The Potter's Freedom: The Perfect Work of Calvary

Chapter ten of James White's The Potter's Freedom (Calvary Press Publishing, 2000) is titled "The Perfect Work of Calvary," in which White posits the weakest and yet most philosophical of all tenets of Calvinism: Limited Atonement. He follows in chapter eleven with the same topic, a chapter titled "Particular Redemption," which will warrant its own response here in a following post. White begins: "Modern evangelicals are mushy on the cross." (229) That is one statement that certainly could never be applied to Calvinists or Calvinism. Words such as "cold," "calculated," "unfeeling," "inhumane," "uncaring," and "objectifying" have been used to define Calvinists and Calvinism, and especially the theories of unconditional election and limited atonement, but never "mushy." 

We agree completely with White that "the work of Christ on Calvary is the central theme of the message of the New Testament." (229) For the love of the atoning work of Christ, Arminians most properly gauge the love of God our Creator, for we know and understand love by this, that Jesus laid down His life for all wretched sinners, the Just for the unjust. (1 John 3:16) White disagrees, and frames the Calvinist complaint well:
It has become traditional in evangelical Protestantism to preach the cross as follows: God so loved the world that He gave His Son to die upon the cross for every single individual in all the world. By exercising faith in Christ, you can receive the benefits of Christ's death on the cross. If you do not believe, Christ's death, even though offered in your place, will do you no good. You will still suffer for your sins. Christ truly wants to save you, if you will but believe.

Is this the message preached by the Apostles? Is this the preaching of the cross of Christ? Calvinists say "no," and they do so because of the biblical doctrine of atonement. (229-30)
Read this carefully: If we can demonstrate that what the Calvinist denies -- that God loved the world (John 3:16); that He gave His Son to die upon the cross for every single individual in all the world (John 1:29; 3:16); that by believing in Christ one can receive the benefits of Christ's atonement (John 1:12, 13; 3:36; Rom. 3:23, 24, 25, 26); that if one does not believe then he or she will endure God's wrath (John 3:36); and that Christ wants to save sinners by grace through faith (John 1:12, 13; 12:32; Eph. 2:8; 1 Tim. 1:15) -- then even Calvinists would have to concede that they teach false doctrines. White explicitly confesses that Calvinists deny the universals mentioned in his complaint. Let us see if Scripture also denies them.

Where would we Arminians arrive at the conclusion that God loves the world? Could it be from John 3:16, the most famous verse in the Bible? "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." (NRSV) Now, should the various Calvinistic theories prove true, then we might render John 3:16 thusly: "For God so loved the unconditionally elect that He gave His only Son for the unconditionally elect, so that the unconditionally elect will believe in him and not perish but have eternal life." Essentially, then, we have to force (i.e., redefine) "world" to refer to God's special, alleged unconditionally elect.

What is the problem with such an interpretation? The problem is our lack of lexical resources denoting "world" to refer to "the unconditionally elect":
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). (77) Not one of these works lists "the world of the unconditionally elect" as a viable definition for the all-inclusive phrase "the world."1
This biblical and lexical fact, however, does not deter the Calvinist from redefining the word "world" to conveniently refer to "the unconditionally elect." What matters to the Calvinist is perpetuating and substantiating their philosophically-necessitated notion that Christ must have died solely for those whom God allegedly unconditionally elected unto salvation. Again, Dr. Terry Miethe notes that, where the Bible mentions Christ dying for "us," for "our" sins, or for His "church," the restrictive language is "only in relation to the personalized language. A particular body of people is being addressed, in the grammatical form of first person plural. To say to any audience, 'Christ died for us!' does not [logically] imply 'for us and no one else.'"2 Calvinists can view this issue in only one matter because of their error of unconditional election. 

Four-Point Calvinists and Amyraldians who reject Limited Atonement are merely considered theologically inconsistent by both classical Calvinists and classical Arminians. If Christ died to take away the sins of the world, as Scripture explicitly states (John 1:29), on the basis of God's grace through faith in Christ, as Scripture explicitly states (John 1:12; 3:16, 36; Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:8), then in what sense does the offer of atonement seem compatible with the theory of the four-point Calvinist's unconditional election? This will be briefly addressed below.

So, we have learned from explicit Scripture that God loves the world, and by "world" we are referring to all people, sinners in particular, none exempted, since Scripture does not permit us to qualify or exempt anyone from this love. God even loves and offers reconciliation and atonement to His enemies (Matt. 5:44; Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15). Did Jesus actually offer His life for the sake of the world of sinners? Calvinists say no. We see Scripture affirming yes. Southern Baptist David L. Allen comments: "Any teaching that says God does not love all humanity [John 3:16], God has no intent or desire to save all humanity [1 Tim. 2:4], or Jesus did not die for the sins of all humanity [1 John 2:2], is contrary to Scripture and should be rejected."3 We believe he is right. 

Among the authors of the Christian scriptures we find affirmations contrary to that of the Calvinist (all emphases added): "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him." (John 1:6, 7) (St John must mean: "so that the unconditionally elect might believe through Him.") "The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world." (John 1:9) (St John must mean: "The true light, which enlightens the unconditionally elect, was coming into the world.") "He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him." (John 1:10) (St John must mean: "He was among the unconditionally elect, and the unconditionally elect came into being through him; yet the unconditionally elect did not know or recognize or receive Him.") 

All universal language in the Christian scriptures, with regard to salvation, must be interpreted, according to Calvinism, in a restrictive and specious method in order to be rightly understood: where salvific promises and offerings are affirmed as being universally granted, the "truth" of the matter is that God has already secretly decreed to grant them to His unconditionally elect. Where this method does not work, then we are granted to assume its normal, universal message and meaning. But White couches his Calvinistic language against such universals, mocking it, even, when he notes an objection: "those who do not believe God intends to save a particular people, but instead tries to save 'the maximum number possible,' will reject immediately the idea that Christ's death was intended to actually redeem the elect perfectly." (230) Without realization, surely, White inconsistently argues against his own complaints against Arminianism.

White complains against the notion that God elected people unto salvation according to His foreknowledge (53), since, in Calvinism, God can only know that which He has decreed. If God has elected people unto salvation according to His foreknowledge of who in particular would believe, then He has elected to save a particular people -- believers. White then complains that, in classical Arminianism's view of general atonement, no one in particular is atoned. White contradicts himself, and none of his Calvinist colleagues draw his attention to his error, but instead perpetuate the same and use it as an argument against Arminianism! If God foreknows a particular people will have faith in Christ, and that Christ died for these particular people, then the atonement is also particular in and upon those who believe. In other words, the particular believers are particularly atoned. White's inept attempt at undermining general atonement is no worse than any other Calvinist I have ever read on the matter.

But we believe that Christ died for more than those who are actually atoned. White and other Calvinists, of course, disagree. In what appears an overt abuse of Scripture, White (and other Calvinists, mind you) misuse Matthew 1:21, taking it out of its Jewish context, and without any warrant whatsoever applies it to some imagined unconditionally elect: "She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." (Matt. 1:21 NRSV, emphasis added) The referent "his people" is the Jewish people. White claims: "He is called Jesus because 1) He has a people, His people, and 2) He will save them from their sins. He does not try to save them, seek long and hard to save them, but He saves them." (246) This is eisegesis at its very finest. White begins with a presuppositional idea -- "His people refers to the unconditionally elect" -- and then he interprets texts in that manner or through that lens. This is called eisegesis -- a putting into a text an idea foreign to the text. 

That "His people" refers to the Jewish people should be obvious to anyone even remotely familiar with the Christian scriptures; which, by the way, speaks volumes about Calvinist scholars who misread this very basic cultural tenet of Christian teaching. Jesus Himself confesses that He was sent by His Father to the Jewish people (Matt. 15:26; 27:9, 25; Mark 7:27); St John confesses that Jesus came to His own Jewish people, but they would not receive Him (John 1:12); Jesus' "people" was the "people" of His Father, the Jewish people (2 Sam. 7:10; Ps. 78:1; Ezekiel 36:12; 38:16; Amos 9:4; Matt. 2:6), with whom He had covenanted through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Every scholar should know this already. This issue is what makes for Bible 101 courses.

Let us, however, consistently use White's and the Calvinist's interpretative error by way of example: "and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the unconditionally elect, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born" (Matt. 2:4; 21:23; 26:3); "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of [which, according to Calvinism, was that God had unconditionally elected some of them unto salvation] of the kingdom and curing every disease among the unconditionally elect" (Matt. 4:23) The absurdity is obvious, I know, even painful. But these are the distorted conclusions we are forced to embrace when consistently maintaining Calvinistic hermeneutics and applying them to biblical interpretation.

The people referred to are the Jewish people; these were "His -- Jesus' -- people." But White and others can only conclude with these absurdities because of the problems they themselves create. Calvinists erroneously believe that because Jesus died then that propitiation must be applied; it must be applied because God has purposed every intention in meticulous and deterministic fashion; thus, with regard to the atonement and salvation, He must have unconditionally elected to save some, not the rest, and sent Christ to die solely for them. He could not have died for anyone else, because the only ones whom God will save are the alleged unconditionally elect.

While these conclusions operate within the Calvinistic system, we do not believe they are supported by Scripture -- and, on at least the issue of the atonement, even some Calvinists agree with us! Four-point Calvinists rightly insist that the offer of atonement was made to all, but that God has not effectually secured the application of that atonement to all. 

Of course, we agree with "four-pointers" that the application of the atonement is limited to those who believe in Christ. Though the offer of (and actual) atonement is sufficient for all, it will be efficient only for the elect -- believers. The offer of (and actual) atonement is provided for all, yet only those who willingly receive the atonement by grace through faith will be saved: "For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died [White already confessed the "deadness" of all people]. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them." (2 Cor. 5:14-15 NRSV, emphases added; cf. Rom. 3:21-26). Four-point Calvinists rightly admit that Christ died for all. But to what end did He die for those whom His Father did not allegedly unconditionally elect unto salvation, according to their theology? We believe them to be inconsistent on this count.

Calvinists of all stripes grant the so-called non-elect an empty offer of atonement and salvation. No actual, tangible provision is granted to them because God has, according to Calvinism, not unconditionally elected them unto salvation. We are told by their language that all are offered atonement and salvation, but their theology implies the contrary. We find their offer of atonement and salvation to the "non-elect" to be utterly bankrupt, and void of genuineness, since God never intended to save them. Calvinists may argue that a genuine offer is made to the "non-elect." God would save them if they would trust in Christ. But that is not entirely fair. God, from eternity past, decreed not to save them. Hence their argument is moot. There never has been any intent on the part of God to save any except those whom He allegedly unconditionally elected unto salvation. An offer of atonement and salvation to the "non-elect" in Calvinism is merely a hollow concept and words without meaning. 

What could be more plain in Scripture, we think, than that Christ Jesus "came into the world to save sinners"? (1 Tim. 1:15) Are all not sinners? (Rom. 3:10) Have all not sinned? (Rom. 3:23) Is Jesus not "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world"? (John 1:29) Is the Gospel of Christ not to be preached to every creature (Mark 16:15 KJV) -- the whole creation (ESV)? How can there be a genuine offer of atonement and salvation in the preached Gospel with not an ounce of intent on God's part to actually save all who hear, conditioned, of course, on God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ?

An offer is only genuine when there is intent and actual provision made to back the offer. If I were to offer a homeless man a check for $100,000 on the condition that he receive it (and I even make receiving it possible), but either had no intention of giving him the check, or there being no money in the bank account, what kind of offer have I made to him but a barren one? No matter how much I declare with my speech that I care about the homeless man, unless I actually make a genuine provision for him in my offer, with the intent to grant him what is promised if he would receive it, then the offer is empty. This is all that Calvinists offer in their version of the Gospel: an empty offer of salvation but to the few, secret, alleged unconditionally elected lucky ones. 

Jesus Christ is a perfect Savior, who offers a perfect sacrifice, granted to all who will by grace believe or trust in Him. He died for all sinners so that all sinners could be saved (John 1:29; 3:16, 17; 4:42; 6:33, 51; Rom. 5:6, 8, 15; 6:10; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15; 1 Tim. 4:10; 1 John 2:2). Though all sinners will not be saved (cf. Matt. 7:21, 22, 23; Rev. 19:11-20), such is due not to any imperfection on His count, but to the sinful imperfection of fallen creatures (cf. John 8:21, 24). Regardless, the atonement of Jesus Christ was accomplished perfectly, and it perfectly grants a perfect redemption from and forgiveness of sin to those who will by grace believe in Him alone for salvation (John 1:7; 3:18; 6:29, 40; Acts 14:23; 15:11; 16:31; 19:4; Rom. 1:16, 17; 3:22; 4:4, 5, 11, 24; 6:8; 10:9, 10, 14; 1 Cor. 1:21; 15:11; Gal. 2:16; 3:9, 22; Eph. 1:19). We have our hope firmly fixed on the one, living, perfect God, who is "the [perfect] Savior of all people, especially of those who believe." (1 Tim. 4:10)


1 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 Publishers, 1995), 73.

2 Ibid.

3 David L. Allen, "The Atonement: Limited or Universal?" in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, eds. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 83.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.