Relevant Bible Teaching "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth."
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Is the Atonement Limited? If So, By What?
Reformed theologians emphasize that the atonement was limited. In other words, they say that Jesus only died for the elect and not for the sins of the whole world. Yet did Jesus die only for the elect? If He did, we are tempted to not have to share Christ with all men but to rather ask them to pray that God will give them a gift of faith. Some even go so far as to say that we cannot tell a person that Christ died for them because we don’t know if He did or not.

Is this a Biblical position? Let’s look at a few verses. John 12:32 says, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” The reformed theologian would say that only those drawn are the elect. Yet what is the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit but to resist the draw of God on the heart of man (Luke 12:10)? By implication, there must be a drawing of even those that reject the truth.  That is the only unforgiveable sin. Can we really argue that God’s nature is that which desires men to perish? That is plainly not taught in the Scriptures. 2 Peter 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” God’s heart and desire is that all men come to repentance.

So was the death of Christ on the cross sufficient to cover the sins of just believers or the sins of the entire world? 1 John 2:2 says, “And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” In other words, the sacrifice of Christ was sufficient to cover the sins of every man. God didn’t die for just those He knew would come to faith. He died for everyone, making it possible for the entire world to be saved. 1 Timothy 2:5-6 says, “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.” The ransom to pay for the penalty of sins was for everybody. There is no reason to limit the “all” that any of these passages refer to. God is good, wanting all to come to Him.

Yet many do not respond because of hardness of heart and because of the failure of Christians to live a godly testimony and to evangelize. We are partly to blame in the eternal destiny of men. The fact of the matter is that the actual and effectual atonement is indeed limited but not because of God and not in the way that Reformed theologians define “limited.” There is atonement available for all, if only they would receive it by faith.

God doesn’t send any one to hell because they are forced to go there. All make a choice to reject Him or to receive Him. As John 1:11-12 says, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” Clearly man either chooses to receive or reject Christ, and upon such is their eternal sentencing carried out.

What Reformed theologians will argue is that even the faith of man is a gift and work of God. Their position is that, since man is fallen through and through, there is nothing within him that is even capable of responding to God. They deny that salvation in any sense is a human work. What do the Scriptures say? John 6:29 says, “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” And John 1:13 says of those who have receive God, “Who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” In light of these Scriptures, we must grant that salvation is ultimately something that God is responsible for. Such is grace. If salvation was in any way dependent upon the effort of man apart from God that would give him reason to boast and thus contradict the Scriptures (Ephesians 2:8-9). We are born dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1). We are lost (Matthew 15:24) and captives of the devil (2 Timothy 2:26). As such, we do not seek God of our own initiative, for no one seeks God (Romans 3:11). We must be awakened by the Word of God and the work of God which then moves us to seek out the truth (Deuteronomy 4:29).  However, I don’t agree with the Reformed theologians that salvation is in no sense whatsoever a human work. I believe God works to move our wills and change our minds to respond to the gospel. But still there is human responsibility. We have to be careful to emphasize this, otherwise we may as well sit back and not evangelize at all, or at least change our message to not encourage all to receive Christ for maybe Christ hasn’t elected them. If there is no human responsibility, we need not reason with people, as Paul did in Acts 18:19. There is no point in using apologetics for the purpose of defending our faith, which we are told to do (1 Peter 3:15). Somehow we play a role in leading a person to Christ. Ultimately, it is Christ in us who works, and God is the author of faith. Yet we are His instruments, and as His instruments we can either be cooperative or uncooperative. The heart of man can be cooperative or uncooperative. The quality of the soil on which the seed falls is ultimately in God’s hands, as is its growth (1 Corinthians 3:6). Yet somebody must choose to sow a seed, others choose by faith to water, and somebody must choose to repent and be saved.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with a delicate balance that is a bit mysterious. We do not want to err on the side of overemphasizing man’s ability, for he is dependent upon the work of God. Yet we do not want to be so extreme as to say that man has no part in salvation, for he does. Salvation is a confession which involves the mind and mouth and will. It is also a belief which involves the heart (Romans 10:9-10). Thus, we must accept that it is God working in and through us to give us new life by enabling us to exercise our will, giving us faith to believe, and bringing light to our mind. Man is a participant in the act of salvation, though God is the author, the power, the energizer, and the enlightener.

There is a strange meshing that happens. Yet we are familiar with this mysterious combination. For Paul in Galatians 2:20 says that it is no longer he who lives but Christ who lives in him by faith. Yet Paul made decisions and thought for himself. Paul was not just a worker of the gospel but a slave of Christ. Yet he understood that all he did was because of and in and through Christ who worked so powerfully in him. It is ultimately God who does anything, but we too have a role.

So, Brent, come on, this sounds like theological doublespeak. Well, it kind of is, but it is not inconsistent or unbiblical doublespeak, unless we are willing to accuse Paul (and thus the Holy Spirit) of such doublespeak. In Philippians 2:12-13 we read, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” We do the working of obedience in our sanctification, yet ultimately it is God who is at work in us. This is consistent with Galatians 2:20, and it is in line with how I believe the salvation process works as well. We respond in faith because it is God at work in us giving us the faith to believe. It is confusing, but it is true. We must realize that we are dependent beings, in salvation and sanctification. Yet we are beings that have a responsibility and stewardship. Both truths coexist and interweave. Such is the nature of faith.

So I believe that the Reformed theologians who are hard core Calvinists need to back down if they want to stay in line with Scripture. There is a human role, though it is Christ at work in and through us. As such, we can evangelize all men by Christ’s power and strength, knowing that our work can make a difference by faith.

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