Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Some thoughts on Limited Atonement

I have come up with a few thoughts on the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement. I think about this topic often as I used to be a Calvinist, and most of my closest Christian brothers are Calvinists. I gave up the doctrine primarily because I could not defend it exegetically but only by way of inference. A doctrine should not be arrived at however simply because it seems to be the most logical way to formulate a system. I have recently discovered, however, that even this rational argument does not support the typical Calvinist doctrine. Let me explain.
A typical conversation of mine with a Calvinist goes like this:

Calvinist: So you believe in the doctrine of election?
Myself: Yes. It is clearly taught in Ephesians 1, John 6:44, etc.
Calvinist: Do you believe election is based upon foreseen faith?
Myself: No it is a wholly monergistic act.
Calvinist: Well then we agree! You must believe in limited atonement!
Myself: No. I said I believe in election. One does not necessitate the other.
Calvinist: Do you believe that Christ died for every persons sins?
Myself: Yes, as scripture teaches.
Calvinist: Do you believe that he paid for all of their sins?
Myself: Yes.
Calvinist: Do you believe that unbelief is a sin?
Myself: It is the chief sin.
Calvinist: Then Christ surely died for it.
Myself: I would heartily affirm that.
Calvinist: So you believe that Christ died for all sins, including the sin of unbelief, yet man can still be under God's wrath?
Myself: Such is the teaching of Scripture.
Calvinist: If God truly paid for all man's sins and has fulfilled the law in there place you believe God can still hold them guilty? You are then denying the sufficiency of the atonement!
Myself: God does not make this work effectual in the individual unless he has faith.
Calvinist: But unbelief is a sin for which Christ died so it cannot be refused by unbelief.
(At this point, the Calvinist appears to have won the argument)
Myself: Now let me ask you a question.
Calvinist: Go ahead.
Myself: Before an elect man has repented and believed, is he justified?
Calvinist: No, he is justified through faith.
Myself: But Christ died for every sin of this man including unbelief. Am I correct?
Calvinist: As one of God's elect, yes.
Myself: So are you saying that the elect man for whom Christ died for every sin including unbelief is at some point under the wrath and condemnation of God?
Calvinist: Yes, until the Spirit works faith in that man.
Myself: Then you have conceited my point. A man can be under the wrath and condemnation of God though Christ has died for all sins of that man including unbelief.

The problem is not that the Calvinist's argument is logically flawed. The problem is that it necessarily leads to a doctrine of eternal justification which is far beyond where most Calvinists wish to go.
Even though we may not be sure how these ideas go together, let us accept the clear teaching of scripture on these points.


sirdude108 said...

I'm sorry for jumping in a bit late, but...
I do not see how saying, “A man can be under the wrath and condemnation of God though Christ has died for all sins of that man including unbelief,” negates a particular atonement. What must be kept in mind is the distinction between the eschatological reality and the temporal reality. The elect of God are justified in his sight before the foundation of the world, yet are under God's wrath temporally before belief, just as much and in the same way that Christ was slain before the foundation of the world, yet temporally had not been slain before his crucifixion.

Even though the elect man is temporally under the wrath of God before he believes, from the eschatological perspective of God, that man is justified in God’s sight by the finished work of Christ.

Even though Christ had not yet been temporally crucified on the cross, from the eschatological perspective of God, Christ was slain before the foundation of the word for the justification of his elect.

The distinction between these two realities, the eschatological and the temporal, is what enables Abraham to be counted righteous in God’s sight, having the finished work of Christ applied to him. It is this distinction that enables the believer to be seated with Christ in the heavenlies right now, even though the believer still walks upon the earth.

We have to stop thinking that God is inside of time. He transcends time.

Anonymous said...

conceded, not conceited

and it's conceited to call a disagreement an "admission"

As much as I agree with John Owen against the idea of double jeopardy, I cannot agree with Owen’s trilemma about all the sins of all people, or all the sins of some people (the third
hypothetical of course being some of the sins of some people).

I cannot agree because the cross-work (the righteousness) of Christ not only entitles the elect to justification (even before they are justified) but also entitles the elect to conversion. Even before they believe the gospel, the elect are entitled (because of Christ’s work) to the converting work of the Holy Spirit. Christ bought both the forgiveness of sins and the application of this.

What does the application of Christ’s work mean? First, it means that God imputes that work (not only the reward, but the righteousness) to the elect. Before the cross, God imputed the work to some of the elect. After the cross, God continues to impute the work to some of the elect. So there is a difference (not only in time) between the work and the imputation of the work.

For example, Romans 6 describes being placed into the death of Christ. There is a difference between the federal union of all the elect in Christ before the beginning of the world and the legal union of the elect with Christ when they are justified.

Second, the application (purchased by Christ for the elect, and thus now their inheritance) includes the conversion which immediately follows the imputation. We could go to every text in the New Testament about the effectual calling into fellowship, but let us think now of only two.

Galatians 3:13-14: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by
becoming a curse for us, so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come…, so that we would receive the promised Spirit through faith.”

And here’s the second text which teaches us that regeneration and
conversion immediately follow the imputation. Romans 8:10–but if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Because the work (righteousness) is imputed, the next result will be life given by means of the gospel, so that the elect understand and believe, and are converted.

As II Peter 1:1 starts, “To those who have obtained a faith of equal
standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” The reason we need to be careful about John Owen’s trilemma is that Christ did not die to forgive any elect person of the final sin of unbelief of the gospel. Christ died to give every elect person faith in the gospel and conversion.

Of course Christians do disbelieve even in their faith, and Christ died for all the sins of all Christians including all those after they are converted. But no elect person dies unconverted, because Christ died to give them the new birth and the conversion which follows.

I am not saying that John Owen did not know this or believe it. I am only saying that the trilemma (as it is often used) does not take into account the time between Christ’s work and the application and imputation of that work. Nor does that trilemma give us the necessary reminder that Christ died to obtain not only the redemption but also the application of the redemption. Christ did not need to die for final disbelief by the elect because Christ died instead that the elect will not finally disbelieve.

Romans 5: 17 speaks of “those who receive the free gift of righteousness” and how they reign in life through the one man Christ Jesus. This receiving is not the sinner believing. It is not an “exercise of faith” (if you check the commentaries, Murray is right here about the passive and Moo is wrong).The elect “receive” the righteousness by God’s imputation.

The elect do not impute their sins to Christ. Nor do the elect impute
Christ’s righteousness to themselves. God is the imputer.