A while ago, I wrote about John Owen’s famous trilemma argument in favor of limited atonement and criticized its shortcomings. I noted that it is reliant on a commercialist view of the atonement, which is faulty, and that it diminishes the importance of faith. Philosophical arguments like that one are not out of bounds by nature and can guide interpretation, but it is not nearly strong enough to overturn better interpretations of passages such as 1 John 2:2 that speak against limited atonement.
Now, I want to discuss another problem for Calvinists who advocate the double payment argument. Many of them insist that though there is a sense in which Christ did not die for everyone, there is another sense in which he did. In other words, while Christ’s blood and sacrifice is sufficient for everyone, it is efficient only for the elect. I think this, along with the double payment argument, leads to a contradiction. Even for those few Calvinists who reject Owen’s argument, this distinction is meaningless and confused.
Explaining the distinction
The primary motivator for this distinction is that it makes many Christians uncomfortable describing Christ’s atonement as “limited.” Isn’t the blood of the Son of God infinitely valuable? Wouldn’t such a sacrifice easily cover the sins of men? How can Calvinists give genuine invitations of the Gospel if the reprobate have no provision given to them? Since Calvinists do not want to sound like they’re limiting the value of Christ’s blood (which is why some try to distance themselves from the word “limited” and advocate something like “particular” or “definite” atonement), they have tried to make the above distinction between sufficiency and efficacy.
On the face of it, this distinction is unproblematic and one non-Calvinists make all the time. However, merely saying something as vague and generic as, “Christ’s blood has infinite value but only applies to those who believe” fails to explain what makes limited atonement different. Why should anyone bother being a Calvinist then?
The answer Calvinists give is purpose. Many Calvinists try to make limited atonement about God’s original design. They rhetorically ask: Did God have a plan of salvation, or did he just hope that people would believe, wringing his hands in nervousness? Since God is sovereign, he clearly sent Christ to die specifically for his elect. Thus, many Calvinists will say that while the merit and value of Christ’s death is unlimited, God’s plan was such that he unilaterally and unconditionally chose the people to whom the atonement would apply. Therefore, Christ’s payment is sufficient for all but not effective for all.
Contradiction and meaninglessness
There are several problems with this distinction for Calvinists, and I’ll touch on a few here, first for those who advocate of the double payment argument (which in my experience covers the majority of Calvinists) and then for those who may not.
Recall how Owen’s double payment argument contends that since unbelief is a sin, it is impossible for Jesus to have paid for the sins of the unelect because if he did, they would all believe (and most Christians are not universalists). Again, this is a commercialist view of the atonement: Every sin is covered in a quantitative way by the blood of Christ. Owen’s argument necessarily rests on this notion or it falls apart. However, if this is the case, then Christ’s sacrifice cannot be sufficient for all because there can be no provision made for all of the sins of all men. In essence, due to the very purpose of the atonement, the price paid by Jesus is limited to the sins of the elect. If that is the case, to say that Christ’s death is “sufficient” for all is to either talk hypothetically, which is hardly useful, or to fall into contradiction.
The contradiction is derived like this:
- The double payment argument is true. (granted)
- Christ’s blood is sufficient for all. (granted)
- If the double payment argument is true, then a commercialist view of the atonement is true.
- If a commercialist view of the atonement is true, then Jesus quantitatively died only for the sins of some.
- If Jesus died quantitatively for the sins of some, then his blood did not provide payment for the sins of all.
- If his blood did not provide payment for the sins of all, then it is not sufficient for all.
- Christ’s blood is not sufficient for all (working through the simple logic of #2-6).
2 and 7 are contradictions. Calvinists who rely on Owen’s trilemma argument are in no position to say that Christ’s atoning sacrifice is sufficient for all in any meaningful sense of the word “sufficient.” Calvinists are quick to respond that, as the Son of God, Christ’s blood is of infinite value by nature, but this is hardly in dispute and also not the issue. The issue is whether or not Calvinists can hold to the payment of Christ’s blood as actually having infinite value. If not, then they are being misleading when they preach “sufficient for all” because this “sufficiency” is hypothetical in nature. Sure, if God wanted to save everyone, he could have expanded Christ’s payment to everyone, but he didn’t and thus the payment is limited in a quantitative manner. In what sense is Christ’s atoning work sufficient then? In theory? In fact, according to Owen’s argument, the very reason why the atonement is effective for only some is because it is sufficient for only them as well.
This problem even bleeds over to Calvinists who do not advocate Owen’s argument. It is still worth asking them how Christ’s atoning sacrifice is in any way “sufficient” in a meaningful sense if God unilaterally elected some to damnation. Imagine if a billionaire was talking to someone struggling with medical bills and told him, “My bank account is ‘sufficient’ to pay for your bills, but I have no desire that you have any of it.” That would hardly be good news. In this case, it is misleading to say that a sufficient payment has been made for everyone because there never was any intention to cover the sins of the reprobate with Christ’s blood. Again, this “sufficiency” is adequate only in theory if God decided to act differently. This is why I questioned Piper’s contention that Calvinists can give bona fide invitations to faith.
Also, regarding the argument from God’s original purpose: It is a bit of a red herring and erroneously contends that God could not have other means to ensure his plan in addition to the atoning work of Christ. The issue is not about God’s plan; after all, most flavors of evangelicals, from Arminians to Molinists, will speak about the certainty of God’s overall plan. Even evangelical open theists will advocate the certainty of God’s victory and acquisition of his Church. The question is simply this: Did Jesus die for the sins of all? Is his atoning work actually sufficient for everyone’s sin? Those Calvinists who flatly say no here are the most consistent.
It is popular for Calvinists to hold to the idea that Christ’s atoning work is sufficient for all because they do not want critics accusing them of limiting the value of Christ’s death. However, their own theology makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to say this. For those who hold to the double payment argument, it is a flat contradiction to say that Christ’s death is sufficient for all without smuggling in a different sense of the word “sufficient.” For them, Christ’s death is effective for some precisely because it is sufficient for them. Even for those who don’t agree with that argument, there doesn’t seem to be a meaningful sense in which the atoning sacrifice is sufficient for all, at least not in a meaningful enough way to preach it.