Reforming Calvinism, pt. 10.1: Limited Atonement (Critique)

In this tenth entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism (which will be split into two for the sake of length), I begin to tackle the third element of TULIP, the doctrine of ‘limited atonement’. As with the previous parts of this series, I would like to begin by examining and critiquing the doctrine traditionally conceived prior to proposing my own Evangelical Calvinist correction. As before, R.C. Sproul will provide us with a brief summary of the classical conception (the original article in its entirety can be accessed here):

I think that of all the five points of Calvinism, limited atonement is the most controversial, and the one that engenders perhaps the most confusion and consternation. This doctrine is chiefly concerned about the original purpose, plan, or design of God in sending Christ into the world to die on the cross. Was it the Father’s intent to send His Son to die on the cross to make salvation possible for everyone, but with the possibility that His death would be effective for no one? That is, did God simply Limited-Atonement-AVATARsend Christ to the cross to make salvation possible, or did God, from all eternity, have a plan of salvation by which, according to the riches of His grace and His eternal election, He designed the atonement to ensure the salvation of His people?…

I don’t think we want to believe in a God who sends Christ to die on the cross and then crosses His fingers, hoping that someone will take advantage of that atoning death. Our view of God is different. Our view is that the redemption of specific sinners was an eternal plan of God, and this plan and design was perfectly conceived and perfectly executed so that the will of God to save His people is accomplished by the atoning work of Christ.

As Sproul notes at the very beginning, ‘limited atonement’ is certainly the most controversial of the five points of Calvinism, largely due to the fact that it seems to run counter to the numerous biblical texts which appear, on the surface, to assert the universal extent of Christ’s atoning work: “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16). Sometimes the arguments between proponents of ‘limited’ versus ‘unlimited’ atonement simply stay on the surface level of the text, resulting in debates that tend to consist in a reciprocal volley of biblical quotations. Defenders of ‘limited atonement’ will cite passages referring to, for example, Christ laying down his life specifically for his sheep (John 10:11) or his bride the Church (Eph. 5:25), while defenders of ‘unlimited atonement’ point to the numerous passages that speak of Christ’s death for all (John 12:32; 2 Cor. 5:14). The problem, of course, is that this results in a fairly unproductive interaction, the outcome of which is that each side walks away merely exasperated with the other’s failure to accept what Scripture ‘clearly teaches’.

As I indicated in a previous post on the contemporary influence of Reformed scholasticism, it is often not the ‘clear teaching’ of Scripture that actually determines our interpretation but rather the underlying assumptions, of which we are perhaps not even aware, that condition our reading of Scripture and lead us to believe that our reading is clearly what Scripture teaches. Indicative of this is the fact that despite the seemingly irreconcilable differences between ‘limited’ and ‘unlimited’ atonement, these positions actually share quite a bit of common ground in terms of the ways in which they both use a logico-deductive approach to the issue of causality.

Notice, for example, how Sproul argues for his position by posing a question that dichotomizes the possible views: “did God simply send Christ to the cross to make salvation possible, or did God, from all eternity, have a plan of salvation by which, according to the riches of His grace and His eternal election, He designed the atonement to ensure the salvation of His people?” According to Sproul, there are essentially only two options. Either Christ died for all people in order to make it merely possible for them to be saved (roughly speaking the Arminian view), or he died for a predetermined few in order to guarantee that they will certainly be saved (the classic Calvinist view).

For all the differences between these two positions, it is important to note that they share at least one thing in common: neither one believes that Christ’s death was both universal in extent and fully efficacious in actually accomplishing salvation. In other words, both sides believe that it is necessary to ‘limit’ the atonement in some sense. In order to universalize its extent to all people, Arminians ‘limit’ the atonement’s efficacy by conceiving its intent and outcome merely in terms of the possibility that it creates that is actualized only on condition of faith (i.e. all will be saved if they believe). On the other hand, in order to absolutize the atonement’s efficacy in not merely making salvation possible but in actually guaranteeing its actualization, classic Calvinists ‘limit’ the atonement’s extent in order to maximize its effect and ensure not that a few will infallibly believe and be saved. In neither case, however (and this is the key point), is the atonement both universal in extent and fully efficacious in its intent and accomplishment.

The reason for this seems obvious. An atonement both universal in extent and fully efficacious would seem to inevitably lead to universal salvation. Proponents of both ‘limited’ and ‘unlimited’ atonement typically want to avoid universalism and thus, in their own unique ways, ‘limit’ the atonement. But the critical question to be posed to both sides is this: why would an atonement that is both universal in extent and fully efficacious inescapably lead to universalism? On the surface, this might seem like a ridiculous question the answer to which should be obvious. Is it not clear that if Christ died not only to make it possible that all could be saved but also to ensure that all will be saved, then the only logical outcome is universalism?

I would like to suggest, however, that the answer to this question may not be so obvious as it may first appear, especially given the fact that Scripture seems to affirm both: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died…All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:14, 18-19). Regardless of how we may judge his logic, Paul’s teaching seems to be clear: Christ died for all, and so all have died. This has happened for all, and thus it is universal in extent. But it has also actually happened, and thus it is fully efficacious in intention and power. Thus, we see in these verses that Paul appears to affirm both the universality of the atonement as well as its full efficacy.

I would suggest that our difficulty when encountering passages like this is that we interpret them within a logico-deductive schema that, in accordance with an Aristotelian view of causality, assumes that it is possible to understand something of the nature of causes in terms of the effects that they produce. In other words, we observe things that occur and then logically reason backward from those things as effects in order to deduce what we believe must be the cause or causes that are commensurate with those effects. As Thomas Aquinas stated, “any perfection which occurs in an effect must occur in its efficient cause” (Summa Theologica, Q.4, A.2).

If we presuppose such a logico-deductive schema, and if we believe that the ultimate outcome of the atonement will not be universal salvation, then it is clear that we have only one of two choices when encountering a text such as 2 Corinthians 5:18-19. Either we must say that God did not actually reconcile the world in Christ but only made such reconciliation possible (for we know that the whole world will not be ultimately reconciled and thus, reasoning backward, we must logically limit the atonement’s efficacy if we want to preserve its universality), or we must say that God did actually reconcile the world, but the ‘world’ in question is redefined in terms of a limited number that he predestined (for we know that the whole world will not be reconciled and thus, reasoning backward, we must logically limit the atonement’s extent if we want to preserve its efficacy).

My question, therefore, is this: what would happen if, instead of superimposing a foreign logico-deductive notion of causality onto Scripture, we sought to allow Scripture itself, specifically as it witnesses to God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus Christ, to reveal to us its own inner logic and rationality and thereby determine the ways in which we interpret texts such as 2 Corinthians 5? What if we assumed, taking passages like 2 Corinthians 5 at face value, that it would be possible to affirm both elements of Scripture’s witness to the atonement – its universal extent and full efficacy, without logically and deductively requiring a universal salvation? What if we allowed Scripture’s witness to Christ to reshape and transform our ideas of what is actually possible?

This is what I hope to do as I move forward in exploring an Evangelical Calvinist revision of ‘limited atonement’.

(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.)


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