If there is an incongruity in the idea of unlimited atonement, it cannot be rooted in a conflict between the members of the Trinity but in an incongruity between election, particular redemption, and the effectual call on the one hand and general love, universal atonement, and the free offer of the gospel on the other. There is no conflict between the members of the Holy Trinity, but an apparent conflict within God's plan.
The conflict exists between two manifestations of God's will: God's will of decree as opposed to God's revealed will. That such a tension exists between God's decretive will and His revealed will is obvious from many passages of scripture. When Jesus taught us to pray "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," he implicitly taught us that God's revealed will does not always come to pass despite God's desire that it should come to pass. Or take the occasion of Jesus' lamentation over Jerusalem. He said, "how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Matthew 23:37.) Here Jesus strongly expressed the revealed will of God, which God did not see fit to bring about through His will of decree. I believe the conflict is also seen in Christ's prayer in Gethsemane. (I am unwilling to consign Jesus' cry for deliverance to his human nature only.)
To return to the pressing question for unlimited atonement, how could it be that God could love a sinner -- love him enough to send His only Son to die for that sinner -- and yet consign him to eternal damnation without mercy? One must, of course, appeal to mystery at this point. R. L. Dabney writing on this question urges us to modesty in analyzing the infinite mind:
Let one take this set of facts. Here is a company of sinners; God could convert all by the same powers by which He converts one. He offers His salvation to all and assures them of His general benevolence. He knows perfectly that some will neglect the offer; and yet, so knowing, He intentionally refrains from exerting those powers, to overrule their reluctance, which He is able to exert if He chose. This is but a statement of stubborn facts; it cannot be evaded without impugning the omniscience, or omnipotence of God, or both. Yet, see if the whole difficulty is not involved in it. Every evangelical Christian, therefore, is just as much interested in seeking the solution of this difficulty as the Calvinist. And it is to be sought in the following brief suggestions. God's concern in the transgression and impenitence of those whom He suffers to neglect His warnings and invitations, is only permissive. He merely leaves men to their own sinful choice. His invitations are always impliedly, or explicitly conditional; suspended on the sinner's turning. He has never said that He desires the salvation of a sinner as impenitent; He only says, if the sinner will turn, he is welcome to salvation. And this is always literally true; were it in the line of possibilities that one non-elect should turn, he would find it true in his case. All, therefore, that we have to reconcile is these three facts; that God should see a reason why it is not proper, in certain cases, to put forth His almighty grace to overcome a sinner's reluctance; and yet that He should be able to do it if He chose; and yet should be benevolent and pitiful towards all His creatures. Now God says in His Word that He does compassionate lost sinners. He says that He could save if He pleased. His word and providence both show us that some are permitted to be lost. In a wise and good man, we can easily understand how a power to pardon, a sincere compassion for a guilty criminal, and yet a fixed purpose to punish, could co-exist; the power and compassion being overruled by His wisdom. Why may not something analogous take place in God, according to His immutable nature? Is it said: such an explanation implies a struggle in the breast between competing considerations, inconsistent with God's calm blessedness? I reply, God's revelations of His wrath, love, pity, repentance, &c., are all anthropopathic, and the difficulty is no greater here, than in all these cases. Or is it said, that there can be nothing except a lack of will, or a lack of power to make the sinner both holy and happy? I answer: it is exceeding presumption to suppose that, because we do not see such a cause, none can be known to God!
Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, pages 245-246. The modest position is to allow mystery where scripture speaks clearly and logic fails us.Technorati Tags: unlimited atonement, limited atonement, dabney, calvinism