Book Review: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her

heavenFrom Heaven He Came and Sought Her is a book that was released shortly before the end of 2013. It is a multi-author volume edited by David & Jonathan Gibson and published by Crossway. FHHCSH addresses the topic of Definite Atonement[i]. For those who are unfamiliar with Definite Atonement, it is the discussion of the extent, intent and effect of the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ. It deals with the questions for whom did Christ die, what did the Father and Son have in mind that the death of Christ would result in and what was that result after Christ’s death. The subject has been a controversial point amongst most Christian of the idea that the atonement was universal in its scope.

The book is an in-depth and rich look at the topic it addresses. It stands at close to 700 pages of actual materials spread out in 23 chapters and divided into four sections. The four sections are

  • Definite Atonement and Church History
  • Definite Atonement in the Bible
  • Definite Atonement in Theological Perspective
  • Definite Atonement in Pastoral Practice

I will give a brief overview of each chapter in the book and at the end of this review I would like to give a few general observations

Introduction

The foreword to the book was written by none other than J.I. Packer and anyone who knows me knows that I enjoy Packer especially his introductory essays. This portion was not disappointing to say the least and sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The opening chapter was an overview written by the editors David and Jonathan Gibson. They laid out some of the themes and topics that would be addressed throughout the book. I felt that they explained well by means of introduction to some of the arguments that would be laid out in future chapters as well as some opposing arguments that would be addressed. For someone who is not familiar with the whole discussion, this chapter will be essential.

Definite Atonement and Church History

The first section in the book is called Definite Atonement in Church History. The section lays out the historical discussion that has already taken place from the time of the early church fathers right up to the time of John Owen. There are a total of 7 chapters dedicated to this section.

The opening chapter surveying the history of the teaching on Definite Atonement focused upon the early church fathers who would have lived in the first 500 years after the apostles. The essay was written by Michael A.G. Haykin who is a professor of Church History at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Using John Gill’s work “The Cause of God and Truth”, Haykin surveys the writings of early 2nd century fathers such as Clement of Rome and Justin Martyr as well as 4th-5th century fathers such as Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose and Jerome examining their views on the atonement of Christ. I feel that Haykin argued well for the idea that these early church patriarchs believed in penal substitution and the extension of this belief is their understanding of an effective atonement. As Haykin will make clear, the fathers didn’t write extensively on this matter of a Definite Atonement due to a lack of being required to hence there are no clear statements in their writings to this regard.

The second chapter on Definite Atonement in History focused upon the Medieval Church. The chapter this time was written by David S. Hogg who is a professor of Church History and Doctrine at Beeson Divinity School in Samford University. I was very impressed with this chapter since I wasn’t aware that this doctrine had survived the time of Augustine yet Hogg demonstrates that there were several individuals in the medieval church that would have had at least the seed of the doctrine planted in their theology. Hogg spends several pages on the writings of Gottschalk of Orbais who had written much on Predestination, Election and the extension of these Definite Atonement.  Hogg’s main focus however was a French theologian by the name of Peter Lombard who book Four Books of Sentences truly brought out the roots of the idea of an effective Atonement. Finally Hogg spends time looking at the works of Thomas Aquinas and his view of the atonement.

The next chapter dealt with the question of the view of John Calvin on Definite Atonement. There has been a tremendous amount of discussion as to how Calvin saw the extent of the atonement.  This chapter was written by Paul Helm who is a teaching fellow at Regent College in Vancouver BC.  Some who had visited the subject of Calvin and Calvinism would know professor Helm’s work.  The debate generally stems from some universal language that Calvin uses in regards to the atonement yet believed that Christ died for the elect. The subject was approached in a peculiar way in that he argues from the indefinite language of Calvin in dealing with providence & future, aspiration (in what a Christian should aspire for) as well as universal preaching of the gospel and concludes by saying that “ we have established that definite beliefs can exist consistently with certain kinds of indefiniteness” (P. 119). Helm proposes that Calvin might have been committed to a doctrine without committing himself to it (P. 98). While I appreciate the argument does delve into Calvin’s mindset in regards to definite language within indefinite language, I didn’t find the argument to settle the debate yet that was not the intention of this essay. The chapter is nonetheless interesting and does show that the universal language utilized by Calvin doesn’t necessitate he fully believed in a universal atonement.

The fourth essay was truly a gem seeing that I had little knowledge of the topic of Theodore Beza’s and his influence during the reformation (except a few critiques of him). The chapter was written by none other than Raymond Blacketer who is a pastor at First Cutlerville Christian Reformed Church. Pastor Blacketer was quoted more than anyone else in the previous chapters for his essay Definite Atonement in Historical Perspective[ii]. The essay is called Blaming Beza: The Development of Definite Atonement in the Reformed Tradition. Most anyone who has looked into the discussion of Calvin’s view of the extent of the atonement will know that it won’t be long in their inquiry to find Beza’s name associated with the Reformed doctrine of Definite Atonement. The idea is that Beza was the reformer who developed the doctrine of what is today called “Limited Atonement”. Blacketer does a fantastic job in demonstrating that Beza’s views of theology were really in alignment with Calvin and other reformers.  Blacketer also deals with the claim that Beza was a cold systematic theologian who was more concerned with academics than scripture. As Blacketer points out The result is a twisted caricature of a humanist, pastor, philologist, exegete, political advisor and diplomate as well as the theologian and intellectual leader of the reformation who was Theodore Beza. (P. 126). I also found Blacketer’s arguments for Calvin holding to definite atonement more compelling than even professor Helm’s since he demonstrates that Beza was commissioned by Calvin to write on the doctrine of Predestination which included that of the atonement. Calvin never once was heard to be at odds with Beza. A highlight of the essay for me (which made me chuckle) was when Pastor Blacketer pointed out that Beza used Luther’s Bondage of the Will against the Lutherans in a debate on Predestination and concluded that he was more Lutheran than the Lutherans!

The next historical examination comes with a look at the canons of Dort and its impact on how we explain or formulate the doctrine of definite atonement from scripture. This essay was written by Lee Gatiss who is the director of Church Society and Adjust Lecturer in Church History at Wales Evangelical School of Theology. Professor Gatiss gives us a brief but very useful view of some of the key points of the discussion of the atonement at the Synod of Dort in 1618. I truly appreciated the historical background leading up to the Synod which Gatiss spends about 4 pages explaining. I felt this brief background helpful in understanding the complexity of this assembly both theologically and politically. Gatiss did a fantastic job at explaining key issues surrounding the atonement at the Synod especially in light of the twofold understanding of the discussion focusing on the sufficiency and extent of the atonement. He also deals with some variations even within the reformed circles and some important points on the aftermath of the Synod.   I believe that those who confess “5 Point Calvinism” will find this chapter very interesting.

The next chapter is titled Controversy on Universal Grace: A Historical Survey of Moise Amyraut’s Brief Traitté de la Predestination. The essay was written by a professor at the University of Montreal Amar Djaballah. The chapter was a historical examination of Amyraut’s writings including Predestination, Atonement and many other doctrines associated with these topics from Brief Traitté. I appreciated that a francophone professor (who’se first language is obviously French) was chosen to address this topic. I felt that this made an enormous difference in the translation of some of the wording in Amyraut’s writings. For those with little knowledge of Amyraldianism, this chapter will be extremely informative in understanding this teaching with still is among us today. Seeing that I’m French, the footnotes were easy for me to understand.

The final chapter in the first section on the history of definite atonement was focused upon the debate between Richard Baxter and John Owen.  The chapter was written by Carl Trueman who is a professor of history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Trueman does a good job at explaining the background behind the debate between Baxter and Owen by giving some brief background on the Socinian controversy, the response by Hugo Grotius and finally how Baxter viewed the response. The main theme however between them was how God the Father accepted the payment of the Lord Jesus for sinners. There are some interesting theological points brought out by Owen especially in his more systematic response to Baxter “of the death of Christ”. While I appreciated this chapter enormously, I felt that there were sometimes I had to re-read entire sections to try to understand what exactly was being argued. I can certainly see how some people may also have difficulty deciphering some of the argumentation even while Trueman does a good job in laying out the information.

Definite Atonement in the Bible

This section was the section that I was eager to get into and I wasn’t disappointed by the various essays presented. The exegesis offered in these chapters were brilliant!

The first essay dealt with examining the atonement in light of the books of the Pentateuch. The chapter was written by Paul Williamson who lectures at Moore Theological College focusing on the Old Testament. Williamson focused upon how the atonement was perceived in key texts in the Pentateuch such as Exodus 12-13 on the Passover, Moses’ intercession for Israel in Exodus 32, Leviticus 16 (the day of Atonement) and various texts in the book of Numbers. I appreciated how Williamson demonstrated the importance of seeing the atonement from an two-fold angle mainly from a national perspective and a more individualistic perspective. There are many points to consider in this essay in regards to the importance of election and a mediator to the atonement which shadows the coming of the ultimate atonement and mediator.

The next essay made the entire book worthwhile. The chapter is on the extent and nature of the atonement in the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53. It was written by none other than Alec Motyer  who has written one of the best commentaries on Isaiah bar none[iii].  Motyer introduces his essay by giving a true contextual background of the Isaiah 53 by going back to Isaiah 40 and working through the relevant themes leading up to this chapter[iv]. He then relates much of this to the actual text demonstrating the perfection and completeness of this atonement and to whom it is provided. The final section is brilliant in that it brings together the intended recipients of the Servant’s Salvation keeping in mind that the atonement in Isaiah 53 is both accomplished and applied.

Matthew Harmon, professor of New Testament Studies at Grace College and Theological Seminary, wrote the next chapter focusing his attention on definite atonement in the synoptics and Johannine literature. This chapter was certainly more focused upon the writings of the apostle John than the other gospel narratives. While going through the evidence for definite atonement in these various books, Harmon also deals with some language that is often construed as universal (world, all) and demonstrates that this is not out of line with definite atonement.

The two next chapters were written by one of the editors of the book, Jonathan Gibson. His focus was upon the biblical evidence found in the Pauline corpus in regards to the particularity of the atonement. While he does spend some time in his first essay on evidence for definite atonement, I felt he spent most of his time addressing the universalistic passages and attempting to defend them against the universal atonement perspective. His second chapter focused upon the work of the Trinity in the atonement. While I enjoyed many points in Dr. Gibson’s essays, they were the probably the least accessible to the layman.

Next is a chapter titled “Problematic Texts” for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles by Thomas Schreiner. Schreiner is a very capable exegete and writer which comes out clearly in this essay. I enjoyed his treatment of texts that are considered Arminian favorites such as 1 Timothy 2:4; 4:10, 2 Peter 2:1; 3:9 and Hebrews 2:9. Schreiner deals with the common objections to definite atonement from these texts and offers a better explanation showing that definite atonement and these pastoral texts are compatible. I didn’t fully agree with his exegesis of 1 Timothy 4:10 since I feel there are better explanations of this text but Schreiner nonetheless gave me something useful to think about as usual.

Definite Atonement in Theological Perspective

The next section deals with Definite Atonement within the scope of systematic theology. It delves into the relationship of other key doctrines with Christ’s Definite Atoning sacrifice.

The first chapter in this section was written by Donald Macleod who is a minister with the Free Church of Scotland and a former professor of systematic theology in Edinburgh.   The subject of brother Macleod’s essay was on how Definite Atonement relates to God’s Divine Decree. Macleod really gave a good presentation of the issue of divine decree and how the atonement cannot be separated from it. I appreciated his discussion on the difference between infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism. It was very informative.

Next we read of how the atonement relates to the Trinity and the incarnation. This was written by none other than Dr. Robert Letham who wrote an incredibly well researched book on the doctrine of the Trinity titled “The Holy Trinity: In scripture, history, theology and worship”. Letham begins by dealing with Amyraldians and hypothetical universalists then moving on to a lengthy critique of Torrance’s Definite Universal atonement. While the chapter is more of an apologetic response to these different teachers, he still manages to offer a positive affirmation of the association of these truths.

The next two chapters were written by Garry Willams who is the director of the John Owen centre for Theological Study at London Theological Seminary. The first essay was on The intent of the atonement in relation to penal substitution. There were some high points in this section especially his treatment of the offering passages in Leviticus. I do find that he delves deeply into the grammar and the original languages which some might find difficult to follow. The second chapter was on the double jeopardy argument that was popularized by John Owen. I actually appreciated this chapter more than the former since he expands well on some of the argumentation offered in other essays on double jeopardy.

The next chapter was an absolute gem and quite frankly one of the most persuasive essays in the whole book. Written by Dr. Stephen Wellum who is a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the essay deals with the work of Christ in light of the new covenant. The focus of the essay is on Christ’s work as the great high priest. He does a fantastic job at demonstrating the role and work of the high priest especially on how you cannot divide the mediatorial work but it MUST function as a whole. His observation that you cannot separate the priesthood from the covenant was well established and persuasive. This essay is brilliant and a must read!

The final chapter in the relationship of definite atonement with systematic theology was actually a summary in sort of this entire premise. The essay titled Jesus Christ the Man was provided to us by Henri A.G. Blocher who is a professor of systematic theology at Wheaton College. Blocher goes through many of the themes that were addressed in previous essays but summarizes them one with another. I thought this was a useful chapter in that you were able to see the coherence of many of the themes written of in previous essays.

Definite Atonement in Pastoral Practice

The first essay in this section was written by Daniel Strange who is Vice-Principal and tutor at Oak Hill Theological College in London.  The essay was titled: Slain for the World? The uncomfortabitlity of the unevangelized for a universal atonement. The basic thesis in this chapter was how the atonement relates to those who never hear the gospel. Strange compares the logical outcomes of universal atonement and definite atonement when it comes to this issue. I enjoyed Strange’s critique of universal atonement’s seemingly inconsistency in the provision and application of the atonement. There is an apparent problem when people for whom Christ dies never hear the gospel.  How can Christ shed His blood for people but yet never makes the gospel available to them? The second half of the essay is an affirmation of definite atonement relating to the accessibility issue. Strange argues that all for whom Christ dies do hear the gospel and are drawn to Christ. While this chapter is in the “pastoral practice” section, I felt it might have been better served to have it under a “missions” section in the book.

Well-knows pastor and theologian, Sinclair B. Ferguson was the author of the next essay titled Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine?: Definite Atonement and the Cure of Souls. This chapter displays the importance of definite atonement in the care and shepherding of God’s people. Ferguson discusses the work of a 19th century pastor by the name of John McLeod Campbell who left the reformed traditions due to his seemingly incapability to pastor his flock while believing in definite atonement. Ferguson’s response to McLeod Campbell displays many of the unfortunate misunderstandings of Arminian theology with regards to the gift of pastor. Ferguson ably affirms in his response that definite atonement and Christian assurance go hand in hand. This chapter was well written and accessible to most Christians.

The final chapter in this section and in the book in general was written by one of my favourite preachers, Dr. John Piper. I will say that it was quite a fitting end to such a fantastic book. Piper’s essay was titled “My Glory I will Not Give to Another”: Preaching the Fullness of Definite Atonement to the Glory of God. The chapter deals with the importance of understanding how God’s purpose in redemption is His glory and that the death of Christ to redeem countless sinners was the ultimate display of the glory of God’s grace. Piper relates the atonement to God’s love for His people before the foundation of the world and it’s close association with the New Covenant. One cannot understand the nature of the atonement and God’s purpose in redemption without examining it in light of the New Covenant promises which sees God taking ownership of the redemption of His people. Piper also gave a very good critique of some less fortunate views promulgated by Bruce Ware and Mark Driscoll. Piper also deals with the issue of the genuine and universal call of the gospel in light of definite atonement which is generally a perplexing issue for most non-reformed individuals. The final segments of this chapter deal with the definite atonement in light of missions and the preaching for God’s people. Piper sums this up by saying “knowing and experiencing the reality of definite atonement affects us with deeper gratitude”[v]. To understand that salvation is all of the Lord and the depths of His work on our behalf is truly a remarkable thing to ponder and preach in the gathering of the covenant community.

General thoughts

The book is a significant contribution to the discussion of the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ and comparable even with John Owen’s the Death of Death in the Death of Christ. I have yet to see a single volume address the topic in this style. The book takes us through history, biblical theology, systematic theology and practical theology to give us a true understanding of the impact of believing and living this doctrine.

To understand the depth of this issue requires allot of work and this book is a tremendously useful guide to understanding the riches of the atonement. FHHCSH is a lengthy and very deep book that will require some serious time set aside to really understand the discussions being presented. If you plan on reading this book, take your time and enjoy it! Those who are more scholarly minded will probably have a deeper appreciation for the volume but there is something for everyone. There are different styles of writing with some I preferred over others. I appreciated those authors who wrote with less emphasis on the languages since I can expect many individuals having difficulty following their grammatical analysis. I was able to follow their argumentation since I do have knowledge of the original languages but I sometimes felt like the meaning of the text got lost in the grammar. Some authors, such as Motyer, were able to add a little for the linguist and non-linguist alike.

The authors shared a remarkable consistency in their view of the atonement with rarely any wavering in their view. This is not usual in a book with so many different authors. There are texts that are sometimes addressed in various chapters and they are dealt with without any confusion of their meaning. All authors shared a true passion for the subject they were addressing and were able to express it within each essay.

Finally, I would say that I am thankful to all the men who contributed to this book. I believe it will become a standard in the study of the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ among God’s people. This was an enormous undertaking and I say thank you to Mr. Jonathan and David Gibson for their effort in organizing the production of this book.


[i] Other names for Definite Atonement are Limited Atonement or particular redemption

[ii] This essay appeared in the book The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Historical and Practical Perspectives. Essays in Honor of Roger Nicole, Ed. Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James, Intervarsity Press, 2004.

[iii] The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, J. Alec Motyer,

[iv] Another point that is not necessarily explicit but can be drawn by reading Motyer’s essay is that many people believe that Isaiah 53 is a futuristic text dealing with Israel during the Millennial reign after the return of Christ. Motyer demonstrates that Isaiah 53 does have Gentiles in mind when Isaiah refers to the “many”.

[v] From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, Crossway, David Gibson & Jonathan Gibson editors, John Piper, Page 665

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