Friday, November 16, 2007

Limited Atonement and the Gospel Offer

Here are a few thoughts on the issue of limited atonement and the offer of the Gospel. The doctrine of limited atonement teaches that Jesus died for the elect and only the elect. He made actual provision for their sins and their sins only. Commonly this is expressed, as I indicated in my previous post on commercial versus penal satisfaction, in terms of a commercial understanding of satisfaction (such that, somehow, God's wrath was propitiated by the fact of Christ's death, and therefore if He died for everyone, then all would be saved -a thought which I have come to reject in light of a penal understanding of satisfaction... and the Biblical doctrine of justification). If we assume this view of the nature and extent of Christ's death, then there are a number of questions which arise. One of the most important, in my estimation, is this:

If Jesus only made provision for the salvation of the elect, then what exactly is offered to the world?

In other words, if Christ's death only has a relation to the sins and salvation of the elect, then how can we indiscriminately offer it to all men knowing that many of them are likely reprobate? To me, we can't. It makes no sense to offer something to someone if it wasn't provided for them. There is nothing to offer.

This is not a new problem. Berkhof, for example, acknowledges the problem in his systematic theology. He more or less resolves to affirm both sides, paradoxically, (a true offer in the gospel and limited atonement), as does Charles Spurgeon. I don't think I am smarter than them... I just don't buy it, and I think there are other options. I absolutely affirm that Jesus died particularly for the elect, in some sense, but I think that cannot be the whole story by any stretch.

Analogies always lose something, somewhere, but I will attempt to illustrate this by paraphrasing an analogy I have read elsewhere: If a doctor has created a cure for a horrible disease which affects humans of every kind, yet this cure is genetically coded to only work for people of Irish decent, then the cure is not sufficient for everybody. If the doctor was to offer this cure to the people of the world, knowing this, it would be insincere.

It is the same with the Gospel. If the "cure" only has reference to a certain class, the elect, then to offer the remedy to all of mankind is not a sincere offer. You are offering some people nothing at all. Imagine you were dying of this disease, and you are Italian or something. The doctor comes to you and says, "I have a cure, and if you will take it, you will be saved." Thanks, jerk! It is insincere. I would tell the doctor to leave immediately and never return.

Some will point out, "But the offer is always conditional." Yes, it is. In this case, are you saying that the condition is being Irish? That is where a problem exists, I believe, for the condition of the Gospel offer is not that you be elect. It was not by mistake that I made a distinction between "receiving" the drug and being Irish. My analogy clearly fails in that I don't have a connection between being Irish and receiving it, but the fact still stands. The "condition" for enjoying the benefits of the "cure" is that you receive that which is offered by faith.

Election and faith are not the same, even though there is a relationship between them. Just because election results in some people receiving Christ by faith doesn't mean that you treat "elect" and "believer" as synonyms. God demands faith, not election. Unbelief is a sin, being non-elect doesn't even come into that realm. Again, the real condition of the offer is merely the humble reception of Christ crucified as a gift, just like the condition of the doctor's offer of the cure would be receiving the remedy and having it administered.

Now, if the cure has no reference to everyone to whom it is being offered, if it is not sufficient to save them and could not, even if they were to receive it somehow, then it is an insincere offer. That is the bottom line.

Here is another analogy that considers the more commercial understanding of limited atonement. If we go out to lunch, you don't have the money to pay for your lunch, so I pay it, then how much sense does it make for me to stand up and say to the crowd in the restaurant, "The $53 I paid for him is sufficient all of you such that, if you would come and receive it, your lunch will be paid for?" It makes no sense. I already paid for my friend. What I paid for him has absolutely no reference to anybody else in the eating establishment. Any kind of offer, conditional or otherwise, makes no sense. The only kind of conditional statement that would fit is, "If you are my friend that I paid for, then I have paid for you." But obviously that is nonsense to tell the crowd.

Another way to look at it is this: the promise of the Gospel, "If you believe on the Lord Jesus, you will be saved" is only true for the elect. I don't mean it only comes true for the elect -we know that. I mean that it is a lie for the non-elect: if they received Christ, somehow, they wouldn't be saved, because there is no satisfaction for their sins at all. Keep in mind that although election leads to faith, I am re-asserting the fact that "believing" is not merely a code-word for being elect. They relate but aren't synonymous... to make them synonymous is dangerous, unScriptural, and collapses the revealed will into God's will of decree. Thus, the Gospel proclamation must be making a true statement, unless we are to accuse God of insincerity, again. If you, whoever you are, will rest upon Christ by faith, you will be saved. The fallen sinner's problem is that he won't, not that there is nothing for him to trust in. Human inability is unwillingness, and in election God chooses, among other things, to open their eyes by the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the Gospel. But with limited atonement, there is nothing for the non-elect sinner to rest upon at all. The promise not only can't come true for him because he is unwilling, it isn't true because there is no saving provision for him at all.

Some might say, "But it all comes out in the wash because we don't know who is elect and who is not." Well, ok, it comes out in the wash, but not without the Gospel being insincerely proclaimed and false promises made. I will grant that only the elect are saved, anyway, and only they believe, but it still doesn't address the problem. Election explains who believes, but God demands that all who hear believe. He promises that if they do they will be saved. That is an insincere promise to make to a person if there is no provision applicable to their sins by which they can be saved. Even the Canons of Dort affirm that "no man perishes for want of an atonement," but that is exactly what limited atonement says happens.

To make matters worse, the fact that the Bible portrays rejecting Christ and His Gospel as something blameworthy is further evidence that something is being truly offered or extended even to those who reject it. Rejecting the testimony of Christ (the Gospel) is calling God a liar (1 Jo 5:10), and it is something worthy of severe condemnation (Matt 11:21). Blame in this context only makes sense if something is being extended which God wills that we turn and humbly receive.

To be able to universally proclaim the Gospel, to me, demands that there is a reference in the death of Christ to all men as sinful men. There is an objective, general applicability. It is truly extended to them in the Gospel. It is sufficient for them. They are responsible for repenting and believing in it. They are guilty of horrible sin for rejecting Christ crucified. I see these things in Scripture, yet I don't believe the common conception for limited atonement can account for these things at all.

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