I noted in a recent post that there is no verse that straightforwardly confirms limited atonement, the belief that Jesus died only for the elect. On the flip side, there seems to be plenty of verses that flat out contradict it, which Calvinists have to deal with in order to preserve the L in TULIP. In this post, I want to focus on 1 Timothy 4:10, another problematic text for the Calvinist position.
Here’s the verse: “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers” (NASB). It is the relative clause that gets the bulk of the attention here, and it is obvious why: On face value, it sounds like God is the Savior of everyone but is the Savior in a special way for believers. This would flow quite nicely with unlimited atonement: Through Christ’s atoning death for everyone, God is the Savior of all, but this atonement is only applied to those who believe.
Such a reading, however, would contradict limited atonement, so Calvinists have proposed several ways of reading this verse. I’ll summarize and evaluate the ones that I am familiar with, and it will be shown that these attempts fail to make a convincing exegetical case and often rely on dubious word studies, faulty reasoning, and de-contextualized readings in order to preserve a dogged allegiance to a system.
I had a post on limited atonement lined up for today, but a controversy hit my school recently and I wanted to address it.
Social Media Fail
Yesterday, I bought Dr. David Allen’s The Extent of the Atonement for Kindle and scanned through some of it. I wholeheartedly encourage the reader to buy it also for a measly $10 (though the physical version is like $40). Little did I know that later that night, Dr. Allen would be apologizing for something outside the scholarly world. He and some professors posted this picture on Twitter:
Lol, wow. Predictably, cries of racism flew around the internet, both from within and without Southern Baptists, and the pictures were taken down. Everyone involved apologized. Dr. Patterson, the school’s president, also wrote a lengthy apology. Dr. Allen in particular gave an apology without qualification and said that “context is immaterial” for their joke picture.
And here is where I would disagree with Dr. Allen, though I understand his wish to give an unconditional apology. Context is not immaterial. We should always, always, look at context and also give charitable interpretations, even if we do still end up disagreeing with someone’s words or actions.
This picture was apparently given to a preaching professor here who recently got a job at a church and was therefore moving on. Dr. Vern Charette evidently raps as a hobby and even had a section where he rapped in a chapel sermon, so some professors thought they would give him a silly picture as a going-away gift. With this context in mind, does it make it wise to post a joke photo like that, knowing that the entire internet is not going to immediately know the context? No, it doesn’t. I’m actually very surprised none of those men thought, “Hey, this can easily get misinterpreted, so let’s either not do this in the first place or at least just keep it as a private joke among friends who know our intent and the context.” Given our hyper-sensitive culture these days, where even stating bare facts like “There’s a very high rate of single-motherhood in the black community” can draw accusations of racism, it was foolish to post that online. That’s not to excuse our hyper-sensitive culture, but surely a joke like that is not worth the controversy and potential damage to the witness of the professors as well as that of the seminary. It also does not help that the Southern Baptist Convention started on the wrong side of American slavery back in the 19th century and had to repent of that many years ago.
HOUSTON, TX – Land of Silk and Money (LSM), a local church pastored by Jerry B. Pound, has added a new spiritual gift shop to their already existing store full of self-help books, motivational audio, prayer cloths, the pastor’s prayers in tongues, and pamphlets about seed-planting (no Bibles were reportedly seen). The church boasts 25,000 members and 269,000 square feet of land, but Pound says that many of those members have asked what spiritual gift they have. In order to help them out, he decided to add this spiritual gift shop that allowed anyone to purchase the spiritual gift of their choice, either for themselves or someone else.
“I got asked so many times about spiritual gifts, and I thought, ‘Hey, Jerry, isn’t this another example of planting seeds?'” said Pound, who flies back to his Florida beach house every week on his private jet. “If you can plant seeds and get the car of your choice, I don’t see why you can’t also get the spiritual gift that you want.”
Though spiritual gifts aren’t tangible, they are represented in the store by cards with text on them and envelopes for future giving that increases those gifts. The initial price of a spiritual gift varied based upon its importance, a level deemed by Pound and his staff. Here is a list of some of the gifts and their price tag:
Two years ago, I went to Brooklyn, NY to help out with a children’s summer program. We worked alongside high school youth and somewhat less so with older middle school youth, who were the primary workers for that seven-week period (a new outside team comes every week to help them out). Though most of our team was not able to spend as much time with the youth as we would have liked, we still enjoyed working with them and hanging out with them. That was the first time our church went to their “Summer Splash,” and our church sent another team last summer which I was not a part of. Our English pastor in particular has developed a bond with the youth there, so this year, we tried something new: A youth retreat of sorts.
Our church sent a team of four to run this conference/retreat which was primarily aimed at the youth, though there were a couple of kids who were younger. It is spring break for them, but spring break in Texas tends to be in March; it came at an awkward time because this is when school kind of picks up with papers and assignments (I had to do one while I was there). Still, it was a great blessing to come, teach, and get to know these youth more.
I’ve written several articles critiquing the interpretation and logic of those who advocate limited atonement, the contention that Christ died only for the elect. I’ll now discuss their use of verses that they think give a positive case for limited atonement.
Intellectually honest Calvinists will admit that no text in Scripture explicitly teaches limited atonement: There is no verse that says that Christ died for the elect only or at least explicitly denies that Christ died for everyone. However, many Calvinists will argue that this is no big deal. There is no verse, after all, that explicitly spells out the Trinity or Incarnation, yet those are considered not only clear scriptural teachings but central doctrines of the faith. The reason that the Incarnation is certain, for example, is that there are texts that teach that Christ was a man and others that teach that he was God. It takes only a small step of logic to put them together and conclude that Christ was both fully God and fully man. Likewise, all it takes, according to Calvinists, is a small logical step from certain passages to reach limited atonement.
The texts they typically use are passages that teach that Christ died for a select group of people. Here are a few examples:
John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
Acts 20:28: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”
Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her…”
Other verses can be offered, but these are enough to get the picture. While none of these verses state that Christ died for the elect only, Calvinists argue that it is nonetheless reasonable to make this conclusion.
LOS ANGELES, CA – Several parents of Asian descent at local churches were surveyed and interviewed in the Los Angeles area concerning the parenting of one of the highest profile parents that they know, God the Father. Surveys showed that 64% of them strongly disapproved, moderately disapproved, or slightly disapproved of the Father’s parenting skills and of how Jesus his Son turned out. An additional 13% did not necessarily disapprove but chose the option of “Kind condescension.”
“Look, Jesus was a nice guy, but his Father obviously never pushed him in school and to get good grades,” said Dae Jung Cho, ruling elder of Korean Presbyterian Church of Koreanness. “Now look at his Son, Jesus. He did not become a lawyer or a doctor. He didn’t even become an engineer or an accountant. He became a carpenter, a carpenter, like his step-dad… and that’s not even mentioning how shady that is.”
One of the major reasons why there was the Protestant split with the Catholic church was over the nature of justification. Luther and others argued for justification by faith alone, while the Catholic Church reiterated its commitment to justification by faith and works. I affirm justification by faith alone, though I know that Catholics understand justification a little differently (they do not make a sharp distinction between justification and sanctification), so it is an oversimplification to accuse the Catholic Church of teaching a gross works-righteousness.
Protestants are armed with many texts, such as Eph. 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (NASB). However, while the Reformers harped on passages like this, the Catholic Church had James 2:14-26, which includes the famous phrase, “Faith without works is dead” (2:26b). Due to this and other issues, Luther had doubts about the book of James and is famous for calling it “an epistle of straw.” While he seems to have retracted that statement and eventually accepted a harmonization between it and the Pauline epistles, he clearly favored the latter.
Protestants have since readily explained that while salvation is by faith alone, a true faith will always produce good works if given the time. This is often stated, “Salvation is by faith alone, but faith is never alone.” This is why Paul states after Eph. 2:8-9 in v. 10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” However, while this seems straightforward, it turns out that this is not so easy to see in James 2:14-26 on face value. James says in 2:24: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” which a Catholic might say is about as clear a repudiation of justification by faith alone as you can ask for. Thus, Protestants should give a careful account of this passage, just as Catholics need to deal carefully with passages like Ephesians 2. I hope to do so below, though I will neglect giving background information for space considerations.