Thursday, July 03, 2008

Nicole v. Kendall - Is Universal Atonement Sufficient for Assurance?

I am returning to a critique of Nicole’s arguments against R. T. Kendall’s thesis regarding Calvin. Kendall has said that Calvin’s theology saw assurance as of the essence of saving faith. And Kendall argues that since assurance is of the essence of saving faith, Calvin must have believed in some form of universal atonement. One can only have assurance of God’s interest in him if God has evidenced that interest in some way. For Calvin and for Kendall, the supreme evidence of God’s interest in the individual sinner is Christ’s work on the cross.

Nicole, of course, rejects the notion:

The close connection posited by Kendall between universal atonement and the assurance of faith must also be challenged, for universal atonement is neither necessary nor sufficient for assurance. It is not necessary since my understanding of how the work of Christ affects others is not essential for a perception of how it affects me. It is not sufficient since on Kendall’s showing, all covered by the atonement will not be saved; assurance, if it is to be reliable, needs to be grounded in something that actually makes a difference between the saved and the lost.

Nicole, John Calvin's View of the Extent of the Atonement, Westminster Theological Journal 47 (1985) 197 at 204-205.

We have already examined the question of the necessity of universal atonement for assurance; now we turn to the question of the sufficiency of universal atonement for assurance.

A recent comment by Sean Gerety actually makes the same argument that Nicole has made, i.e., that one can have assurance of salvation only if Christ’s atonement actually saves all those for whom it is made. Nicole says that an atonement worth trusting must “actually [make] a difference between the saved and the lost.” Gerety says that if anyone for whom atonement is made actually suffers in hell, then their sins remain unatoned for and this makes “the promise of salvation in Christ somewhat dubious.”

As Tony has pointed out in that same comment thread, Gerety has not clarified his meaning for the word “atonement.” Charles Hodge complained of this lack of clarity in the common use of the word:

While the verb to atone thus means to expiate and to reconcile by expiation, the substantive means, either the reconciliation itself, or the means by which it is effected. This latter sense is not a Scriptural usage of the word, but is very common in theological writings. Thus when we speak of the atonement of Christ, of its necessity, efficacy, application, or extent, we mean Christ’s work, what He did to expiate the sins of men. This ambiguity of the word necessarily gives rise to more or less confusion.

Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. ii., 469. When Gerety refers to atonement, he refers (apparently) generally to Christ’s work, its application, and its effects, lumping these concepts together as if they need not be distinguished. But when I speak of a universal atonement, I do not refer to the application of the benefits of the atonement to the elect, nor do I speak of the actual reconciliation that takes place when men believe the gospel. When I speak of universal atonement, I refer to Christ’s work, i.e., his expiation of the sins of mankind, but not of the application of the atonement or its benefits to a particular individual, and not of the reconciliation that follows faith in Christ.

Nicole’s argument is less ambiguous, though perhaps more problematic for its clarity. Nicole said of the relationship of universal atonement to assurance:

It is not sufficient since on Kendall’s showing, all covered by the atonement will not be saved; assurance, if it is to be reliable, needs to be grounded in something that actually makes a difference between the saved and the lost.

When Nicole speaks of assurance, he means assurance of salvation, whereas Calvin spoke of assurance of God’s love. Thus for Calvin, assurance is logically prior to faith, while for Nicole, faith is logically prior to assurance.

If, like Nicole, we think of assurance as assurance of salvation, then according to Nicole’s scheme, we can be assured of salvation only if the atonement saves all for whom Christ suffered. But why must this be so? It makes as much sense to say that the atonement must save all to whom it is offered as to say that it must save all for whom Christ suffered. There does not appear to be a necessary logical connection between a limitation in the extent of the atonement and the consequent assurance of the trusting sinner. The limitation, if anything, presents obstacles to assurance.

The argument that Nicole is making really amounts to this: a universal atonement is not sufficient to inspire confidence because it doesn’t work for some people. But we must keep in mind that the salvation offered in Christ is rejected or neglected by those who remain unsaved. Their refusal to believe does not make God’s promise or Christ’s work less trustworthy. Does the refusal of the drowning man to embrace the life-preserver make it unworthy of trust for the drowning woman?

As I said in my reply to Gerety, the idea that God will not keep his promise to save all who embrace Christ or that God will not see Christ’s work as sufficient for the trusting sinner is really a species of unbelief. This unbelief is not excused on the grounds that God has shown himself merciful to all.

10 comments:

Sean Gerety said...

Their refusal to believe does not make God’s promise or Christ’s work less trustworthy. Does the refusal of the drowning man to embrace the life-preserver make it unworthy of trust for the drowning woman?

Your analogy is fitting since I think it also touches on the heart of my objection. The biblical analogy, as I see it, is not that we're drowning apart from Christ, but rather that we are utterly and totally spiritually dead. We're laying at the bottom of the ocean, lungs filled with nothing but saltwater, and fish are swimming in our open mouths.

I don't think those who defend your universalism actually grasp our actual predicament and state apart from Christ. We're not drowning in sin and trespass, we're lying dead in it. Life-preservers are utterly useless for the job. We need resuscitation. We need to be brought back from the dead.

Yet, for you the drowning man or woman merely has to grasp the life-preserver in order to dragged to safety. Again, if I'm going to be saved -- if I'm going to grasp hold of the life-preserver -- I have to do my part, muster my strength even after being spent fighting the surf -- I am the one who must grasp the ring.

Following your analogy, my assurance then rests in part on my ability, my strength, my will, to hold fast so that I might be brought to safety. But what confidence, what assurance can I have in my own strength to hold on?

Your position seems to contradict your statement, or at least mitigates against it, that the "grounds of assurance . . . must always be found in the favor of God given to us by his free promise of salvation in Christ." The grounds of assurance are not in the mercy, favor, and free promise of salvation in Christ alone, but rather in our own willingness to be saved as well. Hence, and to return to your analogy again briefly, we're left with our eyes not just on our savior, but on our tenuous grip as well.

Steve said...

I intended the analogy to illustrate the trustworthiness of the promise, not the ability of men to embrace the gospel. That is, Nicole seems to speak of God's promise of salvation as if it would be not worth believing if it did not save all for whom it is offered. If that is so, I ask why is it not the case that it would be untrustworthy if it does not save all to whom it is preached? The illustration is intended to show that the promise is not less trustworthy because some refuse or neglect it.

Regarding the ability of men to believe the gospel, I agree that we preach to dead men, as it were. But that again is only an analogy. So in one sense I agree, we sinners are (apart from Christ) dead at the bottom of the lake. But in another important sense, God throws the life-preserver to the man struggling for breath. God does call upon us to seek him, though it is said that none seek him. I am striving to see reality and significance in the actions of men as well as those of God.

Regarding assurance, I am calling for us to look to Christ alone for assurance, not to our ability to hold on.

Sean Gerety said...

Regarding assurance, I am calling for us to look to Christ alone for assurance, not to our ability to hold on.

You might be calling for that, but it doesn't follow from your universalism.

The problem is a logical one and I think in your analysis of Nicole you missed it. If God wills the salvation of all, and as a defender of yours asserts Christ's blood alone forgives no one, then it's not God's will, or even Christ's finished cross work (which evidently according to some isn't finished at all), that determines who will believe unto salvation.

As for the rest of your reply, I admit that analogies cannot be pressed too far, but you want it both ways and end up with a mixed metaphor. Either the sinner is spiritually dead or he isn't. If he is then there is no sense that the sinner apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is "struggling for breath." Dead men don't "struggle for breath" and your universalism is inimical to assurance. I guess one solution that might work given the import of your universalism is self delusion.

Steve said...

Regarding the logic, you are right that if the full extent of the problem is defined by these propositions:


God wills that all men should be saved;
But some men are not saved;

Then it follows that God's will does not determine who will believe. But you know (I assume) that I don't see God's will as consisting merely of his desire as expressed in the scripture. There is also his decree, which is also his will and is revealed primarily in history. As R. L. Dabney said, the limitation in the atonement is located in the decree to apply Christ's redemption and nowhere else.

If you miss this point, you won't understand my position or my objection to various forms of high and hyper-Calvinism.

Also, I'm wondering if you can explain how it is that the promise of God is untrustworthy if the atonement doesn't ipso facto save all for whom Christ died. As I said before, it doesn't follow logically as it doesn't follow that the promise of God is untrustworthy if the gospel doesn't save all to whom it is preached.

Sean Gerety said...

God wills that all men should be saved;
But some men are not saved;

Then it follows that God's will does not determine who will believe. But you know (I assume) that I don't see God's will as consisting merely of his desire as expressed in the scripture. There is also his decree, which is also his will and is revealed primarily in history . . . I'm wondering if you can explain how it is that the promise of God is untrustworthy if the atonement doesn't ipso facto save all for whom Christ died. As I said before, it doesn't follow logically as it doesn't follow that the promise of God is untrustworthy if the gospel doesn't save all to whom it is preached.



Yes, I realize that you believe that God desires the results of things or outcomes which He has never decreed. Perhaps He only desires your salvation but has not decreed it? That might be the case for me too? As I’ve said, your universalism logically makes the salvation of anyone, at best, dubious. Perhaps you and I are just self-deceived pathetic blogging fools and our hope is really in God’s desire to accomplish what, in our case, He has not decreed? Since you assert that God does desire what He has not decreed and, yet, seem to grant that without decisive action from God’s side, that is, unless God takes the initiative, I will forever remain dead in trespass and sin, it follows that I cannot find my confidence in salvation in God or His promises. My assurance, whatever that might consist of, must come from somewhere else.

To put it another way, since God’s desire alone is not enough to save me, since God desires the salvation of many if not most who are ultimately and eternally lost, what confidence could I ever have that He would want to save a filthy wretch like me? And if me, how about you? Perhaps we’re both just objects of God’s unfulfilled desire and have fooled ourselves into believing that we are in fact his children and that He has in fact adopted us? Always a possibility and hardly conducive to assurance since God in this case and if you are right is, well, fickle. He is not a being who does all that He desires. He is more like me and you.

While I don’t want to attribute one of your supporters views with your own, but it seems for some universalists that Christ’s blood alone really accomplished nothing. At best it only made salvation a hypothetical possibility. Again, hardly the kind of firm foundation one would need to build any confidence or assurance in salvation.

Again, and it seems I'm starting to repeat myself, but there is a logical disconnect between your doctrine of assurance and your soteriology. I didn't think my comments here would turn that particular light on for you, but I thought I'd give 'er a try. I guess you can say like God I desire for things that I cannot effect.

Steve said...

Hi Sean. I’m going to try answering your last comment in line. Your previous comments in italics.

Yes, I realize that you believe that God desires the results of things or outcomes which He has never decreed. Perhaps He only desires your salvation but has not decreed it? That might be the case for me too?

We can only know God’s decree as we see it revealed in history. Can we know our election? Calvin says yes, and Calvin is right. We can know our election, says Calvin, by looking at Christ. He is the mirror in which we may without deception contemplate our election. Institutes 3.24.5

As I’ve said, your universalism logically makes the salvation of anyone, at best, dubious.

Well, you’ve said this a number of times, but haven’t demonstrated why this must be so nor have you answered my questions trying to probe this point. Must I resign myself to having nothing more than your mere assertion of this?

Perhaps you and I are just self-deceived pathetic blogging fools and our hope is really in God’s desire to accomplish what, in our case, He has not decreed?

The answer rests in the promise of God. John 3:16, etc. As Calvin said, we cannot gain assurance by contemplating our election, but only by contemplating Christ. You speculate that God will not do what he has promised.

Since you assert that God does desire what He has not decreed and, yet, seem to grant that without decisive action from God’s side, that is, unless God takes the initiative, I will forever remain dead in trespass and sin, it follows that I cannot find my confidence in salvation in God or His promises.

That doesn’t follow at all. God cannot keep his promises if his desires are unmet? Surely you must see that the conclusion you reach is unrelated to the premises you start with. Your logic doesn’t work. Besides, we are speaking of a different sense of God’s “desire.” There is his will of decree, which is always done; this is one sense of God’s will. Then there is his revealed will, which is often not done; this is another sense of God’s will. If his revealed will is often disobeyed it does not follow that his will of decree will not be done, nor does it mean that God will fail in any of his promises.

My assurance, whatever that might consist of, must come from somewhere else.

My previous paragraph answers that unless you have something more.

To put it another way, since God’s desire alone is not enough to save me, since God desires the salvation of many if not most who are ultimately and eternally lost, what confidence could I ever have that He would want to save a filthy wretch like me?

Calvin’s universalism answers this question. God has *said* that he desires the salvation of all. The only reason to doubt this is unbelief. The unbelief might be doubting that what God says is true, or it might be doubting that God has the power to fulfill his promises, but the result is the same.

And if me, how about you? Perhaps we’re both just objects of God’s unfulfilled desire and have fooled ourselves into believing that we are in fact his children and that He has in fact adopted us? Always a possibility and hardly conducive to assurance since God in this case and if you are right is, well, fickle.

The theology I advocate says that God is the opposite of fickle. He does not fail to keep any of his promises. If you expect to critique my system, you have to critique it at points it asserts, not those it denies. And if you say “logic requires it,” then you have the duty to work the logic, not just shout the conclusions you think “ought” to follow.

He is not a being who does all that He desires. He is more like me and you.

While I don’t want to attribute one of your supporters views with your own, but it seems for some universalists that Christ’s blood alone really accomplished nothing. At best it only made salvation a hypothetical possibility. Again, hardly the kind of firm foundation one would need to build any confidence or assurance in salvation.


In my system, Christ’s atonement accomplished much, including the delay of judgment, the preaching of the gospel, the forgiveness of sins to those who believe, etc. (I would cite Dabney on this point.)

Again, and it seems I'm starting to repeat myself, but there is a logical disconnect between your doctrine of assurance and your soteriology.

Yes, you’ve said this a number of times, but I wish you’d explain WHY you think this is true and answer my objections on the point.

I didn't think my comments here would turn that particular light on for you, but I thought I'd give 'er a try. I guess you can say like God I desire for things that I cannot effect.

Well ... I appreciate the try, and that’s all well and good. I wish you would try a little harder. You are unlike God in one respect -- I have no obligation to believe you just because you say it.

Sean Gerety said...

As I’ve said, your universalism logically makes the salvation of anyone, at best, dubious.

Well, you’ve said this a number of times, but haven’t demonstrated why this must be so


I've demonstrated this very thing a number of times, but for some reason you refuse to listen? I've even put the demonstration in very personal terms. To restate now a third time, if your hope in salvation, your hope in Christ's promise of salvation, in fact rests in God's unfilled desire in your particular case you have no hope at all and are deluded.

You speculate that God will not do what he has promised.

It's hardly a wild speculation and given your system it is a very real and undeniable reality. God promises to save fails in X number of cases. God may desire to save you, but as one of your defenders pointed out, merely Christ's blood alone cannot save you. I noticed you have not distanced yourself from this defender of yours. I found his comments rather shocking.

Since you assert that God does desire what He has not decreed and, yet, seem to grant that without decisive action from God’s side, that is, unless God takes the initiative, I will forever remain dead in trespass and sin, it follows that I cannot find my confidence in salvation in God or His promises.

That doesn’t follow at all.


Indeed it does. What good is God's desire to save if he cannot and does not do what He says? How do you know that in your case His desire has been met? Maybe Steve is among His unrequited despite Steve's protests otherwise.

God cannot keep his promises if his desires are unmet? Surely you must see that the conclusion you reach is unrelated to the premises you start with. Your logic doesn’t work. Besides, we are speaking of a different sense of God’s “desire.” There is his will of decree, which is always done; this is one sense of God’s will. Then there is his revealed will, which is often not done; this is another sense of God’s will. If his revealed will is often disobeyed it does not follow that his will of decree will not be done, nor does it mean that God will fail in any of his promises.

Here is where the failure of your system lies. If God's preceptive will is disobeyed then it is God's desire that it be disobeyed. The error of your entire system is that you infer something in the indicative (i.e., God's desire for result X,Y,Z) from something written in the imperative and this cannot be done (thou shalt not X,Y,Z). Luther noted the same error in his reply to Erasmus adding that theologians are half as stupid as schoolboys and he was right. You can't infer a *can* from an *ought.* While God's commands tell us what we ought to do, it doesn't follow that they tell us what we can do or what God desires. It doesn't follow.

For example, God wills that men should not commit murder, yet, according to Isaiah, the LORD was pleased To crush His Son. God is Sovereign and determines whatsoever comes to pass even the sinful acts of men for His righteous purposes.

God has *said* that he desires the salvation of all.

Actually, God never said this unless you mean *all* in the sense of classes of men.

The only reason to doubt this is unbelief.

This doesn't follow. Another reason to not only doubt it, but also to disbelieve it, is because it is not taught in Scripture. It is rather an invalid inference drawn from Scripture.

The unbelief might be doubting that what God says is true, or it might be doubting that God has the power to fulfill his promises, but the result is the same.

There is also the fact that if someone accepts your system they begin with the premise that while God has the power to save all, He still chooses not to -- despite his promise (if we're to accept *all* in your universalistic sense).

The theology I advocate says that God is the opposite of fickle. He does not fail to keep any of his promises.

Here's the dilemma:

God promises to save all men universally considered.

Unless God acts all men will remain dead in sin.

Therefore, unless God acts He does not fulfill His promise.

Well, you'll say what's missing is faith. Men must believe. But the Scriptures talk of faith as a gift and that unless God regenerates a person he will forever see and not see, hear and not hear, etc.

I'll try and pick up on the rest of your points later. Off to worship. :)

Sean Gerety said...

Well ... I appreciate the try, and that’s all well and good. I wish you would try a little harder. You are unlike God in one respect -- I have no obligation to believe you just because you say it.

I hope you realize that when I said that like God I desire for things that I cannot effect I was just having some fun at your expense? Obviously, I hold that all that God desires that He does.

I'm also sorry you don't think I've sufficiently made my case and that I need to "work harder." FWIW I'm reasonably happy with the arguments I've presented and that your universalism necessarily undermines assurance. I was pretty happy with Nicole's arguments too, so I guess I can't expect too much in this exchange, although I appreciate your time.

I do have one question, not directly related to assurance and one I imagine you get all the time.

Unless I'm mistaken, you seem to agree that unless God elects someone to salvation, that is unless God regenerates a person and gives them the gift of saving faith, they can never believe the gospel unto salvation.

The idea here is that unless God takes the initiative, makes the first move as it were, all sinners will forever remain spiritually dead in trespass and sin, i.e., children of wrath even as the rest.

Therefore, is it rational that God would desire the salvation of those for whom He alone can save but choses not to? Can God then said to be a God who does all his good pleasure on heaven and on earth?

Terry W. West said...

Sean,

you said,

Here is where the failure of your system lies. If God's preceptive will is disobeyed then it is God's desire that it be disobeyed. The error of your entire system is that you infer something in the indicative (i.e., God's desire for result X,Y,Z) from something written in the imperative and this cannot be done (thou shalt not X,Y,Z). Luther noted the same error in his reply to Erasmus adding that theologians are half as stupid as schoolboys and he was right. You can't infer a *can* from an *ought.* While God's commands tell us what we ought to do, it doesn't follow that they tell us what we can do or what God desires. It doesn't follow.

If the above is true then please explain to me way God is angry with the wicked who disobey his law that says the "ought" to obey?

Blessings,
Terry

Terry W. West said...

The above should read:

If the above is true then please explain to me why God is angry with the wicked who disobey his law that says they "ought" to obey?