On the Insufficiency of the Notion of Sufficiency Among Some Calvinists, part 1 of 3

July 23, 2013

by David L. Allen
Dean, School of Theology
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

(Ed’s. note: A careful researcher and Southern Baptist statesman, Dr. Allen does not ascribe a singular view of Christ’s atonement to all Calvinists, universally; however, his sensitive use of qualifying terms provide both clarity and distinction regarding the topic at-hand.)

I. The Problem Stated, or Ambiguity & Equivocation in High Calvinism

Some Calvinists who affirm what is traditionally called Limited Atonement, or what they may prefer to call “Particular Redemption,” or “Definite Atonement,” maintain that Christ’s atonement is sufficient[1] for all people, even though it only satisfied for the sins of the elect. Recent blog and Facebook posts and comments on the subject by High Calvinists (five-point Calvinists) have addressed this issue. While some of these posts and comments are accurate and helpful, I find some contain statements that are either inaccurate or lack proper qualification.

The sufficiency argument of those who hold to limited atonement[2] goes like this: Christ died only for the sins of the elect. Nevertheless, the death of Christ is sufficient for all people. Therefore we should preach the gospel to all people since it is sufficient and since we don’t know who the elect are.

Here is the problem: How can Christ’s substitutionary death be said to be sufficient for the sins of the entire world, when, according to limited atonement, no atonement for sins exists for the non-elect? What strict Calvinists are actually saying is that the atonement would or could be sufficient for all “had God intended it to be sufficient for them.” But God, according to them, did not intend the atonement to be made on behalf of the non-elect, thus, there is no satisfaction made for their sins. Thus, the sufficiency of the atonement can only be understood to be a statement about its infinite intrinsic value, such that it could hypothetically be satisfactory for all, but it is not “extrinsically” or “actually” satisfactory for all.

II. The Problem Unrecognized by Many Calvinists Today

Many Calvinists don’t seem to recognize this issue or are reluctant to address it. One can understand why: it renders the notion of limited atonement theologically problematic beyond repair. The only response to the dilemma is to use sufficiency language in broad, undefined ways in an attempt to cover the problem. Many Calvinists who affirm universal atonement have for centuries pressed this issue with their High Calvinist counterparts and the silence in response is deafening. For example, this very issue was addressed by John Davenant, leader of the English Delegation at Dort, and signatory of the Canons of Dort. Davenant spoke of an “ordained sufficiency,” by which he meant that God designed and intended the atonement to satisfy for the sins of all men and not just the elect. Davenant was one of several at Dort who affirmed a universal atonement in terms of its extent.[3] In fact, it has been demonstrated by both Calvinist and non-Calvinist historians of Dort that the final canon on the extent of the atonement was deliberately worded with ambiguity so that both those who held to a limited satisfaction for sins and those who held to a universal satisfaction for sins could sign it in good conscience.[4]

III. Consequences of the Problem

Several consequences flow from the question of the sufficiency of the atonement and its extent:

1. If limited atonement is correct, Jesus did not substitute himself on the cross for the sins of the non-elect.

2. Therefore, it is impossible that the non-elect could ever be saved since there is no atonement made for their sins. They are in the same unsaveable state they would be if Jesus had never come at all. Or, as others have argued, they are no more saveable than fallen angels.

3. It is impossible that the atonement can ever be described as sufficiently able to save the non-elect in any way other than hypothetical: something can’t be sufficient for anyone for whom it is non-existent. To suggest otherwise is simply to engage in word games, obfuscation, or equivocation.

4. Further complications emerge concerning the preaching of the gospel. How can preachers universally and indiscriminately offer the gospel in good faith to all people, which clearly includes many who are non-elect, when there is no gospel to offer them, that is, when there is no satisfaction for all their sins? The usual response from strict Calvinists is that we don’t know who the elect are, so we offer the gospel to all. But this misses the point and the problem. The issue is not that we don’t know who the elect are. That is a given. The issue is we are offering something to all people, including those who turn out to be non-elect, that indeed does not exist for all to whom the offer is made. An offer made to all sinners entails contradiction as the preacher knows that the satisfaction for sins by Christ on the cross was not made for all to whom the gospel comes, but pretends and speaks as if there is a legitimate offer to all to whom the gospel is preached.

5. The problem is even more acute with respect to the gospel offer by God when it is understood that it is God Himself making the offer through us. Second Corinthians 5:18-20 makes it clear that it is God offering salvation to all people through the church on the grounds of the atonement of Christ. If He Himself has limited that substitution to only the elect, how can He make such an offer genuinely to all people? It would appear such is not possible.

If Christ did not die for the sins of all people, what exactly is it unbelievers are guilty of rejecting? There is no atonement for their sins for them to reject! Unbelief of the gospel by its very definition involves rejection of God’s provision of grace through Christ’s death. The Scripture makes use of universal exhortations to believe the gospel. Limited Atonement deprives these commands of their significance.

[1] “Sufficient”: adequate; enough; as much as needed; equal to what is needed or required; fully capable; ample; plenty; suitable; abundant; made or suited to the purpose of.

[2] I am using the phrase “Limited Atonement” in the traditional sense of a limited satisfaction of sins such that Christ is said to die only for the sins of the elect.

[3] Matthias Martinius, delegate from Bremen, also argued the same position as Davenant. Martinius said, “Nor here will it be enough to assert such a sufficiency of redemption as could be enough; but it is altogether such as is enough, and such as God and Christ have considered enough. For otherwise the gospel command and promise are destroyed.” (See Edward D. Griffin, “An Humble Attempt to Reconcile the Differences of Christians Respecting the Extent of the Atonement,” in The Atonement. Discourses and Treatises [Boston: Congregational Board of Publication, 1859], 371).

[4] It should be noted that though these moderate Calvinists agree with their Arminian and non-Calvinist brothers on the extent of the atonement, they disagree over the intent of the atonement, since all Calvinists argue that God, from eternity, intended only to save the elect.