Barren (Limited) Atonement, Barren Offer of Salvation

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Five-point Calvinists insist that the offer of salvation is sincerely granted to and attainable by all by the grace of God, in and through faith in Christ, and yet God has not provided an unconditional election unto salvation to all. In Calvinism, the insistence remains that God ordains the means as well as the end. But the alleged offer of salvation to all indiscriminately, in Calvinistic theology, can in no sense imaginable be sincere since God has not provided the means (grace, based on an unconditional election, and the monergistic gift of faith resulting from regeneration) in attaining the end (final salvation).

Scripture teaches that the offer of salvation is granted to all: “For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'” (Rom. 10:13) Is there even the slightest hint here (or anywhere throughout Scripture) of a restriction of who can be saved besides the unrepentant unbeliever? In other words, does Scripture teach that, though God has provided an offer of salvation to all, only the alleged unconditionally elect will be saved?

John Piper offers the following: “But God has his sovereign purposes in determining who actually hears and believes the gospel.”1 (emphasis added) According to Piper, God has unconditionally chosen not only who will and who will not hear the Gospel, but also who will and who will not believe the Gospel and thus be saved. (A very odd deduction of this theology is that God has also unconditionally elected who would and who would not love Him. In a crude or coarse sense, one can frame the duck-duck-goose matter thusly, “I unconditionally choose you to love Me, and you to love Me, but not the rest of you.”) How, then, is the offer of atonement and salvation to all people in any sense whatsoever genuine in a Calvinistic framework?

Four-point Calvinists rightly insist that the offer of atonement was made for and to all. But, they insist, God has not effectually secured the application of that atonement to all. Though the offer of (and actual) atonement is sufficient for atoning all, it will be efficient only for the alleged unconditionally elect. We ask the four-point Calvinist: why would God provide an unlimited atonement for people He had no eternal purpose or intention of unconditionally electing unto salvation? Since Calvinists insist that all of God’s actions are performed with precise purpose, and intention, then to what purpose did God provide atonement for those He refused to save from eternity past? We believe Scripture teaches contrary to core or central Calvinistic doctrines.

The offer of (and actual) atonement is made in the stead of all, yet only those who willingly receive the atonement by grace through faith will be saved: one is justified “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Rom. 3:24-25 ESV) Elsewhere St Paul writes: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” (2 Cor. 5:14-15 NRSV, emphases added) Four-point Calvinists rightly admit that Christ died for all. But, again, to what end did He die for those whom His Father did not allegedly unconditionally elect unto salvation?

Calvinists of all stripes grant the so-called non-elect a barren offer of atonement and salvation. No actual, tangible provision is granted to all the lost because God has, according to both four-point and five-point Calvinism, not unconditionally elected them unto salvation. We are told by their language that all are offered atonement and salvation, but their theology implies the direct contrary, thus exposing the barren nature of their offer. We find their offer of atonement and salvation to the “non-elect” to be utterly void of genuineness since God never, from eternity past, intended to unconditionally elect all the lost unto salvation — a notion questioning God’s sincerity in a universal offer.

Many Calvinists argue that a genuine offer is made to the so-called non-elect. God, hypothetically, would save them if they would trust in Christ. But that is a smoke screen and not at all fair. God, from eternity past, decreed not to save them. Hence their argument is moot. There never has been any intent on the part of God to save any except those whom He allegedly unconditionally elected unto salvation. Offer of atonement and salvation to the “non-elect” are words without meaning. Though God is under no obligation to save anyone, these Calvinistic claims, we believe, are contrary to some otherwise very plain and basic passages of Scripture. If I were to ever be accused of naïve realism, it would most certainly be with regard to the atonement.

What could be more plain in Scripture than that Christ Jesus “came into the world to save sinners”? (1 Tim. 1:15) Are all not sinners (Rom. 3:10)? Have all not sinned (Rom. 3:23)? Is Jesus Christ not “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”? (John 1:29) Is the Gospel of Christ not to be preached to every creature (Mark 16:15 KJV) — the whole creation (ESV)? How can there be a genuine offer of atonement and salvation in the preached Gospel with not an ounce of intent on God’s part to save all who hear, conditioned, of course, on God’s grace through a Spirit-enabled faith in Jesus Christ?

An offer is only genuine when there is intent and actual provision made to back the offer. If I were to offer a crippled homeless man in a wheelchair a check for $100,000 on the condition that he get up and receive it, but either had no intention of helping the man out of the chair to receive it, or even of giving him the check, or there being no money in the bank account, what kind of offer have I made to him but an utterly barren one? No matter how much I declare with my speech that I care about the homeless man, unless I actually make a genuine provision for him in my offer, with the intent to grant him what is promised, then the offer is empty. This is why Calvinism has nothing to offer the world at large.

Five-point Calvinists admit that Christ’s atonement was never intended for the “non-elect,” thus atonement and salvation is never truly provided for them, making any offer of atonement and salvation for them nonsensical. Four-point Calvinists admit that God has decreed to atone and save His unconditionally elect, thus atonement and salvation is never truly, intentionally provided for all. Their language to the contrary is nothing more than double speak. Other Calvinists frame the universal offer of atonement and salvation strictly in corporate terms, neglecting to personalize the alleged offer.

For example, John Piper believes “God’s missional concern” regards not individuals but corporate people groups. He posits that God’s “call for missions in Scripture cannot be defined in terms of crossing cultures to maximize the total number of individuals saved. Rather, God’s will for missions is that every people group be reached with the testimony of Christ and that a people be called out for his name from all the nations.2 (emphases added) Question: Are people groups not made up of individuals? If so, then does God’s call for missions have any relation to the individuals within those people groups?

If so, then Scripture has far more to say about “defining terms of crossing cultures” than merely about “people groups.” One cannot have people groups without individuals which comprise those groups. This is the exact type of argument which many Calvinists use against the concept of corporate election, and yet some of them use the very same argument when addressing and defending God’s so-called missional concern regarding people groups, so their arguments are a double-edged sword.

Piper continues: “I believe that this definition of missions will in fact result in the greatest possible number of white-hot worshipers for God’s Son.”3 (emphasis added) Does “the greatest possible number” of worshipers include individuals or just people groups? Above, he stated that “God’s call for missions in Scripture cannot be defined in terms of crossing cultures to maximize the total number of individuals saved.” In the next paragraph, he alludes to “the greatest possible number” of “white-hot” worshipers. Which is it? To suggest that his Calvinistic theology is driving his interpretation of Scripture on this subject is a gross understatement.

Subsequently, Piper concedes the following: “Paul’s use of the promise warns us not to get so swept up into people-group thinking that we forget that the ‘blessing of Abraham’ is indeed experienced by individuals, or not at all.”4 But he stated that “God’s call for missions in Scripture cannot [pay careful attention to this word: cannot] be defined in terms of crossing cultures to maximize the total number of individuals saved.” What is the “blessing of Abraham”? The apostle Paul writes, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’ — in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (Gal. 3:13-14 NRSV) Is this blessing for people groups or for individuals within people groups?

Obviously, the blessing of Abraham is granted to individuals as they are incorporated into Christ Jesus by grace through faith in the Savior. I am not convinced that Piper’s focus on people groups is helpful to the narrative of biblical, redemptive theology, since every people group is comprised of individuals — individuals created in God’s image, individuals for whom Christ Jesus died — individuals whom God desires “to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), since God is “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim. 4:10)

Rather than circumvent what appears to be a very prima facie reading of the scriptures — i.e., that God genuinely desires the salvation of all people without qualification (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4; 4:10); that Christ died on behalf of all people without qualification (cf. 2 Cor. 5:14-15); and that the Holy Spirit convicts all people without qualification through the Gospel (cf. John 16:8-11, Rom. 1:16-17; 2:4) — Arminians find the Calvinistic necessity to refer primarily to people groups with regard to missions unnecessary since people groups are comprised of individuals: without individuals there would be no people groups.

Moreover, we hold, with Scripture, that God has elected to save in Christ those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21). Paul really wrote those words; this really is Paul’s theology of election and salvation; he truly means that God has chosen to save believers, as did others (cf. John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20). God does not save unbelievers, and has not elected unbelievers unto salvation. (Mark 1:15; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 6:8; 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 7:25; 11:6; 1 John 5:13) What authors do not state is the Calvinistic theory that God has unconditionally chosen who will and will not believe in Christ.

We hold these truths to be what Scripture teaches regarding all those for whom Christ died (John 1:29; Rom. 5:6, 12, 15-16; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; 1 Tim. 4:10; 1 John 2:2); and we hold tenaciously that the offer of atonement and salvation is a genuine offer of God to all people, for God has not restricted Himself to unconditionally save this person and not that person merely by decree. These are, we believe, biblical claims which Calvinists must strenuously redefine and reinterpret in order to substantiate their unwarranted theories of unconditional election and limited atonement. Hence we believe many elements of Calvinism to be false teaching.

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1 John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: The Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 153.

2 Ibid., 179.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 191.