Isaiah 53 and Limited Atonement – Review of Motyer’s chapter in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her – Part 11


In Chapter 10, J. Alec Motyer treats us to a solid exegesis of Isaiah 53. I always try to read Motyer on any text of Scripture which he writes. He is an excellent exegete.

Here Motyer avoids the clutter of quotations from other commentators, and stays directly with his exegesis of the text. It’s smooth sailing until we come to page 252:

(1) A universal task is going to be accomplished successfully (52:13).

(2) It will be achieved by suffering, and the suffering and its result will exactly match each other. As the structure of Isaiah 52:14 displays: . . . . The verse equates those who are appalled by the Servant’s suffering with those who become the beneficiaries of his shed blood, and thus the verse introduces us to the concept of substitutionary atonement.

There is a world of difference between stating the text affirms substitutionary atonement, which it emphatically does, and stating the text affirms the suffering and its result will exactly match each other, which it emphatically does not. Motyer has smuggled in the notion of equivalency between intent, extent, and application – something which the text itself does not affirm.

Problems emerge again on page 261 when Motyer states:

Since universalism is ruled out by Isaiah’s insistence on “the many” . . . 53:4-6 commits the unprejudiced interpreter to an effective particularistic understanding of the atonement.

Of course universalism is ruled out, here and throughout the Bible. Motyer here and in the next few pages fails to note that Isaiah’s use of “many” does not linguistically necessitate the conclusion that 1) atonement was only made for some, and/or 2) atonement was not made for all.

Another problem is the use of “unprejudiced.” This is nothing more than an ad hominem attack on those who disagree with Motyer’s interpretation and conclusion. In light of 53:6, others could just as easily say that any “unprejudiced” interpreter would be committed to a universal extent in the sin-bearing of the Suffering Servant.

But the problems continue. Motyer states:  

The theological implications are profound: the atonement itself, and not something outside of the atonement, is the cause for any conversion. (261)

This fails to consider further NT revelation on the role of the HS in conversion; fails to recognize that the atonement saves no one until it is applied; fails to reckon with numerous reformed theologians (Charles Hodge comes to mind) who disagree; and fails to properly distinguish between the extent and the application of the atonement.

Even Paul clearly indicates in Eph. 2:1-3 that the believing elect he is addressing were under the wrath of God until they believed. Notice the many times Paul makes the point that believers were once enemies, but now through faith we have peace, are justified, experience no condemnation, etc. Such language necessitates an intervening condition. Justification at the cross is a false doctrine.

Motyer builds on the “many” statements in Isaiah 53 to argue definite atonement (264-65).The many nations for whom the atonement is made

does not, however, commit us to universalism (“all without exception”), … so that even when “many” seems to imply “all,” it still effectively applies only on the individual level – to some in contrast to all (265).

Of course that is the case because the application is not coextensive with the extent. This does not, however, confirm definite atonement or negate universal atonement.

Motyer errs in this statement:

“Many,” then, has a certain specificity to it, while also retaining its inherent numerousness; it refers to those for whom the Servant made atonement and to whom he applies that same atonement (cf. Rev. 7:9) (265).

Here again Motyer assumes what he is trying to prove, namely, that the extent of the atonement is coextensive with the application. The text does not state this. Furthermore, this is a misinterpretation of the Revelation passage, which is so often quoted in favor of definite atonement, but which actually has nothing to do with the extent of the atonement, only with the beneficiaries of the atonement.

As an aside, though Motyer does not quote others to support his exegetical conclusions, it is interesting that Calvin himself clearly affirms that the “many” of Isaiah 53:6 means “all without exception.”[1] More importantly, Paul uses “many” and “all” interchangeably in Romans 5, as the Greek text clearly shows.

Motyer’s chapter is an example of generally good exegesis, but then reading one’s theology into the text and drawing the wrong conclusions. Isaiah 53:6 is the heart of the passage, and it clearly asserts a parallelism between all those who have gone astray and the fact that “the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

There is indeed an equivalency in this passage, but not as Motyer suggests. The equivalency is not between the sufferings of Christ and the elect only. The equivalency is clearly stated in 53:6 and is between those who have gone astray (all) and those (all) for whom the Servant suffers.

This is even more clearly brought out by the inclusio structure which Isaiah employs, beginning and ending the verse with the same Hebrew word kullanu, translated “all.”

The issue is not the meaning of “the many.” The key is the meaning and use of “all” and that at the very linguistic heart of the five stanza song, 53:6. Definite atonement simply can’t get past the “all” of Isaiah 53:6.

[1] John Calvin, Sermons on Isaiah, 66, 70, 78–79.

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15 thoughts on “Isaiah 53 and Limited Atonement – Review of Motyer’s chapter in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her – Part 11

  1. Dr. Allen:

    Thank you for this blog post. As usual, your analysis is spot-on.

    In reading after some Calvinists, I am reminded of what my homiletics professor at Criswell College said: “Any text without a context is a pretext.” It seems that some have a pretext that looks (or invents due to ‘experimenter’s bias) a context.

    Among the many wonderful things I learned at that school, I learned to come to the Bible with only the presuppostions that an inerrantist would — that Bible is inspired, or breathed-out by a perfect God, and the Scriptures were/are inerrant, authoritative, sufficient and infallible.

    If one has the presupposition, e.g., that the atonement is limited, then one’s approach to such passages are not w/o hermeneutical/exegetical bias.

    It is far better to come to the Lord’s Word as a blank slate, ready for our hearts and minds to be written upon, than to bring our own ink pen. The Bible accepts no caret marks.

    Norm Miller

    • Norm, I have heard this before “… come to the … Word as a blank slate….” At first that may sound good but it is neither good nor possible. Our knowledge of the Word and of God changes as we read the Bible, study, pray, meditate, memorize, etc. Thank goodness I read the Bible today with more maturity, sanctification and understanding than I did 30 years ago. If we truly came ever day as a blank slate … we would be starting over every day. I suggest that would be horrible.

      Respectfully, Alan

      • My point is to leave our presuppostions behind. True, we ought to start with the presupposition about the inerrant and authoritative nature of God’s Word. And, true, over time, we build upon that basis. What is unacceptable is to force one’s theological framework upon the Bible. Bottom line to my comment is this: exegesis guides theological study. The reverse process is fraught with fundamental error.

  2. Dr. Allen,

    Thank you for taking the time to review this book. I have it but have not read it yet. But my question is not so much about the book, but about the interpretation of Isaiah 53:6. Isaiah would seem to be speaking in this passage on behalf of a group, not just himself as he speaks of “our griefs,” “our sorrows,” and the continuation in the passage of plural pronouns, us, we our, etc. Would we not say that he is speaking on behalf of Israel?

    • Thanks, Dr. Allen… I agree. And I believe Isaiah begins to disclose this further when he mentions in Ch. 65 that The Lord is being found by a nation previously not called by Him. Paul quotes this as you know in Romans 10, and if I follow his argument throughout the epistle he seems to suggest that Israel can no longer be defined ethnically, but rather through faith in the gospel. Would this possibly suggest that the “Israel” Isaiah represents is those who believe? If so, then it is to those who have faith in the gospel that Christ’s work is applied. Am I incorrect?

  3. Thanks, Dr Allen, for the Bible study. I think I found a new website to bookmark. A couple brief thoughts from the pew:

    The gospel would not be good news for anyone for whom Jesus did not make a definite atonement. The universal call would be a mirage for those deemed reprobate by Calvinism. The promise of eternal life could not be honorably made to anyone for whom Jesus did not make an atonement.

    Q: What good news would the (alleged) reprobate be rejecting if Jesus did not make a definite atonement for their sins?

    If there was a text that taught explicitly (or by necessary inference) that Jesus did not die for someone (or some group of sinners) then all Calvinists would be rallying around it like desperate bees on a lone flower. They would have 3 books out on that text alone in every generation.

    No wonder John Owen’s book on the death of Christ was so big. There are a lot of texts on the cross that had to be re-worked to fit the system! As long as translators maintain their integrity, the Reformed version of limited atonement will never resonate with the average Bible reader, scholar or janitor.

    Looking for that Blessed Hope….

    • @ Doug, I respectfully disagree. I did not become a 5 point Calvinist until I actually read through Scripture. For me it was really clear that Christ accomplished what He intended to accomplish. Please know that I’m not trying to quarrel. Just you’re last phrase is true from experience. I know many others who would say the same

    • Doug,

      Paul says in 2 Corintians 2:15 that the gospel is the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ, and that gospel is the fragrance to one from death to death and to another from life to life. It is not good news to everyone. Further, he says in Romans 1:17 that the gospel is the power of God for salvation for those who believe. He then goes on to explain that there are those who supress the truth and reject the knowledge of God, who are in turn given over by God to their lusts and passions, and a debased mind. If Jesus was the propitiation for thier sins, how can they face the wrath of God? Paul later explains in Rom. 3:22-25 that Christ is a propitiation for those who believe. Reading Paul, I’m inclined to believe that something happened at the cross… for those who are being saved, it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).

      • I hear you Randy but your inference emasculates faith as a true and meaningful condition of salvation, and Scripture won’t let us go there. The cross propitiates/atones but it must be imputed to individual sinners. I might agree that the atonement is irresistibly imputed apart from faith in young children and the mentally handicapped, but not those who could have the guilt of their own sin imputed to their own account.

        Q:If Jesus was the propitiation for thier sins, how can they face the wrath of God?

        A: The propitiation must be permanently imputed (through faith among those responsible for their sin).

        For what its worth. I’m no scholar but there are no texts in the Bible that teach explicitly (or by necessary inference) that Jesus did not die for those born reprobate.

        If Jesus did not die for every sinner in the human race then the Bible was written carelessly.

        • Doug,

          I guess I’m a little confused. How can Jesus be the propitiation for the sins of those who don’t believe? I’m not emasculating faith, that’s exactly what I’m arguing for, hence my reference to Romans 3. Through faith in Christ’s work at the cross, that atonement is applied to believers. How can His work the cross turn away the Father’s wrath from sinners who will never believe? It doesn’t. If the sin debt of those who will never believe is paid, which is implied in a general atonement, how can they possibly be under the wrath of God?

  4. Ty, which text/texts convinced you that Jesus did not make a definite atonement for those born reprobate?

  5. @ Randy, with reference to 2 Corinthians 2:15, I believe that you are confusing the OBJECTIVE good news of the Gospel for all people, and the way that it is SUBJECTIVELY perceived by the two different groups of people. The fact that God died for a person’s sins is objectively good news, however they may not receive it as such.

  6. Pingback: Does Isaiah 53 Teach Limited Atonement ? | Beyond Opinion

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