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Atonement and the Divine Initiative

I am happy to be a Seventh-day Adventist for many reasons. One of these is that we are among those who reject the doctrine of limited atonement. Many Christians treasure this idea; however, many others of us in numerous denominations are troubled by what it says about God. My own view is that it would be better to be an atheist than to accept it.

Also called “particular,” “definite,” or “specific” atonement, it teaches that the reconciling (“at-one-ing”) divine initiative we are studying this week is aimed at some but not all people.

It is the “L” in TULIP—the five doctrines of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints—that make up the doctrinal core of the intense and aggressive forms of Calvinism that we see in some evangelical circles today.

This doctrine is very much alive and well among the documents on the Internet. There are also many video presentations on its behalf at YouTube and similar sites. Just type “limited atonement” in any search box and in seconds you will be in the huge realm of TULIP!

The Synod of Dordt, which met in Holland in 1618—1619 in order to squelch the growing objections of Jacob Arminius and others, gave the doctrine its classic expression:

Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, he chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin. (Emphasis supplied)

In order to be as clear as possible, the Synod of Dordt also expressed itself in negative terms. It rejected the views of those “who teach that God’s good pleasure and purpose, which Scripture mentions in its teaching of election, does not involve God’s choosing certain particular people rather than others” (Emphasis supplied).

John Wesley in the eighteenth century frequently distanced himself from the Calvinism of his day on this and related issues. In a widely read sermon that he preached in Bristol, England, in 1740, he detailed several of his objections. The one that interests me most is his suggestion that, because we all have a tendency to treat others like we believe God treats us, in the long run this doctrine can damage human relationships:

It naturally tends to inspire, or increase, a sharpness or eagerness of temper, which is quite contrary to the meekness of Christ; as then especially appears, as when they are opposed on this head. And it as naturally inspires coldness towards those whom we supposed outcasts from God.…You well know it was not the spirit of love which you then felt towards that poor sinner, whom you supposed or suspected, whether you would or no, to have been hated by God.

But in the end, Wesley was most concerned what this doctrinal complex says about God:

Call it therefore by whatever name you please, election, preterition predestination, or reprobation, it comes in the end to the same thing. The sense of all is plainly this—by virtue of an eternal, unchangeable, irresistible decree of God, one part of mankind are infallibly saved, and the rest are infallibly damned; it being impossible that any of the former should be damned, or that any of the latter should be saved.

Charles Wesley put his alternative to limited atonement in verse, as he did so many other things. Here are a few lines from one of his hymns:

Help us thy mercy to extol,

Immense, unfathomed, unconfined;

To praise the Lamb who died for all,

The general Saviour of mankind.

A sermon Charles Spurgeon preached on “Particular Redemption” at Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens in England, on “Sabbath Morning,” February 28, 1858, establishes that this doctrine had its eloquent heralds in the nineteenth century as well. After depicting views with which he disagreed, he declared in no uncertain terms:

We do not believe that Christ made any effectual atonement for those who are for ever damned; we dare not think that the blood of Christ was ever shed with the intention of saving those whom God foreknew never could be saved, and some of whom were even in Hell when Christ, according to men’s account, died to save them.

In these words of Spurgeon, we see the traces of a distinction that has become central in limited atonement theory. It is that God’s grace is sufficient for all but efficient in some.

Lorraine Boettner, one of the doctrine’s most effective twentieth-century champions, holds that all Christians limit the atonement in some way:

The Calvinist limits the extent of it in that he says it does not apply to all persons (although as has already been shown, he believes that it is efficacious for the salvation of the large proportion of the human race); while the Arminian limits the power of it, for he says that in itself it does not actually save anybody. The Calvinist limits it quantitatively, but not qualitatively; the Arminian limits it qualitatively, but not quantitatively.

No Arminian believes that God’s power “in itself does not actually save anybody”; nevertheless, Boettner’s more general point seems to be that it is better to believe that God is powerful enough to reconcile some people than to think that God would like to reconcile all people but is too weak wholly to accomplish this in every case.

This is correct if to be “powerful” means that one always gets one’s own way, that all others must either defer or die. But there are other and better kinds of power. One of these is the ability to give others freedom. Another is the capacity to persuade some who have freedom voluntarily to agree or follow. But perhaps the greatest kind of power is the ability to be strong in the face of intense and unjustifiable rejection. Anybody can cause pain; it takes much more power to absorb it without being overwhelmed.

Again: I am happy to be a Seventh-day Adventist for many reasons. One of these is that we are among those who reject the doctrine of limited atonement!

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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