By Greg Gibson
(The following is an edited post I made to an email list.)
The question of the relationship between the gospel and Limited Atonement (a.k.a. “definite atonement” or “particular redemption”) arose when a brother linked to an article titled “Ernest Reisinger on the Importance of the Doctrine of Limited Atonement to Gospel Proclamation.” I objected to 2 major parts of that article…
1. I objected to the title “Ernest Reisinger on the Importance of the Doctrine of Limited Atonement to Gospel Proclamation” because I knew that in the 49 gospel proclamations to Jews and Gentiles in Acts, the apostles never once proclaimed Limited Atonement.
2. I objected to the conclusion: “His work specifically on behalf of those previously chosen to be His peopleвЂ“ is clearly proclaimed and is foundational to a right understanding of the Gospel. If this pillar of the biblical foundation is removed, then the majestic Gospel of Grace will eventually crumble.” The word “foundation” seems to imply that it’s a necessary part of the gospel to the lost, and a fundamental of the faith.
(However, the brother later clarified his meaning, explaining that he rarely proclaims Limited Atonement to the lost.)
Now, I”m going to try to summarize my understanding of the “non-relationship” between limited atonement and the content of the gospel. Below, you’ll see why I believe we should not normally explain Limited Atonement to the lost in private evangelism or when specifically addressing the lost in a mixed audience of believers and unbelievers.
First, W.E. Vine rightly distinguishes between 2 definitions for “gospel”…
The Apostle uses it of two associated yet distinct things,
(a) of the basic facts of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, e.g., 1 Cor. 15:1-3; (GG: and Acts)
(b) of the interpretation of these facts, e.g., Rom. 2:16; Gal. 1:7, 11; 2:2.
In (a) the gospel is viewed historically, in (b) doctrinally, with reference to the interpretation of the facts.” (Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words)
The definition of the gospel we’re considering here is the historical facts of the gospel for the lost, not the gospel interpreted for the Church. And, the issue here is, “What were the audible words the apostles said, not what their hearers understood,” (since we’re not mind readers.)
1. Limited Atonement is the view that Christ died only for the elect (Calvinism). Universal Atonement is the view that Christ died for both the elect and non-elect (Arminianism). I believe that Limited Atonement is true, and Universal Atonement is false.
2. The only correct and complete definition of Limited Atonement must include limiting/exclusive language somewhat synonymous to this:
A. “Christ died only for (one group).”
B. “Christ did not die for (another group).”
3. Substitutionary Atonement is not Limited Atonement (Many Arminians believe in Substitutionary Atonement, yet deny Limited Atonement.) Many Calvinists have erroneously tried to defend Limited Atonement with prooftexts about Substitutionary Atonement, such as “The Good Shepherd gives His life for His sheep.” However, it is a logical fallacy to conclude that Substitutionary Atonement implies Limited Atonement. Here is the fallacy defined…
The Logical Fallacy That Substitutionary Atonement
Implies Limited Atonement
1st Premise: Christ died for His sheep specifically.
Assumed Premise: (Specificity = exclusivity).
Conclusion: Christ died for His sheep exclusively.
As you can see, the 2nd premise is assumed. In case there are still any doubts in your mind that Substitutionary Atonement doesn’t prove Limited Atonement, Galatians 2:20 settles it beyond question…
“the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
Now, here’s the above logical fallacy using Galatians 2:20…
1st Premise: The Son of God gave Himself for Paul specifically.
Assumed Premise: (Specificity = exclusivity.)
Conclusion: The Son of God gave Himself for Paul exclusively.
Now, can you see that Substitutionary Atonement does not logically imply Limited Atonement? Case closed!
At least 2 other Calvinist theologians have also conceded this point, Robert Reymond and Wayne Grudem…
“It is true, of course, that logically a statement of particularity in itself does not necessarily preclude universality. This may be shown by the principle of subalternation in Aristotelian logic, which states that if all S is P, then it may be inferred that some S is P, but conversely, it cannot be inferred from the fact that some S is P that the remainder of S is not P. A case in point is the “me” of Galatians 2:20: the fact that Christ died for Paul individually does not mean that Christ died only for Paul and for no one else.” (Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p. 673-4. GG: Although, his following paragraphs seem a bit unclear.)
“With regard to the verses that talk of Christ’s dying for his sheep, his church, or his people, non-Reformed people may answer that these passages do not deny that He died to pay the penalty for others as well. In response, while it is true that they do not explicitly deny that Christ died for others as well, their frequent reference to His death for His people would at lieast strongly suggest that this is a correct inference. Even if they do not absolutely imply such a particularizing of redemption, these verses do at least seem to be most naturally interpreted in this way.” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 600.)
4. Just as Christ and the apostles never once systematized the Trinity by stating that “The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God,” so they never systematized Limited Atonement by stating that “Christ died only for…” or “Christ did not die for…” Like the Trinity, Limited Atonement is true by reasoning/systematizing multiple verses, not from any one, explicit statement/verse.
Another Calvinist who has conceded this point is Dr. Matthew McMahon…
“But never do we find Jesus preaching on the hillside His limited atonement for some men in any explicit manner. He never says, вЂњI only died for the elect.вЂќ A Brief Critique of Hyper-Calvinism by Dr. Matthew McMahon)
1. Since Christ and the apostles never stated in their gospel to the lost that “Christ died only for…”, then it can’t be a gospel norm or “foundation.” (Neither can it be a fundamental of the faith nor test of faith: Outside the Camp.) There is no evidence that the apostles understood, disbelieved, or believed Limited Atonement.
2. There’s no evidence that the the majority of apostolic fathers understood, disbelieved, or believed Limited Atonement. (Like many believers today, most of them probably never thought about the question or did the logic.)
Even Godfrey, Ferguson and Packer seem to concede this…
“Limited Atonement…This view emerged clearly among the followers of Augustine as a consequence of his teaching of sovereign, particular grace in salvation. Throughout the Middle Ages Augustinians like Prosper of Aquitaine, Thomas Bradwardine and Joh Staupitz taught a limited atonement.” (Godfrey, Prof. Westminster Seminary, New Dictionary of Theology, IVP, Ferguson, Packer, Wright, Ed’s. p. 57.)
In my early, Christian life, I often claimed that the 5 Points of Calvinism were the universal faith of the early Church. And, I appealed to The Cause of God and Truth by John Gill as my proof. However, upon a closer look at his alleged Limited Atonement quotes by the apostolic fathers, most of them only prove Substitutionary Atonement, not Limited Atonement.
Limited Atonement was created in later in church history, not 30 A.D.
3. Calvinists should not use Limited Atonement as a test of fellowship.
4. Calvinists should not use Limited Atonement as a sign of Christian maturity.
5. Gospels that include Limited Atonement and other truths of advanced, systematic theology may be too confusing for the majority of hearers who have little understanding of logic or philosophy. If we want to see the masses saved, stick to the basics in evangelism.
Advanced, complex gospels appeal to only the 5% of hearers who are highly-educated, think analytically, logically, or philosophically (not many in this TV-brain culture.) But, the simple historical facts of the gospel the apostles preached can be understood by 100% of hearers, even children, retards, and high-school dropouts.
Those who preach a gospel including advanced, systematic theology really need to think about the milk vs. meat distinction in Heb. 5:12. Granted, this was addressed to believers, but notice that the milk they failed to outgrow was basic gospel-related truths…
“Therefore leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation
- Laying on of hands
- Resurrection of the dead
And, what is the meat for the mature in the context of Heb. 6? It’s the truth of apostasy/perseverance, related to the 5th point of Calvinism.
I repeat, if we want to see thousands saved, instead of a few, we would be wise to copy the content of the apostles “milk-gospel” as much as possible. Serve the milk for justification, then the meat for sanctification.
If we want to see the same results as the apostles, then we should preach the same gospel content as the apostles. They emphasized the historical facts about the Lord Jesus Christ, especially that…
- He lived.
- He died.
- He rose.
- He ascended.
- He reigns.
- He’s returning.
And, they told hearers, “Repent of your sin, and believe on Him.”
This is the powerful gospel that God used to change the 1st century world. And, this is the powerful gospel that He can use to change the 21st century world. “Preach the gospel.”