By Rev. Lance Filio
Suspension of Disbelief is “the temporary acceptance as believable events or characters that would ordinarily be seen as incredible. This is usually to allow an audience to appreciate works of literature or drama that are exploring unusual ideas.” Whenever we are watching a movie, especially those Sci-fi or fictional tale, we need to receive the various unbelievable details of the story being depicted in every scene, in order to allow ourselves ordinarily absorb the entire story. Instead of being lost in the detail, the moviegoer will be able to accept the material as a whole and assess the entire thing first without passing immediate judgment every step of the way.
The 2nd point of the Canons of Dort (CD), Limited Atonement, is the most difficult doctrine to accept as well as to teach. Personally, I had a hard time accepting such unbelievable doctrine. As I recall my experience, I believe it helped that I examined the doctrine personally without placing unnecessary bias against it. Believe me, I have a lot of prejudices. But I think it also helped that I assessed the doctrine as a whole first then dealt with the details afterward. In short, I suspended disbelief just like watching a movie.
This is what I invite everyone to spend time doing with me as we discuss the doctrine of limited atonement. I ask everyone here, in order to understand the doctrine as a whole, to temporarily suspend their objections and criticism against it. By doing so, we can avoid the common pitfall of trying to raise immediate personal concerns and eventually end up not completely hearing the entire teaching.
The doctrine is organically related to the rest of the doctrines in the reformed system of thought. We need to understand the overarching assumptions behind the doctrine especially its connections to theology, history and more importantly in Scripture. So first, we will define our terms. What do we mean when we say atonement? Why do we say it is limited? For whom did Christ die? These are theological questions that we need to understand first in order to determine the scope and effect of God’s saving work. Second, we will examine its historical background. What was the challenge brought by the Remonstrants against the reformed churches on their day pertaining to atonement? What was the emphasis of the Canons in answering such a challenge? And lastly, we will deal with the Scriptures. We examine three Scriptural references being used to object against the doctrine.
I pray that after going through all these steps from general to specific, from theology to Scripture, we will be able to see the radiating glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We will be able to affirm that God indeed accomplished the redemption of his people, his elect, his bride, his church.
The Doctrine of Limited Atonement
What do we mean when we say atonement? Atonement is an act of atoning or paying for one’s sin. It was emphasized in rituals and ceremonies from the Old Testament which carried in it various significant biblical concepts such as redemption, propitiation, and substitution. When God redeemed his people from the hands of Pharaoh, He dwelt among them and gave his laws to mark Israel as his people. And as a reflection of holiness, God gave specific directions for the setup of his tent in the midst of his Israel and instituted ceremonial and ritual sacrifices.
In Scripture, we can examine the great redemptive act of God in saving Israel from slavery in Exodus 7-15 and the dwelling of God in the midst of his people in Exodus 25-31. You may study them extensively in your personal study time but suffice to say here now that God dwelt particularly with his people, after redeeming them back from Pharaoh. So where can we find the various sacrifices and rituals? It was referred to in detail in Leviticus 16 as the day of atonement. The high priest was instructed to enter the holy of holies yearly and to offer a sacrificial lamb to atone for the sin of the people of Israel.
We can reasonably say from here that the concept of atonement exists between God and his people. God redeems. God dwells. God requires his people to atone for their sins. Two questions can be raised at this point. First, why does God require such atonement for sins? Second, on whose behalf the atonement was made?
The pictures of Old Testament history were realities fulfilled in the New Testament. How we view both testaments is vital in determining the answers to these two questions. The Reformed camp is fully persuaded that the sacrificial types and shadows pointed to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The atoning work of God’s son is the propitiation made to appease God’s wrath against sinners. What is propitiation? It is to restore a broken relationship by offering an appeasement in a form of sacrifice.
Let us examine this verses by Paul in Romans making his point about the atonement:
“… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” Romans 3:23-25
So clearly God required a propitiation to appease his wrath against sinners and it is Christ’s blood, meaning his death, achieved such an end. And because a payment was made to satisfy the wrath, the relationship between God and man was restored. This hopefully answers the first question. God’s wrath was the condition that needs to be satisfied and only the blood of Christ at the cross provided appeasement.
This brings us then to the second question, for whom did Jesus die? Let us examine another set of verses under the topic of atonement as explained in the book of Hebrews:
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. – Hebrews 2:17
It is made plain here that Jesus only offered his propitiating work on behalf of his people, his elect. It is not a universal work to make salvation possible to all but an actual substitution made on behalf of a particular group of people. This then brings us to our last theological concept, substitutionary atonement. Substionary atonement is the act of someone paying off the penalty of death on behalf of another. It is the death in place of another. The prophet Isaiah wrote in his book about this work of the Messiah, the Suffering Servant:
He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds, we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” – Isaiah 53
Christ, our mediator, become the substitute for his people, the elect. He received the penalty of death, the wrath of God against sinners and paid in full the requirements of the penalty to satisfy punishment. All these are from God and none from man. All are done by God on the behalf of the elect. This was the priestly work of Christ in heaven pictured at the Old Testament yet an actual reality in history in his death on the cross. The author of Hebrew explained in chapter 9 of the book:
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.
Here we can determine that the work of redemption was fully accomplished by God in Christ. But to whom was it then applied? I have several Scriptural references to clarify the position that Christ died for the elect:
- Jesus died for ‘many.’
- Matt. 26:28, “for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
- Jesus died for the sheep (not the goats, per Matt. 25:32-33);
- John 10:11,15 “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep…15 even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father, and I lay down My life for the sheep.”
- Matt. 25:32-33, “And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.”
- Jesus in prayer interceded for the ones given Him, not those of the entire world;
- John 17:9, “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom Thou hast given Me; for they are Thine;”
It is clear then that redemption was sufficiently accomplished by Christ and efficiently applied to the elect, the sheep, the people of God, his church. What was then the contention of the Remonstrants?
Article II — That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John iii. 16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”; and in the First Epistle of John ii. 2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
The Remonstrants believed that Christ died for everyone. It made salvation only possible for all and the only limitation is the free will of the people to either accept or reject the offer. This made salvation dependent upon man and not really wholly the work of God. On the other hand, the CD taught that Christ died only for a particular and a definite number, the elect. They believe that Christ death did not make salvation only possible but actually accomplished it. We will discuss the verses later on when we tackle about the objections but it suffices to say up to this point that the main difference between the two is whether or not the atoning work of Christ made salvation only open to everyone without exception or the death of Christ accomplished concretely the redemption of his people.
The CD argues for the latter. Here is their reply to the Remonstrants:
ARTICLE 8. For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them, free from every spot and blemish, to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever.
The CD grounds their answer to the question to whom did Jesus die for the purposes and will of God and not upon the final decision of man which makes man sovereign rather than God. This understanding that God sovereignty acts and works out his purposes is grounded in their theological understanding of whom God is as our sovereign Creator and man as a created being fully dependent on God for everything (Acts 17:28).
This then brings us to the last part of our session on Limited atonement, how can we then explain the verses that clearly say that Christ died for all men, to the world, or to everyone? Well, as a good student of Scripture, we should responsibly look at all of Scripture and not just parts of it to determine what God says about a particular doctrine. We do not put Scripture against Scripture but allow Scripture to be interpreted by Scripture.
How can we then reconcile the verses that say Christ died for the world, for all or for everyone? In John 3:16, it was written there that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Clearly, the great love of God for the “world” was demonstrated by the giving of his Son, Jesus Christ but what was the meaning of the word “world”? We need to understand that every biblical word has a semantic range of meaning particularly revealed on how it was used in a particular context or immediate sentence. The word “world” can mean several things. First, it can mean the created order or everything that God has created. Second, it can also mean the fallen humanity. Third, it can mean the whole world without exception or in every nation or every race or tribe. The choice these options can make sense of what was being talked about. So in John 3:16, the particular word “world” is best understood as the fallen humanity. Why? The particularity was expressed in the next purpose clause: “so that whosever believes in Him…” The Greek phrase there can be literally expressed as “all the believing ones” which qualifies the word “world” as those particular people who believe. Therefore the word “world” cannot be all without exception because every usage of the term was qualified by the way it relates to the rest of the verses in context.
The same principle can be applied to the rest of the verses:
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 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 2:3-5)
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)
For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (1 Tim 4:10)
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people (Titus 2:11)
These verses appeal to the commission to bring the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to all nations, to the world, to everyone without distinction. God, in Christ, the Savior of all men offers salvation to all men because He is a sufficient redeemer, who lacks nothing and effectively saves his people. The free offer of Gospel is indeed free for all to accept but again only those who were regenerated and the called will believe and be saved. This is perhaps where the mystery of salvation lie. I think this is the reason why a lot of people tend to side with the Remonstrants because of the difficulties encountered in reconciling the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. Some tend to think by upholding the sovereign will of God in redemption, we neglect to acknowledge the responsibility of man in salvation. We will discuss the change in our will at conversion because of the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. However, we need to acknowledge that the will and purposes of God will prevail and not the choice of man. Even the responsible choice of man was because of God regenerating act.
This leads us to the end of our discussion. What was the purpose of upholding God’s actual redemption of his people? Because we believe it is what Scripture teaches and it brings all the glory back to God! Christ died for his people and his death secured their salvation. At the cross, an actual payment was made in actual history to save actual people from sin and brought them to eternity. Let us exalt God with the apostle Paul when he wrote this beautiful doxology:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom 8:33-36)
God accomplished is the redemptive purpose of saving his people from sin and death. Praise be to God!