“Encouraging” is the best word I can find to describe the aftermath of the SBC Calvinism Study Committee. So encouraging, in fact, that I am emboldened to try something risky. One way to pursue a sort of “unity-lite” is to put aside soteriological discussions as off-limits. I regret that this approach has, for too much of our recent history, been the most reliable one and has probably corresponded pretty closely to the best outcome we could achieve. A more robust unity, however, occurs when we are able to discuss even our differences and to emerge from that completed conversation as friends and brothers still, and with our love and respect for one another undiminished (or enhanced? Is that too much to hope?).
The Study Committee report itself acknowledges that soteriology is important and that our differences should generate dialogue rather than silence among us:
These differences should spur us to search the Scriptures more dutifully, to engage in lively interaction for mutual sharpening and collective Gospel effectiveness, and to give thanks that what we hold in common far surpasses that on which we disagree.…
We affirm the responsibility and privilege of every Southern Baptist to advocate his or her doctrinal convictions. We affirm that theology should be honored and privileged in our conversations and cooperation. We also affirm that theological and doctrinal debate can be a sign of great health within a denomination that is devoted to truth and is characterized by trust.
While encouraging dialogue, however, the report warns us…especially us as users of the Internet and social media…to exercise caution in the content, tone, and spirit of the dialogue that we conduct:
We affirm the responsibility of all Southern Baptists to guard our conversation so that we do not speak untruthfully, irresponsibly, harshly, or unkindly to or about any other Southern Baptist. This negativity is especially prevalent in the use of social media, and we encourage the exercise of much greater care in that context.
We deny that our cooperation can be long sustained if our conversation becomes untruthful, uncharitable, or irresponsible
Are we up to that challenge? Considering this vision of robust soteriological dialogue that does not threaten our cooperative unity, are we the sort of people who dare to attempt to live that way?
We are about to find out.
One of the points of Calvinism that I do not embrace is Particular Redemption (i.e., Limited Atonement, Singular Redemption, etc.). I do not believe that there is any human being for whom Jesus did not offer His propitiatory sacrifice on the cross. I’m about to explain why I believe as I do, such as this forum permits, and then we’re going to engage in dialogue in the comments. I’m nervous about this. Dave is nervous about this, I think. My nervousness regards my peculiar limitations as much as it regards the general limitations that we all share (i.e., the temptations we face in the midst of spirited debate). Those particular limitations include the fact that my degree is in history rather than theology, and therefore I am only a theologian in the sense that all of us in this conversation are. Also, as an historian, I have read enough of the previous exchanges on this topic to know both that I will be able to offer nothing that is new and that all that I say, when it was offered before, was insufficient to put the controversy to rest.
Nevertheless, I am more hopeful than I am fearful. Why? Because the old insult about “Father, Son, and Holy Bible” notwithstanding, I believe in the Holy Spirit—nay, DEPEND upon the Holy Spirit. Believing that there is one Spirit means that I must be optimistic about all of those who share Him. And so, I invite you—both those of you who will agree with my conclusions and especially those of you who will disagree—to join with me in the aspiration that this will be among our finest moments and that all Southern Baptists will look to this comment thread as an example of how brothers seek together a more perfect understanding of the faith.
Why I Favor a General Atonement
Defining the Doctrine:
Calvinism, strictly defined, teaches that there are people for whom Christ did not make atonement in His death on the cross. Together with Calvinists I believe that Jesus died on the cross in the place of sinners, taking the punishment for their sins upon Himself (i.e., we agree about penal-substitution). Together with Calvinists I believe that Christ’s substitutionary death was made for the elect. Together with Calvinists I agree that some, on the basis of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross, will receive forgiveness from their sins and will spend eternity in Heaven, free from the punishment due them for their sins. Together with Calvinists I agree that others will be punished for their sins in eternal Hell. But at this point we disagree: Full-fledged Calvinists believe that Jesus did not make substitution for this latter group of people, while I believe that He did.
It is critically important that I represent the doctrine of Particular Redemption accurately in this section. For those of you who are Calvinists, although it is possible that I have not said EVERYTHING here that you might wish to say as an apologetic or explanation of why you believe as you do, if the preceding paragraph in any way mischaracterizes this doctrine as held by Calvinistic Southern Baptists, then you will do me a great favor to point that out right away.
Of course, if there were any statement in the New Testament identifying any person or group of people who was not the object of Christ’s work on the cross, then this discussion would be over, at least for those of us who are biblical inerrantists. But there is no such statement in the Bible. There are statements in the New Testament to the effect that Christ died for the elect, but this is a point on which we agree, not a point of difference between us. There are also statements in the New Testament that use precisely the words that I would use to describe a general atonement. Perhaps the most explicit of those is 1 John 2:2.
He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:2, NASB)
Among all of the passages used to support the idea of general atonement, this one is the most explicit because it uses the word “propitiation,” which can be referring to nothing other than Christ’s death on the cross. Also, this sentence contains a phrase (“not for ours only”) that directly addresses and then denies some potential limitation of the scope of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice that was in the minds of the author and the readers. Finally, instead of this limited universe of objects of Christ’s propitiation (whoever they were), the sentence asserts “the whole world” as the actual recipients of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice.
It would not be fair to suggest that Calvinists have no response even to this, the strongest text for those who affirm a general atonement. My Southern Baptist friends who are Calvinists are all—every last one of them—biblical inerrantists who have struggled honestly with 1 John 2:2 and have advanced explanations of why this verse does not actually mean what everyone takes it to mean upon first reading. And yet, I think it would be fair to say that the persuasive appeal of those explanations is not strong except among those with a prior commitment to the doctrine of Particular Redemption. Also, there are other texts beyond this one. 2 Peter 2:1 is formidable. So is 1 Timothy 4:10. There are others. For each of these passages, Calvinists have offered explanations in defense of Particular Redemption that are, for them, persuasive. And these other passages are, in my opinion, less decisive, since their vocabulary is less explicitly tied to Christ’s atoning sacrifice or less explicitly refutes limitations of the scope of that sacrifice. And yet for myself, I find the absence of a clear statement limiting the scope of the atonement, when combined with what strikes me as the plainest reading of 1 John 2:2 and these other passages, to be persuasive in favor of general atonement.
The stronger case for Particular Redemption, in my opinion, is theological rather than biblical (not that these are in opposition to one another, but they can be differentiated). A number of rhetorical approaches can be identified:
Appeal to the Efficacy of the Atonement:
One popular line of argumentation, especially in recent conversations, deals with the efficacy of the atonement. It goes like this: Everyone either limits the atonement in some way or is a universalist. Yes, Calvinists limit the scope of the atonement by saying that it does not apply to all people, but non-Calvinistic non-Universalists limit the efficacy of the atonement by holding a view of it by which it does not save anyone entirely.
It is the most persuasive of the arguments in favor of Particular Redemption, as much for its emotional significance as for its logical force. After all, in view of the gratitude all believers feel toward Christ for His work on the cross, to put any of us in the position of devaluing what He accomplished there is to make us very uncomfortable. And yet, it is as wrong to say more than what the New Testament says about Christ’s work on the cross as it is to say less than what the New Testament says about it. I think that other theological arguments for Particular Redemption are actually stronger than this one, at least as far as their logical validity goes.
I admit it: I believe that the work of Jesus Christ on the cross did not entirely accomplish the salvation of anyone. I submit that even Calvinists agree with me. You don’t have to abandon monergism to conclude that, even for the elect, Jesus did not entirely accomplish salvation on the cross. After all, even monergists acknowledge an entire suite of events, with the cross indisputably at the center, that together accomplish our salvation entirely. The Father elected. The Son atoned. The Spirit calls and regenerates. The sinner believes and repents. These do not all happen at the same time. In the New Testament, God is even content to list among His saving acts His delay of Christ’s return, giving us time to hear the gospel and be saved. Unless one believes in eternal justification, salvation is not entirely accomplished for anyone until all of this has transpired, and even if you do believe in eternal justification, you have relocated the moment of salvation not back to Christ’s death on the cross but back to eternity past. For the Calvinist, it is true, all of God’s saving events things must inevitably accompany one another, but it is not, I don’t believe, accurate to say that Christ’s atoning work on the cross is, according to Calvinism, the first cause of the whole sequence. Rather, the electing choice of the Father before the beginning of time occupies that position in Calvinist theory. Calvinism tightly couples the atonement with election and regeneration. Belief in a general atonement is, necessarily, a decoupling of the atonement from election and regeneration to some degree.
And so, if I understand Calvinists correctly, salvation is irreversibly determined by God long before Christ was crucified, and salvation is finally accomplished at the moment of conversion, which is, for all of us reading this, something that takes place long after Christ’s crucifixion. What Christ accomplished on the cross was simply this: He provided entirely the basis for the salvation of sinners, whenever it might be that salvation should be fully accomplished. On the cross salvation was fully purchased, albeit not fully delivered yet. On the cross the punishment due for our sin was executed upon Christ. Because of what Christ did on the cross it is not unjust that we might be saved.
Appeal to the Injustice of Double-Punishment:
But if because of Christ’s death it is no longer unjust that we might be saved, does that mean that it is no longer just that we might be condemned? The strongest theoretical argument in favor of Particular Redemption, in my opinion, is the appeal to the injustice of double-punishment for sins. If Christ paid for the sins of the whole world on the cross, how can it be just that any person should pay for those sins in Hell? Would not such a person be paying the second time a punishment that Christ has already paid the first time?
This line of persuasion reveals so many of the things that I admire about Calvinists. Calvinists take seriously the details of the gospel. You guys rightfully ponder the fact that the gospel cannot be arbitrary. God does not just flippantly come to a sinner and declare, “Do over!” He does not regard our sins and say, “Let’s just pretend that never happened. It’s no big deal.” He does not just willy-nilly decide upon and schedule the passion of the Christ. Sin matters. Holiness matters. Justice matters. Punishment matters. Grace matters, and so does the cost of grace. Every detail of the gospel story has transpired just the way it has in the service of divine, eternal reasons that matter. God bless you for reminding us all of that and for teaching us to take it seriously. There is nothing wrong with pondering deeply the details of penal substitution, and if you do so, you cannot help but face this question of double-punishment.
Unless you adopt the Particular Redemption view.
Limiting the scope of the atonement does solve the troublesome question of double-punishment. That is the greatest strength of the view.
How, then, do I deal with the problem of double-punishment? You must be asking that question. “Not satisfactorily” is likely to be the answer from my more Calvinistic friends. Gosh, I don’t know how satisfied even I am with my treatment of this topic. I would nevertheless offer the following thoughts:
- The detailed actuarial view of penal substitution that creates the problem of double punishment is not articulated in this form in the New Testament, but is instead inferred theologically from the text of the New Testament.
- In the Old Testament sacrificial system, which existed to point us forward to the sacrifice of Christ, there is reason to believe that a person could still be held accountable for sins—even after an acceptable sacrifice had been made on his behalf—if that person was not sincerely contrite and repentant (consider Isaiah 1:10-20 as one example). Yes, these are Old Testament passages and do not fully take the gospel into account; however, regarding the question of how a propitiatory sacrifice works, such passages ought to be able to shed some light, shouldn’t they? I do not suggest that a passage like Isaiah 1 explains the gospel fully; rather, I maintain that it is hard to read Isaiah 1 while characterizing as preposterous the idea that God might still condemn to Hell someone for whom Christ did actually make a propitiatory sacrifice on the cross.
- Eternal condemnation in Hell poses problems for a detailed actuarial view of penal substitution regardless of one’s theory of the atonement, since by it a finite set of sins committed by a finite being results in infinite punishment. I believe in Hell and in the fearful teaching that they will suffer for eternity there whose names are not written in the Lamb’s book of life. Obviously, I do not believe that objections to the justice of infinite Hell for finite sin are well founded. However, I do believe that all of us, Calvinists and non-Calvinists alike, solve the problem of the justice of Hell by moving somewhat away from a detailed actuarial view of sin and punishment. If we can do that, I contend, we can move away from the kind of detailed actuarial view of the atonement that poses the problem of double punishment.
- The failure to believe in Christ—the neglect of the way of salvation provided on the cross—is presented in the New Testament as a basis for condemnation. Since these grounds for condemnation are necessarily both consequent and subsequent to the atonement, they are available to serve as just grounds for condemnation even if one holds to a doctrine of general atonement and penal substitution.
- The objectionable idea of double-punishment is indeed invoked in the New Testament, but not in connection with the extent of the atonement. Rather, the idea of a person’s experiencing multiple occasions of regeneration (Hebrews 6:6) is the occasion that brings forth the objectionable idea of double punishment for sin.
For brevity’s sake, and in view of the hour (I write this at 2:00 am after a day of many hours and miles), I will draw things to a conclusion by speaking of my motivation in this post. Of course, I have partially revealed it in the introduction: I hope that we can model an exemplary way of conversing about soteriology. And yet, perhaps there is more to say.
Am I trying to convert Calvinists away from Calvinism? As is true of any teacher, I cannot deny that I hope both to discover truth and to lead others to discover it. Whatever is the truth, as well as I can see it, I want to proclaim to others. If someone reads this and comes to embrace a general atonement, I will not dissuade him, nor will I be disappointed.
And yet, I honestly declare that my heart is for the conversion of the lost to the gospel of Jesus Christ, not the conversion of Calvinists to my point of view. From brothers in Christ who have already experienced conversion, what I most desire is that, when we talk about the saving work of Christ on the cross, we will be so overcome by gratitude toward Him, undeserving as we are, that little room is left for anger or haughtiness toward one another. After all, the most important, most wonderful, most inspirational word in the phrase is neither “Limited” nor “General,” but “Atonement.” How amazing that there is an atonement at all, whatever its nature! And certainly, how unfathomable is the fact that it was made for me. Oh, let us contemplate the atonement more to worship Him than to contest with one another. May He grant that my little essay (as well as the conversation that may ensue) will lead us there.
If I have failed in this essay to treat my Calvinistic brothers with respect, then my failure reflects a lack of ability rather than a lack of effort. I profess my love for the Calvinists among us as my brothers in Christ. I dare hope that we will indeed understand it better by-and-by. Until that day, may God help us to learn from one another—me as well as you—and may our conversation reveal more clearly that we have experienced salvation than that we have understood it.