(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on the Atonement from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
Limited AtonementEveryone 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 Armininians agree that Christ’s atonement is efficacious only for believers—hence both camps actually profess a form of “Limited” Atonement. Only Universalists do not limit the atonement.
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. (John 10:11)The Arminian view is that Christ’s atonement had to be big enough for the entire world because, in principle, the entire world has the wherewithal to accept the Gospel call. Again, however, they agree that the atonement is effective only for those who actually do. So the Arminian view of the atonement is:
- Unlimited in extent (big enough for the world).
- Indefinite in effect (there is no countable set of predestined “elect”)
If you have to pick a single verse that is viewed as the most difficult to defend against (from an Augustinian 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)This seems to fly in the face of “the elect”, as evidenced by the phrase but also for those of the whole world. Obviously Augustinians cannot take this verse literally.
But neither can Arminians. The only people who can rejoice in taking this literally are Universalists. For, if Christ is literally the propitiation (payment) 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 the rest of scripture and thus is rightly rejected by all Christians. So what do Calvinists say about this verse?
One possibility is that it simply means “the world of the elect” or “the world of believers”, the way we would say something like “the world of NASCAR.”
Another 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.
Yet 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 all points may be true, it is, in fact, this last “possibility” the represents the crux of the Calvinist view of the Atonement:
- Unlimited in extent (big enough for the world)
- Limited (or Particular or Definite) in effect (for the elect only)
As a final comment on 1 John, we can easily find other places in scripture where “whole world” does not mean “everyone in the world” (in fact, I am nor sure if it is ever used that way.) For example:
Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world is bearing fruit and growing--as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth (Col 1:5b-6)Here, early in the apostolic church, Paul claims the gospel is bearing fruit in the whole world, when in fact it was confined to a very small portion of the world. Even today, it is probably impossible to claim, literally that the gospel has come and is bearing fruit in the whole world. John himself also uses the phrase again:
We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. (1 John 5:19)But the whole world does not lie in Satan’s hand. In first John 2, John has used “whole world” to refer to the whole world of Christians—here it seems to use it to refer to the whole world of non-Christians.
Also, we note that Christ’s own words indicate that the effect of his blood was for the many, not for the whole world:
for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matt. 26:28)Related to these questions, Augustine asked himself: are there any passages of scripture which can be taken unequivocally to mean that God has deliberately undertaken not to extend his saving grace to certain people who, if that grace had been extended to them, would have responded affirmatively? It appears so. Augustine (Enchiridion, Chap. 103) makes this observation:
"The Lord was unwilling to work miracles in the presence of some who, He said frankly, would have repented if He had worked them."And he cited the passage:
20Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (Matt. 11:20-21)And other, similar and difficult passages, such as
10And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12so that "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven." (Mark 4:10-12)
To be continued...