* * * * * * * *

I would again revert to this topic with the view of making you clearly understand the distinction between one kind of universality and another the universality of redemption effect, and its universality in point of proposition. And again, there is a distinction in regard to the first of these–the universality in point of effect, which I beg you will keep in mind. Most of the Arminians agree with all the Calvinists in not allowing the universality in point of actual effect, but they do not agree with the Calvinists in affirming any want of such universality in point of necessary effect. There is an actual limitation, they admit, upon the universality, but no necessary limitation. There stands, they contend, nothing like a fatality in the way of its being universal. In short, they contend that there is no predestination, no antecedent decree upon the subject. They, generally speaking, admit that all historically, or in point of fact, will not be saved; and that, so far from there being an actual universality, the number really and indeed saved will fall greatly short of the whole family of mankind; but then they affirm, that what this number shall be is not a matter of predetermination, but a matter of contingency–that it is not determined beforehand by God, but depends on the course that shall be taken by the self-determining power of man, in the exercise of that liberty which, in the meta physical sense of the term, they most zealously assert for him. On this particular point the Arminians and the Calvinists are at issue; and there are certain ultra-Calvinists, who understand the limitation of the decree, or the limitation caused by the predestination of God, in such a way as not only to deny the universality of redemption, in the first general sense of the phrase, but to deny it in the second general sense also that is, they not only deny, in toto, the universality of the Christian redemption in point of effect, but they even deny it in point of proposition. In virtue of their notions on the subject of election, they not only believe in the absolute impossibility of the gospel salvation being ever realized by all, but they even feel restrained from proposing it to all. In laying the very first overtures of Christianity before the people, there is often mingled–I think most injudiciously and unwarrantably mingled a most perplexing reference on their part to the doctrine of election, and often a positive discouragement, amounting in some instances to positive prohibition on the great bulk of the people from entertaining the subject at all, saying, that for aught they know, they may have no part whatever in the matter. I must do my utmost to clear the whole matter of this disturbing and complicating influence; and meanwhile I satisfy myself with announcing, that I know nothing of more vital importance to the efficacy of your preaching, than your proceeding, as I believe you fully warranted by Scripture, on the free and boundless universality of the gospel salvation in point of proposition, and that you fall short of your commission as the heralds of God’s mercy to the children of men, if you ply riot, with the assurances and the honest assertions of His good will, one and all of the human family.

Before terminating this subject, I should like particularly to make you understand in what respect I agree with the statement of Dr. Whitby, and, in fact, with all that is ascribed in the text book to universal redemptionists, in the most important, that is, in the practical sense, of these affirmations, and how, consistently with this, I hold by the Calvinistic doctrine of an absolute predestination. I should hold it a most grievous effect of that doctrine on your conduct of the business of the pulpit, if you did not address all men, as the subjects of the proposed pardon and justification–if you did not assure them of a reconciliation on their turning to God, and having faith in the Lord Jesus Christ–if you did not, for this purpose, urge them so to turn, and expound to them, affectionately as well as fully, the truth as it is in Jesus–if you did not tell them, just as these universal redemptionists do, that their salvation depends on their faith. The remedy, in fact, is much more extensive in proposition than it is in effect. It may be held out, and honestly held out, in proposition, to all, while at the same time, and effectively, it is limited to those who repent and believe, while most assuredly all who do so repent and believe shall be saved. And it is also quite true, that though the offer of redemption were rejected by all, there is a sense in which that redemption might still be called universal. The offer could not have been given without it; and now that Christ hath died, the offer might be made to one and all of the species. The qualification which I want you to lay on certain passages in the text-book, where the tenets and views of the universal redemptionists are explained, is not so to understand it as if there were not Calvinists who did not subscribe, and that most cordially, to much that is there ascribed to them, and I fear so ascribed to them as to give you the impression that the Calvinists stand opposed to the whole of it. You will act the part of unfaithful representatives of the King of heaven; you will have put a sore misrepresentation on the terms of that embassy wherewith He has intrusted you, if you do not make open proclamation of the gospel as a universal offer, and do not make use of this moving argument with one and all of your hearers–that in relation not to some one, but to every one, God is waiting to be gracious.

Those of you who are acquainted with Butler’s Analogy know the principle on which he reconciles with the truth of Christianity those phenomena of unequal distribution which have perplexed the views of so many of our speculatists. He attempts no absolute reconciliation, but he makes it conclusively out, that if such inequality is to be held a sufficient reason for dissociating a God from Christianity, then experience and observation furnish like phenomena, which afford us sufficient reason for dissociating a God from nature. This, in fact, is the great principle of his incomparable work, and it is a principle which both Arminians and Calvinists stand equally in need of; neither can promise any positive solution of the difficulty; but it is a difficulty which, if permitted, on its own strength only, to set aside our peculiar speculations, should in all consistency be admitted as a valid objection to any system of religion whatever, and so would land us in a state of Atheism. Both Arminians and Calvinists come at length to an insolvable something, which lies beyond the limit of our comprehension, and it will be found that that something relates to the vindication of the character and ways of God. We do riot understand how it is that the creatures of God should be endowed with such an exceeding variety of privileges and gifts, insomuch that some are far more liberally dealt with than others. We only know that so it is, and yet retain our belief in the existence and perfect character of God notwithstanding. When, instead of comparing different species of creatures, we limit our view to one species–to our own–we know not why it is that some men should have been so gifted with natural powers and advantages, while others have been doomed to extreme poverty, and, in respect of mental endowment, are born and live in a state of idiotism; still, we know that so it is, and yet, if not Atheists, persist in believing a God, and generally, too, a God whose ways, did we but know all, would be found to admit of full justification. And we do not know wherefore it is that some countries have been visited with the light of the gospel, while others are left to barbarity and paganism; but still the irresistible fact is obtruded upon us, and yet Arminians notwithstanding retain their confidence in God as a Being who, in the great day of the manifestation of His counsels, will stand forth to the assembled universe as being indeed its righteous and merciful Governor. Finally, we do not know the reason, which is as yet inscrutable, why of two individuals, living in the same country, to all appearance equally gifted with the powers of natural discernment, and sitting under the very same ministration of the truths of Christianity, the one should be taken and the other left–the one should have his convictions overpowered, and his whole nature brought under the transforming and saving influences of the gospel of Christ, while the other persists in the deep lethargy and unconcern of nature. The Calvinist, who believes that it is the grace of God which makes the difference, cannot tell why it is that there should be any such difference at all; but still, though he know not why it is, he is forced to believe that so it is; and with as much reason, we contend, as in any of the former instances, does he hold that, when this inscrutable thing has had the light of the coming manifestation thrown over it, will it be found of all the ways of God that they are righteous and true. On each and all of the systems we are at length landed in an impracticable difficulty; but it is a difficulty which attaches to the procedure of the Divinity, and not a difficulty, you will observe, which attaches to the part that we are called upon to act for the salvation of our own souls; and the wisdom which I chiefly want to impress upon you, in the management of this whole speculation, is that which distinguishes between the things we do know and that will be found to relate to our own conduct, and the things we do not know and that will be found to relate to the high and hidden counsels of the Divinity.

Were I commissioned by an earthly monarch with the overtures of reconciliation to the inhabitants of a province that had risen up in arms against him, and were I authorized by the terms of that commission to hold forth the overtures of pardon, and not of pardon only, but of pardon and preferment to all who should cast away from them the weapons of their rebellion, the line of my duty at least is quite plain. I have but to urge their acceptance of the offered terms. I have to assure them of the perfect honesty of my master, and the perfect safety wherewith they might place their reliance on him. I may be conceived to have the advantage of being able to appeal to bygone instances in which their brothers in rebellion had been persuaded by my entreaties to give in, and how they now lived in perfect security, and had been raised to happiness and honour on their compliance with the gracious proposal. With this invitation I would keep plying all who still held out and were obstinate; and however much I may be at a loss to account for the difference between those who consented to my proposals and those who resisted them, still it would be quite clear that the only way in which I could do a real practical service to those people would be to persevere in that earnest solicitation by which alone I had ever succeeded in gaining the surrender of any, and on which surrender they had never in a single instance failed to obtain the full possession of those blessings which I was authorized to hold out as the sure effect of their compliance.

I might feel myself greatly baffled and at a loss did I attempt to philosophize in a speculative way on the question, How comes it, after all, that two sets of human beings should be so differently constituted as that the first, after perhaps a good deal of resistance, should at length give way under the power of my earnest and repeated assurances, while the second stand their resolute ground, and at length die hard under all the pathos and urgency I can bring to bear upon them? This might present a dark, perhaps an unresolvable subject to my understanding; and yet the path of my practical duty might remain perfectly dear and obvious notwithstanding, which is just to persevere in widely circulating and affectionately urging the overtures wherewith I had been intrusted, seeing that it is in the prosecution of this business only that the number of the pardoned is increased, and the number of the impenitent lessened, whether I can comprehend or not the theoretical question which I have started about the difference between them.

It would add greatly to my wonder and perplexity, too, if in the course of my inquiries into the cause of this difference I had learned that the very king whose ambassador I was, possessed a before unheard of power to work a receptive disposition in certain- of these rebellious subjects, while he left others to the native obstinacy of their own rigid and uncomplying tempers, and that in point of fact it was he who gave this disposition to those who did accept of my published overtures, while he withheld it from others. His policy–wherewith, however, I had nothing to do–would present itself to my notice as a profound mystery; yet my practice, wherewith I had everything to do, would remain on precisely the same footing as before. It would still be as much my duty as ever to knock at the door of every heart, seeing that it was only by my thus knocking that the door of any heart was opened to my terms of reconciliation. It matters not on what cause, known or unknown, the difference depended between those that withstood my application and those that gave way to it. It affects not the line of my incumbent duty as the herald of those overtures in the least, though I should come to know that it depended on the will and power of him from whom I had received the charge of them. It might throw a deeper shade over his counsels, and make them all more incomprehensible than ever. The duty of plying men with these overtures would still remain. After this new discovery of the principle on which the success depended, the measure of the success might still remain the same, and the encouragement founded on the experience of this also remain. In short, there may be much in this doctrine to aggravate my speculative difficulties; but the way of duty, and the motive to the performance of it, are just what they used to be.

But a further information may be presented on this subject. I may be made to know that this same sovereign gave a disposition to receive his overtures on a proper request being sent to him to that effect, whether from myself, the herald of his merciful proclamation, or from those who were the objects of it. There would be nothing in this to alleviate the mysteriousness of the whole procedure, perhaps rather to enhance it; but still the part I had to perform in it would be perfectly clear and obvious. I might not understand how to reconcile the merciful character and universal terms of his proclamation, with the partial exercise of his power in giving a disposition to receive it only to some and not to others of his rebellious subjects. This may be a great deep altogether beyond the reach of my soundings; yet, with all the difficulty in theorizing on his conduct, there needs not rest the shadow of a doubt on what the incumbent footsteps are of my own conduct, which would just be to ply the people among whom I had been sent with the most importunate entreaties to return to the sovereign who sitteth with open arms to receive them, and to ply my sovereign who had sent me with my importunate requests that he would speed the success of my message among a people made willing by him in the day of his power. And if my uniform, nay unexcepted, experience should be, that never did a single creature return in the terms of the amnesty whereof I was the bearer, but, in spite of his bitter provocations, he had all its promises and all its immunities made out to him; and did I also experience that never did the request for a willing heart, if only preferred without any mixture of dishonesty or any misgiving of distrust, that never was such a request sent without the plenteous effusion of a right and a relenting spirit on him who was the object of it–surely all that is palpable in these transactions might well bespeak him to be a merciful, while they are only those recondite things wherewith my conduct and my practice have nothing to do, which bespeak him to be a mysterious sovereign.

Now it is just so with the overtures of the gospel. We have a warrant from the King of heaven for placing them at the door and plying with them the heart and conscience of every individual. We have a further warrant to pray for a blessing on our endeavours; and He tells us that a believing prayer for this will be effectual, descending so far, in fact, as to ask that we should put Him to the proof: Only prove me, and see whether I will not pour out a blessing upon you. It is a mysterious thing that all hearts should not be overpowered by the touching and tender demonstrations of the upper sanctuary. It is a still more mysterious thing that He who constructed overtures which are addressed to all, should only give the susceptibility of being impressed by them to some. It alleviates not, perhaps it enhances, the mysteriousness, that He should profess a readiness to give a clean heart and a right spirit to those who ask them–for these I must be inquired after. Still it is but a mysteriousness resting on His counsels, for all is noon-day light and simplicity in regard to our conduct, whether it be the conduct of Christian ministers or of Christian individuals. None who accept of these gospel overtures will be disappointed; and none who pray for the power of accepting them, if they do it honestly and in good faith, will have that power withheld from them. The salvation of the gospel is free to all who will, and the overtures of it may be addressed with perfect sincerity to one and all of the human family.

I have not yet broken ground on the main question, but I want to possess you at the very outset with what the conclusion is which I want to establish–Predestinarian though I be, it is not so much the dogma of Predestination as the innocence of the dogma that I want to establish. I further hope to vindicate in some degree its usefulness; but my main object is to satisfy you that it interferes not with the universality of gospel calls and gospel invitations.

On entering upon this topic, I cannot but express my regret that the question between universal and particular redemption should ever have been stirred. I do not think that the interests of truth or the maintenance of essential orthodoxy required it. The controversy, I think, has assumed an unfortunate shape when stated in the terms, whether Christ died for all men, or only for those who shall finally be saved. I regret that these two terms should have been put together in this alternative method, as if the affirmation of the one necessarily involved in it the denial of the other. There is a sense in which Christ died for all men–by His death He brought in an everlasting righteousness, which, in the ipsissima verba of Scripture, is unto all and upon all who believe; and our business is to urge this gospel on the acceptance of one and all. This is true; and yet it is just as true that none but they who believe shall finally be saved. This is all I should feel inclined to state on the head of this particular controversy; and then, were there a disposition to stir the question in another shape, and to inquire whence the difference in point of phenomenon–of mental phenomenon–between those who believe and those who believed not, might not this difference be ascribed to the power and pre-ordination of Him who hath the hearts of all men in His hand? I would enter on this special track of investigation, and proceed in it as far as the light of nature and the light of revelation could carry me. We think that all which is essentially Calvinistic might be established in this way; while, at the same time, when we had got to the impossible difficulties of the question, we think that a man of a wise and philosophic spirit could not fail to perceive that, after all, this greatly maligned and misunderstood Calvinism left the urgencies, and the duties, and all the plain and popular and practical bearings of the religion of Jesus on the souls and consciences of all men on the very footing in which it found them.

In regard to the particular shape of the question between universal and particular redemption, I think there is great sagacity and soundness in the following extracts from Douglas’s Truths of Religion, p. 231:

We must, however, be careful to take our notions of the divine nature and infinite extent of the atonement of Christ from the oracles of God, not from the writings of men who lower every subject which they treat to their own limited views. In the substitution of the innocent for the guilty, and in the transference of merits and demerits, the most obvious and frequent illustrations in Scripture are derived from the transference of debt, and the terms are borrowed from pecuniary transactions. But illustrations in Scripture unfortunately are frequently mistaken for facts; and divines, taking the metaphorical phrase literally, have reasoned as if sin and debt were in all respects convertible terms; and as money is divisible into pounds, shillings, and pence, so merit and demerit might, it is conceived, be divided into equivalent and corresponding parts; and one great division among Christians is in a considerable degree owing to the high question whether Christ paid the penalty for the sins only of those that are saved, or whether, in addition to this, He paid the penalty for the sins of who are lost. But the difficulty, and the view that led to it, are alike imaginary, and have no foundation in Scripture or in reason. That guilt is not exhausted by application and imputation, we have too evident proofs among the numerous descendants of Adam; for should the world continue to an undefined number of ages, never would the descendants of the first man cease to be implicated in Adam’s fall, on account of the numbers who had previously partaken of his guilt and of his nature. Adam broke God’s law; all those who are connected with him as their federal head are accounted transgressors also: the question is here not of numbers, but simply of connexion. Christ fulfilled the law; those who are united to Him by faith are accounted to have fulfilled the law also. Again the question is not of numbers, but of simply of connexion.

Yet even were it otherwise, and if guilt or merit were exhaustible by imputation, the infinite merit and riches of Christ, in every way ‘inexhaustible,’ might have precluded the rise of so foolish and unscriptural a dispute as that which debates whether Christ died for all, or only for the elect.

While I have this work in hand, I cannot resist the temptation of presenting you with another extract from it, though on another subject. You may be aware of the liberties which are now taking with the Christian doctrine of the atonement, and how this manifestation of the Divine love to men is so generalized in the phraseology of some recent writers as to throw a gloss over the whole character of this transaction viewed as a substitution of the innocent for the guilty, by which substitution our sins have been laid to the account of the Saviour who died for them, and His righteousness has been laid to our account who believe in Him. Mr. Douglas’s deliverance on this question, too, is equally wise and scriptural with his former one:

There are other writers who, without proceeding to these lengths of impiety, consider the atonement merely as an example and exhibition of Divine love towards mankind;–that God in Himself has no need of reconcilement to sinners; that He has no attribute of justice to appease, for that justice is not an original attribute–that it is merely a modification of His benevolence, seeking to produce the greatest results of happiness by maintaining the order which is most conducive to its attainment; that it is sin which makes the sinner groundlessly imagine that God is his enemy, while the truth is, (if he would but recognise it,) that God is always his friend, whether he sins or not;–and that, therefore, God (the impiety of the supposition is theirs, not mine) has conducted a sort of sacred drama in giving up His Son to death, that they may see by so high an example, in spite of all that conscience tells them to the contrary, how infinitely God still loves them, however sinful they may be, and without any reference to the imputation by faith of the righteousness of Christ. All such sickly and unscriptural fancies proceed from a want of that deep conviction of sin, that awful sense of the holiness and justice of God, which is so eminent in the sacred writers. Mere reasoning or disputing can have small effect in such cases; it is only when the Spirit is poured out abundantly from on high,–when the sinner beholds the wrath of God revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, and when he hears by faith the Saviour exclaiming, If it be possible, let this cup pass from me, that he will perceive that sin is a bar to reconciliation on the part of God far more than on the part of the sinner, and that divine and eternal justice is an inseparable attribute of the all-perfect Being. The more we are taught by the Holy Spirit, the more we shall discern of the holiness of God, and of the hatefulness of sin in His sight, and of the absolute necessity of the atonement, in order that infinite love might redeem a lost race from eternal destruction. But now that the atonement is made, and that God has not withheld His only begotten Son, we may rejoice that all walls of separation are thrown down, that the veil is rent in twain, and that God, when we believe in the Lord Jesus, is our Father and our Friend for ever.–Pp. 238-240.

In short, you will find this book to be a repository of precious things, and though the absence of lengthened reasoning and of sustained illustration may have deducted from its interest, yet, generally speaking, as a collection of sound deliverances on the most important topics in theology, and those often couched in expressions of original felicity and power, I have very great pleasure in recommending it to general perusal.

Thomas Chalmers, “Notes on Hill’s Lectures in Divinity,” in Select Works of Thomas Chalmers, (Edinburgh: Thomas Constable and Co, 1854), 8:424-442.


 

1Thomas, Owen. The Atonement Controversy: In Welsh Theological Literature and Debate, 1707-1841. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 2002.
2See here.

 

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