Definite Atonement and the Spread of the Gospel

One of the most frequent objections to the doctrine of definite atonement as made by its opponents, is that this doctrine by its very nature undermines the proclamation of the gospel. Those who read texts such as John 3:16 in a universal light cannot understand how an atonement, intended by God for the salvation of the elect, can be consonant with universal proclamation. By this objection, they show their ignorance of both sound exegesis and sound theology.

Perhaps the greatest defender of the glory of our Lord’s death for the elect is John Owen. The following excerpt is from his The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (found in volume 10 of his Works), wherein he thoroughly answers the objections of the neo-pelagians. Here is one excerpt:

Now, the infinite value and worth which we assert to be in the death of Christ we conceive to be exceedingly undervalued by the assertors of universal redemption; for that it should be extended to this or that object, fewer or more, we showed before to be extrinsical to it. But its true worth consists in the immediate effects, products, and issues of it, with what in its own nature it is fit and able to do; which they openly and apparently undervalue, yea, almost annihilate. Hence those expressions concerning it:
1. That by it a door of grace was opened for sinners: where, I suppose, they know not; but that any were [ever] effectually carried in at the door by it, that they deny. Secondly, That God might, if he would, and upon what condition he pleased, save those for whom Christ died. That a right of salvation was by him purchased for any, they deny. Hence they grant, that after the death of Christ, — first, God might have dealt with man upon a legal condition again; secondly, That all and every man might have been damned, and yet the death of Christ have had its full effect; as also, moreover, That faith and sanctification are not purchased by his death, yea, no more.for any (as before) than what he may go to hell withal. And divers other ways do they express their low thoughts and slight imaginations concerning the innate value and sufficiency of the death and blood-shedding of Jesus Christ. To the honor, then, of Jesus Christ our Mediator, God and man, our all-sufficient Redeemer, we affirm, such and so great was the dignity and worth of his death and blood-shedding, of so precious a value, of such an infinite fullness and sufficiency was this oblation of himself, that it was every way able and perfectly sufficient to redeem, justify, and reconcile and save all the sinners in the world, and to satisfy the justice of God for all the sins of all mankind, and to bring them everyone to everlasting glory. Now, this fullness and sufficiency of the merit of the death of Christ is a foundation unto two things: —
First, The general publishing of the gospel unto “all nations,” with the right that it hath to be preached to “every creature,” Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:15; because the way of salvation which it declares is wide enough for all to walk in. There is enough in the remedy it brings to light to heal all their diseases, to deliver them from all their evils. If there were a thousand worlds, the gospel of Christ might, upon this ground, be preached to them all, there being enough in Christ for the salvation of them all, if so be they will derive virtue from him by touching him in faith; the only way to draw refreshment from this fountain of salvation. It is, then, altogether in vain which some object, that the preaching of the gospel to all is altogether needless and useless, if Christ died not for all; yea, that it is to make God call upon men to believe that which is not true, — namely, that Christ died for them: for, first, besides that amongst those nations whither the gospel is sent there are some to be saved (“I have much people,”) which they cannot be, in the way that God hath appointed to do it, unless the gospel be preached to others as well as themselves; and besides, secondly, that in the economy and dispensation of the new covenant, by which all external differences and privileges of people, tongues, and nations being abolished and taken away, the word of grace was to be preached without distinction, and all men called everywhere to repent; and, thirdly, that when God calleth upon men to believe, he doth not, in the first place, call upon them to believe that Christ died for them, but that there is no name under heaven given unto men whereby they might be saved, but only of Jesus Christ, through whom salvation is preached; — I say, besides these certain truths, fully taking off that objection, this one thing of which we speak is a sufficient basis and ground for all those general precepts of preaching the gospel unto all men, even that sufficiency which we have described.
Secondly, That the preachers of the gospel, in their particular congregations, being utterly unacquainted with the purpose and secret counsel of God, being also forbidden to pry or search into it, Deuteronomy 29:29, may from hence justifiably call upon every man to believe, with assurance of salvation to everyone in particular upon his so doing, knowing, and being fully persuaded of this, that there is enough in the death of Christ to save everyone that shall so do; leaving the purpose and counsel of God, on whom he will bestow faith, and for whom in particular Christ died (even as they are commanded), to himself. And this is one principal thing, which, being well observed, will crush many of the vain flourishes of our adversaries; as will in particular hereafter appear.