Roy Ingle, “The Arminian Understanding of the Atonement (Part 1)”

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Louis Berkhof, in his systematic theology (p.393-394), points to agreements between Arminians and Calvinist. Berkhof states that the points of agreement are:

1. The sufficiency of Jesus’ atonement for all.

[Editorial note: This phrase doesn’t mean the same thing to Calvinists as it does to Arminians. Arminians believe Christ’s death was sufficient for all in that all can be saved through Christ’s death. Calvinists mean they could have all been saved (as opposed to can be saved) if God had chosen them and therefore had Jesus’ death pay for their sins. Calvinists say if God had elected more people, then he would have had Christ’s death pay for their sins, and so Christ’s death would have been able to save them. But that’s hypothetical not actual. On Calvinism, Christ’s death cannot pay for anyone’s sins but those who were unconditionally elect from eternity. Arminians believe that Christ’s death paid for everyone’s sins, and therefore that God can save anyone based on what Christ did, He can save everyone.]

2. The application of the saving benefits of the atonement to all.

3. The universal offer of salvation to all.

4. That some benefits of the atonement are bestowed on all.

However, Berkhof stops there and adds that the chief difference between the Arminian understanding of the atonement and that of the Calvinist is whether Jesus died to save all or only the elect. Berkhof believes the latter. Yet as Robert Picirilli points out in his book, Grace, Faith, Free Will, this is simply not correct in understanding the Arminian view (p.103).

Since we Arminians hold that God is absolutely sovereign then it also deems that had God so intended to save everyone by the atonement, He could have. The key word, according to Picirilli, is the word provision. The Arminian understanding is that God gave His Son to be the provision for our salvation. Therefore, we believe that God provided salvation so that through Christ’s atonement, all might have the provision necessary to secure eternal salvation through faith. Calvinist often accuse Arminians of holding that the atonement of Christ did not accomplish anything but merely provided the way of salvation, but this is not correct either since Arminianism holds that the atonement of Christ did not just provide for our salvation but the provision secures our salvation for the elect. The difference here lies in the Arminian understanding that election is conditioned upon faith unlike the Calvinist who holds that election is unconditional.

What Did Jesus’ Atonement Secure?

The work of Christ on the cross secured our salvation. The biblical understanding of the atonement then is that Christ’s death on the cross, His shed blood, was for our forgiveness (Matthew 26:28). Jesus tasted death for every man (Hebrews 2:9) and He bore our transgressions (Isaiah 53:8).

But what was the focus of Jesus’ death on the cross? Many have incorrectly taught that Satan is the object of the cross, which is known as the ransom theory. There is an element of truth in this teaching in that Satan is defeated by the cross (Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8), but Christ’s death on the cross was not to overcome Satan by deception or a ransom, but the cross was the display of God’s love for humanity and God’s power (Colossians 2:13-15).

Some have incorrectly made man the object of the cross. The two main theories attached with this teaching is the moral influence theory and the governmental theory. It has often been accused that the latter is the view held by Arminians. But only some Arminians have held to this view (see Richard Watson and Alexander Campbell). Both views have a high view of men. The moral influence theory teaches that the cross is the primary motivation for men to seek salvation. Yet this view softens the biblical teaching on sin as being directed at God. Furthermore, the moral influence theory ignores the holiness of God, who must deal with the sinfulness of man. The governmental theory has two main problems. First, it presents God as a divine Lawgiver who can either punish or not punish sin, but this is not consistent with the nature and holiness of God (see Jack Cottrell, The Faith Once For All, p.263). Second, this view is not based on Scripture but human philosophy, and so we must reject it without proper biblical grounding.

When Jesus died on the cross, it is clear that His death atoned for our sins and provided salvation. The Bible uses several different words to describe Jesus’ death including:

Propitiation (see Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10) in that the death and shed blood of Jesus Christ turns away the wrath of God. It satisfies a just and holy God so that we can come to Him directly because of the cross of Christ (Hebrews 4:14-16). Jesus bore our sins on the cross (John 1:29; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus is our passover lamb slain from the foundation of the world (1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:18-25; 2:21-25). Because Jesus bore our sins on the cross yet He Himself was perfect, God is now both just and the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26). Jesus’ blood turns away the wrath of God (Romans 5:8-9).

Redemption (see Ephesians 1:7; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 Timothy 2:6; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 9:15; Revelation 5:9) Jesus gave His life as a ransom to God (Matthew 20:28). Jesus redeemed us from the curse of sin (Galatians 3:13-14). Jesus’ death provides the basis for our complete forgiveness before God (Romans 4:24-25; Colossians 1:13-14). We were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23). Because Jesus bore our sins on the cross (1 Peter 2:24), the price for our sins has been paid so that we can say with confidence before God through Jesus Christ that “the Lord will not count his sin” (Romans 4:8 ESV).

These are both concepts that Calvinists and Arminians fully agree on, yet it is the application of Christ’s work to men that we find sharp disagreement over. The Calvinist understands that Jesus’ atonement provides salvation for the elect. The Arminian understands that Christ’s atonement provides salvation for all men through the provision of Christ but that this salvation is only applied by faith.

An example of this is medicine prescribed to us by a doctor. The medicine could remove the illness, yet it only is sufficient when taken correctly. The medicine has been provided for us and is certainly able to remove the sicknes,s but it does no good unless taken. This is true of the Arminian concept of the atonement. The work of Christ is completely sufficient to remove all our sins and heal us before God (1 Peter 2:24), yet the work of Christ must be received by faith (Romans 5:1). Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Faith opens the door wide for our eternal salvation (Acts 16:30-31). Our hearts can only be cleansed by faith (Acts 15:9). The Arminian sees this salvation that Jesus has provided as faith unto salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9) whereas the Calvinist sees the work of Christ as providing salvation to the elect and is regeneration unto faith (Titus 3:5-7).

Conclusion to Part 1: We will next examine the major passages that Calvinist appeal to as teaching a limited atonement.

[Link to original post and comments at Roy Ingle’s website]