Jesus is a Perfect Savior: A Brief Case for General Atonement

David Mathis, writing on John Piper's Desiring God blog, posted a brief construct titled, "Jesus Doesn't Fail: An Interview on Definite Atonement." (link) Calvinists have charged Arminianism as presenting a God who fails to save. From their perspective, Jesus never fails to save those whom God decreed to determinately save from eternity past. Denying that Jesus died for all, as Scripture explicitly states -- or at the very least redefining what those passages mean by insisting that Jesus died "for all" -- Calvinists maintain that Jesus died for "His people," i.e., those whom He unconditionally elected to save.

David Mathis presented five passages of Scripture in order to proof-text his position (John 10:11; Eph. 5:25; Rev. 5:9; Mark 10:45; John 11:52). These five selective texts actually weaken the novel theory of Limited Atonement, given that two of them, John 10:11 and Ephesians 5:25, fail to explicitly restrict the extent of the atonement (more on that below); Revelation 5:9 regards a vision of all the redeemed, and also fails to restrict the extent of the atonement; Mark 10:45 is used to restrict the extent, but fails to correspond with other passages which broaden the extent to "all" (Rom. 5:15; 1 Tim. 2:6; cf. John 1:29; 3:16; 6:51; Rom. 14:15; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 19, 20, 21; 1 Tim. 4:10; Heb. 2:9; 2 Pet. 2:1 1 John 2:2; 4:14);1 and John 11:52 fails to explicitly mention the atonement at all: gathering "into one the children of God who are scattered abroad" is not a proper stricture for the atonement, especially as John recorded that the high priest prophesied "that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation" (John 11:51 NIV, emphasis added) -- that is, unless Mathis and other Calvinists are willing to relegate everyone in the Jewish nation as the redeemed children of God.

The primary problem with arguments against General (or Unlimited) Atonement, of course, is their logical fallacy with regard to the extent of the atonement of Christ: "It assumes that because Christ's death was 'sufficient' to save all for whom he died, then it must save all for whom he died."2 (emphasis added) But the atonement is more qualitative than quantitative. This is why charges that Arminianism inevitably leads to Universalism are baseless: such could only be true if Christ's death "is viewed in terms of 'quantity' and not in terms of 'quality.'"3 Since the death of Christ for sinners is of infinite value then we must view the atonement in terms of quality over that of quantity. Otherwise we demean the cross and the Savior who bled upon it.

Incidentally, I found Mathis' clear admission refreshing that the theory of Limited Atonement was first codified in the seventeenth century at the Synod of Dort. He is right, of course,  since all early Church fathers from the first through the fourth centuries (and many more thereafter) adhered to unlimited atonement.4 But this fact merely speaks volumes to the inherent novelty of the theory. This theory, then, is only about a hundred years older than the theory of the pre-Tribulational rapture -- a doctrine many among the Calvinistic camp disdain, and allege that such a novel teaching in the history of the church is not thereby a plausible one which Christians should adopt. But I digress.

Mathis interviewed Douglas Wilson on the issue of the origins of the acronym TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints):
The three middle points -- unconditional election, definite atonement, and irresistible grace -- demonstrate how the persons of the Godhead work together inseparably in our salvation: the Father elects, the Son atones, and the Spirit gives life. It is all one seamless garment. The Son dies for those whom the Father has [unconditionally] chosen, and the Spirit regenerates those for whom the Son has died. (link)
While that is a convenient model, one wonders whether Scripture actually teaches that particular motif, especially since so very few throughout Church history have embraced, endorsed, and taught it. However, one can see Arminius, too, following this Trinitarian soteriological formula: The "efficient" cause of salvation is
God the Father in the Son. The Son Himself, as appointed by the Father to be the Mediator and the King of His church, calls men by the Holy Spirit; as He is the Spirit of God given to the Mediator; and as He is the Spirit of Christ the King and the Head of His church, by whom both "the Father and the Son hitherto work." (1 Thess. 2:12; Eph. 2:17; 4:11, 12; Rev. 3:20; John 5:17) But this Vocation [calling] is so administered by the Spirit, that the Holy Spirit is Himself its Effector.5
(So much for Calvinist Abraham Kuyper's foolish and falsifying statements that Arminius followed in the footsteps of Unitarian Faustus Socinus.6) But what Calvinists affirm, regarding the "three middle points" is what all Arminians (and some non-Calvinists; to say nothing of four-point Calvinists or Amyraldians who reject the "L") deny as novel and inherently unbiblical. Like both Mathis and Douglas, we, too, believe that these issues "matter." We want to clearly speak where Scripture clearly speaks. We want to deny what Scripture clearly denies. We need to tread carefully where Scripture is silent.

If we take Scripture at face value then we are obligated to believe, even from a cursory study, that Jesus died:
  • to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29)
  • to take away our sins (1 John 3:5; 4:10)
  • to make atonement for the sins of the people (Heb. 2:17)
  • to purchase persons from every tribe of the earth (Rev. 5:9)
  • for the world (3:16)
  • for the whole world (1 John 2:2)
  • for the life of the world (John 6:51)
  • for the reconciliation of the world (Rom. 5:11; 2 Cor. 5:19)
  • for the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:12, 13, 14, 15, 16)
  • for the reconciliation of all things (Col. 1:20)
  • for all (2 Cor. 5:14, 15)
  • for all to be justified by grace through faith (Rom. 3:24, 25, 26)
  • for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3)
  • for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6)
  • for the Jewish people (John 11:50)
  • for the one whose faith is destroyed (Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:11)
  • for those who deny Christ (2 Pet. 2:1)
The only reason a person would seek to restrict the extent of the atonement, having read even these few passages of Scripture, is due to an a priori notion that requires a restriction. In other words, from even a cursory study, we are required to believe that Christ's death on Calvary extends beyond those for whom the atonement will be applied. Has Christ Jesus indeed died on behalf of all people, and not merely the elect?

ON BEHALF OF

The language of "on behalf of," or, "in the stead of," refers to Jesus performing an atoning act, the benefits and application of which are conditioned by the grace of God and the faith of the individual. "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2 NIV, emphases added) I emphasized περὶ, "for," used three times in this verse. The Greek preposition refers to "through (all over), i.e. around; figuratively with respect to; used in various applications, of place, cause or time." (link) The phrase "with respect to" denotes the extent of the atonement: Christ is the atoning sacrifice with respect to our sins, and not only with respect to ours but also with respect to the sins of the whole (ὅλου) world -- not just "the world," but "the whole world."

To further qualify the extent of the atonement, the apostle uses ὅλου in describing the world -- the "whole" world (cf. 1 John 5:19) -- ὅλου referring to "where all the parts are present and working as a whole -- i.e. as the total, which is greater than the mere sum of the parts. This factor is especially significant in metaphorical contexts or those focusing on the spiritual plane." (link) So, while Calvinists like David Mathis and John Piper seek to restrict the extent of the atonement, even highlighting a passage such as Mark 10:45 ("ransom for many"; cf. Rom. 5:15; 1 Tim. 2:6, "ransom for all"), other passages force Calvinists to redefine or decontextualize simple words like πᾶς (all), περὶ (for, with respect to), and ὅλος (whole).


Were we to redefine words such as "world" or "whole world" to refer to the unconditionally elect, we would not only betray Scripture contextually, but also our Greek-English lexicons. Dr. Terry Miethe comments:
Again, this is an important assertion. The question is, Where does the burden of proof lie? Douty mentions the following works: Trench's Synonyms of the New Testament, Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament, Robinson's A Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament, Thayer's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Souter's Pocket Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Berry's Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Arndt-Gingrich's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Abbott-Smith's Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Tasker's New Bible Dictionary, Everett F. Harrison in Baker's Dictionary of Theology, and John D. Davis in his Dictionary of the Bible (both Harrison and Davis list John 3:16 as referring to mankind, though both are Presbyterians).7
Not one lexicon offers "the world of the unconditionally elect" as even a possible definition for "all" or "the world." The burden of proof belongs to the Calvinist to prove the contrary; but what is usually offered in rebuttal tends toward implications from their novel theory of Unconditional Election rather than proper exegesis of Scripture.

Will the gift of the atonement be granted or applied to all people without qualification? No. Though Christ graced all by dying for their sins, God will only save (and thus regenerate) those who by grace trust in Christ. No one is atoned or saved automatically. Moreover, to grace or "gift" an individual does not imply irresistibility, does not introduce necessity of receiving the gift, nor the imposition of any determination toward an individual. The difference is paramount between a context of "intention," which may not be realized (cf. 1 Thess. 2:18), and that of "determination," wherein God is resolutely determined toward a given action merely by a prior decree. Does this render God a failure regarding salvation?

THE DIVINE INTENT

Often Calvinists use language which cannot be used by Arminians and then they inflict injuries on Arminianism because we cannot agree with their qualified interpretations. For example, in suggesting that God fails to save in the Arminian system, that "Christ's death on the cross actually saved no one,"8 or that God "leaves salvation up to man," and is robbed of His "sovereign right to choose whom to save," we are only guilty of such charges because Calvinists prepare the framework into which they desire to portray our theology. We believe God never fails to save: He saves those who believe (Acts 15:11; 16:31; Rom. 3:22; 10:9; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 4:3, 10; Heb. 7:25; 9:28; 11:6; 1 Pet. 1:8, 9; 1 John 5:10). We do not believe that God leaves salvation up to man: only He can save, and He saves those who believe. We believe God has the sovereign right to choose to save whomsoever He pleases: He pleases to save those who believe.

Could God save more than He actually saves? Theoretically, the potential remains for God to save more than who are actually saved, but it is conditioned upon faith in Christ. Can God force someone to believe? We might suggest that He can; but we will deny that He does or that He would even care to: He is pleased to save those who believe. In one sense, then, God cannot save more than He actually saves because He is pleased and Has decreed to save only those who believe. But He is not bound by an unconditional decree to save only some and, therefore, could save all if all would believe.

God's intent, then, is to save. He wants to save. He wants all to be saved (Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). But He has determined to save only those who believe. When we use the word "intent," with regard to the atonement, we suggest that more could be atoned who will not be atoned. If Christ died for all, then all could be saved, though all will not be saved. For Calvinists, a more appropriate word to use with regard to limited atonement is not "intent," but "determined by decree," since that more appropriately explains their theory. In Calvinism, God, by divine decree, determined to save those whom He unconditionally elected unto faith and salvation. The word "intent" may inherently imply an action or an event that is not or possibly may not be realized -- a notion entirely rejected by the Calvinist system.

That Arminius believed in penal substitutionary atonement has been sufficiently argued by many theologians. F. Stuart Clarke quotes John Mark Hicks: "Arminius' doctrine of atonement is fundamentally the same as that of the (Zwinglian and Calvinist school of) Reformers, except for his belief in the universal potential of Christ's death."9 Arminius was confident that Christ's death was "a full and complete satisfaction according to the rigour of an unrelaxed and unmodified divine justice; that it was an act of penal substitution, and that Christ suffered both temporal and eternal penalties of sin in full in our place."10 So the argument against this notion is: If Christ "paid the price" for the sins of all people, then all people must or will be saved. Hence Arminianism cannot help but promote Universalism and escape the charge of a double payment.

DOUBLE PAYMENT

First, the reprobate are not "paying for their sins" in hell, strictly taken, since the debt, in theory, can never fully be paid properly by any fallen human being. Instead, those who endure the realm or reality of hell are receiving the consequences of rejecting the grace of God, as displayed on the Cross of Christ on their behalf (John 1:29; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 2:2), as well as for rejecting, spurning, or insulting the grace of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 9:29). There is no double payment. The price for sin was paid, but the application of the atonement is still needed, and is only granted by grace to the one who will believe or trust in Jesus Christ.

Second, what logically follows is that this Calvinistic charge of double payment is a non sequitur. Dr. Terry L. Miethe is correct in stating, "There is certainly no logical contradiction in saying that Jesus' suffering and death were universal [in quality], but that free, responsible individuals have to accept his free gift [quantity]. There is no double payment! Only Jesus could pay the penalty for anyone or everyone, but each individual must still accept [or receive] that free gift."11 Nor will anyone be made to endure double jeopardy, since sinners will be tried once for their crimes, not twice. The payment for their crimes was secured by Christ at Calvary but was rejected by the criminals. There is no double payment.

We understand from Scripture that there can only be one sacrifice for sins (Heb. 10:26) and that sacrifice has already been made by Christ. Moreover, Jesus is the only being who is capable of making such a sacrifice for sins, and only He can make such a payment (cf. Rev. 5:8-10). For there to exist a genuine charge of double payment, then Christ would have to die for sins again, hence a double payment. We know that is an impossible scenario (cf. Heb. 9:12; 10:14, 18). Since no one can pay for his or her own sins then there is no double payment. The charge is baseless and was only invented as a means of promoting a heterodox view of the atonement -- an argument with which even four-point Calvinists agree.

CONCLUSION

Jesus is no more a perfect Savior in the Calvinist system than He is in the Arminian system. In Arminianism, though His grace is rejected (Acts 7:51), spurned or insulted (Heb. 10:29), and received in vain (2 Cor. 6:1), God still perfectly saves the one who believes: "Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him" (Heb. 7:25). If every single person ever to be born trusted in Christ by grace and were saved; or had God even unconditionally elected to save every single person ever to be born unto faith and salvation; still God in Christ through the Spirit is a perfect Savior. We do not need the novelty of "Limited Atonement" in order for God to save people perfectly or to be considered a Perfect Savior.

__________

1 This list of references was taken from Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 124.

2 Terry L. Miethe, "The Universal Power of the Atonement," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 74. Stanglin and McCall write: "Meanwhile, he [Arminius] finds the arguments for 'definite' or 'limited' atonement (as the view will come to be labeled) from Scripture to be far from conclusive; yes, the Bible says that Jesus prayed for the elect (and 'his sheep'), but this does not entail that Jesus did not give himself for others as well." (124)

3 Ibid., 75.

4 "In fact," notes Dr. Miethe, "the following [brief examples] also held to an unlimited atonement: Clement of Alexandria (150-220), Eusebius (c. 260-340), Athanasius (c. 293-373), Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386), Gregory Nazianzen (324-444), Richard Hocker (1553-1600), James Ussher (1581-1656), Richard Baxter (1615-1691), John Bunyan (1628-1688), John Newton (1725-1807), Alfred Edersheim (b. 1825), B.F. Westcott )1825-1901), J.B. Lightfoot (b. 1828), Augustus H. Strong (1836-1921), A.T. Robertson (b. 1863), and many others.

"The following 'Confessions of the Reformation Age' also teach unlimited atonement: The Augsburg Confession (1530), First Confession of Helvetia (1536), Confession of Saxony (1551), Articles of the Church of England (1553), Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Latter Confession of Helvetia (1566), and others. If this be heresy, it is certainly not a new one!" (79)

5 Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XVI. On the Vocation of Men to Salvation," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:232.

6 Abraham Kuyper, "Rome, Socinus, Arminius, Calvin," in The Work of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), 227-28.

7 Miethe, 73.

8 Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 221. "For Arminius, Christ's death was a substitutionary, expiatory and propitiatory sacrifice for sins that perfectly fulfilled the law and established a new covenant of faith." (226)

9 F. Stuart Clarke, The Ground of Election: Jacobus Arminius' Doctrine of the Work and Person of Christ (Waynesboro: Paternoster, 2006), 89.

10 Ibid.

11 Miethe, 74-75.