By Spencer D Gear
This discussion has been continuing since the Calvinistic-Arminian debates of the Reformation period. But it is alive and well today. There are a couple Scriptures that stand out as affirming an unlimited atonement (i.e. Christ dying for the sins of every person in the world). These are:
First John 2:2, ‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world’ (ESV).
Hebrews 2:9, ‘But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone’ (ESV).
A plain reading of the text indicates that Jesus death is the propitiation (to appease the wrath of God’ for ‘our sins’ (presumably referring to Christians) AND ‘for the sins of the whole world’. Unlimited atonement is the fairly obvious reading of 1 John 2:2, except if one is a Calvinist. Hebrews 2:19 states that Jesus ‘suffering of death’ meant that he did ‘taste death for everyone’. Does everyone mean all the people in the world or only a limited number? That is what is involved in some of this Arminian-Calvinist debate as I found out when interacting on a Christian forum on the Internet.
On Christian Forums, an Arminian started a thread and asked:
If faith is a gift from God exclusively to the elect, and not everyone is elect, then there are some people that have no access to salvation.
I want to ask, if I may, if the Calvinists here on CF agree with this statement?
Calvinists condone God’s being selective and conditional
This is a predictable and accurate response from an Arminian, ‘Calvinists say that this gifting of faith is done so selectively and unconditionally; it’s got nothing to do with anything good or bad that a man might do, they say’.
The response was unsurprising from a Calvinist: ‘That’s because there is no such thing as a man who is good or a man who does anything good’.
God decrees all sin and evil
I replied to the Arminian:
The plot gets even thicker with some Calvinists. Take the late Edwin Palmer, a Calvinist theologian, who stated that, ‘All the Five Points of Calvinism hang or fall together’ (2010:84). He continued, ‘To emphasize the sovereignty of God even more, it is necessary to point out that everything is foreordained by God’ and
although all things, unbelief and sin included, proceed from God’s eternal decree, man is still to blame for his sins. He is guilty. It is his fault and not God’s….
To emphasize the sovereignty of God even more, it is necessary to point out that everything is foreordained by God. Not only is God omnipotent, so that the nations are to him a drop in the bucket or as a fine coating of dust on weighing scales (Isaiah 40), but he also “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11).
It is even biblical to say that God has foreordained sin. If sin was outside the plan of God, then not a single important affair of life would be ruled by God. For what action of man is perfectly good? All of history would then be outside of God’s foreordination: the fall of Adam, the crucifixion of Christ, the conquests of the Roman Empire, the Battle of Hastings, the Reformation, the French Revolution, Waterloo, the American Revolution, the Civil War, two World Wars, presidential assassinations, racial violence, and the rise and fall of nations.
In two instances, the Bible is especially clear in teaching that everything, including sin, is ordained by God: the selling of Joseph and the crucifixion of Christ (Palmer 2010:103, 100, emphasis added).
I find that that kind of statement about the absolute sovereignty of God’s foreordination of sin and evil, by Palmer, has horrific ramifications.
It means that every act of a reprobate in paedophilia, rape, violence of person-to-person, the Holocaust, the Gulag, Nero’s slaughter of Christians, the rape of Christian women fleeing Syria today by Muslim men at check points (according to Barnabas Fund) and every other evil act imaginable by individuals, groups and nations is attributed to the sovereignty of God in decreeing sin and evil. This is not only a reprehensible view – as I understand it – but it is not consistent with Scripture. How is it possible to harmonise Palmer’s perspective of the sovereignty of God who decrees all of the sin and evil in the world, with an appeal to the Scriptures? This especially relates to the character of God, his goodness and justice/righteousness.
See my article: Limited atonement conflicts with God’s goodnes
How would a Calvinist reply?
It was predictable:
If God doesn’t decree sin, that means sin happens for one of two reasons:
1) God is powerless to stop it;
2) God can stop it, but chooses not to, for no reason whatsoever. Since he didn’t decree it, it means he has no purpose for allowing it to happen. Yet he allows it arbitrarily.
Pick your poison Oz.
I’d prefer to say that God has a purpose for sin, and he uses it to accomplish His purposes, as he “works all things according to the counsel of His own will”.
So which do you prefer? #1 or #2?
Notice his pejorative language to me, ‘Pick your poison Oz’. This flaming language does not help rational discussion. This was my response:
There’s no picking of poison here. That’s a false and defamatory accusation. You don’t seem to be able to tolerate those, like myself, who oppose your view of God decreeing all of the sin and evil in the universe, so what do you do? You make a derogatory comment towards me of telling me: ‘Pick your poison Oz’. That’s horribly insulting!
Please quit your pejorative language towards me!
You don’t seem to be able to differentiate between God’s ordaining all of the sin and evil in the universe (your Calvinism) and God’s permitting sin and evil (my Reformed Arminianism).
See Andrew Wilson’s article, ‘Piper and Olson: Does God Ordain All Sinful Human Choices?‘ I endorse Wilson’s conclusion:
So I don’t see any biblical grounds for saying that God ordains all sinful human choices, and I agree with David Bentley Hart (and Roger Olson) that Calvinists often do not distinguish clearly enough between what God ordains and what he allows. (I’ve been asked in the past why I believe ordaining and allowing are different; my usual response is to say, “because they’re different”. When you use two words that have different dictionary definitions – “commanding, giving orders for” versus “permitting” – the burden of proof is on the guy who thinks they mean the same thing, not the guy who thinks they mean different things.) From where I’m standing, the Bible does say that God ordains some sinful choices, but it does not say that God ordains all sinful choices. And if that makes me a woolly, fluffy, Amyraldian, four point, lily-livered, half-baked, big girl’s blouse of a 1536 Calvinist, then so be it.
I recommend the article by Roger E Olson, ‘What’s wrong with Calvinism?‘ (Patheos, March 22, 2013).
The Calvinist, advocating God’s decreeing sin and evil, wrote:
If they deserve damnation, I fail to see how anything is wrong with that. He could have saved zero people and sentenced 100% of humanity to damnation, and been just to do so.
Further, your own view is censorious too, because God set up a stipulation for his mercy: belief. He didn’t have to do that. He could have saved everyone, but chose not to. He could have made the stipulation for salvation “be a human being”, but He didn’t. Thus, in your view too, He chose to be selective as to who He lets into heaven.
You act like only Calvinists beleive (sic) God saves some, but not all, when you believe the very same thing.
Please don’t come back and say that ‘none of us deserved anything from God’ because the fact, from a Calvinistic understanding, is that God discriminately, selectively, unconditionally, irresistibly, provides a limited atonement for some, but damns the rest and they cannot do anything about it because it is done ‘selectively and unconditionally’.
The fact that you think all men don’t deserve hell is noted.
Note the invention here. Not once have I ever stated or inferred that I ‘think all men don’t’ deserve hell’. That’s a straw man fallacy that Skala invented to try to discredit me. It’s an under-hand, deceptive tactic that is absolutely false. I do believe all people who do not repent and have faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, will go to hell. Here are a few of my articles dealing with the existence of hell:
I had written to this hot Calvinist who supports TULIP that it also doesn’t sit well with 1 Tim 2:3-4, AND 2 Peter 3:9. His reply was: ‘Your misuse of scripture (the way satan does) is noted’. This is abominable, insulting, inflammatory language. He continued:
Let it be known that Oz and Janx do not think all men deserve hell.
I mean, you can tell this just based on their arguments and objections.
If you truly believed all men deserved hell, why would you object to God letting them go there without first trying to save them or giving them an opportunity to escape?
A judge does not have to give a criminal a “chance of escape” in order for his sentence to be just. He can just outright send the criminal to prison, because it’s what his crimes deserve.
I was pointed in my reply:
This is your invention about my theology. Thus, it is a straw man fallacy. We cannot have a rational discussion when you make a false accusation about my theology.
I DO NOT believe as you accuse that I do not believe all people deserve hell. What I do not believe is your unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace from TULIP when it comes to salvation.
Please quit your false accusations about my theology.
I wrote again:‘My own view is not censorious because I affirm 1 John 2:2 as an accurate reflection of God’s view towards the damned: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world”. Please quit your false accusation against my view when you state: ‘The fact that you think all men don’t deserve hell is noted’. Not once have I stated that. I don’t believe that. You have created another straw man logical fallacy.
This is a rather typical Calvinistic reply to get around the content of 1 John 2:2:
John was writing to Jewish Christians.
He is the propitiation for our sins (Jews), and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world (Gentiles).
Thus is does not mean that He is the propitiation for the sins of every individual. It is self evident that Christ did not turn away God’s wrath from every individual. Come on!
My response to this was:
I have taken courses in English language, Greek language, German language, logic and biblical studies.
Where in 1 John does it state that 1 John is written only for Jews? If that is the case, I’m out – because I’m a Gentile. Please show me from 1 John where this message only applies to Jews. John was correcting false doctrine in relation to the incarnation and he was writing to readers who doubted Jesus divinity because of the false teachers of a teaching like Gnosticism.
You have imposed on 1 John 2:2 a view that is not there, thus making it your eisegesis. You have read into it what it does not say. Your problem of hermeneutics would be easily overcome if you would be open to the fact that God allows human response to receive salvation. John 1:12 applies, ‘But to all who did receive him’. It does not say, ‘To all the elect who did receive him and were irresistibly drawn to him’.
Problem with access or lack of will
One response from a Presbyterian Calvinist was: ‘Someone asked what you mean by access. It’s not an idle question. Calvinists would say that the non-elect have just as much access to salvation as the elect. Our problem isn’t lack of access but lack of will’. Another Calvinist’s response was: ‘Wrong! Jesus died for the Elect only. Therefore, the non-elect have no more access to salvation than Ishmael had to the covenant of salvation’. It is not unusual on a Christian forum on the Internet to get that kind of response from a Calvinist.
‘He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world‘ (1 John 2:2 ESV). It does not say t hat Jesus is a propitiation for the sins of some of the world, but for ‘the whole world’. To make ‘the whole world’ equal only the elect, makes language meaningless.
‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time’ (1 Tim 2:5-6)
‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God (John 3:16-18).
This is crystal clear: God loved the whole world; those who believe are saved and those who do not believe are condemned. ‘Whoever believes’ is God’s invitation. It is not, ‘Whoever believes and is in God’s unconditional elect’.
‘But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Heb 2:9).
Dr. Paul Reiter has summarised the Scriptural teaching on this issue. FOR WHOM DID CHRIST DIE? HE DIED…
- For all (1st Timothy 2:6; Isaiah 53:6).
- For every man (Heb. 2:9).
- For the world (John 3:16).
- For the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
- For the ungodly (Rom. 5:6).
- For false teachers (2 Peter 2:1).
- For many (Matthew 20:28).
- For Israel (John 11:50-51).
- For the Church (Eph. 5:25).
- For “me” (Gal. 2:20).
A helpful reply
A beneficial, faith-building reply of edification came from a Calvinistic Presbyterian, Hedrick, who began by discussing John’s audience when he wrote 1 John:
First John isn’t Romans. There’s no sign of Jew vs Gentile in the context.
If you want to read limited atonement into this passage, it’s better to use Calvin’s interpretation. He see[s] “you” as the church he was writing to, and the whole world as a global view of believers throughout the world.
However I find the summary in OzSpen’s list, http://www.christianforums.com/t7780…/#post64319067, persuasive. The problem with these arguments on the extent of the atonement is that they take an individualistic view that is foreign to the NT. In the Gospels and Paul we have a cosmic view of Jesus’ activity. He has defeated Satan, and begun the establishment of God’s rule. At least conceptually, he has atoned for the whole world. That doesn’t mean that every individual is saved. But it means that in principle he has reconciled the whole world. Of course the Kingdom is currently the seed growing secretly, so not everyone is actually participating in the restored Kingdom. But at least in principle, there’s a complete, cosmic victory.
I would say that in the NT view, the extent of the atonement is cosmic, but with an understanding that individuals participate in it by faith. I think there’s a difference between saying that the scope is cosmic and saying that it is universal. Objectively, the Kingdom of God is a cosmic reality. Christ has won the victory. Death is defeated. But at the moment not all individuals are part of the Kingdom. That’s where election applies. God calls us. It may well be that he doesn’t call us equally. Certainly not everyone hears it. But this call is a call to participate in a Kingdom founded on Christ. In the Synoptics, we “enter” the Kingdom. It’s a thing that exists independent of us. John 1 reminds us of Gen 1. God loves the world, and is restoring or recreating it as it was meant to be. 3:16-17 shows both sides of the picture. God loves the world. Jesus came not to condemn anyone, but to save the whole world. But he who believes in him is saved.
I should note that John is also one of the books that at times implies some kind of election, though I doubt it’s double predestination. But for John a cosmic extent of the atonement coexists with election, and in places also with a view that “the world” is hostile territory.
Another replied to the list (above by Dr Paul Reiter) of those for whom Christ died:
Great list, Oz. Here’s some more categories that Christ came to save:
For whom did Jesus come to save?
The sick, the lost, the poor, the unrighteous, the ungodly, and sinners.
Matt 9:12, On hearing this, Jesus said, it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Are just the elect “sick”?
Luke 19:10, For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. Are just the elect “lost”?
Luke 4:18, The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. Are just the elect poor?
1 Peter 3:18, For Christ died for sins once FOR ALL, the righteous (Christ) for the unrighteous (humanity, all of them), to bring you to God. Are just the elect unrighteous?
Rom 5:6, You see, just at the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Are just the elect ungodly?
Mark 2:17, On hearing this, Jesus said to them, it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, butsinners. Are just the elect sinners?
Isa 61:1, The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
If Christ died for just the elect, then reformed theology leads to universalism, because of these verses. That means the non elect are neither sick, lost, poor, unrighteous, ungodly, or sinners. So they don’t need salvation. And Christ wouldn’t need to die for any of them.
Can there be any reconciliation?
Theoretically, yes! Practically, very difficult!
There are at least two issues here:
1. Both Arminians and Calvinists insist that they are obtaining their information from the Scriptures. Calvinists support limited atonement while Arminians support unlimited atonement. It’s an issue of hermeneutics (biblical interpretation). Until there is an open, honest examination of all of the Scriptures relating to the atonement, with both Calvinists and Arminians laying aside their presuppositions to examine the Scriptures as objectively as possible, I can’t see a possibility of reconciliation.
2. There is a propensity for preachers to follow the flow of the denomination to which they belong. I cannot see Presbyterian and Reformed denominations accepting preachers who are Arminian. I cannot see Arminian denominations such as the Wesleyan, Methodist, Nazarene, and some Pentecostals, accepting Calvinistic preachers in the pulpit.
Therefore a stalemate is reached. There is little movement in the Arminian-Calvinistic debate.
Palmer, E H 1980/2010. The five points of Calvinism: A study manual (online), 3rd edn. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books. Part of this book is available free as a Google Book HERE.
 janxharris#1, Christian Forums, Soteriology, ‘If faith is a gift from God’, available at: http://www.christianforums.com/t7780352/ (Accessed 18 October 2013, emphasis in original).
 janxharris#71, http://www.christianforums.com/t7780352-8/.
 OzSpen#84, http://www.christianforums.com/t7780352-9/.
 Skala#92, http://www.christianforums.com/t7780352-10/.
 The Boxer#106, http://www.christianforums.com/t7780352-11/.
 OzSpen#115, http://www.christianforums.com/t7780352-12/.
 hendrick#12, http://www.christianforums.com/t7780352-2/.
 The Boxer#104, http://www.christianforums.com/t7780352-11/.
 OzSpen#111, http://www.christianforums.com/t7780352-12/.
 Hedrick#136, http://www.christianforums.com/t7780352-14/.
 FreeGrace2#186, http://www.christianforums.com/t7780352-19/#post64324860, emphasis in original.
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 2 January 2016.