Theology as a discipline is a particularly intriguing endeavor. As such, having the ability to turn to theologians who have worked tirelessly, wrestling through a variety of issues is a crucial task for other theologians. In this way, the wheel need not be reinvented by every new theologian. The purpose of this paper, then, is to synthesize, systematize, and summarize the views of John Calvin, Michael Horton, and Richard P. McBrien on five different theological topics (atonement, the work of the Spirit in the New Testament, justification, ordinances of the church, and eternal destinies). I have chosen Calvin and Horton, both from the Reformed tradition, as a sort of exercise in comparing classical Calvinism with the “new” Calvinism. McBrien is a Roman Catholic theologian who will serve as a third voice in this dialogue. The paper will also have a brief examination of my own views of the same subjects, and it will contain a section on the implications for engagement with the world.
Work of Christ: Atonement
The work of Christ in atonement is clear from several New Testament passages: Mark 10:45; John 10:11; Romans 3:21-26. Mark tells us that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This text clearly demonstrates the purpose that Jesus came: to give his life as a ransom for sinners. In John’s Gospel, we find that Jesus is “the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” From this we can gather that there is a specific group of people for whom Jesus makes atonement: namely, his sheep. Finally, Romans 3:24-25 says that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” This shows that Jesus, by his work of atonement, has appeased the wrath of God on behalf of his people.
John Calvin’s view of atonement has been, perhaps unfairly, caricatured as “Limited Atonement” (the “L” in the famous TULIP acrostic). Yet for Calvin, the work of redemption, and atonement specifically, is much more broad than his detractors might assume. For example, Calvin asks, “How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us?” He answers: “He has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience.” And Calvin moves toward a more exact definition of the nature of atonement: “Scriptures ascribes this as peculiar and proper to Christ’s death. He declares that ‘he gave his life to redeem many.’” Thus, for Calvin, Christ’s work of atonement is seen particularly in his death on the cross, which is an integral part of the “whole course of his obedience.”
Michael Horton, representative of the new Calvinism, predictably takes a view of substitutionary atonement. In fact, Horton goes so far as to say “At their best, every tradition of Christianity—the East as well as the West—has affirmed the cross as Christ’s triumph as well as his vicarious substitution.” Yet Christ’s work should not be reduced only to substitution. Rather, as Horton points out, “Far from indicating incoherence or contradiction, the diversity of biblical representations is due to the massive scale and implications of Christ’s work. If there is a danger in reducing Christ’s accomplishment to penal substitution, the opposite danger is to see other aspects as alternatives to it.” This means that Christ’s work is more than simply substitution, but penal substitution is the foundation upon which the remaining implications rest.
Richard P. McBrien, a Roman Catholic theologian, looks at the atonement primarily in ransom categories with a major emphasis on the resurrection. For example, he states, “the Church’s faith in the saving power of Christ’s death emerged from its initial faith in his resurrection, and not from any general sense of need for deliverance from sin or from some wide-ranging exploration of Old Testament texts.” In another place, McBrien asserts, “Christ is seen as the ransom given to liberate us all from the slavery of sin. But it has been an extraordinary misunderstanding to view this act of ransoming in more than metaphorical terms, as if it were some necessary payment demanded by God.” Thus, for McBrien, “There is no exact ‘commercial’ description of what actually occurred in Jesus’ passion and death.”
Now we can shift to my own view on the topic of Jesus’ work of atonement. Atonement is the biblical concept that Jesus Christ came and shed his blood on the cross, dying for the redemption of sinners. It has multiple parts, two of the most important of which are propitiation and expiation. Propitiation is the notion that Christ’s death has effectively appeased the wrath of God towards sin; expiation is the idea that Christ has taken our sins away, removing them far from us. It should also be understood that the atonement is substitutionary in nature. That is, Jesus’ took the actual punishment for sin due to his people. He stood in their place, as a substitute, and bore the wrath of God that was reserved for them in order that they might become children of God.
The atonement is one of the most important things that Christians can communicate to the world. Western culture, being vastly different from Jewish culture, might have a difficult time understanding the correct meaning of the atonement, particularly in relation to our sinfulness and the holiness of God. Thus, we need to establish that God’s holiness requires justice to be done. Without justice, the holiness of God would be called into question. And the atonement is the means by which God has shown himself to be righteous and able to justify sinners. I think it is important to note here that Jesus’ work of atonement, in which he took the full wrath of God for sin, is the only means by which sinners can be saved. This means that when we communicate the atonement to those around us, we must make it clear that Jesus’ death is the singular way that we can have right standing with God.
Work of the Holy Spirit: New Testament
The work of the Spirit in the New Testament is most clearly seen in texts like John 3:1-8, Ephesians 1:11-14, and Romans 8:12-27. In John 3:5-6, we read, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here we find Jesus telling Nicodemus that one must be born of the Spirit in order to see the kingdom of God; this concept is referred to as regeneration. In Ephesians 1:13, Paul tells us, “when you heard the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, [you] were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.” This shows that the Holy Spirit seals believers, ensuring their perseverance. Finally, Romans 8:26 says “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Here we find that the Spirit prays for believers according to the will of God.
For Calvin the work of the Holy Spirit is absolutely crucial to the rest of his theology. The primary action of the Spirit is to unite us to Christ. Thus, the Spirit provides the energy “by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits.” So, for Calvin, without the Spirit, the Christian life is utterly impossible. Moreover, union with Christ is arguably Calvin’s preeminent theme, and this emphasis is made because of the work of the Spirit. Calvin makes this even more clear by stating that faith is the work of the Holy Spirit. In Calvin’s thought, “faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the terms commonly employed to express his power and working are, in large measure, referred to it because by faith alone he leads us into the light of the gospel.”
Horton has a well-developed pneumatology of the New Testament. He refers to the ongoing ministry of the Spirit in at least three ways that fulfill the upper room discourse from John 14-16. First, “The Spirit’s ongoing ministry is judicial.” This means that one of the Spirit’s essential functions in the New Testament is to “convict the world concerning sin and unrighteousness and judgment,’ with unbelief in Christ as the focus of that conviction.” Second, “the Spirit will be sent ‘to guide you into all the truth (Jn 16:13).” Accordingly, “the Spirit is not the content, but the regenerating source of faith in Christ.” Third, the Spirit works to glorify Christ. Just as Jesus has glorified the Father, “now the Father and the Spirit glorify the Son.”
McBrien’s work does not have a systematic treatment of the work of the Holy Spirit in either the Old Testament or the New, yet he justifies that exclusion in this way:
the preoccupation of the New Testament is with God the Almighty and with Jesus Christ, who comes among us to manifest and to do the Father’s will: to proclaim and practice and hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God…the Holy Spirit is never an object of that proclamation, whether of Jesus or of the Church. Rather, the Holy Spirit is the power through which that proclamation is uttered and fulfilled.
Yet, McBrien also claims: “On the other hand, the Holy Spirit is at issue in every major theological discussion: the divinization of humankind by grace, the renewing and reconciling presence of God in history, the mystery of the Church, the celebration of the sacraments, the exercise of Christian witness.” So, the Spirit is active in the New Testament in at least these ways, according to McBrien.
We can transition now into my own view of the Spirit’s work in the New Testament. First, the Holy Spirit works to regenerate spiritually dead sinners in order that their eyes may be enlightened to behold the gospel of the glory of Christ. The necessary presupposition here is that sinners are spiritually incapable of believing in their own power because they enslaved to sin and will not believe. Thus, the Holy Spirit works to free them from their slavery to sin, replacing their heart of stone with a heart of flesh, thus making them “born from above.” Second, after the Spirit regenerates sinners, he works to seal them for perseverance until the end. This means that the Spirit will ensure that believers persevere in faith and obedience until the end of their lives. Third, the Spirit currently intercedes for believers according to the will of God. This also ensures that believers will maintain their relationship with God, for it is God himself who keeps them.
One of the most important yet overlooked concepts of the Christian message to the surrounding culture is that of the work of the Spirit in the current age. It is a sad reality that many Christians, much less nonbelievers, are simply not aware of how the Spirit operates. So, it is with much patience and humility that we must share the truths that it is the Spirit who gives life because the flesh is no help at all. We must say that the Spirit indwells believers, sealing them for the day of Jesus’ return, ensuring that they will, in fact, endure to the end in faith and repentance. We must also be very wary of churches and groups who put an unwarranted focus on the Spirit at the expense of the Father and the Son. We must share with these groups that the work of the Spirit is primarily to glorify the Son, and he does this by regenerating, sealing, and interceding.
Redemption: Objective Aspects—Justification
One of the objective aspects of redemption, justification, is clearly manifest in texts like Romans 3:21-27, Romans 4:1-12, and Galatians 2:15-21. Romans 3:26 tells us that God put Jesus forward as a propitiation “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” This shows that justification is primarily an act of God which we receive through faith. Romans 4:2-3 says “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God…‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” This text demonstrates that God counts righteousness to those of faith, which means that righteousness is not to be found intrinsically, but only by imputation. Finally, Galatians 2:16 tells us “that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” Again, this demonstrates that righteousness is not to be found intrinsically, but is given through those who have faith in Christ.
Justification was a massively important issue during the Reformation (and remains such to this day), so it is no surprise that Calvin put pen to paper to make his own thoughts known. He defines justification as “the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.” From this we can see that, for Calvin, justification is an act of God by which he declares or receives sinners as righteous people on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. When explaining the usage of the term in Scripture, Calvin goes so far as to say, “it cannot be denied that this is a proper and most customary meaning of the word.” Finally, he asks the powerful rhetorical question: “When Paul says that Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith (Gal. 3:8), what else may you understand but that God imputes righteousness by faith?”
Horton’s view of justification follows Reformed orthodoxy. Using a vivid illustration to make his point, he claims, “It is not the Pharisee, confident in his own righteousness, who went home justified, said Jesus, but the tax collector, who could not even raise his eyes to heaven but cried out, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Moreover, “numerous passages testify to the imputation or crediting of our sins to Christ (on the basis of his substitutionary atonement) and his righteousness to us (on the basis of his active obedience).” As a summary statement, Horton affirms, “God’s work in justification is compared to his work in creating the world out of nothing. Justification is the fiat declaration, ‘Let there be righteousness!’ even where, at present, there is nothing but guilt and unrighteousness in the sinner, because Christ’s righteousness is imputed through Spirit-given and gospel-created faith.”
McBrien’s take on justification can be summarized as such: justification is “the process of passing from the condition of sin as a child of the first Adam to a condition of adopted Sonship and daughtership in Christ.” This definition is careful not to make a distinction between justification and sanctification. For example, “justification ‘is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward person through the voluntary reception of the grace and the gifts whereby an unjust person becomes just.’” So, for McBrien, justification is the synergistic action by both God (in which he transports sinners into an adoptive state) and humans (in which they continually receive grace for justification and renewal). Against the Protestant view, McBrien posits that justification should be more broadly defined as a process of adoption rather than a singular declaration that one is righteousness because of the imputed righteousness of Christ.
In my view, justification is that act of God by which he declares sinners to be righteous because of the imputed righteousness of Christ credited to them through faith. The important thing to note here is that it is an act of God first and foremost. Secondly, it is not due to any inherent righteousness found within the sinner (because there is none as Paul points out in Romans 7). Justification is only possible because of the imputation of the perfect righteousness of Christ through faith. This means that the sinner no longer stands under the condemnation and the wrath of God; rather, they are, in the legal sense, seen as perfect, spotless, and blameless, as if they had never committed any sin and as if they had obeyed the law perfectly. And this is because God has imputed the righteousness of Christ to believers through faith.
It has been said that justification is the heart of the gospel; without it, there is no gospel. If this is the case, and I believe it is, then we must have a clear view of what justification is in order that we can proclaim it faithfully to those around us. That said, we must declare first and foremost that it is God who makes sinners right with himself. It is impossible for a sinner to make him- or herself righteous enough for God to declare them just in his sight. This means that it is only through the perfect work of Christ, imputed to us through faith, that we can be justified. So, when we tell people about justification, we must share that it is not about doing righteous things in order to get right with God; rather, justification is about God declaring us righteous because of the finished work of Christ on our behalf.
The Church: Ordinances and Sacraments
The two ordinances of the church, baptism and communion, are seen in Matthew 26:26-28, Matthew 28:19, and 1 Peter 3:21-22. In Matthew 26:26-28 we find these words: “Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This symbolic portrayal of Jesus’ death for sinners is what is called communion. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commissions his followers to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Moreover, we find in 1 Peter 3:21-22 that “baptism…now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus.” So, baptism is divinely instituted, not as the means by which one comes into communion with Christ, but as a symbolic representation of union with him in life and death.
Calvin, understandably, considering the backdrop of Roman Catholicism against which he was writing, devoted a great deal of effort into clearly defining the sacraments. For him, a sacrament “is an outward sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences the promises of his good will toward us in order to sustain the weakness of our faith; and we in turn attest our piety toward him in the presence of the Lord and of his angels and before men.” Calvin holds that the only two proper sacraments instituted by Christ are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. For Calvin, “Baptism is the sign of initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God’s children.” The Lord’s Supper, according to Calvin, is “a spiritual banquet, wherein Christ attests himself to be the life-giving bread, upon which our souls feed unto true and blessed immortality.”
Horton follows Reformed orthodoxy in his view of the sacraments. That is, God “assures [his people] of his goodwill, binding himself to them, them to himself, and them to each other through sacraments that he has personally instituted. Together with the Word, these sacraments are means of grace and are therefore essential marks of the true church.” For Horton, only baptism and the Lord’s Supper are true sacraments due to their evangelical nature as well as their institution by Christ. Baptism is the portrayal of being buried with Christ in his death and raised with him in his resurrection. “According to this view,” claims Horton, baptism is “neither mere witness to grace nor cause of grace, but a means of grace inasmuch as they ratify the promise and thereby strengthen our faith in the one who promises.” The Lord’s Supper is “the meal in which ‘the powers of the world to come’ have been released in Christ’s coming, and in which the ‘heavenly gift’ and the Holy Spirit have been given and tasted.”
McBrien, as a Roman Catholic, posits seven sacraments for the church, which are divided into three separate categories: (1) Sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist; (2) Sacraments of healing: penance and anointing of the sick; and (3) Sacraments of vocation and commitment: matrimony and holy order. Properly speaking, the sacraments “cause grace insofar as they signify it.” This understanding, according to McBrien, is the classical Roman view, although postmedieval theology experienced a shift such that “the sacraments were perceived as instruments of grace, producing their spiritual effects by the very performance of the ritual according to the prescribed manner (ex opere operato…).” This means that the sacraments, at least in postmedieval Catholic thought were the actual cause by which grace was conferred upon the recipients of them. McBrien is quick to point out, however, along with Aquinas, that sacraments “are signs which proclaim faith.”
Baptism and communion (or the Lord’s Supper) are the two ordinances instituted by Christ for his church. Baptism is the symbolic picture of being buried with Christ in his death and being raised with him to new life. Properly speaking, it should be administered only to people who give a profession of faith in Christ Jesus. This is not to say, however, that infants who have been baptized should be re-baptized upon making a profession of faith. Communion is the symbolic portrayal of the breaking of Christ’s body and shedding of his blood by consuming bread and wine. However, great and massive truths come along with communion. It is not simply a picture of Christ’s atonement; it communicates to us that just as we are consuming bread and wine, so Christ’s body was broken and blood shed for the remission of our sins.
There is widespread confusion about the ordinances and sacraments in the local church, and if that is the case then one could rightly assume that the issues are even more unclear to people outside the church. So, when we share these things, we must seek to be clear and faithful to the Scriptures and to the rest of our theology. That being the case, we must share that baptism does not, in fact, have intrinsic power to save (as some of the Restoration movement churches teach). It is symbolic in nature and is not properly the means by which we receive God’s grace; this is given through faith alone. Moreover, the Lord’s Supper is not what makes us right before God as we consume the bread and the wine; rather, our faith is strengthened and confirmed as we participate in communion. It is crucial to maintain that these ordinances do not have intrinsic merit in themselves, but are symbolic helps for us to strengthen our faith.
Eschatology: Eternal Destinies—Heaven and Hell
Verses about the eternal destinies of humans, primarily about heaven and hell, are found in Matthew 5:29-30, Revelation 20:14, and Revelation 21:3-8. In the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus saying, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” In Revelation 20:14 we find, “Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” Here we see that hell is the place of final judgment, into which are thrown sinners and anyone whose name is not written in the book of life. Revelation 21 tells us of “a new heaven and a new earth” where “the dwelling place of God is with man…He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.” This new heaven and new earth is God’s final act of consummation of the cosmos, where he will dwell with his people.
Calvin treats the concept of eternal destiny with great force, even apart from his work on predestination. That is, for Calvin, there are essentially two options: “Man’s life in the hereafter: eternal enjoyment of God’s presence, or eternal misery in alienation from God.” The first state Calvin calls “Everlasting blessedness,” and he explains it in this way: it is “a happiness of whose excellence the minutest part would scarce be told if all were said that the tongues of men can say.” On the other hand, Calvin asserts, “Because no description can deal adequately with the gravity of God’s vengeance against the wicked, their torments and tortures are figuratively expressed to us by physical things, that is, by darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth.” Thus, for Calvin, the horrors of everlasting misery apart from God are so unspeakable that they are only conferred to us in figurative language in the Scriptures.
Horton remains faithful to the orthodox Christian view of heaven and hell. That is, “Jesus says that the nations will appear before the Son of Man in judgment and all will be separated, as sheep and goats, ‘into eternal life’ and ‘into eternal punishment.’” Moreover, Horton explains, “It is certainly true that the images of the last day and heaven and hell are communicated in an apocalyptic form. Therefore, such images are not meant to be read like a morning newspaper. Nevertheless, they are also not meant to be ignored. They indicate realities beyond our conceptual grasp, yet are certain to come to fruition.” So, on one hand there is everlasting punishment for sin apart from God, and on the other there is everlasting shalom, peace with God.
The question of eternal destinies is an important one for McBrien. For him, there are three overarching destinies based upon faithfulness. That is, the faithful receive the “beatific vision” of God, also known as heaven, where believers will see the invisible God in his fullness. McBrien also posits the idea of purgatory, but claims that there is “no biblical basis for the doctrine.” Nevertheless, McBrien states, “purgatory is best understood as a process by which we are purged of our residual selfishness so that we can really become one with the God who is totally oriented to others, i.e., the self-giving God.” Hell, on the other hand, is a place of eternal punishment for sin, full of the unfaithful. This means that hell is the ultimate destination of those who are not fit for heaven because of their unfaithfulness.
Eternal destines, including heaven and hell are the final piece of these synopses. Properly speaking, the new heaven and the new earth is God’s final work in creation. Those who have been covered by the blood of the lamb will spend eternity in the presence of God. Ever-increasing joy will be experienced by everyone in the new creation. Hell, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of the new heaven and earth. A place of conscious, eternal torment, hell is reserved for those sinners, treasonous rebels who have rejected the glory of God and worshipped instead created things, who have not repented of their sin or believed in the sufficiency of Christ to save them from the wrath of God. Being sent to hell is literally the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone, for it is there that God’s righteous wrath is poured out upon them.
Heaven may just be the most popular of all Christian doctrines while hell is probably the most hated (apart from predestination). Yet many misunderstandings abound about the nature of both realities. First, many people think heaven will be about sitting around playing harps, worshipping God all day. While this may happen occasionally, I think it best to communicate that the new heaven and the new earth will be much more entertaining than that, primarily because it will be filled with the glory of God and untainted by the realities of sin and evil. We must warn people about the gruesome reality of hell, on the other hand. This is a place of eternal destruction; that is, unending, unbelievable, unquenchable pain and thirst apart from any good thing. God’s wrath will totally consume everyone in hell such that their pain will be seemingly infinite in quality. The horrors of hell must be made known so that sinners might repent and believe the gospel.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.5.
 Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 514.
 Ibid., 515, italics in original.
 Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism: New Edition (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1994), 446.
 Ibid., 445.
 Calvin, Instit. 3.1.1.
 Ibid., 3.1.4.
 Horton, The Christian Faith, 556.
 Ibid., 558.
 McBrien, Catholicism, 396.
 Calvin, Instit. 3.11.2.
 Horton, The Christian Faith, 620.
 Ibid., 621.
 McBrien, Catholicism, 306.
 Calvin, Instit. 4.14.1.
 Ibid. Chapters 18 and 19 of Book 4 serve as a kind of polemic against the Roman Catholic church’s understanding of the number and nature of the sacraments.
 Ibid., 4.15.1.
 Ibid., 4.16.1.
 Horton, The Christian Faith, 763.
 Ibid., 791.
 Ibid., 800.
 McBrien, Catholicism, xxvi.
 Ibid., 790.
 Ibid., 790-791.
 Ibid., 791.
 Calvin, Instit. 3.25.10.
 Ibid. As an aside, what a terrific thing upon which our thoughts should rest!
 Ibid., 3.25.12.
 Horton, The Christian Faith, 975.
 Ibid., 976.
 Ibid., 984.
 Ibid., 1165.
 Ibid., 1166.
 Ibid., 1168-1169.
 Ibid., 1174-1175.
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