Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Practical implications of limited atonement

I at one time believed in the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement. This doctrine states that Christ died solely for his elect. Christ offers the gospel to all yet did not actually die for all. I have struggled through this doctrine for many years now. Despite the fact that this doctrine is exegetically unfounded, it has many negative practical implications.

First of all, with this doctrine one can never be sure if Christ actually died for him. I, for example, have doubted my election at times. How do I know if I am elect? And if I am not elect then Christ did not die for me! Ultimately then, the doctrine pushes me into looking at the eternal decree of God for my assurance. How can I tell if I am among the elect? The answer usually given is that I know by my faith. However, there is true and false faith, and I must test myself to see whether or not my faith is real faith. According to a reformed exegesis of Hebrews chapter 6, a false faith can still cause one to repent, taste the heavenly gift and share in the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, I must look at the quality of my works and see if they are Spirit wrought. My assurance is in my inner transformation, not in the gospel. There is simply no way around it; I ultimately never know if Christ actually died for me except for the amount and quality of my good works. I know that when I look inward, as when reading Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections, I see my sin and simply doubt my faith.

A Calvinist will object that they believe in a "free offer of the gospel" because they are not hyper Calvinists. Thus, I can trust in this universal offer. However, I must ask: Is this really a universal offer? How can God offer something he has not actually paid for? Can he really tell me I can accept the death of Christ while it in fact has never been paid for me?

The other hard issue to deal with is in Evangelism. As a Calvinist I could not freely offer the death of Christ to unbelievers. I would make my way around it by saying "believe on Christ's death because he has died for believers". While this is true I could never look at an unbeliever and say "trust in Christ's work accomplished on your behalf!" If I were to see my brother in despair I cannot look them in the eyes and say "do not despair! His righteousness is yours! He has fulfilled the law and its curse on your behalf!" However, as an adherent of the Book of Concord I can proclaim to all men "believe upon Christ who has paid the penalty for your sin!"

12 comments:

Mike Hughes said...

I have struggled with this question as well, going from an Arminian to a Calvinist, and then finally to a Lutheran understanding of the Atonement. Dr. Joel Bierman does an excellent lecture on this issue, "Why some and not others" (titled "Theology of the Cross 2") on the Concordia Seminary website.

I too struggled with the question of am I elect. Anytime I would start to backslide, I would be tempted to despair.

However, I must say that as a Lutheran, there are also some issues when I start falling into sin. Am I going to fall away? Jesus loves me, but are his promises of any value to me if he finally is unable to save me even though he has promised to do so?

Per Robert Kolb via Dr. Bierman, it's a problem of theodicy. With Calvin, God is mean but all powerful. With Lutherans, God is loving and he'll be weeping as I go to hell... but I will go to hell nonetheless... Christ's tears not quenching even one flame of hell.

To be honest I prefer Calvin. But I don't think it's Biblical. In order to maintain my sanity as a Lutheran, I've had to put the Lutheran doctrine of falling away out my head as much as possible otherwise I get thrown back on trying to work up some repentance anytime I don't see evidence of my own faith.

I guess you can find a way to drive yourself nuts no matter what church you belong to. I appreciate the absolution, emphasis on God's saving work in baptism, and the Supper where I receive forgiveness of sins, but by Tues. or Wed. I've forgotten and it all seems like a distant memory. Especially if I miss a week.

Jordan Cooper said...

I understand your concern. I would urge you to see falling away from the faith not as "I must not do so many bad works or I will fall away." The only way a man can fall away is by continual willful unrepentant sin which drive out faith. If faith unites us to Christ, then only the loss of faith can possibly damn us. I personally don't see the idea of falling away as something so easy as some Lutherans do. The Corinthian church fell into great sin, yet Paul still calls them "saints". This was proven by the fact that by the time 2 Corinthians was written they had repented.
I would urge you to realize that if you are worrying about your state of grace, that means that you have faith. If you had no faith you would not care. In my view, which I believe to be the Biblical one, only continual unbelief can cause a Christian to fall away.

Eucharisted said...

I tend to agree Jordan. If we place too much emphasis on the vindication of faith by works, the freeness of grace is lost.

The Calvinist view, though reassuring for those who are strong in faith, can be for others a legal system into which one is only invited into by a stern and angry God. Once we realize that the Law does not express the true feelings of God toward man, and instead that Christ is the true expression of God's attitude toward us, the Gospel is returned to it's rightful place.

To the Calvinist, the Gospel is really just a new form of Law. Christians are simply transferred to one legal system to another. However, we Lutherans confess with St Paul that the Gospel has done what the Law could never do, which is restore a proper relationship between man and God.

Gerhard Forde does an excellent job of describing this Law/Gospel tension in his books.

Pax +

Mike Hughes said...

You two are mighty warriors in Christ. Thank you both!!

Darlene said...

Calvinism is a dreary set of propositions put forth by a lawyer concerned with justice.

Such a system places the love of God on the bottom of the pile. There is no assurance that Jesus loves me, and one cannot tell the world in evangelism that Christ died for them or loves them.

Having once worshipped among the Calvinists for nearly a decade, I can say that assurance of Christ's compassion toward me, assurance of His mercy toward me, (or anyone else for that matter) was obscured.

xopher_mc said...

Limited atonement is merely the corollary of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Which fails on a Christological level. See Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics II.2

Bill said...

Limited atonement is a doctrine of the Reformation. Martin Luther in the bondage of the will and John Calvin in his Institutes, both hold to a view of limited atonement. The book of Concord does hold limited atonement as well, although a lot of lutherans don't admit it.

Like somebody before me pointed out limited atonement follows from unconditional election. If God predestined for salvation some people, out of his pure mercy alone, with nothing in good in the man he is saving, in an unmerited manner, without any human cooperation, then this is pretty much limited atonement. God's son died to redeem the elect, this is the purpose of Christ's death.

Both calvinits and lutherans agree that when preaching the gospel it has to be preached that Christ died for all, reconciled the whole world to himself through his death, he died for the sins of the whole world not the sins of the elect only. Nevertheless God's purpose and will in election is to save his elect only and from this perspective the atonement is limited to the elect. I don't see any difference between martin Luther and John Calvin when it comes down to God's sovereign election of his people.

Bill said...

By the way what you say about calvinism is not accurate. Calvin always taught that you seek assurance of salvation in Christ's death and resurrection alone, you look at the gospel alone. You can't seek salvation on your inner transformation either. John Calvin clearly taught that assurance of salvation is in the gospel of Jesus Christ alone, his atoning sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin. Justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is what calvinists teach. No difference with lutherans.

And your comment that as a calvinist you can't offer the gospel to all is also erroneous. As I pointed out in my previous post Christ died for the sins of all mankind, he is the second Adam, he is to be offered freely to all and whosoever believes in Him shall be saved. This is calvinism. Limited atonement refers only to the purpose of Christ coming and diying to secure eternal life for God's elect, but this isn't the gospel but God's sovereign unconditional election that both lutherans and calvinists agree on.

It really frustrates me when lutherans don't understand calvinists and vice versa. I heard calvinists say that lutherans are arminians! Obviously there is some serious misunderstanding sowed by the devil to divide the Reformation between lutherans and calvinists.

John Joseph Ras said...

Another says, "I want to know about the rest of the people. May I go out and tell them - Jesus Christ died for every one of you? May I say - there is life for every one of you?" No; you may not. You may say - there is life for every man that comes. But if you say there is life for one of those that do not believe, you utter a dangerous lie. If you tell them Jesus Christ was punished for their sins, and yet they will be lost, you tell a willful falsehood. To think that God could punish Christ and then punish them - I wonder at your daring to have the impudence to say so!

~ C.H. Spurgeon, Free Will - A Slave, (A sermon delivered Sunday morning, December 2, 1855, at New Park Street Chapel, London, Englan)

Jordan Cooper said...

Bill, I understand your frustration. One of the reasons it took me a long time to convert from Calvinism to Lutheranism is because Lutherans so often misinterpreted their Reformed brothers. I do not believe in this instance I have done so. I will explain why:

Yes, I am aware that Calvin teaches one to seek assurance in Christ alone, not in man's own works. It is not so much Calvin that I critique in this respect (or Mike Horton, R. Scott Clark and others who actually follow what Calvin taught), but later Calvinism, especially as promoted by Puritanism. Jonathan Edwards and American Calvinism often has taught man to seek for his assurance in his own works, affections, etc. Read Edwards' Religious Affections for example. Unfortunately, these ideas have dominated the "new Calvinism" in America. Preachers like Paul Washer and Tim Conway have followed Edwards rather than Calvin in this respect.

I understand that Calvinists claim that they can truly offer salvation to every single person (except of course those crazy hyper Calvinists). I am glad this is the case. However, my argument is that this is inconsistent. How can I offer someone something which has not actually been bought for them? Can I truly offer Christ's atonement to someone if Christ did not actually make atonement for that person?

For example, what if I offered a friend of mine an old laptop of mine. This laptop I actually have already given to someone else and cannot give the person I offer it to. Even if I know for a fact that they will reject the offer, it still would not be a true offer. I would be in a sense lying to that person and tricking them. This is how I see the Reformed position.

Jordan Cooper said...

You are also wrong in asserting that Luther or the Formula of Concord taught limited atonement. There are two places in Luther's very early writings which may point to a belief in particular redemption. However, his later writings are clear that this is not the case.
The Formula of Concord has several statements directly against limited atonement. If you mean that we all limit the atonement in the sense that not all will be finally saved by it, then yes I agree. But if you mean that Christ paid only for the sins of the elect, then Luther and Calvin do not agree. Actually, I am not even convinced that Calvin held to limited atonement, though Calvin scholars are divided on the issue.

John Joseph Ras said...

I don't tell people that Christ died in their place for the forgiveness of their sins. No.

I tell them to repent and believe the Gospel, for Christ died FOR THOSE WHO WOULD believe. Christ came to save those who would turn to Him and trust Him alone as their Savior and Lord.