What Do The Biblical Covenants Have To Do With The Extent Of The Atonement? Part 1
February 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
In this short series I would like to present an overview of Dr. Stephen J. Wellum’s theological argument concerning Christ’s work as priest and mediator of the new covenant and how it applies to the extent of the atonement. At the outset it must be made clear that Dr. Wellum is arguing that Scripture presents the atonement made by Jesus as Definite, Particular, or Limited. This overview can be found in his recent work, Kingdom Through Covenant (1),co-written with Dr. Peter J. Gentry. In Kingdom Through Covenant, the authors set out to present a biblical-theological structure of the Bible that is a via media (middle way) between Dispensational and Covenant Theology. The authors do so by unpacking at great length the overall nature and structure of the biblical covenants, their progression on the plain of salvation-history, and their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. However, the focus of this short series will be over the extent of the atonement, one of many issues dealt with in the final chapter of this recent work which outlines some of the major theological implications of this via media.
The question proposed by the author is essentially this, “What do the biblical covenants have to do with the extent of the atonement?” The answer given by Dr. Wellum’s is that it has everything to do with the atonement. He, echoing the arguments of many others before him, states that you cannot rightly understand the atonement of Jesus outside of a priestly-covenantal context (2). Evidence for this claim is found in many texts, but it is found most clearly in the book of Hebrews, where Jesus is portrayed as the “great high priest” of a “better” and “new covenant.” Additionally, Wellum states that this is precisely the problem of those who advocate a general atonement view when he writes, “the problem with all general atonement views is that they must divide Christ’s unified priestly work, redefine Christ’s relation as priest to his people, and ultimately make ineffective his work as head of the new covenant–all points that Scripture will not allow.”(3) Therefore, Dr. Wellum contends that most who argue from a general atonement position seem to neglect the covenantal and priestly nature of Jesus’ work in inaugurating the new covenant, an error which he believes leads to missing the “power of the argument for definite atonement.”(4)
Dr. Wellum sets up his treatise by showing that the essential elements of the debate are threefold: one must biblically and theologically explain the purpose, design, and intent of Jesus’ death. As far as the intent is concerned, Wellum shows that there are primarily three positions. First, Christ’s death creates a possibility of salvation to any who would believe (the Arminian view). Second, the “Modified Calvinist” view, says that the intent was multiple, meaning, the cross secures salvation for the elect, but also that payment was made for all so that it is possible for all who believe to be saved. Third, Christ’s death was intended to “render certain the salvation of the elect.”(5) The latter view of the atonement, synonymously labeled Limited, Definite, or Particular atonement is the view advocated by Wellum in his overview relating the biblical covenants to the priestly work of Jesus on the cross. Of this view he writes, “Christ died for the purpose of saving only those to whom he actually applies the benefits of his work. As such, the intention and outcome of the cross are in harmony, and the cross work of Christ serves as the sole ground for our salvation in achieving and securing everything necessary to apply it to our lives by the Spirit.”(6)
Wellum outlines his argument for a particular redemption in two steps. First, he argues that Christ’s work as great high priest is a unified work. Second, he argues that Christ’s work as mediator of the new covenant entails a particular representation. We will unpack these two steps in the posts to follow.
1. Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 670-683.
2. These are resources cited by Wellum in a footnote on page 672: John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1648; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1983); Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2:403-486; Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:455-475; Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941), 361-405; Gary D. Long, Definite Atonement (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1977); Tom Barnes, Atonement Matters (Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press, 2008); Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 486-520.
3. Kingdom Through Covenant, 672.
4. Ibid., 671.