Sunday, March 9, 2008

Does Calvinism "Limit" God?

I’m confused. Dr. James Flanagan, President of Luther Rice Seminary, has stated, “We believe that Jesus' death is sufficient to save all mankind but is efficacious only for those who believe. We reject the notion that Jesus died just for the elect.” It sounds as if Dr. Flanagan is a closet Calvinist. His first statement indicates Jesus’ death is sufficient to all, but efficient only to believers (i.e. the “elect”). His second statement indicates the rejection of Jesus' death for the elect. So which is it? Does he believe that Jesus' death is efficient only for the elect, or does he believe Jesus' death is not efficient only for the elect?

The apparent contradiction is obvious. It seems that many non-Calvinists or those who identify with Amyraldism (4-point Calvinism rejecting Limited Atonement) take issue with the idea of Limited Atonement a.k.a. Particular Redemption. The issue seems to be one of confusion over what Calvinists believe on this point. From the Canons of Dort, the Second Main Point of Doctrine, Article 3, “This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.”

This statement clarifies the misunderstanding of those not holding to Limited Atonement that Calvinists do not simply believe Jesus died for the elect and was incapable of saving anyone else. We understand the extent of God’s power to save through the Cross, but distinguish that Jesus died efficiently for the elect alone. If we say that Christ died for everyone, then we indicate an insufficiency in God’s ability to save everyone in which Christ supposedly died for. This is because we know many will spend eternity in Hell after having rejected the Gospel time and again during their lives. I believe this is more an issue of semantics than of theology. The principle of Limited Atonement refers to the efficiency (application) of salvation through the Cross, not the capability of that Cross. Calvinists are not limiting God, just confessing the reality of to whom His salvation is applied.

A second issue this raises is that if atonement were universal, there would be no need for evangelism. While many non-Calvinists state the non-missional nature of Calvinism, the very fact remains that the work of preaching the Gospel is unnecessary if all are to be saved. In this sense, non-Calvinists at the heart are identifying with hypercalvinists by not looking at the whole picture. Hypercalvinists believe God will do all the work, so there is no human responsibility, while non-Calvinists believe any can be saved so they overlook divine sovereignty. Realizing that Jesus died for the elect, and that God uses believers as a tool to bring the lost to repentance by the means of preaching the Gospel, we do not overlook human responsibility or divine sovereignty.

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