By Dr. Tony Garland
Q. I have gratefully listened to over 70 hours of your teaching so far. Wonderfully helpful. I live in Australia.
You mentioned being a '4 point Calvinist'. I assume this means you do not agree with Limited Atonement teaching.
I believe in the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ for my sin, . . . that He took upon himself my sin and the penalty of that sin, and by his death paid the price thus propitiating God's wrath towards me. I believe that happened because it was God's atonement plan that my sin be imputed to Him as my substitute. I also believe that at that time His righteousness was imputed to me, and I stand now in that righteousness.
My question is this . . . if limited atonement teaching is incorrect and if Christ died for the whole of mankind, as a substitute, taking their imputed sin/sins, and making atonement and propitiating the wrath of God for all mankind, then wasn't the imputation of righteousness also made to all of mankind at that time?
If so then how can God send anyone to hell for their sin? Isn't the exchange imputation of our sin, and the imputation of His righteousness both simultaneously part of God's plan of atonement?
In other words, I can't see any error in the Limited Atonement teaching I have heard. I would be interested to know your reasons for not following this line of thought. It is very important to me.
A. I have referred to myself as a '4-Point Calvinist' because it is a reasonable summary of what I believe Scripture teaches.1 You are correct in identifying Limited Atonement as the key teaching of Calvinism which I reject. I reject the 'L' within 'TULIP'2 because it is impossible to reconcile with the plain teaching of numerous passages found within Scripture. Our view on this may be seen in the doctrinal statement on our website which states, concerning the first advent of Christ,
“We believe that in fulfillment of prophecy He came first to Israel as her Messiah-King, and, being rejected of that nation, He gave His life as a ransom for all according to the eternal counsels of God (John 1:11; Acts 2:22-24; 1 Tim. 2:6)” [emphasis added].Although many assume that all 5 key points of Calvinism were taught consistently by the man from whom Calvinism gets its name, this was not the case with regard to limited atonement.3
Scholars have long debated Calvin’s view, usually finding support in Calvin for their own positions. James Anderson, Robert T. Kendall, James B. Torrance, Curt Daniel, and M. Charles Bell think Calvin taught either universal redemption of what one might call a provisional universal atonement that recognizes that God loves all mankind while yet purposing that only some should be saved. Alan Clifford thinks that Calvin agrees with Amyraut rather than with John Owen and traditional Reformed theology on the extent of the atonement. A. A. Hodge, Paul Helm, Robert Godfrey, Roger Nicole, and Richard Muller assert that Calvin taught an implicit, effective atonement. Tony Lane and Robert Letham say that Calvin was ambiguous or even contradictory on the atonement, but that he maintained its intrinsic efficacy. Hans Boersma and G. Michael Thomas concluded that Calvin did not support either particular or universal redemption, but kept a certain tension in his doctrine of atonement.4So we see that even Calvin was not unambiguously a “5-point Calvinist” as many suppose. In fact, many of the early Reformers did not teach limited atonement.5
Any discussion of the extent of the atonement should recognized that Christians on both sides of the issue are united in their view of the inestimably high value of the death of Christ.6,7,8 So differences on this matter do not imply a failure by one side or the other to grasp the centrality of Christ’s work in redemption. At issue is whether Scripture teaches that Christ died only for those who actually come to faith (the elect) or whether His death was on behalf of the entire world. 5-Point Calvinists believe Christ died only for the elect:
The fourth view is the Calvinist view of limited or definite atonement, which, as codified by the Canons of Dort, “is the belief that the satisfaction rendered by Christ on the cross was of infinite value and worth by virtue of Christ’s incarnation but that its intended object was not sinners in general, or every individual, but rather those who God had elected from eternity.” The Father sent His Son to pay for the sins of the elect, so that Christ died savingly and personally for all of God’s chosen people.9Although this may appear to be a logically tidy idea, it has a significant problem: it contradicts numerous clear passages of Scripture which reveal that Christ’s death on the cross made all men “savable.”10 The teaching of limited atonement is one example of a frequent error on the part of many who study the Scriptures: a willingness to follow fallen or flawed human logic even when it leads to a destination which does not square with clear passages found in Scripture. In essence, 5-Point Calvinism elevates its logical assumptions above the simple teaching of Scripture on this point - and then goes to great effort to denying the plain sense of various passages in order to preserve that logic.11 In my view, this is always a “yellow flag” to watch for in theological discussions: when one party in the discussion spends more time talking about what logic “requires” than examining what Scripture reveals.12
The doctrine of limited atonement is . . . a point of logic in the Calvinistic system of thought . . . Would God make a plan to save everyone, then not carry it out? Would He be so foolish as to have His Son pay for the salvation of all if He knew that Christ would not be able to obtain what He paid for? . . . Could God plan and provide atonement, but not realize that His atonement would not be accepted?13The problem here is that in order to carefully handle the Word of God, we must allow the clear teaching of scripture to trump our assumptions rather than trying to reinterpret Scripture to support what we might think is ‘logical.’14 As is the case concerning divine election (Rom. 9:18-20), we know that some truths of Scripture simply refuse to bow before our limited and fallen intellectual powers (e.g., the incarnation, the Trinity). In this case, the 5-Point Calvinist holds that logic requires that Christ only died for those who actually benefit by being saved due to His work on the cross - the elect. The 5-Point Calvinist requires that God’s electing foreknowledge and Christ’s work of atonement be co-extensive: apply to the same individuals.15 In contrast, those who believe the Bible teaches unlimited atonement accept the tension of being unable to fully reconcile related truths which Scripture reveals - especially where to do so involves conjecture about considerations within the Godhead.16
At issue is what Scripture reveals concerning who benefited from the work of Christ on the cross and how individuals appropriate that work? Scripture reveals that all the world benefited from the work of Christ on the cross even though only the elect among those beneficiaries attain salvation through faith. In other words, Christ’s work on the cross is not co-extensive with salvation because another factor, faith, is involved. This holds even for the elect - who were not saved when Christ cried, “It is finished,” but only upon exercising faith in Christ. “Any one of the elect whose salvation is predetermined, and for whom Christ died, may live the major portion of his life in open rebellion against God and, during that time, manifest every feature of depravity and spiritual death. This alone should prove that men are not severally saved by the act of Christ in dying, but rather that they are saved by the divine application of that value when they believe.”17 You mentioned, “I also believe that at that time [at His death] His righteousness was imputed to me, and I stand now in that righteousness.” Yet, if you think about it for a moment, if His righteousness was imputed to you at the time when He died on the cross, then why the need to subsequently appropriate His work by faith? There was a time after the cross and before faith when you were under God’s wrath. Only later, when you exercised faith were you “saved.”
5-Point Calvinists sometimes respond that this would seem to make faith a “work” which those who reject limited atonement add to the finished work of the cross. But it is impossible to get around the clear Scriptural teaching that faith is the means by which salvation comes to all who believe. Receiving the gift of salvation by faith does not constitute a work.
Often the soul-winner presents the gospel as though some special kind or amount of faith is required for salvation. . . . As far as the Scripture is concerned, God simply requires removal of trust in self and redirection of trust to Christ. It is true that a person must be sincere when trusting Christ, but it must always be remembered that Christ saves, not one’s faith. Man’s reception of God’s great gift of salvation adds nothing to the completed work of Christ. So it is not Christ’s substitutionary atonement plus faith in Christ that provides the basis of acceptance with God. Christ’s work alone saves; but unless his person and work are received by faith, no benefit comes to the individual sinner.18As we examine what Scripture has to say on this issue, we'll notice some passages which clearly teach that Jesus' work on the cross benefited the entire world. Others will distinguish between the benefit of the cross to the world and salvation which is only attained by the elect through faith. We must be careful not to allow our interpretation of the more restrictive passages concerning the elect eclipse the global benefits clearly stated in the broader passages. Both truths are taught by Scripture: Christ’s death benefited the entire world, but ultimately only results in eternal life for those who are among the elect and exercise faith in the work accomplished on their behalf.
First, the broader passages:
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)John writes that Jesus is the propitiation for not only the sins of believers, “but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2). Jesus is said to be the lamb “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) and to give His flesh “for the life of the world” (John 6:51). Paul tells Timothy that intercession be made for “all men” including kings and those in authority and that God desires all men to be saved and that Christ “gave Himself a ransom” for this same “all” (1Ti. 2:1-7). Later, he tells Timothy that God is the Savior of “all men, especially of those who believe” (1Ti. 4:10). Paul informs the church at Corinth that Christ reconciled both believers and “the world to Himself” (2Cor. 5:18-21). Peter warns about false teachers who bring in destructive heresies and deny “the Lord who bought them” (2Pe. 2:1-3). Notice that those who were “bought” are destined for destruction. This is not about individuals who will be found among the elect at some future time, but are not yet saved: these never attain eternal life. Even Calvin called these false teachers “redeemed.”19
I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world. (John 6:51)
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, [and] giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this [is] good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For [there is] one God and one Mediator between God and men, [the] Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle - I am speaking the truth in Christ [and] not lying - a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. (1Timothy 2:1-7)
For to this [end] we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is [the] Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:10)
Now all things [are] of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore [you] on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin [to be] sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, [and] bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber. (2 Peter 2:1-3)
My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)
As one might expect, 5-Point Calvinists argue that these passages do not actually say what they appear to say. Yet, when the context of each passage is considered, it seems impossible to make a convincing argument that terms such as “world” (kosmos) and “all” denote only the elect. I would suggest the ingenuity and length of their arguments to the contrary only provide additional evidence of the plainness with which Scripture contradicts the limited atonement view.
In addition to the Scriptures mentioned above, we note other passages which, although clearly restricting eternal life to those who exercise faith (the elect), also indicate Christ’s work on the cross embraced all men in its intent (e.g., Isa. 53:5-11; Mat. 20:27-28; 26:27-28; John 3:16-17; Rom. 5:18-19). When we consider what Scripture reveals on the topic, we must conclude that the salvation of all men was made possible by Christ’s work upon the cross, but only comes to those who believe (Rom. 1:16).
Christ's death atoned for the sins of the whole world, but that atonement only becomes definite the moment a sinner repents and believes the gospel (cf. 2Cor. 5:19-20).20Thus, I find myself compelled by Scripture to consider myself among those whom Chafer referred to as “moderate Calvinists who are unlimited redemptionists”:
It is our conviction that the Bible teaches that Christ died to provide a basis of salvation for all men. To those who are elect and who therefore believe in Christ, this provision secures for them their eternal salvation when they believe. For those who do not believe and thus evidence the fact that they are the nonelect, the provisions exist as a basis of condemnation.21
The men who belong to this school of interpretation defend all of the five points of Calvinism excepting one, namely, “Limited Atonement,” or what has been termed “the weakest point in the Calvinistic system of doctrine.” This form of moderate Calvinism is more the belief of Bible expositors than of the theologians, which fact is doubtless due to the truth that the Bible, taken in its natural terminology and apart from those strained interpretations which are required to defend a theory, seems to teach an unlimited redemption. Men of this group believe that Christ died actually and fully for all men of this age alike, that God has ordained that the gospel shall be preached to all for whom Christ died, and that through the proclamation of the gospel He will exercise His sovereign power in saving His elect. This group believe in the absolute depravity of man and his total inability to believe apart from the enabling power of the Spirit, and that the death of Christ, being forensic, is a sufficient ground for any and every man to be saved, should the Spirit of God choose to draw him. They contend that the death of Christ of itself saves no man, either actually or potentially, but that it does render all men savable; that salvation is wrought of God alone, and at the time the individual believes.22
1) My views on secondary aspects of some of the four points with which I am in basic agreement with Calvinism would differ somewhat from how a full Calvinist would understand them. For example, whether regeneration precedes or follows faith.
2) TULIP: T = total depravity, U = unconditional election, L = limited atonement, I = irresistible grace, P = perseverance of the saints.
3) Because of the long-standing use of the term in association with this topic, I use the term atonement here even though redemption might be the preferred NT term.
4) Beeke, 79.
5) “Limited Atonement is not found in any of the Church Fathers until the later Augustine. Most of the Reformers did not hold to it (e.g., Luther, Melancthon, Bullinger, Cranmer, Latimer; even Calvin speaks up for unlimited atonement in some passages.) Among those who believed in unlimited atonement, a selection would include: Athanasius, Cyril, Basil, Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, John Preston, John Newton, Alfred Edersheim, J. C. Ryle, Charles Simeon, G. Campbell Morgan, A. T. Robertson, L. S. Chafer, F. F. Bruce, Leon Morris, C. C. Ryrie, John Walvoord, and Millard Erickson.” Henebury-2, 257.
6) “All Calvinists agree that Christ’s obedience and suffering were of infinite value, and that if God had so willed, the satisfaction rendered by Christ would have saved every member of the human race. It would have required no more obedience, nor any greater suffering for Christ to have secured salvation for every man, woman, and child who ever lived than it did for Him to secure salvation for the elect only.” Steele, 39.
7) “Though limiting the saving benefits of Christ’s satisfaction to the elect, the delegates at Dort also stressed that the doctrine of limited atonement does not suggest any inadequacy in the death of Christ. Because it was Christ who suffered, His death is of infinite value. The Canons of Dort declare unequivocally that ‘the death of the Son of God . . . is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world’ (Head II, Art. 3). Thus, the canons affirm that although Christ’s atoning death is efficient only for the for the elect, it is sufficient for all. The Dortian divines recognized, however, that the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement for all must be carefully defined . . . They said that Christ’s death was sufficient in itself for all while denying that Christ died with saving intent for all.” Beeke, 80-81.
8) “The human estimation of the immeasurable value of Christ’s death in behalf of lost men is in no way lessened or discredited by the belief that its value is received at the time that saving faith is exercised, rather than at the time the Savior died.” Chafer, 3:186-187.
9) Beeke, 78.
10) Henebury-1, 86.
11) Interestingly, this error of holding Scripture hostage to the limits of fallen human logic is usually the domain of those who espouse the Arminian position on related topics.
12) “In fact, it would not be saying too much to state that the main force of their position is based, not principally on the exegesis of Scripture, but upon logical deductions. Instead of going straight to the texts, these brethren must first ‘set-up’ a framework of logic whereby they can reinterpret the many problem texts they encounter (‘So then, this cannot mean this,... It must mean that’).” Henebury-1, 94.
13) Beeke, 79,81-82.
14) “It is true that if we had no information to the contrary, and were left to the ingenuity of our own logic, we might conclude that since Christ died for the elect, then the non-elect were never atoned for, and are, in fact, the objects of God’s unending hatred.” Henebury-1, 88.
15) “[Limited redemptionists hold that] the atonement and the intercessory ministry of Christ must be co-extensive, which is how Scripture represents them. Response: Did not Christ intercede for those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34)? Are we expected to believe that they all came to salvation?” Henebury-1, 99-100.
16) “To the unlimited redemptionist, the seeming inequity of a judgment falling upon a person after Christ has borne that judgment is but one more mystery which the finite mind cannot understand.” Chafer, 3:188.
17) Chafer, 3:193.
18) Lightner-1, 201.
19) “They, then, who throw off the bridle, and give themselves up to all kinds of licentiousness, are not unjustly said to deny Christ by whom they have been redeemed.” Calvin, 2Pe. 2:1.
20) Henebury-2, 257.
21) Lightner-2, 112.
22) Chafer, 3:184-185.