Limited Atonement Is A Hindrance To Missions and Evangelism

September 26, 2012

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.