*The Achilles Heel of Reformed Theology?
The doctrine of definite atonement, known historically as “limited atonement” or “particular redemption”, has always courted controversy. It has been called a grim and textless doctrine, the Achilles heel of Reformed theology (see, for example, Karl Barth and Broughton Knox). Of the many objections to the doctrine, one of the strongest is that definite atonement undermines a zeal for evangelism. If Christ died only for the elect, can we sincerely offer the gospel to everyone?
However, when definite atonement is placed alongside other biblical truths, the question does not follow. Particularity of grace in election or atonement does not mitigate a universal gospel offer. This is where we should follow Christ’s example.
In Matthew 11, Jesus explains that no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him (v. 27). The particularity is explicit. Yet in the very next verse, Jesus gives a universal offer to everyone to come to him and find rest (v. 28). In John 6, Jesus claims that he has come from heaven to do his Father’s will, which is to lose none of those given to him but to raise them up on the last day (v. 39). This is actually the reason why (“For”) whoever comes to him will never be turned away (v. 38). The Father’s will is that “everyone” who looks to the Son and believes will have eternal life (v. 40). Christ’s purpose in coming was particular; the work he performed in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension was particular (cf. John 17); and yet his invitation was universal. It was also sincere.
Did Christ know all those whom the Father had given him as he encountered the many crowds during his ministry? Of course. Did he still sincerely offer himself to everyone in the crowd? Yes. So we should be like Christ in relation to this issue. Calvin put it well: “Since we do not know who belongs to the number of the predestined, and who does not, it befits us so to feel as to wish that all be saved. So it will come about that, whoever we come across, we shall study to make him a sharer of peace.”
Why It Matters
But here’s the take-home value in definite atonement. When we offer Christ to sinners, we aren’t offering them the mere opportunity or possibility of salvation (as those who hold to an unlimited atonement can only do if they are consistent); rather, we offer them a Christ whose first name really means “Savior” (Matt. 1:21). And this is only so because God presented him as a propitiation for sinners—not potentially or possibly or hypothetically, but actually.
Let’s get even more practical. If one believes in definite atonement, can we say to people, “Christ died for you”? What’s interesting is that the phrase “Christ died for you” does not appear in the NT and yet the Apostles turned the world up-side-down with their preaching, as did many “Calvinist” ministers and missionaries: George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, William Carey, David Brainerd—to name but a few. So the efficacy of gospel preaching is not dependent on including the phrase “Christ died for you”. J. I. Packer is most helpful here:
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 need to take to the world. We have no business to ask them to put their 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.
Embracing the Tension
When it comes to definite atonement and evangelism, it’s not either/or but both/and. Christ made a definite atoning sacrifice for those whom the Father had given to him; and we are commanded to proclaim Christ indiscriminately to all people.
How should we live between these two points of tension? On our knees, as we plead with our Triune God to do for others what he has so graciously done for us.
Jonathan Gibson (PhD, Cambridge University) is the is author of historical and biblical articles in Themelios and Journal of Biblical Literature, as well as “Obadiah” in the NIV Proclamation Bible, and is a coeditor of From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (excerpt).
DEFINITE ATONEMENT in HISTORICAL, BIBLICAL, THEOLOGICAL, and PASTORAL PERSPECTIVE
Book Review by David P. Craig
When I was a student in Bible college and in seminary there were many students who called themselves “4-Point Calvinists.” The doctrine they were repulsed by was the “L” in the acronym TULIP standing for “Limited atonement.” As I talked with my comrades in ministry they had a genuine love for the lost and couldn’t reconcile God’s love for the “world” and how Christ’s death on the cross could in any way be “limited” only to the elect. “Sufficient for all, efficient for the elect” was the mantra of many of the “five-pointers.” In discussions with those who hold to unlimited atonement over the years I have found much of the disagreements not so much over doctrine, but over semantics. The reality is very few students of the Scriptures have taken the time to study (outside of John 3:16) what the Bible has to say about the specific intent of Christ’s death on the cross from Genesis to Revelation.
Seldom have I ever read such a balanced treatment on a subject by multiple authors – 23 of them! I learned something new in each chapter, gleaned wise insights, and appreciated the reverence for Christ and the irenic spirit maintained throughout this book. Clear, comprehensive, pastoral, convincing, thought-provoking, and adoration are the words that came to mind frequently in my reading.
Whether you have wrestled with the atonement (limited vs. unlimited) for years, have landed on a position, or are undecided – this book is definitely worth wrestling with – primarily because it’s teaching is so biblically saturated and cogently argued. All of the author’s have done their homework – their pens ooze theology and adoration.
I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s sumptuous theological food for the soul of those who glory in the Person and work of our Lord and Savior who sought and bought us with his precious blood.
In a series of blog articles at ligonier.org entitled “TULIP and Reformed Theology,” Dr. R. C. Sproul provided a brief summary of the five points of Calvinism (also known as the Doctrines of Grace) expressed in the acrostic TULIP:
Just a few years before the Pilgrims landed on the shores of New England in the Mayflower, a controversy erupted in the Netherlands and spread throughout Europe and then around the world. It began within the theological faculty of a Dutch institution that was committed to Calvinistic teaching. Some of the professors there began to have second thoughts about issues relating to the doctrines of election and predestination. As this theological controversy spread across the country, it upset the church and theologians of the day. Finally, a synod was convened. Issues were squared away and the views of certain people were rejected, including those of a man by the name of Jacobus Arminius.
The group that led the movement against orthodox Reformed theology was called the Remonstrants. They were called the Remonstrants because they were remonstrating or protesting against certain doctrines within their own theological heritage. There were basically five doctrines that were the core of the controversy. As a result of this debate, these five core theological issues became known in subsequent generations as the “five points of Calvinism.” They are now known through the very popular acrostic TULIP, which is a clever way to sum up the five articles that were in dispute. The five points, as they are stated in order to form the acrostic TULIP, are: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.
I mention this historical event because it would be a serious mistake to understand the essence of Reformed theology simply in light of these five doctrines—the Reformed faith involves many other elements of theological and ecclesiastical confession. However, these are the five controversial points of Reformed theology, and they are the ones that are popularly seen as distinctive to this particular confession. Over the next five posts, we are going to spend some time looking at these five points of Calvinism as they are spelled out in the acrostic TULIP.
(1) TOTAL DEPRAVITY
The doctrine of total depravity reflects the Reformed viewpoint of original sin. That term—original sin—is often misunderstood in the popular arena. Some people assume that the term original sin must refer to the first sin—the original transgression that we’ve all copied in many different ways in our own lives, that is, the first sin of Adam and Eve. But that’s not what original sin has referred to historically in the church. Rather, the doctrine of original sin defines the consequences to the human race because of that first sin.
Virtually every church historically that has a creed or a confession has agreed that something very serious happened to the human race as a result of the first sin—that first sin resulted in original sin. That is, as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, the entire human race fell, and our nature as human beings since the fall has been influenced by the power of evil. As David declared in the Old Testament, “Oh, God, I was born in sin, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). He was not saying that it was sinful for his mother to have borne children; neither was he saying that he had done something evil by being born. Rather, he was acknowledging the human condition of fallenness—that condition that was part of the experience of his parents, a condition that he himself brought into this world. Therefore, original sin has to do with the fallen nature of mankind. The idea is that we are not sinners because we sin, but that we sin because we are sinners.
In the Reformed tradition, total depravity does not mean utter depravity. We often use the term total as a synonym for utter or for completely, so the notion of total depravity conjures up the idea that every human being is as bad as that person could possibly be. You might think of an archfiend of history such as Adolf Hitler and say there was absolutely no redeeming virtue in the man, but I suspect that he had some affection for his mother. As wicked as Hitler was, we can still conceive of ways in which he could have been even more wicked than he actually was. So the idea of total total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person. The fallenness that captures and grips our human nature affects our bodies; that’s why we become ill and die. It affects our minds and our thinking; we still have the capacity to think, but the Bible says the mind has become darkened and weakened. The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.
I like to replace the term total depravity with my favorite designation, which is radical corruption. Ironically, the word radical has its roots in the Latin word for “root,” which is radix, and it can be translated root or core. The term radical has to do with something that permeates to the core of a thing. It’s not something that is tangential or superficial, lying on the surface. The Reformed view is that the effects of the fall extend or penetrate to the core of our being. Even the English word core actually comes from the Latin word cor, which means “heart.” That is, our sin is something that comes from our hearts. In biblical terms, that means it’s from the core or very center of our existence.
So what is required for us to be conformed to the image of Christ is not simply some small adjustments or behavioral modifications, but nothing less than renovation from the inside. We need to be regenerated, to be made over again, to be quickened by the power of the Spirit. The only way in which a person can escape this radical situation is by the Holy Spirit’s changing the core, the heart. However, even that change does not instantly vanquish sin. The complete elimination of sin awaits our glorification in heaven.
(2) UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION
The Reformed view of election, known as unconditional election, means that God does not foresee an action or condition on our part that induces Him to save us. Rather, election rests on God’s sovereign decision to save whomever He is pleased to save.
In the book of Romans, we find a discussion of this difficult concept. Romans 9:10–13 reads: “And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’ As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’” Here the Apostle Paul is giving his exposition of the doctrine of election. He deals with it significantly in Romans 8, but here he illustrates his teaching of the doctrine of election by going back into the past of the Jewish people and looking at the circumstances surrounding the birth of twins—Jacob and Esau. In the ancient world, it was customary for the firstborn son to receive the inheritance or the patriarchal blessing. However, in the case of these twins, God reversed the process and gave the blessing not to the elder but to the younger. The point that the Apostle labors here is that God not only makes this decision prior to the twins’ births, He does it without a view to anything they would do, either good or evil, so that the purposes of God might stand. Therefore, our salvation does not rest on us; it rests solely on the gracious, sovereign decision of God.
This doesn’t mean that God will save people whether they come to faith or not. There are conditions that God decrees for salvation, not the least of which is putting one’s personal trust in Christ. However, that is a condition for justification, and the doctrine of election is something else. When we’re talking about unconditional election, we’re talking in a very narrow confine of the doctrine of election itself.
So, then, on what basis does God elect to save certain people? Is it on the basis of some foreseen reaction, response, or activity of the elect? Many people who have a doctrine of election or predestination look at it this way. They believe that in eternity past God looked down through the corridors of time and He knew in advance who would say yes to the offer of the gospel and who would say no. On the basis of this prior knowledge of those who will meet the condition for salvation—that is, expressing faith or belief in Christ—He elects to save them. This is conditional election, which means that God distributes His electing grace on the basis of some foreseen condition that human beings meet themselves.
Unconditional election is another term that I think can be a bit misleading, so I prefer to use the term sovereign election. If God chooses sovereignly to bestow His grace on some sinners and withhold His grace from other sinners, is there any violation of justice in this? Do those who do not receive this gift receive something they do not deserve? Of course not. If God allows these sinners to perish, is He treating them unjustly? Of course not. One group receives grace; the other receives justice. No one receives injustice. Paul anticipates this protest: “Is there injustice on God’s part?” (Rom. 9:14a). He answers it with the most emphatic response he can muster. I prefer the translation, “God forbid” (v. 14b). Then he goes on to amplify this response: “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’” (v. 15). Here the Apostle is reminding his reader of what Moses declared centuries before; namely, that it is God’s divine right to execute clemency when and where He desires. He says from the beginning, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” It is not on those who meet some conditions, but on those whom He is pleased to bestow the benefit.
(3) LIMITED ATONEMENT
I think that of all the five points of Calvinism, limited atonement is the most controversial, and the one that engenders perhaps the most confusion and consternation. This doctrine is chiefly concerned about the original purpose, plan, or design of God in sending Christ into the world to die on the cross. Was it the Father’s intent to send His Son to die on the cross to make salvation possible for everyone, but with the possibility that His death would be effective for no one? That is, did God simply send Christ to the cross to make salvation possible, or did God, from all eternity, have a plan of salvation by which, according to the riches of His grace and His eternal election, He designed the atonement to ensure the salvation of His people? Was the atonement limited in its original design?
I prefer not to use the term limited atonement because it is misleading. I rather speak of definite redemption or definite atonement, which communicates that God the Father designed the work of redemption specifically with a view to providing salvation for the elect, and that Christ died for His sheep and laid down His life for those the Father had given to Him.
One of the texts that we often hear used as an objection against the idea of a definite atonement is 2 Peter 3:8–9: “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 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.” The immediate antecedent of the word any in this passage is the word us, and I think it’s perfectly clear that Peter is saying that God is not willing that any of us should perish, but that all of us should come to salvation. He’s not speaking of all mankind indiscriminately; the us is a reference to the believing people to whom Peter is speaking. I don’t think we want to believe in a God who sends Christ to die on the cross and then crosses His fingers, hoping that someone will take advantage of that atoning death. Our view of God is different. Our view is that the redemption of specific sinners was an eternal plan of God, and this plan and design was perfectly conceived and perfectly executed so that the will of God to save His people is accomplished by the atoning work of Christ.
This does not mean that a limit is placed on the value or the merit of the atonement of Jesus Christ. It’s traditional to say that the atoning work of Christ is sufficient for all. That is, its meritorious value is sufficient to cover the sins of all people, and certainly anyone who puts his or her trust in Jesus Christ will receive the full measure of the benefits of that atonement. It is also important to understand that the gospel is to be preached universally. This is another controversial point, because on the one hand the gospel is offered universally to all who are within earshot of the preaching of it, but it’s not universally offered in the sense that it’s offered to anyone without any conditions. It’s offered to anyone who believes. It’s offered to anyone who repents. Obviously the merit of the atonement of Christ is given to all who believe and to all who repent of their sins.
(4) IRRESISTIBLE GRACE
In historic Reformation thought, the notion is this: regeneration precedes faith. We also believe that regeneration is monergistic. Now that’s a three-dollar word. It means essentially that the divine operation called rebirth or regeneration is the work of God alone. An erg is a unit of labor, a unit of work. The word energy comes from that idea. The prefix mono- means “one.” So monergism means “one working.” It means that the work of regeneration in the human heart is something that God does by His power alone—not by 50 percent His power and 50 percent man’s power, or even 99 percent His power and 1 percent man’s power. It is 100 percent the work of God. He, and He alone, has the power to change the disposition of the soul and the human heart to bring us to faith.
In addition, when He exercises this grace in the soul, He brings about the effect that He intends to bring about. When God created you, He brought you into existence. You didn’t help Him. It was His sovereign work that brought you to life biologically. Likewise, it is His work, and His alone, that brings you into the state of rebirth and of renewed creation. Hence, we call this irresistible grace. It’s grace that works. It’s grace that brings about what God wants it to bring about. If, indeed, we are dead in sins and trespasses, if, indeed, our wills are held captive by the lusts of our flesh and we need to be liberated from our flesh in order to be saved, then in the final analysis, salvation must be something that God does in us and for us, not something that we in any way do for ourselves.
However, the idea of irresistibility conjures up the idea that one cannot possibly offer any resistance to the grace of God. However, the history of the human race is the history of relentless resistance to the sweetness of the grace of God. Irresistible grace does not mean that God’s grace is incapable of being resisted. Indeed, we are capable of resisting God’s grace, and we do resist it. The idea is that God’s grace is so powerful that it has the capacity to overcome our natural resistance to it. It is not that the Holy Spirit drags people kicking and screaming to Christ against their wills. The Holy Spirit changes the inclination and disposition of our wills, so that whereas we were previously unwilling to embrace Christ, now we are willing, and more than willing. Indeed, we aren’t dragged to Christ, we run to Christ, and we embrace Him joyfully because the Spirit has changed our hearts. They are no longer hearts of stone that are impervious to the commands of God and to the invitations of the gospel. God melts the hardness of our hearts when He makes us new creatures. The Holy Spirit resurrects us from spiritual death, so that we come to Christ because we want to come to Christ. The reason we want to come to Christ is because God has already done a work of grace in our souls. Without that work, we would never have any desire to come to Christ. That’s why we say that regeneration precedes faith.
I have a little bit of a problem using the term irresistible grace, not because I don’t believe this classical doctrine, but because it is misleading to many people. Therefore, I prefer the term effectual grace, because the irresistible grace of God effects what God intends it to effect.
(5) PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
Writing to the Philippians, Paul says, “He who has begun a good work in you will perfect it to the end” (Phil. 1:6). Therein is the promise of God that what He starts in our souls, He intends to finish. So the old axiom in Reformed theology about the perseverance of the saints is this: If you have it—that is, if you have genuine faith and are in a state of saving grace—you will never lose it. If you lose it, you never had it.
We know that many people make professions of faith, then turn away and repudiate or recant those professions. The Apostle John notes that there were those who left the company of the disciples, and he says of them, “Those who went out from us were never really with us” (1 John 2:19). Of course, they were with the disciples in terms of outward appearances before they departed. They had made an outward profession of faith, and Jesus makes it clear that it is possible for a person to do this even when he doesn’t possess what he’s professing. Jesus says, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Matt. 15:8). Jesus even warns at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that at the last day, many will come to Him, saying: “Lord, Lord, didn’t we do this in your name? Didn’t we do that in your name?” He will send them away, saying: “Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity. I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23). He will not say: “I knew you for a season and then you went sour and betrayed Me. No, you never were part of My invisible church.” The whole purpose of God’s election is to bring His people safely to heaven; therefore, what He starts He promises to finish. He not only initiates the Christian life, but the Holy Spirit is with us as the sanctifier, the convictor, and the helper to ensure our preservation.
I want to stress that this endurance in the faith does not rest on our strength. Even after we’re regenerated, we still lapse into sin, even serious sin. We say that it is possible for a Christian to experience a very serious fall, we talk about backsliding, we talk about moral lapses, and so on. I can’t think of any sin, other than blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that a truly converted Christian is not capable of committing.
We look, for example, at the model of David in the Old Testament. David was surely a man after God’s own heart. He was certainly a regenerate man. He had the Spirit of God in Him. He had a profound and passionate love for the things of God. Yet this man not only committed adultery but also was involved in a conspiracy to have his lover’s husband killed in war—which was really conspiracy to murder. That’s serious business. Even though we see the serious level of repentance to which David was brought as a result of the words of the prophet Nathan to him, the point is that David fell, and he fell seriously.
The apostle Paul warns us against having a puffed-up view of our own spiritual strength. He says, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). We do fall into very serious activities. The Apostle Peter, even after being forewarned, rejected Christ, swearing that he never knew Him—a public betrayal of Jesus. He committed treason against His Lord. When he was being warned of this eventuality, Peter said it would never happen. Jesus said, “Simon, Simon, Satan would have you and sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you, so that when you turn, strengthen the brothers” (Luke 22:31). Peter fell, but he returned. He was restored. His fall was for a season. That’s why we say that true Christians can have radical and serious falls but never total and final falls from grace.
I think this little catchphrase, perseverance of the saints, is dangerously misleading. It suggests that the perseverance is something that we do, perhaps in and of ourselves. I believe that saints do persevere in faith, and that those who have been effectually called by God and have been reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit endure to the end. However, they persevere not because they are so diligent in making use of the mercies of God. The only reason we can give why any of us continue on in the faith is because we have been preserved. So I prefer the term the preservation of the saints, because the process by which we are kept in a state of grace is something that is accomplished by God. My confidence in my preservation is not in my ability to persevere. My confidence rests in the power of Christ to sustain me with His grace and by the power of His intercession. He is going to bring us safely home.
About The Author:
Dr. R.C. Sproul has been a professor of Apologetics, Philosophy, and Theology at numerous Seminaries. He is the Founder of Ligonier Ministries, President of Reformation Bible College, and the Senior Minister of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Sanford, Fl. He has authored over 70 books including the following books on Soteriology: Chosen By God; Willing to Believe; Getting the Gospel Right; What is Reformed Theology?; The Truth of the Cross; Faith Alone; and Grace Unknown.
For God So Loved the World by R. Scott Clark
John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have eternal life.”
To many, the topics of common grace and atonement would seem to be mutually exclusive, as if we should either hold to common grace or to definite atonement, but not to both. There are, however, good biblical and theological reasons for holding both the Reformed doctrines of common grace and definite atonement.
By common grace I do not mean that God has endowed all humans with a universal gift whereby, if they will, they may do what is necessary to obtain salvation. Rather, using the formula adopted by the Christian Reformed Churches in 1924, “common grace” means three things: First, God has a sort of general benevolence toward humanity that is not saving; second, God providentially restrains evil; third, unregenerate persons are able to do “civic” but not “saving” good. In short, it is really a way of speaking about what we traditionally have called “providence.”
By atonement, we mean that Christ lived and died as the substitute for His people, putting away their sin and turning away God’s wrath from them, that is, all those whom God chose, in Christ, from eternity out of pure grace.
Creation and Redemption
How do we reconcile the notion of a limited, personal, substitutionary atonement with a universal non-saving favor? If God is favorably inclined toward all, how can one say that Christ did not die for them? And if Christ did not die for all, how can God be favorable toward them in any way?
We say this because creation and redemption are distinct. In creation, God made all that is. In His providence, He sustains and orders all that He made. In redemption, however, He saves His elect image bearers from sin and judgment. Redemption presupposes creation, since there must be a creation (that is, humans) for whom Christ died and whom He redeemed.
God’s Saving Favor in Christ
When Christ said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16), He was not speaking of His providential gifts to His creatures but about His saving work for His people.
The term world here is synonymous with the word sinners. In view is not the extent of the atonement, but the degree of God’s love and the quality of those for whom Christ died. How much did God love us? He loved us so much that He gave His only begotten Son. What sort of people did He love? He loved the “world,” or those who, because of their sin and sinfulness, are opposed to God (John 1:10; 15:18; 17:14). This is how John 3:19 defines “world.” The light has come to the “world,” but men loved darkness rather than light.
The difference between creation and redemption is evident in the way Scripture describes God’s general favor and the way it speaks of the atonement. The atonement is for particular persons. Christ died “for us” (Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3). The Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep, whom He knows (John 10:14–16).
In contrast, regarding God’s general providence, Jesus taught that the Father “makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Common grace is general and benefits all people, but the same is not true of the atonement.
The Nature of the Atonement
Just as there are two parts to common grace (creation and providence) so there are two parts to the atonement, expiation and propitiation. To expiate means to cover sins, which Jesus accomplished in His obedience and death (Heb. 9:22). By His obedience and death, Jesus also turned away God’s wrath from all His people. This is propitiation.
Moses’ intercession for Israel (Ex. 32) is a good illustration of propitiation. Having come down from the mountain, Moses said upon seeing their sins, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make propitiation for your sin.” This turning away of God’s wrath from His people becomes even clearer later (vv.14–16) when Moses prayed and Yahweh, “appeased,” became favorable towards His people. All that Moses illustrated, Christ fulfilled in His obedience and death.
In Luke18:9–14, the Pharisee congratulated himself for his righteousness. The tax-collector, however, cried out to God saying, “God be propitious to me, I am a sinner.” The apostle Paul spoke clearly about Christ’s propitiating work in Romans 3:25–26: “God presented Him [Jesus] as the place of propitiation, through faith in His blood, for a demonstration of His righteousness, because of the passing over of the sins committed beforehand in the forbearance of God, for a demonstration of His righteousness now in this season in order that He might be righteous, and the one declaring righteous him who has faith in Jesus.”
In this passage, Paul is explaining how we are declared righteous by God. (vv. 21–22). In the past, God “overlooked” the sins of the Israelites. It was not that He did not “see” them in His omniscience, or that He is morally sloppy, but He suspended execution of His justice in view of the coming of Christ. In other words, His general providence served His plan of definite atonement.
Paul says that now, in Christ’s death, God’s justice is demonstrated and satisfied by Christ’s becoming our place of propitiation (see Heb. 9:5). In His death as our sin-bearer (2 Cor. 5:21), Jesus has become our propitiation and the place and means of propitiation, that we might become “the righteousness of God.”
When He died, Jesus actually accomplished expiation and propitiation for sins, but for whom? If Jesus propitiated God for the sins of all, then all are saved. Clearly, however, not all are saved. This is because it was never our Savior’s intention to propitiate God’s wrath for everyone who ever lived. Rather, it was His intention to redeem all of His people completely.
What then do we do with passages such as 1 John 2:2: “He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world”? It is good to remember the context of this verse. John is encouraging Christians to obedience based on Christ’s atoning work for believers. In context, it makes little sense to read this passage to mean “Christ turned away God’s wrath for all who ever lived.” In this context it makes more sense to read “world” in a qualitative sense (sinners) or to mean “many more folk beyond Asia Minor.”
We have a similar case in 2 Corinthians 5:15 where Scripture says that Christ died “for all.” If we stopped there, we might conclude that the Arminians are correct, but if we continue, we see that Scripture says Christ died so that the Christians “might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (emphasis added). The “all” of the first part of verse 15 is qualified by the second clause, “for their sake,” to refer to believers who are united to Christ. What seemed at first glance like a universalistic passage actually teaches definite atonement.
The usefulness of the doctrine of common grace for our understanding of the atonement becomes clearer in 1 Timothy 4:10 where Paul wrote, “For to this end we labor and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of them that believe” (ASV).
Critics ask how we can continue to hold to a definite atonement in the face of such language. The answer is that Paul was not speaking of the atonement here. The Greek noun for “Savior” here is soter. As my colleague Steven M. Baugh has pointed out, in Ephesus there was a statue dedicated to Caesar that proclaimed him a “god” and “the universal soter of the life of men,” referring to Caesar’s gifts to the city. Against this background, Paul is best read to say, “It is not some presumptuous king who is the provider for humanity, but the living God is the provider, and especially to those who believe.” Here, general providence illumines particular grace.
In His providence, God gives many wonderful gifts to humanity. We rejoice in the colors of autumn and the joy of music. These gifts are good in themselves, but they are universal and distinct from His particular gift of redemption in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24). All humans know God as Creator and Judge (Rom. 1:18–21), but believers know Him as Redeemer. We know that in His love, He sent His Son not merely to make salvation possible, since in that case none would be saved. Rather, Jesus came to earn it for us (Phil. 2:8) by turning away God’s wrath so that, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).
About the Author: Dr. R. Scott Clark is associate professor of historical and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California and the associate pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.
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Dr. D.A. Carson: The Love of God and the Intent of Christ’s Death on the Cross
Here I wish to see if the approaches we have been following with respect to the love of God may shed some light on another area connected with the sovereignty of God – the purpose of the Atonement.
The label “limited atonement” is singularly unfortunate for two reasons. First, it is a defensive, restrictive expression: here is atonement, and then someone wants to limit it. The notion of limiting something as glorious as the Atonement is intrinsically offensive. Second, even when inspected more coolly, “limited atonement” is objectively misleading. Every view of the Atonement “limits” it in some way, save for the view of the unqualified universalist. For example, the Arminian limits the Atonement by regarding it as merely potential for everyone; the Calvinist regards the Atonement as definite and effective (i.e., those for whom Christ died will certainly be saved), but limits this effectiveness to the elect; the Amyraldian limits the Atonement in much the same way as they Arminian, even though the undergirding structures are different.
It may be less prejudicial, therefore, to distinguish general atonement and definite atonement, rather than unlimited atonement and limited atonement. The Arminian (and the Amyraldian, whom I shall lump together for the sake of this discussion) holds that the Atonement is general, i.e., sufficient for all, available to all, on condition of faith; the Calvinist holds that the Atonement is definite, i.e., intended by God to be effective for the elect.
At least part of the argument in favor of definite atonement runs as follows. Let us grant, for the sake of argument, the truth of election. [Footnote 1: If someone denies unconditional election, as an informed Arminian (but not an Amyraldian) would, most Calvinists would want to start further back.] That is one point where this discussion intersects with what was said in the third chapter about God’s sovereignty and his electing love. In that case the question may be framed in this way: When God sent his Son to the cross, did he think of the effect of the cross with respect to his elect differently from the way he thought of the effect of the cross with respect to all others? If one answers negatively, it is very difficult to see that one is really holding to a doctrine of election at all; if one answers positively, then one has veered toward some notion of definite atonement. The definiteness of the Atonement turns rather more on God’s intent in Christ’s cross work than in the mere extent of its significance.
But the issue is not merely one of logic dependent on election. Those who defend definite atonement cite texts. Jesus will save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21) – not everyone. Christ gave himself “for us,” i.e., for us the people of the new covenant (Tit. 2:14), “to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” Moreover, in his death Christ did not merely make adequate provision for the elect, but he actually achieved the desired result (Rom. 5:6-10; Eph. 2:15-16). The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom “for many” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; cf. Isa. 53:10-12). Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25).
The Arminian, however, responds that there are simply too many texts on the other side of the issue. God so loved the world that he gave his Son (John 3:16). Clever exegetical devices that make “the world” a label for referring to the elect are not very convincing. Christ Jesus is the propitiation “for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). And much more of the same.
So how shall we forge ahead? The arguments marshaled on both sides are of course more numerous and more sophisticated than I have indicated in this thumbnail sketch. But recall for a moment the outline I provided in the first chapter on the various ways the Bible speaks about the love of God: (1) God’s intra-Trinitarian love, (2) God’s love displayed in his providential care, (3) God’s yearning warning and invitation to all human beings as he invites and commands them to repent and believe, (4) God’s special love towards the elect, and (5) God’s conditional love toward his covenant people as he speaks in the language of discipline. I indicated that if you absolutize any one of these ways in which the Bible speaks of the love of God, you will generate a false system that squeezes out other important things the Bible says, thus finally distorting your vision of God.
In this case, if we adopt the fourth of these ways of talking about God’s love (viz. God’s particular and effective love toward the elect), and insist that this is the only way the Bible speaks of the love of God, then definite atonement is exonerated, but at the cost of other texts that do not easily fit into this mold and at the expense of being unable to say that there is any sense in which God displays a loving, yearning, salvific stance toward the whole world. Further, there could then be no sense in which the Atonement is sufficient for all without exception. Alternatively, if you put all your theological eggs into the third basket and think of God’s love exclusively in terms of open invitation to all human beings, one has excluded not only definite atonement as a theological construct, but also a string of passages that, read most naturally, mean that Jesus Christ did die in some special way for his own people and that God with perfect knowledge of the elect saw Christ’s death with respect to the elect in a different way then he saw Christ’s death with respect to everyone else.
Surely it is best not to introduce disjunctions where God himself has not introduced them. Of one holds that the Atonement is sufficient for all and effective for the elect, then both sets of texts and concerns are accommodated. As far as I can see, a text such as 1 John 2:2 states something about the potential breadth of the Atonement. As I understand the historical context, the proto-gnostic opponents John was facing though of themselves as an ontological elite who enjoyed the inside track with God because of the special insight they had received. [Footnote 2: I have defended this as the background, at some length, in my forthcoming commentary on the Johannine Epistles in the New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC).] But when Jesus Christ died, John rejoins, it was not for the sake of, say, the Jews only or, now, of some group, gnostic or otherwise, that sets itself up as intrinsically superior. Far from it. It was not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world. The context, then, understands this to mean something like “potentially for all without distinction” rather than “effectively for all without exception” – for in the latter case all without exception must surely be saved, and John does not suppose that will take place. This is in line, then, with passages that speak of God’s love in the third sense listed above. But it is difficult to see why that should rule out the fourth sense in the other passages.
In recent years I have tried to read both primary and secondary sources on the doctrine of the Atonement from Calvin on. [Footnote 3: One of the latest treatments is G. Michael Thomas, The extent of the Atonement: A Dilemma for Reformed Theology from Calvin to the Consensus (1536-1675), Paternoster Biblical and Theological Monographs (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997).] One of my most forceful impressions is that the categories of the debate gradually shift with time so as to force disjunction where a slightly different bit of question-framing would allow synthesis. Correcting this, I suggest, is one of the useful things we may accomplish from an adequate study of the love of God in holy Scripture. For God is a person. Surely it is unsurprising if the love that characterizes him as a person is manifest in a variety of ways toward other persons. But it is always love, for all that.
I argue, then, that both Arminians and Calvinists should rightly affirm that Christ died for all, in the sense that Christ’s death was sufficient for all and that Scripture portrays God as inviting, commanding, and desiring the salvation of all, out of love (in the third sense developed in the first chapter). Further, all Christians ought also to confess that, in a slightly different sense, Christ Jesus, in the intent of God, died effectively for the elect alone, in line with the way the Bible speaks of God’s special selecting love for the elect (in the fourth sense developed in the first chapter).
Pastorally, there are many important implications. I mention only two.
(1) This approach, I content, must surely come as a relief to young preachers in the Reformed tradition who hunger to preach the Gospel effectively but who do not know how far they can go in saying things such as “God loves you” to unbelievers. When I have preached or lectured in Reformed circles, I have often been asked the question, “Do you feel free to tell unbelievers that God loves them?” No doubt the question is put to me because I still do a fair bit of evangelism, and people want models. Historically, Reformed theology at its best has never been slow in evangelism. Ask George Whitefield, for instance, or virtually all the main lights in the Southern Baptist Convention until the end of the last century. From what I have already said, it is obvious that I have no hesitation in answering this question from young Reformed preachers affirmatively: Of course I tell the unconverted that God loves them.
Not for a moment am I suggesting that when one preaches evangelistically, one ought to retreat to passages of the third type (above), holding back on the fourth type until after a person is converted. There is something sleazy about that sort of approach. Certainly it is possible to preach evangelistically when dealing with a passage that explicitly teaches election. Spurgeon did this sort of thing regularly. But I am saying that, provided there is an honest commitment to preaching the whole counsel of God, preachers in the Reformed tradition should not hesitate for an instant to declare the love of God for a lost world, for lost individuals. The Bible’s ways of speaking about the love of God are comprehensive enough not only to permit this but to mandate it. [Footnote 4: Cf. somewhat similar reflections by Hywel R. Jones, “Is God Love?” in Banner of Truth Magazine 412 (January 1998), 10-16.]
(2) At the same time, to preserve the notion of particular redemption proves pastorally important for many reasons. If Christ died for all people with exactly the same intent, as measured on any axis, then it is surely impossible to avoid the conclusion that the ultimate distinguishing mark between those who are saved and those who are not is their own will. That is surely ground for boasting. This argument does not charge the Arminian with no understanding of grace. After all, the Arminian believes that the cross is the ground of the Christian’s acceptance before God; the choice to believe is not in any sense the ground. Still, this view of grace surely requires the conclusion that the ultimate distinction between the believer and the unbeliever lies, finally, in the human beings themselves. That entails an understanding of grace quite different, and in my view far more limited, than the view that traces the ultimate distinction back to the purposes of God, including his purposes in the cross. The pastoral implications are many and obvious.
Article above adapted from D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2000), 73-79.
D.A. Carson (Mini-Bio)
Dr. Don (D.A.) Carson (b. 1946 & earned his Ph.D., University of Cambridge) – Reformed evangelical at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His theology is similar to that of Wayne Grudem except on charismatic issues, where his view may be described as “open but cautious.” Carson’s tendency is to strive for balance and amicability in disputes but is uncompromising on the essentials of the faith. He is a complementarian but supports gender-neutral Bible translations. Carson also helped produce the NLT. Some of his voluminous writings include: The Intolerance of Tolerance; The God Who Is There; For the Love of God; How Long O Lord, A Call to Spiritual Reformation; The Cross and Christian Ministry; The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God; Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility; Exegetical Fallacies; For the Love of God; The Gagging of God; The Inclusive Language Debate; Introduction to the New Testament; New Testament Commentary Survey; Scripture and Truth (Ed. with John Woodbridge); Worship by the Book; Pillar Commentaries on Matthew and John and contributor to Who Will be Saved. He also edits the New Studies in Biblical Theology book series.
Carson’s areas of expertise include biblical theology, the historical Jesus, postmodernism, pluralism, Greek grammar, Johannine theology, Pauline theology, and questions of suffering and evil. He has written books on free will and predestination from a generally compatibilist and Calvinist perspective. He is a member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, and the Institute for Biblical Research.
Dr. Carson and his wife, Joy, reside in Libertyville, Illinois. They have two children. In his spare time, Dr. Carson enjoys reading, hiking, and woodworking.
A Summary of the Death of Death in the Death of Christ
The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:
(1) All the sins of all men
(2) All the sins of some men
(3) Some of the sins of some men
In which case it may be said:
A) That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and son none are saved.
B) That if the second is true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.
C) But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?
You answer, because of unbelief. I ask, Is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins. – John Owen
If the death of Jesus is what the Bible says it is – a substitutionary sacrifice for sins, an actual and not a hypothetical redemption, whereby the sinner is really reconciled to God – then, obviously, it cannot be for every man in the world. For then everybody would be saved, and obviously they are not. One of two things is true: either the atonement is limited in its extent or it is limited in its nature or power. It cannot be unlimited in both. – Edwin Palmer
We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is, that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it: we do not. The Arminians say, Christ died for all men.
Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They certainly, “No, certainly not.”
We ask them the next question: Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They answer, “No.”
They are obliged to admit this, if they are consistent. They say, “No. Christ has died that any man may be saved if” — and then follow certain conditions of salvation.
Now who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why, you. You say that Christ did not die so as infallibly to secure the salvation of anybody.
We beg your pardon, when you say we limit Christ’s death; we say, “No, my dear sir, it is you that do it.”
We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it…
I would rather believe a limited atonement that is efficacious for all men for whom it was intended, than a universal atonement that is not efficacious for anybody, except the will of men be added to it.” – Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Calvary not merely made possible the salvation of those for whom Christ died; it ensured that they would be brought to faith and their salvation made actual. – J.I. Packer