I originally intended only three posts on Calvinism, but one of my readers requested a post specifically about Limited Atonement, which is what really irks the Arminians and even some fellow Calvinists. First we have to define our terminology. Limited Atonement, the L in the famous Calvinist TULIP, maintains that, while Christ’s death on the Cross was perfect enough to cover every sin, it really covers and was intended only to cover the sins of the Elect.
Arminians claim that they believe that Christ died to cover every sin. In fact, I remember a discussion with one who posited that, once in everybody’s life, God presents them with the Gospel in some particularly clear way and that your eternal destiny is determined by what you decide at that moment. I would have loved to see his Scriptural reference to that.
The fact is, though, no one can believe in an absolutely unlimited atonement and remain Scriptural very long. If Christ truly lived and died for everyone, then everyone’s forgiven and righteous in God’s sight and belongs in Heaven. That means Hitler and Stalin are enjoying the same blessedness as Peter and Paul. That means that the Pharisees who committed the Unpardonable Sin are going to break bread with Jesus at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. We all know, or at least we all should know, that’s completely fallacious. After all, why should we warn people about Hell if no one has the slightest chance of going there?
Well, most Arminians back-peddle here and say, “Jesus died to cover every sin, except unbelief.” That’s kind of a real step backwards because unbelief is the fundamental sin. Jesus said that the people who shrugged Him off in Capernaum were going to receive worse punishment than the men of Sodom, who tried to heinously violate the then-sacrosanct law of hospitality by gang-raping angels and got wiped off the map for it! When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they were doing so because they refused to believe God’s promises, goodness, and wisdom in placing a limit on them. Given that unbelief is at the root of every sin, if Jesus didn’t die to cover it, one wonders what He did die to cover.
At any rate, at this point the Calvinist rejoins, “So you concede the atonement was limited in some way. Now we’re just trying to demarcate the boundaries.” Jesus has already done that for us, however. He said, “I lay down My life for the sheep,” not, “I lay down My life for the sheep and the goats” (John 10:15, KJV). That the sheep here means the Elect is clear from His continuation that, “Ye believe not because ye are not of my sheep” (v. 26). In other words, if you don’t believe, Christ didn’t die for you. (Note also the order here. He says, “You don’t believe because you’re not of the sheep,” not, “You’re not of the sheep because you don’t believe.”) And in John 17:9, as Jesus is pouring out His soul to the Father before His death, He specifically says He doesn’t have the world on His mind, but only the Elect.
Arminians believe that God does 99% and they do 1%, but it’s what I call a “Montgomery” 99%. After a division of British paratroopers was all but wiped out at Arnhem, Field Marshal Montgomery, typically, claimed that Operation Market-Garden was 90% successful. After all, it had taken 90% of the territory that the plan had called for. The problem was, the 10% not taken was the Rhine bridge, which was the whole point of the operation! In much the same way, God can do everything He possibly can with all the love and grace that’s in Him, but unless that person chooses Him, all of Christ’s efforts are for naught. In Arminian theory, God could have made His Son a curse and a public spectacle to no purpose with everyone rejecting His offer. Or, put another way, Arminians believe that they go to Heaven because they did something the other fellow didn’t. That sounds like salvation by a work, if not salvation by works with an S. Getting salvation by choosing Christ is still getting salvation by doing something.
I will say I don’t think Arminians believe in their theology because they’re trying to rob God of some of His glory in salvation (they just do). Instead, they have the otherwise laudable intention of upholding the honor of God and His justice. The problem is that they start from a false assumption. They believe that, in order for God to be just, He has to love everyone equally. This is imposing a human standard on Scripture, which says, “Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor” (Romans 9:21, KJV), and, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (v. 13). Yes, it also says, “For there is no partiality with God,” in Romans 2:11, but this is in the context of God’s judicial standard and process, from which no one is exempt. The person who said that God shows no partiality, St. Paul, would most readily affirm that for two millennia there was a vast inequality in God’s treatment of the world. He didn’t give His written Law, prophets, priests, or anointed kings to every nation, but only to Israel. He lovingly saved a few Gentiles through Israel’s witness, but the psalmist made plain about God’s dealings with Israel that, “He hath not dealt so with any nation, and as for His judgments, they have not known them” (Psalm 147:20, KJV). As I said before, God owes no one grace, so we can’t say He’s unjust if He gives it to some and not to others. What’s owed to someone is justice. The beautiful thing about gifts is that they don’t have to be given; they’re given voluntarily from love, not necessitated by justice. Therefore, God can be just without counting His Son’s death towards everyone’s sin equally.