All Christians believe in limited atonement. The atonement does not save all men.
Arminians believe that the atonement is unlimited even though some men are not saved. What they mean is that Christ's work is intended for all men and any man equally and without any distinction. The limitation is strictly man's doing. Man exercises his free will and the way he exercises his will determines whether the atonement does him saving good. God's intention is universal and the application of the benefits of the atonement is particular, i.e., to those who believe.
Some Calvinists take the opposite view: Christ's atonement is intended for the elect exclusively and this limitation of intention limits the application. In this case both God's intention and the application of the benefits are particular.
In both the Arminian scheme and the Calvinistic, the application is particular. Only those who believe will be saved. The important difference between these two views is in the intention of God; in the one case it is strictly universal and in the other case it is strictly particular.
Are these the only possible positions? Some Calvinists take a different view of God's intention: a middle road or tertium quid. These Calvinists see both a universal intention and a particular intention in God's purposes and in the atonement itself. This is the position that I am advocating in this blog. I believe it is the position of John Calvin.
As I pointed out in a previous two-part blog post regarding the unity of the Trinity, (entitled "The Incongruity of Limited Atonement) the particular intention is reflected in the decree of election and the effectual call, while the universal intention is reflected in God's universal love (Matthew 5:45) and the general call (Acts 17:30).
Many who hold the "L" in TULIP these days, hold it strictly, i.e., they hold that the intention and the application are equally limited. I suggest that one can hold the "L" while also holding that there are universal aspects in the atonement, as there are universal aspects in God's love and in the call of the gospel. This involves no conflict within the Trinity.
These divergent intentions in God — universal and particular — are generally said to reflect different aspects of God's will (or even "two wills" in God). The particular intention is — prior to its execution in history — known only to God, while the universal intention is declared to all (in principle, though not in actuality) through revelation. These intentions correspond to God's secret will and His revealed will.
The secret will and the revealed will are often (usually?) at variance from one another, but we ought not (it seems to me) to consider one as "more real" than the other. The secret will is not more real because it is actually carried into fruition, nor is it less real though it is often contrary to that which is revealed as God's will. For Christians committed to the authority of the scripture and the Holiness of God, both His revealed will and His secret will must be considered real, meaningful, and in keeping with His Holy character.
This may involve us in mysteries, but this cannot be avoided by any method than smoothing out one's theology to fit with one's biases. One may smooth out the theology in the Arminian way, by denying all sovereign interference in man's will. In this theology, God effectively has no secret will: man decides his own course. One may smooth out the theology in the way of certain Calvinists by exalting the secret will to primary status and relegating the revealed will to irrelevancy or nonexistence. In this theology, God effectively has no revealed will and man's volitions become meaningless.
It seems to me that both ways are wrong.
I submit that the middle way is the way of Calvin. We can see this in his commentary on 2Peter 3:9. Though this comment does not directly relate to the atonement, it does reflect Calvin's universalism in respect of God's love and his view of the secret and revealed will of God:
But the Lord is not slack, or, delays not. He checks extreme and unreasonable haste by another reason, that is, that the Lord defers his coming that he might invite all mankind to repentance.
* * *
And as to the duration of the whole world, we must think exactly the same as of the life of every individual; for God by prolonging time to each, sustains him that he may repent. In the like manner he does not hasten the end of the world, in order to give to all time to repent.
This is a very necessary admonition, so that we may learn to employ time aright, as we shall otherwise suffer a just punishment for our idleness.
Not willing that any should perish. So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost. But the order is to be noticed, that God is ready to receive all to repentance, so that none may perish; for in these words the way and manner of obtaining salvation is pointed out. Every one of us, therefore, who is desirous of salvation, must learn to enter in by this way.
But it may be asked, If God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish? To this my answer is, that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God, according to which the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin, but only of his will as made known to us in the gospel. For God there stretches forth his hand without a difference to all, but lays hold only of those, to lead them to himself, whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.
Re-read this passage in Calvin and notice some things. Notice the universality: "all mankind," "give to all time to repent," love towards mankind, all to be saved, etc. But notice also the particularity reflected in the final paragraph. The reprobate are doomed to their own ruin while God lays hold of those whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world.
More importantly for my purposes in this article, notice Calvin's reference to God's hidden purpose one the one hand and his will as made known to us in the gospel on the other hand. In God's hidden purpose, "the reprobate are doomed to their own ruin." While in God's will as expressed in the gospel, he "stretches forth his hand without a difference to all." There we have the difference between the secret will and the revealed will taught by Calvin himself. And these two aspects of God's will are particular and universal respectively.
So I do hold to limited atonement. I hold that God has a special love for his elect, which is reflected in Christ's work for his church, and results in the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. I also hold that in some ways the atonement is for all men. I hold that God has love for all men, which is reflected in his sending Christ to save the world, and results in the general call of the gospel to any who will hear.
How do I hold to limited atonement? In this way:
For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe.
1Timothy 4:10Technorati Tags: john calvin, calvinism, limited atonement, reformed theology, unlimited atonement