Lose Particular Redemption, Lose Penal Substitution


The (assigned!) topic raises a question. Particular redemption receives enough hostile press already. So, is 9Marks overly scholastic in suggesting that the “What?” of the atonement (penal substitution) and the “For whom?” (particular redemption) are inextricably linked?

The 19th century Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell believed so, and therefore in The Nature of the Atonement (1 st edition, 1856) sought to deconstruct and demolish the doctrine of penal substitution. He argued: “That cannot be the true conception of the nature of the atonement which implies that Christ died for an election from among men” (emphasis added).

Our interest here is not to rehearse every argument for particular redemption, but only this question: Assuming penal substitution lies at the heart of the atonement, what bearing does that have on its extent?

One passage will absorb our attention: 2 Corinthians 5:11–21. It is particularly significant because it employs universal language in relation to Christ’s death (“all” vv. 14, 15, and “world” v.19).

Echoing Aquinas, this universal language seems to presuppose an unlimited atonement . But Paul’s reasoning leads to a different conclusion, teaching us, incidentally, that true exposition must lay bare not only the words but the inner logic of the text.

Two dimensions of Paul’s reasoning are significant here:

I: The logic of the accomplishment of reconciliation:

  • One died for all (v.14). Here the word translated “for” (huper) carries the sense “instead of, in place of”—i.e. substitution. For these “all” Christ died (v.15) the death which is “the wages [= penalty] of sin” (Rom. 6:23).
  • In this way, God was “not counting their (the “all”) trespasses against them” (v.19).
  • Instead, he counted their (= the “all”) trespasses against Christ, and also counted his righteousness to them (v.21).
  • Thus, God was “reconciling the world (the “all”) to himself” (v.20).

Two implications are relevant:

(i): The “all” whose sins God counted against Christ and whose penalty he bore are those whose sins he does not count. Indeed, he counts Christ’s righteousness to them, thus reconciling them to himself in Christ.

(ii): This reconciliation is both a finished and sufficient work. It is to be received by faith, not completed by it. The sins of the “all” being imputed to Christ (v.21), they are no longer counted against those (the “all”) for whom the atonement has been made. Augustus Montague Toplady’s question is a propos:

Hath not the Father put to grief
His spotless Son for me?
And will the righteous Judge of men,
Condemn me for that debt of sin,
Which, Lord, was charged on Thee?

II: The logic of the application of reconciliation:

Paul also develops here the connection between the once-for-all historical accomplishment of reconciliation and its ongoing existential application. Its finished nature secures its ongoing effect. Follow Paul’s logic again.

Verse 14: One died (apethanen) for all; therefore those “all” also died (apethanon).

Notice the force of Paul’s “therefore”:

Negatively, he does not say:

(i): “Since one died for all, therefore all must have been dead” (i.e. in sins, Eph. 2:1).

(ii): “Since one died for all, therefore all must die” (i.e. for their own sins, Rom. 6:23).

(iii): “Since one died for all, therefore all must die” (i.e. “to self”—this is a fruit of Christ’s death, v.15, it is not the meaning of v.14).

Positively , he does say:

  • Paul affirms that the “all” for whom Christ died also died in his death (v.14). The repetition in the same context of the same verb (apothnēskō) in the same (aorist) tense implies the reference is to the same event. It is in Christ’s death that “all have died” (cf. the similar aorist of apothnēskō in Romans 6:2 and Colossians 3:3).
  • The existential implication is that these “all” “no longer live for themselves” but for Christ “who for their sake died and was raised again” (v.15). Those united to Christ federally enter the new creation in union with him existentially (v.17).

Thus, Paul reasons that all for whom Christ died were so united with him in his death that they also may be said to have both died and been raised in and with him. Penal substitution by Christ and union with Christ are inseparable realities. This is how penal substitution actually works.

This union with Christ here implies a chain of unbreakable links between (i) Christ’s death borne for the sins of the “all”; (ii) the non-imputation of their sins to the “all”; (iii) the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the same “all”; and (iv) the fruit of this in the lives of the “all,” since they died and rose in him. For Paul there is no breach between the historic union with the “all” in Christ’s penal substitution for them and their existential union with him in its benefits

Consider the incoherent implications if this is not so: (i) God did not count sins against the “all” for whom Christ died, but now does count them; (ii) Christ provided actual atonement and reconciliation which now neither atones nor reconciles; (iii) the “all” died in Christ’s death and were raised with him—yet now some of the “all” atoned for can undo those realities, render the atonement ineffective, and un-reconcile themselves although already reconciled in Christ.

Any doctrine of unlimited penal substitution implies the ineffectiveness and disintegration of the objective accomplishment of Christ. At this point the gospel begins to unravel, and our Saviour’s work and glory are demeaned.

It would take us beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the” double jeopardy” implied. But this brief look at 2 Corinthians 5:11–21 is sufficient to confirm the conclusion of Toplady’s “Faith Reviving”:

If thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine:
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.

McLeod Campbell’s presupposition was right: penal substitution implies efficacious redemption. Expressed negatively, in terms of this essay’s title: If you lose particular atonement, you must lose penal substitution.

Sinclair Ferguson

Sinclair Ferguson is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor's Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.

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