Does the Atonement Actually Save Anyone?

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Calvinist James White insists that the message Christians should give to the lost is that Jesus does not “merely try” to save them but that He “saves them perfectly” (Youtube video link, beginning at 28:15). By “perfectly” White means that God has by a mere decree unconditionally chosen to save (regenerate and bring to faith) certain of the lost and unconditionally damned the rest of mankind. This is not hyper-Calvinism or some form of philosophical-theological, first-century pagan fatalism. This is basic, Classical Calvinism.

Nevermind that the apostle Paul, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, instructed a young pastor named Timothy that God our Savior “desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4 NASB). Statements throughout the New Testament such as this one must experience a vast change in prima facie meaning in order to support Calvinism.

The doctrine of the omnibenevolence of God, which Dr. Ergun Caner, President of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, presented in White’s Youtube post, is not, according to James White, accurate in the least. Easily enough, for White, God has loved His elect with a redeeming love from all eternity and has hated the non-elect with a just hatred from all eternity.

But why would God eternally hate a people who have yet to be created or done anything worthy of hatred? The reader must understand that according to Classical (supralapsarian) Calvinism God has, in Calvin’s own words, predetermined within Himself “whatever He wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.”1

In theology, Calvin’s assessment here is what is known as supralapsarianism. Before God decreed to create anyone, He first decreed (logically speaking) to elect creatures to heaven and to damn the rest to hell. He then decreed to create specific individuals to fulfill those decrees. God has eternally loved those whom He created for heaven and eternally hated those whom He damned for hell. This is why Calvinists who follow this train of thought balk at the doctrine of the omnibenevolence of God (John 3:16). For, obviously, God cannot love everyone since He has from all eternity hated the non-elect.

This distorted view of God is also why those same Calvinists must interpret God’s (seemingly) omnibenevolence as His redeeming love for His unconditionally elect. Hence God’s sole intent in sending His Son was to redeem the unconditionally elect. Christ, then, is not “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), as Scripture teaches. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the elect. And words such as “world” and “all,” etc., must be interpreted to mean “elect” (though one will search in vain for a Lexicon to support such an interpretation).

White continues to espouse the theory that any other view of the atonement (than the Calvinist’s doctrine of Limited Atonement, in its intent) does not “actually save” anyone (Youtube video link, beginning at 29:12). For White (and all Calvinists for that matter), Christ’s atonement did not make mankind “savable,” but “actually saves” (i.e. the unconditionally elect). But how is it that in Classical Arminianism the atonement does not “actually save” anyone? Arminius writes:

      But, because “known unto our God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18), and as God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do, this vocation [of mankind unto salvation] is likewise instituted and administered according to God’s eternal decree: So that what man soever is called in time, was from all eternity predestinated to be called, and to be called in that state, time, place, mode, and with that efficacy, in and with which he was predestinated.

Otherwise, the Execution will vary from the Decree; which charge of mutability and change cannot be preferred against God without producing mischievous effects (Ephesians 3:5, 6, 9-11; 2 Tim. 1:9; James 1:17-18).2

Since God was “well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21 NASB), then God has from all eternity been well-pleased to save those who would believe — and He will save them perfectly. There is no ambiguity here. God has known His own from eternity past (cf. Rom. 8:29; 1 Peter 1:1-2); and the one who believes in Christ Jesus will be saved, perfectly. As Arminius states, “God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do.”

This truth, however, is not as cut-and-dried as White and other Calvinists would like to think. God the Father sent His Son into the world to die for them all (2 Cor. 5:14). All are dead in sin (“therefore all died,” 2 Cor. 5:14; Eph. 2:1), and Paul states his conclusion that Christ “died for all” (2 Cor. 5:14, 15). He then writes that God the Father was “in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). God has given all believers the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). To what purpose did God bestow this honor? Paul answers: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20 NASB).

So, God reconciled (past tense) the world unto Himself through the work of Christ Jesus His Son (2 Cor. 5:19), and then Paul begged the Corinthians to be actually reconciled to God personally (2 Cor. 5:20). From Paul’s teaching we understand that for God the Father to redeem lost sinners, His spiritual enemies, Christ Jesus first had to reconcile them through His death on the cross. Then and only then could they actually be reconciled to Him personally.

But they are not reconciled to and saved by God automatically. No one is saved by Christ’s atonement automatically! No one is “actually saved” (to borrow White’s words) by Christ’s atonement apart from faith in Him. Only by faith in Jesus Christ can a person actually be reconciled to God the Father relationally. Only by faith in Jesus Christ can a person actually be justified by God the Father (Rom. 5:1). Only by faith in Jesus Christ can a person be saved and regenerated by the grace and mercy of God the Father (Titus 3:5).

And yet this grace can be resisted. For Paul then writes: “And working together with Him, we urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1 NASB). If a person cannot receive the grace of God in vain (because he or she is allegedly unconditionally elect) then these words of Paul make no sense. In essence, Paul’s statement is void of any real meaning, since the unconditionally elect cannot receive God’s grace in vain (and clearly, the grace of God for salvation and reconciliation was the context, 2 Cor. 5:20-21; 6:1-2).

James White’s complaint against the Arminian, that the atonement of Jesus Christ “only makes men savable,” has always perplexed me (for I have heard that argument for years). My question is, Does Christ’s atonement make men less savable? White is working with the a priori of the doctrine of Unconditional Election, which in Calvinism is made effectual by God’s work of regeneration (which precedes faith).

Stripped of this presupposition, however, we are left with the biblical model that Jesus Christ “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Are all people without distinction sinners? Yes, all people without distinction have sinned (Rom. 3:23). Was Christ sent into the world to save sinners? Yes, He came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Does Christ fail as a Savior because all will not be saved?

Once again, White’s assertion is based upon his presupposition that God has from eternity unconditionally elected to save some and unconditionally reprobated the rest of mankind. Stripped of this conjecture, however, we are left with the biblical model that God desires the salvation of all people without distinction (1 Tim. 2:4), and desires their repentance (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9), but does not force or coerce them unto the same. It was never His design to do such; therefore, White’s argument cannot be sustained.

If there are two major Christian doctrines which TULIP theology (i.e. Classical Calvinism) has misunderstood, misapplied, misinterpreted, and propagated, they are the doctrines of Election (Unconditional by divine fiat) and the Atonement (Limited in its initial intent). Such has inevitably led to a distorted view of the nature and character of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, wherein God is portrayed as arbitrary, cold and calculated. This view of God, who would create souls for hell by a mere decree, is of an utmost offense to Scripture — the inspired agency through which God revealed Himself to man.

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 3:21:5.

2 James Arminius, “Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XVI: On the Vocation of Men to Salvation,” in The Works of Arminius, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:235.