Recall that the doctrine of limited atonement has been defined as the doctrine that “the intention of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was to procure propitiation for the sins of the elect alone” or, in other words, that Christ died for the elect alone (howeverso the nature of the atonement may affect reprobates). When one purports Augustine as a supporter of limited atonement, a couple passages immediately seem to be cited:
"The Redeemer came and gave the price, shed His blood, and bought the world. Do you ask what He bought? See what He gave, and find what He bought. The blood of Christ is the price: what is of so great worth? What, but the whole world? What, but all nations?" (Exposition on the book of Psalms, Chapter 95)
“[God] saw that nigh the whole of human life on every side was ever bayed at by its sins, that all consciences were accused by their thoughts, that a clean heart trusting in its own righteousness could not be found.
But wherefore is there hope? “For there is propitiation with Thee” (ver. 4). And what is this propitiation, except sacrifice? And what is sacrifice, save that which hath been offered for us? The pouring forth of innocent blood blotted out all the sins of the guilty: so great a price paid down redeemed all captives from the hand of the enemy who captured them.” (Exposition on the book of Psalms, Chapter 130)
The passages are stated to disprove the concept Augustine believed in a limited atonement: the first, because those who hold to a limited atonement allegedly deny Christ died and bought the “world” or “all nations;” the second, because those who hold to a limited atonement deny that Christ blotted out all the sins of the guilty such that they are redeemed.
These passages actually pose a problem only if we assume that Augustine is implying that all men without exception are those being bought, redeemed, and expiated. This is not the case. Taking into consideration one passage at a time, the idea that Christ “came and gave the price, shed His blood, and bought [all men without exception]” is refuted when compared to Augustine’s exegesis of 1 John 2:2, which is as follows:
“The apostle prayeth for the people, the people prayeth for the apostle. We pray for you, brethren: but do ye also pray for us. Let all the members pray one for another; let the Head intercede for all. Therefore it is no marvel that he here goes on and shuts the mouths of them that divide the
What is that mountain wherein Augustine exhorts us to remain? Is it not that Church which is found, not only in the local church, but in the whole world, in all nations? It is for this reason no one can divide the
“But alongside of this love we ought also patiently to endure the hatred of the world. For it must of necessity hate those whom it perceives recoiling from that which is loved by itself. But the Lord supplies us with special consolation from His own case, when, after saying, “These things I command you, that ye love one another,” He added, “If the world hate you, know that it hated me before [it hated] you.” Why then should the member exalt itself above the head? Thou refusest to be in the body if thou art unwilling to endure the hatred of the world along with the Head. “If ye were of the world,” He says, “the world would love its own.” He says this, of course, of the whole Church, which, by itself, He frequently also calls by the name of the world: as when it is said, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself.” And this also: “The Son of man came not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” And John says in his epistle: “We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also [for those] of the whole world.” The whole world then is the Church, and yet the whole world hateth the Church. The world therefore hateth the world, the hostile that which is reconciled, the condemned that which is saved, the polluted that which is cleansed.
But that world which God is in Christ reconciling unto Himself, which is saved by Christ, and has all its sins freely pardoned by Christ, has been chosen out of the world that is hostile, condemned, and defiled. For out of that mass, which has all perished in Adam, are formed the vessels of mercy, whereof that world of reconciliation is composed, that is hated by the world which belongeth to the vessels of wrath that are formed out of the same mass and fitted to destruction. Finally, after saying, “If ye were of the world, the world would love its own,” He immediately added, “But because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” And so these men were themselves also of that world, and, that they might no longer be of it, were chosen out of it, through no merit of their own, for no good works of theirs had preceded; and not by nature, which through free-will had become totally corrupted at its source: but gratuitously, that is, of actual grace. For He who chose the world out of the world, effected for Himself, instead of finding, what He should choose: for “there is a remnant saved according to the election of grace. And if by grace,” he adds, “then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace.”” (Tractates on the Gospel of John, 15:17-19)
2 Corinthians 5:19, John 3:17, and 1 John 2:1-2 are Scriptures Augustine explicitly argues refer to the church, dichotomizing the “hostile” from the “reconciled.” The import of these passages show what Augustine intended in his exposition of Psalm 95: Christ “came and gave the price, shed His blood, and bought [His elect],” not all men without exception.
But what of the other passage? Notwithstanding the fact that Augustine wrote in the same passage that Christ’s propitiation and sacrifice was offered for “us” – which contextually refers to the members of the church – let it be assumed for now that such phraseology was unrestrictive and that Augustine could have intended to extend the blotting out of the sins of all the guilty such that all redeemed by Christ’s blood to refer to all men without exception.
The very fact that Augustine equated expiation with salvation denotes the absurdity in such an interpretation. For Augustine to have believed all men without exception are redeemed would mean that he was a universalist. This is clearly not the case:
“Just as everyone redeemed by Christ's blood is a human being, but human beings are not all redeemed by Christ's blood, so too everything that is unlawful is not good, but things that are not good are not all unlawful.” (John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., Works of Saint Augustine, Adulterous Marriages, Part 1, Vol. 9, trans. Ray Kearney, O.P., Book One, 15, 16 (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1999), p. 153.)
The more natural reading, then, is the correct one. The propitiation and sacrifice was offered for the elect alone, and so the guilty who are redeemed by His blood also refers to the elect alone. One might hope, however, that there are passages which more expressly delineate a designated particularity in the atonement or God’s desire that only some should be saved some.
“…if thou for seekest a Priest, there is One above the heavens; He intercedeth for thee, Who on earth died for thee. Therefore, the Lord our God is a great God: and a great King above all gods.” (Expositions on the Book of Psalms, Chapter 95)
“…by a real death in the flesh He died for us who now maketh intercession for us with thee.” (Confessions, Book 9, Chapter 4)
Augustine believed that Christ did not die on behalf of anyone for whom He does not now intercede, for as Augustine wrote elsewhere:
“No man’s will resists God when He wills to give salvation… For even concerning those who do what He wills not, He Himself does what He will.”(Rebuke and Grace, Chapter 43)
God does what He pleases. If Christ intercedes for all those for whom He died, that must be because God is pleased that is should be so, because there nothing occurs which God does not omnipotently desire, and all that He omnipotently desires He effects.
But note that Augustine also wrote that “even concerning those who do what He wills not, He Himself does what He will,” meaning that when we sin, we fulfill God’s omnipotent will over against God’s moral will. Should we understand this to mean that it is possible that God may morally desire the salvation of all men without exception even though He does not omnipotently desire them to be saved (a la Piper)? This leads to the clearest discussion of God’s will in perhaps the whole early church.
“…we must now inquire about the meaning of what was said most truly by the apostle concerning God, "Who willeth that all men should be saved." For since not all – not even a majority – are saved, it would indeed appear that the fact that what God willeth to happen does not happen is due to an embargo on God's will by the human will.
Now, when we ask for the reason why not all are saved, the customary answer is: "Because they themselves have not willed it." But this cannot be said of infants, who have not yet come to the power of willing or not willing. For, if we could attribute to their wills the infant squirmings they make at baptism, when they resist as hard as they can, we would then have to say that they were saved against their will. But the Lord's language is clearer when, in the Gospel, he reproveth the unrighteous city: "How often," he saith, "would I have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks, and you would not." This sounds as if God's will had been overcome by human wills and as if the weakest, by not willing, impeded the Most Powerful so that he could not do what he willed. And where is that omnipotence by which "whatsoever he willed in heaven and on earth, he has done," if he willed to gather the children of
Augustine introduces the point in question: why, if God desires the salvation of all men without exception, does He not save all men without exception? He proceeds to provide what was then and is today the common, “Christian” answer: “man is free to contravene God’s will, or God enforces His plan to fit with our autonomy.” Augustine makes the point that infants cannot will, and as Augustine believed not all infants are saved, he concludes from that fact that such an answer is inadequate. The answer is moreover inadequate because God’s omnipotent will is never contravened. This prompts a small detour in the monologue, which was covered in the previous note, wherein Augustine expounds upon God’s freedom and justice in election as shown in Romans 9. Augustine summarizes how God’s will is done even when one sins:
“These are "the great works of the Lord, well-considered in all his acts of will" – and so wisely well-considered that when his angelic and human creation sinned (that is, did not do what he willed, but what it willed) he could still accomplish what he himself had willed and this through the same creaturely will by which the first act contrary to the Creator's will had been done. As the Supreme Good, he made good use of evil deeds, for the damnation of those whom he had justly predestined to punishment and for the salvation of those whom he had mercifully predestined to grace.
For, as far as they were concerned, they did what God did not will that they do, but as far as God's omnipotence is concerned, they were quite unable to achieve their purpose. In their very act of going against his will, his will was thereby accomplished. This is the meaning of the statement, "The works of the Lord are great, well-considered in all his acts of will" – that in a strange and ineffable fashion even that which is done against his will is not done without his will. For it would not be done without his allowing it – and surely his permission is not unwilling but willing – nor would he who is good allow the evil to be done, unless in his omnipotence he could bring good even out of evil.” (Chapter 100)
So Augustine repeats the point which brought up this discussion, that God can omnipotently will what He does not morally will. The former will is accomplished always, the latter whenever it is in accordance with His omnipotent will.
A key point is that God’s moral will relates to “permission.” God’s omnipotent will, on the other hand, is active (cf. Chapters 41-43 of On Grace and Free Will). This goes a long way in answering whether or not God morally wills the salvation of all men without exception, because permission denotes a relationship to a will outside one’s own, a will which, in this case, can sin. God’s moral will cannot be dissatisfied when God acts, for that would require God to have acted inconsistent with His nature. As salvation is wholly dependent upon God, for God to not fulfill a hypothetical desire to save all men without exception would be nonsensical.
Continuing to discuss various nuances in what was then a seemingly relatively unexplored subject amongst the early church, Augustine explains how a good will of man can be more in harmony when antecedently opposed to the plan of God than can a bad will of man who desires a given event that is a part God’s plan:
“Sometimes, however, a man of good will wills something that God doth not will, even though God's will is much more, and much more certainly, good – for under no circumstances can it ever be evil. For example, it is a good son's will that his father live, whereas it is God's good will that he should die. Or, again, it can happen that a man of evil will can will something that God also willeth with a good will – as, for example, a bad son wills that his father die and this is also God's will. Of course, the former wills what God doth not will, whereas the latter does will what God willeth. Yet the piety of the one, though he wills not what God willeth, is more consonant with God's will than is the impiety of the other, who wills the same thing that God willeth. There is a very great difference between what is fitting for man to will and what is fitting for God – and also between the ends to which a man directs his will – and this difference determines whether an act of will is to be approved or disapproved. Actually, God achieveth some of his purposes – which are, of course, all good – through the evil wills of bad men. For example, it was through the ill will of the Jews that, by the good will of the Father, Christ was slain for us – a deed so good that when the apostle Peter would have nullified it he was called "Satan" by him who had come in order to be slain. How good seemed the purposes of the pious faithful who were unwilling that the apostle Paul should go to
Augustine summarizes the discussion up to this point:
“But, however strong the wills either of angels or of men, whether good or evil, whether they will what God willeth or will something else, the will of the Omnipotent is always undefeated. And this will can never be evil, because even when it inflicts evils, it is still just; and obviously what is just is not evil. Therefore, whether through pity "he hath mercy on whom he willeth," or in justice "whom he willeth, he hardeneth," the omnipotent God never doth anything except what he doth will, and doth everything that he willeth.” (Chapter 102)
The question has not yet been answered, however, why, if God desires the salvation of all men without exception, he does not save all men without exception. The next and final chapter germane to the topic of limited atonement is the most important, as Augustine’s answer is to dispute the premise, that God does in any sense desire the salvation of all men without exception:
“Accordingly, when we hear and read in sacred Scripture that God "willeth that all men should be saved," although we know well enough that not all men are saved, we are not on that account to underrate the fully omnipotent will of God. Rather, we must understand the Scripture, "Who will have all men to be saved," as meaning that no man is saved unless God willeth his salvation: not that there is no man whose salvation he doth not will, but that no one is saved unless He willeth it. Moreover, his will should be sought in prayer, because if he willeth, then what he willeth must necessarily be. And, indeed, it was of prayer to God that the apostle was speaking when he made that statement. Thus, we are also to understand what is written in the Gospel about Him "who enlighteneth every man." This means that there is no man who is enlightened except by God.
While it may be possible to interpret 1 Timothy 2:4 within a “two wills” paradigm – or any other paradigm, so long as, as Augustine says, “we are not compelled to believe that the Omnipotent hath willed anything to be done which was not done” – Augustine himself clearly does not. He even goes so far as to cite a specific example in which God does not desire the salvation of those that He could have counterfactually saved had He worked miracles. The foundational point which should not be missed is that Augustine classifies God’s desire to save men as a function of God’s omnipotent will rather than His moral will, per se. God desires to save from among all nations, but not to save all men within all nations. And so it is that Augustine remains consistent with the aforementioned works which relate his position on the limited intention and invincible effect of the atonement.
10. “we could interpret [1 Timothy 2:4] in any other fashion, as long as we are not compelled to believe that the Omnipotent hath willed anything to be done which was not done.”