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.