Monday, March 26, 2007

Limiting the Atonement to “Just Us”

The great debate between Calvinism and Arminianism has been around for over four hundred years. Their differing views of salvation essentially center on the question “How shall we go about explaining how it is that Christ’s saving work on the cross is limited to ‘just us?’” Or, put more respectably, “Why are we saved and not others?”

Simply put, the Calvinist says, “Because God chose us and not others.” The Arminian answers, “No, because we chose God and others did not.”

These two answers are diametrically opposed. But they have four things in common. First, they are both wrong. Second, they can each be proved and disproved with Scripture and sound reason (as evidenced by the four hundred year old debate.) Third, they both put God’s reputation in jeopardy. Calvinism questions God’s love (He arbitrarily loves some and hates others.) Arminianism challenges God’s power (He loves all, but is powerless to save all.) Fourth, and what I want to address here, is that each theology necessarily limits Christ’s atoning work on the cross - turning it into something less than what it actually was.

Calvin, with logic proceeding from his understanding of divine election, concluded that when Jesus died on the cross, his death atoned only for the sins of the elect - the chosen of God. Thus the “L” in reformed theology’s TULIP acronym stands for “limited atonement.” Jesus work on the cross was, by God’s design, limited to “just us.”

Arminians find too much Biblical support for the universality of the atonement and claim to believe in an unlimited atonement. However, they teach that the atonement only becomes real when an individual, by an act of their free will, chooses to believe it. Thus the death and resurrection of Christ did not actually save anybody - it only made salvation possible. So IF and WHEN an individual believes in the atonement, then the atonement actually atones. In this way, Arminians limit the atonement perhaps even more than Calvin - subjecting it ultimately to the capricious and powerful will of man.

Luther, of course, had little tolerance for either of these two theologies. His belief, as we might expect, was far more radical. According to Luther, Scripture clearly taught an unlimited, universal atonement that actually saved the world. (“Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world!”) Thus he believed that when Christ died on the cross, the entire world - and every creature (then or ever) associated with the world - was reconciled to God. (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” )

This simple trust in a universal atonement harmonized with Luther’s trust in an unconditional Gospel. For only an unlimited atonement can be grounds for an unconditional Gospel. Calvin’s gospel (IF you are among the elect) and Armininius’ gospel (IF you choose to believe), are both conditional gospels which spring from the limitations they have placed on the atonement. The Gospel according to Luther knew nothing of such conditionals or limitations.


E. Rapp said...

It seems to me that you may have stopped too soon. Doesn't Luther make a distinction between objective justification, which is the universal atonement done by Christ that you talk about, and subjective justification which you did not talk about. If a person doesn't have subjective justification, he isn't saved is he? The part that is hard to communicate to my Arminian friends is that subjective justification is credited only to God. If one rejects it, it is his doing, and if one accepts it, it God's doing.

T. Hahm said...

Thanks for your comment.

One of the reasons I “stopped too soon”, as you put it, is because I believe the Gospel message is complete, powerful and effective without ever talking about individual faith. The Gospel = Universal Atonement. Period.

I admit that when we stop there, it seems like something is missing. It sounds too radical - like universal salvation. But that is exactly the way it is supposed to sound! That’s the way the universalist passages sound in the Bible. (That’s why I also added the Capon quote to my sidebar.)

While I’m not sure Luther ever used the “objective/subjective justification” terminology, he certainly taught a universal atonement that was comprehended only through God-provided faith. But down through the years of subsequent Lutheran theology, it seems to me that the “objective” has become abstract (not unlike the Arminian atonement) and the “subjective” is what we think of as real, effective and ultimately determinative of salvation.

To me, the opposite is actually the case. The universal atonement is real, effective and all-sufficient for our salvation. Our faith is an abstract mystery that (to my knowledge) no theologian has ever been able to explain. So maybe we would all be better off “stopping too soon.” I wonder what would happen if we routinely preached a universal atonement and an unconditional Gospel, then shut up and sat down. Would everyone be outraged, accuse us of universalism and find another church? Or would such a clear, undiluted Gospel produce the faith and fruit we all love to talk about, but too rarely experience?

E. Rapp said...

You know, you may be right. Perhaps it would be better if preachers, after giving us a healthy dose of the law, simply ended with the universal atonement and unconditional gospel. Thanks for clarifying, and thanks for your blog.

Anonymous said...

In reading this 'blog' I realized something that was missing in the 'punch' of your message. The absolution. Universal justification doesn't do its work until you actually do it. Instead of talking 'about' God's grace, we as Christians need to announce this grace as true by actually doing forgiveness to the listener. "Jesus died for you... you are forgiven." Without the actual doing, universal atonement remains just another theory about what God is doing in the abstract. This is also the punch of the radical gospel as Forde proposes in "Caught in the Act." Peace in Christ.

T. Hahm said...

Dear Anonymous,

You are absolutely correct!

Thank you.