Friday, May 15, 2009

Who's Limiting the Atonement?

One of the most controversial questions concerning the doctrine of the atonement is:  For whom did Christ die?  Did Jesus die as the Substitute for every individual sinner in the world, or did He die for the elect alone (i.e. those of every tribe, language, people and nation, whom God chose for salvation before the foundation of the world)?

Typically, Calvinists are said to be the ones who limit the atonement.  But, when you really stop to think about it, every biblical Christian believes in some form of limited atonement.  Otherwise, such a person would be a universalist (one who believes that the whole human race will be saved).  

So, who limits the atonement - the sinner or God?  This really is the crux of the controversy.  And on this point the great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon set forth a cogent case for the "Calvinist" view:
We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ, because we say that Christ has not made a 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 answer, "No."  They are obliged to admit this, if they are consistent.  They say, "No, Christ has died that any man may be saved if" - and then follow certain conditions of salvation.  Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ?  Why, you.  You say that Christ did not die so as infallibly to secure the salvation of anybody.  We beg your pardon, when you say we limit Christ's death; we say, "No, my dear sir, it is you that do it."  We say 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.  You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it.  We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.

- Cited by J. I. Packer, "Introductory Essay," in John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (n.p., n.d.; reprint, London: Banner of Truth, 1959), 14.
Years ago while attending a small Bible Conference at which James Montgomery Boice was the keynote speaker, I asked him about his views regarding the doctrine of limited atonement.  I'll never forget his answer:  "I believe that when Jesus said, 'It is finished,' He made salvation complete, not just possible."

That's food for thought.


Don Fisher said...

This would come under the "dissenting view" category you mentioned, Pastor Matt.

I believe that when John the Baptist said "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" he meant what he said. And I believe that when the apostle Paul wrote "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them" he meant that, too. I don't subscribe to a view that has to put asterisks and fine print around the meaning of "the world" in verses such as these in order to make them fit a theological system.

Bible-believers who are non-Calvinists do not, in fact, limit the atonement. The Gospel is the message that Christ died for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). They recognize that, as the Bible teaches, God's grace may be resisted (indeed, will be resisted) by the sinner in his natural state. As in the natural realm, when God works through means a person may reject those means. Thus it is the application of the benefits of the atonement to the individual which is limited, not the atonement itself.

Now, I send this along just to point out that there is a dissenting view which does not, in fact, limit the atonement. As you have said, this subject is a controversial one. It should not become a divisive one.

Don Fisher

Matt Fletcher said...

Thank you, Don, for your comments. Ironically, a man responded in saving faith upon hearing Spurgeon quote that first verse you mentioned: "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" Spurgeon quoted the verse while testing the acoustics in what he thought was an empty building hours before the service began!

I agree that we should not put "asterisks and fine print" around the meaning of words (such as "the world") in order to "make them fit a theological system." At the same time, any verse must be considered in light of its immediate context as well as the context of the whole counsel of Scripture. A good example of this would be comparing the use of the word "world" in John 3:16 ("God so loved the world...") and 1 John 2:15 ("Do not love the world...").

It has been said that Christ's atonement is "sufficient for all but efficient (effective) only for those who believe." The Bible certainly teaches both the sovereignty of God as well as the responsibility of man. These doctrines, while paradoxical at times, are not contradictory. The challenge for us is to preach both fully without compromising either.

The best I can summarize my view of the Atonement, based on my own study of Scripture, would be as follows: "Jesus Christ died to save eternally all who would repent and believe on Him."

Now HOW a person comes to repent of his sins and put his trust in Christ gets us back to the same issue of God's sovereignty and man's responsibility (i.e., human depravity, divine election, etc.). That will have to wait till another time!

And, yes, may our Lord be pleased to use any discussion of this topic (or any topic, for that matter) in this forum to make us dig more deeply into the Scriptures, and not make digs at one another!

Thanks again for your contribution.