Johnson, Jeffrey. He Died for Me: Limited Atonement & the Universal Gospel. Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2017. 201 pp.
Much to my dismay and disappointment, an old error seems to have taken a new hold of the minds of many Calvinists in recent years: the denial of the free and well-meant offer of the gospel. It is no longer uncommon to hear that God does not desire that every person who hears the proclamation of the gospel should embrace Christ and be saved, or that God’s only purpose in proclaiming the gospel to the reprobate is to harden them and increase their guilt. Such conclusions are required by the doctrine of limited atonement or particular redemption, are they not?
The answer of the Reformed tradition as a whole and of the Canons of Dort in particular to that question is a resounding “No.” But how can we hold firmly to the two seemingly contradictory doctrines of limited atonement and the free and well-meant offer of the gospel? Jeffrey Johnson, a Reformed Baptist pastor in Conway, AR, and author of numerous books, has taken up the noble task of helping his readers understand why these doctrines are not actually contrary to one another and can both be embraced simultaneously.
Johnson is convinced that the key to understanding these things rightly is found in a proper view of the Lombardian Formula, which states that the death of Christ is both limited in its efficacy and universal in its sufficiency (15). He believes that “High Calvinists” such as Theodore Beza, William Perkins, Francis Turretin and John Owen changed or rejected this formula, and rather than holding to “actual” sufficiency, believed only in “hypothetical” sufficiency. He is convinced that it is critical to reject the “High Calvinist” view for various reasons, and embrace the “Moderate Calvinist” understanding of the sufficiency of the atonement. He also does a very good job discussing “Low Calvinist” or four-point Calvinist views and recognizes some strengths in their arguments, before explaining why they must ultimately be rejected.
According to Johnson, high Calvinists like John Owen hold to an idem or quantitative view of the atonement, along with Hyper-Calvinists, and this must be rejected for a tantundem or qualitative view. This is absolutely essential in order to have an atonement that is actually sufficient for the whole world, and in his opinion, such sufficiency is necessary in order for the offer of the gospel to be well-meant. He asks, “If Christ did not die for the non-elect, are we lying when we command them to believe in the death of Christ for the salvation of their souls? That is, when we preach the gospel to the non-elect, are we offering them a provision that is not there for them to receive?” (135). Johnson’s strongly implied answer to these questions is “yes.”
So how can it be proper to tell all men that Christ died for them if we still hold to the doctrine of limited atonement, as Johnson does? He finds the answer to this question in a unique, three-fold understanding of union with Christ: federal union, organic union, and personal union. Since Christ took true humanity upon Himself, He is therefore in organic union with all humankind. Because this union is with all mankind, and not merely the elect, and because it is a qualitative atonement rather than a quantitative one, “…the price Christ paid to redeem His chosen people” is “a sufficient price to redeem the whole world” (177). He concludes, “Thus, universal sufficiency is secured by Christ’s organic unity with humanity” (177).
While organic unity is his basis for the sufficiency of Christ’s death for all men, federal union is the basis for Christ’s death being effectual only to the elect. The elect were in union with Christ in His death on the cross, their sins were imputed to Him in a qualitative sense, and His death effectually purchased faith for them, and them alone. “This means that what causes the atonement to be efficaciously applied to the elect and not to the non-elect is not anything inherently in the atonement itself. Rather, its efficacy is determined and restricted to those who were already, due to election, in federal union with Christ as He suffered under the wrath of God” (174).
Personal union occurs when the Holy Spirit regenerates the elect and they exercise the faith Christ purchased for them. It is this personal union with Christ in which all the benefits of His death are effectually applied.
I would summarize his argument this way. In order to preach the gospel to all men in sincerity, we must be able to tell all men that Christ died for them. Christ took true human nature upon Himself, therein uniting Himself with all men, and died a qualitative death in that nature. For that reason we can tell all men that Christ died for them. But Christ was uniquely in union with His chosen people in His death, and because of that union, He purchased faith for them. That faith is then exercised in time as the elect are joined to Christ when the Holy Spirit regenerates them and they experience personal union with Him. This is how the Lombardian Formula, that Christ’s death was sufficient for all men but efficient only for the elect, solves our dilemma and enables us to proclaim the gospel in sincerity without denying particular redemption.
A Critical Evaluation begins with part 2.
Rexford Semrad has served as an administrator at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary since 2015. He is married to his wife of 32 years, Marion, and has 8 children. He is a member of Grace Reformed Baptist Church of Owensboro, KY where he serves as a Deacon and a Gifted Brother. Among other things, Rex particularly enjoys theology, hot sauce and Church history.