The Apostolic Gospel Imperative, the Extent of the Atonement, and Evangelism

 Bill Evans head shot

Guy Waters (NT Professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS) has a nice piece entitled “Preaching Like Peter?” over on Ref21 (HT: TheAquilaReport).  Using the examples of the Apostle Peter’s preaching in the book of Acts, Waters properly emphasizes that Christian preaching should be biblical, Christ-centered, applicatory, and urgent.  Under the heading of “applicatory”, Waters also rightly notes that the Petrine kerygma (i.e., Peter’s proclamation of the gospel) often employed commands.  He writes:

Peter is both bold and specific in the way that he counsels these men and women. On the one hand, he does not shy from authoritatively delivering commands – he tells them to “repent and be baptized … in the name of Jesus Christ” (verse 38). He also sets before them two promises – the promise of the “forgiveness of sins,” of which Christian baptism is sign and seal, and the promise of the “gift of the Holy Spirit,” the Spirit of Christ who gives the grace of repentance to sinners (verse 38; cf. 5:31, 11:18).

That is certainly true, but I think there is more to be said.  In short, to Waters’ four categories above, I would add a fifth—it should also be churchly or ecclesial.  Reasons for this will become evident below.

When I was in seminary I noticed that the apostolic kerygma in Acts was almost invariably framed in terms of imperatives rather than the interrogatives and pleadings to which I was accustomed, having grown up in the context of American Evangelicalism.  Furthermore, the command to repent was often more prominent than the command to believe (see, e.g., Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30).  The implications of all this are, I think, significant.

The first has to do with the old and seemingly interminable debate between Calvinists, who affirm that Christ died with the specific intention of saving the elect,  and Arminians (and some Reformed thinkers such as Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance), who maintain that Christ died for all.  Indeed, some today who dub themselves “Evangelical Calvinists” are quite insistent on this latter point.

Traditional Calvinism (and yes, I know that Calvin’s own position is disputed), along with some early and medieval thinkers, affirms that while Christ’s death is infinite in its value and thus sufficient for the sins of the world, he died with the specific intention of saving the elect. It is thus a “limited” or “definite” atonement, and this notion of a limited atonement was then codified at the Synod of Dordt (it is the L in TULIP), and reiterated in the Westminster Standards (on these issues, see W. Robert Godfrey, “Reformed Thought on the Extent of the Atonement to 1618,” WTJ 37 [1975]: 133-171).  They point to passages where Christ’s dying for the elect or for the church is affirmed (John 10:11-15; 17:9; Rom. 8:32-33; Eph. 5:25), and they also note that Christ’s death is presented as effectual, as actually securing the redemption of sinners rather than merely making redemption possible (Rom. 5:10; Gal. 1:4; 3:13). Thus a syllogism is presented: If Christ died for all, and Christ’s death is truly effectual, then all are saved. But all are not saved, and therefore Christ did not die for all.

Arminians point to passages that emphasize a universal referent for the work and death of Christ (John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:3,4, 6; 1 John 2:2), and to passages that seem to speak of Christ dying for some who are not saved (1 Cor. 8:11; 2 Pet. 2:1). They argue that a genuine, free offer of the gospel is impossible if Christ did not die for all. This argument gains momentum from the evangelistic techniques of contemporary revivalism, which more often than not present the gospel as a plaintive plea  (“Christ died for you, now won’t you please receive him as your Savior?”) often accompanied by the singing of a good many verses of “Just as I Am.”  Furthermore, the notion of a universal atonement sits well with the implicit universalism of Karl Barth.

This is a difficult question.  If I’m not mistaken, the Scriptural writers seem to view the death of Christ in both universal and particular terms. The Calvinist argument is logically coherent and it has considerable exegetical warrant, while the Arminian position has considerable sentimental appeal and some exegetical warrant as well. Both sides seem to be asking questions that the scriptural writers may not be inclined to answer.

Furthermore, as Herman Bavinck demonstrates in his Reformed Dogmatics (II:337-405), the question of the divine intention for the atonement almost immediately involves us in difficulties (particularly evident when we try to order the decrees so that the decree of election logically precedes the decree to send Christ as the atoning sacrifice for sin such that the atonement is definite, or, conversely, so that the decree of election logically follows the decree of atonement such that the atonement is universal).   That is to say, the various options—supralapsarianism, infralapsarianism, Amyraldianism, and Arminianism—all have problems.  And just for the record, I do affirm the position of WCF 8.1, 5, 8 regarding the intentionality of the atonement, for it protects the vital truth that Christ has indeed accomplished salvation for his people.

What we can say with confidence is that God clearly reveals his intention to save the elect in Christ, that Christ is the Second Adam, the foundation of a new redeemed humanity, and that the church as the body of Christ is the sphere of salvation.   Thus the apostolic kerygma involves the proclamation that Christ has come, has died, and has been raised from the dead.  That is, salvation is a concrete reality; it has been accomplished in and by Jesus Christ.  This is then immediately followed by the command to repent, believe, and be baptized (that is, to become part of this new salvation reality, to be sacramentally incorporated into the church as the body of Christ and the sphere of salvation).

Second, this has implications for the form that evangelism ought to take.  If the apostolic kerygma is any indication, gospel proclamation should involve, not plaintive pleading, but a powerful command to repent, believe, and be united with Christ and his church.  The fact that so much evangelism today is lackluster, if not impotent, may have something to do with the fact that it is so different from what we see on the pages of the New Testament!

I have also long thought that much contemporary evangelism with its “Jesus died for you” rhetoric is misguided, in that the rebellious sinner has no real understanding of what that means.  Only from the standpoint of repentance and faith can the death of Christ be more fully understood by a sinner.  Thus, it is not terribly surprising that the apostolic evangelism is framed in compelling imperatives rather than weak and plaintive interrogatives.  The Apostles realized that the presentation of the gospel is not a marketing exercise in which the religious consumer has the inalienable right to choose this or that.  Rather, the situation is urgent and God “commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).  And notice that the form of the apostolic kerygma bypasses the persistent and intractable question that has dogged modern discussions of evangelism and the atonement (“Can we tell sinners that Christ died for them?).

I also suspect that the close association of repentance and faith in the apostolic kerygma undercuts the position of those in Reformed circles today who are so concerned to radically separate, in Lutheranizing fashion, law and gospel.  But that is a topic for another time.