Wednesday, July 03, 2002

How Limited Atonement is Actually Infinite

I really was not going to write about Calvinism today. Honest. Then, somewhat by accident, I came across this testimononial written by George Müller (1805-1898). Müller built and supervised four orphanages England, and supported missionaries around the world—all by prayer alone. He never asked for donations. This is what he wrote about his “conversion” to Calvinism:
Before this time [1829], I had been much opposed to the doctrines of election, particularly redemption and final persevering grace. So much so, that a few days after my arrival at Teignmouth, [England], I called election a devilish doctrine.

I did not believe that I had brought myself to the Lord, for that was too manifestly false, but yet I held that I might have resisted finally. And, further, I knew nothing about the choice of God's people, and did not believe that the child of God, when once made so, was safe forever. In my fleshly mind I had repeatedly said, "If once I could prove that I’m a child of God forever, I might go back into the world for a year or two, and then return to the Lord, and at last be saved.”

But now I was brought to examine these precious truths by the Word of God. Being made willing to have no glory of my own in the conversion of sinners, but to consider myself merely as an instrument; and being made willing to receive what the Scriptures said, I went to the Word, reading the New Testament from the beginning, with a particular reference to these truths.

To my great astonishment, I found that the passages that speak decidedly for election and persevering grace, were about four times as many as those that speak apparently against these truths. And even those few, shortly after, when I had examined and understood them, served to confirm me in the above doctrines [of election].

As to the effect that my belief in these doctrines had on me, I'm constrained to state, for God's glory, that though I'm still exceedingly weak, and by no means so dead to the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, as I might and as I ought to be, yet, by the grace of God, I have walked more closely with Him since that time.

My life has not been so variable, and I may say that I live much more for God than before. And for this I have been strengthened by the Lord, in a great measure, through the instrumentality of these truths. For in the time of temptation, I have been repeatedly led to say, "Should I thus sin? I should only bring misery into my soul for a time, and dishonor God. For, being a child of God forever, I should have to be brought back again, though it might be in the way of severe chastisement.”

Thus, I say, the electing love of God in Christ (when I have been able to realize it) has often been the means of producing holiness, instead of leading me into sin. It is only the notional apprehension of such truths, the want of having them in the heart, while they are [still only] in the head, that is dangerous.

Finding this not only encouraged me to go forward, but to take on the letter ‘L’ for Limited Atonement. If there is any weakness in Calvinism, it is to be found here.

Hoisted by Our Own Petard

Most Calvinists don’t mind the acrostic TULIP, even though it is sometimes used as a basis of ridicule. However, it is true that (just like with many marketing department acronyms) it has a component to it that is a bit contrived. In the case of TULIP it is the ‘L’ for Limited Atonement. Better names for this part of the Reformed doctrine include Particular Redemption and Definite Atonement

Particular Redemption

Everyone agrees that only believers are made acceptable before God by imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which was completed once and for all by His death on the cross. This is an important point: Both Calvinists and Arminians agree that Christ’s atonement is efficacious only for believers—hence both camps actually profess a form of “Limited Atonement”.

I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. (John 10:11, NASB)

The Arminian view is that Christ’s atonement had to be big enough for the entire world because, in principle, the entire world could accept the Gospel call. Again, however, Arminians agree that the atonement is effective only for believers. So the Arminian view of the atonement is:

  • Unlimited in extent (big enough for the world).

  • Indefinite in effect (in the sense that there is no countable set of predestined “elect”) .

The incorrect representation of the Calvinistic view is that the atonement is limited in extent and definite in effect. The first point is not part of the Calvinistic view although it is frequently offered as the Calvinist position. Calvinists do not think that while Christ was on the cross there was a meter running counting the number of sinners that His suffering was sufficient to cover and, when the number reached the number of the elect, His suffering ended.

The Silver Bullet

If you have to pick a single verse that is viewed as the most difficult to defend against (from a Calvinist’s perspective), it is found in chapter two of 1 John:
1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;
2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
(1 John 2:1-2, NASB)

This seems to fly in the face of “the elect”, as evidenced by the phrase but also for those of the whole world. Obviously Calvinists cannot take this verse literally.

Don’t be too smug O you recalcitrant Arminians! You can’t take it literally either. The only people who can rejoice in taking this literally are Universalists. For, if Christ is literally the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, then the whole world has had its ransom paid and the whole world will be saved. This is contrary to a plain reading of essentially the entire Bible and thus is rightly rejected by all Christians. Still, I would agree that it would seem to be more problematic for Calvinists that Arminians. So what do Calvinists say about this verse?

One possibility is that John was talking to fellow (Christian) Jews and was pointing out that Christ’s death was atonement not only for “our” (believing Jews) sins but also for the sins of the world (believing Gentiles). This us/world = Jews/Gentiles identification is of course used in other places in Scripture.

Another possibility is related to the extent as opposed to the effect of the atonement. Somewhat in parallel with many are called but few are chosen-- it might be that Christ’s death was sufficient to save everyone in the whole world – but nevertheless will be efficacious only for the elect. If God wanted everyone to be saved he could do it, and Christ would not have had to suffer more—he already suffered enough for everyone. Yet God has chosen to save only some—for reasons that we will not fathom this side of glory (and perhaps not even on the other side).

While both points may be true, it is, in fact, this latter “possibility” the represents the actual Calvinistic view of Particular Atonement:

  • Unlimited in extent (big enough for the world, Calvinism and Arminianism agree).

  • Limited (or Particular or Definite) in effect (for the elect only, here Calvinism and Arminianism differ).

The two views do not disagree on extent of the atonement—both agree that it was big enough for the whole world. In this sense it was unlimited—which is why the term Limited Atonement, because of the confusion it causes, was not a good choice. But TULIP works, whereas TUDIP or TUPIP has much less pizzazz.

Calvinists believe that the atonement, in its effect (not extent) was definite (limited) and actual. The atonement guaranteed that some sinners would be saved, and that those sinners would infallibly come to a believing faith.

Arminians hold that the atonement, in its effect, was indefinite and potential, depending on the number (if any) of sinners who accept the Gospel call. The atonement guaranteed that all sinners enjoy the possibility to be saved, but that the salvation of none is guaranteed.

I actually believe that, since Christ was perfect and sinless, the atonement was infinite in extent. There was no meter counting the “quantity” of Christ’s suffering that released Him when it reached the number of elect or when it reached the number of people will have ever lived by the end of time. One perfect Savior is worth an infinite number of sinners, so the question of the extent of the atonement is somewhat moot.

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