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Why Will You Die?

A Brief Defense of John Murray’s "the Free Offer of the Gospel," & A Question About the Extent of the Atonement

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

John Murray (1898-1975) is probably the last of the great American theologians; he belonged in the same set as that which contains such eminent Presbyterians as Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield. The late professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (1937-1966) was not only justly famous for his theological knowledge but also for his exegetical skill and his willingness to use that skill patiently and carefully in order to ensure a proper understanding of Scripture.

As a former "baptist"[1] who was converted to the Reformed Faith in high school, and who now is getting an M.Div. in order to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church of America, I have always been led to have high regard for Murray-yet I have not had much direct acquaintance with his work. One of the problems with much of the popularizations and summaries, elaborations and developments of the Reformed Faith, is that one can very easily overlook some of the basic theological works. Also, one can read sources from one point in history (say Calvin, or the Puritans, or the Scottish Covenanters) and overlook how the Reformed Faith has developed since that time. Thus, this is the foundation of my interest in getting acquainted with Murray’s writings.

Murray did not write a systematic theology. He concentrated on certain areas where he thought he could make a worthwhile contribution. Thus, certain doctrines in particular are associated with his name. Two of those are the main subject of this paper: "the free offer of the Gospel," and limited atonement. Both of these doctrines are controversial. The latter is controversial among Evangelicals because it is often considered both an ugly doctrine and one with the least justification in Scripture. The former is not controversial among Evangelicals, or even among Presbyterians who are self-consciously more selective in their theology than Evangelicals, but was quite controversial among some Reformed thinkers such as Gordon Clark at the time of the "Van Til-Clark debate" and Herman Hoeksema who earlier had started the Protestant Reformed Church.

While both these doctrines are controversial to various people, they are even more controversial taken together. It seems incompatible to many to believe that God desires all men to be saved and yet that His Son died for some of them and not others. In fact, one can easily see that the Evangelicals oppose the latter because they think it is inconsistent with the former. Likewise, those siding with Gordon Clark and Herman Hoeksema oppose the former because they think it is contrary to the latter.[2]

Murray, however, as we will see, denied any such incompatibility. Moreover, he strongly contended that both doctrines were imbedded in the Reformation tradition and had always been seen as compatible: "The Reformed doctrine of limited atonement stresses emphatically the universal offer of the gospel and the will of God to the salvation of all referred to in such a passage as Ezekiel 33:11."[3]

The purpose of this paper is to summarize Murray’s doctrine and defense of the "free offer of the Gospel" and to then briefly question how it relates to his articulation of limited atonement.

The Genuine Offer of the Gospel

In his defense of "The Free Offer of the Gospel," John Murray[4] wrote,

It would appear that the real point in dispute in connection with the free offer of the gospel is whether it can properly be said that God desires the salvation of all men. The Committee elected by the Twelfth General Assembly in its report to the Thirteenth General Assembly said, "God not only delights in the penitent but is also moved by the riches of his goodness and mercy to desire the repentance and salvation of the impenitent and reprobate."

Thus, the issue seems to hinge on whether or not the offer of the Gospel by God to the reprobate can be legitimately described as "sincere," or "genuine." Since I find the term, "free offer," less than perspicuous, I will henceforth use the term "genuine" or "sincere" to refer to the offer of the gospel as described in the above quotation from Murray.[5]

Murray offers several exegetical arguments for his position, but all of these will make more sense if we first deal with some background theological concepts. The debate over the genuine offer of the Gospel is a subset of the debate over the doctrine of common grace. Murray himself indicates as much when he uses Matthew 5.44-48 to argue for the sincere offer of the Gospel, a text we will see is at the heart of his argument for common grace.[6]

Common Grace

John Murray believed in common grace. Indeed, he considered the subject "not only of particular but also of very urgent interest to the person who accepts the witness of Scripture regarding the total depravity of human nature by reason of sin."[7] In his essay, Murray states several things about common grace which are relevant to God’s sincere offer of the Gospel to the reprobate. The most important of these is that "unregenerate men are recipients of divine favor and goodness."[8]

God loves the unregenerate. To defend this proposition, Murray cites Acts 14.16, 17 and 17.30 in which Paul preaches to pagans that God has not left them without witness to Himself-specifically witness to "his own goodness."[9] Murray also points to Matthew 5.44, 45 and Luke 6.35, 36 where believers are exhorted to love their enemies in order to show forth God’s own character.

Here the disciples are called upon to emulate in their own sphere and relations the character of God, their Father, in his own sphere and relations. God is kind and merciful to the unthankful and the evil; he makes his sun to rise upon evil and good, and sends rain upon just and unjust. Both on the ground of express statements and on the ground of what is obviously implied in the phrases, "sons of your Father" and "sons of the Most High," there can be no escape from the conclusion that goodness and beneficence, kindness and mercy are here attributed to God in his relations even to the ungodly. And this simply means that the ungodly are recipients of blessings that flow from the love, goodness, kindness and mercy of God. Again it would be desperate exegetical violence that would attempt to separate the good gifts bestowed from the disposition of kindness and mercy in the mind of God.[10]

Some Critics Of Common Grace. Nevertheless, there are Reformed thinkers who would contend that they can deny any such "disposition" to God without being guilty of "desperate exegetical violence." Perhaps the most well-known of those who would deny Murray’s exegetical conclusion are Hoeksema, Engelsma, and North.[11] But these authors, in their books on the subject, do not deal with the exegesis.

Hoeksema does not even mention Luke 6.35, 36 in his magnum opus, Reformed Dogmatics.[12] Furthermore, his "discussion" of Matthew 5.44, 45 is rather trite.[13] Having surveyed other passages of Scripture, Hoeksema develops a definition of love which dictates that it "can exist only in the sphere of ethical perfection. It requires an ethically perfect subject as well as an ethically perfect object." Having developed this definition, he then "in passing, remarks" that the sort of love to which Jesus refers in Matthew 5.44 must refer to a substandard "onesided" sort of love. But why was not this verse included in the passages which contributed to Hoeksema’s definition of love? Why is it only worthy of a "passing" and dismissive "remark" after a definition which excluded it from consideration has already been decided upon? Hoeksema gives us here a case study in arbitrary theology, in which the conclusions are known well in advance of the investigation.[14]

It is this assertion that love requires perfection which Hoeksema invoked in a much earlier and now less-well-known work to defuse the import of Matthew 5.44-45. According to Hoeksema, to use the text to prove common grace "proves too much" and "leads to absurdity." It proves too much because "all the Scriptures witness that God does not love, but hates his enemies and purposes to destroy them." It leads to absurdity because "if rain and sunshine are a manifestation of love for all men, the just and the unjust, what are floods and droughts, pestilences and earthquakes and all destructive forces and evils sent to all through nature, but manifestations of His hatred for all, the just and the unjust?"[15]

Finally, Hoeksema demonstrates the desperate exegetical violence which Murray mentions: "Besides, it must not be overlooked that the text does not at all state that God is gracious to the just and to the unjust, but that He rains and causes His sun to shine on all."[16]

What are we to say to all this? First of all, the plain meaning of Jesus’ words is that the natural blessings brought through God’s providence represent His love. Hoeksema has done nothing to disprove this obvious fact.

Second, it is well worth asking how we are to interpret the destructive forces of nature, but such a question cannot reduce the plain meaning of Jesus’ words to absurdity, unless God can be guilty of absurdity, which is blasphemous to contemplate. Perhaps we need to ask if we have not created more trouble than necessary by absolutizing the distinction between God’s "Fatherly displeasure" and His "wrath," between "discipline" and "chastisement" on the one hand, and "punishment" on the other. As Louis Berkhof asks rhetorically: "Are the elect in this life the objects of God’s love only, and never in any sense the objects of His wrath? Is Moses thinking of the reprobate when he says: ‘For we are consumed in thine anger, and in thy wrath we are troubled’? Psa 90.7."[17] It is a profound truth and great comfort that all things, including sufferings, work ultimately to our good as Christians. The question is whether that fact necessitates that all things are alike and in the same way to be considered "good" simply because of the future result in glory.[18]

Third, Murray does not deny the doctrine of reprobation, that God purposes to destroy some of His enemies, those whom He does not reconcile to Himself. Murray, like those Hoeksema is attacking, believes that common grace is compatible with reprobation. To say that a passage that seems to teach common grace simply cannot do so because other passages clearly teach reprobation, is to fundamentally beg the question. Hoeksema needs to demonstrate this contradiction, not simply assume it as the basis of his argument.

David Engelsma only mentions Matthew 5.44-48 once in his defense of Hoeksema from the charge of "hyper-calvinism." Of Murray’s and Stonehouse’s booklet on "The Free Offer of the Gospel" he writes:

But where do they begin when they look for Biblical support for this doctrine? Matthew 5.44-48! a passage which they themselves admit "does not indeed deal with the overtures of grace in the gospel . . . . The particular aspect of God’s grace reflected upon here is the common gifts of providence, the making of the sun to rise upon evil and good . . . ." Nevertheless, this "common grace" in things temporal is made the foundation and source of the doctrine of a grace of God that desires salvation and that operates in the preaching: in the common grace of God "is disclosed to us a principle that applies to all manifestations of divine grace, namely, that the grace bestowed expresses the lovingkindness in the heart of God . . . ."[19]

Yet, after strongly denying that Matthew 5.44-48 has anything to do with the genuine offer of the Gospel, on the very next page Engelsma writes:

Men simply cannot escape the overpowering testimony of Scripture that the grace of God is one, not two, and that this grace is the glorious favor of God towards damnworthy sinners that wills their deliverance from sin and death, provides redemption for them in the cross of the Beloved, and manifests itself in the gospel. If, then, there is a grace of God for all, men must conclude that the grace of God in Christ Jesus is for all. . . The only safeguard against universal, saving grace is the complete repudiation of Kuyperian common grace.

Now Engelsma is, as far as I can tell, making some gross exaggerations in merging universalism, with hypothetical universalism, with the sincere offer of the Gospel, with common grace, but, at the very least, this statement strongly supports the use of Matthew 5.44, 45 to defend the genuine offer of the Gospel! If Engelsma is even partly right (and he is only partly right), then it makes perfect sense to cite God’s disposition of love toward the reprobate as evidence that this disposition motivates the offer of the Gospel. Yet Engelsma never bothers to explain where Murray made his mistake. He simply goes on to argue against common grace and the sincere offer of the Gospel without ever again mentioning Matthew 5.44, 45. He avoids "desperate exegetical violence" by simply avoiding exegesis altogether.

Finally, Gary North denies Murray’s conclusions as they are articulated by Cornelius Van Til in his "book," Common Grace and the Gospel.[20] North gets points for actually reproducing the verses in question, however, he does not, in my opinion, give us any exegetical reason to deny that God loves the evil on whom he causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall.[21] Instead, he invokes Romans 12.20:

Why are we to be kind to our enemies? First, because God instructs us to be kind. He is graciously kind to them, and we are to imitate Him. Second, by showing mercy, we thereby heap coals of fire on their rebellious heads. From him to whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12.47-48). Our enemy will receive greater punishment through all eternity because we have been merciful to him. Third, we are promised a reward from God for being obedient to His commands. The language could not be any plainer. Any discussion of common grace which omits Proverbs 25.21-22 (Romans 12.20) from consideration is a misleading and incomplete discussion of the topic.[22]

North argues that, "The wrath of God abides on the unbeliever in the present. But as we shall see, this wrath takes the form of favors (not favor) shown to the unbeliever in history."[23] Because God plans for the reprobate to be punished more severely for not responding correctly to these "favors" which He gives them, His motive for giving these "favors" cannot be accurately described as gracious. God is contributing to the severity of the punishment of the reprobate. To quote North’s own memorable formulation: "God gives ethical rebels enough rope to hang themselves for all eternity."[24]

The Case for Common Grace. Murray, however, has a reply for the objection of North and others. He is well aware of the implications of the doctrine of predestination, particularly reprobation. He writes, "It is without question true that good gifts abused will mean greater condemnation for the finally impenitent," and even quotes North’s prooftext, Luke 12.48. But Murray’s vision penetrates beyond this seeming incompatibility to see how reprobation is not antithetical to God’s grace but requires it:

In fact, it is just because they are good gifts and manifestations of the kindness and mercy of God that the abuse of them brings greater condemnation and demonstrates the greater inexcusability of impenitence. Ultimate condemnation, so far from making void the reality of the grace bestowed in time, rather in this case rests upon the reality of the grace bestowed and enjoyed. It will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for Capernaum. But the reason is that Capernaum was privileged to witness the mighty works of Christ as the supreme exhibitions of the love, goodness and power of God.[25]

To use Gary North’s terminology: God does give the reprobate "enough rope to hang themselves," but if that "rope" isn’t truly grace then it isn’t truly "rope." If North is right, then on Judgment Day the reprobate can plead "not guilty" to the charge of spurning the grace of God.

Grace & (In)Gratitude

After this brief answer, Murray moves on to other aspects of common grace, but it seems needful to give the issue some more elaboration. In Romans 1.18ff, the Apostle Paul sets forth the fundamental predicament of all men: All people everywhere are sinners against God. The primary message usually taken from this passage is that people are self-deceived because they suppress God’s revelation of Himself in nature and history by worshipping some aspect of creation. However, there is another aspect to Paul’s verdict on the Human race: "For even though they knew God they did not glorify Him as God, or give thanks" (1.21a; emphasis added). All people everywhere have received good gifts from God, gifts for which they ought to be grateful. But they are not grateful for these gifts and are guilty of hard-hearted ingratitude.

These good gifts which God gives in creation are not deserved on the part of man-not even Adam before the Fall could say he deserved the blessings which God had piled upon him (though at least he did not merit damnation). Furthermore, after the Fall, God continues to give good gifts to some degree or other even to hellworthy sinners. Whatever else they might be, these undeserved gifts cannot fail to be characterized as gracious. Along with general revelation, common grace is the basis for the condemnation of sinful man. Sinners are sinful because they are ingrates in the face of God’s love.[26]

There is more to be said of God’s love and its relationship to reprobation, but the issue will be pursued after summarizing Murray’s basis for the genuine offer of the Gospel.

Distinctions Within Common Grace

Common grace, according to Murray, does not mean "that each particular favor is given to all without discrimination or distinction."[27] Rather it simply means the grace is held in common between the elect and the reprobate. It is manifest in "every favor of whatever kind or degree, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hands of God."[28]

Citing Herman Kuiper’s work, Calvin on Common Grace (1928), Murray lists three classification of non-saving grace:

  1. Universal Common Grace is God’s favor toward all creatures as creatures, despite the curse of sin.
  2. General Common Grace is God’s favor toward all human beings as image-bearers of God, despite their sin.
  3. Covenant Common Grace is God’s special favor toward all members of His Covenant whether elect or reprobate.[29]

It is this last form of common grace which brings us to the genuine offer of the Gospel. God shows special favor to all those who are brought near to His saving grace. While Murray probably had non-elect professing believers in mind, there’s no reason why those who are reached by evangelists would not be seen as receiving this type of common grace. At the very least, they would occupy a position somewhere between the second and third classification.

The Gospel Offer is Sincere

The texts Murray cites to prove that God sincerely desires the repentance of the reprobate are rather straightforward. Indeed, the issues are more or less settled by whether or not one acknowledges the reality of common grace. If God’s desires or pleasures can only be exhaustively identical to His decrees, then such statements as, "’As I live!’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?’" (Eze 33.11; cf. 18.23, 32), can only be rationalized away for the sake of alleged theological consistency. Thus, John Gerstner insists that Murray (and Stonehouse) must be wrong:

We certainly agree that if God says that He desired what He did not desire we would have to agree with God. Since we know that God does not desire what God does not desire, for this is evident on every page of Scripture, as well as in the logical nature of God and man, we know this exegesis is in error, must be in error, cannot but be in error. . . But where is it’s error? It must be that Murray and Stonehouse are taking God literally where He desires to be taken anthropomorphically. . .[30]

There are a couple things to say of Gerstner here: In the first place, it is rather hard to see any difference between saying that passages like Ezekiel 33.11 are meant "to be taken anthropomorphically" and saying that such passages are not true. What good is a verbal affirmation of Scriptural infallibility if any passage therein can be so easily done away with? Anthropomorphisms, whatever else one might say about them, are supposed to communicate truth; but Gerstner leaves this passage without admitting that it contains any message for us whatsoever. He only goes on for more than a page on how it does not mean, cannot mean, must not mean what it says.[31]

Secondly, as we will see below, Murray does not present a contradiction. What Gerstner insists is a contradiction, Murray insists is not one. Thus, Gerstner is begging the question throughout his critique. He never argues that a contradiction exists but only quotes one portion of Murray’s essay which sets forth what appears to be contradictory. He then asserts that the apparent contradiction is real and concludes that Murray’s position must be wrong.

Other passages Murray cites are, in addition to passages used to prove common grace, Deuteronomy 5.29; 32.29; Psalm 81.13ff; Isaiah 48.18; Matthew 23.37; Luke 13.34; Isaiah 45.22; and 2 Peter 3.9. A detailed defense of these passages would be redundant, since all the counterarguments I can find involve heavy-handed special pleading which presupposes that passages teaching a genuine offer of the Gospel would contradict other passages. What is manifestly lacking, as in the case of Gerstner, is proof that such a formal contradiction is present between the doctrine of reprobation and the genuine offer. It is simply asserted.[32]

God’s Plan, God’s Attitude & the Nature of Things

Gary North wants to make a decisive distinction between God’s "favor" and "favors"-only allowing the latter to the reprobate. Hoeksema maintains the same sort of division. In his self-interrogating catechism he writes:

9. Is it then, not also true, that in these things of this present life both the godly and ungodly receive tokens of God’s favor toward them?

By no means; for, as it must be evident both from Scripture and experience that the evil things of this present life, such as sickness, pain, sorrow, adversity, poverty, yea, even death, are not sent to the godly in God’s wrath and to curse them; so it must be evident that the good things of this present life; are not sent to the wicked in God’s favor and to bless them. We must not confuse grace and things.

10. In what light, then, must we consider the things which in this life the godly and ungodly have in common, in order correctly to evaluate them and understand their significance?

In the light of eternity. All the things of the present life are but means to an eternal end. As they are received by us and employed by us as rational-moral creatures they all bear fruit, either to eternal life and glory, or to eternal death and desolation. If they tend to life they are bestowed on us in the grace of God and are a blessing, no matter whether they are in health or sickness, prosperity or adversity, life or death, for all things work together for good to them that love God; if they tend to death and damnation they are bestowed on us in God’s wrath and are a curse, even though our eyes stand out with fatness and we bathe in luxury.[33]

Murray simply does not accept this sort of reasoning. He makes a distinction, using traditional dogmatic terminology between different sorts of ways in which God wills:

It is not to be forgotten that when it is said that God absolutely and universally takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, we are not here speaking of God’s decretive will. In terms of his decretive will it must be said that God absolutely decrees the eternal death of some wicked and, in that sense, is absolutely pleased so to decree. But in the text it is the will of God’s benevolence (voluntas eurastias) that is stated, not the will of God’s decree (voluntas eudokias). It is, in our judgment, quite unjustifiable to think that in this passage there is any reflection upon the decretive will of God . . .[34]

Thus, it is simply wrong to insist that the end to which a thing (sunshine, rain, a presentation of the Gospel, etc.) will lead according to God’s immutable and infallible plan is the only consideration one should weigh in deciding whether it is a "favor"[35] or represent’s God’s attitude of "favor." To use different terminology, Murray is rejecting an exclusively teleological approach to understanding God’s actions.[36] Is this rejection warranted?

Yes, because an exclusively teleological approach would lead one to accuse God of hating His creatures without cause. This is the case because reprobation has occurred apart from depravity on the part of those who were reprobate. For instance, when the Devil and his angels first fell, they fell from grace. Their punishment was and will be determined in part by how much they had received from God, for which they were not properly grateful. Furthermore, God gave many favors to Adam and Eve–for all of which they were held accountable. Every good and perfect gift which God gave to Adam and Eve only added to the perversity of their sin. Unless one denies that, "from everyone who has been given much shall much be required," is a universal principle, one simply cannot deny that all the favors shown to Satan, Adam, and Eve simply magnified the seriousness of their sin and the severity of their condemnation.[37]

But does this fact mean that God did not love Adam and Eve? Were Adam and Eve, knowing that it was possible that they might Fall, supposed to infer that God might not love them? Were they supposed to wonder about all the good things they had been given by God–to worry that maybe God was "setting them up"? To ask such questions is to answer them. God unambiguously revealed His love for Adam and Eve in all the blessings which He lavished upon them. To claim otherwise is to take sides with the Serpent who ascribed horrible and underhanded motives to God.

Of course, it is hard to understand how God could love a creature and predestine his sin. But this is simply a problem that theists are going to have to live with.[38] Anyone who admits that God knows the future, even if he rejects foreordination, is going to have problems understanding how God maintains a genuinely loving relationship with his ethical creatures. If God knows that John Smith will reject the Gospel, and yet brings it about that John Smith is offered the Gospel, isn’t God merely guilty of entrapment? Likewise, if God knows that every privilege and blessing He gives to Satan, Adam, and Eve will be eventually rejected and exacerbate their sin, then isn’t God enticing them into a greater rebellion? How can He possibly view His gifts to such creatures to be "good" for them when He knows evil will result?

It is hard to quite get one’s mind around this problem, but the answer has to be that God’s blessings are blessings apart from the ends to which they lead. Grace is grace, even if it leads to reprobation. God’s offer is sincere, and His mercy–even His non-saving mercy–is genuine. The Bible speaks both of sincere offers and certain reprobation. The Bible, it seems, does not deny the reality of teleology in God’s plan, but it does not allow teleology to exhaustively explain God’s feelings toward people, or our interpretation of his gracious acts of providence.


The reality of reprobation seems to eliminate the possibility of God’s favor toward the reprobate. Yet reprobation presupposes God’s gracious lovingkindness which sinners are foreordained to reject. Whether this non-saving grace is mere sunlight, or a full-orbed presentation of the Gospel, it represents God’s sincere and genuine love, for which the reprobate will be condemned for rejecting. Thus, the exegetical findings of Murray in his defense of the genuine offer of the Gospel are not subversive to the truth of God’s absolute predestination. Our initial evaluation of the relationship between common grace and reprobation stands: without the former the latter could not happen.

Limited Atonement

Having argued that the genuine offer is compatible with reprobation, we must ask if it is compatible with the doctrine of limited atonement. Murray insisted that the two doctrines were compatible-"the doctrines of particular election, differentiating love, and limited atonement do not erect any fence around the offer of the Gospel"[39]-and wrote an essay giving his conception of their relationship.

As in his chapter in Redemption: Accomplished & Applied,[40] Murray insists that the atonement is either limited in extent or limited in efficacy. Murray sides with a limited extent claiming that a limited efficacy would mean that there is no Gospel to freely and sincerely offer:

If Christ-and therefore salvation in its fullness and perfection-is offered, the only doctrine of the atonement that will ground and warrant this overture is that of salvation wrought and redemption accomplished. And the only atonement that measures up to such conditions is a definite atonement. In other words, an atonement construed as providing the possibility of salvation or the opportunity of salvation does not supply the basis required for what constitutes the gospel offer. It is not the opportunity of salvation that is offered; it is salvation. And it is salvation because Christ is offered and Christ does not invite us to mere opportunity but to himself.[41]

Here I begin to get confused. There is a vast difference between saying Christ died only so that those who hear the Gospel might have the opportunity to be saved and saying that the evangelist presents his listeners with the opportunity to be saved. The latter statement is most certainly correct and perfectly compatible with predestination. All who hear the Gospel have the opportunity of salvation. They may take advantage of that opportunity by repentance from sin and faith toward Christ. Obviously, only those effectually called will take advantage of this opportunity.

Limited Atonement & the Object of Faith

The fact is, despite Murray’s assertions to the contrary, it is hard for me to see how his formulation of limited atonement, does not undermine his defense of the genuine offer.

This is the problem: Sinners are justified through faith. They must trust in Jesus Christ to save them instead of themselves. This means, among other things, they must believe that Jesus’ atonement satisfied for all their sins. But that is exactly what certain portrayals of limited atonement will not allow them to do. Limited atonement is often articulated in such a way that Christ died for some people somewhere. But believing that Christ died for some unidentified people cannot possibly be enough for saving faith; even Satan could believe such a thing!

To see the problem more clearly, let’s consider the case of a stereotypical "christian" legalist being confronted with the Gospel: How can he turn from trusting in his own works to trusting in the work of Christ if in fact he has no reason to believe that the work of Christ was done for him? If faith requires an object, then conversion is impossible because there is nothing to which to convert. There is no atoning work which one can trust.

To say that Christ’s atonement is satisfactory for the sins of all those who will repent is no help here. Reformed dogmatics in general, and John Murray in particular, is quite clear that faith and repentance are inseparable.[42] But to encourage people to repent and follow Christ that they may be assured that the atonement satisfies for them, puts asunder what God has joined together. The recipients of the Gospel are put in the rather terrifying position of going through the motions (profession, baptism, prayer, and other good works with which one wishes to demonstrate regeneration) in the hope that, once in the "visible church," they might come to believe that their sins have been atoned for.[43]

The bottom line here is that I cannot tell with Murray if the elect are already saved by Christ and discover this fact when they hear the Gospel, or if they are saved by the Holy Spirit’s application of the work of Christ to them. Murray is quite insistent that the elect are justified, sanctified, etc., at some point during their lives, but it is difficult to see how he can make good on his claim. As a result, a tension is created between presenting an opportunity for salvation and simply declaring the salvation of the elect, whoever they may be.

Is Potential Salvation Such a Bad Thing?

Murray asks, "Did Christ come to make the salvation of men possible, to remove obstacles that stood in the way of salvation, and merely to make provision for salvation? Or did he come to save his people?"[44] Now this question has plenty of teeth in it when used against Arminians, who do not believe that God infallibly and monergistically saves whom He wills to save. They believe that who is saved and who is not is a contingent matter as far as God is concerned. He can only offer up His Son and hope for the best. But this is not the issue among predestinarians. If God is sovereign, then a work which makes provision for salvation does not in any way mean that salvation is any less certain for those whom God has determined to save.

Nor is it self-evident that "merely" making salvation possible is some sort of insult to Christ. To see this we need only change one word in Murray’s question: Did Christ come to make the justification of men possible, to remove obstacles that stood in the way of justification, and merely to make provision for justification? Or did he come to justify his people? According to Murray, Christ made justification possible; it is made actual in time by faith.[45] Yet in what sense are individuals saved before they are justified? It simply does not seem possible. Furthermore, any attempt to solve this issue by distinguishing the "objective" work from the "subjective" seems to make personal justification a mere realization of what has already taken place.

If the Atonement Is So Efficacious, Why Are the Elect Ever Unjustified?

Murray writes,

If some for whom atonement was made and redemption wrought perish eternally, then the atonement is not itself efficacious. It is this alternative that the proponents of universal atonement must face. They have a "limited" atonement and limited in respect of that which impinges upon its essential character. We shall have none of it. The doctrine of "limited atonement" which we maintain is the doctrine which limits the atonement to those who are heirs of eternal life, to the elect. That limitation insures its efficacy and conserves its essential character as efficient and effective redemption.[46]

Again, this critique should give Arminians pause, but it does not seem all that persuasive to predestinarians. After all, many elect persons are dead in their sins for years, and by nature object of God’s wrath. If the atonement is so efficacious, why aren’t these people all justified from the moment they are conceived? Why does not the Holy Spirit come upon them in the womb?

The fact is that different people appropriate the atonement at various stages in life. It is hard to understand why the unsaved status of one "for whom the atonement was made" does not raise any questions about the efficacy of the atonement.

Other Formulations

This is 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.[47]

Now, while I think it is anachronistic to ask if Calvin believed in limited atonement (and light-years beyond the scope of this paper!) it is worth asking if modern calvinists are comfortable with this formulation. 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 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 and 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."[48] 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.[49]

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."[50]

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.[51]

Finally, and most apropos to this paper, 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.[52]

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,[53] Louis Berkhof,[54] Loraine Boettner,[55] and many more Reformed theologians of some repute. Murray himself admits in a book review that Calvin accepted the distinction.[56]

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). 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,[57] the Larger Catechism teaches that they are redeemed when the Holy Spirit applies Christ to them (q57; q154).[58]

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.


I have not attempted to argue with Murray’s exegetical arguments because of the limited scope of this paper, and I am convinced they are mostly dependent on the logical arguments he makes about either limiting extent or efficaciousness. I think Murray made a good case for the sincere offer of the Gospel that is compatible with reprobation. It is compatible with reprobation because, even though God does foreordain what will be done with all his gifts, it is wrong to simply define the value of those gifts according to what God has foreordained.

But Murray defends limited atonement by arguing that the atonement has already accomplished the salvation of the elect. That being the case, it is problematic to tell people to place their faith in Christ and His work, since they don’t know that they are included in it. I think Murray needs a formulation that makes the sufficiency of the atonement the object of faith. If the extent of the atonement is simply a matter of the intent of God as to who will trust in Christ and His work, then I suspect the difficulty is resolved.

The Gospel Offer

Murray writes of the preaching the Gospel, "It cannot be declared to men that, in the proper sense of the term, Christ died for them." Hoeksema would say that you can’t even say that God desires their salvation. If what is at issue is the decree of God, and not something intrinsic about the atonement, then these qualms seem quite similar.

The alternative I suggest is that one can declare to nonchristians that Christ died for them so that, if they refuse to repent, they will appear before God’s judgment seat, not only guilty of all their own multitudinous other sins, but guilty of the very blood of Christ–guilty of that blood which itself could compensate for all the sins of not only this world but an infinite number of worlds much worse than it. This seems to be the obvious apostolic witness of how the death of Christ affects the reprobates (Matt 23.34-36; Heb 10.19; 2 Pet 1.9; 2.1).

Whatever happens is ultimately caused by God’s decree. God has predestined whom will benefit savingly from the work of Christ, and His Spirit sovereignly, monergistically applies Christ to whom He wills. Furthermore, we must affirm that God was especially motivated to send Christ by His love for those whom He will ultimately ensure come to eternal life. Nevertheless, there is no reason to say that Christ’s atonement is therefore unavailable to the reprobate. It is available, and they are predestined to be condemned for not taking advantage of the opportunity.

Appendix I

John 3.16-21: What was the World which God Loved?

A major portion of my argument defending Murray’s position on common grace in general and on the genuine or sincere offer of the Gospel in particular is that God’s grace can and does lead to reprobation for those not given the special grace of "true" regeneration and/or perseverance in the Faith even though this grace is truly grace and the offer is sincere. While I have used rather traditional proof-texts to defend Murray, one passage would be particularly appropriate for my case (and Murray’s I trust) were it not commonly misinterpreted.


In the summer of 1995 at the annual Biblical Horizons conference, Peter Leithart gave three lectures on "The Eschatology of John’s Gospel." His thesis was that the Gospel of John, like the book of Hebrews and many other epistles, was concerned with the conflict between Christianity and Judaism and particularly aimed at discouraging apostasy on the part of Hebrew believers who might be enticed to try to go back to the Old Covenant. These lectures contained much of interest and fascination, but the point made by Mr. Leithart which concerns this paper is his interpretation of what Jesus meant by "the world" in John 15-17 as well as the first chapter.

John 15-17

The world, argued Mr. Leithart, is not primarily intended to be the world of unbelief in general (though it can be applied in that way). The world, as Jesus refers to it, means the world of first-century Judaism. Consider the following lines of evidence:

  1. Jesus uses terminology that could only apply to Judaism. "But they have done this in order that the word may be fulfilled that is written in their Law, ‘They hated Me without cause’" (15.25; italics added in all verses). "They will make you outcasts from the synagogue. . . ." (16.2). There is no need to elaborate on the import of these statements.
  2. Jesus states that "the world" in question is claiming to do the will of God. "But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me" (15.21). ". . . but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God" (16.2). Not only is the persecution prophesied here said to be done for the sake of God, but for the sake of Jesus Himself who is one with the Father. Unless Jesus is jumping centuries ahead to conflicts within the Church, this can only refer to persecution like that we read about in Acts. Persecutors like Saul of Tarsus are envisioned here. Even the persecution of the Church by Rome which we all associate with the New Testament era is not discussed in this prophecy.
  3. The world which will hate the Apostles is the same one that hated Jesus (15.18, 20; 17.14). John has made it perfectly clear that Jesus was opposed by the religious leaders of Judaism. Context demands that these opponents of Jesus are the ones who will oppose the Apostles.
  4. The world consists of those who witnessed Jesus’ ministry. "If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well" (15.24). Jesus ministry was primarily to Israel. This was especially emphasized in John’s Gospel. Again, context demands that "the world" be understood as the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Consider also Jesus reply to the high priest: "Jesus answered him, ‘I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in the synagogue and in the temple where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret" (18.23).

John 1

Mr. Leithart also argued that "the world" probably referred to Judaism in the first chapter of John’s Gospel. If v. 11 is explanatory of v. 10, then this is virtually undeniable:

v. 10
He was in the world, and the world was made through Him,
and the world did not know Him.
v. 11
He came to His own
and His own did not receive Him.

The force of this parallel is easily missed, I think, because of the creation motif which seems to require a more "cosmic" reference than Judaism. However, Israel’s formation was a new creation with cosmic implications (Isaiah 51.16),[59] and the nation was brought about through Jesus Christ as much as creation was. Furthermore, John goes on to write of the law of Moses (v. 17), and the witness of John the Baptist (v. 15) to the priests and Levites sent by the Jews from Jerusalem (v.19). This is a rather sudden change of subject if John is not referring to Judaism from the beginning.[60] Furthermore, "the world" is spoken of in close reference to Judaism.

The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’ And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water (John 1.29-31).

This last connection provides additional evidence that the Gospel of John is particularly concerned about the relationship between Jesus and Judaism. While the Apostle John’s statements can and should be applied to a wider situation, he seems specifically interested in the conflict between Church and Temple. His use of the term "the world" seems to be used to reflect this concern.

The Text

In the middle of his lecture, Mr. Leithart was asked if what he was saying had implications for John 3.16. His reply was that he didn’t know. He certainly wasn’t prepared to say that every use of the term "the world" had to possess the same meaning throughout the Gospel of John. This was, of course, a wise answer. The fact is that "the world" probably does not always mean first-century Judaism even in chapters 15-17 just because that is the predominate meaning in some important passages (17.5 for example). One has to look at each case and judge it on its own merits.

However, it seems likely to me that John 3.16-21 is referring to first-century Judaism. While the use of the term "the world" in the rest of the Gospel of John does not decide the issue by itself, it certainly makes the bare possibility much more plausible.

Usually, "the world" is thought to mean simply everyone. There is certainly evidence that Jesus loves the whole world (Gen 12.3b), but it does not seem all that relevant to what is going on in our passage. At issue between Nicodemus and Jesus is whether or not Nicodemus is qualified to be a teacher in Israel (vv. 10-12). Jesus claims that He is qualified because He comes from Heaven (v. 13). He further states that the primary teacher of Israel, Moses, taught about Him and declared Him to be the one who would save all who believe in Him (vv. 14-15).

Also, in v. 19, we have the direct allusion back to the first chapter: ". . . the light has come into the world . . ." (compare 1.9ff). If chapter one uses "the world" to refer to Judaism, then this would further indicate Jesus is not talking about all men generally here in chapter three, but primarily about Israel.

A final line of evidence, and the one most relevant to understanding our text, is that the passage seems to be evaluating something that has already happened-the rejection of Christ by the world. Consider that it is rather unlikely Jesus spoke the words of our passage to Nicodemus, contrary to all the red-letter Bibles.[61] The most natural reading is that John is commenting on what Jesus has said in vv. 11-15, explaining it and amplifying it.[62]

This understanding is substantiated by v. 19, which passes judgment on the world ("men") for rejecting the light. As mentioned above, this same appraisal was made in John’s prologue (i.e. 1.9, 10). It is obviously a summary of how Jesus was rejected by His contemporaries, as remembered by the Apostle John years after the fact. It makes perfect sense for John to write, "And this is the judgment . . ." It doesn’t make nearly as much sense for Jesus to say such a thing to Nicodemus.

Furthermore, a substantial period of time is needed for the content of v. 17 to be compatible with v. 19. First, we are told, "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge (krinh) the world, but that the world should be saved through Him." Then we read, "And this is the judgment (krisiss), that light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness . . ." The culmination of Jesus speech to Nicodemus was (probably) that the Son of Man must be lifted up so that whoever believes in Him might be saved. John makes that the starting point in his reflections in v. 16 stating that God loved the world and quotes Jesus’ speech that "whoever believes" will "have eternal life." Then he even goes further to deny that judgment had anything to do with the Son’s mission. Yet judgment is precisely what resulted from the Son’s mission. The Son’s mission was rejected.

Now, it is true that, by some definitions, "the world" may be declared as guilty of rejecting Christ (perhaps the use of the term in 1 John). But in such a case the world is defined as those who hate God and His Christ. It is tautological and trivial to give a historical overview that "the world" rejected God. If the world is interpreted more broadly, then the "judgment" in v. 19 is premature. The world is at least 2000 years away from it’s final evaluation (to resort to the most pessimistic scenario possible). With the destruction of Jerusalem imminent, and the rejection of both Jesus and the Apostolic witness an event in recent history, it makes much more sense for John to be discussing Judaism, not the whole planet.

For all of the above reasons-the wider context of the Gospel of John which uses "the world" to refer to Judaism, the context of the passage as summarizing Christ’s discussion with Nicodemus, and the nature of the passage as an evaluation of what has happened in the writer’s past-I am convinced that John 3.16-21 is referring to first-century Judaism or Israel when it speaks of "the world."

This interpretation has an obvious theological payoff for our discussion of common grace and the offer of the Gospel. John is reflecting on what happened in his lifetime: God loved Israel and sent Jesus to save Israel as the promised Messiah, not to judge it (vv. 16-17). But, by the very nature of God’s love and provision of salvation, those who refuse to believe in Jesus are judged (v. 18). Indeed, though God did not send Jesus to judge Israel, judgment has been passed on Israel because they rejected Jesus and, by implication, the love of God (v. 19).

Now, I don’t feel any need to argue here for what I consider the obvious fact that John believes in predestination, and therefore believes that Israel’s rejection of God’s love was foreordained by God Himself. Nevertheless, John does not hesitate to affirm God’s love of Israel. Indeed, Israel’s guilt is so great precisely because they have rejected such a great love. The eternal reprobation of that generation of Israel presupposes the covenantal election for Israel. If God did not love Israel in some sense, He could not have decreed for them to reject His love.

Appendix II

Romans 8.33: Who are the elect?-A Cautionary Note

In arguing for limited atonement, John Murray cites Romans 8.31-39, saying in part:

When we proceed to verse 33 the restrictive scope becomes unquestionably patent. For Paul says: "who will bring a charge against the elect of God? God is the one who justifies: who is he who condemns?" The thought moves strictly within the orbit defined by election and justification, and the reference to election and justification harks back to verses 28-30 where predestination and justification are shown to be co-extensive.[63]

Paul is undoubtedly capable of referring to those predestined to eternal life as the "elect," but he seems to be using the term differently here. To demonstrate this we will look at some instances where the New Testament speaks of election differently from (though certainly not in opposition to) the way the term is used in Reformed dogmatics. Then we will consider the context to see how Paul is using the term in Romans 8.33.

Election as an Historical Act

While the doctrine of election is taught plainly in Scripture (e.g. Eph 1.3-14), that does not mean every time the word "elect" is used, as either a verb or a noun, it is being used as a technical term for this doctrine. Here are some examples of some other uses of the verb, eklegomai , "to elect":

"And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when he noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table . . ." (Luke 14.7). What is Jesus observing here? Obviously, he sees the guests sitting down in certain seats. This is referred to as election. To elect the places of honor means to claim them by occupying them. Likewise, we read in Luke 6.13: "And when day came, He called His disciples to Him; and chose twelve of them, whom He named as apostles." Here "elected" is virtually synonymous with "appointed." The election was an action which took place in history.

In Acts we find similar usages. Peter declares to the Counsel of Jerusalem, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the Gospel and believe" (15.7). The event to which Peter referred was the vision he was given by God. God "elected" him by giving that vision. Peter is emphatic that the choice was made by God in time and space-"among you."

Likewise, Acts 13.17: "The God of this people Israel chose our fathers, and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with an uplifted arm He led them out from it." The most natural reading is that this passage lists three historical events, not one timeless decree and two historical events. God chose Abraham when He called him in Genesis 12.1-3.

All that is being said here is that the "election" or "choice" (which, remember, is all one Greek word, not a technical theological term) in Scripture has a similar semantic range to its English counterparts. If I hold up to you a platter of cookies and say, "Choose one," I am not simply requesting a mental operation. I am asking you to pick up a cookie with your hand and put it in your mouth. Choosing, depending on context, ranges from the mental action of making a decision upon which one will act in the future to actually acting. Thus, while we make a needed distinction in technical theology between God’s decree and His execution of His decree, the Bible is free to refer to either of these as God’s election. It is simply using ordinary language, and we must be careful not to import our own technical distinctions into the meaning of the words.

This range in meaning to the verb, eklegomai, is also reflected in the adjective and substantive noun, eklektoss – the "elect" or "chosen." Like his speech recorded in Acts 15, Peter also sometimes uses election to refer not to recipients of the eternal decree but to the recipients of the space-time action of God:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled clean with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in fullest measure (1 Pet 1.1, 2).

Here, our standard doctrine of election is not found in the word "chosen" or "elect," but in the word "foreknowledge. Having been foreknown by God, the recipients of Peter’s salutation have been "chosen" by the action of the Spirit in setting them apart.

Paul is apparently also capable of using the term in this way. He exhorts the Colossians to act "as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved" (3.12). While it is true that the elect are loved from eternity, they are not holy from eternity. They are holy when they are engrafted into Christ by the Holy Spirit and both forensically justified and definitively sanctified. Thus, to act as the "chosen of God" is almost meaningless if the term is being used in it’s technical sense in Reformed theology. Rather, to be "chosen" is to be actually called and regenerated and gathered into the Church. Likewise, "the faith of God’s elect" (Tit 1.1; NIV) makes little sense unless it means the faith of the visible saints, those who have actually begun in history to profess faith in Christ.

No Condemnation in Christ Jesus

The question remains: Are the "elect" in Romans 8.33 to be identified with those in Colossians 3.12 and Titus 1.1 or with those in Ephesians 1.4? The context would seem to indicate that the elect here are those who have been sanctified by the Spirit, engrafted into Christ, and given saving faith. The reason for coming to this conclusion is that Paul presents election and justification as, to use Murray’s term, "co-extensive."

Are election (understood as synonymous with predestination) and justification "co-extensive"? In the sense that all those predestined to be justified will be justified, the idea is uncontroversial because it is tautological. But, at any given moment in history, the fact is that many (perhaps most, if a revival is about to occur) of the elect are not justified, and are subject to charges brought against them by God Himself.

Paul Himself emphasizes the need for one to be actually regenerated and given union with Christ in order for one to be justified. He writes, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (8.1; emphasis added). Furthermore, being in Christ requires the work of the Spirit: "But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him" (8.9b). The elect are those whom Christ has picked out by the Spirit so that they now belong to Him and thus possess Christ and all His benefits.

Indeed the entire passage of Romans 8.31-39 is introduced by way of a listing of the blessings brought through the work of the Spirit as He mediates the presence of Christ and, thereby, His benefits. The Spirit gives us sonship (8.15-17) and causes us to wait for the fulfillment of our adoption at the Resurrection (8.23-24). The Spirit also prays for us (8.26) according to the perfect plan of God (8.27), which is for all things to work for our good (8.28) and entails the certainty of our glorification (8.30). Thus, it is those who have the Spirit, and therefore the Son, who can say, "If God is for us, who is against us?"

Furthermore, Paul’s first list of what cannot separate us from the love of Christ (8.35-37) recalls his earlier statement of how the Spirit bears witness that we are fellow heirs of Christ "if indeed we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him" (8.17b). It is the Spirit who enables us to hope in the midst of suffering and eagerly await our glorification (8.23-25).

Finally, Paul climaxes by saying that no created thing "shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (8.39; emphasis added). This recalls Paul’s statement in 8.1 that there is "no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" with which he introduces how the Spirit mediates Christ’s presence. Paul is not only concerned about predestination, but with the work of the Spirit who applies Christ to us resulting in justification and all other benefits of redemption. The elect are those who have been picked out of the world by the Spirit-that is, those who have been justified.

The Elect & The Church

It is interesting that Murray, in his essay, "The Atonement & the Free Offer of the Gospel," cited Ephesians 5.25-32 as a prooftext for limited atonement. Just as husbands are to show special love for their wives, so Christ "gave Himself" for the Church. This would certainly point to a definite atonement if one may simply equate "the Church" with those predestined to eternal life. This could be done by stating that Paul is referring to the "invisible" Church.

Murray, however, elsewhere does not want to make such a simple equation. In his provocative and extremely rewarding short essay, "The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid,"[64] he concludes that

Strictly speaking, it is not proper to speak of the "visible church." According to Scripture we should speak of "the Church" and conceive of it as that visible entity that exists and functions in accord with the institution of Christ as its Head, the Church that is the body of Christ indwelt and directed by the Holy Spirit, consisting of those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints, manifested in the congregations of the faithful, and finally the Church glorious, holy and without blemish.[65]

The traditional reason for defining the Church as visible and invisible, of course, was the fact that "Only God knows completely and infallibly those who are his, those predestined to salvation and ultimately conformed to the image of His Son. The church cannot make a census of the elect nor of the regenerate."[66] Nevertheless, despite these realistic concerns, Murray demonstrates that the Bible will not support such a two-fold definition. The Church as it is described in Ephesians is especially prone to be labelled the "invisible Church." He cites several reasons this label is inadequate, of which I will quote three:

[1] Paul’s doxology: "to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus" (Eph 3.21) cannot be regarded to the Church as glorified; the Church of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 12.28 (cf. Eph 1.22; 4.11) surely comes within the scope of that within which his glory redounds to God . . . [2] When Paul affirms, "Christ is head of the church" (Eph 5.23; cf. vs. 22; 1.22; Col 1.18), this must apply to the Church as administered upon earth, of which the apostle speaks elsewhere (cf. 2 Cor 11.28; Eph 4.11), and of which our Lord himself spoke (Matt. 16.18; 18.17) . . . [3] The Church as visible is subject to Christ (Eph 5.24) and cannot be excluded from his dominion. The nourishing and cherishing that Christ imparts (Eph 5.29) are activities wrought in the church visible by which it is maintained in accord with Christ’s promise.[67]

Thus, the fact that Christ gave Himself for the Church (Eph 5.25) is undoubtedly related to limited atonement (it certainly doesn’t imply a universal atonement!), it is a problematic prooftext since not all members of the Church are predestined to eternal life-despite the unambiguous teaching on predestination in Ephesians 1.[68] Likewise, despite the unambiguous reference to predestination in Romans 8.29-30, the "elect" in v. 33 are not precisely identical to the people whom God has ordained to eternal life. As pointed out earlier, the not-yet-regenerated elect, at least, are outside the group Paul is discussing.


"The elect" as a term can sometimes be used in such a way that it is virtually synonymous with "the Church." Paul uses the term this way in Titus 1.1, Colossians 3.12, and-I have argued here-Romans 8.33. Thus, I don’t think it is as "tight" a prooftext for limited atonement as it is treated by Murray.

Of course, if salvation is monergistic, then obviously all those drawn out of the Kingdom of Darkness and into Christ’s Body are the recipients of God’s sovereign mercy, while others are passed over and left in their sins. Thus, God sent the Son for the salvation of the elect alone-for He knew (and brought about) that they alone would savingly benefit from His death and resurrection. On the other hand, Paul does consider it possible that some who have been graciously drawn into God’s covenant, may in fact prove themselves to be reprobate (Rom 11.21-24). The same ambiguity found in Ephesians 5.25-27 obtains in Romans 8.33. We need to be cautious in our use of it to prove limited atonement.

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

Works Cited

George Beasley-Murray, John (Waco, TX: Word, 1987).

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1942)

Hans Boersma, A Hot Pepper Corn: Richard Baxter’s Doctrine of Justification in Its Seventeenth-Century Context of Controversy (Denmark: Boekencentrum, 1993).

Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1932).

David Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism & the Call of the Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Assoc., 1980).

John Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991).

Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Assoc., 1966).

______, The Protestant Reformed Churches in America: Their Origin, Early History, and Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: no pub., 1936).

______, "The Text of a Complaint"-A Critique (n. p., n. d.).

James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Brentwood, NJ: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988).

Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1971).

John Murray, Collected Writings (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 4 volumes.

______, Redemption: Accomplished & Applied (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1955).

______, (with Ned Stonehouse) "The Free Offer of the Gospel" (n.d. privately published).

Gary North, Dominion & Common Grace: The Biblical Basis of Progress (Tyler, TX: ICE, 1987).

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994).

Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, n.d., 1852).

Cornelius Van Til, Common Grace and the Gospel (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1973).

The Westminster Confession of Faith Together with the Larger Catechism and the Shorter Catechism and Scripture Proofs (Atlanta, GA: PCA Bookstore, 1990).

Works Consulted

Gordon Clark, The Atonement (Jefferson, MD: Trinity Foundation, 1987).

John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1995).

John Gerstner, A Primer on the Atonement (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1984).

J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990),

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992).

Geerhardus Vos, "The Scriptural Doctrine of the Love of God," Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980).


1. I was raised in my earlier days in a Southern Baptist Church, but most of my life was spent in other denominations and non-denominational churches. Nevertheless, as an American Bible-believing Protestant, the best descriptive term is "baptist." Here, we are almost all baptists.

2. According to Herman Hoeksema, "God’s well-meaning ‘offer’ of salvation cannot possibly be wider in scope than the objective satisfaction and justification of the cross of Christ." (The Death of the Son of God [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946] p. 113. Quoted by David Engelsma, Hyper-Calvinism & the Call of the Gospel [Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Assoc, 1980], p. 47.)

3. Review of Introduction to Theology: An Interpretation of the Doctrinal Content of Scripture, Written to Strengthen a Childlike Faith in Christ by John Christian Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1954) in Murray’s Collected Writings, vol. 4 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), p. 296. Emphasis added.

4. Murray’s name appears on the pamphlet along with Ned Stonehouse’s. However, in the reprint of the essay in Vol. 4 of Murray’s collected works, the editor writes that, "although Dr. Stonehouse, as a member of the committee [of the OPC], offered editorial suggestions, the material was written by Professor Murray" (p. 113).

5. David Engelsma calls Murray’s position the "well-meant" offer. This too seems ambiguous to me. What God means to happen when He does something could refer to what He has fore-ordained to happen or what he "desires."

6. Collected Writings, vol. 4, pp. 114-115.

7. "Common Grace," Collected Works , vol 2, p. 93. This essay was originally printed in The Westminster Theological Journal , Vol. V, i, 1942.

8. Ibid, p. 104.

9. Ibid, p. 105

10. Ibid, pp. 105, 106. In my opinion this is Murray’s best defense of his position. Thus, I will concentrate on it, and not on other lines of exegetical defense which I don’t find as immediately compelling-such as Genesis 39.5: "the LORD blessed the Egyptian’s house on account of Joseph."

11. Apparently, John Gerstner would line up with these three, but since he focuses his critique on the genuine offer of the Gospel, I will deal with his position below.

12. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Assoc., 1966

13. p. 106-107.

14. Given my appraisal of Hoeksema’s argument, I feel obligated to point out that Reformed Dogmatics is in many ways a superior book, which not only has good things to say, but says them quite well. Portions of this book could virtually be read out loud and make a moving sermon. Though somewhat less exhaustive, I would rank it with Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology.. [My professor thought that I was saying here that both books were suitable for preaching. No! My point is that the eloquence of Hoeksema makes up for it’s lack in comprehensiveness compared to Berkhof. A preacher might as well read Webster’s Dictionary as Berkhof!]

15. The Protestant Reformed Churches in America: Their Origin, Early History, and Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: no pub., 1936), p. 317.

16. Ibid, p. 318.

17. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941), p. 445. This passage is worth quoting in full except that most of it is focused on the as-yet unregenerate elect. This passage from Moses, however, cannot be so limited.

18. For an interesting look at the controversy over whether the chastisements of the justified may be considered punishments see Hans Boersma’s A Hot Pepper Corn: Richard Baxter’s Doctrine of Justification in Its Seventeenth-Century Context of Controversy (Zoetermeer: Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, 1993), pp. 125-127.

19. Hyper-Calvinism & the Call of the Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Assoc., 1980), p. 112.

20. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1973.

21. One could argue that one ought not judge North too harshly for not doing exegesis since he is interacting with Cornelius Van Til who himself does not do much exegesis but simply discusses broad theological concerns.

22. Dominion & Common Grace: The Biblical Basis of Progress (Tyler, TX: ICE, 1987), p. 27.

23. Ibid, p. 19.

24. Ibid, p. 29.

25. Collected Works, vol 2, p. 93.

26. I think this obvious fact is sometimes missed because we tend to associate sin (rightfully, as far as it goes) not with grace but with Law. Thus, the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sin as "any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the Law of God" (#14), citing 1 John 3.4. This is a good epistemological definition-in that it gives us a criterion for identifying sin. But it does not rule out the attempt to develop a more metaphysical definition, spelling out the essential nature of sin. For such a definition, ingratitude should be considered a candidate. This is not without Reformed pedigree. The Heidelberg Catechism defines the Law as the way by which we demonstrate our gratitude. Zacharias Ursinus, the Catechism’s principle author states, the Law is necessary so "that we may return such gratitude as is acceptable to God" (Commentary on the Catechism [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, n.d., 1852], p. 22).

27. Collected Writings, vol 2, p. 96.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid, p. 97.

30. Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991), p. 128.

31. For a much better and more Scripture-honoring approach to the Ezekiel passages, see John Pipers discussion of "Does God Have Pleasure in the Death of the Wicked?" in The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1991), p. 61ff. Especially helpful is his citation of Deuteronomy 28.63 (p. 65). Unlike Gerstner, Piper actually gives us Biblical reasons to nuance what we might think Ezekiel is telling us.

32. Indeed, Hoeksema, does not hesitate to accuse Murray, Van Til and others of being "purely Arminian. And their irrationalism is only an attempt to camouflage their real position" "The Text of the Complaint"-A Critique (no pub, n.d.), p. 26. [I believe this booklet of mimeographed sheets has been recently printed by the Trinity Foundation as The Clark-Van Til Debate.]

33. Protestant Reformed Churches in America, pp. 313-314.

34. Collected Writings, p. 125-126.

35. Gary North’s distinction between a God giving reprobates "favors" instead of having an attitude of "favor" toward them seems unjustifiable. An argument that God has no attitude of "favor" toward the reprobate would also seem to prove that He gives them no favors but only snares to trap them in their ingratitude. The term "favor" as applied to things is just as much dependent on the attitude of the one giving them as it is when used to describe the attitude itself.

36. Much of what follows occurred to me as I was reading Hans Boersma’s A Hot Pepper Corn, especially his section on Baxter’s debates over the extent of the atonement and "Bifurcation versus One-End Teleology" (pp. 209ff). The analogy of Adam and Eve before the Fall comes from Baxter as he is cited by Boersma (p. 215).

37. In the case of Adam and Eve, it is useless to appeal to the fact that God may have ultimately predestined them to eternal life in order to evade this argument. The point is that God would have been perfectly justified in condemning them to eternal punishment for their sin. His foreordination of their Fall did not render their sin excusable nor obligate Him to redeem them.

38. For an attempt to get a handle on the postlapsarian aspect to this problem, see Piper’s discussion of "The Infinitely Complex Emotional Life of God" (p. 66). He asks if it is any more problematic to speak of God both loving and hating the wicked than it is to consider God simultaneously grieving and rejoicing and empathizing in other ways with millions of Christians around the world.

39. "The Atonement & the Free Offer of the Gospel," Collected Writings, vol. 1, p. 81.

40. especially p. 64.

41. Collected Writings, vol. 1, p. 83.

42. "The question has been discussed: which is prior, faith or repentance? It is an unnecessary question and the insistence that one is prior to the other futile. There is no priority. The faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance." Redemption: Accomplished & Applied (Grand Rapids, MN: Eerdmans, 1955), p. 113.

43. This is a purely speculative point, which needs to be confirmed or denied by historical research, but I can’t help wondering if this situation did not obtain in the heyday of Puritanism. The horrible idea of "preparationism" and the expectation that Christians should live for years without assurance of their election were both products of that period. Did this have something to do with limited atonement?

44. Redemption, p. 63.

45. Ibid, p. 128.

46. Ibid, p. 64.

47. III, 1.1, Ford Lewis Battles, tr (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), p. 537 (emphasis added).

48. p. 222.

49. Ibid, pp. 222-223.

50. p. 228.

51. Ibid, p. 223. 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 (Vol 1, p. 69ff).

52. Ibid, p. 223-224. Emphasis added.

53. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 2, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), p. 458ff.

54 Systematic Theology, p. 393ff.

55. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1932), p. 150ff.

56. Collected Works, vol 1, p. 312. This is the one mention Murray makes of the distinction.

57. Redemption, p. 63.

58. The corresponding questions in the Shorter Catechism speak of the application of merely the benefits of redemption. The Larger speaks of the benefits of Christ’s mediation, one of which is redemption.

59. See James B. Jordan’s Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World (Brentwood, NJ: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988) for a more sustained argument.

60. To summarize from memory: Mr. Leithart suggests that the Old Covenant is portrayed as the original darkness which is superseded by light. There is nothing intrinsically evil about darkness, but it is meant to be left behind when the light comes. Jesus came bringing a new covenant to supersede the old one. But men loved "darkness" rather than "light."

61. An exception is The New American Bible (1987) which ends the red letters at v. 15 and reverts to black print for the rest of the chapter.

62. See Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), p. 228 and George Beasley-Murray, John (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), p. 50, for a couple of representative opinions on this issue. Beasley-Murray thinks the Evangelist’s exposition begins in v. 13, but for the purpose of this paper, that disagreement is insignificant. The point is that neither one thinks that Jesus is still speaking to Nicodemus.

63. Redemption: Accomplished & Applied , p. 66.

64. Collected Writings., pp. 231-236.

65. Ibid, p. 236.

66. Ibid, p. 231. See the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 25, "Of the Church, paragraphs 1 and 2.

67. Ibid, 234.

68. I cannot find a date for Murray’s essay on the Church. His use of Eph 5.25-27 to argue for limited atonement was published in 1965–relatively late in his career. Christian Baptism, which contains some similar statement about the problematic nature of making a distinction between the visible and invisible Church, was published in 1952. Thus, it seems that Murray did not see any problem between what he wrote about the nature of the Church and what he wrote about limited atonement. I wish I could ask him about it! It is curious that Eph 5.25-27 is not used in his earlier work, Redemption: Accomplished & Applied. All I can say is that if we can’t limit Eph 5.25-27 to "the invisible church" then it is difficult to consider it an easy prooftext for limited atonement.

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