It is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement, by Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence, Crossway, 2010.
Dever and Lawrence are Calvinists who think they believe in effective atonement. But they will not let a God-centered view of election change their basic man-centered approach to “evangelism”. I commend them for having two categories of people; they address themselves both to Christians and to “non-Christian friends”. Unlike many Reformed folks who use the ambiguity of “the covenant”, Dever and Lawrence are Baptists who believe in election. But they give no evidence of believing in federal union. They do not seem to have any idea of some sinners being united by election in Christ, so that the sins of these elect were already imputed to Christ.
Nor do they seem to have any idea of faith being an benefit to the elect from Christ and His righteousness. Their man-centered approach makes the effectiveness of the atonement depend on faith given by God. They refuse to say that it is an effective atonement for the elect which results in faith by the elect in the true Christ revealed in the true gospel. This lack of attention to federal union is not caused by their being Baptists, nor by the absence of “the covenant” language. Rather, the problem is that they still have a gospel in common with Arminians.
On page 75, Dever asks: “But who did Jesus die for? Well, I think
Scripture is very clear on that. In Isaiah 53 we are told that the Servant would bear the sin of many and that he would justify many…That says to me that the Servant dies for and bears the iniquities of the very same ones he justifies.” This is the truth, but it not a truth that governs most of this book of sermons about the cross. Later on that same page (75), Dever refers to the sufficient and efficient formula, but never explains in what way he thinks the cross was enough for the non-elect (who all perish). Yes, “Christ knew those for whom he was laying down his life, and they were the same ones that the Father had elected”, but this statement does not rule out the idea that the death and the election were conditioned on foreseen faith. This statement lacks the antithesis to Arminianism.
To make that antithesis, we need to talk about a federal union before we talk about an union by faith, and we need to talk about faith being a benefit given to the elect because of Christ’s obedience even to death. Lawrence (on p 97) correctly objects to any reading of John 3:16-17 which thinks that Christ’s “death made salvation possible but stopped short of actually accomplishing it.” He rightly points out that “our faith does not accomplish salvation.” But of course every Arminian I know would agree that faith is not the cause of salvation. If the death of Jesus is sufficient to save the non-elect, then saving faith cannot be a result of Christ’s death. And when that is so, you are left with an evangelism in which union with “Christ” (the false one who died for everybody) because of faith becomes everything.
Dever describes mainline compromised Calvinism on p144. He writes,
“justification is not the same kind of merely objective act that
propitiation is…Christ’s giving of Himself satisfied the demands of the Father’s judgment against us. He did it alone; we played no part in it. Justification, however, includes us and our faith in a way that propitiation did not. We must believe in order to be justified. “
I agree that propitiation and justification are different, but I would deconstruct the difference as Dever locates it. Like most Calvinists, he and Lawrence have not considered the idea of a “justification
through faith” in which the regeneration and faith of the elect are the immediate result of God’s act of imputation. They have heard of federal union (which they may equate with eternal justification), but they see no other alternative to a justification conditioned on what God does in the elect sinner in causing that sinner to believe. (See the essays by Bruce McCormack and Carl Braaten about Calvin putting regeneration in first place before justification, or see Edward Boehl’s discussion of John Owen in his The Reformed Doctrine of Justification.) Yes, it’s true that the elect are only justified when they believe, but it is not being honest to the truth of eternal election in union with Christ to say that faith is the instrumental condition of justification. But it does make peace with Arminian evangelism .
Who are the we? Who are the us? The New Testament letters were written for those who were already believing the gospel. Of course this “mail for Christians” is also meant to be read and proclaimed to those who have not yet believed the gospel (elect and non-elect). And the pastors Dever and Lawrence, who first did these sermons in their Southern Baptist church, do a good job of making a distinction between Christians and non-Christian friends. But they refuse to talk to these friends about election or about how the effectiveness of the cross not only satisfies justices but causes the elect to believe. Instead, they tell non-Christians that they “can be” saved if they trust Jesus (even the false one who died without anybody’s sin being imputed to Him at the time). Instead, they write as if faith is the way to get sins imputed to Christ, as if the lost sinner is the one who is the imputer.
On page 200, they ask:”what will you do with your sins?” On page 213, they ask: “But did Jesus die for you? It depends. Do you know yourself to be unrighteous?” Is it adding to the gospel (and therefore a false gospel of additions) to tell sinners that making your faith to be the difference between saved and lost is unrighteousness, and that trusting the gospel means understanding and repenting of Arminian assumptions? My plea is not that the lost have to learn what an Arminian is before they can believe the gospel. My plea is that those who teach the gospel show how Christ’s death is effective for the elect by showing how the sins of the elect were imputed to Christ by God, and not by the sinner.
It is well and good to tell the sinner that if she understands herself to be self-righteous, then she has a substitute. But part of
self-righteousness is any idea that we cause Christ to become our
substitute because God make us believers. Rather, God makes the elect to become believers because the elect died in union with Christ, so that His death is their death. This book has no reference to II Cor 5:15 and its reference to Romans 6 makes “baptism” to be a symbol of our faith (instead of God placing the elect into Christ’s death). On this page (111, in the middle of a very interesting sermon on the irony of “better that one man die”), Lawrence writes out plainly the assumption: “through faith, sinners like you and me are brought into union with Christ so that our sins are credited to him.”
Why do I call this Arminian evangelism? Don’t the Arminians say that all the sins of all sinners have already been credited to Christ, and that this is ineffective? Well, no, they would not agree that it’s ineffective; they simply say that the whole thing is also conditioned on faith. While the Calvinist disagrees with the Arminian about the source of this faith, as long as the Calvinist does not talk of a federal union in which God has already credited the sins of the elect to Christ, they can share the same gospel. They can also agree not to mention that the non-elect sinner cannot believe the true gospel. They can very much agree not to mention that the non-elect CAN believe the false gospel that God loves everybody and that “Christ” died for everybody.
So not all is well in this book about the cross. There is ambiguity,
contradiction between the idea that the sinner decides if Jesus has died for her and the idea of assurance that “One has been sacrificed to pay your penalty.” (p23) But the non-Christian is not commanded to believe what may not be true. And even if a non-Christian is elect, and it is true that Christ died for her, that is not what we can or should be telling the non-Christian. We can certainly tell non-Christians about Christ’s effective death for the elect without telling them if they are elect or not. We don’t know if they are elect. We do know that Christ saves all for whom He died! Therefore it is not true or biblical to say that Christ “laid down his life for us if we would trust him”. Because the elect’s sins were credited to Christ by the Triune God, Christ died for them so that they would be placed into that death and so that they would believe the gospel.
On page 38, they write: an atonement needs to be made for you. No,this is not correct. An atonement has already been made. An atonement has already been made for the elect alone. It is not true to say to the unbeliever: “or you can trust that someone else has suffered for your sins and paid the penalty for them.” (p56) An unbeliever can believe that, and also believe that her believing is what made that penalty to be effective in her case, but if she does that, she is still in her sins, and still worshiping a false God who cannot save. But the true gospel tells sinners that God is the one who put Christ to death for the sins of the elect, and that this same Christ will return a second time “without sin”, all the future sins of the elect having been paid.
Again, I am not asking that evangelists explain to the lost what
Arminianism is. Rather, I am asking us to not proclaim an Arminian gospel. The Bible talks about “us” and “our” sins, but it never sounds Arminan or resorts to an Arminian logic. Let us try to do the same thing. When we tell people that God saves “as many as” (whosoever) has faith in Jesus, let us make sure that we tell them for whom Jesus died. Let’s NOT merely say: “there is no other qualification, no other work, no other standard to be met.” (p126). Faith is not what makes Christ’s death effective for us: the Holy Spirit is not the One who makes the atonement work.
Faith is not a qualification, but a result of Christ’s death, a benefit of Christ’s righteousness. (II Peter 1:1) It is true to say that “without trust we will know no benefit through his death” (p152), but it not the whole truth, and it becomes a lie when we do not rule out he idea that trust is what makes the death work. And we cannot rule out trust as what makes the death work, unless we teach that trust is a result given to the elect by the instrument of Christ’s death for the elect.
God has a non-elect. My worry is not that some of the non-elect will be saved. But neither should these pastors worry that the elect will not be saved if they told the truth that God has a non-elect and that God does not love all sinners. But Dever and Lawrence assure their non-Christian friends that “God wants you to wake up to the spiritual peril you are in”. (p153). But this is not true of all non-Christians who God has predestined to be listening to these sermons. Certainly God commands in God’s law what God has not ordained to happen. But God’s gospel does not include any idea that God “wants” things to happen that will not happen.
At this point you can bring out Spurgeon and the word “offer” and accuse me of letting predestination rule over the gospel. But in the gospel in which God is both just and justifier, the Lord Jesus Christ has already brought in a righteousness by which all those God loves will be justified. Contrary to what Dever says on p 155, God does not count faith as righteousness. It is the object of faith, Christ in his glorious person and effective death, who is alone the divine righteousness of the elect.