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

July 25, 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.)

VII. The Problem Illustrated in the Southern Baptist Calvinism Advisory Committee Statement

I was privileged to be a part of the SBC’s Calvinism Advisory Committee and the resulting statement “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension.” I believe it is a helpful statement and serves as a good launching pad for further discussion. Documents of this nature sometimes contain some understandable ambiguity for the sake of unity. Let me state at the outset that I believe every signatory of the statement acted with a clear conscience and in good faith.

Consider the following two statements on this issue of “sufficiency” in “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension” on the subject of the Atonement of Christ:

We affirm that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross was both penal and substitutionary and that the atonement He accomplished was sufficient for the sins of the entire world. We deny that there is anything lacking in the atonement of Christ to provide for the salvation of anyone.

In the section on “Tensions,” the following statement occurs:

“We agree that the penal and substitutionary death of Christ was sufficient for the sins of the entire world, but we differ as to whether Jesus actually substituted for the sins of all people or only the elect.”

In the spirit of the document’s call for continued dialogue, here is a question for those who affirm limited atonement: How can one affirm both of the above statements consistently? Notice in both statements the language “sufficient for the sins of the entire world” is used. As argued above, how can the atonement in any meaningful sense be said to be sufficient for the sins of the non-elect since there is no atonement for the sins of the non-elect? It would seem Calvinists who affirm limited atonement are forced to use the word “sufficient” only in a hypothetical way, which does not solve the problem. In fact, it creates a logical problem, a theological problem, and a practical problem with respect to preaching and evangelism. This tension has been pointed out by many Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike since the Reformation.[9]

All who affirm limited atonement face the problem of the free offer of the gospel. In their system, the atonement is actually only sufficient for those who believe.

VIII. Conclusion.

Strict Calvinists eventually cloud the issue of sufficiency when they tell us that Christ’s death is sufficient in the sense that if anyone believes the gospel, he will find a sufficient atonement for his sins. Therefore, all people are saveable insofar as if anyone believes, then he will be saved. Well of course! No one doubts that! That proposition is true as far as it goes because it only speaks to the causal relationship between faith and salvation: anyone who truly believes will certainly be saved. But strict Calvinists exhibit their confusion on this issue when asked why this is so. Their response: because there is an atonement of infinite value able to be applied to the one who believes. Of course there is. But ask the question this way: suppose one of the non-elect should believe, could they be saved? Not according to the limited atonement position because no satisfaction for sins exists for the non-elect.[10] (Ed’s. note: Be sure to read footnotation #10. It is powerful.)

Imagine that Christ had not died at all on the cross. Now, in such a scenario, imagine this statement: “If anyone believes in Christ, he shall be saved.” Such a statement is meaningless nonsense and is, in fact, false. In this scenario, there is no means provided for anyone to be saved regardless of whether they believe. This is precisely where the non-elect stand in relation to the cross of Christ and their sin in the limited atonement scheme.

My argument is simple: If there is no atonement for some people, then those people are not saveable. If no atonement exists for some, how is it possible that the gospel can be offered to those people for whom no atonement exists? If anyone is not saveable, he is not offerable. One cannot offer the gospel in any consistent way to someone for whom no atonement exists. Strict Calvinists cannot have it both ways. Either Christ has substituted for the sins of all men or He has not.[11]

This is the huge blind spot most strict Calvinists exhibit. Most Southern Baptists have long staked their claim that all people can be saved because Christ died for all.[12] Universal atonement grounds the free offer of the gospel to all people.

There is a provision of forgiveness for all to whom the gospel comes. There is a provision of forgiveness for all who come to the gospel.


[9] See my “The Atonement: Limited or Universal?” in Whosoever Will: a Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism, D. Allen & S. Lemke, eds. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 61-108.

[10] Some may try to evade the issue by arguing that the non-elect will not believe because they cannot believe apart from effectual calling. There are two problems with this response. First, it begs the question whether the Reformed understanding of total depravity as total inability and the Reformed notion of effectual calling are correct. Second, even if these are correct, the problem is not lessened: one cannot offer something to another in good faith when that “something” does not exist.

[11] See my critique of D. A. Carson on his ambiguous use of “sufficiency” with respect to the extent of the atonement in David L. Allen, “The Atonement: Limited or Universal?” in Whosoever Will, 89-91.

[12] This is certainly the implication of the following statement in the Article on Man in the Baptist Faith and Message: “The sacredness of human personality is evident in that God created man in His own image, and in that Christ died for man; therefore, every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.”

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Bob Hadley

There is a provision of forgiveness for all to whom the gospel comes. There is a provision of forgiveness for all who come to the gospel.

Very well said.

Norm Miller

ICYMI:
“[10] Some may try to evade the issue by arguing that the non-elect will not believe because they cannot believe apart from effectual calling. There are two problems with this response. First, it begs the question whether the Reformed understanding of total depravity as total inability and the Reformed notion of effectual calling are correct. Second, even if these are correct, the problem is not lessened: one cannot offer something to another in good faith when that ‘something’ does not exist.”

    Mary S.

    Norm wrote: ” one cannot offer something to another in good faith when that ‘something’ does not exist.” That reminds me of God offering blessing through Moses if we simply obeyed the law perfectly, and yet that possibility, in reality, never existed.

    Jesus taught that no one is able–no one is capable–of coming to Him unless the Father first draw him. (John 6:44; 65). Jesus taught total inability, so we accept Jesus’ word on the matter.

      Ron F. Hale

      Mary,
      I think it is safe to say that Jesus is speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit and the Word in this drawing …for a couple of verses prior, Jesus said, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (JN 3:40). You do believe that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation, don’t you?

      Johnathan Pritchett

      I thought Kaiser convincingly put that notion to bed a long time ago (Read his stuff in the “Five views on Law and Gospel” book). There never was “eternal” life offered to Moses or anyone who obeyed the Law perfectly, be the offer hypothetical or genuine. That is a misunderstanding of BOTH Testaments.

      Also, John 6:44-45 doesn’t say what you think it says. Let’s take a closer look, keeping in mind context, Jesus’ statement pertaining to a Jewish audience, and that He hasn’t gone to the cross yet.

      In this passage, come and believe are synonymous. Jesus has already stated that anyone who believes will be raised in verse 40. Therefore, no one is raised without believing/coming. So that is a given.

      In verse 45, Jesus says no one can come (believe) unless drawn. No quibble there. So per verse 40 that already established the principle, the drawn must believe to be raised. No need for repetition since verse 44 teaches a negation regarding coming (believing). In verse 45, Jesus says that all were taught by God (Jewish audience, echoing Isaiah 54:13). Those that listened and learned come.

      So, what we have is that the listened and learned is a subset of the all. Verse 45 clearly states that the listened and learn come.

      But wait a minute. No one can do that coming thing unless they are drawn. How is it that the listened and learned subset come, unless they were the ones drawn?

      A syllogism, if you will.

      No one can come unless drawn.
      Those that listen and learn come.
      Therefore, those that listen and learn are the drawn.

      Where is the total inability here?

      Nowhere.,,

      Maybe that is why Jesus bothered to teach this (or anything else for that matter) in the first place, so that they would listen and learn, and thus be drawn…Heck, the lack of listening and learning issue goes back to at least John 5:31-47. The issue of listening and learning is certainly echoed in the references to Exodus 16 that colors much of John 6 (pay attention to Exodus 16:4 to guide through both Ex. 16 and John 6, for example).

      Seems like God/Jesus has a keen interest on listening and learning…I would submit that THAT, and not some systematic theological notion of total inability, is the primary concern. Nothing in the passage suggests that people have a total inability to listen and learn. What this passage teaches is that those who listen and learn come to Jesus. No one comes to Jesus unless drawn, so, we must conclude from John 6:44-45 that those who listen and learn are drawn to Jesus by the Father and given to the Son.

      If you want to know about a post-Calvary drawing, look to what Jesus says in John 12:32 He will draw all. There is nothing in the drawing that automatically means coming (which would be universalism), but one must come (believe) in order to be saved. We know that fish and prisoners are dragged, but God draws (which is why no translation uses the word drag), and we find God’s drawing to not be in and of itself irresistible or compelling belief or whatever, because the LXX in Nehemiah 9:30 uses the word (helkuo) with God as the subject performing the action of helkuo, but the Israelite people “would not listen.”

Ron F. Hale

Dr. Allen,
I’ve enjoyed your three great posts; thank you!

Thanks for continuing the dialogue in a respectful and biblical way. I just praise God that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross was intended to “provide” salvation for all and to “procure” salvation for all who believe the Gospel (which is the power of God unto salvation)!

Mary S.

A book coming out soon, John Piper says is supposed to be the definitive work on Definite Atonement. It’s called, “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective”. I guess we will see.

    Robert

    Unless Piper (or whoever wrote that book) provides ANY bible verses that say that Jesus died ONLY for the elect, it will be a waste of time. Just the same old already refuted attempts at establishing a doctrine that rejects the clear teaching of scripture. We don’t need that book or any other book that denies what the Bible properly interpreted presents: namely that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world.

    Robert

      Mary S.

      Robert,
      Yes. You are very clear: You have already made up your mind without ever consider if there could be evidence or not. Thank you for being so honest. I also don’t believe in limited atonement either, but at the same time, I don’t think there can be anything less biblical than saying “Jesus only made salvation possible, rather than securing it on the cross–which is of course the inescapable conclusion of universal atonement. So I am caught in the middle.

      But I do appreciate how honest you are, Robert, that you will not even consider anything written on the matter. I’m sure our Calvinist brethren will appreciate your admission in having pre-determined that your mind cannot be changed and that you will not consider potential evidence. I’m not sure I can lay my bias aside either, but I hope to give it a fair read.

      PS: Robert, it looks like the book has about 20 authors: David Gibson (Editor), Jonathan Gibson (Editor), J. I. Packer (Foreword), Henri A. Blocher (Contributor), Sinclair B. Ferguson (Contributor), Paul Helm (Contributor), Robert Letham (Contributor), John Piper (Contributor), Thomas R. Schreiner (Contributor), Carl R. Trueman (Contributor), Raymond A. Blacketer (Contributor), Amar Djaballah (Contributor), Lee Gatiss (Contributor), Matthew S. Harmon (Contributor), Michael A. G. Haykin (Contributor), David S. Hogg (Contributor), Donald Macleod (Contributor), J. Alec Motyer (Contributor), Daniel Strange (Contributor), Stephen J. Wellum (Contributor), Garry J. Williams (Contributor), Paul R. Williamson (Contributor)

        Robert

        Hello Mary,

        Mary your description of my thinking on this topic is completely off base.
        You wrote of my supposed position:

        “Yes. You are very clear: You have already made up your mind without ever consider if there could be evidence or not. Thank you for being so honest. . . . But I do appreciate how honest you are, Robert, that you will not even consider anything written on the matter. I’m sure our Calvinist brethren will appreciate your admission in having pre-determined that your mind cannot be changed and that you will not consider potential evidence. I’m not sure I can lay my bias aside either, but I hope to give it a fair read.”

        Your statements are completely off base because I have already spent YEARS of studying the New Testament (in both English and the Greek) as well as attempts by various Calvinists of trying to establish their false doctrine of limited atonement.
        The fact is there is NO MORE available scriptural evidence on this topic. It is all there, has been there all along. It is absolutely clear, unless you wish to believe in limited atonement.

        In that case you will construct theological or logical arguments for what you wish to be true (e.g. Owen’s contrived arguments for limited atonement) and you will reinterpret all of the clear Bible verses that present unlimited atonement.

        If we take a wider view and look at church history as a whole we find that all Christians across the theological spectrum (including Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Independents such as the Anabaptists) have all held and affirmed unlimited atonement. It is only a few theological determinists, sprinkled throughout church history, who have argued for limited atonement.

        Once you see that the Bible ***never ever*** presents the claim that Jesus died only for the elect (but instead provides the opposite claim in multiple places that Jesus died for the whole world) you see their case as being one of the weakest cases for a supposed biblical position that you will ever encounter.

        If you wonder why otherwise intelligent folks could hold such an obviously false doctrine the answer is simple: the logical system of Calvinism and its own internal coherence takes priority over the actual Biblical text for these people. This also explains why you can never really reason with them about it, as the system trumps all facts or evidence in their minds. It really becomes a useless argument. And they will just keep bringing up the same old and already refuted contrived arguments for their bankrupt and false position.

        I am all for examining the available evidence and coming to your conclusions. We should do this in all areas of investigation whether it be science or the Bible. The problem is that all of the evidence is already in on this topic. And it is clear. Only those committed to the Calvinistic system see things otherwise.

        Robert

          Mary S.

          I’m with you, Robert.
          If I’m honest when looking at Scripture, the only reasonable conclusion that takes into account the various texts on the subject is universal atonement. But I suppose I am still a little open to persuasion. I am interest in reading this book when it comes out because it supposedly focuses on the positive side of that doctrine (i.e. definite redemption) rather than the negative side (limited atonement).
          Thanks.

            Robert

            Hello Mary,

            Mary there is a simple way in which to handle all of the verses on the atonement without difficulty.

            Think of the atonement as having two distinct aspects: a provisional aspect and an applicational aspect. The provisional aspect refers to the fact that the atonement of Jesus is PROVIDED FOR, or given for the whole world. All of the universalistic texts fits this aspect well.

            On the other hand, there is also the applicational aspect of the atonement (i.e. it is only applied by God to believers, not everyone is going to be saved, universalism the doctrine that all will be saved is false). These are the verses that speak of Jesus dying for His sheep, the church and are very particular.

            The error that unlimited atonement folks make is that they conflate the two different aspects so that the atonement is only for, only provided for believers (this denies the fact it has a universal element: it is provided for all, this is the provisional element).

            If you keep these two aspects in mind, you can deal with any and all of the atonement verses. You will avoid the Calvinistic error of limited atonement (i.e. that Jesus died only for the elect) and the universalist error (i.e. that everyone will be saved, that the atonement is applied to all people). You will instead hold the biblical truths that Jesus died for the whole world AND only those who trust Him will be saved. Only those who trust Him will have the atonement applied to them.

            Robert

            Mary S.

            Thanks brother Robert. That is a helpful distinction.

            Johnathan Pritchett

            Robert,

            Yes and amen. Thank you for clarity in presenting the Biblical understanding of atonement. Provision and application. Everyone should agree with the sufficiency/efficiency paradigm, which isn’t the real issue, unless one is stupid enough to reject the quality and affect of Christ’s work on the cross.

            The issue is how atonement works in the Judeo-Christian context.

            Owens problem is that he didn’t understand that provision/application angle, and since he was unhappy that the sufficiency/efficiency categories, which relate to quality and affect, didn’t even address quantity (number of sins), he decided that not all sins were paid for or taken away. That’s a false step, out of sync with plain readings of the text, and a rejection of ANE Judeo-Christian cultural understanding of atonement in its own context.

            Because sin (singular) was condemned in the flesh, by extension, all sins (plural) were atoned for (paid for, taken away, etc.). Not grasping the provision/application paradigm wrecks havoc on the sin/sins language surrounding all the atonement texts, and thus we end up with errors like “limited atonement”.

            Not only is the provision/application paradigm true because, well, its true in how the ancients thought of it, but it is also true because it accounts for all the texts of Scripture regarding atonement, sin, sins, etc.

            Well done friend. No one has stated it better in my opinion.

Rogersrw

In quoting the SBC’s Calvinism Advisory Committee and the resulting statement….you quoted from the statement, “We affirm that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross…was sufficient for the sins of the entire world. We deny that there is anything lacking in the atonement of Christ to provide for the salvation of anyone….We agree that the penal and substitutionary death of Christ was sufficient for the sins of the entire world, but we differ as to whether Jesus actually substituted for the sins of all people or only the elect….

You then ask, “How can one affirm both of the above statements consistently… how can the atonement in any meaningful sense be said to be sufficient for the sins of the non-elect since there is no atonement for the sins of the non-elect?”

Indeed! All three parts of your article have been superb. I particularly appreciate that you made this point. For me, this kind of obfuscatory rhetoric on the part of some Calvinist continues the unhelpful beclouding of what Calvinism actually believes, which is a massive barrier to having meaningful discussions about the merits, or lack thereof, of Calvinism.

Your words “meaningful sense” are very important. Maybe I am irredeemably obtuse, but I cannot grasp how there exist any salvifically “meaningful” aspect of Christ’s atonement for the non-elect. Further, I do not believe that any amount of double talk or equivocation can change that.

Although I disagree with Calvinism’s understanding of the atonement, I am thankful for the Calvinists who believe what they believe enough to lucidly articulate their beliefs. I am equally disheartened by those who while vociferously arguing for the peerless superiority of Calvinism, simultaneously avoid using elucidating speech at every opportunity in order to enlighten more people about some of the essentials (entailments or what I call disquieting realities) of Calvinism.

Thank you for doing this for us!
Ronnie

Robert

Hello Johnathan,

Thanks for your encouraging words; I greatly respect you and your posts here at SBC today, so as the words are coming from you they are greatly appreciated.

“The issue is how atonement works in the Judeo-Christian context.”

Right, in The OT you already see this dual nature of the atonement (e.g. on the Day of the Atonement the sacrifices are for **all of Israel**, and yet we know not all were saved persons, so a universal atonement was provided for all and yet not all were saved, only those who had genuine and personal faith were saved persons). The snakes story from Numbers 21 that Jesus points to as a model for his own atonement in John 3:14-15 involve this same element (i.e. the snake on the pole was provided for all of Israel, and yet only those who looked up in faith were delivered from the snakes).

It is sad that proponents of limited atonement often try to foist the universalism charge upon those who advocate unlimited atonement. But this charge is both unfair and ignores the Biblical texts. In the Bible the atonement is for all and yet only those who have personal faith are saved persons: so universalism is false. If we examine all of the data of scripture we find these same two elements over and over again (i.e. that the provision is for all, but the application is only for those who have personal faith in God and His Word).

“Owens problem is that he didn’t understand that provision/application angle, and since he was unhappy that the sufficiency/efficiency categories, which relate to quality and affect, didn’t even address quantity (number of sins), he decided that not all sins were paid for or taken away. That’s a false step, out of sync with plain readings of the text, and a rejection of ANE Judeo-Christian cultural understanding of atonement in its own context.”

Right, Owens rejected the biblical categories and imported his own. Owens also conflated the provision/application distinction so many of his errors stem directly from missing this distinction.

“Because sin (singular) was condemned in the flesh, by extension, all sins (plural) were atoned for (paid for, taken away, etc.). Not grasping the provision/application paradigm wrecks havoc on the sin/sins language surrounding all the atonement texts, and thus we end up with errors like “limited atonement”.”

Exactly.

“Not only is the provision/application paradigm true because, well, its true in how the ancients thought of it, but it is also true because it accounts for all the texts of Scripture regarding atonement, sin, sins, etc.”

Yes that is why I hope that people when thinking of the atonement keep this distinction in mind. Our theory regarding the atonement has to be one which as you say: “accounts for all the texts of Scripture regarding atonement, sin, sins, etc.”

“Well done friend. No one has stated it better in my opinion.”

Again thanks for the kind and encouraging words.

Robert

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