Tuesday, December 17, 2013

From Heaven He Came for the World

I admit to being surprised that, though some Calvinists of the five-point variety acknowledge the criticism that their theory of particular redemption is "appealing but the exegetical basis for it is lacking," nevertheless, they conclude that the doctrine is biblical. Should they not rather suggest that their doctrine of particular redemption is possible or plausible or theoretically and logically consistent with their system? Furthermore, how can their theory of the atonement be biblical if its exegetical basis is weak or lacking? For example, Justin Taylor, of The Gospel Coalition, responding to the question, Where in Scripture is the theory of Particular Redemption found? lists biblical passages such as Ephesians 2:8-9, 2 Timothy 2:24-25, Acts 16:14, and John 6:65 (I believe these were the references which John Piper also offered) as a response. My response to those cited passages is as follows. In my opinion, the verses cited do not teach any unconditionality toward the one thus graced, nor do they regard particularity:
Ephesians 2:8-9 merely states that salvation by grace through faith is God's gift, but there is no explicit mention there that it is God's gift solely to a particular, allegedly unconditionally elect group, as though the gift could not be refused by others, or that it is granted irresistibly to anyone. Such a conception must be interpolated or inferred, and that only at best. Thus this passage is irrelevant to his case. 
2 Timothy 2:24-25, contextually, regards those who oppose the young preacher's teaching, so that God may correct the one in error, not in the least that God grants His particular, allegedly unconditionally elect saving faith and repentance irresistibly; and in neither verse does anyone find any explicit mention of the atonement. How, then, can these two passages be used to refer to particular redemption? Thus this passage is irrelevant to his case.
Acts 16:14 confesses that God opens the heart, but this is also attested to by all Classical Arminians and Wesleyans in their doctrine of prevenient grace; thus this verse is not obliged as teaching a restrictively particularity, unconditionality, or irresistibility among those whose hearts God is said to open. Thus this passage is irrelevant to his case. The shoddy exegesis offered by these Calvinists is alarming. 
The same can be said of John 6:65: coming to Christ Jesus must be granted by God -- God having initiated and enabled the one to believe in Him for salvation. Again, such a passage attests neither to particularity nor unconditionality. My thoughts are that these scriptural references are used in an effort to support a presupposition but have no basis whatsoever for supporting such. Again, exegesis (or rather the lack thereof) is against a theory of strict, particular redemption.
Though some Calvinists have let slip their admission that limited atonement lacks explicit biblical warrant, they, nonetheless, sound the alarms when a work is published that promotes the same. Justin Taylor, and others of the TGC variety, are hailing From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological and Pastoral Perspective, a work edited by David and Jonathan Gibson, published, of course, by Calvinist publishing house Crossway, as "the definitive work on definite atonement." Odd: for a doctrine to lack such explicit biblical warrant, how then did the authors defend the theory biblically, as noted in the title? Is there some new biblical evidence that Arminians, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Episcopalians and Anglicans, Nazarenes, Baptists and four-point Calvinists -- the majority of believers both historically and presently -- missed? This 704-page tome may carry the appearance of "the most impressive defense of definite atonement in over a century," as Michael Horton noted (link), and it may convince the already-convinced, but there is nothing new under the sun, and there is little offered here that will likely persuade anyone who is already convinced that the notion is a theological error. The book is also receiving notable critique by Southern Baptist scholar David L. Allen, Dean of the School of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary: Part One, Part Two, Part Three. (No, I have no plans on purchasing or reading and personally reviewing the book.)

Five-point Calvinists take issue with the biblical doctrine of general redemption (or unlimited atonement) for a number of reasons, including that Christ could not have died for those who would not believe in Him. In their logic, this would entail a sort of failure on God's part to save a soul, which, I think, ignores entirely the conditionality of the biblical doctrine of the atonement and salvation. Calvinists, from our perspective, often fail to consider that no one, absolutely no one, is atoned by the blood of Christ apart from the condition of faith in Christ. (This fact also undermines any theory of regeneration preceding faith since faith in Christ is the condition upon which God justifies and saves a sinner.)

The heart of this issue, however, lies in yet another theory of Calvinism: unconditional election. This one theory necessitates the theory of limited atonement, as well as the rest of TULIP theology; for those (and only those) who have been unconditionally elected unto faith and salvation will be atoned, irresistibly drawn to Christ via regeneration and will persevere inevitably unto the end. The error of particular redemption finds only inferential scriptural warrant, when based solely upon its hermeneutic, and quite the performance of interpretive gymnastics at that. One of the many errors inherent in the error of particular redemption includes the notion that the personalized or particularized language regarding the atonement must mean that Christ only died for those people and none else. Thus when Scripture indicates that Christ died for the sheep (John 10:11, 15), His church (Acts 20:28), the elect (Rom. 8:32-35), His people (Matt. 1:21) or even "us" (Titus 2:14; cf. us, our, we, etc.), then these passages must be implying that His intent was ever and only to die for them and none else.

This concept, however, is an argument from silence. Terry L. Miethe comments: "But when the Bible talks about Christ dying for 'us,' for 'our' sins, and for his 'church' the limitation is only in relation to the personalized language. 'A particular body of people is being addressed, in the grammatical form of first person plural. To say to any [particular] audience, "Christ died for us!" does not [logically] imply "for us and no one else."'"1 From such an erroneous perspective, Kevin Jackson could prove that Christ only died for the apostle Paul and no one else (link).

There is also an assumption that "because Christ's death was 'sufficient' to save all for whom he died, then it must save all for whom he died" (emphasis added).2 When we read a passage such as "The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, 'Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!'" (John 1:29 NRSV), must we, then, eisegete the notion of a particular redemption? Must "the world" now refer to "the world of the unconditionally elect"? If so, then how do we know such? Moreover, how is it that we lack even one lexicon which renders the phrase "the world" to refer to "the world of the unconditionally elect"?3 Not even one lexicon offers "the world of the unconditionally elect" as a definition for "the world." The burden of proof is the five-point Calvinist's to demonstrate otherwise; but what is typically offered by Calvinists tends to be implications from their hermeneutic and theory of unconditional election rather than proper exegesis of Scripture. 

Furthermore, the fact that the authors of the New Testament did not seek to particularize their language with regard to the extent of the proffered redemption of Christ grants us license to practice the same. David Allen comments:
The strength of any theological position is only as great as the exegetical basis upon which it is built. Limited atonement (strict particularism) is built on a faulty exegetical foundation. Those who affirm limited atonement usually affirm God's love for all humanity and God's desire to save all humanity (in His revealed will, though not in His secret will). However, they deny that Jesus died for the sins of all humanity [contrary to John 1:29]. Any teaching that says God does not love all humanity [John 3:16], God has no intent or desire to save all humanity [1 Tim. 2:4], or Jesus did not die for the sins of all humanity [1 John 2:2], is contrary to Scripture and should be rejected.4
I believe the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ died on behalf of all people without distinction because I see clear evidence for such a belief therein. For example, Romans 5:6 reads: "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly" (cf. Rom. 5:8 NRSV; John 1:29; 3:16-18; 11:50; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; 1 Pet. 3:18; 1 John 2:2). All people without exception are ungodly (Rom. 3:23). Therefore, Christ died on behalf of all people without exception. The syllogism is sound:

1. All people are ungodly. 
2. Christ died for the ungodly. 
3. Christ died for all people.

The problem with such a belief, so says the five-point Calvinist, is that if Christ Jesus died for all people, then all people will be saved, and Universalism is true. Is this accurate? Does Christ's propitiation on behalf of all people necessarily secure the salvation of each and every individual without exception?

Our intention is not to argue that God should receive into heaven the unredeemed. The goal of our theology is to be as faithful to God's word as is possible. If God's word clearly states, without qualification, that Christ Jesus made "atonement for the sins of the people" (Heb. 2:17), because God sought to reconcile "the world to himself in Christ" (2 Cor. 5:19); or that, since One died for all, then all died, and He died for all (2 Cor. 5:14-15), then that is exactly what we are compelled and obliged to believe, regardless of whether or not one can fit neatly such a notion into one's theology. We recognize that this does not fit neatly in the five-point Calvinist's theology; such must be carefully reinterpreted or redefined.

Do not forget: the goal of our theology is truth, grounded in Scripture, which has as its object God, to be lived out. A serious problem for five-point Calvinists is that they are hindered from declaring to the lost sinner that Jesus Christ actually died particularly for her because they cannot know such with any semblance of certainty. They have difficulty in living out what they think is biblical with regard to the atonement. So, Calvinists are left to carefully state the gospel message; they must then say, in very general terms, that Christ Jesus will save the sinner who trusts in Him. Technically, however, though this statement is true, this is not the entirety of their message, since underlying their system is their belief that the lost sinner must first be regenerated, and thus saved, before she can trust in Christ, even though five-point Calvinists confess that such happens simultaneously to the unconditionally elect. (There are also five-point Calvinists who claim that Christ died for all people, but they nuance this concept according to their nuanced and reformatted system.)

The apostle Paul stated unequivocally that Christ Jesus died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6) and sinners (Rom. 5:8). God is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe in Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 4:10). How can Jesus Christ be the Savior of all people, and especially for those who believe in Him, if He ever and only intended to be the Savior or Redeemer of the unconditionally elect particularly, extending an offer of salvation to none others? This is the non sequitur of the theory of particular redemption, and it is unbiblical and unacceptable. Even four-point Calvinists agree with us.   


1 Terry L. Miethe, "The Universal Power of the Atonement," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Publishers, 1995), 73.

2 Ibid., 74.

3 Miethe writes: "Again, this is an important assertion. The question is Where does the burden of proof lie? Douty mentions the following works: Trench's Synonyms of the New Testament, Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament, Robinson's A Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament, Thayer's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Souter's Pocket Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Berry's Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Arndt-Gingrich's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Abbott-Smith's Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Tasker's New Bible Dictionary, Everett F. Harrison in Baker's Dictionary of Theology, and John D. Davis in his Dictionary of the Bible (both Harrison and Davis list John 3:16 as referring to mankind, though both are Presbyterians)." (77) Not one of these works lists "the world of the unconditionally elect" as a viable definition for the all-inclusive phrase "the world."

4 David L. Allen, "The Atonement: Limited or Universal?" in Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, eds. David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 83.


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