Particular Redemption Matters

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the Westminster Seminary California conference a couple of weeks ago! “Remembering the Canons After 400 Years” was a conference full of exciting history, challenging theology, and a restful focus on the gospel. I highly recommend checking out all of the speakers! Recordings of each session can be found here.

The first session of the second day of the conference was a lecture by Michael Horton entitled “A Real Atonement for Real Sinners.” The room filled with “real sinners,” our little four-person group listened intently as Dr. Horton talked about the crucial doctrine of Particular Redemption. It is not my intent to capture the detail of the entire lecture here–please do listen to it and enjoy it in full! In this post however, I’ll just briefly discuss my thoughts about a couple of Dr. Horton’s key points.

Some History and Doctrine

Those of us who hold to Calvinism probably have already heard that TULIP didn’t originate with the Canons of Dort. Nor were the five heads of doctrine articulated in the Canons intended to be a full orbed statement of Reformed theology. Tony discussed Dr. Robert Godfrey’s lecture on this point of history in his post “How Calvinism Saved the Reformation.” Check it out for Dr. Godfrey’s comments on where we find a full summary of Calvinism!

Given that the Synod’s intention was not to invent five points, I think we often think of “TULIP” as developing from the Canons some time later. However, while it’s true that one cannot find the acrostic mentioned and taught this way in the early church fathers, perhaps we forget that the individual doctrines themselves were already present. Dr. Horton points this out in his lecture:

“This is not a new doctrine in the history of the church at the Synod of Dort. It was not something that was sort of invented in a Hilton conference room. It was something that had a long standing place in the church. We can find the doctrine going all the way back to Augustine. But even the phrase that we find in Article III of the Second Head on particular redemption–that the atonement was sufficient for the sins of the world but efficient for the elect only–that phrase I have been able to discover all across the history of the early and later middle ages. You find it for instance in Peter Lombard in his famous sentences. You find it after that in Thomas Aquinas. And by then it was flowering even in circles outside of traditional Thomism. So it was a school axiom, something you learned in seminary: Christ’s death was sufficient for the sins of the world, efficient for the elect alone. So when people point to that statement in the Canons of Dort and treat it as something radical, something new, something strange along with predestination … that’s something that we should actually question to a high degree.”

For the language being discussed in the lecture, see the Second Head of Doctrine of the Canons of Dort. Articles III and VIII specifically talk of the sufficiency and efficiency of Christ’s sacrifice:

Article 3

“The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.”

Article 8

“For 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…”

The language concluding Article 8 connects Christ’s purpose of purchasing His elect to the Father’s purpose of giving them to Him. This connection was a key point in the lecture, and a beautiful point to ponder: the intra-trinitarian work of the Godhead supports the doctrine of Particular Redemption.

The Trinity and Particular Redemption

When defending the doctrine of Particular Redemption, I had never thought before about the intra-trinitarian purpose of God, and how it shows us that Christ’s death atoned for the sins of a particular people. Dr. Horton builds his defense on this purpose, first briefly describing the formula: the Father purposes all things, the Son mediates, and the Spirit completes. He says:

“And so there is this intra-trinitarian coherence. This joint project of the three persons of the trinity. There’s a great formula, a very important formula in trinitarian theology that the external works of the godhead cannot be divided. That’s just a fancy way of saying that in every work, all three persons are engaged. You don’t have the Father doing one work, the Son doing another work, the Holy Spirit doing another work. That in every work, everything comes from the father, in the Son, by the Spirit. And that’s exactly true of this doctrine. That formula can’t be true if in fact Jesus has a purpose that’s different from the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Father’s purposes are realized in the Son, and by the Holy Spirit.”

It wouldn’t work for the Father and the Holy Spirit to have one purpose- the choosing of a particular people, and the application of Christ’s work to those people, but for Jesus to have a different purpose! If His death provided a general atonement for all, or a potential atonement hinging on my decision, then His purpose would be out of step with the other two persons of the Godhead, and that’s not possible!

Dr. Horton’s lecture is rich with scripture showing this inter-trinitarian purpose, and the unity among the persons of the Trinity in saving a particular people. Though evidence is found throughout the pages of scripture, Horton mentions that the book of John is a particularly important source, and I agree. In fact, my personal favorite proof of the doctrine of Particular Redemption is found in John 10.

The Sheep

Image by Sam Carter
Image by Sam Carter

In John chapter 10, Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees. In spite of His healing a man blind from birth, they do not believe. He gives them several illustrations–He is the door, He is the Good Shepherd–and yet they do not understand. In verses 14-15 He says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” Do you notice who Jesus says that He lays His life down for? The sheep…not the sheep and the goats!

Just in case there is any confusion that “the sheep” somehow means “everyone,” He makes it very clear just a few verses later that this is not the case. After the illustrations that they found so confusing, the Pharisees were speculating that Jesus was demon possessed or crazy. They question Him openly in verses 24-26: “So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.”

Did you catch that? There are definitely people who are not sheep. Jesus says so plainly. Who are they? Those who do not believe. Jesus laid down His life for the sheep–the elect who will believe in Him and trust Him for salvation. He said so Himself!

Conclusion: It Matters

Sometimes in conversations about doctrines like Particular Redemption, the discussion can begin to feel impersonal, technical, and cold. I’ve often heard it mused, “Well that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t really make a difference to my daily Christian life.” But this is why it matters: if Christ died for a particular people, if His atonement for us is definite, we are secure, friends. If we have trusted in Him and Him alone for our salvation, we can have assurance. Our salvation isn’t potential, it is complete. It isn’t contingent, it is finished and sure. I hope you’ll take a listen to this lecture and be encouraged as I was!