Founders Journal


Spurgeon's Message of
Christ's Atoning Sacrifice
Pt 2: The Extent of the Atonement

Tom Nettles

[Back to Part 1]

In 1854, Spurgeon's first full year as a pastor in London at the New Park Street Chapel, the commentator Albert Barnes published an article in the Church Advocate entitled "A Limited Atonement Not to be Preached." Barnes claimed that "there is nothing that more cramps the powers, fetters the hands, and chills the heart of the preacher, than such a doctrine." The characterization he gave of the preacher who would dare do such is singularly unflattering: "one so clearly and thoroughly tainted in such a form of systematic theology, so fettered and bound by authority, and by the manacles of a creed so wholly under the influence of a theology derived from a past age" who himself is frozen by the doctrine he preaches.

Barnes considered it so contradictory to every aspect of gospel ministry and so contrary to the purest feelings of a sanctified person and so cold and withering in its influence on the heart that "men will not preach it." Should it be found to be an essential part of the gospel message, warm hearted ministers "would abandon preaching altogether, and engage in farming, or teaching, or the mechanic arts--anything; rather than have their better feelings subjected to constant torture." Barnes, moreover, found the doctrine so objectionable that he said not only that it should not be preached, but it could not be preached.

It is found in ancient books on divinity, written in a sterner age, and when the principles of interpretation were less understood, and the large and liberal nature of the gospel was less appreciated. It is petrified in certain creeds maintained by the church--made firm, like fossil remains in a transition state, when ancient opinions were passing to a more liberal form. It is taught in a few seminaries, where men feel themselves constrained to repress the warm emotions of their own minds to reach conclusions which they can scarcely avoid. But the doctrine is not preached, except when the heart is cold and dead. It is not preached when the soul is on fire with the love of men, and when the cross, in its true grandeur rises to view. It is never preached in a revival of religion--a proof, not feeble, that the doctrine is not true.[1]
Barnes could not have known that the warmest, most powerful preacher of the nineteenth century could and would preach the doctrine that Barnes found so unthinkable, and preach it without bringing a chill either to himself or his hearers. Spurgeon believed that the fountain of Christ's blood was open and would cleanse every sinner who came to it. He felt no more inhibition to invite sinners to this fountain than he did to call on all sinner's to repent and believe the gospel. Both effectual calling and effectual, or limited, atonement are doctrines of grace. Grace never serves as a barrier to anyone's coming to Christ nor to the freedom with which ministers may, indeed must, issue the gospel invitation.

Inability and Responsibility

Spurgeon labored to demonstrate the congruity between these two doctrines. The command to repent of sin and believe in Christ he preached as a universal obligation. He knew, however, that "there are some who will deny this, and deny it upon the ground that man has not the spiritual ability to believe in Jesus." His reply emphasize that "it is altogether an error to imagine that the measure of the sinner's moral ability is the measure of his duty."

Universal responsibility merely accentuates the divine prerogative in grace for no one would ever "believe in Jesus with the faith here intended, except the Holy Spirit led him to do so." "Faith is too celestial a grace," Spurgeon argued, "to spring up in human nature till it is renewed." Christians must "rise above the babyhood" which truncates these doctrines and should "not find it difficult to believe faith to be at the same time the duty of man and the gift of God."[2]

Because of that, where belief exists, regeneration exists. "To believe in Jesus is a better indicator of regeneration than anything else, and in no case did it ever mislead." By the same token, to believe in Jesus is the sure indicator that Jesus has died for you. Faith does not consist in believing that Christ has died for me in particular. Rather, it is coming empty-handed but wholeheartedly to Christ himself who has died for sinners. In trusting in Him alone one discovers that Christ has died for him in particular and with effect. Spurgeon said,

"I do not believe in Jesus because I am persuaded that his blood was shed for me, but rather I discover that his blood was shed especially for me from the fact that I have been led to believe in him. I fear me there are thousands of people who believe that Jesus died for them, who are not born of God, but rather hardened in their sin by their groundless hopes of mercy. There is no particular efficacy in a man's assuming that Christ has died for him; for it is a mere truism, if it be true as some teach, that Jesus died for everybody. On such a theory every believer in a universal atonement would necessarily be born of God, which is very far from being the case. When the Holy Spirit leads us to rely upon the Lord Jesus, then the truth that God gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him might be saved, is opened up to our souls, and we see that for us who are believers, Jesus died with the special intent that we should be saved. . . . Merely to conclude that Jesus died for us on the notion that he died for everybody is as far as the east is from the west, from being real faith in Jesus Christ.[3]

The Open Fountain

Spurgeon pulls on this same cord of unity within the doctrines of grace in his sermon entitled, "The Open Fountain." One will never participate in this fountain which eradicates sin and uncleanness unless one knows himself to be a sinner; but if there "be here one really guilty, one who feels his sin to be deserving the wrath of God;" one who mourns his sin, confesses his guilt, and feels himself undeserving and unworthy--"then you are the man to whom the mercy of heaven is this day freely proclaimed."

In this context then it is no wonder that Spurgeon could proclaim the saving efficacy of the death of Christ with unbound enthusiasm and generosity. Because the fountain is open "there is no barrier on account of uncircumcision or natural descent." We learn also that it is "personally approachable by us" and dependent on no mediator or intercessor other than the Lord Jesus himself. Also "the fountain is not barred by any amount of sin which we have already committed." No effectual barrier is created by the consideration of our inward sinfulness nor are there any "demands in the gospel requiring you to prepare yourself for it before you come."

Spurgeon increases in boldness as he goes vowing to push any theologian into the fountain who would bar it from any sinner who is coming. "There cannot be anything in theology, nor in nature nor in heaven, nor earth, nor hell, which can shut what God declares to be open. If thou willest to be saved, if thou comest to Christ, believing in him, there is nothing to shut up the fountain of life or prevent thee from being cleansed and healed. If there be any shutting and forbidding it is thy heart that is closed, and thy pride which forbids."[4]

It is clear that Spurgeon absorbed and implemented that line of thought developed and defended with such clarity and strength by Jonathan Edwards concerning the relation between natural abilities and moral abilities. The whole scheme of salvation springs from the holiness of God. Total depravity must be defined in terms of God's holiness and the sinner's antipathy toward that conglomerate attribute. "Your condition is not only your calamity, but your fault," Spurgeon insisted. The sinner must be not only pitied but blamed for he is without a will for what is good; "Your `cannot' means `will not,' your inability is not physical but moral, not that of the blind who cannot see for want of eyes, but of the willingly ignorant who refuse to look."[5]

Election determines that we should be holy and without blame; effectual calling and the new birth produce the new creature who reflects true righteousness and holiness; perseverance implies that God's seed remains in us and we cannot continue in the direction of sin but must be holy; the cross draws sinners to it, if they are drawn savingly, because of its just verdict on their sin and its crushing display of the holiness of God. It is, therefore, the holiness of the cross that is a barrier to a sinner's embracing it, not the fact that in God's secret purpose he has determined that it shall certainly be saving in its effects for the people he has given to the Son.

Spurgeon was overwhelmed with the lavishness of God's grace in the atonement, and though he spoke clearly of its limited nature, it was always in the context of the certainty with which God carried out his purposes of grace. It is infinite mercy that a holy God would condescend to save sinners! And it is amazing that He should do it in such a public, promiscuous fashion so that none can complain that it was done in a corner.

The certainty of the salvation that God accomplished gave endless material for Spurgeon's clear affirmations. "There is a fountain opened in the atonement, by which the offence rendered to God's honor and dignity is put away. What if we have sinned, yet the Lord has punished that sin in the person of his own Son, he has thus fulfilled his threatening, and proven the truth of his word. In Jesus Christ, therefore, the guilt of those for whom he was a substitute is put away consistently with the righteousness of the great Lawgiver."[6]

That "righteousness of the great lawgiver" in conjunction with the substitutionary and propitiatory aspects of the atonement were compelling to Spurgeon. They bore infinite comfort to Christ's people and Spurgeon would not have his listeners come short of any spiritual comfort legitimately theirs. Since Christ has suffered the penalty for sin and has made recompense to divine justice, if indeed the Lord Jesus has been condemned for us, then "While justice survives in heaven, and mercy reigns on earth, it is not possible that a soul condemned in Christ should also be condemned in itself. If the punishment has been meted out to its substitute, it is neither consistent with mercy nor justice that the penalty should a second time be executed."[7]

Clearly a favorite hymn of Spurgeon's was the Toplady number entitled, "Whence This Fear and Unbelief?" He quoted it at length or in part on several occasions and was particularly attached to this verse.

If Thou has my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine;
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding Surety's hand,
And then again at mine.[8]
He wanted no one to lose the ineffable mystery of the fact that God himself had died for man the creature's sin. And that this rendered such a certainty to its efficaciousness, and a limitlessness to its possibilities, that it would be impossible that it could not atone for any sin anywhere.
Never could justice be more gloriously exalted in the presence of intelligent beings than by the Lord of all submitting himself to its requirements. There must be an infinite merit about his death: a desert unutterable, immeasurable. Methinks if there had been a million worlds to redeem, their redemption could not have needed more than this `sacrifice of himself.' If the whole universe, teeming with worlds as many as the sands on the seashore, had required to be ransomed, that one giving up of the ghost might have sufficed as a full price for them all. However gross the insults which sin may have rendered to the law, they must be all forgotten, since Jesus magnified the law so abundantly, and made it so honourable by his death. I believe in the special design of our Lord's atoning death, but I will yield to no one in my belief in the absolutely infinite value of the offering which our Lord Jesus has presented; the glory of his person renders the idea of limitation an insult.[9]
For this reason Spurgeon used the nomenclature of limitation sparingly and with positive explanation in his exposition of the atonement. He preferred to speak of effectuality and certainty. But just as strongly, his consideration of "limitation" as an insult led him to reject the concept of universal atonement. In fact he was glad to use the term "limited" if one set the idea of "general" opposite it, for such a limitation was really no limitation at all.
Now, beloved, when you hear any one laughing or jeering at a limited atonement, you may tell him this. General atonement is like a great wide bridge with only half an arch; it does not go across the stream: it only professes to go half way; it does not secure the salvation of anybody. Now, I had rather put my foot upon a bridge as narrow as Hungerford, which went all the way across, than on a bridge that was as wide as the world, if it did not go all the way across the stream.[10]

The Efficacy of the Atonement

The infinite dignity of Christ's person demanded the utter success of his aim in giving himself up for the sake of sinners. Spurgeon's refusal to admit any inadequacy to Christ's death meant especially that the efficacy of the atonement was not subject to man's will. The final arbiter of that infinite transaction which was ordained in the decrees of eternity cannot be the will of a mutable, temporal, fallen, rebellious creature.[11]

In addition to the dignity of the person who is substituted for us, two factors render this transaction certain and efficacious. First, it was the intent and purpose of God to save a people for himself by the sacrifice of his son. "We declare that the measure of the effect of Christ's love, is the measure of the design of it. We cannot so belie our reason as to think that the intention of Almighty God could be frustrated, or that the design of so great a thing as the atonement, can by any way whatever be missed of."[12]

Without blasphemy it is not possible to conceive that Christ has failed in his purpose. "It is quite certain, beloved," Spurgeon reasoned, "that the death of Christ must have been effectual for the removal of those sins which were laid upon him." We cannot conceive that Christ has died in vain. "He was appointed of God to bear the sin of many," and it is "not possible that he should be defeated or disappointed of his purpose. Not in one jot or tittle will the intent of Christ's death be frustrated. Jesus shall see of the travail of his soul and be satisfied. That which he meant to do by dying shall be done, and he shall not pour his blood upon the ground in waste in any measure or sense."[13] If he has been condemned, those united to him in his death as indicated by their faith in him shall in no wise come into condemnation.

This statement of purpose leads to the consideration of the second point which contributes to the certain, unfailing efficacy of Christ's death. That is, that in some sense Christ's sufferings were quantitative. Spurgeon paints a vivid mental picture of the intensity and exact justice of Christ's substitutionary sufferings for his people and suggests that they suppose a man who has passed into hell. Then they suppose that his eternal torment should all be brought into one hour and multiplied by the number of the saved, a number past all human enumeration. Is it possible now to imagine what "a vast aggregate of misery there would have been in the sufferings of all God's people, if they had been punished through all eternity?" Then we should remember that "Christ had to suffer an equivalent for all the hells of all his redeemed." Christ gave God "the satisfaction for all the sins of all his people, and consequently gave him an equivalent for all their punishment."[14]

In speaking on "The Determination of Christ to Suffer for His People" Spurgeon considers why Christ refused the cup of wine mingled with myrrh. One of the reasons was that such a refusal was "necessary to make the atonement complete." If Christ had drunk from the cup the atonement would not have been valid because he would not have suffered "to the extent that was absolutely necessary." Christ suffered "just enough, and not one particle more than was necessary for the redemption of his people." The ransom price would not have been paid had the wine cup taken away part of his sufferings. Had as much as a grain of his suffering been mitigated "the atonement would not have been sufficiently satisfactory." Insufficiency to any degree would have condemned his people to perpetual despair. The utmost farthing must be paid; inexorable justice cannot omit a fraction of its claim. Christ must go the whole length of suffering.[15]

Not only did Spurgeon see great comfort and assurance in the doctrine of limited atonement, he found the doctrine of universal atonement to be positively destructive of the moral attributes of God. In his Autobiography Spurgeon gives a "Defence of Calvinism" and includes a particularly striking defense of limited atonement.

Some persons love the doctrine of universal atonement because they say, "It is so beautiful. It is a lovely idea that Christ should have died for all men; it commends itself," they say, "to the instincts of humanity; there is something in it full of joy and beauty." I admit there is, but beauty may be often associated with falsehood. There is much which I might admire in the theory of universal redemption, but I will just show what the supposition necessarily involves. If Christ on His cross intended to save every man, then He intended to save those who were lost before he died. If the doctrine be true, that He died for all men, then He died for some who were in hell before He came into this world, for doubtless there were even then myriads there who had been cast away because of their sins. Once again, if it was Christ's intention to save all men, how deplorably has He been disappointed, for we have His own testimony that there is a lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, and into that pit of woe have been cast some of the very person who, according to the theory of universal redemption, were bought with His blood. That seems to me a conception a thousand times more repulsive than any of those consequences which are said to be associated with the calvinistic and Christian doctrine of special and particular redemption. To think that my Saviour died for men who were or are in hell, seems a supposition too horrible for me to entertain. To imagine for a moment that He was the substitute for all the sons of men, and that God, having first punished the Substitute, afterwards punished the sinners themselves, seems to conflict with all my ideas of Divine justice. That Christ should offer an atonement and satisfaction for the sins of all men, and that afterwards some of those very men should be punished for the sins for which Christ had already atoned, appears to me to be the most monstrous iniquity that could ever be imputed to Saturn, to Janus, to the goddess of the Thugs, or to the most diabolical heathen deities. God forbid that we should ever think thus of Jehovah, the just and wise and good![16]
This concept of a definite atonement encouraged Spurgeon in his evangelism also. When Jesus used the word "Many" he indicated a certainty in the efficacy of his death. But just as surely he meant "many." Not just a few, but "many." "Let us expect to see large numbers brought within the sacred enclosure," Spurgeon encouraged his congregation. Because the blood is shed for many, the masses must be compelled to come in. While a group of half a dozen converts gives us joy why should we not expect half a dozen thousand at once! "Cast the great net into the sea," Spurgeon challenged and to his young men he urged, "Preach the gospel in the streets of this crowded city, for it is meant for many." And to personal workers he said, "You who go from door to door, do not think you can be too hopeful, since your Saviour's blood is shed for many, and Christ's `many' is a very great many." No one shall ever trust Christ in vain or find the atonement insufficient for him. "O for a large hearted faith," he cried, "so that by holy effort we may lengthen our cords, and strengthen our stakes, expecting to see the household of our Lord become exceeding numerous." Isaiah 53, a crucial passage in Spurgeon's exposition of limited atonement, rivets fast the reality of "many." "He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied; by his righteousness shall he justify many, for he shall bear their iniquities." "Dwell on that word `many,'" Spurgeon argued in his recapitulation, "and let it nerve you for far-reaching labours."[17]


Spurgeon's gift of oratory was exclusively his and one would be foolish to feel either capable or obliged to duplicate it. His commitment to the centrality of the cross and all of its connections, however, is property common to the Christian ministry. We are under commission to emulate that as far as is warranted by Scripture.

First, we should cultivate his passion for the cross. Even in reading his sermons one can feel his intensity for the passion of Christ, it swallowed him up. He exhausted himself verbally, emotionally, and physically seeking to transfer the mental and spiritual power which emanated to him from the cross and energized his ministry.

Second, we must not be intimidated by the modern discipline of biblical theology so that we fail to see the centrality of the cross in all of Scripture. Spurgeon is right in seeing it permeate the entire corpus of divine revelation and in treating it as the cohesive factor. Even if occasionally he takes disjointed verbal cues to engage in applicatory allegory, his overall vision is true and will do much to infuse biblical evangelistic intensity into our study and our communication.

Third, we should learn to explore the doctrine of assurance from the ground of the cross as Spurgeon did. The death of the Word incarnate and the purpose of God to save sinners by that death should be immense encouragement to any person whose distress comes from a true picture of the lethal nature of his sin. Spurgeon would remonstrate endlessly and exhaust his creative and applicatory powers to show a "coming sinner" how firm and infallible his assurance might be once he grasps the reality that he who spared not his own son will certainly give us all things.

Fourth, we should learn to see in the cross the historic tangible presentation of the eternal purposes of God in the eternal covenant. Predestination, election, effectual calling--these are hidden from our view and are mysterious in their operation. The cross, though its power, wisdom, and dimensions are mysterious and unsoundable, is nevertheless the place that all the metaphysical aspects of redemption become immanent. It is there that we can say, "These things were not done in a corner."

Fifth, we can learn from Spurgeon the evangelistic power of definite atonement. His sermons surge and vibrate with the positive and optimistic application of the wondrous doctrine. Many who believe the doctrine seem secretly to believe that one should be forbidden to give public display of it. Spurgeon obviously meditated strongly on that biblical truth and found it to be a power with saints and sinners alike. It arms the evangelist with certainty and every sinner with hope. God saves sinners and will not bring this world to a close until the efficacy of Messiah's death has been fully satisfied.

Sixth, we can learn to apply the cross to sanctification. Because by the cross we are bought with a price and are no longer our own, we may be sure that God will be glorified in the bodies of his people. He will transform their minds, recreate them in true righteousness and holiness, and mortify their flesh just as surely as he has rescued them from it dominance.

"God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Galatians 6:14).