Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Friday, March 04, 2011

Your Doctrine of the Atonement is Too Small - Part 1

I have observed, among many Calvinists, a great zeal to defend the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Since this doctrine sits at the center of the TULIP, and the TULIP seems to function (for some) as the sole essence of Calvinism, and since the TULIP's validity is said to stand or fall on the veracity of each and every point, it's not surprising that Limited Atonement is defended with such ardor. Perhaps I should have said "Your Calvinism is too small." But that's another article. 

To lay my cards on the table, I do self-identify as a 5-point Calvinist, assuming the points are rightly defined (historically and Biblically), and the 3 points of common grace are equally affirmed. I'm not against limiting the intent or effect of the atonement within Biblical boundaries. I just don't want the doctrine of the atonement to become a dart gun when God intended it to be a howitzer. The problem with over emphasizing the limited aspects is that we have a tendency to shrink the doctrine down to manageable proportions. It's not meant to be manageable, but to induce real amazement, gratitude, and wonder in our hearts. We should marvel not only that God savingly loves the elect, but also that He loves the world. To keep things Biblically balanced, I propose the following expansions to the way we explain the doctrine of limited atonement:
1. We must widen our view of the atonement's PURPOSE to include a universal revelatory purpose as well as a limited redemptive purpose (that's the focus of this article). 
2. We must affirm the atonement's POTENCY as the power and potential to cover all sins and to save all sinners (which will be the focus of part 2).
Without these expanded articulations, we are apt to try to limit the atonement in ways Scripture does not, and we are liable to commit some exegetical atrocities and philosophical fallacies in the process. I have seen otherwise brilliant and respectable exegetes twist a passage of Scripture into an origami figure trying to defend a narrow version of limited atonement which isn't Biblically warranted.

Don't get me wrong. I stand in lock step with other orthodox Calvinists in affirming Particular Redemption against the confused mistake called "Universalism." And I oppose any view of the atonement that portrays God as sacrificing His only Son in some kind of desperate attempt to get our attention, with the vague hope that we just might turn to Him someday if He pleads enough and somehow gets our consent to be saved. I very firmly renounce every whiff of the ideas that the atonement is less than substitutionary, less than vicarious, or less than successful in achieving its ends. "He will save His people from their sins." (Mt. 1:21) And the cross is how He will do it. "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God." (I Peter 3:18)

Without any doubt, the atonement is limited in certain respects - but it is more than just that. Yes, it is God's means of saving the elect, but that is not its only purpose.

The Redemptive and Revelatory Purposes
of the Atonement

The atonement made by Christ is intended as revelation to all the world, yet also as redemption to the elect.

Christ's atoning work is rich and potent, multi-faceted and deep - and part of its power lies in the fact that it is not simply efficacious, but revelatory. It is an emphatically PUBLIC display of God's generosity and grace, His redeeming power, His propitiated wrath, His just character, His call for sinners to believe, His forbearance and His ability to justify the ungodly (Romans 3:24-26). It's all right here in the text:
  •  ... for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 
  • being justified as a gift by His grace 
  • through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
  • whom God displayed publicly 
  • as a propitiation in His blood 
  • through faith
  • This was to demonstrate His righteousness
  • because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 
  • for the demonstration, I say,of His righteousness at the present time, 
  • so that He would be just 
  • and the justifier 
  • of the one who has faith in Jesus.
(See also: Psalm 22:31, Galatians 3:1, Colossians 2:15)

For whom is this public display intended? For the same "all" who sinned and fell short of His glory in verse 23! Have only the elect sinned? Have only the elect fallen short of God's glory? Certainly not. Let us never become so dogmatic in emphasizing the limited effects of the atonement that we forget - or fail to communicate - the wider Biblical scope of its purposes. The cross communicates God's message to all mankind - and especially the elect.
. . . and also of judgment
Consider the revelatory purpose of the atonement. How does it speak to us about the people who will be saved? Does it speak of them definitively - as the elect - or conditionally, as those who believe?
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16) 
But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:8-9) 
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures . . . ( I Corinthians 15:1-4)
The Gospel addresses sinners with a conditional promise of salvation, even as it definitively demonstrates God's ability to save and reveals His desire to save. By the word of the cross God says to sinners, "I have done everything that is needed for your offenses to be covered. I have given my one and only Son for you. Come to me in faith and you will be saved. Reject me and you will perish." The elect perceive this message and by irresistible grace begin to count Christ's blood as precious. By faith they discover the redeeming, reconciling, propitiating, covenant-making, sin-demolishing power of His blood! The reprobate perceive the very same message and respond by trampling Christ's blood underfoot, spurning the offer of mercy, ignoring the warnings and going on in God-hating unbelief. There is no fear of God before their eyes.

God did not sacrifice His Son in secret, behind a thick curtain or hidden away in the heavens, but out in the open on a Roman cross for all the world to see. This does not save every sinner, but it does tell every sinner he can be saved, and that God loves him and desires to save Him. It promises every sinner he will be saved if he believes, and it warns every sinner that he will remain condemned and perish if he continues in unbelief. We live in the realm of time and the world of the potential, so God speaks to us in potential and conditional terms while reassuring His converted elect that He has a definite plan and sovereign control.

The revelatory purpose of the atonement corresponds to the universal call of the Gospel. Just as the effectual call of the Gospel exists alongside the universal call, the particular redemptive purpose of the atonement stands alongside its universal revelatory purpose.
  • God loves all but releases some to eternal judgment
  • God desires all but elects some
  • God calls all to salvation but effectually calls some
  • Christ atones for all but redeems some
In Part 2, we will examine in greater detail the wrath-averting potency of the atonement. We will find that just as the message of the cross is directed to all the world but effectual only for the elect, the power of the cross is sufficient for all the world but efficient only for the elect.


  1. Waiting with much anticipation for Part 2...;)

  2. Blaine,

    I was sort of trying to avoid this subject, but studying through Isaiah 53 more or less forced me to deal with it. And since it really does fit with the theme of the blog, well, here goes . . .

    Any feedback is appreciated, especially on the exegetical issues. I don't want to become a poster boy for Scripture twisting!


  3. Foul play!
    Romans 10 is a letter to the elect, therefore when it says if *you* confess it means if the elect confess! Similar argument for dealing with your 1 Cor 15 passage, and 1 peter 3:18!

    Romans 1:16 is even more clear! The greek is 'ha pistous', which means 'if the elect believe'. It's clear then they can be elect Jew or Gentile, but must be elect.

    Shame on you Arminian.

  4. Phil,

    You should change your profile to something like "Hipper Calvinist" before posting something like that.

    Are you possibly the author of this anonymous blog post:

    Careful or you'll end up on one of my posters!


  5. Hey Phil,

    Regarding Rom 1:16 there is often a general confusion regarding the offer of the thing, and the thing offered.

    So like this: the proposition: "Gospel is the power of God to the one who believes" is proposed to all; which I think was Derek;s point. However, the participation in the power of the God is the thing in the proposition and is only for those who believe. So the verse has a general and particular aspect.

    Thus a promise can be universal as it is a conditional proposition made to all, offered to all, but particular in terms of the reception of the thing promised.

    As to Romans 10, well its written to the church, right.

    Plus you have references to "'the man' who believes..." You have the reference "the one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved..." immediately followed b the comment: "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed?" Paul's progression of thought clearly indicates that he has the generality of mankind in view, as much as he has "the one who believes."

  6. Hey Derek,

    I love the picture, thats a hoot.



  7. Oh I know Dave,
    I was just having fun pretending to be a high calvinist.

  8. I knew what you were doing, Phil. It was a very convincing impression. :)

    But just to be sure, say "Shibboleth".

  9. Sibboleth.
    I'm gonna write up something on moderate Calvinism today or tomorrow in fact.

  10. I'm glad that you decided to go ahead and tackle this subject, Derek. Great post, and I'm looking forward to the others.


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