“It’s a fair question for the Arminian to ask: How can you preach the free offer of the gospel when you believe in a limited atonement?”
So begins Tim Challies’ blog entry for 21 June 2017, “Preaching the Gospel with TULIP’s Tricky ‘L’ in Mind.” I’m not sure whether his question du jour comes from a real live Arminian or a hypothetical strawman. Considering how Challies regularly misrepresents Arminianism, I’m betting strawman. But it’s good he recognizes there’s a paradox when one believes Jesus didn’t atone for everyone… even though Jesus does order us to go teach the gospel to all nations. [Mt 28.20]
Theology brush-up time:
- Calvinists hold to limited atonement, the L of the acronym TULIP: Jesus gave his life to ransom many, [Mt 20.28] and since many isn’t all, they deny he died to save all. Atonement is so powerful it saves everyone it touches, and since not everyone is saved, it can’t possibly touch everyone. So it doesn’t. Jesus only saves some.
- Arminians recognize unlimited atonement, the “atonement for all” of our FACTS—that Jesus is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. [1Jn 2.2] Atonement indeed saves everyone it touches, but when we refuse it, our sins remain. Calvinists insist we can’t refuse it. Which leads to our disagreement with them about resistible/irresistible grace—whether God lets us (and would ever let us) tell him no.
Because Calvinists commonly presume Arminians have no system to our theology, they forget we have this whole disagreement with them about the resistibility of grace. And irresistible grace plus unlimited atonement equals universalism: Hey, everybody goes to heaven! This is why, whenever unlimited atonement comes up, at some point Calvinists wind up talking about, and objecting to, universalism. Challies didn’t go there in Wednesday’s article, but he did make sure to drop the word “universal” into his brief description of unlimited atonement. Gotta lay the groundwork for any future rebukes, whether based on reality or fantasy.
“The question is,” Challies wrote, “do those who believe in a limited atonement have the right to honestly preach the gospel and to call on people to turn to Christ in repentance and faith even when it is possible that this person is not among the elect and, therefore, not the object of Christ’s atoning work?”
Now we all know Calvinists do preach the gospel, and call everyone to repent and believe in Christ Jesus. My first evangelism textbook was Evangelism Explosion, written by Coral Ridge Presbyterian pastor D. James Kennedy. I’ve worked with Presbyterians many times in street evangelism. I’ve heard Calvinist sermons about the importance of preaching the gospel to all comers. They’re wholly orthodox about the need to share our faith.
And I have heard their answer to Challies’ question. No doubt Challies has as well. But in his article, he didn’t give it. He gave another answer; a lesser one.
Challies is a book reviewer, and every so often his current read is gonna worm his way into his theology think pieces. His own thoughts aren’t always gonna line up that well with that of his authors. (As we occasionally see when he quotes the scriptures. Just sayin’.) He already posted his review of Seven Leaders: Preachers and Pastors by biographer Iain H. Murray. The quotes in the Wednesday piece come from chapter 1, “John Elias and Revival”—the tale of a charismatic high Calvinist who joined the Welsh Methodist Revival in the 1790s, and contributed to the creation of the contradictory-sounding Calvinistic Methodists. (Today they’re the Presbyterian Church of Wales.)
Elias’s answer to Challies’ question came from his conviction the “whosoever” of John 3.16 truly does mean whosoever—“no matter of what nation, no matter how wretched or unworthy he might be; whosoever believeth.” But don’t get the idea Elias also believes in unlimited atonement. John Calvin insisted the verse doesn’t emphasize any who might believe, but any who might believe. [Commentary at Jn 3.16] Once a person believes in Christ, Calvinists insist you can’t believe without irresistible grace; ergo this new believer is elect. Probably. And if not, maybe not.
How did Elias hold to limited atonement, yet unlimited evangelism? “We do it not under the idea that they are elected or redeemed, but as ruined”—in summary, they’re lost, and the Son of Man is come to seek and save that which was lost. [Lk 19.10] So we do likewise. Right?
Right!… but it’s a really poor answer to the question.
Challies likes it. “Election is true and real, a precious doctrine of the Bible. But it is not the summons of the gospel. … We do not tell unbelievers to concern themselves with whether or not they have been chosen by God. No, we preach the gospel… The only way they can be certain they are among the elect is when they have put their faith in Jesus!”
Lemme rephrase: “Jesus only died for the elect. But when we evangelize, we choose to not think about this.”
Well, it’s honest. Gotta give him that.
I also gotta say: It’s not the answer to the question I’ve heard in Calvinist churches, nor from my Calvinist theology professors. They’re not satisfied with cognitive dissonance. Nor should anyone be. Their far better answer, which I’ve heard more than once, goes like yea:
“Yes, Calvinists can honestly preach the gospel. Of course. But because we don’t know God’s will of purpose, we can’t presume to tell the difference between the elect and the reprobate; we can’t preemptively figure Jesus chose this potential believer but not that one. That’d be wrong. We must share the gospel with all, and recognize God’ll lead his chosen to respond appropriately.”
And a fair amount of Calvinist teaching on evangelism has to remind people they can’t tell the difference between elect and unelect. Because sometimes they’ll try. They’ll give somebody the once-over, and based on their prejudices or politics, decide, “Nope, he’s going to hell,” or “God’s gotta have chosen her.” If your coworker has been particularly rotten to you lately, it’s way too easy for a Calvinist to imagine him among the reprobate. Heck, you might even start to reconsider double predestination.
(To be fair, every Christian dabbles in second-guessing people’s salvation based on petty, extraneous things. We Evangelicals do it all the time with everyone outside our fold.)
But the inevitable conclusion of this belief is the bulk of evangelism is gonna be busywork. If Jesus didn’t die for all—if the vast majority of people in this world aren’t predestined to inherit the kingdom of God—probably two-thirds of the people we share Jesus with, are gonna fall in the reprobate category. We’re wasting a great deal of time on the damned. And won’t know it till the End.
Well, not wholly wasted. Calvinism tends to nullify the central message of Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity.” [Ec 1.2] In God’s sovereignly determined cosmos, there are no meaningless acts. Going through the motions was always part of his plan. To what end? Um… it builds character or something. As we’re preparing for heaven, we practice on the reprobate, and yank their chains for a while. It’s okay; they’re just vessels of wrath anyway. [Ro 9.22-23]
Not a very loving attitude to bring with you when you preach the gospel. But Calvinists tamp it down too: Don’t think about it. Just proclaim Jesus, like he told us to.
SEA member K.W. Leslie blogs at Christ Almighty!