Limited Atonement: Beauty Distorted

Jack Lee, blogging at The Chorus in the Chaos: Relevant & Reformed, responded to Benjamin L. Corey's post, "Did Jesus Die Only to Save His Favorite? (The Calvinist Heresy of Limited Atonement)," naming that response, "You're Wrong: Limited Atonement is Beautiful," a post I find problematic on several counts, not only regarding the distorted manner in which "beauty" is portrayed, but also in the proof-texts offered to support his thesis. I want to begin my own response to Lee's post by addressing his complaint of Corey naming limited atonement theory as heresy: it is heresy.

This claim to heresy is not unique to Arminians and other non-Calvinists: our early Church fathers, while condemning Pelagianism and Semi-pelagianism as heresy, also rendered the following conclusion against St Augustine's anachronistic pre-Calvinistic theology: "We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil [i.e., reprobation] by the power of God," an explicit refutation of pre-Calvinistic theology, "but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema." (Canons of the Council of Orange) (emphases added) Anathema?

For the Calvinist to state that God unconditionally elected certain persons unto salvation, providing atonement solely for them and potentially for none others, and decreed the rest to hell is to commit heresy. Benjamin Corey is historically correct in his assessment. Our early fathers even named those who hold to a Calvinistic philosophy as anathema: eternally condemned to hell. While Calvinists complain against Arminians and other non-Calvinists about naming their theology "heresy," they first must wrestle with the early fathers, the ones who condemned their errant theories as worthy of hellfire.

Lee introduces the theory of limited atonement by dressing it in flowery imagery, pretending the notion has any semblance in Christian history (it maintains absolutely no history in the first five centuries of Christian theology), and then presumes to suggest that the theory is a "deep river of grace that you may swim your entire life." I suppose, then, that by noting "you," he is referring to the one whom God has, from eternity past, unconditionally selected for atonement and salvation, a secret knowledge about which "you" can never truly know until you die. Why? Because 1) you cannot peer onto God's secret unconditionally elect role book to see if you are among the arbitrary list of lucky souls; 2) God does not, according to Calvinists, grant perseverance to all (link); and 3) God may have "sovereignly" relegated your pathetic soul to a temporary faith (link), rendering you atonement-less by decree. What a God-honoring theology!

Do we, Arminians, not limit the atonement to some measure? Yes, we do, in a practical sense: only those who, by the grace of God through the work of the Holy Spirit, trust in Christ will have the atoning work of Christ applied to them. St Paul writes:
But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (Rom. 3:21-25 NRSV, emphases added)
Note the apostle's confession: the atonement is only applied to someone through faith. In other words, the atonement, in and of itself, is ineffective apart from faith in Christ. This is, simply, because the atonement is applied to no one automatically.

But Calvinists often rely heavily upon philosophical arguments to bolster "biblical" support. Lee finds comfort in the faulty arguments of liar John Owen for defense, quoting, "Arminians pretend, very speciously, that Christ died for all men, yet, in effect, they make him die for no one man at all." This statement contains no basis in reality. In effect, then, the Calvinist calls St John, St Paul, St Peter and Christ liars, for they insist that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29; cf. 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), and the word "world" can in no sense lexicographically be rendered to refer to some imagined "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).1
Theologically, the "world" most often refers to all people, without caveat. Hence, when St Paul writes that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), he truly is referring to all human beings without qualification; and, while "all" does not always refer to each and every single individual, often the word does, in fact, refer to all people. (Cf. 1 John 5:19: if "world" refers to the unconditionally elect then is not the unconditionally elect under the power of the evil one?) What I find troubling in the Calvinist's attempt at proving the theory of limited atonement from an eternal-intent scope, though, is the lengths he or she will tread in order to find biblical support.

For biblical support of the theory of limited atonement, Lee offers at least 26 passages which, in fact, do not address the atonement at all: Deut. 29:4; Josh. 11:20; Matt. 13:10-11; 22:14; Luke 13:23-24; John 1:12-13; 5:21; 6:37, 44, 65; 10:26-27; 12:39-40; 13:1; 15:16; 17:9; Acts 13:48; Rom. 9:15; Eph. 1:4; 2:8; 2 Thess. 2:11; Rev. 17:8. Again, out of 35 verses Lee uses as proof-texts to support limited atonement theory, 26 of them maintain absolutely no reference to atonement proper even in the slightest. If you do not find that troubling then you need to completely reexamine your biblical hermeneutic. Lee conflates biblical notions of calling, election, spiritual hardening, special or intentionally-focused prayer, union with Christ and having one's name written in the Book of Life with limited atonement theory. If Arminians were as sloppy hermeneutically as is Lee in this post, then everyone can be assured that they would not be permitted a theological pass, but would be publicly humiliated for such.

I can sum up Lee's and the Calvinist's primary problem regarding the atonement in one quote by Dr. Terry L. Miethe: the person "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) Hence a theory of limited atonement is deemed necessary in order to corroborate with a theory of unconditional election -- the latter necessitating the former. If God unconditionally elected to save this many then God could in no sense have intended to atone for any others. Thus the atonement is limited to the unconditionally elect. What is the primary problem with such a theory? The primary problem is that the theory contradicts explicit and universally-rendered statements throughout Scripture.

We cannot neglect the universal statements regarding the atonement in the Christian scriptures. Jesus Christ universally accomplished redemption (Titus 2:14), paid a ransom (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:6; 1 Pet. 1:18), provided Himself as a substitution (Rom. 5:5-10; 2 Cor. 5:18), brought about reconciliation (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:19; Heb. 2:17), provided a propitiation (Rom. 3:25, 26; 1 John 2:1-2) or atonement (Lev. 16:16-20) -- all of which satisfied the justice of God on behalf of wicked sinners; demonstrated the divine love toward all wicked sinners; so that anyone in the whole world could, by grace through faith in Christ, be saved (Isa. 53:6; John 1:29, 36; 3:16, 36; 6:51; 11:50; Rom. 3:24, 25, 26; 5:6, 8, 11; 8:32; 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:11; 15:3, 22; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15; Eph. 2:12, 13, 14, 15; Col. 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:4-6; 3:5-6; 4:10; Titus 2:11-14; Heb. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:18; 1 John 2:2; 3:5; 4:10). Will all be saved, then?

BEAUTY DISTORTED

Calvinist James White addresses John 1:29, commenting with this false conclusion: "[I]f the Lamb of God takes away the sin of every single individual then that sin is gone and can no longer be held against anyone."3 This is a Calvinistic error: he wrongly assumes that the atonement automatically redeems people. But Scripture has already informed us that the atonement is only effectual through faith (Rom. 3:24). Does "the world" place its faith in Christ? No. Then "the world" will not be atoned and saved. That Christ made a provision for "the world" is obvious, so that all might believe in Him and be saved (John 1:29; cf. John 1:7, 9; 3:16, 17, 18). But this in no sense whatsoever indicates that all will be saved, especially because Christ's atonement does not redeem anyone automatically. White admits that the word "world" is used in many different ways and that the use of the word here cannot mean each and every single individual. Why? Because he says so; and because his presuppositions would otherwise be undermined.

White, representing the Calvinist, then addresses 1 John 2:2 (barely addressing John 1:29 at all), a passage that cannot mean what Arminians and non-Calvinists think it means! He grants the Calvinistic interpretation: "The Reformed understanding is that Jesus Christ is the propitiation for the sins of all the Christians to which John was writing, and not only them, but for all Christians throughout the world, Jew and Gentile, at all times and in all places."4 In other words, the words "whole world," ὅλου κόσμου, refer to "the whole world of the unconditionally elect in all places in all time." As noted above, we have not even one lexicon granting us such a concept, but Calvinists maintain this notion just the same. Dr. Terry Miethe quotes Dr. Norman F. Douty:
But amid all the divisions and sub-divisions listed, the word [for world] is never said to denote "the elect." These lexicons know nothing of such a use of kosmos in the New Testament, under which to tabulate John 1:29; 3:16-18; 4:42; 6:33, 51; 12:47; 14:31; 16:8-11; 17:21, 23; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 John 2:2; 4:14. ...

All of this is disastrous for the advocates of Limited Atonement. They have ventured to set themselves above the combined scholarship of our lexicons, encyclopedias and dictionaries, when they have ascribed a further signification to the word kosmos, which will support their theological system.5
Jesus is a perfect Savior; He is the only Savior. Jesus is our Advocate; our only Advocate. He alone can and has propitiated for our sins. These truths pointed out by White and other Calvinists like Jack Lee we can completely agree with; and yet these truths do not necessitate the false notion of limited atonement theory. God has established the means of salvation, redemption, the forgiveness of our sins, our being counted righteous, holy and blameless in His sight: all of which is predicated on His grace and our Spirit-inspired faith in Jesus Christ His Son. Here is true beauty: the beauty of Love Incarnate, of a world-wide Savior, of Grace, of Mercy, of Justice, of Self-Sacrifice -- a beauty for all the creatures created in the image of God their Creator.

We all need hope. Without hope we have no ultimate good for which to aim. We all need love. Without love we feel unlovable, worthless, wretched, lonely, desperate, and hopeless. We all need a Savior. Without a Savior we cannot be saved. We all are in need of salvation (Rom. 3:23; John 1:12, 13; 3:3, 5, 8); we are informed in Scripture that God has provided a Savior for all (cf. Luke 1:69; 2:11; John 4:42; 1 Tim. 4:10; Titus 2:11; 3:4; 1 John 4:14); and we rightly understand our collective need for the gracious enabling of God in the receiving of this Savior and His salvation (John 15:5; Eph. 2:8).

In Arminian theology one finds the exaltation of both the hope and love of God for all. A universal atonement was provided by Christ at Calvary for all. A universal love is a reality in God for all. Though both the atonement and love of God in Christ for all will not save all, the provision for all remains intact, and is the demonstration of the universal character of each in God. A counter-argument ensues, as maintained by Lee, against this biblical teaching. "If God loves all generally then He loves none particularly." Or, as Lee states the matter, if Jesus' death is provided for all then that would mean "that no one was saved on the cross." This is a baseless claim.

That God loves all people in general also indicates that He loves each person in particular. That some people refuse the enabling grace of God, in their willing rejection of Jesus as Savior, merely emphasizes God's particular love for each person and not the contrary. We are not insisting that God is obligated to love every person ever to be born, or that He is obligated to offer salvation to every person ever to be born, but we simply witness as much in His Word. (cf. Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; John 1:4, 5, 7, 9, 12, 13, 14; 3:16, 17, 36; 12:32; 1 Tim. 2:4, 5, 6; 4:10) Lee is also in error to assume that our faith in Christ in any sense "completes" the salvation process begun by God or that such adds to the already-completed atoning work of Christ on the cross. The atonement was Christ's to complete and He alone completed it: now that the atonement is completed, it is now offered to all who hear the Gospel, in whom the Spirit of God is at work.

All Lee has offered, in truth, is regurgitated baseless and already-refuted arguments against a theology that was maintained by our early Church fathers and promulgated by the likes of Jacob Arminius. Here is the problem with Lee's Calvinism, particular and unconditional election, particular redemption and particular love: eternal intent.

What fallen human beings need most is exactly what Lee's Calvinism can in no sense grant. Unless God's love is universal, not conditioned upon a secret decree to unconditionally love and elect only some unto grace and salvation, no one can ever really know if God loves the individual. I need to know that God loves me personally. I need to know if Jesus died for me personally. If God unconditionally elects to save only some people, and only He can truly know who those people are, then I cannot know; even though I am commanded to know (2 Pet. 1:10), even though I am encouraged to trust in Christ for salvation (John 1:11, 12, 13; 14:1, 6; Acts 16:31), even though I am told that God loves the world (John 3:16) and that God is love (1 John 4:8). Either Scripture is true, or Calvinism is true, but both cannot be true at the same time.

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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: Bethan House Publishers, 1995), 73.

2 Ibid., 74.

3 James White, The Potter's Freedom: A Defense of the Reformation and a Rebuttal of Norman Geisler's Chosen But Free (Calvary Press Publishing, 2000), 273.

4 Ibid., 274.

5 Miethe, 77-78.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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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.