John Chavis on the Unlimited Nature of the Atonement

Born free in North Carolinaaround 1735 to wealthy landowners, he served in the Revolutionary War before going to Princeton and WashingtonCollege. He was the first ordained African-American in the Presbyterian Church. Around the turn of the 19th century, he started a school in Raleigh which accepted both white and black students. Also schools followed in Chatham, Wake, and Granville counties. In 1831 and 1832 laws was passed making it illegal to teach Blacks or for a Black person to teach others. This dried up his student pool and closed down the school. Accused of being too conservative and not willing to work for abolition, Chavis has met with some criticism.[1] Yet his work to increase education among blacks makes him an important figure in bothNorth Carolina and the nation. He died in 1838.

Here is an excerpt from a sermon he sent to the Orange Presbytery in 1833 for publication. The Presbytery refused to publish the work, and Chavis went on to work with another group until his death.[2] Here is an excerpt:

“How were all mankind individually to have the opportunity of partaking of the blessings contained in the blood of the atonement? To remove this difficulty was a matter of anxious solitude.[3] At length it occurred to me that the atonement must be one thing, and the application of it another; there was blood enough in the Saviour to save all, and that if any were lost, it must be for the want of application; and here another difficulty presented itself. Why did not all make application? To remove this, was a matter of the utmost importance. Here I had to make a solemn pause, and to look into the broad fields of theories, to see if I could find any number from which I could so reason as to make the subject plain and intelligible to all capacities.

And here I discovered that I must adopt as theories, the doctrine of motives, the freedom of will, and the object of choice. And should I be asked , what is motive, I answer, it is something, whatever it may be, that excites or prompts to action; and should I be asked also, what it is that gives the will, I answer, it is the object of choice. And lest I should be charged with too much tautology, let it be understood, that whenever I may use the word motive, the freedom of will and the object of choice is to be understood in every instance.

In my explanation, I shall pass unnoticed the ignorance of those who say they have done many things contrary to their wills, and take with me the Philosopher and the experience of mankind, as witness, to prove that no person ever will act contrary to their will. That action which any person performs contary to their will is compulsory, and therefore it is not their action at all.

It cannot be readily supposed, that any person can be willing to be punished for committing a crime, though they may acknowledge that they ought to be punished; but heartily willing, is not a supposed case…

For instance, suppose a servant disobeys his master, who calls him to account for his disobedience. The servant at first hesitates, being unwilling to be chastised, but presently obeys and strips himself; and why does he do it? It must be, because, he knows that his master has him completely under his power and authority, and therefore to be merciful in his punishment. And so it is in all other cases of the action of mankind; they have motives and objects of choice for all they do.

From this short definition of the doctrine of motives, which I believe will accord with the experience of all mankind, I hope I shall be able  to give a satisfactory reason why some men are saved, and some are lost.

By the death and suffering of the Saviour, a free and unbounded fountain is opened for sin and uncleanness, and all mankind, individually, are freely invited to come to this fountain and partake of its cleansing and healing influences, and be made whole from the pollution of sin; and we find that a part of mankind do obey the call and invitation, and do come and partake of the benefits of this fountain and are made whole. Ask them why they acted thus, and they will answer that it was because it pleased God by the light of his Holy Spirit, to set life and death before them; that they saw that they were wholly polluted with sin and corruption; that unless they were cleansed and made whole by the blood of Christ, they were eternally lost; that the motive of their actions was that they were willing to be saved upon the terms of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; that they acted freely and willingly, from motives of choice, and not from compulsion.

We find those others who have had life and death set before them by the Holy Spirit of God, had it made known to them that they were wholly polluted with sin and corruption; that they were freely invited to come to this fountain and be cleansed and made whole; but they shut their eyes, and hardened their hearts, and refused to obey the call and invitation so freely offered. Ask them why they acted thus, and they will answer that it was because they were unwilling to obey the call and invitation of the Gosepl; that they had other motives of gratification, and therefore they were unwilling to come; that in so doing, they acted freely and willingly, and from motives of choice and not from compulsion.

Thus we have a true and plain definition, why it is that some men are saved and some lost. This definition makes the road which mankind travels to heaven and hell as plain as 2 and 2 make 4…..

Whatever the Westminster Divines meant by God’s foreordination or decrees was simply this; that God did certainly foreknow from all eternity whatso ever would come to pass, but there was no compulsion in the case… Rob God of his foreknowledge and you at once say there is no God; and who that looks upon the works of creation, can possibly deny the being of God?….

It is plain also from the explanation of Calvinistic doctrine, that the faith and practice of consistent Calvinists and consistent Aremenians when rightly understood are one and the same thing. Both preach and believe that man has a will to choose and refuse and that he acts accordingly. Both believe and practice that faith that works by love and purifies the heart and which is always productive of good works, by which we are to judged at the last day; upon the whole, the only difference before us, is to reconcile God’s decrees with moral agency, which is a secret which must be left alone for God to reveal….

I do believe that God did from all eternity, according to his foreknowledge and foreordination, and his eternal purpose, determine or decree to elect, raise and build up a Church and people, to love and to serve him through all succeeding generations and ages of the world; that his name should be upon them; that they should be called his people…. How did he elect them? Contrary to their will?  No. How then? Why, according to their own free will and choice, and from the love to God and his Church and people and the salvation of their souls….

What a remarkable and striking coincidence is it, that from the days of John on Patmos Island to the present day, that wherever Jesus Christ has sent his ministers to preach the gospel to any nation, tongue, or language of people, that some of these more or less, have embraced religion, and have become humble followers of the meek and lowly Jesu, and have  manifested by their manner of worship and adoration that they possessed kindred spirits with the heavenly host, and serve God day and night in the temple. What astonishing proof of the doctrine of the extent of the atonement of Christ and the fulfillment of the promise of the Father to the son, that ‘he would give him the heathen for his inheritance and the utmost parts of the earth for his possessions.’”


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