When people ask, and they often do, I always describe myself as Reformed in theology. It’s probably only been in the last fifteen years that I would use that term, due largely to the fact that I came to Christ in an Evangelical Covenant Church that walked a middle ground in many theological areas, but was mainly Arminian. I attended two institutions (Multnomah Bible College and Western Seminary) which were a little more Calvinistic than that church but less than I am today.
I never sought to become Reformed, and had no vested interests in doing so (in fact it raised more than a few eyebrows along the way). I simply moved that direction over a period of years of biblical study and interaction and life experience.
Some years ago I led a group of men in a one year study of a systematic theology, and the volume I chose was Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. We also studied Desiring God. I love Edwards and Spurgeon. We sent our daughters to a college that is mainly Reformed. Some of the terminology of the five points of Calvinism can be misleading. For instance, “total depravity” sounds as if the claim is that human beings are as bad as we could possibly be, which would mean that no unbeliever could ever be capable of doing any good. But the real meaning of the doctrine is our “total inability” to compensate for our sin and earn a righteous standing before God. Our works can contribute absolutely nothing to our salvation. I wish “total depravity,” a term embraced not only by Calvin but Arminius and Wesley, more readily conveyed its true theological meaning.
Nonetheless I’m a four point Calvinist, and while many Reformed friends assume I’ll eventually accept the fifth point, I don’t think so – though I remain open. I can certainly see the logic behind limited or particular atonement. Certainly I believe in the finished work of Christ in purchasing our redemption. And I believe he sought us out to be his bride. Logically, by analogy, one doesn’t go after the whole world in general, but one bride in particular. (Also logically, particular atonement pulls the final bit of the rug out from under us in thinking maybe we somehow deserved to be saved because we accepted the gift.)
It doesn’t offend my sensibilities nor quench my passion for evangelism to think Christ might not have died for someone. (Think of Spurgeon’s evangelistic zeal as a five point Calvinist.) I just find myself looking at passages like 1 John 2:2, 1 Timothy 2:6 and 2 Peter 2:1 and asking, what do they actually mean in their contexts? So far, all the logic, compelling though it be, hasn’t answered my questions about such Scriptures.
On this subject I’ve read some of arguments of John Owen and moderns such as R. C. Sproul, John McArthur, and Wayne Grudem among others. John Piper’s message on Hebrews 2:9 was the most helpful.
Still, in my thinking there’s a persuasive clarity to passages such as Romans 3:10ff, John 10:27-30, Romans 9:15ff, and Ephesians 1:11 which affirm a variety of Reformed doctrines. But where are their equivalents on the matter of limited atonement? On every other point Reformed theologians can quote Scripture on the offensive, making a clear point that puts the burden of proof on the opposing position. But when it comes to limited atonement, I feel the biblical arsenal is lacking and the position seems far more defensive, lacking the bulk of clear evidence.
I tend to think of the other points as being explicitly biblical, while limited atonement is more of a logical extrapolation of the other points, lacking their biblical specificity and clarity.
I understand that logically, if Christ died for every person and his redemption is effective, it would appear that universalism be true—that everyone would have to be saved. I understand that logic, yet Scripture clearly affirms not everyone is or will be saved and it seems to me to also clearly affirm Christ died for all. I don’t know how to put these together logically, but that’s not my job. I also can’t logically figure out the trinity, or how God’s sovereignty is compatible with meaningful human choice, yet I affirm these doctrines because I believe Scirpture does.
Of course, every point has Scripture that can be ushered against it. Someone can cite Hebrews 6:4-6, but the cumulative weight of dozens of other passages compels us to take another look at Hebrews 6 and some of the other passages. In John 10:28 alone Jesus gives three back-to-back affirmations: 1) I give them eternal life, and 2) they shall never perish; 3) no one will snatch them out of my hand.
But where are the passages that teach limited atonement so powerfully that they force me to reinterpret passages like 1 John 2:2 and 2 Peter 2:1?
I can teach the other four points with complete confidence, while still affirming they are compatible with true and meaningful God-granted human choice (see my book Hand in Hand: The Beauty of God's Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice).
Are there other Calvinists who disagree with or are not convinced about limited atonement? Absolutely. Four point Calvinists have included Richard Baxter, the great Puritan pastor, J. C. Ryle, and modern theologians Millard Erickson, Bruce Demarest, Bruce Ware, and Gregg Allison. Ware has written an excellent paper on the subject.
Unlike some of my Reformed brothers, I can fully admire and favorably quote in many areas John Wesley, A. W. Tozer, C.S. Lewis and others outside the Reformed tradition. The writers who most shaped my thinking as a young Christian were Tozer, Lewis, and Schaeffer.
I don’t go out of my way to argue this point, as in the end most people’s thinking is fairly entrenched in one position or the other. But when I’m asked by those who are uncertain I try to direct them toward arguments made both by those who affirm limited/particular atonement and those who affirm that Christ died for all people of all times, elect and non-elect.
Dear Mr. Alcorn:
I read your answer to “What is Your Answer to Covenant/Reformed Theology?” I thought it was great. Your thoughts about Particular Redemption aroused my attention. I noticed that you have read great men of God as Piper and Sproul on the subject. Yet you are somewhat unsure about the fact that the Atonement of Christ is for a particular people (the elect only) is a biblical doctrine. I can understand that this doctrine could be difficult to accept. Notice I said accept not understand. I don’t understand it but I do accept it. The Holy Spirit is the One who must show us this truth. I don’t know why God allows some to see one thing and withhold it from others. It was quite a while after I became a Christian before He illuminated me to this doctrine. Perhaps John Owen thoughts on Particular Redemption may be used by the Holy Spirit to show you this is biblical, not just logical or theological. Please let me know what are your thoughts are about the following.
FOR WHO DID CHRIST DIE? by John Owen
The Father imposed His wrath due unto, and the Son underwent punishment for, either:
All the sins of all men.
All the sins of some men, or
Some of the sins of all men.
In which case it may be said:
That if the last be true, all men have some sins to answer for, and so, none are saved.
That if the second be true, then Christ, in their stead suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world, and this is the truth.
But if the first be the case, why are not all men free from the punishment due unto their sins?
You answer, “Because of unbelief.” I ask, is this unbelief a sin, or is it not? If it be, then Christ suffered the punishment due unto it, or He did not. If He did, why must that hinder them more than their other sins for which He died? If He did not, He did not die for all their sins!”
You say, “I can understand that this doctrine could be difficult to accept. Notice I said accept not understand. I don’t understand it but I do accept it. The Holy Spirit is the One who must show us this truth.”
Even if limited atonement were difficult for me to believe, I would gladly accept it if I thought Scripture taught it. I believe in the doctrine of hell, which I would rather not accept, but I accept it wholeheartedly because Scripture teaches it. However, there is nothing repugnant to me about limited atonement. My objections to it are not at all based on the Arminian concerns about the unfairness of election. I believe in election. If I believed Scripture taught limited atonement, I would gladly embrace it. But all my friends who believe in limited atonement always argue for it logically, but not biblically. They site a few passages which in fact do NOT say “Christ died only for the elect,” then ignore or do interpretive injustice to passages such as 1 John 2:2 and 2 Peter 2:1, which are startlingly clear on the subject.
Remarkably, your letter did not cite a single passage of Scripture. The passage from John Owen is all about what seems logical to us as humans, but once again cites no Scripture. You say you hope the Holy Spirit will use the Owen passage to “show you this is biblical, not just logical or theological.” Yet, Owen’s logic is a classic case of logical and theological argumentation which does not present any biblical supporting evidence. Once again, logic and a particular systematic theology are not my authority. Scripture is my authority.
Affirming limited atonement would give me a completely logically consistent Reformed belief system. But once again, Calvinism isn’t my authority, the Bible is my authority. Bottom line, having looked at Scripture again and again, I simply cannot see how God could possibly have made himself more clear on the subject than He did in 1 John 2:2. If he wanted us to believe God died for the whole world, not just for believers, what would you have expected him to say different than what he said in 1 John 2:2?