Monday, November 09, 2009

Assurance Must Rest on Universal Atonement - Part 1

Taking on a Pyro Blogger

One of the Pyro bloggers has given what he believes is an unanswerable objection to those who believe that limited atonement (as most commonly held) removes all grounds for assurance. His answer is part of a series of quick answers: short verbal jabs, intended to "checkmate" the theological opponent in fifty words or less. His stated goal in these short posts is to require his opponent to think, while not wasting too much time actually engaging with the theological opponent. "The response," says Phillips, "is meant to be that sort of a verbal sharp stick." I mean to take on one of his recent "gotchas."

I must, of course, devote more than fifty words to answering his objection. It takes less time to throw mud against a wall than to clean it off. But the subject deserves some thought; and though Phillips apparently thinks he has the answer, I hope to show that he has both understated the problem and completely missed the answer.

Can we know that Christ died for us?

In a recent entry, Phillips has given an answer to the complaint that an atonement that is in no way universal gives no ground for assurance or a free gospel call. Phillips gives his "verbal sharp stick" answer this way:

if you do believe He equally atoned for the sins of Judas, the Beast, Peter and you, you don't have any assurance that your sins won't send you to Hell. Poor trade-off, that.

So Phillips's answer -- if I may be permitted to shorten it even further -- amounts to this: "Same to you, Buddy." More seriously, Phillips is really saying that assurance that the atonement is for me (because it is for all) comes at the cost of assurance that the atonement will actually save me. Assurance of universal scope comes at the cost of assurance of efficacy.

How can we have assurance?

The first question we might ask is, "assurance of what?" When he says "assurance," the modern evangelical believer generally means assurance of salvation. And that assurance of salvation is generally equated with belief in the promises of God. God has promised salvation to those who believe in Him, and this promise is the grounds for assurance. "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it."

Calvin distinguishes between "faith" and "hope." Faith is certain knowledge of the benevolence or mercy of God, founded on the free promise in Christ, and sealed on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Hope, on the other hand, is the assurance that springs from faith.

Wherever this living faith exists, it must have the hope of eternal life as its inseparable companion, or rather must of itself beget and manifest it; where it is wanting, however clearly and elegantly we may discourse of faith, it is certain we have it not.

Institutes, 3.2.42

So while not equating assurance with faith, Calvin says that assurance is always produced by it. This is so much the case that where there is no assurance, there is no faith.

So as the first step in our argument, which I will pursue in subsequent posts, we must first see that assurance is a necessary result of true faith.

Thus, faith believes that God is true; hope expects that in due season he will manifest his truth. Faith believes that he is our Father; hope expects that he will always act the part of a Father towards us. Faith believes that eternal life has been given to us; hope expects that it will one day be revealed. Faith is the foundation on which hope rests; hope nourishes and sustains faith. For as no man can expect any thing from God without previously believing his promises, so, on the other hand, the weakness of our faith, which might grow weary and fall away, must be supported and cherished by patient hope and expectation. For this reason Paul justly says, “We are saved by hope,” (Rom. 8:24).

Institutes 3.2.42

I will continue to develop this argument in part 2, coming soon.


Dominic Bnonn Tennant said...

I must say, this so-called "gotcha" is a painfully jejune effort if ever there was one.

Firstly, it completely fails to actually rebut the argument made against particular atonement. In that way, it's just a concession to the argument—an implicit acknowledgment that there is no assurance under a particular atonement. That's pretty weak.

Secondly, it's staggeringly inept as a refutation of the universal position. I'm having trouble even constructing the syllogism that is evidently supposed to be in there. It's just embarrassing, if I understand it correctly:

1. Under a universal atonement, the sins of Judas and the Beast are atoned for as well as Christians.

2. The Beast and Judas are not saved.

3. Therefore, a universal atonement does not, in itself, ensure salvation.

4. An atonement which does not, in itself, ensure salvation cannot provide assurance of salvation.

Uh...huh. How does (4) follow from (3)? And isn't (3) just another way of saying that a universal atonement does not, in itself, justify? Shouldn't that be true of a particular atonement as well? Does Phillips even know what proponents of universal atonement believe? Does he think we believe that the atonement, itself, justifies? Does he believe that? Is he not aware that "we have been justified by faith"?

Do the Beast and Judas have faith?


Steve said...

Yeah, Dom, I agree completely. Phillips's argument is very nearly small enough to fit on a bumper sticker ... but not quite. And it's very nearly good enough for a bumper sticker ... but not quite. :-)

Steve said...

If Tony were here, he'd say, "'Not quite good enough for a bumper sticker' would be a good name for a Paltalk chat room." lol.

Phil said...

I'm the guy who raised all the points Dan ignores. He's actually a really horrible debater, it's not surprising he can't construct a decent syllogism.
High Calvinism does that to you.

Steve said...

That's right, Phil. And the reason it does that to you is because of all the inconvenient Biblical facts that contradict the high Calvinist system.

B Barnes said...

You guys are missing the point and proving his point at the same time. First, the NEXT! series isn't meant to rebut the topic at hand. It can be helpful to read the entire point of the NEXT! series, which is only in the first one, to get the point of the seies here:

One point is to move the conversation to meaningful dialogue (and not waste time debating meaningless objections), and I believe it does.

Secondly, Dom asked "Do the Beast and Judas have faith?". This very question, asked to defend universal atonement's assurance, would be asked to defend limited atonement's assurance also. This fact makes the objection to limited atonement meaningless, because both positions ask "do you have faith" as a test of assurance.

Dan's NEXT! answer brought its intended response - Dom's question - which is the starting point to meaningful dialogue. You see, it shows that faith gives us assurance in both positions, so there really is no difference in the extent of the atonement in the matter of assurance. Hence, the assertion addressed by that NEXT! is meaningless and is moved to a more meaningful discussion (which would likely be "who has faith?", "where does faith come from?", or "why does a person have faith?"

Steve said...

No, BBarnes, the point of the series is to demonstrate the superiority of the blog writer, not to move to meaningful dialog. He doesn't want to do meaningful dialog. I would ask Dom to tell us whether he feels the blog writer engaged in "meaningful dialog" with him.

As for faith as a basis for assurance, I contend that faith should not be the basis of assurance; assurance can be gained only by looking to Christ. But if Christ has not died for me, then I have no possible foundation for assurance other than my own faith. So the universal atonement view would have one look to Christ for assurance, while the strictly limited atonement view would have one look to oneself for assurance.

A bit ironic, that.

B Barnes said...

Well Steve, you're entitled to your opinion, but the stated fact is that purpose of the NEXT! response isn't intended to be the end of the conversation, but you talk as if it is. Did you honestly read the link to the first one?

As for your second point, isn't looking to Christ exactly what faith is? (To use your language) The limited atonement adherent looks to Christ, the same as universal atonement. The Bible never says to figure out if Christ died for me and we don't - the command is repent and believe.

Since we've established that assurance is the same in either position, as I stated before, this should lead to the next question: How does one get faith or who can exercise faith?
I believe the Bible says that God gives us the faith to believe and the only reason a person would put faith in Jesus is if God has given them faith.

Steve said...

BBarnes, I'm not referring to Phillips's *stated* intention, but his actions. I don't believe he really wants to dialog on the issue. Actions speak louder than words.

You don't see the distinction I'm trying to make between faith in self ("I have faith,") and faith in Christ ("Christ died for me" or "God loves me" etc.). If you see that difference then maybe you'll understand my point. If not, then there's not a lot I can do.

By the way, seeing that distinction is crucial to understanding Calvin's doctrine of faith.

B Barnes said...

His actions were governed by his intentions. You're asking him to cater to what you want. His point for the series is NOT for further discussion on that particular thread, so your expectations are not what he was offering. He stated his intentions up front, but you are requiring him to do more than he intended; that's not fair for you to get upset that he won't cater to your desires. He can't do that for every off-topic discussion to suit everyone's fancy or the point he was originally making would get derailed and lost. He specifically discusses the issue on other threads, and that's where you should go to discuss it. Is he wrong for desiring and enforcing that?

The distinction you make is false. Actually, it's not what I was discussing. I never said "I have faith" (period). Faith in self is no faith at all, as it relates to God's requirement. Faith has an object, and my object was not self. It sounds like you're trying to make a distinction to object to that I am not making. I described faith as when one "looks to Christ". Looking to Christ is meaningless if it's not entailing trusting that He died for my sins or that God loves me. What did you think I meant by "looks to Christ"?

Better yet, what did faith mean in this question by Dom and agreed completely to by you: "Do the Beast and Judas have faith?" Maybe that will clear it up.

When I say "faith gives us assurance" I don't mean just the mere possession of an unattached faith. I mean trusting that Jesus lived, died, and rose for my sins, and that God's promise (that all who put their trust in Christ have assurance of salvation) is true, etc. Salvation and all that it accomplishes has to be taken as a whole. Jesus secured (meaning guaranteed to happen) our regeneration, faith, justification, sanctification, and glorification (not meant to be all inclusive). The fact that we have faith that Christ died for us and that God loves us is evidence that we've been regenerated and that He actually did die for us, because if He hadn't, we wouldn't have that faith.

Phil said...

Maybe think of it this way: the deficiency of salvation (regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, etc) is not with the sacrifice of Christ but with the sinfulness of fallen man.

The high calvinist pays lip service to the idea of a distinction between moral and natural inability of faith but does not carry through the consequences of that belief.

CJ said...

I'm a few years late to this, but I have been wrestling with this very issue. Could you please explain the concept of universal atonement and how it works with salvation? If the sins of all men are atoned for, then how does God's judgment in Revelation and Paul's assertion that God will have compassion and mercy on some but not on others work? Is universal atonement to be viewed separately from salvation?

Thanks in advance.