Formulations for Limited Atonement that differ from John Murray’s




I have no time for a comprehensive survey of every historical Reformed formulation on the extent of the Atonement, but it might be helpful to point out a few to show that there is more than one option. Let’s start with Calvin: In Book III of his Institutes, “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ . . . ,” he states:

We must now examine this question. How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son-not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us . . . for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. It is true that we obtain this by faith. Yet since we see that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel, reason itself teaches us to climb higher and to examine into the secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits [ III, 1.1, Ford Lewis Battles, tr (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), p. 537 (emphasis added)].

Now, while I think it is anachronistic to ask if Calvin believed in limited atonement (and light-years beyond the scope of this post!–and unnecessary since it has now been addressed elsewhere), it is worth asking if modern calvinists are comfortable with this formulation, especially having been taught to worry about the alleged efficacy of the atonement. Calvin obviously believed in predestination. He also believed that God sent His Son to wrought a salvation for those people whom the Father elected to eternal life. Yet, he obviously thought this salvation was “potential,” for no one is saved until they are given union with Christ. It is not the atonement which is intrinsically “definite,” but rather the intention of God and the work of the Spirit.

Making a jump down the road a few years in Church history, we come to Zacharias Ursinus, the principle author of the Heidelberg Catechism. Ursinus, as a proto-scholastic, was somewhat more academic, in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, than Calvin in certain areas. Thus, Ursinus deals with the scholastic theorizing which had been done for centuries on the extent of the atonement. Ursinus defends limited atonement, but then asks about “seemingly opposite passages of Scripture” [p. 222]. Some, he says, “interpret these general declarations of the whole number of the faithful, or of all that believe.” But

Others reconcile these seemingly contradictory passages of Scripture by making a distinction between the sufficiency, and efficacy of the death of Christ. For there are certain contentious persons, who deny that these declarations which speak in a general way, are to be restricted to the faithful alone, that is, they deny that the letter itself, or the simple language of Scripture does thus limit them, and in proof thereof they bring forward those passages in which salvation seems to be attributed, not only to those that believe, but also to hypocrites and apostates, as it is said: “Denying the Lord which bought them.” And, also, where it is said that they “have forgotten that they were purged from their old sins” (2 Pet 2.1; 1.9). But it is manifest that declarations of this kind are to be understood either concerning the mere external appearance, and vain glorying of redemption, or of the sanctification; or else of the sufficiency, and greatness of the merit of Christ . . . that those places which speak of the redemption of hypocrites may the more easily be reconciled, some prefer (and not without reason according to my judgment) to interpret those declarations, which in appearance seem to be contradictory, partly of sufficiency, and partly of application and efficacy of the death of Christ . . . . They affirm, therefore, that Christ died for all, and that he did not die for all; but in different respects. He died for all, as touching the sufficiency of the ransom which he paid; and not for all; but only for the elect, or those that believe, as touching the application and efficacy thereof [Ibid, pp. 222-223].

Here we have a formulation that seems quite close to Calvin’s short statement. God sent His son for the whole human race, in a sense, but only those to whom Christ is applied savingly benefit from His atonement. While Murray’s primary concern seems to be a less-than-efficacious atonement, Ursinus is anxious about a less-than-sufficient one: “For it cannot be said to be insufficient, unless we give countenance to that horrible blasphemy (which God forbid!) that some blame of [sic] the destruction of the ungodly results from a defect in the merit of the mediator” [p. 228].

Interestingly, in defending the all-sufficiency of the atonement and its relationship to the unregenerate, Ursinus gives us a virtually identical dynamic to that of common grace and reprobation:

It is in the same way, that is, by making the same distinction that we reply to those who ask concerning the purpose of Christ, Did he will to die for all? For just as he died, so also he willed to die. Therefore, as he died for all, in respect to the sufficiency of his ransom; and for the faithful alone in respect to the efficacy of the same, so also he willed to die for all in general, as touching the sufficiency of his merit, that is, he willed to merit by his death, grace, righteousness, and life in the most abundant manner for all; because he would not that any thing should be wanting as far as he and his merits are concerned, so that all the wicked who perish should be without excuse. But he willed to die for the elect alone as touching the efficacy of his death, that is, he would not only sufficiently merit grace and life for them alone, but also effectually confers these upon them, grants faith, and the Holy Spirit, and brings it to pass that they apply to themselves, by faith, the benefits of his death, and so obtain for themselves the efficacy of his merits [Ibid, p. 223]

[Note: Murray’s discussion of a distinction in the love of God–His general love of all people His special love for those He has decided to give eternal life-seems related to this. I whole-heartedly agree with this presentation, which in itself is sufficient, in my opinion, to give an adequate expression of the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement (Collected Works, Vol 1, p. 69ff).].

Finally, and most apropos to this post’s category, Ursinus claims that the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement for all is the foundation for “the free offer of the Gospel”:

In this sense it is correctly said that Christ died in a different manner for believers and unbelievers. Neither is this declaration attended with any difficulty or inconvenience, inasmuch as it harmonizes not only with scripture, but also with experience; for both testify that the remedy of sin and death is most sufficiently and abundantly offered in the Gospel to all; but that it is effectually applied, and profitable only to them that believe [Ibid, p. 223-224. Emphasis added].

Of course, Ursinus is a rather antiquated theologian, and Calvin is even more so. There has been plenty of positive development since their time, and the point of these citations is not to simply call us back to any sort of earlier better age. That would be a foolish over-generalization.

But it is worth noting that there seem to be other formulations available for consideration, which Murray does not seem to find worth consideration. Only once in Murray have I found any mention of the traditional efficiency/sufficiency distinction which was seen as essential to the issue by Francis Turretin [Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 2, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), p. 458ff], Louis Berkhof [Systematic Theology, p. 393ff], Loraine Boettner [The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1932), p. 150ff], and many more Reformed theologians of some repute. Murray himself admits in a book review that Calvin accepted the distinction [Collected Works, vol 1, p. 312. This is the only mention I can find in which Murray acknowledges the distinction].

Finally, the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches limited atonement, not because of the “efficacy” of the atonement, but because God infallibly decrees in eternity whom He will save: “To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually apply and communicate the same” (8.6). As I noticed in a previous post, it is the Holy Spirit who applies the redemption purchased by Christ: “God did, from all eternity, decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins, and rise for their justification: nevertheless, they are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them” (11.4). Likewise, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms teach that elect sinners are saved when the Spirit gives them union with Christ (q66; q29, q30). While Murray insisted the elect were redeemed at the time of Christ’s work on the cross [Redemption: Accomplished & Applied, p. 63], the Larger Catechism teaches that they are redeemed when the Holy Spirit applies Christ to them (q57; q154).

My point here is that all these views base their doctrine of limited atonement on the doctrine of predestination. Nothing is said about the “efficaciousness” of the atonement itself. The point is that God has decreed who will benefit from the atonement, just like He has decreed who will benefit from all His other gifts.

1 thought on “Formulations for Limited Atonement that differ from John Murray’s

  1. Steven W


    Some of that Ursinus stuff was actually added by David Pareus. I’m thinking of the section that talks about “for all” in one sense and “not for all” in another sense. That rhetoric.

    Anways, Pareus was Ursinus’ successor and renown interpreter. He was invited to Dort, but was too old to attend. Instead he wrote a letter which stated:

    “The cause and matter of the passion of Christ was the sense and sustaining of the anger of God excited against the sin, not of some men, but of the whole human race; whence it arises, that the whole of sin and of the wrath of God against it was endured by Christ, but the whole of reconciliation was not obtained or restored to all. ”

    This can be found in John Davenant’s Dissertation on the Death of Christ pg. 355-356.


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