We are now on the third bullet point in the T.U.L.I.P. acronym, which is the central structure of the Calvinist doctrine. This point is Limited Atonement, which simply means that God’s salvation is not intended for everyone. Some people are chosen by God, and others are not.
Those who are chosen by God are referred to as the elect, and those who drew the short straw are called the reprobate. We’ll get into how exactly God is meant to have decided who is whom in our next installment; but for now, just know that Calvinism has a very clear concept of some people being “in” and others (most people) being “out.”
We find the notion that God only intended to save a portion of humanity present in the confessions of Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) traditions. For instance, the Canons of Dort (Section 2, Article 8) proclaims:
“For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father.” (emphasis mine, of course)
Likewise, the Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 3, paragraph 6) puts it succinctly:
“Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.”
So, lest anyone tell you otherwise, in Calvinist theology God is not interested in the salvation of everyone, but only a select few, which He chose beforehand. God picked his kickball team before the game began, and some kids just didn’t make the cut.
The biblical case for God not wanting to be with everyone
The biblical arguments for the doctrine of Limited Atonement tend to hang on passages that speak of some people being of God and others not. We’ve already examined a number of these passages in John 6 in the last post, so I won’t rehash those. Moreover, one of the bastions of Calvinist beliefs about Limited Atonement is Romans 9, which talks about God making vessels of honor and vessels of wrath. However, as I’ve argued at length before, Romans 9 does not actually support the idea that God unilaterally decides who is saved and who is damned (quite the opposite actually!).
So, what’s left? How about John 10? That seems to be another biblical sticking point for the idea that God only wants some people to receive grace.
I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. (John 10:14-16)
Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (vv 25-29)
Much like the passages we examined last time, these come from the Gospel of John, which places a higher emphasis on God’s sovereignty than the other Gospels, and possibly even Acts. However, like with the other passages, there is actually nothing here that must be interpreted to mean God unilaterally selects only some people for salvation ahead of time. Jesus is clearly using metaphorical (i.e., symbolic) language in these passages, otherwise we would have to conclude that he is talking about actual sheep. Kept within its context, however, Jesus is evidently talking about people who follow him or don’t. In fact, his point (again, context!) is to show that whether or not someone is part of his flock is not determined by whether or not they are Jews. Rather, that Jesus’ kingdom (or flock) has very different parameters, namely those who respond to his voice (v 27; there’s that free will thing again). If you’ve read the section on necessary and sufficient conditions in the last post, then you know that any reference in this passage to God’s initiative in people being part of Jesus’ flock is a true and necessary condition for their salvation or inclusion in God’s kingdom; however, it is not, in and of itself, a sufficient condition.
Moreover, these passages say nothing about God specifically and intentionally limiting His invitation of salvation to only a select number of people. If anything, these passages are subversive precisely because they demonstrate that God’s invitation is larger and more widespread than Jesus’ contemporaries thought. The momentum of the passage is moving from exclusion to inclusion, not the other way.
The biblical case for God not being an asshole like that
Okay, so maybe these specific passages don’t prove the doctrine of Limited Atonement. But is there any reason to believe the opposite viewpoint, that God doesn’t limit Christ’s atoning work to only the elect? To this, I would offer a resounding YES!!!
For starters, the ontological essence of God is love (1 Jn 4:8, 16), perfect, other-oriented, self-sacrificial, impartial love. This necessarily means that God loves everyone. I mean, how could a Being who is love through and through not love part of humanity, or even all of creation? If there were a section of humanity that God did not love, then God could not be love Himself, since to do so would be to deny Himself, which we are told God cannot do (2 Tim 2:13).
It simply does not make sense to say that God is all-loving (a belief that every Calvinist I know would agree to) and that He has predetermined before anyone was born that most of them would spend eternity separated from Him. There is just no way of maintaining a coherent definition of love that allows for an all-loving God to behave in such a way. We would have to change the definition of love to include behaviors that are coercively harmful toward others, at which point language breaks down and we’re no longer talking about anything that remotely resembles the sort of love that Jesus taught and demonstrated. And if that is what God is like, then the character of God and Hitler have a lot more in common than any Calvinist would dare admit.
Even when we see God selecting a specific group of people for Himself, the nation of Israel, we find that the purpose of this election is to reach the whole world (Gen 12:3; Exod 19:6). God is not choosing some to the exclusion of others. Rather, God is choosing some so that He might reach others. Again, the momentum is from exclusion toward inclusion. The gathering of all humanity to Himself is God’s end goal, which is the exact opposite of the doctrine of Limited Atonement.
We are told repeatedly throughout Scripture that God does not show partiality to some people over and against others (Deut 10:17-19; 2 Chron 19:7; Job 34:19; Rom 2:11). Rather, God is fair and just in His dealings with humanity, and His justice is appropriately applied to people with regard to how they respond to him. It could hardly be just and fair for God to choose some people for damnation before they are ever born. The book of Lamentations, for all its Debbie Downer-ness, offers at least the assurance that God “does not afflict willingly or grieve the sons of men” (Lam 3:33). Yet, if God unilaterally chooses to exclude some from the joy of salvation, then He does in fact afflict and grieve
many most people.
The universality of God’s love and invitation to salvation is even stronger in the New Testament. In his last words to his apostles, what we now call the Great Commission, Jesus instructs them, saying:
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:18-20)
Notice that Jesus tells the apostles to make disciples of all nations, not merely to make a few disciples from all nations as the Canons of Dort say (cf. Acts 1:8). The intention and hope is that all will come to follow Jesus. In fact, one of the turning points in the history of the early church is when Peter, having been called to preach the gospel to the gentile Cornelius, comes to realize that God’s love extends to all humanity. It isn’t that God is partial, and perhaps Israel just had a mistaken understanding of who He was partial toward; rather, as Peter says, “God is not one to show partiality” (Acts 10; esp. vv 34-35). Not only does Luke record Peter’s proclamation of God’s impartiality here, but Paul includes it in his letter to the church in Ephesus:
And masters, do the same things to [your slaves], and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him. (Eph 6:9)
And Peter includes it in his letter to the churches in Asia Minor:
If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth. (1 Pet 1:17)
Perhaps the most famous and widely known verse in the entire Bible, John 3:16, is itself a declaration of the universality of God’s love. Here John records Jesus as saying:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (Jn 3:16-17)
Gods love is for “the world” (cf. 1 John 2:2; Heb 2:9), not just for the elected few. And His grace is for anyone (“whosoever”), not just a minority that he preselected.
Now, an interesting question to ask in regard to the doctrine of Limited Atonement is, why would God unilaterally damn the majority of humanity to hell? Whenever I ask this question of my Calvinist friends, nine times out of ten, their response is to claim that God is somehow glorified by the destruction of the reprobate, that somehow doing so is part of His divine plan and is better than not damning them. There are, of course, a litany of passages that strongly suggest otherwise.
In the prophet Ezekiel, we are repeatedly told that God takes no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked, but rather wants them to turn from their evil ways and find life (Ezek 18:23, 32; 33:11). In the New Testament we read that God is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9), and He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), not just a select few. In fact, in Paul’s first letter to Timothy we find a strange bit of theology, where in Paul writes that God “is the Savior of all men, especially of believers” (4:10). Did you catch that? God is out to save all of humanity, of which believers are just a part! Not only does this fly in the face of the doctrine of Limited Atonement, but also Christian exclusivism as a whole.
All in all, the Bible is hardly unanimous in proclaiming that God’s salvation is limited in either intent or effect (if it even proclaims that at all), and, when taken as a whole, seems to actually argue the opposite—that God’s intention for salvation is extended to all of humanity and is not at all limited in the way that Calvinism teaches.
To be fair, many Calvinists see the problem presented here quite clearly. God, in traditional five-point Calvinism, is a bit of a douchebag, the sort of person that on playgrounds we call bullies and in political offices we call tyrants and dictators. So, in an attempt to save the good character of God without abandoning the all-encompassing sovereignty that Calvinism ascribes to Him, many have opted for a kind of four-point (or 4.5) Calvinism in which God doesn’t actively choose some for damnation; rather, we are all damned by default and God simply chose some for salvation… which, when you really think about it, sort of means the exact same thing.
After all, if God didn’t choose everyone for salvation, then He still in essence damned the unchosen to hell. It would be like if I brought enough food to feed a starving village, but I only gave the food to some of the villagers and not all. You might say, “why are you condemning some of the villagers to starvation?” To which I might reply (in four-point fashion), “I’m not condemning any of the villagers to starvation. They were all going to starve anyhow. I’m just choosing to feed some of them.”
Still means the same thing… still a douchebag. The lack of logical coherence here is almost painful, which is why many Calvinists will themselves decry the four-point approach. For instance, Calvinist theologian R. C. Sproul writes,
There are a host of folks who call themselves four-point Calvinist because they can’t swallow the doctrine of limited atonement… I think that if a person really understands the other four points and is thinking at all clearly, he must believe in limited atonement because of what Martin Luther called a resistless logic.1
Just to reiterate a point I made above, if God intentionally chose only some of humanity for salvation, then God cannot be all-loving either in the sense of loving all, since there is apparently a portion of humanity that God does not love (damnation is not something you choose for those you love) or at the very least God loves one portion of humanity (the elect) more than the other (the reprobate), or in the sense of being entirely love in Himself, since there must be a part of Him that can act without love to unilaterally decide that some should be damned. We as humans tend to divorce our internal processes from our external behaviors. This is why many will claim it is possible to love our enemies in our hearts while doing violence to them with our actions. This is also why I have heard people who cheat on their spouses say things like, “I still loved her, even as I cheated on her.”
But surely the lack of integrity between our internal and external sides is a sign of our imperfection. Surely God has more integrity than that!
Another thing to consider is that the doctrine of Limited Atonement means that the work of Christian missionaries is incredibly wasteful. When coupled with a strong exclusivism, Limited Atonement means that the majority of people that missionaries spend time (sometimes years) evangelizing to will not, and in fact could not, accept salvation. God sealed their fate before they were ever born. To be fair, the Arminian (i.e., Christians who aren’t Calvinists) side runs into a similar problem, but at least in Arminian belief all people possess the potential to accept salvation. If people reject Christ, that is entirely their own choice. However, in Limited Atonement, the odds are indomitably stacked against those people from the start.
If nothing else, one would think that God would give missionaries some clear indication of who the elect are so as to mitigate the amount of time wasted on trying to convert the reprobate. It seems kind of wasteful (even at times cruel) of Him to just make it a guessing game where unimaginable amounts of time, energy, money, and health are thrown away chasing an impossible outcome.
I guess that’s just the way God wanted it to be, some might reply. God is good, even if we don’t understand how or why He would do such things. This is the reply that I often hear from my Calvinist friends. The peculiar thing is that every (and I do mean every) Calvinist I have ever met assumes that they are part of the elect. There seems to be no reprobate Calvinists. In fact, I once heard a theologian say, “I’d be more incline to believe in the validity of Calvinism if I ever met a Calvinist who didn’t assume off hand that they were one of God’s chosen ones.”
But what if it’s not like that? What if many Calvinists are actually part of the damned? Think about it. It’s easy to see a system as just, or at least justified, when it doesn’t affect you negatively. But what if it did? What if you, who think you are safe because you are a good Christian, were actually determined by God before your birth to spend eternity in hell? In fact, what if it were one of your kids? What if your child—whom you love, and you kiss, and cuddle while reading bedtime stories, and taught to walk and talk and use the potty—what if God’s divine intention is that they suffer unending agony, and neither you nor they could genuinely choose to do anything about it?
Would you still call God just? Would you still call Him good? You could certainly fear that God. But could you genuinely bring yourself to love Him? And, even if you could, wouldn’t there be something psychologically unhealthy about loving a being who was so single-handedly abusive toward you and your children?
The last consideration (for this post at least) is the question, on what reasonable basis could God even make such a damning distinction? If we allow for the idea that God is ultimately the one who calls the shots on who is saved and who is damned, we must wonder by what standard He makes this decision. What rule of law or love could be so clearcut as to give God a just way of determining people’s eternal destinies before any of them can even take their first breath?
That’s the best part. There isn’t one. It’s kind of just random. But we’ll talk about that more in the next post when we examine the doctrine of Unconditional Election.
1: R. C. Sproul, The Truth of the Cross (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007), 141, 142.