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(9 posts)

Real, or Potential?

Did Jesus actually atone for sins on the cross, or did he only achieve a potential atonement? When he said, “It is finished,” was anything really finished, or was the finishing just made possible? Are the sins of lost souls in hell forgiven? These are the questions that must be answered by teachers of universal atonement. John Owen, in his seminal treatment of limited atonement, points out the sequence of Arminian reasoning. First, “Christ died for all and every one, elect and reprobate.” But second, “Most of them for whom Christ died are damned.” According to this view, most of the people for whom Christ offered atonement do not have their sins atoned for. If God intended the salvation of all, His intention clearly failed. John Murray observes: The very nature of Christ’s mission and accomplishment is involved in this question. Did Christ come to make the salvation of all men possible, to remove obstacles that stood in the way of salvation, and merely to make provision for salvation? Or did he come to save his people? . . . Did he come to make men redeemable? Or did he come effectually and infallibly to redeem? The doctrine of the atonement must be radically revised if, as atonement, it applies to those who finally perish as well as to those who are the heirs of eternal life. In that event we should have to dilute the grand categories in terms of which the Scripture defines the atonement and deprive them of their most precious import and glory. —Richard D. Phillips, What’s So Great about the Doctrines of Grace? (Reformation Trust, 2008), 54–55.

The Origin of the Five Points

Studying the history of the Doctrines of Grace, it should first be noted that the doctrines commonly known as “the Five Points of Calvinism” were not written by John Calvin, nor were they formulated in the handy TULIP acrostic. In 1610, one year after the death of James Arminius, and forty-six years after the death of John Calvin, the followers of Arminius presented a “Remonstrance” (protest) to the State of Holland. This protest consisted of five articles intended to correct what they considered errors in the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism (the Confessions of the Church of Holland). Roger Nicole summarizes the five articles contained in the Remonstrance as follows: I. God elects or reproves on the basis of foreseen faith or unbelief. II. Christ died for all men and for every man, although only believers are saved. III. Man is so depraved that divine grace is necessary unto faith or any good deed. IV. This grace may be resisted. V. whether all who are truly regenerate will certainly persevere in the faith is a point which needs further investigation. The last article was later altered so as definitely to teach that the trul regenerate believer could lose his faith and thus lose his salvation. However, Arminians have not been in agreement on this point. Some have held that all who are regenerated by the Spirit of God are eternally secure and can never perish. —The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004), 2. In response to the Remonstrants, a national synod was convened in Dordrecht (Dort), Holland in 1618. The majority of the synod was Dutch, but also included delegates from Germany, Switzerland, England, and Scotland. Their purpose was to examine the Arminian articles in light of Scripture. After 154 sessions over the course of seven months, the Synod of Dort rejected the Arminian protest. Ben A. Warburton writes, The Synod had given a very close examination to the “five points” which had been advanced by the Remonstrants, and had compared the teaching advanced in them with the testimony of Scripture. Failing to reconcile that teaching with the Word of God, which they had definitely declared could alone be accepted by them as the rule of faith, they had unanimously rejected them. They felt, however, that a mere rejection was not sufficient. It remained for them to set forth the true Calvinistic teaching in relationship to those matters which had been called into question. This they proceeded to do, embodying the Calvinistic position in five chapters which have ever since been known as “the five points of Calvinism.” —Ibid., 4. How is it that these churchmen drew such a different conclusion from that which is held by the majority of Protestants today? The answer is quite simple: Salvation was viewed by the members of the Synod as a work of grace from beginning to end; They did not believe that the sinner saved himself or contributed to his salvation in any sense. Adam's fall had completely ruined the race. All men were by nature spiritually dead, and their wills were in bondage to sin and Satan. The ability to believe the gospel was itself a gift from God, bestowed only on those whom He had chosen to be the objects of His unmerited favor. It was not man, but God, who determined which sinners would be shown mercy and saved. This, in essence, was what the members of the Synod of Dort understood the Bible to teach. —Ibid., 5.

Arminian Philosophy

Packer on the philosophical basis of Arminianism: The theology which it contained (known to history as Arminianism) stemmed from two philosophical principles: first, that divine sovereignty is not compatible with human freedom, nor therefore with human responsibility; second, that ability limits obligation. . . . From these principles, the Arminians drew two deductions: first, that since the Bible regards faith as a free and responsible act, it cannot be caused by God, but is exercised independently of Him; second, that since the Bible regards faith as obligatory on the part of all who hear the gospel, ability to believe must be universal. Hence, they maintained, Scripture must be interpreted as teaching the following positions: (1.) Man is never so completely corrupted by sin that he cannot savingly believe the gospel when it is put before him, nor (2.) is he ever so completely controlled by God that he cannot reject it. (3.) God’s election of those who shall be saved is prompted by His foreseeing that they will of their own accord believe. (4.) Christ’s death did not ensure the salvation of anyone, for it did not secure the gift of faith to anyone (there is no such gift); what it did was rather to create a possibility of salvation for everyone if they believe. (5.) It rests with believers to keep themselves in a state of grace by keeping up their faith; those who fail here fall away and are lost. Thus, Arminianism made man’s salvation depend ultimately on man himself, saving faith being viewed throughout as man’s own work and, because his own, not God’s in him. —The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004), 3. One must wonder what Arminians do with (1.) Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 2:14 (2.) John 6:37 (3.) Romans 9:11–13 (4.) Ephesians 2:8 (5.) John 6:37, 39–40. All of the Epistles, indeed, the entire New Testament, speak loudly against them.

Before Arminius

Although the Arminian Remonstrance took place in the seventeenth century, the controversy goes back much farther than that. None of the doctrines bearing the “Arminian” or “Calvinist” labels originated with Arminius or Calvin. Arminianism has its roots in Pelagianism, the system put forth by the fifth century monk Pelagius (360–418). Calvinism is simply a reiteration of Augustinianism, so named after Augustine (354–430), bishop of Hippo (in modern-day Algeria), who, against Pelagius, defended the biblical doctrines of original sin and monergistic soteriology. Pelagianism diverged much farther from orthodoxy than Arminianism. While an Arminian may be a Christian (as R. C. Sproul once said, “just barely”), a Pelagian cannot. Pelagius taught that everyone was born in the same state as Adam, able to keep the law perfectly and believe the gospel. Augustine said, No, man has inherited Adam’s sin. Consequently, his very nature is so corrupted that, without divine grace—bestowed upon those whom the Father has chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world—he is neither able nor willing to believe. Enter John Cassian (360–435), a monk from Gaul (France), who concocted a middle way between Pelagianism and Augustinianism. Short of denying original sin as Pelagius had, Cassian taught that man, though corrupted by sin, retained the ability by the natural powers of his mind to take the first step towards conversion and, having taken that first step, would then gain the Spirit’s help in coming the rest of the way. This middle way was called Semi-Pelagianism, and “is not at all differing from . . . Arminianism.” Both Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism were rejected by the Reformers. Like Augustine, the Reformers held to the doctrines of the sovereignty of God, the total depravity of man, and unconditional election. As Boettner shows, they stood together in their view of predestination: It was taught not only by Calvin, but by Luther, Zwingli, Melanchthon (although Melanchthon later retreated toward the Semi-Pelagian position), by Bullinger, Bucer, and all of the outstanding leaders of the Reformation. While differing on some other points they agreed on this doctrine of Predestination and taught it with emphasis. Luther’s chief work, The Bondage of the Will, shows that he went into the doctrine as heartily as did Calvin himself. . . . Thus, it is evident that the five points of Calvinism, drawn up by the Synod of Dort in 1619, were by no means a new system of theology. On the contrary, as Dr. Wyllie asserts of the Synod, “It met at a great crisis and was called to review, re-examine and authenticate over again, in the second generation since the rise of the Reformation, that body of truth and system of doctrine which that great movement had published to the world.” —The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004), 11–13.

No Small Difference

The difference between Arminianism and Calvinism is no minor disagreement. J. I. Packer writes, The difference between them is not primarily one of emphasis, but of content. One proclaims a God Who saves; the other proclaims a God Who enables man to save himself. One view [Calvinism] presents the three great acts of the Holy Trinity for the recovering of lost mankind—election by the Father, redemption by the Son, calling by the Spirit—as directed towards the same persons, and as securing their salvation infallibly. The other view [Arminianism] gives each act a different reference (the objects of redemption being all mankind, of calling, those who hear the gospel, and of election, those hearers who respond), and denies that any man’s salvation is secured by any of them. The two theologies thus conceive the plan of salvation in quite different terms. One makes salvation depend on the work of God, the other on the work of man; one regards faith as part of God’s gift of salvation; the other as man’s own contribution to salvation; one gives all the glory of saving believers to God, the other divides the praise between God, Who, so to speak, built the machinery of salvation, and man, who by believing operated it. Plainly, these differences are important, and the permanent value of the “five points,” as a summary of Calvinism, is that they make clear the points at which, and the extent to which, these two conceptions are at variance. —The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004), 13–14.

The One Point of Calvinism

Although the five points are useful as a systematic expression of biblical soteriology, and were necessary as a refutation of the five Arminian articles, we ought to be careful not to separate them as though each stands alone. In fact, they are inseparable. As J. I. Packer writes, You cannot reject one without rejecting them all, at least in the sense in which the Synod meant them. For to Calvinism there is really only one point to be made in the field of soteriology: the point that God saves sinners. God—the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father's will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing. Saves—does everything, first to last, that is involved from bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners—men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God's will or better their spiritual lot. God saves sinners—and the force of this confession may not be weakened by disrupting the unity of the work of the Trinity, or by dividing the achievement of salvation between God and man and making the decisive part man's own, or by soft-pedaling the sinner's inability so as to allow him to share the praise of his salvation with his Saviour. This is the one point of Calvinistic soteriology which the “five points” are concerned to establish and Arminianism in all its forms to deny: namely, that sinners do not save themselves in any sense at all, but that salvation, first and last, whole and entire, past, present and future, is of the Lord, to whom be glory forever; amen. —The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004), 14–15.

Limited Atonement in Scripture

In the Arminian/Calvinist debate, Limited Atonement, the “L” in the TULIP, is almost certainly the most common point of contention. Many Arminians have embraced the other four points while still rejecting this one. These often call themselves “four point Calvinists.” It is not too difficult to understand why many, even having accepted the other four points, have trouble with this one. Who wants to believe in a “limited” atonement? Doesn't that belittle the work of Christ, implying it wasn't quite enough in some way? Good question, I say, and that is the reason many theologians prefer alternate, less confusing terms such as “definite atonement” or “particular redemption.” I agree with them, though I'm sticking with the L for the sake of the TULIP. Although I understand the objections, I never—once I understood the bigger picture—had any trouble believing this, that is, that Christ died specifically for the elect. After all, it's simple math, isn't it? If the Father chose particular people to save, and gave them to the Son, who promised to redeem them, keep them, and see them safely into heaven (John 6:37–40), it stands to reason that those are the people for whom he died. Furthermore, how could I believe that hell is populated by souls for whom Christ died? The only way that could make any sense is if I believed, as Arminians do, that Christ did not actually save any, but only made salvation possible for those who will make the right decision. It is evident that everyone (who is not a universalist) believes in a limited atonement. One party (Arminian) limits its effect; the other (Calvinist) limits its intent. The former says God tried; the latter says he succeeded. Since not all men will be saved as a result of Christ's redeeming work, a limitation must be admitted. Either the atonement was limited in that it was designed to secure salvation for certain sinners, but not for others, or it was limited in that it was not intended to secure salvation for any, but was designed only to make it possible for God to pardon sinners on the condition that they believe. In other words, one mist limit the design either in extent (it was not intended for all) or in effectiveness (it did not secure salvation for any). As Boettner so aptly observes, for the Calvinist, the atonement “is like a narrow bridge which goes all the way across the stream; for the Arminian, it is like a great wide bridge that goes only half-way across.” —The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004), 40–41. The crux of the matter, for the Calvinist, is that Jesus saves—actually, not merely potentially. This is always the language of Scripture. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. —Matthew 1:21 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us . . . —Galatians 3:13 who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. —Titus 2:14 (A point not made in this book, but that is very important, is that the epistles were written to believers. Therefore, when Paul writes “to us” and “for us,” he is not addressing all humanity, but the elect only.) Repentance and faith, indispensible to salvation, which Arminians believe we must bring to the table, are gifts we receive through Christ. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. —Acts 5:31 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake —Philippians 1:29 Jesus himself specified a particular people for whom he would die. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father. —John 10:11, 14–18 Jesus, in his “high priestly prayer,” prayed specifically for the elect, to the expressed exclusion of all others. I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. —John 17:6–10 Now, the question that must be answered is, what of those passages that speak of Jesus being the savior of the world (John 1:29; 3:17; 4:42; 2 Corinthians 5:19; 1 John 2:2; 4:14) or of all men (Romans 5:18; 2 Corinthians 5:14–15; 1 Timothy 2:4–6; Hebrews 2:9; 2 Peter 3:9)? One reason for the use of these expressions was to correct the false notion that salvation was for the Jews alone. . . . these expressions are intended to show that Christ died for all men without distinction (i.e., He died for Jews and Gentiles alike), but they are not intended to indicate that Christ died for all men without exception (i.e., He did not die for the purpose of saving each and every lost sinner). —The Five Points of Calvinism, 50. As we have seen, the preponderance of scriptural evidence plainly indicates a particular redemption. Christ died for “his people,” “the sheep,” “those whom you have given me.” The passages listed above must be understood in that context, or we must embrace a universal atonement that saves everyone. Both Scripture and experience render that conclusion indefensible. Jesus died for one purpose: to save his people from their sin. The bulk of this post is drawn from The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004), 39–52.

Foreknew (Romans 8:29)

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. —Romans 8:29–30 Whether you will be an Arminian or a Calvinist (and you will be one or the other*) will depend partly on your understanding of the word “forknew” as it is used in this passage, for herein we meet predestination, sanctification, adoption, calling, justification, and glorification, all tied together. Who will be the recipients of these blessings? “Those whom [God] foreknew.” Arminians and Calvinists have very different views of who that describes. Arminians believe that God, knowing the future, foreknew (knew in advance) who would respond in repentance and faith to the gospel, and predestined them to salvation. In other words, he saw who would respond in repentance and faith to the gospel, and predestined them to respond in repentance and faith to the gospel. (If that seems redundant and nonsensical to you, it’s only because it is.) Calvinists believe that knew has a much more personal, intimate meaning. God did not merely know about certain people and what they would do—certainly, he knows about everyone and everything they will do—he knew them in a personal, intimate way. In order to draw the Arminian conclusion, an idea must be added to the text, that is, “whom he foreknew [would believe], he also predestined.” Not only is that idea not found in this particular text, it collides rather violently with the rest of Scripture, perhaps most obviously, Romans 9:11–13: for though the twins were not yet born and had not done anything good or bad, so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” Therefore, foreknew cannot mean that God predestined individuals based on conditions they would meet, and it cannot mean that God knew them in advance, since he knows everyone in advance, and not all are saved. It has to mean more than that. See again the passage above: “Jacob I loved.” This is how orthodox theologians have always understood the foreknowledge of Romans 8:29. To be known, in this sense of the word, by God is to be loved by him. When the Bible speaks of God knowing particular individuals, it often means that He has special regard for them, that they are the objects of His affection and concern. For example, in Amos 3:2 God, speaking to Israel, says, “You only have I known of the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” The Lord knew about all the families of the earth, but He knew Israel in a special way. They were his chosen people, upon whom He had set his heart. See Deuteronomy 7:7–8; 10:15. Because Israel was His in a special sense, He chastised them (cf. Heb. 15:5–6). God, speaking to Jeremiah, said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”(Jer. 1:5). The meaning here is not that God knew about Jeremiah, but that He had special regard for the prophet before He formed him in his mother’s womb. Jesus also used the word “knew” in the sense of personal, intimate awareness. “On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:22–23). Our Lord cannot be understood as saying, “I knew nothing about you,” for it is quite evident that He knew all too much about them—their evil character and evil works; hence, His meaning must be, “I never knew you intimately or personally, I never regarded you as objects of my favor or love.” Paul uses the word in the same way in 1 Corinthians 8:3, “But if anyone loves God, he is knownby God,” and also 2 Timothy 2:19, “the Lord knows those who are his.” The Lord knows about all men, but He only knows those “who love God . . . who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28)—those who are His! —The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, 2nd ed. (P&R, 2004), 159–160. * Those who disdain such labels are free to use synergist or monergist, respectively. I actually prefer these, but really, you say tomayto, I say tomahto . . .

The Nature and Extent of the Atonement (5)

To those who allege, in the spirit of the Arminian school, that the love of Jesus consists only in applying the redemption, but not in procuring it, it is enough to say, that love, in the proper meaning of the term, is anterior to both. It would not be love if it were dissociated from the purpose and design of conferring on its objects every conceivable good which can either be procured or applied. And whenever Scripture speaks of the divine love, either in connection with the Father or with the Son, this is the import of the term. This fact, that love is only love to persons, and that the divine love finds out its objects over all impediments, enables us to obviate the two-fold love, which the Arminian writers suppose, and for which they argue in the interest of their views,—one preceding faith, and another following it. The former, they allege, is to all alike, and therefore cannot be regarded as in itself efficacious to any; the latter they describe as an increasing quantity, and as a sort of complacential approbation of a state of mind or mental act which is acceptable to God. But the redeeming love of Christ, as the source of all saving benefits, does not, properly speaking, receive additions or increase, though there may be, and doubtless are, ampler manifestations of it, as well as a keener sense of it on the mind. This is emphatically brought out by Paul, when he sets forth the immutable constancy and omnipotent efficacy of the divine love in a remarkable argument à fortiori (Rom. v. 5–11). He argues, that if God could set His love on the saints when we were yet sinners and enemies, without strength and ungodly, much more shall that love be continued to them when they are justified. The argument is, that if God’s love found an outlet to us when we were aliens and enemies, much more will it be continued now that we are friends. But the foundation of the whole argument is, that His love is special and redeeming love, and directed to individuals, whom God will never abandon or let go. The text on which we already commented demonstrates the special love of Christ (John xv. 13). They for whom He died were the objects of supreme and special love, which of necessity secured their ultimate salvation. For them He must be considered as acting at every step; their names being on His heart in the same way as the names of the tribes of Israel were on the high priest’s breastplate. And the same special reference confronts us in every form. Thus He is described as loving His own that were in the world (John xiii. 1), which cannot be affirmed of all and every man, without distinction, and in precisely the same form. We have only to recall such phrases as co-suffering (1 Pet. iv. 1), cocrucifixion (Gal. ii. 20), co-dying (Rom. vi. 8), co-burying with Christ (Rom. vi. 4), to perceive that He bore the person of a chosen company, who are spoken of as doing what He did at every important turn of His history. It was for His own that He was incarnate (Heb. ii. 14); and He must be regarded, all through His history, as uniting Himself to His own, or as loving His own that were in the world, and loving them to the end (John xiii. 1). This special love, according to which He acted in the name of a chosen company, and laid down His life for them, is a love that finds them out over every impediment or hindrance. And it were to think unworthily of Christ, to suppose such a conjunction established between Him and the objects of redemption, as is presupposed in the very nature of this transaction, without the certain effect that salvation is secured to many by His death. It were as absurd as to suppose a king without subjects, a bridegroom, without a bride, a vine without branches, a head without the members. —George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 377–379.


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