This week’s feedback comes in response to the post If Christ Died For All, And All Are Not Saved, Did Christ Die In Vain? This week’s chosen respondent raises the old accusation that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement.
Question: “See this is why I could never be Armenian. At least us Calvinists beleive that Christ actually did something on the cross. We say the atonement was of infinite value and powerful beyond limitations, but the extent of the atonement is limited for the elect. We say Christ actually secured our salvation at the cross. You Armenians believe that Christ only makes men ‘savable’ whatever that means. You believe that Christ died for the whole world, but the whole world isn’t saved. It you who limits the atonement, you limit it’s power…Why do you say the power is a “non issue”, when you clearly limit the power?”
Answer: Thanks for taking the time to write in. The accusation that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement is certainly not a new one. From my experience, it is one of the most common objections to Arminianism, as far as debates about the extent of the atonement go. Sometimes, those of us within the Arminian (or at least ‘non-Calvinist’) camp ‘shoot ourselves in the foot’ by not defining our beliefs and our use of terms as well as we should, which serves to feed the conception, or more correctly misconception, that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement.
From the outset, I want to make it clear that Calvinists such as yourself are not wrong to charge Arminianism with limiting the atonement in some measure. In fact, Calvinists are quite right to point out that Arminianism limits the atonement as certainly (but not necessarily in the same way) as does the Calvinist. I realise that not all Arminians would agree with me on this point. Notable Arminian Roger Olson, for example, expressly denies that Arminianism limits the atonement in any way. I have no objection to a Calvinist claiming that Arminianism in some measure limits the atonement. Indeed, unless we are going to embrace Universalism (the belief that all will be saved), I believe that we must accept at least some measure of limitation.
What I object to is the assertion that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement.
I believe that there are two main reasons for the assertion that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement. The first being an apparent flaw within the Calvinistic view of the atonement whereby they make the atonement and its application the same thing, and the second being a misconception of true Arminian beliefs, and thus a faulty idea of what the logical conclusion of Arminian beliefs are (as stated above, this is sometimes our own fault for not articulating our beliefs and use of terms as well as we should). For the sake of providing a response to your actual question, my focus will be mainly on correcting the misconception of Arminian beliefs, rather than attempting a full-scale refutation of the Calvinistic view.
First of all, what do Arminians mean when they say that they believe in ‘universal atonement’, ‘unlimited atonement’, or ‘atonement for all’? Those terms, taken at face-value, may lead many to conclude that Arminians believe in Universalism, the belief that all people will eventually be saved. This is most certainly not what Arminians mean, however, when they use terms such as above. What we actually mean, and this is why we should be more careful with our use of terms, is ‘universal provision’, or ‘unlimited provision’.
Provision and Application
When we use the word provision, we are implicitly making a distinction between the universal provision of the atonement and the individual application of the atonement. In other words, provision has been made for the whole world through Christ’s death, but the benefits of Christ’s death (specifically salvation) are not received by an individual until such time as they apply the blood.
We believe that there are good Scriptural precedents for making the distinction between the provision and the application of the atonement. Five examples shall suffice. The first three examples are Old Testament types of Christ (later confirmed in the New Testament), the fourth example is how the Apostle Paul describes God as Saviour, and the fifth is how Paul describes a couple of other believers.
The Passover Lamb
The blood of the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:6, 21) was provided for all of Israel (Ex. 12:3), without a hint of it being only for an ‘elect’ group within Israel. But the fact that the blood of the Passover lamb was provided for all Israel didn’t automatically guarantee that all Israel would benefit from it. The blood became effectual only after it was applied to the door posts (Ex. 12:7, 22); the blood itself didn’t save anyone. Any Israelite who failed to apply the lamb’s blood to their doorpost would thus have failed to receive any benefit from the death of the Passover lamb, in spite of the fact that they could have, as they were provided for.
It is obvious that even if an Israelite did fail in receiving a benefit from the death of the Passover lamb, it wouldn’t follow that such a person fell outside the scope of the provision of the lamb. The failure to receive benefit is rooted in the rejection of the provision, and not in the provision itself.
That the Passover Lamb was for all of Israel speaks of provision; that the Passover Lamb saved only those that applied the blood to their doorpost speaks of application.
The Passover Lamb is confirmed in the New Testament as being a legitimate type of Christ, for the Apostle Paul refers to Christ as “our Passover lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7).
The Serpent in the Wilderness
Because the people of Israel became impatient and complained against God and Moses (Num. 21:4-5), God sent fiery serpents among the people, and the serpents bit the people, so that many people died (Num. 21:6). When the people acknowledged their sin, they asked Moses to pray to God for them (Num. 21:7). God answered Moses’ prayer, saying,
“‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Num. 21:8-9)
The bronze serpent was a provision for “everyone” and “anyone”. But the fact that the bronze serpent was provided for all Israel didn’t automatically guarantee that all Israel would benefit from it. The bronze serpent became effectual only after someone looked at it by faith. The serpent itself didn’t save anyone. Anyone who refused to look by faith at the serpent would thus have failed to receive any benefit from the bronze serpent, in spite of the fact that they could have, as they were provided for.
It is obvious that even if an Israelite did fail in receiving a benefit from the bronze serpent, it wouldn’t follow that such a person fell outside the scope of the provision of the serpent. The failure to receive benefit is rooted in the rejection of the provision, and not in the provision itself.
That the serpent was for “everyone” and “anyone” speaks of provision; that it healed only those who looked to it in faith speaks of application.
The serpent in the wilderness is confirmed as a legitimate type of Christ by Jesus Christ Himself, when He drew an explicit comparison between the serpent in the wilderness and His own death (Jn. 3:14).
The Cities of Refuge
The cities of refuge were a provision for the manslayer (Num. 35:9-15). Furthermore, it was a provision for any manslayer – the people of Israel, and for the stranger, and for the sojourner (Num. 35:15). But the fact that the cities of refuge were provided for any manslayer did not automatically guarantee that any manslayer would benefit from them. The city of refuge was only effective as long as the manslayer entered, and stayed within, the boundaries (Num. 35:26-28). Any manslayer who refused to either enter in (in the first place), or remain in, the cities of refuge would thus fail to receive any benefit from said cities, in spite of the fact that they could have, as provision was made for them.
It is obvious that even if a manslayer did fail in receiving benefit from the provision of the cities of refuge, it wouldn’t follow that such a person fell outside the scope of the provision of the cities. The failure to receive benefit is rooted in the rejection of the provision, and not in the provision itself.
That the cities were for any manslayer speaks of provision; that they protected only those who entered and remained within the boundaries speaks of application.
The author to the Hebrews makes reference to the fact that we have fled to Jesus for refuge (6:18). Even the hyper-Calvinist John Gill explicitly declared 1) that the cities of refuge were each types of Christ, and 2) that Hebrews 6:18 is referring to this fact.
The Saviour of All People, Especially of Those Who Believe
Paul writes that God is “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). That God is the Saviour of all people speaks of provision; that God is the Saviour especially of believers speaks of application.
In Christ Before Paul
Paul writes that Andronicus and Junia, his kinsmen and fellow prisoners, “were in Christ before me [Paul]” (Rom. 16:7). The fact that someone can be “in Christ” before someone else implies that there is a difference between the atonement itself, and the application of that atonement.
If not, and the atonement and its application are the same thing, then we would have to believe that the elect were actually literally saved at the moment of Christ’s death, a belief which entails the elect being saved, and thus “in Christ”, all at the same time. This would also entail the elect being born saved, and thus never being “dead in trespasses and sins”, nor “children of wrath” (Cf. Eph. 2:1-3), and therefore, being saved before ever having exercised faith.
The distinction between the provision and the application of the atonement is therefore deducible from Paul’s description of Andronicus and Junia as being “in Christ” before him.
As the above examples show, there is indeed a distinction between the atonement and the application of the atonement. In other words, the atonement is provisional in nature, until such time as it is applied.
Unless the Calvinist is going to affirm that the elect were born saved, then in principle, he must affirm a provisional aspect of the atonement, in some measure at least.
Provision and Intention
Following on from the distinction between the provision of the atonement and an individual’s application of the atonement, it is helpful to recognise the distinction between the provision and intention of the atonement. As the application of the atonement refers to a human action, namely, an individual’s application of Christ’s blood by looking to Him in faith, the intention of the atonement refers to a Divine action, namely, who God actually intends to save.
When we speak of God’s intentions, two fundamental questions need to be asked:
1) Why did Christ shed His blood in the first place?
2) Who does God intend to save?
I believe a very simplified answer to the first question would be that Christ shed His blood as a means of providing the redemption of those whom God has intended to save. This then raises the second question, Who does God actually intend to save? It is my position that even though He desires that all would come to faith and repentance, God has only ever intended to save those who believe (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21, Gal. 3:22, 1 Tim. 4:10). As Richard Baxter said, “it was never the intent of his mind, to pardon and save any that would not by faith and repentance be converted”.
Once again, referring back to the aforementioned Old Testament foreshadows of Christ is helpful.
Just as God intended the blood of the Passover Lamb to be effectual only for those who applied it to their doorposts (Ex. 12), so He intends the blood of Christ (our Passover Lamb, 1 Cor. 5:7) to be effectual only for those who apply the blood.
Just as God intended the serpent in the wilderness, lifted up, to be effectual for those who looked to it in faith (Num. 21), so Christ (our Serpent in the wilderness, Jn. 3:14), lifted up, was only ever intended to be effectual for those who look to Him in faith.
Just as God intended the cities of refuge to be effectual only for those entered, and stayed within, the boundaries (Num. 35), so Christ (our City to whom we have fled for refuge, Heb. 6:18) was only ever intended to be effectual for those who enter into union with, and remain in union with, Him.
Christ’s blood accomplishes exactly what God intended: it saves those who by faith and repentance believe the Gospel (cf. 1 Cor. 1:21). Therefore, to say that Arminians limit the power of the atonement is just plain nonsense. The fact that Christ’s blood does not save every single person without exception, in spite of the fact that provision has been made for every single person, says nothing about the power of the atonement, for 1) God has never intended to save anyone who would not by faith and repentance believe the Gospel, and 2) the atonement accomplishes exactly what God intended, namely, the salvation of those who believe.
To say that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement amounts to nothing more than saying that Arminianism limits the power of the atonement to being able to achieve exactly what God has intended it to achieve, which is a redundant criticism. If the atonement accomplishes exactly what God intended, then its power cannot reasonably be said to have been limited in any meaningful sense of the word.