Fuller and the Atonement (Part 3): Until You Have Paid the Last Penney

Tom Nettles
| May 28, 2014

Editorial note: This is the sixth 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).

PenniesThough Andrew Fuller asserted that Calvinists in general held the covenantal application view of particular redemption, historically that which he called the “commercial” view has co-existed with it. That view, defended among the Baptists by John Spilsbury [1] (as far as we can discern the first Particular Baptist pastor), Abraham Booth [2], and John L. Dagg [3], contends that the suffering of Christ is a matter of actual measurable justice. The propitiatory wrath set forth by the Father must be commensurate with the degree of susceptibility to punishment for all those that the Father gave to the Son. For them in particular Jesus sanctified himself in his obedience to death ( John 17:19). He thus is the recipient of all that particular wrath that should be measured to them, and he does not suffer as a propitiation for others. They would point to such texts as “the church of God which he bought with his own blood,” “for you are bought with a price,” “give his life a ransom for many,” “redemption of the purchased possession,” “not redeemed with corruptible things . . . but with the precious blood of Christ,” as clear justification for considering the remission of sins in terms of a price to be paid. That metaphor of material payment, that is, the accumulation of commercial analogies, combined with biblical indicators of discernible degrees of punishment insinuate that moral justice may, indeed must, also be measured. The degree of punishment that would be just retribution for the sins of one person would not necessarily be just retribution for another.

It is true, as Fuller and many others envisioned, that Christ’s “undivided obedience, stamped as it is with Divinity, affords a ground for justification.” [Works 2:708] In addition, Christ’s death on the cross constituted an element of his perfect undivided obedience (Romans 5:18). Christ, thus unlike Adam, who was a federal head in disobedience and consequent condemnation, is our federal head by his obedience for righteousness and consequent justification. Since perfected righteousness, the reward of which is eternal life, is imputed by covenant headship, his entire life, seamless in obedience and love to the Father, constituted the “one act of righteousness.” He serves as righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30) unto eternal life for as many as the Father desired to give to the Son without any more acts of righteousness being done. Fuller used this covenantal framework—no more acts of righteousness are necessary—as parallel with the method of forgiveness. This parallel is the false step. “It seems to me,” Fuller wrote in 1803, “as consonant with truth to say a certain number of Christ’s acts of obedience are literally transferred to us, as that a certain number of our sins are literally transferred to him.” For Fuller, Christ’s suffering, stamped as it was with divinity, need not be any more for the forgiveness of more sins. He views himself, rightly, as in harmony with John Owen and the Canons of Dort in this affirmation. The parallel that all of these propose between the righteousness which gains eternal life and the death that constitutes forgiveness of sins does not bear the weight of biblical reality.

Their views, therefore, are not beyond doctrinal criticism. Owen’s statement, cited by Fuller, must be examined carefully. He stated, “That it [the reconciling death of Christ] 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.” He says this because the application of it according to its intrinsic worth, in Owen’s construct, would necessarily mean universalism. Thus its efficacy is external to it and only by covenantal sovereignty.

Surely this is not entirely correct. I believe a sober examination of that idea would suggest to us that benefits derived from the atonement are intrinsic to it and dependent, not solely on the purpose of God concerning it, but on the justice of God necessary to it. Thus, while Christ’s death expressed the covenantal purpose of God in redeeming the elect, it also demonstrated the justice of God in setting Christ forth as a propitiation.

While it is true—as far as it goes—that the atonement was made for “sin as sin” and is thus “applicable to sinners as sinners,” it was also essential that Christ’s sufferings be made for sins as sins (“That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” “If Christ be not raised, you are yet in your sins.” 1 Corinthians 15:3, 17). It is not only for sin as a principle of rebellion that we lie under condemnation, but for the multitude of sins that we have heaped on that original trespass and the resulting subjection to death. “For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification” (Romans 5:16). When the Father “spared not his own son,” this was certainly a demonstration of justice, that he might be just and justify the one that has faith in Christ. When he spared not the angels that sinned, and spared not Sodom and Gomorrah, these acts are deemed as just, a precise exhibition of what the nature of the disobedience called for. Even so, when he spared not his own Son, nothing less than perfect justice was consummated. In his death, he suffered for the sins that he bore in his own body on the tree. “He himself bore our sins in his body . . .” (1 Peter 2:24).

In the initial paragraph, we mentioned the necessity of “just retribution” for sins. This was not gathered out of thin air, but from the book of Hebrews where that idea drives the entire argument of the writer. When setting up the argument both for the necessity and the completeness of Christ’s sacrificial death as intrinsic to his effectual priesthood, the writer premised the discussion on this question: “For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (2:3) The Law required that each violation of any and all commandments receive its just retribution. We can escape and have salvation only if that just retribution has been fully absorbed. Jesus is the perfect person—God and man—and the perfect sacrifice—holy blameless, undefiled, etc.—to taste death (the wages of sin) as the author of that great salvation for each and every son that he brings to glory (2:9-10). The writer pursues the argument further in showing how Jesus was appointed to his priesthood as one pre-figured by Melchizedek, so that “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” (7:27) In offering himself, he qualified as the mediator of a “new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” (9:15) In other words, the just retribution intrinsic to every transgression has been justly removed by the substitute for the people. He was offered once for all, to “bear the sins of many” and by this “single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (9:28; 10:14). His covenant people, therefore, the many whose sins he has borne, have the Law written on their hearts and its every violation removed by the substitutionary death of their redeemer. “’I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (10:15-18). In him their every transgression and disobedience received a just retribution.

We will illustrate this with Christ’s own perception of incremental guilt. Suppose it were God’s gracious will that he save one of the communities of sinners that exist on the face of the earth. This in itself would be a matter of great grace, for every child of Adam stands under God’s just condemnation. But, in an act of surprising mercy, God chooses to save one community, every individual within it. Suppose that he determined that he would save the sinners of Capernaum even after their egregious rejection of the Messiah during his life. If he bore the punishment due to them, and he did not spare his Son of any of that just amount of wrath that they themselves would receive should they be subjected to justice, would his Son necessarily suffer more than if he had to save only Sodom? (Matthew 11:23, 24) It seems so, since, were they both to be condemned, it would be “more tolerable” in the day of judgment for the one than the other. Jesus, should he suffer for Capernaum, would suffer the degree of wrath necessary to make the distinction between them.

But he did not suffer for the inhabitants of one city only, nor for the inhabitants of one nation only, but for all of his people throughout the ages and throughout the world. He died not only for the remnant of Israel but for “the children of God scattered abroad” (Romans 11:5, John 11:52). His Messiahship transcended the barriers of ethnic Israel and went to the whole world to ransom his people, set apart in the covenant of redemption, out of every tribe, tongue, people and nation (1 John 2:2; Revelation 5:9, 10; Galatians 2:9; 1 Timothy 2:4-7). He will not rest in his present work of calling until all of those for whom he shed his blood are gathered to him, at which time he will receive them and place his enemies under his feet (2 Peter 3:9, 14, 15; Hebrews 10:12, 13). “The will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:10, 11)

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[1] John Spilsbury, A Treatise Concerning the Lawfull Subject of Baptisme (London, 1643), 40.

[2] Abraham Booth, “Divine Justice Essential to the Divine Character,” in The Works of Abraham Booth, 3 vols. (London: J. Haddon, 1813), 3:60, 61. “Divine Justice” was originally published in 1803 as a response to Fullers’ second edition.

[3] John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1982) 324-331.