“Calvinism” series: (post #4)
Years ago, I attended an evangelism/missions service that was part of a multi-night crusade sponsored by our local S.B.C. Association. The guest speaker for the crusade was a fellow S.B.C. pastor who had gained a fair amount of prominence in our state of North Carolina. Despite the fact that he had quite a bit of pulpit presence, though, I remember nothing about the man’s sermon except for one statement he made about halfway through it. As a sidenote to the main topic of his sermon — the comment was actually just something of throwaway line that he worked in for no apparent reason — he said, “Jesus didn’t die for the sins of the world anyway; He died for the sins of the elect.”
I knew immediately that the statement didn’t sound right, and I looked around to see if anyone else in the audience was as shocked by it as I was. Even though some of them no doubt were, all I saw were poker faces. I didn’t understand much about Calvinism at the time, and so I didn’t know that the statement was a dead giveaway that the guest preacher was a Calvinist, but I sure know it now.
Calvinists do not believe that Jesus died for the sins of the entire human race. Instead, they teach that He died only for the sins of the elect. They refer to this doctrine as “Limited Atonement.” And as you might guess, it is the “L” in Calvinism’s T-U-L-I-P acrostic.
Calvinists contend that if Jesus died for everybody’s sins, then everybody would get saved. They say that it’s absurd to talk about Jesus dying a sacrificial death that would, in the end, be rendered pointless for the vast majority of people for whom it was done. In the Calvinist way of thinking, such a thing would be an affront to God’s sovereignty because it would give individuals, rather than God, the final say in salvation.
Calvinists are also quick to point out that most Christians, whether they admit it or not, believe in a limited atonement. They base this upon the fact that most Christians, with the exception of those who hold to the false doctrine of Christian universalism, agree that Jesus dying on the cross certainly doesn’t mean that every sinner is going to heaven. Therefore, to the Calvinist, the difference between Calvinism’s “limited atonement” and the “limited atonement” of non-Calvinists is really just a matter of semantics.
But what does the Bible teach about Christ’s death? Does it teach that Jesus only died for the sins of the elect? Or, does it teach that He died for the sins of “the world,” with the term “the world” referring to the entire human race beginning with Adam? Well, I’ll ask you to read the following list of passages carefully (all from the N.K.J.V.), taking special note of not only where I’ve added emphasis to certain words but also the thoughts I’ve included following each reference:
- Isaiah 53:6: All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Calvinists either interpret the two uses of “all” in this verse as referring exclusively to the elect, or they would have us believe that the first group of “all” is not the same as the last one.)
- Matthew 11:28: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Calvinists would have us believe that only the elect labor and are heavy laden.)
- Luke 19:10: “…for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Calvinists certainly believe that “that which was lost” covers the entire human race, but they have to interpret this quote from Jesus to mean, “…for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save THE ELECT.”)
- John 1:29: The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Calvinists are forced to define the term “the world” to mean humanity in terms of GENERALITY rather than in terms of EVERY SPECIFIC INDIVIDUAL.)
- John 3:16-17: “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.” (Here again, Calvinists must use a definition of the term “the world” other than the obvious meaning of it.)
- John 4:42: Then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world. (Again, this requires the Calvinist to redefine the term.)
- John 6:51: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world. (Here goes the redefining again.)
- John 12:47: “And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. (It’s redefining time again.)
- John 17:20-21: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. (It’s the same interpretative problem “the world” always presents for Calvinism.)
- Romans 5:18: Therefore, as through one man’s (Adam’s) offense judgement came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s (Jesus’) righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. (Since Adam’s sin brought judgment to EVERY member of his race, consistency in interpreting this verse demands that Christ’s death brought salvation, potentially, to EVERY member of Adam’s race.)
- Romans 8:31-32: What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? (Calvinists are forced to say that “all” refers only to Paul and the Christians of Rome.)
- 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all… (This time they are forced to say that “all” refers only to Paul and the Christians of Corinth.)
- 2 Corinthians 5:18-19: Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (It’s the interpretative problem of “the world” again.)
- 1 Timothy 2:5-6: For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time,… (This particular “all” is much more difficult for Calvinists to explain away because Paul is writing specifically to Timothy rather than to a church or a group of Christians.)
- 1 Timothy 4:10: For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. (This verse delivers a major blow to Calvinism’s doctrine of “Limited Atonement” because it speaks of two distinct groups of people: those for whom Jesus is their potential Savior and those for whom He is their actual Savior.)
- Hebrews 2:9: But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. (Now Calvinists don’t just have to redefine “all” and “the world”; they have to also redefine “everyone.”)
- 2 Peter 2:1: But there were false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. (Don’t miss the fact that Peter says that Jesus BOUGHT this group of lost, false prophets who were nevertheless still headed for destruction. In New Testament doctrine, such a buying equates to the word “redemption.” The clear meaning is that Jesus died to pay their sin debt and, thus, potentially redeem these men out of their bondage to sin. But the men hadn’t believed in Him and in so doing made the purchase count for their salvation. Famous Calvinist John MacArthur, in his The MacArthur Study Bible, attempts to explain away the plain meaning of this text by resorting to the idea that Peter was using the words “who bought them” in sarcastic mockery.)
- 2 Peter 3:9: The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (Here again the Calvinist has to irreparably damage the meaning of “all.”)
- 1 John 2:1-2: My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. (In my opinion, this passage delivers the greatest blow to Calvinism’s doctrine of “Limited Atonement” because in it John uses the words “our sins” to refer to Jesus dying for the sins of Christians/the elect, but then he quickly adds in that Jesus also died for the sins of everybody else as part of “the whole world.”)
- 1 John 4:14: And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. (In light of how John defines “the world” in 1 John 2:1-2 where he makes a distinction between the sins of Christians and the sins of the world, are we supposed to believe that just a few verses later in the same letter he has a different definition in mind for “the world”? For that matter, isn’t it only logical that we take John’s definition from 1 John 2:1-2 and also apply it to all the times he uses the term in his gospel?)
Now, to be fair, I should mention that there are a handful of passages that do depict Jesus as dying for a highly specific group of people. First, Acts 20:28 and Ephesians 5:25-27 say that Jesus loved “the church,” gave Himself for her, and purchased her with His own blood. Second, in John 10:11,15 Jesus talks about dying for “His sheep.” And, third, Matthew 1:21 says that Jesus will save “His people” from their sins. Obviously, though, Jesus dying for EVERYBODY would certainly include the one group known as “the elect” (“the church,” “His sheep,” “His people”).
In conclusion then, the truth is that Christ’s death was sufficient for all but only efficient for those who place saving belief (faith) in Him. Said another way, He is the potential Savior of all but the actual Savior only for those who place belief (faith) in Him. This is what the Bible teaches in total, and any passages that might be taken to teach otherwise must be interpreted in the light of it. Speaking for myself, I think Calvinism’s “Limited Atonement” is the scripturally weakest of its five T-U-L-I-P points.