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Is Christ’s Work Definitely Limited?

by Andy Kratzert

from the March 09, 2015 eNews issue of Koinonia House News. (visit our website for a FREE subscription)

Einstein writing on chalkboard

(Editor’s Note: From time to time this newsletter will publish content contributed by Koinonia Institute students. Many times, these projects were developed in class as part of their work toward earning a medallion in the Institute. The following article has been contributed by Andy Kratzert, a Silver Medallion holder from Round Rock, Texas.)

The Holy Spirit has incredible foresight. He issued a very appropriate warning to us all through the hand of the Apostle Paul saying, “See to it that no one enslaves you through philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to the Messiah.” (Colossians 2:8, ISV)

Christians often forget that Theology is man’s study of God. Its origin is not from God but is a product of man; in other words it is a type of philosophy and therefore the above warning applies.

Theology is by no means a bad thing; however, it should be remembered that it is not perfect. The most basic error that is committed by theologians is assuming their theology is correct and reading the Scriptures through the lens of that theology. Reading meaning into Scripture is the definition of eisegesis and is very dangerous.

Often a theology is declared “Biblical” because there are verses in Scripture that seem to support it. Typically there will also be verses that refute it. In reality, almost every heresy has Biblical verses that seem to support it. For example, the following verses can be interpreted to support the “Prosperity Gospel” (aka “name it and claim it”):

However the following verses clearly refuted it:

When examined closely, these supposed supporting verses will have been misinterpreted, while the refuting verses are either ignored or interpreted in a way to make them not mean what they say. To be truly Biblical, a theology cannot have verses that refute it when they are interpreted with a correct hermeneutic and not through the lens of said theology.

Calvinism is a set of doctrines concerning free will and predestination. When considering a system of doctrine it is important to understand its origin. Despite its name, Calvinism did not originate with John Calvin . “The basic doctrines of the Calvinistic position had been vigorously defended by Augustine against Pelagius during the fifth century.” (Steele and Thomas 19)

John Calvin did however systematize the doctrines that originated with Augustine. Henry Milman agrees that “Augustinianism was worked up into a still more rigid and uncompromising system by the severe intellect of Calvin.” (Milman 3:176)

Calvinism, also called “ Reformed Theology ,” is classically expressed in a series of five points of which the initials form the acronym TULIP. These points are as follows:

  1. Total Depravity
  2. Unconditional Election
  3. Limited Atonement
  4. Irresistible Grace
  5. Perseverance of the Saints

Basically, Calvinism says that mankind is so totally depraved he has neither desire nor ability to approach, understand, or seek God. God therefore has randomly chosen people (the Elect) to which to extend His grace and to receive eternal salvation. The Elect have no choice in the matter because God’s grace is irresistible. Furthermore, Jesus died only for the Elect. If He had died for everyone then everyone would be saved.

The middle point in the TULIP acronym, Limited Atonement , is often called Definite Atonement . R.C. Sproul states, “I prefer to use the term definite atonement to the term limited atonement. The doctrine of definite atonement focuses on the question of the design of Christ’s atonement. It is concerned with God’s intent in sending Jesus to the cross” (Sproul 175). The very name, therefore, seems to embarrass some reformed theologians and make them want to “spin” the doctrine in a more positive direction.

“Ironically, the most widely understood and yet the most disputed distinctive in the Calvinist doctrines of redemption and reprobation is the third point of Calvinism. “(Bryson 137) It is no wonder there is a desire to rename this doctrine and remove the word “Limited” so as to put a positive spin on it. This spin can be well seen in the quote: “Same doctrine, better name. This way of putting it emphasizes the extent of Jesus’ accomplishment, rather than its restrictions.” (Wilson)

When superficially examined, Limited Atonement does indeed seem to be supported by Scripture. Upon deeper examination, though, there are also several verses that clearly refute it. Calvinists usually tend to ignore these verses or interpret these verses through the lens of Calvinism. Furthermore, the verses that support Limited Atonement can be shown to do so only when viewed through this same lens.

Douglas Wilson , a Calvinist, posted the following article regarding Limited Atonement,

Definite atonement teaches that Jesus died to fully secure the salvation of his people, not just make the offer. (Wilson)

The author goes on to list the following verses as his selection of support for Limited Atonement. The fallacy being committed will be explained in each:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:11, ISV)

Jesus here is making a comparison between the Good Shepherd, a thief who kills and a hireling who flees from wolves. He is trying to communicate that we should follow only Him. If the verse is read carefully, one can see that the Shepherd does not die “only” for a group of particular sheep. The word “only” is not in the text, nor is it implied. Ironically, this verse should encourage Christians to follow Jesus instead of Calvin.

Husbands, love your wives as the Messiah loved the church and gave himself for it. (Ephesians 5:25, ISV)

Similarly this verse is in the context of comparing a marriage relationship to Christ’s relationship with the church. Here we also do not see the word “only” in the text. Like John 10:11, the concept of Limited Atonement must be in mind when reading this in order to interpret it to support Limited Atonement.

The last three verses from Douglas Wilson’s article also do not contain the word “only” or an exclusionary concept. Limited Atonement must also be read into these verses in order for them to support it.

Among the verses that refute Limited Atonement is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (KJV)

When read without the lens of Calvinism, it says clearly that Jesus died for the entire world, and a subset of “whoever believes” are the ones that won’t perish but have everlasting life. R.C. Sproul has written that “If indeed Christ provided a propitiation and expiation for all human beings and for all their sins, then, clearly, all persons would be saved.” (Sproul). Obviously that’s not the case so then, avoiding what John 3:16 says, he concludes that “then the atonement, in some sense, must be limited, or restricted, to a definite group, namely believers.” (Sproul)

The truth is found in the literal text of the Scripture, not in the theology. Jesus died for the whole world to make it possible for all to be saved. Those who are saved are those who believe. Calvinism would make “the world” mean “the world of believers” and so “those who believe” would be exactly the same set of people. The verse rather implies “those who believe” is a subset of “the world” and that the other subset is those that “perish”.

Literal vs Calvinistic

Again here several of the points of Calvinism must be assumed to arrive at this conclusion. The idea that anyone for whom Christ died is necessarily saved comes from the Calvinistic doctrine of Irresistible Grace , the idea that God forces His grace upon those He decides to save. Dave Hunt’s words regarding Calvinist John Owen are applicable here as well, “His desire to defend Calvinism seemingly blinded him to the Scriptures and to simple reason.” (Hunt 304)

A second clear Scripture that refutes Limited Atonement is 1 Timothy 2:3-4,

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to know the truth fully. (ISV) (Emphasis added).

Here a clear reading of the text reveals that God desires everyone to be saved, not just a subset. Even Spurgeon , a Calvinist, recognized that “As it is my wish that it should be so as it is your wish that it might be so, so it is God’s wish that all men should be saved; for assuredly, he is not less benevolent than we are.” (Spurgeon 61, 62)

The Calvinist answer to this is not to doubt their theology but instead he “tries to escape the obvious contradictions by saying that God has a ‘will of decree’ and a ‘will of desire.’” (Hunt 306) However this leads to another contradiction, “How could God, given Calvinism’s extreme view of sovereignty, fail to decree anything He truly desires? Calvinists boast that they exegete Scripture. But where in I Timothy 2:4 (or anywhere else) is there even a hint of “two wills,” one of “decree” and one of “desire” as Piper and others also teach?” (Hunt 306)

It can be seen clearly that this dual-will invention is demanded solely by the theology, not by Scripture. The clear reading of 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God wants all to be saved. The only conclusion is that it is not solely up to God, but He gives each person a choice. When the lenses of Calvinism are removed from one’s eyes, this is clearly seen. As Dave Hunt has written, “These and many other scriptures make it clear that the benefit of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection in full payment for the sins of the world is available to be received by whosoever believes the gospel, while the wrath of God abides upon all who reject Christ and the salvation genuinely offered to all in Him.” (Hunt 306, 307)

See to it that no one enslaves you through philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to the Messiah.

Colossians 2:8, ISV

Calvinism is indeed one of the philosophies of men (Augustine and Calvin) that God warned about. Remove the lenses of man-made theology when studying the Scriptures and heed God’s warning.

Works Cited