I stirred nervously in my seat, and cleared my throat. I was not at all sure I wanted to ask the next question, but I also realized I had to. “You have already told me you have no desire to be called a Calvinist.”
“That is correct,” Pastor Spenser nodded.
“Is this a concern over party labels, or is there any theological area where you disagree with the Calvinists?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, I was talking with someone at my home church, and he told me something that horrified me. He said that Calvinists believe in something they call limited atonement. They think that Jesus only died for Christians, and not for all men.”
Pastor Spenser laughed, and then said, “I’ll answer your question, if you promise to hear me out.”
I had a sinking feeling that this meant he did believe it, but I nodded my head anyway.
“First, all orthodox Christians believe in a limited atonement. Every Christian who believes that there is an eternal Hell limits the atonement. One group limits its power or effectiveness, and the other limits its extent. But both limit the atonement.” I nodded, so he went on.
“Secondly, I don’t know who came up with the phrase ‘Limited Atonement‘ to describe this position. He may have been a theological genius, but when it comes to public relations, he must have been a chucklehead.”
“In what way?” I asked.
“One fellow says he believes in a limited atonement, and another says he believes in an unlimited atonement. Which one appears to be doing justice to the Scriptures?”
“The second one, of course.”
Pastor Spenser smiled. “Of course. God so loved the world; Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; One died for all, and so forth.”
I nodded again, wondering where on earth he was going.
“Now suppose we hear the same two fellows, but this time the language is changed. The first says now that he believes in a definite atonement, and the second affirms his belief in an indefinite atonement. Who sounds more biblical now?”
“Well, now the first sounds more biblical.”
“Of course. Christ laid down His life for the sheep; Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it; and He gave Himself up, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed. When He went to the cross, Christ had a definite end in view – for a definite group of people.”
“It seems to me that when it is put the first way it shows that the Arminians do justice to the universality of the redemption, and when it is put the second way, it shows that Reformed Christians do justice to the efficient purpose of the redemption. Both sides have their verses.”
“But both sides, if they believe that the whole Bible is from God, must affirm both types of verses.”
“How can you do that? If you believe in a definite atonement, how can you square that with some of the universal passages you quoted earlier?”
“One of the reasons I object so strongly to terms like limited atonement is that it does nothing but reinforce a theological caricature that many have in their minds. I believe that Jesus purchased a definite number of people when He died. I have no reason to believe that that number was a small one. He came into the world to save the world, and He will be content with nothing less than a saved world.”
“Do you believe that there will be more people saved than lost?”
“Certainly. It says in 1 John 2:2 that “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “That just means that every person can be forgiven for their sins if they come to Christ.”
“But that is not what it says. It says that Christ was the propitiation for the whole world. Propitiation means that God’s wrath is turned aside from the whole world.”
I sat silently for a moment, and Pastor Spenser went on.
“Notice how the verse does not read. It doesn’t say that He is the propitiation for our sins, because we believed, and not only for ours, but He is a potential propitiation for the whole world, if only they believe, but of course we know they won’t.”
I laughed. “Well, I agree it doesn’t say that.”
“See, the difficulty with verses like this, from the Arminian standpoint, is that they prove too much.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“The Bible teaches that Christ’s death is powerful to save. This power comes through in many of the universal passages. The Arminian position wants the universality of the passage, but not the efficacy of it. In other words, there is no potential propitiation in 1 John 2:2. It is actual. Real. In the cross of Christ, the wrath of God has been turned aside from the world.”
“Does this present any Calvinists with a problem?”
“It surely does. When the Bible speaks of all men, or the world, there is no grammatical reason in Greek to refer it to each and every man. But at the same time, I believe it is impossible to refer such wonderful universal statements to a tiny snippet of humanity.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“Suppose you went to a football game at your school, and the attendance was spectacular. Would you be lying if you said that the whole student body was there, when in fact Jones was in his room sick?”
I laughed. “No.”
“But suppose you said the whole student body was there, when it was just you and Jones. Would there be a problem now?”
“Because. . . ?”
“Because in the first instance my language would not be at all misleading, while in the second instance it would be.”
“Correct. Those who believe what the Bible says about election, but who believe the elect to be few in number, have the same problem. They are confronted with glorious texts about a saved world, and they turn them into texts about a saved church, comprised of the few that will be saved. Of course, their theological opponents turn glorious texts about a saved world into texts about a world which could be saved, but probably won’t be.”
“So if we continue in this vein, we will no longer be talking about the atonement, but rather eschatology?”
“Well, yes. Although biblical eschatology is based on this understanding of the atonement, it would take us off track at the present. Some future discussion perhaps? It should suffice to say that the Bible teaches us about an atonement that is efficacious and definite on the one hand, and universal on the other. All those for whom Christ died will be saved, and Christ died for the world.”
“And you are saying that this is different than saying Christ died for each and every person.”
“Yes. The problem people have with this comes from assuming that both sides of this dispute mean the same thing by for.”
“What do you mean?”
“Given that not all men are saved, contrast these two statements: 1) Christ died for each and every man; 2) Christ died for His people. The word for has a completely different meaning in each of these sentences. In the first, it means that Christ died in order to provide an opportunity of salvation to each and every man. In the second, it means He died to secure the salvation of His people. So the debate is not about the extent of the atonement so much as it is about the nature of the atonement.”
“Can you illustrate what you mean?”
“Sure. Suppose you have a philanthropist giving away money. He walks down the street handing out $100 bills. It is easy to assume (falsely) that the one position says he gives $100 to everybody, while the other side maintains he will give money to only some of the people. In this scenario, the debate is about the extent of generosity, and whether or not the philanthropist is being stingy. But on this understanding, both sides agree that the gift is the same (money), while the generosity varies.”
“OK,” I said. “What is the debate about?”
“In the first view, the philanthropist is not giving out $100 bills. He is giving out tickets to an awards ceremony, where every person attending will be given $100, if they decide to show up. He is giving away an opportunity to get $100. This contrasts with the other view which has the philanthropist out in the street, stuffing the money into pockets. He is not giving away opportunity; he is giving away money. So now the debate is over the nature of the gift. Is the gift money, or an opportunity to receive money?”
I thought for a moment. “So in the area of salvation, you are saying that Christ did not die to give men the opportunity of redemption, if they believe, but that He died to redeem men.”
“You’ve got it.”
“Well, I think I understand it anyway. But you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t accept what you are saying right off. This is going to take some hard thinking and Bible study.”
“That is exactly what it takes. And don’t rush it. Don’t agree to anything until you see it in the Scriptures. Which does the Bible teach? Redemption, or an opportunity to be redeemed?”
This post is Part 1 in a series of 6. It originally appeared as a series in Credenda Agenda.