As we progress on a journey exploring our Statement of Faith, we continue to look at the five letters of the Calvinist TULIP. Previously, we discovered that our Statement of Faith and Scripture support total depravity. But we observed that unconditional election is not a teaching clearly found in either. What about the L in TULIP?
Also known as particular redemption, limited atonement is the teaching that Jesus’ death was only intended to atone for the sins of the elect. For those not elected by God, no atonement is provided for their sin. Further, the atonement made possible by Jesus’ death is effectual in every case. That is, everyone who is elected will be atoned for. There is no possibility that an elect person will ultimately be condemned.
Theologian Walter Elwell summarizes seven key arguments in support of limited atonement:
- Some scriptures refer to Christ’s death being specifically for “his sheep” (John 10:11, 15), “his church” (Acts 20:28), “the elect” (Romans 8:32-35), and “his people” (Matthew 1:21).
- God’s will is always carried out and cannot be frustrated by humans. Had God intended to save everyone, then all would be saved. The salvation of relatively few proves God intended to save only certain ones.
- Based on a penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement, it would be unjust for God to punish both Christ and sinners for their sins. If Jesus truly took the penalty for the sins of the entire world, then God would have no grounds upon which to condemn anyone.
- Consequently, if Christ truly died for everyone and bore the penalty of their sins, then everyone would be saved. But the Bible rules out universalism.
- Christ died in order to actually save, not potentially save. Everyone for whom Christ died is irrevocably saved.
- The atonement is for those who repent and believe. According to Calvinism, repentance and belief depend entirely upon unconditional election, not human choice. Thus, the atonement is only available to those who have been unconditionally elected to repent, believe, and have their sins atoned for.
- Scriptures referring to Christ dying for “the world” or for “all” do not refer to all people or everyone in the world. Rather, they refer to the “world of the elect” or the elect taken from all nations of the world. It is not all Christ died for, but representatives from all nations and classes.
Our Statement of Faith does not directly answer the question “What is the extent of the atonement?” However, Article 4 implies our perspective. The offer of salvation is extended to humanity, not just the elect. While salvation is not obtained through “human merit, works, or ceremonies,” it is available for those who believe and repent. Repentance and faith are not human works that merit salvation, but they are human responses that receive it.
But what does Scripture say in response to the notion of a limited atonement? In order to answer, we will address each of the seven arguments listed above.
Point 1: To be sure, in some scriptures, Jesus’ death is said to be effectual for the elect. However, none of these passages rule out the possibility that His death was sufficient to provide salvation for all, or that it was intended to do so. If indeed Christ’s death atoned for the entire world, then there is no contradiction in saying that it was for the elect.
Point 2: One of Calvinism’s central themes is the sovereignty of God. While Scripture affirms God’s sovereignty, it does not describe it along Calvinistic lines. The notion that God’s desires are always carried out, regardless of human actions, is particularly troubling.
Though many scriptures contradict this Calvinist doctrine, the most striking one speaks of God’s will in connection with the scope of the atonement. Second Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord . . . is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (NKJV, cf. 1 Timothy 2:3, 4). This verse poses an intractable problem for Calvinists. If God’s will is always carried out and cannot be frustrated by humans, then why will some perish rather than repent? If repentance is given by God’s sovereign will as part of the process of unconditional election and God’s will is for everyone to repent, then why isn’t everyone elected?
Passages like this are ultimately fatal to the notion that God wills the salvation of only a select few. Rather, they affirm that God’s will is for everyone to enjoy the benefits of the atonement and experience salvation. The fact that so many do not receive salvation is a testament to humanity’s God-given ability to make choices contrary to God’s will.
Points 3-6: While each of the theories of the atonement informs our understanding of what was accomplished by Christ’s death, we agree with many Calvinists that the penal-substitutionary theory most fully expresses its purpose. Simply put, by dying on the cross, Jesus bore the penalty of our sins and became a substitute for us so we would not have to endure our just punishment. If this is so, Calvinists ask, how then could God punish both Christ and sinners for the same sins?
Here we need to introduce two elements of the atonement. One element is objective, the other subjective. When Christ died, He objectively atoned for the sins of all people. If no one had ever accepted His sacrifice, that would not have changed the fact that He paid the full penalty for sin. However, in order for individuals to experience the benefit of this atonement, they need to accept it by grace through faith. This is the subjective element.
To use the penal-substitutionary analogy of a courtroom, imagine the following scenario. Ten men are convicted of a capital crime. An innocent man offers to be executed, on the condition that any of the guilty may escape punishment if they accept his punishment on their behalf.
The judge agrees, and the man is executed. In the judge’s eyes, the innocent man has objectively accepted the punishment for all ten guilty. But when the judge explains the situation to the ten guilty men, only five of them agree to accept the judge’s offer. The five who accept the innocent man’s death on their behalf have now subjectively received his sacrifice. The other five did not subjectively receive it, even though it was already objectively accomplished.
This distinction between the objective and subjective elements of the atonement is beautifully described in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 (cf. 1 Timothy 4:10). In Christ, God has already reconciled the world to Himself (v. 19). That is, He has objectively made peace with humanity. Yet as God’s ambassadors, we are commissioned to beg the world to be reconciled to God (v. 20). That is, they must subjectively receive Jesus’ sacrifice.
The situation described here is a relationship. God has reconciled Himself to humanity through Christ’s death. Humanity must now be reconciled to God by faith. One of the great casualties of Calvinistic notions about God’s sovereignty is that it rules out the possibility of genuine relationship between God and humans. According to Scripture, humans subjectively decide whether they will be reconciled to God, but God has already been objectively reconciled to humanity.
In the last issue, we discussed unconditional election, along with its claim that faith is something predestined by God for certain ones to receive. We found that faith is a human response of trust in God. God initiates, humans respond. To be sure, faith originates with God, as does the grace to respond in faith. However, these gifts of faith and grace are not limited to an elect few but extended to all, so that everyone can respond to God’s offer of life and relationship with Him.
Point 7: The Calvinist notion that scriptures such as John 3:16 and 2 Corinthians 5:19 do not refer to all inhabitants of the world, cannot be supported hermeneutically. As Elwell notes, “A study of the word world . . . shows that the world is God-hating, Christ-rejecting, and Satan-dominated. Yet that is the world for which Christ died. There is not one place in the entire NT where ‘world’ means ‘church’ or ‘the elect’.” Numerous passages clearly rule out the Calvinist interpretations of world and all (e.g., Isaiah 53:6; 1 John 2:2; and 1 Timothy 2:1-6). No wonder, then, that the vast majority of theologians throughout church history have held to an unlimited view of the atonement.
We hold this view as well. We are not content to simply enjoy our election as the favored few. Rather, we join God in His desire for all to be saved, and we take seriously our commission to preach the message of reconciliation to a world for which Christ has already atoned. When we preach the gospel, we affirm that God has reconciled Himself to them. And on His behalf, we beg them, be reconciled to God! We are a church on mission — a church engaged in witness.