Provisional Atonement Part 2: Provision is Consistent With Foreknowledge

, posted by Ben Henshaw

As we noted in our last post [Part 1] Arminians see the atonement of Jesus Christ as being provisional in nature. Not only is the atonement provisional but it is more specifically provisional in Christ Jesus. Only those who come to partake of Christ partake also of the atonement available through union with Him. Since we come to be in union with Christ by faith we also come to benefit from the atoning benefits of His blood through faith (Rom. 3:25). The atonement is one of those gracious spiritual blessings that we come to share in when we are united to Christ by faith and is probably foundational to all of the other spiritual blessings in Christ (Eph. 1:3, 7). When we understand the atonement as provisional in Christ we can accept all the universal passages concerning Christ dying for all or making propitiation for all while avoiding full blown universalism (the belief that all will be saved).

We saw in “Part 1” that this answered John Owen’s argument concerning unbelief being atoned for by Christ’s sacrifice, and the supposed implication of universalism for the Arminian. We noted that since atonement is provisional in Christ the unbeliever’s unbelief is atoned for only when the unbeliever turns to Christ in faith and is therefore joined to Him, thereby partaking of the provision of atonement that resides in Christ alone (Eph. 1:3, 7, 13; Col. 1:13, 14; Rom. 3:25; 5:1, 2; 8:1). Furthermore, Owen’s Calvinism falls to the same objection. If unbelief is atoned for unconditionally for the elect as Owen suggests, then the elect would be born saved. They would be saved even in their unbelief since their unbelief was atoned for at the cross (according to Owen). This leads to theological absurdities and is plainly contradicted by passages like Ephesians 2:1-3 which make it clear that we are all under God’s wrath (and therefore not saved) prior to being justified by faith in Jesus Christ. As soon as it is seen that Scripture presents the atonement as provisional, all of Owen’s cherished arguments fall to the ground.

Calvinists like puritan John Owen also object to the atonement being provisional on the grounds that if the atonement only “provides” salvation then it ultimately saves no one. This is clearly false since this provisional atonement has saved countless thousands throughout the ages. The provisional nature of the atonement does not mean it doesn’t save nor does it mean it can’t save. It means only that those who come to be in union with Christ by faith will alone benefit from that atonement.

The Calvinist objection is further defeated when we realize that even for the Calvinist the atonement must be provisional in nature. If this were not the case then anyone whom Jesus died for would be born saved [1]. Most Calvinists rightly reject this as unbiblical based on those passages which tell us that we are all born under God’s wrath (as noted above). While the Calvinist believes that the atonement will infallibly be applied to those God unconditionally elected from eternity, it still remains that the atonement is provisional until that time when it is actually applied to the sinner. Since Calvinists must acknowledge the provisional nature of the atonement this leaves the door wide open for the Arminian view. The issue cannot be provision but the certainty of application. For the Calvinist it is a certainty that God will apply the atonement to all those whom He has unconditionally pre-selected and for the Arminian it is a certainty that God will apply the atonement to all those who will trust in His blood (Rom. 3:25; 5:1, 2). Both hold that the atonement is provisional and both hold to the certainty of application. The only difference is that the Calvinist holds that this application is unconditional while the Arminian holds that it is conditional.

Calvinists will sometimes appeal to the hypothetical possibility that not a single person would have benefited from the atonement if it were both provisional and conditional. But this is plainly to deny God’s foreknowledge. Even before God created the universe He foreknew those who would trust in Christ’s blood and so be saved. But even if no one ever put trust in Christ His sacrifice would still serve as a means of provision and the outworking of God’s amazing love and grace. If all rejected that blood it would be truly tragic but neither God’s love nor His grace would have failed as a result. That man rejects God’s love and grace does not make His love and grace void in any way. To think that it would seems to be far too man centered, especially for those who hold to Calvinism and claim to disdain “man centered” theology. It would make the significance of God’s love and grace dependent on the creature’s reception. But God’s justice would be vindicated and His love and grace fully displayed even if every one of His creatures turned their nose up at the provision of Christ’s shed blood. But again, such a “hypothetical” is hardly relevant since it simply has no basis in reality and God always knew what the reality of the situation would be.

Still others object that Christ would not shed His blood for those He foreknew would reject that provision. The first problem with this suggestion is it presumes to know what God would and would not do. This is again a surprising objection coming from those who hold to God’s sovereign freedom to do just as He pleases (and of course Arminians believe God has the freedom to do as He pleases as well). But if God has indeed revealed that He provides atonement for those He foreknows will reject that provision, we might simply respond with the favorite Calvinist response to such objections, “Who are you O’ man to talk back to God?” But no such response is necessary. We can see from Scripture that God makes provisions even for those He knows will ultimately reject those provisions and this alone defeats the objection. This truth can be seen in the parable of the banquet described by Jesus in Matt. 22:1-14 and Luke 14:16-24 [2].

In both of these accounts, it seems obvious that the feast was prepared for those who would refuse the invitation (specifically the Jews). The invitation went out to them and the invitation was genuine. They refused the invitation and angered the king (not specified as a king in the Luke account). Now if the feast was not intended or prepared for these Jews, then why was the king angry with them when they would not come? According to the Calvinist objection, he never intended for them to come and made no provisions for them. Look at Matt. 22:4. After the initial invitation was refused, the king sent his servants a second time saying,

“Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.”

Those invited refuse again and mistreated the servants. The king is enraged. He then says,

“The wedding banquet is ready; those I invited did not deserve to come.”

Notice the reason why the guests were refused was not because the dinner was not provided for them, but because they refused the invitation, and thereby proved unworthy to attend.

If the banquet had not been provided for them, then the king had no right to be angry with them for not attending. After all, according to Calvinism, the king never intended for them to attend, and was therefore being dishonest when he told the guests that the dinner had been prepared for them.

The issue, then, is not foreknowledge, but the genuineness of the offer and the integrity of the One making the offer.

The Arminian understanding of foreknowledge is that God knows as certain all future events without necessarily causing those events. This does not mean that those events foreknown by God become artificial or meaningless because God knows them. They are still very real, and God’s interactions with us are still very real and completely genuine.

The king made the dinner even for those who (since the king represents God) he had always known would reject it (see Matt. 8:11-12 and Luke 13:28-29 and note that the “sons of the kingdom” are “thrown out”. This is a reference to the Jews who reject Christ and they are called the “sons of the kingdom” because the kingdom and the feast were intended for them, and yet they will not receive the kingdom nor partake of that feast). God is just, however, and because He is just He cannot condemn men for refusing something that was never provided for them.

The argument from foreknowledge falls flat in the face of the parable of the wedding feast. One could argue that the parable does not reference the atonement specifically but it is hard to conceive of anyone having genuine access to the feast if not for the atonement (especially considering Matt. 22:10-13, cf. Rom. 5:1, 2). Nor do I see how the feast could have even been provided without the atonement in view. It might serve as an interesting parallel to John 6 where Christ calls himself the bread of life that gives life to the world (verse 33), while only those who eat and drink of that provision (by faith) receive the life that resides in Him (John 5:26; 6:47-58). But even if it could be demonstrated that the atonement is not in view in these passages, the principle of genuine provision comporting with foreknowledge is still fully expressed. So again, the objection to provisional atonement based on God’s foreknowledge loses all force.

But what of the way that Matthew closes the parable in verse 14 with the words, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”? Does this teach Calvinism and undermine the usefulness of the parable in defense of provisional atonement? Not at all. It conforms perfectly to the Arminian conception of universal provisional atonement that is received and applied by faith. The feast was prepared and provided and the invitation went out to all (starting with the Jews and then going out to the Gentiles). All of those who are invited are therefore the “called” while those who respond are the “chosen”. They did not respond to the call because they were already “chosen”. Rather, they are chosen because they responded to the call (invitation). This is the natural way to read the text.

The idea that the response was the result of being already chosen needs to be read into the text and conflicts with the fact that the feast was prepared for all those to whom the invitation went out (even those who rejected that invitation). Therefore the designation of “chosen” is reserved for those who respond to the invitation. In other words, election is conditional just as Arminianism has always contended. Not only is it conditional, but it is conditioned on faith since it is by faith that we receive Christ (John 1:12) and come to be joined to Him (the elect one) by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:3, 4, 13). This is probably the meaning behind the man not dressed in proper wedding clothes (Matt. 22:11, 12). The man was rejected and thrown out because he did not attend the banquet under the right conditions. He tried to make his way in on his own terms (“works” or the assumption of unconditional election as a descendent of Abraham, cf. Matt. 8:11-12 and Luke 13:28-29; Rom. 9:30-33; 10:3) rather than on God’s terms (“faith”, cf. Rom. 1:16, 17; 4:1-16; 10:6-13; 11:17-23).

In “Part 3” we will take a closer look at the necessary connection between provisional atonement and the integrity of the gospel message.


[1] F. Leroy Forlines has an excellent treatment of the provisional nature of the atonement in his book, The Quest for Truth, pp. 206-207.

[2] I am indebted to puritan John Goodwin for recognizing the significance and relevance of the parable of the marriage feast in relation to the intention and provisional nature of the atonement. He treats the subject in Redemption Redeemed, pp. 128-131, ed. by John D. Wagner.

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