Whatever Happened to Particular Redemption?

Austin Walker

Does it matter whether we believe in universal or particular redemption? When these kinds of questions become a topic of discussion lots of eyebrows are usually raised. Some sigh in weariness because it concerns matters of doctrine; others do not want to get involved because they know that there will be disagreements and no hope of resolving the differences. Still others may relish a fight – the present writer is not among those. These questions have arisen in British evangelicalism ever since the Protestant Reformation. Why go over the ground and raise the spectre of disagreement and division yet again? Yet each generation has to face these questions and reach conclusions. Each generation has to search the Scriptures afresh. It may mean that good men must learn to disagree with one another. The fundamental question is, ‘What do the Scriptures teach?’ and having reached firm conclusions, ‘How do we confess and preach those truths we believe are taught in the Bible?’

Blurring distinctions

Over the past decades evangelicals in the United Kingdom have become familiar with language which (in the opinion of the writer) tends to blur the distinctions between Calvinism and Arminianism, especially with regard to the extent of the atonement. Thus we read statements that inform us that Arminians and Calvinists preach the same Saviour. Behind that statement is the notion that there are certain doctrines in the Scriptures which are essential to salvation and others which are not essential. Among those doctrines that are regarded as non-essential are election and predestination and particular atonement. There are others. It is argued that someone can be a Christian without understanding how they actually came to enjoy God’s salvation. We do not question that for a moment.

Doctrines essential for salvation are often referred to as primary truth and doctrines regarded as non-essential are referred to as secondary truth. Proponents of this view also insist that they are not saying that these differences should be ignored, or that non-essential truths are therefore not important. Nevertheless, if we think in terms of primary and secondary truth then it is all too easy to begin to think that the differences between Calvinists and Arminians on matters such as the extent of the atonement do not matter that much.

Consider how this distinction between primary and secondary truth comes to expression in the life of the local church. Brief statements of faith are drawn up (the nine-point FIEC doctrinal basis and the ten-point Affinity statement of doctrinal belief are probably the best known) in some churches, or longer confessions of faith (like the thirty-two chapters of The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith) are adopted in other churches in order to define what a church believes the Scriptures teach. It is very common in the UK for evangelical churches to adopt these briefer statements of faith, which are not specific when it comes to doctrines such as election, predestination and particular redemption. Those statements rightly emphasise that salvation is entirely by God’s grace but do not state clearly the way by which that salvation becomes our possession. For example, there is no mention of election, predestination or particular redemption in either the FIEC or Affinity doctrinal statements.

Truth is not always passed on from one generation to another without changes taking place. The omission of such doctrines in a church’s doctrinal basis means that those doctrines tend to be side-lined and thus neglected, if not forgotten altogether. The impression is left that the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism are not really that important. Any young Christian reading through such a doctrinal basis would not know whether or not the church believes the doctrines of election, predestination or particular atonement, or even if the Bible teaches such things. This means the church is impoverished because there is not even a formal recognition of some fundamental biblical truths relating to our salvation.

By contrast in a fuller confession of faith those doctrines are clearly stated and the biblical teaching is summarised. If a young Christian enquires about what his church believes to be the teaching of the Bible on any particular subject there is a ready summary. That is why early in his ministry at the Metropolitan Tabernacle Spurgeon republished The Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. He told his church and his readers that, ‘This ancient document is the most excellent epitome of the things most surely believed among us.’ Furthermore, reading through a confession introduces us to what we may expect to find when we read the Scriptures. Should anyone not understand the statements in the confession of faith he can consult the passages of Scripture quoted by the writers of the confession and also ask his pastor for further help.

Is the division into primary and secondary truth valid?

The first question that needs to be asked is whether the division of biblical truth into primary and secondary truth is valid. It is hard to justify it as a biblical distinction. Clearly some things taught in the Scriptures are absolutely central, such as the doctrine of the Trinity and justification by faith. However, it seems strange to place election, predestination and particular redemption in the non-essential category. The reason seems to be one of accommodation. The distinction appears to have been created in order to foster unity among Christians of differing convictions about these and other doctrines in the Scriptures. On what basis can we say that any teaching of the Bible is non-essential? Who decides whether a particular doctrine is essential or not? What criteria should be used to make that kind of decision? Everything in the Scriptures is God’s revealed will, declaring to us the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) and everything that we need to make us wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:15). Surely then it ought to be the earnest endeavour of every church member to understand and every preacher of the Word of God to proclaim every single doctrine which God has revealed. Of course those doctrines need to be preached in their biblical proportions.

Are Arminians and Calvinists preaching the same Christ?

A second question needs to be addressed. How true is it to say that both Arminians and Calvinists are preaching the same Christ? In other words if a preacher says that the Lord Jesus Christ died for all men and that redemption is universal is he not preaching a different Christ from the preacher who says that the Saviour died specifically to save his people from their sins? Consider the question another way. Did the Lord Jesus Christ die in order to make it possible for sinners to be saved provided they believe in him, or did he die in order to secure the actual salvation of all those whom the Father had chosen before the foundation of the world? What has our Saviour actually achieved? What was the nature and extent of his redeeming work? What kind of Saviour do we proclaim?

It is true that the Arminian and the Calvinist are preaching the same Christ with respect to the person of Christ. The incarnate Son of God, the God-Man, is the only Redeemer. However, with respect to the work Christ performed on the cross it is not the same Christ. For the consistent Arminian, the Christ he preaches only makes possible the salvation of sinners. The Calvinist preaches that by his work the Saviour actually saves all those whom he purposed to save. The difference between a Calvinist and an Arminian at this point is a crucial one because in reality it is only the Calvinist who actually safeguards the foundational nature of the atonement accomplished by Christ and thus the biblical gospel we are to believe and preach, namely that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Redeemer who actually redeems his people.

It is true that there are some Arminians who are better preachers of Christ and salvation than their theology formally allows them to be. They slip into a Calvinistic way of speaking when preaching. The same is true of Charles Wesley in some of his hymns. There is an old adage which says that every Arminian is a Calvinist when he prays because he asks God to save sinners through the preaching of the gospel. The labels we use to describe the differences are not that important. We use them for convenience as a kind of shorthand, but the real issue is whether we are thinking biblically and thus understand and state clearly what the Bible teaches us about salvation and specifically how guilty sinners are saved by Jesus Christ.

The dangers of not preaching particular redemption

Certain dangers arise if the Church does not confess and preach particular redemption. If it is not clearly defined, then few will really know what the Bible teaches. If the objection is raised that we are being overly precise and creating unnecessary division among Christians it is because doctrinal precision is not to be eschewed in favour of vagueness and open-endedness. Either Christ died for all men or he died for his people whom he deliberately intended to save. It is not adequate simply to say that salvation is all of grace. The fact is that universal redemption is unbiblical. Follow out its implications and it destroys God’s gospel. Alec Motyer has a fine chapter in a recent book, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. He expounds the atoning work of the suffering servant found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. He concludes that the death of the servant was complete and efficacious for his innumerable elect from every nation. In keeping with the rest of the Scripture, Isaiah’s language is such that particular redemption is the only conclusion that can be drawn. At the same time Motyer affirms that redemption in no way inhibits the universal proclamation of the good news and the invitation to God’s salvation.[1]

Universal redemption at best compromises the biblical gospel. When Christ redeemed guilty sinners he died as a substitute in the place of specific people, paying the penalty they deserved. God was reconciled as a result so that those sinners were no longer liable to suffer the condemnation and wrath of God. The Saviour secured our title to eternal life. He did not die to make salvation possible for all, on the condition that they believe on him. If he died for all men then some of those ‘all’ will finally perish. That is unthinkable.

If we adopt universal redemption then neither God the Father, nor God the Son is glorified. Particular redemption proclaims how God actually saves guilty sinners. It is by the Father’s electing love, the Son’s redeeming work on the cross, and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit. What the Son set out to achieve by becoming incarnate – the salvation of all those whom the Father had given to him – he actually accomplished through his death at Calvary. If the death of Christ was a death intended to provide salvation for everyone then the Father’s love is little more than wishful thinking and the work of the Son has been a failure because not everyone is saved. Neither the Father nor the Son is glorified on this basis.

The American J Gresham Machen, the early twentieth century defender of the faith, loved the following hymn because it sounded the note of certainty:

There is a green hill far away,
Outside a city wall,
Where our dear Lord was crucified.
Who died to save us all.

He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven,
Saved by his precious blood.

In these two verses there is definiteness about the work of Christ which rejoices the heart of any Calvinist singing this hymn. The work of redeeming all of God’s elect was completed on the cross. Redemption is personal in that the Lord Jesus Christ secured my salvation; it was for me that he died at Calvary. Paul echoed that in Galatians 2:20, ‘ …the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.’

Universal redemption also undermines the grounds for the assurance of our salvation. It leaves us uncertain as to whether Christ died for ‘me’ in particular and whether the Father has loved ‘me’ with his eternal electing love. It leaves us floundering, unable to glory in the atoning work of Christ on the cross. We are left wondering whether Christ’s death actually accomplished enough to save anybody in particular.

Particular redemption lies behind the witness- bearing of each Christian and the preaching of the gospel. The extent of the atonement does not always arise directly in evangelistic preaching. For example, we do not point sinners to the doctrine of election and tell them they must discern whether they are elect or not.

When someone enters your house you bring them in through the door. You do not invite them to enter by digging a hole in the foundations. So with the gospel, we urge sinners to come through Christ, through the door. The way of salvation is not by knowing you are elect. Some preachers believe election should never be mentioned to someone who is not a Christian. Opinions may vary but Spurgeon does not seem to have followed that rule. He dealt carefully with the subject telling sinners that if there were no election there would be no salvation and then directing them to Christ. Furthermore, we do not tell those listening to us that Christ has died for everyone and made salvation possible if only they will believe. We do not preach as if our hearers had the ability to receive Christ at any time, and that all they needed to do was to open the door of their hearts to the Christ who was knocking and seeking entrance. Neither do we urge people to decide for Christ and thus make him their personal Saviour. Some of us were brought up on this impoverished gospel.

There is a better way that rests on the foundation of particular redemption. The message of the gospel is that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Sovereign Lord, died for lost and guilty sinners, and now invites them freely to himself in order to be saved by him. The Scriptures use the language of invitation, of command, of promise, and of pleading to draw us to Christ. John Bunyan and Charles Spurgeon were two remarkable preachers who both believed in particular redemption and yet preached Christ so powerfully that many were saved through their ministry. Spurgeon expressed his personal convictions clearly in his autobiography:

‘There is no such thing as preaching Christ and him crucified, unless we preach what is nowadays called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else. I do not believe we can preach the gospel … unless we preach the sovereignty of God in his dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of his elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the Cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called.’[2]

Spurgeon preached the three great works of the Triune God that were established for the recovery of fallen sinners: election by the Father, redemption by the Son, and renewal by the Holy Spirit. His sermons were evangelistic and were full of biblical teaching. He preached man’s natural inability; God’s free electing love as the ultimate cause of salvation; Christ specifically dying for his sheep; Christ as the perfect, all-sufficient Saviour of sinners, even the very worst; that those who know themselves as sinners will be saved when they put their entire trust in Christ in accordance with his promises; that repentance and faith are the duty of all those who hear the gospel.

What difference does it make whether we believe in particular redemption?

What difference does it make whether we believe in particular redemption? There are several considerations for us in our witness-bearing and preaching. First, we should be full of confidence in the preaching of the gospel as God’s chosen means to save sinners. The preacher should be directly evangelistic and address sinners with warmth and genuine concern for their salvation. Believing in particular redemption should add to his confidence, urgency and intensity as he pleads and invites sinners to come to Christ. Second, and closely related to the first, the preacher should have the utmost confidence in the all-sufficiency of Christ, of his death on the cross and his power actually to save sinners. That will also, thirdly, affect the way that the preacher freely offers Christ, salvation and the forgiveness of sins to all kinds of guilty sinners. There should be no hesitation or reservation in freely offering Jesus Christ to all. He is offering them not the possibility of salvation but the certainty of salvation because as Christ’s ambassador he is offering them the person of the Saviour in all his capacity to save sinners.

However, simply preaching particular redemption, (Calvinistic orthodoxy, if you will), is not enough. We also believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. When Paul went to Thessalonica the gospel came to them ‘not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance’ (1 Thess 1:5). That should become the constant prayer, the longing and expectation of the church of Christ, in every generation. The preacher is totally dependent on God for success in preaching Christ. In his sovereignty, God takes preachers with mistaken views about redemption and the work of Christ and uses them to advance his kingdom in this world.

However, that should not make us think that after all it does not really matter what we believe and preach, that we can be Calvinistic or Arminian. The key question is always, what do the Scriptures teach and how is God to be glorified? In every generation the church of the Lord Jesus Christ needs to be clear in its understanding of the gospel and of the way in which God saves sinners.

My personal conviction is that relegating such matters as particular redemption to the place of non-essential, secondary truth actually undermines the maintaining of the biblical gospel. Brief statements of faith which are not specific about the matters discussed above will do nothing either to promote and maintain the biblical gospel. In fact, they unwittingly encourage a spirit of indifference towards matters of doctrine. Our forefathers drew up confessions of faith for a good reason. They wanted to set out their convictions about the specific teaching of the Bible in as full and clear a way as possible. It has always been a puzzle to me that today’s generation of Christians seems happy to confess less truth than our forefathers. To do that jeopardises the faithfulness and well-being of the church and is in grave danger of detracting from the glory that belongs to God and of providing a platform for the entry of error and heresy.

[1] J Alec Motyer, ‘Stricken for the Transgression of My People,’in: David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson (eds.), From Heaven He Came and Sought Her (Wheaton, Il., Crossway, 2103), p266.

[2] C H Spurgeon’s Autobiography, 4 vols. (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1899), I:172.