Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A Word in Favor of Limited Atonement

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 4:10

Technorati Tags: , , , ,


Anonymous said...

Interesting. Thought provoking. It is something to think about and discuss further.

Steve said...

I'm glad you found it thought provoking. I'm always ready to discuss. Thanks for taking a look! :-)


Anonymous said...


I may just be hard headed but I don't see anything here but an attempt to hold contradictions together and call them non-contradictory. Before I comment further I wonder if you could elaborate some so I can be sure that I am not getting the wrong impression.

Could you please explain how exactly God loves the reprobate?

Could you please explain how the call to salvation for the reprobate is genuine when God has irrevocably predetermined to doom them and makes it impossible for them to respond to that call.

Could you please explain how God is really reaching out to all when he intends only to grab a few?


BTW, I made a correction on the post linking here regarding your moderate Calvinist position.

Anonymous said...

I guess I should have said "controversial" instead of "moderate" Calvinism :-)

Steve said...

Of course, my Calvinist friends (many of them) see the same problems you do, Ben. I "hold contradictions" (and I'm a "closet Arminian," etc.)

First, I don't want to hold contradictions ... if they really are contradictions.

Second, I value God's truth above my "logic" ... if it really is logic. I hate to claim humility, but my attitude is self-consciously submissive to the authority of God's word. If the exegesis is clear, the system must bend. If that means holding what others call "contradiction," then so be it. It may just be that the finite mind cannot comprehend the Infinite Mind. Or it may be that the finite mind is just not thinking clearly, for one reason or another. But for the same reason I refuse to corrupt exegesis for the Calvinist system, I refuse to corrupt exegesis for the Arminian system.

And finally, I don't believe they really are contradictory. The idea that God's sovereignty renders man's freedom illusory and meaningless is the root of the problem (as I see it). I refuse to throw over either God's sovereignty or the meaningfulness of man's actions. If that's a contradiction, then it is at least the kind of contradiction that the greatest thinkers have struggled with for millennia. It's one of those unavoidable problems that appears to have no apparent solution ... at least no solution apparent to the finite mind.

How does God love the reprobate? Well ... John 3:16; Matthew 5:44 et seq.; Ezekiel 18:23, 30-32; Ezekiel 33:11; 2Peter 3:9; etc. Good things, the gospel, the incarnation, all evidences of God's love for men.

Many Calvinists (especially those inclined to hyperism) will deny that those are evidences of God's love, while Arminians will accept that these are evidences of God's love but deny that the objects of God's love are reprobate. Both deny that God could love those whom he has reprobated. Yet these are clearly evidences of God's love, and there clearly are many who will end in the lake of fire.

How can the call to salvation be genuine? I don't like arguments that hinge on God being "unrighteous" if such and such is true. Regardless of our feeling about God, He is who He is, and we must accept Him as He has revealed Himself. The call must be genuine because that is the way scripture presents it. I think you'd agree with that. The scripture also portrays Him as the One who ordains all things. I don't believe this is a contradiction ... but it's difficult to explain. It's a lot easier to exegete from the Bible ... but the system begins to look messy.

As far as "impossibility," it's plainly not "impossible"; but it is against man's sinful nature. Repentance is in one sense perfectly natural, and in another sense utterly miraculous.

How is God really reaching out? Well ... he really reaches out in the incarnation and in the preaching of the gospel. He reaches out in the ministry of the church, and in the good things that he gives to evil men every day. How can he do this and only save some? That's beyond my ability to critique; and it is beyond my inclination to critique.

That's about the best I can do. But I am completely satisfied with it. And I am convinced that it is the most faithful to God's revelation of Himself. All other systems smooth over the problems with a resulting compromise to theology proper.

Anonymous said...


I don't have time right now to engage all that you have written. I did want to comment on this however,

That's about the best I can do. But I am completely satisfied with it. And I am convinced that it is the most faithful to God's revelation of Himself. All other systems smooth over the problems with a resulting compromise to theology proper.

You said this in your post as well and I must admit that it bothers me some. Basically, you are saying that your conception of sovereignty = exhaustive determinism is correct (which is fine for you to believe that) and that anyone who might disagree with this is just trying to "smooth things over".

Now that might be true if your understanding of predestination and election and sovereignty were infallibly correct, but those are the very things in dispute, and you seem to admit that these things have been debated for centuries. So how is it that you can say that those who disagree with you are just trying to "smooth out" their theology (i.e. refusing to face the facts and embrace the "apparent" contradictions), without begging the question?

Maybe I am misunderstanding you here. I hope so. I don't see Arminianism as trying to "smooth" anything out. I see it as harmonizing the entirety of Scripture. I don't need to smooth out a contradiction between free will and sovereignty because I do not see sovereignty being taught in the Bible as exhaustive determinism.

So I admit that we disagree, but I contend that we disagree over exegesis and what the Bible actually reveals, and not over whether we will just let the Bible speak for itself of try to smooth things over. From my perspective there is nothing to smooth over because I don't see the "apparent" contradictions that you insist are there.

God Bless,

Steve said...

Fair enough, Ben. I haven't devoted study to the Arminian position, so I might have your position all wrong. I guess I should say that some Calvinists smooth out their theology at the expense of hermeneutics (this I *know* to be true), and it seems to me that Arminianism does the same thing. But I'm willing to be corrected on that last point.

Though I am not a closet Arminian, (as my Calvinist brothers suspect), I imagine that we have a lot of common ground. I appreciate very much, for example, Wesley's comment on Ephesians 2:8,9.

Regarding my understanding of theology, I certainly don't claim exhaustive knowledge of God, nor do I claim infallibility with respect to those things I claim to know.

I do insist that the Bible is clear enough for men of ordinary intelligence to read and understand. Hermeneutical gymnastics are anathema to me. If we agree on that much, we can make real progress, likely.

Anonymous said...

I do insist that the Bible is clear enough for men of ordinary intelligence to read and understand. Hermeneutical gymnastics are anathema to me. If we agree on that much, we can make real progress, likely.

We absolutely agree on that and that is the primary reason why I am an Arminian.

God Bless,