The Cancer in Calvinism

From the outset I want to make it clear that I’m not asserting that Calvinism is heresy, as I consider most Calvinists to be genuine brothers and sisters. This post is rather about a serious error that has subtly crept up in the teachings of many Reformed Theology proponents and teachers. It is not one of the five points of Calvinism itself, but is no less integral to the theology of many Calvinists.

 

The First Warning Signs

Many Calvinists I’ve spoken to over the years have been great to talk to. Some just seem to be evangelicals with a stronger emphasis on predestination than most. For others, something just seemed…off. Very off. I started noticing a troubling tendency with some of the things they said: much stock was put into unconditional election and predestination, so much so as to mitigate the need for faith altogether. I would hear the occasional Calvinist friend talk about being “saved before they were born,” but I also knew that many Reformed preachers taught salvation by grace through faith, so I initially wrote it off as people misunderstanding their tradition’s theology. Little did I know….

 

A Tumorous Trilemma

I’ve come to believe that the real issue has been hiding in plain sight for a long time. In his ponderous polemic, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Puritan theologian John Owen poses the following trilemma to we who believe Christ tasted death for everyone (per Heb 2:9).

To which I may add this dilemma to our Universalists:– God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for,
either all the sins of all men,
or all the sins of some men,
or some sins of all men.
If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved; for if God enter into judgment with us, though it were with all mankind for one sin, no flesh should be justified in his sight: “If the Lord should mark iniquities, who should stand?” Ps. cxxx. 3. We might all go to cast all that we have “to the moles and to the bats, to go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of his majesty,” Isa. ii. 20, 21.
If the second, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world.
If the first, why, then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins?
You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.”
But this unbelief, is it a sin or not? If not, why should they be punished for it?
If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not.
If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death?
If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins.
Let them choose which part they will.

(John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Book 1, ch 3; emphasis and spacing mine)

 

A Premalignant Presupposition

Read the bolded portion of the argument carefully. Closer observation reveals a far graver issue. Parsing out what Owen is saying,

But this unbelief, is it a sin or not? If [unbelief is] not [a sin], why should [unbelievers] be punished for it? … If [Christ did die for the sin of unbelief], then why [would the sin of unbelief] hinder [the unbelievers from being saved any] more than their other sins for which [Christ died]?

The answer to the trilemma is fairly trivial: While refusal to believe is indeed a sin, the reason it keeps one from salvation is not due to it being a sin, but because unbelief, by definition, precludes belief in Christ, without which no one can be saved (Heb 11:6). As with all sins Christ died for, forgiveness for unbelief is only obtained through subsequent belief in Him.

While Owen’s argument is trifling at best, his sophomoric reasoning isn’t the biggest problem here. While unstated, there is a premise both insidious and heretical that one must hold to make this argument without duplicity or cognitive dissonance: If one is seriously arguing that unbelief would not stop a person from being forgiven any more than any other sin, that is effectively saying that Christ’s death brings about salvation whether or not one believes. Or to put it succinctly,

If Christ died for one’s sins, then faith isn’t necessary for salvation.

Note that he is not arguing that all for whom Christ died must eventually believe and be saved, no, he is saying they would be saved despite not believing! Any Bible-believing Christian should be horrified by such a godless and contra-scriptural idea. That faith is absolutely necessary to be saved is all over the New Testament (in John 3:16, Acts 13:39, Romans 3:22, 5:1, 10:9, Galatians 2:16, 3:22, to give a few references). How in the world can an allegedly Christian theologian be arguing that lack of faith wouldn’t stop someone from receiving forgiveness?

If such a premise were true, it would entail that whether one believes has no bearing on whether he obtains salvation.

And if having faith has no bearing on obtaining salvation, then one can only conclude that salvation is not by faith.

While Owen’s trilemma and the similar arguments derived from it may seem superficially persuasive if one doesn’t spot their weakness, examination of their underlying ideas reveals more than was intended. One who argues that the atonement would save even those who never believe necessarily (except for reason of ignorance or sheer cognitive dissonance) holds a view of redemption that not only lacks scriptural support, but violates one of the central tenets of Christianity in denying salvation by faith altogether.

 

The Cancer Spreads

If the mutation was confined to just a small band of loonies in a corner, it would be of little concern. Sadly, a great many Christians of the Reformed theological persuasion have fallen for this unscriptural line of reasoning. Owen isn’t some isolated edge-case Calvinist predicting the timing of the second coming on the radio or protesting funerals. To the contrary, he’s widely regarded among Calvinists, and the book his trilemma was written in is considered one of their finest classical defenses of Limited Atonement.

It is to those who share this readiness that Owen’s treatise is now offered, in the belief that it will help us in one of the most urgent tasks facing evangelical Christendom today – the recovery of the gospel. (J.I. Packer, introduction to the 1958 reprint)

The trilemma itself is widely referenced and quoted by many prominent Calvinists:

James Montgomery Boice & Philip Graham Ryken (The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel)
Steve Lawson (Foundations of Grace)
Robert Reymond (Ten Lines of Evidence for the Doctrine of Particular Redemption, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith: 2nd Edition)
Dr. Christopher David Bass (That You May Know: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John)
Jonathan D. Moore (The Extent of the Atonement)
Dr. Manuel Kuhs (British Reformed Journal, Issue 59)
Phillip G. Kayser (Ransom Paid: Does the Bible Limit the Atonement?)
Joseph R. Holder (Romans: Theological Masterpiece [Volume 1])
Sam Storms (For Whom Did Christ Die?)
Curtis I. Crenshaw, Th. M. (How to Handle So-Called Problem Passages on the Extent of the Atonement)
Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
Dr. Joel Beeke (Problems with Arminian Universal Redemption)
Dr. Gary D. Long (Definite Atonement)
Dr. Roger Nicole Th.D., Ph.D. (The Case for Definite Atonement)
James White (Was Anyone Saved at the Cross?)
Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., of Third Millennium Ministries
The Reformed Presbyterian Church (Covenanted) 
Erik Raymond of The Gospel Coalition

And it’s not people just mindlessly parroting Owen without realizing what he’s saying. Many of the authors make the argument in their own words, laden with the same repulsive premise:

The Arminian will answer: “because they refused to believe in Jesus Christ. They are guilty of unbelief.“ But this unbelief, is it a sin or is it not a sin? If unbelief is not a sin, then why should anyone by punished for it? If unbelief is a sin, then Christ was punished for it in His death. If Christ paid for this sin as all others, then why must this sin stop anyone from entering heaven more than any of the other sins (e.g., murder, adultery, homosexuality, etc.). Furthermore, if Christ did not die for the sin of unbelief, then one cannot say that He died for all the sins of all men. The Arminian cannot escape from the horns of this theological dilemma. (Brian Schwertley, Limited Atonement)

Belief in an unlimited atonement, on the other hand, presents many logical and biblical problems. First of all, if the atonement was truly unlimited, then every person would be saved as all of their sins, including the sin of unbelief, would have been paid for by Christ on the cross. (S. Michael Houdmann of GotQuestions.org)

If God propitiated His wrath towards me in a truly substitutionary and penal sacrifice, how can He still be angry at me? Did God in Christ actually redeem, reconcile, and propitiate His anger against us on the cross? Then I cannot and will not ever experience that anger. (Sam Waldron, The Biblical Confirmation of Particular Redemption)

But God is angry at men for their unbelief,

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Rom 1:18)

If, however, Jesus died to make atonement for generic guilt, for human guilt in general, then culpable unbelief is covered by the atonement. So I don’t see how a qualitative paradigm circumvents the force of Owen’s dilemma. If refusing to believe in Jesus is culpable, and Jesus paid the penalty for human guilt, then culpable unbelief is included in the atonement. The category of guilt includes all instances thereof. (Steve Hays)

But you really need to qualify what you mean when you say that “He laid down His life for all of humanity.” Such a statement is unnecessary and may be misunderstood. I could say, “so why aren’t they all saved then?” “If he already paid for their sins then there should be no condemnation.” But unbelief is one of the sins He died for. (John Hendryx, Monergism.com)

No condemnation for people who have no faith? John writes,

“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)

Yet a heartbreaking number of Calvinists all but flatly deny that very truth.

If ALL the sins of ALL men were laid upon Christ, then the sin of unbelief was too. That unbelief is a sin is clear from the fact that in 1 John 3:23 we read, “And this is His commandment, That we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ.” Refusal to believe in Christ is, therefore, an act of flagrant disobedience, rebellion against the Most High. But if all the sins of all men were laid upon Christ (as it is now asserted), then He also endured the penalty for the Christ-rejector’s unbelief. … For if unbelief is a sin and Christ did not suffer the penalty of it, then all sin was not laid upon Christ. Thus there are only two alternatives: a strictly limited Atonement, availing only for believers; or an unlimited Atonement which effectually secures the salvation of the entire human race. (A.W. Pink, The Atonement)

Again; if Christ died for all; then he made expiation for all their sins. He therefore must have made atonement for the sins of unbelief and final impenitence; which prevent man from applying to himself the redemption provided for him: and thus they will no longer stand in the way of such an application: for on the supposition of satisfaction having been made for them; they must be pardoned. (Francis Turretin, The Extent of the Atonement)

However, if the sins of every individual are actually taken away, then why do any go to hell? After all, aren’t all the sins taken away? “Ah,” but you say, “they are taken away only if that person believes.” The only problem with that is that Jesus’ blood is sufficient to cleanse of all sin, even the sin of unbelief. Therefore, even that sin is covered. Remember, it says that the sins were taken away by the cross of Christ, not made possible to be taken away. (Matt Slick)

If Christ died for all of the sins of all people, that must include the sin of unbelief. If God’s justice is totally satisfied by Christ’s work on the cross, then it would follow that God would be unjust in punishing the unrepentant sinner for his unbelief and impenitence because those sins were already paid for by Christ.” (R.C. Sproul, Biblical Scholasticism)

“If Christ died for all of the sins of all people, that must include the sin of unbelief. If God’s justice is totally satisfied by Christ’s work on the cross, then it would follow that God would be unjust in punishing the unrepentant sinner for his unbelief and impenitence because those sins were already paid for by Christ.” (R.C. Sproul, The Design and Scope of the Atonement)

Paul speaks of our fallen state apart from life in Christ,

“…among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Eph 2:3)

If, as Sproul argues, it would be unjust for God to punish us solely due to what Christ did, then would it not also be unjust for Him to hold us under His wrath (and thus under the sentence of condemnation) to begin with?

The third statement is what the Arminians would say. Christ died for all the sins of all men. But then why are not all saved? They answer, Because some do not believe. But is this unbelief not one of the sins for which Christ died? If they say yes, then why is it not covered by the blood of Jesus and all unbelievers saved? If they say no (unbelief is not a sin that Christ has died for) then they must say that men can be saved without having all their sins atoned for by Jesus, or they must join us in affirming statement number two: Christ died for all the sins of some men. That is, he died for the unbelief of the elect so that God’s punitive wrath is appeased toward them and his grace is free to draw them irresistibly out of darkness into his marvelous light. (John Piper, For Whom Did Christ Die?)

How do they reconcile these mutually-exclusive ideas? Salvation can’t be obtained both by faith and apart from faith, yet many of these authors claim to believe in salvation by faith while making an argument that effectively denies it. Do they truly not understand the implications of what they’re saying? Are they surreptitiously redefining “salvation by faith” to mean something else (e.g. “You were always saved, you just realize you’re saved by faith”)? I cannot judge, I can only say that such a premise is diametrically opposed to the gospel and destructive. It’s not going to take the next bright young generation of Calvinists long to understand where these arguments must eventually lead and go full-on cultic.

 

Hope for Remission?

Thankfully some Calvinists have shown discernment enough to see past this heresy.

Owen is right to think Christ’s work atones for all sin, unbelief included. But he is mistaken in thinking that if Christ’s work atones for all human sin, including the sin of unbelief, there is no impediment to the salvation of all human sinners. Faith is a condition of the application of the redemption accomplished by Christ. This, as Davenant and Dabney make clear, is a perfectly just arrangement; in which case, even if UA obtains, there is not doctrine of double payment to answer. (Oliver Crisp, Deviant Calvinism: Broadening Reformed Theology, p. 233)

Tony Byrne at Theological Meditations posted a series that quoted several authors refuting such an error. A sample quote from Dabney,

Nor would we attach any force to the argument, that if Christ made penal satisfaction for the sins of all, justice would forbid any to be punished. To urge this argument surrenders virtually the very ground on which the first Socinian objection was refuted, and is incompatible with the facts that God chastises justified believers, and holds elect unbelievers subject to wrath till they believe. Christ’s satisfaction is not a pecuniary equivalent, but only such a one as enables the Father, consistently with His attributes, to pardon, if in His mercy He sees fit. The whole avails of the satisfaction to a given man is suspended on His belief. There would be no injustice to the man, if he remaining an unbeliever, his guilt were punished twice over, first in his Savior, and then in Him. See A. A. Hodge on Atonement, page 369. (R.L. Dabney)

If then, even in their unbelief, there is no debt against them, no penalty to be paid, surely they can be described as saved, and saved at Calvary. That being the case, the gospel is reduced to a cipher, a form of informing the saved of their blessed condition. (Neil Chambers)

Those for whom it was specially rendered are not justified from eternity; they are not born in a justified state; they are by nature, or birth, the children of wrath even as others. To be the children of wrath is to be justly exposed to divine wrath. They remain in this state of exposure until they believe, and should they die (unless in infancy) before they believe they would inevitably perish notwithstanding the satisfaction made for their sins. (Charles Hodge)

I would recommend any God-fearing Calvinist give his posts on the subject a read. Sadly, the Reformed believers who have seen past Owen’s smokescreen have gone largely unheeded by their peers, who have let a heretical idea in through the proverbial back door. Some may not like hearing it from a guy with more Arminian leanings, but please hear me out. We’ll always have disagreements (as all major denominations and movements do), and probably never resolve them all this side of eternity. There are things in the Bible that are less essential to the Christian faith which are often less clearly explicated, and on which some disagreement is natural. Salvation by faith is not one of those things we can disagree on. No matter what our positions on secondary issues, we must not adopt forceful or clever-sounding rhetoric that compromises the gospel. God sent His Son into the world so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish. It is no longer Christianity if that message is lost. Sine Fide is not an option.

 

 

Dr. David Allen Reviews and Critiques “From Heaven He Came And Sought Her”, The Latest Calvinist Defense of Limited (Definite) Atonement

The links to the series no longer work, so here are a few interactions from his blog:

Review of Henri Blocher, Chapter 20, Systematic Theology of Definite Atonement in “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her

Review of Henry Stange’s Chapter on Those Who Never Hear the Gospel in “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her

Review of Sinclair Furguson’s Chapter on Limited Atonement and Assurance in “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her”

Review of John Piper’s Chapter in “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her,” Part 1

Review of John Piper’s Chapter in “From Heaven He Came and Sought Her,” Part 2

Excerpt from conclusion:

While the book [From Heaven He Came And Sought Her] will likely be too much for some laypeople to digest, I would encourage all theological students, pastors, and scholars to take the time to read it and digest it. It is probably the most comprehensive defense of definite atonement available. On the surface, it looks formidable, but it has a soft underbelly and is vulnerable to a number of criticisms.

It only takes one clear statement in Scripture that Christ died for the sins of all people to confirm unlimited atonement no matter how many statements indicate Christ died for a specific group of people. Likewise, it would only take one clear statement in Scripture that Christ died only for the sins of the elect to confirm definite atonement. There is not one single statement in Scripture that overtly states Christ died only for the sins of the elect. There are easily a dozen New Testament Scriptures overtly stating Christ died for all people.

The burden is on the authors of this book to prove that a simple positive statement can entail a universal negation. This is the book’s claim. The hill which the authors must climb is to prove, exegetically from Scripture, that Christ died only for some people’s sins (a limited imputation of sin). If exegetically, DA fails, then no amount of theological flying buttresses will support it.

We are also told that Dr. David Allen is himself presently working on a new book on atonement.  We will be sure to promote it when it comes out.

Related posts and articles:

I. Howard Marshall: The Theology of Atonement

I. Howard Marshall: For All, For All My Savior Died

Robert Picirilli: The Extent of the Atonement

Robert Picirilli: Salvation by Faith, Applied

Albert Barnes on the Extent of the Atonement

The F.A.C.T.S. of Salvation “A”: Atonement For All 

3 Part Series on Provisional Atonement

More on the Psychology of Calvinism

Billy Birch has written an excellent post on why certain Calvinists might tend to act the way that they do towards non-Calvinists.  It is also a gentle and necessary reminder to us all to conduct ourselves with grace, compassion, and respect when discussing these controversial topics.  Thanks Billy!

Provisional Atonement Part 2: Provision is Consistent With Foreknowledge

As we noted in our last post [Part 1] Arminians see the atonement of Jesus Christ as being provisional in nature.  Not only is the atonement provisional but it is more specifically provisional in Christ Jesus.  Only those who come to partake of Christ partake also of the atonement available through union with Him.  Since we come to be in union with Christ by faith we also come to benefit from the atoning benefits of His blood through faith (Rom. 3:25).  The atonement is one of those gracious spiritual blessings that we come to share in when we are united to Christ by faith  and is probably foundational to all of the other spiritual blessings in Christ (Eph. 1:3, 7).  When we understand the atonement as provisional in Christ we can accept all the universal passages concerning Christ dying for all or making propitiation for all while avoiding full blown universalism (the belief that all will be saved).

We saw in “Part 1” that this answered John Owen’s argument concerning unbelief being atoned for by Christ’s sacrifice, and the supposed implication of universalism for the Arminian.  We noted that since atonement is provisional in Christ the unbeliever’s unbelief is atoned for only when the unbeliever turns to Christ in faith and is therefore joined to Him, thereby partaking of the provision of atonement that resides in Christ alone (Eph. 1:3, 7, 13; Col. 1:13, 14; Rom. 3:25; 5:1, 2; 8:1).  Furthermore, Owen’s Calvinism falls to the same objection.  If unbelief is atoned for unconditionally for the elect as Owen suggests, then the elect would be born saved.  They would be saved even in their unbelief since their unbelief was atoned for at the cross (according to Owen).  This leads to theological absurdities and is plainly contradicted by passages like Ephesians 2:1-3 which make it clear that we are all under God’s wrath (and therefore not saved) prior to being justified by faith in Jesus Christ.  As soon as it is seen that Scripture presents the atonement as provisional, all of Owen’s cherished arguments fall to the ground.

Calvinists like puritan John Owen also object to the atonement being provisional on the grounds that if the atonement only “provides” salvation then it ultimately saves no one.  This is clearly false since this provisional atonement has saved countless thousands throughout the ages.  The provisional nature of the atonement does not mean it doesn’t save nor does it mean it can’t save.  It means only that those who come to be in union with Christ by faith will alone benefit from that atonement.

The Calvinist objection is further defeated when we realize that even for the Calvinist the atonement must be provisional in nature.  If this were not the case then anyone whom Jesus died for would be born saved [1].  Most Calvinists rightly reject this as unbiblical based on those passages which tell us that we are all born under God’s wrath (as noted above).  While the Calvinist believes that the atonement will infallibly be applied to those God unconditionally elected from eternity, it still remains that the atonement is provisional until that time when it is actually applied to the sinner.  Since Calvinists must acknowledge the provisional nature of the atonement this leaves the door wide open for the Arminian view.  The issue cannot be provision but the certainty of application.  For the Calvinist it is a certainty that God will apply the atonement to all those whom He has unconditionally pre-selected and for the Arminian it is a certainty that God will apply the atonement to all those who will trust in His blood (Rom. 3:25; 5:1, 2).  Both hold that the atonement is provisional and both hold to the certainty of application.  The only difference is that the Calvinist holds that this application is unconditional while the Arminian holds that it is conditional.

Calvinists will sometimes appeal to the hypothetical possibility that not a single person would have benefited from the atonement if it were both provisional and conditional.  But this is plainly to deny God’s foreknowledge.  Even before God created the universe He foreknew those who would trust in Christ’s blood and so be saved.  But even if no one ever put trust in Christ His sacrifice would still serve as a means of provision and the outworking of God’s amazing love and grace.  If all rejected that blood it would be truly tragic but neither God’s love nor His grace would have failed as a result.  That man rejects God’s love and grace does not make His love and grace void in any way.  To think that it would seems to be far too man centered, especially for those who hold to Calvinism and claim to disdain “man centered” theology.  It would make the significance of God’s love and grace dependent on the creature’s reception.  But God’s justice would be vindicated and His love and grace fully displayed even if every one of His creatures turned their nose up at the provision of Christ’s shed blood.  But again, such a “hypothetical” is hardly relevant since it simply has no basis in reality and God always knew what the reality of the situation would be.

Still others object that Christ would not shed His blood for those He foreknew would reject that provision.  The first problem with this suggestion is it presumes to know what God would and would not do.  This is again a surprising objection coming from those who hold to God’s sovereign freedom to do just as He pleases (and of course Arminians believe God has the freedom to do as He pleases as well).  But if God has indeed revealed that He provides atonement for those He foreknows will reject that provision, we might simply respond with the favorite Calvinist response to such objections, “Who are you O’ man to talk back to God?”  But no such response is necessary.  We can see from Scripture that God makes provisions even for those He knows will ultimately reject those provisions and this alone defeats the objection.  This truth can be seen in the parable of the banquet described by Jesus in Matt. 22:1-14 and Luke 14:16-24 [2].

In both of these accounts, it seems obvious that the feast was prepared for those who would refuse the invitation (specifically the Jews). The invitation went out to them and the invitation was genuine. They refused the invitation and angered the king (not specified as a king in the Luke account). Now if the feast was not intended or prepared for these Jews, then why was the king angry with them when they would not come? According to the Calvinist objection, he never intended for them to come and made no provisions for them. Look at Matt. 22:4. After the initial invitation was refused, the king sent his servants a second time saying,

“Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.”

Those invited refuse again and mistreated the servants. The king is enraged. He then says,

“The wedding banquet is ready; those I invited did not deserve to come.”

Notice the reason why the guests were refused was not because the dinner was not provided for them, but because they refused the invitation, and thereby proved unworthy to attend.

If the banquet had not been provided for them, then the king had no right to be angry with them for not attending. After all, according to Calvinism, the king never intended for them to attend, and was therefore being dishonest when he told the guests that the dinner had been prepared for them.

The issue, then, is not foreknowledge, but the genuineness of the offer and the integrity of the One making the offer.

The Arminian understanding of foreknowledge is that God knows as certain all future events without necessarily causing those events. This does not mean that those events foreknown by God become artificial or meaningless because God knows them. They are still very real, and God’s interactions with us are still very real and completely genuine.

The king made the dinner even for those who (since the king represents God) he had always known would reject it (see Matt. 8:11-12 and Luke 13:28-29 and note that the “sons of the kingdom” are “thrown out”.  This is a reference to the Jews who reject Christ and they are called the “sons of the kingdom” because the kingdom and the feast were intended for them, and yet they will not receive the kingdom nor partake of that feast). God is just, however, and because He is just He cannot condemn men for refusing something that was never provided for them.

The argument from foreknowledge falls flat in the face of the parable of the wedding feast.  One could argue that the parable does not reference the atonement specifically but it is hard to conceive of anyone having genuine access to the feast if not for the atonement (especially considering Matt. 22:10-13, cf. Rom. 5:1, 2). Nor do I see how the feast could have even been provided without the atonement in view.  It might serve as an interesting parallel to John 6 where Christ calls himself the bread of life that gives life to the world (verse 33), while only those who eat and drink of that provision (by faith) receive the life that resides in Him (John 5:26; 6:47-58).  But even if it could be demonstrated that the atonement is not in view in these passages, the principle of genuine provision comporting with foreknowledge is still fully expressed.  So again, the objection to provisional atonement based on God’s foreknowledge loses all force.

But what of the way that Matthew closes the parable in verse 14 with the words, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”?  Does this teach Calvinism and undermine the usefulness of the parable in defense of provisional atonement?  Not at all.  It conforms perfectly to the Arminian conception of universal provisional atonement that is received and applied by faith.  The feast was prepared and provided and the invitation went out to all (starting with the Jews and then going out to the Gentiles).  All of those who are invited are therefore the “called” while those who respond are the “chosen”.  They did not respond to the call because they were already “chosen”.  Rather, they are chosen because they responded to the call (invitation).  This is the natural way to read the text.

The idea that the response was the result of being already chosen needs to be read into the text and conflicts with the fact that the feast was prepared for all those to whom the invitation went out (even those who rejected that invitation).  Therefore the designation of “chosen” is reserved for those who respond to the invitation.  In other words, election is conditional just as Arminianism has always contended.  Not only is it conditional, but it is conditioned on faith since it is by faith that we receive Christ (John 1:12) and come to be joined to Him (the elect one) by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:3, 4, 13).  This is probably the meaning behind the man not dressed in proper wedding clothes (Matt. 22:11, 12).  The man was rejected and thrown out because he did not attend the banquet under the right conditions.  He tried to make his way in on his own terms (“works” or the assumption of unconditional election as a descendent of Abraham, cf. Matt. 8:11-12 and Luke 13:28-29; Rom. 9:30-33; 10:3) rather than on God’s terms (“faith”, cf. Rom. 1:16, 17; 4:1-16; 10:6-13; 11:17-23).

In “Part 3” we will take a closer look at the necessary connection between provisional atonement and the integrity of the gospel message.

_______________________________________________________________________

[1] F. Leroy Forlines has an excellent treatment of the provisional nature of the atonement in his book, The Quest for Truth, pp. 206-207.

[2] I am indebted to puritan John Goodwin for recognizing the significance and relevance of the parable of the marriage feast in relation to the intention and provisional nature of the atonement.  He treats the subject in Redemption Redeemed, pp. 128-131, ed. by John D. Wagner.

Provisional Atonement Part 1: Dealing With John Owen’s Arminian Dilemma

I lifted this from Jeff Paton’s website. He gives an answer based on his commitment to the “sacrificial” view of the atonement, which allows him to bypass the force of Owen’s argument.

As I have stated before, I am not (at this time) dogmatic about views of atonement. I do, however, favor the penal satisfaction view which seems to be the view that Owen is describing as incompatible with Arminian soteriology. I reject any view that does not incorporate some form of substitution. Since I more or less hold to the view that Owen thinks incompatible with Arminianism, I thought it might be fun to take on his little “dilemma” (Owen’s argument is in blue).

“To which I may add this dilemma to our Universalists -”

Of course Arminians are not Universalists in a strict sense. I hope that Owen wasn’t trying to paint Arminians in a negative light with this comment. Jeff Paton seems to think he was.

“God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for,

1. either all the sins of all men,

2. or all the sins of some men,

3. or some sins of all men.”

I like #1 which Owen thinks incompatible with Arminianism.

“If the LAST, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved; for if God entered into judgment with us, though it were with all mankind for one sin, no flesh should be justified in his sight: “If the LORD should mark iniquities, who should stand?” [Ps. cxxx.2] We might all go to cast all that we have “to the moles and to the bats, to go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the tops of the ragged rocks, for fear of the Lord, and for the glory of his majesty.” [Isa. ii. 20, 21]

I agree. #3 is no good.

“If the SECOND, that is it which we affirm, that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the world.”

I disagree. #2 is incompatible with numerous Scriptures which must be made to undergo tortured exegesis to comport with this position. #2, therefore, is no good. Sorry John Owen.

If the FIRST, why then, are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, “Because of their unbelief; they will not believe.””

That is a very good answer. Count me among those who would say that.

“But this unbelief, is it a sin, or not?”

If by “unbelief” Owen means to reject Christ, then yes, unbelief is a sin.

“If not, why should they be punished for it?”

If it is sin, like all sins, then they should be punished for it. I personally think that sinners being condemned for unbelief creates serious problems for Owen’s Calvinism, but we will get to that in Part 3. For now I will agree and walk headlong into the “dilemma”.

“If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due to it, or not?”

This seems overly simplified, but I will concede that Christ suffered even for unbelief.

“If so, then why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruit of his death? If he did not, then did he not die for all their sins.”

And now Owen sticks it to me, so to speak. What am I to do? If I say that Christ died for unbelief and believe that he died for all, then I must adopt universalism (real universalism, i.e. all will be saved). If I deny universalism, then I am stuck with a limited atonement. So, Owen points out below…

“Let them choose which part they will.”

I think I will choose a third option. An option that I believe best comports with the Biblical data. I will affirm that atonement is provisional “in Christ”. In other words, Christ’s death made provision for all sin, yet only those who come to be in union with Christ partake of that provision. I believe this view is supported by numerous Scriptures. Below are a few of them (emphasis mine):

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us [believers] with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” Eph. 1:3

All spiritual blessings are found in Christ. I think this must include (if not be founded on) the benefits of the atonement. We find further evidence of this in Ephesians 1:7:

In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace…”

I think this passage confirms that the benefits of the atonement are provisional “in Christ”.

Look at Colossians 1:13 and 14:

“For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Again we see that the benefits of the atonement are provisional in the “beloved Son”.

So how does one come to be in union with Christ and therefore benefit from the redemption and forgiveness provided in Him?

“In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation- having believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.” Eph. 1:13

We come to be in union with Christ through faith.

As soon as we accept the Biblical teaching that forgiveness is provisional in Christ, Owen’s “dilemma” amounts to nothing. Unbelief is atoned for, but only “in Christ”. When we are placed in union with Christ by the Holy Spirit, through faith, our former “unbelief” is atoned for just as our other sins are atoned for. If we continue in unbelief, we cannot benefit from the forgiveness that is in Christ alone, and will therefore suffer condemnation. In other words, the moment we believe, our prior unbelief is forgiven, and not before. Since the atonement is provisional in Christ we can both affirm that He died for all and that only believers will benefit from this atonement. 1 Tim. 4:10 states this truth very well:

“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 [provisional], especially of believers [conditional application].”

I think that this passage plainly teaches that the atonement is provided for all, while only believers will actually experience forgiveness on the condition of faith (which unites us with Christ and the benefits of His atonement).

Calvinists struggle to get around the implications of this passage. Some will suggest that the “all” has reference to the elect. That would reduce the verse to tautology as follows:

“…who is the Savior of all [elect men], especially of believers [the elect].”

Some reason that the “all” means simply “all people groups” or “all kinds of people”. There is no contextual warrant for this interpretation and it amounts to little more than the interpretation we just dealt with above:

“…who is the Savior of the elect [among all kinds of people], especially of believers [the elect].”

Still others note that “God” has reference to the Father as Savior, rather than Christ, as if this changes things. Does not the Father save through Christ?

Perhaps a last attempt should be added. Some Calvinists posit that “Savior” should be understood in a sense in which all of mankind, including the reprobates, enjoy certain divine blessings. Again, there is no contextual reason for assigning some other meaning to “Savior” other than the way Paul always uses the term in connection with God. This is truly a desperate attempt to avoid the Arminian implications of this text.

So, I think that we can safely conclude that Owen’s dilemma poses no difficulty at all for Arminians who hold to both a universal and penal satisfaction view of the atonement. All one has to do is realize that the atonement is provisional and applied only on the basis (condition) of faith union with Christ.

Owen, however, has some dilemmas of his own to account for in his #2 choice above. We will deal with those in Part 2.

Owen’s Death of Death…

Dan is doing a nice series on Owen’s arguments in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ over at Arminian Chronicles.