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text reading say that you forgive me, above a tulip, with decorative backgroundThis is my first entry in the new errata category, which in all likelihood will one day be the category with the most posts. Entries in the category will note instances where I have erred or might have erred in past statements, here on the Pious Eye site or (possibly) elsewhere. Minor errors, such as typos and complex sentences that seem to lose track of where they’re going, will simply be corrected in the old posts where I discover them. Errata-category posts will deal with the sorts of errors that don’t lend themselves to such correction, or that I’m not entirely certain are errors, though there is reason to suspect that they might be. The erratum of concern in this post is of this latter sort. As I suspect future errata will do, this erratum has grown into a broader discussion of related issues.

Since I stated my preference for speaking of “particular atonement” rather than “limited atonement” in my review of Carrin’s Spirit-Empowered Theology, I’ve noticed in some audio and video lectures by more routinely Reformed people (that is, people who have internalized the Reformed community’s traditional linguistic habits in ways that I have not) tend to use the following two phrases together to focus on two aspects of the same concept: “limited atonement” and “particular redemption.”

Now, I am aware of no linguistic reason not to speak of the atonement as “particular” rather than “limited,” since it still seems to me that to be limited in intended application, which is the only sense in which the infinitely valuable work of Christ may be called “limited,” is to be particular. Even so, I at least erred in not noting the normal usage. As a matter of logic, the distinction between atonement and redemption must be maintained: atonement fulfills the requirements of, “pays for,” redemption; atonement is not itself redemption. Redemption is the application of the atonement to the elect (meaning, if one defines this biblical term in a way that does not presuppose the Reformed viewpoint, everyone who has ever or will ever be saved).

Nevertheless, since Christ’s atoning work has infinite, unlimited, value, it still seems that calling the atonement “limited” because it is not general or universal, not meant to atone for (and so pay to redeem) every person everywhere without exception, cannot help but be misleading. (To atone for everyone everywhere without exception while redeeming only some, based on their choices or on anything else, would make God unjust, since the sins of those atoned for but not redeemed would be paid for twice, once fully by Christ and once partially but eternally by every unredeemed sinner. If the atonement were general or universal, then the redemption would have to be general or universal: the “love wins” universalists are consistent where un-Reformed evangelicals are not. I’ve explored or touched upon this issue in multiple prior posts, such as these: “The Gospel. Clear But Maybe Too Simple: The Evangelism Study Bible,” “Starting [Near] the Finish Line: [Almost] the Gospel of Grace,” “Worth Reading…with Healthy Skepticism: Carrin’s Spirit-Empowered Theology,” “Visit (to Library) Prompts Letter (to Publisher): Sikh Edition,” and “What Would The Lone Ranger Do? Wrong Question.”) Is there something about the term “atonement” that makes calling it “particular” problematic? Sentimental attachment to the TULIP mnemonic should not prevent adoption of clearer terminology, such as: “total disinclination to obey, please, or glorify God,” “sovereign election,” “particular atonement and redemption,” “never-resisted grace,” and “God-sustained regeneration with progressive sanctification” (okay, these do need some work). (Prior to today, I had considered “pervasive depravity” a suitable replacement for “total depravity,” since the way many Reformed people explain the “total” emphasizes how it affects every part of the person to some degree, though it never makes anyone as thoroughly evil as we can imagine him being. I now think this terminology inadequate, however, for reasons I explain in the Additional Remarks.) Granted, TSPNG sounds like creature-speak out of a Lovecraft novel rather than a handy mnemonic, but how attached should we be to a mnemonic that misleads anyone not already well socialized into the linguistic community of the Reformed? So long as Cthulu or other evil ancient alien ”gods” are not inadvertently summoned, I think TSPNG will do nicely. Or not: choose as you will, and as God has ordained.

In case the ultra-fine atonement-redemption distinction has you scratching your head (meaning you’ve entered my normal cognitive state), our departed brother Noah Webster may be able to help. In his 1828 Dictionary of American English, he clarifies the distinction, defining atonement “In theology” as meaning “the expiation [”the act of making satisfaction for an offense”] of sin made by the obedience and personal sufferings of Christ.”[1] Because Christ made satisfaction for the particular sins of particular people, calling the atonement as well as the redemption particular seems quite reasonable. Since, as I’ve noted in prior posts, any single sin against the infinite and infinitely holy and good God incurs an infinite debt requiring infinite atonement, calling the atonement “limited” seems bound to undervalue Christ’s infinite though particular expiation. (Note: God’s law, which every sin violates, is not an arbitrary or created set of rules for which God sets arbitrary eternal penalties. Rather, it is the expression of his holy, good, and just nature. For God to accept less than infinite expiation for violation of his infinitely good nature would be contrary to that same nature, which is also infinitely just, so that God “will by no means clear the guilty” [Exodus 34:7]. I discuss this at greater length in the Additional Remarks.)

As for redemption “In theology,” Webster offer this definition: “the purchase of God’s favor by the death and sufferings of Christ; the ransom or deliverance of sinners from the bondage of sin and the penalties of God’s violated law by the atonement of Christ.”[2] This definition makes the distinction especially clear by including “the atonement of Christ” as part of the definition: redemption is the purchase, ransom, or deliverance for which the atonement is the payment. And, in light of this further clarification, calling both redemption and atonement “particular” seems not only permissible but preferable.

In summary, then, my error was that I thought I’d made an error. It turns out, however, that I was in fact correct, albeit correct in spite of myself, since my correctness had failed to take into account normal Reformed usage (which, had I known about it, I would rightly have called into question).

Additional Remarks

Some might think that, in this and some past posts, I have multiplied infinities unnecessarily. They might assert that the necessity that God make atonement for any human sinners who will be saved, those sinners being too small to themselves pay the cost in finite time, only requires that the cost be so extremely large as to be “infinite” for all practical purposes, not literally infinite. Thus, they might add, Christ could pay the very large, but ultimately finite and so measurable, debt owed by his elect. This, they might then conclude, eliminates the multiplying infinities that boggle human understanding and language.

Alas, this maneuver doesn’t work given that the result when any creature tries to pay his own debt is eternal consignment to hell, as described, for example, in Mark 9:44, on which another departed brother, John Gill, who traces the description back to Isaiah 66:24, offers these interesting remarks: “by their worm is meant, their conscience; for as a worm that is continually gnawing upon the entrails of a man, gives him exquisite pain; so the consciences of sinners, will be continually flying in their faces, bringing their sins to remembrance, accusing them of them, upbraiding them with them, aggravating them, tormenting them for them, filling them with dreadful anguish and misery, with twinging remorses, and severe reflections, and which will never have an end.”[3] While I think Gill is incorrect to limit the “worm” of torment here to the torment of conscience, he witnesses eloquently to the longstanding, Bible-based understanding that those whom Christ does not redeem never manage to redeem themselves, even though they suffer eternally for their sins. Were any damned individual’s sin-debt less than infinite, his punishment could not be eternal, though it might be very, very long. (In light of this, the concept of a punitive purgatory whose punishment one can reduce through purchase of, or by being given, an indulgence is nonsense. A non-punitive purgatory needed to make one pure would also not permit shortening of the process through payment, since paying money doesn’t purify one’s soul. It’s a good thing, then, that no sort of purgatory is taught by Scripture. Lest you think this an outdated issue, note that the Pope handed out indulgences for participation in the 2018 March for Life.) Various cults that deny eternal hell have rightly perceived that eternal punishment for finite guilt is unjust. They should have followed this perception by concluding (as I have) that, since Scripture portrays hell as eternal, it must be the case that the guilt of the damned is infinite.

On this subject, it also seems worth noting that, since people not regenerated by God never desire to repent and believe, remaining rebels at heart, those consigned to hell just keep on sinning, through their rebellious thoughts and ungodly desires, forever. In fact, the restraint of common grace being withdrawn, we can expect that those in hell will spend much of their time shouting out their hatred of God, bewailing their inability to indulge their myriad lusts (including many that, in life, they never knew they had, lusts so perverse and repulsive that even today’s degenerate culture could not tolerate them), and uttering nonstop streams of profanities and vulgarities excessive even by the standards of contemporary movie makers. The idea some promote that those in hell will long to repent and be saved, but will be out of luck because their chance has passed, must be rejected. Even if the unredeemed did not enter hell with a sin-debt they could never repay, their unending sinfulness while in hell would ensure that they remained there forever: “behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). No one should entertain the fantasy that he might get (or even want) a second chance in the hereafter (Hebrews 9:27). God’s gracious influence will never be stronger on the unbeliever’s soul than it is now; he who never pursues salvation in this life will never seek to be saved in the hereafter.

The reality that even a single sin produces an infinite debt that ensures eternal hell for any mortal who must pay the debt himself should end all thought that many people, because their overall behavior “is basically good,” may expect to enter heaven on their own merits. Still, it bears pointing out that the human condition is even worse than the one-sin-and-you’re-finished scenario (which might permit someone sufficiently deluded about what qualifies as sin to think he could avoid hell by actually living a sinless life). In the Reformed understanding of Romans 5, which I see no Bible-honoring way to doubt, all humans have a sin-debt (which we now know to be infinite) from conception (Psalms 51:5). The Baptist Confession of 1689 puts it this way: “They [Adam and Eve] being the root, and by God’s appointment, standing in the room and stead of all mankind, the guilt of the sin was imputed, and corrupted nature conveyed, to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation….”[4] I’m not entirely satisfied with this wording (more on this in a moment), but it does make clear that we are all guilty before God and bound for hell from conception, and that we remain so until we, by God’s grace, make Christ rather than Adam our representative.

As for what I find unsatisfactory in the confession’s wording, I think it errs in making both Adam and Eve our appointed representatives. Scripture indicates that Adam was the the representative of all humans, including Eve, who had been created after and out of Adam—Romans 5:12 traces the entry of sin into the world and the passing of guilt and sinfulness to all humans, necessarily including the human Eve, to the one man Adam. Of course, Eve was not descended from Adam “by ordinary generation,“ and perhaps this is why the confession shies away from recognizing Adam as Eve’s representative. The key to imputation of Adam’s guilt to those he represents seems to be bodily descent—specifically, bodily descent through the line of male representatives of each generation. Though not descended from Adam by ordinary means, Eve was descended from him bodily, having originated as a part of him, so that he was her direct representative as he would have been his daughter’s. I assume Adam’s representative headship must be mediated to later generations through all the males who father children, rather than directly to every person throughout time, because only this explains why Jesus’s virgin birth matters: having no bodily human father to represent him in Adam’s line, Jesus did not have imputed to him Adam’s guilt and so did not have imposed upon him the penalties of that guilt, namely, a corrupted nature, spiritual death, and bodily mortality. He was thus qualified to take others’ sin-debts upon himself (having no debts of his own), and to live in perfect righteousness on others’ behalf (having no sinful inclinations to prevent him), in order to redeem those he would from Adam’s line. A possible problem with this understanding, however, is that is breaks the perfect symmetry between Adam and Christ as representatives, since Adam’s representation is mediated to successive generations of fallen humans in a way Christ”s representation to successive generations of Christians is not. Nonetheless, I, at present, know of no understanding that is more sound and biblical.

(Interestingly, Scripture does not indicate that Eve became aware of her nakedness immediately upon eating the forbidden fruit. Only after Adam followed her example and ate one of the forbidden figs himself does the Bible inform us that both their perspectives changed so that they realized they were naked and knew that they must cover themselves. This seems to confirm that it was Adam’s action as representative that was key to the whole thing. Had Eve alone eaten from the forbidden fig tree, we can only speculate what might have happened. My speculation is that, had Adam been in the state of mind not to disobey God, he most likely would not have shirked his husbandly responsibility to act as the head of the family, and so would have told Eve not to eat the fruit and to stop talking to snakes. Thus, had Eve’s Edenic foray into what today is called “evangelical feminism” not been permitted by Adam, we would all be much better off today. But I’m only speculating. By the way, I also speculate, as you might have noticed, that the forbidden tree was a fig tree because, when Adam and Eve realized they were naked and tried to cover themselves, they used fig leaves. Should we believe that, panicked to find themselves shamefully naked, they went wandering about the garden looking for another tree with some good leaves? Besides, what I’ve heard in a few sermons is that fig leaves are a very bad choice for this sort of covering, having a texture that no prudent person would want placed against his bare skin. If true, this indicates that Adam and Eve thought only about getting themselves covered as quickly as possible, not about choosing the best available leaves.)

Since I’ve already quibbled with one assertion made by the confession closest to being one to which I subscribe, I might as well note some nearby wording that also bothers me. Shortly before the wording I›ve already discussed, the confession says that in our fallen state we are “wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body.”[5] Were we wholly defiled in all our faculties and parts, both spiritually (in the soul) and physically (in the body), as this confession asserts, we would be entirely unable to function; I doubt we would even be alive. Our sensory and perceptual faculties being wholly corrupted, we could not hear, see, smell, touch, or taste. Our mental faculties being wholly corrupted, we could not reason, plan, verbalize, calculate, or engage successfully in any sort of thinking whatsoever. If the confession said only that we are “defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body,” there might be no problem—though I’m not now sure that even such pervasive depravity as this would indicate is quite the right concept. It is correct, I think, to speak of all our faculties being defiled, provided we realize that “defilement” is a moral description (perhaps better, a God-concerned description) applicable only to the use of these faculties at the direction of each person’s morally depraved (perhaps better, depraved with reference to God) will—to be even more precise, at the direction of each person’s will as it is guided by the morally depraved (perhaps better, depraved with reference to God) impulses and inclinations of his fallen heart. Provided we realize the same thing about “depravity,” the standard “total depravity” wording might also be correct, though this doesn’t mean it communicates clearly and accurately to people today. (The point in my “perhaps better” parentheticals, in case you’re wondering, is to emphasize that it is our attitude toward God in all of this that determines the depravity of our “moral” nature. In a secularized age where morality is treated as independent of one’s attitude toward God, someone cannot be “totally depraved’ who does not act in a constantly immoral, evil way toward his fellow humans. Even Hitler, since he loved his mistress and perhaps his pets, and since he had an appreciation for art and order and for various other “good” things, cannot be called totally depraved. The God-centered moral understanding of the Reformed is lost on present-day culture, hence the phrase “total depravity” does not communicate effectively to members of that culture.) The point is not that our minds and bodies are totally ruined by the fall, a claim that doesn’t hold up under observation, but that our moral nature, our heart, the sum total of our impulses and inclinations and values, is entirely devoid of true goodness, having no desire to please or glorify God, but only to rebel and pursue its own lusts. Still, is it accurate to say, as the confession here is most naturally taken to mean, that we are completely defiled (morally), entirely corrupt (morally), in all our parts and faculties?

Since the motives of the unregenerate heart are never to please and glorify God, no act of the person with such a heart is ever “good” from God’s perspective, of course, but clear thinking demands that we distinguish between outwardly good acts undertaken for tainted motives and the range of outwardly evil acts that fallen motives can produce. And, of course, God’s influence upon all people through his common grace confounds our analysis, as his unmerited positive influence upon the unregenerate restrains their inclinations toward the more evil and encourages their inclinations toward the less evil, so that they all behave to some degree (some to a very great degree) better than they would if left to the lusts of their hearts. Given all this, I suggested above that “total disinclination to obey, please, or glorify God,” might be an improvement, in clarity though not in brevity, over ‘total depravity,” which Reformed people always have to explain at great length to the un-Reformed, whom it invariably perplexes. Perhaps the confessional wording could also be modified for clarity, say: ‘morally defiled so that their use of all the faculties and parts of soul and body is without true goodness, rising as it does out of the spirit of rebellion, which wills neither to love nor to obey nor to glorify God, but only to fulfill its own lusts and to elevate itself as its own god.”

How does that grab you?


[1] Webster1828 Sword module, version 1.0, under words atonement, expiation.

[2] Webster1828, under word redemption.

[3] Gill Sword Module, version 1.4, bearing the Sword title John Gill’s Expositor, and identified in its “About Sword Module” statement as The New John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, modernized and adapted for computer, with all rights of undated copyright reserved, by Larry Pierce, Winterbourne, Ontario. A version of Gill’s commentary that has identical wording in this passage is also available: John Gill’s Commentary on the Bible, available from https://archive.org/details/JohnGillsCommentaryOnTheBible.doc, downloaded 29 March 2016, verified available 29 June 2018. If this version of Gill’s work, for which no copyright is asserted, is not an unauthorized reproduction of Pierce’s but a reproduction of Gill’s original wording, then Pierce has not altered this particular passage from the public-domain original.

[4] BaptistConfession1689 Sword module, version 1.0.1, 6:3 (chapter 6, paragraph 3).

[5] BaptistConfession1689, 6:2.