February 6, 2006

More from James Ussher (1581–1656) on the Extent of the Atonement

Awhile back, I posted some exclusive material by James Ussher on the atonement. It cannot be found anywhere else on the internet. I just finished typing the following material from volume 12 of his works. It's his reply to some who took exception to his first letter. Norman Douty, in his book Did Christ Die Only for the Elect? (p. 144), has this interesting comment about James Ussher:
Richard Baxter, reporting a personal interview with Ussher, says that he "declared his judgment for that doctrine of Universal Redemption which I asserted, and gloried that he was the man who brought Bishop Davenant and Dr. Preston to it.
Here is the second letter:







I cannot sufficiently wonder, why such exceptions should be taken against a letter of mine, which without my privity came to so many men's hands, as if thereby I had confirmed Papism, Arminianism, and I know not what error of Mr. Culverwell's, which (as you write) is, and hath been, opposed by many, yea, all good men. The papist (saith one) doth distinguish a mediator of redemption and intercession; and Bellarmine (saith another) divides the satisfaction and application of Christ. To which, what other answer should I make but this? To hold that Christ is the only mediator of redemption, but that the saints are also mediators of intercession, that Christ by his merits hath made satisfaction to his father in gross, and the pope by his indulgence, and his priests by their oblations in the mass do make a particular application to particular persons. To join thus partners with Christ in this manner in the office of mediation is popery indeed; but he who, attributing the entire work of the mediation unto Christ alone, doth yet distinguish the act of redemption from the act of intercession, the satisfaction made by him unto God, from the application thereof communicated unto men, is as far from popery, as he that thinks otherwise is from the grounds of the catechism; for that Christ hath so died for all men (as they lay down in the conference of Hague) "ut reconciliationem cum Deo, et peccatorum remissionem singulis impetraverit," I hold to be untrue, being well assured, that our Savior hath obtained at the hands of his father reconciliation, and forgiveness of sins, not for the reprobate, but elect only, and not for them neither, before they be truly regenerated, and implanted into himself; for election being nothing else but the purpose of God, resting in his own mind, makes no kind of alteration in the party elected, but only the execution of that decree and purpose, which in such as have the use of reason is done by an effectual calling, in all by spiritual regeneration, which is the new birth, without which no man can see the kingdom of God.

That impetration, whereof the Arminians speak, I hold to be a fruit, not of his satisfaction, but intercession; and seeing I have learned from Christ's own mouth, "I pray not for the reprobate world:" I must needs esteem it a great folly to imagine that he hath impetrated reconciliation and remission of sins for that world. I agree therefore thus far with Mr. Aimes in his dispute against Grevinchovius, that application and impetration, in this matter we have in hand, are of equal extent; and, that forgiveness of sins is not by our Savior impetrated for any unto whom the merit of his death is not applied in particular. If in seeking to make straight that which was crooked in the Arminian opinion, he hath bended it too far the contrary way, and inclined too much unto the other extremity, it is a thing which, in the heat of disputation, hath befallen many worthy men before him; and, if I be not deceived, gave the first occasion to this present controversy. But I see no reason why I should be tied to follow him in every step, wherein he treadeth: and so much for Mr. Aimes.

The main error of the Arminians and of the patrons of universal grace is this, that God offereth unto every man those means that are necessary unto salvation, both sufficiently and effectually; and, that it resteth in the free will of every one to receive, or reject the same; for the proof thereof they allege, as their predecessors, the Semipelagians, did before them, that received axiom of Christ's dying for all men, which being rightly understood, makes nothing for their purpose. Some of their opposites (subject to oversights as well as others) more forward herein than circumspect, have answered this objection, not by expounding (as was fit) but by flat denying that famous axiom: affirming peremptorily, that Christ died only for the elect, and for others nullo modo: whereby they gave the adverse party advantage to drive them unto this extreme absurdity, viz. that seeing Christ in no wise died for any, but for the elect, and all men were bound to believe that Christ died for themselves, and that upon pain of damnation for the contrary infidelity; therefore all men were bound to believe that they themselves were elected, although in truth the matter were nothing so:

Non tali auxilio nec defensoribus istis
Tempus eget.

Neither is there hope that the Arminians will be drawn to acknowledge the error of their position, as long as they are persuaded the contrary opinion cannot be maintained without admitting that an untruth must be believed, even by the commandment of him that is God of truth, and by the direction of that word, which is the word of truth.

Endeavouring therefore to make one truth stand by another, and to ward off the blow given by the Arminians in such sort that it should neither bring hurt to the truth, nor give advantage to error, admit I failed of mine intent, I ought to be accounted rather an oppugner than anywise an abettor of their fancies. That for the Arminians. Now for Mr. Culverwell, that which I have heard him charged withal, is the former extremity, which in my letter I did condemn, viz. That Christ in such sort did die for all men, that by his death he made an actual reconcilement between God and man; and, that the especial reason why all men reap not the fruit of this reconcilation, is the want of that faith, whereby they ought to have believed that God in this sort did love them. How justly he hath been charged with this error, himself can best tell; but if ever he held it, I do not doubt, but he was driven thereunto by the absurdities, which he discerned in the other extremity; for what would not a man fly unto rather than yield, that Christ in no manner of ways died for any reprobate, and none but the elect had any kind of title to him, and yet so many thousand reprobates should be bound in conscience to believe that he died for them, and tied to accept him for their redeemer and Saviour; yea, and should be condemned to everlasting torments for want of such a faith (if we may call that faith, which is not grounded upon the word of truth) whereby they should have believed that which in itself was most untrue, and laid hold of that in which they had no kind of interest; if they who dealt with Mr. Culverwell laboured to drive out some absurdity by bringing in another, or went about to stop one hole by making two, I should the less wonder at that you write, that though he hath been dealt withal by many brethren, and for many years, yet he could not be drawn from his error. But those stumbling blocks being removed, and the plain word of truth laid open, by which faith is to be begotten, I dare boldly say he doth not hold that extremity wherewith he is charged, but followeth that safe and middle course, which I laid down; for after he had well weighed what I had written, he heartily thanked the Lord and me, for so good a resolution of this question, which for his part he wholly approved, not seeing how it could be gainsayed. And so much likewise for Mr. Culverwell.

Now for Mr. Stock's public opposition in the pulpit, I can hardly be induced to believe that he aimed at me therein; if he did, I must needs say he was deceived, when he reckoned me amongst those good men, who make the universality of all the elect, and all men to be one. Indeed I wrote but even now, that God did execute his decree of election in all by spiritual generation: but if any shall say, that by all thereby I should understand the universality of all and every one in the world, and not the universality of all the elect alone, he should greatly wrong my meaning, for I am of no other mind than Prosper was: "Habet populus Dei plenitudinem suam, et quamvis magna pars hominum salvantis gratiam aut repellat aut negligat, in electis tamen et præscitis atque ab omni generalitate discretis, specialis quædam censetur universitas, ut de toto mundo, totus mundus liberatus, et de omnibus hominibus, omnes homines videantur assumpti." That Christ died for his apostles, for his sheep, for his friends, for his Church, may make peradventure against those, who make all men to have a share alike in the death of our Saviour: but I profess myself to hold fully with him, who said: "Etsi Christus pro omnibus mortuus est, tamen specialiter pro nobis passus est, quia pro Ecclesia passus est." Yea, and in my former writing I did directly conclude, that as in one respect Christ might have been said to die for all, so in another respect truly said not to have died for all; and my belief is, that the principal end of the Lord's death, was, "that he might gather together in one the children of God scattered abroad," and, that for their sakes he did specially sanctify himself, that they "also might be sanctified through the truth." And therefore it may be well concluded, that Christ in a special manner died for these; but to infer from hence, that in no manner of respect he died for any others, is but a very weak collection, especially the respect by me expressed being so reasonable, that no sober mind advisedly considering thereof can justly make question of it, viz. That the Lamb of God offering himself a sacrifice for the sins of the world, intending by giving satisfaction to God's justice to make the nature of man which he assumed, a fit subject for mercy, and to prepare a sovereign medicine that should not only be a sufficient cure for the sins of the whole world, but also should be laid open to all, and denied to none, that indeed do take the benefit thereof: for he is much deceived that thinks a preaching of a bare sufficiency is able to yield sufficient ground of comfort to a distressed soul, without giving a further way to it, and opening a further passage.

To bring news to a bankrupt that the king of Spain hath treasure enough to pay a thousand times more than he owes, may be true, but yields but cold comfort to him the miserable debtor: sufficiency indeed is requisite, but it is the word of promise that gives comfort.

If here exception be taken, that I make the whole nature of man fit for mercy, when it is as unfit a subject for grace as may be.

I answer, That here two impediments do occur, which give a stop unto the peace, which is to be made betwixt God and man. The one respects God the party offended, whose justice hath been in such sort violated by his base vassals, that it were unfit for his glorious majesty to put up such an injury without good satisfaction. The other respects man the party offending, whose blindness, stupidity, and hardness of heart is such, that he is neither sensible of his own wretchedness, nor God's goodness, that when God offers to be reconciled unto him, there must be much entreaty to persuade him to be reconciled to God. In regard of the latter I acknowledge with the apostle, "That the natural man receives not the things of the spirit, for they are foolishness to him; neither can he, because spiritually discerned." And this impediment is not taken away by Christ's satisfaction (which is a work of his priestly function) but by the enlightening of the mind, and softening the heart of the sinner, which are effects issuing from the execution of the prophetical, and kingly office of our Redeemer. When therefore I say, that by Christ's satisfaction to his Father he made the nature of man a fit subject for mercy, I mean thereby, that the former impediment arising on God's part is taken away, that if it were not for the other (for the having whereof we can blame none but ourselves, and in the not removing whereof we cannot say God hath done us any wrong) there were no let, but all men might be saved; and if it pleased God to extend his mercy unto all, as he keeps his freedom therein, in having compassion on whom he will have mercy, and leaving others in blindness, natural hardness of their own heart, yet the worth of Christ's satisfaction is so great, that his justice therein should be looser.

But if this justice (you will say) be satisfied, how comes it to pass that God exacts payment again from any? I answer, We must take heed we stretch not our similitudes beyond their just extent, lest at last we drive the matter too far, and be forced to say (as some have done) that we cannot see how satisfaction and forgiveness stand together, and so by denying Christ's satisfaction be injurious to God's justice, or by denying remission of sins become injurious to God's mercy. We are therefore to understand, that the end of the satisfaction of God's justice is to make way for God's free liberty in shewing mercy, that so mercy and justice meeting, and embracing one another, God may be just, and the justifier of him that believes in Jesus. Now the general satisfaction of Christ, which was the first act of his priestly office, prepares the way for God's mercy, by making the sins of all mankind pardonable, the interposition of any bar from God's justice notwithstanding, and so puts the sons of men only in a possibility of being justified, a thing denied to the nature of fallen angels, which the Son was not pleased to assume; but the special application of this satisfaction vouchsafed by Christ unto those persons only whom his father hath given him out of the world, which is an appendent, or appertaineth to the second act of his priesthood, viz. his intercession, produceth this potentia in actum, that is, procureth an actual discharge from God's anger; and maketh justification, which before was a part of our possibility, to be a part of our present possession.

If it be said: It is a great derogation to the dignity of Christ's death to make the sins of mankind only pardonable, and brings in a bare possibility of justification.

I answer, it is a most unchristian imagination to suppose the merit of Christ's death, being particularly applied to the soul of a sinner, produceth no further effect than this. St. Paul teacheth us that we be not only justifiable, but "justified by his blood," yet not simply as offered on the cross, but "through faith in his blood," that is, through his blood applied by faith. "The blood of Jesus Christ his son," saith St. John, "cleanseth us from all sins;" yet cleanse it doth not by being prepared, but by being applied: prepared it was when he poured it out once upon the cross, applied it is when he washeth us from our sins therein. It is one thing therefore to speak of Christ's satisfaction, in the general absolutely considered; and another thing, as it is applied to every one in particular. The consideration of things as they are in their causes, is one thing; and as they have an actual existence, is another thing. Things as they are in their causes are no otherwise considerable, but as they have a possibility to be. The application of the agent to the patient, with all circumstances necessarily required, is it that gives to the thing an actual being. That disease is curable for which a sovereign medicine may be found, but cured it is not till the medicine be applied to the patient; and if it so fall out, that, the medicine being not applied, the party miscarries, we say, he was lost, not because his sickness was incurable, but because there wanted a care to apply that to him that might have helped him.

All Adam's sons have taken a mortal sickness from their father, which, if it be not remedied, will, without fail, bring them to the second death: no medicine under heaven can heal this disease, but only a potion confected of the blood of the Lamb of God, who came "to take away the sins of the world;" which, as Prosper truly notes, "habet quidem in se ut omnibus prosit, sed si non bibitur non medetur." The virtue thereof is such, that if all did take it, all without doubt should be recovered, but without taking it there is no recovery; in the former respect it may be truly said, that no man's state is so desperate, but by this means it is recoverable, (and this is the first comfortable news that the Gospel brings to the distressed soul) but here it resteth not, nor feedeth a man with such a possibility, that he should say in his heart, "Who shall ascend into heaven to bring Christ from above?" but it brings the word of comfort nigh unto him, even to his mouth and heart, and presents him with the medicine at hand, and desireth him to take it; which being done accordingly, the cure is actually performed.
James Ussher, "An Answer of the Archbishop of Armagh, to Some Exceptions Taken Against His Aforesaid Letter," in The Whole Works of the Most Rev. James Ussher (Dublin: Hodges, Smith, and Co., 1864), 12:561–571.

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