BOOK REVIEW and Giveaway: The Atonement by David L. Allen

The Atonement: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Study of the Cross of Christ. By David L. Allen. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2019. 352 pp. $34.99

Several years ago, I found myself at pastor’s conference attended primarily those of a particular theological persuasion. Unsurprisingly, the theme of the conference celebrated the theology of the Reformation which turned 500-years old that year. And as the attendees walked through the bookstore, I observed several snickering at David L. Allen’s book, Lukan Authorship of Hebrews.

I’m a firm believer that every argument should at the least be tested before dismissed, so I asked if they had read the book and considered Allen’s argument. They, of course, said no. So I asked who they believed to have authored the letter to the Hebrews. One said he liked to think it was Barnabas. Another preferred to think of it as having been someone’s record of several of Paul’s sermons pieced together. But when I asked why they had come to those conclusions, they had no argument—no reasoning for their conclusions. They simply saw it as an unsolvable piece of historical curiosity that no one could know with any certainty, so they simply chose which option appealed to them.

I responded stating that while they may disagree with Allen’s conclusion, they at least needed to reckon with the fact that he had an argument. He had reasoning behind his conclusion. And he built it upon solid research (upon his doctoral dissertation). Whether they believed that he came to the right conclusion or not, his was supported; their’s was not.

Allen’s latest book, The Atonement: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Study of the Cross of Christ, may be dismissed or overlooked by those who disagree with Allen’s conclusion concerning the extent of the atonement (unlimited, rather than limited), but it should not.

In it, Allen offers an accessible examination of each passage concerning the atonement in the Old and New Testaments. Likewise, he offers a helpful historical overview of the metaphors and models used by theologians through the centuries and considers both the necessity and nature of the atonement, arguing the primacy of the penal substitution model:

Christ substituted Himself for the sins of all people, living or dead; He died in their place bearing their sin. This substitution was sacrificial in nature and constituted a satisfaction for all sin so that God’s broken law has been vindicated. This substitutionary death resulted in an objective reconciliation, removing all legal barriers between God and man (188).

But the most helpful chapters in Allen’s treatment (in my opinion) are “The Intent, Extent, and Application of the Atonement” (149–86) and “Special Issues Concerning the Atonement” (215–39). As I have written elsewhere, Allen’s treatment of the atonement in three questions (intent, extent, and application) has brought significant clarity to an issue that has experienced significant confusion and oversimplification in recent years. While none of these questions should be answered to the exclusion of the other, they must first be answered individually from the text before compiled into doctrinal form.

Concerning the intent of the atonement, Allen is on solid footing in writing, “Is there any statement in Scripture that indicates God’s intention or desire is not to save some people? There is none” (150). He distinguishes between provision and application, writing, “Biblically speaking, the atonement was intended to provide a payment for sin for all people as well as to apply salvation only to those who believe” (152). After having considered every passage in both the Old and New Testaments concerning the atonement, Allen writes,

no atonement text in Scripture states that Christ died only for the “elect” (contra high and hyper-Calvinists). There is no atonement text in Scripture stating that God intends to save only the elect (contra all Calvinists). There is no atonement text in Scripture stating that God wills only the salvation of the elect (contra all hyper-Calvinists who deny God’s universal saving will). If unconditional election as defined in Reformed theology is true, it cannot be supported from any atonement text in Scripture. Those texts that do speak in any way to the intention of the atonement as a sacrifice for sins never limit the recipients in terms of God’s intent to save or in terms of the extent of the atonement (153–54).

Concerning the extent of the atonement, Allen observes that there are really only two possible answers: the elect alone (limited atonement), and all humanity (unlimited atonement). Allen then marshals 14 texts asserting an unlimited atonement and an additional 14 that affirm it implicitly before concluding, “there is no single text of Scripture asserting Jesus died only for the sins of the elect. . . . Limited atonement is mostly a theological deduction based primarily upon a certain understanding of predestination and election. . . . almost all the arguments against unlimited atonement and for limited atonement are logical and deductive in nature” (156). Further emphasizing his point, “There is no statement in Scripture that says Jesus died only for the sins of the elect” (158).

He lists the traditional verses used in support of a limited atonement model and writes,

not a single one says that Christ died for the sins only of ‘his people,’ ‘the sheep,’ ‘the church,’ or ‘friends.’ Since these texts mention a limited group for whom salvation was intended, or for whom Christ died, the assumption is made that these texts affirm Christ intended to bring salvation only to these groups, or that he died only for these people. This line of argument is logically flawed because it invokes the negative inference fallacy, which says the proof of a proposition does not disprove its converse. When Paul says, ‘Christ . . . gave Himself [died] for me’ in Gal 2:20, we cannot infer that He died only for Paul (157).

Allen then answers the most common objections to an unlimited provision of the atonement: double payment, triple choice, Trinitarian disunity, universalism entailed, and Christ’s intercession limited to the elect.

Finally, concerning the application of the atonement, Allen rightly concludes,

The atonement in and of itself saves no one. . . . There is nothing in the atonement itself that makes it effectual for anyone. To be effectual, the atonement must be applied by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. This is a theological truth that is confirmed by the likes of such great Calvinistic theologians as Charles Hodge, Robert Dabney, W. G. T. Shedd, A. H. Strong, and Millard Erickson, not to mention many others (184).

In his chapter entitled, “Special Issues Concerning the Atonement,” Allen answers common questions that are often neglected in broader works: Is the atonement actual or potential? Do the blood of OT sacrifices and the blood of Jesus represent life or death? How is Christ’s penal substitutionary death on the cross related to the law and the sins of humanity for which he died? Is the blood of Christ “wasted” on those who are eternally lost? Did Christ die for “all without distinction” or “all without exception”? How does the atonement operate? What is meant when we speak of sin being imputed to Christ? If Christ died for the sins of all people, how can God justly condemn anyone to hell? Since the atonement satisfies the justice of God, how is salvation an act of mercy? What is the relationship of atonement to forgiveness? Is there “healing” in the atonement? What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the atonement and its application?

In this work, Allen shows himself to be an able defender of the penal substitutionary model of the atonement. One might object that Allen’s treatment of the atonement repeatedly falls prey to his emphasis on an unlimited provision of the atonement (although one could hardly fault him for doing so; he has already offered 820 pages in The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review considering that very issue; it certainly a subject to which he has given extensive time, energy, thought, and research). Nevertheless, those who may approach the subject of the atonement without a strong, predetermined conclusion on that issue, will find in Allen, the mind of a scholar, the heart of a pastor, and the simplicity of a preacher. Those who disagree with Allen’s conclusions concerning the nature or extent of the atonement will find him carefully-reasoned and well-researched. As such, should they snicker and dismiss his work without considering his arguments carefully, they do so to their own detriment.

Win a Copy!

I have been given an extra copy of Allen’s book. If you’d be interested in winning it, share this post on twitter or facebook and be sure to follow @cafftheo. Drop a comment saying that you’ve done those things and you’ll be entered!