Definite Atonement and Church Membership


What does definite atonement have to do with church membership? Many people would say, “Nothing.” However, I disagree and will outline my argument in two steps. First, I will sketch the priestly argument for definite atonement. Second, I will argue that the implications of this argument entail a regenerate view of the church.

I. The Priestly Argument for Definite Atonement

Definite atonement must be argued on multiple fronts; it is not demonstrated by one text alone but a whole set of texts and interrelated issues, both exegetical and theological. One crucial issue central to the discussion is the nature of Christ’s priestly work. Most affirm that our Lord’s work is priestly. Yet many who affirm this truth deny that Christ’s sacrifice entails a definite atonement.

What is the argument for the definite nature of his priestly work? It’s this: Jesus, as the high priest of the new covenant, willingly offered himself as our substitute in obedience to his Father’s will. Christ’s intent was not only to achieve the redemption of the elect but also to secure everything necessary to bring the elect to the end for which his death was designed, namely, our justification and all the blessings of the new covenant, including the gift of the Spirit who effectively applies Christ’s work to those for whom he died. Also, due to Christ’s resurrection and ascension, our Lord now rules at the Father’s right hand and intercedes for the elect, thus guaranteeing our eternal salvation.

On the other hand, non-definite atonement views must divide Christ’s unified priestly work, re-define Christ’s relation as priest to his people, and ultimately make ineffective his work as the head of the new covenant—all points which Scripture will not allow.

The priestly argument for definite atonement is not new. Yet the argument is rarely dealt with by its critics, or if it is discussed, only aspects of it are addressed, aspects that are usually divorced from their full biblical presentation. I will briefly unpack this argument by first discussing how OT priests carried out a definite and unified work, and second, by discussing how our Lord’s work as the new covenant mediator achieves a definite and more effective work for his covenant people.

First, let us think about OT priests. Hebrews 5:1 is a nice summary of the work of the OT high priest: “For every high priest chosen from among men is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” Every OT high priest was selected from among the people (specifically the tribe of Levi) and was in solidarity with those he represented. The high priest’s appointment was for the purpose of representing a specific people before God, namely, all those under the old covenant. Never did the priest represent and mediate for a people other than God’s covenant people; he never functioned as a universal mediator. Also, the sphere in which the high priest represented the people was in matters related to God, namely, “to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” The OT priest, then, served as the representative mediator of the people before God due to their sin; at its heart, his work was one of propitiation and expiation.

Involved in the OT priest’s work are a number of important truths:

(1) As they offered sacrifices for sins before God there was no separation between the provision of atonement and its application to the people. As this is brought to fulfillment in Christ, as Hebrews teaches, it becomes clear that the ineffectual nature of the old covenant was not due to the bifurcation between provision and application but the inferior nature of the sacrifices (Heb. 10:4, 11). In Christ, however, we have the perfect priest and the perfect sacrifice. His death achieves a complete atonement and application to his new covenant people.

(2) Under the old covenant, the sacrifices offered were “relatively” efficacious for the people, that is, God never intended the sacrificial system to effect ultimate salvation; they functioned as types and shadows of a greater priest and sacrifice to come (Heb. 10:1–18). As we move to the new covenant, shadow gives way to reality and we discover how Christ’s priestly work provides for and is effectively applied to all those in the covenant he mediates.

(3) The OT priest’s role is always in terms of the application of his office to the one he represents in terms of offering and intercession. This is also true of Christ, yet in a far greater way, he not only secures our perfect redemption but also applies it to his people effectively.

Second, let us think about how Christ is the fulfillment of the OT priest in his entire work. Hebrews unpacks this glorious truth for us. Here are some points to consider. Christ both fulfills and transcends the work of the OT priest, and thus is greater. Just as the OT priest was selected, so Christ is divinely called by the Father and appointed to this office (5:4–6; cf. Pss. 2; 110). Just as the OT priest represented a definite people before God, so Christ as the new covenant mediator represents everyone in that covenant, and does so effectively. Just as the OT priest offered sacrifices for sins (5:1; 8:3), including his own, which could never ultimately take away sins (10:4, 11), so Christ offered himself. As a result, Christ’s work achieved a definitive, once-for-all-time atonement (7:27; 9:12; 10:15–18) so that, unlike the OT priest, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him” (7:25).

Patterned after the OT priest, Christ provides and applies his work to the people. Also, just as the OT priests’ work was unified yet imperfect, so Christ’s work is unified yet perfect in provision and intercession. In regard to intercession, our Lord, as priest, effectively prays for his people before the cross (Luke 22:31–32; John 17:6–26) and after his ascension (7:24–25; Rom. 8:32–34; 1 John 2:1–2), guaranteeing that all the new covenant blessings are applied to them (see John 17:6–19; Rom. 8:28–29; Heb. 7:23–28).

In thinking of Christ’s new covenant work, an important question needs to be asked: Does Christ represent all people without exception (a “mixed” group) and only make salvation possible for them, or does he represent aspecific people who are effectively brought to salvation and receive all the benefits of the new covenant including the Spirit’s work of application? Scripture teaches the latter and not the former. The NT presents Christ’s work as a new covenant work (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 5–10). Additionally, Scripture teaches that what is “new” about the new covenant is that the entire covenant people will be born of and gifted by the Spirit and justified before God. These truths are taught by anticipation in the OT (e.g., Jer. 31:29­–34; Ezek. 11:19­­–20; 36:25–27; Joel 2:28–32; cf. Num. 11:27–29), and in the NT as realities due to Christ’s work (John 7:39; Acts 2:33; Rom. 8:9). Thus, the old covenant included all the physical seed of Abraham, spiritual and unspiritual; hence, they were a “mixed” people, both regenerate and unregenerate. But under the new covenant this is no longer the case. This is why the new covenant is better than the old: it is effective and it will not fail, due to Christ’s greater priesthood and work.

This point must not be overlooked. Given that Jesus is the mediator of the new covenant, and it is completely effective in its provision and application, it is difficult to deny (unless one embraces universalism) that Christ’s priestly work is both definite and effective. Thus, all whom Jesus represented are, in time, regenerated, justified, and brought to glory. Not one of them will be lost since our Lord, as the greater priest, does not fail. For those for whom he died as their covenant head, his work is effectively applied by the Spirit, the same Spirit whose new covenant work is effectively secured by Christ’s atoning death.

II. Definite Atonement and the Nature of the Church

What does definite atonement have to do with the nature of the church? Everything. If our Lord is the mediator of the new covenant and its subjects are a regenerate, believing people, then it is difficult to think of the new covenant people as a “mixed” community like Israel of old, at least by covenantal design (certainly, churches sometimes error and admit unbelievers). Our Lord, as the high priest and mediator of the new covenant, represents those in the covenant community alone and those in the covenant are constituted as a regenerate, believing people.

This entails, then, that there is a crucial link between the priestly argument for definite atonement and a regenerate view of the church. Why? Because both views contend for the same understanding of the nature of the new covenant community. This is why a regenerate view of the church goes together with an embrace of definite atonement. Conversely, it seems that a non-definite atonement view fits better with a “mixed” view of the church, although many in Reformed theology reject this conclusion.

Why? Because in Reformed, covenantal views of the church, they contend that the church is constituted like Israel under the old covenant, namely as a “mixed” people. The locus of the covenant community and the locus of the elect are distinct under both covenants. On the other hand, Baptists (and the believers’ church tradition) argue for a regenerate view of the church since only those who have professed that they have repented of their sin and believed in Christ have entered into the new covenant. In fact, this is the primary reason why Baptists contend that the covenant sign of the new covenant church, namely baptism, is reserved only for those who have been born of the Spirit, justified before God, and thus become partakers of the new covenant by God’s grace. Although circumcision and baptism are both covenant signs, they do not signify the same realities due to their respective covenantal differences.

No doubt some try to avoid this conclusion by combining either a regenerate view of the church with a universal atonement or a definite atonement with a “mixed” view of the church, but there are serious problems in such attempts. For example, Reformed theology that contends for a definite atonement and a “mixed” view of the church must limit the new covenant to “believers and their children” and not “all without exception.” This, however, is difficult to argue biblically, and it seems to undercut their defense of definite atonement. On the other hand, many Baptists argue for a general/universal atonement and a regenerate view of the church, but then have difficulty explaining how Christ is the mediator of the new covenant if he is dying for those outside of that covenant. In fact, in dying for the non-elect, what specific covenant is Christ actually mediating since those in the new covenant are justified, sanctified, and glorified? One is either “in Christ” and thus in the new covenant, or “in Adam” and thus not in the new covenant.

A more biblical view is to argue that Christ as the head and high priest of the new covenant entails both a definite atonement and a regenerate ecclesiology. As God’s covenants unfold across time and reach their fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant, Scripture teaches us to embrace a Savior who saves, a cross that effectively accomplishes and secures every gracious new covenant promise, and a regenerate community that he purchases with his own blood who will forever know the glorious benefits of the new covenant applied to them.

What does definite atonement have to do with church membership and thus a regenerate view of the church? Everything.

Stephen J. Wellum

Stephen J. Wellum is a Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.

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