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From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective Hardcover – Nov. 30 2013
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With contributions from a number of well-respected Reformed theologians and church leaders, this volume offers a comprehensive defense for the doctrine of limited atonement from historical, biblical, theological, and pastoral perspectives.
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“A massive product of exact and well-informed scholarship . . . with landmark significance. . . . I give this book top marks for its range of solid scholarship, cogency of argument, warmth of style, and zeal for the true glory of God. I recommend it most highly.”
―J. I. Packer, Late Board of Governors' Professor of Theology, Regent College
“I cannot imagine that this book could have been published twenty-five years ago: there were not at that time enough well-informed theologians working in the Reformed heritage to produce a volume of such clarity and competence. Whatever side you hold in this debate, henceforth you dare not venture into the discussion without thoughtfully reading this book, which, mercifully, makes argument by stereotype and reductionism a great deal more difficult. Above all, this book will elicit adoration as its readers ponder afresh what Jesus achieved on the cross.”
―D. A. Carson, Cofounder and Theologian-at-Large, The Gospel Coalition
“The topic is worthy enough. Yet the lineup of contributors to this volume makes this, in my view, the most impressive defense of definite atonement in over a century. Beyond rehearsing traditional arguments, first-rate historical, biblical, and systematic theologians bring fresh angles and exegesis to bear. From Heaven He Came and Sought Her is a gift that will no doubt keep on giving for generations to come.”
―Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California
“This is the definitive study. It is careful, comprehensive, deep, pastoral, and thoroughly persuasive.”
―David F. Wells, Senior Distinguished Research Professor of Theology, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
“There is a conventional wisdom that seems to believe definite atonement is the weakest of the five heads of doctrine confessed at the Synod of Dort. But you may come away from this book believing it is the strongest, in its historical attestation, biblical basis, and spiritual blessing. Written by first-rate exegetes and theologians, this book covers all the difficult issues and emerges with a highly persuasive and attractive case. Highly recommended!”
―John M. Frame, Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy Emeritus, Reformed Theological Seminary
“For whom did Christ die? This volume makes a fresh and impressively comprehensive case for definite atonement as the answer true to Scripture. It shows convincingly, through multi-authored contributions, (1) that the issues of the extent of the atonement and its nature cannot be separated―penal substitution, at the heart of why Christ had to die, stands or falls with definite atonement; and (2) how definite atonement alone provides for a gospel offer of salvation from sin that is genuinely free. In engaging various opposing views on this much-disputed topic, the editors seek to do so in a constructive and irenic spirit, an effort in which they and the other authors have succeeded admirably.”
―Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Emeritus Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary
“This book is formidable and persuasive. Those familiar with the terrain will recognize that the editors know exactly the key issues and figures in this debate. And none of the authors who follow disappoint. The tone is calm and courteous, the scholarship rigorous and relentless, the argument clear and compelling. This penetrating discussion takes into account the major modern academic criticisms of definite atonement (Barth, the Torrances, Armstrong, Kendall, and others) as well as more popular critiques (Clifford, Driscoll and Breshears). An impressive team of scholars adorns this subject and aims to help Christians toward a deeper gratitude to God for his grace, a greater assurance of salvation, a sweeter fellowship with Christ, stronger affections in their worship of him, more love for people and superior courage and sacrifice in witness and service, and indeed to propel us into the global work of missions with compassion and confidence.”
―Ligon Duncan, Chancellor and CEO, Reformed Theological Seminary
“Whether you are sympathetic to or suspicious of definite atonement, this book will surprise you. Here are historical details, exegetical links, theological observations, and pastoral perspectives that are fresh and fascinating, even though there is also plenty that will prove controversial. From Heaven He Came and Sought Her offers the fullest and most nuanced treatment on definite atonement I know, and will richly add to the substance and quality of future conversations about the intent of the atonement. Whether you think that you agree or disagree with the authors, wrestling with these essays is well worth your time.”
―Kelly M. Kapic, author, Embodied Hope; Professor of Theological Studies, Covenant College
About the Author
David Gibson (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is minister of Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. He is a coeditor of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her and the author of Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End. He is married to Angela, and they have four children.
Jonathan Gibson (PhD, University of Cambridge) is an ordained minister in the International Presbyterian Church, United Kingdom, and associate professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is a coeditor of and contributor to From Heaven He Came and Sought Her as well as the author of a number of other books. Jonny and his wife, Jackie, have four children.
J. I. Packer (1926–2020) served as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College. He authored numerous books, including the classic bestseller Knowing God. Packer also served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible.
Sinclair B. Ferguson (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and the former senior minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is the author of several books, including By Grace Alone and Lessons from the Upper Room. Sinclair and his wife, Dorothy, have four grown children.
Paul Helm (MA, Worcester College) is a teaching fellow at Regent College in Vancouver. He previously taught philosophy at the University of Liverpool and was was the J. I. Packer Chair of Theology at Regent College. He also publishes online at Helm's Deep. Paul is married to Angela, and they have five children.
Robert Letham (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of systematic and historical theology at Union School of Theology. A Presbyterian minister with twenty-five years of pastoral experience, he is the author of books such as The Work of Christ; The Holy Trinity; and Union with Christ, and a range of articles published in encyclopedias and journals.
John Piper is founder and lead teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. He served for thirty-three years as the pastor for preaching and vision of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is the author of more than fifty books, including Desiring God; Don’t Waste Your Life; and Providence.
Thomas R. Schreiner (MDiv and ThM, Western Conservative Baptist Seminary; PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and associate dean of the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Carl R. Trueman (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College. He is a contributing editor at First Things, an esteemed church historian, and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Trueman has authored or edited more than a dozen books, including The Creedal Imperative; Luther on the Christian Life; and Histories and Fallacies. He is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Lee Gatiss (PhD, University of Cambridge) is the director of Church Society and a lecturer in church history at Union School of Theology. He is chairman of The Global Anglican and on the editorial board of Studies in Puritanism and Piety. He has written and edited more than thirty books on the Bible, theology, and church history. He and his family serve at Christ Church, Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
Matthew S. Harmon (PhD, Wheaton College) is professor of New Testament studies at Grace College & Theological Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana. He was previously on staff with Cru for eight years and is the author of numerous books, including commentaries on Galatians, Philippians, 2 Peter, and Jude. He also co-hosts the Various and Sundry podcast. Matthew and his wife, Kate, live in Warsaw, Indiana, and have two sons.
Michael A. G. Haykin (ThD, University of Toronto) is professor of church history and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He has authored or edited more than twenty-five books, including Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church.
Alec Motyer (1924–2016) served as principal of Trinity Theological College in the United Kingdom, as well as pastor of several churches in England.
Stephen J. Wellum (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Stephen and his wife, Karen, have five adult children.
Garry Williams (DPhil, Oxford University) serves as the director of the John Owen Centre for Theological Study at London Theological Seminary in the United Kingdom, which provides theological teaching for pastors after their initial training. He is also a visiting professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Garry and his wife, Fiona, have four children.
- Publisher : Crossway (Nov. 30 2013)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 704 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1433512769
- ISBN-13 : 978-1433512766
- Item weight : 1.07 kg
- Dimensions : 15.24 x 3.66 x 22.86 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: #296,951 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #226 in Systematic Christian Theology (Books)
- #324 in Christian Soteriology (Books)
- #564 in Christology (Books)
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It took me more than 5 months to make it through From Heaven He Came, not so much because it’s nearly 700 pages long (although that would be reason enough), but because every one of its pages is dense. I rarely write in a book as much as I have in this one, but I needed heavy marking to understand and remember what I read. It's not an easy book to review, either. How can I sum up a book that took five months to read in one blog post?
Definite atonement, the doctrine defended within this book, means that "in the death of Jesus Christ, the triune God intended to achieve the redemption of every person given to the Son by the Father in eternity past, and to apply the accomplishment of his sacrifice to each of them by the Spirit. The death of Christ was intended to win the salvation of God’s people alone (page 33)."
You may recognize this quote as a statement of what is more commonly called limited atonement, the L in the TULIP acronym used to represent the five points of Calvinism. But definite atonement is the name used for this doctrine throughout this book and there’s good reason for this: definite atonement is a simply a better descriptor of it. That the atonement is definite means it has a defined purpose and a defined effect. Christ died to save a specific group of people, his people, and his work actually saves all of them.
When someone embraces Calvinism, definite atonement is frequently the last of the five points of Calvinism to be affirmed, and some who accept the other four points who never accept it. If I had to explain this, I’d guess it’s because in a battle of proof texts it can look like definite atonement loses to universal atonement, although this is not really the case, as the biblical argument laid out in this book shows.
From Heaven He Came consists of 23 essays by 21 authors, plus a foreword by J. I. Packer—an interesting choice since Packer also wrote the now-classic introduction to a reprint of John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, the only other work in history that could also be considered a definitive study of definite atonement. The overarching aim of this volume is "to show that history, the Bible, theology, and pastoral practice combine together to provide a framework within which the doctrine of definite atonement is best articulated … (page 37)."
Accordingly, the essays are grouped into four sections corresponding with these categories. Contributors include Michael Haykin, Paul Helm, Carl R. Trueman, Tom Schreiner, Robert Letham, Stephen Wellum, Sinclair Ferguson, and John Piper, to list some of the authors.
The essays in the first section examine the history of the doctrine of definite atonement from the time of the ancient church through John Calvin and on until John Owen, the author of the treatise on definite atonement mentioned above. I’ve read criticism of the first two chapters focusing on definite atonement in the early church for “weakness,” but it could be the critic expected the impossible. There was no developed doctrine of definite atonement in early church history, only hints of arguments the Reformers would later use to defend definite atonement. These chapters are included to show that when definite atonement is eventually articulated, it grows from “seeds that had been planted long before … ” (page 95).
My favorite pieces in this section are Paul Helm’s on Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement and Lee Gattiss’s on the Synod of Dort, where “definite atonement achieved confessional status” (page 143). Perhaps you’ve read that John Calvin believed in universal atonement, but Helm argues convincingly that although Calvin never used the term definite atonement, he makes statements that suggest he would have affirmed the doctrine. And the story of the discussions that went into the final wording on the question of the purpose and extent of the atonement in the Canons of Dort is a compelling read.
The biblical defense of definite atonement starts with essays on atonement in Old Testament scriptures. In the Pentateuch, we see that “[a]tonement and intercession were made only for the people of Israel, representative of God’s elect” (page 245). Then in Isaiah 53, there’s the Suffering Servant, whose atoning death has a “‘particularistic’ edge,” saving his people and his seed.
The New Testament based essay examine definite atonement in the synoptic gospels, John’s writings, and Paul’s letters. As you might expect, this is where the strongest biblical case for definite atonement is made. Matthew Harmon looks at the purposes of Christ’s atonement as taught by the gospel writers, using Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse, his High Priestly Prayer, and more. (As you can see from the definition above, definite atonement is a statement of God’s intent or purpose in the atonement.) Then Jonathan Gibson looks at the particularistic and (supposedly) universalistic texts in Paul’s writings, and, in a second essay, lays out Paul’s theology of salvation.
To conclude this section, Tom Schreiner examines the “problematic texts,” the bible verses often used to argue for universal atonement and against definite atonement. This is the one essay I wish were longer so that more texts could be included. I’d like to see, for instance, how Schreiner would explain 1 John 2:2.
Many of the best arguments for definite atonement are theological ones. Other doctrines—like the Trinity, the incarnation, and the New Covenant, to name three of several—have implications for the doctrine of atonement, and the essays included in the third section argue that these other doctrines push us toward definite atonement because it is the only view of the atonement that fits within the framework these doctrines provide.
This section includes what I consider the strongest essay in From Heaven He Came, Steven Wellum’s chapter on the atonement in the context of the New Covenant. He argues that as the New Covenant’s High Priest, Christ secures all the promises of the covenant, including the Spirit’s application of the atonement for all those in the covenant. If this is true, then Christ’s work on the cross was particular to his people. It’s interesting that Wellum’s argument, set in his form of New Covenant Theology, makes a tighter case for definite atonement than could be made from traditional Covenant Theology, where the New Covenant is a “mixed” covenant.
The three pieces in the last section, Definite Atonement in Pastoral Practice, show us that the doctrine definite atonement contains “the understanding of the atonement that affords church and world the greatest good” (page 52). It is definite atonement, according to Daniel Strange, that gives believers the strongest motivation to proclaim the gospel message world-wide, confident that God is preparing people to receive it. Sinclair Ferguson argues that the firmest grounds for Christian assurance is in a definite atonement because, for one, God cannot demand double payment for sin (If Christ paid for our sin, God can never require payment from us.); and two, the three persons of the Trinity work in harmony to accomplish the salvation of those for whom Christ died. John Piper closes From Heaven He Came with an essay showing that when definite atonement is preached "in its biblical fullness, the glory of the work of Christ, the glory of the freedom and power of grace, and the glory of the being of God himself are wonderfully magnified" (page 667.)
The strengths and weaknesses of this book both come from it’s nature as a collection of individual essays. Each author is an expert on his subject—historians write the history, biblical scholars make the biblical arguments, and so on—making this a stronger book than it would be if it were written by a single author.
But it’s also because it’s made up of individual essays that there is so much repetition. The justification for calling the doctrine definite atonement instead of limited atonement, for example, is repeated several times. And in my judgment, there was entirely too much included on the subject of hypothetical universalism. According to my count, ten of the essays used two or more pages to argue against one version or another of this view of the atonement.
Along with repetition, there is also a bit of disagreement. For instance, Jonathan Gibson interprets “Savior” in the first half of that famous phrase in 1 Timothy 4:10 as non-spiritual salvation: “God,” he explains, “preserves the lives of all people now in the present age, and especially of believers in the life to come.” Tom Schreiner, on the other hand, dismisses this interpretation because, “there is not a single instance in the Pastorals where the word group refers to anything besides spiritual salvation.” I think these differences make the book stronger by showing the authors’ agreement on the doctrine of definite atonement came by way of honest individual thought rather than group-think, but some may find them disconcerting.
I haven’t regretted buying and reading From Heaven He Came for a second. It’s the kind of book a theology geek like me loves best. Whether you’ll enjoy it as much as I did depends on how interested you are in the doctrine of definite atonement—how and why it came to be formulated as it is, and why it’s important.
What this book has been set forth to do is provide an updated resource for the legitimacy of definite (limited) atonement. In case you're unsure of what that means, it views the atonement through the lens of election, "teaching that Christ died only for the elect, to secure infallibly the salvation of the elect" (p37).
The book is divided into 4 main sections:
I. Definite Atonement in Church History which goes over definite atonement's controversies and nuances in church history
II. Definite Atonement in the Bible shows to prove definite atonement's presence or absence in the Bible
III. Definite Atonement in Theological Perspective: What are definite atonement's theological implications?
IV. Definite Atonement in Pastoral Practice What is a pastor to do with the consequences of definite atonement?
Clearly, I cannot give this book an "adequate" review (consider it's size. It's massive! It's 704 pages (front-to-back) with 23 different essays from different authors. I actually did not read any essay in the Church History section. However, I read all but one of the other essays in this book. I will comment mainly on the section titled "Definite Atonement in the Bible", and loosely on the remaining two sections.
***Definite Atonement in the Bible
This was easily my favorite part of the book. There were 6 essays, dealing with how D.A. is seen in the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy), in Isaiah's suffering Servant, in the Synoptic Gospels and Johannine literature, in the Pauline epistles, in Paul's theology of salvation, and in the Pastoral and General epistles.
D.A. in the Pentateuch was intriguing. I had come to the understanding that D.A. could easily be refuted because even though Israel underwent the Day of Atonement, not all of Israel was saved. However, I realized it was more tricky than that because Israel was called "out of the world" by God. Ah, there's that election status.
In the Suffering Servant, J. Alec Motyer [Tyndale] does a fantastic job explaining how D.A. is seen in Isaiah 53 [and the surrounding chapters]. I say "fantastic" not because I necessarily agree with him, but because he is so clear (which, unfortunately, not every author is. Just wait until I get to the Theological section).
Harmon does a good job showing D.A. in the Synoptics, but his real focus is seen in the Johannine literature where he points to and elaborates on many of Jesus' discourses. He does a good job explaining how Christ died for His people, how Jesus died for the "world", and what those "universal" texts (may) mean.
Gibson's first chapter on the meanings of Christ dying for "me," for "us," for "the church," was particularly illuminating.
However his next essay was a bit more obtrusive. Maybe that's harsh, because it was good. However, I felt like there were so many side-roads or new discussions popping up that I felt lost at times. "Karl Barth? Who invited you?" His thoughts on the Trinity and D.A. were helpful, though the format still led to some confusion.
Finally, Thomas Schreiner was a breath of fresh air. He is a very clear and coherent writer. Though, I will say that there are times when he gives ideas that sound right, and in the next paragraph scraps the whole idea. But aside from that, I appreciated his input into this topic (D.A. in the Pastoral/General epistles).
What I liked about this section is that the authors go to the source itself (the Bible), and show you what they believe it says. You can take it or leave it from there. You can look for yourself in your own Bible and see if you agree or not, why or why not, and what you think about their conclusions. But a least you can see who they arrived there.
***Definite Atonement in Theological Perspective
I found many of the authors in this section weren't always clear in the subjects they were talking about. If they interacted with other scholars and discussions, I frequently found myself entangled in a mess of who's who on what's what? I wasn't always sure which side of the debate the author was vying for.
Wellum's essay on Christ's New Covenant work was a a sigh of relief! Wellum shows the connections between Christ's atonement for His people and His High Priestly ministry for His people (Priesthood, typology, the old and new covenants) and how Christ fulfills the office of the OT High Priest. I found this to be a very good mixture between the Theological Perspective and the Biblical Exegesis.
***Definite Atonement in Pastoral Practice
Strange's chapter was fairly good, yet in the end I felt like I was left on a cliffhanger. I'm not really sure if all the ends were tied at the conclusion or not on unlimited atonement, the universal call to evangelize, and those who will never hear.
Ferguson's essay dealt with Jesus's teaching on D.A. in John 10, which was an interesting read. However, I felt he spent more time talking about the other sides deficiencies rather than the assurance that DA provides. Campbell? Federal theologians? Older Calvinism? How does help me to assure my flock if I'm a pastor? His conclusion made sense, but it felt like I took the long road there and was then left wanting.
John Piper. Of course Piper's essay will be good. He broke his essay down into mini-sections, and when I was reading Piper's view, I knew it was his view of D.A. When he spoke on Driscoll's view or Ware's view, I knew he was talking about Driscoll or Ware. There was no confusion. I never stopped to think, "Wait, who/what is he talking about? How did I get here?" And for that I am thankful.
Two points I was glad to see Piper touch one were as such:
1). Piper goes to explain how one, believing in D.A., could preach a sincere and valid Gospel to the entire, unevangelized world.
2). Piper explains how one who was atoned for my Christ's blood could be under the wrath of God before being saved. If they are really atoned for, how are they still under the wrath of God at all (even before salvation)? Piper gives a pretty good explanation. Not perfect or amazing, but it makes sense to a degree.
This is a book geared more toward Bible college, seminary, scholars, and not the layman (unless you really know your stuff). Though I wish some scholars could have been more clear or concise in their writing, I understand this is a tough subject to write on, and I am but one reader trying to understand the aspects of this doctrine so that I can better speak with and understand those around me. I won't understand everything. This book is an incredible resource that will hold for years to come on the doctrine of Definite Atonement. Now, I'm waiting for the other side (Unlimited Atonement) to come out with a book so I can see their position. We'll see.
[A big "thank you" to NetGalley and Crossway for allowing me to read and review this book before it came out. I was not obligated to give a positive review in return for reviewing my copy].
Top reviews from other countries
Reviewed in the United Kingdom 🇬🇧 on January 30, 2021
A fantastic resource which I believe will become -the- go to source for years to come.