For the Reformation: An Atonement of Certainty (Part One)

Still working our way backwards through T.U.L.I.P. in response to Rocky Munoz’s critique of Calvinism, we are now looking at the idea of Limited Atonement. In Reformed theology, this is the idea that Christ actually atoned only for those whom the Father had given Him. If He had not done so, and had instead died for every single individual in history, then we would have to acknowledge that Christ is currently interceding for every single person. To argue against Limited Atonement in a consistent manner, then, is to argue for the only remaining logical conclusion of universal salvation.

Why is this the case? Going through Munoz’s critique (which I will respond to in two parts) will allow an enormous amount of opportunity for me to explain.

Munoz begins by briefly describing this doctrine:

“Those who are chosen by God are referred to as the elect, and those who drew the short straw are called the reprobate. We’ll get into how exactly God is meant to have decided who is whom in our next installment; but for now, just know that Calvinism has a very clear concept of some people being ‘in’ and others (most people) being ‘out.’”

The first mistake that is often made in characterizations of this aspect of Reformed theology is describing damnation in terms of misfortune for innocents (“those who drew the short straw” helplessly) rather than God’s judgment for people’s actual, legitimate sin and rebellion. Secondly, Munoz mistakenly assumes that the saved are relatively few in number, and that the unsaved include a much larger multitude of people that no one can even count.

What’s ironic about this idea, of course, is that one of the very same texts many Calvinists would use to teach Limited Atonement conveys the idea of an extraordinarily high number of individuals who are saved:

“After this I looked and saw a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

‘Salvation to our God,

who sits on the throne,

and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10)

I commend Munoz for going on to quote from primary sources like the Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession of Faith, since they at least state accurately what the historic Reformed beliefs have been in this regard. What’s not so accurate, however, is his take on what’s being communicated.

Take, for instance, his interpretation of and frustration at chapter 3, paragraph 6, of the Westminster Confession, which reads:

“Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.”

Oddly enough, Munoz even doesn’t delve into any of the texts from which this idea is drawn (esp. Romans 8:29-30), so it’s difficult to fully understand his objection as anything other than a knee-jerk reaction to Calvinism. When we actually think about it, however, the only way to support his apparent perspective would be to demonstrate the existence of some subset of people who are not “effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved” but have still somehow received all the atoning effects of Christ’s death. Instead of showing this to be the case, Munoz describes the paradigm described by the Reformers as akin to what we’d see if “God picked his kickball team before the game began, and some kids just didn’t make the cut.”

So, what’s wrong with this portrayal of the Calvinist idea of Limited Atonement? And what is the Reformed response to it? To answer this, we’ll first turn to the main passage that Munoz calls “the biblical case for God not wanting to be with everyone,” which is found in John 10:

“I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd. (10:14-16)

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (vv 25-29)

Even though Munoz quickly insists that “there is actually nothing here that must be interpreted to mean God unilaterally selects only some people for salvation ahead of time,” there are indeed several things that must be interpreted in this way. And it is ironic that, even while Munoz insists that we should focus on context above all else, his interpretation of these seven verses alone profoundly confuses the context on several counts.

First, it is clear that Jesus is talking here about both the origin and the effects of belief, affirming that the Jews in this situation “do not believe.” He shows their unbelief to be in stark contrast with those who do believe, whom He describes metaphorically as the “sheep [who] hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”

Second, as I brought up in my previous post on Effectual Grace, Munoz completely ignores the plain logic of Jesus’ statement—that these people “do not believe because you are not of My sheep” (emphasis mine). Being one of Christ’s sheep necessarily occurs prior to belief, and not the opposite; the text says nothing else.

Third, context also shows us that the audience here is not just all the Jews in the world, or even in this geographic region, but the Jewish leadership in particular (cf. John 9:40). We even see Jesus alluding to them in the Parable of the Good Shepherd at the beginning of John 10, where He declares that “All who came before Me are thieves and robbers” (v. 8) and that “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (v. 10). The type of Jewish leader who would falsely pose as a shepherd over God’s people is further described as “a hired hand” and “the wolf” (v. 10). Now, even these words clearly don’t refer to Satan, as is commonly believed, but to the Jewish leadership who led many within Israel astray through their power hunger and deceit. And what does Jesus also say? He tells his listeners, “the sheep did not hear them.”

Oh, boy—there’s that preservation of the saints thing again.

If you’ve read my response to Munoz on irresistible grace in my last post, then you’ll remember that a major problem with the non-Reformed view is an assumption that any decisions in favor of God and Christ don’t really work in tandem with the Holy Spirit at all. God’s grace is a necessary condition for salvation, Munoz would argue, but it’s not sufficient for bringing about someone’s salvation. God might very well have to change people internally in order for them to believe, Munoz maintains, but they can still choose to reverse that change and go back to their former state immediately after the fact.

As a postmillennialist myself—alongside many of the Reformers, particularly Presbyterians—I find Munoz’s added criticism of the Canons of Dort, on the grounds that it affirms merely “a few disciples from all nations,” to be patently ridiculous. Again, the passage I quoted from Revelation early on in this post describes “a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue.” I cannot even fathom how someone could interpret this to be symbolic of “just a select few.” On the contrary, the entirety of world history will bear out the idea that God’s sovereign grace and mercy is far more widely encompassing than we can ask for or even think.

God’s love is indeed for “the world,” in that it includes individuals “from every nation and tribe and people and tongue.” But the deeper truth undergirding an atonement that is definite is that Christ has actually assured salvation for those whom the Father has given to Him. The Reformed doctrine has to do with a certainty of the Atonement’s effects rather than certainty about the number of eventual recipients.

Yes, this passage in John does have much reference to the Gentiles being recipients of salvation alongside the Jews (vv. 14-16). But it is still difficult to deny that whoever the image of “sheep” describes, it concerns a particular group of people who hear, believe, and follow Christ, as opposed to another group of people who don’t. Thus, even though an expansion of the ethnic boundaries of God’s kingdom is present, there is still exclusion that exists on an individual basis.

The Biblical Case for a Perfect Savior

Regardless of Munoz’s confidence in his interpretation of John 10, I would maintain that his treatment of the passage and refutation of its references to Limited Atonement are both inadequate and superficial. His more compelling argument, I think, is centered on the problem of upholding God’s nature of love in light of a salvific paradigm that excludes people.

What, then, is Munoz’s rationale for the idea that God doesn’t limit Christ’s atoning work? in any way? Does he refute the Scriptural idea that Christ’s high priestly intercession is only made on behalf of those for whom He atoned? Does Munoz demonstrate from the text of Scripture that Christ, who is clearly said to have “loved the church and [given] himself up for her,” also gave himself up for people outside of the church? Does Munoz explain to us why the Son would go against the Father’s will by dying for anyone whom the Father had not given to Him?

No, he doesn’t address any of these aspects of the atonement. Instead, Munoz simply goes back to the idea of God’s love:

“For starters, the ontological essence of God is love (1 Jn 4:8, 16), perfect, other-oriented, self-sacrificial, impartial love. This necessarily means that God loves everyone. I mean, how could a Being who is love through and through not love part of humanity, or even all of creation? If there were a section of humanity that God did not love, then God could not be love Himself, since to do so would be to deny Himself, which we are told God cannot do (2 Tim 2:13).

It simply does not make sense to say that God is all-loving (a belief that every Calvinist I know would agree to) and that He has predetermined before anyone was born that most of them would spend eternity separated from Him. There is just no way of maintaining a coherent definition of love that allows for an all-loving God to behave in such a way. We would have to change the definition of love to include behaviors that are coercively harmful toward others, at which point language breaks down and we’re no longer talking about anything that remotely resembles the sort of love that Jesus taught and demonstrated. And if that is what God is like, then the character of God and Hitler have a lot more in common than any Calvinist would dare admit.”

I must ask: Why does Munoz leave out all—or any—of the other attributes of God? While God is perfect in love, we also know Him to be perfectly wise, perfectly infinite, perfect in holiness and righteousness, perfect in knowledge, and perfect in faithfulness, among countless other things. To suggest that love is the only attribute of God (or perhaps I’m wrong in assuming that Munoz is doing this) is laughably shortsighted and incomprehensive.

By His nature, God is certainly obligated to not cease in loving with regard to the members of the Trinity, or in loving those who have been reconciled to him. But what is the Scriptural or even philosophical basis for the idea that “perfect love” on God’s part includes love that is eternally non-reciprocal? Would this not be the very essence of a type of love that is imperfect? There is simply no way of maintaining a coherent definition of “perfect love” that demands a holy God to be compelled to love someone who deserves only his retributive justice. If this is what God is like, then God’s character is far more like that of a sexual slave forever forced to say, “I love you”—even to those who mock her, spit in her face, and continually desire to kill her—than like that of a loving spouse who lays down his own life for the woman he loves, knowing that she will eventually recognize her errors and love him in return (cf. Rom. 5:10; Eph. 5:25).

For Munoz to bring up the example of Israel as “God selecting a specific group of people for Himself … to reach the whole world” is interesting as well, since Scripture also emphasizes the idea of a true, elect people (also referred to as a “remnant”) within national Israel (Rom. 9:6, Gal. 3:7). This is not at all an example of God choosing certain blocks of people merely to reach others. Rather, it is an example of God sovereignly working through history to accomplish His purposes, one of which is to make certain the salvation of those for whom the Son would eventually die.

Munoz also tells us that “The gathering of all humanity to Himself is God’s end goal,” and he insists that this is “the exact opposite of the doctrine of Limited Atonement.” But this description is flawed. While the gathering of a people who are perfectly reconciled to Himself is one of God’s purposes, it is most certainly not the defining purpose, let alone the “end goal.” The glorification of the Godhead is the teleological end of everything in history, and it is the only reason that God created all things in the first place.

Munoz continues:

“We are told repeatedly throughout Scripture that God does not show partiality to some people over and against others (Deut 10:17-19; 2 Chron 19:7; Job 34:19; Rom 2:11). Rather, God is fair and just in His dealings with humanity, and His justice is appropriately applied to people with regard to how they respond to him. It could hardly be just and fair for God to choose some people for damnation before they are ever born.”

Under Munoz’s paradigm, for God to be truly loving would require that we deny His freedom to show mercy to only particular rebel sinners. Instead, He must show an equal amount of mercy and grace to all of those who are carrying out idolatry and murder and theft and lawlessness (as every godless sinner does), or else He must show mercy to no one at all.

But on what basis is God required to offer mercy to even a single person? The very point of divine election and grace is that it is not a decision based on favoritism: it has nothing whatsoever to do with an individual’s own work, merit, or any other conceivable thing. But then, again, Munoz denies the “U” of T.U.L.I.P. as well, which provides the foundation for the very idea of Unconditional Election.

What Munoz focuses on for much of the middle section of his post is this concept: God does not show partiality in any regard, so one cannot argue that he would choose one person for salvation and not another. This point is deficient on several levels.

First, the concept of Unconditional Election itself teaches that God neither saves certain people because they’re worthier than others nor decides against saving certain people because they’re less worthy. If God chooses anyone by an act of blind mercy, then, it is impartial by definition.

Second, the passages in Acts 10 and Ephesians 6 that he quotes refer only to impartiality with regard to ethnicity (Jews/Gentiles) and social status (masters/slaves). They say nothing about God’s decree with regard to issues of salvation.

And lastly, when we read Scripture’s continual emphasis on God’s love for “the world,” we cannot separate such statements thematically and contextually from passages like 1 Timothy 2:1-4 and Revelation 7:9, where the worldwide reach of the gospel is described with reference to multiple kinds of people and countless nationalities, respectfully. To say that Christ died for all without distinction—as the Reformed position insists—is far different than suggesting that Christ died for all without exception. The latter inevitably has to mean an acceptance of universal atonement, universal reconciliation, and universal salvation.

“Now, an interesting question to ask in regard to the doctrine of Limited Atonement is, why would God unilaterally damn the majority of humanity to hell? Whenever I ask this question of my Calvinist friends, nine times out of ten, their response is to claim that God is somehow glorified by the destruction of the reprobate, that somehow doing so is part of His divine plan and is better than not damning them. There are, of course, a litany of passages that strongly suggest otherwise.

In the prophet Ezekiel, we are repeatedly told that God takes no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked, but rather wants them to turn from their evil ways and find life (Ezek 18:23, 32; 33:11). In the New Testament we read that God is “not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9), and He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), not just a select few.”

Here, again, Munoz refuses to offer context or exegesis for any of the passages. Instead, of showing why these texts must be understood in a plain, wooden, and non-contextual sense—or even to deal directly with Reformed objections to universal interpretations—he expects them to stand on their own. He merely assumes that God’s will here is a type that is decretive from eternity, that He has given man total free will to accept or reject Him, and that “pleasure in the destruction of the wicked” is equivalent to what God experiences whenever He judges sin or allows someone to be eternally damned.

In fact, in Paul’s first letter to Timothy we find a strange bit of theology, where in Paul writes that God “is the Savior of all men, especially of believers” (4:10). Did you catch that? God is out to save all of humanity, of which believers are just a part! Not only does this fly in the face of the doctrine of Limited Atonement, but also Christian exclusivism as a whole.

On this particular claim, it is sufficient to point to George W. Knight III’s clear exegesis on the Greek phrasing being used in this passage. As he demonstrates, there is simply no basis for arguing this is describing two classes of saved people, one of which is unbelieving and the other of which is not. In his commentary on the pastoral epistles, Knight writes:

“The phrase [malista pistōn, “especially of believers”] contains the one qualification that Paul and NT always posit for receiving God’s salvation, i.e., “trust” in God as the only Savior. Absolute [pistōn], as used here and elsewhere in the NT, refers to those who believe in Christ, i.e., Christian believers…[malista] has usually been rendered “especially” and regarded as in some way distinguishing that which follows it from that which goes before it. Skeat (“Especially the Parchments”) argues persuasively that [malista] in some cases (2 Tim. 4:13; Tit. 1:10, 11; and here) should be understood as providing a further definition or identification of that which precedes it and thus renders it by such words as “that is.” He cites several examples from papyrus letters that would seem to require this sense and that would in their particular cases rule out the otherwise legitimate alternative sense. If his proposal is correct here, which seems most likely, then the phrase [malista pistōn] should be rendered “that is, believers.” This understanding is also in line with Paul’s assertion that all sorts and conditions of people are in Christ (even at times using [pantes] ) and with his insistence in those contexts that all such are in Christ and have salvation by faith (cf., e.g., Gal. 3:26—28).”[1]

Hacking Up the High Priest’s Work

Something that Munoz never even touches on is the biblical doctrine of Christ’s intercession, a work which is intimately connected with His role as the true High Priest. Scripture clearly teaches how in Old Testament Israel, the priest was only able to intercede for individuals who approached the altar with a bull or goat sacrifice, and he would take this sacrifice into the most holy place to sprinkle its blood on the Ark of the Covenant. In no way, shape, or form did this act atone for the sins of every single Israelite or person present in the land. In a similar manner, as Romans and Hebrews both relate, Christ does not carry out intercessory work for anyone for whom He has not also offered atonement:

“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:11-14)

From this passage, who see that Christ steps into the holy place once and for all (a temporal statement of time) to accomplish his work, unlike the former high priest of the Old Covenant who was required to reenter year after year after year.

In light of this reality, Munoz and others like him who promote a concept of universal atonement have left significant problems unaddressed.

Munoz would certainly have no qualms with me saying that his non-Reformed view of the atonement creates a theoretical, and not an actual, redemption for individuals.

But notice what the author of Hebrews says: Christ “obtained” something.

What was that something? Was it the opportunity to make people savable?

No, He obtained “eternal redemption.”

Is merely making salvation a possibility, with the risk that absolutely no one may ever even accept this salvation, the same thing as actually obtaining “eternal redemption”?

No, it isn’t.

Hebrews also says that Christ “at the consummation of the ages has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26).

What does it mean that Christ “put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself”? And if Christ died for any person who is nevertheless held accountable for any of the sins for which Christ died, then how would it still be just for that person to receive any punishment? This would involve a type of double jeopardy, with Christ being punished and then the person being punished again for the same sins.

This cannot be. Christ’s atonement is necessarily one that has definite parameters and particular recipients in mind. And it was foreordained as something that would accomplish salvation perfectly, without fail, for the people of God.

Looking back again to Christ’s high priestly prayer in the garden, we see him limiting the extent of his atonement even beforehand:

“Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.

I have manifested Your name to the men whom You gave Me out of the world; they were Yours and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have come to know that everything You have given Me is from You; for the words which You gave Me I have given to them; and they received them and truly understood that I came forth from You, and they believed that You sent Me. I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours; and all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them. I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.

But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.

I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.

The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:1-24)

Even here, Christ continually lifts up “all whom You [the Father] have given Him [the Son]” in prayer. While the first third of the passage has him focusing largely on the twelve disciples, He transitions into praying for the elect in general, saying, “I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word.” Christ’s atonement is indisputably intended for a particular people, all of whom were given to Him by the Father in order to carry out His eternal purposes.

Jesus’s work as the mediator of a New Covenant and as True High Priest, then, is completely inseparable from His work accomplished in the Atonement. Munoz overlooks this fact very much to the detriment of his own position.

 

Note:
[1] Knight III, George W. 2013. The Pastoral Epistles (The New International Greek Testament Commentary). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 203-04.
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