By Pastor Glenn Pease
One of the most often heard statements is that I never argue about politics and religion. The motive behind this is often a legitimate desire to avoid needless controversy that only arouses emotion but solves nothing. To avoid controversy, however, ought never be the goal of the Christian, for this could lead to never taking a stand on anything. We are to live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness, but not at the price of ceasing to be Christian and spreading Christian truths. It is true that much controversy is better off avoided, but to avoid all controversy is to avoid all witness to the truth.
We have a pathetically poor vision of our task if we think that peaceful co-existence with error is our goal. Controversy cannot be eliminated if we are combating the false philosophies of the world. It is also true that controversy is almost impossible to avoid within the church if we really want to get a full grasp of biblical truth. There are a variety of viewpoints in Christian theology. If one is going to fully understand God's Word they need to examine both Calvinism and Armenianism. Margaret E. Kuhn in her book You Can't Be Human Alone offers a word of valuable insight.
"Church leaders have tended often to emphasize group consensus
and agreement as virtues to be protected at all cost. They have
believed that agreement is absolutely necessary to hold a group
together, without understanding that cohesiveness is not a
matter of agreement, but of healthy interaction among group
members with differing viewpoints, capabilities, and roles. Thus
they avoid controversial issues and forego spiritual adventure
for the sake of "Unity." Perhaps this is one important reason
why church organizations go stale. If a group is too complete
in its agreement, it loses its spirit, and there can be no real growth
or change in its members, or of the group-as-a-whole. It becomes
an aggregate of contented cows."
We certainly do not want to be a group of contented cows, and so we are going to consider one of the most controversial issues in theology. It concerns the question, for whom did Christ die? Orthodox Christians have taken two positions. The Armenian says the atonement of Christ was universal and for all men. The Calvinist says it was limited and only for the elect. There are some Calvinist who agree with the belief that the atonement was universal.
Lets begin our search for a solution to the controversy by examining the text in verse 4. Paul has urged believers to pray for all men, and specifically for those in authority, for this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior who, says Paul, wants all men to be saved. He is our savior now, but he is the potential savior of all men, and so pray for them. If they come to the knowledge of the truth, they can be saved just as we are. God's plan of salvation is as universal as His creation. He made all, and He is willing to remake all. All who receive the gift of His Son will have eternal life.
It is important to see here that God desires all men to be saved. It does not say He decrees all to be saved. If He did, we would be compelled to be universalists, who believe all will certainly be saved. Calvinists and Armenians agree that not all will be saved, but they disagree as to why. Calvinists say that all men here does not mean all individual men, but all classes of men, such as the rich and poor, and Jews and Gentiles. God desires men of all classes to be saved. This is certainly true, but the Armenian says this does not cover the whole truth of the passage. God wants, not only men of all classes to be saved, but all men of all classes, and no one is excluded, for all can come to the knowledge of the truth.
The Gnostics, one of the great heretical groups in the early church, taught that only the elite could be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Gnostic comes from the Greek word used in verse 4, which is gnosis. They were the ones who had the saving knowledge, but most were too ignorant to grasp the truth. Paul made it clear that none are excluded, but that the saving truth is simple enough for all to grasp and be saved, and so all true Christians reject the Gnostic heresy. They agree that some knowledge is needed to be saved. It is the truth that makes men free. The intellect does play a role in our salvation, for it is only with the mind that a man can come to the knowledge of the truth. Calvin wrote, "Let us not separate salvation from the knowledge of the truth, for God does not mean to lie, nor deceive men, when He says when they come to knowledge of truth they shall be saved."
Both Calvin and Arminius agree that only those who come to knowledge of truth can be saved, but Calvin says many do not come because they are not of the elect. Arminius says that many do not come because they do not hear or do not respond to the truth when they do hear. Calvin says Christ did not die for those who do not respond, and that is why they do not respond. Arminius says that He died for them, but His salvation is not applied to them until they respond. Lets look at more detail in their arguments.
I. CALVINISM AND THE LIMITED ATONEMENT.
If you take this verse literally that God wants all men to be saved, then, since all are not saved, it means that God's will is being defeated every day, and this gives us a picture of God as weak and not sovereign. And so it means that Christ cannot have died for all. He died only for the elect, and all of the elect are saved. This gives us a picture of God as sovereign, for all that He wills is accomplished. Christ died for the elect and every one of them will be saved, and so His death is completely successful. The atonement is an absolute victory, and it secures the salvation of every one for whom He died.
If Christ died for all men, then the atonement was not a total success, for there are men for whom He died who are still lost. They say this is near blasphemy to say that men will go to hell for whom Christ died. The death of Christ was not to make the salvation of all men possible, but to make the salvation of some men certain. In other words, Christ died just for the elect, and His death made absolutely certain that they would be saved. The non-elect are just left out and are doomed to hell, but this is better than all going to hell, they say. By Christ dying for the elect, at least all of them will be certainly saved. This is much better than an universal atonement that does not guarantee the salvation of anyone, but just makes it possible for every one to be saved.
You see the basic point here is that Calvinism says the idea that Christ died for all only makes salvation possible, whereas if He died only for the elect, it was to make salvation certain. It is better that some certainly be saved than that all possibly be saved. Certainty is the key idea. This seems to say that Calvinists think that only a minority will be saved, but this is not so. In general they believe that the vast majority of the human race will be saved. God in his grace will certainly elect more to be saved than lost. If you ask them why any should be lost they will only say that is known only to God in his higher purpose whose wisdom is beyond our comprehension.
I have pictured Calvinism in its best light. It would be easy to quote some who dogmatically and coldly assign masses to hell because God just did not make provision for them, but this would not represent the majority. As I have presented it, Calvinism is not hard to accept, for it is very optimistic and does exalt the sovereignty of God. It makes salvation certain for the elect, and not just possible for all. The problem is, it is still stuck with the view that Christ did not die for some people, and these people then are just hopeless eternal souls for whom no salvation is possible, and whose only end is eternal damnation. Since it is possible to gain all of the values of Calvinism and escape this difficulty by seeing that Christ died for all, I have rejected the limited atonement view and hold to the unlimited atonement view.
II. UNLIMITED ATONEMENT
The most attractive aspect of the limited atonement view is its stress on certainty over against just possibility. This value, however, is not lost in the unlimited viewpoint. This view still recognizes the doctrine of the elect and predestination. It just rejects the idea that there are some who are not included in the provision of salvation. If this was true that some were excluded without hope, it would put God in the same position as the Levite and the priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan. They passed by on the other side of the helpless victim because they were busy, and he was of no concern to them. in the limited atonement view God passes by the non-elect, and He lets them go their way to hell with no thought of helping them because he cares only for the elect. This does not fit the revelation we have of God in Jesus Christ.
If people are lost without hope they would not feel awful for their folly in rejecting Christ, but they would cry out in hell against God who arbitrarily condemned them and chose others. As Wesley said, "His death was on behalf of all men; otherwise, those for whom he did not die have every reason to complain." Wesley said of the limited atonement, "I could sooner be a Turk, a Deist, yea an atheist, then I could believe this. It is less absurd to deny the very being of God than to make Him out an almighty tyrant." Calvinism has been modified a great deal, but still the fact remains that if Christ did not die for all, He has arbitrarily left some to hopeless damnation.
Scripture is clear that God's plan includes all men, and every creature who will be lost will not be so because God made no provision. We read in I John 2:2, "And he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world." Verse 6 here in I Tim. 2 says, "Who gave himself a ransom for all." In 4:10 we read, "The living God, who is the Savior of all men, specially of them who believe." This gives a real clue to the whole problem. How can God be the Savior of all men? He has to have made provision for all men in Christ, but only those who believe will actually be saved. This means that though the atonement is unlimited, the application is limited. And so it comes out at the same place as Calvinism, but it makes the lost guilty for being lost because they do not believe, rather than making God guilty because he did not provide for their salvation.
In II Peter 2:1 we read, "....there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them..." This verse shows that even those who will be lost were bought by the blood of Christ. Every man is potentially saved, but only those who believe are actually saved. Whosoever will may come, for the atonement is objectively universal, but it is applied subjectively only to those who actually come. God demands response from men before He saves. All could be saved, but all will not be saved because they will not respond.
This means that both views agree that not all men will be saved. The limited atonement view says it is because God has not made provision for all. The unlimited atonement view says it is because even though provision is made for all, many will not come. Both are orthodox, and both are held by outstanding Christian leaders. Many factors determine why one will choose a view. My own conviction is that the passages that refer to Christ dying for all are clear, and they are tremendous news. You can preach and witness with confidence that all can be saved. If some could not, then you never know when you are wasting your time. I cannot escape the Scripture and logic that makes me convinced that Christ died for all people.