Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Limited Atonement, Part 1


As a staunch Calvinist, I found myself in a very uncomfortable position over the last few years. Although I’d affirmed the five points of Calvinism since college, I began questioning the traditional formulation of Limited Atonement. This doctrine has always been the weakest point in TULIP. If you ever hear someone say that they are a four point Calvinist, it is likely they deny the L in the flowery acrostic.

Why did I begin questioning? First, it was not for philosophical reasons, even though those reasons seem to be the biggest reasons I’ve seen for why most Arminians deny TULIP. For me there were scriptural issues that caused me to question.

First, there was this passage:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.
2 Peter 2:1 ESV
Next, I began looking at the atonement through the lens of the Old Testament. If the high priest atoned for all Israel (including such wicked men as King Saul) each year on the Day of Atonement, why weren’t Saul’s sins atoned for? Could it be that sacrificial atonements were and are only effectual to the extent that they are received with faith?

Another possible angle to approach this question is by looking at the daily sacrifices that Israel offered. A man brings his sin offering. The priest slays the lamb and offers it on behalf of the one bringing it. The question then of “For whom was the lamb slain?” has a ready answer, “The man who brought it.” But what of all those men who were wicked through and through and did not love God? The lamb was slain for them, but because of their hardness of heart, the benefits were not applied to them.

In light of these thoughts, I was wondering if we should not think of Christ Jesus as being the High Priest of the world who offers Himself on behalf of the world, but that it is only by actively trusting in his death and resurrection that we will receive the benefits of that penal substitutionary atonement.

As I worked through this, it seemed to me that key aspects of the antitype were being overlooked in Reformed circles. In other areas of doctrine we always look to the antitype to help explain the type: Passover is now the Lord’s Supper, circumcision is now baptism, the sacrifice is now Christ. But even though the connection was clear, it seemed to me that the key aspect, namely faith, was being ignored.

Could it be that, instead of viewing the atonement through the lens of the Old Testament, we were viewing it through our doctrine of election and so getting bad results?

Well, after asking a former professor of mine about this question, I’ve come back to the fold. I’m unashamedly a five-pointer again, but only because of a simple semantic element that I’d never considered before.

More on that in my next post.

Above: Strange moth, I think he's the T in TULIP. I found him in our bathroom, so maybe it's T for Toilet.

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