(Revised 11/30/2014, removed a paragraph with little relevance and revised/expanded the conclusion. Much thanks to members of the Society of Evangelical Arminians for their feedback)
When Christians who aren’t from a Calvinist tradition hear about limited atonement, something usually seems entirely wrong about the idea. Indeed, in the face of having no clear biblical data to support such an idea, a substantial body of passages that seem to indicate just the opposite, along with numerous logical difficulties, something just seems entirely wrong with the idea that Christ didn’t die for the sins of a great many people.
Many times, an incorrect belief by itself isn’t particularly harmful, but if taken to its inevitable conclusions, tends to produce great inconsistencies. Limited atonement, if taken in conjunction with the common Calvinist beliefs about the gospel call, inevitably leads to the conclusion that God commands people to believe falsehood. I’ll start by postulating and defending the necessary premises.
Premise 1: God’s command for the non-elect to believe the gospel requires that they must believe that Christ can save them.
For the first part of the premise, we need only establish that the command to believe is given to all, including the non-elect (if limited atonement is true, the term ‘non-elect’ here describes the people for whom Christ did not die to save). Surprisingly, despite their belief in limited atonement, Calvinists are usually among the first to agree that the everyone, elect and non-elect, are commanded by God to believe the gospel.
“First, the preaching of Paul goes out to all, both Jews and Greeks. This is the general call of the gospel. It offers salvation to all who will believe on the crucified Christ. But by and large it falls on unreceptive ears and is called foolishness.” (John Piper, What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism)
“I can proclaim God’s command to repent and believe to all men, and I can do so with passion, not because I pretend to look into God’s heart and mind, but because I know the reality of God’s wrath, the sin of man, and I believe implicitly the promise of God that anyone who turns in faith to Christ will be saved.” (James White, “Phil Johnson on ‘Desire'”)
“If we take the command to believe, with the promise of life upon so doing, for an offer of mercy, there is an eternal truth in it; which is, that God will assuredly bestow life and salvation upon all believers, the proffers being immediately declarative of our duty; secondly, of the concatenation of faith and life, and not at all of God’s intention towards the particular soul to whom the proffer is made….” (John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ)
“The commission He has given His servants is to preach the Gospel to every creature, and they certainly have not fully obeyed until they bid their hearers “Repent ye, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Whom God quickens, is His own affair; ours is to faithfully warn the unsaved, to show wherein their sins consists (enmity against God), to bid them to throw down the weapons of their warfare against Him, to call upon them to repent (Acts 17:30), to proclaim the One who receives all who come to Him in faith.” (A.W. Pink, Duty-Faith)
“It is a command to enter and not to enter is disobedience. That is why judgment falls on those, 2 Thessalonians 1:8, “The retribution of God comes to those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. You obey because the gospel is a command. When you share the gospel, you command people to believe. You command people to repent so that it is crystal clear that what they have done is obey or disobey. That’s why I say invitation is not a word that is consistent with commanding. Better to finish your sermon with a command than an invitation.” (John MacArthur, “Two Paths, One Way”)
“We see that God commands men everywhere to repent, Acts 17:30, but it is God who grants repentance 2 Timothy 2:25. We see that God commands people to believe in him yet he opens their hearts to believe, as he did with Lydia in Acts 16:14….” (Matt Slick, Matt Slick vs Lou Rugg Discussion on difficult questions)
It seems that only a far-left-field-hyper-Calvinist could deny that the command to believe is given to everyone. Slick’s comment cites a key passage that makes it clear that the command to believe the gospel is for everyone, everywhere.
“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent…” (Acts 17:30)
Disobeying such a command is mentioned as being among the reasons that sinners are condemned.
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. (John 3:18)
The command from God Himself, which goes from the mouths of His servants is for all, even people who ultimately end up being false teachers.
“For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” (2 Peter 2:20-21)
Notice that they turned aside from the holy commandment given to them, not a command given only to others.
1b. Obedience to the gospel entails believing that Christ can save you
Christians since the beginning have understood that believing in Christ is more than just assent that He died and rose (as James also notes, even the demons believe that). True and living faith in Christ requires that we trust in His work on the cross, and in Him as our Savior. Herein lies the second part of the premise: that the aforementioned command requires that they believe that Christ can save them. I don’t think any tenable objection can be raised to this point. One cannot trust Christ as his Savior without believing that He has power to save him.
Consider the counter-example of a lost man who has a Calvinist friend that faithfully witnesses to him. Despite not trusting Christ as his Savior, the man is convinced that limited atonement is true, and that Christ died to save some people. He’s convinced by his prior hardness of heart that he’s simply not one of the elect. As he lays dying, his Calvinist friend tries to persuade him to believe, to which he receives the sinner’s final declaration: “Therein lies life for you, but in that cross there is no hope for me.”
This man has accepted what are, according to Calvinism, the correct facts. But has he obeyed the gospel? No. By the measure of any Christian, he has rejected the gospel and rightly incurred eternal condemnation. To actually obey, he would have had to believe that Christ could save him, not just that Christ can save other people.
Thus is our first premise established: God’s command for the non-elect to believe the gospel requires that they must believe that Christ can save them.
Premise 2: If Limited Atonement is true, then the idea that Christ can save the non-elect is a lie.
Many Calvinists don’t like language that Christ cannot save certain people, but that is an inescapable ramification of limited atonement. Christ either can save one through His sacrificial death, or He cannot. Christ cannot save people for whom He did not die to save. The sacrifice has already been offered, there’s no going back and changing who it was for; there is no other sacrifice, and there is no other way. If the non-elect were excluded, that decision has already been made, and cannot be abrogated. It matters not how many sins the sacrifice was sufficient to cover, if its power to save is not applicable to a person, then Christ cannot save that person.
Thus to believe that Christ can save one of the non-elect, if limited atonement be true, would be a falsehood -often called a ‘lie’ when speaking in an objective sense.
Putting it together
Taking our premises,
P1: God’s command for the non-elect to believe the gospel requires that they must believe that Christ can save them.
P2: If Limited Atonement is true, then the idea that Christ can save the non-elect is a lie.
Conclusion: If Limited Atonement is true, God’s command for the non-elect to believe the gospel requires that they must believe a lie.
And herein lies a major inconsistency that holding to limited atonement yields. In short, if 5-point Calvinism is true, then God effectively commands the non-elect to trust in Christ to save them, when He’s already limited Christ’s atoning sacrifice such that He can never save them!
Besides the readily apparent absurdity of God commanding people to believe what is false, such an inconsistency raises other problems: Accepting and obeying the gospel is characterized throughout the New Testament as belief in the truth, while refusing to do so is opposition to the truth (c.f. John 8:32, Romans 2:8, 15:8 Galatians 2:5, 5:7, Colossians 1:5, 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12, 2 Timothy 1:4, 2 Timothy 2:25, 3:8, Titus 1:1, James 5:19). Contrary to that description, if Calvinism is true, then the man in our example above is accepting the objective truth and rejecting a falsehood in his rejection of Christ as his Savior. Worse than that, not only is he believing the truth in his rejection of Christ, but he’s condemned for doing so!
Truly, one’s theology is built on shaky ground if it entails that God condemns men for believing the truth. I for one could not swallow such a preposterous ramification. The word of the Lord, especially the proclamation of the gospel -the holy commandment to trust in Christ for one’s salvation- is not given to induce anyone to believe deception. Christ Himself states,
“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17:7)
Calvinists should sustain the admirable zeal to proclaim the gospel to all people. Let us all do that without hampering it with tertiary doctrine that would lead to confusing and unscriptural ideas, such as God commanding a great many of those people to believe a lie.