Jay Adams has a way with words, and an excellent way of explaining the significance of the doctrine of limited atonement in the Reformed view. He describes the T (total depravity) and P (perseverance of the saints) as the bun, holding the burger together, and the U (unconditional election) and the I (irresistible grace) as the lettuce and tomato. But the part that makes the burger a burger is the “meat” of the L (limited atonement).
To hold to the fact that Jesus didn’t die for “mankind,” or, as that means, persons in general—but for persons in particular, is essential to having a “Personal Savior … He didn’t die for people in general, but that He knew His sheep, and called them by name, and gave His life for each one of them individually is a blessed truth, not to be omitted from the burger … Jesus didn’t come to make salvation possible—He came to “seek and to save that which was lost… . He didn’t die needlessly for millions who would reject Him. if universal atonement were true, then God could hardly punish men and women for eternity for whom Christ had already suffered the punishment. There is no double jeopardy. And therefore, there is no burger unless it is a TULIPBURGER!
In asserting limited atonement Adams makes four key assertions:
- Jesus died for people specifically, not people in general, otherwise He would not be a personal Savior.
- Jesus didn’t just make salvation possible, he accomplished it.
- To die for those who would reject him would be unnecessary.
- To die for those who would reject Him is unjust, because it would be double jeopardy, or double punishment.
Each of these four are problematic in the light of Scripture.
Jesus didn’t die for people specifically.
First, Jesus Himself speaks in general terms when describing the beneficiaries of His own death in John 3:16. Further, the “seek and save” passage narrates how Zacchaeus was saved before Christ died (Lk 19:10) – just like Abraham before him (Gen 15:6). As Ephesians 2:8-9 describes, grace is the means through the vehicle of faith whereby the gift of salvation is applied to the believer. Even Caiaphas recognized that Jesus would die for “the people” (Jn 11:50). In John 8:24 Jesus proclaims in the temple a warning to all who were present that they needed to believe in order to avoid dying in their sins. While many believed (Jn 8:30), not all did. Jesus made the offer to all—even to those who would not believe. Why would He not have provided, in addition to His offer, a way for them to receive what He had offered? Here is a case of false dichotomy: we are not left with only two choices (that Jesus died for people in general, or that He died for people specifically). The answer is simply all of the above. Jesus died for all generally, and every individual specifically.
Jesus didn’t just make salvation possible, He accomplished it.
If He accomplished salvation on the cross, then where is the need for faith? The doctrine of regeneration preceding faith takes care of that. According to this particular brand of Calvinism, God has regenerated the person before they had faith, in order that they would have faith. But consider God’s own metaphor of the salvific process: the Passover. Exodus 12:7, and 12:12-13 describe how the Israelites had to apply the blood of the lamb in order to be saved. An Israelite could kill the lamb, but if the blood wasn’t applied to the doorposts, the angel of death would not spare the firstborn of that household. Again, Door #3 is the correct answer here: it appears that neither regeneration precedes faith nor faith precedes regeneration, but that they are concurrent. Also, Peter recounts how Gentiles were told they would be given words by which they would be saved (Acts 11:14) – the verb is future active indicative. It had not yet been accomplished when the message was given. Christ’s death didn’t save them, their appropriate response to Him was the vehicle that completed the transaction.
To die for those who would reject him would be unnecessary.
This statement assumes that the only purpose for His death was to accomplish salvation. However, His death demonstrated also His worthiness to receive glory (Rev 5:12), it served as an opportunity for Him to be submissive to the Father, and ultimately receive glory (Php 2:5-9). While His death was necessary for more than just the salvation of those who would receive it, whether necessary or necessary is not the issue. Whether or not Jesus died for all is. John explains that Jesus is the propitiation (satisfaction, hilasmos) for the sins not only of “us,” but also of the whole world (1 Jn 2:2).
In Christ, the Father was reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor 5:19), and Paul is entreating people to be reconciled to God (5:20). Christ died once to pay for sins – just for unjust (Heb 7:27, 1 Pet 3:18). Just as one act of Adam brought condemnation for all men, the death of Christ brought “justification of life” to all men (Rom 5:18). Jesus died once, was forsaken by His Father once (Mt 27:46), and in doing that He covered all sin for all humanity. It was one sacrifice for all, once and for all.
Does that mean that all are saved? No. Notice the distinction between “all” in Romans 5:18, and “many” in Romans 5:19. To all were brought justification of life through Christ’s death, but the result is that many will be made righteous, not all. Those that are not made righteous still had their sins paid for (just like any Israelite who had slain the lamb at Passover), but they simply have not applied the death of Christ to their own account (just like any Israelite who had not put the blood on the doorposts).
The wages of sin is death. That is an eternal penalty, and can never be paid off by the individual who is attempting to pay it. In Christ’s death, He brought to humanity a way for their account to be resolved. As we see in Abraham’s case, the belief in the Lord was accounted to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6), but Abraham’s sin still had to be covered. Christ’s death later was the payment for sin that God required in order to remain just in crediting righteousness to Abraham. Paul refers to the gospel as the ability (or power) of God to save people (Rom 1:16-17). All are condemned and under sin (Rom 3:9), but all who believe in Jesus Christ are justified as a gift by His grace (3:22-24). This gospel of personal salvation is to be preached to all creation (Mk 16:15-16). Some will believe, some will not. Jesus has already paid for the sins of all. For those who don’t believe, their sin is paid for, but not applied to their account. That is the simple lesson of the Passover event. Salvation is by grace through faith.
To say that God can’t use double jeopardy sounds catchy, but it places God under a western judicial principle that He simply isn’t obligated by. Further, there are no “overages” in payment for sin (hence, no double jeopardy or double punishment). The application of grace is and has always been through the vehicle of faith in Him. To suggest that salvation is accomplished apart from faith is contrary to that longstanding principle that the just shall live by faith (Hab 2:4).
With all due love and respect to Jay Adams and others who hold to TULIP, this is one of the rare occasions where I will skip the burger and enjoy another meal instead. Exegetically, the TULIPburger isn’t quite right – just too many artificial ingredients.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as President of Calvary University, and is the author or general editor of several books including: Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning, Gifted: Understanding the Holy Spirit and Unwrapping Spiritual Gifts, and Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie. Dr. Cone previously served in executive and faculty roles at Southern California Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, and in pastoral roles at Tyndale Bible Church and San Diego Fellowship of the Bible.