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.”