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Monday, May 23, 2016

Everyone Believes in Limited Atonement

Okay, up front, I'll tell you that the title is hyperbole, an overstatement for effect. Not everyone believes that the Atonement of Christ is limited. There are unbelievers that don't believe in Atonement at all. And there are Universalists. Universalists believe that everyone is saved, that there is no Hell, that no one faces eternal judgment, that the Atonement covered all sin for all people. I don't know any of these folks, but I know they exist. And they have their own problems in Scripture to navigate (like Matt 7:13-14 or John 3:17-18). Now, for the rest of us, everyone believes in limited Atonement.

The doctrine of Limited Atonement is a contentious one and I'm not actually going there. I am not going to argue for it. I want to show how you believe that the Atonement that Christ provided at the cross is limited. Most Christians -- at least those intending to be biblical -- argue that they believe in an unlimited Atonement. The thinking goes like this: "Christ died on the cross for all the sins of all mankind." And it's not without reason. John wrote, "He [Jesus Christ] is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:2) Peter wrote, "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit." (1 Peter 3:18) (Note: That's the ESV. Others say, "Christ also died for sins once for all.") Peter even wrote about false prophets who were "denying the Master who bought them." In general, we believe that "we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe." (1 Tim 4:10). See? Unlimited.

Here's the problem. On one hand we have the absolute statements that Christ died for our sins, that He suffered once for sins, that He is the one (and only) Savior. On the other hand, we have this absolute certainty that "the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few." (Matt 7:14) In Revelation John describes the "second death" where anyone whose name is not found written in the book of life is thrown into "the lake of fire" (Rev 20:14-15). The inescapable reality is that there will be people in "the lake of fire" -- eternal torment, Hell. So, where does that leave us? Here's the problem. If Christ actually paid for all sin, "once for all", and that includes both believers and unbelievers as the "unlimited atonement" folk will assure us, then, as Christ put it, "many" will be in Hell with sins paid in full. Christ died on the cross for all sin and all sin is paid for, but there will still be people in torment for eternity with their debt paid.

Now, of course, no one believes that. No one actively thinks that is true. And I'm grateful for that. It would be an assault on the Justice of God to hold that He damns those who have been justified. No one consciously takes that position. And yet, it is still the only possible position to take if Christ actually paid for all sin for all people for all time.

Consider a couple of human examples. Jerry hasn't received a bill for his credit card for some time. He's concerned. So he calls the card company. "Oh," they tell him, "we received a check two months ago for your entire account. It is paid in full. You don't owe us anything." "No," Jerry says, "I do not accept that. I didn't pay it; I won't accept it." So the credit card company resumes his debt, including two months of penalties for missed payments for the time when they had his accounts paid in full. This, of course, is nonsense and, in fact, illegal. You can't owe money you don't owe. They cannot collect money they are not due. If it is paid, it is paid. To continue to collect after having been paid is fraud. Or, how about a Warden Jones is due to preside over the execution of a prisoner at midnight? However, before it occurs, the governor sends a full pardon. The warden tells the prisoner, but the prisoner isn't happy. "I deserve to die. Go ahead with the execution." The warden has some options at this point, I suppose. He could leave the door open and let him wander. Not very practical. I think he'd have to forcibly remove him from the prison and turn him loose. But what he could not do under any circumstances is to carry out the execution. Putting to death someone whose debt to society is paid is not justice; it is murder. These examples point out the problem of people in Hell with sins paid for. These things must not be!

So, there are those who argue that the Atonement on the Cross paid in full the sins for the Elect for all time. The Atonement did not pay in full the sins for those who would not be saved. That is an Atonement that is limited in its extent, but unlimited in its effectiveness, justifying perfectly for all time those who Christ intended to justify. This, of course, is a hotly debated, much disliked, less-than-popular, even "minority" view. The rest believe in an Atonement that paid in full all the sins of all mankind for all time ... but didn't actually do it. The actual payment is pending, on hold until the recipient picks up the payment, so to speak. In essence, this view holds that no sin was actually paid for at the cross; all sin was potentially paid for. This Atonement, then, is limited in effectiveness, but not extent. It is offered to all but effective only to those who accept it. It is not actual, just potential, until it is accepted. So it is limited in the sense that no sin was paid for without the permission of the sinner. In this Atonement Christ died for all sin but only succeeds in paying for the sin of the saved. And no matter how you cut it, that's limited.

Now, as I said up front, I am not offering arguments for or against here. I'm not laying out the Scriptures and saying, "See? This is why I believe X." I'm simply pointing out that the problem is not in the concept of an Atonement that is limited. The problem is in the question of how it is limited. You can try to figure that out for yourself. Oh, and may I suggest that you don't do it by dismissing some Scriptures in favor of others or by making Scripture say things it doesn't say? Just a recommendation.


Bob said...

Question: Is God absolutely sovereign?

If so, then it makes sense that he calls to Himself man and woman to be saved.

If not, then it depends upon men and woman to decide for him, who should be saved.

At what point does the universalist diminish God's character, in favor of a more noble sentiment.

If the idea of limited atonement is a problem(Because He died for the Elect), then i suppose that eventually the idea of salvation thru "CHRIST ALONE" would be too limiting as well.

Stan said...

Bob, you'll get arguments from genuine Christians regarding the "absolute Sovereignty" of God. Many like to couch it in something like "God is absolutely sovereign by surrendering some of His sovereignty to Man's Free Will."

And the Universalist has no problem with "Christ alone". They do have a problem with all Christ's warnings of eternal torment for anyone. So I guess they're happy with "We're saved by Christ alone" but conclude, "Of course, Christ (and the rest of Scripture) was wrong with all those warnings of eternal torment." That is, "Christ alone" is fine, but Christ Himself was mistaken.

David said...

I'm unclear how the debt could be paid in full, but not "credited" to the account. I guess the question would be, who is Christ paying? Who is refusing payment? We can't accept payment, we're not the ones that are owed payment. It can't be Satan, we didn't sin against him. It must be God. God is refusing to accept the price paid by Christ. What kind of father does that? If that is the case, I want nothing to do with that God. He is evil for not accepting the payment paid by His Son...which is Himself.

Stan said...

That is the problem, isn't it? Now, most who deny that there is limits to the Atonement would deny that it was credited to the account. The image they offer is a bank account with your name on it containing payment in full for your debt, and you have to accept the account for the payment to be applied. But if this is the case, the debt is not paid in full and when Jesus said "It is finished" He didn't actually mean "finished". It would mean potentially paid in full ... pending your activation of the account, so to speak. But, then, that's a limitation to the Atonement, isn't it?

David said...

You and your word quibbles. Just let "finished" mean what you think it should mean. Maybe there's something lost in translation, or maybe He's just talking about His life. You silly literalist.