Fuller and the Atonement (Part 2): A Way Out or a Way In?

Tom Nettles
| May 9, 2014

Editorial note: This is the fifth post in a series on Andrew Fuller’s theology.  Here is the series so far: Fuller the Non-Calvinist? (Part 1), Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability (Part 2), Fuller and Irresistible Grace (Part 3), Fuller and the Atonement – 1/4 (Part 4), Fuller and the Atonement – 2/4 (Part 5), Fuller and the Atonement – 3/4 (Part 6), and Fuller and the Atonement 4/4 (Part 7).

Andrew FullerIn the second edition of GWAA, Fuller chose not to defend the “principle of pecuniary satisfaction” as consistent with general invitations to reconciliation. He concentrated on the position taken by the synod of Dort, and that of ”all the old Calvinists” [2:710]. He had begun this refinement process in Reply to Philanthropos and in The Reality and Efficacy of Divine Grace.

The core of the argument is that the intrinsic value of Christ’s suffering, given the infinite dignity of his person, is sufficient for the forgiveness of the sins of all people in the world, should God have so purposed it. The quality of Christ’s person and the perfection of his obedience could be no less for only one person, and no more for the whole world, and, thus, it was impossible for the death of such a sacrifice to be anything less than sufficient for all. The particularity comes from the covenantal arrangement within the triune God. In short, the Father covenanted to grant all the gifts and blessings, including the gift of the Spirit, gained by the Son in his suffering to those, and those exclusively, that were given to him. Fuller quoted Owen in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ [Owen, Works 10:295-96; Fuller 2:694, 707]. After Owen discussed the atonement’s sufficiency on the basis of the dignity of the person making the offering and that he did “undergo the whole curse of the law and wrath of God due to sin,” he wrote, “And this sets out the innate, real, true worth and value of the blood-shedding of Jesus Christ. This is its own true internal perfection and sufficiency. That it should be applied unto any, made a price for them, and become beneficial to them, according to the worth that is in it, is external to it, doth not arise from it, but merely depends upon the intention and will of God.” [Fuller’s quote ends here.] Owen continued in the same line, “It was in itself of infinite value and sufficiency to have been made a price to have bought and purchased all and every man in the world. That it did formally become a price for any is solely to be ascribed to the purpose of God, intending their purchase and redemption by it.” The redemption is particular in actuality; while its foundation in Christ’s infinite worthiness has commensurate sufficiency in theory.

Making the same point, the articles of the Synod of Dort read, “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” The document goes on to say, “And whereas many who are called by the gospel do not repent nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief; this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.” It is in the pre-mundane determination that this price is given peculiarly for the elect that constitutes its particularity. The language of Dort is again instructive: “God willed that Christ, through the blood of the cross, (by which he confirmed the new covenant,) should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith, (which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he obtained by his death).”

Fuller specifically identified his views as consistent with those of the “Calvinists who met at the Synod of Dort.” After he had quoted many of the key phrases of the document on the atonement, Fuller confessed, “I would not wish for words more appropriate than the above to express my sentiments” [CW 2:712]. He rejected the so-called “commercial” view with firm resolve, believing that it might be inconsistent “with indefinite invitations” and also allow the sinner to come to God as a claimant rather than a suppliant. “I conclude, therefore, that an hypothesis which in so many important points is manifestly inconsistent with the Scriptures, cannot be true” [2:373]. He applied this idea much in the way that Dort does: “If it be in itself equal to the salvation of the whole world, were the whole world to embrace it; and if the peculiarity which attends it, consist not in its insufficiency to save more than are saved, but in the sovereignty of its application, no such inconsistency can justly be ascribed to it” [2:373]. Since his concern was to reconcile the purposes of God with the free agency of man, Fuller felt strongly that the quantitative view of the atonement rendered it “naturally impossible” for some sinners to be saved and, therefore, inconsistent with general invitations. It represents God as “inviting sinners to partake of what has no existence, and which therefore is physically impossible” [2:692]. In his letter to his friend John Ryland, Fuller reiterated, “If there were not a sufficiency in the atonement for the salvation of sinners, and yet they were invited to be reconciled to God, they must be invited to what is naturally impossible” [2:708f].

Christ’s death, however, renders the purpose of grace toward the elect both consistent with justice and a matter of sovereign grace. God has the prerogative, settled from eternity, to “apply his sacrifice to the salvation of some men, and not of others” [2:374]. Many never hear the gospel and the greater part that hear it disregard it. Those that do believe ascribe their salvation solely to the free gift of God. “And, as the application of redemption is solely directed by sovereign wisdom,” Fuller continued, “so, like every other event, it is the result of previous design. That which is actually done was intended to be done.” Thus it is that Christ’s intent in coming was to save his elect, to give Himself for them, purify them, and make them a peculiar people. In that “consists the peculiarity of redemption” [2:374]. The death of Christ by its intrinsic value is sufficient for all people of all times and places, but redemption is particular, for redemption is the sovereign application of the atonement.

On this basis free exhortations to all to comply with the gospel are perfectly consistent with particular redemption, Fuller reasoned. In 1803, he quoted Calvin’s commentary on John 3:16 that the preacher has warrant to call “all men without exception to the faith of Christ.” He also combined this universal warrant with particular intent in continuing his quotation of Calvin’s comment, “for though Christ lieth open to all men, yet God doth only open the eyes of the elect, that they may seek him by faith” [2:712]. The sufficiency is there, so a compliance with the gospel invitation on anyone’s part would be intrinsically and necessarily vain for none. God’s restricted purpose, though revealed in principle, is not in any case revealed in particular prior to a sinner’s closing with Christ by faith.

No person is called on to believe that Christ has died for them in particular as an element of genuine faith, but, so Fuller continued to argue, “must believe in him as he is revealed in the gospel; and that is as the Saviour of sinners” [2:374]. Nothing beyond what is specifically revealed in Scripture can be an item of faith. Drawing on John Owen again, he affirmed his position in The Death of Death, “When God calleth upon men to believe, he doth not, in the first place call upon them to believe that Christ died for them; but that There is none other name under given among men, whereby we must be saved, but only of Jesus Christ, through whom salvation is preached” [2:375].

Since the death of Christ by its nature, in Fuller’s construction, creates a ground for all sinners universally to apply to God for its benefits, the lone impediment remaining is unbelief. Any person invited to trust confronts now a heart that hates even the imposition and assumption that his guilt demanded atonement. That he must repent of hell-deserving sin and look to a substitute for reconciliation with God is a truth for which an ungodly person feels repugnance. Redemption now falls back on the character of the human will for its actualization from the human standpoint; the human will, since it abides in a state of hostility to God, is under the divine discretion for wrath or mercy, already covenanted in eternity. Fuller’s view of atonement in its relation to redemption, therefore, does not modify historical Calvinism, but places him within the context of an ongoing discussion of this issue among Calvinists. This is an area in which vigorous exchanges and hefty reasoning must be welcomed; these, however, operate within the commitments to unconditional election, sinful depravity that involves the moral inability of the will, the sovereign grace of effectual calling, the divine determination to save all the elect, and God’s status as a just moral governor. If non-Calvinists suppose Fuller is a way out of Calvinism for Baptists, others might justly contend that he is a way in.