Universal Atonement?

Our readers continue to ask questions regarding the position of Professor Harold Dekker and the Doctrinal Report in the Acts of Synod, Christian Reformed, 1966, which the churches are asked to study.

For this time I will deal with one of the most crucial aspects of the problem by asking whether or not we mayor should speak of universal atonement.

Let us first of all look at the history of the case. Professor Dekker changed his position during this time, so we have to distinguish between a former and a later position of Professor Dekker with regard to the atonement.

The very first question is, of course, How did it all begin? When did the problem start, and in what way?

To refresh our memory we should go back as far as December, 1962. Professor Dekker then wrote an article in The Reformed Journal which had as its title: “God So Loved – All Men!” Even the exclamation mark is part of this title. In this article Professor Dekker declares, first, that the love of God is universal, and, secondly, that also the atonement of Christ is universal in design. Dekker criticizes the late Louis Berkhof (who was professor at Calvin Seminary until 1944, not to be confused with the Reformed Dr. Berkhof in The Netherlands, nor with Professor Berkouwer of the Free University) of construing his idea of the atonement as a “mere logical inference from the doctrine of election,” which means that Dekker objects to Berkhof because the latter understands the atonement as factually identical with the redemption.

But here I would ask Professor Dekker: What is atonement which is not also at the same time redemption? Why does Professor Dekker not read these words as synonymous, as being of similar meaning? I think, that this is exactly what the Apostle Paul does in Romans 5:10, 11. Speaking of reconciliation, he states that we were reconciled to God while we were yet enemies by the death of his Son and explains this further by showing us that this is a matter of peace (vs. 1) and joy (vss. 2, 11) which he describes in the phrase: “we joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.”

According to Paul, the reconciliation is explained by the atonement, as the atonement in turn results in reconciliation. Here, too, what God has joined together, let not man put asunder. Moreover, one may well ask: “What docs the Biblical word atonement mean?” The answer is that it usually is a ceremonial term which means to cover or to be covered. As such it refers to the means by which we are covered or our sins are covered. This is what Peter has in mind when he writes: “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold, from your vain conversation…but with the precious blood of Christ as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18, 19). What the Apostle tells us here is that we (the believers and the believers only, vs. 21) were redeemed (that is, bought back, delivered from Satan’s power) by the fact that we were covered (atoned) by a ransom, a lutron, a means which washes away the sin which makes us guilty before God. Atonement and redemption, as used in the New Testament, describe the process of our salvation and/or reconciliation to God.

Professor Dekker, however, makes a deep distinction between the atonement and the redemption. Here I must explain the development in his way of thinking, the change from position I to position II.

Dekker’s position I:

There are …three senses in which we may legitimately speak of the atonement as being universal in design, i.e., the sufficiency and availability of salvation for all men and the divine desire that all will receive it. The only point at which Scripture and the Reformed confessions point to a limited design in the atonement is at the point of efficacy. Only there can a doctrine of limited atonement be formulated which does not do clear violence to Biblical teaching concerning the universal love of God. (The Reformed Journal, December, 1962)

Dekker’s position II:

He prefers to speak of Christ’s atonement as being universal and in no sense limited. True in his The Reformed Journal articles, he did admit that it may be said to be limited in one sense, namely in its efficacy. But again, in a later statement to the committee, he wrote: “I wish to abandon the distinction between the atonement as universal in certain respects and limited in another respect. Further study and reflection have led me to see that the atonement as such has no efficacy (the sense in which I previously said it was limited). Redeeming efficacy lies neither in the love of God as such nor in the atonement as such hut rather in the redeeming work of the Holy Spirit. Here too is the sovereign freedom of divine grace (cf. John 3:3–8, 16–18) and the particularism of redemption. The atonement itself is inherently universal, as both the Scriptures and the Confessions, it seems to me, teach (Canons II, 8 and Catechism, Q. 37). (Acts of Synod, 1966, pp. 446, 447, see also p. 463, where the quotation is repeated.) In answer to another question of the Committee, Professor Dekker states further:

I would say that the universal love of Cod does not include any ultimate intent to bring about the eternal salvation of the non-elect. (Acts of Synod, 1966, p. 464 )

One is almost inclined to ask: What kind of love is this universal love of God if it does not have the intention of eternal salvation? When you read what the Apostle John writes about the love of God in the fourth chapter of his first epistle you will readily admit that the love of God includes everything, of which eternal salvation is not the least?

Permit me one more quotation. In answer to the question what it means to say to everyone and anyone, “Christ died for you,” Professor Dekker said:

When I say, “Christ died for you” to any man, I mean to say that Christ has actually suffered for his sins and has in that sense expiated his guilt. If, however, the word ‘expiate’ is intended by definition to include the idea of effectuation, which to my mind it need not include, I would not want to use the word expiation to describe what Christ has done for all men. (Acts of Synod, 1966, pp. 464, 465)

Now what is wrong with Dekker’s position(s)?

Dekker distinguishes between a universal atonement and a particular redemption. We have seen that the difference between positions I and II is that in position I Dekker’s position is almost universal (the efficacy is still exempted), but that in position ]I he has accepted an absolute universalism regarding the atonement.

However, he then comes into the same predicament as those who believe in the so-called “second grace,” the would-be baptism of the Holy Spirit which is said to result in a sinless life. It reminds me of the Nazarene seminary professor, who, seeing on my face that I had difficulty to believe that he had not sinned during the last twenty-five years, added re-assuringly: “Of course, we have our human weaknesses.”

Once Dekker has committed himself to such an absolute universalism he hastens to add that Christ did not actually purchase faith and repentance for all for whom he died. We may summarize Dekker’s position(s) by stating that Christ died for all men, but that this does not result in an actual acceptance of all men by God as his children.

At this point, you must distinguish between three possibilities.

The Arminians are of the opinion that Christ indeed died for all men, but that it depends upon the response, faith, as an act of man’s free will, whether each individual man will inherit eternal salvation.

Dekker says that Christ indeed died for all men but that it depends only upon the operation of the Holy Spirit whether each individual man will receive eternal salvation.

Both positions are at variance with the traditional Reformed position.

In Reformed theology there is 1) no conflict between the work of Christ and that of the Holy Spirit, for he works in the hearts of those whom the Father has given to Christ and presents them with such faith whereby they take hold of Jesus Christ and the fruits of His work, and 2) no need for the statement that Christ died for all men, but merely acknowledgment that Christ’s work is sufficient to take away the sin of all people. When John writes that Christ is “a propitiation for our sins, and not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2), then he is not advocating some universal atonement but encouraging believers in order that they may be fully convinced that sin, as a power, has been decisively broken by Jesus Christ. That chain of sin need not restrain us any more from walking in the light.

We may sum up the Reformed position, which we believe reflects the instruction of God’s Word, in these two statements;

  1. There is no conflict between atonement and redemption, and
  2. God works out his election by a universal offer of grace.

The fact that this offer of grace must be extended “to all men, without distinction, does not mean that God must love all men with a redemptive love” (Acts of Synod, 1966, p. 494), as Dekker seems to maintain. If he were right, this universal offer of grace would be identical with universal salvation.

I do not claim to understand nor possess unduly God’s unsearchable wisdom, and yet I would ask Professor Dekker and those who agree with him not to confuse us. If they believe that the love of God and Christ’s atonement are universal, let them then also say that all men will he saved. This makes sense, though it contradicts the plain teaching of Scripture. Terms like the love of God and the atonement of Christ should not be stretched out like pieces of elastic that have lost all resilience or springiness so that they are made to mean something entirely different from what they used to mean.

Professor Dekker should either take back his explanation of Christ’s so-called universal atonement or he should bring forth a gravamen or complaint against the Canons of Dordt which state that it was the “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 all those, and those only…” ( II, 8)

I would humbly and sincerely ask Professor Dekker to do the former.

Dr. Remkes Kooistra, pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Toronto, Ontario, demonstrates the perils inherent in the position advocated by Prof. Dekker and urges that terms like “the love of God” and “the atonement of Christ” should not be stretched out like pieces of elastic that have lost all resilience…” This article first appeared in CHURCH AND NATION and is reprinted with permission in order to reach a wider reading public.