On someone’s Facebook page, I find that John Piper tweets the following: “Christ purchased holiness for the [unconditionally] elect. ‘For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified.’ (John 17:19)” When one person comments, “He purchased the redemption for every person who has ever been born,” another responds, defending Piper’s Calvinism:
Brother … that sounds a bit like Universalism and Arminianism. Scripture doesn’t teach that. If that was the case then there’d be no hell. There’d be no need to repent and turn from sinful ways.
Logically, a statement like that doesn’t fit in with the whole of scripture. Look at John ch. 6. Jesus’ followers left him even though he showed them many signs. How can He have purchased their sin when they outwardly rejected Him? What about the members of the Sanhedrin who mocked Him and struck Him?
Jesus himself said He was the only way to Heaven. How can you not believe in the risen Christ yet still get the reward of salvation? Continue on into John 17:20 and see that he prays for “those who believe in Me …” It seems pretty clear to me in Scripture who He died for and it wasn’t everyone that ever lived.
The errors in this Calvinist’s response are many, yet they represent a commonsense knowledge of Calvinism, while demonstrating that Calvinism’s statements on the atonement are purely philosophical, or at least logically-consistent, in that they are consistent within its own framework, but are not what one might claim as being “biblical.” Now, as one who perpetually harps on the use of the word “biblical,” let me justify my use of the word here. I think that the universal statements of Christ providing atonement to whosoever will are so great and obvious that to grant any other conclusion is to mistreat Scripture on the subject.
The statement that Jesus purchased redemption for every person who has ever been born is, primarily, neither the teaching of Universalism, nor Arminianism, but merely the conclusion of a prima facie reading of Scripture. Any cursory glance of the Christian scriptures demonstrates that Jesus died to “take away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29; cf. Rom. 5:15; 1 Tim. 2:6; cf. John 1:29; 3:16; 6:51; Rom. 14:15; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15, 19, 20, 21; 1 Tim. 4:10; Heb. 2:9; 2 Pet. 2:1 1 John 2:2; 4:14) But the Calvinist erroneously, and without warrant, assumes that such a statement is directly related to automatic atonement.
In the words of Terry Miethe, under such an erroneous assumption, if Christ’s death was sufficient to save all for whom He died then it must save all for whom He died.1 But where in Scripture are we taught this assumption? As a matter of fact, we are taught the direct opposing view, that many for whom Christ died would not ultimately be redeemed. (Heb. 10:29; 2 Peter 2:1) This much should be obvious: the fact that Christ has made provision for atonement of the whole world does not necessitate actual atonement for the whole world. Atonement provision for the world is available; atonement application is available solely to those who, by grace, receive Christ by faith. There is no automatic redemption.
The Calvinist argues that Scripture does not teach universal redemption. In a secondary sense, he is correct, in that the whole world will not be saved (cf. Matt. 7:13, 14; John 3:36; Acts 26:18; Rom. 10:16, 17; Gal. 5:19-21; 2 Thess. 2:9-12; Rev. 19:11-21; 20:11-15; 21:8). But in a primary sense, he is incorrect, in that a comprehensive provision for atonement has been accomplished by Jesus Christ in His priestly role as Savior of humanity. The whole world potentially could have been redeemed. (1 Tim. 4:10)
The Calvinist claims, “Logically, a [universal] statement like that doesn’t fit in with the whole of scripture.” No, it corresponds perfectly with the tenor of Scripture. What it “does not fit in with” is the Calvinist’s overtly philosophical theology. Philosophically, such a universal admission is rejected by the Calvinist, not because of Scripture passages which teach the contrary but because the concept is inconsistent with another philosophical error, that of unconditional election. Amending that error would, ipso facto, correct the Calvinist’s misunderstanding of the atonement. Scripture does not affirm that Jesus was sent into the world by the Father solely to die for the unconditionally elect. That is an erroneous assumption created by the error of unconditional election itself.
We cannot neglect the universal statements regarding the atonement in the Christian scriptures. Jesus Christ universally accomplished redemption (Titus 2:14), paid a ransom (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; 1 Tim. 2:6; 1 Pet. 1:18), provided Himself as a substitution (Rom. 5:5-10; 2 Cor. 5:18), brought about reconciliation (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:19; Heb. 2:17), provided a propitiation (Rom. 3:25, 26; 1 John 2:1-2) or atonement (Lev. 16:16-20) — all of which satisfied the justice of God on behalf of wicked sinners; demonstrated the divine love of all wicked sinners; so that anyone in the whole world could, by grace through faith in Christ, be saved (Isa. 53:6; John 1:29, 36; 3:16, 36; 6:51; 11:50; Rom. 3:24, 25, 26; 5:6, 8, 11; 8:32; 14:15; 1 Cor. 8:11; 15:3, 22; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15; Eph. 2:12, 13, 14, 15; Col. 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:4-6; 3:5-6; 4:10; Titus 2:11-14; Heb. 2:9; 1 Pet. 3:18; 1 John 2:2; 3:5; 4:10).2
The Calvinist suggests that if Christ actually did die for all, as Scripture explicitly teaches, then hell would be unnecessary. But the Calvinist neglects the fact that hell was designed by God for the devil and his angels and not primarily for the so-called non-elect (Mat. 25:41). Even if the error of universalism were true, hell would still be necessary, for God created that place as a reality in which the devil and his followers would spend eternity separated from Him.
The Calvinist asks: “How can He have purchased their sin when they outwardly rejected Him?” One might refer the Calvinist to the following passage: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions. They will even deny the Master who bought them — bringing swift destruction on themselves.” (2 Pet. 2:1, emphasis added) The Greek word for “bought,” ἀγοράσαντα, refers to purchasing someone out of a marketplace for redemptive purposes. Redemptively, the word is also used of those for whom Christ died and were redeemed at John 17:9, 10; 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; 2 Pet. 2:1; Rev. 5:9; 14:3, 4. Yet the possibility remains that the one thus bought by Christ will not ultimately be redeemed.
The Calvinist responds: “Jesus himself said He was the only way to Heaven. How can you not believe in the risen Christ yet still get the reward of salvation?” This statement erroneously assumes, again, that all must be saved if Christ died to save all. This error has already been addressed. But let me add the following. The Calvinist is in error to assume that, by Christ dying for the world, what is intended is that Christ died solely for the so-called unconditionally elect. Not even one of our Greek-to-English Lexicons grants such a philosophical notion:
Again, this is an important assertion. The question is, Where does the burden of proof lie? Douty mentions the following works: Trench’s Synonyms of the New Testament, Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, Robinson’s A Greek and English Lexicon of the New Testament, Thayer’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Souter’s Pocket Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, Berry’s Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Arndt-Gingrich’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Abbott-Smith’s Manual Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Tasker’s New Bible Dictionary, Everett F. Harrison in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, and John D. Davis in his Dictionary of the Bible (both Harrison and Davis list John 3:16 as referring to mankind, though both are Presbyterians).3
So the Calvinist’s appeal to either John 6 or John 17 is entirely irrelevant, and founded solely on the philosophy of unconditional election, not Scripture. That Limited Atonement is consistent with Unconditional Election is immaterial. Our goal is to convey what Scripture conveys and not form our doctrines out of consistently propositional necessity.
Finally, the Calvinist concludes, “It seems pretty clear to me in Scripture who He died for and it wasn’t everyone that ever lived.” Such an admission, to use his own words, clearly contradicts the overwhelming majority of New Testament witness, early church consensus, and the theology of the atonement throughout church history. For one to contradict such a colossal bulk of witness is not merely bold, or daring, but outright appalling. Would not a better option be to affirm what Scripture so very clearly teaches and then find a way to integrate the truth of the matter into one’s systematic theology?
1 Terry L. Miethe, “The Universal Power of the Atonement,” in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethan House Publishers, 1995), 74.
2 The majority of references and concepts in this paragraph were taken from Kevin J. Conner, The Foundations of Christian Doctrine: A Practical Guide to Christian Belief (Portland: City Christian Publishing, 1980), 203-04.
3 Miethe, 73.