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The L-word

September 1, 2006

I have at times referred to myself as a “moderate Calvinist.” I think in the past this has been taken to mean a “four-point Calvinist,” and perhaps that was what I meant. Today, I might say a moderate five-point Calvinist. So what does this mean? It means I embrace the soteriology, but I don’t buy the whole package of Reformed Theology, e.g. pedobaptism, amillennialism, covenant theology.

In regard to Calvinist soteriology, famous for its acrostic TULIP, the historical sticking point has been the L, of course. The letter L stands for “limited atonement”, not the most felicitous of terms, even for its proponents, who propose instead “definite atonement” or “particular redemption.” The unhappy nomenclature is only the beginning of woes for this doctrine. I confess my own difficulty with it, but after pondering it for the past several years, I find myself affirming it. It depends whom I am reading however, as certain presentations seem to me more congenial than others. I have long had the sense that something was amiss in the discussion, and I have been trying to put my finger on it. Accordingly here are a few questions, comments, and suggestions for classic five-pointers engaged in debate over this famous third point.

First, chances are that if the discussion centers on limited atonement, you are talking with someone who claims to embrace the other four points, not an Arminian. With an Arminian you haven’t gotten past total depravity, so what fruitful discussion can you possibly have on limited atonement. And yet the arguments invariably trotted out are geared toward the Arminian position. I know what you are saying: “five-point Calvinist” is a redundancy, and “four-point Calvinism”is a misnomer, and really just another name for Arminianism, right?

Well, no, and maybe we can tiptoe around sensitivities by using the term Amyraldian, rather than using Calvin’s name in vain with this “four-point” business. This is a view promulgated by one Moise Amyrault, a Huguenot theologian, which holds to an unlimited rather than limited atonement. However, his unlimited atonement is very different from what an Arminian would understand by that same term. It is completely monergistic and far closer to classical Calvinism than to Arminianism. Both camps affirm Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for all but efficient only for the elect. Amyraldianism simply builds more on the former, while classical Calvinism tends to play it down. I am not defending Amyraldianism: it may be wrong, it may be illogical, it may be unscriptural, who knows? It just isn’t Arminianism.

This being said, I do not wish to claim that all those affirming four points and not limited atonement have a firm grip of Amyrault’s theology. I don’t think I ever held to true Amyraldianism, though I was certainly exposed to it at Dallas Seminary. Rather, many four pointers are those otherwise convinced of the reformed soteriology but who have not (or not yet) been able to make that leap to the L. Don’t imagine that this is due to some lingering longing for Pelagius that they just can’t give up. There is just a boatload of Scriptural passages that at least appear to teach the opposite of limited atonement. After all, the Bible trumps tradition, it trumps my sense of logic, it trumps patron saints (e.g. Johannes Calvinus), it trumps councils (e.g. Synod of Dort). At least it ought to. I am not saying that all these passages don’t support limited atonement if correctly understood. It is just that there is a lot of exegetical work to be done to truly embrace limited atonement with intellectual integrity, and many never cando so by their reading of Scripture. I would bet good money that most of the the five-pointers in the world, have not personally exegeted all the relevant Biblical data (I certainly haven’t), but just rely on the “magisterium.” Is this really a good thing? Anyway, I think many sincere Christians otherwise persuaded by reformation soteriology just haven’t been willing just to down Kool-aid, but find themselves distanced by some of the Biblical arguments of classical Calvinism.

I’m not sure many of these are not differing in merely semantic ways from limited atonement. The question I have for classic Calvinists is: can I be in the club and still have views of some passages that differ from yours?

A few specifics: several passages that pose exegetical hurdles are those that include the terms “all,” “whole,” and “the world.” The usual counter is that none of these universal sounding expressions necessarily mean the totality of humanity without exception. This is true, and many examples can be given to demonstrate it. However, this response does not go far enough. To borrow a phrase, it in fact proves “nothing in particular. Each specific verse has to be individually interpreted to determine how “all” or “every” or “world” is in fact being used. I am confident that such a work exists out there (and perhaps someone will send me the reference), but my point is that most of the presentations I have personally seen have fallen short in this area. They have been satisfied with shooting down an objection rather than positively demonstrating that limited atonement is in fact the teaching of the Bible.

One example is 1 John 2:2: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Another is Hebrews 2:9b: “…so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Still another is 1 Timothy 4:10: “…we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”

There are many other passages put forward by objectors to limited atonement, and many by those who support it, such as Acts: 20:28: “…to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” and John 10:14b: “I lay down my life for the sheep.“ In each of these two latter cases Christ’s death is said to be specifically for terms arguably equivalent to “the elect.” Such citations are not problem free, however, depending on definitions of “church” for example.

Also there are other verses that indicate a different subset of humanity, such as John 11:50:

“Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”

This is stated to be a prophecy, spoken by Caiaphas, in his office as high priest. Now I understand that Caiaphas’ meaning is not necessarily equal to the Holy Spirit’s intention in this prophecy. (The situation is quite ironic.) Yet two observations can be made of the word nation here that make it problematic to see it as equivalent to “the elect.” At least from Caiaphas’ point of view he would include himself in the nation. So “nation” here would include the non-elect (assuming Caiaphas to be reprobate).

Second however, by John’s explicit comment, “nation” here does not include all the elect, since he goes on specify: “not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad (v.52).

There are in fact many groups for whom Christ is said to have died: the ungodly (Romans 5:6), the unrighteous (1 Peter 3:18), the church (Ephesians 5:25), the lost (Luke 19:10), the offspring of Abraham (Hebrews 2:16).

In Romans 14:15, it is a single individual: “do not destroy the one for whom Christ died,” and in 2 Peter 2:1, ostensibly a group of false prophets: “…even denying the Master who bought them.”

The point of the foregoing is not to argue for one side or another, but to show that the Biblical data is far from straightforward in favor of a limited atonement postion. More importantly, in my opinion, the way some of these have been handled by proponents of limited atonement has dissuaded many.

What I mean is that the classical position virtually requires every instance of the type of verses cited above to be indicating “all without distinction, not all without exception.” Some passages may be easier in this regard than others. Another approach worth considering in each case is whether the word “for” (or the equivalent) might in some instances mean something other than “in place of,” such as “to the benefit of.” In other words the true intent of some passages may in regard to other benefits of Christ’s death, such as delay in the execution of God’s wrath or the infinite value of Christ’s sacrifice underlying a universal external call. Again, I am not arguing for any of these views, but merely that a person, for right or wrong, could make some different exegetical decisions and still conclude that Christ died in the stead of the elect alone.

Another question I would like to ask about the question “for whom did Christ die?” is why do we specifically focus on this one specific divine act? What I mean is that the work of the Godhead in bringing the elect to salvation is a complex of divine actions, from the decision to save a remnant, to the election of individuals, the Father’s sending of the Son, Christ’s sacrificial death, the Father’s acceptance of the ransom, the effectual call of the elect, and many more. When we ask the question “for whom did Christ die,” why is the death of Christ conceptually pinpointed as the effectual event? Clearly, it is the central act of atonement. Yet, His death could make no one “savable” without all the other divine acts, and it does not exist in isolation from them in securing salvation.

Is the death of Christ separable by nature? If we take a decidedly anthropomorphic approach, we could say the Father elected person A, then person B, skipped person C, D, and E, and elected person F and then person G. Obviously, the sequentiality of this illustration is an absurdity, but each act of election is conceivable as a separate decision. We cannot, even in this absurd way, speak of Christ as having died for person A, then for person B, skipped over C, D, E, and then died once again for F and again for G.

Certainly, the Trinity is united in the work of salvation, and I do agree that Christ’s eternal intention and determined objective was to give his life in vicarious sacrifice to save the elect alone. But his death was unique, the one infinite sacrifice available to mankind. “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). In regard to His death itself, whether it be for all, some or none, the actual act is the same. The limiting factor then is not the nature of Christ’s death, but in the Father’s will and in the agreed intent of the Godhead.

Here is a verse that very specifically limits the saving effect of Christ’s death to the elect, using the word “elect.” However, note that it is the work of the Father that particularizes the situation, not anything intrinsic in the Son’s work (at least in this verse):

“He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” (Romans 8:32-33)

Am I then understanding correctly when it is said that Christ’s death—I’m searching for a word here—automatically, perhaps, or directly—causes the salvation of the elect. Therefore, it is obvious that He could only have died for the elect. Now this does seem irrefutable given the “automatic” nature of Christ’s death. Only I am not sure that this view of the interrelationhips of the divine acts is not more than we can prove from the Scriptures. When we say “Christ’s death” in this context isn’t it shorthand for the whole of the atonement complex carried out by the Trinity?

The Father gave the Son the elect to save. The Spirit places them into the body of Christ, so that the elect are in Christ even at the time of the crucifixion. Is this what this means, since only those that are “in Christ” have died with Christ (Romans 6:8, Colossians 2:20; 3:3)? I do mean these as sincere questions, but even as I write this I am having trouble articulating what I see behind some of the specific points made in defense of limited atonement by classic Calvinists. I see traits of a scholasticism that at times assert propositions that go beyond what can be strictly derived from Scripture. I’m not going to insist on it, as it could easily be merely my own slowness of heart to understand, but I do think the reasoning becomes thick here, and I am not sure there is not a touch of circularity to it.

Well, I’m going to have to leave this posting at these thoughts. Once again, my point is not to prove or disprove anything, limited atonement, unlimited atonement, Calvinism, or Amyraldianism, but to suggest reasons why this one doctrine has faced special difficulty in finding acceptance, even among monergists.

Now, to end, I will present my take on the TULIP and perhaps invite some potshots:

TOTAL DEPRAVITY: My contribution to my salvation: zero. Better yet, it is in the negative range, since I do contribute my own sin. As descendants of Adam, we have a big problem: we are born condemned and immediately start digging our hole even deeper as we are avidly corrupt human beings ourselves. We have no way of extricating ourselves from our predicament, and in fact don’t really even try or want to, in any meaningful way. The One being of beauty, truth, goodness, and holiness, to whom all His creatures ought to flock, we actually find repugnant, and we try every scheme in the book to flee or hide from Him, or deny our need of Him. If we are to have any rescue, it is not going to come from us. It will have to be God.

UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION: So left alone, the number of people saved would be zero, but it is not 100% of humanity either. It is clear that a fraction of humans will obtain rescue. So how is the differentiation made. Due to the condition of humanity described in the paragraph above, it isn’t something decided by the individuals themselves. The only person who has a choice in the matter is God, and he doesn’t base that choice on something he finds appealing in this person or that. It’s not the top ten percent. It’s not the nice, the cute or the clever. He doesn’t look down the corridor of time and look for those who end up responding to him. This is not what “according to foreknowledge” means. So what is the basis of His choice? I’m afraid your going to have to leave that up to Him.

LIMITED ATONEMENT: So having made His plan, He proceeds to carry it out. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together in perfect harmony. The central feature: Jesus Christ becomes the perfect sacrifice, living a holy and righteous life, but dying a death worthy of a sinful man, in order to give away His righteousness and take in exchange the punishment due to wicked people. The value of this sacrifice is infinite, and while it is the only atoning sacrifice available to mankind, this exchange is only made with the ones the Father has chosen. Jesus came to earth knowing his objective was the particular group the Father had chosen and given to him. These specific individuals become “in Christ” by the work of the Holy Spirit, and so Jesus’ death to Sin is their death to sin. While others may have some kind of benefit from Jesus’ death, all these others will have to die for themselves, and none of these will break free from the broken relationship with God and the condemnation and corruption into which they were born.

IRRESISTABLE GRACE: So He did this work behind the scenes just for me and the other individuals He has chosen. How does He know I’ll go for it? After all, up to this point I am a hostile. Does He give us just enough to put us in a neutral, rather than hostile position, so that we can make some kind of “free” decision? No, actually His gift is better than that. He sees to it that we have not just some kind of “free will” that can accept or reject him, but true liberty: the power to do as we ought, eyes of our spirit open to the perfection, beauty, and goodness of God. The freest thing a creature can do is find our Creator irresistible. So the act that He effects on those who are chosen brings them all the way to the destiny He has for them.

PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS: He had our eternal destiny as His fixed goal, and He carried out His plan. He has given us a gift, and He is wise enough to keep it “out of the reach of children.” This arrangement is kept totally separate from our behavior, in terms of gaining or keeping it. Our place in His family is based on Jesus’ behavior, not our own. Our behavior comes into the picture in a different way: His building up our character is an additional gift, and He is far from indifferent to this goal he has for us. But our salvation is God’s doing from first to last. It is a sure thing, and those God brings to salvation will without fail spend eternity with Him.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. grapaslingo permalink
    September 14, 2006 5:54 pm

    I think you sort of touch on it, but can you go through your thinking as far as the atonement and what it accomplished for the elect, rather than what it did not accomplish for the un-elect?

    This is why I think most Calvinists prefer another name, rather than “limited atonement.”

    When thought of this way, how does it jibe with your opinion of what the Scripture says about the Lord’s sacrifice?

  2. TSHusker permalink
    September 30, 2006 12:07 pm

    Great post. Unusual finding a Calvinist attending a Vineyard church?! How’d that happen? How’s that working out?

    I too live in north Texas, in Plano. And I attend a non-Calvinistic Baptist church (so I know what it’s like being reformed and worshipping among those that, for the most part, are not).


    Doctrine Matters

  3. November 21, 2009 8:45 am

    Marv the white text on black background is super annoying. You should change it right now.

    How else will I find things I hate you for?

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