Reposted, with permission, from The Cripplegate.
This is the boogieman doctrine of Limited Atonement. What is the debate? The issue is usually phrased this way: “For whom did Christ die, the whole world, or specifically for those who would believe?”
If option A, the whole world, then why are some people in Hell? If option B, only believers, what about the verses that talk about Jesus loving the world? You can see why even some Calvinists disavow this letter, leaving them as diminutive “four-pointers” whose gardens bloom with tu_ips.
Put another way, “Did Jesus die to potentially save everyone or did He die to actually save those who would believe?”
John Calvin articulated that the Bible teaches clearly that Christ’s death effectually accomplishes salvation for those He chose to save. His sparring partner Jacobus Arminius said Christ’s death potentially provides salvation for everyone, but not effectually for anyone. If you were to illustrate this on a napkin for someone you might try this…
- CALVINISTS say: Salvation is a NARROW bridge to Heaven that gets only the elect there.
- ARMINIANS say: Salvation is a WIDE bridge with everyone on it, but it goes only half way.
Substitutionary atonement refers to when the innocent Jesus bore, on the cross, the punishment for guilty sinners. The question is which guilty sinners? If it’s all sinners, then clearly His payment wasn’t sufficient to get them all to Heaven.
If you get caught speeding and get a $100 fine, and someone pays it for you, the check atones for your fine. But how was that fine paid? Was $100 trillion paid into an account and everyone in the world receives a check covering all their speeding fines, but it’s up to each person to cash their check? Or did the fines actually get paid in full for some, so that they are now pardoned, with nothing left for them to do themselves?
Arminius taught that Jesus did not actually pay for anyone’s sins and His death didn’t save anyone. The atonement merely provided the potential for people to be saved, if they choose God. i.e. Jesus picked the lock of the door to Heaven, but He left it up to us to squeeze in. Am I oversimplifying their view? You judge…
Dr J. K. Grider, President of the seminary of the Church of the Nazarene:
Many… say Christ paid the penalty for our sins. Yet….Arminians teach that what Christ did he did for every person; therefore what he did could not have been to pay the penalty for sin, since then no one then would ever go to [Hell].
That is to say, Arminians do not believe Jesus’ death paid for your sins. He did not purchase you with His blood. Believer, let that sink in.Arminians say that what Jesus did purchase for you was the permission for you to be saved, but you have got to get cracking on your salvation, as it is in part up to you to get saved and stay saved.
Don’t be put off by the term ‘Limited Atonement.’ Everyone limits the atonement (except Universalists who say everyone goes to Heaven no matter what.) Calvinists limit the extent of the atonement (it covers only the elect). Arminians limit the power of the atonement, saying it extends to the whole world but is not powerful enough to effectively save anyone.
As usual, the only test is: what does the Bible say?
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. … [They react by calling him demon possessed, then...] …25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. (John 10:11-27)
[S]ince you have given him [God’s Son] authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him….6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. … 9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me (John 17:2)
So, what did Jesus accomplish on the cross? A potential salvation for all, or an actual salvation for those who believe?
[H]e entered once for all into the holy places, … by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. [Not merely “making it possible”]. (Heb. 8:12)
Christ’s death secured redemption for some… “securing an eternal redemption.”
Why did Jesus die? He died to bring us to God – not just to make it possible for us to get to God.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit (1 Pet. 3:18)
But let’s see the other side of the coin…
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. (1 Tim. 2:3)
So, does God want all people to be saved? Yes. Does God love the whole world and everyone in it? Yes. Does everyone believe and get saved and go to heaven? No.
So, are you telling me God doesn’t always get what He wants? …Yes, I am.
This is a mistake people make when they say, “I don’t believe in God because if there is a God why is there evil in the world, and hurricanes, and deformed babies, and murders?” They are assuming God always gets what He wants in this world.
Well, doesn’t He? He is God!
Let me ask you this: God wants you to love your wife, obey your parents, stop your lust, and greed. He wants you to be content with your wages, never worry, and give sacrificially to the ministry. Does God always, consistently, get exactly what He wants from you? Sadly, no, not from me either.
There is a difference between God’s prescriptive will (what He declares He wants) and God’s decreed will (what He wills to happen), a difference between what He desires and what He ordains will happen. (For a clear explanation, here is an article by John Piper, “Are there two wills in God?”)
So how can we say that Jesus died for the whole world and at the same time say that Jesus only died for the elect? The answer lies in this verse:
For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (1 Tim. 4:10)
I had trouble with this doctrine too at first. My understanding was “limited.” But then I realized how love works in my life. I love every person in my flock. But I love my wife differently. I love my neighbor as myself. I love my church, my friends, and hopefully, even my enemies. I love my wife and sons and daughters. But not all in the same way.
And my love for my wife finds expression in ways that my love for my church will not, romantic expression, for example. In a similar way we can say that Jesus loves the world. He loves His enemies. But He loves His followers, His flock, His believers in a unique way.
So 1 Timothy 4:10 is the verse that reconciles the tensions. He is the Savior of all – but in a special way for believers. He accomplished something on the cross that extends to everybody, but He accomplished something in a very special way for the specific group of people He laid His life down for. The word “especially” [malista in Greek] denotes a favored subset within the whole. (Honor your elders, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; provide for your relatives, especially those in your own household, to borrow two examples from the same epistle).
That is what Calvinists believe: God loves the world, anything we get in this life is a grace from God that we don’t deserve, and unbelievers get this too – health, family, enjoyment of sport and work – and they get this because Jesus bought it on the cross. But for unbelievers, this common grace ends at death. But God has a special relationship with His chosen ones that includes something unique to them, namely salvation, special grace for this life and the next.
Most people who reject this doctrine do so because they don’t understand it. They think we are saying Christ’s blood wasn’t enough for the whole world. But that is not what most Calvinists have taught over the centuries. I concur with David Steele, who explains,
Christ’s obedience and suffering were of infinite value, and that if God had so willed, the satisfaction rendered by Christ would have saved every member of the human race. It would have required no more obedience, nor any greater suffering to save [everyone].
That is to say that if one additional person asked to be saved, Christ would not need to have spent an additional second on the cross or sustained one more lash. His suffering and death were infinite and able to save an infinite number of souls. That is why anyone at any time can repent, believe, and be saved.
That is why “We proclaim Him, warning everyone and teachig everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28).
So, it may sound like Calvinists would preach to fewer people because they don’t believe everyone goes to heaven. That just isn’t true. No one knows who will believe. And God ordains the means to save people—preaching, and then He commands us to preach to every person or die trying.
But when someone believes, who gets the credit? Us, for our missionary endeavors? No, Jesus the Savior because it was His work that accomplished the salvation; all we did was deliver the good news.
So the question for you today is – how do you know if you are one that Christ died for? To quote Spurgeon
Will you answer me a question or two and I will tell you whether He died for you. Do you want a Savior? Do you feel that you need a Savior? Are you this morning conscious of sin? Has the Holy Spirit taught you that you are lost? Then Christ died for you, and you will be saved.
And that is the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Please be gentle in the comments section – I only wrote this for those who believe in it. (Get it?)
Dr. Clint Archer (MDiv, ThM, DMin) is the senior pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Durban, South Africa (since 2005). He has written several books, including The Preacher’s Payday, A Visitor’s Guide to Hell, The Home Team, and Holding the Rope. You can follow him on twitter @ClintArcher