No doubt, in any way considering the idea of the atonement as limited is a frightening concept. I’m certain I don’t even like to speak in those terms. However, recognizing that not every one receives atonement, I must learn I don’t have to be afraid of ever teaching any concept of an atonement that is limited to certain people. However, the biblical concept of the limitations of atonement are not remotely the same as the Calvinistic concept of Limited Atonement. So, I still don’t want to be a Calvinist. Read on to find out why.
You have stumbled across a series of posts in which I hope to explain a third alternative in a major religious debate today. Some seem to believe there are only two choices: 1) Believe we are not saved by grace or 2) Be a Calvinist. This series of articles proposes a third alternative: 3) Rely completely on God’s grace without becoming a Calvinist. For more insight to this series, click here to read the introduction. Click here to read the first true installment of this series on God’s sovereignty and glory. Or click here to read the second installment on depravity. Or click here to read the previous installment on election.
As has been our habit, let’s listen to a confirmed and admitted Calvinist explain what the doctrine of Limited Atonement really means.
All Calvinists agree that Christ’s obedience and suffering were of infinite value, and that if God had so willed, the satisfaction rendered by Christ would have saved every member of the human race. It would have required no more obedience, nor any greater suffering for Christ to have secured salvation for every man, woman, and child who ever lived than it did for Him to secure salvation for the elect only. But He came into the world to represent and save only those given to Him by the Father. Thus Christ’s saving work was limited in that it was designed to save some and not others, but it was not limited in value for it was of infinite worth and would have secured salvation for everyone if this had been God’s intention.
David Steele and Curtis Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Philipsburg, NJ, 1963, p 39.
As with Unconditional Election, not everyone who accepts part of the Calvinistic structure accepts this tenet of the doctrine. In fact, many of those who accept the tips of the TULIP (Total Inherited Depravity and Perseverance of the Saints) balk at this middle petal.
That being said, I agree with fully reformed theologians that if you are going to accept the tips, you should logically accept the middle tenets as well. If every single human is born so depraved that they cannot have any determining participation in the process by which they are saved, the elect can only become so without conditions. Since only those who are unconditionally elect by God have the possibility of being saved, Jesus did not in any sense of the phrase die for those who are not elect. He does not even offer atonement to them, let alone apply it to them. Of course, His death was powerful enough that it could have atoned for everyone. But to those people God did not choose to elect, Jesus’ death neither offers atonement nor grants it. Thus in Calvinistic theology, the atonement of Jesus’ death is limited by God’s choice, not man’s.
What Calvin Got Right
I know it is hard to imagine with a doctrine that teaches Jesus’ sacrifice by God’s design doesn’t atone for everyone that we can find anything right here. But I believe there are some things Calvin got right.
- Jesus’ sacrifice is in fact powerful enough to save every person in the world (John 3:16).
- God would not have had to do anything more than He has done to save every person in the world than He has already done in Jesus (John 3:16).
- Not everyone has atonement (John 5:28-29).
- Jesus’ sacrifice only atones for the elect. It does not atone for anyone else (II Thessalonians 1:5-10).
By the way, #3 is really important because there is actually another logical possibility from the first two tenets of Calvinism—unlimited atonement or universal salvation. If everyone is born totally depraved and the elect are so unconditionally, then Jesus could very well simply save all of humankind unconditionally. However, along with John Calvin and all the Calvinists I know, I agree that not everyone is saved. The Bible is simply too clear on this matter. Which means in some sense of the phrase, atonement is to some degree limited. But having said all of this, I still don’t want to be a Calvinist.
Why I Don’t Want to Be a Calvinist
To me, this is the most obviously flawed tenet of Calvinism. While the actual application of atonement is limited to the elect, the offering of atonement is not limited nor is the limitation based on God’s choice.
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
2 Timothy 2:3-6, ESV
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
2 Peter 3:9, ESV
These two passages show two things. 1) God wants everyone to be saved. 2) God doesn’t want anyone to perish. Calvinism rips these passages to shreds. Either by trying to claim these verses aren’t referring to everyone, but simply to every elect person, or by performing mental gymnastics on the definitions of words. I leave it to you. You examine these passages and you tell me. Does God want everyone to be saved and no one to perish? Or does He simply want His elect to be saved and everyone else to perish?
So, Calvinism gets it wrong on who Christ’s sacrifice offers atonement to. Christ’s sacrifice offers atonement to everyone. As I John 2:2 says, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (ESV). This is talking about the power, worth, and offer of Christ’s sacrifice. Jesus’ sacrifice is powerful enough to provide propitiation for everyone. But not only is it powerful enough, as all Calvinists will agree, it is also offered as the propitiation for everyone’s sins, if only everyone will accept the propitiation.
Secondly, Calvinism gets it wrong on where the limitation comes from. Calvinism says the limitation is by God’s choice. God chose not to save certain people and by that choice has limited the offer and application of atonement. The Bible says the limitation is from man’s choice. John 3:16 says the sacrifice of Jesus will provide life and atonement to everyone who believes. As do passages like Romans 5:2 and Hebrews 11:6. Thus, the offer is to all, but the application is limited to those who will accept the offer.
Some Logical Conclusions
Perhaps you see the fallacy of this central tenet of Limited Atonement. Perhaps you, like me, simply cannot imagine a God who out of one side of His mouth sounds like He is offering salvation to all, but actually never intended to do that at all. Yet, you believe the tips of the TULIP are a beautiful declaration of the power and sovereignty of God.
Obviously, I do not want to accuse you of believing something you don’t. If you don’t believe in Calvin’s version of Limited Atonement, then I won’t tell you that you do. But if you accept Total Inherited Depravity, I will tell you that you should believe Calvin’s version of Limited Atonement. Consistency would demand it. If man is so depraved that he cannot lift a finger even in being able to accept an offered salvation, then election must be completely unconditional. Man can only be saved through unconditional means since there is not a single condition man has the ability to meet. If that is the case, then either we must accept a universal salvation, or we must accept that God intended not to save everyone and the atonement of Jesus’ sacrifice is limited in its offer as well as it application. That is, God did not send Jesus in order to die for everyone or to atone for everyone.
If you cannot accept the Limited Atonement tenet, then you need to reverse engineer the above logic. If God sacrificed Jesus to truly offer atonement to everyone and yet some people are not saved, then man is able to accept that atonement. This means man is conditionally elect (not compensationally elect). Further, it mandates that man is not so depraved because of Adam’s sin that he cannot meet any conditions that are part of his salvation process.
The Calvinistic package really does stand or fall together despite the inconsistency of many to accept the whole package. Please consider that as you continue in this series.
An Illustration of the Third Alternative
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you desolate.
If I were a Calvinist, I would respond to the above blog post by saying, “But doesn’t God always get what He wants? Yet you say God wants everyone to be saved, but doesn’t get that.”
But since I’m not a Calvinist, I would respond to this objection with the third alternative as illustrated by Matthew 23:37-38. How often did God want to gather the children of Jerusalem together as a hen gathers her chicks? That was the offer He made to them again and again as the prophets came to Jerusalem preaching repentance. God wanted that. But Jerusalem didn’t. Certainly, God’s purposes are accomplished. But that doesn’t mean everything God wants happens. God wants all people atoned for. He has offered the atonement to all people. But some people have been, are, and will be unwilling. While God wants all to be saved, His purpose is not to save any against their own will.
Praise the Lord! He is offering you atonement. Have you accepted it? Will you rely completely on the grace He is offering and accept the atonement that can only come from the sacrifice of Jesus?