Friday, November 09, 2007

Tiptoeing through the TULIPs - Part 3: Limited Atonement

Limited Atonement
This seems to be the biggest stumbling block to those who resist the teachings of Calvinism. Many people think that in order for God to be "fair" -- naturally, they are looking at fairness from a human perspective -- Christ must have died for every single person. After all, John 3:16 says, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." And, of course, there's 1st John 2:2: "He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."

When it comes to limited (or, more accurately, particular or definite) atonement, God's word is quite clear on the subject. In Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 we read that Christ gave his life as a "ransom for many." In John 10:11-15 Jesus talks about laying down his life "for the sheep." Contrast that with Matthew 25:32-33, where we see the shepherd separating "the sheep from the goats."

Jesus continues with this analogy in John 10:24-27:
    So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." Jesus answered them, "I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."
Still, we cannot get around the fact that the Bible does teach that Jesus did, in a sense, lay down his life for the world. The answer, as usual, lies in the context.

Paul writes in 1st Timothy 4:10 that Christ is "the savior of all people, especially of those who believe." Now, we know that he isn't the "savior of all people" in the same sense that he is the savior of the elect. If that were the case, then all people would be saved, and given the context of what scripture has to say about the eternal judgment of the wicked, we know that can't be what Paul meant. Rather, Christ is the savior of all people in that by saving some, humanity itself has been saved from complete destruction.

Another way to look at limited atonement is to consider what the term "propitiation" means in 1st John 2:2. It means to satisfy God's demands. God demands perfection, something sinful man can never hope to achieve. Jesus Christ, however, lived a perfect life and suffered our punishment on the cross, thereby satisfying God's holy justice. Our debt has been paid. To assume that Christ also paid the debt of those who ultimately end up in hell is to make God out to be unjust as one who punishes the same sins twice.

If we are to be honest, we will agree that both Calvinists and Arminians limit Christ's atonement in some way. Did Jesus die for Satan and his demons? Certainly not. The atonement is at least limited to human beings. Do all people eventually end up in heaven? Again, no. There is no disputing the fact that the effects of the atonement do not extend to all people in the same way.

Here is where we differ: Arminians limit the effectiveness of the atonement in that they believe it merely made salvation possible for sinners. Since they deny the Calvinist view of total depravity, unconditional election, and irresistible grace, they are forced to admit that there is the theoretical possibility that not one person would ever "accept Christ as savior." After all, if they wish to remain consistent in holding to the concept of "free will," then they must deny that God would give certain people the extra grace needed that would enable us to do what scripture says we cannot do on our own (Romans 7:18).

Calvinists, on the other hand, limit the scope of Christ's atonement rather than its effectiveness. We would agree with Arminians that his death on the cross was sufficient to cover the sins of all. There certainly would not have been a need to have his suffering increased accordingly in order to cover the sins of each and every person. But that isn't how the atonement was designed. We believe that the atonement accomplished exactly what it was supposed to do by actually securing the salvation of all those for whom it was intended (i.e., the elect). "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified" (Hebrews 10:14).

To say that God intended to save everyone, but, despite his best intentions, was unable to accomplish that goal, is to make God into something less than the sovereign, all-powerful Creator that he is. How much more God-glorifying it is to say, without hesitation or qualification, that he did exactly what he set out to do!

Part 1: Total Depravity
Part 2: Unconditional Election
Part 3: Limited Atonement
Part 4: Irresistable Grace
Part 5: Perseverance of the Saints


Ryan Gill said...

Good blog! I know I struggled with the Limited Atonement doctrine, even after I considered myself to be a Calvinist. But really it makes sense. How should we limit the atonement-- should we limit its intent (as the Reformed would) or limit its EFFECT (as the Armenian does)? And... if Christ died for ALL sin of EVERYONE... does that not include him dying for the sin of non-belief? IF that's the case then EVERYONE SHOULD BE SAVED! ... not so much.

Lee Shelton said...

Thanks! Good point.

Bill and Melanie VanCuran said...

Thanks you for your blog.
I really do want to explore what you are saying and hope I don’t appear argumentative.
I think I understand what you are saying but my initial response to this thinking brings me to the question: Does that mean that God only truly loved the elect? Are you saying that God arbitrarily choose Jacob and arbitrarily hated Esau because he is sovereign? Therefore he arbitrarily hates the nonelect but arbitrarily loves the elect which in essence proves we have no part in our salvation and therefore grace is simply irresistible?

I have always understood the idea of total depravity as the rational for God being righteous in condemning all people but gracious in calling some based on preknowledge. That is what makes the story of the bible a love story, God loving and seeking the lost. I love God because he first loved me. I fail to see the love in the TULIP. I don’t understand how God giving people free will limits his sovereignty. This seems like some sort of hyper sovereignty which makes everything fatalistic and life pointless. Tanks, Bill

Anthony said...

Hi Bill. This is just a suggestion, but may I recommend a sermon by Spurgeon to perhaps answer your question.

jsaras said...

I think that there may be a legitimate "third" option. Reform theologian Neal Punt makes a convincing case for what calls "Evangelical Inclusivism". You can read a brief summary of his theology here:
I've been trying to find the error in his theology, but I can't find it. I'd be curious to get your opinion on it.

jsaras said...

Hi Bill and Melanie. The passage that you referred to, Romans 9:13 has been mangled by many theologians. The following material was largely taken from Dr. Harry Boer's explanation of this passage that can be found on pages 493 to 496 in the 1980 Acts of Synod of the Christian Reformed Church.

The words “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” came through the prophet Malachi, some 1,300 years AFTER Rebeka was told “The elder will serve the younger.”

Malachi 1: 1– 5 makes it abundantly clear that Malachi in using the names Jacob and Esau is speaking of two nations, the nations of Israel and Edom . Paul is quoting Malachi when he says “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated.” To imply that Paul is speaking about God's attitude toward two individual persons before they were born when he says, “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated,” is not correct. Malachi is speaking of two nations and is speaking about God's evaluation of them after they existed.

That Esau was a common name for the nation of Edom is very clear from such passages as: Genesis. 36:1, 8, 16; Jeremiah 49:8, 10; Obadiah 6 and Malachi 1:1-5.

That Jacob was a common name for the nation of Isreal is very clear from such passages as: Deuteronomy 34:8;Isaiah 41:8; 42:24; Jeremiah 30:10, 18; Malachi 2:12.

That the nation of Edom is even referred to as Jacob's brother is seen in Amos 1:11; Obadiah 10, 12.

Why is it said of the two nations “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”? It is because Jacob [ Israel } was God's covenant nation and Esau ( Edom ) had severely oppressed God's covenant people. Therefore God's judgment was against Edom (the nation) and this is spoken of by Malachi of evidence that “Jacob (the nation of Israel) have I loved and Esau (the nation of Edom) have I hated.” Malachi is prophecying about two nations, not two individual people.

Unknown said...

Well written. Many among the leadership of the popular 'reformed' church I attend in the Seattle area struggle w/ this concept and call themselves 4 point Calvinists. Which is unfortunate. Just from reading the scriptures and using basic logic if you the Lord speaks of His people, His chosen people then He is speaking of limited atonement.

Related Posts with Thumbnails