Intro to the Five Points of Calvinism
The Five Points of Calvinism
Well, it's time for another post in my series on the TULIP, aka the five points of Calvinism. Today we are looking at the middle petal of the TULIP - the "L" for "limited atonement." This has been one of the most hotly debated of the five points and the one where many who like the Calvinist system punt, and say they can't go there. If you ever hear of a "four point Calvinist" then this is probably where they have ceased to be on board. In my mind, this is a place where the debates have generated more heat than light. It's one of the places where both sides have dug in very hard and it's a hill that both sides have chosen to die on.
While I won't presume to be able to put forth a position that will be satisfying to all parties, I do hope to express a few things that will be helpful in defining the issues.
The doctrine of "limited atonement" speaks of the extent of the atonement, it is the Calvinistic answer to the question "for whom did Christ die." Calvinists assert that the extent of the atonement is "limited" to the elect, hence the name. Christ died for the elect in particular, not everyone in general. However, this is not the final word on this matter as we shall see in a moment.
Before proceeding, let me say that the very word "limited" is an unfortunate word to use when speaking of God or something He has done. God is the "omni-" God, so to speak of a work of His as "limited" seems to somehow denigrate HIs power. Also, knowing that "God is love," to speak of the atoning sacrifice of Christ as being "limited" seems to do violence to His nature as "all-loving." For this reason, I am in agreement with those theologians who prefer to use the term "particular redemption," when speaking of the extent of the atonement. I know that this phrase won't solve all of the problems, but at least it narrows the focus of what we are talking about. It asserts that God had a particular purpose related to a particular people, in His plan of redemption.
However, though we may quibble about which terms to use, it is the concept that is at issue. The concept at issue goes back to our question, "for whom did Christ die?"
In answering that, the first thing I would point out is that death of Christ was prefigured in, and is the fulfilment of, the Old Testament sacrificial system. The atonement of Christ is prefigured in the Old Testament in the Passover, the Day of Atonement, and the entire sacrificial system. Point number one in the argument for "limited atonement," or "particular redemption," is simply to note that all of these things - Passover, Day of Atonement, sacrificial system - were intended for the people of Israel, not for everyone in the world. True, the foreigner could have his sins atoned for, but he had to become a member of the people of Israel to do so. God never intended to provide a sacrifice for sins for those outside of the people of Israel.
When we come to the New Testament, the kinds of passages that Calvinists assert in defense of this doctrine are the ones that speak of Christ dying for the sins of "His people." For example:
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins
just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 . Zondervan: Grand Rapids
These verses all speak of the redemption accomplished by Christ and show it's limited nature. He will save "His people," from their sins, not all people. He gave His life as a ransom for "many," not all. Christ gave Himself up for the church, not for all men. I would be so bold as to suggest that there is a verse which is often used as an argument against this view, which actually supports the view. That verse is John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 . Zondervan: Grand Rapids
The word "that" in the middle of the verse speaks of purpose and it connects the giving of God's one and only Son with that which follows. The "giving" is clearly the giving of Christ in all of His work of redemption. The purpose of it is to secure eternal life for those who believe, not everyone. Based on considerations like this, the Calvinist argues that God had a specific purpose in mind with the atonement. It was an "actual" atonement, not merely a "potential" atonement. It "actually" atoned for the sins of God's people, it didn't merely make possible the atonement of sins for all people.
At this point it is helpful to point out the very narrow point that is being made here. The Calvinist simply asserts that the purpose of the death of Christ on the cross was to secure the salvation of His children. If I were to argue against myself I would go back to my prior arguments about the Old Testament types of the atonement of Christ, where I mentioned that these were given only to the people of Israel. I would argue against my position by saying "yes, but anyone from a foreign nation could become a member of the people of Israel, therefore even those things provided a potential atonement for all." To that I would say that my opponent has switched the point of argument. My opponent has in fact, agreed with me about the extent of the atonement - he has agreed that it is only for the people of Israel - he is now arguing about how one becomes a member of the nation of Israel. How one becomes a member of the nation of Israel is a very different argument than the one about the extent of the atonement.
Similarly, often when people want to argue about the extent of the atonement, they are often proffering arguments against something else, like "unconditional election," or "irresistible grace." Or, they may be arguing about the nature of God's love and mercy. The person who thinks that Christ died equally for everyone based on John 3:16 is not so much arguing the extent of the atonement as they are arguing the extent of God's love. They argue that since God loves the world, the death of Christ must be intended for everone in the world. But the one doesn't follow from the other. When speaking of God's love, we can distinguish between God's benevolent love for all mankind, and His redemptive love for His own children. When explaining this, I often tell people that I may love your child, but I will never love your child the way I love my child.
In the same way it is proper to distinguish between God's love for all men and His love for His children. As a side note, I have often found myself at odds with fellow Calvinists about this. I am happy to affirm that God loves everyone in the world, based on John 3:16. I've heard pretty whacky attempts to make that verse out to mean something to the effect that the "world" in John 3:16 is only the "world of the elect," or something like that. These folks are very adamant in their assertion that God cannot love the entire world, and there favorite verse is "Jacob I have loved, and Esau I have hated." They take that very literally to mean that God hates all of the non-elect. In such cases I turn to Luke 14:26:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters yes, even his own life he cannot be my disciple. The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 . Zondervan: Grand Rapids
After reading that, I'll ask them if they take that passage as literally as "Jacob I have loved, and Esau I have hated," and if they believe they have a biblical obligation to hate their parents. Of course not they say, of course we are supposed to love our parents, Luke 14:26 just speaks of the comparison of our love for our parents with to our love for God. Our love for God should be so great that our love for our parents pales in comparison. So why not understand the difference between the elect and non-elect in that way? God can still love the non-elect, even if the death of Christ did not atone for their sins.
Having said all of that, there are several passages that are regularly used against this view:
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
I John 2:2
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
I John 4:14
And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 . Zondervan: Grand Rapids
These passages are pretty clear that Jesus died for the whole world, so that pretty much shoots the case of the Calvinist, right? Ah, we Calvinists aren't going to back down quite so easily. The standard Calvinistic exegesis of these passages is to say that these show that the atonement is not limited to one ethnic group or national group. The rationale behind this is to view such passages through a Jewish, Old Testament lens. The Jews thought that salvation was only for the Jews, and one could not be saved without being a Jews. The New Testament is expanding this so that one can be saved without being a Jew. In fact, salvation is available to all kinds of people every where. But, in saying that Christ died for all kinds of people, this does not mean that He died for every single individual in the world.
I think this exegesis has a bit of merit to it, but I don't think it is the final answer on it. While the opponents of Calvinism often misunderstand us, it is also true that the proponents of Calvinism are often so eager to protect the system that we shape certain passages to fit the system, rather than letting the passages shape the system. So, while I think the "Christ died for all kinds of people" exegesis has some merit, there is a better way to address such passages. Rather than turn this into a debate between "Christ died for every individual" vs "Christ died for all kinds of people," let's look at the words of Charles Hodge, who gives us the better way of addressing the issue. If you aren't familiar with Hodge, he's one of the Old Princeton theologians of the 19th century, back when Princeton was the leading Calvinistic institution in America, and probably the world. He says this:
The whole question, therefore, concerns simply the purpose of God in the mission of his Son. What was the design of Christ?s coming into the world, and doing and suffering all He actually did and suffered? Was it merely to make the salvation of all men possible; to remove the obstacles which stood in the way of the offer of pardon and acceptance to sinners? or, Was it specially to render certain the salvation of his own people, i. e., of those given to Him by the Father? The latter question is affirmed by Augustinians, and denied by their opponents. It is obvious that if there be no election of some to everlasting life, the atonement can have no special reference to the elect. It must have equal reference to all mankind. But it does not follow from the assertion of its having a special reference to the elect that it had no reference to the non-elect. Augustinians readily admit that the death of Christ had a relation to man, to the whole human family, which it had not to the fallen angels. It is the ground on which salvation is offered to every creature under heaven who hears the gospel; but it gives no authority for a like offer to apostate angels. It moreover secures to the whole race at large, and to all classes of men, innumerable blessings, both providential and religious. It was, of course, designed to produce these effects; and, therefore, He died to secure them. In view of the effects which the death of Christ produces on the relation of all mankind to God, it has in all ages been customary with Augustinians to say that Christ died "suffcienter proomnibus, efficaciter tantum pro electi?" sufficiently for all, efficaciously only for the elect. There is a sense, therefore, in which He died for all, and there is a sense in which He died for the elect alone. The simple question is, Had the death of Christ a reference to the elect which it had not to other men? Did He come into the world to secure the salvation of those given to Him by the Father, so that the other effects of his work are merely incidental to what was done for the attainment of that object?
Hodge, C. 1997. Systematic theology. Originally published 1872. Logos Research Systems, Inc.: Oak Harbor, WA
I offer this quote as a kind of olive branch to those loathe the "limited atonement view," and as a corrective to some of the more "hyper" Calvinists. Notice, in particular that Hodge says:
But it does not follow from the assertion of its having a special reference to the elect that it had no reference to the non-elect. Augustinians readily admit that the death of Christ had a relation to man, to the whole human family, which it had not to the fallen angels.
Hodge basically seeks to answer the question of how did Christ's atonement relate to the elect, and how does it relate to fallen man? He says that the death of Christ becomes the ground on which salvation is offered to all men, and it secures innumberable blessings to all men. So, the Calvinist can affirm that everyone benefits from the death of Christ, but not everyone is saved by the death of Christ. Most non-Calvinistic evangelicals would agree with this. Except for those like Clark Pinnock and others who are into the "Openness of God" movement, all evangelicals are opposed to universalism. I don't know of anyone who wants to say that Christ died equally for all men. Christians believe that the atonement secures eternal life for them, would we say that it secures eternal life for unbelievers too? I don't know of any evangelicals who would say this, thus there is a sense in which everyone would agree that the atonement has a "limited" or "particular" focus, even if they don't buy the whole Calvinistic understanding.
So, there's my take on "limited atonement," let the flying of the fur begin.
The rest of the Five Points of Calvinism