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Limited Atonement Is A Hindrance To Missions and Evangelism

A Selective Review and Critique of Whomever He Wills – Part 3F

Dr. Tom Ascol’s chapter “Calvinism Foundational For Evangelism and Missions” by David L. Allen

Carey’s work on the mission field would have been virtually impossible were it not for the indefatigable labors of the pastor/theologian Andrew Fuller. Ascol appeals to Fuller in an effort to discredit my claims in Whosoever that limited atonement is a hindrance to missions and evangelism. He quotes Fuller:

There is no contradiction between the peculiarity [sic] of design in the death of Christ, and a universal obligation on those who hear the gospel to believe in him, or a universal invitation being addressed to them. If God, through the death of his Son, have promised salvation to all who comply with the gospel; and if there be no natural impossibility as to a compliance, nor any obstruction but that which arises from aversion of heart; exhortations and invitations to believe and be saved are consistent; and our duty, as preachers of the Gospel, is to administer them, without any more regard to particular redemption than to election; both being secret things, which belong to the Lord our God, and which, however they be a rule to him, are none to us (284-85).

It is important to note at this juncture that this quotation is from the second edition (1801) of Fuller’s famous The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation (the first edition was published in 1785). It is also important to note Fuller’s use of the word “design,” and his mention of “no natural impossibilities.” These points will become important in a moment.

Ascol follows this quote with the statement, “The reason that some do judge particular redemption to be a hindrance to evangelism stems from an unbiblical understanding of what the message of evangelism actually entails. As noted above, David Allen is representative  of many who think that it is essential to say indiscriminately what no evangelist in the New Testament is ever recorded as having said to unbelievers, namely, that “Christ died for your sins’” (285). Ascol continues, “If the Bible required or even exemplified such evangelistic language then the charge that particular redemption undermines evangelism would have some merit. [See above on 1 Corinthians 15:3.] Again, Fuller acknowledges this point in exposing the error of those who make it” (Ibid.).

Ascol quotes Fuller again from Gospel Worthy:

If that which sinners are called upon to believe respected the particular design of Christ to save them, it would then be inconsistent; but they are neither exhorted nor invited to believe anything but what is revealed, and what will prove true, whether they believe it or not. He that believeth in Jesus Christ must believe in him as he is revealed in the gospel, and that is as the Savior of sinners. It is only as a sinner, exposed to the righteous displeasure of God, that he must approach him” (Ibid.).

Ascol concludes: “The call of the gospel is ‘believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved,’ not ‘believe that Jesus died for your sins in particular and you will be saved’” (Ibid.).

Dr. Ascol presumes he has sufficiently answered my point by his appeal to Fuller. He also presumes Fuller affirms limited atonement in the sense of a limited substitution of Christ only for the sins of the elect. Ironically, neither presumption is accurate. Let’s begin with the latter – the suggestion that Fuller held to limited atonement. At this point, space will only permit the briefest sketch of Fuller’s view on the extent of the atonement. For more information, including some of the primary and secondary sources verifying Fuller’s position, consult my “Preaching for a Great Commission Resurgence” in Great Commission Resurgence, eds. Chuck Lawless and Adam Greenway (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 291-96.

At the time of Fuller’s publication of the first edition of his Gospel Worthy (1785) he held to limited atonement. However, after his debates with the General Baptist Dan Taylor, Fuller was persuaded that limited atonement did not comport with Scripture. Taylor had argued the position that the only proper ground for universal invitations for sinners to believe the gospel was in a universal provision in Christ’s death. If limited atonement were true, there was no provision for the non-elect in the death of Christ. Fuller felt the brunt of this argument and could not answer it. He later confessed in 1803: “I tried to answer my opponent  . . . but I could not. I found not merely his reasonings, but the Scriptures themselves, standing in my way” (Fuller’s Works, 2:709-10). Fuller stated his new position clearly in Works, 2:488-89; 496; 550. As a Calvinist, Fuller’s concept of redemption was still “particular” in the sense that the particularity was located not in the extent of the atonement, but in the design and application of the atonement. This shift can also be observed in a careful comparison of the first and second editions of Gospel Worthy. The section on “particular redemption” in the first edition is almost completely rewritten in the second edition. (1st edition, 132-39; 2nd edition, Works, 2:373-75). Fuller said, “The only subject on which I ought to have been here interrogated is, ‘The persons for whom Christ was a substitute; whether the elect only, or mankind in general’” (Fuller’s Letter III, “On Substitution,” January 12, 1803). Notice the date of this letter: 1803. Fuller in the context answers the question that Christ was a substitute for mankind in general. Fuller believed that Christ died for the sins of all people.

Now read the Ascol quotes above in light of Fuller’s shift. Note Fuller’s use of the word “design” in the first sentence of Ascol’s first quotation of Fuller. As a Calvinist, Fuller did believe the “design” of the atonement was to bring about the salvation of the elect. But he also had come to believe that Jesus died for the sins of all people and this fact guaranteed the well-meant gospel offer to all (Fuller’s “universal obligation” and “universal invitation” language). Notice in Ascol’s second block quote of Fuller the word “design” appears again in the first sentence. Later in the quote he speaks of how people are called upon to believe in Jesus as He is revealed in the Scriptures, namely, the Savior of sinners.

Now we see that Ascol’s conclusion, “The call of the gospel is ‘believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved,’ not ‘believe that Jesus died for your sins in particular and you will be saved’” is also unfounded. 1 Corinthians 15:3 and Andrew Fuller become “exhibit A” for why it is biblically, theologically and practically important to believe in a universal atonement for the sake of missions and evangelism.



Some Calvinists are not evangelistic
just like some Traditionalists are not evangelistic.

A Selective Review and Critique of Whomever He Wills – Part 3E

Dr. Tom Ascol’s chapter “Calvinism Foundational For Evangelism and Missions” by David L. Allen

3. Testimony of History.

Dr. Ascol now turns his attention to address the testimony of history and argues that Calvinists were among the greatest missionaries and evangelists. This cannot be gainsaid.  One of the mistakes often made by non-Calvinists is to assume or state that Calvinists are not evangelistic.  This is an over-generalization and as such is simply not true. Some Calvinists are not evangelistic just like some Traditionalists are not evangelistic. But to generalize that Calvinists are not evangelistic is false.

Ascol contends in the remainder of his chapter, “Far from being a drag on missionary endeavors, Calvinism has actually been a catalyst for them” (280). To demonstrate his thesis, he briefly discusses the following: Calvin and the Puritans, George Whitefield, William Carey, Andrew Fuller, Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice.

Ascol asserts that Geneva under Calvin was a missionary and church planting center, with hundreds of missionaries being sent out across Europe and many French refugees being trained to return to their homeland to plant churches. It is one thing to send missionaries “across Europe,” but quite another to send them to foreign nations. The Magisterial Reformers’ record on the later, including Calvin, is weak at best. Grosart’s claim, which Ascol cites, that Richard Baxter was the most successful preacher and soul winner England ever had (281), coupled with Ascol’s claim that George Whitefield was the “greatest evangelist of the eighteenth century, both stand in need of a two-word qualification: John Wesley.

The last four names Dr. Ascol discusses are all famous Baptists known for their missionary spirit. I freely grant his point that all these men were Calvinists who exhibited missionary and evangelistic zeal. I do not grant his presupposition that all these men were Calvinists of Ascol’s stripe, i.e., five-point Calvinists.

William Carey’s story is legendary. Ascol mentions the Serampore Compact of 1805 which Carey and his fellow missionaries drew up as a summary of their guiding principles and its stress on God’s sovereignty in the missionary enterprise (283). But consider what this compact says in one place:

Fifthly. In preaching to the heathen, we must keep to the example of Paul, and make the greatest subject of our preaching, Christ Crucified. It would be very easy for a missionary to preach nothing but truths, and that for many years together, without any well-grounded hope of becoming useful to one soul. The doctrine of Christ’s expiatory death and all-sufficient merits has been, and must ever remain, the grand mean of conversion. This doctrine, and others immediately connected with it, have constantly nourished and sanctified the church. Oh, that these glorious truths may ever be the joy and strength of our own souls, and then they will not fail to become the matter of our conversation to others. It was the proclaiming of these doctrines that made the Reformation from Popery in the time of Luther spread with such rapidity. It was these truths that filled the sermons of the modern Apostles, Whitefield, Wesley, etc., when the light of the Gospel which had been held up with such glorious effects by the Puritans was almost extinguished in England. It is a well-known fact that the most successful missionaries in the world at the present day make the atonement of Christ their continued theme. We mean the Moravians. They attribute all their success to the preaching of the death of our Saviour. So far as our experience goes in this work, we must freely acknowledge, that every Hindoo among us who has been gained to Christ, has been won by the astonishing and all-constraining love exhibited in our Redeemer’s propitiatory death. O then may we resolve to know nothing among Hindoos and Mussulmans [Muslims] but Christ and Him crucified. (

Notice Carey’s reference to “Christ’s expiatory death and all-sufficient merits.” Notice Carey includes Wesley with Whitfield who preached “these doctrines.” Notice his reference to the Moravians as being “the most successful missionaries in the world at the present day” and keep in mind the fact that they were not Calvinistic and affirmed an unlimited atonement. Notice finally Carey’s reference to the “all-constraining love exhibited in our Redeemer’s propitiatory death.”

Consider also this quotation from Carey in a letter dated April 10, 1796:

I preach every day to the Natives, and twice on the Lord’s Day constantly, besides other itinerant labours, and I try to speak of Jesus Christ and him crucified, and of him alone, but my soul is often much dejected to see no fruit. This morning I preached to a number from “to know the Love of God which passeth knowledge”. I was much affected myself, filled with grief and anguish of Heart, because I knew they were going to Idolatrous and Mohammedan feasts immediately after, this being the first day of the Hindu Year; and the new Moon Ramadan of the Mohammedans. They are going I suppose to their Abominations at this moment, but I hope to preach to them again in the evening. I spoke of the Love of God in bearing with his Enemies, in supporting and providing for them, in sending his Son to die for them, and in sending the Gospel to them, and in saving many of them from eternal Wrath. (The Journal and Selected Letters of William Carey, ed. Terry G. Carter [Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000], 85. Emphasis mine.)

Also consider this letter from Carey to Andrew Fuller dated November 1800 where Carey explains to Fuller how he shared the gospel with several of the people in one of the villages:

You and I, and all of us are Sinners, and we are in a helpless state but I have good things to tell you. God in the riches of his Mercy became incarnate, in the form of Man. He lived more than thirty years on earth without Sin and was employed in doing good. He gave sight to the Blind, healed the Sick, the lame, the Deaf and the Dumb – and after all died in the stead of Sinners. We deserved the wrath of God, but he endured it. We could make no sufficient atonement for our guilt but he compleatly made an end of Sin and now he has sent us to tell you that the Work is done and to call you to faith in, and dependence on the Lord Jesus Christ. (Ibid., 149. Emphasis mine.)

In these two quotes, it sounds like Carey is making “the bold proclamation,” saying that God sent his Son to die for them (all in his lost audience) and other “enemies,” some of which (not all) are saved from eternal wrath. If Carey accepts limited substitution (limited atonement), he would have to be equivocating on the term “sinners” and fudge on the inclusive term “we,” as if he really didn’t mean all those in his audience.

I am not at all convinced that Carey was a full-fledged card-carrying member of the high-Calvinist order with respect to limited atonement as Ascol appears to assume.



Paul did not tell any unsaved persons
“Christ died for your sins.”

A Selective Review and Critique of Whomever He Wills – Part 3D

Dr. Tom Ascol’s chapter “Calvinism Foundational For Evangelism and Missions” by David L. Allen

Turning to a discussion of Paul’s evangelistic method and message, Dr. Ascol states, “Certainly Paul did not evangelize this way” [contextually meaning Paul did not tell any unsaved persons “Christ died for your sins”] (276). Ascol appeals to Paul’s preaching in Acts to support this contention. Ascol concludes from this lacuna that Paul never employed such a phrase in evangelistic preaching or witnessing. But is such a conclusion valid? First, as stated above, this is an argument from silence. It does not conclusively prove Paul, Peter, or anyone else did not say it nor is it a valid argument that they did not believe it. Second, all of the sermons in Acts are condensations of the actual sermons given. Third, with respect to Peter’s sermon in Acts 3, how else could he tell his hearers to “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 3:19) if he did not somehow connect the death of Christ on the cross as accomplishing the means for their forgiveness and salvation? Are we to think that Peter’s hearers did not understand that what Peter was saying in essence was that since Christ died for their sins, the door is opened for them to repent and believe? Furthermore, if Peter believed in limited atonement, how could he say “it was for you first that God raised up his Servant, and sent him to bless you by turning every one of you [hekastos in Greek meaning “each one, every one” BDAG, 298] from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26)? For any of the non-elect present in his audience, there was no atonement for them, so it would be impossible for them to be saved, even if they wanted to. It would also be disingenuous on Peter’s part to give anyone such false hope.

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Five motives for evangelism and missions found in Scripture

A Selective Review and Critique of Whomever He Wills – Part 3C

Dr. Tom Ascol’s chapter “Calvinism Foundational For Evangelism and Missions” by David L. Allen

Referring to my comments in Whosoever, Dr. Ascol states, “The fact that our Sovereign has commanded us to preach the gospel is reason enough to do the work of evangelism. David Allen, however, sees things differently” (275). Ascol then quotes me in Whosoever as saying “‘Some Calvinists today are engaged in evangelism for the simple reason that they do not know who the elect are, in addition to Christ’s missionary commands’ and asserts that ‘this motivation is insufficient” (Ibid.). He then writes in the next paragraph, “How that fact diminishes the sufficiency of our Lord’s command to serve as motivation for His disciples is beyond me and exceeds the bounds of Scripture” (275). Here Ascol has misconstrued my words. Here is the quotation in Whosoever as I wrote it, “Some Calvinists today are engaged in evangelism for the simple reason that they do not know who the elect are, in addition to Christ’s missionary commands. While we do not know who the unbelieving elect are, this motivation for evangelism is insufficient” (96). Ascol is attempting to read the antecedent of “this” to be “Christ’s missionary commands.” But the antecedent is “we do not know who the unbelieving elect are.” The sufficiency of Jesus’ command is not what is diminished or insufficient. My point is that the missionary command, while certainly sufficient in and of itself, is not the only motivation Scripture itself asserts should drive our evangelism and missions. Not knowing who the elect are is never a motivation given in Scripture for evangelism and missions.

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“God will indeed save all of the people He has chosen
and for whom Christ has offered up His life as a propitiation””

A Selective Review and Critique of Whomever He Wills – Part 3B

Dr. Tom Ascol’s chapter “Calvinism Foundational For Evangelism and Missions” by David L. Allen

2. Testimony of Scripture (271-79).

Dr. Ascol comes to the defense of John Macarthur’s statement that Jesus was a Calvinist. He thinks we have missed MacArthur’s point, namely, that Calvinism derives its views ultimately from the teachings of Jesus. Ascol continues, “. . . Calvinism owes its convictions to the Word of God, not to a sixteenth century reformer” (271). Ascol then quotes Spurgeon who in essence states the same thing MacArthur said: “Calvinism” is simply shorthand for what Jesus and the Bible teaches.”

Several comments seem in order. First, MacArthur and Spurgeon would have been on much safer ground had they said something along the lines of “Calvinism derives its views from a particular interpretation of the teachings of Jesus.” Otherwise, this is nothing more than a classic example of begging the question. Second, I’m sure it goes without saying that Traditionalists believe their theological interpretations are derived from the teachings of Jesus and the Bible too. Third, suppose I had written in my chapter in Whosoever, “Jesus was a Traditionalist,” or “Jesus was not a Calvinist.” Many Calvinists would have decried such a statement. As I stated in Part 1 of this series of reviews of WHW, “merely asserting one’s interpretation of the text as Scriptural truth is an exercise in begging the question.”

Under the heading of “Scriptural Testimony,” Dr. Ascol limits his discussion to selected statements and practices from Jesus and Paul.

Consider the following five statements Ascol makes concerning Jesus and John 3:

1. “Jesus teaches the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation. Furthermore, there is no incongruity between that doctrine and His teaching on total depravity, unconditional election, particular redemption or the priority of regeneration over faith and His sincere call to people to trust Him as Lord” (272).

2. “Consequently, the spiritual inability of people to trust in Christ apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit never hindered Jesus from issuing evangelistic calls” (Ibid.).

3. “Jesus tells Nicodemus that such faith is impossible ‘unless’ one is born again. But total depravity is no barrier to evangelism because of the glorious reality of the Holy Spirit’s sovereign work of granting new birth. Jesus underscores the helplessness of Nicodemus and the sovereignty of the Spirit whose regenerating work is necessary for saving faith . . .” (273).

4. “The inability of a lost person to repent and believe the gospel while in an unregenerate state is no barrier to evangelism” (Ibid.).

5. “Coupled with this confidence in the Spirit and Word to bring about the new birth is the assurance that the doctrines of election and atonement give, namely, that God will indeed save all of the people He has chosen and for whom Christ has offered up His life as a propitiation” (274).

Each of these five statements is an assertion that something is true without any exegetical evidence or argument to show why or how it is true. Each statement merely begs the question at hand. Consider statement one. Jesus is said to teach the following: unconditional election, particular redemption, and the notion that regeneration precedes faith. There is nothing in any of the verses Ascol references that teaches these things. Ascol is merely assuming these doctrines and superimposing them on Jesus’ teaching. Statements two, three, and four merely assert that regeneration precedes faith. Notice statement three carefully. Jesus does not inform Nicodemus that “faith” is impossible unless one is born again. Rather, Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless he is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. That is quite different. What the unsaved person is incapable of doing is repenting and believing apart from the prior work of the Holy Spirit. That does not of necessity mean that the lost person is incapable of repenting and believing before regeneration, as Ascol asserts. Again, no direct Scripture in John 3 states what Ascol is claiming. This begs the question. Statement five asserts that the Calvinistic doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement are true, again without any proof. Ascol is merely assuming them to be true and smuggling them into his argument. There is more eisegesis than exegesis at work here. Contextually it is clear that Ascol intends “atonement” to mean “limited atonement,” so he is again begging the question since he has not demonstrated that Jesus is teaching limited atonement.

Next Ascol turns to consider Jesus’ statements in John 10. “He [Jesus] pointedly excludes His critics not only from His flock but also from the scope and saving  benefits of His death by revealing that they are not His sheep” (274). Actually there is nothing in Jesus’ statement that limits the scope of his death. As long as his critics refuse what Jesus is saying, they are incapable of receiving the saving benefits of His death. Even if Jesus’ statement indicates that his critics are not now nor ever will be among his sheep, such does not affirm or entail limited atonement. Ascol here succumbs to the negative inference fallacy – the proof of a proposition cannot be used to disprove its converse. When the Scripture says Jesus died for His sheep, this does not prove he did not die for others. Furthermore, the “sheep” Jesus refers to are already believers since they “follow Him.” Even from Ascol’s perspective, he must believe that Jesus died for more than just those who are his sheep since he believes Christ died for the unbelieving elect who are not yet His sheep. This is the same error I pointed out in Schrock’s chapter in WHW: taking what applies to believers and extrapolating the predication to all of the elect in the abstract. What are the exegetical grounds for reading “sheep” in John’s context as the abstract class of all the elect? There are none.

The citation of John 6:37 (274) as a proof text for unconditional election and limited atonement is problematic. The text actually says nothing about either. Whatever the “giving” means, and contextually one can make a good case that it refers to the present time Jesus spoke these words (note the use of the present tense and the unbelieving audience of Jesus), the text does not state that this “giving” took place in eternity past. The reason the unbelieving Jews were not coming to believe in Jesus was not because they had not been “given” to Him by the Father, but because they “will not come” (John 6:40), as the surrounding context makes clear. Again, regardless of how one construes the biblical teaching on election, this passage and its context make clear that Jesus’ emphasis is on human responsibility and culpability.  All Calvinists, Arminians, and non-Calvinists believe that all the elect will be saved since God knows exactly who will believe. This is true regardless of how election works. Furthermore, the text says nothing about limited atonement either. Ascol is merely inferring such, but the text nowhere states this or even implies it.