The Doctrine of the Atonement According to the Apostles by George Smeaton

George Smeaton. The Doctrine of the Atonement According to the Apostles. Hendrickson, 1988. 548 pp.

This book is the sequel to his former book The Doctrine of the Atonement According to Christ—both of which form an extensive two volume biblical theology of the atonement. In the first volume Smeaton deals with nearly every passage in the Gospels that refers to the death of Christ. In this second volume he handles the majority of the passages in the rest of the NT. Being a biblical theology of the atonement, it is more academic in nature and will not be light reading for the average layman. However, this kind of careful, contextual analysis will profit any reader who is willing to take the time necessary to wade through the discussion. With the goal of coming to a comprehensive understanding of the atonement, Smeaton sees a “biblico-historical” approach as absolutely essential and to be preferred to the “artificial construction [of] which systematic theology” often is guilty (v).

The book is divided into five chapters, each of which contains numerous subsections. Chapter one deals with general information about the apostles and how Jesus influenced their understanding of the atonement. Chapter two is an extensive analysis of the Pauline doctrine of the atonement in each of his epistles. Chapter three takes up the wealth of material in the epistle to the Hebrews. Chapter four deals with the twin Petrine epistles. Chapter five concludes with an examination of John’s epistles and prophecy. There is also a sixty-five page appendix, a historical theology of the atonement.

Smeaton does a commendable job dealing with each text in its own context, but he is not entirely unaffected by his systematic theology. The underlying presuppositions of the interpreter are nearly impossible to sever from the task of hermeneutics, but acknowledging where the text stops and where systematic conclusions begin is important. Smeaton does not always seem to draw a clear line here. He is a strong Calvinist who defends a limited atonement position, but he fails to acknowledge that he is doing so, at least partially, on systematic theological rather than simply biblical theological grounds. He does seek to make his case from each passage itself without factoring in theological conclusions from elsewhere, but he does not even present the other interpretation as a viable view. His exegesis is, however, quite solid and fair, and those who disagree with him will at least have to concede that his position is well within the range of biblical orthodoxy and certainly a legitimate option.

Paul’s question in Romans 8:34, “Who is the one who condemns?” along with the implied answer, “No one can!” seems to suggest that a Christian can not be condemned because Christ died for him (183). His death for the elect prohibits the condemnation of any one of them. In the previous verse, Paul argues a parallel concept: no one can bring a charge against a Christian because God is the one who justifies.

The logical relationship between Christ’s death for all and the death of “the all” in 2 Corinthians 5:14 shows the “federal unity and substitution” inherent in Christ’s death (210). A few verse later, where it is said that God reconciled the world to Himself in Christ, the “world” is to be understood not as “the world of believers . . . but the world of mankind . . . including Jews and Gentiles alike” (220).

In Ephesians 5:25, where Christ is said to have given Himself for the church, Smeaton concludes that “He could not lose one for whom He died,” His intention to purify the objects of His death being unfrustratable (285). If one is not willing to conclude that the atonement “was efficacious to all for whom it was destined,” then he must “concede that Christ has been largely disappointed of His design” (288).

The unlimited atonement proof text in 1 Timothy 2:6 is not speaking of “all men numerically, but all conditions, ranks, classes, and nationalities, without distinction” (324). That this interpretation is correct is clear from the fact that verse 1 cannot mean all people without exception, since “there are some for whom we are not to pray, viz. those who have sinned unto death (1 John v. 16).” This is also supported by verse 8, that men are to pray everywhere. This is not everywhere without exception, but “wherever they may [presently] be” located, without distinction (324).

Another common text used to support the unlimited atonement position is Hebrews 2:9, where Christ is said to have tasted death for everyone. This “everyone” is certainly limited to humanity, but it also seems to be limited contextually to the “totality which was given to Christ,” “the many sons,” and “the all who are sanctified” (351).

As to 2 Peter 2:1, probably the preeminent text used against limited atonement, Smeaton gives two brief options. The first view suggests that this verse has no reference to Christ’s death, an options which is “not so satisfactory” (447). The second view, which is to be preferred, argues that the false teachers are described “according to their own profession” (447). They were considered to have been bought by Christ in as much as they were a part of the church. But such was found to not be the case, and their profession was shown to be false. So there is no reason to affirm from this passage “that any but the true church or the sheep of Christ are truly bought by atoning blood” (447).

I would recommend this book, along with its earlier counterpart, as a good place to start when one is personally working through the issue of the atonement in the NT. This work provides a nearly comprehensive list of passages dealing with the atonement and a helpful discussion on each. Even if the reader does not come to agree with Smeaton on every passage, he will at the very least gain an appreciation for, and a sense of the credibility of, the other position, in addition to gaining a fuller understanding of the contexts of the various passages.


  1. George Smeaton and Logos Bible Software | The Old Guys - January 27, 2014

    […] works on the atonement are wonderfully simple, biblical and profound. Phil Gons describes them as one of the first places one should go when wanting to take a closer look at the atonement of […]

Leave a Reply