All Evangelicals are Logically Committed to Limited Atonement

All evangelical Christians except five-point Calvinists believe in universal atonement, that Christ died on the cross to pay for the sins of every person in history. So if they explicitly deny limited atonement, how can they be logically committed to it? Because they believe in God’s omniscience. Because God knows all things from eternity past, then before Christ came to earth, He knew exactly who would be saved and who would not. So does it make sense to say that Christ came to earth with the intent to save those whom He knew would never be saved? Of course not.Since He knew exactly who would believe in Him and who wouldn’t, His intent for coming to earth as a human and dying as a sacrifice for sin must have been to save those whom He knew would believe. Those who believe in Christ is a limited number of people, therefore the extent of the atonement is limited.

“Wait,” you say. “I thought limited atonement meant that Christ’s death was limited in value to only pay for the sins of a limited number of people, and I don’t believe that.” That understanding of limited atonement is mistaken. The “limit” in limited atonement is not the value of Christ’s sacrifice for sin but Christ’s intent to save a limited number of people through that sacrifice. The famous Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, addressed this mistaken understanding of limited atonement:

I know there are some who think it necessary to their system of theology to limit the merit of the blood of Jesus: if my theological system needed such a limitation, I would cast it to the winds. I cannot, I dare not allow the thought to find a lodging in my mind, it seems so near akin to blasphemy. In Christ’s finished work I see an ocean of merit; my plummet finds no bottom, my eye discovers no shore. There must be sufficient efficacy in the blood of Christ, if God had so willed it, to have saved not only all in this world, but all in ten thousand worlds, had they transgressed their Maker’s law. Once admit infinity into the matter, and limit is out of the question. Having a Divine Person for an offering, it is not consistent to conceive of limited value; bound and measure are terms inapplicable to the Divine sacrifice. The intent of the Divine purpose fixes the application of the infinite offering, but does not change it into a finite work.[1]

The correct understanding of limited atonement is the last line in the quote, that “the Divine purpose fixes the application of the infinite offering.” God’s intent is to apply Christ’s atonement to a limited number of people.

Those who want to remain logically consistent with their rejection of limited atonement must deny God’s omniscience. They cease to be Evangelical at that point. There are some who have taken this route. It is called “Open Theism.”[2] Are you, Christian, willing to reject one of the basic tenets of historic, orthodox Christianity? If you are willing to worship a finite god, one who does not know everything but is fighting against forces beyond his knowledge and power, then you might as well believe in the finite gods of ancient mythology, like Zeus or Poseidon. And take note that such a finite god cannot give you assurance of salvation. He may take your soul to a heavenly safe house at your death, but since this god is limited, there is no guarantee that some force beyond him will snatch you out of his hand sometime during eternity. Therefore the popular half-way position between Calvinism and Arminianism that accepts universal atonement, rejects predestination, but affirms eternal security, is untenable.

The five points of Calvinism are really the same point applied to five different issues. They stand or fall together. It does not make sense to be a four-point Calvinist and deny limited atonement. The four-point Calvinist is most likely confused because he holds the mistaken view of limited atonement as a limit to the value of Christ’s death rather than an intent to save a limited number of people. If God individually predestines everyone who will be saved, then Christ’s intent of coming to earth and dying on the cross was to save those limited number of people.

Now, of course, Christians who believe in universal atonement and affirm God’s omniscience but deny predestination do not believe in limited atonement in the same exact way as five-point Calvinists (or even four-point Calvinists). The five-point Calvinist holds that from eternity past God pre-determined each individual who would be saved. For them, the limit in limited atonement is completely at God’s discretion. God could have chosen everyone in history to be saved, but did not. Those who accept God’s omniscience but deny predestination are logically committed to limited atonement, but if they accepted limited atonement but continue to deny predestination, they would argue that the individual human makes the ultimate choice about their salvation. God simply looks through the corridors of time to see who will exercise their free will to believe in Christ.

But this idea of God looking through the corridors of time as a way to affirm God’s omniscience but deny predestination faces another logical hurdle. If human choices are completely free of antecedent causes, how could God know what those choices would be before the choices are made? Before the choice is made, multiple options for which choice the person will actually make are possible, so God cannot say beforehand that He knows what the choice will be.

A response that some Arminians have offered to this argument is to affirm its logical validity, but retort that the Bible teaches both human free will and God’s omniscience, so we have to believe both and assume that God knows how to reconcile the apparent contradiction. However, most Arminians deny predestination precisely because they do not see how God could predestine a sinful choice and still hold a human responsible for that choice. Yet that is exactly what the Bible teaches. The most unjust act in history, the murder of the only perfect person to ever live, Jesus Christ, was predestined from eternity past:

“this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).

Notice that Christ’s crucifixion was not merely according to the foreknowledge of God; it was also according to God’s “definite plan.” Yet the men who killed Christ were morally responsible; they were “lawless men.” Likewise, Luke records the apostles affirming the same thing two chapters later:

“for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).

If you are going to affirm apparent contradictions in the Bible, affirm that God predestines the responsible acts of men since the Bible teaches it. It’s a contradiction in the sense that it contradicts simplistic human understanding of cause and effect, which is limited to material cause and effect like a cue stick hitting a billiard ball – the ball is not responsible for the direction it goes.  God’s ways are beyond our ways; His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isa. 55:8). “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). God created the universe out of nothing. All evangelical Christians believe that, even though they don’t understand how God could exercise that causal ability to create out of nothing. Obviously God has causal abilities beyond our understanding. It should not be too much of a stretch to also believe that God’s causal abilities with respect to directing the human will are beyond our understanding.  (There are passages in the Bible that may seem to contradict the Calvinist view of salvation, but I am not going to address every objection here.  On the passages about Christ dying for all men, see here:

And there really is no way to get around Romans 9. Paul says, “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. . . . So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:16,18). All sorts of reasons have been proposed to get around this plain language, such as saying that Paul is talking about nations, not individuals. But in the very next sentence, Paul <em>anticipates the objection</em> of people who think that God can’t hold people accountable if their choices are predestined: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?'” (Rom. 9:19). What is Paul’s answer? Does he say, “No, you misunderstood me. I’m not denying free will”? No, he does not. Paul doubles down on the issue of predestination: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Rom. 9:20-21). Stop fighting God and His word and accept predestination and limited atonement. You can’t do better than have a perfectly just and loving God ultimately in control of whatsoever comes to pass in history (cf. Eph. 1:11).

[1]  C. H. Spurgeon’s Autobiography, p. 174.

[2]  For a mostly-adequate response to Open Theism, see John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism.

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