What Do The Biblical Covenants Have To Do With The Extent Of The Atonement? Part 3

March 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

In this final post concerning the biblical covenants and its relation to the extent of the atonement, we will look at how Christ’s work as mediator of the new covenant entails a particular redemption.  This is the second step in Dr. Stephen Wellum’s overview of the extent of the atonement found in Kingdom Through Covenant.

Christ’s Work As Mediator Of The New Covenant Entails A Particular Redemption

Dr. Wellum begins this section by reiterating the necessity of understanding the atoning work of Jesus in light of its new covenantal context in which Jesus functions as great high priest and mediator.  He writes that “one cannot think of Christ’s priestly work, including its design, apart from the biblical covenants, especially the old covenant,” and that to understand its nature and design “it must be viewed in light of the new covenant.”(1)  This is because “Jesus’ whole work was a covenant work; His blood covenant blood, His priesthood covenant priesthood, His office as Mediator a covenant office.”(2)  Therefore, the questions regarding the scope, extent, or design of the death must be answered in reference to this covenant.

Wellum then asks these essential questions in reference to the covenantal work of the  atonement: “What is the scope, extent, and design of the new covenant?  Is it a general covenant made with everybody making salvation possible for everyone, if they will take it? Or, is it a limited covenant made only with certain men assuring their eternal salvation?”(3) Whom does Christ as high priest of the new covenant represent in his death and apply the fruits of that covenant to? Does he represent all people universally, or does he represent a particular people who are effectively brought to salvation and receive all the benefits of the new covenant?

Wellum takes the latter view and proposes that “Christ’s atoning work cannot be extended to all people without also extending the new covenant privileges to them, which minimally includes regeneration, forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and so on.” He contends that thinking otherwise removes the work of Christ from its covenantal context, “which is precisely the problem with general atonement views.”

Wellum again states that general atonement advocates have two options, either they redefine the nature of the new covenant or argue that Christ dies as the covenantal head of another covenant, both of which he says is biblically “unsustainable.”  In giving these two options, Wellum also observes that general atonement advocates often divorce their view from covenantal categories and chose to deal heavily on “world” and “all” texts without discussing the biblical categories of “priest” and “covenant.”

In the subsequent paragraph, Dr. Wellum asks an important question: “Who are the subjects in the new covenant?”  He asks whether the new covenant is like the covenant of old, entailing a “mixed” group (believers and unbelievers) with Christ representing all people, making salvation possible for them, or does he represent a particular group who’s salvation is effectively secured giving them all of the covenant benefits? Wellum again affirms the latter, and gives three reasons.

First, “Christ’s priestly work is a new covenant work (Luke 2:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; Hebrews 5-10).  Wellum writes that “He is the mediator of this alone and no other.”

Second, the “newness” of the new covenant community is seen in that all those in it know God (Jer. 31:34a ), all are born of the Spirit and have new hearts (Jer. 31:33; cf. Ezek. 11:19-20; 36:25-27; Joel 2:28-32) , and all experience full justification for their sins (Jer. 31:34b; Rom. 8:1).  Wellum goes on to cite that this is precicely what the OT prophets anticipated, that the Spirit would be poured out on all those in the covenant community, and that the NT affirms that those in the new covenant enjoy the promised gift of the Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14).  Wellum also notes that the work of the Spirit is grounded in the cross work of Christ (John 7:39; 16:7; Acts 2:33), and that as a result of the covenant work, the Spirit is sent to those in the new covenant, since the Spirit is one of the gifts purchased by the atoning work of Christ.  Wellum writes, the Spirit is “the precious seal, down payment, and guarantee of the promised inheritance,” and is only given to those in the covenant (Romans 8:9).

Wellum then summarizes the importance of his assertions by writing

 “Why is this important to emphasise? Given that Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant in terms of both provision and application, it is difficult to deny, unless we want to affirm universalism, that Christ’s priestly work is particular and effective. In other words, all those in the new covenant, for whom Jesus acted as the covenant mediator, are, in time, regenerated, justified, and brought to glory.  Not one of them is lost, since our Lord Jesus, as the greater priest and mediator of a greater covenant, does not fail.  For those for whom Christ died as their covenant head, his work is effectively applied by the Spirit–the same Spirit who cannot be divorced from the new covenant, since he is one of the central blessings Jesus has secured by his atoning death.”

Wellum’s third reason is given by proposing two problems for general atonement advocates in light of his analysis.  The first problem is posed in a question, “for whom did Christ die as mediator?” If it is affirmed that he died as new covenant mediator, then “their ‘new covenant’ is no more effective than the old, since many people in that covenant never have new covenant blessings applied to them.”  Essentially, they must view the new covenant as a “mixed” community, and that Jesus, as the greater priest fails to apply his work to all within the new covenant. Wellum states that “in the end, general atonement advocates have to redefine the people of the new covenant and place faith and repentance (tied to the work of the Spirit) outside of the priestly work of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The second problem Wellum sees in the general atonement view is that they divide “the provision of salvation from its application,” and that they fail to acknowledge that both are central to the covenant work of Christ.  He states that as priest and mediator, Jesus dies for all those who are in the new covenant, and as covenant head, he secures all the benefits of the new covenant.  He states that in this way, “our Lord provides and supplies, which is why it is certain that his greater work will not fail.”

Wellum explains that the work of application by the Spirit takes place throughout history, and is rooted in the plan of the triune God.  Wellum outlines this plan as follows: the Father elects, the Son achieves and secures everything necessary to save the elect, and the Spirit is sent by the Father and Son “to apply the benefits of the Son’s work to every subject of the new covenant.”

Dr. Wellum concludes by restating two convictions argued for in this overview. First, “that a proper understanding of the biblical covenants has massive implication for the debate over the extent of the atonement.”  Second, that “a major problem with general atonement advocates, whether they are Arminian or modified Calvinists, is that they fail to locate the priestly work of our Lord in its covenantal context.”  He argues that Christ’s work as priest and mediator of the new covenant entails a particular redemption, which does not break “the crucial link between Christ and his people,” and which sees Christ as purchasing, securing, and applying everything necessary to bring his people to the end for which his death was designed, eternal rest.

  1. All quotations, unless noted, are taken from Kingdom Through Covenant, pp 672-679.
  2. Samuel Waldron with Richard Barcellos, A Reformed Baptist Manifesto (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2004), 59-60.
  3. Waldron with Barcellos, Reformed Baptist Manifesto, 60.
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