Thursday, December 16, 2004

We Interrupt This Broadcast

I was on a roll to get out my long-overdue responses to the critiques of my works from (primarily) the Reformed Catholic crowd, when someone on the NTRMin Forum asked a question about one of yesterday’s blog entries; namely, what is a 4.5 Calvinist? Actually, I had thought as I was writing it that that point may need to be clarified, but I hesitated because (as you probably already know by reading TGE’s articles on the Reformed Catholicism website) it is common knowledge how anxious those gnostic sectarian “babtists” are to exclude everyone they can from the covenant, and I am taking a great risk in exposing any of my beliefs that may be considered a departure from the “pure” Calvinist doctrine. : )

So here goes nothing . . .

In the Calvinistic acronym T.U.L.I.P. (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints), I fully affirm T.U.I.P., reject the L., and replace it with . . . well, to be honest, I haven’t yet found a good letter that would tie the acronym together. But the long and short of it is, I believe Limited atonement is widely held by Calvinists because it is perceived to be the natural theological outworking of the other four points, not because there is some explicit teaching about it in Scripture. In other words, unlike all the other points of Calvinism, I don’t think Limited atonement can be supported exegetically. In fact, I think it contradicts the exegesis of those texts that actually do speak to the matter of the extent of the atonement.

So how do I arrive at 4.5 Calvinism?

The five-point Calvinist makes a good point regarding those texts that specify the people of God as the benefactors of the death of Christ:

**“and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

**“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

**“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)

I fully agree with five-point Calvinists that Christ’s intent in dying was to save the elect. But I think they later make an exegetical leap that is completely unsupported by the point itself, not to mention the text. The argument goes like this:

1. Christ’s death is effectual, and it fully accomplished its intended goal.

2. The intended goal of Christ’s death was to make a substitutionary atonement for sins.

I am in agreement with these two points. I believe Christ came to redeem his elect. I truly do not believe his intent for coming into the world and dying on the cross included the non-elect. In other words, He had only the elect in mind when he died for sins. But the five-point Calvinist draws the following points and conclusions from this that I believe cannot be substantiated:

3. Since Christ’s death is effectual (it accomplished the goal it set out to accomplish), then everyone for whom he died is saved (i.e., their sins have been “taken away”).

4. Therefore, if Christ died for the entire world, then the entire world is saved.

5. Since we know the entire world is not saved (nor shall be), then Christ must have died only for those who will actually be saved; namely, the elect—else, Christ’s death is both ineffective and insufficient for salvation.

Let me address all these points first in a general way. It seems to me that the underlying unsubstantiated assumption for points # 3-5 is that Christ’s death fully accomplished redemption in those for whom he died. Not only do I find no evidence for this in the New Testament, but there are passages that openly contradict it and for which I have seen no satisfying treatment from the limited atonement side. I’ll get to those momentarily.

Further, the passages (above) that seem clearly to assert “Christ died for the elect” are mistakenly taken to mean “Christ died only for the elect.” The latter does not follow from the former. As an illustration, Paul states in Gal 2:20: “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Here Paul tells us that Christ died for him (Paul). Yet no one would jump from that statement to the notion that Christ died only for Paul. Similarly, we cannot derive limited atonement from the passages that state Christ died for the elect.

Having prefaced my specific comments with those caveats, it is now easier to understand why I might disagree with point # 3 above. While I certainly believe Christ’s death was effectual (it fully accomplished its intent), I do not thereby believe that everyone whose sin was atoned for at the cross is automatically saved (more on this below).

Now to the passages that present various levels of difficulty for the proponent of limited atonement. The first one I would raise is 2 Pet 2:1:

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.”

Notice that “false teachers” who will be “destroyed” are said to have been “bought” by the Master. In other words, there is no question that what is referred to here is the non-elect (they will be destroyed); and there is no question that redemptive language is being employed (they had been “bought/redeemed” by the Master). The word “bought” (agorazo) is the technical word for “redeem”; it means “to buy, purchase, ransom, or redeem.” It is the very same word used in 1 Cor 6:20, “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body,” and 1 Cor 7:23, “ You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men,” and in Rev 5:9, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

I have read all the attempts to explain this passage from the limited atonement camp and none of them is satisfying because all of the explanations simply assume that redemption in toto is something that was fully accomplished at the cross. If one does not start with that premise, then one can easily explain how someone can be “bought” (redeemed”) at the stage of the cross (Christ bore his sin), without making the exegetical leap of asserting that this is someone who had been (or will ever be) justified. “Redemption” (like the word “salvation” and "sanctification") encompasses several stages, only one of which is Christ’s death on the cross. The one who is redeemed must also believe and be justified, and then be glorified before full redemption has occurred. The glorification of our bodies—the point at which Christ “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body”—is called the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). In other words, part of me has not yet been redeemed. Yet no one would contend that we who are justified have not in some sense been redeemed already, recognizing in this case at least two stages of redemption. In fact, Paul goes on to assert:

"For in this hope [the redemption of our bodies] we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom 8:24-25).

We don’t yet “have” final redemption, even though we already have at least one stage of it. And so, we can recognize a prior “stage” of redemption that took place at the cross without positing that that stage of redemption was “full” redemption that has already “saved” everyone for whom it was made. Hence, one can be “redeemed” in the sense that he was “bought” by Christ’s death without being justified and without partaking of the final redemption.

Another passage that I believe constitutes an exegetical difficulty for proponents of limited atonement is 1 John 2:2: “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” Having written a commentary on the letters of John (see the NTRMin Store), I have grappled with this text extensively and cannot justify the common explanation from the advocates of limited atonement that the contrast between “us” and “the world” here is the contrast between the Jews and the Gentiles. Normally, I would agree with the “Jew/Gentile” explanation of the predestination texts; but I cannot in this case. Here are the comments straight from my commentary:

This propitiation is not for our sins only, but also for the sins of “the whole world.” In context “our sins” must refer to the sins of believers (i.e., the elect of God), and cannot refer to some distinction between various “kinds” of peoples (e.g., “our” = Jews, while the “world” = Gentiles). There is some evidence that the Gnostics taught their own version of “limited atonement,” according to which their “gospel” should be delivered only to the illuminated ones. Paul hints at this when countering the Gnostics in Colosse by insisting that the true gospel has gone out into “all the world” (Col 1:6), and has been proclaimed “in all creation under heaven” (1:23), and that, by this gospel, we must admonish and teach “every man” (1:28). There is therefore no basis for viewing the word “world” in 1 John 2:2 in the sense demanded by those who hold to limited (or particular) atonement, according to which Jesus’ death atoned only for the sins of the elect. John denies that view when he insists that Jesus’ death atoned not only for our sins, but also the sins of the whole world. The "world," in John’s view, consists of those who have not overcome antichrist’s philosophies, such as covetousness, materialism, pride and false religious teachings (2:15-17; 5:4-5); of those who misunderstand and even hate true Christians (3:1,13); of those who have embraced false prophets (4:1,3); of those who are controlled by the evil one (4:4; 5:19) and have embraced the spirit of error (4:5-6). The comparison, therefore, is between believers and the rest of unbelieving mankind. John’s point is that Jesus’ death is of such infinitely great value that it is not merely sufficient to atone for, but in fact has atoned for the sins of the whole world. This does not imply that the whole world is thereby saved. The final basis upon which someone receives eternal life is not whether his sin has been atoned for (although that is certainly a necessary prerequisite for eternal life), but rather whether he believes in Jesus (5:11-13), and has thereby accepted (applied) His atonement by faith. True believers meet that requirement (though only because faith itself has been granted to them; Eph 2:8-9); the rest of the world does not.
But the real conundrum for the proponent of limited atonement, as I see it, is 1 Tim 4:10: “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” Even if we were to disregard 1 John 2:2 on the basis that the “world” in John’s mind is the world of Gentiles as opposed to Jews, that same reasoning could not be applied in this case. The contrast in this verse is not between Jew and Gentile, but between “all men” and “those who believe.” God, we are told, is the “savior” (the context is soteriological) of “all men.” Normally I would concede that “all” could mean all without distinction (“all kinds of men” not just Jews) rather than all without exception (all men categorically). But here Paul tells us that “all men” is the larger category from which “those who believe” are taken. God is in a lesser sense the savior of “all men”; and in a greater sense (“especially”) the savior of “those who believe.” Those who hold to limited atonement do not make a distinction between levels of redemption. Christ paid the full price of redemption on the cross once for all time, and fully redeemed all the elect at that point. But here we’re told there is a lesser redemption (“all men” in general) and a greater redemption (“especially those who believe”).

So where does the .5 of the 4.5 come in? I am in agreement with the proponents of limited atonement that Christ intended to save only the elect by means of his death. He had only the elect in his heart and mind when he gave his life. Hence, I believe there is intent—not extent—inherent in all those passages that speak of Christ laying down his life for his sheep. Christ intended to provide redemption for his people, and he fully accomplished that intent. But the eternal value and quality of that death was so far reaching that in the process his death could not but pay for the sins of all people. Hence, I believe that the intent of Christ’s death was for the elect, but the extent of his death incidentally paid for the sins of the entire world. That distinguishes me from the strict four-point Calvinist, who does not recognize Christ’s intent in the atonement. Nor do I believe Christ’s atonement is a mere potential for the non-elect. Christ in reality “takes away the sins of the world.” But it would also differentiate me from the five-point Calvinist, who does not recognize the universal extent of that atonement. That puts me somewhere in the middle of the two camps; hence, 4.5 Calvinism.

Now, all that naturally raises questions about how someone can be condemned if Christ has truly atoned for his sin. I answered this partially above when I distinguished between stages of redemption. More than the cross is required before full redemption occurs. One must believe and be justified, for instance. I do have that part worked out, though I won’t go into detail about it here. But even if I didn’t have it worked out, I am much happier living with the theological tension of how something is ultimately worked out after I am satisfied that true exegesis has taken place, than I am living with the exegetical tension of getting difficult passages to conform to an a priori belief for the sake of satisfying theological inquiries. As Dr. Murray Harris once told us in a class at Trinity, the difference between systematic theology and biblical exegesis is the difference between walking through a greenhouse where all the plants are neatly labeled and arranged nicely in rows; and walking through a forest where nothing is labeled and nothing is neatly arranged, but it is nevertheless the natural state of things. As a New Testament exegete, I prefer living in the forest.

I also want to make something else clear. I am not one of those who finds limited atonement repugnant. I have absolutely no moral objection to the doctrine, and would happily adopt it if I could justify it exegetically. I think that distinguishes me from most four-point Calvinists who reject it on the emotional grounds that, if true, “then we could never tell a sinner that Christ died for them!” So what? If the Scriptures affirm the doctrine then I’ll happily refrain from telling an unbeliever that Christ died for him. It makes no difference to me; I’m interested only in glorifying God in all that I teach and proclaim. Indeed, I am much more at home in my thought processes and proclamations with the five-point camp than with the four-point camp. My difficulty with limited atonement is purely on an exegetical level.