Coming up next on Renewing Your Mind... Was it the Father's intent to send His Son to die on the cross to make salvation possible for everybody, but also with the possibility that it would be effective for nobody?
That's the question R.C. Sproul will tackle today on Renewing Your Mind. Thank you for joining us today.
I'm Lee Webb. Dr. Sproul has been looking at the distinctives of Reformed theology this week, and perhaps no aspect of it is as controversial as the doctrine of limited atonement. True Christians agree that Christ died to save us from our sins. The question is, did Jesus go to the cross with everyone in mind, or was His atoning sacrifice intended only for some?
Here's R.C. So we continue now with our study of the core doctrines of Reformed theology, and we've been looking at the controversial five points of Calvinism, and we've already looked at the T in TULIP and the U in TULIP, and all that's left of the TULIP now is the lip part. And we're going to start today by looking at the L of TULIP, which stands for limited atonement. And I think of all of the five points of Calvinism, this is the one that is most controversial and engenders perhaps the most confusion and consternation of them. Our friends in the dispensationalist camp have a tradition by which they tend to call themselves four-point Calvinists, and if you've heard that expression of four-point Calvinism, that usually means that there's a willingness to affirm four out of the five in TULIP, and the one in which they demur is the L, or limited atonement. And as I said, there's a lot of confusion about limited atonement, and to try to straighten the confusion out, let me say what limited atonement does not mean. It does not mean that there is a limit to be placed upon the value or the merit of the atonement of Jesus Christ. It's traditional to say that the atoning work of Christ is sufficient for all. That is, that its meritorious value is sufficient to cover the sins of all people, and certainly anyone who puts their trust in Jesus Christ will receive the full measure of the benefits of that atonement. And it also is important to understand that the gospel is to be preached universally, and we talk about a universal offer of the gospel, and that's another controversial point, because on the one hand, the gospel is offered universally to all who are within earshot of the preaching of it, but it's not universally offered in the sense that it's offered to anyone without any conditions. It's offered to anyone who believes.
It's offered to anyone who repents. And obviously, the merit of the atonement of Christ is given to all who believe and to all who repent of their sins. Now, one of the traditional ways of talking about this is to say that the atonement is sufficient for all, but efficient for some. That is, not everyone actually receives the full benefits that are wrought by Christ's saving work on the cross, namely those who do not believe. But so far, all of those distinctions do is distinguish our theology from universalism, and all who are particularists, that is, all Christians who are not universalists, would agree that Christ's atonement is sufficient for all and efficient only for some. And so that distinction between sufficiency and efficiency doesn't really get to the point of this doctrine.
What this doctrine is concerned about chiefly is this. What was the original purpose, plan, or design of God in sending Christ into the world to die on the cross? Was it the Father's intent to send His Son to die on the cross to make salvation possible for everybody, but also with the possibility that it would be effective for nobody? Nobody, that is, did God simply send Christ to the cross to make salvation possible? Or did God from all eternity have a plan of salvation by which, according to the riches of His grace and His eternal election, He designed the atonement to ensure the salvation of His people? So that's what it has to do with. Was it limited in its original design?
That's why, again, I'm going to have to fool around with our little acrostic tulip as I did with the T and with the U. I'm going to mess with the L as well. That's why we prefer not to use the term limited atonement because it is so misleading and rather to speak of definite redemption or definite atonement, meaning that God the Father designed the work of redemption specifically with a view to providing salvation for the elect. And that Christ, though His death is valuable enough to meet the needs of everybody, that there was a special and unique sense in which He died for His sheep, that He laid down His life for those whom the Father had given Him. Now, the problem that emerges from this technical point of theology in terms of God's eternal decrees and His ultimate design and purpose for the atonement is often discussed in light of several passages in the New Testament. For example, when it says that Jesus died for the sins of all of the world and so on, which incidentally these difficult questions I think have been masterfully treated in what I think is the best treatment of this doctrine ever written, and that by the Puritan theologian John Owen in his book The Death of Death.
If you have never read John Owen's The Death of Death, I strongly commend it to you. It is a magnificent treatment of the grace of God, and it is rich in biblical exposition and deals in great detail and with great brilliance with some of the difficult passages that we encounter in the New Testament. Now, one of those texts that we hear so often used as an objection against the idea of definite atonement is found in the book of 2 Peter.
If we'll look at 2 Peter chapter 3, beginning at verse 8, we read these words, "'But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.'" We feel the weight of this text with respect to this idea that in some sense from all eternity God wills that only the elect will receive the benefits of the atonement, which is what definite atonement teaches. And here the text seems to suggest that God is not willing that any should perish, but that obviously He's willing the salvation of everybody. Now, this text is handled in different ways by different theologians. I have a friend who's a theologian in another camp who has popularized the idea that God, in fact, saves as many people as He possibly can. He's done everything that He can do to affect the salvation of the entire human race. He's provided an atonement in Christ and has provided an offer of the benefits of that atonement to all who believe.
But in the final analysis, whether the atonement of Christ affects their salvation rests upon some kind of human response, and God will not intervene to in any way sovereignly bring a person to faith in Jesus Christ. And again, the appeal is made to this text that God is not willing that any should perish. Now, in dealing with this difficult text, there are some ambiguities with it that have caused the scratching of the heads of many biblical scholars and interpreters.
In fact, if you get ten commentaries on 2 Peter, chances are you'll get ten different interpretations of this particular passage. And the problems have to do with understanding precisely two different words in this text. The first is the word willing, and the second is the word any.
Now, let's look at the first one. God is not willing that any should perish. Here is a specific reference to the will of God, and we know that in the New Testament there are two Greek words, both of which can be translated in English by the word will.
Unfortunately, each of these words is capable of several different nuances. So, when we're asking specifically what kind of willing is in view, you can't settle the question simply by looking up the Greek text and looking at your Greek lexicon to find out what is being used here. There are six or seven different ways in which the Bible speaks about God's will or His willingness. For purposes of saving time, let me just take a few minutes to look at the three most frequent ways in which the Bible speaks of the will of God. The first way the Bible speaks of the will of God is in terms of what we call the decorative will of God, or some people call it the sovereign efficacious will of God. Others call it the ultimate will of God, and what we mean by this meaning for will or willingness has to do with that will of God by which God brings to pass sovereignly whatsoever He chooses to do. When God wills the world to come into existence, His willing of it makes it so. It is a sovereign decree that must needs come to pass. It can't not come to pass, and it cannot be frustrated by any outside force, and that's what we're talking about when we're talking about the sovereign decree of will. Now, let's suppose that this text is using this meaning or nuance for the will of God.
What would it mean? That God is not willing that any should perish. If the any refers to any person, and if we translated it to mean that God decrees that no human being will perish, what would be the obvious conclusion? If God sovereignly decrees that no human person ever would perish, then manifestly no human person would ever perish, and this text would then become the classical proof text for universalism. But again, the debate about the text is not between particularists and universalists.
It's between parties who both affirm particularism, namely that not everybody is saved. And so then we look to other possible nuances to the word willing. Now, the second most frequent way in which the Bible speaks of the will of God is what we call the preceptive will of God, and a precept is a law or a command, and the preceptive will of God refers to the commands that God gives to people. The Ten Commandments would be an expression of the preceptive will of God when God says, Thou shalt not have any other gods before Me, and so on.
He's setting forth His law. Now, we cannot disobey the preceptive will of God with impunity, but we do have the power and the ability to break this law so that there is a sense in which the precept of will does not always come to pass because people don't always obey it. Now again, let's apply this possible meaning to this text, that God is not willing in the preceptive sense that any should perish, meaning He doesn't allow or give His sanction or His moral permission on people when they perish. Now, there's a sense in which that's true because since He commands all people to come to Christ manifestly, the failure to obey that command would be to violate His preceptive will. So I would say that that's a possible interpretation of this text, and there are reputable theologians who assume this meaning of willingness to this particular verse.
I personally think it's somewhat awkward. It just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to say you're not allowed to perish, and in the context it even seems all the more awkward. The third way in which the term willing is used biblically with respect to God is what we call His will of disposition. And here this is one of those anthropomorphic expressions that talk about the emotions of God, what pleases God, what causes God to be delighted, and what causes God to grieve, and that sort of thing. And we're told elsewhere in Scripture, for example, that God does not delight in the death of the wicked. That is, He doesn't get some great personal thrill out of sending people to hell even though He wills to do it. Just as a judge in a court may, for the sake of maintaining justice, be required to send his own son to a life term in prison, he would do it because it was the right thing to do, but he would do it with tears.
That is, he wasn't getting any personal pleasure out of it other than the pleasure that justice was being maintained. And so in this case it would be a reflection of God's disposition, meaning, as the Bible says elsewhere, that He takes no delight in the death of the wicked, that here God is not willing in a dispositional sense that any should perish, but that all would come to repentance. So those are the three basic ways in which this word willing can be used, and for me, which of these is most appropriate will be determined by the reference to the second questionable word, the word any. If in fact Peter is talking about any as referring to all human beings in this world, then I would come to the conclusion that it could only mean the dispositional will of God, but I don't think that he is talking about any in this absolutely unrestricted sense. Any time we use the word any, we're assuming some reference. Any what?
Any of which group? Certainly Peter doesn't say that God is not willing that any person perish. We have to supply that person as if it were tacitly understood, but is there any other possible reference to the any besides any human being? Well, obviously there are other possibilities, not the least of which is a particular class. You have a class here of people, and that word people makes up a distinctive class, and if I said any of that class, I would mean any person.
Or I could have another class, a class called Jews, and if I spoke of any of that class, it would refer to anyone who was Jewish or American or whatever other group I would incorporate within that circle. I think, frankly, that what Peter is talking about here is that group that is mentioned frequently in his epistle by the designation elect. Certainly the Bible speaks frequently of the elect, and the elect make up a distinctive group, and the question is, is Peter here speaking about people? Is he speaking of the body of disciples, of which Peter is a member, or is he speaking of the whole number of the elect? We remember in John's gospel how Jesus mentions that none of those whom the Father has given Him will perish, and that they will all come to faith, so that everybody in that group of those who are the elect are certainly going to be redeemed.
Now, again, Peter is not specific here about what group he's referring to with the word any, but he's not utterly silent. If we look back at the text and look at it carefully, we read this in verse 9 of chapter 3, the Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward whom? He is longsuffering toward us. He is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. Now, grammatically, the immediate antecedent here of the word any is the word us, and I think it's perfectly clear that what Peter is saying here is that God is not willing that any of us should perish, but that all of us should come to salvation. But we're still not finished with the problem, are we?
Because now we have to ask, who's the us? Well, again, in the broader context of his epistle, the us, I don't think he's speaking of all mankind indiscriminately, but the us or the we is a reference to the believers, to those people to whom Peter is speaking, which are the believers in Jesus Christ. And so I don't think that this text gets rid of the idea that God designed the atonement for a purpose, which purpose by His design must needs come to pass. I don't think we want to believe in a God who is a spectator of the drama of redemption, who sends a Christ to die on the cross and then stands there crossing His finger hoping that someone will take advantage of it. Our view of God is different from that. Our view is that the plan of redemption was an eternal plan of God, and which plan and which design was perfectly conceived and perfectly executed so that the will of God to save His people, in fact, is accomplished by the atoning work of Christ. God is sovereign over all things, including your salvation and mine.
I love the point that R.C. made there towards the end of his message today. I don't think we want to believe in a God who is a spectator of the drama of redemption. Our salvation is God's plan from start to finish. That's why we're making this three-DVD set available to you for a donation of any amount. You can make your request when you call us at 800-435-4343 or when you go online to renewingyourmind.org. And once you've completed your request, we will add the digital study guide for the series to your online learning library. That's a great help for your personal study or if you plan to lead this series in a Sunday school class at your church or in a group study at home. Again, the title of the series is What is Reformed Theology?
Our number is 800-435-4343, and our web address is renewingyourmind.org. One of the many podcasts we offer is called Ask Ligonier. It's a great resource for difficult topics like limited atonement. The host is Nathan W. Bingham, and he sat down with Dr. John MacArthur and asked him this question, How is limited atonement true when Scripture teaches that Christ died for the whole world? Well, we know He's the Savior of the world because there's only one Savior for the world. The world has only one Savior. But we also know the atonement is limited.
We all know that, right? The atonement is limited because people go to hell. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, Many will say to Me, Lord, Lord, and I will say to them, Depart from Me, you workers of iniquity, I never knew you. Jesus talked more about hell than He did about heaven. We know that hell is a reality, and we know people go there and perish forever. So we all believe in a limited atonement, right? Not everybody's going to be saved. You either believe in a limited atonement, or you believe in a universal atonement. And if you believe in a universal atonement, to be logically consistent, then there's no hell, and no one will be in hell. Everyone will be in heaven. If you're going to affirm an unlimited atonement, then you really are going to end up as a universalist.
Because if He actually died for the whole world, then the whole world is saved. So we can't go there, because there is a hell, and it's full of people, in fact most people. So the atonement is limited. Then the question is, who limits it? Do we limit it, or does God limit it? And the answer to that question biblically is crystal clear. God limited it.
He limited it to the elect. Either God determined whom He would save and take to glory, or God just threw atonement out there as some nebulous option and hoped some people would grab hold of it and become a part of His redeeming purpose. The Bible does not allow for that. So you just need to remind yourself, you believe in a limited atonement. Now you ask the question, are men sovereign, or is God sovereign? If God is sovereign, then He limited it. Some who dislike the doctrines of grace accuse Calvinists of making God a monster. They claim that the Calvinist God drags people kicking and screaming into heaven, whether they like it or not. But is that an accurate betrayal? We'll find out tomorrow as Dr. Sproul tackles the doctrine of irresistible grace. .
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