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Who Could Boast in A Limited Atonement?

I saw on Twitter the other night a tweet by a well known Calvinist boasting of the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement.  He tweeted concerning John 17:9 which says, “I pray for them.  I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours” (NKJV).  He boasted that John 17:9 teaches both unconditional election and limited atonement at the same time.  Of course I believe his exegesis of John 17:9 is terrible.  The passage in context is Jesus praying for His own Apostles whom He had personally chosen (John 15:16).  Jesus is praying before the Father, at this time in John 17:9, for His Apostles as John 17:12 makes clear.  The entirety of John 17 is focused mainly on the Apostles and not the unconditional elect as in this Calvinist’s mindset.

Yet who would want to boast in a limited atonement?  Calvinists often point out that the atonement of Jesus Christ is powerful enough to potentially save all but of course it does not.  This statement seems absurd to me even on a surface level.  The begging question then is why would God send His Son to die for the sins of the world (John 1:29) but then only save a few if in fact He could save all who come to Him in faith (John 6:37).  This leads to prayers such as from Charles Spurgeon, “Oh God save the elect and then elect some more!”  We Arminians would gladly agree.  But we go a step further in Arminianism and actually do believe that the atonement of Jesus Christ was for the saving of all people.  Because some reject this salvation doesn’t limit God’s work or His glory (John 5:39-40).  People in hell are there not because of Calvin’s “terrible decree” as he called it but because they refuse the Son of God and die in their sins (Romans 1:18-32).  Their sinful rebellion against God is the act of free choice people choosing as Adam and Eve did, to rebel against a holy God and ignore His commandments and His salvation that He has wrought in His Son (Romans 3:10-25).

I know that for some Calvinists, they prefer to call the doctrine of limited atonement by another name such as “particular redemption” but this doesn’t elevate the doctrine anymore than where it is.  Richard Mouw, in his book Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport talks about the doctrine of unlimited atonement and he talks about how the doctrine is one of those “shelf doctrines” that he doesn’t really like.  He believes it because it fits in his system though he finds little biblical support for the doctrine.  He doesn’t talk about it much and doesn’t think about it much either.  Newer Calvinists heroes such as John Piper or R.C. Sproul are defending the doctrine not just as important to Calvinism but as almost heretical to teach any other doctrine.  I heard a prominent Calvinist teaching from 2 Thessalonians 1:11 the other day and he found limited atonement in that verse that he was teaching on prayer from.

Yet the doctrine, to this Arminian, is largely based on logic than Scripture.  To those who hold to the five points of Calvinism (TULIP), the Calvinist teaching of unconditional election logically flows from the teaching of total depravity and in turn leads to a limited atonement.  For if mankind is totally depraved (Ephesians 2:1-3) and if God has unconditionally elected some to salvation and others to damnation then it logically follows that He sent His Son to die not for the sins of those whom He predestined to damnation but for those whom He chose to salvation.  This is logical.  But it’s not biblical.  I would agree that the Bible teaches depravity (though not in the Calvinist usage) and I would agree that the Bible teaches election (conditional and not all to salvation in the Scriptures such as in Romans 9:4-5 or Romans 9:13) but the overwhelming passages present the atonement as for the world (John 3:16 is a prime example).  I know that Calvinists such as John Piper see the use of the word “world” as meaning “those in the world that God has sovereignly chosen” or “all kinds of people” but this is not doing proper exegesis to the texts.  This is taking the doctrines of Calvinism and presupposing them upon the Bible.  It’s taking the doctrine of limited atonement and making the assumption that the Bible must teach the doctrine lest Calvinism be untrue and therefore all the passages such as John 1:29 or John 3:16 or Romans 1:16-17 or 1 Timothy 2:3-6 or 1 John 2:1-2 or 1 John 4:14 or Revelation 17:14 are thus interpreted in light of Calvinism and not the clear teaching of Scripture.  By far the doctrine of limited atonement is the weakest of the five points of Calvinism (though some such as Dr. Roger Olson believe irresistible grace is the poorest based on Scripture).

Frankly, you have the New Testament writers boasting of the power of the cross.  The cross was powerful enough to save one person (Galatians 2:20) to dying for His sheep (John 10:15) to His Church (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:23-26) to “many” (Matthew 20:28).  As Isaac Watts wrote in his classic hymn, “Joy To The World”,

He comes to make His blessings flow
Far s the curse is found.

Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heav’n and nature sing

But if Jesus did die for all then surely He died for our unbelief as well, so the Calvinist logically concludes.  If this is the case then how could people go to hell if in fact Jesus died for their sins.  Analogies could serve here such as the emancipation proclamation by President Lincoln that said that slaves in the rebellious states (Confederacy) were now free but few knew this when Lincoln declared it and many remained slaves even after the Civil War ended because they didn’t believe that what Lincoln wrote was true.  Their unbelief led them to their slavery.  The same is true for the atonement of Jesus Christ (John 3:18).

We also see an example of Jesus’ atonement in Numbers 21:8-9 which Jesus used in John 3:14-15 about Himself.  In Numbers 21:8-9 Moses prepared a serpent on a poll that whoever looked to the poll were healed of their snake bites.  Whoever did not look was killed.  Jesus used this reference to Himself in John 3:14-15.  All who come to Him can be saved in Him but whoever refuses to come to Him will be lost in their sins (Ezekiel 18:4).

In Romans 5:8-9 we see the power of Jesus’ atonement and unbelief as well.  In Romans 5:8 we see God’s provision for us in the death of His Son.  In Romans 5:9 we see the application of the atonement which is given to those who believe.  The same is true in Romans 3:24-25.

The case for an unlimited atonement indeed is very strong.  I once heard a missionary say that he saw missions on nearly every page of the Bible.  I see the same when I think of the doctrine of an unlimited atonement.  I see it on every page.  I see the grace of God, the power of God, the mercy of God, and the great love of God in the giving of His Son for our sins.  I see that when people stand before God the Father in judgment (Hebrews 9:27-28) they will die in their sins not because of Calvin’s “horrible decree” but because they refused to believe the truth and be saved (2 Thessalonians 2:10 and notice that their refusal of the truth leads to 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12 not because of God’s horrible decree but because of their unbelief).

Thank God for the blood of Jesus that saves sinners such as I (Matthew 26:28)!

7 Responses

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  1. I love the doctrine of limited atonement. It tells me that Christ actually accomplished the salvation of the people for whom he substituted. Your system gives you a Christ who died to make salvation a possibility (but secured the salvation of no one actually), but makes salvation possible for everyone who chooses to want it. I can’t accept that. That is one reason I am a Calvinist.

    John Sneed

    11/01/2011 at 10:46 PM

  2. would those who are proud Calvinists be so proud if they were the ones elect to reprobation? its all well and good to say ‘i’m glad that God chose me, He didn’t have to choose any’ as long as you ignore the logical question ‘what about the vast majority of mankind who thru no fault of their own had no choice to believe and be saved?’ And when you consider the ‘decretal of all things that come to pass…’ isnt God punishing this vast majority for His own actions/sins that He decreed before the foundation of the world?

    michael in chandler

    11/02/2011 at 8:37 AM

    • We are all born with a sin nature. People sin because they are sinners and they love to glorify themselves. No one will be in hell who does not deserve it. God is the Righteous Judge. Conversely, no one will be in heaven who deserves to be there. If it were proven that I ended up in hell, I know I have no one to blame for it but myself.

      John Sneed

      11/02/2011 at 6:07 PM

      • Oh, really? Not even your God who decreed the fall from before the world was created? Calvinism is so utterly devoid of God-honoring, Christ-exalting, scriptural support that I wonder often how I was ever convinced of it back in 1998. Thank the Lord that His word is true, and it is still setting captives free (both sinners and those bound to false teaching).


        11/02/2011 at 7:08 PM

  3. Mr. Birch, I am sure you have reasons for feeling as you do. I will tell you that I cannot read a page of scripture without seeing reformed theology in every line. I find it in every book and every doctrine. I fond it to be extremely God honoring and filled with theological meat at every turn. I find it to be beautiful and powerful. To be honest, if I ever somehow became conviced that reformed theology was wrong, I would be left with nothing. No other system of thought could replace it. I am sorry you feel like you do. But I found my Calvinism in scripture. It is not like I woke up one day and said “I think I will adopt some beliefs just to make Mr. Birch angry at me.” On the contrary, I learned Calvninism from Jesus and John and Paul. I regret you cant see that.


    John Sneed

    11/02/2011 at 7:14 PM

    • John,

      So, your choices are Calvinism or Atheism. Sir, you have been sorely deceived. You did not learn Calvinism from Jesus, John and Paul, but from some modern source which taught you a Calvinist hermeneutic. No one — and I do mean no one! — sits down with his or her Bible and comes away with Calvinism by a plain reading of the Text. I know, I was a Calvinist, taught all of the proof-texts to support its philosophy. But if you think your only choices are Calvinism or Atheism, I’m very, very fearful for you. This has been an enlightening comment from a Calvinist that I will not soon forget.


      11/02/2011 at 7:26 PM

      • You are, of course, free to believe as you will. But you dont know me or how I came to my Calvinism. It has been an interesting exchange. Thanks for taking the time to engage me here. Until the next time.

        John Sneed

        11/02/2011 at 7:31 PM

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