Friday, September 21, 2012

Why do Calvinists reject the sufficiency of the Cross?

I am becoming more and more irritated by the double-standards of much of Calvinist theology. One of the more outrageous instances involves the Reformed view of Christ's work on the Cross. I've heard James White make the repeated accusation that Catholics "deny the sufficiency of the Cross," and yet as truth would have it, White and other Reformed have it exactly backwards! In this post I will quote an short article by Calvinist R.C. Sproul advocating for the doctrine of the Imputation of Christ's Active Obedience, which will also show that it is Calvinists who reject the sufficiency of the Cross. Sproul's comments represent the majority of Reformed theologians, so this isn't just his lone opinion. 

On Sproul's blog he has an excerpt titled Jesus and His Active Obedience from a series he has done on Christ's life. Since the excerpt is only four brief paragraphs, I will quote it all and comment between each (with my emphasis in red). Sproul begins by saying:
I don’t think there’s any more important text in all the New Testament that defines the work of Jesus than this one. [Matthew 3:15] That Jesus was sent to fulfill all righteousness. And what that meant to the Jew was to obey every jot and tittle of the Law. Because now Jesus is not acting in His baptism for Himself, but for His people. And if His people are required to keep the Ten Commandments, He keeps the Ten Commandments. If His people are now required to submit to this baptismal ritual, He submits to it in their behalf. Because the redemption that is brought by Christ is not restricted to His death on the cross.
In this paragraph I note four serious theological/exegetical errors: (1) That the Jews interpreted "righteousness" or "fulfilling all righteousness" to mean "obey every jot and tittle of the Law". This is totally false and has no basis in the text, and I've made a brief post showing that the term "fulfill" does not mean "obey perfectly," but rather have something reach its full potential (e.g. a prophecy being fulfilled). (2) The idea that Jesus keeps the Ten Commandments (or any other Commandments) in place of believers is never taught in the Bible, and that's why Calvinists have historically appealed so heavily to Matthew 3:16, since it's the only thing that could even possibly be read that way. That's very telling in itself. (3) Sproul contradicts himself by showing (rightly) that baptism was not part of the Mosaic Law, but that it is "now required". Thus, Jesus equating "fulfilling all righteousness" with "getting baptized" at that moment, could not have meant to the Jewish audience 'obey the Mosaic Law perfectly'! (4) Last but not least, Sproul shows that redemption requires more work than just the Cross. In other words, Sproul is saying the Cross is insufficient!
We’ve seen that in the work of redemption God didn’t send Jesus to earth on Good Friday and say, “Die for the sins of your people and that will take care of it.” No. Jesus not only had to die for our sins, but He had to live for our righteousness. If all Jesus did was die for your sins, that would remove all of your guilt, and that would leave you sinless in the sight of God, but not righteous. You would be innocent, but not righteous because you haven’t done anything to obey the Law of God which is what righteousness requires.
This is the 'money quote' that totally exposes the double-standard of people like White in his rush to condemn Catholic soteriology. Sproul plainly says that Jesus' death would only remove guilt, it wouldn't actually save you! Sproul and other Calvinists have said that Jesus' death alone would merely put the believer back to the status of Adam before he sinned; the believer would be "innocent, but not righteous". Look how Sproul and the Reformed community have totally stripped away the saving power of the Cross! What's just as embarrassing is the idea that the believer with only sins forgiven is now (or could be) stuck in some weird legal state in which they cannot ever be condemned to hell (i.e. are not really like innocent Adam), and yet they lack what it takes to get to heaven. So what then? Christ keeping the Law in their place so they can be righteous turns into a way that God 'saves face' rather than some integral part of salvation. And I suppose this absurdity could be inverted: Sproul's logic also necessitates that a believer could have Christ keep the law in their place but not die for them, thus giving them the righteousness which qualifies for heaven but still have sin not atoned for.
So we have a doctrine in theology that refers to the active obedience of Jesus, as distinguished from the passive obedience of Jesus. And this doctrine is in great dispute right now particularly among dispensational thinkers, which I find extremely, extremely unsettling. The passive obedience of Christ refers to His willingness to submit to the pain that is inflicted upon Him by the Father on the cross in the atonement. He passively receives the curse of God there. The active obedience refers to His whole life of obeying the Law of God whereby He qualifies to be the Savior. He qualifies to be the Lamb without blemish. He qualifies for the song, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,” through His total righteousness. He fulfills the Law’s demands, and if you remember the covenant with Moses, everybody who fulfills the Law receives the blessing, those who disobey the Law receive the curse.
In this paragraph, Sproul gives the standard active/passive distinction which is common to all but a tiny minority of Reformed theologians. Aside from the fact Sproul falsely teaches that Jesus was under the Father's wrath on the Cross, Sproul plays fast and loose with his explanation of active obedience. To "qualify to be the Savior" is not the same as saying Jesus kept the Law in our place. This is important. Jesus did keep all commandments perfectly, and Jesus never did sin, but this was to qualify Himself to be a perfect sacrificial Lamb. Yet Sproul falsely conflates this with Jesus keeping the commandments in our place, which he also falsely equates with "fulfilling the Law" of Moses. The Mosaic Law never demanded perfect obedience; some sins excommunicated from the Mosaic Covenant while other sins had to be atoned for by Sacrifice. Never is 100% sinlessness taught nor demanded in the Mosaic Law. And, finally, the Mosaic Law never offered eternal life, so even if Jesus kept it perfectly (in our place), that would not entitle anyone to eternal life.
What does Jesus do? He obeys the Law perfectly, receives the blessing, and not the curse. But there’s a double imputation that we will look at later at the cross, where my sin is transferred to His account, my sin is carried over and laid upon Him in the cross. But in our redemption, His righteousness is imputed to us—which righteousness He wouldn’t have if He didn’t live this life of perfect obedience. So what I’m saying to you is that His life of perfect obedience is just as necessary for our salvation as His perfect atonement on the cross. Because there’s double imputation. My sin to Him, His righteousness to me. So that, that is what the scripture is getting at when it says Jesus is our righteousness.
Now Sproul touches upon the issue of Imputation. Note that never does the Bible teach imputation the way Sproul describes; never does Scripture mention Christ's Righteousess is imputed; and never does Scripture teach "double imputation". The closest verse Calvinists have ever come to finding the notion of our sin being "transferred" (imputed) to Christ is in 2 Corinthians 5:19, which says God does not impute our sins to us. The Calvinists argues that since sin isn't reckoned to us then it must be reckoned to someone else, namely Christ. But that's fallacious and bogus. For God to "not reckon sin" simply means to forgive sin (cf Romans 4:7-8). If only Sproul, White, and others had simply studied the Biblical word Logizomai, they probably wouldn't make such claims in the first place. And not to repeat myself, but Sproul says again that Christ's perfect obedience is "just as necessary for salvation" as the Cross, which amounts to saying the Cross alone is insufficient.

As the average reader can easily see, the teachings that Sproul is advocating (on behalf of all Calvinists) are neither logical nor biblical. These four paragraphs are a prime example of theological presuppositions dictating one's exegesis. What Catholics need to do is boldly challenge these presuppositions, because this is the key to getting Calvinists to see what they are doing is both unfair and wrong. And when one is rejecting the sufficiency of the Cross, then something is very wrong.


costrowski said...

According to Sproul:

“Jesus not only had to die for our sins, but He had to live for our righteousness. If all Jesus did was die for your sins, that would remove all of your guilt, and that would leave you sinless in the sight of God, but not righteous. You would be innocent, but not righteous because you haven’t done anything to obey the Law of God which is what righteousness requires.”

Doesn’t this kind of thinking logically end up with the divine infant Jesus not being inherently righteous and therefore not deserving of eternal life, a life which He already had?

Nick said...

That is a very good point. As an infant, they're forced to say Jesus could neither atone for sin nor was "deserving" of eternal life. Clearly an abominable thought and Christological heresy.

A. M. said...

Nick, I'm sympathetic to your point, but the Reformed have a point. The whole course of Christ's lifelong obedience to the Father that culminated at the cross ("unto death") contributed to the merit of his sacrifice. It wasn't merely his suffering in his Person that won redemption for us, but also his obedience. His law-keeping, fulfilling the old law, surely is included in this.

Nick said...

Hi AM,

Here is where I would add an important clarification. It is perfectly fine to say Christ's "obedience unto death" included law-keeping, and that this "contributed to the merit of his *sacrifice*. But this is very different from what the Calvinists are saying. What the Calvinists are saying is that the *sacrifce* and all things relating to it was not enough. The *sacrifice* and everything pertaining to it 'merely' secured the forgiveness of sins. What is still 'lacking' is a perfect obedience to the Law as it's own 'component' - translating into Jesus keeping the Law in our place so that we (along with being forgiven) are credited as having kept the Law perfectly.

This translates into saying the Obedient Suffering of Christ was in itself insufficient to save us. This is precisely why folks like Sproul can say things like: "If all Jesus did was die for your sins, that would remove all of your guilt, and that would leave you sinless in the sight of God, but not righteous. You would be innocent, but not righteous..."

Miguel Sastre said...


You said: But this is very different from what the Calvinists are saying. What the Calvinists are saying is that the *sacrifce* and all things relating to it was not enough.

No, NIck. You badly misunderstand the Reformed position on this point. We do say the cross was sufficient for those for whom it was offered. But we don't say the cross is the totality of what saves us. And neither do you. Let me prove that to you now:

First, you as a Roman Catholic, would believe that the Resurrection is also necessary for our salvation. But would you therefore draw the inference that the cross was somehow insufficient? Of course not. This is because when we talk about the sufficiency of the cross, we are referring specifically to what the cross was sufficient for. It was sufficient as an atoning sacrifice. But that doesn't mean the entire concept and process of salvation can be limited to the atonement.

Therefore, if the Reformed concept of active obedience somehow robs the cross of its sufficiency, then so too does the Resurrection, the sacraments, the Holy Spirit and everything else that pertains to our salvation.

Your own argument, if applied consistently, actually undermines your view as well.

It's all about consistency, Nick.

Nick said...

Hello Miguel,

I see your point, but the argument does not cut both ways since the Catholic view of the Cross is tied to the Resurrection as integral to our Justification. In the Protestant view, Justification is purely forensic and the basis is the alien righteousness of Christ. The Resurrection doesn't have any place in Justification in the Reformed view, since no atoning nor active obedience is involved. Instead, the Resurrection is seen only as a 'receipt', proof that God accepted the Sacrifice.

In the Catholic view, in Justification we die with Christ and Rise with Him. It's a transformation that doesn't stop at death. This is very different from saying that we stand before God when getting Justified and have the Cross forgive our sins while leaving us in some neutral state awaiting a positive-righteousness to impute so that we can be judged worthy of Heaven.

There is no such thing as saying "The Cross would only do 50%" in the Catholic view. Rather, the Cross doesn't benefit us at all if certain other things are not done. In the Catholic view, the Cross is sufficient in so far as it is properly participated in. In the Reformed view, the Cross and Resurrection are insufficient to save without the added component of "perfect law keeping" imputed to one's record.

Do you see the difference?

A. M. said...

Nick, Right. Jesus' law keeping as a separate component abstracted from the sacrifice of the cross is a theological fiction invented by the Reformed.

The salvific work of Jesus is a seamless garment with two overarching stages, his humiliation and exaltation (Cf. Phil. 2). The first stage began at the virginal conception and proceeded upward to the cross and then down into the tomb. The second stage began at the Resurrection, proceeded upward to his Ascension and enthronement, and currently is proceeding downward to culminate in his Parousia, the Second Coming.

BTW, Richard Gaffin, Norman Shepherd, and Peter Leithart are representatives among the minority of Reformed who DO connect justification to the Resurrection, as per Rom. 4:25. N.T. Wright, an Anglican, likewise argues that the Father's vindication of Jesus by resurrecting him is an essential part of the ground of our justification. I'm afraid I'm blurring all kinds of important differences between these various theologians here, but they all seem to be heading in the same direction.

BTW, your response to Miguel is excellent and on point.

Michael Taylor said...


You asked: "Do you see the difference?"

No, not really. How can say, on the one hand, that Christ's active obedience, when added to the cross, thereby diminishes the cross, but on the other claim that Christ's resurrection, when added to the cross, does not thereby diminish the cross?

As far as I can tell, the claim that cross and resurrection are integral to justification doesn't really make any difference at all. I can (and would) say the same thing, for Romans 4:25 is in my Bible too.

Perhaps I'm not really getting your point. On what grounds do you claim that the Reformed deny the sufficiency of the cross? I ask this out of curiosity and wonder. For it is no secret that the church of Rome teaches only the 100% sufficiency of the cross, but not a 100% efficiency of the cross. In other words, in Romanism, the cross makes all men save-able, But only those who cooperate with grace will ever be saved. So in addition to the cross, one needs sacraments and most likely purgatory to finally attain salvation.

In Reformed theology, on the other hand, the cross saves 100% of the people for whom it is offered as an atoning sacrifice. We just don't believe that Christ offers his crosswork for 100% of humanity.

In other words, Rome limits the efficiency of the atonement, while Geneva limits its scope.

Neither side--rightly understood--denies the sufficiency of the atonement.

Your argument seems to be a non-starter, Nick.

Anonymous said...

I think it would help if we take into account that the cross was not absolutely necessary. Unlike Protestant proponants of the "Good Person Test", Catholics hold that God, the Judge could have forgiven us w/o demanding satisfaction as He was the offended party. The late Fr. Most said God could have accepted the blood of Christ's circumcision or one tear or drop of sweat as sufficient for a million worlds had He so wished. So why the cross at all? Why Mary suffering at the foot of the cross if it was not absolutely necessary to move the Father into forgiving us? Answer, to give us claims on grace. I think this helps in this discussion about merit,satisfaction, active/passive obedience, etc.

Nick said...

Hello Miguel,

Active Obedience diminishes the Cross because in that view the Cross doesn't save in the way the term "save" is normally understood. Taking someone from a legally negative state to a legally neutral state is not saving them. The believer there is only as 'saved' as Adam was when originally created. So a verse like Romans 4:25 makes no sense in the Reformed view.

Since Catholics view the Cross very differently, it is not seen and cannot be seen as 'half' of the salvation equation. It is not a purely forensic pardoning of sins, but the gateway of making us a new creation. This is where the Sacraments come in, especially Baptism. Romans 6 is very direct on this point:

"3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his."

This is what I mean when I say the Cross and Resurrection are "integral". They both require each other, or no salvation takes place. This is very different from saying there are two stand-alone categories, Active and Passive, not integrally related, since either of them can be applied without requiring the other.

Framing this in terms of sufficiency vs scope doesn't really work since Rome rejects Penal Substitution and thus we mean very different things by sufficiency/efficiency. That's why in your mind any sort of cooperation is 'adding to' the Cross, while in Rome's view that makes no sense at all because cooperation is nothing more than participating in the Cross. If Christ is a Life-Giving Vine, it's wrong to see our being ingrafted and living a new life by The Vine as 'adding to' the sufficiency of The Vine. Instead, The Vine only gives life and is effective for us in so far as we participate in It.

The best way to see the stark difference is when you stop and think about how the Resurrection ties into the Reformed view of Justification. How do you see The Resurrection as relating to Imputation?

Anonymous said...

Browsing thru utube one finds lots of criticism of Calvin, TULIP and Penal Substitution by Protestants ( Jesse Morrell for instance). Others such as Dave Hunt and Dan Corner attack Calvinand his scion James White for the limitation the 3rd petal of the Tulip puts on redemption. So, my question is, since Penal Substitution, Imputation, Sola Fide and TULIP all fit together nicely to make a consistent (yet erroneous ) system in which Purgatory,good works,Sacraments,etc. have no place, why do the non-Calvinist Protestants still reject those same Catholic distinctives?

Michael Taylor said...

Hola Nick,

There's no way for me to respond to you effectively in a comment box. But rest assured that Romans 4:25 makes perfect sense to the Reformed. (Have you considered the possibility that it may be far more likely that it is you who may have an insufficient understanding of the Reformed view on this point than that the Reformed have been stumped by Romans 4:25?)

Also--try as you may--unless the word "integral" means "identical' in your vocabulary, then you do in fact distinguish between cross and resurrection. If that's the case, then if you need both to be saved, then 1 + 1 = 2. Do the math, Nick. The cross--by itself--saves no one without the Resurrection.

And as a matter of fact, even with the Resurrection, it actually saves no one in Romanism, since it only makes men saveable. Something more is required for the sufficiency of the cross to become efficient.

As I said before--no one is actually saved by the cross in Roman Catholicism. The cross only makes everyone saveable (objective redemption). You still need subjective redemption (sacraments, cooperation with grace, a probable post-mortem purgatory) in order for the mertis of the cross to be applied effectually to the sinner.

So really won't do for you to complain that the Reformed limit the efficacy atonement when your church doesn't think atonement is enough to save in the first place.

Like I said, Rome limits the efficacy of the atonement. We only limit its scope.

Sobieski said...


Every major school of Catholic thought on grace, whether it be Thomist, Augustinian, Molinist, Congruist, etc. holds that there is such a thing as efficacious grace, i.e., grace that infallibly attains its goal, namely, the salvation of the elected soul. How said salvation is attained in conjunction with the free operation of the will is a controversy among Catholic theologians. Various solutions are accepted as falling within the realm of orthodoxy since the Church has never officially pronounced on the issue to date. This is roughly analogous to the situation between Armenians and Calvinists, though there would never be a magisterial authority to ultimately arbitrate the dispute. A key difference with Reformed teaching in my understanding of the matter, however, is that Catholic teaching does not do away with freewill or teach double predestination, thereby making God a cause of sin and unmerited reprobation. There is only a predestination to Heaven made possible by the action of an unmerited, efficacious grace. Cooperation with such grace is only possible by means of grace. So any meritorious act, whether it be the assent of faith or the reception of the sacraments or the corporal works of mercy, proceeds from the working of God's grace gained for us by Jesus's passion and death. Anything else entails a type of Pelagianism that the Church condemned long before the time of Luther or Calvin.

A com-box is indeed not the place for a discussion of such a massive topic, but I wanted to point out that Catholicism does not limit the efficacity of the Cross, just as it does not limit the scope of the Atonement. Christ's sacrifice on the cross made reparation for the sin's of all mankind. Further, the Universal Salvific Will of God is that all men be saved (antecedently). Thus God gives all men sufficient grace to be saved. Only some men, however, are actually saved (consequently). Thus God gives only certain men the efficacious grace whereby they are infallibly saved. Those who ultimately fall do so on account of their own freewill and not by an unmerited predestination to reprobation. The Thomistic teaching in fact safeguards the majesty of God's primacy more than any other teaching inasmuch as God, our Infinite Good and Ultimate End, is both the efficient (alpha) and final (omega) cause of our willing. He moves the will of the elected soul infallibly towards its supernatural end without violating its nature and thus destroying its freedom. All other views tend to limit God's power and efficacy, say for example, by moving the will only morally as a final cause or destroying it altogether.

For a detailed discussion of Grace in Catholic theology, I would recommend Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange's Grace commentary. If you read it with an open mind, I think you will see that Catholic teaching on the matter does not limit the efficacity of grace or the Cross.

God bless,

Michael Taylor said...

Hello Sobieski:

You sagely noted: >>A com-box is indeed not the place for a discussion of such a massive topic<<

I've posted my reply to you on my blog if you're interested in continuing the discussion.



Nick said...

Let me try to get up to speed here.

Anonymous, you asked me: "why do the non-Calvinist Protestants still reject those same Catholic distinctives?"

If I am understanding you correctly, what you're saying is that all the elements of TULIP fit nicely together and all stand or fall together. Thus, it makes little sense for non-Reformed Protestants to reject TULIP, since it means they're embracing an inconsistent theology. This is a very good insight, and one I've pointed out many times. The Reformed are the most theologically consistent of all the denominations, and this is why the more intellectual Protestants tend to be Reformed. That said, while a teaching might be 'logical', many Protestants point out how parts of TULIP contradict Scripture. For example, TULIP teaches Eternal Security, but many Protestants note that Scripture clearly teaches salvation can be lost. So these Protestants (rightly) reject Eternal Security. The problem is, these Protestants accept things like Penal Substitution, in which Eternal Security is directly and logically founded upon.

As a general rule of thumb, Calvinists emphasize Systematic Theology at the expense of Scripture, while non-Calvinists emphasize Scripture at the expense of Systematic Theology. Only Catholicism emphasizes both, without having to sacrifice either, since Truth cannot contradict be it Systematics or Exegesis.

Nick said...

Hello Miguel,

We can distinguish between the Cross and Resurrection without making them 'stand alone' halves of Salvation. This is because Justification is a process, not a one-time forensic event. Again, this is why I asked you to address how the Resurrection fits into your view of Justification and Imputation. I don't see how it can, which is why I made a new post on this subject.

When you say the Cross "saves no one in Romanism," this is inaccurate, because you're still failing to properly define "save". In your view, the Cross saved the very moment Jesus took the punishment, which logically forces you to embrace eternal justification where man is born justified prior to even having faith since the wrath that was supposed to be on himself at birth was already absorbed by Christ. But if salvation is defined as God Indwelling in your soul, then it's a category error to say the Cross saves no one, since the Cross was a Meritorious Cause rather than a Formal Cause.

Michael Taylor said...


First you claimed that "Active Obedience" is something extra that we add to the cross, thereby robbing the cross of its sufficiency. But that doesn't follow since there are many things "in addition to" the cross that save us: The Father, The Holy Spirit, Christ's Life, the the Resurrection, Grace, Mercy, etc.

Now you're taking a different tack by arguing that because justification is a "process" in Rome's thinking that the cross and Resurrection are therefore inseparable, albeit distinct. I don't see how that solves your problem above. Whether a process or an event or both, neither Rome, nor Geneva separates the cross from the Resurrection. Both are integral to our salvation.

In any event, due to space constraints, I've given a summary of our discussion so far and a direct response to you latest "com-box" comments on my blog:

Nick said...

Hello Miguel,

I'm trying to catch up on all the latest comments. I've been so busy and not had internet when I had freetime.

I did not intend to say The Father, Holy Spirit, Christ's Life, Grace, etc are not part of salvation in my overall argument. That's more 'absolutist' than what I intended to argue. When I said the Resurrection doesn't play into JUSTIFICATION, I am not saying the Resurrection doesn't come into play in Calvinism at all. From a strictly logical point of view, I don't see how the Resurrection plays any role since it doesn't factor into Active or Passive Obedience and thus is not Imputed.

I will take a look at your link.