Syndicated Column by Steve Hays
In 5-point Calvinism, is limited atonement and/or limited election in tension with the universal offer of the gospel?
i) God doesn't directly offer the gospel to every individual, or directly command every individual to believe the gospel.
In that respect, the offer of the gospel parallels special revelation. In might be more efficient if God privately revealed himself to every individual, but instead, God resorts to a public revelation. A mass medium.
One reason, perhaps, is that humans are social creatures, so having Scripture as a common reference point is a unifying principle.
Be that as it may, the offer of the gospel is like a recipe. If you follow the instructions, this will be the result. A recipe doesn't order anyone in particular to use that recipe.
ii) In nature, there's a principle of redundancy. For instance, a maple tree produces far more seeds (or maple copters) than will every take root and become trees in their own right. But the redundancy is purposeful. If enough maple trees produce enough airborne seeds, that greatly raises the odds that some of them will take root and produce trees in their own right.
Likewise, many animals produce multiple offspring, only a few of which survive to maturity. But in order to at least achieve a replacement rate, it's necessary to produce offspring in excess of the replacement rate, to offset the loss of the offspring that are eaten by predators before they reach sexual maturity and repeat the reproductive cycle. By the same token, multiple sperm raise the odds that one will fertilize the ovum.
Humans imitate this principle. For instance, absent vaccination, some people will contract a serious communicable disease and some won't. Since we don't know which is which, we resort to mass vaccination to ensure, as best we can, that everyone who would be susceptible is covered. We vaccinate everyone, not because everyone needs it, but to make reasonably certain that we get the ones who do need it. It isn't necessary for everyone, but it's necessary to include more people in order to cover the subset that really need it.
Likewise, the military might resort to more extensive bombing strikes to raise the odds of hitting the targets. Or resort to bombs with higher yield to achieve the same end. It gives you a margin of error.
By analogy, the universal offer of the gospel will be heard by elect and reprobate alike. That's the nature of a mass medium of communication. That doesn't mean it's intended for all. Rather, that's a way of reaching the intended subset. Given that humans are social creatures, unless God privately discloses the gospel to the elect, the only alternative is a general message.
iii) Let's consider a more subtle illustration. Suppose one country invades another country. Some of the natives form an underground resistance movement. They are planning a counterattack to oust the occupation force. But it will take a while for them to get all their ducks in a row.
When they are ready to launch the counterattack, they have sympathizers in the news media do a public service announcement. This will seem to be a perfectly innocuous message. But will contain some code phrases that members of the resistance movement will recognize. That will be the signal to come out of hiding and strike back.
The enemy will hear the same announcement, but it won't detect the coded message embedded in the announcement. The enemy isn't privy to the code phrases.
The message has to be broadcast nationwide to reach all the far-flung resistance cells. Everyone will hear the same message, but everyone won't register the ulterior significance of the message.
iv) Perhaps a 4-point Calvinist would say this is parallel to the relationship between unlimited atonement and limited election. Christ dies for everyone to cover the elect.
Whether you think that makes sense depends on your view of what the atonement targets. Does it cover sin? Sins? Or sinners? Does the death of Christ make atonement for some abstraction we call sin? Does it make atonement for sins, as distinct from the agents who committed them? Or does it make atonement for elect sinners? For their guilt?
I don't deny that Scripture sometimes speaks of making atonement for "sin" or "sins", but I think that's shorthand for sinners. I doubt Scripture intends to treat sin as an aggregate substance in abstraction from the particular agents who commit particular sins. Sin is personal.
If Christ died for elect sinners, then it isn't necessary for the scope of the atonement to exceed the elect in order to cover the elect. If, moreover, Christ dies for the damned, then the atonement doesn't entail the salvation of anyone in particular. That greatly weakens the link between atonement and salvation.
To my knowledge, this is one objection that 4-point Calvinists (more precisely, Amyraldism) raise to limited atonement: Sinners, including the reprobate, have a duty to believe the gospel. Unless they had a duty to believe it, their failure to believe the gospel would be blameless. But if Christ never made atonement for the reprobate, how can they be obliged to believe in something they were never party to?
That's my own formulation of the argument. Assuming that's accurate, let's assess the argument:
1. As often bears repeating in these discussions, the offer of the gospel is a conditional offer: If you repent and believe in Jesus, you will be saved.
So long as that remains true, the reprobate have a duty to believe it–because it's true. To disbelieve it is to treat it as a false promise. But it's culpable to say God's promise is false–if, in fact, his promise is true.
According to 5-point Calvinism, it is always the case that whoever satisfies the terms of the gospel offer will be saved.
If Christ didn't make atonement for the reprobate, that does nothing to change the veracity of the promise. According to 5-point Calvinism, Christ made atonement for everyone who satisfies the terms of the gospel offer.
So limited atonement doesn't generate any inconsistency regarding duty faith.
2. However, a 4-point Calvinist might object that the conditional formula is deceptively simple: If you believe, you will be saved.
Believe in what? That's a fair question. The 4-point Calvinist fills this out as: Believe that Christ died to save me (or something like that).
But there are problems with that:
i) Prooftexts for the gospel offer don't actually unpack the promise in those terms. A 4-point Calvinist may think that's implicit in the promise, yet that's the very question at issue.
ii) A 5-point Calvinist can fill it out as: To believe in Christ is to believe that there's no salvation apart from Christ, that Christ alone is the only hope of salvation. If you throw yourself on the mercy of Christ, you will be saved.
iii) We might define it in reverse: not to believe in Christ is to presume that you don't need to be saved, or you don't need Christ to save you.
And that definition is borne out by the enemies of the Christian faith throughout the NT. Jewish opponents of Jesus, as well as heretics.
iv) Furthermore, the 4-point formula is deceptively simple, for the 4-point Calvinist believes you can't be saved unless you are one of the elect. Therefore, if he were to build that qualification into this conditional formula, if he made that explicit, it would read: If you are one of the elect, and you believe in Christ, you will be saved.
But since 4-point Calvinists affirm limited election, how can a person trust a promise that's predicated on a condition he may not fulfill? Election is an additional ground. Another sine qua non of salvation.
4. Even though that's all that we really need to say, for the sake of completeness, let's consider some other permutations of this issue.
Do 4-point Calvinists think everyone has a duty to believe the gospel? What about people who died before the atonement? What about people who lived and died outside the pale of the gospel? Are they culpable for failing to believe a gospel they never had a chance to hear? Are they culpable for failing to believe in the atonement before it took place? In principle, a 4-point Calvinist could answer that in either, or both, of two different ways:
i) No, people in general are not obligated to believe the gospel. Not believing the gospel is only blameworthy if you heard it, but disbelieve it. Or, perhaps, not believing the gospel is culpable if you failed to take advantage of opportunities to hear it.
If so, that's a significant concession. Duty-faith is not a universal duty. God can justly condemn sinners apart from failure to believe the gospel.
But in that event, universal atonement is hardly a necessary condition for divine condemnation. So a 5-point Calvinist could agree with the negative answer of the 4-point Calvinist, and redeploy that answer to defend the consistency of limited atonement with God's judgment of the reprobate.
ii) Yes, everyone is obligated to believe the gospel, although in some cases that's a counterfactual duty. If God had given that person the opportunity to hear the gospel, then he'd be obligated to believe it, and blameworthy for failing to do so.
But in that event, a 5-point Calvinist can resort to a counterfactual defense of limited atonement. If, in a possible world, the same person believes the gospel who was reprobate in this world, Christ would have died for him in that alternate scenario. In this world he is reprobate, but in that possible world, he's elect (and redeemed). If, in an alternate timeline, he were to believe the gospel, then Christ atoned for him in that alternate timeline.
5. Finally, we can be obliged to believe things we're not party to:
i) For instance, suppose a judge hears a case about breach of contract. The judge isn't party to the contract. Rather, the plaintiff and the defendant are the contractual parties. Yet the judge is obligated to believe certain truths about the contract. It's his duty to rule on the law and the facts of the case.
ii) Suppose a Martian heard St. John preaching the gospel. Jesus didn't die to make atonement for Martians. Suppose Martians are sinless.
So the terms of the gospel are irrelevant to a Martian. The offer of the gospel is not a promise to Martians.
Even so, our hypothetical Martian is still obliged to believe certain things about the gospel. If the gospel is true, then he has a duty to believe it's true.
iii) Likewise, suppose I'm reprobate. Suppose Jesus didn't make atonement for me.
Yet there can still be truths regarding the gospel that I'm obligated to believe. It's true that no one can be saved apart from the atonement. It is my duty to believe that, even if I'm excluded from the atonement. I can have an obligation to believe certain truths concerning the redemptive death of Christ regardless of whether he died to redeem me. Those are two distinct issues.
6. Now, a 4-point Calvinist might complain that a 5-point Calvinist has to introduce finespun qualifications to make limited atonement consistent with the universal offer–qualifications that are unnecessary for a 4-point Calvinist. These are gratuitous complications, made necessary by commitment to limited atonement.
However, 4-point Calvinism has its own complications. It must qualify its position to make it consistent with the fact that the offer of the gospel is not universal in time and space. In what, sense, then, is there a duty to believe it? In what sense is that a precondition for divine judgment? Likewise, the 4-point Calvinist must qualify his position to make it consistent with limited election.
Therefore, both positions have complications. Indeed, 4-point Calvinism has some complications that 5-point Calvinism avoids. The distinctives of each position give rise to corresponding caveats.