New Horizons

Limited Atonement

"Uncle Glen"

Dear James,

It was good to catch a glimpse of you during my recent visit to what many older members of the alumni association are fond of calling the Rutherford Country Club (referring to the astonishing campus upgrades). The meal we enjoyed in the cafeteria was nothing like anything I was ever served. The new gymnasium is spectacular, though I miss the rustic charm of the old field house.

Some things don't change. I sympathize with your roommate's frustration in applying to law schools. The competition is as rigorous as ever, and it does not help that he falls into the undesirable demographic of white male. The limited number of acceptances leads inevitably to frustrated challenges to the fairness of the system. Believe me, I still have vivid memories of those unpleasantries.

It seems hardly coincidental that your roommate engaged you in a late-night debate over limited atonement. That discussion also seems like a rite of passage in Rutherford dormitory life. Limits seem so unfair, whether they apply to acceptance into law school or receiving the benefits of Christ.

I agree with many in the Reformed tradition who would willingly jettison the convenient TULIP acronym and label this doctrine "particular redemption." As that expression suggests, it is particularity that warrants the emphasis. Christ did not atone for the sins of a vague and indefinite mass of humanity. He died for his people who are united to him. Without this particularity (or limit, if one insists), the Atonement loses its covenantal context.

Moreover, a universal atonement hardly resolves the issue of "fairness" in God's plan of salvation; rather, it merely moves the problem one step away. A universalist must concede that it is the Spirit who is unfair or ineffectual, because he has restricted the extent of Christ's universal work by effectually applying it only to a few. In other words, an unrestricted estimate of Christ's work may only tend to denigrate the Spirit's work as meager or even capricious.

For a contemporary example of the problem of fairness, you might want to consider how universal theories of the Atonement bring all the comfort and assurance of the now infamous subprime mortgage. This was the means by which everyone could qualify for the house of their dreams: unlimited mortgages, if you will. When balloon payments came due and housing values plummeted, we learned how "fair" these bargains turned out to be.

This does not mean that Calvinists insist that when it comes to the company of God's saved people, "small is beautiful." Calvinism still affirms the wideness of God's mercy, and we should refuse to concede that language to Arminians or, even worse, to open theists.

I regret that we didn't have time over dinner to discuss the "hard" passages that seem to imply a universal atonement. You cited 1 Timothy 4:10, and you could have added 1 John 2:2 and others. Let me just observe here that most Reformed commentators acknowledge some universal and common benefits to the atonement of Christ.

Permit this gentle correction to the strategy you employed in your debate as you recounted it to me. "Limited atonement" may well be the most controversial of the so-called five points. But you went on to suggest that it was the least important, and that it might thereby qualify as a "shelf doctrine"—as you defined it, something to stick away and refer to only on occasions when polemics call for it. (This recalls another image of my undergraduate days. Some of the stacks in the Dulles Memorial Library were quite dusty, and I have often wondered if they have been cleaned since my days there.)

You posed the question, What is at stake in this doctrine after all? I am familiar with the argument that Calvin himself may have been ambivalent in his descriptions of the Atonement. Furthermore, I understand how tempting it is to see this as merely the extension of the Calvinistic logic of salvation. It reinforces the other points in ways and avoids the incoherent hybrid that is "four-point Calvinism."

But I would encourage you to think beyond a tidy system. As Calvin himself was fond of observing, the point is not to speculate in order to satisfy the cravings of our curiosity, but to pursue the whole counsel of God. What Calvin did insist upon was the efficacy of the Atonement. So consider how this doctrine ties in with the priestly work of Christ. Christ's love for his sheep is always put in particular terms. The Son has lost none that the Father gave him. He became a curse for his people, redeeming them and reconciling them with the Father. If Christ died for those who do not follow him, what are we saying about his ability to gather his flock, to bring his people to himself?

Tell your roommate that I am thinking of him as he continues his planning for law school. Even better, remind him that his great high priest is praying for him in heaven.

Warmly,
Uncle Glen

"Uncle Glen" Roberts is a pseudonym for two Orthodox Presbyterian elders. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2009.

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