Monday, October 01, 2007

It Was Easier as an Arminian

I remember someone once telling me in confidence, "It was easier when I was an Arminian." She meant that being a Christian and, specifically, resting in Jesus, was easier before she became Reformed, not that she was some staunch "Arminian" beforehand, or even knew the difference. Things were just simpler. There were less gridlines to hop through and less qualifications. The thing is, I understand what she meant because I have often felt exactly the same way.

There is always the whole issue of election. "How do I know if I am elect? What if I'm not elect?" This is common but the remedy is fairly straightfoward: "You aren't asked if you are elect or not. Believe in Jesus. Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved. God promises." Those who are more theologically-minded might notice that this is an appeal to the revealed will of God. We call the person to take their eyes off God's will of decree, which doesn't reveal things like a list of all the elect, and put them on God's revealed will, which contains His declarations, commands, promises, invitations, etc.

When it comes to the doctrine of limited atonement, as it is commonly known today (just pick up virtually any one of those TULIP booklets), the problem is a little deeper. Jesus died for the elect and the elect only. He bore their sins, only. Any relation to broader humanity is merely found in incidental aspescts, perhaps such as common grace (which, if you notice, is often spoken of in terms of providence but not an intention to save). But then the personal questions arise. "How can I know if Jesus died for me?" or more importantly, "How can I rest in the cross of Christ if I don't know that He died for me? It seems like I need to know that I am elect, first." I think they have a point. This has been my struggle for over six years. The problem is that this issue is not as easily resolved as the previous one.

Why? It is because the common conception of limited atonement really leaves no room (justly) for the revealed will of God. You can't just appeal to the revealed will because, well, there really is no general, revealed aspect to Christ's death, when it comes right down to it. You have to use vague and abstract language, such as "Jesus died for sinners" (which is construed as code-language for "Jesus died for the elect").

The problem is further compounded by the fact that this limited atonement puts an obstruction in the way of the Gospel, when consistently considered. Let me explain. We all know that when one hears the Gospel, it is impossible for them to repent and believe in Christ crucified. The reason is moral, however. It is impossible because the sinner is morally unable -he is unwilling. God comes in, for the elect, and quickens them, opening their eyes, so that they see and embrace Christ. And for the sinner who rejects Jesus Christ crucified, in the Gospel, he is simply left or hardened in his unwillingness.

But with this limited atonement, now the sinner who rejects Christ crucified has not only a moral impossibility but a natural or situational one. It is not only morally impossible for him to be saved. It is naturally impossible, for there is no provision for him. This results in at least two further problems.

First, it causes one to wonder how it can be blameworthy for a man to reject the Gospel. How can be he guilty of doing anything wrong for rejecting something which was not provided for him, in any sense, to begin with? With this, how can it be the responsibility of all men who hear the Gospel to repent and believe?

Second, and more relating to the personal issue at the beginning of this article, it undermines the warrant or foundation one has upon which to believe. It undermines faith. Faith, which we commonly say "receives," cannot receive what it doesn't perceive is there to be received. With this limited atonement, how can the sinner know there is something for them to receive? Does God zap him with some special knowledge ("psst... you are elect") which is not contained in the Gospel? I reject that. If the sinner does not perceive there is something "for him" in some sense, then he will not be able to receive it, trust in it, rest upon it, etc.

With this limited atonement, what Jesus did was only done for some, and who it was for is not revealed to us nor to the sinner who hears the Gospel. Thus, again we find that there is something greater than the sinner's own moral obstacle. Now there is an undermining of the Gospel-grounds to believe. This is what this person, at the beginning, was struggling with, and this is what I have struggled with for years.

It is only recently that I have started to study, research, and find some very different opinions on the extent and nature of the atonement within the Reformed tradition. Do you remember Calvin's wonderful definition of saving faith as a "firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us...?" He could not say that with this view of limited atonement, unless he believed in God zapping us to grant us special extra-Biblical or extra-revelatory knowledge, not found in the Gospel (such as "this is for you, Tim, you are elect"). Calvin didn't believe that, though. His view of faith was based on the fact that he believed the Gospel message, itself, stated that God is well-disposed toward us and that Christ is very truly "for us," as humans, as sinners. He affirmed a special decree to save, certainly, but he also affirmed a true desire for the salvation of men (as sinners, not as elect or reprobate) found in the revealed will of God. Most importantly, for Calvin, there very much was a "revealed" side to Christ's death.

I think we need to guard that "revealed side" and capture it, somehow. The reason is not merely academic. It is personal as well as pastoral. I confess I have not figured it out, and I may never come to exhaustive conclusions, but I am working to see what the Scriptures say in a new light. Did Jesus die for the elect particularly? That much is clear. Do I think that is all we can say about the death of Christ? I think it is far from it. There must be more.

Some try to resolve this issue of limited atonement and the Gospel by way of claiming a paradox (in addition to the paradox of the dual aspects to God's will). That is possible. I think it is a great paradox, if it is one and not a bald contradiction. To me, there are two possibilities: either this limited atonement doesn't say all there is to say about the death of Jesus as it relates to men, or this limited atonement is just plain wrong and needs reworking. We see both solutions elaborated, historically, within the Reformed tradition. For more on this, I suggest reading men like Calvin, Pareus, Fuller, Boston, Dabney, and Charles Hodge. I have a long way to go on this, but to me it seems eminently important.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that it's eminently important. I embraced the "5-points" around 25 years ago (basically as an escape from Arminian works-righteousness), but I've struggled with the atonement issue too. I'd like to embrace a broader view of Christ's atonement (it seems to work better for me re. assurance and spiritual fruit) but I find it hard to get a mental realignment via "fresh" reading of the Scriptures, because a wraith of some Calvinist author or teacher keeps popping into my mind to give me the "accepted" interpretation, and so I usually get dragged back into my traditional Calvinistic ways of thinking. Keep studying the scriptures and working through your issues - I'd be interested to learn your findings.

P. S. You might want to check out 'Confession of an ex-"Highper" Calvinist' over at

Anonymous said...

I can totally relate to what you're saying.
For me the question is: What is it, that one has to believe to become saved? Do I have to believe that Jesus died for me? If so, what does it mean that he died for me?
There's some dilemma. Lutherans and Arminians say that you can't know you're saved unless Jesus actually died for every person in the world. Calvinists ask: How can you know you're saved when in fact people for whom Jesus died go to hell? You had to trust in your own faith as the decisive factor in addition to Jesus' death.
On the other hand Calvinists say that Jesus died only for the elect. Than there's the question: How does a person find out whether or not they are elect?
Often times people say "by your fruit", but there are two problems with that. First: Someone who hears the gospel for the first time doesn't have any fruit.
Second: If I'm in the right mood, I can doubt everything I think and do. If Christ paid for my(!) sins once and for all, there's no more doubting because I can rest in that.

Of course nowhere in scripture does the proclamation of the gospel consist of: "If you're elect, believe that Jesus died for you!"
But it also doesn't say: "God paid for everybody's sins, so he died for your sins - believe it!" (at least not explicitly)
It simply says "Believe in Jesus!" or "Believe the gospel!" So...what is the gospel? That Jesus died an atoning death and was resurrected, as 1. Corinthians 15 says is an integral part. The key question then becomes "Who is meant by "our" in verse 3?"

I'm convinced that the bible is very clear and teaches a very simple gospel, but we are so good at complicating things :(
The early Christians didn't first study theology before their conversion...They have been simple people.
Just a few thoughts...
Keep blogging about this issue!

Tim said...


Yeah, the older I get (hopefully wiser???) the more I see my Calvinistic brothers spinning a lot of convoluted gobbildy-yarn with how some talk about being becoming a "work" if you believe in a universal atonement. I remember doing the same thing, though, even accusing those blasted "Arminians" of being closet-Roman Catholics or practical-Pelagians. Of course, both sides would refer to faith as a necessary "instrument" of justification. Nobody (well, I shouldn't say nobody -but nobody to take seriously) believes that the cross justifies people simply by the act of Jesus' death. There is a point of application. So, the typical modern Calvinist argument "well, if Jesus died for everyone, how come people go to hell?" falls apart. The answer is obviously because, well, it wasn't applied to them through the instrument of faith. Unless we are going to be universalists, we all believe that something makes the work of Christ "count" for you. That doesn't make that something a meritorious work any more than an empty beggar's hand earns the loaf of bread I place in it.

I haven't really dredged up this issue in a long time, but it is still near and dear to my heart. I went through a lot of personal hell to get to a place where I have a strong conviction on the matter, and I believe that was God's design for me.

I agree. The Gospel should be *simple.* 1 Cor 15, as you cited. I don't think anybody anywhere should be thinking, "Well, its great that Jesus died on a cross, but what if I'm not elect?" If that question comes up, something has been confused or made too convoluted, in my humble opinion.

When I think about teaching my children, I don't skip over God's sovereignty. But I am careful. I need make sure the foundation is there. They must understand that God loves *them*, personally, that they, *personally*, have strayed from the One who made them, that He desires that they turn to Him, and that He made provision for them at great cost to Himself, etc. Until they grasp that fully, I don't dance around the matters of election and dealing with why some believe and others refuse.

If they have Jesus, if they truly have Him, then they are on their own pilgrimage for which I am only an instrument in guiding them through. :)