Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Particular Atonement is Precious

How our ideas shift is often amusing. I remember writing my personal doctrinal statement heading into seminary and writing that the doctrine of a 'limited atonement' (the doctrine that Christ died for the elect and only the elect) was repugnant. Now, I find it precious. Precious, not because it's limited, but because it's particular and efficacious in a way that an unlimited atonement is not, in fact, cannot be. (I do hope this post is received not as an attempt to criticize those who disagree, but as a celebration of something I find precious).

The doctrine of particular redemption or limited atonement (the 'L' in TULIP) is sometimes misconstrued. As someone who believes that Christ died for the church (and only the church) I still believe Christ's sacrifice would have been enough to cover ever single soul that has ever or will ever live, if it had been intended to. There is no limitation of the sufficiency of Christ's cross work. Moreover, I do believe that while only the elect benefit salvifically from the death of Christ, even the nonelect benefit in non-salvific ways. Robert Reymond in his A New Systematic Theology Of The Christian Faith 2nd Edition - Revised And Updated lists two such benefits, 1) by virtue of its universal saving sufficiency, [Christ's atoning death] grounds the legitimacy of preaching the gospel to every man, woman, and child without discrimination", and 2) quoting Roger Nicole, "It has justified the long forbearance of God with mankind and therefore given perhaps a new impetus for this forbearance. There is a reprieve for mankind at large which is the result of the work of Jesus Christ."

Let me explain the logic of why I love the doctrine of particular redemption, and I'll try to throw in some historical quotes as well. First, I love it because it preserves the justice of God. Second, I love it because I know it's effective, not just potential (or another way to say it, I love it because it's less limited than the 'unlimited atonement' of Arminius and Wesley). Third, I love it because it preserves the beautiful harmony of the Godhead. Fourth, I love it because I believe it to be biblical.

My first is ably articulated by the Puritan John Owen. He writes:

“God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either:

1. All the sins of all men, or
2. All the sins of some men, or
3. Some sins of all men"

Position one is the position of most who hold to a universal/unlimited atonement. Owen unpacks what that means:

"If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved; for if God enter into judgment with us, though it were with all mankind for one sin, no flesh should be justified in his sight: “If the Lord should mark iniquities, who should stand?" (Ps. 130:3).

If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world.

If the first, why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.” But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not. If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not [die for that sin of unbelief], then he did not die for all their sins.” (The Works of John Owen: The Death of Death in the Death of Christ: Book 1, Chapter 3, Originally published in 1650).

As Owen points out, option one, that Christ died for "all the sins of all men," is fine if you are a universalist. But, if you believe that some will suffer the consequences of their sin in hell, you must ask and answer 'Why?'. Didn't Jesus already suffer for their sins? Is it just for God to punish the same sins twice - once in his Son on the cross and again for eternity in hell? Some may argue, as Owen anticipated, that the gift of forgiveness and redemption must be received. Owen would answer, "Is rejecting the gift a sin? If so, is it covered by the blood of Christ or not? If so, than why would the person who rejects the gift be punished? If not, then Christ did not die for all the sins of all the people, merely some of the sins of all the people. Where is hope then?"

Second, I love it because I know that my purchase/redemption was effective, not just potential. As C.H. Spurgeon preached, "I would rather believe a limited atonement that is efficacious for all men for whom it was intended, than a universal atonement that is not efficacious for anybody, except the will of men be added to it." (Charles Spurgeon, Sermons, Vol. 4, p. 70). As Spurgeon points out, an unlimited atonement may be unlimited in scope but it is very limited as to efficacy. In the end, it becomes entirely dependent upon man's decision, so that man would have something to boast in. In the end, an 'unlimited atonement' ends up being much more limited.

"We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it, we do not. The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, "No, certainly not." We ask them the next question-Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They say, "No." They are obliged to admit this if they are consistent. They say, "No; Christ has died so that any man may be saved if"-and then follow certain conditions of salvation. We say then, we will just go back to the old statement-Christ did not die so as beyond a doubt to secure the salvation of anybody, did He? You must say "No;" you are obliged to say so, for you believe that even after a man has been pardoned, he may yet fall from grace and perish. Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why you... We say 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, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it." (Charles Spurgeon, Sermon 181, New Park Street Pulpit, IV, p. 135)

So I love the doctrine of a particular redemption because it really means 'God saves', period. God's salvation is not just potential, but actual (1 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 9:23).

Third, I love it because it preserves the beautiful harmony of the Godhead. Robert Reymond writes,

"It is unthinkable, because of the essential and teleological unity of the Godhead, to suppose that Christ's sacrificial work would conflict with the overall salvific intention of the Father in any way. Christ himself declared that he had come to do the will of the Father (Mat. 26:39; John 6:38; Heb. 10:7)...[Scripture] expressly represent the Father's salvific will and work (for example, foreknowing, predestining, calling, justifiying, glorifying) as particular and definite with regard to their objects (see the many passages which declare that God the Father, before the foundation of the world, chose certain persons in Christ unto salvation, such as Rom. 8:28-33; Rom. 9:11-23; Rom. 11:6-7, 28; Eph. 1:4-5, 11; 2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 1:9)."

If, as I believe, God has chosen to save a particular group (the elect), but Christ came and died to save all men universally, then the purposes of the Father and Son would be at odds with each other. That seems to me to be wholly unacceptable. To preserve the unity of the Godhead, and accepting that God has chosen to save a particular group called the elect, it follows that Jesus died then to save the same group. Again, that's not to limit the sufficiency of his sacrifice. Instead it speaks to the intent of it. The Father purposed to save the elect and so sent his Son; the Son accomplished his Father's will and died an atoning death for the elect; the Spirit applies that work to the elect and they are saved!

Fourth, I love the doctrine of the particular atonement because I believe it to be biblical. There are many passages that speak of Jesus dying 'for many' (Matthew 20:28; Isaiah 53:11-12, etc.), as well as those that speak of Jesus dying 'for the church' (Eph 5:23-26) and 'the elect' (Rom 8:32-34). Admittedly, there are those passages that speak of 'the world' or 'all'. The key isn't picking one strand of texts, but of coming to a interpretation that accommodates both lines. For me, I believe the passages that refer to 'the world' or 'all', mean 'all kinds of people' or 'peoples from the world over', not just Jews, but Gentiles as well. Not just kings, but slaves too. Not just men, but also women, etc.

Of all the passages that support the limited intent of Christ's dying work, I think two really stand out. First, John 10 and Jesus words that he would "
lay down my life for the sheep." Reymond writes, "But how does it come about that one is his sheep? By believing on him? Not at all. Jesus said to the Jews, not (as it is often represented): "You are not my sheep because you do not believe," but: "You do not belive because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to [believe] my voice; I know them, and they follow me."

Second, Jesus High Priestly prayer in John 17 is important. He says, "
I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours" (John 17:9). Again, in John 17:20, "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word." In the words of Reymond, "It is highly unlikely that Christ's high-priestly work of sacrifice and intercession, two parts of one harmonious work, would be carried out with different objects in view."

I leave Edwards with the last word. It may clarify, it may actually confuse. I think it is edifying:

"Universal redemption must be denied in the very sense of Calvinists themselves, whether predestination is acknowledged or no, if we acknowledge that Christ knows all things. For if Christ certainly knows all things to come, he certainly knew, when he died, that there were such and such men that would never be the better for his death. And therefore, it was impossible that he should die with an intent to make them (particular persons) happy. For it is a right-down contradiction [to say that] he died with an intent to make them happy, when at the same time he knew they would not be happy-Predestination or no predestination, it is all one for that. This is all that Calvinists mean when they say that Christ did not die for all, that he did not die intending and designing that such and such particular persons should be the better for it; and that is evident to a demonstration. Now Arminians, when [they] say that Christ died for all, cannot mean, with any sense, that he died for all any otherwise than to give all an opportunity to be saved; and that, Calvinists themselves never denied. He did die for all in this sense; ’tis past all contradiction."


Doug said...


Dan Waugh said...

sorry. this doesn't impede our plans for lunch on Thurs, does it?

Doug said...


Precious? It's been called that before, but not by you.

Gandalf: (thinking about the ring after Bilbo leaves)
A precious... Precious...

Gandalf: (reading about Isildur, voiceover)
The One Ring, which shall be an heirloom of my kingdom. All those who follow in my bloodline shall be bound to its fate, for I will risk no hurt to the Ring. It is precious to me...

Mark said...

I know you Calvinists have an answer for this, but I put it out there nonetheless (1 Peter 2:1).

"But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves."

I prefer to keep comfortable with the language of Scripture rather than feel compelled to follow seemingly logical arguments motivated by an over-systematizing of theology.

However, I don't lose sleep over this given that I've never seen belief or unbelief in limited atonement make the slightest difference in someone's life. Though I suppose it could become pernicious (either belief or disbelief) when combined with other character flaws.

Meanwhile, I won't hesitate to tell people that Christ died for their sins.

Dan Waugh said...

I have an answer - one I'm not in love with though. I think the false teachers Peter is speaking of are Jewish false teachers which is why he draws the parallel with the false prophets in Israel's history. Since the time of the Exodus, any Jew could be considered 'bought' by God.
To the bigger point, I feel where you're coming from. We want to let Scripture stand and speak on its own terms, not forcing it into a tight system. On the other hand, I don't think the Bible contradicts itself, nor do I think I can teach/preach conflicting messages. The different threads of Scripture need to be woven together in noncontradictory ways (not necessarily in ways the remove all mystery, however). In other words, I can't preach like a Calvinist from Romans and then a Nazarene from Hebrews.
I recognize that there a different 'poles' in Scripture (a 'God chooses' pole, a 'chose you this day pole'; a 'you are saved by grace' pole and a 'strive for holiness, without which, no one will see the Lord' pole). I latch onto one pole (the one I find most prevalent/compelling) and then need to explain the 'trouble' text in relation to it. I think everyone does that, unless your willing to be schizophrenic in your teaching/preaching, etc.
I agree that Particular Redemption when mixed certain unsavory character traits can be dangerous. I'm not a hyper-Calvinist. I believe in the 'indiscriminate' preaching of the gospel - though I try to nuance on my language a little more. I tend not to say that 'Jesus died for you', but instead, 'If you will trust Jesus, his sacrifice will save you', or something along those lines.