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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!

Leading Change in the Church

As I speak with pastors, one topic that comes up again and again concerns the difficulties faced when leading change in the church. Whether it entails the adjustment of a service time, the elimination of a beloved program, or changing a curriculum, or any other deeply-entrenched facet in the church, change is hard. So I want to offer 4 steps to leading change in the church. But first, allow me to offer one caveat:

If you’re within the first year—especially if you’re in the first six months at this particular church, stop. Don’t make any sudden changes.

Seriously.

I’m not kidding.

Unless someone is in sin or the building is going to fall down, you need to take the slow approach. If you’re new to the church, there’s a reality at play that you might not be aware of—they may have voted for you to serve as their pastor, but they don’t trust you yet. You haven’t earned it.

They want to; don’t get me wrong. But you haven’t walked through life alongside them enough just yet. Which means that as soon as your change runs into the slightest amount of friction, because “you” haven’t become part of who they would identify as “us,” it’s going to be perceived as “your” fault. As soon as the families they’ve sat beside in the pew for years begin to leave, they’re not going to be impressed with your pastoral experience in other churches or your seminary degree. And you and your idea will be the object of their frustration.

Don’t do it. Take the first 6–12 months in your new church to learn not just what the church is doing, but why they’re doing it.

Pastors often share their frustration that the church entrusts more authority to the deacon body than the Bible calls for. But, many times, the deacon body serves as the steady hand of leadership in the church while a litany of pastors move in, change things up, and move on to another church. Perhaps we ought to take into consideration that this isn’t the biblical pattern either.

Love your flock enough to slow down, be deliberate, and make changes after you’ve spent enough time among the flock to know why they do what they do in the manner in which they’re doing it. Once you’ve done that and you sense the need to make a change, then you’re ready to take the first step.

Communicate the Need

Take the time to express to the congregation why change is necessary. Perhaps it has been the case that the current slate of programs isn’t making disciples. Or maybe you’ve determined that people in the church aren’t connecting with other believers and Christian fellowship seems to be lacking. Maybe you’ve outgrown your worship space and need to move to two services to provide room for more visitors. It may be that you have been short on children’s educational space for months.

Whatever the reason you believe makes the change necessary—share that. I’ll let you in on a secret: your people can buy into a change that fixes a problem. But they don’t want to change for the sake of change.

Several years ago, a godly layman helped me see the importance of this aspect of leadership. In his previous church, they had faced difficulty raising enough money to begin construction of a new children’s building. They were out of space for the kids. But because the children were already out of sight (in their own space), the congregation wasn’t reminded of the need regularly enough. So, this layman contacted a construction company and had them go to the church property and dig a giant hole where the new building was to be. That way, every time someone drove past the church, they saw the need. Each time to drove up to attend worship, they were faced with the reality that they needed to give in order to build the children’s building to fill that hole.He understood the importance of communicating the need.

Share the Vision

Once you’ve communicated the need and “dug the hole” as it were, you get to cast the vision of how to meet that need. This is where the change you hope to make comes in to play. Because the church hasn’t been effectively reaching the lost, you think an evangelistic emphasis is necessary. Because the church hasn’t been effectively making disciples, you think a new program that emphasizes one-on-one discipleship, or a new Sunday School curriculum is needed. Because families have begun to feel disconnected, you want to ramp up the number of fellowship activities. Because you’re out of seats in the worship space, a new service is needed.

Whatever change it is that you’re hoping to make, share the vision of how it is that the change you want to implement meets that need.

Get people on board. Talk it through in one-on-one conversations. Discuss it with trusted advisors. Go speak with the people that you think are the least likely to get on board. (If you can win them over, even for a trial period, you’ve already laid the groundwork for a successful transition). And the manner in which you do this could take time. And this blends into the third step.

Lead the Change

Leading the change means that you should help your church get a running start toward the new initiative. Take the time to preach a sermon series devoted to the issue at hand. When I led a church to change their small groups from being individual Bible Study based to being sermon-based (meaning that rather than small groups purchasing a Bible Study curriculum, the church offered small group material that coincided with the Sunday morning sermon), I did so after a 6-week sermon series on small-group discipleship. Ironically, during that sermon series, we put all of our small groups on pause. When I had finished the series, I had explained why small groups were so important, why we believed our church needed to move to a community-based rather than age-based model, and why we wanted all groups to be on the same page content-wise. Ultimately, by the time the series was finished, the entire congregation was chomping at the bit, ready to try the new model.

But that would not have happened had I just announced the change and proceeded without helping our church see the need, see the change as meeting that need, and sense that this was a joint-effort on the part of the entire congregation.

But leading the change doesn’t stop at implementation. It continues. It means that you are attentive to every detail. It means that you are receptive to feedback. It means that you offer every resource at hand to ensure that the change you hope to make succeeds.

Evaluate and Adjust

Early in youth ministry I came across a piece of leadership gold that I offer to almost everyone I talk to about ministry.

Call every change an experiment.

The Small Groups Experiment. The Second Service Experiment. The Never-Go-Alone Experiment.

Whatever it is, call it an experiment. By doing that, you communicate a level of humility to the congregation that they’re not used to seeing in a pastor. You’re acknowledging that you’re not wed to this (whatever “this” is) as a solution. You’re asking them to commit to this change for 6 months (or enough time to be able to determine its viability). After that time, you’re willing to sit down and consider the possibility that either the solution isn’t working, or needs adjustment.

You’ve communicated the need. The congregation sees what you see. Something is broken (or in disrepair) and needs to be fixed. It needs a solution.

You’ve cast the vision. The congregation can connect the dots from the need to this as the proposed solution. This program or change is the stuff that you believe will fill the hole.

You’ve led the change. You’ve walked them right up to the change and encouraged them to invest themselves into seeing it succeed.

Now, be open to the possibility that your solution needs a little adjustment. Be receptive to feedback. If you’ve taken these steps, most of the feedback will come from people who genuinely want this change to succeed.

They don’t like holes in the ground. They want it filled just as much as you do.

Do you have any suggestions? Drop them in a comment below.

Episode 10: Pastoral Interviews

Join the Caffeinated Theology crew as we discuss the steps to finding a pastorate.

  • How do you find a new pastorate?
  • What do I need to do to submit a resume?
  • What to expect in the interview process.
  • What to do when you go in view of a call.

Link: 30 Questions to ask a Search Committee

Appreciate what we’re doing in these Pastor Talks? Help us out by jumping over to our YouTube Channel to subscribe and drop a few comments and his a thumbs up on this video.

Nostalgia and Why We Can’t Even

Nostalgia has a powerful effect on the twenty-first century. Having loosened the moors of Western traditions which long held our culture from drifting, we now find ourselves looking back not to our forefathers but to our fore-child: we ask our childhood to answer the adult questions of our present.

Nostalgia cannot answer the hardest questions; it cannot answer the problem of suffering because it cannot remember when it last suffered. Nostalgia remembers the Saturday morning cartoons but forgets the absence of parents; remembers the flash of Hollywood’s lights, but forgets the dark and lonely nights. How could it remember a truth it represses? This world is broken. Innocence and magic don’t exist.

Since nostalgia is a child, it does not know when to forgive or when to throw a tantrum. It sees blogposts as subject to outrage and personal sin as a journey. Nostalgia extends grace to those it  loves already, but never loves to give grace. It takes from the past but never sacrifices for the future. The time has come to stop looking into childhood vices to produce adult virtues.

The Heart of Man

So we ought to reexamine the Bible’s interpretation of reality. God’s Word teaches that the mythos of a magical childhood, the perfect innocence, and the triumph of youth is an illusion. It shows us the nasty, gritty, and viciously evil heart of supposedly civilized humanity. It tells us that our ‘FOMO’ may be envy and discontentment in disguise.

The Bible once gripped our imaginations as nostalgia does, but the Bible is so very different from the Disney and/or Pixar of our childhoods. What heroes are we relating to? David slays the giant but lusts after women. Peter courageously charges out with the flash of his sword but shrinks back into the shadows of denial. Disney Princesses range from glamorous to adorkable, but never truly wrestle with the deep issues that expose a need to look to a higher power than a genie or a magical rock. What the myth of nostalgia fails to answer the Bible gets right. The Bible displays the grotesque heart of humanity like insects on a pin board. Having nailed humanity so well, it also presents a solution that rings true.

Letting Jesus Capture our Imagination

The Jesus of the Bible is not the Jesus of nostalgia. The Jesus of our childhood nostalgia demands very little. He smiles quite a lot, helps everyone to be a better person, and asks us to do a little better (when we are able, if we feel like it). The Jesus of the Bible, however, he suffers, bleeds, dies, and confronts our wickedness head on. He turns over the tables of oppression, strikes at the heart of our legalism, and does not give into injustice. The Jesus of the Bible bears sin and suffers the evil of the world.

Jesus, the true Jesus, ought to capture our imagination. He doesn’t grant grandiose wishes, doesn’t pretend that the magic of Christmas will heal all wounds. He bears the reality of life with supernatural love. He takes up the cause of the abused, while laying humanity’s horrors upon his shoulders. “He was despised and forsaken by men, a man of sorrows well acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). If we are to answer any of life’s hardest questions for ourselves and our posterity, we need to be allured by the astounding reality of Christ not the flat fantasy of nostalgia.

Pouring Ourselves into Reality

Nostalgia devours itself ultimately; it creates unrealistic expectations on mothers to recreate fantasy in a perfect birthday party, burdens children to be consumers of their parents’ past, and saddles the family budget with todays ‘must-haves.’

Meanwhile, real life problems persist unaddressed by fantasy. Christians need to take responsibility for the state of their towns. Revitalizing a community means not pouring the greater portions of our resources into luxury. Exchange a ‘loot-box’ for providing lunches for the poor. Trade in a lavish vacation for funding a community event.

We need to stop blending into secularism. The stale Lucky Charms of the 80s and 90s can’t compare to the wedding banquet of the Lamb. We need to stop scrounging for secular table scraps and start inviting them to our Father’s table. The Bible answers what nostalgia cannot; it speaks of an eternity of wonder free from the temporal myth of magic.

Instead of encouraging children to live out a fantasy, have them write a letter to a shut in; deliver it by hand. Help them learn the joy of following Jesus. Don’t make Christmas the fulfillment of our children’s wildest dreams (or our own); make it a chance to serve the poor and the widow. Our childhood isn’t ready to make the sacrifice, but our Savior is.

“For I consider that the suffering of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. . . . What shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Romans 8:18, 31–32.

Gratitude and Unanswered Prayer

Lately, I’ve found myself in that position where I’ve been praying for something specifically. Now, this is beyond regular prayer or daily prayer. This is that heavily-sighing, crying-out-to-God prayer that rises up from the deepest parts of the soul. And yet, when it comes to this prayer, God often just seems silent. I can see him at work and I can see him answer prayers . . . just not this one. And when I do, I am reminded that he does answer and he does work all things together for the good of those who are called to his purposes. And yet, my prayer seems to remain unanswered and my circumstance unaltered.

In these moments, I find myself at an impasse: I can either sink into the despair of feeling forgotten and overlooked, or I can fall to my knees in praise and gratitude for the Lord’s work on someone else’s behalf. But when prayer has already turned to groaning, let’s be honest:

Despair comes easier.

And that’s because gratitude is a choice. And it’s the choosing that can be so difficult when we believe that someone else’s prayer was chosen over our own.

Gratitude leads to joy

I had the opportunity to visit an elderly saint—a former professor at Southwestern Seminary who I have long admired—in his nursing home a few weeks ago. And in our conversation, we spoke of all that was taking place in the seminary and in the Southern Baptist Convention. But what stood out to me most was the gratitude with which he spoke of those who had come to visit him.

He appreciated their concern for him. He was thankful that they had found the time to go out of their way to visit. He didn’t share that with any sense of self-importance; nor did he communicate any frustration that he reduced by his circumstances and was no longer able to walk where he pleased or go where he desired. Instead, he expressed his gratitude with humble tears of joy.

I want to face my circumstances like that—with overwhelming gratitude and joy. I want to experience joy in the waiting. I want to celebrate with others when the Lord answers their prayers—even while I continue to wait on the Lord to answer my own.

Gratitude leads to perseverance

When we begin to believe that the Lord has forgotten us, or that he simply refuses to answer our prayers and petitions, we lose any encouragement to hold on to the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus. And, to be honest, it may be because we’re not looking for the joy found in the person of Christ; we may be looking for the joy found in our desired answer to our prayer.

But those willing to praise the Lord for someone else’s blessing are strengthened in their resolve to wait upon the Lord.

Those willing to rejoice with those who rejoice find their tears turned from longing to gratitude.

Those who can find the joy in someone else’s answered prayer are more likely to continue to serve the One who answers prayer—even as our own prayer seems unanswered.

Because rather than focusing our attention on our unanswered prayer, we set our eyes upon the One who answers prayer.

He has not forgotten you

There we sat, under the pine trees of East Texas, and as our time concluded, this saint of the faith leaned over, put his hand on my arm, and said, “You may feel overlooked and forgotten,” and at this, tears began to well up in my own eyes. And he reminded me of the truth I knew, but needed to hear: “but he has not forgotten you.”

May that encouragement be yours as well.

He has not forgotten you.

30 Questions to Ask a Search Committee

Every once in a while I get a call from a fellow pastor friend who is nervous about going before a pastoral search committee. After receiving such a call recently, I kept thinking through the kind of questions I would encourage them to ask in order to learn more about the church.

So here are thirty questions that would help you dig down to the true identity of the church.

  1. What brought you to this church?
  2. What are the 3 best things about your church?
  3. What do you think a visitor would say was the best thing about this church?
  4. What are 3 problems your church is facing that need to be corrected?
  5. What do you think a visitor would say was the worst thing about this church?
  6. What has been the biggest conflict your church has faced in the last 5, 10, 20 years? Was it handled in a biblical way?
  7. What direction has the church gone in the past 5, 10, 20 years?
  8. In your opinion has this been a good direction?
  9. What is the church’s involvement in evangelism and community involvement?
  10. If your church was gone tomorrow, how would the community be affected?
  11. What is the churches involvement in missions?
  12. If your church was gone tomorrow, how would the world be affected?
  13. What is the church’s involvement in discipleship?
  14. If your church was gone tomorrow, how would the younger generations of the church be affected?
  15. What is the community’s opinion of the church?
  16. If your future pastor felt lead to adjust a ministry or implement a new ministry, how would the congregation respond to that?
  17. If your future pastor felt lead to adjust a ministry or implement a new ministry, how would he go about implementing that?
  18. What do you believe is the most divisive issue facing your church?
  19. How did your previous pastor handle conflict?
  20. What type of preaching style did your previous pastor follow (topical, expository, blended)?
  21. Are there any topics that you would encourage your future pastor to avoid in the pulpit?
  22. Are there any topics you would encourage your future pastor to preach on in the pulpit?
  23. If you could tell you future pastor one thing that this church needs in order to grow, what would that be?
  24. Do you see any opportunities in your community for the church to get involved in?
  25. What do see as the vision for the church in the next 5, 10, 20 years?
  26. What did you love the most about your previous pastor?
  27. What did you like least the most about your previous pastor?
  28. Was there ever a time when you felt your previous pastor dropped the ball? What happened?
  29. What do you believe the congregation is looking for most in the next pastor?
  30. What have you been told to avoid with your next pastor?

What question(s) would you add?

Episode 09: The Pastor’s Health

Join the Caffeinated Theology crew as we discuss the health and fitness in the pastorate.

  • Is the pastor’s health important?
  • How can we clean up our diet?
  • Is exercise an important component?
  • How do you get it done?

Appreciate what we’re doing in these Pastor Talks? Help us out by jumping over to our YouTube Channel to subscribe and drop a few comments and his a thumbs up on this video.