When Calvinists say that Jesus only died for the elect (i.e, those God chose to irresistibly save before the foundations of the world) instead of for every human being, Arminians will frequently counter that teaching with Bible passages like John 3:16 that says “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son, so that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.” (emphasis mine) or 1 Timothy 2:4-6 which says “[God] wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.” (emphasis mine) The former says that God loves the world and that this love prompted Him to send His one and only son to die for their sins so that those out of the world who believe in Him will be saved. The Arminian argues that the universal term “the world” (kosmos in Greek) indicates that the death of Jesus was universal in its intent, that it was intended to cover the sins of every human being on the face of the planet. God loved the world so He sacrificed His one and only son. Who is a part of the world? Virtually anyone you think of is. The latter passage clearly says God wants “all people” saved and that Jesus gave Himself to ransom “all people”.
There are many other passages like this which seem to refute the idea of a limited atonement. However, Calvinists get around these passages with all sorts of explanations. For John 3:16, they say that Jesus was only talking about “the world of the elect”. With 1 Timothy 2:4-6, they’ll say the author could just be saying that Jesus died for “all kinds of people” and what they mean by that is that Jesus died for some selected individuals within every class of people. Jesus died for some Americans, some Israelites, some Japanese, some Chinese. Jesus died for some white people, some black people, some Jews, some Asians, and so on. Some within every class of people is who Jesus died for, these Calvinists says, but Jesus didn’t die for every single individual. Other Calvinists will assert that “all men” or “everyone” simply means “all of the elect”.
There is no exegetical reason for taking these texts to be saying something contrary to their face value message (besides Calvinistic presuppositions), and I have found that it’s often a fruitless effort to try to convince Calvinists that these texts really mean what they say.
There are some passages, however, where these explanations would result in absurd interpretations if applied to them. Let’s examine some of these passages.
Passage 1: 1 Peter 2:l
“But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign LORD who bought them-bringing swift destruction on themselves.” – 1 Peter 2:1 (emphasis mine)
In this verse, the apostle Peter warns his readers of false teachers. He says that the false teachers will sneakily introduce destructive heretical teachings and that they should be on the lookout for them. The thing about this verse that really sticks out to me is that Peter says these false teachers “deny the sovereign Lord who bought them” and “bring swift destruction on themselves“. What exactly does Peter mean by this? If Calvinists were correct in saying that Jesus only died for the elect, then how could it be the case that the Lord bought these false teachers? These false teachers clearly aren’t saved. For one thing, they’re false teachers! They teach “destructive heresies”. Surely our Calvinist brethren don’t expect us to believe that heretics are saved! Moreover, the text clearly says that they bring swift destruction upon themselves!
If Jesus only died for the elect, we are forced to say that false teachers who bring destruction upon themselves are part of the elect! If Jesus only died for the elect, we are forced to say that God elected certain individuals who teach heresies in the church and eventually meet spiritual ruin. This is absurd.
For the Arminian, this text isn’t strange at all. We believe Jesus died for all people, so of course, he died for false teachers and heretics who eventually are destroyed. Jesus died knowing you may never love Him back. On the Arminian view, the atonement is unlimited in its intent but limited in its application. It was intended even for false teachers, it just isn’t applied to them. Why? Because they resist The Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51) and therefore miss the grace of God (Hebrews 12:15), and are destroyed (1 Thessalonians 5:3), for whoever does not believe in the son of God has God’s wrath continuing to abide on them (John 3:36).
There’s no other way to interpret this verse except to say that Jesus died for people who were non-elect. When The Bible speaks of Jesus “buying” people, it’s always referring to Jesus’ atoning death on the cross. Look at the following passages, for example.
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
“Keep watch over yourselves and the entire flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood.” – Acts 10:28
“And they sang a new song: ‘Worthy are You to take the scroll and open its seals, because You were slain, and by Your blood, You purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.'” – Revelation 5:9
There’s no way around it. The false teachers were bought by Jesus. Jesus died on the cross for them. Moreover, there’s no way to make the people spoken of in 1 Peter 2:1 among the elect. The text clearly says that these false teachers deny Him. You cannot deny Christ and be among the elect. John 3:18 is clear: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
Now, perhaps the Calvinist could respond “Okay, so they deny Him. And clearly, anyone who denies Jesus isn’t saved, but the text never says they deny Him for all time. Perhaps they deny him in the present but come to be saved at a later date”. This won’t work. The text goes on to say that they bring swift destruction upon themselves. This eliminates any possibilities that they’re currently false teachers who deny Christ but might get saved, later on, therefore being among God’s eternally chosen.
One last ditch effort the Calvinist reader might make to prevent this verse from extending beyond the elect is to say that the kind of destruction the false teachers bring upon themselves isn’t spiritual destruction, but merely physical destruction. Perhaps God forgives them and regenerates them, but they still have to pay the price for their sins by dying a physical death, much like how God forgave David’s sin but still gave him an Earthly punishment in his life by taking the life of his infant (see 2 Samuel 12:13-14). Perhaps these false teachers were destroyed physically but were irresistibly regenerated prior to their physical passing.
The problem with this option is that it’s implausible in light of what Peter goes on to say. After saying “But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign LORD who bought them-bringing swift destruction on themselves.” (1 Peter 2:1), he goes on to talk about divine judgment in terms that cannot merely be temporal earthly-life punishments. “Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.” (verses 2-9, emphasis mine).
Unless we are to believe that Noah’s contemporaries and the people of Sodom all went to Heaven and that the destruction brought upon them was only their physical deaths, we ought to reject the idea that the false prophets The Lord bought likewise only suffered physical destruction. Worse yet, Peter makes mention of angels whom God sent to Hell. Why would Peter mention the eternal condemnation of angels if he thought the false prophets he had mentioned only a couple of sentences earlier were eventually going to be saved?
Passage 2: Romans 5:15, 18
“But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” – Romans 5:15 (emphasis mine)
The next verse I want to exegete comes from Paul’s epistle to the Roman church. Chapter 5 is the key passage in which Paul talks about original sin, and how the sinful nature has passed on to every person because Adam sinned, Adam got a sin nature, and therefore, everyone born after Adam inherits that sin nature. Everyone sins, and therefore, everyone dies spiritually. Adam brought death to all people through that single act in the garden. Calvinists typically overlook the significance of verse 15, however. In this verse, Paul rhetorically asks if “the many” died through Adam’s trespass, how much more did God’s grace and gift overflow to “the many” by one man (i.e Jesus Christ)?
How many people did Adam bring death to? Verse 12 says “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (emphasis mine). Paul said earlier in chapter 3 that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23) and that the wages of sin is death (6:23).
The Bible is pretty clear that “the many” who died by Adam’s trespass is every single human being to ever walk the Earth. Everyone has sinned. Everyone is affected by the curse our first father brought upon us. But then, Romans 5:15 goes on to say that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice will overflow to “the many”.
Who is “the many” spoken of here? All of humanity. Every single human being. The ones to whom God’s grace and gift go to are the same ones who are dying by the curse of Adam. Adam brought death to “the many”. Jesus brings life to “the many”. What this means is that Jesus died on the cross and offers saving grace to every single sinner, in contradiction to the Calvinist doctrine of Limited Atonement.
It does no good to render “the many” to only the elect, or to every type of people group. Why? Because the phrase “the many” is used twice in the same sentence, contrasting what Adam did to what Christ did. If “the many” means only a select group of people in the latter part of the verse, then what about the former part of the verse? Did Adam bring death to only “the elect” or to “all kinds” of people? And if one says that “the many” in the former part of the verse means every human being but that the phrase only means the elect in the latter part, then what you’re saying is that Paul is equivocating. You’re essentially saying that Paul is using the same phrase in the same sentence in two different ways.
I don’t see any way to accommodate this verse to the L in T.U.L.I.P. Jesus died for the same number of people who have sinned: everyone!
The same problem plagues the Calvinist once we get to verse 18: “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.” Does “all people” mean “all types of people” in the latter, and literally all human beings in the former? Then Paul is equivocating. Does it mean “all types of people” in both instances? Then Paul is saying only some in every group of people is affected by Adam’s sin. Does “all people” mean every human being in both instances? Then Limited Atonement is false. These are your options, Mr. Calvinist.
One might object at this point that taking these 2 verses to mean all of humanity entails universalism (i.e the view that everyone will actually be saved), but that would be misguided. The universalist could only use this verse to argue for his view if he rips them out of context. In verse 16, Paul writes “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receiveGod’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” (emphasis mine). You see, the gift is offered to all, but only those who receive it benefit from it. Therefore, saying that Romans 5:15 and Romans 5:18 are referring to all humanity doesn’t at all lead to universalism.
Passage 3: 1 Timothy 4:10
“That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” – 1 Timothy 4:10
This passage says that God is the savior of all people, especially for those who believe. Why can’t the Calvinist wiggle out of this passage? If they try to say that “all people” means “the elect” then what the verse is saying is absurd. We essentially have Paul saying “God is the savior of the elect, especially for the elect”. Yet, aren’t those who believe elect? Aren’t believers elect and vice versa? Is The Bible saying that God is the savior of all the elect, especially of the elect?
If you try to say “all people” means “all kinds of people”, then you render Paul’s message as saying “God is the savior of all kinds of people [i.e those kinds whom He irresistibly causes to believe, a.k.a the elect] especially those who believe (i.e the elect)”. Again, you have the same group of people being talked about twice in the same sentence. God is the savior of those whom He predestined to salvation, especially of those whom He predestined to salvation. God is the savior of those within those specifically chosen individuals in every group of people in the world, especially of those specifically chosen individuals in every group of people in the world.
Born Again Christians are talked about twice if we interpret this verse in any Calvinistic fashion. How about we take the text at its face value meaning? God is the savior of all people (i.e all of mankind), but especially of those who believe (i.e the elect, Christians,). I take this verse to be saying that God is the savior of every human being in one sense or another, but is the savior of born-again Christians in a special and significant sense; a sense that differs from those who never repent.
God is the savior of all people in the sense that God The Son died on the cross for all people and sends prevenient grace to all people to enable them to repent (cf. John 12:32, John 1:9, Acts 17:30). God is the savior of all people in the sense that he made eternal life available for all people. God is the savior of believers in the sense that, not only did he do all of the aforementioned, but because we responded to God positively, God regenerated us (i.e caused us to be born again) and applied His blood to us, cleansing us from every sin we’ve ever committed (cf. Isaiah 55:7, 1 John 1:9). God is the savior of all men in the sense that he offered salvation to all men. God is the savior “especially” of believers because it is only believers who actually enjoy the benefits of Jesus’ death on the cross.
Passage 4: Ezekiel 18:31
“For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord, repent and live!” – Ezekiel 18:31
Calvinists assert that God does whatever He pleases. They also assert that what God does is causally determine all things. They also assert that God has determined man to fall into sin and then to withhold atonement and saving grace from multitudes. Why? The answer is “For His good pleasure”. To see that I am not at all misrepresenting the Calvinist view, take a look at this statement from one very prominent Calvinist teacher:
“Whenever God acts, he acts in a way that pleases him. God is never constrained to do a thing that he despises. He is never backed into a corner where his only recourse is to do something he hates to do. He does whatever he pleases. And therefore, in some sense, he has pleasure in all that he does.” – John Piper1
Can you see the problem here? I do. What Calvinists affirm directly contradicts the word of God. God explicitly said that He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, yet Calvinists assert that everything God does is done for His good pleasure, and one of the things He does is cause the death of the wicked!
Some Calvinists realize the predicament the Ezekiel text puts them in, so they’ll say that while God would like to save all people, He doesn’t because He needs to damn the wicked in order to fully glorify Himself. Richard Bushey of ThereforeGodExists.com put it this way: “it may be the case that God has more than one set of desires. Perhaps he wants all people to be saved, but he has a greater desire in mind. This would resemble human psyche quite a bit as well. Just as a man might want to lose weight and get in shape, he also wants to spend more time with his family, and there are just not enough hours in the day. People often have conflicting desires. It is logically possible for God to want everybody to be saved, but have a greater desire that his justice and his wrath are put on display for the sake of his glorification.”2
But there two major problems with this proposal. First of all, even if God did need to display His wrath against sin for the sake of His glorification, why would He need the damned to accomplish that? Wasn’t Jesus on the cross a display of God’s wrath against sin? Didn’t the naked bloody Christ show the world just how much God despises sin and inequity? I think the Calvinist would certainly say yes to those questions. But then, why would it be necessary to irresistibly damn people to Hell? It wouldn’t be because He needs someone to punish “so that his justice and his wrath are put on display for the sake of his glorification.” for Jesus’ crucifixion would have accomplished that. And if God takes displeasure at the death of the wicked and doesn’t care about libertarian free will, why doesn’t he irresistibly save everyone? Perhaps God wants everyone saved but wants people to come to Him freely? But then, that’s Arminianism, not Calvinism, and we can’t have that.
Secondly, this proposal entails that God has a desire for something sinful. Apologist and philosopher Tim Stratton explains that “If God cannot have both of His desires, then it seems that He is not omnipotent, UNLESS, God’s glory and universal salvation are logically incompatible. This is like stating that God’s glory and his desire for all to be saved are on the same logically fallacious level as triangles with four corners and married bachelors. That is to say, a man might have the competing desires to be married and to be a bachelor but it is logically impossible to be a married bachelor. Therefore, he must choose one of the two options since these two concepts are mutually exclusive.
The idea that God’s glory and universal salvation are logically contradictory is far from obvious. ….. Moreover … If God’s glory and universal salvation are logically contradictory, why would God desire anything at all – even a little bit – that would logically negate His glory altogether? This does not seem like the kind of thing an omniscient or perfectly good God would have a desire for.”3
Passage 5: 1 John 2:2
“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” – 1 John 2:2
Committed Calvinists do hermeneutical gymnastics to make this verse mean less than all humanity. But making John 2:2 mean “all kinds of people” or “world of the elect” or “every type of people” would result in an incoherent and redundant reading. It would be like saying,
“Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the elect, and not only for the sins of the elect, but ALSO for the sins of the elect!”
Why would anyone inspired by the Holy Spirit speak such babble? This is not a good interpretation! God loves the world (all people), desires all people to be saved, and Jesus has made it possible for all people in the whole world to be saved.
I titled this blog post “5 Biblical Texts That Calvinists Can’t Wiggle Out Of”. That’s kind of a misnomer. I’ve done enough theological debates to realize that if a person wants to avoid a certain conclusion, he’ll manage to do it somehow. I’ve tried to anticipate the various ways Calvinists might respond to these arguments from scripture, but it’s quite possible they’ll come back with some rebuttal of some kind not addressed in this article, even if it’s nothing but “Muh Romans 9!”. Every biblical passage that refutes one’s position can be wiggled out of if they try hard enough.
However, if they do manage to somehow cling to the middle part of the T.U.L.I.P, it will only be with great mental effort, dodging the bullets of scripture like Neo in The Matrix.
1: John Piper, “The Pleasure Of God In All That He Does”, February 1st 1987, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-pleasure-of-god-in-all-that-he-does
2: Richard Bushey, “A Brief Critique Of Prevenient Grace & Response To Cerebral Faith”, March 22nd 2016, http://thereforegodexists.com/brief-critique-prevenient-grace-response-cerebralfaith/
3: Tim Stratton, “The Petals Drop: Piper’s Problems”, FreeThinking Ministries, May 3rd 2015, http://freethinkingministries.com/the-petals-drop-problems-with-the-competing-desires-objection-2/