Tuesday, February 01, 2005

When Does Our Union With Christ’s Death Occur? The Ongoing Dialogue on Limited Atonement (Part 3)

Here is part 3 of my response to Dr. White on the issue of limited atonement:

Dr. White continues:

Once again, the eternal reality determines the events in time, and in God's sovereign decree He chooses to bring us out of darkness into His marvelous light at a particular point in time. Until that time, we are slaves so sin and walk just as Paul describes.
Nothing I can see in the New Testament prevents us from viewing our union with Christ in this same way—that is, as one of those “in time” events that are predestined in eternity past, but are not brought about until the point of belief. Indeed, I think the New Testament expressly affirms it.

Dr. White writes:

However, is there any chance at all that the wrath of God itself could fall upon such a person? Not if they were given to the Son in eternity past (John 6:39), for that would involve His losing one of those thusly given. So, recognizing that regeneration, faith, repentance, and justification are all things experience by the elect in time itself is not the same as saying that these things are doubtful or uncertain from the divine perspective, nor that the ground upon which the Spirit acts in regenerating us and giving us the gifts of faith and repentance and hence bringing about our justification is not specifically oriented toward the elect alone, for in all of this, it is the love of God that directs and completes the work of salvation.
As a staunch affirmer of the sovereignty of God, you’ll get no other response from me on this point except for a hearty “amen!” All I’m asking Dr. White to do is to take everything he’s just said in regard to “justification” and apply it to “union with Christ.” I genuinely do not understand why there should be such a problem with doing that.

Dr. White writes:

And Dr. Svendsen and I agree, that kind of redeeming love is not expressed for the non-elect.
Again, Amen!

So, when we speak of the unregenerate elect one as a "child of wrath," we are speaking descriptively, and confessing that we lived and acted and thought like every other person who is likewise spiritually dead.
I think the phrase suggests a bit more than that. “Children of wrath even as the rest” describes our state as people “deserving wrath”; indeed, “destined for wrath” if we were to continue in that state.

Dr. White states:

We should not, however, extend that to mean that the elect were not already clearly differentiated in the love of God, which was set upon them before creation itself.
Agreed; we were differentiated in the love of God, and that was done in eternity past. But I think viewing the phrase “children of wrath” as a mere characterization of how we behaved before the point of belief, and without the attendant consequences associated with that condition, unnecessarily makes that condition anemic and the application of the atonement of Christ a mere formality. How else could we legitimately affirm to the elect that they are hell-bound sinners who are condemned by the law and who are in need of repentance lest they perish according to passages like Matt 5:30? (Unless of course this passage applies only to the non-elect; in which case that creates even more problems for the limited atonement view along the lines of 2 Pet 2 and Heb 6, 10; namely, that in passages like these the non-elect are actually commanded to obey the gospel). Why would the threat of hell sans repentance be issued to the elect unless that condition is a real one?

I wrote: “If the fact that the trespasses of the non-elect are still held against them constitutes ‘proof’ that Christ did not pay for their sins, then passages like Eph 2:3 would likewise ‘prove’ Christ didn't pay for the sins of the elect--for they are still ‘children of wrath’ even after Christ died.”

Dr White responded:
This is in reference to 2 Corinthians 5:19, which reads, "namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation." The key issue in the text, as I see it, is the fact I know of only one other passage wherein we see the non-imputation of sin, and that is on Romans 4:6-8.
I do not think the non-imputation of sin is to be equated with “reconciliation” in 2 Cor 5:19. Indeed, I do not think reconciliation is to be equated with justification, period. Reconciliation has to do with providing the basis upon which God can now justly forgive those who exercise faith in Jesus Christ. It is to those—and only to those—who exercise faith in Christ that it can be said God does “not count their trespasses against them.” Reconciliation does not mean God has forgiven; it means he stands ready to forgive, based on the atoning work of Christ. The non-imputation of sin is the application of that reconciliation to all those who receive the message and believe (see G.E. Ladd’s discussion of this in his New Testament Theology). Indeed, if we were to equate reconciliation with justification and “non-imputation of sin,” then just what is the “message of reconciliation” mentioned here? That the elect have already been forgiven based solely on Christ’s work on the cross even before they believe? I do not think Dr. White wants to conclude this.

Dr. White continues:
“Clearly, ‘world’ here cannot include those who will, in fact, have their sins held against them.
Actually, I believe that is exactly what is in mind. If we keep in mind that after we’re told “God was reconciling the world to himself” we are immediately entreated by Paul, “Be reconciled to God!”, then we see that the reconciliation God effected according to 5:19 must be personally applied by faith according to 5:20 before the non-imputation of sins is applied. Sin is still held against the man who refuses the “message of reconciliation.”

Dr. White continues:
The "world" here would have to be co-extensive with the blessed man of Romans 4:8, to whom righteousness is imputed apart from works, and we know who those folks are, I'm sure.
If the non-imputation of sin occurred on the cross, then we’re right back to the idea that justification must have taken place for all the elect no later than the point of the cross. Yet, we are specifically told that we must act on the “message of reconciliation” before full reconciliation can take place: “we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!”

In other words, “reconciliation” in 2 Corinthians 5 encompasses two parts: On the one hand, God “reconciled the world to himself” through the death of Christ, and as a result he stands ready to forgive (that is, he now has a just basis for forgiving). The image here is that whereas God's face was once turned away from mankind, it is now turned toward mankind.

On the other hand, we are entreated by Paul, “be reconciled to God!” But why? If God has already accomplished “full reconciliation” and “non-imputation of sin” on the cross, why the further obligation on our part to “be reconciled to God”? The answer is, we do not become fully reconciled to God except through faith in him. God stands ready to forgive, but that forgiveness is not actually applied to anyone until the point of belief. It is at that point that we experience the “non-imputation” of sin found in Rom 4: 6-8, not before.

I think this is also the idea behind Paul’s statement regarding the propitiation of Christ in Rom 3:25: “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (NASB; or, “though faith in his blood,” NIV). The propitiation—the full satisfaction of God’s justice—is applied to us only “through faith.” The propitiation of Rom 3:25 is the “reconciliation” of 2 Cor 5:19-21. But neither one is applied to anyone while in a state of unbelief, whether elect or non-elect. The elect and the non-elect are equally commanded to be reconciled to God. The elect will believe because they have been predestined to do so. The non-elect will just as certainly not believe, and as a result will be held accountable for rejecting that “message of reconciliation”—or, as Peter calls it, the “holy commandment delivered to them.” Once again, how can they be held accountable for rejecting something that was not legitimately offered to them in the first place? And if there is no obligation on the part of the non-elect to believe (since, per limited atonement, they are not included in the gospel call), then how can Jesus maintain in Matt 22:14 that “many are called but few are chosen”? The summary point of that parable, in context, is one that deals with redemption and retribution. In what sense are the many "called" but not "chosen"? Certainly not in the effectual sense. The “calling,” in context, is a general invitation to which some give heed (v. 10) and which others reject (v. 5). I contend that this passage—and the myriads like it—makes no sense unless we view the gospel as a universal call; and that universal call must have a legitimate ground in a universal atonement.

There is a dual purpose to the death of Christ; and that is why the limited atonement camp cannot legitimately charge the 4.5 camp with viewing the universality of the atonement of Christ as an example of Christ failing to accomplish his mission. On the one hand, the death of Christ provides the necessary ground for God’s redemption and forgiveness of his elect. On the other hand, Christ’s death provides the necessary ground for God’s just condemnation of the rest of the world, who reject the command to believe the gospel and be saved.

Indeed, if we wanted to press it (we won’t), the opposite charge could be made against the limited atonement view; namely, that on that view, in his singular intention to save his elect, Christ failed to provide a sufficient basis for condemning the non-elect whom he specifically commands to believe. If the non-elect were not included in the scope of the atonement, then those who refuse to believe in Christ’s substitutionary atonement for their sins cannot legitimately be condemned for their refusal to believe in Christ’s substitutionary atonement for their sins! For in that case, they are merely acting on what is true of them! And yet, the New Testament makes it clear that “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son” (John 3:18). The reason the non-elect are condemned (at least according to John 3:18) is because they do not believe. But how can they be compelled to believe and be held accountable for refusing to believe if, as limited atonement suggests, the gospel is not extended to them in the first place? I think this is a decisive point against the limited atonement view.

In tomorrow’s blog, we will address the historical side of this debate.