Friday, August 9, 2013

Limited Atonement – II

Moses Amyraldus
 In our last blog post we saw that the Synod of Dort failed to resolve all of the issues surrounding Limited Atonement. It was in attempt to surmount some of these difficulties that a group of Reformed theologians in France led by Moses Amyraldus developed a position that became known as "Amyraldianism," or "Hypothetical Universalism." In this view Christ purchased salvation for everyone, but applied it only to the elect. God decreed the free offer of salvation to all on the condition of faith, but then, under a subsequent decree, determined that only the elect would believe. Critics maintained that this was essentially the same as the Arminian view, and Amyraldianism was condemned by the more orthodox Swiss Reformed theologians in the "Formula Consensus Helvetica" of 1675.

    In English Baptist circles John Gill was noted for taking a high Calvinist position, and this eventually led, among some Baptists, to Hyper-Calvinism – the belief that the gospel should only be preached to those who show some signs that they might be elect, and that faith is possible only after salvation. Hyper-Calvinism, in turn, was opposed by Andrew Fuller, who stressed the free offer of the gospel.
    A major part of the problem is that the discussion about the extent of the atonement took place in the context of a broader discussion about God's eternal decree. The inherent difficulty here is that this involves probing into the mental processes of the Deity to discern His exact purposes in redemption. It can be argued that any attempt on the part of a finite human being to plumb the depths of the infinite wisdom of God is ludicrous on the face of it. All that we can really know about God's intentions is what He has been pleased to reveal to us in His Word, and He has undoubtedly not chosen to reveal everything. And it should be apparent that the inscrutable counsel of God cannot be broken down into a neat outline of interrelated decrees.
    How are we to understand the atonement, then? The biblical answer is to understand it in terms of union with Christ. Christ died at a specific time and place in history, and His death is of infinite worth and value – sufficient to atone for the sins of the entire human race. On this everyone agrees. The entire human race is then invited to repent and believe on Christ, and to receive the forgiveness of their sins. But no one actually receives the benefits of Christ's death until he personally believes on Christ. It is at this point that he is united to Christ, and participates vicariously n Christ's death, burial and resurrection. His guilt is imputed to Christ, and Christ's righteousness is imputed to him. In other words, even though Christ died 2,000 years ago, the justification of the individual sinner does not actually take place until that sinner personally repents and believes. The death of Christ then becomes vicarious by virtue of the believer's union with Christ.
    Thus, when viewed from eternity, the orthodox Calvinist position makes perfectly good sense. Christ died in the place of the whole body of the elect – all those who would eventually become united with Him by faith. He acted as their substitute and covenant head. But there is also much to be said for the Amyraldian position as well. God has a general love for all mankind, and has invited all to receive the forgiveness of their sins on the condition of faith.
    It should also be pointed out that it is entirely possible that God might have more than one purpose in the death of Christ. One purpose is obviously to secure infallibly the salvation of the elect. But might not another purpose be to render the wicked utterly inexcusable in the Day of Judgment, by freely offering them a salvation which they in turn reject? We think that this is likely so.
    So then the atonement is an actual redemption of the elect. It is a real substitution and it is a real payment of a debt. But it is also a bona fide offer of salvation to the entire human race. Consequently we believe that both particular redemption and the free offer of the gospel are taught in the Bible, and together they form the twin pillars of evangelistic preaching.


  1. It's a great point you make about the view from eternity, I have been thinking about that a lot given our discussions with SBC Issues. It seems that when we view the Atonement we do so from our perspective which is time-bound, yet the scriptures view it from both our's and God's, God's view being outside of time and thus all things past, future and present being concurrent events from the perspective of God's eternality. I think this is why we see the atonement being described as both something done and also not yet done in the sense of it being actualised in time. In the discussions of those texts I don't see a lot of commentary by people from both perspectives addressing the Atonement in that particular context, case in point the difficulty SBC has had in trying to reconcile both those views into something he can understand, which like you have pointed out is probably beyond our capacity given our limitations. Great article's brother! God bless.

  2. Thanks for your comment. By the way, make sure you read the following blog post, "The Nature and Purpose of the Atonement." I want to make sure that I am not just defending a historical figure like Calvin, but that I am encouraging us to a closer walk with God. That is why I think that the practical implications of the "doctrines of grace" are so important. Sometimes it's a little difficult to bring that out when you are trying to refute someone else's position!

  3. I now realize that Tribulation Saint is Bob W. I have been looking over some of your blogs and they have been interesting and well done. It is good to be reminded that on so many issues we are on the same team! I really enjoy the church history lessons. One of the highlights of my time as a Calvinist was attending Banner of Truth conferences. I particularly enjoyed hearing Iain Murray talk on church history and still do.

    Concerning the controversy over the intent and nature of the atonement, I think that the Calvinist will always be struggling against the fact that he/she has no explicit (or necessarily inferred) text (or group of texts) supporting their version of limited atonement. When that observation is set against the number of texts, which show Jesus' life and death was for the world, everyone, all men, etc. it is too much to overcome. Indeed, there are plenty of texts which show Jesus dying for the church but that is not the debate. We all agree that He died for the Church.

    If there was a text which taught that Jesus *only* died for the elect then you can be sure that all Calvinists would have rallied around it like desperate bees on a lone flower. They would have 3 books out on that text alone... in every generation.

  4. Now here is a good text for you: "For it is we who labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers" (I Tim. 4:10; NASV). In what sense is God "the Savior of all men," and in what sense is He the Savior "especially of believers"?
    The idea of Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption is rooted in the Penal Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement. It simply takes words like "redeem," "atone," and "propitiate" at face value -- the death of Christ had the actual effect of removing the guilt of someone, and if not everyone is ultimately save, the logical implication is that Christ died specifically in the place of all who would believe. And there are texts that suggest this very thing: "who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds" (Tit. 2:14), and this one: "Worthy art Thou to take the book, and to break its seals; for Thou was slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And Thou hast made thme to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth" (Rev. 5:9,10).
    But then what do we do with a text like this one: "and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world" (I John 2:2)?
    The aim of theology should not be to build a tight logical system, but to try to make coherent sense of all the data that has been supplied to us in divine revelation, including all of these texts that we have just mentioned. The question is, what exactly did God mean when He inspired His prophets and apostles to write these things?

  5. "The idea of Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption is rooted in the Penal Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement."

    Understood, and I appreciate your willingness to call it a theory. I certainly like the idea of taking the words redeem, atone, and propitiate at their face value, which I do. (It is an actual atonement... that must be sovereignly applied by God to the account of any guilty sinner before they can be forgiven.) The problem for both sides of the debate over election, here, is the repeated biblical use of universal language regarding both the atonement and love of God for everyone, all, all men, every man, the world, whole world, and even false teachers, who deny the Lord who bought them. We must avoid the universalist's error of imputing the atonement to every adult with no condition attached. The "theory" fails to do that; as the Calvinistic explanation emasculates penitent faith as a true and meaningful condition for applying the atonement to those who are capable of faith. This is best illustrated by the well known Spurgeon quote, which you have probably seen before:

    The Arminian says, ‘Christ has died that any man may be saved if’—and
    then follow certain conditions of salvation. Now who is it that limits the
    death of Christ? Why, you. You say that Christ did not die so as infallibly
    to secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon, when you say we
    limit Christ’s death; we say, ‘No my dear sire, it is you that do it.’ We say
    Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that
    no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved,
    but are saved, must be saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard
    of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you
    may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.

    Spurgeon is clear. (Fatalistically so.) In his system there is no meaningful condition for the application of the atonement to the believer. Repentance is not needed. Faith is not needed. Therefore, children in [Calvinistic] churches should not be singing "Jesus loves me this I know..." They should not be told that Jesus died for their sins. They should only be told that Jesus' death was sufficient to cover their sins but may not have actually atoned for their particular sins. He may or may not have actually atoned for their sins. They may be reprobate... they may not. It would be out of their hands to alter the eternal decree.

    Surely, you see the tension created by the "theory". Both sides limit the atonement but not in the same way.

  6. As I tried to point out in the blog post the whole subject of the atonement is fraught with difficulties on both sides.
    One of the best things I have read on the subject comes from the pen of Robert L. Dabney, entitled "God's Indiscriminate Proposals of Mercy, as Related to His Power, Wisdom, and Sincerity" (Discussions, Vol. 1' pp. 282-313). In it he suggests that God could have complex motives in the atonement -- that He might genuinely desire the salvation of all but chooses not to save all because of other, overriding concerns. I have always appreciated Dabney's willingness to wrestle honestly with difficult questions.

  7. "Imputation" solves the tension for me. A universal offer is backed up by a universal provision. Makes good sense and contradicts no other Scripture. It was when I started reading more Calvinists than Bible I got in trouble. I am more at peace with the whole Bible than I ever was as a Calvinist. I can go to the funeral of a child and know that sin is not imputed where there is no law and, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. I realized that believing that God desired the salvation of every sinner was not just "wish projecting". It was true!

  8. The Synod of Dort agreed with your statement "A universal offer is backed up by a universal provision," and so did Dabney.
    One can, of course, argue endlessly about whether or not one's theological system logically requires him to accept some absurd notion or other. But I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "It was when I started reading more Calvinists than Bible I got in trouble." The problem with most of us is that we do not spend enough time in the Bible itself. Our aim should be to think biblically.
    Part of our problem is that we have a natural bias in favor of our own theological tradition, and it is easy for us simply to repeat the old theological nostrums. But we're living in a rapidly changing world, and Christian are going to have to learn how to practice their faith in an increasingly hostile environment. And given the fact that God is certainly not pleased with a sectarian spirit the challenge will be to find a unity among the brethren. This will require all of us to reexamine our positions honestly.
    Having said that, I would hasten to add this, however. What makes Calvin so enduring as a theologian is that he was a gifted exegete. He wrote commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, and they are still in use today. Most of the problems with his theology stem from the fact that he was working within the framework of a state church, and had to come up with a justification for infant baptism. That resulted in the distinctive form of covenant theology. But the fact of the matter is that the sovereignty of God, the depravity of man, and salvation by grace are all major themes of the Bible. And the Bible does explicitly talk about predestination and election. Of all of the "Five Points of Calvinism," the Perseverance of the Saints is the most problematical exegetically. There are passages of Scripture that do warn of the consequences of falling away from the faith.

  9. Not a lot that I would want to disagree with in your last post. Believe it or not, when writing "Chosen or Not?" I tried to stress the fact that there is much to agree on between Calvinists and non-Calvinists... and keep the needless vitriol at bay. (I know it irks you when I suggest that Calvinism is really hyper Calvinism with a better presentation, and it is less than forthright for any Calvinist or Creed to suggest that the reprobate would ever have a bona fide opportunity to be saved. I too, get a little rankled when Calvinists suggest that Non-Calvinists want to be the Captain of their own destinies and rob God of His glory in salvation.

    It won't be long before all real Bible believers will likely put aside our differences, circle the wagons, and stand shoulder to shoulder against the assault on all things biblical. The homosexual issue will likely serve as a real shibboleth test of our commitment to Scripture. The World wants to make us pay for our alleged "bigotry" and the government won't be much help...since the government is the people in our country. I would not be surprised, at all, if the church's tax exempt status will be soon lost over that one.

    Your assessment of Calvin seems fair enough. He was gifted and gets more than his fair share of abuse. I think both he and Augustine over corrected the error of their day; but when we look at what they were up against... its easy to understand why.

    I might quibble with you over the weakest of the 5 points (I prefer 5 inferences.) The Bible just refuses to allow the assumption that there are people for whom Jesus did not die. The doctrine of irresistible reprobation is an ugly and un-biblical teaching.. it has the fingerprints of religious man all over it. Grace does not need to be irresistible to be amazing.

    Do you think that it is possible to fall away from the grace we enjoyed as children? Assuming she did not die as a believer, do you think Jezebel would have gone to heaven if she had died as little girl? Do you agree with Westminster in it's inference that "non elect" infants would perish in hell?

    Did I see something about this blog being obsolete? A new one?

  10. I think you're right about the impact of the "gay rights" issue -- and in the long run, if it results in the emergence of a genuinely faithful church, it will be a good thing. But forging unity among the brethren could be a challenge.
    As for infants dying in infancy, I really don't know what happens to them -- the Bible doesn't address the issue directly. I do remember a discussion on original sin I sat in on once, and an older woman present said, "I've been a mother and then a grandmother, and I never once had to teach a child how to steal cookies"! I think that the sin nature probably asserts itself during those early temper tantrums.
    My new blog is called "Tribulation Saint," and can be accessed at You might especially enjoy the piece I wrote there on George Whitefield.
    The reason I started a new blog is because I ran into problems publishing posts with this one. I like to use Word to type up my posts and then publish them that way. it worked fine up until January, and then it wouldn't work anymore. I think the problem has to do with the relationship between Microsoft and Google.
    When you mentioned "Chosen or not?' -- I assume you are referring to a blog of your own? -- I couldn't find it.

    1. No surprise. I don't think Microsoft and Google are buddies. I will move on to the new blog and take a look at your Whitefield piece. As you mentioned in the SBC blog, there is much to like about Whitefield (and that sermon)...but I will need some very explicit texts before I go around telling people that God would be just in sending someone to hell even if they never actually sinned once! Also, you can see how that clearly opens the door to the dirtiest of all Calvinistic secrets... and that is the sentencing of non elect infants and children, who die, to hell. We mustn't build our entire system of soteriology on such a bizarre notion without absolutely explicit texts. We can defeat Popery and Pelagianism without such drastic over correction.

      Anyway, I look forward to seeing the Tribulation Saint blog and the next SBC Issues post, as well. The last one was forgettable.

      Chosen or Not? is actually a book I wrote on the debate over Calvinism. I used Crossbooks publishing, the self publishing arm of Lifeway/SBC. It had to pass Lifeway's theological review... for what that my be worth. It is available at Lifeway, Amazon, Barnes n Noble, etc. Amazon has the better online preview. I would send you a free copy if I had your address or church address. email: