Sufficient for All, Efficient for the Elect

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A missionary from our church who ministers in India told the story of a conversation he had with his three year old son concerning the word “famine.” His son did not know what the word meant, so he asked his father. After telling his boy what the word meant, he asked his dad if there were people in India who were starving to death. His father responded, Yes. The boy asked if those people who were dying knew Jesus. His father responded, No. The boy then said, “Dad, we have to get there before someone else dies.”

That story certainly pulled on our heart’s strings. It was meant to. It demonstrates something simplistic about the profound: even a three year old child can understand the significance of spreading the gospel, and that each and every human life is very precious ~ even to God.

I suspect that you know where this is going. Nonetheless, that three year old boy can teach us all a lot. You see, he has not yet been taught all of the deep, profound, philosophical and logical, systematic, theological, and speculative issues concerning election and predestination (1 Cor. 1:21), or that God only loves and desires to save His elect (1 Tim. 2:4), or that the “world” really means “the elect” (John 3:16). All he knows is that there are people who are dying without sufficient knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes . . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith” (Rom. 1:16-17 NASB, and henceforth).

All he knows is that “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). All he knows is that he who “believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). All he knows is, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him who they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Rom. 10:14) All he knows is that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).

All he knows is that God is the “Savior of all men, especially of believers” (1 Tim. 4:10), and that He sent His Son into the world to take away “the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and that “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

These truths are simple and require no hermeneutical gymnastics to make them communicate anything other than their most natural meaning. It takes brilliant men to complicate the simplest of teachings.

Donald M. Lake, in his article “He Died for All: The Universal Dimensions of the Atonement,” writes, “Recent converts and not a few laymen are puzzled when they hear that there are some theologians who argue that the atoning work of Jesus Christ is limited in its efficacy [the ability to produce a desired or intended result ~ Oxford], i.e., the atonement of Christ belongs only to the elect and not to the entire world of humanity!

“To the casual reader of the New Testament, the universal significance of Christ’s death and resurrection as well as his present priestly ministry seems too obvious even to question. Digging a little deeper into the theological basis for such discussions, one finds more theological rationalization than scriptural support. . . .

“The history of theology abounds with theories as to how and why the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ makes salvation possible for mankind, but it is a fact that these redemptive events in the life of Jesus provided a salvation so extensive, so broad as to potentially include the whole of humanity past, present and future!”1

Do not misrepresent the Arminian position. We do not believe that all people will be saved, but that there was enough potential for all people to be saved, because Jesus is the Lamb of God who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Yet, that atonement cannot be efficacious [successful in producing a desired or intended result] apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ, which incorporates His atoning work (Rom. 3:21-26).

I realize that ministers such as John Piper complain that in the Arminian position, Christ’s atonement does not actually save anyone. He says such a thing because of His view, that God’s intention (and that’s the key) was to atone for the sins of those whom He chose to save before He even decreed to create human beings (supralapsarianism).

Arminians, however, merely long to echo what is plainly revealed in Scripture rather than appeal to the ideals of a supralapsarian philosophy. The Bible clearly teaches that a person may be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:24-25a ESV). This atonement is capable of covering the whole world, but can only be applied to the one who has faith in Jesus Christ.

When Arminius was charged as teaching absolute Universalism, that Christ has died for all men and for every individual, implying that all will be saved, he responded, “This assertion was never made by me, either in public or private, except when it was accompanied by such an explanation as the controversies which are excited on this subject have rendered necessary. . . . God has by a peremptory decree resolved that believers alone should be made partakers of this redemption.”2

The universal potential view of the atonement was even held by such Calvinists as Louis Berkhof. He wrote, “The question with which we are concerned at this point is not (a) whether the satisfaction rendered by Christ was in itself sufficient for the salvation of all men, since this is admitted by all; (b) whether the saving benefits are actually applied to every man, for the great majority of those who teach a universal atonement do not believe that all are actually saved . . .

“[It is not] (c) whether the bona fide offer of salvation is made to all that hear the gospel, on the condition of repentance and faith, since the Reformed Church does not call this in question; nor (d) whether any of the fruits of the death of Christ accrue to the benefit of the non-elect in virtue of their close association with the people of God, since this is explicitly taught by many Reformed scholars.

“On the other hand, the question does relate to the design of the atonement. Did the Father in sending Christ, and did Christ in coming into the world, to make atonement for sin, do this with the design or for the purpose of saving only the elect or all men? That is the question, and that only is the question.”3

Though Calvinists and Arminians will answer this question in two entirely different manners, both should at least affirm what Berkhof (and Scripture) has stated, that Jesus Christ was indeed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), and that only by faith in Him can a person be saved from his or her sins (Rom. 3:24-25).

In vying for an Unlimited Atonement, we are not trying to to redeem the unrepentant apart from faith and grace. We are merely adhering as close as is possible to what the Bible clearly and plainly teaches. And frankly, it matters very little what Calvinist philosophers have to say on this matter. What really matters is what Scripture teaches.

1 Donald M. Lake, “He Die for All: The Universal Dimensions of the Atonement,” in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1975), 31.

2 James Arminius, “Apology Against Thirty-One Theological Articles,” The Works of Arminius, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), 9.

3 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939), 393-394.