Sunday, March 04, 2012

Why Limited Atonement is Easy to Believe

Some long-time friends came over the other night for dinner, and since they’re fellow believers, we naturally discuss Christian-oriented topics when we get together. One of them teaches at a local Christian school and he was lamenting the fact that they had hired a Calvinist (gasp!) as one of the teachers. I shocked both him and his wife by disclosing the fact that I now embrace reformed theology. That revelation produced an awkward pause in the evening, followed next by some good discussion.

After some brief back and forth on the subject, they made the statement to me: “But Jesus died for everybody!” Such a claim is very common. Of all the doctrines of grace (i.e. the five points of Calvinism), the teaching of limited atonement seems to get people’s skin the most.

The doctrine of limited atonement says that Jesus only died for those whom God chose to be the Bride of His Son and no one else. To those unacquainted with the logic and theology behind the teaching, it creates lots of questions, and also produces what are called “four point Calvinists” (those who hold to every other doctrine in Calvinism except limited atonement).

I have what may sound like a shocking statement to make: Of all the doctrines of grace, I believe limited atonement is the easiest doctrine to affirm and embrace. Let me explain why.

Can’t Touch This

Dr. John Piper is somewhat famously known for remarking “My best friends are dead men.” What he means is that, when it comes to God-fearing, solid theological teaching, it’s hard to beat the works of people like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and others.

One dead (but present with the Lord) man Piper and I look to for wisdom and instruction is John Owen who wrote what is perhaps the most definitive work on Christ’s atonement in “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”. In his book, Owen delivers what I believe is irrefutable logic on why Christ’s atonement must be limited. Let me quote the full section from his book and then work through it in parts:

“God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved . . . 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, then did he not die for all their sins. Let them choose which part they will” (page 61).

The Options

“God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men.

Owen first lays out the options for the atonement. Either Jesus suffered on the cross for (1) all the sins of everyone; (2) all the sins of a particular group of people; (3) some of the sins of everyone.  He then proceeds to work through those possibilities.

Option 3 - Out

If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved.

Working backwards, Owen quickly discards the third option because, if everyone still has some sins that have not been atoned for, no one will stand in the presence of God and spend eternity with Him. I don’t know of anyone who disagrees with this.

Option 2 – What Reformed Teaching Affirms

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.

The second option Owen presents is what reformed theology embraces – that Jesus only died for God’s chosen people and took upon Himself all their sins. Such a position ensures the salvation of that group of people because all their sins were placed on Christ at the cross and they have nothing left to atone for. This is limited atonement.

The Start of Option 1 - a Good Question

If the first, why then are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins?

Option 1 is what the vast majority of Christians believe – that Jesus took upon Himself at the cross all the sins of everyone who ever lived or will live. But Owen asks a good question: if that’s the case, and it is sin that keeps people from God, then why isn’t everyone saved?

Teachers like Rob Bell and others who hold to universalism believe everyone is eventually saved; that “love wins” in the end and that no one will be lost. Part of their rationale is that Jesus did indeed die for the sins of everyone.

But outside of Bell and the universalists, no one believes everyone will be saved. This includes those not upholding the doctrine of limited atonement as reformed theology presents it. And it is these people that Owen addresses next.

Is Unbelief a Sin?

You will say, ‘Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.’

What keeps people from eternal life with God? Their unbelief, which is a fact affirmed by both reformed and non-reformed Christians alike. The ever-famous John 3:16 limits the atonement to only those who believe – a point that showcases the truth that all Christians really believe in limited atonement in one form or fashion.

But then Owen asks an important follow up question:

But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not?

This inquiry marks the beginning of the end for anyone who attempts to deny the reformed doctrine of limited atonement. The answer, of course, is yes. Paul flatly says, “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). The writer of Hebrew, describing faithless Israel, also says, “So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief” (Heb. 3:19).

But Owen works through the possibilities nonetheless.

If not, why should they be punished for it?

If unbelief is not a sin, Owen says then there is no reason for it to bar anyone from God’s presence.

If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not.

If unbelief is a sin (and we have seen that it is), then it was either one of the sins that Christ died for or it was not. So either unbelieving people still have something to answer for to God or they don’t.

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?

This logical conclusion is the deathblow for anyone saying that Christ died for all the sins of everyone, but that unbelief keeps a person from eternal life with God. Owen says if unbelief is a sin, and if Christ died for ALL the sins of everyone born of human parents, then that sin must be included in the mix and labeled as one that Christ died for. Unbelief, as a sin, could not keep anyone from spending eternal life with God more than any other sin that Jesus paid for.

If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins.

If someone wants to say that Christ did not die for a person’s unbelief, and unbelief is a sin, then Jesus did not die for all his or her sins. Thus, a person cannot make the claim that Jesus died for all the sins of the world (with “world” being defined as every human being ever born).

Let them choose which part they will.

This is polite 17th century language for victoriously exclaiming, “Checkmate!”

Owen has shut off all possible options for those who want to claim that Christ died and bore the sins for every human being, and yet still want to adhere to the (right) teaching that all will not be saved. With options 1 and 3 being untenable, the only option remaining is the reformed doctrine of limited atonement.

Easily Understood and Easily Embraced

A short while back, I taught a ten-week series on reformed theology at a very large Arminian mega-church. For many in the class, it was the first time they had ever heard the doctrines of grace presented in a systematic manner.

When we got to the section on limited atonement, I covered the doctrine in full, discussed the verses that are sometimes used to support an unlimited atonement, and then presented Owen’s defense of limited atonement. One person in the class admitted, “You said at the beginning that this is the most controversial of all the reformed teachings, but I think this just follows naturally, especially if the other points are true.”

I agree.

In his book entitled, “The Nature of the Atonement”, John McLeod Campbell explains how he came to understand that if the death of Christ was a penal substitution (i.e. Jesus dying in the place of others), a person has to deal with the issue of why everyone is not eventually saved. He admits that the only alternative becomes a limited atonement

Recounting the just covered John Owen‘s summary of the case, Campbell concludes, “As addressed to those who agree with him as to the nature of the atonement [as a penal substitution], while differing with him as to the extent of its reference [that it was intended for all sinners], this seems unanswerable.”

I agree again. Make no mistake about one thing: every sin committed in the history of humankind will be punished and paid for. The sin will either be paid for by Christ on the cross or in Hell by the unbeliever. God does not exact double punishment or payment for sin, once by Jesus on the cross and then by those who reject Christ in Hell. He only punishes once for sin.

The doctrine of limited atonement has definitely gotten a bad rap in Christendom, but I believe it’s actually the most easily embraced of the reformed doctrines. John Owen’s brief but powerful logic demonstrates this quite well I think.

Believing I can’t choose God on my own (the doctrine of total depravity)? Thinking that God chooses only those He desires for His Son’s Bride (election)? Affirming that God somehow ‘violates’ and overcomes my will and resistance to Him (irresistible grace)? I find those are things that cause more consternation in Christians than limited atonement.

Dr. James White speaks to the simplicity and beauty of limited atonement when he says, “In its simplest terms the Reformed belief is this: Christ’s death saves sinners. It does not make the salvation of sinners a mere possibility. It does not provide a theoretical atonement. . . .Christ’s death saves every single person that it was intended to save.”

Knowing that God never fails at anything, that makes sense to me. 


Anonymous said...

While I appreciate your logic, the reasoning falls apart when you consider the wholeness of Scripture, including the many verses that specifically suggest that Christ died for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2, John 3:16, Romans 1:16, John 6:51, 1 Timothy 2:3-4, John 1:29, 1 Timothy 2:6, Mark 16:15, 2 Peter 3:9, Romans 5:18, Hebrews 2:9, etc). It doesn't become effective until someone believes (trusts) in Christ, but salvation is available to everyone. Scripture is clear in this regard. While the works of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Owen are admirable, the Word of God should be the final authority, not Calvin, or anyone else. Appreciate your blog though! God bless my friend. Mike

Robin Schumacher said...

Thanks for your comments. I'm not sure, though, how Owen's logic "falls apart". How does it fall apart - what is it's flaw? You point out a variety of verses, some of which I tackle in the presentation below, but they don't conflict logically at all with Owens thoughts. Further, all those verses have been well addressed by reformed Biblical exegetes, however I'm happy to work through them one at a time if you'd like.

Thanks for writing.

Nick said...

The main issue I have with this is the lack of Biblical precision it has. For example, the Bible explains what "atonement" means, but too few people have sat down and actually examined this. In the Bible, "atonement" never entails transferring a punishment, so anyone advocating this is already walking on unbiblical grounds from the get go.

Those of the Reformed persuasion often feel marginalized because they don't feel they are understood by other Christians, but when it comes to straight up Biblical exegesis I've unfortunately found that Calvinists fall into the same 'snag' they accuse other Christians of falling into.

On that same note, where does the Bible say Jesus endured the Father's wrath or that Jesus endured the pains of hellfire? Now that's surely what we deserve, and if Jesus took our punishment then He endured that in our place, but this is astonishingly not something Scripture teaches. Nowhere does Scripture describe Christ's Passion beyond the physical persecutions He endured at the hands of men; to go beyond that is to go beyond what is written by definition. And that's not even touching on the Christological dubiousness of such a claim, for how does the God-Man endure hellfire without destroying the Hypostatic Union?

And not to take this post too long, but the Anonymous poster pointed out another significant issue, namely the "Eternal Justification" dilemma of not being forgiven until the moment of belief while maintaining forgiveness took place apart from you over 2000 years ago. Either the person was forgiven at the moment of faith or they were forgiven 2000 years ago, but not both.

So while Owen's argument is logical, it is not a Biblical premise to be building from. That's the distinction a lot of people don't see. Until the Seminaries start analyzing Hebrew/Greek words for Atonement, they'll continue to misrepresent the Word of God.

Robin Schumacher said...

Nick - thanks for writing. To "Atone" means “satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends”. Specifically, in Christianity, it refers to the doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and humankind, as accomplished through the life, suffering, and death of Christ. So the reformed doctrine of limited atonement concerns itself with who has been reconciled to God through the death of Jesus.

Now, how did that reconciliation take place? Through the substitutionary death of Jesus, correct? That's where God's punishment enters the picture. God's justice for sin needs to be satisfied, and it was either satisfied through Jesus' suffering on the cross (cf. Rom. 3:21-26) or it will be paid for by every unbeliever in Hell. Christ took God's wrath over sin for us; unbelievers will take God's wrath themselves. That's what "propitiation" or "satisfaction" practically means for Christians. Christianity is the only faith where the deity grants grace *through* justice and not at the expense of justice.

Have you read Owen's book? He's a very careful exegete and works through all the supposed verses that teach an unlimited atonement.

Nick said...

Hello Robin,

I would agree with the definition of "atone" that you gave: to make reparation or amends. But making reparation or amends doesn't mean taking someone's punishment, especially being damned to hell in place of another.

When you say: "Christ took God's wrath over sin for us," I'd ask where in Scripture you're getting this idea. If you're getting this through the mention of "propitiation," then I think that's another definition that needs to be addressed as well. To propitiate means to "turn away wrath," it does not mean to re-direct wrath onto a substitute. When the Bible uses the term "atone," it is speaking of a good work that turns away wrath, not a substitute receiving the wrath. This is key.

I have not read Owen's book, but can you tell me if he addresses texts that use the term "atone" like Gen 32:20; Num 16:46-48; Prov 16:6,14?

Robin Schumacher said...

Hi Nick - thanks for getting back to me. I would offer the following verses in support of the argument that Christ took God's wrath & punishment for us:

"Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him" (Isaiah 53:4-6).

“Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place" (Daniel 9:24).

"just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3).

"For", to me, implies a substitionary situation where He was punished for sin and not us. And no greater punishment can be had than taking someone's life.

Also I'd say that the idea of Christ's substitionary death speaks to Him being punished instead of us. God required His death instead of our own. Being the Lamb of God, the Passover Lamb, He died just as the sacrificial lambs did during the Old Testament era.

As far as Owen's book is concerned, I'm afraid I don't have it in electronic form; just paper form with wickedly small print and no Scripture reference in the back, so I can't answer your question on if he tackles those verses or not. Sorry about that...

Nick said...

Hello Robin,

Could you be more specific in where exactly you see God's Wrath being released on Christ? I don't see that plainly taught in an text you cited, and God isn't even mentioned in 3 of 4 of them.

Daniel 9:24 says "make atonement for iniquity," which doesn't necessitate anything specific.

Matthew 20:28 says Jesus will give His life as a "ransom," which is paying off a monetary value, not a substitution of punishment.

1 Cor 15:3 is likewise not specific, to die for sins doesn't necessitate a one-to-one substitution, nor especially does it demand the Father's Wrath was inflicted. The term "for" can simply mean "on behalf of," just as it's used in 1John3:16,
" By this we know love,
that he laid down his life for us,
and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers
Notice how "for" is used here and the parallelism: we are to lay down our lives "for" our brothers in Christ, as Christ's example of laying down his life "for" us shows. But we are not to take the punishment our brothers in Christ deserve, so "for" cannot mean "in place of" and rather "on behalf of" (e.g. sacrifice your time, energy).

As for Isaiah 53:4-6, when it says Christ "bore our griefs and carried our sorrows," most people don't know that Matthew 8 directly quotes this and says it pertains to Christ healing the sick, 'taking away' their illness. It's not about Christ taking their place or taking the illness onto Himself. He was "pierced" and "crushed" by the Roman soldiers, and "the chastening for our well being" comes from the Hebrew word here is very specific and means to chastise a son in a loving manner (cf Hebrews 5:8; 12:5-6), it is never used to mean to punish someone in a judicial sense.

I'm bringing this up to show that it's dangerous to jump to conclusions on subjects this important. When I first began looking at Scripture carefully on this issue, I realized I had to let a lot of presuppositions go. One of the most profound insights was when I realized the Passover Lamb was not killed in place of sinful Israel, for God's wrath was never upon them (Exodus 11:4-7).

Robin Schumacher said...

Hi Nick -

When it says Christ was "crushed" for our iniquities; "chastened"; "afflicted"; "scourged" - these don't sound like punishments to you? And keep in mind, Isaiah says that He was "smitten of God" even though the acts were carried out by men. There's no getting around that.

Taking the conversation up a level - do you believe God punishes people for sin? If so, and our sins were placed on Christ, and He died for those sins - again, that's not punishment?

As to the Passover lamb, it died and served as a substitute for the first born of Israel's homes. What would have happened to them had they not killed the Passover lamb?

I guess we just differ on the nature of the atonement, although I'm not sure which theory you hold to. I hold to penal substitution, and believe God's justice needed to be satisfied. I'm not sure how you could look at the cross and not believe that was punishment.

Thanks again for writing.

Nick said...

Hello Robin,

Something is broken with the Google Blogger Comment follow up system so it's hard to know when new responses come in.

You asked me when it says Christ was "crushed," and "afflicted," and "chastened" and such, if that sounds like punishment. I would respond by saying, no, not at all. For example, many of those same "punish" terms are used in regards to the Patriarch Job, yet he was never being punished by God. As for "chastened," that is decisively not about judicial punishment at all, but rather fatherly correction, which is why the Proverbs use it so often in reference to fathers and sons, and even the NT quotes this as speaking of God chastising Christians for their own good.

You also asked me if I believe God punishes people for their sin. Yes, He does, if they don't repent of it. Even when God forgives, He sometimes still lets them suffer some sort of penalty as well (e.g. King David lost his son). I don't think sins being "placed on Christ" refers to Christ receiving the punishment they deserved, for the various reasons I already mentioned (e.g. the Biblical term for "atonement" never entails transferring a punishment).

The Passover Lamb did have to be slaughtered, but nowhere does the text say this was 'in place of' the firstborn of Israel, just the opposite in fact. Failure to engage in the Passover Ritual would cause one to be identified with Egypt, rather than God's people.

You said: "I guess we just differ on the nature of the atonement, although I'm not sure which theory you hold to."

I would say I hold to a strictly Biblical version of the atonement, and you can read about it in THIS Article that I wrote, along with other articles on the issue.

Robin Schumacher said...

Nick - Nice to hear from you again.

You say you hold to a Biblical version of the atonement; well, so do I... :-)

OK, in all seriousness, the various theories are (1) recapitulation; (2) ransom; (3) moral example; (4) necessary-satisfaction; (5) moral influence; (6) optional-satisfaction; (7) substitution; (8) government; (9) mystical.

In reading your article, you say you hold to satisfaction. Yet, your thoughts on the passover lamb are a bit confusing to me. Did not the lamb serve as a substitute for the first born in Israel's homes? You really didn't answer my question on what would have happened to those homes that chose not to sacrifice the lamb.

Some other questions for you: (1) did Christ take our place and/or serve as a substitute for us or not? (2) did Christ become sin for us? (3) does sin keep us from God - from spending eternity with God?

If you answer 'yes' to the last 2 questions, then Owen's logic still stands.

Thanks again for writing.