Monday, May 18, 2009

Revisiting the "Doctrines of Grace"-- Limited Atonement

(Articles of Faith, 8)

There is perhaps no greater misunderstanding and controversy in the evangelical world than on the historic teaching of "limited atonement," or particular redemption. Most evangelicals in the Western world adamantly deny this doctrine. One particular preacher in a town in which I served a beginning church said publicly that this doctrine "came from the pit of hell!" A number of detractors maintain that such a teaching denies the "free will" of humankind and makes the free offer of the gospel to all a joke or a hoax. If Christ died on the cross for only those whom God the Father has sovereignly elected to salvation, then we truly are only puppets and all attempts to offer the Good News to all peoples are not only doomed to failure but in vain. Others go to such passages as John 3:16 and point out that God's world-embracing love is offered to "all who believe." Still others point to 1 Timothy 2:3-6, in speaking about prayer for all, "This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men . . ."

Some have sought in the history of theology to blunt the force of The Synod of Dort's declaration on this matter. They have wanted to side-step it with what is called "Amyrauldianism," a theory of "hypothetical universalism" in which Moise Amyraut (1596-1664), following in the footsteps of his mentor, John Cameron in the School of Saumur in France, maintained that God has a "double will" related to humankind. On the basis of the distinction between God's particular and God's universal will, Amyraut went on to teach that predestination as universal and conditional was a part of providence. It was a part of what are really “two counsels" in God that He took because of the fall. According to this universal and conditional will, God wills the salvation of all men and promises salvation to all upon the condition of faith. It is only because God knows that man is not able of himself to believe that God also wills particularly and unconditionally to save the elect. This teaching supposedly harkens back to what John Calvin himself taught, but most students of historical theology find this interpretation wanting.

Biblical Basis
In order to secure the redemption of those chosen by God the Father, Christ the Son had to redeem them. Jesus Christ thus came into the world, took upon himself human nature, identified himself with His people and acted as the legal representative or substitute before God for their redemption. Christ's perfect righteousness is credited to all who truly believe. They are saved, not on the basis of their faith or what they have done, but solely on the grounds of Christ's redeeming work on the cross.

Christ's redemption is definite both in its design and its accomplishment. Christ actually secured salvation for His people, the elect of God, upon the cross. As David Steele and Curtis Thomas noted in their manual, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented (Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., 1965, p. 39)--"The salvation which Christ earned for His people includes everything involved in bringing them to a right relationship with God, including the gifts of faith and repentance." Calvinists thus maintain that Christ's death and resurrection definitely saved people, while Arminians maintain that Christ's death only made salvation possible for all, and effectual to only those those believe. The emphasis is on the belief, not on God's sovereign and gracious action.

At first blush, the Bible seems to deny this teaching. However, many verses point to its truthfulness. First, Jesus Christ died to actually save people -- Luke 19:10 -- "The Son of man came to seek and save that which was lost." "Who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity . . ." (Titus 2:14). "For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God . . ." (1 Peter 3:18). We were reconciled to God "by the death of his Son" (Romans 5:10). "They are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24, 25). "he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior" (Titus 3:5,6).

Then, Jesus died for those the Father had appointed to salvation -- "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and him who comes to me I will not cast out" (John 6:35-40). "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep . . . I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father . . .The works I do in my Father's name, they bear witness to me; but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me and I give them eternal life and they shall never perish . . ." (John 10:11ff). God the Father's eternal choice of people to be saved is done through the Son-- "He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will . . ." (Ephesians 1:3ff).

There are Scriptural texts that speak of the "definiteness" of Christ's sacrifice -- "he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). "The Son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28) "The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John10:11). "he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance. . ." (Hebrews 9:15) "Christ, having been offered to bear the sins of many" (Hebrews 9:18 with Isaiah 53:10, 11).

Problem Passages
Most of these Scriptural passages use the term "world" or "all." One striking passage is 1 Timothy 2:3-6 -- "This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men . . ." Again, the context is the key to all biblical interpretation. As many biblical Greek scholars will say, Paul's point was to ensure that the gospel of truth goes to all kinds or types of people, not just Jews. So, Christ died for all without distinction NOT without exception. The New Testament writers were not universalists in the sense that everyone was going to be saved, but they promoted gospel universalism, that is the Good News goes to all peoples, not just a select few based on nationality or heritage. The Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, whom many revere on all sides of the question, said that "Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ's death not only may be saved, but are saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved." (Quoted from J.I. Packer, John Owen: The Death of Death in the Death of Christ)

What This Does NOT Mean
The teaching of particular redemption never limits God or anyone who proclaims God's Good News. The limiting factor is God's business, not ours. We are told to give the gospel to everyone and everywhere. We are not to limit our presentation to "religious" people, or "nice" people, or "potential" Christian people. "God saves sinners" is the cry of all true, biblical people. The selective process is in God's hands, God's counsels, God's decrees and God's business!

This teaching does not mean that anyone can determine beforehand who is worthy to be saved, or who deserves to be saved, or who can be saved. God saves sinners is the only message we really know and can proclaim with full assurance.

This teaching is not merely a logical extension of the doctrine of unconditional election. People who offer this objection to limited atonement fail to note the definiteness and selectivity already referred to above in the biblical text. Sometimes people will say, "I just read the simple Bible which tells me God loves everyone and Jesus died for all. I don't try to 'theologize' the Bible." To read the Bible simply does not and should not mean "simplistically." What makes "common sense" is often not Scriptural sense.

Others say this teaching kills evangelism. Really?!! If I know that God has ordained that a multitude that no one can number will some day most assuredly stand in glory before him singing his praises, then I have full confidence that my witnessing or outreach efforts are never in vain. Those for whom Christ died WILL MOST DEFINITELY be saved, in God's time, at God's call, and in God's plans. I may be an instrument in their eternal salvation--and I don't want to miss that!!