Wednesday, February 23, 2005

He Starts Out Well . . .

I'm referring to Doug Wilson's comments on Limited Atonement:
We must begin by rejecting a term that is commonly applied to this doctrine. The rejected term is that of limited atonement. It should be rejected for two reasons. One is that it is misleading with regard to the teaching of the Bible, and the other is that it misrepresents the debate. One of the most obvious features of the atonement in Scripture is its universality. Consequently, a phrase which appears to deny that universality on the surface is not useful.
Of course, I agree with this. But then he ends it this way:

Christ Died For . . .

These are our basic options. Christ died for:

1. All sins of all men

2. All sins of some men

3. Some sins of all men

4. Some sins of some men

If we opt for #3 or #4, then we have to say that no one is saved, because all have some sins to account for. If we say that #1 is the case, then the question is why some men are lost. Because they do not believe. Is this unbelief a sin, or not? If not, why are they condemned for it? If so, then did Jesus die for it? If so, then why are they not saved? If not, then Jesus did not die for all sins -- leaving us with #2.

I'm notorious these days for introducing the .5 position; and so, in that vein, I have to point out that Wilson's list has simply not exhausted the options. He concludes on the basis that Christ's death was vicarious that all those for whom he died must be saved, but neglects to address the issue of just when and how that atonement is applied. If it is applied at the point at which the penalty was paid on the cross, ipso facto, then why is the one whose sin has already been forgiven still referred to as a child of wrath (Eph 2:1)? And how can he remain in an unregenerate, unjustified state? Why must he "believe and be saved" if he has already been saved? Hence, Wilson's extended syllogism is faulty:
[1] If we say that [Christ died for all sins of all men], then the question is why some men are lost. Because they do not believe. [2] Is this unbelief a sin, or not? If not, why are they condemned for it? If so, then did Jesus die for it? If so, then why are they not saved?
The initial question may be answered by posing that same question of the elect; namely, Why are the elect still lost (still "children of wrath," still held culpable, and still told to repent to avoid the wrath of God) after the death of Christ and until they exercise faith in Christ? The whole point of "belief unto justification" is that we are removed from the state of wrath and placed in right standing befofe God, fully reconciled to Him--we have passed from death to life. But to be removed from a state of wrath implies we were previously in a state of wrath and in danger of being consumed by it.

Wilson answers his own question rightly. Why are some men lost? "Because they do not believe." That is correct, but that also and equally applies to the elect until they believe. And that is exactly how the sins of anyone--non-elect or elect, it doesn't matter--can be atoned for and yet the person can still be in a "lost" state; because the atonement is not applied until the point of belief. The elect will unfailingly reach that point, and the non-elect will just as certainly not reach that point. Hence, the benefits of the atonement will certainly be applied to the elect because they will certainly reach the point of belief, and the benefits of the atonement will never be applied to the non-elect because they will never reach the point of belief.

Wilson asks the further series of questions:
"Is this unbelief a sin, or not? If not, why are they condemned for it? If so, then did Jesus die for it? If so, then why are they not saved?"
But if belief is the point at which the atonement is applied to everyone without exception--and that no one in a state of unbelief can say his sins are yet forgiven (and everyone agrees with this except eternal regenerationists)--then all of us implicitly make a distinction between the sin of unbelief and all other sins. Like it or not, the prior "condition" (if you will) of the application of the atonement is belief (and nothing else), and the failure to meet that condition is the basis upon which the benefits of the atonement are withheld--from anyone, elect or non-elect. So, the reason the non-elect are condemned for their continued unbelief is the same reason that the elect are condemned prior to their coming to belief. Hence, Wilson's question, "[If Jesus died for the sin of unbelief] then why are [the non-elect] not saved?," is answered by asking that same question about the elect before they are justified by faith.

Wilson's further question, "Why did Jesus die for the sins of the non-elect?," is also one that can be asked in the converse (more on that in a moment). One reason the non-elect are included in the atonement is that Christ's death cannot help but atone for the sins of all mankind. He died for all those whose nature he shared. He did not take the form of the elect in the Incarnation; he became "flesh." He died for the category of those "in Adam" to make some in that category "sons," and those "in Adam" happen to include all men. Another reason (as I pointed out in my series on Limited Atonement) is that the atonement provides a basis for condemnation of the non-elect in their failure to believe. How can someone be condemned for failing to accept what was never applied to them in any case? Indeed, the converse question to Wilson's is better asked, How can the gospel be offered to those for whom Christ did not die? Wilson believes the offer of the atonement is universal. But what is the basis for that offer if not the atonement itself? And why are the non-elect held culpable for rejecting something which never applied to them in the first place? These are the considerations on this issue I don't think Wilson has well taken into account.