I was having a theological discussion about the extent of the atonement with a couple of men in my church a few days back—the dialogue was gentlemanly in tone—when one of them said: “There’s just no real defense of particular atonement.” (Like many contemporary reformed pastors, I prefer particular atonement to “limited atonement” for both rhetorical and historical reasons.) I replied, “If not, there certainly has been thousands of pages worth of ink spilled in debating it over the last few hundred years.”
Until now, the gold standard in defense of the particularity of Christ’s redeeming love has been John Owen’s unassailable but daunting The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. During my first summer of seminary, I set out to read Dr. Owen’s intimidating tome. Nearly four months, numerous spent highlighters and a dozen pages of notes later, I had completed, if not conquered, his work. J.I. Packer’s intro alone was worth the price of admission, but I’ll admit that my mind was worn out after several weeks of parsing Dr. Owen’s impeccable exposition and logic.
In the years since, the thought has crossed my mind many times that a more up-to-date but equally exhaustive defense of particular atonement is needed. Late last fall, Crossway books filled this void. In From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical Theological and Pastoral Perspective, a number of leading Reformed evangelical pastor/scholars are assembled to present what will certainly become the standard defense of particular redemption for years to come. So far, the winter has been bitter in the United States from the northeast all the way down to the Southeast where I live, so this has made for a perfect time to sit down and engage this 700-page work. It is a theological, exegetical, historical and pastoral feast. It is to the issue of definite atonement what Tom Nettles’ By His Grace and For His Glory is to the issue of the doctrines of grace in Baptist life.
The defenders include some of the most able lights among Reformed evangelical pastors and scholars: John Piper, my family’s former pastor Tom Schreiner, Carl Trueman, Sinclair Ferguson, Robert Letham, Stephen J. Wellum, Paul Helm and my dear friend Michael A.G. Haykin. From Heaven He Came and Sought Her engages all the burning historical, theological and exegetical issues and questions surrounding particular atonement: Calvin and the extent of the atonement, the “all” texts, election on the OT and NT, the intent of penal substitutionary atonement, the necessity of duty faith, the question of a genuine Gospel offer, the notion of “double payment” inherent to general atonement and many additional questions.
The book seeks to show that the extent of the atonement is not merely an academic debate, but is one fraught with practical implications. For example, as to the question, “Should pastors preach on the extent of the atonement?”, the authors argue the affirmative and go to great lengths to show why it is a pastorally relevant issue. John Piper gives a number of practical reasons why we should preach particular atonement. Here’s one:
“Knowing and experiencing the reality of definite atonement affects us with deeper gratitude. We feel more thankfulness for a gift given to us in particular, rather than feeling like it was given to no specific people and we happened to pick it up. The world should be thankful that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. But those who belong to Christ should be far more thankful because the very faith that unites us to Christ for all his promises was purchased and secured by the blood of the new covenant.”
This is not a review, for I must admit that I am only a few chapters into the book. Perhaps someone (I may just have volunteered) on the Founders blog will offer a full-blown review in the near future. It is the perfect book for those who are continuing to wrestle with the extent of the atonement and need assistance in understanding the Reformed view. We usually reserve reading lists for summer, but move this one close to the top of your winter reading priorities.