A doctrine that suffers great abuse in the Auburn system is the doctrine of the atonement. The Auburn speakers' adoption of baptismal regeneration and the idea that people who are really united to Christ and forgiven by His blood can apostatize and go to hell, cannot be harmonized with the Reformed understanding of Christ's atoning work. Note for example the theologically perverse statement from the session of the Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (September, 2002). It reads: "By baptism one is joined to Christ's body, united to Him covenantally, and given all the blessings and benefits of His work (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:1ff. WSC #94). This does not, however, grant to the baptized final salvation; rather, it obligates him to fulfill the terms of the covenant.... In some sense, they [those 'united to Him in the church by baptism'] were really joined to the elect people, really sanctified by Christ's blood, really recipients of new life given by the Holy Spirit" (emphasis added).
This statement is a denial of the Reformed understanding of the atonement. What is it regarding the Reformed doctrine of Jesus' death that sets it apart from Arminianism, semi-Pelagianism and Romanism? There are a number of important differences. First, note that our Lord's death was limited or definite. This does not mean limited in its power to save but rather in its extent. Christ died only for the elect. His saving merits do not benefit the non-elect in any direct way whatsoever. (There are indirect benefits such as the improvement of society. However, these temporary blessings bring greater condemnation to the non-elect on the day of judgment.) Note that already the Auburn theology is outside the pale of Reformed confessional orthodoxy because it applies "all the blessings and benefits" of Jesus' work directly to people who are non-elect and destined for hell.
Second, Reformed theologians have always acknowledged that Christ's redemptive work not only removes the guilt and penalty of sin (expiation), eliminates God's wrath (propitiation) and restores fellowship with God (reconciliation) but also merits the application of redemption to the sinner as well (regeneration, sanctification and glorification). Christ purchased all the spiritual graces for His people. God "has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ" (Eph. 1:33). Our Lord's perfect redemption is the fountain out of which flows regeneration, faith, repentance and sanctification. Union with Christ in His life, death and resurrection guarantees that the elect sinner will be regenerated, sanctified and glorified. "When Christ lived, died, was buried, arose, ascended, and sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, we are told that the ones for whom He did these things are to be viewed as being in such a life union with Him as their covenant head and representative that it is said that they lived, died, were buried, arose, ascended and sat down at the Father's side 'in Christ' (Rom. 6:1-11; Gal. 2:20; 6:14; Eph. 2:5-6)". Christ saves His people from the guilt (justification) as well as the power of sin (sanctification). Everyone united to Christ will receive the gifts of faith (Eph. 2:8) and repentance (Ac. 5:31; 11:18). There is nothing esoteric regarding this teaching; it is standard Reformed confessional orthodoxy.
The Reformed doctrine of the atonement, however, possesses a number of exegetical, theological and logical problems for the Auburn paradigm. For example, the Auburn theologians say that everyone who is baptized is united to Christ and "given all the blessings and benefits of His work." But such people (we are told) even though they are united to Christ and receive "all the blessings" including "new life by the Spirit" and forgiveness of sins, can go to hell if they do not fulfill the terms of the covenant. This assertion raises a few obvious questions. Does not union with Christ in His life, death and resurrection inexorably lead to a person's justification, sanctification and glorification? Doesn't Paul teach in Romans 6 that everyone united to Christ is sanctified? In other words, our Lord's work does not make sanctification a possibility but a reality for every Christian. Can a person who is sanctified in Christ (i.e., not merely externally set apart but made holy) apostatize and go to hell? No. He is sealed by the Holy Spirit and preserved by His power (Phil. 1:6; 2:13). Doesn't the apostle Paul teach that everyone united to Christ will receive a glorified body in the resurrection, that is designed to dwell in the presence of God forever? Yes, he certainly does (1 Cor. 15:20-23, 45-58; Rom. 8:23, 29).
The Auburn theologians also need to explain the role of regeneration in their system. The Bible explicitly teaches that everyone united to Christ is regenerated (Eph. 2:5). Regeneration is the beginning, the starting point, the fountain of all the saving graces which are subjectively applied to the sinner. Being born again invariably will lead to a person becoming a spiritual person (Jn. 3:6). Regeneration will without fail lead to conversion. Regeneration always leads to saving faith, repentance and sanctification (1 Cor. 2:12; 2 Cor. 4:6; Ac. 5:21; 11:18; 16:13-14; 1 Jn. 2:29; 3:9). Regeneration is also connected in Scripture to perseverance, for John says that a person who is born again cannot habitually continue in sin (1 Jn. 2:29; 3:9; cf. 5:4). The Bible says that everyone who is born again cannot be harmed by the second death (Rev. 20:6).
These teachings raise even more questions for the Auburn theologians. Are the people who (according to their system) are united to Christ yet apostatize and go to hell regenerated? If they are regenerated, then how can they apostatize when the Bible emphatically declares that the regenerate can never reject the faith or go to hell? If they are not regenerated then: (1) How can they be said to be united (i.e., not merely united externally to the church but united mystically with the Savior) to Christ? (2) How can they believe in Jesus when they are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), hate the truth and Christ (Jn. 3:19-21), dwell in darkness (Jn. 1:4-5), have an uncircumcised heart of stone (Ezek 11:19; 36:26), cannot repent (Jer. 13:23), cannot comprehend divine truth (1 Cor. 2:14) and are slaves to Satan (Ac. 26:17-18)? Obviously people who are not regenerated cannot exercise saving faith. Therefore, if they do make a profession of faith and are baptized, they are unsaved hypocrites. They are white-washed tombs (Mt. 23:27) whose covenant father is not God but Satan (Jn. 8:44). Further, are not regeneration, saving faith, perseverance and glorification the "blessings and benefits" of our Lord's work? How then can a person be united to Christ and receive "all the benefits" of Jesus' work and yet not believe, persevere and be glorified? Such thinking is blatantly self contradicting and absurd. (Keep in mind this irrational theological nonsense is found in a carefully crafted statement from a session written to clarify their doctrine, to make sure people consider them to be orthodox.)
Morever, Paul presents the elements or order of salvation as an unbreakable chain that cannot be separated by any created thing (Rom. 8:30-39). The three actions of Romans 8:30 (called, justified and glorified) which inevitably flow from God's eternal counsel cannot be torn apart. "The future glorification of the believer is designated by the aorist, as his justification, calling, predestination, and election and have been; because all these divine acts are eternal, and therefore simultaneous for the divine mind. All are equally certain." "Election does not carry man half way only; it carries him all the way. It does not merely bring him to conversion; it brings him to perfection."
The Auburn theologians cannot simply ignore the explicit teaching of Paul by claiming that election is a mystery or by saying that the apostle is describing salvation from God's viewpoint. Paul is discussing how God's electing love works itself out in history; or, how God's foreknowledge causes specific people to be effectually called, justified and glorified. There is absolutely no room in Paul's thought for the idea that people who are loved by Christ, united to Him and forgiven can apostatize and go to hell. The Auburn theologians must either accept the Reformed concept of the visible and invisible church or they must create out of thin air a category of people who are simultaneously saved, loved and forgiven and yet unsaved, hated and damned.
If those who eventually fall away do not have the gift of faith (as the Auburn Ave. session asserts) then how do they appropriate Christ and receive the forgiveness of sins? One must either assert (as in Arminianism and semi-Pelagianism) that some people have genuine faith and are truly saved yet can lose saving faith; or, one must hold to the position that false faith can be an instrumental means of laying hold of the Savior. People either believe and are saved or they do not really believe and are not saved. The Auburn theologians must explain how people who are non-elect, who do not have the gift of faith are "saved," "redeemed," "united to Christ," and really forgiven by Jesus' blood. Their false understanding of baptism and the church has led them to develop a whole new category of people that are temporarily saved (by saved they do not merely mean an outward reformation of life but real forgiveness). These are people who are unregenerate, without saving faith, non-elect, and without perseverance yet who, according to the Auburn theologians, are united to Christ and partakers of His blood. While the Auburn theologians can declare their loyalty to the Reformed faith and the five points of Calvinism all they want, their system is a radical departure from the Reformed faith.
Another aspect of Jesus' atoning work that reveals the absurdity of the Auburn theology is our Lord's work as a priest. Christ's bloody death and His high priestly work go hand in hand. They cannot be separated. Therefore, the Auburn theological assertion that there are people who are united to Christ, loved by Him, who are saved and have their sins removed, yet who can apostatize and go to hell is theologically impossible. Why? Because our Lord intercedes for everyone for whom He died and His intercession is efficacious. It cannot fail. "If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 Jn. 2:1). "He continues forever [and] has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them" (Heb. 7:24-25). "This special intercession of the Lord Jesus is one grand secret of the believer's safety. He is daily watched, and thought for, and provided for with unfailing care, by One whose eye never slumbers and never sleeps. Jesus is 'able to save them to the uttermost those who come unto Him, because he every liveth to make intercession for them' (Heb. vii. 25). They never perish, because He never ceases to pray for them, and His prayer must prevail. They stand and persevere to the end, not because of their own strength and goodness, but because Jesus intercedes for them. When Judas fell never to rise again, while Peter fell, but repented, and was restored, the reason of the difference lay under those words of Christ to Peter, 'I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not' (Luke xxxii. 32)"
According to the Auburn theology, people who are baptized and united to Christ are forgiven and loved by Him even though they are not elect and fall away. But (we ask) if these people are cleansed by Jesus' blood and loved by Him, why doesn't our Lord intercede for them? If He loves them why doesn't He pray for them? If he loves them, why does He sit by and watch them go to hell? Whatever, then, the Auburn theologians say regarding Christ's love toward those who apostatize, who do not have the "additional gift of perseverance," "it is a love which does not secure their salvation: it is not a saving love. It is not equal to the love which mother cherishes for her child. She would save him if she could. This reputed divine love may be called a special love, but it is not the love for his saints which the Scriptures assign to God. The idea of it was not born of inspiration: God never claimed such love as his own. The fact that some people in the visible church do not have genuine faith and thus fall away is not a problem for orthodox Calvinists. The Auburn theologians, however, must assert that Jesus simultaneously loves and doesn't love the same people. They place a gross disharmony between Jesus' sacrifice and His work of intercession.
Once again the Auburn theologians divide the atonement into various pieces and then arbitrarily apply some of the pieces to their new category of the semi-saved Christian. In Reformed confessional Christianity the atonement is a seamless garment. Christ and His work are not and cannot be divided.
Another feature of the Auburn theology that perverts the doctrine of the atonement is the idea that non-elect people who are baptized are said to have their sins forgiven even though they do not persevere and thus go to hell. This assertion needs to be explained. When it is asserted that their sins are forgiven or eliminated by Jesus' blood, does this mean that all of their sins are forgiven? If all of their sins are forgiven then why do they go to hell? Does God require that the same sins be punished twice, once in the Savior and then again in those who do not persevere? No. God is perfectly righteous, just and holy. Then perhaps the Auburn theologians are teaching that our Lord washes away some sins by His blood yet leaves others behind. The problem with this view is that: (1) Scripture teaches that Christ removes all the guilt and penalty of sin by His blood; and, (2) A person who had some sins removed, while other still remains is not saved but damned, for he still has the guilt of some sins to answer for. Perhaps the Auburn theologians are teaching that a person has their sins washed away at baptism and thus for a time are completely forgiven, but once he apostatizes the efficacy of Jesus' blood is removed and new sins are charged to his account. The problem with this view is that: (1) As noted earlier, it divides the expiatory, propitiatory aspect of our Lord's work from its application. Christ's redemptive work merits every aspect of salvation in its fullest sense. The Savior's redemptive work cannot be divided as if it were a pie. (2) It is an implicit denial of the biblical doctrine of justification. For a person to have his sins removed he must be justified (that is declared righteous in the heavenly court by God the Father based on the merits of Jesus Christ). Justification is a one-time, non-repeatable event. A person who is justified has the guilt and penalty of all sins (past, present and future) imputed to Christ on the cross. The Lord's perfect righteousness is then imputed to the believing sinner. How (we ask) can someone who has all the guilt and penalty of his sins removed, who is clothed with the righteousness of the Son of God, go to hell? Can a person be justified one moment and not the next? Can a person be justified, then fall away, then be justified again? The Auburn theology in many respects has more in common with Arminianism than historic Calvinism.
Further, if one holds to the Auburn understanding of baptism and union with Christ, then why not return to the common fourth-century practice of postponing baptism until one is on his deathbed? This would greatly lessen the possibility of losing one's salvation. Or better yet, get baptized, and immediately become a missionary in western Pakistan. The end may come painfully, but it is much better than living with the real possibility that some damnable sins will be placed on one's account later in life.
Is it not becoming clear that the Auburn theologians attempt to mix the corrupt oil of medieval theology (e.g., baptismal regeneration) with the pure water of the gospel does not and cannot work? Given the popularity of the Auburn speakers and the wide dissemination of their false doctrines, it is not enough for these men to backtrack a little and proclaim their faithfulness to the five points of Calvinism. They must publicly repent of their heretical teachings and ask forgiveness for corrupting the body of Christ with theological poison.
The Auburn "theologians"' view of the work of the Holy Spirit in professing Christians who do not persevere and thus go to hell also contradicts the biblical doctrine of atonement. The Reformed view of the work of the Holy Spirit in the elect is that His power to save is invincible. The grace of God is irresistible, effectual, unconquerable and certain. The Holy Spirit regenerates a person's heart, effectively applies God's word to the mind (1 Pet. 1:23; Jas. 1:18), actively draws the regenerated person toward the truth (Jn. 6:44) and preserves the regenerated sinner until the great day (Phil. 1:6; 2:13). The Holy Spirit's work in regenerating, effectually calling and preserving believers is founded upon the objective work of Christ. Redemption is only applied to the elect. Because the Auburn "theologians" have a unique view of the sacraments and the covenant, they must compromise the effectual and certain nature of the Spirit's work.
Furthermore, another doctrine related to the atonement that is destroyed by the Auburn paradigm is definitive sanctification. According to the apostle, what is the foundation of a believer's personal godliness and perseverance in holiness? Is it his intrinsic ability to keep the covenant? Is it the water of baptism? No. It is by virtue of a believer's intimate union with Christ in His death and resurrection that the Christian has been delivered from the power of sin. For Paul, all the imperatives relating to a Christian's progressive sanctification are grounded upon definitive sanctification which is the direct result of union with Christ. In the most detailed and systematic discussion of sanctification in the New Testament (Romans 6:1-7:6), Paul teaches that Jesus' death is the reason that Christians have died to the reigning, enslaving, defiling power of sin. His resurrection is the reason that Christians have and live in newness of life.
Definitive sanctification refers to the once and for all defeat of the power of sin and the simultaneous renovation of the sinner that occurs at the inception of the Christian life. The Bible emphasizes that Christ and His redemptive work are the ultimate source for a believer's sanctification. The ethical imperatives in the epistles arise out of and are rooted in the gracious indicatives of the gospel. Salvation includes both our regeneration and sanctification. "They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection" (Confession of Faith, 25:1; see Shorter Catechism #35). That believers are sanctified "through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection" is taught throughout Scripture (read Jn. 17:17; 1 Cor. 1:30-31; 6:11; Eph. 2:1-7; 5:25-27; Tit. 2:13-14; Heb. 13:12, etc.) The "graces" of regeneration and sanctification are not ultimately the product of the human will, neither are they arbitrarily bestowed by the Father. They are the inevitable result of union with Christ.
For Paul, the decisive events which determine the Christian life all occurred in the past in redemptive history. There is a covenantal and vital union between Christ and His people which determines the elect's death to sin and life of holiness. Christ's redemptive work not only removes the guilt and penalty of sin but also merits and guarantees the application of Christ's work to His people. Thus our Lord is the "author," "captain," or "pioneer" of salvation in the most comprehensive sense of the term (cf. Heb. 2:10; 12:2). Ferguson writes: "Jesus is the 'author' of our sanctification, in the sense that he creates it for us, but he is also its 'pioneer' because he does so out of his own incarnate life, death and resurrection. He is the 'pioneer' of our salvation, because...he has endured the cross, despising its shame and the opposition of sinners, and is now seated at God's right hand. He is the first and only fully sanctified person. He has climbed God's holy hill with clean hands and a pure heart (Ps. 24:3-6). It is as the 'Lead Climber' that he gives the sanctification he has won to others (Acts 5:31)." Jesus is "the Prince of life" (Acts 3:15), "[a]nd He is the Lord of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence" (Col. 1:18).
Why is it necessary to bring up the topics of union with Christ as it relates to definitive sanctification and the believer's ability to be progressively sanctified over time and persevere? It is necessary because the Auburn "theologians" repeatedly speak of people who are truly united to Christ but who are not definitively sanctified, who do not persevere in holiness. The Bible teaches that those united to Christ are redeemed in the fullest sense of the term. Murray writes: "Union with Christ is a very inclusive subject. It embraces the wide span of salvation from its ultimate source in the eternal election of God to its final fruition in the glorification of the elect. It is not simply a phase of the application of redemption; it underlies every aspect of redemption both in its accomplishment and in its application. Union with Christ binds all together and insures that to all for whom Christ has purchased redemption he effectively applies and communicates the same." The Bible does not teach two forms of union with Christ, one for the elect and one for the non-elect. The Auburn theologians must either redefine union with Christ in an unbiblical manner; or argue that the merits of Christ's death and resurrection do not have the power to save; or they must place the ultimate deciding factor in the salvation of sinners in man, not God (which is the Romanist-Arminian position); or they must abandon their own position as unscriptural and illogical.