Provisional Atonement Part 3: The Integrity and Justice of God in the Gospel Offer

In this post we will defend the premise that only a universal provisional atonement view can maintain the integrity of God in the gospel offer and the universal command to repent. The Bible is clear that God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). But what is the basis for this repentance? Repentance means for us to change our minds and hearts from one direction to another. With regard to spiritual repentance it is a total spiritual reorientation. It is coupled with faith in Scripture because it is essentially the same motion of turning away from sin towards God viewed from two different perspectives. Repentance focuses on the turning from and faith focuses on the turning to, or the end goal of repentance, faith in Christ (Heb. 6:1; Acts 3:19, 26). So when the Bible says that God commands all men everywhere to repent, it is speaking of spiritual repentance which issues in faith towards God in Christ.

The problem for the Calvinist is that spiritual repentance is impossible without atonement. No one can effectively turn from sin and towards Christ in faith outside of the provision of atonement which provides the means for the forgiveness of sins. This is clearly highlighted in Peter’s sermon in Acts 3:12-19. Notice especially the language being used in verses 18, 19 and 26. In verse 18 Peter speaks of Christ suffering death according to prophecy, and in verse 19 he says, “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Repentance is directly tied to Christ’s death and the consequent possibility of “returning” to God on the basis of that death. So if God commands all men everywhere to repent, then Christ must have died for all as noted above. But more than that we see in verse 26 that Peter tells these Jews that Christ was raised that everyone of [them] would be turned from their wicked ways (another way of describing repentance). So it looks like this,

18 “But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled.
19 “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; . . .
26 “For you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.” (NASB emphasis mine)

Forgiveness, then, is provided for all through the death and resurrection of Christ, but only those who repent and believe receive that forgiveness. That describes the Arminian position of universal provisional atonement perfectly and makes sense of the gospel offer while preserving the integrity of the message and the one making the offer (ultimately, God). Also, it seems clear that the command to repent can only make sense against the backdrop of the atonement and the universal provision of forgiveness resulting from the shed blood of Christ. Unless Christ’s blood was shed for all then there is no basis for commanding all to repent.

Repentance is useless outside of the genuine provision of forgiveness in Christ. But because of the universal forgiveness provided for in the atonement, repentance becomes a genuine means to attaining life and avoiding eternal death (Acts 11:18; 2 Peter 3:9). Therefore, it really only makes sense to command anyone to repent and believe if the reality of the provision of atonement and forgiveness stands behind that command. For this reason Peter instructs all of those within the sound of his voice that Christ’s death and resurrection was for the purpose of “all” of them turning away from their wickedness towards faith in God, that “times of refreshing might come from the Lord” (Acts 3:18, 19, 26). Here we find a clear Biblical mandate, in accordance with Peter’s expressed language directed to “all” who were listening, for telling anyone that Christ died for him or her so that one might repent and be saved, something that would be impossible if the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement truly represented the Biblical view [1].

But there is much more than this in Scripture to support the necessity of universal provisional atonement in connection with the command to proclaim the gospel offer to all mankind without qualification. It is important to note that the main issue in the New Testament concerning forgiveness and life versus condemnation is that of faith versus unbelief. Forgiveness and salvation result for those who obey the gospel and put faith in Christ while condemnation results for those who refuse and reject the gospel offer. John makes this clear repeatedly in his Gospel, most notably,

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God… Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John. 3:16-18, 36, ESV)

It would seem that the primary reason that one is condemned in the New Testament is because he or she rejects the provision of forgiveness offered in Christ. Paul makes it clear that one finds justification and redemption “through faith in His blood” (Rom. 3:25). So it is not just a matter of refusing to believe that Christ is the Son of God. Rather, it goes much deeper in that one is essentially rejecting the all important testimony of God concerning His Son, that one is saved through faith in His blood and that through His blood life abides in His Son as a provision for all (1 John 4:9, 10, 14; 5:10, 11; John 5:26; 6:32, 33, 51, 53-58). The one who rejects Christ is primarily condemned by God for that rejection (John 3:16-18, 36; 5:24, 39, 40; 2 Thess. 2:10-12; Acts 14:36). That person will be judged for all of his sins because he has refused the way of escape and the genuine offer of forgiveness provided by God in Christ. For that reason the unbeliever heaps condemnation on himself in his rejection of Christ. As Dr. Robert Picirilli notes,

Unlimited atonement is the view that best accounts for the blame attached to men for rejection of Christ. The point is that Scripture condemns people not just for their sins but also for not putting faith in Christ and thereby being delivered from their sins. Any sinner – having heard the gospel or not – can justly be condemned for his sins; but if the death of Christ made no provision for the salvation of the non-elect, he cannot be justly charged with unbelieving rejection of Christ.

In other words, the Bible is not saying, “You have sinned and will remain in your sins without hope or atonement and receive your just reprobation in hell”- which would certainly be just. But the Bible says again and again, in effect: “You sinned and on that account deserve hell. Worse still, you have rejected the atonement made for your sins by the death of Christ, the atonement that could in fact be your deliverance. Your reprobation in hell is therefore all the more tragic and deserved.” (Grace, Faith, Free Will, pg. 118)

This point was likewise forcefully made in The Opinion of the Remonstrants, one of the earliest Arminian confessions concerning universal provisional atonement:

Only those are obliged to believe that Christ died for them for whom Christ has died. The reprobates, however, as they are called, for whom Christ has not died, are not obligated to such faith, nor can they be justly condemned on account of the contrary refusal to believe this. In fact, if there should be such reprobates, they would be obliged to believe that Christ has not died for them. (emphasis mine)

This same point is powerfully driven home by the explicit language of the apostle in 1 John 5:10-13 where John says that believers are those who accept the witness (or testimony) of God concerning His Son and unbelievers are those who reject that witness, effectively making God a liar. And what is that witness?

“And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life and this life is in His Son.”

So the testimony that unbelievers reject is the testimony that eternal life has been provided in Christ (which certainly is grounded in the atonement). By rejecting this testimony (that God has provided life for them in Christ), they have “made [God] a liar”. This can only be true if the testimony concerning provision of life in Christ is true for them. They have made God out to be a liar by rejecting this testimony of God’s provision in Christ (this is the same thing being expressed in John 3:16-18, 36). But if Christ did not die for them nor provide eternal life for them then they have not rejected that provision and God is not made out to be a liar since the testimony would not, then, apply to them, but would in fact be a false testimony. They should therefore rather be commended for refusing to believe falsehood and God’s “testimony” concerning His Son would in fact prove to be a “lie” after all, contrary to the plain teaching of 1 John 5:10-13. Picirilli, citing William S. Sailer, puts it well,

In perusing [the argument that one is condemned for their rejection of Christ’s provision of atonement], Sailer comments specifically on 1 John 5:10, 11, which explains the condemnation of the unbeliever as because he has not believed the witness that God has borne concerning His Son: namely, the witness that God gave eternal life in His Son. He then asks: “If Christ died only for the elect and for no one else, why should these non-elect souls believe this witness concerning Christ? If, on the other hand, Christ has indeed died for them and yet they refuse to believe on Him- then their refusal is a heinous thing.” (Picirilli, 118,119)

Only through the atoning blood of Christ are we saved. We are called on to trust in Christ but Christ can only save because of the shed blood; to trust in Christ for salvation is to trust in His shed blood (Rom. 3:35). We must therefore believe the testimony concerning the provision of life in Christ and His atoning blood is part of what renders that testimony valid. But one cannot put faith in His atoning work if His blood was not shed for that person. In order for the testimony to be valid, Christ’s blood and the life that results from it must be provided for all. Otherwise, God has provided a false testimony for most of humanity, and then condemns them for rejecting that false testimony. It is at this point that the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement reveals itself as wholly absurd and in opposition to any semblance of integrity or justice in God. The command to repent and believe the gospel becomes a stunningly cruel act of divine mockery and falsehood on the part of a perfectly just God who defines Himself as truth and love. This is compounded further when we consider it in the context of the Calvinist doctrine of total inability as Picirilli again notes,

Calvinists don’t deny that the Bible offers salvation to all and that we are accountable to preach the gospel offer to all. But I think they have failed to be logically consistent here: salvation cannot be truly offered to any for whom Christ did not die. Suppose I said to a paralyzed child, “If you’ll just reach out your hand and take it, I’ll give you this candy.” That sounds to me more like mockery than an “offer”! (The Extent of the Atonement)

This is a good analogy, but I do not think it goes far enough. In Calvinism, not only are the non-elect incapable of responding positively to the gospel due to their depravity and God’s refusal to make a faith response possible, but also condemned for rejecting an atonement that was neither provided for them nor intended for them! So it would be more like offering a paralyzed child a bottle of pills with the promise that they will cure his paralysis on the condition that he would just reach out and take it, all the while knowing that there is nothing in the bottle to cure his disease even if he could reach out and take it!

Thankfully, the Bible does not present us with such a scenario at all, but rather teaches us that Christ’s atoning death was provided for all on the condition of faith in His blood and that God, truly desiring for all to be saved, enables all who hear the gospel to respond positively to that provision and receive forgiveness (1 John 2:2; 1 Tim. 2:4; John 12:32). The offer is genuinely well meant and a live option after all. In view of this wonderful Biblical truth the message of the gospel truly presents good news to all since provision has been made for all and all can truly embrace that provision through faith. Therefore, the integrity, justice, and character of God are preserved and God is magnificently glorified in His love, grace, and mercy for all mankind through the giving of His Son for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2; 4:14; John 3:14-18, 36; 6:32, 33, 51; 12:32; 1 Tim. 2:3-6; 4:10; Heb 2:9; 2 Pet. 3:9; Rev. 22:17; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; Titus 2:11; Rom. 1:14-16; 5:6, 17, 18; Mark 16:15; Matt. 24:14; 28:19; Acts 1:8; 17:30, etc.).

Conclusion: We have seen in this series that there is every reason to accept the plain meaning of the universal language of those passages which speak directly to the scope of the atonement, and no reason to submit such passages to tortured exegesis. We have seen that provisional atonement in Christ stands up to Calvinist objections. We have seen that the Calvinist limited atonement view suffers from numerous theologically and exegetically fatal difficulties. The Arminian view alone can accept, without reservation, the testimony of Scripture with regards to the extent of the atonement and the universal gospel offer. The Arminian can also maintain a penal-satisfaction view of the atonement conditioned on faith union with Christ in whom alone satisfaction has been made for the forgiveness of sins, and through whom alone the benefits of the atonement can be imputed to the believer on the basis of the believer’s subsequent union and identification with Christ and His death [2].

_________________________________________________________________________

[1] I am indebted to New Testament scholar Brian Abasciano who pointed this implication of Peter’s sermon out to me during personal correspondence. Another excellent passage which gives such clear Biblical mandate is 1 Cor. 15:3, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures…” Paul’s declaration that “Christ died for our sins” was the substance of his initial gospel message to the Corinthians which they received and on which they “have taken [their] stand” (vv 1-2). Therefore, Paul saw nothing inaccurate in telling unbelievers, without reservation, that Christ died for their sins (as “your sins” is naturally included in “our sins”).

[2] Again, it was pointed out to me in personal correspondence with Dr. Brian Abasciano that within the context of faith union with Christ joining us to the benefits of the atonement which are found only “in Him” (Eph. 1:3, 7; Col. 1:13, 14, 20-23; 1 Cor. 1:30; see Part 1 for more on this), we can even fully affirm those texts that Calvinists hold up in defense of limited atonement, even according to the particular emphasis they assign to such passages (i.e. passages which state that Christ died for His sheep, the church, his friends, etc.). This is true because there is a sense in which Christ’s atonement was made only for the “elect” (i.e. believers) since one becomes elect through faith union with Christ, the elect One. So satisfaction was really only made for those who will come to be joined to Him, but since anyone can be joined to Him through faith, it is still true that Christ’s death serves as a universal provision for “all”, “every man” and “the world”, etc, in accordance with God’s desire for all to be saved. Since Christ (and the satisfaction that resides in Him through His death) is available for all we can truly say that Christ’s death was specifically for the sins of the church (His body) and yet fully affirm that anyone can benefit from that death and atonement by becoming a part of Christ’s body through faith (which God makes possible for all who hear the gospel, as demonstrated above), at which point the death of Christ, and God’s satisfaction with that death, is imputed to the believer so that God’s wrath towards that individual is fully averted.

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6 Responses

  1. Ben,

    Thanks for the time spent on another good article. Whether this has been addressed or not in previous posts I cannot be sure, but I find it meaningful to the discussion so take it or leave it.

    You referenced Acts 3 above, and all your thoughts associated with it are correct in tying Christ’s death for all men into the call for all men to repent. But there is another layer of argumentation that Peter brings up that I feel is relevant to the discussion, and that is how this fits in to the prophetic promises made to Moses and Abraham.

    In verses 22 and 23 of Acts 3 Peter said, Moses said,

    “The LORD God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren; to him you shall give heed to everything He says to you. And it will be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.”

    And in verse 25,

    “It is you who are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘AND IN YOUR SEED ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH SHALL BE BLESSED.’

    Peter is pointing out that Christ is the fulfillment of the promises God made to bless all families of the earth. But how is He the fulfillment of that blessing? Peter answers it in verse 26 that you mentioned above – “God…sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.”

    By allowed everyone to heed to call to repentance, Christ is fulfilling God’s promise to bless all families and nations! Again, let me state it – this is the Spirit’s divine fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham – the fact that all men can effectively turn from their wicked ways through Jesus Christ. Otherwise, only some families of the earth were blessed.

    I hope it makes some sense in light of what you wrote. Thanks again.

  2. Steve,

    Awesome insights! It strengthens the post in two other ways as well. It highlights again that condemnation is primarily based on rejection of Christ, “And it will be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.”

    It also highlights again that these blessings can only be attained through union with Christ, “It is you who are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘AND IN YOUR SEED ALL THE FAMILIES OF THE EARTH SHALL BE BLESSED.’

    While the Jews were the target of this specific address, the implications are for all people who might be joined to Christ (the true “Seed”) through faith and repentance, just as Peter proclaimed (cf. Eph. 1:3, 7, 13; Gal. 3:16, 19, 20).

    God Bless,
    Ben

  3. […] Provisional Atonement Part 3: The Integrity and Justice of God in the Gospel Offer […]

  4. I know we often look to the words of Jesus to determine the scope of God’s call to salvation, (more debate on the gospel of John anyone?) but the accurate picture of the scope of God’s call had been set in stone years before by way of Old Testament prophecy.

    If there is any ambiguity in the meaning or intent behind God’s sending of Jesus, the Old Testament would illuminate that concern. It would certainly be a good study for anyone interested in objective truth. A tad off topic, but forgive me 🙂

  5. If Christ did not die for all without exception, like the bible says, but only died for the elect as Calvinist’s claim, then no matter how you word it, to preach the gospel, carry out the divine commission and tell people that Christ did die for you, is a total lie.

    What man would go out and tell people that they will be given a million dollars if they claim it, all the while knowing that the million only applies to those wearing a red shirt?

    To make a genuine offer of salvation, and away with the word game about revealed will and secret will, as if God has two contradictory wills, when you know for a fact that offer is limited, is the worse kind of hypocrisy. It’s even beneath common sense.

    God desires all to be saved which means he intended that all be saved. If he did not desire all to be saved and did not intend all to be saved, it would beneath him to say that he did.

    Now, because he desires all to be saved and therefore intended all to be saved, doesn’t mean that they will be. God uses means and one of those means is believing the promises, a conviction of mind that what God promises he will do. God DOES NOT believe for you, just like he didn’t put the blood on the door posts for each individual Jew. They had to make use of the means on an individual basis, apply it to themselves, if you will.

  6. Wow @JML CASSIAN you should also read this one:

    https://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/calvinisms-bad-check/

    if you haven’t.

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