Week 48 of 50 in the Institutes: The Mass and Universal Atonement

Calvin came down hard against the Mass because of its affront to the once-for-all sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus Christ. The notion that ongoing sacrifices are necessary presumes that what preceded was insufficient, and hence this was too much for Calvin and should be for any student of Scripture (Heb. 9:24-28; 10:10-18). As I reflected on this, I began to draw a parallel between the Mass and “universal” atonement. Let me see if I can trace if for you.

Most evangelicals today hold to “universal” as opposed to “particular” or “limited” atonement. These adjectives refer to the extent of the atonement of Jesus Christ, and if a person holds to substitutionary atonement, either the extent or the efficacy of the atonement must be limited. The irony is that those who hold to universal atonement limit the efficacy or power of Christ’s atonement (what His death actually accomplished). Those who hold to particular atonement limit the scope of the atonement (those for whom Christ died). We aren’t picking fruit here, either, so whatever a person believes must be rooted firmly in Scripture (and I can’t take time to address this here).

In his treatise on this subject, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, John Owen identified four possibilities in this respect with regard to how either the 1) extent/scope or 2) efficacy/power is limited when one holds to substitutionary atonement:

  1. Christ died for ALL the sins of ALL men.
  2. Christ died for ALL the sins of SOME men.
  3. Christ died for SOME of the sins of ALL men.
  4. Christ died for SOME of the sins of SOME men.

Those who hold to universal atonement may be inclined to pick #1, until asked about the sin of unbelief. They then pick #3, with the idea that Christ died for every sin except the sin of unbelief for all men, which turns out to be a far greater limitation. The classic Reformed view is #2, with the idea being that Christ died for the sins of the elect. Here is Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s response to a common exchange on this topic:

“We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is, that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it: we do not. The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, ‘No, certainly not.’ We ask them the next question – Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They answer, ‘No.’ They are obliged to admit this, if they are consistent. They say, ‘No. Christ has died that any man may be saved if’ – and then follow certain conditions of salvation. Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why, you. You say that Christ did not die so as infallibly to secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon, when you say we limit Christ’s death; we say, ‘No, my dear sir, it is you that do it.’ We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.” [Quoted from James I. Packer, “Introductory Essay,” in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, by John Owen (London: Banner of Truth, 1959), 14]

When I was going through seminary I pressed this point in New Testament survey class when we were considering the atonement. I knew the professor’s stance on this and I also thought he would be honest and forthright (not to mention open to frank exchange). I restated his position back to him as: “You are saying that Christ could have died and no one would have been saved. In other words, Christ’s death in and of itself accomplished nothing.” And his answer was “Yes”, but with the caveat that it was understood that the Holy Spirit would convict men of sin and convert them to make Christ’s death effectual. Hands went up all over the room to make various assertions to offset the disturbing impact of his admission, which I have always viewed as a far greater limitation of the atonement than that of the classic Reformed view.

And here is where I make the connection between “universal” atonement and the Mass. Whereas the latter sees the need for ongoing sacrifices in the elevation of the host in the sacrament, the former essentially makes a sacrament of the exercise of man’s will. Christ’s death, you see, didn’t accomplish anything in and of itself. Only when man of his own “free will” chooses to believe in Christ as Savior does the Savior’s death become effectual. And the human will, in this view, is typically considered to be unmarred by the fall of Adam. Consequently, both the Mass and the notion of universal atonement are grievous affronts and insults to the atoning death of Jesus Christ. The Mass declares Christ’s death to be insufficient as a once-for-all atonement for sins, and universal atonement makes Christ’s death insufficient for any single sinner, because it leaves some sins (unbelief, at least) for the sinner to absolve himself, through the exercise of his free will.

Now I must acknowledge that Calvin wasn’t as explicit about the extent of the atonement as those who followed him, but he was clear enough (see his commentary on 1 John 2:2 here). Space will not allow me to chase the rabbit of the notion of “free will” very far here, except to say that free will doesn’t exist, as typically posited. This is because the will of any creature is bound by its nature. Suppose, for example, we had a donkey and placed before it a t-bone steak and a bunch of carrots. Which one would it choose? It would choose the carrots, of course. Set the same objects before a lion, and it will always choose the steak. Why? Their choices are governed by their natures. A donkey is an herbivore, and a lion is a carnivore. Given the choice between sinning and glorifying God, sinners always choose sin (Rom. 3:9-18). Any idea that a sinner can choose otherwise is not rooted in reality, so it is utterly preposterous to think that a sinner could choose Christ purely by virtue of the power of his own will (dead men, for instance, cannot will themselves alive, Eph. 2:1-3). Let anyone who thinks otherwise demonstrate the power of his will by willing himself never to sin the rest of his life, that is, to keep the whole moral law perfectly in thought, word, and deed. Impossible? Exactly!

This is why the Savior came. Even the very word Savior is instructive here. Jesus came to save His people from their sins (Mt. 1:21). In “universal” atonement, Christ functions merely as a sponsor who makes salvation possible, rather than a Savior who actually saves. I’ll take the Savior rather than a sponsor any day: food for thought this first day of Advent!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Nov. 30: 4.17.46 – 4.18.1

Dec. 1: 4.18.2 – 4.18.7

Dec. 2: 4.18.8 – 4.18.13

Dec. 3: 4.18.14 – 4.18.20

Dec. 4: 4.19.1 – 4.19.6




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