The 'Dual Reference' View of the Atonement Refuted

by John Kennedy


There are some who, Calvinists in their vows and Arminians in their tendencies, teach the doctrine of a double reference of the atonement; representing the atonement as offered in one sense for the elect, and in another sense for all. These maintain that there was a special atonement securing a certainty of salvation to some, and universal atonement securing a possibility of salvation to all.

Subscribers of the Confession of Faith, who advocate the double reference of the atonement, profess to believe that Christ died in a sense for the elect, in which He died for none besides—that He died because He was their surety—that their sins alone were imputed to Him—that it is His relation to the elect which accounts for His death—that for them alone redemption was purchased—and that to none besides shall redemption be applied. How can they then consistently hold that Christ died for all? There are two ways in which a reconciliation of the two references may be attempted:— [1.] It may be said that the call of the gospel must involve the salvability of those to whom it is addressed. This is traced to the death of Christ as an atonement of infinite value; and on that ground and to that effect it may be insisted that Christ died for all. But how can this consist with this other doctrine, which they profess to believe—that no one is salvable without atonement. No atonement can make my salvation possible if it did not satisfy divine justice for my sins. How can the possibility of my salvation be before the mind of God, unless He sees my sins atoned for in the death of Christ? How could they be atoned for unless they were imputed to Him? And how could they be imputed to Him unless He was my surety? Thus, and thus alone, could He make possible the salvation of any. If it be objected, that unless the salvation of all who are called is possible there is no hope for them, it is enough to reply, that just as surely as salvation is not possible without atonement, neither is it so without faith; and that instead of tracing the possibility of a universal salvation to a universal reference of the atonement, the wise and the right thing would be, to insist on the ability of Christ to save all who come to Him; on the certainty of salvation through faith; and on the impossibility of salvation without it. But this universal reference, of which so much is made, is after all no reference of the atonement. There is no atonement that does not imply satisfaction to divine justice. There was no satisfaction of justice that did not avail to the purchase of redemption. Is there a universal reference of such an atonement to all? If not, of what atonement? And if of another, how can it avail to make salvation possible? To say that the atonement, being of infinite value, is sufficient for all, is beside the mark, for the question is as to the divine intention. To say, that, if the atonement was of infinite value, it was intended to be so, is to rhapsodize considerably: for, surely, the value of the atonement does not flow from the intention of God the Father, but from the dignity of God the Son, who offered it. [2.] It may be said, that there are many mercies, of which all partake, which they owe to the death of Christ, and that, to this effect, He may be said to have died for all;— that He died to procure some good for all, as well as to procure all good for some. It is quite true, that, because of the purpose of God bearing on the elect, many mercies are bestowed on others; and that it is the death of Christ which has secured the honourable fulfilment of that purpose. But this is the only connection between the good, given to all, and the death of Christ. It is merely an accident of the process by which all good is conveyed to some. Christ hath”power over all flesh,”but this was given to Him”that He might give eternal life to as many as the Father gave Him.”This power He hath in reward of His death, but He hath it for the salvation of His chosen. He died to procure all good for them; and if, in the exercise of His Sovereign power, He showers some good on all. He does it with a view to the preservation of our race, and to its development in successive generations, till He shall have gathered His chosen out of it.

The doctrine of the double reference is an oil and water mixture;—it is opposed to Scripture;—no one who has subscribed the Confession of Faith can consistently hold it;—it adopts the practical bearing of Arminianism;—it endangers the doctrine of the atonement;—and it is quite unavailing for the purpose to which it is applied.

[1.] Those who hold it are in a transition state, and occupy no fixed dogmatic ground. Sometimes they seem staunch Calvinists, and at other times utter Arminians. They try to move on the boundary line between the two systems, and would fain keep a foot on either side. But the fence is too high to admit of this. They therefore display their agility in leaps from side to side. But this is very fatiguing work; and must soon be given up. They will find that they must walk on either side. As it was an Arminian bias that moved them to these gambols, the most probable finale is, that they shall utterly abandon the Calvinistic side.

[2.] It is opposed to Scripture. As seen in Bible light, the death of Christ is indissolubly connected with (a) the covenant love of God, of which it was the gift that it might be the channel; (b) with imputed sin as its procuring cause; and (c) with redemption as its infallible result. To insist on a reference of the death of Christ to any who were not loved by God, whose sins were not imputed to, and atoned for by Christ, and who shall not be saved, is therefore utterly opposed to Scripture. The way to conceal the manifest unscripturalness of this position is, to raise the dust of a double reference around it, by saying that it is not in the same sense Christ died for the elect, as for others. The special reference is not denied; it is so plainly taught in Scripture. But where in Scripture is the other? A reference to 1 John ii. 2 has been given as an answer to this question. But if there is a passage more conclusive than any other against the doctrine of a double reference it is that very one. It plainly teaches that in the self-same sense in which Christ is the propitiation for the sins of those whose cause He pleads as Advocate, He is so “for the sins of the whole world”—of all to whom His atonement refers. In all those passages, which seem to some to teach the doctrine of a universal reference of the death of Christ, it is seen connected either with love, or suretyship, or redemption, and if with either, it cannot possibly be a death for all. Calvinistic Universalists are challenged to produce a passage from the Word of God which seems to support their view, not containing in itself, or in its context, one of these limitations.

[3.] No subscriber of the Confession can both intelligently and honestly maintain the doctrine of the double reference of the atonement It is not in the Confession; it is inconsistent with several of its statements; and a view of the question as to the reference of the atonement was present to the minds of the Westminster divines, utterly incompatible with any such doctrine.

The doctrine of ‘the double reference’ is not in the Confession of Faith. The only attempts made to find it there have resulted in utter failure. All that can be said by its advocates is, that there is one sentence in the Confession, with which it is not inconsistent. That sentence is, “The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He, through the Eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of the Father.” All that can be maintained is, that the new doctrine does not contradict that statement, because it indicates no reference at all, and connects no result with the satisfaction of justice. But why did Christ require to satisfy the justice of the Father? Was it not because sin was charged to His account? And why was He thus chargeable, but because He was “the Just for the unjust?” The idea of Christ satisfying justice, except as the Surety of His people, and to the effect of purchasing redemption for them, is utterly opposed to the whole teaching of the Confession, and cannot therefore be in the passage quoted. And why are these words dissevered from what follows? Are not the obedience and sacrifice of Christ declared to avail, not merely for satisfaction, but for purchasing, “not only reconciliation, but an eternal inheritance in the kingdom of heaven for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him?” His work, finished on the cross, had all this efficacy in it for behoof of those for whom He died. To maintain that it availed to a certain extent for all, and to the full extent for some, is a doctrine utterly unwarranted by the passage referred to. If Christ died, He died with that whole design; and to that full effect He died for them, for whom He died at all.

But the doctrine of the double reference is utterly opposed to some statements of the Confession of Faith. The doctrine of the Confession is, that Christ is “the Mediator and Surety” in order to redeem, call, justify, sanctify, and glorify a people whom the Father gave Him from all eternity; that in order “that He might discharge” that office;” he was made under the law, and did perfectly fulfil it; . . . . was crucified and died; “that” Christ by His obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all who are justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father’s justice in their behalf. “In all these passages, the mediation of Christ, in its design, in the reference of its fundamental act, and in its gracious results, is restricted to the elect. What Westminster divine would say, Christ died for “the rest of mankind whom” God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extendeth or withholdeth mercy as He pleaseth, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by, and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.

There was a view of the question before the minds of the Westminster divines utterly incompatible with the doctrine of the double reference. The statements in the Confession, bearing on the atonement, were adapted to the state of the question of the extent of the atonement, as discussed between Calvinists and the French Universalists. Both parties held, that Christ redeemed all for whom He died, and neither therefore could hold the double reference. The difference between them is indicated in the words, “To all those for whom Christ hath purchased redemption, he doth certainly and effectually communicate the same.” The difference between the views of the French Universalists and the doctrine of the double reference is, that according to the former, Christ died for all indiscriminately, and did by His death redeem them; while according to the latter, election determined a special reference of the atonement to the elect, in order to their redemption, but not excluding a reference to all, in order to something not very easily defined.

[4.] It adopts the practical bearing of Arminianism. It must have been originally invented by some weak Calvinist, who thought that the Arminian had an advantage which he lacked, in plying sinners with the gospel call. The suasion of universal grace seemed, in his view, to give the other an immense practical power. He therefore stole from him as much as would place him on an equal footing, in the practical use of doctrine. He remained, ex professo, a Calvinist, that he might keep hold of his creed, and became, de facto, an Arminian, that he might get hold of his hearers. And there are preachers not a few, who seem to think that, though their speculations must be conformed to the system of Calvinism, as the only scientific arrangement of “the things of God,” they must be Arminians when they deal with the consciences of sinners. The consequence is, that so far as a practical presentation of doctrine is concerned, they are Arminians if they are anything. To tell men that Christ died for all, and that this is the basis on which the call to all is founded, is to quit hold of all that is distinctive in Calvinism in order to command the sympathies of a heart unrenewed. By such a form of doctrine many teach more than they intend. Its phrases suggest to many minds the idea of universal grace, and encourage them in a Christless hope. Any protest against universal grace which may be mingled with such utterances can be easily separated. The two elements are so incongruous that they will not combine; and in the hands of unconverted men it is not difficult to tell which shall be removed.

[5.] It endangers the whole doctrine of the atonement. It is impossible to account satisfactorily for the death of Christ, except by ascribing it to His bearing imputed sin, with a view to His making atonement for it. It is impossible to account for His being “made sin,” but by His substitution for a guilty people. But if men believe that Christ died for many whose sin He did not bear, whose surety He was not, and whose redemption he did not purchase, they are adrift on a current which may carry them down to Socinianism. An Arminian, with his single universal reference, may in a vague indefinite form hold by the doctrine of substitution, as he thinks of Christ as the representative of mankind, and may have some steadfast idea of atonement for sin in his mind. But believers in a double reference can have no clear view, and no firm hold of the doctrine of substitution at all. They are more in danger therefore of moving towards Socinianism than even the undisguised Arminian. Generations may pass before that tendency is fully developed in ecclesiastical formulas, but the dangerous tendency is there, and the sooner it is eliminated the better.

[6.] It is quite unavailing for the purpose to which it is applied. It, doubtless, sprung out of a desire to find a basis for the offer of Christ to all. To search for it, in a universal reference of the atonement, indicated a suspicion that the Calvinistic system did not afford it. What helpless ignorance such a suspicion indicates! How sad it is to hear men, sworn to Calvinism, declare that without this theft from the Arminian stores they could not preach the gospel at all! Do they believe that “Christ is all in all;” that God’s testimony regarding Him is true; and that they are commanded to preach “the gospel of God concerning His Son Jesus Christ” to every creature? If so, what can they desiderate in order that they may say to every sinner to whom they preach, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” This is the Scripture version of the gospel call; and I can never hesitate to proclaim it till I conclude that Christ is unworthy of being trusted, and God unworthy of being believed. The idea of the call being the offer of a gift has driven the scriptural form of it out of the minds of many men altogether. This other was the form it alone assumed in the thinking and teaching of “the Marrow-men.” To their successors it suggested more than these fathers meant. They began to regard it as necessarily an expression of love to the individual to whom it is addressed. They desiderated some sort of interest of all in Christ before the call is accepted, in order to justify its being given. Extending the idea of the Marrow-men’s “deed of gift and grant,” they reached at last the universal reference of the atonement, while still stretching a long arm to keep a weak hold of the Calvinism of the Confession. They hesitate not to say that without the universal reference they could not preach the gospel at all—in other words, that this is the only basis they find for the call of the gospel. And what do they find there on which to base the offer? A reference that avails for no definite end; that secures no redemption; and that leaves those whom it connects with the death of Christ to perish in their sins. This and no more they find; and on this they base the offer of the gospel! Verily, if men cannot preach the gospel without this, it is difficult to see how this can help them. There is some carnal sense in the Arminian view, but this lacks even that. If Christ died to redeem all men, there seems something like a basis for a call to believe in Him to the saving of the soul. But this reference, outside of that which election is held to have defined, and which connects the chosen exclusively with redemption, is a palpably unsatisfactory thing. Does it even avail to secure an offer of salvation to all? No one can say it does, when millions have perished, and there are millions still on earth, who never heard the gospel. To what effect then does it avail? To secure the extension to all of God’s providential goodness. And on what avails only to that extent the offer of salvation is based! What to me, an immortal and sinful soul, on the brink of Eternity, is a message telling me that “bread which perisheth”was procured for me by the death of Christ! It is salvation I require—it is for that I agonise. I care not for vague references. Give me a living Saviour, to whom I may commit my soul; give me a “sure word of prophecy” regarding Him; give me a divine command to believe in His name. Then and thus, and only then and thus, can my wearied soul find aught to lean on; and I shall count it both my privilege and my duty, to yield my homage to divine authority, my faith to divine testimony, and my trust to a divine Redeemer.


John Kennedy was born in 1813. He served a charge as a minister of the gospel in the one church he pastored at Dingwall, Scotland from 1844 until his death at the age of 65 in 1884. He was of the true Puritan tradition in that he faithfully preached Christ and Him crucified and the necessity of the grace of God to make a sinner willing to repent of his sins and believe upon the Saviour. The majority of his writings are of his sermons, most of which were written down during the last year of his life. However, he was also an out-spoken critic of the methods of evangelism taught and practiced by D.L. Moody. The heavy emphasis upon the need of a sinner to "make a decision" and the use of the novel “inquiry room” and other novel tactics to gain conversions drew no little attention and objection from Kennedy and others. Thus he stood among his forebearers who rather saw the necessity to speak of the sinner's need of regeneration; a new nature, thus focusing upon the need of divine intervention and grace if one is to be saved.

This article is taken from his book, Man’s Relations to God, published 1869,  pp. 100 – 116

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