So What Is the Atonement Debate Really About?

, posted by Martin Glynn

All footnote links lead back to the original post. 


In the Arminian/Calvinism debate, the most aggravating topic for me has been the Atonement debate. Calvinists will argue that Christ died only for the elect while Arminians argue that Christ died for everyone. Now the reason why I find it aggravating is not because it is difficult for me to defend my view, or that Calvinists are annoying about it. The reason for the aggravation is that the entire debate is kind of a misnomer. The argument has nothing to do with the nature of the atonement.

Now some of you may find that shocking, but I assure you that the nature of the atonement is not what is actually being talked about. Rather the debate is about the intention for the atonement. Now when I first got into this debate, I somewhat laid the issue of the atonement aside, because more so than any other facet of the debate I could tell that we were just talking past each other here. Then I compared what we were arguing in terms of the nature of the atonement and concluded that we were saying the same thing, but simply using different words. This convinced me that the debate was an irrelevance. However, I’ve come to realize that the debate has to do with an undercurrent issue that we end up ignoring because of the way that we’ve named the issue.

Now to demonstrate that we aren’t really talking about the nature of the atonement, consider the following list:

  1. Both agree that a person is not born justified
  2. Both sides agree that a person becomes justified when they have faith
    • So we agree on the atonement’s provisional nature
  3. Both sides agree that a person is completely justified once the atonement is applied to them
    • So we agree on efficacy
  4. Both sides agree that Christ’s atonement was substitutionary
  5. Both sides agree that Christ’s atonement is infinite in power
    • So no difference in “spilt blood”
  6. Both sides agree that it is particular in application

So this leaves the basic question, what is the debate about?

Some Logic

This issue is based off of a question regarding how God manifests His sovereignty. Consider the following propositions.

A= God desires to save all people
D= Some people are damned
E= God gets everything He desires

Now these three ideas as a group are mutually exclusive. You can accept any set of two of them, but not all three. This is because if God desires to save all people, and some people are damned, then clearly God does not get everything He desires. [(A  and  D)-> ~E] From this one basic premise, we can see what the fundamental logic is for Arminianism and Calvinism:


1. (A  and  D)-> ~E
2. A1
3. D2
4. Therefore, ~E


1. (A  and  D)-> ~E
2. E3
3. Therefore, ~A  or  ~D4
4. D2
5. Therefore, ~A

So the question before us is how do we settle this while maintaining God’s sovereignty and upholding the witness of Scripture?

The Calvinist Solution

For the Calvinist, there is simply no way to logically reconcile their view of God’s sovereignty with the notion that God would want something and then not obtain it. Therefore, they conclude that God cannot desire everyone to be saved, or at least He does not desire everyone to be saved as much as He wants to condemn them. This seems to contradict several passages of Scripture1. So how do they avoid this?

There have been a couple of different ways they have attempted to do so. One possibility is accommodation, where God’s inscrutable will is simplified in the Bible so that we can understand at least an element of it. Another possible route is to understand these passages as describing all kinds of people rather than every individual person. Yet another method is the two will theory, half-halfheartedly expressed above, Here, God is understood to ambivalently want to save and condemn, and for some the desire to save is stronger, and for some the desire to condemn is stronger.

Now I’ve criticized each of these positions elsewhere, and I won’t do so here. For now, it is sufficient to point out that this is what the Calvinist view of the atonement comes down to: not efficacy, but a defense of God obtaining anything which He desires.

The Arminian Solution 

For the Arminian, there is simply no getting around these Biblical texts. From our perspective, we are biblically obligated to accept the assertion that God desires to save everyone, even those that ultimately are not saved. As such, we must answer the theological question, “How is God sovereign if His will can be thwarted?”

The answer is, that it isn’t thwarted. There are two important challenges that need to be discussed. First of all, is it true that not obtaining a desire is the same thing as being thwarted? If it is true, then the Calvinist would be correct in affirming E (That God gets everything He desires). The second is how do we understand God desiring to save certain people, yet not obtaining that desire.

The first point seems simple. To be thwarted simply isn’t to not obtain something you want, but it is to be defeated or overcome in attempt to obtain it. Thwarting is a response to action, not desire. If I desire my son to go to bed so I can watch a movie, but then say nothing to him, I am not thwarted when he decides to stay up a little later. I did not act on the desire, and so I was not thwarted.

“Hold on”, one may say. “The problem isn’t that God merely desired salvation and didn’t obtain it. Even many compatibilists will say that. The problem is that God actively pursues their salvation, and He does not obtain it. Because God does act with the purpose of obtaining their salvation, and yet does not obtain it, He is therefore thwarted.”

Well, no. While action is necessary for thwarting, it is not sufficient. If God acts in such a way as to promote what it is that He desires, and yet intentionally does not act sufficiently to guarantee it, then as long as the actions that He does undertake are not overcome or prevented, then not obtaining His desire would not be the same as being thwarted. That’s a bit of a dense sentence, so let’s rephrase. It depends on how He acts. If He doesn’t try to force His desire, than even acting to bring about His desire would not be sufficient to have been thwarted if denied.  Let’s consider again the example of my son. Consider if I turn to him and say, “Hey, would like you to get ready for bed?” Assuming this is a real offer and not a rhetorical question, if my son says no, that would hardly be considered being thwarted. This is especially true since it is in my power to force him to go to bed if I chose to exercise that power. So him staying up, in either scenario, is no challenge to my sovereignty over him. Therefore, the first challenge to the Arminian position is met.

So this leads us to our second challenge. How could God desire the salvation of people who are ultimately damned? While we have shown it is logically possible, that doesn’t mean that it makes sense in the case of salvation. After all, if He really wants to save them, then why wouldn’t He act in such a way as to guarantee it?

So here I appeal to the concept of a contextualized desire. Some can express a desire to have something when in reality they would only want that thing if obtained in a certain way. For instance, Lebron James may say that he wants to put the basketball through the hoop. However, he won’t exercise his full power to do so. He won’t push other players out of his way, or hold onto the ball as he gets closer to the hoop, or go and get a ladder or something. This is because, while he may merely say that he is trying to get the ball through the hoop, we understand that he doesn’t merely want  to get the ball through the hoop. He only desires to do so within the context of a basketball game.

The classic Arminian analogy for this notion is romance. If you are wooing a woman, you want her to love you in return. If you had access to love potion #9, and used it to make her love you, it would feel hollow. Rather, you want her to love you back. This is rather analogous to the way we view God’s desire in the context of salvation. Salvation isn’t simply God saving us from Hell, but saving us to an eternal life with God. It makes sense that God would only want those who want to be there.

Now there is significantly more to salvation than just  this, of course. We have to deal with the need of redemption, and sanctification, and justification, and all the rest. The point here is rather an isolated question of why God would only want to save people in a way that they could reject. In answer to this question, the idea that God wants us to want to be with Him makes sense as an explanation for this feature.

Some Objections

Now what might the Calvinist say to all of this? The first response may be to say that this would make salvation meritorious on wanting God. This is a very misguided objection. Again, if we return to the analogy of romance, if a woman does not want to be with you, does that mean that she is less worthy of you? In my wife’s case, wanting to be married to me may be her only flaw! Ah, but wanting God is different because God is the greatest good, while I am most certainly not. Even then, it doesn’t seem that wanting to be with God has earned you anything, because even if you wanted to be with God, that doesn’t take away your sin. Only Christ’s atonement actually does that. Thus wanting to be with God simply is not meritorious. Rather it simply represents the reasons for God’s sovereign choice. As long as God could have chosen otherwise, we are not dealing with merit.

A second objection may be that this would make the atonement of Christ merely provisional. It is the faith that causes the atonement to work, not the power of the atonement itself! This is a gross error. It is not as if you have faith and the atonement automatically kicks in or something. Rather God applies Christ’s atoning work to the faithful. But again, He need not. I can have faith, and God could refrain from applying Christ’s atonement, and I would still be dead in my sins. It is God’s act that causes the atonement to be active in my life, not my act. Thus the atonement being provisional does not entail that it is merely provisional. It is still the atonement that does the actual justifying. Also, as stated in the introduction, this is just as true in the Calvinist system. Therefore the provisional nature of the atonement in Arminianism, as inconsequential as it is, could not ingratiate us toward Calvinism.

A final objection that we’ll consider here is that this leads to the fact that all which distinguishes the reprobate from the elect is faith, and that this makes faith meritorious, regardless of my earlier point. Well, first of all this is a criticism on conditional election, not universal atonement. There are other critiques of conditional election one may import into this conversation as well, but I’ll just consider this one as a way of addressing that category. But look elsewhere for answers to those concerns. To the specific objection, this is simply confusing merit with condition. If one starts out with the assumption that conditionality is sufficient to demonstrate merit, then this might go through, but I reject that premise. God having a reason for choosing something in no way, shape, or form implies that He was obligated to make that choice. I have said significantly more about this elsewhere, but I’ll leave the objection here for the purposes of this post.

So in the end, I think the Arminian is quite justified is criticizing the Calvinist for reinterpreting the plain sense of the atonement passages. While the Calvinists’ theological concerns are duly noted, they are not enough for us to alter what God’s word has revealed to us.

1 John 1:29, John 3:16-17, John 4:42, John 6:33, 51, John 12:32, 47, I Timothy 4:10, II Peter 3:9, I John 4:14, Revelation 22:17 and others. See here.
2 Matthew 25, Acts 4:12, John 3, and many others. Since this is a point we agree on, I won’t belabor it.
3 Based off of their definition of sovereignty.
4 Normally I wouldn’t bother showing a rather obvious step like this. However, I want to point out that Calvinists seem to make this step very consciously. This is basically saying that either Calvinism or universalism must be true. This seems to be where they get the idea that Arminianism leads to universalism. But I think this is based off of their inability to recognize that their definition of sovereignty is neither obvious nor necessary. Indeed, I think they believe E to be more obvious than D, and many are simply unwilling to imagine sovereignty without affirming E. Therefore any attempt to object to universal atonement by way of universalism is merely a symptom of not listening.