Ministerial Meanderings

God centered theology in a man centered world.

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Location: Springfield, Missouri, United States

I was born in Washington D.C. and raised in Laurel, Maryland. I served in the United States Air Force for 20 years then retired. Then God led me to become a pastor. I was converted to Christ in the summer of 1966. I enjoy the company of my wife, children and grandchildren. I live with my three cats Taz.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

L is for Limited Atonement

This is the next on my series of articles defining the 5 Points of Calvinism (also called the "Doctrines of Grace"). The hardest point of Calvinistic doctrine for people to believe is this one, limited atonement. That is because it seems to go against everything they have been taught before.

Simply stated, the doctrine of limited atonement says that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he died to actually secure the salvation of those people God has chosen to save (the elect). The heart of the Evangelical gospel is the doctrine of the "penal substitutionary atonement" of Jesus Christ. When I was a student at Liberty University they taught us this. Liberty is no friend of Reformed theology, but even they taught the penal substitutionary atonement. Penal substitutionary atonement says that Jesus substituted for (or took the place of) someone and suffered the penalty due to that person for their sins. Thus we say "Jesus died for me." When we say that we are saying that Jesus stood in my place. He was my substitute. He suffered for me.

But to be a true substitution, Jesus must stand in the place of an actual person. Some Calvinists call this "definite atonement" because they want to emphasize that Jesus made an actual atonement for someone. The Bible has various names for this group of people for whom Jesus made an actual substitution. For example ...

"You shall call his name 'Jesus' for he shall save his people from their sins." (Matt. 1:21).

"For God so loved the world that He gave His only Begotten Son, that whosoever believes on him will never perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16).

"I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep." (John 10:11).

"Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it..." (Eph. 5:25).

There are others, but you can see that these verses give the sense of particularity, that Christ died for an actual group of people. They are variously called his people, believers, his sheep, the Church, those the Father had given him, the elect and so on. Calvinists believe that Jesus' death on the cross actually secured the salvation of (that is, actually paid for the sins of) his people.

Now let me be clear here. Calvinists believe salvation takes place in time, that is, a person is saved when they turn in saving faith to the Lord Jesus Christ as their God and Savior. Jesus' death secured their salvation but they are saved when they come to believe that. One teacher of mine once said that no one is saved by believing that God so loved the world, but they are saved when they come to believe that God so loved me (him or herself). Unconditional election took place "before the foundation of the world." (Eph. 1:4) But we are saved in time. For example, I believe God chose me for salvation before the foundation of the world, but He saved me in 1966.

It is at this point where Arminianism begins to break down into various groups because different groups of Arminians disagree over what Jesus actually did on the cross. One group holds that Jesus died for every human who ever lived, is living and ever will live. Yet, since not every human is saved, Jesus did not die to secure their salvation. Rather, Jesus died to make all men savable, dependent on whether they will choose to exercise saving faith in him. So Jesus died for all men generally, but no one in particular. Jesus' death does not actually secure the salvation of anyone.

A small caveat here, I use the terms "man" and "men" generally to mean humankind, or people, or all humans generally. So when I say "Jesus died for all men generally" it is understood that I mean that Jesus died generally for every human.

Another Arminian position is that Jesus' death on the cross removed "all the barriers" between God and men (again making men savable). The common theme of Arminian theology on the atonement is that the death of Jesus doesn't actually save anyone but makes men savable.

One group that tries to take advantage of both positions are called "Amyraldians" named after the French theologian Moises Amyrault. He taught that Jesus' death actually paid the penalty for all men's sins so that now there is no sin for which a person would be condemned. But God chooses to apply this forgiveness to his elect alone. So Jesus died for all men generally but not all men benefit savingly from Jesus' atonement.

To me, the chief problem with both the Amyraldian and the Arminian position is that it has people suffering in hell whose sins are forgiven. Both groups agree that not everyone in the world will be saved and both groups agree that Jesus' death paid for the sins of all men. Therefore, there are people who go to hell whose sins are forgiven. Calvinism teaches that men go to hell because their sins are not paid for.

In answer to the charge that this seems like an unfair doctrine, the question must be asked, unfair according to who? If a Governor of a State pardons a convicted criminal, is it unfair of him not to pardon every convicted criminal? Of course not. But why not? Because all the convicts are guilty! They are being justly punished for their crimes. And every sinner who goes to hell is being justly punished for their sins. It is rightly said that no one goes to hell who does not deserve to go there. Conversely, no one goes to heaven who deserves to be there either.

Limited atonement is an unfortunate name. But one could not do the TULIP acrostic without it. It is also called definite atonement or particular redemption (emphasizing that Jesus redeemed a particular people). Calvinists believe the extent of Christ's atonement is limited to the people God has chosen to save. By the way, Arminians limit the atonement also. They limit it's power to save by saying that it secures no one's salvation unless a human chooses to allow it to save them.

Charles Spurgeon once said that if God had painted a stripe down the back of every elect person, he would go about London lifting up men's coattails. The truth is that no one knows who the elect are. We find out when a person believes. (More on this tomorrow). But our task as Christians is to preach the gospel to every person we can so that the whosoevers will come. The Calvinist knows that God has chosen to save "a numberless multitude which no man can count." They are drawn out of the world from "every tongue, tribe, nation, and people." So there are people everywhere who will believe (sooner or later) if they are exposed to the gospel. The Calvinist knows that every person who comes to Christ is a precious one for whom Jesus died. And God gets the glory for every soul that is saved. To put it another way, the Arminian thinks that a person becomes elect when they choose to believe in Jesus. The Calvinist believes that a person believes because they are elect. In short, "we love Him because He first loved us."

Where a person falls on this doctrine depends a lot on what a person thinks Jesus actually did on the cross. Did he actually save anyone? Or did he die to make men savable? Like I said yesterday, it doesn't matter what I say. Ask yourself, what does the Bible say about what Jesus did on the cross? That is where you want to be on this.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post Semper! This is the crux of the issue. Thanks for the article. :)

- Honestseeker

7:34 AM  

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