A few months ago, I went to a regional meeting for the Evangelical Theological Society at Southwestern Seminary, and while I was only able to attend one day of it, I got to hear some interesting papers. One presentation was by a Reformed philosopher who advanced an argument against the consistency of believing in eternal security–the belief that once someone is truly saved, he cannot lose his salvation–while also believing in libertarian free will (positions that are arguably held by the majority of conservative Southern Baptists). It was an interesting paper and he presented it with passion, though I ultimately did not find it very convincing. I think his mistake is that he presented a false analogy with another argument that he believed people make against Calvinism, which makes his parallel argument against eternal security unsound. Keep in mind that he believes in eternal security; he only presented the latter argument as a way to show that Christians can’t have both libertarian free will and perseverance.
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’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.
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.
In part one, I laid out my methodology and analyzed the argument that 9:30-33 is discontinuous with the first 29 verses of chapter 9. I looked at the usages of the phrase “What shall we say then” and concluded that it does not in fact signal a major shift in perspective but rather a smooth transition that readily connects with what comes before. I think this preliminary analysis tips the scales towards a non-Calvinistic interpretation of Romans 9 because 9:30-33 clearly emphasizes faith, so Calvinists like Thomas Schreiner are not justified in trying to make a big point that Paul neglects to mention faith before this.
We now get to the meat of chapter 9. Again, to prevent this from being even longer than it is, I will not address every single issue in absolute detail, but I do hope to give a textually-driven interpretation of this chapter that shows that a non-Calvinistic view is not only plausible and responsible, such that Christians who hold to some similar interpretation are not obviously flouting good interpretive principles, but may also be superior to the Reformed case. This is also a good time to reiterate that I respect my Calvinist brothers and have read several of their commentaries and listened to a few of their sermons on this (I’ll repeat that Schreiner’s work is especially very good). This is just disagreement within the body of Christ.
I and a partner are currently teaching through a series on Romans for our church’s Sunday School, and we have recently gone through Romans 9-11. All of these chapters can be challenging, but Romans 9 in particular is notorious for being one of the most difficult and debated chapters in the Bible. It is also one of the most, if not the most, important prooftexts for the Calvinist position, and that makes it a hotbed for a lot of disagreement (some Arminians, in turn, claim that Romans 9 proves their position). I hope to address the chapter here succinctly, carefully, yet civilly, though it will not be possible to address every single issue fully without making these posts absurdly long.
Tackling a chapter like this in an efficient manner is challenging, but I’ll try to lay out my methodology:
-It is widely accepted that 9-11 is one unit, but for space considerations my focus will be on chapter 9. The other two chapters will be mentioned in passing when helpful. This will no doubt be a deficiency in these posts, but it is practical.
-Paul uses several Old Testament references that cause a lot of interpretive issues. My working assumption will be that the original contexts of those references will be helpful to look at because while NT writers may do some new things with OT texts, I don’t think we can say that they changed what they meant to their original audience without seriously jeopardizing the trustworthiness of God’s Word.
-I will focus on what Paul wants to answer and largely assume that he avoids wild tangents. To see his argument, I think it will be particularly helpful to first focus on both his introduction and his conclusion, similar to how one might get the gist of an academic paper by reading its introduction, scanning its body, and then reading its conclusion. This helps one see where the author starts and where he plans to end up. Granted, not all academic papers are written well and coherently, but in this case, I think it is fair to expect the inspired writer Paul to make sense.
-This post will focus on issues regarding the introduction and conclusion, and the next will address the body.
With these things in mind, I’ll begin.
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.
Comprehensive exams are coming up for me… but let’s talk theology! 🙂
Since I’ve written several times on what I believe to be the errors of limited atonement from biblical, logical, and practical standpoints, I have already addressed the double payment or double jeopardy argument before in passing. I will try to discuss the argument here in more detail and further describe why it fails to be convincing. Essentially, it relies on problematic assumptions while introducing serious problems regarding the importance of faith. Thus, not only does it not suffice to overcome all of the other problems of limited atonement that I’ve talked about before, it’s not even a powerful argument in itself, no matter how straightforward it seems.
John Owen’s Trilemma
Most modern Calvinists hold to a view of limited atonement that is more or less inherited from John Owen. I want to point out that not all 5-point Calvinists think the following argument is a good one (some people claim that neither Calvin nor Edwards held to such a view). However, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that this argument is indicative of the most popular rendering of limited atonement by most these days.
Owen sought to back non-Calvinists in a corner with a trilemma that forced them to concede that limited atonement, the view that Christ only died for the elect, is the only possible view. He gives three options for the Christian. Christ died for:
This post will be yet another on the subject of limited atonement. Here, I will address another common argument from Calvinists that comes more from alleged logic than exegesis.
I’ve heard many Calvinists, including combative Calvinist James White, derogatorily say something along the lines of, “You can’t talk about extent without first talking about intent!” when confronted with texts that teach against limited atonement. The idea here is that if God only intended to save a few by unconditional election of individuals, then that intent of salvation logically leads to the idea that Jesus only died for his elect. In other words, if that was God’s intent, then the extent of Jesus’ atonement should not be contrary to it, so it too is limited. Another example of this is John MacArthur here, who, in a roundabout way, argues along similar lines and also brings up the double jeopardy argument. MacArthur plays way too many word games with “limited” and “unlimited” here that distract from the main point, like many Callvinists do, but I will not focus on the entirety of his sermon but instead deal with this argument of intent to extent.
I have written a few articles now on the errors of logic and interpretation of proponents of limited atonement, particularly their interpretation of 1 John 2:2. There is another Johannine verse that I think they take out of context: John 17:9. The verse reads like this:
9 I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. (ESV)
Clearly, Calvinists say, Jesus was not concerned about the salvation of the world but only for his elect, which in turn is defined the way they see it. They often use this verse to counter interpretations of John 3:16 of God loving everyone in the world. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen this verse used in support of limited atonement and sometimes unconditional election, ranging from Reformed websites, internet comments, personal conversations, and published works from Calvinist pastors and scholars. However, when looking at the larger context, this one-verse prooftext falls flat by simply reading on in the passage and understanding whom Jesus is talking about. The section in which John 17:9 appears is as follows: Continue reading