Reformed Theology – Limited Atonement (Part 4 of 6)

6 06 2008

I’ve noticed that a lot of people are inconsistent in their theology. I don’t doubt their salvation or sincerity of their faith, but I think a lot of people are holding beliefs about the gospel that either do not make sense or contradictory. Often these are the people that get emotionally charged about a particular doctrine, or form their doctrines from experiences that have coloured their worldview.
I’ve felt it for a long time but many times have been unable to pinpoint exactly where someones theology goes awry. I remember listening to sermons about how I was not doing enough to honour my parents, or the reason that I kept sinning was that I kept pushing God off the throne of my life.
The same people who then told me Jesus loves me as I am and accepts me fully. It drove me mad, I couldnt understand how these things could exist together. It was only when I started to study theology that I realised they don’t exist together. In effect much of the theology I had learnt, started from the wrong end. I guess a lot of the preachers I listened to were quite biblically illiterate, preaching motivational rather than expository sermons. More likely the case was they were wrestling with the text in light of their emotions and presuppositions. It is hard to give up something you have believed for so long, especially when that belief has been held irrationally.

There’s no gurantee that someone will change their belief even when you show them its a contradictory one. The heart does not change easily. A good example was a friend of mine who went to a “healing” crusade. The meeting was emotionally charged as one would expect, and someone got up saying he had been cured by Aids. My friend was exstatic. God had cured his incurable disease. He told us all at our homegroup meeting that week. Somehow my friend got word of a doctors report about the man that confirmed that the man still had Aids. However inspite of the evidence my friend informed the home group that night that this was a case of “Who’s report are you going to believe, God’s report or mans?” Sadly this kind of theology is so pervasive among many Christians today.
While I make no gurantees that by reading this you will change your opinion, I urge you to consider your opinions, whatever they are, and ask yourself whether they hold up to scrutiny, contradiction or reality. Don’t hold onto something irrationally. Its simply unhealthy.

The doctrine of limited atonement is a controversial one, and has the power to make you quite unpopular with many Christians. The real question we need to ask ourselves is, who did Jesus actually die for? In order to understand where this doctrine fits in we need to understand some other view points that are out there. This is where some contradictory theologies will be exposed.

1) On the one end of the scale there is a belief called universalism. Simply stated it means that Jesus’s death guaranteed salvation for the entire human race. Often people hold this view because a loved one has died and they don’t like the thought of them being in Hell. I can sympathise with that because I don’t like to hear about people going to Hell and those who do it with some sense of glee are downright sadistic. Human life is a valuable thing. We need to treat people with dignity and respect. However this view is not consistent with the bible. If anyone has gone to hell at any stage then this doctrine is false. 

2) Then on the other side of the scale is a hypothetical universalism, simply stated it means that what Jesus did on the cross made salvation possible for everyone, but only to those who add it to their response of faith and repentance. So in essence salvation is not secured for anyone, but only to those who respond by faith. Someone who holds this belief would say things like “Hell is full of people who have been forgiven, but have not accepted that forgiveness.”

3) Thirdly there is the view of the limited atonement, which states that Jesus died for the sins of a certain group of people, the ones whom he chose to be saved. Simply stated it says that Jesus paid the price for the sins of those HE chose to be saved, that is the elect and not everyone. We’ll explore this more as we go on.

Let me make it clear that I’m not going to discuss universalism much more, but rather I feel the debate is between points 2 and 3.

When you first mention the words “Limited Atonement” you can get a variety of responses. I think the terms confuse people who think that you might in some way be limiting God. But that is just a misunderstanding, actually both groups 2 and 3 limit the atonement. One limits its power and the other its application.

Groupe 2 or the Hypothetical Universalism makes salvation possible for everyone, but says that salvation is not secure for anyone. So what Jesus did on the cross did not accomplish anything but to make another way for salvation possible. Let me start by saying that I completely reject this view, and find it completely unbiblical. In order for this view to be true God’s Grace would have to be made of no effect, that is to say God’s word would have to return VOID. We’ll look at some scriptures shortly.
The Reformed position is that Jesus died for the sins of those whom he chose to be saved. The atonement for sins is limited to the Elect.

Ok lets go back to the Old Testament, when the High Priest would offer a sacrifice to atone for sins, who do he offer the sacrifice for, and for whom was the atonement made? Israel, in other words God’s chosen people. The sacrifice did not cover any other nations at all.
This is an important theme that runs throughout the Bible, that the atonement was for a specific group of people. Paul tells us in Colossians that these things were a shadow of things to come, but the substance is Christ. Paul is telling us that Jesus is our High Priest. No longer do we have to offer animal sacrifices, as we now have Jesus as our mediator between God and ourselves. Hebrews 1 tells us that Jesus is seated at the right hand of majesty on high, signifying a completion to His work. He is still our mediator but this is meant to show us that God has accepted his sacrifice for sins once and for all.  Jesus has done what He said he would, he has fufilled the Law.  

For me the most startling would be the words of Jesus himself. 

John 10:14-16 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.Note the language here, Jesus lays down His life for HIS sheep. Not ALL sheep. Jesus is using this metaphor to show us that what he is about to do is for a very specific group of people. We can also surmise that other sheep he has does not mean all sheep either, but is more than likely referring to Gentiles as the other group.

 John 10:26-27 “but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”This is a great passage of scripture. Jesus is confronting a group of Jews who have asked him to publically state that He is the Christ. Jesus’s response is brilliant. You do not believe because you are not my sheep. Clearly there are two groups here, the sheep that belong to Jesus and the sheep that do not. People who do not believe that Jesus is Lord do so because they are not His sheep.
The crux I want to push of this verse is that Jesus says he gives eternal life to HIS SHEEP, and also that they will never perish, they are eternally secure, nothing can snatch them out of Jesus’ hand.

 In order for salvation to simply be possible for all men but secure for none we would have to remove a lot of what Jesus said in the book of John. A lot of people have used John 3:16 to say that God loves the world and sent his son for the world. Fair enough. I’m sure that God does love everyone, but that does not cancel out the fact that He has chosen a certain number of people to be saved.
If that was the case then John’s gospel has a definate contradiction and should be removed from the Canon of Scripture. The words of Jesus in John 10 and John 17 are impossible to reconcile with that position. Romans 9 tells us that God has prepared some vessels for Glory and others for destruction, and endures those he created for destruction with much long suffering. This is alluding to his Love, as long suffering is a fruit of Love as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13.

The Salvation Jesus won for us on the cross was infinite in its power but limited in it who it was applied to. The Biblical picture painted for salvation is not that of a change of mind, its not simply a new way of thinking, but rather Regeneration. Paul declares boldly that if anyone be in Christ he is a new creation, the old has passed away. The picture is not of bad men being made Good and being told how to be continually, but rather of dead men being given life. Its not a picture of a dirty heart being made clean for a time, but rather of a whole new heart being placed inside the believer.
We readily admit that Jesus worked miracles in the physical realm, but why do we deny that he can work the same things in the spiritual? The Atonement was a miracle. God put on flesh and dwelt among us, paying the full penalty that was due to us.




2 responses

6 06 2008

This is a fantastic summary of the most controversial of the ‘5’ points of Calvinism. Clear, concise, and articulate. Your first sentence strikes me at my core, as I am so easily frustrated with those whose theologies are inconsistent. Of course the irony is that I’m sure my covenantal worldview has it’s flaws as well. Thanks for the post.

6 06 2008

Thanks for the comment, my aim is to try and provide some concise summary of some theological concepts. I’m really concerned for the lack of biblical literacy amongst Christians these days. I hope to help those who are genuinely interested in learning and growing in Jesus Christ.

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