Just like how my faith was rescued by the resurrection of the Son of God, my theology was generally rescued by Christ’s crucifixion. But to see how that works, I have to give some general preliminaries of what others say. I’m not going into the detail of any of the systems. I’m just touching on them because these are where my personal questions arose, where they collided with the text, and where I had to leave those ideas. Their explanations of key texts made me nervous.
So They Say
Calvinists say that God’s mission was to glorify himself and to do that he would bring in many sons to glory. He prepared vessels of mercy beforehand to show mercy to and the rest he passed over (or elected to make reprobate: there’s some discussion on that point). But to rescue these many sons there must be the shedding of blood for the remission of sins. Therefore Christ was sent to pay for their sins—not for anyone else’s. His sacrifice was enough to rescue all but it was particularly applied to those that were chosen: the elect. The Atonement, therefore, secured the redemption and salvation of the elect.
Arminians say that God sent his Son to die to make a way possible for any who believed: redemption is obtained but salvation isn’t secured for anyone unless they believe and keep believing. So it wasn’t a pre-chosen group that was being atoned for, it was a category called “Those Who Believe”. That group winds up being known, but in no sense was the crucifixion particularly for a group—even if in effect it is solely for that group.
Others have different explanations. Ockhamists say that Christs death was for all, redeeming the world unto Himself, but that his love results in an effectual call that draws those who will be saved. The Atonement, therefore, is the love of God reaching outwards. Molinists say that Christ’s work of redemption is for all, making an actual payment for all, but applied only to those who believe.
Pelagians say that Christ’s death is a necessary example that was accomplished so that humans could break out of the cycle of damnation and sin that they were part of. Atonement was helpful but not necessary. Semi-Pelagians might say that Christ’s death was effectively the extended hand of God that was being reached for by those who were reaching out to God. They couldn’t save themselves so he supplied a solution in the atoning work of Christ. Now if they believe they get helped.
Universalists say that Christ’s death was accomplished to save all by paying for the sins of all. No one is ultimately damned. Of course, Universalists split up how this is accomplished (either all are elect and are irresistibly drawn or all eventually willfully come to Christ, even if some spend time in separation).
What Sayeth The Scriptures?
The Atonement is impossible to be accomplished solely by humans (Ps 49:7–8). In the Old Testament, atonement worked when the shed blood was applied (Lev 4:20; 16; 17:11). It is for those who apply it (John 6:51) which automatically denies something to those who don’t take it and yet it is not merited (Tit 3:5). It winds up with a purchase of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev 5:9) So, the atonement definitely worked.
The Scriptures tell us that Christ’s atoning work would provide salvation for many (Is 53:10–11; Matt 20:28; Eph 1:7; 1 Pet 2:24-25) which includes us (1 Jo 4:10), those who have faith (Rom 3:24-26), people (Heb 2:17), the sheep (John 10:11, 17-18), the ungodly (Romans 5:6-21), sinners (2 Cor 5:18-20) the unjust (1 Pet 3:18), the heretic (2 Peter 2:1) and everyone (1 Tim 4:10) of the entire world (John 1:29; 4:42; 1 John 2:2). This is much broader than the Elect, something 1 John 2:2 outright denies.
Some Calvinists have been quick to point out that the many is the Church, the whole World is all who are being saved, and All are All Those Who Believe. They redefine the terms to suit their theology. Scripture is the reason why other Calvinists consider themselves Four, instead of Five, Pointers.
If they consider it problematic, why shouldn’t I? Say the Five Pointers, like Sproul or Packer: those who are Four Pointers have misunderstood one of the other points. That is dishonest. The problem is with the doctrine of a particular atonement not aligning with Scripture, it is not with getting one’s theological ducks lined up to quack in harmony.
This entire thing of Particular Redemption doesn’t jive with Scripture which teaches that the extent of the redemption as total: of the entire world (John 3:15-17), those who were under law (which is everyone: Gal 4:4-5), indeed all things (Col 1:20-22). Or with the call to believe being offered to all (Acts 2:21; Rom 10:13; Rev 22:17) The Atonement’s scope in Scripture is no less than universal because it is easier to explain the limited passages in light of the universal passages (cf. Gal 2:20. No one thinks Christ died only for Paul).
And at this point Calvinists raise the question: well, if everyone is atoned for then everyone is saved? Universalists say this is true. But Scripture speaks quite emphatically about people not being saved, going to hell, and facing judgment.
Indeed, this idea of a universal atonement resulting in universal salvation is only accurate if the interpretation of Christ’s work on the cross is specifically tied together to election and salvation via special pleading. The idea comes piggybacked on the doctrine of election which weaves into the tapestry but stands contrary to Scripture. Calvinists asks “If Christ died for all, does that necessarily mean all are saved?” Universalists are quick to point out that this is the case and cite that Christ’s dead is to draw all men to Himself (John 12:32) and those universal passages add that extra weight while reminding us of Exodus 11 and the Children of Israel. The blood of the lamb covered everyone in the house but those who didn’t apply the blood of the lamb would face death. This is further substantiated by salvation being consistently withheld from the rebellious (Jos 22:22), the unbelievers (Mk 16:16; Lu 8:12; Jn 3:36; 2 Th 2:10; Re 21:8) and the wicked (Ps 119:155) and only applicable to those who believe (Romans 10)
If the atonement is enough for all, why not all? If the atonement is specifically for the elect, how is it right to charge the non-elect for rejecting the Atonement? Doesn’t this make the appeal to believe the cross work of Christ fundamentally dishonest? If the atonement is an empty category and the mission is to save people, then how is this atonement that works? If this atoning work was an example, then what good is it? Why couldn’t it have been something else?
But then deeper Biblical and Theological questions arise: what’s the point of the cross work of Christ? Maybe something else is going on with the atonement that doesn’t necessitate purchasing only specific individuals for salvation? I mean, Hebrews 2 says that the death on the cross was the means for Jesus being crowned with glory and honor as a second Adam—the head of a new human race. It says he tasted death for everyone (Heb 2:9) for a reason: what is that reason? It was through this death that he is given authority (Col 3) and power (Rom 1:2; 1 Cor 15:55) over all creation. So why make it a main concern to be about saving the Elect? Indeed, the explicit verse we have of God saving an individual (Gal 2:20), none of us take to mean that only that individual was atoned for…so why limit on a broader circle that doesn’t consist of the totality explicated in Scripture?
Did God have to save humanity? Arminians and Calvinists strike me as having to say it was necessary; Arminians by necessity of foreknowledge and Calvinists by necessity of foreordination and God’s glory. Indeed, some Calvinists make it seem as if all this adds to God’s glory—which is crazy. God doesn’t need us. I think the Hebrews passage and Phillipians 2, 1 Corinthians 15, Romans 5, Acts 2 and Acts 13 shows that he only had to save one human: Christ Jesus. He vindicated Him by raising Him from the dead but he didn’t have to save anyone else. He saved him by giving him unending life—he doesn’t need to give him kids. But, he also gives all things into his hands. All creation, all people, all things, including those who are God the Fathers—they all belong to Christ. As the head of Humanity 2.0 he can do what He wants with them.
And Hebrews 2 it says that Christ can stand with those who are flesh and blood and call them brothers before God. Not everyone. The ones who are partakers of holiness. The ones who are being made perfect. It seems to me that the Atonement actually works in what it was sent to do. It makes all redeemable and then comes up with a condition for that redemption: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. If this wasn’t the case, wouldn’t it make every call in Scripture to repent and believe a magical and empty appeal? Plus, there’s nothing important about this specific condition except the fact that God demands it. Couldn’t it have been any other condition? It could have been any other condition like some impossible law abiding? Why would God stipulate this arbitrary and silly thing? So that he can count a silly and arbitrary thing as righteousness based on his own grace, yes, and doesn’t that make more sense than some magic words that do nothing but activate a magical foreign faith made available by a magical work on a cross?
Doesn’t Christ’s death work for a very different reason than what Calvinists and Arminians say? Doesn’t it say that all are purchased and then the requirement for application is stipulated as belief? And then, don’t the Scriptures repeatedly show people given a chance to respond in their own situation? And isn’t it so, that in every situation, the Lord is free to do what he wants with them? Isn’t the fact that He opts to do what He promises ultimately up to Him and not up to us at all?
Too many questions that are easier explained by Scriptural answers: Limited Atonement, no matter what it is called, winds up being rejected. It must be. It is a philosophical solution (nothing wrong with that) to a Biblical problem (nothing wrong with that either) which is already explained in the text (this is the real problem) and it is explained in this way: the atonement, Christ dying for all, is effective for all; redemptive of every single individual, but is only applicable when appropriated by faith. Just as God says: the just shall survive by trusting God to save.