When it comes to the famous “Five Points of Calvinism,” there is one among the rest that stands alone as the most divisive and disagreed-upon of all the rest. In the corresponding TULIP acronym, it takes the middle letter, Limited Atonement. This doctrine posits that Christ’s death on the cross was intended for the sake of the redemption of the elect only, as opposed to his atonement being unlimited and spreading to the whole of humanity.
Countless debates and discussions have been devoted to uncovering just how viable this doctrine is and has led many to believe they are “4-Point Calvinists” as they sometimes call themselves. Others completely reject the Calvinist points of doctrine altogether because of this point. Is this doctrine, however, 1) biblical and 2) of great importance? The contributors to From Heaven He Came would affirm both of these questions, and seek to lay out a case of definite atonement with many proofs.
The first thing I appreciate about the book is its commitment to the language “definite atonement.” Many of the contributors make the case that the very name “limited atonement” is “unfortunate,” and “places the language of restriction and limitation at the center of the discussion, rather than soteriological efficacy and sufficiency” (202).
This book is setting out to do more than recover a healthy understanding of the third pillar of Calvinism in question. It’s also aiming to help pastors use the right language, which is a worthy cause. While saying “limited atonement” fits the acronym and is perhaps more familiar, definite atonement gets more to the heart of what the doctrine is, and this whole book is about helping us see the beauty of a totally effectual, perfectly-redeeming death of Christ.
Part One looks at the historical implications of definite atonement, analyzing the ancient church, the medieval church, the Synod of Dort, and famous theologians John Calvin, Theodore Beza, John Owen, and Moîse Amyraut. My favorite of these chapters was Paul Helm’s on John Calvin and indefinite language.
Some contend that Calvin did not himself believe in this doctrine as to his lack of material on the subject. Helm carefully traces definite atonement through his works and shows how Calvin’s universality in preaching does not negate his belief in a particular redemption. Also, a great excerpt is Carl Trueman’s inclusion of John Owen and Richard Baxter’s disagreements over this doctrine, which is a great analysis.
Part Two examines biblical passages from the Pentateuch, Isaiah, the Pauline Epistles and the Johannine Epistles to make the case for a biblical understanding of definite atonement. While it’s not explicitly referred to in Scripture, the concept, and the doctrine is woven throughout the Old and New Testament, with overwhelming proof in Paul’s writing. In Chapter 10, masterful commentator Alec Motyer writes a splendid passage on finding definite atonement in Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” passages.
Part Three discusses the theological implications of definite atonement. Chapter 17’s emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement is must-read material. This atonement view brought to its logical end can only bring us to an embrace of definite atonement, which “can sustain the liberating assurance…Christ bore the punishment for your sins” (482). The entire section is great, with this chapter really moving the ball forward, along with Garry Williams’ follow-up chapter on double payment.
Part Four gets to pastoral perspectives. This may be the most important of the four sections in terms of application. Daniel Strange, Sinclair Ferguson, and John Piper rounding out the book are like the top scorers lining up to kick a shootout in soccer. They deliver with precision the importance of why more seminarians and scholars should care deeply about this doctrine. In my mind, if you’re wrestling with the “Why?” of definite atonement, one wouldn’t be harmed in reading this section first.
Overall, this is arguably the most thorough and well-rounded treatise on definite atonement out there. Twenty-three brilliant minds coming together to bring us important and necessary truth.
While a belief in definite atonement doesn’t affect our salvation, it does affect our understanding of the gospel.It can also affect many other parts of the Christian life.
For preachers, the stakes of the pulpit are already so high that using this book to help us clearly speak about these doctrinal perplexities is crucial. I highly recommend this book for those looking for a thick, knowledgable, broad, and accessible discussion of this doctrine.