A Need for a New Identity:
Conversionism, Transformed Theology, and a New Tulip
Part 3: An Argument for Limiting Atonement
This article is the third in a series that offer an alternative to the classical Reformed T.U.L.I.P. The entire series by Hadley is available at www.transformedtheology.com. The first two articles addressed “Total Lostness,” and “Unconditional Love.”
The foundational, bed rock tenet of Reformed Theology is contained in the third point of Calvinism, commonly referred to as Limited Atonement. Wayne Grudem defines limited atonement in the following way: “The Reformed view that Christ’s death actually paid for the sins of those whom He knew would ultimately be saved. Another term for this view is ‘particular redemption’ in that the power of the atonement is not limited, but rather it is fully effective for particular people.” In a sermon preached at the Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens in London on February 28, 1959, Charles H. Spurgeon made the following comment in a message dealing with Limited Atonement; he said, “The doctrine of Redemption is one of the most important doctrines of the system of faith. A mistake on this point will inevitably lead to a mistake through the entire system of our belief.” Whether one accepts his conclusions on this matter or not, Spurgeon statement was absolutely correct.
The issue of Limited Atonement offers a number of valid answers to the many questions dealing with Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Most of the problems that surface with respect to the doctrine of Limited Atonement do so when its proponents carry it to its extremes. Most, if not all, Southern Baptists agree with a concept of Limited Atonement. Anyone who is not a proponent of universalism must by default favor some concept of Limited Atonement. Because Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross paid the penalty for “the sin of the world” there are a couple of things that necessarily follow. First, the penalty for all sin, which is death, was paid when Christ died on the cross and second, God is “in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Cor. 5:19). One interpretation of this passage opens the door to Universalism. However, a closer look at the context from which this phrase is contained, reveals a much different picture. First of all Paul says, “17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17-18a). Obviously, Paul is clear in this discourse that those whom God has reconciled to Himself, are those who are “in Christ” and are a new creation in Christ Jesus. Paul goes on to say that God has given all who have been reconciled into Him a ministry of reconciliation; “that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19a). This is not a statement describing God’s character or purpose as much as it is a statement describing the ministry of reconciliation that every born again child of God shares a responsibility to be a part of. Not only is God not directly responsible for the choices men make in accepting the redemption made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross, those who have received this redemption are responsible for leading lost men to the cross where they too may find redemption for themselves.
Anyone who rejects the idea of Universalism by default accepts the concept of Limited Atonement. In its most basic application, limited atonement simply says Christ’s atoning sacrifice at Calvary is by necessity limited to a certain group of people. Reformed Theology proponents identify this “certain group of people” as the “elect.” Non-Calvinist will define this “certain group of people” as those individuals who by faith in Christ Jesus and His atoning work on the cross are convicted by the Holy Spirit of their lostness and in repentance turn from their own attempts at righteousness and turn to God for forgiveness and adoption into His forever family. This “certain group of people” is referred to in the New Testament as believers, those who have been born again, children of God, the church, as well as “the elect.” Here the term “the elect” is synonymous with the believer or that Christian who is in Christ, who is a new creation for whom “old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17b).
Since Reformed Theology proponents have defined limited atonement as it relates exclusively to the elect, the third point of Conversionism will be labeled Limiting Atonement. This modified point will highlight the limitless ability of Christ’s work of atonement as God seeks to reconcile a lost and dying world unto Himself and the limiting aspects of that atonement. This Limiting Atonement is available to anyone who by faith in the Lord Jesus repents of their sin and turns to God for forgiveness initiating the new birth or conversion, whereby the Holy Spirit begins the transforming process of giving this new creation the mind of Christ. This is the process that Paul speaks of in Colossians 3 where he says, “1 If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. 3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3). This process begins somewhere and that somewhere is conversion or regeneration.
4 When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.
5 Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, 7 in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them.
8 But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, 10 and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, 11 where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all (Col. 3:4-11).
Listen to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 as he speaks about this ministry of reconciliation that God has given not only to him but to all who are in Christ Jesus. The critical issue raised in verse 20 speaks to the extent of the issue of limited atonement. Paul clearly says that he sees himself as “an ambassador for Christ” and it was “as though God were pleading through us,” through his preaching and teaching with a lost and dying world to come to Christ. For this reason Paul says, “we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). Paul no doubt believed in his preaching of this glorious gospel message that God loved everyone so much that He sent Jesus to be born of a virgin and live a perfect life so that He could offer Himself as a sinless sacrifice and pay the penalty for sin for any person who was willing to call upon the name of the Lord, and believing in the saving, transforming power of Christ that individual might turn to God in repentance and find forgiveness as he or she responds to this reconciling work of God.
This is exactly what Paul said in 1 Corinthians where he said, “it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21a). The scope of the cross is indeed limitless to save to the uttermost all that come to Christ. This is the defining qualifier of those for whom the atonement is applied. While Christ died to pay the penalty for sin for mankind, the benefits of the atonement are made effective by the individual’s faith in Christ. Man’s response to God’s provisions is what brings the benefits of the provision. The fact that the benefits go untapped in no way takes away from neither the purpose of the benefits nor the effectiveness of the benefits. The atonement was completed at Calvary. Jesus paid the penalty for sin with His own death. Now, the benefits of the atonement are not automatically applied to all men. They are available to those who come to Christ in repentance and faith. Consider the examples of men’s responses to God’s work in their hearts as seen in Scripture.
Jesus spoke to the issue of man’s response to preaching as he said of the people of Nineveh, “for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:32b). The Ninevites were terribly wicked people. Their communities were not just dangerous places to wander into; the Ninevites went outside their borders and brought danger and destruction to neighboring areas, including Israel. There’s no evidence or mention of any process of regeneration nor any particular selection on God’s part where the Ninevites were concerned as Jonah began to preach a message of destruction if the people did not immediately repent. This biblical account plainly says the people heard Jonah’s message and they repented and God spared their city. These people did not repent because they were among God’s elect. They heard the warning proclaimed by this Israelite who took his life in his own hands by even coming to Nineveh to preach in the first place. No doubt the spirit of God convicted them of their sin and convinced them of the benefits of repenting and that is exactly what they did (Jon. 3:1-4:11). God’s desire and opportunity to forgive is second only to His desire to love. This whole notion that man is dead in his sin and incapable of even acknowledging his sin does not really make rational sense. The people of Nineveh knew that they were mean and wicked. Perhaps like Saul on the road to Damascus, they knew that God could kill them as easily as He could speak to them. The fact that He offered them an opportunity to repent was reason enough for them to do so.
The Bible says that “Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people” (Matt. 4:23; see also Matt. 9:35, 12:41; Mark 1:14, 35, 39; Luke 8:1, 9:6, 11:32). Jesus’ ministry focuses on His teaching and preaching. Jesus spoke to the masses that came to hear Him. As Jesus would speak to various groups the Bible says many believed (John 8:30, 31; 10:42). Jesus spoke on a number of occasions in the synagogues and the Apostle John tells us that many of the religious leaders believed on the Lord as well. It is clear in a number of passages that Jesus expected the Jews not only to understand the word of God presented in the Old Testament, but He also expected them to believe His words as well (John 5:38, 47; 8:45; 10:25, 37, 38).
Listen to a discourse that took place between Jesus and Philip:
8 Philip said to Him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficient for us.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. 11 Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves (John 14:8-11).
In verse 11 Jesus admonishes Philip to believe Him as He identifies Himself with the Father. Jesus tells Philip to believe what He has said or He tells Philip to believe in the works that he has seen Jesus perform. There is no picture of limited atonement in Jesus’ preaching. He expects people to hear Him and then believe what He says. Jesus’ invitation is simple, “28 Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30).
In John Chapter 7 Jesus makes the following statement,
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. 38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” 39 But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified (John 7:37b-39).
It is clear that Jesus’ invitation to come to Him and drink was to anyone who thirsts. There is no ambiguity in this invitation; there’s no question about who Jesus is speaking to. His invitation is simple; “if anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.” Jesus’ ability to make atonement for man’s sin is indeed limitless and is available to anyone who thirsts. There is no qualification dealing with the elect in Jesus statement. The same invitation is found in Rev. 22:17: “And the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.” Jesus’ atonement is limitless in that it has the ability to save to the uttermost those who come to Him in repentance and faith.
In 1 Tim. 2, Paul wrote,
1 Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, 2 for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. 3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, 7 for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle—I am speaking the truth in Christ and not lying—a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth (1 Tim. 2:1-7).
Nowhere in this passage of scripture is there any hint of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross limited. It is absolutely clear that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9b). Finally, 1 John 2 says,
1 My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. 2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (1 John 2:1-2).
How do these passages and the interaction relate to Limiting Atonement? They relate to the scope of the atonement or the application of the benefits of the atonement. The problem with the atonement as seen in the majority of theological debate has to do with the substitutionary aspect of the atonement. The question asked is, “Who did Jesus die for?” The general thought process simply stated is: If Jesus died for all men, then all men must be saved because the penalty for their sin has already been paid; but if all men are not saved, then that means Jesus cold not have died for all men. Therefore His atonement is limited. Thus Calvinism offers the suggestion that Jesus died on the cross for the elect and not those who die without Christ and are damned to an eternity in hell. This is why we have the Reformed view “that Christ’s death actually paid for the sins of those whom He knew would ultimately be saved. Another term for this view is ‘particular redemption’ in that the power of the atonement is not limited, but rather it is fully effective for particular people.”
Limiting Atonement sees the atonement as complete and fully sufficient to save all men, but the benefits of the atonement are available to those that place their faith in the promises and provisions of God who made the atonement possible in the first place. Instead of seeing the atonement as being made for “a particular people,” the benefits of the atonement, which are limitless to save, are seen as being limited to those who believe.