July 5, 2005

Bishop James Usser (1581–1656) on the Atonement

MARCH 3, 1617.


Bishop James Ussher

The all-sufficient satisfaction of Christ, made for the sins of the whole world.

The true intent and extent is lubricus locus to be handled, and hath, and doth now much trouble the church: this question hath been moved sub iisdem terminis quibis nunc, and hath received contrary resolusions; the reason is, that in the two extremeties of opinions held in this matter, there is somewhat true, and somewhat false; the one extremity extends the benefit of Christ’s satisfaction too far, as if hereby God, for his part, were actually reconciled to all mankind, and did really discharge every man from all his sins, and that the reason why all men do not reap the fruit of this benefit, is the want of that faith whereby they ought to have believed, that God in this sort did love them: whence it would follow, that God should forgive a man his sins, and justify him before he believed; whereas the elect themselves, before their effectual vocation, are said to be "without Christ, and without hope, and to be utter strangers from the covenants of promise."

2. The other extremity contracts the riches of Christ's satisfaction into too narrow a room; as if none had any kind of interest therein, but such as were elected before the foundation of the world, howsoever by the Gospel every one be charged to receive the same; whereby it would follow, that a man should be bound in conscience to believe that which is untrue, and charged to take that wherewith he hath nothing to do.

Both extremities then, drawing with them unavoidable absurdities: the word of God (by hearing whereof, faith is begotten) must be sought unto by a middle course, to avoid these extremities.

For finding out this middle course, we must, in the matter of our redemption, carefully put a distinction betwixt the satisfaction of Christ absolutely considered, and the application thereof to every one in particular: the former brings with it sufficiency, abundant to discharge the whole debt; the other adds to it efficacy. The satisfaction of Christ only makes the sins of mankind fit for pardon, which without it could not well be; the injury done to God's majesty being so great, that it could not stand with his honour to put it up without amends made. The particular application makes the sins of those to whom that mercy is vouchsafed to be actually pardoned: for, as all sins are mortal, in regard of the stipend due thereunto by the law, but all do not actually bring forth death, because the gracious promises of the Gospel stayeth the execution: even so all the sins of mankind are become venal, in respect of the price paid by Christ to his Father (so far, that in shewing mercy upon all, if so it were his pleasure, his justice should be no loser,) but all do not obtain actual remission, because most offenders do not take out, nor plead their pardon as they ought to do. If Christ had not assumed our nature, and therein made satisfaction for the injury offered to the divine Majesty, God would not have come unto a treaty of peace with us, more than with the fallen angels, whose nature of the Son did not assume: but this way being made, God holds out to us the golden sceptre of his word, and thereby not only signifieth his pleasure of admitting us unto his presence, and accepting of our submission, which is a wonderful grace, but also sends an embassage unto us, and "entreats us that we would be reconciled unto him."

Hence, we infer against the first extremity, that by the virtue of this blessed oblation, God is made placable unto our nature (which he never will be unto the angelical nature offending) but not actually appeased with any, until he hath received his son, and put on the Lord Jesus. As also against the latter extremity, that all men may be truly said to have interest in the merits of Christ, as in a common, though all do not enjoy the benefit thereof, because they have no will to take it.

The well spring of life is set open unto all: "Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely," but many have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep, faith is a vessel whereby we draw all virtue from Christ, and the apostle tells us, that "faith is not of all." Now the means of getting this faith is "the hearing of the word of truth, the Gospel of our salvation," which ministereth this general ground for every one to build his faith upon.

Syllogism. What Christ hath prepared for thee, and the Gospel offereth unto thee, that oughtest thou with all thankfulness to accept, and apply to the comfort of thy own soul.

But Christ by his death and obedience hath provided a sufficient remedy for the taking away of all thy sins, and the Gospel offereth the same unto thee. Therefore thou oughtest to accept, and apply the same to the comfort of thine own soul.

Now this Gospel of salvation many do not hear at all, being destitute of the ministry of the word; and many hearing do not believe, or lightly regard it; and many that do believe the truth thereof, are so wedded to their sins, that they have no desire to be divorced from them, and therefore they refuse to accept the gracious offer that is made unto them. And yet notwithstanding their refusal on their part, we may truly say, that good things were provided for them on Christ’s part, and a rich “price was put into the hands of a fool, howsoever he had no heart to use it.”

Our blessed Saviour, by that which he hath performed on his part, hath procured a jubilee for the sons of Adam, and his Gospel is his trumpet, whereby he doth proclaim “liberty to the captives, and preacheth the acceptable year of the Lord.” If for all this some are so well pleased with their captivity that they desire no deliverance, that derogates nothing from the generality of the freedom anexed to that year. If one say to sin his old master, “I love thee, and will not go out free,” he shall be bored for a slave, and serve for ever. But that slavish disposition of his, maketh the extent of the privilege of that year not a whit the straighter, because he was included within the general grant as well as others; howsoever, he was not disposed to take the benefit of it: the kingdom of heaven is like to a certain king that made a marriage of his son, and sent his servants to those that were bidden to the wedding with this message: “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen, and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready, come to the marriage.” If we look to the event, they that were bidden made light of their entertainment, and went their ways, “one to his farm, and another to his merchandize;” but that neglect of theirs doth not falsify the word of the king, viz. That the dinner was prepared, and these unworthy guests were invited thereunto; “For what, if some did not believe, shall their unbelief disannul the faith, and truth of God? God forbid, yea, let God be true, and every man a liar, as it is written, that thou mayest be justified in thy sayings, and overcome when thou judgest. Let not the house of Israel say, the way of the Lord is unequal.” For when he cometh to judge them, the inequality will be found on their side, and not on his. “O house of Israel, are not my ways equal, and your ways unequal saith the Lord. The Lord is right in all his ways, and holy in all his works. All the ways of our God are mercy and truth;” when we were in our sins it was of infinite mercy that any way or remedy should be prepared for our recovery. And when the remedy is prepared, we are never the nearer, except he be pleased of his free mercy to apply the same to us, that so the whole praise of our redemption, from the beginning to the end thereof, may entirely be attributed to the riches of his grace, and nothing left to sinful flesh wherein it may rejoice.

The freeing of the Jews from the captivity of Babylon, was a type of that great deliverance, which the Son of God hath wrought for us.

Cyrus, king of Persia, who was Christus Domini (and herein but a shadow of Christus Dominus, the author of our redemption) published his proclamation in this manner: “Who is amongst you all his people, the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up.” Now it is true, they alone did follow this calling, whose spirit God had raised to go up. But could they that remained still in Babylon, justly plead, that the king’s grant was not large enough, or that they were excluded from going up by any clause contained therein? The matter of our redemption purchased by our Saviour Christ lieth open to all, all are invited to it, none that hath a mind to accept of it, is excluded from it. “The beautiful feet of those that preach the Gospel of peace, to bring glad tidings” of good things to every house where they tread. The first part of their message being this peace to this house. But, unless God be pleased out of his abundant mercy “to guide our feet into the way of peace,” the rebellion of our nature is such, that we run headlong to the “ways of destruction and misery, and the ways of peace do we not know.” They have not all obeyed the Gospel, all are not apt to entertain this message of peace, and therefore, though God’s ambassadors make a true tender of it to all unto whom they are sent, yet “their peace only resteth on the sons of peace,” but if it meet with such as will not listen to the motion of it, “their peace doth again return unto themselves.” The proclamation of the Gospel runneth thus: “Let him that is athirst come,” for him this grace is specially provided, because none but he will take the pains to come. But lest we should think this should abridge the largeness of the offer, a quicunque vult, is immediately added, and “whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely:” yet withal this must be yielded for a certain truth, that it is God who must work in us “to will and to do of his good pleasure;” and though the call be ever so loud and large, yet none can “come except the Father draw him.” For the universality of the satisfaction derogates nothing from the necessity of the special grace in the application: neither doth the speciality of the one any ways abridge the generality of the other. Indeed Christ our Saviour saith, “I pray not for the world, but for them that thou has given me:” but the consequence hereby referred may well be excepted against, viz. He prayed not for the world, therefore he payed not for the world; because the latter is an act of his satisfaction, the former of his intercession; which, being divers parts of his priesthood, are distinguishable one from another by sundry differences. This his satisfaction doth properly give contentment to God’s justice, in such sort as formerly hath been declared; his intercession doth solicit God’s mercy. The first contains the preparation of the remedy necessary for man’s salvation; the second brings with it an application of the same. And consequently the one may well appertain to the common nature, which the son assumed, when the other is a special privileged vouchsafed to such particular persons only, as the father hath given him. And therefore we may safely conclude out of all these premises, that “the Lamb of God, offering himself a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world,” intended by giving sufficient satisfaction to God’s justice, to make the nature of man, which he assumed, a fit subject for mercy and to prepare a medicine for the sins of the whole world, which should be denied to none that intended to take the benefit of it: howsoever he intended not by applying his all-sufficient remedy unto every person in particular to make it effectual unto the salvation of all, or to procure thereby actual pardon for the sins of the whole world. So, in one respect he may be said to have died for all, and in another respect not to have died for all; yet so as in respect of his mercy he may be counted a kind of universal cause of the restoring of our nature, as Adam was of the depraving of it; for as far as I can discern, he rightly hits the nail on the head that determineth the point in this manner.
James Ussher, "The True Intent and Extent of Christ's Death and Satisfaction on the Cross," in The Whole Works of the Most Rev. James Ussher (Dublin: Hodges, Smith, and Co., 1864), 12:553–559.

Note: In my copy of the above work, the scriptural references have been omitted. The above shows Ussher to be a dualist (i.e. there is a two-fold intention in Christ) similar to Davenant, Martinius and others of their kind who were delegates to the Synod of Dort. As Ussher says, "So, in one respect he may be said to have died for all, and in another respect not to have died for all." The dualist position should be viewed in contrast to the Arminian view that considered Christ's intent in dying to be equally for all, and the strictly limited Owenist view that saw Christ as having a singular intention in dying, i.e. for the elect alone. I think the Owenist view undermines the basis for the free offer of the gospel, even though Owen himself affirmed the free offer. I believe Ussher is in line with Calvin and the early reformers, as well as with such men as Charles Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd and R. L. Dabney in their atonement views. For an extensive overview of the various views on the extent of the atonement, see G. Michael Thomas' work The Extent of the Atonement put out by Paternoster Publishing. This book covers the material in his doctoral dissertation, and is very fascinating.
Richard Baxter, reporting a personal interview with Ussher, says that he "declared his judgment for that doctrine of Universal Redemption which I asserted, and glorified that he was the man who brought Bishop Davenant and Dr. Preston to it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

Actually I think Amyraut was a dualist too. Quick cites him as saying:
"That Jesus Christ died for all men sufficiently, but for the elect only effectually: and that
consequentially his intention was to die for all men in respect of the sufficiency of his satisfaction, but for the elect only in respect of its quickening and saving virtue and efficacy; which is to say, that Christ's will was that the sacrifice of his cross should be of an infinite price and value, and most abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world; yet nevertheless the efficacy of his death appertains only unto the
elect;...for this was the most free counsel and gracious purpose both of God the Father, in giving his Son for the salvation of mankind, and of the Lord Jesus Christ, in suffering the pains of death, that the efficacy thereof should particularly belong unto all the elect, and to them only…’
(Quick, Synodicon, ii. 355)"