Failed Attempts to Rescue Limited Atonement From 1 Timothy 4:10

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.

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Prooftexts for Limited Atonement and the Negative Inference Fallacy

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.

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Can Calvinists Make a Meaningful Distinction Between the Sufficiency and Efficacy of the Atonement?

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.

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Evaluating John Owen’s Trilemma and Double Payment Argument for Limited Atonement

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:

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Intent and Extent: A Backfiring Argument For Limited Atonement and a Potential Problem for Four-Pointers

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.

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Another Misused Verse to Defend Limited Atonement: John 17:9

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:

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

Theories of the Atonement: Can I Sort of Say “All of the Above?”

In recent years, there has been more talk among Protestant/evangelical circles around the nature of the atonement.  More specifically, there is increased disagreement on penal-substitutionary atonement and more emphasis put on others.  Many evangelicals, mostly in the Reformed camp, have aggressively defended penal-substitutionary atonement as THE theory of the atonement, and I heard one Reformed radio host say that “everything” about Christianity hinged on penal-substitution.  Other Christians have grown uncomfortable with the notion that God needed to “vent his wrath” on somebody just to feel good enough to start forgiving, and penal-substitution has been likened to divine child abuse.

Theories of the atonement of Christ are very important because Christ’s death and resurrection are among the key, foundational claims of the Christian faith.  Christians should attempt to try to explain what exactly happened, and any view of the atonement that expressly avoids accounting for sin and the need for something like the cross are sorely lacking.  However, I must say that while I find the debate interesting, I also find it a bit puzzling.  All of these theories of the atonement are mostly analogies that we use to try to understand Christ’s work, and none of them capture everything that we see in Scripture and all of them can start breaking down when we push that analogy to its limits.  The atonement is ultimately a mystery, and while that does not mean we just throw up our hands and use the “mystery” card, it does mean that we have to be cognizant of the fact that any single theory probably won’t encompass everything.

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Is Limited Atonement Consistent With a Bona Fide Invitation of the Gospel?

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.

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1 John 2:2 Part II

As I continued to think about 1 John 2:2 and my previous post, it occurred to me that a five-point Calvinist could try to avoid the problem of assuming a Jewish Christian audience for 1 John and argue that while John 11 and 1 John 2:2 are about different groups of people (Israel in the former and the recipient church in the latter), they nonetheless share the same pattern to teach that Jesus’ death is only for the elect.  The pattern would look like this:

John 11:51-52:

1.  He won’t just die for the elect here (Israel).
2.  He will also die to gather the elect scattered abroad (nations).

John 2:2:

1.  He didn’t just die for the elect here (the particular church).
2.  He also died to gather the elect in the world (nations).

Still not looking at context

This attempt would be slightly better, but it still has several serious problems:

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An Overemphasis on Parallelism by Five-Point Calvinists in Interpreting 1 John 2:2

Recently, I listened to a 2008 lecture by John Piper on the nature of the atonement.  As a five-point Calvinist, Piper adheres to limited atonement, the belief that Jesus died only for the elect.  Out of all the five points, it is probably the most heavily disputed, so much so that even people who wish to be full five-pointers cannot bring themselves to accept it due to the extremely difficult texts they must face.  In his hour-long lecture, Piper introduces the topic and also tries to give both logical and biblical justifications for the third letter of TULIP.  While I disagree with many things he said during the lecture, I will focus here on his interpretation of 1 John 2:2, which reads:

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (ESV)

This verse is considered one of the strongest verses, if not the strongest verse, against limited atonement, and it’s not hard to see why on face value.  One of my professors in seminary said that he would like to be a five point Calvinist, but he simply could not get past this singular verse and accept limited atonement.  Clearly, Calvinists have to give a persuasive interpretation of 1 John 2:2, among other things, if limited atonement can be considered good biblical doctrine.

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