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Thursday, October 15, 2009

PST Demands either a Limited Atonement or Universalism

Since John Calvin is seen as the one who first systematized a Penal Substitutionary View of the Atonement, its not surprising that its great defenders through the years have been strict Calvinists who also believe in a limited atonement or as they prefer to call it, a particular atonement (i.e., Christ died just for the elect).

John Owen (1616-1683, Puritan and Chancellor of Oxford University), R. L. Dabney (1820-1898, chaplain to General Stonewall Jackson and founder Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary), James Denney (1856-1917, Professor of Systematic Theology Free Church College Glasgow), J. I. Packer (1926-present, Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver) and the authors of the recent book: Pierced for Our Transgressions, Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach (all affiliated with Oak Hill Theological College in London) have all written at length defending and explaining the PST. (See at the bottom for books and links).

Now its true that there are some who, while rejecting a limited view of the atonement, have also defended PST. Men such as I. Howard Marshall (1934- present, Professor of New Testament at the University of Aberdeen)and Robert Lightner, (1933-present, Professor of Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary)to name a couple. Most of the defenders of PST, however, believe that PST demands one hold to either a limited atonement or universalism (i.e., everyone ultimately will be saved). They typically do not believe that one could, with consistency, hold to PST and an unlimited atonement (i.e., all could be saved but all won’t be saved).

Packer writes:
That Christ’s penal substitution for us under divine judgment is the sole meritorious ground on which our relationship with God is restored, and is in this sense decisive for our salvation, is a Reformation point against Rome to which all conservative Protestants hold. But in ordinary everyday contexts substitution is a definite and precise relationship whereby the specific obligations of one or more persons are taken over and discharged by someone else (as on the memorable occasion when I had to cry off a meeting at two days’ notice due to an air strike and found afterwards that Billy Graham had consented to speak as my substitute). Should we not then think of Christ’s substitution for us on the cross as a definite, one-to-one relationship between him and each individual sinner? This seems scriptural, for Paul says, ‘He loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20). But if Christ specifically took and discharged my penal obligation as a sinner, does it not follow that the cross was decisive for my salvation not only as its sole meritorious ground, but also as guaranteeing that I should be brought to faith, and through faith to eternal life?

For is not the faith which receives salvation part of God’s gift of salvation, according to what is affirmed in Philippians 1:29 and John 6:44f. and implied in what Paul says of God calling and John of new birth?38 And if Christ by his death on my behalf secured, reconciliation and righteousness as gifts for me to receive (Rom. 5:11, 17), did not this make it certain that the faith which receives these gifts would also be given me, as a direct consequence of Christ’s dying for me? Once this is granted, however, we are shut up to a choice between universalism and some form of the view that Christ died to save only a part of the human race. But if we reject these options, what have we left? The only coherent alternative is to suppose that though God purposed to save every man through the cross, some thwart his purpose by persistent unbelief; which can only be said if one is ready to maintain that God, after all, does no more than make faith possible, and then in some sense that is decisive for him as well as us leaves it to us to make faith actual. Moreover, any who take this position must redefine substitution in imprecise terms, if indeed they do not drop the term altogether, for they are committing themselves to deny that Christ’s vicarious sacrifice ensures anyone’s salvation. Also, they have to give up Toplady’s position. ‘Payment God cannot twice demand, First from my bleeding surety’s hand, And then again from mine’ — for it is of the essence of their view that some whose sins Christ bore, with saving intent, will ultimately pay the penalty for those same sins in their own persons. So it seems that if we are going to affirm penal substitution for all without exception we must either infer universal salvation or else, to evade this inference, deny the saving efficacy of the substitution for anyone; and if we are going to affirm penal substitution as an effective saving act of God we must either infer universal salvation or else, to evade this inference, restrict the scope of the substitution, making it a substitution for some, not all.
(The Logic of Penal Substitution)
Now why does Packer maintain that PST demands either a limited atonement or universalism? Because according to PST, Christ bore precisely the amount of suffering that was due to sinners (either the elect or everyone). If he bore precisely the amount of suffering that was due to everyone, then it stands to reason that everyone should be saved because God has been propitiated through the death of Christ for everyone and everyone’s sin has been expiated. This is precisely what 1 John 2:2 teaches. “He himself is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world.” Packer and other Calvinists take “world” here to mean “the world of the elect” but if it doesn’t mean that, then it must mean the entire human population. If Christ paid the price for sin for everyone and then some do not receive the benefits, the result is that some people will have their sins paid for twice. Once by Christ on the cross and once by themselves in hell. This is a double payment which to all seems unjust.

Why do I include this point in a discussion of why I reject Evangelical Christianity? It is because the vast majority of evangelicals today do NOT accept a limited atonement and yet they hold to PST. This is a logical and theological problem for them. It demonstrates in yet another way, the internal inconsistencies prevalent within evangelical theology. If Evangelical Theology is internally contradictory, then it is my opinion that it cannot be true.

Further Reading:

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, chs. 16-17

John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

R. L. Dabney, Christ Our Penal Substitute

James Denney, The Death of Christ

Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach ,Pierced for Our Transgressions,

I. Howard Marshall, The Theology of the Atonement

Robert Lightner, The Death Christ Died: A biblical case for unlimited atonement


  1. Your argument assumes you understand omniscience and I would argue that you don't. We don't know HOW God knows anything; however, we do know He knows everything from eternity.

    Since man rejected God's love, man also has the ability to accept the love of God. The love of God obviously can be rejected or accepted which means you have to be in Christ for salvation.

    The choice of being in Christ is yours. The fact that God has always known your choice from eternity appears to go beyond our finite minds.

    The theological internal inconsistencies that you seem to see are merely different ways of expressing the knowledge of God in finite terms. For instance even Packer believe Christ died for all except that it was effective only for the elect. Of course, the elect are those who are have chosen to be in Christ.

    God Bless

  2. Excellent points, Ken. Universalist Tom Talbott has done a good job showing how the logical conclusion of "Christ paid for our sins" is that everyone will be redeemed (how could it be anything else?):

    He also effectively debunks the Calvinist assertion that "all men" means "all kinds of men."

  3. Steve,

    Thanks. I couldn't get the link to work.

    ZDenny--since you have so thoroughly refuted my position and since according to you I don't even understand PST, why don't you just go away?

  4. ZDenny,

    Was this you?


    "According to an affidavit, witnesses said Marchuk would not let the person sitting next to him leave her seat to use the restroom.

    "The suspect kept telling her that his blood would be on her and he was not going to let her leave no matter what happened," the affidavit said.

    WSMV-TV in Nashville reported that he also began quoting Bible passages. Ms. Richard said she had no information about that.

    Passengers physically restrained Marchuk, according to the affidavit, and he attempted to bite one of them on the leg."

  5. Ken,
    How could you suggest that Mr. Denny leave us when I have been converted, through his ministry, to the One True Faith.
    La Shanda, La Shanda!!!

  6. "If Christ paid the price for sin for everyone and then some do not receive the benefits, the result is that some people will have their sins paid for twice. Once by Christ on the cross and once by themselves in hell. This is a double payment which to all seems unjust."

    What a wonderful statement! The only way I could be a christian is if Universalism is the truth, otherwise I would have a hell of a hard time accepting it.

    "Since man rejected God's love, man also has the ability to accept the love of God. The love of God obviously can be rejected or accepted which means you have to be in Christ for salvation."

    I have always had a hard time with statements as sad as this one. Man would not reject the love of God if man really knew which of the many truths being spouted out were the real ones for cryin out loud.Such a sorry statement that many make..........if we all really knew the truth, we would for the most part be pleased and happy to accept God, but as it stands who in the world knows the real God? Yes the love of God can be accepted or discarded, but man needs to know who's truth is true .
    This is why I believe if anything, Universalism, it is the only way that explains it to me. When we are given the facts most if not all would be happy to accept God, but don't tell me we have the facts, because we don't.
    for what it is worth.

  7. Alan,

    I figure his work here is done. He has thoroughly refuted me and converted all of my followers. Now is time for him to move on to the next blog to do his wonders. He is the best apologist in the world

  8. Sorry about the link. I mistyped (can't paste anything in the @#$*!! comments box).

    Try this one:

  9. Interesting post. A question, though. If PST is a particularly Calvinist view of atonement, then what theories of atonement do arminians, lutherans, and catholics believe? Thanks!

  10. Jesus purchased us from the Father. He bought us. He satisfied the wrath of the Father, but now Jesus is our judge. We will stand before Jesus on judgment day since he now owns all creation. Jesus bought our debt from the father. In order to have that debt forgiven we must put our faith in Christ. If we do not put our faith in Christ then we will pay for our sins. We will pay Christ the price of our sin, no the Father.

  11. Rover, that almost sounds like Marcion's idea that Jesus came to save us from the Old Testament God.

    So why would Jesus have to buy us away from the Father, anyway? Is Jesus more forgiving than the Father? The implication is that we would all be in big trouble if the Father owned us, but since Jesus now owns us, we're a lot better off. Why is that?

  12. Qohelet,

    Excellent question. There is no official theory of the atonement in RCC. It would vary depending upon the individual priest or order. Most would probably follow some version of Anselm's theory (satisfaction), although some more liberal ones would follow Abelard's view (moral influence) or different combinations of these and others.

    The Lutherans likewise have no official view. You can make a case that Luther believed in PST. Although some like Gustav Alen (leading Lutheran theologian) wrote probably the strongest defense of the Ransom theory (Christus Victor.

    BTW, its not just Calvinists who hold PST. You will find the great majority of evangelical theologians holding it--whether Calvinistic or Arminian.

  13. Ken, I am still waiting on a good argument. You have a PHD so you should be able to create an argument that demonstrates your point and refutes those who disagree with you.

    You should not be afraid of divergence; rather, you should be open to new ideas. You obviously don't understand PST.

    God Bless

  14. Steve said, "So why would Jesus have to buy us away from the Father, anyway? Is Jesus more forgiving than the Father? The implication is that we would all be in big trouble if the Father owned us, but since Jesus now owns us, we're a lot better off. Why is that?"

    The answer is very simple. Jesus is both God and man. Jesus satisfied the debt that God's holiness requires. Jesus became the head of humanity by which all of humanity experiences forgiveness.

    Your questions about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all resolved in the Trinity. Jesus perfectly participated in the nature of the Father being the sinless Son of God allowing those who are in Christ to allow participate in the eternal life of God for eternity.

    Pretty simple and logical.

  15. Steve J

    Who did Jesus purchase us from if not the Father? We were bought with a price. Jesus bought us, but from who?

  16. Rover, there have been multiple theories about that. Early on, Christians believed that Jesus bought us from Satan. I can't pretend to know what Paul meant by his statement.

  17. I am confused. What "orthodox" sects do not accept PSD? Who are the main authors not accepting PSD? What do they accept. Are their any non-PSDs who are universalists? Thank

  18. Sabio,

    By orthodox do you mean "Greek orthodox" or do you mean conservative Protestant sects?

    If you mean Greek orthodox, they reject PST. Some of the best arguments against PST, I have read from Greek Orthodox theologians.

    If you mean conservative Protestant sects, the overwhelming majority hold to PST (even if they don't know thats what its called). There are a few "renegades" out there that would hold to other theories but they are a distinct minority.

    Universalists tend to be liberal theologically and are unlikely to hold PST. Packer's article just makes the point that logically if you hold PST, you have two possible conclusions to draw.

    1. Christ died for the elect and the elect will be saved.

    2. Christ died for all and all will be saved.

    He makes this point because most evangelicals hold that:

    Christ died for all but only some will be saved.

    That position is inconsistent with PST. He is calling them out on their inconsistency.

  19. @ Ken (wow, this is one of my new favorite sites)
    Thank you for your reply.
    Can you recommend sources to help learn about the main non-PST theologies? (on-line or books)

    Question: Packer defends PST, right? He just attacks evangelicals who don't believe in the elect because it would not allow a calculated atonement quantitatively, right? So he is against Armenian positions among evangelicals - right? He doesn't want God holding salvation open for humans to pick and choose. Right?

  20. Sabio, Thanks for your comments. Best overview would probably be in Millard Erickson's, Systematic Theology. You can also get a good summary at:

    The main theories are:

    Ransom Theory--Gustav Aulen, Christus Victor, is the major book on this position.

    Governmental Theory--Hugo Grotius, see: and Charles Finney, see:

    Participatory Theory of Atonement is relatively new--B. S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. See also

    There are several different variatons of PST. All of them growing out of Anselm's Satisfaction Theory.

    The interesting thing to me is that Christians have had 2000 years to come to some type of agreement and systematization of the doctrine and they have not been able to. This seems really strange since atonement is at the very heart of Christianity and yet Christians cannot agree on what it means. Another reason I doubt Christianity.

    As for Packer, yes. He defends PST and maintains that if you hold the doctrine, you must either believe that Christ died only for the elect and they only will be saved or that Christ died for all men and therefore all men will be saved. He argues against those evangelicals who hold PST but deny a limited atonement.

  21. This may not be all that sophisticated, but what's wrong with just saying that Christ paid for people's sins, and the condition for receiving that payment is faith? Why do we have to assume that those in hell are having their sins paid for twice? They could be paid for once because they rejected Jesus' payment, so they have to pay themselves.