Posted by: Moses | April 14, 2008

Some Thoughts on Divisive Doctrine

Universalism is contrary to the clear teaching of scripture. But aside from this extreme position there are two favored doctrines of “limited atonement,” of what Christ’s death accomplished. We will take a quick look at both and the merits or weaknesses of each before proposing a humble stance.

1. Sufficient for All, Applied to Some: this one has been by far the most popular through the ages. All in all this one seems pretty simple and straight forward. If you don’t want to think about this, stay here and feel relatively safe. However, several noteworthy figures in history have been wary of this position because of the tendencies of its adherents to minimize the glory of God in election. However, I can see how election can fit solidly into this as well if Christ paid enough for everyone but specifically redeems the chosen.

2. Particular Atonement: Christ, being omniscient, knew who he was coming to earth to die for. John 10 et al. lend a lot of credence to this view. However, other passages such as 1 John 2 and I Corinthians 15 make this one a bit sticky as well. This is the traditional reformed doctrine, and though some of the hermeneutics may seem a bit “iffy” when they say that “whole world” may not mean “every single person in the world” they really are sound. I know that seems scandalous, but given seven distinct usages for the word “world” (several of which have nothing to do with “the world” as we know it), a plethora of clear usages of the word “whole” which refer to a lot but not all of something, plus the Greek tendency to hyperbole and litotes to make a point, you end up with a lot of potentially viable interpretations. Augustine, Calvin, Luther and many more would take these passage as obviously referring to the elect “around the world.” The strictest Greek translation would render the phrase “concerning the world as a whole.”

Option 3: faithful, humble orthodoxy

a) Scripture clearly teaches that Christ’s death on the cross conquered the world. Check out Hebrews 2 where “all things are put into subjection under his feet, in putting all things under his feet he left nothing out” or Colossians 1 where he “reconciled all things to himself, whether on heaven or on earth, making peace by the blood of the cross.” There is no limitation on the extent of what Christ’s blood can redeem. Anything is redeemable! Not just people, but all things in heaven and earth (cf. 1 Timothy 4:1-5). This by no means implies that everyone is saved. If you have questions concerning this point I would recommend that you study the difficult doctrine of God’s choice particularly in Ephesians 1-2 and Romans 8-11. God can glorify himself both in his wrath on rebellious creation and in his mercy on whomever he will have mercy. In this sense Christ is Lord over all things living and dead, in heaven and on earth, the worthy judge of all things with all authority over everything. Here we see an unlimited atonement in the sense that Christ has bought reconciliation between Himself as Holy God and His fallen creation, through the blood of His cross. He has absolute authority to reconcile both His wrath and His mercy through the Cross. He deserves to be able to have mercy on whom He will have mercy.

b) Scripture also clearly teaches that the Lord has chosen a specific few before the foundation of the world. There are a plethora of passages that emphasize this point, in fact God pursuing a particular people sums up most of the story of redemptive history. Take the beginning of Ephesians for instance: “1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Notice the link at the end between Christ’s redemption of all of creation, restoring fellowship between the wayward and their perfect God in a general sense. Next notice the clearly exclusive nature of God’s choice. Consider Christ’s explicit statement in John 10:14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

c) So we come away with something of a mystery, and to be honest I think that it is best if we leave it there. Christ’s cross conquered sin and death, and placed the whole creation under his feet to judge with absolute freedom. Christ’s cross specifically redeemed the elect to eternal life, by transforming them to become like Christ. Going beyond this we start to go beyond the text of scripture, diving head first into hypotheticals, whether Christ’s sacrifice could or could not have atoned for more than it did. Fundamentally, Christ’s blood will avail for whatever and whomever He wants it to. Let us shoulder our clear simple obedience to scripture and let it rest there.

Any way you look at this issue, we have unity in the cross of Christ if we are humble. The purely Particular Atonement Calvinist does not know who is atoned for and still should be constrained to preach to all, seeing that he is not omniscient. The purely Sufficient Atonement Arminian feels the same burden to preach the good news of Christ’s redemption to all the world. To the Humbly Orthodox (refusing to nail down particulars that scripture does not explicate) the same burden to preach the good news rests. Thus we can all shoulder the great commission side by side, perhaps viewing some particulars slightly differently but united in our passion to spread the Worth of God to the furthest corners of the globe that Christ died for.

Regardless of all of this, the passages where these issues crop up are remarkably clear in their over all thrust. For instance, John’s sense in 1 John 2 is clear. If he means to comment on Limited Atonement at all it is only incidentally. His argument clearly builds from the fact that our confessed sins are faithfully forgiven. However believers still sin, and Christ is our advocate still. And just in case you thought that God was a local deity, or perhaps Christ’s blood couldn’t avail for your horrible sin, His blood is not just for your little locale but even for the world as a whole. There is no sin that a believer could dream up that Christ’s blood could not avail for. He is our eternal advocate by virtue of His incorruptible life, able to save to the uttermost those that follow Him by faith.



  1. So this is cool. This is like the heart of what has been going on. First with passion and then this week at the incredibly unusually Christ-centered and just plain good chapel messages. =) It’s like God put his finger on us NGU kids ands said, “Oh by the way, you seem to have forgotten… this is all about Me.”
    The theme has really been the centrality of Christ and unity among believers. It’s been pretty awesome. And this is just one area where it seems that we as believers tend to want to tear each other apart instead of loving each other and taking Christ’s fame into the world.

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