By: Justin Taylor
Last week Doug Wilson linked to a piece by Randy Alcorn, who suggested that the logic of limited atonement is appealing but the exegetical basis for it is lacking. Doug offered a brief response, with valid points about Christ securing actual salvation and not possible salvation, but asserts that post-millenialism is the real solution. I don’t see how the post-mill scheme helps much exegetically, but that’s not the point of this post.
Let me mention a couple of things that I found helpful when I began exploring this issue several years ago.
In his classic The Death of Death in the Death of Christ John Owen explained the dilemma of those who deny definite atonement:
The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:
- All the sins of all men.
- All the sins of some men, or
- Some of the sins of all men.
In which case it may be said:
- That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so, none are saved.
- That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.
- 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!
In other words, it is impossible to reconcile the proposition “Christ paid the punishment for all the sins of all people” with the idea that “Some people will pay the punishment for their sin in hell.”
Secondly, Lorraine Boettner showed in The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination that both Calvinists and Arminians “limit” the atonement.
The Calvinist limits the extent of [the atonement] in that he says it does not apply to all persons . . . ; while the Arminian limits the power of it, for he says that in itself it does not actually save anybody.
The Calvinist limits it quantitatively, but not qualitatively; the Arminian limits it qualitatively, but not quantitatively.
For the Calvinist it is like a narrow bridge which goes all the way across the stream; for the Arminian it is like a great wide bridge which goes only half-way across.
I think these are valid arguments.
But it was John Piper who helped me see the issue from another angle. In effect, Piper argues that Calvinists essentially affirm the biblical truth that Arminians insist upon. But the Calvinist affirms something some more—something biblical that Arminians deny.
If you want to think this through, then I’d encourage you to read the following carefully. I’ve added some headings and italics to help process the argument a bit.
What Arminians Believe
Arminians take all the passages which say the death of Christ is “for us” (Romans 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:10) or for “his own sheep” (John 10:11, 15) or for “the church” (Ephesians 5:25; Acts 20:28) or for “the children of God” (John 11:52) or for “those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14) and say that the meaning is that God designs and intends the atonement for all people in the same way, but that God applies it as effective and saving only for those who believe and become part of “us” and “the sheep” and “the church” and “the children of God.”
In this view, then, the sentence, “Christ died for you,” means: Christ died for all sinners, so that if you will repent and believe in Christ, then the death of Jesus will become effective in your case and will take away your sins.
Now, as far as it goes, this seems to me to be acceptable teaching.
What Arminians Deny
But then Arminians deny something that I think the Bible teaches.
They deny that the texts about Christ’s dying for “us” or “his sheep” or his “church” or “the children of God” were intended by God to obtain something more for his people than the benefits they get after they believe.
They deny, specifically, that the death of Christ was not only intended by God to obtain benefits for people after they believe (which is true), but even more, Christ’s death was intended by God to obtain the very willingness to believe.
In other words, the divine grace that it takes to overcome our hardness of heart and become a believer was also obtained by the blood of Jesus.
Where Arminians and Calvinists Agree
There is no dispute that Christ died to obtain great saving benefits for all who believe.
Moreover, there is no dispute that Christ died so that we might say to all persons everywhere without exception: “God gave his only begotten Son to die for sin so that if you believe on him you may have eternal life.”
Where Arminians and Calvinists Disagree
The dispute is whether God intended for the death of Christ to obtain more than these two things: (1) saving benefits after faith, and (2) a bona fide invitation that can be made to any person to believe on Christ for salvation.
Did the blood of Jesus obtain both the benefits after faith, and the benefit of faith itself?
Here’s the Rub
Does the historic Arminian interpretation of any of the “universal” texts on the atonement necessarily contradict this “more” that I am affirming about God’s intention for the death of Christ? (Texts like: 1 Timothy 2:6; 1 John 2:1-2; Hebrews 2:9; 2 Corinthians 5:19; John 1:29; 2 Peter 2:1.)
I don’t think so. Arminians historically are just as eager as Calvinists to avoid saying that these texts teach “universal salvation.” So they do not teach that the death of Christ “for all” saves all. Rather, they say, in the words of Millard Erickson, “God intended the atonement to make salvation possible for all persons. Christ died for all persons, but this atoning death becomes effective only when accepted by the individual.” Erickson then says, “This is the view of all Arminians” (Christian Theology, p. 829, emphasis added).
What has come clearer to me as I have pondered these things is that Arminians do not say that in the death of Christ God intends to effectively save all for whom Christ died. They only say that God intends to make possible the salvation of all for whom Christ died. But this interpretation of these “universal” texts does not contradict the Calvinist assertion that God does intend to obtain the grace of faith and repentance for a definite group by the death of Christ.
Arminians may deny this assertion, but they cannot deny it on the basis of their interpretation of the “universal” texts of the atonement. That interpretation simply affirms that all may have salvation if they believe. Calvinists do not dispute that. They only go beyond it.
Here’s the rub: if he did this “more,” he didn’t do it for everyone. So at this level the atonement becomes “limited.” And this is what Arminians stumble over: is there anything that God would do to get some unbelievers saved that he would not do for all? This “limitation” implies a choice on God’s part to save some and not all.
A word about the comments before anyone responds. Let’s dialogue respectfully. Before critiques are offered—for or against limited atonement—let’s make sure we have an attitude of faith seeking understanding.