There are a handful of debates between polar opposite views in theology. None probably more popular than limited vs unlimited atonement. Most Christians have probably discussed, debated, or contemplated the issue internally or with someone else. In no way will I win the argument and neither will you. Too much baggage accommodates the debate to “win the day.” When we get to heaven, sit in Theology 101, then we will all learn the truth 🙂
But until then, debates will rage, ink will spill, keyboards hammered, and late night blogger wars will ensue while our spouses sit in the other room asking if we really have to stay up late because someone is wrong on the Internet.
A few perspectives should be kept when discussing the issue. First, most of the people on both sides of the aisle disagree with universalism. A universalist has zero biblical support. Adherents to limited atonement would do well to not immediately charge the unlimited adherent with universalism. Likewise, unlimited adherents should recognize holding to limited atonement does not mean disregarding human culpability or personal evangelism.
Second, Paul, Peter, James, John, Jude, Mark, Luke, Matthew, and Paul in Hebrews do not consider this debate as important. WHAT??? How dare you say that!!!!!!!! But, turn in your Bible where Paul says, “Limited atonement is the biblical view despite the unlimited adherents.” Or vice-versa. Paul spends no time denouncing the unlimited / limited adherents. This discussion developed a rhetoric not collaborated by Scripture. Paul and Scripture authors spend no time discussing limited vs unlimited in the same manner or with the same depth we do.
Third, A person can be your opponent and not be a false teacher AND fellow supporters can be a false teacher (but for other reasons). Just because a preacher believes in unlimited atonement does not make him a false teacher or apostate. He may be a wolf in sheep clothing, but probably for other reasons (denying the true nature of Christ, resurrection, failure to submit to God’s will and word, no fruit of belief). “But if you don’t believe in (my view) then logically you believe this.” Let me be clear. This line of thinking makes a person look less logical because it is a logical fallacy. Instead of denouncing a person as false teacher, spend time understanding him.
In fact, when one evaluates the biblical evidence there seems to exist a tension between both views. What does this mean?
It means there are bigger, clearer issues we should be focused on. Apparently Paul, led by the Spirit, wasn’t concerned enough with the issue to think it mattered for conforming us to His image! This debate rages because of our theological practices.
God clearly communicates what matters. Sometimes He does not answer questions we have nor develop minor points of doctrine as much as we desire. He does clearly communicate. Jesus for one is clear! The Father is clear. The Holy Spirit is clear. Scripture is God’s Word, authoritative: clear. Let us focus on, preach, and teach what is clearly seen! Let us spend time in those texts advocating Scripture because we KNOW Scripture will save and edify people. Apparently Paul did not get the memo and forgot to convey the importance of (insert your view here). Let us focus, discuss, and preach the big issues. Jots and tittles are good when too much time is on our hand.
Yet having said this, let me bring some balance to what I’m saying. It is not wrong to wrestle with the text of Scripture and come to theological conclusions. Do not leave my article thinking theology is a worthless endeavor. To know your God better is an endeavor we should actively pursue. The only way to know him with clarity, precision, accuracy, and ultimately conviction is through His Word! We must be faithful to His Word!
Since I brought up the discussion. Dr. Trevor Craigen provided great content regarding this issue from his class. The following information is helpful to both sides of the debate because each side MUST wrestle through each text! Personally, I respond suspiciously when a person says, “Well, that text doesn’t mean what you think it means.” This may by true for one verse, but when communicated for every opposing verse it smells of personal bias.
The Biblical Testimony
“What is the whole teaching of Scripture?” is the right question to ask as the subject is approached with a passionate desire to be true to the clear statements of the text. After these are first established, then, and only then, can various questions pertaining to “Why this?” or “Why that?” and “What about this?” or What about that?” be validly tackled.
a. Verses of general specification
- John 1:29 Lamb…who takes away the sins of the world
- John 3:16 God so loved the world that He gave…
- Jhn 4:42 the Christ, the Savior of the world
- 2 Cor 5:19 God was in Christ reconciling the world
- 1 Jhn 2:2 propitiation for the sins of the whole world
- 1 Jhn 4:14 Son sent to be the Savior of the world
- 2 Cor 5:14 one died for all, therefore all died
- Col 1:20 through Him to reconcile all things to Himself
- 1 Tim 4:10 Savior of all men, especially of those that believe
- 1 Tim 2:6 gave Himself a ransom for all
- Tit 2:11 bringing salvation to all men
- Heb 2:9 taste death for every man
- Isa 53:6 laid on Him the iniquity of us all
- Lk 19:10 Son of Man…to save that which was lost
- Rom 5:6 Christ died for the ungodly
b. Verses of particular specification
- Mtt 1:21 He…will save His people from their sins
- Jhn 10:15 I lay down my life for the sheep
- Acts 20:28 church of God…purchased with His own blood
- Eph 5:25 loved the church and gave Himself for her
- Rom 5:8 Christ died for us
- 1 Cor 15:3 Christ died for our sins
- Gal 1:4 who gave Himself for our sins
- Gal 3:13 Christ redeemed us…being made a curse for us
- Eph 5:2 and gave Himself for us, an offering
- Isa 53:5 wounded for our transgressions…for our iniquities
- Mtt 20:28 have His life a ransom for many
- Mtt 26:28 blood…shed for many for remission of sins
- Heb 9:28 Christ once offered to bear the sins of many
- 2 Pet 2:1 denying the Master who bought them [false teachers]
2. The concluding cautions from the texts
- That reducing the whole debate to a strict “either/or” alternative is not the ‘hermeneutically-honest’ route to adopt.
- That focusing on the very specific object of certain verses is not a ‘rationally-honest’ restriction to make.
- That proposing a “both/and” alternative is the ‘textually-honest’ solution to offer. Refer to Zemek, Appendix H, 271-, for an intriguing chart based on Jhn 3:16.
- That reading back election into these texts so as to redefine their scope or reprogram intent and design is not a “‘perspicuitively’-honest” application to undertake.