Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Limited or Unlimited Atonement? A Restatement

by Bruce Mills

I have recently been involved in examining the teachings of the Church of the Nazarene denomination because of the decision of a family member to join that church.  That denomination is, as are many others, blatantly Arminian in its doctrine, even stating such in its Statement of Faith.  As I thought about the implications of that denomination's position, I decided to re-post the following article which I originally wrote and posted in November 2007.  Perhaps it can clarify some things for anyone who is confused about the debate on this issue.
I want to write about the most difficult issue I have ever wrestled with in the development of my theology and doctrinal position. For many years I have made no apology for being a Calvinist in my understanding of Scripture. It is clearly the most biblically consistent and logical theological position. However, until a few years ago if you asked me to what degree I was a Calvinist, I would have told you that I was a “Four Point Calvinist.” The point on which I balked is what is known as “Limited Atonement” or “Particular Redemption.” I couldn’t see how John Calvin arrived at such a conclusion when the Scriptures contained statements such as “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
But a few years ago, a close pastor friend informed me that he had become a “Five Point Calvinist.” I began studying the issue to try to prove to him that he had made a mistake. As I began to read and think about the issue, I upgraded my response to say that I was a “Four-and-a-half Point Calvinist.” By that, I didn’t mean that I only half-way believed in Particular Redemption; rather, what I meant was that I believed that the Scriptures taught both Limited and Unlimited Atonement, and so it was sort of a paradox. I thought both viewpoints were true, so I called it “Four-and-a-half Point Calvinism” to indicate my acceptance of both views.
Finally, my son-in-law, a pastor in Kansas, challenged me to study the issue in depth. I remember him telling me, “There simply is no other way logically that it can be anything but Limited Atonement.” I set out to read all I could from both sides of the issue in an attempt to settle, once and for all, what I believed about that issue. After spending about a year in study—sometimes very intense, sometimes superficial—I finally concluded that the correct understanding is that of Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption. So I would like to explain why I believe that this is the correct biblical position.
Now, I understand that it is somewhat dangerous to venture into this territory because it is quite controversial among evangelical Christians. In fact, some friends of mine left our church because we were just “too Calvinistic” for them. But studying this issue is necessitated by the many texts of Scripture that we read which cause us to wonder which is correct. I just finished studying 2 Peter 2:1, in which Peter comments that false teachers who secretly introduce destructive heresies into the church also deny “the Master who bought them.” For years, I understood that passage as many other people do. I took it to mean that Christ actually has purchased redemption in full for all people, even false teachers. It is commonly thought by many (if not most) people that Christ died to pay in full the penalty for everyone’s sins, whether they ever believe or not. The popular notion is that God loves everyone, wants everyone saved, so Christ died for everyone.
This means that His death was only a potential sacrifice or atonement that becomes an actual atonement when a sinner repents and believes the gospel. In this view, the believer’s role in evangelism is to convince sinners to receive what has already been done for them. All can believe and be saved if they will, since no one is excluded in the atonement.
However, if you take that viewpoint to its logical conclusion, it ends with hell being populated with people whose salvation was purchased by Christ on the cross. Thus, the lake of fire is filled with damned people whose sin Christ fully atoned for by bearing the punishment they deserved to receive under God’s wrath.
On the other hand, in the Unlimited Atonement view, heaven will be populated by people who had the same atonement provided for them, but they are there because they received it. In this view, Christ died on the cross for the damned in hell the same as He did for the redeemed in heaven. The only difference between the fate of the redeemed and that of the damned is the sinner’s choice.
This perspective says that the Lord Jesus Christ died to make salvation possible, but not actual. He did not absolutely purchase salvation for anyone. He only removed a barrier for everyone, which merely makes salvation potential. The sinner ultimately determines the nature of the atonement and its application by what he does. As one Bible teacher has stated, according to this perspective, when Jesus cried, “It is finished,” it really should be rendered, “It is stated.”
But the interpretational difficulties and fallacies arising from that view stem from the misunderstanding of two very important biblical teachings: the doctrine of total depravity (perhaps absolute inability would be a better term) and the doctrine of the atonement itself.
Correctly understood, the doctrine of total depravity says that all people are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), separated and alienated from the life of God (Rom. 1:21-22), doing only evil from desperately wicked, deceitful hearts (Jer. 17:9), completely incapable of understanding the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14), blinded by the love of sin and by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4), doing only the will of their father the devil, unable to seek God, and unwilling to repent (Rom. 3:10-23). So, since that is the condition of mankind, answer me this: How is the sinner going to make the right choice to activate the atonement on his behalf?
Clearly, salvation comes wholly and only from God. He must give light, life, understanding, repentance, and faith. Salvation comes to the sinner from God by His will and power. Since that is true, when coupled with the doctrine of sovereign election, the conclusion must be that God determined the extent of the atonement.
So then, for whom did Christ die? He died for all who would believe because they were chosen, called, justified, and granted repentance and faith by the Father. The atonement is limited to those who believe, who are the elect of God. Unless an individual believes in universal salvation, he must believe that Christ’s atonement is limited to some degree—either limited by the sinner who is sovereign, or by God who is sovereign.
Those who hold to an unlimited atonement position are simply mistaken. If one asserts that sinners have the power to limit the application of the atonement, then the atonement by its nature is limited in actual power and effectiveness. With that understanding, it is less than a real atonement and is, in fact, merely potential and restricted by the choice of fallen human beings. But in truth, only God can set the atonement’s limits, and He extends the atonement to all who will believe because they have been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.
Those who hold to the unlimited view must affirm that Christ actually atoned for no one in particular but potentially for everyone without exception. Whatever He did on the cross was not a full and complete payment for sin, because sinners for whom He died are still damned. Hell is full of people whose sins were paid for by Christ—sin paid for, yet punished forever.
Of course, such thinking is completely unacceptable. God limits the atonement to the elect, for whom it was not a potential atonement, but an actual and real satisfaction for sin. God provided the sacrifice of His Son, which actually paid for the sins for all who would ever believe, who are those chosen by Him for salvation.
It was that issue that finally convinced me of the necessity of a limited atonement. This question kept going through my mind: “To what degree do you believe Christ’s death was propitiatory?” The conclusion that I came to was, if I believe that Christ’s death was satisfactory and sufficient to propitiate God’s holy demand for the punishment of sin, then either all men will be saved because God’s wrath against their sin has been satisfied, or else Christ must have died only for the elect. I could not get around that conclusion with any other satisfactory answer, and thus I came to believe in Particular Redemption.
David Clotfelter has written a wonderful book titled Sinners in the Hands of a Good God. He makes these observations:
From the Calvinist point of view, it is Arminianism that presents logical impossibilities. Arminianism tells us that Jesus died for multitudes that will never be saved, including millions who never so much as heard of Him. It tells us that in the case of those who are lost, the death of Jesus, represented in Scripture as an act whereby He took upon Himself the punishment that should have been ours (Isa. 53:5), was ineffective. Christ has suffered once for their sins, but they will now have to suffer for those same sins in hell.
The Arminian atonement has the initial appearance of being very generous, but the more closely we look at it, the less we are impressed. Does it guarantee the salvation of any person? No. Does it guarantee that those for whom Christ died will have the opportunity to hear of Him and respond to Him? No. Does it in any way remove or even lessen the sufferings of the lost? No. In reality, the Arminian atonement does not atone. It merely clears the way for God to accept those who are able to lift themselves by their own bootstraps. The Calvinist does not believe that any fallen person has such power and so he views the Arminian atonement as unsuited to the salvation of sinners and insulting to Christ.
So how do we deal with the matter of the many passages in Scripture (such as John 3:16) which speak of God’s love for the world? First of all, we must understand that words such as “all” and “world” are not always used in their comprehensive sense. We don’t even use them that way in our speech, so why do we expect such in the Bible? Rather, they often refer to a particular class of people rather than to people universally. Several verses in Scripture use the words “all” and “world” in that sense; specifically, John 1:29, John 12:19, 2 Corinthians 5:19, and Romans 5:18. And every other verse which does use the word “world” in regard to Christ’s atonement has a reasonable explanation for how it does not necessarily carry the universal sense of the term. If you are interested in further reading on this specific issue, I recommend James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken’s book, The Doctrines of Grace. They give a wonderful explanation of this issue, relating it to specific verses.
Now, I do not believe, as some Calvinists seem to imply, that God hates sinners. Rather, the Scriptures tell us that God does love all men, but that He has set His affection on some, electing them before the foundation of the world for salvation. But His wrath does abide on those who reject Him. Just as one of my children’s disobedience may have incurred my wrath, at the same time, their rebellious actions did not remove or diminish my love for them. I still had to punish their sin, but I still loved them. So too, while God’s wrath abides on unbelievers and those who reject His Son will be eternally punished in hell for their sin, He demonstrates His love toward mankind through His wonderful gifts of health, food, sunshine and rain, and countless other blessings. A god who hated unrighteous man would not be so benevolent, kind, and gracious as is our loving heavenly Father.
Now some people’s objection to limited atonement comes at the point of the presentation of the Gospel. This was the point of concern of one of the couples who left our church. They objected to the Calvinist positions on election and particular redemption and said, “But how do you present the Gospel to someone if you can’t tell them that ‘Christ died for your sins’?”
I believe J. I. Packer has given the best response to that issue. He points out that the phrase “Christ died for you,” which has become so common in today’s presentations of the Gospel, simply cannot be found in any of the sermons recorded in the Bible. In his book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, he writes these words:
The fact is that the New Testament never calls on any man to repent on the ground that Christ died specifically and particularly for him. The basis on which the New Testament invites sinners to put faith in Christ is simply that they need Him, and that He offers Himself to them, and that those who receive Him are promised all the benefits that His death secured for His people. What is universal and all-inclusive in the New Testament is the invitation to faith, and the promise of salvation to all who believe…. The gospel is not “believe that Christ died for everybody’s sins, and therefore for yours,” any more than it is, “believe that Christ died only for certain people’s sins, and so perhaps not for yours.” The gospel is, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for sins, and now offers you Himself as your Saviour.” This is the message which we are to take to the world. We have no business to ask them to put faith in any view of the extent of the atonement; our job is to point them to the living Christ and summon them to trust in Him.
Well said. We only need to present the Gospel and then allow God, in His sovereignty, to draw to Himself as many as [have] been appointed to eternal life” (Acts 13:48). Calvinists have often been accused (and sometimes justifiably) of showing little concern for the lost. But it should never be that way. We have no idea who the elect are, and Christ has left us with the responsibility to share the Gospel and then trust Him to call those to Himself whomever He chooses to call. We must be obedient in doing so.
Also, we must be gracious and kind to our Arminian brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with us on these matters. Truth divides, but we must not be harsh, unfriendly, or unloving, even though we disagree with them. We should pray for them to study the Word, think seriously about such matters, and hopefully they will gain greater understanding of the truth; just as happened in my own situation.

1 comment:

ABurkholz said...

I appreciate how clear & gracious you are while explaining a pretty weighty doctrine. I rarely see either when hearing limited atonement explained. It makes me even more thankful that God chose to raise my dead heart to life, I most certainly would never have chosen to. And you're right, believing in limited atonement should make us share the gospel MORE fervently, not less; thank you!