Fuller and the Atonement (Part 4): Limited Atonement and Free Offer

Editorial note: This is the seventh 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).

Fuller’s rejection of the commercial understanding of moral justice was two-fold (at least). One, such a limitation, that is, forgiveness dependent on the enumeration of sins and their commensurate guilt, was impossible by the very nature of Christ’s infinite excellence. Christ’ infinite fullness of worthiness necessarily offered to the Father a complete satisfaction, rendering salvation, especially forgiveness as an intrinsic necessity of salvation, a matter of divine sovereignty, eternally determined, in its application. So, the reason for Christ’s incarnation and his fulfillment of the office of priest as a ransom, reconciliation, propitiation, surety, and substitute pinpointed in his purpose and in the Father’s pleasure the elect only, though by intrinsic, infinite, God-like dignity the work could be applicable to all sinners of the human race from all times and in all places.

Two, as Fuller properly perceived, a commercial transaction would make it unjust to apply salvation to any for whom no debt has been paid. It would mean that God would indeed “clear the guilty” and justify sinners without a just reason to do so. Socinians would think that was the true meaning of forgiveness, but Fuller did not. Since the requirements for the reception of gospel blessings are set forth in general terms, there must be in the gospel a sufficiency of application for all who hear any gospel presentation, including even those that God has no intention of saving. Quantitative wrath built on enumeration of sins in their varying intensities could not render the apostolic practice of general proclamation an honest exercise. For Fuller, the only barrier lay in the hard hearts of the sinner, not in the real lack of an objective fullness in gospel provisions. In Fuller’s estimation, therefore, given the “commercial,” or quantitative view of forgiveness-provision, it would be naturally impossible for the non-elect to be saved, for they would be invited to partake of something that simply was not there. Christ’s atonement, however, because of his boundless worth, establishes an ocean of merit and propitiatory suffering without any circumference that will do for one or a numberless many, though it was purposed and executed in particular for the elect. Something is there, however, on the basis of which an honest appeal can be made to all.

The Proto-Baptist and erstwhile founder of the General Baptist movement, John Smyth, found the same difficulty with his former belief in limited atonement and expressed his new-found conviction of general redemption in terms of its applicability to a general offer of the gospel: “The grace of God, through the finished redemption of Christ, was to be prepared and offered to all without distinction, and that not feignedly but in good faith, partly by things made, which declare the invisible things of God, and partly by the preaching of the Gospel.” It is offered to all because it was “prepared” for all; had that not been so any offer would be in its nature a feigned offer of the gospel. Smyth, of course, unlike Fuller, found the same difficulties with all of his former Calvinist convictions: election, depravity, justification, irresistible grace, and perseverance.

This objection having become a part of the common stock of objections in the seventeenth century to Calvinistic theology, the earliest Particular Baptists placed within their first confession of faith an article relating particular atonement to the necessity of preaching the gospel to all men. They wrote:

That Christ Jesus by his death did bring forth salvation and reconciliation onely for the elect, which were those which God the Father gave him; & that the Gospel which is to be preached to all men as the ground of faith, is, that Jesus is the Christ the Sonne of the everblessed God, filled with the perfection of all heavenly and spirituall excellencies, and that salvation is onely and alone to be had through the beleeving in his Name.

This focuses on the death of Christ for the elect and the historical objectivity of the gospel that is “to be preached to all men as the ground of faith.” It emphasizes the exclusivity of Christ and the revealed condition of salvation from a human standpoint, “beleeving in his Name.” Arminians believe that Christ has died for all men without exception and thus a part of the gospel proclamation should be “Christ has died for you.” Those that affirm an intentionally effectual atonement believe that Christ has died for the elect only [they get there in a couple of ways], but still proclaim that God saves all who believe, implying, of course a biblical view of belief. But all accept the proposition that the salvation bound up in the death of Christ comes only to those who believe. No matter what the intention of God toward an individual sinner is, all have the moral duty to repent of sin, adore the perfect righteousness of Christ, consent that God rightly receives them only by union with him, and, thus, to embrace the “excellency of Christ in his nature and offices,” with confidence that all who so come to him receive pardon for sins and eternal life.

The doctrine of intentionally effectual atonement does not inhibit that gospel proclamation in the least. One does not need to have private and personal assurance of God’s gracious intentions toward him in order to see clearly the prescribed element of human response that is the act of uniting with Christ for the reception of all his benefits. With just as much clarity as the Scripture reveals that divine intention is effectual and particular, it reveals that the command to repent and believe and the promise accompanying that command is general and universal. Neither the sinner nor the evangelist can ask for more. The secret of God concerning those upon whom his eternal covenantal grace has been placed becomes manifest by those that confess with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in their heart that God has raised him from the dead. As Paul wrote the Thessalonians, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:4). Particular atonement no more inhibits the proclamation of the gospel to all men with the general promise of eternal life to believers than do the doctrines of unconditional election, the will’s captivity to depraved affections, and the need for irresistible grace as an element of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. If the Arminian doctrine of foreknowledge does not render the work of evangelism insincere, neither does the doctrine of an enumeratvely effective atonement, for God’s foreknowledge is no less precise than such an atonement. To say that we must know God’s eternal intentions before we will, or can, proclaim his revealed truth shows a spirit of rebellion against God. To make an assurance of universal grace the necessary ground of universal duty is tantamount to a rejection of the justness of God’s present posture of wrath toward all flesh and the pure gratutity of any act of grace. It denies the independent goodness and spirituality of the Law irrespective of any gracious intention of God toward any person at all. To suspend the command to preach the gospel to every creature on the assurance that God has gracious intentions for every creature is to make God a hostage to his own kindness and rob him of the freeness of his grace. Our eye becomes evil because he is generous (Matthew 20:15).

Engaging this same incongruity between duty and grace, an early Particular Baptist theologian, Nehemiah Coxe, wrote in Vindication of the Truth:

The tenders of life in the gospel are full of grace, the command to believe, equal and rational; and the promise of life to the believer sure and steadfast: Election is a secret and hidden thing, as to the concernment of particular persons in it, which belongeth unto God; and as none can know their election of God before faith, so it is no way necessary that they should do so in order to believing: for revealed things belong unto us and our children, and we are bound to attend them in that same order in which God hath revealed them: Now in the gospel is the salvation of God revealed to lost sinners, and they, simply considered as such, commanded to accept of it upon the terms proposed to them; none are called to believe under the formal consideration of elect persons; but as weary and heavy laden sinners; undone thirsty sinners; in which terms every one sensible of his condition by nature, finds himself presently, and equally with others concerned.

So it is with every point of divine sovereignty and the certainty of salvation. The commands and promises of the gospel are not rendered any less true or sincere by their being the means by which God determines to save his elect and no more. That God has issued a general proclamation as the means by which He Himself will distinguish between sheep and goats, wheat and tares, is his sovereign and secret prerogative and in no way should interrupt the faithfulness of sent proclaimers to set forth Christ as the “way, the truth, and the Life” and to assert with full confidence that “no man can come to the to the Father except through [Him].”

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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