Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Limited Atonement: The Sufficient and Efficient Distinction

When the topic of limited atonement comes up there are a couple verses that are sure to be presented as a proof that limited atonement cannot possibly be true. 1 John 2:2 is one such verse, which says, “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”

This passage seems to be the end of the discussion for many people. If this verse says Christ was the propitiation for the whole world, and Calvinist say that he is the propitiation for the elect only, then surely the doctrine is wrong, and scripture has the final authority. But before we make such hasty conclusions we must be aware that great students of the Bible like Augustine, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, Whitfield and many others were aware of these verses, and did not see them as contrary to their understanding of limited atonement. So how do Calvinists understand their view in light of these verses?

Many point out that the term “whole world” in 1 John 2:2 actually refers to the elect in the “whole world,” and not everyone in the “whole world,” but this seldom satisfies the objector. So in order to take this objection from a slightly different angle, we will assume that the term “whole world” actually refers to every person in the world, in order to present a clearer understanding of limited atonement, because what is frequently missed is the nuanced understanding of the nature of limited atonement.

Is it possible for the Calvinist to say that “Jesus died for everyone in the world,” and then say that “Jesus did not die for the sins of everyone” without contradicting himself? Well, that all depends on what a contradiction entails, and since most of us have studied logic, we know that a contradiction means that something cannot be both A and non-A in the same sense and at the same time. For example, if a person points to water and says, “That is ice” and then says, “That is not ice” either the person has contradicted himself or something has changed. The first thing that could have changed would be time. If this person points to water and says that is ice, and two hours later says, that is not ice, there is no contradiction because time has changed and in fact it is no longer ice because it has melted. The second thing that could change is the sense in which the words are used. If a person says, “That is a bow,” and then says, “That is not a bow.” If the sense of the word “bow” means a device used to shoot arrows in the first use, and then in the second use the word “bow” means a type of knot you put in your shoelaces, then there is no contradiction.

The same applies to the statement. “Christ died for the whole world.” There are two senses in which the statement can be made. The first sense deals with the sufficiency of the payment that Christ made, and the second deals with the efficiency of the payment Christ paid on the cross.

Most Calvinist tend to believe that Christ’s death was sufficient to save the “whole world.” What this means is, if a greater number of people were to be saved then were foreknown, Christ would not have had to suffer more. So in the sufficient sense, Calvinists do say that Christ’s death is the payment for the sins of the whole world just as John 2:2 says.

But there is another sense in which Christ’s death is not the payment of sins for the entire world, and this is its efficiency. The suffering Christ endured is sufficient to be the payment for the sins of everyone, but in actuality His death does not pay for the sins of everyone since many will be paying for their sins themselves. And if Christ had paid for them on the cross and they later pay for them in hell, then the sins would have been paid for twice, and that is not justice. So in the effect, or the actuality of the atonement, Christ did not pay for the sins of the whole world.

So with these two senses the Calvinist can say, Jesus paid for the sins of the whole world, meaning the sufficiency, and also says, Jesus did not pay for the sins of the whole world, meaning in actuality.

Ultimately, it seems the Calvinist and the non-Calvinist can see this in Scripture when thinking about foreknowledge. Though both groups understand foreknowledge differently, they both agree that there is an elect group since before the foundations of the world. In fact, Revelation tells us that their names have been written in the lambs book of life since before any of us came to be, and when Jesus was on the cross He was not in the slightest bit confused about whom He was actually redeeming and who He was not. Nor is He holding out hope that any of the non-elect will actually be saved since He already knows that they will spend eternity in hell before He even creates them.

-Doug Eaton-

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At Wednesday, October 29, 2008 6:55:00 AM, Blogger Mike Jeshurun said...

Brethren here is something to ponder regarding our Lord's Atonement.
If you are interested in studying Theology and do some studies on the efficacy of the Atonement in Reformed Theology, it will not be long before you come across the phrase- “Christ’s death was of infinite worth and is sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect”. And when you are new to the Reformed Faith, you pass by it accepting it as a ‘thus saith the Lord’ because many other renowned Reformers and confessions hold this view. But the more you study and meditate on this you begin to question the truth behind this statement.
I am personally convinced that this statement is dabbling with Amyraldian speculation. We know that Amyraldius attempted to fuse together the Arminian tenant that Christ died for all, while holding to part of the Calvinistic tenant that Christ died only for the elect.
In trying to relay information to the public at large as gracious as possible, the Synod of Dordt, one of the most respected councils in the history of the church, said this: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.” Don’t you think this is erroneous? Nothing wrong in saying, “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value.” But to say, “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world” is an Arminian statement, don’t you think?
Many Calvinist’s hold that if God desired, He could have saved everyone, and the same atonement that saved His elect, could have saved a million billion worlds – hypothetically speaking of course. But here is the rub; the Scriptures never speak hypothetically in this way – ever. Instead, they always speak of what Christ did do and what Christ accomplished. For example, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is what Christ did. A pondering god on what “might have been” or what “might be” is not at all-sovereign, and all knowledge God. God speak in terms of reality, not possibility. He operates in the realm of the actual, not the realm of “what if?”

To say that the atonement is of infinite value or worth is to correctly describe it biblically speaking. I agree with that sentiment because of the design and nature of what the atonement had to be to redeem an elect number of people for their sin. The atonement of Jesus Christ is of infinite worth, and must be of infinite worth, because it is a propitiation and expiation of the elect’s sin before the infinite holiness of an infinitely holy God. God’s character defines the kind of sin offering that must be given. God is infinitely holy. Men have sinned against an infinitely holy God. The sacrifice, then, of the Mediator that God sends, must be infinitely given – an infinite sacrifice. For this reason alone, the Mediator must be God for only God is infinite. We know, Scripturally, Jesus Christ is God incarnate. Only God could offer up to Himself an infinitely holy sacrifice for sin.
To say the atonement of Jesus Christ is “sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect” is really saying only have a truth. The atonement is only sufficient and efficient for the elect. It is sufficient to do exactly what God designed it to do – that is – atone for all the sins of the elect. Could God have decreed something different? Let’s speculate! Sure He could have. He could have decreed that trees grow upside down, that men are born with wings to fly around and live in giant green pea-pods that float in the sky. He could have decreed that all fish breath air, and that the ocean is really made of strawberry jelly. He could have decreed that we see with our nose, smell with our ears, and see with our toes. He could have decreed that Christ’s sacrifice could save everyone, including a million billion worlds. He could have decreed anything. But He decreed what He did decree. As you can see, to speak otherwise is just to speculate, and speculating can become very weird very quickly. Instead, why not simply follow the biblical directives of what Christ actually did, and what He actually accomplished in His infinite sacrifice which had to be infinite for the infinite sins against an infinitely holy God. And mind you, the Bible never depicts God as the one who speculates in hypothetical possibilities, and thus, neither should we.
[paraphrased from an article by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon titled “Jesus died for Aliens on Planet Zeno”.]


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