The Vicarious Death Of Jesus (IX)

Universalism or Limited Atonement?

Those who reject the vicarious death of Jesus claim that if He actually died in our place, then one of two results must be true—UNIVERSAL SALVATION or Calvinism’s LIMITED ATONEMENT. Although I covered these objections earlier in this study, I want to deal with these again in a bit more detail. The current champion of this position says it like this:

In the sense of the substitution theory, if Jesus, when He died on the cross, removed God’s wrath against sin, satisfied divine justice, paid all our debt in our place, took our punishment for sin upon Himself, became guilty with our guilt, was cursed in our stead, then Jesus has /already done it all in our place/. It is just like the substitute soldier, the substitute football player, the boyfriend who went to jail in the place of his girlfriend and the priest who went to the firing squad in the place of another man. Why then should we be charged with anything if Jesus has already done it all? He removed our responsibility and accountability, and He did it nineteen centuries ago. If Jesus has already taken my punishment for my sins upon himself, then I don’t have to worry because my punishment was removed nineteen centuries ago. I cannot be held accountable to God for what I have done because my substitute has already taken that on Himself and removed any responsibility from me! The only conclusion that can be reached from the substitution position is universal salvation….or Calvinist limited atonement! (Maurice Barnett, “The Vicarious Death of Christ? —1,” [bold italics in original for emphasis]).

Faith: The Missing Ingredient

Because this characterization of “substitutionary theory,” as it is called, is decidedly Calvinistic in scope, I do not agree with every point made. Even so, it does basically cover the several effects of Jesus’ vicarious death. Yet, the one essential ingredient that is missing in such a depiction is the role of faith, and this because it views this subject primarily from the Calvinist point of view, where faith is really not all that important, and this because it is alleged to be something given only to those who have been elected by God totally independent of anything they will, or will not, do. But for those of us who are not Calvinists (i.e., non-determinists), we believe that although what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross is available to everyone, it is only accepted by some through faith. This means that even if Jesus’ sacrificial death did everything Barnett depicted it as doing from the Calvinists’ viewpoint, the only ones who are actually going to benefit from it are those who receive it by faith: “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Heb. 11:6, ESV). Thus, it is obviously false to assert that universal salvation is one of but two alternatives of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, in that everything that has been done for all mankind through Jesus’ vicarious death, although available to all, is only actuated for individual sinners by faith: “(1) Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; (2) through whom also we have had our access by faith into this grace wherein we stand; and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1-2).

When it comes to “limited atonement,” which is inherently Calvinistic, and the second of only two supposed alternatives of substitutionary atonement, we will see, once again, that faith is the negation of all such thinking. Calvinists teach that Jesus died only for the elect. This doctrine, the “L” in the Calvinist’s T-U-L-I-P, necessarily follows the “U,” which stands for Unconditional Election. Because it does, and because Calvinism is a systematic theology that logically follows the previous doctrine, it is compulsory to say a little about it before taking a look at Limited Atonement.

Limited Atonement

If man is born totally depraved and thus does not have freewill, which is what Calvinists believe, then he does not have the ability to do those things God has commanded him to do. Consequently, if a man is going to be saved, then God, totally independent of any foreknown choices man will make, must choose (unconditionally elect) him to salvation. This means, as one of their own has said, “A man is not saved because he believes in Christ; he believes in Christ because he is saved”( Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, p. 101). He followed it up with, “The elect of God are chosen by Him to be His children, in order that they might be made to believe, not because He foresaw that they would believe” (Ibid.). This is so, according to Calvinists, because of “T,” which stands for Total Depravity.

According to the Westminster Confession, the doctrine of Total Depravity reads as follows: “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto” (Chapter IX, Section III). For obvious reasons, many Calvinists call this the doctrine of “Total Inability.” The essence of this completely false and misleading doctrine is the alleged abject inability of man to do anything truly good in God’s sight, especially when it comes to accepting (receiving) salvation. Finally, according to this doctrine, man’s total depravity or inability is not acquired, as we non-determinists believe, but innate. And so, “to become sinful, men do not wait until the age of accountable actions arrives. Rather, they are apostates from the womb” (Boettner, p. 61).

We are now ready to take a look at the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Did Jesus offer Himself as a sacrifice for the whole human race, or did He die only for the elect? Calvinists teach that the Lord died for the elect only. As this doctrine necessarily follows Unconditional Election and Total depravity, we have, in effect, already demonstrated it to be false. Nevertheless, we’ll now speed some time examining this doctrine. The Westminster Confession says: “…Wherefore they who are elected being fallen in Adam, are redeemed “in Christ,” are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season; are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power through faith unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted sanctified, and saved, but the elect only” (Chapter III, Section 6). About this, Loraine Boettner, their noted chronicler, said, “If from eternity God has planned to save one portion of the human race and not another, it seems to be a contradiction to say that His work has equal reference to both portions, or that He sent His Son to die for those whom He had predetermined not to save, as truly as, and in the same sense that He was sent to die for those whom He had chosen for salvation” (Boettner, p. 151).

In contrast to all this man-made jabberwocky, the Scriptures teach, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that WHOEVER believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16, emphasis mine). Again, “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for ALL, then ALL died; and He died for ALL, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:14-15, emphasis mine). Now, as if these two passages were not enough to refute the idea of a Limited Atonement, the Bible teaches unequivocally that it is God’s “desires ALL men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4, emphasis mine). Then In 2 Peter 3:9, He is described as being “longsuffering toward us, not willing that ANY should perish but that ALL should come to repentance” (emphasis mine). These passages are more than sufficient to demonstrate that “limited atonement” is not an option and thus has no part in the substitutionary atonement I have defended in this series.

Who, then, are the elect, and why? I’ll answer these questions like this: If you are not yet one of God’s elect, you can be if you so desire. All you need to do is, by faith, render obedience to Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life, believing, repenting, confessing, and being baptized in order to have your sins remitted. In doing so, you will be washed with the precious blood of Jesus and raised up to walk in newness of life (a new creature, if you will) truly born again and a full-fledged member of “God’s elect” (cf. Rom. 8:33 and Tit. 1:1 for biblical the use of this term). Truth is, although the Bible uses the term “elect” in a variety of ways, it NEVER uses it to indicate a select group who ALONE have been predestined (according to the Calvinist definition of this term) to salvation.

With this said, I believe it has been demonstrated, once again, that the claim that says substitutionary atonement spawns one of two results—either UNIVERSAL SALVATION or LIMITED ATONEMENT—is completely unfounded.

We’ll continue this study in the next post.


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