February 27, 2016

An Explanation of the Intent-Extent Distinction

When it comes to explaining the differences between non-Calvinists (including Arminians) and varieties of Calvinism on the subject of the design of the atonement, it is necessary to distinguish (not separate) between the intent and extent of the atonement. Notice that I said “explaining the differences” between these views. I did not say the people within these camps must themselves distinguish between the intent and extent of the atonement when they articulate their own atonement position. However, they must make these distinctions when attempting to accurately describe other positions historically. 

There is a difference between describing and prescribing, and we are all accountable to God to be honest about the views of other people. We should strive to the best of our ability to accurately portray the positions of those people with whom we disagree, even as we would want them to describe our own views accurately. That does not mean we are prescribing that they make the same distinctions when presenting their own theological perspective. Some positions have no need for the distinction, as we shall see. It does become necessary to make certain historical distinctions that you yourself might not make within your own view if you’re going to endeavor to properly describe other viewpoints. Even if we think that someone is making a distinction without a difference, then make that argument. We should still acknowledge that they themselves are making such a distinction.

The intent-extent distinction, for example, is crucial for those seeking to engage in objective historical theology on the design or purpose of the atonement. Various groups think about the will of God differently. Some see more complexity in the will of God than others, just as they see more complexity in the love and grace of God, and so different terminology is preferred.

Consider the four viewpoints below on the will of God and the atonement:

God equally desires or intends the salvation of all.


Therefore He intended that Christ die as an equal satisfaction for all.
God desires the salvation of all, but intends or purposes to effect the salvation of the elect alone.

Therefore, even though God intended that Christ die to effect an equal satisfaction for the sins of all, Christ also has a special intent to effect the salvation of the elect alone.
God desires the salvation of all, but intends or purposes to effect the salvation of the elect alone.

Therefore Christ came to die as an equal satisfaction for the sins of the elect alone, since He intends their salvation alone.
God only desires or intends the salvation of the elect.

Therefore Christ came to die as an equal satisfaction for the sins of the elect alone, since He intends their salvation alone.

In the top level we can see what the groups generally think about the will of God. The second level shows what they think about the atonement in relationship to the will of God.

Describing the Views on the Will of God

Christians have used different terms for the “will” of God, depending on the stronger or weaker volitional content they want to import into the term. Weaker forms (likened to a velleity) include delight, wish, and sometimes desire. In some cases, these terms are not thought to involve an active principle in God. Some Calvinists prefer the term “delight” to convey a mere passive disposition in God’s revealed will, for example. With the term “desire,” one is moving toward more of a notion of an active principle. Stronger volitional terms include seek, strive, will, intent, and especially purpose.

Position 1: Since SBC non-Calvinists and Arminians think of God as equally willing the salvation of all men, they generally stick with the strongest volitional terms to convey God’s desire, intent, or purpose to effect that end. Even though some qualifications may be needed, their view may simply be summarized as “God equally desires or intends the salvation of all men.” They obviously want to also emphasize that this will is “in Christ” and “on condition of faith,” etc.

Positions 2 and 3: The Reformed orthodox (including moderate and high “Calvinists”) make a distinction in their thinking on God’s will, so they sometimes speak of the secret and revealed will, the decretal and preceptive will, the effectual and ineffectual will, voluntas beneplaciti and voluntas signi, and the antecedent and consequent will (in some cases, though this last distinction is sometimes rejected), etc. They usually reserve the strongest volitional language for God’s secret or effectual will, such as “intent” or “purpose,” but it is not uncommon in the early and post-Reformation scholars to use these strong terms for God’s revealed will as well. In modern times, however, they are reserved for the effectual will of God. Consequently, in various ways, the mainstream Reformed or “Calvinistic” theologians think of God wishing or desiring the salvation of all men, but intending or purposing the salvation of the elect alone. It is fair to summarize their view this way: God desires the salvation of all, but intends or purposes to effect the salvation of the elect alone. While a few today (mostly high Calvinists who are very ignorant of their own Reformed tradition) quibble over the term “desire,” and prefer to use language with less volitional content (such as “delight” or “wish”), they still agree that God, in His revealed will, wishes, wills, or desires the salvation of all men through repentance and faith in the gospel call. Both moderate and high Calvinists share this in common, even though they disagree over the atonement, as we shall see.

Position 4: Even though there are a variety of hyper-Calvinists (i.e. the classic Gillite variety; the Protestant Reformed Church [PRC] variety; and a modern eclectic variety that borrows from Gill’s re-definitions of “common love” and “common grace,” but sides with the PRC in re-defining “free offers” and in their acceptance of “duty-faith”), they do share one thing in common: they all, without exception, deny that God in any sense desires the eternal salvation of the non-elect. This is the essential basis for their re-definitions of the common love or benevolence of God (or total rejection of God’s universal benevolent love in the PRC variety), their re-definitions of the general grace of God (or total rejection of any “common” or “general grace” in the PRC variety), and their re-definitions of the free offer of the gospel (or total rejection of “free offers” in the Gillite variety). Even though they still distinguish between senses of God’s will, such as the decretal-preceptive will distinction (and other types of distinctions), their view on the will of God can simply be summarized this way: “God only desires or intends the salvation of the elect.”

Now that we see how these various traditions think about the will of God, as well as what kind of terminology they prefer to use for various categories of God’s will, we’re in a better place to understand how they think and speak about God’s will in relationship to the atonement of Christ, and why the intent-extent distinction is important, at least for historical reasons.

Describing the Views on the Atonement

How one thinks about the will of God has a direct bearing on their view of Christ’s intent in making the atonement, and in their view about the extent of His satisfaction.

Position 1: Since the non-Calvinists and Arminians think God equally intends the salvation of all men, they say that God intended that Christ die as an equal satisfaction for the sins of all men. He substituted himself in the stead of all men as a display of the fact that God equally wishes all men to repent and believe in Christ unto salvation. Those in this position may want more nuances and other terminology, but this is generally their view as represented in the popular literature, at least among those in the SBC. There seems to be no need to distinguish between God’s “intent” and the “extent” of Christ’s atonement in this view, given that Christ’s atoning work is all grounded in God’s equi-benevolent love for all men. God equally wants all men to believe unto salvation in Christ, therefore Christ came to die with that same equal intention, and thus satisfied for the sins of all men.

Position 2: This position requires that one distinguish between God’s efficacious purpose to save the elect alone, and the extent of Christ’s satisfaction, just as this position requires that people distinguish between God’s common and special love, or God’s common and special grace. God desires the salvation of all men in His revealed will, they say, and therefore desires to give men a well-meant gospel offer of salvation. This offer of salvation can only be given to those who are in a truly saveable state. Offerability presupposes salvability, and salvability presupposes an antecedent satisfaction for sin. Without the shedding of blood, no man can be saved. Through Christ’s death as an all-sufficient (or qualitatively equivalent) sacrifice for the sins of all men, every man is put into a saveable state, and thus into an offerable state. They can be sincerely offered salvation through Christ since they are now legally capable of being saved, since an atonement has been made for their sin.

Living non-elect humans differ from non-elect angels in this respect: the first group is saveable and the latter is not. Why? Because the former have a satisfaction made for them, which makes those that hear the gospel call doubly culpable if they do not believe. Thus, in one sense, God intended to put every man in a saveable state so as to display the beauty of his benevolent generosity and grace, as well as to demonstrate the extent of man’s sinfulness for neglecting so great a salvation. However, in another sense, God, in his electing grace, has purposed to effect the salvation of the elect alone through the effectual calling of the Holy Spirit, who eventually applies the all-sufficient benefits of Christ’s death to them by means of the grant of faith.

Since those in this camp think of God’s will in this complex fashion, they are sometimes called “Dualists” in their view of the atonement. Even if you disagree with them, you must still describe them as distinguishing between God’s effectual purpose or intent to effect the salvation of the elect alone, and God’s intent in Christ in making a qualitatively equivalent satisfaction for sin. God did effectually intend that Christ’s death accomplish a suitable remedy for every man (i.e. an ordained sufficiency), but God does not effectually intend to save every man thereby. Similarly, even though God in his common grace and providential love displays a wish or desire for the repentance and salvation of every man, it does not follow that He effectually purposes their salvation.

Everyone seeking to accurately describe this second position must distinguish between Christ’s intent to save and the extent of the satisfaction. The former is special, and for the elect alone, but the latter (the extent of His death) is general and for all. Disagree with it if you want, but you must still make the intent-extent distinction of you want to 1) accurately portray what they believe, and 2) detect the position in other theologians in the past. Objective historiography requires this.

Position 3: There is historical precedent for labeling this group as “high Calvinists,” but some in this group do not accept such a label. How they wish to be described is beside the point. They are a group of orthodox Calvinists who differ from the so-called “moderate” view when it comes to the extent of the atonement. For people in this camp, God’s effectual intent to save the elect alone and the extent of Christ’s satisfaction are equal in latitude: both are for the elect alone.

Since God intends to effect only the salvation of the elect, they argue that the imputation of sin to Christ corresponds to God’s electing purpose. They seek to verbally distance themselves from a crass commercialism or a quantitative equivalentism involved in Christ’s satisfaction for sin (i.e. so-much-suffering-for-so-many-elect-sins), but quantitative sin-bearing ideas and pecuniary cause-and-effect categories seem to inevitably arise in their frequent use of the double-payment argument, as well as (or especially) in John Owen’s famous “Trilemma.” Nevertheless, one should acknowledge in their descriptions of this group that they seek to distance themselves from commercialism, at least verbally, if not consistently. Also, the majority in this group see certain bounties of providence, or common grace, flowing to all as a result of Christ’s death. They tend to speak of a “universal aspect” in this sense alone, which sometimes confuses people since others conceive of a “universal aspect” differently, or of a “universal aspect” that involves an all-encompassing satisfaction for sin. The phrase “universal aspect” can therefore be ambiguous and confusing in the debate.

While high Calvinists do agree with the moderate Calvinists that God desires the salvation of all men in His revealed will, they argue that Christ did not pay a ransom price or redeem any but the elect alone. There really is no need to make an intent-extent distinction in this view since both correspond to each other, which is one reason why they think they are logically consistent and others are not. However, it is still the case that people in this group (like all the others) need to make an intent-extent distinction (in terms of Christ’s intent to save and the extent of His satisfaction) if they want to properly describe people in the moderate group historically. If they have an honest desire to accurately describe “Amyraldism,” or other forms of so-called “Hypothetical Universalism,” making the intent-extent distinction is still necessary.

Position 4: This position differs from the third position in terms of its rejection of the idea that God desires the salvation of all men. Again, this is the one thing that every variety of hyper-Calvinism shares in common, without exception. While the Gillites differ from the PRC in some respects, they do share that in common, along with modern eclectic varieties of hyper-Calvinism.

However, like those in position 3, they do agree that God’s intent to save the elect alone corresponds to the extent of Christ’s satisfaction. There is no need to make the intent-extent distinction to describe this group, but they, like all others, still need to make the distinction if they want to fairly describe other viewpoints without caricature. Historical honesty requires it.

People in this group are more prone to think of Christ’s death as a quantitative (rather than a qualitative) equivalency. Some argue in a so-much-suffering-for-so-many-elect-sins manner. This is why many, if not most of them, repudiate the notion that Christ’s death is sufficient for all. Not only does the extent of Christ’s satisfaction correspond to God’s limited saving intention, but the sufficiency of Christ’s death also explicitly corresponds to God’s elective purpose alone. They find fault with high Calvinists for embracing the “sufficient for all” aspect of the Lombardian Formula, and argue that they are the most logically consistent. After all, if arguing that the extent of Christ’s death is limited by God’s intent to save the elect alone, then why not the sufficiency of it as well? Why is there any need for a so-called “universal aspect” at all in the death of Christ? So some argue. The saving intention of God governs the extent of Christ’s satisfaction, as well as the sufficiency of the atonement, to the point that any “universal aspect” totally disappears.


This post is not about debating which position is correct biblically. It is about the need to properly describe the various positions historically, and how the intent-extent distinction is crucial for understanding the debate, particularly with respect to classic-moderate Calvinism. Without this distinction, one can fail to recognize the many theologians in the past who were in fact moderate. Also, without the distinction, one cannot properly describe the varieties of so-called “Hypothetical Universalism.”  If you wish to debate which view is correct, pick another place to comment. This is not it. If you want to correct my own descriptions of the various views, I welcome your input. Or, if you want clarification on any particular point that I mentioned above, I welcome your questions as well.

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