I’ve spent the last couple of posts addressing typical Calvinist interpretations of 1 John 2:2, particularly John Piper’s, so I might as well move on to address a different issue within the debate on the atonement: Can adherents of limited atonement justifiably hold that they can give genuine invitations to everyone for salvation?
Piper believes so. In fact, he doesn’t see the non-Calvinist/Arminian formulation of the atonement as contradictory to limited atonement; he simply believes that Calvinists think that the atonement did more. In his lecture, he wholeheartedly agrees with non-Calvinists that the Gospel makes salvation possible for all if only they believe. In this manner, he agrees that there is some universal benefit for the atonement. However, he thinks that Calvinists simply add on to this by stating that the atonement actually purchased faith for the elect. Thus, he thinks that Calvinists can give a bona fide invitation to everyone: Whoever believes will be saved.
Before I interact with his position, let me make this clear: I am not questioning Piper’s or any other Calvinist’s heart when it comes to evangelism. I have no doubt that Piper and others share the Gospel with a genuine spirit, and I thank God for men like him who do so. Even John MacArthur admitted to feeling tension between evangelism and limited atonement but simply holds that we are to share the Gospel freely because Scripture commands it, and I don’t doubt his heart to obey God either. This is not a question of the genuineness of their actions or character; it’s a question of consistency.
Still, consistency is helpful with understanding why we are to share the Gospel, and in this regard, advocates of limited atonement have a problem on their hands.
More tension than Piper admits
Piper says that he can “preach like an Arminian” in the sense that he can give a genuine invitation for all to come to faith. However, there is something amiss on how he defines a “bona fide” invitation, and it is also unclear what benefit the un-elect get from the atonement when it does not cover them. Limited atonement by definition limits the extent of Christ’s death to only cover the elect. If so, then God, by his own intention, has not provided payment or substitute for the un-elect. In other words, it is misleading to tell people “whosoever believes will be saved” because for those that God did not choose, no provision was even made for them to begin with.
Let me illustrate it this way: Let’s say I pay for tuition for a select few college students in my ministry. I unilaterally choose which ones. If I were to tell the entire ministry that, if they only accept, my payment would apply to their account, it would not be a genuine offer because no payment was even made for those I did not choose. This would be true even if I somehow knew beforehand who would accept or reject the gift. It would make it worse if I unilaterally determined who accepts or rejects the gift; it is a bizarre definition of “bona fide invitation” when I am not only not providing anything for a person but also causing him not to accept this nonexistent payment for him, but this is exactly what Calvinists hold (or have to hold, if they wish to be consistent) that God does.
Calvinists may shoot back that they can still say “whoever believes will be saved” because everyone who has faith was regenerated prior to believing. However, this still makes the phrase misleading. When John 3:16 or Romans 10:9 state that when someone believes they will have eternal life or be saved, the future tense is used to show that salvation is a result of faith. These verses do not state you confess faith because you are already saved, though I have heard Calvinists attempt to make this unwarranted interpretation of Romans 10:9. Furthermore, rendering, “Whoever believes will be saved” to mean this would make it merely a statement of fact rather than an actual invitation. It would simply be a matter of description that those who are already regenerated and saved will confess faith, and those who do not believe were just not elected by God. However, this is not enough for Calvinists like Piper who want to affirm that they are preaching genuine invitations to believe: If you believe, you will be saved. Small wonder why more consistent Calvinists than Piper have criticized invitations to come to faith after sermons or have advocated sharing the Gospel in a manner like this: “Jesus died for sinners… like you,” with a clear avoidance to entreat them to believe because they cannot know for sure if Jesus actually died for that person.
Piper is therefore mistaken to think that he can affirm how non-Calvinists view the atonement and evangelism and also hold to limited atonement on top of that. He cannot say that Jesus died for everyone, and if that is the case, then he cannot consistently believe that he is giving out genuine invitations to all men because no benefit of the atonement was ever even given to them. He thus cannot consistently “preach like an Arminian,” as he claims.
As I noted above, Calvinists like MacArthur seem more aware of the problems here but nonetheless preach the Gospel faithfully because they are commanded to. I am glad they walk in obedience with God, but in this case, I think the tension is unnecessary. There will always be areas of theology that stump us because we are limited human beings, but that does not mean tension, and especially glaring inconsistencies, are preferable if they can be biblically and logically avoided. In the case of the atonement, not only does the non-Calvinist have a much better biblical case, they can consistently and confidently tell the lost, “Jesus died for the sins of everyone; whosoever believes will be saved.” That is good news, indeed.