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!

Saturday, April 30, 2011

What in the World IS the "The World" ?

In the previous post, I discussed the meaning of the term "world" (Gk kosmos) in John's writings. I suggested we define it as "all humanity" or "all mankind." While that definition was broadly accurate, it was perhaps a little too vague. Tony Byrne provided some helpful thoughts on a more precise definition - including the following chart, which makes a lot of sense.

So we might more precisely define "World" as "All unbelieving humanity" presently living on the earth. These are the ones God loved in John 3:16, the ones whose sin Christ bears in John 1:29, and the ones for whom Christ is an offered propitiation but not an advocate in I John 2:2. These are the ones who receive common grace, and the ones to whom the Gospel is preached in the general call. I believe this fits the Biblical data, and answers some of the objections presented by those who would prefer that "world" be defined as "the elect." For more on this, see the comments on the previous post.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Your Doctrine of the Atonement is Too Small - Part 2

In part 1, we discussed the limited redemptive purpose of the atonement (reflecting the truth of particular redemption). Alongside of this, we discussed the atonement's universal revelatory purpose (in connection with the general preaching of the Gospel to all the world). Here, we will look at the potency of the atonement, as potentially salvific for all people and powerful enough to cover all sins. The atonement's real potency as a bearing of the sin of all mankind is an essential ground for the free offer of the Gospel, and it does not conflict with the particularity of God's purposes in the redemption of the elect. Like so many other theological issues, this one has become polarized by the false dichotomy of an "either/or" proposition. It is said that either Christ died effectively for the elect, or He died ineffectively for all people. It is said that either Christ's atonement is sufficient for all sinners, or God's purpose for the atonement is particular.

The framing of these propositions can only lead to a reduction and narrowing of the real truth about the atonement. It is wrong to say Christ's death was somehow ineffective, yet it is equally unacceptable to regard His death as limited in its saving power. The solution lies in understanding the Biblical account of what God intended to accomplish in the atonement. If we think the atonement is designed to accomplish something God did not intend for it to accomplish, we will be forced to diminish either its particularized effectiveness or its universal power. Only by giving careful attention to what the Bible actually teaches can we avoid painting ourselves into a corner by drawing premature conclusions. In order to discover the Biblical truth regarding the atonement's inherently infinite power, we'll look briefly at some of the clues found in John's writings.

The Johannine Concept of "The World"

John uses the Greek term kosmos in three key passages which are sometimes mistakenly called "Arminian" texts (as a side note, such designations are ill-conceived because there are no "Calvinist" or "Arminian" texts, just Biblical ones).

John 1:29 - Christ sacrificially bears the sin of the world
John 3:16 - God shows His love to the world by giving His Son
I John 2:2 - Christ is the propitiation for the world
Some Calvinists attempt to counter Arminian arguments by creatively re-interpreting the meaning of kosmos in these verses, but this only damages their case because it is exegetically unwarranted and entirely unnecessary. Understanding "world" in the universal sense of "all humanity" or "all mankind" or "mankind as a race" is exegetically superior and entirely consistent with historic Calvinism, as I will now attempt to demonstrate. [UPDATE: a more precise definition of "world" in these contexts is "all living unregenerate humanity."]

A Quick Side Note on the Error of Arminianism

There can be no doubting that Arminian theology depends upon the universal extension of the atonement to all mankind. However, the problem with Arminianism is not merely its affirmation of a universal aspect in God's plan to save sinners. It is the over emphasis of this truth, to the neglect of the very real particularities, that makes Arminianism a false and misguided system. The defining feature of Arminianism is a purposeful ineffectiveness on the part of God which is designed to make room for man's supposed decisive freedom of will in the matter of salvation. God tries to save everyone but can't quite do it because human choice stands in the way. This is truly bad theology that should be refuted strenuously, but the defining feature of a Calvinist must lie in an unyielding commitment to the whole counsel of God rather than mere opposition to Arminian errors. When an Arminian brother states a Biblical truth, Calvinists ought to be the first to say "Amen" because we are not so much against them as we are for the Word and honor of God. The defeat of Arminianism lies in Biblical balance, not in the utter refutation of every argument presented by Arminians.

In this article, I'll leave off from commenting on John 3:16 and focus instead on the two passages which directly address the extensive power of the atonement. After reading the remainder of this article, I hope readers will have no problem agreeing that "world" truly means "world," and that Christ's sacrifice is sufficient, in and of itself, to save all mankind.

The Sin-Bearing Potency of the Atonement

The sin-bearing potency of the atonement is clearly revealed by John the Baptist, the greatest of all Old Covenant prophets, in John 1:29
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
"Takes away" translates the Greek word airō, which means "to raise up, to lift, to bear, to carry." The language is distinctively that of sacrifice, corresponding to the Hebrew term, nasa, which has approximately the same meaning and is often used in connection with ritual sacrifices. It connotes the carrying of a weight, or the bearing of a burden. In Genesis 4:13, Cain says "my iniquity is too great to bear (Heb. nasa)." As the Lamb of God, Jesus bore the sin of the world. He suffered the punishment due for that sin and was treated as if the sin was His own (though it was not). 

1. The word "sin" is singular, not plural. So "sin" as a general reality is being carried, not the specific sins (plural) of particular individuals. Humanity's problem with God is a matter of SIN (in principle), not just sins (specific acts, thoughts, words, etc.). Sins are events, but SIN is the very nature of mankind in his fallen state. Sins are a result of SIN. Humanity is "under sin," therefore humanity commits "sins." The elect do not come to believe because their specific sins, as events in time, were borne by Christ. The eternal and infinite reality of the world's SIN was borne by Him, so that all who come to Him may cast their sins on Him.
2. To illustrate the prior point, consider the faith of the Old Testament saints. They looked ahead to Christ's sacrifice and cast their sins on Him for atonement. If their faith had to be initiated by an atonement made chronologically prior, they could not have been saved. But saving faith can look ahead to the cross, or back to it, because in the cross humanity's full weight of sin is carried to judgment. Covenant theology correctly recognizes faith as the only means of salvation, both before and after the cross.
3. To maintain the idea of limited sin bearing, some would take this passage as John the Baptist informing his fellow Jews that Christ will atone for the sin of the Gentiles (and not just the Jews). But the argument itself would force us, without any ground from the text, to go even further and limit it to the elect Gentiles. This move would gratuitously reduce the meaning of kosmos to "the elect," which hardly seems appropriate. Nevertheless, hyper-Calvinists like John Gill promote this unwarranted maneuver because their theology demands it.
4. Note how John uses kosmos just a few verses prior, in the prologue of his Gospel:
"There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every manHe was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not." (John 1:9)
To make "world" mean the elect Gentiles here would lead to an absurdity:
There was the true Light which, coming into the [realm  of] elect Gentiles, enlightens every manHe was in the [realm of] elect Gentiles, and the elect Gentiles were made by him, and the elect Gentiles knew him not.
Surely we can do better than that! Survey the way John uses kosmos throughout His Gospel and you will quickly see the "elect Gentile" idea is based purely on a theological prejudice. Why not accept the following translation?
There was the true Light which, coming into the realm of humanity, shines light upon every man. He was in the realm of humanity, and humanity was made by Him, and humanity knew Him not. (John 1:9) 
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who bears the sin of humanity! (John 1:29)
Taking John 1:9 and 1:29 this way does not pose the slightest threat to a Reformed view of salvation and preserves us from the charge of Scripture twisting. At the end of this article, we'll offer a solution for the tension this creates in systematic theology. For now, can you accept that it is the plain meaning of the text itself?

The Wrath-Averting Potency of the Atonement

No single verse of Scripture is clearer than I John 2:2 in affirming the complete sufficiency of the atonement for all of humanity. There are several exegetical and contextual clues which argue strongly against the common high Calvinist interpretation that reduces "world" to the elect. Let's take a brief look . . .
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (I John 2:1-2)
1. John does not say Christ propitiated for the sins of the whole world, but that He IS THE PROPITIATION. John is pointing us to the incalculable value of the Person of Christ as the One offered in sacrifice, not to the work of Christ as having secured actual redemption for all people. Christ is the propitiation for the whole world, but He is the advocate of believers only. As our advocate, He applies the benefits of His propitiatory work to believers in particular.
2. John does not necessarily mean Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, but that he is the propitiation FOR THE WHOLE WORLD. The phrase, "sins of" is added by the translator, as A.T. Robertson notes: "It is possible to supply the ellipsis here of τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν (the sins of) as we have it in Hebrews 7:27, but a simpler way is just to regard "the whole world" as a mass of sin (I John 5:19)" Thus, we can regard Christ as the propitiation for the world. That is, He is the only sin-bearing and wrath-averting sacrifice the world can ever have before God.
3. To make "world" in this passage mean "elect Gentiles," one would have to interpret John's "our" as referring to Jewish believers only. However, John was writing to a mixed group of believers, probably late in the First Century when the Church was already filled with Gentiles. In this context, "world" clearly means something like "world of humanity," not "world of elect Gentiles."
4. I John 3:1 and 3:13 provide important context, showing that the "world" referred to in 2:2 cannot be made to mean "elect Gentiles" or anything like it.
5. I John 5:19 says the "whole world lies in the power of the evil one." Here John lets us know exactly what he means by "world." The "whole world" for which Christ is the propitiation is the same "whole world" which now lies in the power of the evil one. It would be ludicrous for John to mean all the elect Gentiles lie in the power of the evil one, especially in view of the way he carefully recounts Jesus' debate with the Jewish Pharisees in John 8, showing clearly that they were the children of the devil.

I John 2:2 is not arguing against the Jewish eclecticism that the Church had dealt with decades earlier. It is instead a powerful argument for the exaltation of the sufficiency and exclusivity of the work of Christ - and the potency of that work. With great joy we realize that Christ's blood is more than sufficient for both our sinful condition and all of our particular sins, and more than sufficient for the sins of every person to whom we proclaim God's mercy in the Gospel.

Don't be afraid of this plain Biblical Truth, my Calvinist brothers. Our soteriology does not fall apart simply because John says Christ is the propitiation for the whole world of humanity. Nothing in the Bible is ever going to make Arminianism or any other error true. We must be willing to recognize the definite effects of the atonement without trimming down its real sufficiency. Christ's work could potentially save every human being. There is enough sin-bearing potency in His one sacrifice to save every sinner who has ever lived, every sinner who will ever live, and every sinner who could ever live. We don't need to limit the inherent power of the atonement when God has only limited its application.

The Infinite Power of the Atonement

The wisest of our Reformed forebears affirmed this famous axiom of the atonement:

"Sufficient for all, efficient for the elect only." 

This means Christ would not have had to suffer more if there were more elect souls. He bore the concentrated wrath of God in its fullness, offering enough in His one sacrifice to save all sinners and to cover all sins.

What do we gain by reducing the atonement to a mere extension of the doctrine of election? Clearly, this was not what the writers of the Canons of the Synod of Dordt had in mind when they penned the following:
Head 2: The Death of Christ, and the Redemption of Men Thereby
ARTICLE 3. The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.
ARTICLE 6. And, whereas many who are called by the gospel do not repent nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief, this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.
Note the use of the word "infinite." When we consider the power of Christ's atoning work, we must bear in mind that we are not dealing with the finite quantities of a mathematical transaction, but the infinite punishment due for infinite offense rendered against an infinitely holy God. The atonement is an infinite sacrifice offered by an infinite Being in behalf of infinitely sinful sinners. Again, He does not bear our sins as mere events, but sin itself as the reality of our condition. If our sinfulness, for which Christ atoned, is infinite in its nature, there can be no limit to the sufficiency of the atonement. On the other hand, if our sin is infinite but the power of Christ's atonement is in any sense finite, we cannot possibly be saved. Note that I said "power", and not "effect".

What, then, of double jeopardy? Did Christ suffer a punishment for all sinners that some sinners will later have to experience in hell? No, Christ did not suffer more - or less - than He would have needed to suffer had God's eternal purpose involved the salvation of one, some, or all sinners. Infinity is infinity, no matter how many times it is multiplied or divided, so the question is one of application. The world's infinite sin was multiplied to Christ's account, and now His atonement is divided to the elect (a.k.a., those who believe). The transaction can neither increase nor reduce the infinite sinfulness of the sin, nor can it alter the infinite potency of the price that was paid for it. If sin itself, with its infinite penalty, has been borne by the Son, then every specific sin brought to Him can justly be forgiven, and every specific sinner who comes to Him can justly be saved from sin. For those who do not come, the atonement has no effect. Sufficient payment is not the same as effectual payment.

As Calvinists and Bible believers, we know that the ones who come to Him are those effectually called and irresistibly drawn by saving grace.

The atonement is the payment of an infinite debt, and because the payment is infinite it is sufficient for all. Christ died under the weight of all humanity's sin. Christ died for the world - not with a final saving result for every sinner who has ever lived - but in some sense, Biblically, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the atonement is for the world of sinners. It is not just for the "world" of the elect. Yet, because of divine election, it is meant especially for the elect.

It should be noted that even the non-elect benefit from Christ's atonement because it gives God a just ground for delaying their punishment and blessing them temporally with common grace. On the ground of an infinite atonement, God by the standards of His own justice is free to give or withhold as much mercy as He chooses, on whom He chooses, for as long as He chooses.

I don't think this is the final word on the matter. Yet I believe I have offered a reasonable and exegetically-driven explanation of a moderate Calvinist approach that takes the apparently contradictory Biblical teachings of Universal Atonement and Particular Redemption seriously. And I believe I have shown they are not irreconcilable.

One final note: if you won't take my word for it, consider the Heidelberg Catechism:
Question 37. What dost thou understand by the words, "He suffered"?
Answer: That he, all the time that he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind: that so by his passion, as the only propitiatory sacrifice, he might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the favour of God, righteousness and eternal life.
That strikes the right balance.

For further study, see Curt Daniel's discussion of the Extent and Intent of the Atonement

We can learn much from Wayne Grudem's balance and sobriety as he discusses the extent of the atonement:
The statements "Christ died for his people only" and "Christ died for all people" are both true in some senses, and too often the argument over this issue has been confused because of various senses that can be given to the word "for" in these two statements. . . . 
. . . the sentence, "Christ died for all people," is true if it means, "Christ died to make salvation available to all people" or if it means "Christ died to bring the free offer of the gospel to all people." In fact, this is the kind of language Scripture itself uses in passages like John 6:51; I Timothy 2:6; and I John 2:2. It really seems to be only nit-picking that creates controversies and useless disputes when Reformed people insist on being such purists in their speech that they object any time someone says that "Christ died for all people." There are certainly acceptable ways of understanding that sentence that are consistent with the speech of the scriptural authors themselves.
(Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Zondervan: 1994, p. 601)
Although I disagree with some of Grudem's arguments and find his discussion of the extent of the atonement a bit confusing and convoluted, I greatly appreciate his demeanor and charity.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Modernism, Postmodernism, and a Biblical Worldview

Note: I haven't posted in a while, I guess I needed a blogging break and took one without even trying to. I've been working and re-working a post called, "Your Doctrine of the Atonement is Too Small - Part 2", and just about baffled myself beyond any recovery with that topic! But that post should be up before long. In the meantime, there's this . . .

Angel of Light 1 Myspace Layout 2.0Some in the Christian community today are overtly embracing "postmodernism." That term is a bit difficult to define, and it apparently means different things to different people (which is almost in itself a definition of the word, ironically. How do you define the idea that there is no such thing as a meaningful definition? If the idea is valid, there may be no point in defining it). Rather than attacking postmodernism itself, I would like to point out an erroneous assumption which leads some Christians to embrace it. 

Many who embrace and defend postmodernism point a condemning finger toward those who criticize it, accusing them of being stuck in the old paradigm of "modernism" and a "foundationalist" worldview. It's as if those are the only choices available. In this way, some postmodernists prove they are just as prone to thinking in terms of a false dichotomy as the next philosopher is. They seem to think it is impossible to have an objective, Biblical worldview that is free (or at least in the process of being freed) from the inescapable errors which arise from contextualization within a social movement. The whole idea presupposes that God is incapable of communicating objective Truth to us, separating our thinking from cultural trappings, and enabling us to see and know an exclusive, unquestionable reality.

The Apostle Paul warned the Colossians to beware man-made philosophy, and embrace God's Truth instead. Let the philosophers fight over abstractions and absurdities. Biblical Christians will hold to THE WORD OF GOD, which points us to the WORD MADE FLESH. Bible believers aren't into modernism, and we certainly aren't into postmodernism, any more than we are into Post-enlightenment Rationalism or Renaissance Idealism, or Neo-Platonism, or Aristotelianism, or any other "-ism" that describes a temporary period of humanity's ongoing descent into the mind-darkening depths of sin. We believe what the Bible says: that man is totally, pervasively depraved, and so his only hope lies in the reliable light of an objective, clear, life-giving revelation from God.

Jesus Christ repeatedly declared, "I tell you the truth," and then He said to His disciples, "You shall KNOW THE TRUTH, and then He said, "I AM the Truth." The underlying assumption of postmodernism is at least as old as Pilate, who looked at the Truth and asked Him, "What is Truth?" He left the decision in the hands of others, washing his own hands in pretended innocence - but he had stared Truth in the face - rejected Truth - and will not escape responsibility for that. Though fallen man suppresses the Truth in unrighteousness, he is without excuse.

Jesus Christ transcends culture. He transcends philosophy. He transcends humanity. But He does not transcend Truth. He IS Truth. Nay, much more, He is THE Truth. "The" is a crucial article of grammar which overthrows any possibility of Christian postmodernism and establishes  the basis for an objectively knowable, definable Biblical worldview. Modernism is not more Biblically accurate than postmodernism. Both fall short of the glory of God. Both represent a departure from divine revelation, though perhaps postmodernism is a step further. It is sad to see fellow believers dredging the deep muck of misguided human speculations when the Word of God rises before us, full of grace and Truth.  Hopefully they will be like Peter, who momentarily denied the Truth but repented quickly. Hopefully they are not like Judas, who wore the name of Christ but sold Truth for something more appealing.

Proverbs 23:23 Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.