Paul did not tell any unsaved persons
“Christ died for your sins.”
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.
There is direct, overt, evidence that Paul in his preaching did indeed tell unsaved people that Christ died for their sins and furthermore it was his consistent practice to do so. Such evidence comes from 1 Corinthians 15:3: “For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. . . .” Here Paul is reminding the Corinthians of the message he preached to them when he first came to Corinth (Acts 18:1-18). He clearly affirms the content of the gospel he preached in Corinth included the fact that “Christ died for our sins.” Notice carefully Paul is saying this is what he preached pre-conversion, not post conversion. Thus, the “our” in his statement cannot be taken to refer to all the elect or merely the believing elect, which is what the high-Calvinist is forced to argue. The entire pericope of 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 should be kept in mind. Notice how Paul comes back around to what he had said in verse 3 when he gets to verse 11: “Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” The customary present tense in Greek used by Paul when he says “so we preach” along with the aorist tense in Greek for “believed” makes it clear Paul refers to a past point in time when they believed what it was his custom to preach. What did Paul preach to them in his evangelistic efforts to win all of the unsaved to Christ? He preached the gospel, which included “Christ died for our sins.” And so they believed.
Dr. Ascol’s assertion that there is no direct statement in Acts that Paul preached to unbelievers “Christ died for your sins” is true. His conclusion that Paul therefore did not preach this because he held to or taught limited atonement is false based on 1 Corinthians 15:3-11. What do we mean when we preach to the unsaved, “Christ died for your sins”? Does it not intend to convey that God desires to save all and that God is prepared to save any and all since Christ’s death is actually sufficient to save them? One wonders if a reluctance to say “Christ died for you” implicitly expresses a reluctance to tell unsaved people that God is willing to save them all and is prepared to do so as well if they will repent and believe.
Dr. Ascol refers to how the doctrine of election “motivated” Paul “to bear up under extreme difficulties, even in prison” (2 Timothy 2:10). Paul said: “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.” Ascol interprets the “elect” here to be a reference to all those who are yet to be saved. But this is a contextual error since Paul is talking about enduring hardship for the sake of those who are currently believers. I don’t think the Greek word eklektoi (elect) is used anywhere in Paul’s letters for anything other than those who are the believing elect. This is a conventional word referring to “believing Christians” and should not be read with post-Reformation Calvinist glasses. Even Calvin in his commentary on this passage interpreted the word to refer to current believers. This is the same error Ascol made with respect to John 10 as noted above – the conflation of the category of the believing elect with all the elect in the abstract.
In the final part of the section on Scripture, Dr. Ascol turns to Romans 9-10 to make the case that election does not blunt but rather undergirds evangelism and missions. Only a short word needs to be said concerning this section. Of course, Ascol interprets Romans 9 to teach individual unconditional election as defined by Dort. Though I don’t think this interpretation of Romans 9 is accurate, such an interpretation in and of itself does not by necessity have a dampening effect on missions and evangelism. But as stated above, one cannot avoid the fact that this understanding of election coupled with limited atonement has, on numerous occasions since the Reformation, contributed to evangelistic lethargy on the part of some Calvinists. As I quoted Curt Daniel on page 99 of Whosoever, he noted how Calvin warned “that if one limits the ‘all’ of the atonement, then one limits the revealed salvific will of God, which necessarily infringes on the preaching of the gospel and diminishes the ‘hope of salvation’ of those to whom the Gospel is preached” (Daniel, “Hyper-Calvinism and John Gill,” 603).
Ascol states in Romans 9-10 that “Paul believed that his fellow Jews could be saved because the promise of the gospel is for anyone and everyone who believes. Election in no way diminishes that” (278). He then quotes Romans 9:10-13 and concludes: “This is true without regard to election and is to be received by anyone who submits to the authority of Scripture” (279). But Ascol does not consider that his doctrine of limited atonement nullifies his claim. How can any of the non-elect be saved, especially without regard to election, if there is no sufficient sacrifice for their sins? Limited atonement teaches that Jesus only died for the sins of the elect. The non-elect are left without any remedy for their sins. It is not true that anyone and everyone could be saved according to the limited atonement paradigm because if one of the non-elect should believe, there is no satisfaction for their sins. It is in fact impossible that they could be saved. It does not matter that, according to Calvinism, they will not believe. The point is Ascol is claiming if anyone believes, without regard to election, they can be saved. This is impossible if one believes in limited atonement and this point has been argued cogently by Calvinists who themselves reject limited atonement since at least as early as Dort!