I personally do not hold to the doctrine of limited atonement as I understand it. I can get there theologically, and the idea doesn’t bother or offend me—but I can’t get there exegetically. I find efforts to get around 1 John 2:2 to be just that. I have not made the doctrine a matter of intense study, however, or at least not for a long while. There are two many doctrines and too few hours. At some point you have to stake your claim and live as if your theology is true even if you feel all too aware of your insufficient grasp of the finer points. That doesn’t mean you aren’t semper reformanda (always reforming, always being “sanctified,” even in your theological knowledge). That doesn’t mean you forget to be humble before people who know more and yet disagree with you—or that you refuse to read their books. It just means that even the most gifted Christian intellectuals can’t keep track of every argument on every theological issue. And what about us normal guys who still have to write theology for the church?
We can’t all be experts, but there are some basics that it’s fair to expect of anyone who engages in theological debate or pretends to the title “theologian.” And a correct definition of limited atonement is one of them. Theological dialogue within the church simply cannot get anywhere if participants refuse to state their opponents’ viewpoints in a way congenial to those opponents. So I found this paragraph at the beginning of the new, definitive (?) work on definite atonement (which I have only skimmed) to be exceptionally helpful and clear:
Definite atonement says something essential about Christ’s death, but it does not say everything there is to say. There are many aspects of the atonement which need to be affirmed alongside its definite intent and nature: the sufficiency of Christ’s death for all; the free and indiscriminate proclamation of the gospel to all; God’s love for the non-elect and his salvific stance toward a fallen world…. Definite atonement does not exhaust the meaning of the cross. (34)
It just isn’t fair, it isn’t right, for opponents of TULIP to talk—as they almost always do at the popular level, in my experience (there are responsible exceptions)—as if Calvinists…
- …don’t believe Christ’s death was sufficient for all.
- …refuse to proclaim the gospel to every person.
- …deny that God loves the whole world, including the non-elect.
- …deny that God wants the whole world to be saved.
Once Calvinists are allowed to carefully express their viewpoint on these matters, their opponents are permitted to argue that Calvinism leads inexorably toward 1) denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s blood, 2) weakened evangelism, and 3–4) Jefferson-like X-acto knifing of John 3:16 and 1 Tim 2:4. But they may not say that Calvinists purposefully and self-consciously deny, weaken, and excise these things, respectively. If an Arminian can’t see how a Calvinist holds Limited Atonement together with the doctrines in that paragraph above, it’s fair to say so. But he can’t talk as if Calvinists, whether secretly or openly, don’t see it either.
Remember, I haven’t even said what my viewpoint is on T, U, I, and P. Even an ardent zero-pointer should be able to affirm the limited point of this blog post. I invite them to do so.