18 December, 2019

A Critical Analysis of David Allen’s “The Extent of the Atonement”


David J. Engelsma

The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review, by David L. Allen.  Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Academic, 2016.  Pp. xxviii + 820.  $59.99 hard.  [Reviewed by David Engelsma]

The book is massive. It is more than ten inches in height and more than seven inches in width. The spine is a full two inches across. The book numbers more than 800 pages. It weighs almost four pounds. Holding it in reading, one develops muscles in the arms.

The subject likewise is heavy: the extent of the atonement of the cross and death of Jesus Christ, that is, the question, for whom did Christ die? with the inseparably related question, what was the nature of the death of Christ? A weightier question can hardly be imagined.

A Defense of Universal Atonement

All the formidable size of the book, as well as the extraordinary, impressive historical research that is much of the content of the book, is for nothing. For the book is devoted to the false doctrine that Christ died for all humans without exception.  All the elements of the volume, history of doctrine, exegesis, and critical analysis of the contrary theology, are bent to this purpose: defense of universal atonement.

The book contends that Christ died for all, not in the usual and Arminian sense that He merely made forgiveness possible for all, but in the sense that He actually made atonement for all, truly satisfying for the sins of all the members of the human race.  The author states his purpose at the outset: “to demonstrate … universal atonement[:] Christ’s satisfaction on the cross for the sins of all humanity” (p. xviii). “Christ’s death paid the penalty for the sin of all people” (p. 286).  Allen approves saying “to every human being, ‘The death of Christ was a sacrifice for all the sins you ever committed’” (p. 340).

He makes one exception to “all the sins.” Christ’s death was not a sacrifice for the sin of unbelief. If it were, all humans must necessarily be saved. For in the theology of David Allen there would be no longer any ground in the sinner himself for God’s demanding of him the fulfilling of faith as a condition to the application of the atonement, or any ground for God’s condemning some sinners. The death of Christ, therefore, neither atoned for unbelief nor merited faith for anyone. Allen denies that “faith is a gift purchased for the elect … Salvation is purchased, but never faith” (p. 722).

Denial that Christ died for the sin of unbelief and that Christ by His death earned faith all by itself exposes the atonement in Allen’s theology as a worthless failure. Allen’s gospel of the cross is empty and vain. All other sins arise out of unbelief, and all of the actual deliverance of the sinner has faith as its source. To tout the death of Christ as glorious, in comparison with particular redemption (which accomplishes the salvation of all for whom Christ died), because He died for all, when His death did not save from unbelief and did not earn faith for anyone, is like praising a medicine for assuring the healing of a sick man from all his ailments except the cancer that is ravaging his body and for earning the resurrection of the dead man except for the life that accomplishes his resurrection. Allen’s gospel of the cross is empty noise.

According to Allen, Christ did not merely make atonement possible for all. But He actually and truly satisfied for all the sins of the entire human race, specifically including Judas Iscariot (p. 227). Christ’s death for all, however, does not assure the salvation of all. Indeed, the death itself did not assure the salvation of anyone. For the salvation of sinners depends upon the application of the atonement to them. In this important sense, in Allen’s theology the cross was sufficient for all, but efficient only for believers. Application of the atonement renders the cross efficient in the actual saving of the sinner. And the application is conditioned upon the faith of the sinner. Thus, the cross itself and its salvation are conditioned by the faith of the sinner.

A Conditional Atonement

Conditional atonement and the conditional salvation that follows from conditional atonement are basic to Allen’s hypothetical universalism. The condition is the sinner’s faith, which is the sinner’s own activity in that Christ did not merit this faith for sinners. Speaking through another, whom he quotes approvingly, Allen asserts that “Christ redeemed all men … The benefits of Christ’s death … [are] general and designed in such a way that all conditionally (John 3:16) may be saved if they perform the condition” (p. 195). The condition, of course, is the sinner’s faith. “Redemption is not obtained absolutely but upon a condition, and what is obtained upon condition only becomes actually applied on fulfilment of that condition” (p. 207). With reference explicitly to Judas Iscariot, Allen argues, through another whom he quotes favorably, that “Christ’s death … is conditional. That is, the benefits of Christ’s death are only conditionally applied. The condition being faith” (p. 228).

Hypothetical universalists like David Allen are compelled for the time being to ward off sheer universalism, that is, the teaching that all humans will be saved. This would be too much even for their congregations and audiences. They accomplish this by denying “the argument that all people will be saved because Christ ransomed all mankind.” They do not “deny this by rejecting the premise that Christ ransomed all mankind; rather … [they argue] that the new covenant of grace is conditional: only those who believe will obtain salvation” (p. 239). The universal grace of God revealed in the universal atonement and the universal atonement itself might lead one to conclude [as it would indeed!] that there will be a universal salvation. But this would be a mistake, because “possibility and actuality [of salvation by the cross of Christ—DJE] are separated by conditions, and it is only when the conditions of repentance and faith are met that salvation becomes a reality for any individual” (p. 360).

Such is the centrality of the cross in all the message of salvation that if the atonement of the cross is conditional, all of salvation is conditional, that is, dependent upon the sinner’s act of believing. Allen does not hesitate to draw out the implication. “Salvation is conditioned upon faith. No one receives the covenant blessings unless he believes. God himself conditions the reception of salvation on faith” (p. 739). Also “election” is subjected to conditional salvation (p. 739). Showing his full hand at the very end, Allen makes biblical predestination conditional. God loves and wills to save all humans. But the realization of this love, “application,” Allen calls it, is conditional. The condition is the sinner’s free choice of faith. This full and frank disclosure at the end of the book, of the nature of every form of universal atonement, comes in a section titled, “The Love of God and the Extent of the Atonement” (pp. 779-784).

The hypothetical universalism on behalf of which the book argues is that theory of the atonement of Christ that maintains that Christ atoned for all the sins (except unbelief) of all humans. But the atonement is merely hypothetical in that its efficacy, its actual accomplishment of the salvation of sinners, is not assured by the atonement itself. The accomplishment of a sinner’s salvation is the application of the cross, and this application is conditioned by the sinner’s act of believing. It is not the death of Christ, the atoning act, what Allen refers to as its “sufficiency,” that is hypothetical, but the application of the cross to the sinner, so that he is saved by the cross. In the application, which is conditioned by the sinner’s faith, the cross becomes efficacious. “For all Hypothetical Universalists, the atonement is not hypothetical for the non-elect, it is actual. What is hypothetical is the conditionality of faith” (p. 722).

Argument from Church History

Much of the book is devoted to the demonstration that hypothetical universalism was a prominent, if not the main, theology of the cross in the history of the church. Only Gottschalk in pre-Reformation times taught limited, or particular, redemption. Allen honors the martyr, as also a few contemporary Reformed theologians, by recognizing Gottschalk’s clear, firm teaching that Christ died only for the elect: teaching that “God does not desire the salvation of all people and Christ died only for the elect” (pp. 24, 25). Employing the slander that by now has, in fact, become the indisputable badge of orthodoxy, Allen ventures that Gottschalk was a “proto-hyper-Calvinist” (p. 25).

After the Reformation, it was Beza who introduced the doctrine of limited atonement into the Reformed churches. “With Beza, something of a corner is turned in Reformed theology” (p. 105). If this is the case, which is dubious in light of the doctrine of Calvin, it was time for the corner to be turned. Allen indicates why in his analysis of Beza’s doctrine and its motivation: “Beza considered it ‘blasphemous’ for one ‘to say that those whose sins have been expiated through the death of Christ, or for whom Christ has satisfied, can be condemned’” (p. 103).

How accurate Allen may be in his analysis of the history of the dogma of the atonement is for others to judge. His co-opting of Calvin for the heresy of universal atonement is dubious, not so much because of explicit statements of Calvin that Christ died only for the elect, although there are such statements, as because of Calvin’s doctrine that the cross of Christ did actually save those for whom He died. It was efficacious, not merely “sufficient” in Allen’s sense of sufficiency. Allen’s reading of Calvin is suspicious also in light of the relation in Calvin of election and atonement, a relation that Allen rejects.


Important for Allen’s defense of hypothetical universalism is the theological distinction of “sufficiency/efficiency.” The distinction is common in theology. It occurs in the Canons of Dordt II. 3.  Allen’s explanation of the distinction, which is important for his theology of the cross, is that Christ’s death was sufficient for the redemption of all humans in that He did actually die for all, atoning for the sins of all and satisfying the justice of God on behalf of the sins of all (always excepting unbelief). Efficiency then for Allen has to do with the application of the saving benefits of the cross to humans (on the condition of faith). The meaning of the distinction for Allen is that although the cross was sufficient in having been atonement for all humans, it was not efficient in actually accomplishing the salvation of any.

One need not argue with Allen with regard to the question whether all, or nearly all, theologians before Beza understood the distinction, “sufficiency/efficiency,” in this way. This is by no means to concede that all, or nearly all, did in fact understand the distinction, particularly with regard to sufficiency, as Allen alleges. It is on its very face unusual that Christian theologians, who were also sharp thinkers, would explain sufficiency as the actual blotting out of all sins. Were one to say that he had a machine that was sufficient to cut down all the trees in a forest, no one with an average intelligence would understand this sufficiency as meaning that the machine did in actuality cut down all the trees, or that the speaker intended to say so. “Sufficiency,” especially in close relation with “efficiency,” refers to the capability of accomplishing a certain work. “Efficiency” denotes the power of actually accomplishing the work. If, then, theologians pressed the distinction, “sufficient/efficient,” into the usage that Allen ascribes to it, the thinking of these theologians left something to be denied.

But Allen’s attempt to foist his understanding of the distinction on the Canons of Dordt is an obvious, utter failure. Dordt speaks of the sufficiency of the death of Christ for the expiation of the sins of the world in II. 3: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world” (Schaff, Creeds, II. 3). By no means does Dordt mean by sufficiency that the death of Christ was in fact atonement for the sins of the whole world. Dordt does not derive sufficiency from Christ’s having died for the sins of all humans. Rather, the Reformed creed finds sufficiency in the nature of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. It is because of who Christ is who died that His death is of infinite worth and value. Article 4 states this explicitly: “This death derives its infinite value and dignity from these considerations; because the person who submitted to it was not only really man and perfectly holy, but also the only-begotten Son of God … and because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin” (Schaff, Creeds, II. 4). If Allen’s notion of sufficiency, which he imposes on Dordt, were correct, the Canons would read: “This death derives its infinite value and dignity from the fact that Jesus did actually atone for all humans.” There is not so much as a hint in Canons II. 3, 4 of the sufficiency’s deriving from, or meaning, that Christ died for all in any respect whatever.

That Christ died for the elect, and for the elect alone, is immediately confessed in Canons, II, 8.  For the Canons of Dordt, official, authoritative creed of the Reformed faith, sufficiency is the inherent worth of the death of Christ as the death of the eternal Son of God in human flesh. Its worth is infinite, so that if God had willed, the death of Christ could have expiated all the sins of the whole world of all humans, and all the sins of a thousand similar worlds besides. Efficiency is the actual atoning, satisfying, and redeeming nature and effect of the death of Christ in the place of, and on behalf of, those, and those only, for whom Christ died as the substitute according to the will of God. Capable of atoning for all humans, had God willed it, as to its inherent worth and value, Christ’s death effectively atoned for the elect only, according to the will of God. Sufficiency is hypothetical. Efficiency is the reality of the cross.

That Christ died (efficiently) for the elect, for the elect only, in any sense whatever is spelled out in Canons, II. 8:

This was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father … (Schaff, Creeds, II. 8).

Canons, II. 8 is the death-knell upon hypothetical universalism, at least for all who confess the Reformed faith, and that in several respects. First, the Canons ascribes “efficiency” to the death of Christ: “saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son,” whereas hypothetical universalism denies that the cross as cross inherently has efficacy. For hypothetical universalism the death of Christ was a death for many who are not saved by it. The cross was inefficacious. As Beza observed, to say so is “blasphemous.” David Allen ought to take warning.

Second, for the Canons the cross itself, as the death of Christ, did something, accomplished something: it “confirmed the new covenant” and “effectually” redeemed the elect. The certain effect of the cross is that it fully and finally saves all for whom Christ died: “should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in his own presence forever.” The effect of the effectual death of Christ is the efficacious application of the atoning, satisfying, and redeeming cross to every one for whom Christ died. According to Allen’s hypothetical universalism, the cross of Christ lacks the efficacy to save those for whom Christ died. As Beza observed, to say so is blasphemous. David Allen ought to take warning.

Third, the cross confessed by the Canons of Dordt purchased faith for those humans for whom Christ died. It is of fundamental importance to hypothetical universalism that the death of Christ did not earn and purchase faith for those for whom Christ died. Allen repeatedly denies that the cross merited faith for any. For the cross to have purchased faith would limit the death to some only—the elect. In addition, the truth that the cross purchased faith for some would nullify Allen’s and hypothetical universalism’s teaching that faith is the condition that humans must fulfill in order to make the cross efficacious on their behalf. If faith was earned for some, it cannot be a condition that sinners must fulfill to apply the cross to themselves for their salvation. Allen denies “the notion of the purchase of faith, which is at the heart of the necessary salvation of the elect” (p. 211).

But the Canons confess that Christ purchased faith for those for whom He died, that is, for the elect: “… faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he [Christ] purchased for them by his death …” (Canons, II. 8, in Schaff, Creeds).

Whatever can be said of Allen’s gigantic project, it shatters on the second head of the Canons of Dordt, as do all other forms of the heresy of universal atonement. Whatever credentials hypothetical universalism may have of antiquity and popularity, it is not creedally Reformed, but heretical, according to the official judgment of the Reformed churches and their confession.

Two Bases

Allen grounds his doctrine on two main bases. One is his church historical claim that virtually all theologians before Beza, including Calvin, held universal atonement, which atonement is made particular only by the condition of faith. Church historians may and do dispute this claim, especially with regard to Calvin. Regardless of the soundness of the claim, it is not conclusive in the controversy. There has been development of the truth in church history. In this development, doctrinal error has prevailed for a time in large sections of the church and among many theologians. Think only of the doctrine of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. This development of sound doctrine against error has been especially noticeable regarding the pure gospel of grace. How late in coming in the history of the church was the clear understanding of the truth of justification by faith alone. How prominent for a long time was the heresy of justification by works with all its attendant evils. No orthodox Protestant would be swayed by the careful selection of many quotations of theologians prior to Luther in defense of justification by works.

The second basis of Allen’s hypothetical universalism is his contention that the Bible knows nothing of limited, or particular, atonement. According to Allen, it plainly teaches universalism. This contention is deeply flawed by the highly subjective and high-handed biases with which Allen burdens the battle of the texts. Whatever biblical passage teaches a death of Christ for the “world” and for “all” must necessarily refer to every human without exception, and cannot refer to all classes of humans or to the world of Gentiles as well as Jews. There is no possibility, therefore, of contending against Allen that “world” in John 3:16 does not mean every human without exception, but rather the world of Gentiles as well as Jews, regardless that a leading theme in John’s gospel is the extension of salvation to the world of the Gentiles; regardless that the immediately preceding context restricts the loving, saving purpose of God in the cross of Christ to those who believe (vv. 14, 15); and regardless that John elsewhere definitely limits the extent of the atonement of Christ to the elect (John 10:11, 15).

A second presupposition of Allen, which he makes a law of interpretation, thus settling the controversy in favor of hypothetical universalism from the outset, is that every passage that limits the atonement, for example, to the sheep, or to many, or to those whom the Father has given to Christ, must be understood as allowing for the extension of the atonement more widely. When, for example, Jesus teaches that He gives His life “for the sheep” and that He lays down His life “for the sheep” (John 10:11, 15), Allen insists that the meaning is that He died for the sheep and, in addition, for all other humans.  Allen has recourse to a little-known logical fallacy with which to dismiss all explanations that do justice to biblical passages plainly limiting the death of Jesus to some, and some only. All such explanations are guilty of the “negative inference fallacy” (p. 663, and elsewhere, often). What this fallacy amounts to is limiting to a certain class what is intended to apply to a class as representative of others. In the case of John 10:11, 15, the Holy Spirit did not intend to limit the atonement of the cross to the sheep, but merely to mention the sheep as representative of the larger category of all humans without exception. When, therefore, Jesus Himself taught that He would die for the sheep, He intended to teach that He would die for the sheep, the non-sheep, and the goats, that is, for all humans without exception.

Similarly, Allen would no doubt dismiss Jesus’ own limitation of His atoning death in Mark 10:45: “The Son of man came … to give His life a ransom for many.” “Many” forsooth becomes “all without exception.” But how this arbitrary application of the “negative inference fallacy” entails perversion of the very nature of the death of Christ! For Christ calls His death a “ransom.” A ransom is the payment of a price for the deliverance of those ransomed. If Christ’s death was a ransom for all humans without exception, all humans without exception must be delivered from Satan, sin, and death, unless the ransom, that is, the cross of Christ was unavailing. Exactly this is the abominable doctrine of David Allen. In addition, Mark 10:45 is even stronger than the English translation would indicate. The preposition in the text is literally, “in the stead of”: “… a ransom in the stead of many” (Greek: anti). The text teaches the substitutionary nature of the death of Christ. He died as the substitute for many. If now, as David Allen teaches, many for whom Christ died as the substitute will yet themselves eternally die as slaves of Satan and sin, that is, perish in hell, Christ could not have been the substitute for sinners. Thus, the very nature of the death of Christ, as taught by the Savior Himself, is denied.

In truth, Mark 10:45 is clear, convincing testimony to the limited or particular, extent of the atonement of Christ: “[effectual] ransom in the stead of many [all of whom are efficaciously ransomed and saved, unless the ransom was no ransom at all].”

No doubt, Allen is a master of the logic of wielding his “negative inference fallacy” against all appeals to biblical passages that plainly limit the atonement to the elect, and on strategic behalf of universal atonement. But he is not even a novice in biblical logic. As a result, he is an utterly unreliable expositor of Holy Scripture. A schoolboy is more adept and reliable regarding the logic of the Bible than is David Allen. When in the context of His teaching that some humans are His sheep in distinction from others who are not His sheep, and this by divine reprobation (v. 26: “Ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep”), Jesus declares that He gives His life for the sheep, biblical logic clearly and incontrovertibly demands that Jesus died for some humans, in distinction from other humans, for whom He did not give His life. Thus, by this passage alone, the controversy over the extent of the atonement is settled: Jesus died for His sheep, according to eternal election; He did not die for humans who are not His sheep, according to divine reprobation.

It would seem evident that even everyday, non-biblical logic rejects the tactic of dismissing all exclusionary statements by appeal to a “negative inference fallacy.” When I say about a certain female that she is my wife, in distinction from myriads of females who are not my wife, and that I live with her, sound logic would seem to require that I live with her, and with her alone, in the marital relationship. Sound, everyday logic would not allow David Allen to explain that, in fact, I mean that I live with all females. Nor would the logic of the woman who alone is my wife.

The Real Issue

Regardless of the two proposed bases for hypothetical universalism as defended by David Allen, what actually drives his defense is the theory of the well-meant gospel offer. Allen is passionately committed to the theory that God offers salvation to all humans in His (saving) love for all and with the ardent desire to save them all. But Allen rightly understands that this explanation of the call of the gospel cannot be maintained unless Jesus died for all, as hypothetical universalism teaches. This argument on behalf of Christ’s sufficient atonement for all runs throughout the book, from beginning to end. It is no exaggeration to say that the appeal to the well-meant gospel offer is for Allen the leading argument on behalf of his hypothetical universalism, as also the chief motivation for the writing of the book. “Universal atonement guarantees the genuineness of the offer of salvation made to all people through the preaching of the gospel” (p. 178). “A universal atonement [lays] the foundation for a genuine gospel offer to all” (p. 235). “The universal extent of the atonement [is] the necessary ground for the free offer of the gospel to all” (p. 265). “A sincere offer of the gospel that invites all people to partake of its blessings necessitates an unlimited atonement. The gospel invitation declares that there is salvation provided and available for all, not just some. Without the unlimited atonement, such a universal offer is untrue, and such an invitation is a mere mockery” (p. 305). “Limitarian language with respect to the extent of the atonement can[not] ground the sincere offer of the gospel to all people” (p. 343). “Universal proclamation of the gospel cannot be genuine on the part of God or his messengers if there is no atonement for all people” (p. 416). Many of these quotations are Allen’s quotations of others. But they express Allen’s own conviction, and a main argument on behalf of the hypothetical universalism defended in the book. Summing up, Allen expresses his own thinking concerning universal atonement and the well-meant offer of salvation.

All who affirm limited atonement face the problem of the free offer of the gospel … My argument is simple … If no atonement exists for some, how is it possible that the gospel can be offered to those people for whom no atonement exists … One cannot offer salvation in any consistent way to someone for whom no atonement exists … Universal atonement grounds the free offer of the gospel to all people (p. 776).

On Allen’s and many others’ understanding of the call of the gospel as a well-meant offer to all, Allen’s logic, deficient as it is in other respects, is rock-solid. No one can gainsay it. If the call of the gospel to all and sundry is a well-meant offer, expressing the saving love of God and His sincere desire to save, the atonement of the cross cannot have been limited only to some, but must have been universal. For the cross is the ground of the saving love and sincere desire to save expressed in the gospel. What Allen carefully acknowledges at the very end of the book is that such a conception of the gospel-call also demands a doctrine of conditional election, and the rejection of the doctrine of reprobation.

For all its weakness with regard to the truth of the cross, the book does serve the important purpose of warning the entire Reformed and Presbyterian community that the popular doctrine of the well-meant offer necessarily and invariably leads to the heresy of universal atonement. In fact, the theory of the well-meant offer implies universal atonement. Allen calls attention to the historical realization of this implication of the well-meant offer in the Christian Reformed Church. Allen appeals to the open advocacy of universal atonement, on the basis of the Christian Reformed Church’s doctrine of the well-meant offer, by Prof. Harold Dekker, and quotes Dekker to this effect (pp. 409, 410, 624, 699, 700).

All churches and theologians who espouse the well-meant offer are thereby necessarily committed, willy/nilly, to universal atonement. Not only does logic, biblical as well as “natural” demonstrate this, but also church history does. Every church and every theologian that desire to remain Reformed by honouring the cross of Christ do well, exceedingly well, to heed the warning of the Extent of the Atonement.

The book, therefore, calls the careful attention of all Reformed and Presbyterian churches to the stand regarding the call of the gospel of the Protestant Reformed Churches. God has graciously led these churches to the doctrine of the gospel-call that does justice to the calling of the church to preach the gospel to all and sundry, including exhorting all to repent and believe, while promising all who do believe that they shall be saved while repudiating the grievous error of the well-meant offer. To the reprobate unbeliever, the call, “Repent and believe!,” is not a well-meant offer on the part of God, but a serious demand that does indeed open up to him in his own consciousness the way of salvation, thus leaving him without excuse, but that God intends shall harden him in his unbelief. With the “external call” to the reprobate, God has no desire for his salvation, just as He has not willed the death of Christ for him. God has mercy in the preaching on whom He wills to have mercy; whom He wills He hardens (Romans 9:18). This is in accord with limited atonement and with double predestination. And this is good, biblical logic, which word “logic” does not send the Protestant Reformed Churches into spasms of terror.

Allen takes note of the Protestant Reformed Churches and their spokesmen. To their immense credit, he classifies them as “hyper-Calvinists,” which classification, though intended pejoratively, identifies them as staunch defenders of the truth of limited atonement. Their confession of limited atonement is not adulterated by a belief of the well-meant offer.

Allen calls the book by the writer of this review, Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel, an “important work on Calvinism and the free offer of the gospel.” He acknowledges that the book denies the charge that the Protestant Reformed Churches are hyper-Calvinists. He references the book’s controversy with Harold Dekker, whose theology of the death of Christ Allen recognizes as an outstanding instance of the development of the theory of preaching as a well-meant offer into the doctrine of universal atonement. He acknowledges that the Protestant Reformed Churches teach “a general call of the gospel to the non-elect,” which, however, “is not an expression of God’s love for them, nor does it imply that Christ died for their sins.”  The author of the book—Hyper-Calvinism—“cannot be any clearer on the subject: ‘Paul … did not believe, nor did he ever preach, that God loved all men, was gracious to all men, and desired the salvation of all men, i.e., he did not believe or teach the well-meant offer of the gospel’” (pp. 409, 410).

This doctrine of the preaching must needs be dismissed as hyper-Calvinism by an advocate of universal atonement! And virtually the entire world of Reformed and Presbyterian churches solemnly nods its head in agreement, or stands silently by, thus, in fact, committing itself to the doctrine of universal atonement implied by the doctrine of the well-meant offer, and the only alternative to this doctrine of preaching. As the big book proves!

It is the shame of the Christian Reformed Church that the author of The Extent can adduce a number of her theologians on behalf of hypothetical, or other, universalism. Not one is privileged to be ranked as “hyper-Calvinist,” that is, defender of particular atonement.

Another benefit of The Extent of the Atonement is its proof that many Puritans were advocates and defenders of universalism. This corrects a popular impression that some like to leave with Reformed churches, as though the Puritans were sound on the atonement of Christ. The danger is that Reformed people uncritically open themselves up to the influence of the Puritans, who in other important respects also were unsound. “It is often falsely assumed that all English Puritans (including those who came to America and their subsequent generations) held to limited atonement” (pp. 173, 174).  “Many of the Puritans … opposed the doctrine of limited atonement and affirmed a form of universal atonement.” Allen names names, including “Charnock, Preston, Howe, and Henry.” He faults Joel Beeke for leaving the contrary impression: “Beeke engages in … misleading generalizations and broadbrushing … when he said the ‘Puritans also opposed the views of the Amyraldians and their hypothetical universalism’” (pp. 237, 238).

Jonathan Edwards “affirmed unlimited atonement” (p. 268).  “Edwards believed in unlimited atonement” (p. 274). Allen proves this judgment with copious quotations (pp. 268-277). The quotations also abundantly prove, if not that what now is known as the well-meant offer led Edwards into the heresy of universal atonement, then that a passionate commitment to the well-meant offer accompanied unlimited atonement in Edwards’ theology. Allen quotes Edwards:

Although God the Father invites and importunes them, they’ll not accept of it, though the Son of God himself knocks and calls at their door till his head is wet with the dew, and his locks with the drops of the night, arguing and pleading with them to accept of him for their own sakes, though he makes so many glorious promises, though he holds forth so many precious benefits to tempt them to happiness, perhaps for many years together, yet they obstinately refuse all … What would you have God do for you, that you may accept of it? … Don’t God offer you his Son, and what could God offer more? Yea, we may say God himself has not a greater gift to offer. Did not the Son of God do enough for you, that you won’t accept of him; did he [not] die, and what could he do more? … Do you refuse because you want to be invited and wooed? You may hear him, from day to day, inviting of you, if you will but hearken (p. 271).

This loving, gracious offering of Christ to all humans, with a desire of God to save all, which is the contemporary well-meant offer of the gospel, necessitated for Edwards an atonement that is universal. Edwards preached to all humans in his audience:

All the persons of the Trinity are now seeking your salvation. God the Father hath sent his Son, who hath made way for your salvation, and removed all difficulties, except those which are with your own heart. And he is waiting to be gracious to you; the door of his mercy stands open to you; he hath set a fountain open for you to wash in from sin and uncleanness. Christ is calling, inviting, and wooing you; and the Holy Ghost is striving with you by his internal motions and influences (p. 713).

The inescapable implication of this theology of a universal (saving) love of God, of a universal atonement, and of the preaching of the gospel as a well-meant offer to all is that the salvation of the sinner depends on the sinner’s acceptance of the love of God expressed in the atonement by his own will. So far did Edwards’ theology drive him in expressly stating this implication that he taught that “people have the natural ability to believe in Christ” (p. 294). He added that they lack the “moral ability.” But this was too little, too late. Rather than allowing for any kind of ability to believe in Christ, a sound preacher of the gospel of grace emphatically denies all ability of the sinner to come to Jesus and his utter dependency regarding coming upon the drawing of the Father: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44). The churches and theologians influenced by Edwards soon apostatized entirely from the Reformed gospel of grace. This is the sorry history of the church in New England.

Denial of the Cross

The damning criticism of the hypothetical universalism advocated and defended by David Allen, and apparently proclaimed by many others, is that it is the denial of the cross of Jesus Christ. According to hypothetical universalism, the cross of Christ lacked efficacy, that is, power, worth, and effect to save anyone. Granted, it acquires efficacy when it is applied to sinners—by their fulfilling the condition of believing, which implies that the efficacy even then is not in the cross but in the will of the sinner. But the cross as cross does not itself possess the efficacy to accomplish salvation, for many of those for whom Christ died perish. If the cross were efficacious, no one for whom Jesus died would perish. Allen approves the statement, “The atonement in and of itself saves no one” (p. 371). In the cross of Christ, Allen and his hypothetical cohorts do not glory.

Glorying in the cross consists of proclaiming, “In and of itself, by its own inherent efficacy, the cross of Jesus Christ saves everyone for whom Jesus died.” It does not become efficacious only when a sinner fulfils the condition of believing, which attributes the efficacy of salvation to the sinner. The cross does not even become efficacious when the Holy Ghost applies the salvation of the cross to the sinner. But the Holy Ghost applies the cross to the actual salvation of sinners by the efficacy of the cross itself. The cross efficaciously saves the sinner, exerting its inherent power by the Holy Ghost. When an elect sinner is born again, when an elect sinner believes, when an elect sinner obeys the law, when an elect sinner repents of his sin, when an elect sinner is raised from the dead in the likeness of the glorious body of Jesus, when an elect sinner is publicly justified in the final judgment, all is the working and benefit of the cross of Jesus. The cross accomplishes all of this salvation in and by its own efficacy. “With his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5). “By whose stripes ye were healed” (I Pet. 2:24).

That the cross of Jesus is the efficacy and power of all salvation is the meaning of Paul’s declaration in I Corinthians 2:2: “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” All of salvation depends upon, has its source in, and derives efficaciously from the cross. Preaching the cross, therefore, is the preaching of all the salvation of sinners and, deriving its efficacy from the cross, the preaching of salvation efficaciously.

The only other message that could conceivably challenge the message of the cross as the message of the gospel is the message of Jesus’ resurrection. But the resurrection also was due to the efficacious cross of Christ. By His atoning death, which satisfied the justice of God with regard to all the elect for whom He died, Christ earned the right to be raised in the new, immortal body. The cross effected the resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 4:25; I Tim. 3:16).

The apostolic preaching of the cross, therefore, is radically different from preaching hypothetical universalism’s “sufficiency” of the cross, which is a denial of its efficacy. It is the vehement condemnation of preaching that suspends the “efficacy” of the cross on the sinner’s fulfillment of conditions. The apostolic preaching of the cross exposes hypothetical universalism as heresy, as shaming the cross, as holding the cross in contempt.

But this shaming of the death of the Son of God by the theory of universal atonement, with its intimately related theory of the well-meant offer, is far and away the most popular doctrine of the cross today—among those who call themselves evangelical, Presbyterian, and Reformed. The big book proves this, to its own satisfaction and to the sorrow of those who glory in the cross, and weep to see it shamed. Apart from all their compromise with the heresy by all kinds of cowardly assertions that Christ in some sense did die for the atonement of all humans, very few forthrightly confess that Christ died for the elect and for the elect only. The result is that Allen is able to place only very few in the category of “hyper-Calvinist,” which is in fact the one category of those who unashamedly confess that Jesus died efficaciously for the elect, and for the elect only, without any compromise of this confession by the teaching of a well-meant offer (p. 766).

The False Assumption

It remains to repudiate an important assumption of Allen’s hypothetical universalism. This is the assumption that one cannot preach to all, especially call all hearers to repentance and faith, unless one can say to all that Christ died for them. Allen argues that the preacher cannot proclaim to every hearer that God desires his salvation unless Christ died for every human. This is to argue that the well-meant offer requires universal atonement. This argument is sound. For this reason, every church and every theologian that teaches and employs the well-meant offer are, in fact, committed to universal atonement. The error of the assumption is the notion that churches and preachers are commissioned by the Word of God to announce to every hearer that God loves him and sincerely desires his salvation with a love and a desire that gave Christ to die for him. The assumption is false. Nowhere in the New Testament is found a commission by Christ to evangelists or missionaries to announce to all and sundry that God loves them and sincerely desires their salvation. Nowhere is found the example of the apostles addressing crowds of humans in a mission situation, “God loves you, Christ died for you, and God sincerely desires to save you, one and all.”

Nor is such a (lying) message necessary for evangelism and missions.

The preacher of the gospel of sovereign, particular grace is able to bring the gospel to all and call all hearers to Christ and salvation. The truth of sovereign grace does not hamper, much less make impossible, promiscuous preaching. It certainly is not the case that preaching the gospel, specifically in missions, requires the preacher to corrupt the gospel of grace with lies, as, for example, the affirmations that God loves all humans, desires the salvation of all humans, and gave Christ as the ransom for all humans.

Biblical mission proceeds as follows. The missionary sets forth Jesus as the Savior from sin and death, in the context of exposing the audience as guilty, depraved sinners, under the punitive wrath of God, in time and in eternity, if they do not repent. He then calls, urgently, all in the audience to repent and believe on Jesus Christ, promising in God’s name that every one who does repent and believe will be forgiven and saved. All who do believe will know God’s loves for him or her, which love has provided the Savior and also worked repentance and faith. Knowledge of the love of God for one is always, and for any, a reality only in the way of faith in Jesus Christ. The missionary warns that all who remain unbelieving will perish everlastingly under the wrath of God.

This was the apostolic method of preaching on the mission field. This leaves nothing to be desired regarding the “addressability” of the gospel to all. This harmonizes perfectly with the particular love of election and with the particularity of the atonement. And this does not tell great and grace-denying lies. When the gospel is preached in this way, as many as were ordained to eternal life will believe (Acts 13:48). The rest will be sent away with the warning that they are unworthy of eternal life (Acts 13:46).

The charge, or fear, that lively, urgent, promiscuous preaching, especially in missions, requires belief of universal atonement is false.

The gargantuan book, therefore, is a huge effort on behalf of a weak and unworthy message: the cross of Christ as an ineffectual failure.



The PRTJ is the theological journal of the Protestant Reformed Theological School. It contains theological articles by the faculty, ministers, seminarians, and guest writers, as well as a very informative section of book reviews.

The Journal is published twice annually and is free to subscribers.

Contact the editor Prof. Ronald Cammenga (cammenga@prca.org) for more information

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