Limited Atonement

March 16th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Many I speak to on these subjects agree that we are totally depraved, that God elects sinners for salvation, and that He is the Good Shepherd who will finish the work he began in us.

We are, therefore, relatively “reformed” in our theology together…which is an interesting label considering that, from our perspective, should probably be labeled “recovered” theology as this teaching was changed by the institutional church early on in Church history and was reaffirmed during the Synod of Dordt as the common, ancient, and Biblical doctrine of salvation.

However, debate continues amongst reformed theologians and we lowly lay people about atonement. Did Christ die for everyone or for the elect and why do we care?

Some Background
First, the “Five Points of Calvinism” includes the third of five points commonly called “Limited Atonement.” Many people call themselves “four-point Calvinists” because they believe in all of it except this very controversial third point.

I used to be what most call an “Arminian.” The vast majority of American Christians are. I’ll reiterate again that I hate the labels, the simplicity of “five points” of Arminianism or Calvinism but they are what they are…let’s move on…

Everyone Limits Atonement
With the context of the other four points in mind (we’ll get to four and five soon!), let’s consider the third point – Limited Atonement.

I believe that everyone limits atonement. Most churches in Western Christendom teach that Jesus died for “ALL” men – that Christ’s work made it possible for all to come to Him. They would say that “Christ died to save all men if…” and follow this with any number of qualifications, actions, or reactions to the Gospel.

I would throw this out for thought: everyone limits atonement. You either limit it in extent/scope (Christ died for the elect) or in effectiveness (Christ died for all but redemption needs you to…). I also would throw out that Christ’s death was obviously capable of saving every person who ever lived…but He didn’t choose to die for that purpose.

“Jesus Actually Saves”
There is a GREAT book that articulates the concept of election and atonement very well. In The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented (a classic and a great resource I’m borrowing from quite a bit to write these posts); David N. Steele articulates in the latest version of the book on pages 41 and 42 my feelings on this subject. Under a section titled “Jesus Actually Saves” he writes:

“The Scriptures describe the end intended and accomplished by Christ’s work as the full salvation (actual reconciliation, justification, and sanctification) of His people.

The Scriptures state that Christ came, not to enable men to save themselves, but to save sinners.

Matthew 1:21: ‘She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

The book goes on to list a number of other verses that seem to suggest that He came to sacrifice Himself for those who were called to be His. Pick up the book and pour through it with an open mind. You’ll be blown away – even if you already believe in four or five Points.

But how about the Scriptures that say he died for “all” or “the whole world?” What about John 3:16 – For God so loved the world…?”

If you take the multitude of Scriptures that declare He died for His people, His elect, His chosen race and then consider the cultural and spiritual climate at the time of the Scriptures; wouldn’t it make sense that the inclusive words “all” and “world” may have been used to combat the notion prevalent amongst the Jews at the time that only Jews could be saved? Could the Scriptures be reiterating that Jews AND Gentiles are among the elect? That the whole world is worth reaching out to with the Gospel in order to bring the message of salvation to those He has predestined?

Ramifications/Why do I care?
So…who cares? If God chose some and not others and died for them, what does that matter? If we are both believers and disagree on this…so what? Aren’t we both preaching the Gospel and is it profitable to have this discussion? This discussion has caused division in the past, so why rehash it now?

Two reasons:

1. For the believer with a Biblical view of election and perseverance, it is easy to look at the “Arminian” and shrug his/her shoulders. Either way the message of Jesus is being preached; even if those who don’t feel the way the Calvinist does may live with a distorted picture of how salvation works or the character of God as relates to His chosen race. The Gospel of Jesus gets preached and we are brothers. But to those who don’t share the views of the Calvinist it is easy to look at the Calvinist as fatalistic and unwilling to reach out. Few things are more misunderstood than reformed theology by those who don’t share the same views. Discussing this respectfully brings Arminians – if not to the ‘truth’ – to a realization that Calvinists embrace evangelism and Scriptures as much as they do.

2. “Calvinism,” for a lack of a better term, offers a doctrine of assurance and peace that is worth discussing. If we are right about election and atonement, it offers so much more gratefulness and peace to the weary soul.

In his 1932 book, “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination” (quoted in “The Five Points of Calvinism”), Mr. Loraine Boettner says this:

“Any other system which holds that Christ’s sacrifice did not actually save anyone, but that it merely made salvation possible for all if they would comply with certain terms, reduces it to good advice; and any system which carries with it only a ‘chance’ for salvation, also carries with it, of logical necessity, a ‘chance’ to be lost. And what a difference it makes to fallen man as to whether the Gospel is good news or good advice! The world is full of good advice; even the books of heathen philosophers contained much of it; but the Gospel alone contains for man the Good News that God has redeemed him.”

Isn’t the very nature of God and His plan for us worth discussing? Isn’t the very heart of how we are saved worth exploring? I think the problem has been in how we have discussed this issue – not whether or not we should.

If you don’t believe in all “Five Points of Calvinism,” that’s not a hill I want to die on with you – you are still very likely chosen as a fellow Christ-follower.

If I limit atonement, however, I want to limit it to Good News that you are redeemed…not limit it in effectiveness and put a burden of “if you…” on the searching soul.  The Scriptures seems clear – Jesus died for the elect.  Christ’s death was designed to secure salvation, not to simply make possible election.

Some interesting Scriptures to ponder on the subject:

Galatians chapter 1 says that Jesus “gave himself” for our sins “to deliver us” from evil according to “the will” of the Father.  If he delivers whom He elects, than His will was for Christ to die in order to deliver.  It doesn’t say He gave Himself so delivery was possible.

Jesus said himself that he lays down his life for his sheep.  Who are these sheep?  The Father gave the sheep to Christ!  The sheep are the elect!  He died for the elect:
John 10:11,14-18 – “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.  And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.  For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.  I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.” (verses 24-29 reiterate that he gives the sheep he lays down his life for eternal life and they were given to him by his Father!)

Note also that in John 17 (verses 1-26) Jesus prays not for the whole world’s population but for those given to Him by the Father.  He says “I am not praying for the world but for those whom thou hast given me.”  Read the whole prayer.  If he died for more than the elect so that salvation was possible if…wouldn’t He have prayed such?

Hebrews 9:15 – “…Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many…”

Acts 20:28 seems to suggest that Church leaders are to feed the flock, which the Lord “obtained for Himself with His own Blood.”

Ephesians 5 paints the picture of limited atonement when Paul exhorts husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up FOR HER, that he might sanctify her…”  The relationship of husband and wife is a picture of Christ laying down his life…for His Bride!

Unconditional Election

March 16th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The “second point” in the Synod of Dordt’s response to the Remonstrance written by the followers of Arminius was that of “Unconditional Election.”  Remember, the “five points” are simply a direct response to the five main points in the Remonstrance, or Arminian positions.  it isn’t fair to the Scriptures or their Author to boil down the God-story to five points and each point should be taken into consideration within the whole context of the Scriptures.

Because Adam transgressed, God made it clear that he and all his decedents are guilty.  The sentence for that guilt is eternal death.  God was under no obligation to save Adam or a single decedent of Adam. His justice would have been completely satisfied by saving no one or obliterating His creation at the moment of Adam’s transgression and started over.

The doctrine of election, however, articulates the Scripture’s position that God, before He even created the world, chose some of Adam’s decedents upon whom He’d bestow amazing mercy.  These were those He would “save” from eternal punishment.  He could have chosen to save all men or none.  He, instead, chose to save some.  The fact that He chose only some is in no way unfair unless “…one maintains that God was under obligation to proved salvation for sinners – a position which the Bible utterly rejects.” (David Steele, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented)

Election doesn’t actually save anyone.  The Father elects, the Son gives Himself as redemption to save, and the Spirit renews the heart and instills that saving faith in the Elect.

Some interesting verses that highlight this election:

Revelation 13:8 – “And all who dwell on earth will worship it, every one whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lam that was slain.”

Matthew 11:27 – “…no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

1 Peter 1:1-2 – “…chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with blood…”

God’s choice is not based on any foreseen merit or action by man:

Romans 9:11-13 – “Though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call, she was told, ‘The elder will serve the younger.’  As it is written, ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'”

Romans 9:16 – “So it depends not upon man’s will or exertion, but upon God’s mercy.”

God didn’t choose us because he foreknew we’d choose Him:

Acts 13:48 – “And when the Gentiles heart this, they were glad and glorified the word of God; and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.”

Philippians 1:29 – “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake.”

Exodus 33:19 – “…I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”

Ephesians 1:5 – “He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will.”

There are countless others.  This was the doctrine that I stumbled upon.  The other doctrines of salvation I knew I was wrong about as a young believer (I didn’t always believe this way!  I was an Arminian believer for years!) were easy to overcome.  This one was hard.  He isn’t “fair?”  He “chooses” hell for some?

As the image of my daughter dying in my arms was still very fresh and as I considered the ridiculous books that some well-meaning people handed me full of unBiblical junk about salvation and how it happens, it hit me: If He created the universe, set the standard, and works out His will and personality through His creation; perhaps I should re-read the Scriptures without the lens of human preference and see what He is really saying.  The whole counsel of the Scriptures is about the Author, the Potter, and the Lord writing His story, molding His clay, and ruling over His creation.  Who am I to question His plan or his will?  Who am I to read into the Scriptures some effort, work, or decision I must make to be saved?  It sits well with my current base nature…but not with His eternal truth.

Total Depravity

March 6th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I am going to try to go through the entire five points of Arminianism and Calvinism over the coming weeks.

The Arminian points came first as a response by the followers of Jacob Arminius after his death to the current teaching of all known Protestant faiths at the time.  Their “Remonstrance of 1610” challenged Church teaching about salvation and free will up to that time and the Synod of Dordt was called to address the issue.  Church leaders from all over Europe were called together to consider the five points of Arminian followers in the Remonstrance.  The teachings of the Church in the known world at the time had their roots in the Scriptures as well as in the fight against Pelagianism and other heresies by early Church fathers including Augustine and others.  Five points came out of the Synod in response to the five that were outlined in the Remonstrance.  The Synod made it very clear that the doctrines of salvation should not and could not be defined by five points but they felt that the Remonstrance needed a point-by-point rebuttal.  The term “Calvinism” was adopted over time, not because John Calvin was anything extraordinary, but because he taught extensively on the subject throughout his ministry.

The first of these five points in the Arminian Remonstrance of 1610 defined “Free Will.”  An overly elementary summary of the first point by Arminians is that humans, although seriously affected by the Fall, have not been left spiritually helpless but are left a remnant of spiritual light capable of understanding the Gospel and choosing to embrace it of one’s own Free Will.

The Synod of Dordt reaffirmed the belief that we are totally depraved.

My favorite book on the subject, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, defines total depravity this way:

“Because of the Fall, man is unable of himself to savingly believe the gospel. The sinner is dead, blind, and deaf to the things of God; his heart is deceitful and desperately corrupt. His will is not free; it is in bondage to his evil nature. Therefore, he will not – indeed he cannot – choose good over evil in the spiritual realm. Consequently, it takes much more than the Spirit’s assistance to bring a sinner to Christ. It takes regeneration, by which the Spirit makes the sinner alive and gives him a new nature. Faith is not something man contributes to salvation, but is itself a part of God’s gift of salvation. It is God’s gift to the sinner, not the sinner’s gift to God.”

Frankly, when I took off the spiritual lenses I inherited as a normal American evangelical and started to read the Scriptures with purpose in my heart to be as objective as possible and let the Scriptures speak for itself, I could see where I got off track with Arminian Doctrine. Depravity and Election is so clear in Ephesians 1, throughout Romans, in the Gospels…

One hang-up some have with “total”depravity is that they don’t believe that people are incapable of doing any good. I don’t disagree. Evil and lost people do ‘good’ things. But the “total” in Total Depravity is more of a holistic totality. The totality of the individual is lost and incapable of choosing salvation. We are not, under the Curse, given the power to reach out to God in any way that affects our eternal disposition without Him choosing us first.

I also believe that man was not created depraved initially but it is solely a consequence of sin through Adam. And who are we to arrogantly tell God that the punishment for sin (depravity) is too great?

We are spiritually dead from the beginning:
Psalm 51:5 – “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
Psalm 58:3 – “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.”

We have dark minds and corrupt/depraved hearts:
Genesis 8:21 – “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”
Romans 8:7-8 – “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Job 15:14-16 – “What is man, that he can be pure? Or he who is born of a woman, that he can be righteous? Behold, God puts no trust in his holy ones, and the heavens are not pure in his sight; how much less one who is abominable and corrupt, a man who drinks injustice like water!”

We cannot change by ourselves:
Job 14:4 – “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? There is not one.”
John 6:65 – “And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.'”
1 Corinthians 4:7 – “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
2 Corinthians 3:5 – “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God.”

Note the myriad Scriptures that make it clear that God Himself gives faith, grants repentance, and creates new hearts.

Spiritual life, theology, and doctrine reside on a spectrum.  On one end is the lie that Satan himself wants us to believe (that we are unworthy or that His Word doesn’t mean what It says) and on the other end of the spectrum is human pride that leads to works-related doctrine.

Lame Ambassadors…

March 6th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I think the emailer in this semi-humorous video obviously holds to Arminian soteriology.  🙂  Let’s be careful how we share the Gospel…

Some Things I Believe

March 6th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Although no one has asked, I feel compelled (perhaps for my own benefit and reference) to write out some of the things I believe to be true.  Comments are welcome:

I believe that I’m probably an evangelical by definition but I hope I never act like one.

I believe that the Church is the Elect and is not an institution or location.

I believe in an inerrant Scripture (we can argue about translations and church tradition) that is capable of speaking for itself, interpreting itself, and speaking to every issue.

I believe there is no timeline in the Scriptures for spiritual gifts.  I believe that all the gifts are for today.  I believe, however, human nature tends to swing too charismatic or too stoic (the “frozen chosen”) and the burden is on us to find the appropriate balance.

I believe that if the Church stopped building multi-million dollar buildings, paying mega-church pastors mega-sized salaries, combatted relativism, and invested our money in meeting the practical needs of others instead of bolstering what we call our “ministries;” we’d win over the hearts of the unchurched.   Because our time and resources would be vested in our communities; we’d become so passionate about them that our love for our neighbors would win far more souls than any church service, outreach program, multi-media presentation, or under-sized missions budget ever could.

I believe the Church has been hijacked by pastor/teachers, we’ve ignored (in large part) the role of the other gifts (Eph 4:11) in Church leadership, and have made the mistake of setting up our churches like corporations (thanks to the 501 (c) 3 and our Roman statist heritage) instead of being communities living out “Kingdom spirituality.”

I believe the assembling of ourselves together as believers is primarily for the encouraging and equipping of each other – not for “gettin’ people saved.”  In many cases, bringing new believers to church is a sure-fire way to ruin their potential as ambassadors for Christ.

I believe the Church is capable and responsible for the welfare of its community – not government.  Government should supplement the Church’s benevolence, not supplant its role as caregiver to the broken, poor, and needy.  Our ability to turn into pansies when the IRS threatens us for proclaiming truth, discussing issues, or teaching on the intersection of faith and public policy is one of our greatest areas of shame.

I believe that, since the Scriptures teach us to obey the laws of man, that a Republic like ours in America that is dependent on our engagement to function well turns out civic engagement into a spiritual necessity.

I believe one God-fearing man or woman can change the world, change culture, change public policy, or even a church.  You never know if it’s you until you live your whole life pursuing the opportunity and never grow weary in the work.

I believe most doctrinal differences, although important, are far less important than choosing to work together to practice pure and undefiled religion (James 1).

I believe I spent too much time in Western Christendom and therefore stink at living a missional and relevant spiritual life.  I am, however, working on it.