Did Jesus die for everybody in the world, or just some of us? It’s a seemingly straightforward question that Christians of different denominations have wrestled with and debated for centuries.
Adam J. Johnson (’01, M.A. ’06), an associate professor in Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute, explores this important question and its implications in Five Views on the Extent of the Atonement (Zondervan, July 2019), the latest installment in Zondervan’s popular Counterpoints book series. As the book’s editor, Johnson worked with five scholars — including Biola alumnus Michael Horton (’87) and Torrey professor Fred Sanders — to present a series of arguments and counterarguments from five different Christian traditions: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Traditional Reformed, Wesleyan and Barthian Universalism. (Horton represents a Calvinist approach, while Sanders writes from a Wesleyan viewpoint.)
Biola Magazine recently connected with Johnson about this Christian doctrine, why it can be challenging and what it means for how we approach evangelism.
Christians are taught from a young age that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. But just how the cross makes a way for salvation is the source of a major theological debate. As brie y as possible, how would you summarize some of the most commonly held views?
How the cross makes a way for salvation is a big topic — I’ve given my best shot at answering that in my book Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed. Jesus cleanses us from our sin, frees us from bondage to Satan, fulfills the law in our place ... the list goes on and on. The most commonly held view throughout the history of the church is that the death and resurrection of Jesus is one event with a whole host of causes and effects — in short, that there is no one “view,” but many right views, each of which help us understand God’s purposes in the cross. While Biola circles will be most familiar with the doctrine of penal substitution, the idea that Christ died so as to take the punishment for our sin, this is only one part of a much fuller picture given to us in Scripture.
This new book you edited digs into a separate but connected question about Jesus’ atoning death: not just how does it work, but for whom did Jesus die. What are the core questions in this debate about the extent of the atonement?
On the one hand, Jesus’ sacrifice can be understood as a possibility, as a gift, which we must accept, in order to be saved. The danger here is that it leaves too much up to us and our will (that’s where you see “Pelagianism” and “semi-Pelagianism” appear throughout the book). On the other hand, Jesus’ work can be understood as something which accomplishes what it set out to do, to which the question is: Did he set out to save all or did he set out to save only the elect? Either way, we have a real challenge to faith- fully honor the full witness of Scripture — which is what this book is trying to set the stage for. The core question of the book is: How do we navigate the universal longing in Scripture (“God so loved the world,” to have “mercy on all”) and the particular language about the elect, or predestined.
People familiar with the TULIP acronym to de- scribe the five points of Calvinism know that the “L” — for “limited atonement” — tends to be the biggest target. Critics object to the teaching, and Calvinists (like Horton) often object to the term. In your view, is “limited atonement” a fair way to describe the Calvinist view? If not, what’s a more helpful way of framing the Calvinist position?
Labels only go so far — their real service is in pointing us to the thing itself. The best way to frame the Calvinist position is to spend some time reading some Calvinists. It’s easy to be frustrated with Calvinism ... until you immerse yourself in Calvin’s Institutes and commentaries, and then go on to read some of the other sources that Professor Horton mentions. My goal in asking Professor Horton to write this chapter was not to get a definitive view of what “limited” means, but rather an invitation into the nuance of the Calvinist position(s) that can fund further study of Scripture and the history of the church.
How did you become interested in researching this doctrine?
That’s a funny question to answer: I hated this doctrine, going back to my college days. I love the doctrine of the atonement, exploring the meaning and significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus — that I can’t get enough of. But I had only really heard of the question of the extent of the atonement framed in a Reformed vs. Arminian/Wesleyan dynamic. What compelled me to edit this book was the idea of bringing in a more ecumenical perspective to the question, which I find to be a life-giving way of doing theology. To see the range of agreements and disagreements, and along with them, the lively range of interpretations of passages and ideas, brings life to our interpretation of Scripture, which is always in danger of getting stuck in ruts.
What do you hope readers will gain from this book?
So many things. I hope they will gain an eagerness to read and re-read Scripture with an eye to the questions raised in the book. I hope that they will grow in an awareness of the riches and challenges we have as a result of the divisions within the church. I hope that they will be delighted by the depth, rigor and charity of these five theologians. Above all, I hope that they will gain an increased understanding of the way that Christian doctrine holds together and is not merely a set of individual commitments which they happen to hold. The unity of the Christian faith, and the way that one belief influences and shapes another, is one of the great challenges and joys we have as readers of Scripture, seeking to understand our Lord and his ways as a part of our worship.
What were some interesting insights you gained as you engaged with the different views presented?
As the editor, I read each of these essays three or four times. One of the greatest surprises was how the essays seemed to grow in depth each time I read them. What we have here is not merely five views, but a conversation. And because these theologians write as participants in that great conversation (it was so interesting, watching them interact with so many of the same sources!), they speak to each other in nuanced ways. The better we come to understand one essay, the better we understand how another one was anticipating that point and responding to it. That was probably my biggest surprise. A second insight I gained was the way that different views are greatly sympathetic with each other on different subjects, and that the alliances change as the topics change. This turned out to be a complex interweaving of alliances and disagreements, rather than five completely separate views.
How might a person’s understanding of the extent of the atonement affect his or her approach to evangelism, worship or other aspects of the Christian life?
Each of these views are committed to evangelism, though all may not do so equally well. To be a Christian is to be committed to sharing the good news of the risen Lord. But theology can support or erode that commitment, so we do well to think about it carefully. The more God’s sovereignty means something like “control,” the harder it is to be motivated to evangelize, and the more our salvation is a matter of our free response, the greater our feeling of guilt and failure might be when evangelism doesn’t go well (or pride if it does!). The Bible invites us to live, worship and think in the midst of tensions. But with- in that tension, we are called to obedience. Yes, we want to understand, and should seek understanding. But understanding comes not before obedience, but alongside or after it. So our first calling is to love our neighbor and share the good news that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son. But as we do so, we should seek to grow in our understanding and love of God, for in the long run these are inseparable. And that, in turn, will change the spirit with which we approach evangelism, and with which we worship. For apart from what we have learned and under- stood, what do we have to share, what do we have to give thanks for?
ABOUT THE EXPERT
Adam J. Johnson (’01, M.A. ’06) is an associate professor of theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola. He is a theologian who focuses on the doctrine of the atonement, exploring the many ways in which the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ effect the reconciliation of all things to God. Johnson has an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.