Recently, I had the privilege to have breakfast with a fellow preacher of the gospel and leader in the Georgia Baptist Convention. As pastors often do, over coffee and French Toast at Cracker Barrel, we talked about ministry and theology. I truly enjoy such conversations that spark thought on doctrinal positions and it usually provides for good conversation. This morning, as we were talking about ministry and theology, my fellow preacher asked me my position on a specific doctrine that is often extremely controversial. He asked me, “What do you believe about ‘Limited Atonement’ and can you define it?” That question centers upon the “L” in the dreaded “TULIP” acronym for the “C” word (Calvinism) that’s often misunderstood and ignorantly defined.
Limited Atonement is the “L” in the acronym TULIP that is often used to teach the doctrines known as Calvinism. The doctrines known to us as Calvinism took upon the name of John Calvin after his death when Jacob Arminus rejected his teachings. In 1610, a year after Arminius’ death, his students drafted five articles known as The Remonstrance, and submitted them to the Dutch Reformed Church. The followers of Arminus believed the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism were in violation of the Scriptures and requested the Dutch Reformed Church to modify them to reflect their positions. Eventually the Synod of Dort dismissed the Arminians and accepted the counter view – The Canons of Dort – in 1619. These views have taken the shape of 5-points that countered the Arminians and have been called by the names – Calvinism, The Doctrines of Grace, and Reformed Theology. Reformed theology has taken root in Presbyterianism and Baptist circles through the years. In fact, many of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention were 5-point Calvinists in their theology. Many of the people of church history such as Adoniram Judson, William Carey, Charles Spurgeon, John Newton, and John Bunyan were all 5-point Calvinists.
Most people in Baptist circles know the difference between the Methodist Church, Free Will Baptist Church, and the Southern Baptist Church. It’s obvious from the Baptist Faith & Message that the SBC holds to the doctrine of election and embraces the sovereignty of God in salvation. That doctrinal distinction is one of the beliefs that distinguish us from Methodism and Free-Will Baptist congregations. For years, I have fought against this doctrine and even taught against it from the pulpit – as an SBC pastor. I recall having many conversations and debates in apartments near the campus of Southern Seminary where I attended from 2004-2008. However, in the last 1.5 years, through much reading and study, I came to the realization that my personal theological position was not right. I had to admit that I was wrong – and that’s not always easy! I simply came to the realization that I couldn’t fit the Word of God into my theological box and I needed to accept the clear teaching of Scripture. So, the question posed to me over coffee at Cracker Barrel served as a great opportunity to explain where I stand on these issues.
After hearing the question, I took a sip of my coffee and explained by citing the Scripture. In John 10, Jesus makes a very powerful statement, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). If Jesus specifically died for His sheep, that truth balanced with the biblical definition for the atonement should help us see what is intended by the phrase, “Limited Atonement.” To have your sins atoned for means to have the righteousness of Jesus Christ – by His blood sacrifice – imputed to your account and completely covering your soul. Any good biblical scholar would agree, on that basic truth, that no person with the atonement of Christ is currently in hell. That is an utter impossibility.
I further clarified that I believe the Bible teaches us that Jesus’ blood is sufficient to save the entire world, but the design of Jesus’ death and atoning sacrifice was to be applied to those that God would give to His Son Jesus Christ (John 6:37). In many places in Scripture – this group of people are referenced as the “elect.” Therefore, God the Father applies the blood sacrifice only to those people who trust Him by faith and believe His gospel. Who are those people? They are the “whosoever” mentioned in Romans 10:13! The people that God has sovereignly elected before time (Ephesians 1; Romans 8:28-30) are brought to life (KJV uses the word “quickened”) by the operation of God (Ephesians 2) and are given the gift of faith and repentance (Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 2:25). Those people respond to God by trusting the finished work of Christ alone for their salvation. Only those people whom God draws to salvation will come. So, it may be good to define the calling of God to salvation as the “Limited Calling” because we know that only those whom God calls will come to Him (John 6:44). At that very moment, they immediately discover Jesus as the Treasure they are willing to sell everything to obtain. The Scripture also teaches that whosoever comes to Christ will never be turned away or cast out (John 6:37).
Many people have provided some horrific definitions of “Limited Atonement” that scare people. For instance, I have heard this doctrine defined in the following ways:
- Limited Atonement is the teaching that Jesus only died for some people and no matter what a person does or how much that person prays, if they are not part of that secret group – they will not receive salvation because Jesus did not die for them.
- The death of the Lord Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross was strictly LIMITED in any and all of its aspects ONLY TO THE ELECT or saved ones, or believers in Christ. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the unsaved or the non-elect people of the world.
- Not sure the Calvinist definition, but it sounds a whole lot like Jesus’ blood and sacrifice not being enough to save us.
- It’s a false doctrine that blasphemes the blood of Jesus.
- The suggestion that Jesus’ blood was poured out for one group rather than every single person is simply a false doctrine and not fair.
If there is any part of doctrines related to salvation that stir emotion – it’s the doctrine surrounding the atonement of Christ. As we consider these issues, we must ask some questions:
- Why did Jesus die on the cross? Did He die in a universal sense so that all could be saved but that potentially none would be saved?
- Did Christ die as a substitute for sinners in such a way as to secure their complete salvation (calling, justification, sanctification, and final glorification)?
- When Jesus died on the cross – people were already in hell. Did Jesus die for those people?
- If Jesus’ death was intended by God to be a universal atonement rather than a “limited” atonement – will all people be saved? If not, why does anyone go to hell?
- Is it possible for anyone to go to hell with the righteousness of Jesus Christ (His atoning work on Calvary’s cross) imputed to them by grace?
As we all know, our emotions will lead us astray. It’s important to disconnect the emotional plug when considering these issues. It’s important to allow the Scripture to speak clearly. Therefore, I understand the doctrine of “Limited Atonement” to teach the following:
- Christ died a substitutionary death in order to eternally secure His people (Matthew 1:21) that God the Father had elected before time (Ephesians 1; Romans 8:28-30) and given to Christ as a gift (John 6:37).
- The death of Christ fully provided the satisfaction of God’s holy justice levied against sinners who deserved the wrath of God in such a way as to never lose a single one (John 10:28-29; Romans 8:28-30).
- The people that pray, seek God, repent, and believe the gospel are the “whosoevers” that God elected before time (Ephesians 1), the people whom Christ died to redeem (John 10:11; Hebrews 9:28), and they will never be cast out or turned away by Christ (John 6:37).
At the end of the day, I don’t like the phrase “Limited Atonement” because of the negative connotation. I prefer the title, “Particular Redemption.” I believe that the death of Christ was designed to save the particular people that God had elected before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1). We are called the church – “the called out assembly” in Scripture. We are also called in Titus 2:14 (KJV) a “peculiar” people. I can work with people who don’t embrace all 5-points of Calvinism as long as they are not those who manipulate people for a numeric agenda. I embrace others who do not ascribe to all 5-points of Calvinism so long as they don’t reject God’s sovereignty and exalt the “free will” of man in such a way that turns God into a puppet.
Article 8 of Section 2 of The Canons of Dort says:
For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation. In other words, it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant) should effectively redeem from every people, tribe, nation, and language all those and only those who were chosen from eternity to salvation and given to him by the Father; that he should grant them faith (which, like the Holy Spirit’s other saving gifts, he acquired for them by his death); that he should cleanse them by his blood from all their sins, both original and actual, whether committed before or after their coming to faith; that he should faithfully preserve them to the very end; and that he should finally present them to himself, a glorious people, without spot or wrinkle.
Article IV of The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 reads:
Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.
All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
Genesis 12:1-3; Exodus 19:5-8; 1 Samuel 8:4-7,19-22; Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 31:31ff.; Matthew 16:18-19; 21:28-45; 24:22,31; 25:34; Luke 1:68-79; 2:29-32; 19:41-44; 24:44-48; John 1:12-14; 3:16; 5:24; 6:44-45,65; 10:27-29; 15:16; 17:6,12,17-18; Acts 20:32; Romans 5:9-10; 8:28-39; 10:12-15; 11:5-7,26-36; 1 Corinthians 1:1-2; 15:24-28; Ephesians 1:4-23; 2:1-10; 3:1-11; Colossians 1:12-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; 2 Timothy 1:12; 2:10,19; Hebrews 11:39–12:2; James 1:12; 1 Peter 1:2-5,13; 2:4-10; 1 John 1:7-9; 2:19; 3:2.
John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The death of Christ was designed that “whosoever” comes to Christ would not perish – not that the world would not perish! We must see the atonement as “limited” to believers only. If we embrace a “universal” atonement – the logical end is universalism.
Calvin said, “For our present question is, not what the power or virtue of Christ is, nor what efficacy it has in itself, but who those are to whom he gives Himself to be enjoyed. Now if the possession of Christ stands in faith, and if faith flows from the Spirit of adoption, it follows that he alone is numbered of God among His children who is designed of God to be a partaker of Christ. Indeed the evangelist John sets forth the office of Christ to be none other than that of ‘gathering together all the children of God’ in one by His death. From all which we conclude that, although reconciliation is offered unto all men through him, yet, that the great benefit belongs peculiarly to the elect, that they might be ‘gathered together’ and be made ‘together’ partakers of eternal life” (Eternal Predestination, 165-166).
As a Southern Baptist preacher, I care far more about what Christ said than what Calvin said! The words of scholars, preachers, and theologians are like a candle in our hand as a means of defining and describing the sun in the sky. In the end, all scholars, preachers, and theologians are fallible men with ideas that are corrupted in some way by the sinful veil that covers their mind. Jesus Christ is the Son of God – what He says cannot be denied!
Christ said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Paul said, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).
While my friend said he agreed with me on everything, he made another statement that resonated with me over breakfast. He said, “Josh, God has to give us the faith to believe – right?” He went on to say, “God has to draw any person to salvation who believes – right?” As he made those statements in form of rhetorical questions – it made me ask myself – “Why are some people in the SBC fighting over Calvinism?” Isn’t Calvinism, as I understand it, merely a way of placing all of the glory, honor, and praise of the salvation of fallen man (from start to finish – from before time all the way until we are glorified) upon God? If man can’t do anything to save himself and if he really is dead in his sin – we need a sovereign God to do a work of grace – for His glory!
As I watch many bloggers, preachers, and churches in the SBC fight over the doctrines surrounding salvation, it makes me glad that I had two pastors over a period of nearly 20 years of my life, who didn’t grind an ax but merely preached the Bible faithfully without compromise. Both of those men were Calvinists – and I learned doctrine and maturity from both of those men. I pray others in the SBC will mature past grinding an ax over these issues. Those who see Calvinism as more dangerous than the rise of Isalm and Mormonism need to wake up. As my faithful pastors taught me – “Calvinism is a family debate.” Those who reject God’s sovereignty in salvation and believe that man’s free will is responsible for their salvation should likely become a Free Will Baptist rather than a Southern Baptist. For everyone else in between within the SBC – we should work together to reach our neighborhoods and nations with the gospel of Christ.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me….
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.
– John Newton
For the glory of King Jesus alone!
Pastor Josh Buice
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For more resources on a balanced understanding of Calvinism: