Fuller and the Atonement (Part 3): Until You Have Paid the Last Penney

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Editorial note: This is the sixth post in a series on Andrew Fuller’s theology.  Here is the series so far: Fuller the Non-Calvinist? (Part 1), Fullerite: Doctrine of Inability (Part 2), Fuller and Irresistible Grace (Part 3), Fuller and the Atonement – 1/4 (Part 4), Fuller and the Atonement – 2/4 (Part 5), Fuller and the Atonement – 3/4 (Part 6), and Fuller and the Atonement 4/4 (Part 7).

PenniesThough Andrew Fuller asserted that Calvinists in general held the covenantal application view of particular redemption, historically that which he called the “commercial” view has co-existed with it. That view, defended among the Baptists by John Spilsbury [1] (as far as we can discern the first Particular Baptist pastor), Abraham Booth [2], and John L. Dagg [3], contends that the suffering of Christ is a matter of actual measurable justice. The propitiatory wrath set forth by the Father must be commensurate with the degree of susceptibility to punishment for all those that the Father gave to the Son. For them in particular Jesus sanctified himself in his obedience to death ( John 17:19). He thus is the recipient of all that particular wrath that should be measured to them, and he does not suffer as a propitiation for others. They would point to such texts as “the church of God which he bought with his own blood,” “for you are bought with a price,” “give his life a ransom for many,” “redemption of the purchased possession,” “not redeemed with corruptible things . . . but with the precious blood of Christ,” as clear justification for considering the remission of sins in terms of a price to be paid. That metaphor of material payment, that is, the accumulation of commercial analogies, combined with biblical indicators of discernible degrees of punishment insinuate that moral justice may, indeed must, also be measured. The degree of punishment that would be just retribution for the sins of one person would not necessarily be just retribution for another.

It is true, as Fuller and many others envisioned, that Christ’s “undivided obedience, stamped as it is with Divinity, affords a ground for justification.” [Works 2:708] In addition, Christ’s death on the cross constituted an element of his perfect undivided obedience (Romans 5:18). Christ, thus unlike Adam, who was a federal head in disobedience and consequent condemnation, is our federal head by his obedience for righteousness and consequent justification. Since perfected righteousness, the reward of which is eternal life, is imputed by covenant headship, his entire life, seamless in obedience and love to the Father, constituted the “one act of righteousness.” He serves as righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30) unto eternal life for as many as the Father desired to give to the Son without any more acts of righteousness being done. Fuller used this covenantal framework—no more acts of righteousness are necessary—as parallel with the method of forgiveness. This parallel is the false step. “It seems to me,” Fuller wrote in 1803, “as consonant with truth to say a certain number of Christ’s acts of obedience are literally transferred to us, as that a certain number of our sins are literally transferred to him.” For Fuller, Christ’s suffering, stamped as it was with divinity, need not be any more for the forgiveness of more sins. He views himself, rightly, as in harmony with John Owen and the Canons of Dort in this affirmation. The parallel that all of these propose between the righteousness which gains eternal life and the death that constitutes forgiveness of sins does not bear the weight of biblical reality.

Their views, therefore, are not beyond doctrinal criticism. Owen’s statement, cited by Fuller, must be examined carefully. He stated, “That it [the reconciling death of Christ] should be applied unto any, made a price for them, and become beneficial to them, according to the worth that is in it, is external to it, doth not arise from it, but merely depends upon the intention and will of God.” He says this because the application of it according to its intrinsic worth, in Owen’s construct, would necessarily mean universalism. Thus its efficacy is external to it and only by covenantal sovereignty.

Surely this is not entirely correct. I believe a sober examination of that idea would suggest to us that benefits derived from the atonement are intrinsic to it and dependent, not solely on the purpose of God concerning it, but on the justice of God necessary to it. Thus, while Christ’s death expressed the covenantal purpose of God in redeeming the elect, it also demonstrated the justice of God in setting Christ forth as a propitiation.

While it is true—as far as it goes—that the atonement was made for “sin as sin” and is thus “applicable to sinners as sinners,” it was also essential that Christ’s sufferings be made for sins as sins (“That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” “If Christ be not raised, you are yet in your sins.” 1 Corinthians 15:3, 17). It is not only for sin as a principle of rebellion that we lie under condemnation, but for the multitude of sins that we have heaped on that original trespass and the resulting subjection to death. “For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification” (Romans 5:16). When the Father “spared not his own son,” this was certainly a demonstration of justice, that he might be just and justify the one that has faith in Christ. When he spared not the angels that sinned, and spared not Sodom and Gomorrah, these acts are deemed as just, a precise exhibition of what the nature of the disobedience called for. Even so, when he spared not his own Son, nothing less than perfect justice was consummated. In his death, he suffered for the sins that he bore in his own body on the tree. “He himself bore our sins in his body . . .” (1 Peter 2:24).

In the initial paragraph, we mentioned the necessity of “just retribution” for sins. This was not gathered out of thin air, but from the book of Hebrews where that idea drives the entire argument of the writer. When setting up the argument both for the necessity and the completeness of Christ’s sacrificial death as intrinsic to his effectual priesthood, the writer premised the discussion on this question: “For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (2:3) The Law required that each violation of any and all commandments receive its just retribution. We can escape and have salvation only if that just retribution has been fully absorbed. Jesus is the perfect person—God and man—and the perfect sacrifice—holy blameless, undefiled, etc.—to taste death (the wages of sin) as the author of that great salvation for each and every son that he brings to glory (2:9-10). The writer pursues the argument further in showing how Jesus was appointed to his priesthood as one pre-figured by Melchizedek, so that “He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” (7:27) In offering himself, he qualified as the mediator of a “new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” (9:15) In other words, the just retribution intrinsic to every transgression has been justly removed by the substitute for the people. He was offered once for all, to “bear the sins of many” and by this “single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (9:28; 10:14). His covenant people, therefore, the many whose sins he has borne, have the Law written on their hearts and its every violation removed by the substitutionary death of their redeemer. “’I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin” (10:15-18). In him their every transgression and disobedience received a just retribution.

We will illustrate this with Christ’s own perception of incremental guilt. Suppose it were God’s gracious will that he save one of the communities of sinners that exist on the face of the earth. This in itself would be a matter of great grace, for every child of Adam stands under God’s just condemnation. But, in an act of surprising mercy, God chooses to save one community, every individual within it. Suppose that he determined that he would save the sinners of Capernaum even after their egregious rejection of the Messiah during his life. If he bore the punishment due to them, and he did not spare his Son of any of that just amount of wrath that they themselves would receive should they be subjected to justice, would his Son necessarily suffer more than if he had to save only Sodom? (Matthew 11:23, 24) It seems so, since, were they both to be condemned, it would be “more tolerable” in the day of judgment for the one than the other. Jesus, should he suffer for Capernaum, would suffer the degree of wrath necessary to make the distinction between them.

But he did not suffer for the inhabitants of one city only, nor for the inhabitants of one nation only, but for all of his people throughout the ages and throughout the world. He died not only for the remnant of Israel but for “the children of God scattered abroad” (Romans 11:5, John 11:52). His Messiahship transcended the barriers of ethnic Israel and went to the whole world to ransom his people, set apart in the covenant of redemption, out of every tribe, tongue, people and nation (1 John 2:2; Revelation 5:9, 10; Galatians 2:9; 1 Timothy 2:4-7). He will not rest in his present work of calling until all of those for whom he shed his blood are gathered to him, at which time he will receive them and place his enemies under his feet (2 Peter 3:9, 14, 15; Hebrews 10:12, 13). “The will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:10, 11)

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[1] John Spilsbury, A Treatise Concerning the Lawfull Subject of Baptisme (London, 1643), 40.

[2] Abraham Booth, “Divine Justice Essential to the Divine Character,” in The Works of Abraham Booth, 3 vols. (London: J. Haddon, 1813), 3:60, 61. “Divine Justice” was originally published in 1803 as a response to Fullers’ second edition.

[3] John L. Dagg, Manual of Theology (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1982) 324-331.

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9 Responses to “Fuller and the Atonement (Part 3): Until You Have Paid the Last Penney”

  1. Darrel

    Having read all three parts written by you on Fuller’s understanding of the atonement instead of clearing the waters, they are found to be further muddied. Many ambiguous words become useless in a hurry when no clear, definitive conclusion is drawn. Also, Owen’s work “The death of death in the death of Christ” was a brilliant and necessary refutation of the universalist nonsense that results from ingesting Arminianism as “truth” and not seeing it for the heresy that it is. Your less than kind words for Owen were founded on the premise of unsubstantiated rhetoric, trying to prove a point that you have yet to clearly state. Owen’s conclusions about Mr. More and his co-hearts were well documented and concise, despite the fact that it was difficult to read in the jargon of a few centuries ago.

    Nevertheless, leaving this subject without a clear conclusion doesn’t help whatever case you are trying to make. The fact that Christ paid the debt of every chosen sinner and in particular He suffered the precise punishment for each sin committed by that person is not in dispute. Neither is it germane to the subject at hand, which I think is whether Christ died only for the elect and not for all men of all time, everywhere (feel free to jump in with clarification as to the intent of this series). The precise punishment for each of our (elect or not) sins is in the Father’s hands, and we have no need to know what that punishment entails, to discuss that is useless since we do not know or shall we ever know. Your point in this matter escapes me, and others, no doubt.

    Reply
  2. Thank you, Dr. Nettles.

    In light of what you have written above, is the following statement, drawn from the previous article, something that you believe yourself, or merely a summary of Fuller’s view? “The death of Christ by its intrinsic value is sufficient for all people of all times and places, but redemption is particular, for redemption is the sovereign application of the atonement.”

    Does the embrace of the pecuniary/commercial view necessarily entail a rejection of the statements of Dort, or is there a harmony to them somehow?

    Reply
    • Tom Nettles
      Tom Nettles

      Patrick, the statement you quoted is my summary of Andrew Fuller’s view of the atonement. I believe that if one defines atonement in terms of its propitiatory nature and treats it as a real substitution then the concept of “sufficiency for all” does not fit with the commercial view.

      Reply
  3. Michael White

    Tom,
    I too am confused on your position. Do you believe the commercial view? Nothing i read as evidence for this view actually separates it from Fuller’s view.

    A just retribution for sins, based on Fuller’s view, means that each and every sin deserves the full wrath of God. Or in another word, each and every sin earns eternal condemnation which of course brings wrath everlasting. You ["The Law required that each violation of any and all commandments receive its just retribution. We can escape and have salvation only if that just retribution has been fully absorbed. Jesus is the perfect person—God and man—and the perfect sacrifice—holy blameless, undefiled, etc.—to taste death (the wages of sin) as the author of that great salvation for each and every son that he brings to glory"]

    Or if Hell is eternal, one could never fully pay for their sins, unless payment was also eternal, without end. So a Sodomite will suffer just as long as a Capernaumite.

    Or. the Law is One, a unit, so that if you break any part of it, you break it all. So if you break the Law in any way, you have broken all of it. The punishment for breaking the Law is both wrath and eternal death.

    So it seems to me that you want to make a division between wrath and death. So that Jesus not only tasted death for each of us [by His one death] but also suffered wrath for each and every sin in a commercialistic way.

    Forgive me if I have you wrong, as i said I was left confused by what you said and its intent.

    But the wages of sin is death. This is what the Law requires. Wrath is not what is earned but is why what is earned comes. How does a dead sinner experience God’s wrath? By his eternal suffering in death. Wrath is an attribute of God that brings consequences to man. Eternal death is the consequence. or better said, eternal death is the final consequence.

    “For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (2:3)
    The just retribution for every transgression or disobedience is death. In the OT, the type was the death of an animal, for those who received mercy. Otherwise it was their own death.

    “We can escape and have salvation only if that just retribution has been fully absorbed. Jesus is the perfect person—God and man—and the perfect sacrifice—holy blameless, undefiled, etc.—to taste death (the wages of sin) as the author of that great salvation for each and every son that he brings to glory (2:9-10).”

    See my comments above. i fail to see how Fuller would not also agree.

    “His covenant people, therefore, the many whose sins he has borne, have the Law written on their hearts and its every violation removed by the substitutionary death of their redeemer.”

    Maybe here you think this departs. But even here it seems all you are saying is that He bore only the sins of His people, not of the world. I think you are confusing perspectives. Certainly in God’s perspective Jesus died only for the elect. He fulfilled the purpose of the plan to save by His death those given to Him.
    But I think Fuller agrees with that.

    Simply by the nature of His death, in that He suffered the WHOLE wrath of God due for one sin, one sinner, one city, one world. Or He suffered the whole wrath of God due every sin, every sinner, every city, everyone in the world. That each sin, in and of itself, deserves the WHOLE wrath of God. each sinner, in and of him or herself deserves the whole wrath of God.

    He could not have suffered more or less than what He did and been a just sacrifice or a true propitiation unto God no matter how many sins, or sinners He intended on saving.

    Maybe this is your view as well and I just remain confused as to what you were driving at.
    Kindest Christian regards,
    mike

    Reply
    • Tom Nettles
      Tom Nettles

      Thank you for your reply. In brief, I believe there are two aspects to the atoning work of Christ. One is exactly what you have argued so cogently. Every sin deserves an eternity of wrath as a violation of God’s law and an affront to the infinitely excellent and holy God. The second aspect is intensity of Wrath. If it will be more tolerable for one violator than another violator this means that even in hell there will be observable intensity for the heinousness of the sins committed. therefore from these two aspects I do believe that Jesus suffered proportionately to the heinousness of sins committed. He is the only savior who could absorb by his very person both the eternal consequences of sin in his death and at the same time endure proportionate wrath for the various aggravations and various intensities in the whole of them for all the sins that all the elect in all the world for all time have committed or will commit. Those two aspects are necessary for efficacious atonement. If there are no proportions in intensity then there is no way to manifest that some will be beaten with few stripes and others with many stripes and for some it will be more tolerable than for others.

      Reply
      • Michael White

        Tom,
        Thanks for the reply. I knew that you were getting at something different, but I just couldn’t grasp it. Your reply cleared it up. Although at first blush I can not think of any reason to dispute your idea, neither can I wholeheartedly throw in with it. So i will get back to studying and thinking and mulling over it.

        Thanks for a great series on Fuller.
        For Him,
        mike

        Reply

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