or: The 5-Pointer’s Impossibility of a Sincere Gospel Offer to All Men
The doctrine of Limited Atonement (Christ dying for the salvation of only God’s elect) is perhaps the most controversial of all Calvinist doctrines. Besides having no scriptural foundation to speak of (evidenced by the fact that not a word of scripture implies anyone being excluded from the atonement, whereas its universality is repeatedly proclaimed therein), it’s come under fire for, among other things, making the offer of the gospel insincere where the non-elect are concerned. Reformed scholars and apologists have put forth much effort to deflect this charge (see for instance Dr. Roger Nicole’s Covenant, Universal Call And Definite Atonement). The standard defense that’s usually mounted is declaring that the offer is genuine, but that the non-elect (or reprobates) are simply unable to fulfill its stipulation of faith without being regenerated, and thus never collect on what is genuinely offered to them.
While this defense may seem sound upon first glance, a crucial aspect it glosses over is the essential relationship between Christ’s atonement and the salvation that is being offered. This produces an apparently irreconcilable inconsistency as the syllogisms below should succinctly prove.
Premise 1: An “offer” made to one that he[a] cannot collect on, even should he meet its stipulations, is not a genuine or sincere offer to that man.
Premise 2: The gospel offer that God extends to all men[b] everywhere is that if anyone truly believes in Jesus Christ, he shall be saved from eternal condemnation (Romans 10:9-11, John 5:24).
Conclusion 1: Therefore if any man could not be saved even if he truly believed in Christ, then the gospel offer to that man is not genuine or sincere.
The second syllogism’s first premise is what I believe most Calvinists miss when they declare the gospel offer to be genuine in their view.
Premise 1a: Without the benefit of Christ’s sacrificial death as the atonement for one’s sins[c], then even if he truly believed in Christ, he could not be saved.
Premise 2a: The doctrine of Limited Atonement is that Christ’s death as the atonement for sins, such that one may be saved from eternal condemnation if one believes, is only applicable to the elect. It does not and cannot ever apply in this way to the non-elect.[d]
Conclusion 2: Therefore if the doctrine of Limited Atonement is true, a man who is non-elect (and therefore does not have his sins atoned for at the cross), even if he were to truly believe in Christ, could not be saved.[e]
Some Calvinists may contest premise 1a, but its truth should be fairly evident. To contend otherwise, that faith in and of itself could save one from sin without Christ dying for him, is patently absurd.
Premise 1b (from Conclusion 1): If any man could not be saved even if he truly believed in Christ, then the gospel offer to that man is not genuine or sincere.
Premise 2b (from Conclusion 2): If the doctrine of Limited Atonement is true, a man who is non-elect, even if he were to truly believe in Christ, could not be saved.
Conclusion 3: If the doctrine of Limited Atonement is true, then the gospel offer to the non-elect is not genuine or sincere.
As can be readily seen, telling a person that he will be saved if he trusts in Christ cannot be true if Christ has not died for him. Even if he hypothetically were to believe, there’s nothing to back the offer made to him. Telling a non-elect person for whom Christ didn’t die that he would be saved through faith if he did believe is tantamount to saying that his belief in Christ could save him apart from any atoning work by Christ!
The mainstream Calvinist view of the atonement and the gospel offer amounts to the equivalent of God waving bad checks payable from an empty account to entice so many wretched and beggarly souls, then charging them all the more for their disinterest in the worthless scrap. It portrays Him as tempting those who are dying of starvation with invitations to an exquisite feast big enough for all -after having given the chef explicit orders to never prepare anything for them. If you find that such duplicity and insincerity isn’t sounding like the self-revelation of the God of scripture, you’re not alone.
[a] Non-specific masculine gender conveys gender inclusiveness here and throughout.
[b] John 3:16-17, Acts 17:30, Luke 24:46-47, Titus 2:11-13, Revelation 22:17; though proof for this premise is hardly necessary, since only hyper and fringe Calvinists reject the universal offer of the gospel.
[c] Those who do have this benefit in this context include those for whom it had not yet been made but were looking forward to it, e.g. the Old Testament saints. The ones without it as described here are the ones for whom it is never made per the Calvinist perspective.
[d] That is to say, only those who are elect (chosen by God) can receive any benefit from Christ’s death at all where forgiveness of their sins and eternal salvation are concerned. While 5-point Calvinists may acknowledge that the atonement does something with regards to the non-elect in their view, its power to save from sin is strictly reserved for the elect to the exclusion of all others. Any view to the contrary is forcefully denounced by Charles Spurgeon in his sermon, “The Mission of the Son of Man”: “That Christ should offer an atonement and satisfaction for the sins of all men, and that afterwards some of those very men should be punished for the sins for which Christ had already atoned, appears to me to be the most monstrous iniquity that could ever have been imputed to Saturn, to Janus, to the goddess of the Thugs, or to the most diabolical heathen deities.”
[e] The validity of the reasoning here should be apparent: faith of any sort wouldn’t be able to save him since Christ’s sacrificial atonement for sins doesn’t apply to him. In penal substitutionary terms, even if such a non-elect sinner met the gospel’s stipulation of faith in Christ, there is no substitute, no payment prepared for his sins upon his believing, nor can there ever be. He would of necessity bear them himself and still suffer condemnation despite believing.