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The mechanics of salvation: a reply to Rhett Snell

This post is part of a correspondence with kiwi blogger Rhett Snell on Calvinism. In it, I respond to some questions he has about (I) the nature and extent of the atonement; (II) total depravity and the nature of faith; and (III) God’s sovereignty and relationship to sin.

Rhett Snell, a New Zealand Christian blogger, has recently posted some refreshingly thoughtful and sincere comments about his growing appreciation for Calvinism, in a series called ‘The Mechanics of Salvation’ (part 1 and part 2). He has acknowledged that he does not fully identify with Calvinistic doctrine, but also that he recognizes difficulties with the alternatives; and has asked some good and honest questions in the hope of stimulating discussion and clarifying his own beliefs. I have already responded briefly to part 1, and Rhett has asked some follow-up questions. I’d like to interact with part 2 of his series, and address these follow-up questions; and I’d like to do it here as I think others will benefit from this discussion. There are three main ideas I’d like to cover: (I) the nature and extent of the atonement; (II) total depravity and the nature of faith; and (III) God’s sovereignty and relationship to sin.

I. The nature and extent of the atonement

But the greatest objection to Arminianism is a logical one. If, as Arminians say, Jesus died for the sin of everyone, then surely one of those sins was unbelief […] If Jesus did pay the price for every sin of every man, including unbelief, why does God still choose to punish those who do not accept him by excluding them from his presence for eternity? […] The logical flow of Arminianism then, seems to be towards Universalism.

A robust response to this, albeit one I’d make from a Reformed rather than an Arminian perspective, would be either (i) that Jesus’ atonement was not pecuniary, so it was not like a financial transaction with a 1-1 correspondence of sins committed to sins atoned for; or (ii) that it was only representatively pecuniary, so that although it was like a financial transaction, it was a representative transaction which can be applied to anyone without an actual 1-1 correspondence of sins. I myself hold to one of these positions (I’m still working out which one). My basic reasoning is as follows:

If the atonement was fully pecuniary, then a universal atonement would either entail universal salvation, or a double payment for sin (Jesus paid for the sins of those who go to hell, and they themselves pay for those sins). Universal salvation is flagrantly heretical and mitigates the whole point of the gospel, and double payment is fragrantly unjust and historically has been rejected because “shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right?” So I conclude either that the atonement was made specifically for the elect alone, or it was not pecuniary; and I think the biblical data favors a universal intent in the atonement, even though the elect are specifically in view. That is, I hold to the historical Reformed view that the atonement was sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect. I think this is the more reasonable view, as opposed to a totally limited atonement, because:

If the atonement was not even sufficient for everyone, then God’s contingent intention that everyone should be saved is not reflected in the sacrifice he made in Jesus. That is, God the Father desires all people to be saved, but particularly the elect (because his desire for all is contingent on his larger desire to glorify his wrath and justice through the reprobation of some); God the Holy Spirit convicts all people of sin, but particularly calls the elect; therefore, it is incongruent that God the Son would not die for all, though particularly for the elect.

Further, if the atonement was not sufficient for all, then the grounds for preaching the gospel to everyone without exception, either as a command or as an invitation, are removed. That is, the gospel call has no ontological referent for the non-elect. It is inviting and commanding them to believe in something which does not exist for them. This makes God both insincere (in regards to the invitation) and unjust (in regards to holding the non-elect responsible for their rejection of the gospel as a command).

Lastly, this being the case, a totally limited atonement would also remove the objective grounds for Christian faith (epistemically speaking; not ontologically). That is, if the atonement was sufficient only to save the elect, I would need assurance that I am elect in order to appropriate the promise of salvation. Obviously, any such assurance will be subjective and fickle, and so I will have no sure grounds believing that the atonement was sufficient to save me. However, if it was sufficient for all, then I have objective grounds for laying hold of the promise, because I know that it is sufficient to save everyone without exception.

The atonement is one of the most difficult and complicated doctrines in Christianity, and I think it’s badly neglected by most Christians. A careful dissection of the logic behind it really takes apart a lot of popular but ill-conceived Christian positions. But it bears a lot of thinking about—my own thinking is still jejune, and I expect I will develop these ideas much further—and possibly change them—as I spend more time in study. In that vein, I’ll soon be posting a fairly lengthy series examining limited atonement in some detail.

II. Total depravity and the nature of faith

But does that depravity extend to not being able to simply say “Yes, thank you”, to God. I know you will say it does; and this is the point I’m struggling with. I’m not sure that it does. I’m open to being convinced though (so bring on the John Piper), because I’m not convinced that prevenient grace is a satisfactory answer […] That’s why I realate God’ election closely to his foreknowledge. If he knows who will say “yes”, perhaps that is why they are the Elect?

Let me offer one passage which I think speaks to this question in a way which is fairly clear—John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” For a detailed examination of this passage, I recommend Brian Bosse, ‘A Logical Analysis – John 6:44’ (PDF); but notice briefly that:

  1. No one can come to Christ unless the Father draws that person.
  2. The person drawn by the Father will be raised up by Christ on the last day.

From this we can infer:

  1. Everyone drawn by the Father will come to Christ and be raised up on the last day.

Let’s formulate an argument based on this to test the idea that God elects people based on foreseen faith in response to prevenient grace:

  1. Everyone drawn by the Father will come to Christ and be raised up on the last day.
  2. Prevenient grace is the means by which the Father draws people to Christ, ex hypothesi.
  3. Prevenient grace, by definition, is extended to everyone without exception.
  4. Therefore, everyone without exception is drawn to Christ and raised up on the last day.
  5. But this is universalism, which is false.
  6. Therefore, prevenient grace is not the means by which the Father draws people to Christ.

Now, in response to this you could argue that God foresees who will accept prevenient grace and who will not, and then only extends it to those who will. But then I would ask:

a. Where in Scripture is this taught? It seems highly speculative, and an unnecessary convolution around the simpler doctrine that God elects based on his own will rather than ours (see for example John 1:13 or James 1:18 or 1 Peter 1:3—notice who is active in all these; and compare with John 6:63).

Moreover, is it not evident in 1 Corinthians 2 that the very reason we believe in Christ is because we have the Spirit of God? “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God”, whereas “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (vv 11-12,14). Is Paul’s argument not as follows:

  1. The gospel is one of the things of God.
  2. No one understands the things of God except the Spirit of God.
  3. Christians have received the Spirit of God.
  4. Therefore, Christians can understand the gospel.
  5. Conversely, the natural man has not received the Spirit of God.
  6. Therefore, the natural man cannot understand the gospel, and thinks it is folly.

Believing in Christ, having faith, appropriating God’s promise and receiving the gift of salvation—these are only possible once we already have the Spirit of God in us because they entail knowing and understanding the things of God. Paul’s argument is precisely that our faith is after and because of the Spirit already indwelling us. By necessary consequence, then, the Spirit cannot indwell us after and because of our faith. Put in more succinct theological terms, 1 Corinthians 2 teaches plainly that regeneration, of necessity, precedes faith. I imagine you’ll agree that we can’t regenerate ourselves; we could not take the Spirit even if we wanted to; which as sinners we don’t. Thus, God is necessarily the one who is active in first bringing about faith; it could not happen if it were up to us. And, therefore, God must of necessity be the one who chooses the elect, solely based on his own will; not anything within them. And is this not what Jesus tells Nicodemus when he says, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”? Not that one can’t get into the kingdom of God without being born again—but that one can’t even see it.

b. How is it possible to reconcile God’s passive response to our own choosing with the definition of the word “elect”? As a verb, it means “to select by vote for an office, position, or membership” (Merriam-Webster). What does it mean for God to “elect” us if, in fact, we are the ones doing the “voting”? Why would the Bible refer to God’s act of election if, in fact, the vote was not his?

c. Based on what actual reality is God foreseeing who will accept prevenient grace, and who will not? Knowledge must have an ontological referent. But if God does not actually (ie, in reality) offer prevenient grace to all people, how does he know who will and will not receive it? There are probably various answers to this question; but the only unproblematic ones I can see would remove libertarian free will from the equation. For example, if God knows who will receive prevenient grace because he knows of some inherent difference between those who do, and those who don’t, then that inherent difference was itself placed there by God, since he created all people. But if that is so, then libertarian free will is obviated, since those who choose to reject grace do so because of something within them over which they have no control.

You might say God “just knows” because he is God; but then you have the problem of having no ontological referent—which I think is significant. But even if you can overcome that, there still seems to be the issue of God’s foreknowledge declaring an inevitable outcome, which appears to violate libertarian freedom anyway, since by definition such libertarianism precludes inevitability.

III. God’s sovereignty and relationship to sin

Does the idea that God is the agent which causes EVERYTHING to happen common in most Calvinist thought? It wasn’t in Erickson’s. Does this imply that God causes sin to happen too?

I take a very high view of God’s sovereignty, based on the (I think very severe) philosophical problems which result from a lower one. This view is not shared by all Calvinists, and certainly there is a spectrum of thought in Reformed theology over the precise nature of God’s causative agency. My position is fairly mainstream except for the fact that I’m not reduced to a shriveled shell of my former reasoning self when someone says, “Your view makes God the author of sin!” Provided that by “author” he means “ultimate cause” or something similar, I feel compelled by Scripture and sound reason to agree. I think Christians are phobic about this very, very ambiguous phrase, and go to great lengths to deny some patently biblical truths so as to “get God off the hook” for something that he himself claims responsibility for in his word.

My view is that God does not cause all things in the sense that we tend to think of cause and effect. That is, he is not the immediate or physical cause of things in the way that I am the immediate or physical cause of a door moving when I push it, or the keys on my keyboard depressing when I hit them. But he is the cause of those causes—the cause behind the causes. If he really does uphold the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3), and if he really is before all things, and if in him all things really do hold together (Colossians 1:17), then he must be the remote cause of all things inasmuch as nothing can happen without him actively bringing it about. Since all of creation is directly contingent upon him, every action or event or change in creation must also be contingent upon him, and so nothing could occur without his actively willing it and causing it. In my view, denying this collapses immediately into a kind of deism, which is both philosophically and biblically problematic.

Does this mean that God causes sin to happen? Is God the “author” of sin? What does Scripture say?

As you can see, God is indeed sovereign over sin, and brings about whatsoever comes to pass. If this makes him the author of sin, then it is God himself who has taken that title upon himself by declaring as much in Scripture. I personally think that “author” is a valid way of describing God’s relationship to sin, since just as a human author may have his characters commit evil without himself being evil, so God, the author of all creation, may have his creatures commit evil without himself being evil. However, if by “author” one intends to mean “enactor”, as if God himself sins, then obviously that must be denied as blasphemy and nonsense.

Hopefully I’ve addressed all your major questions here. I imagine in doing so I will have raised a number more, and I’m very happy to continue this dialog.

Regards,
Bnonn

6 comments

  1. Frank Ritchie (servant)

    Bnonn,

    Thanks for this.

    Due to immediate time constraints, I have not been able to get to the second and third sections of this post – but the first part was a good explanation of what I was trying to say in my brief and clumsy comment on Rhett’s blog – this bit summed it up well:

    the atonement was sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect.”

  2. Rhett

    Thanks Bnon. This was helpful; it will certainly add something to the ongoing discussion… I just need to process it!

  3. Michael Townsend

    Hi Bnonn,

    Thanks for your essay on “The Mechanics of Salvation.”

    The slogan “sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect” is often glibly applied to Christ’s atonement but this slogan points to a misunderstanding and a depreciation of the Election and Pre-destination unto salvation which the LORD God determined even before Creation [Ephesians 1:3-11].

    The atonement of Christ is sufficient for each and all of GOD’s elect and pre-destinated people and no more or less than these.

    The terms “Reprobate” and “non-elect” refer to all those whom the LORD God passed over; i.e. totally excluded when from before Creation He chose a certain number out of the as-yet-uncreated human race to be brought to salvation in Christ.

    The LORD God has never intended that Christ’s atonement should salvifically benefit any of the Reprobate [i.e. the non-elect] since it has never been His will that any of the non-elect should be brought to salvation, but instead, it has always been the will of the LORD God that all of the Reprobate should perish in their sin.

    Therefore it is illogical and inadmissible to claim that the Atonement of Christ is sufficient for the non-elect.

    I look forward to your comments.

    Regards,
    Michael

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hi Michael. You say:

    The LORD God has never intended that Christ’s atonement should salvifically benefit any of the Reprobate [i.e. the non-elect] since it has never been His will that any of the non-elect should be brought to salvation, but instead, it has always been the will of the LORD God that all of the Reprobate should perish in their sin.

    This is certainly true. But you continue:

    Therefore it is illogical and inadmissible to claim that the Atonement of Christ is sufficient for the non-elect.

    This doesn’t follow. There’s no logical relationship between the first clause and the second, such that the first necessarily entails the second. In fact, on the contrary, it is both logical and incumbent upon us to affirm that the atonement of Christ is sufficient for the non-elect, for at least three very good reasons: (1) the way in which federal headship and forensic imputation work demands it; (2) it provides a ground for the universal gospel call, which is otherwise impossible under the strictly particular view; and (3) it similarly provides the objective grounds for faith itself, which again is destroyed under the particular view.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

  5. Michael Townsend

    Greetings Dominic,

    Thanks for your reply.

    Michael said:
    “The LORD God has never intended that Christ’s atonement should salvifically benefit any of the Reprobate [i.e. the non-elect] since it has never been His will that any of the non-elect should be brought to salvation, but instead, it has always been the will of the LORD God that all of the Reprobate should perish in their sin.”

    DBT said:
    This is certainly true. But you continue:

    “Therefore it is illogical and inadmissible to claim that the Atonement of Christ is sufficient for the non-elect.”

    This doesn’t follow.
    There’s no logical relationship between the first clause and the second, such that the first necessarily entails the second.
    In fact, on the contrary, it is both logical and incumbent upon us to affirm that the atonement of Christ is sufficient for the non-elect, for at least three very good reasons:
    (1) The way in which federal headship and forensic imputation work demands it; . . . ”

    My reply:
    The Atonement of Christ has never sufficed for those whom GOD excluded from His elect people, nor will it ever suffice, because the non-elect were relegated to eternal perdition from before Creation.

    Therefore it is illogical to claim that the Atonement of Christ is sufficient for the non-elect [i.e. the Reprobate], and it is inadmissible to assert sufficiency of Christ’s atonement for the non-elect because such an assertion has no basis or support in the Scriptures, and to claim a validity for that which the Scriptures do not support and validate is to place oneself in opposition to the Divine Author of the Scriptures, which is invidious.

    It is incumbent and obligatory upon believers to stedfastly uphold and defend the Truth according to the Scriptures [Jude 3; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; etc.], to assert that which is not true is contrary to the will of GOD.

    DBT said:
    “(2) It (i.e. the theory of “universal atonement”] provides a ground for the universal gospel call, which is otherwise impossible under the strictly particular view;”

    My reply:
    The proclamation of the Gospel of Christ has always been totally consistent with the Biblical truth of Particular Redemption [a.k.a. Definite Atonement].
    The proclamation of the Gospel of Christ is the means through which the LORD God irresistibly calls each of His elect and pre-destinated people by the Spirit of GOD out of darkness into Christ’s glorious light and irresistibly drawn to Christ the Saviour of GOD’s elect people.

    Although the Gospel of Christ is commanded to be broadcast throughout the world does not in any degree imply that it is the will of GOD to bring the entire human race in all generations without exception to salvation. Nor has “universal salvation” ever occurred in any generation since Creation.

    The Biblical principle of Election unto salvation, which is clearly discriminatory by the express will of GOD the Father, directly militates against and contradicts the theories of “universal atonement,” “universal salvation” and “universal redemption.”

    DBT said:
    “And (3) It (i.e. the theory of “universal atonement”] similarly provides the objective grounds for faith itself, which again is destroyed under the particular view.”

    My reply:
    Not so. The Scriptures testify that the only objective ground of saving Faith in Christ is the grace and mercy of the LORD God towards each of His elect people; i.e. the Scriptures testify that saving Faith in Christ is the gift of God, as is also saving Repentance, both of these being essential pre-requisites to salvation in Christ.

    Sovereign election and predestination, irresistible Divine calling, and regeneration are all also essential pre-requisites to eternal salvation in Christ. And all of these are the sovereign acts of GOD in which the elect sinner is the passive recipient. Salvation in Christ is always all of grace wholly apart from mere human effort.

    The Biblical truth of Particular Redemption does not in any degree “destroy the objective ground of faith” but instead, Particular Redemption is the graciously-wrought evidence in created space-time of the merciful will of God the Father which decreed even before Creation [Ephesians 1:3-11] to sovereignly and unilaterally choose [i.e. elect] and predestinate out of the as-yet-uncreated human race, a number of people to be brought to salvation in Christ solely because it was the good pleasure of the LORD God to do so.

    Dominic, it seems as though you’ve adopted a particular pre-supposition; i.e. the pre-supposition of “universal atonement,” and that this particular pre-supposition is evidently conditioning and coloring your consideration of the Scriptures.

    If you were to abandon this pre-supposition and instead rationalise from solely an all-exclusive Biblical world-view, by which you rationalise always within the Divinely-established boundary of the Scriptures as a whole, and in that process always considering each verse or portion of Scripture (a) in its local context and then (b) in its particular book, and then also, and equally necessarily, (c) in the context of the Scriptures in their entirety, you will then see that the theories of “universal atonement” and “universal redemption” are inconsistent with and are denied and refuted by the Scriptures.

    DBT said:
    “In fact, on the contrary, it is both logical and incumbent upon us to affirm that the atonement of Christ is sufficient for the non-elect . . . “

    On the contrary, since the LORD God has never willed that the benefits of Christ’s atonement should extend to those whom He excluded from salvation; i.e. the non-elect], but He has instead from before Creation irrevocably relegated all of the non-elect to condemnation and to eternal perdition, Christ’s atonement can never have any salvific effect in respect of any of the non-elect.

    The Scriptures effectively declare that the benefits of Christ’s atonement are both sufficient and efficient for all of GOD’s elect and predestinated people but for no more or lass than these. To go beyond this definition or to discount or reject it is to depart from Biblical truth, which is to infer that the LORD God and His Word are internally-contradictory.

    The slogan “sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect” implies the notion of universal atonement which is foreign to and which is denied by the Scriptures.

    This same slogan must not be attributed to Calvinism, or to authentic i.e. exclusively Five-Point Calvinist theology. And anything less that a full Five-Point Calvinism is neither authentic Calvinism, nor is it Biblical.

    Finally therefore, it is both logical, incumbent, and obligatory upon all believers in Christ to earnestly declare and wholeheartedly affirm the Biblical position; i.e. that the atonement of Christ is Divinely-determined to be all-exclusively sufficient for each and all of GOD’s elect and pre-destinated people but for no more or less than these. [Refer Romans 8:28-30].

    Many thanks for the opportunity to discuss these topics together. I look forward to your comments.

    Regards and best wishes,
    Michael

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Dominic, it seems as though you’ve adopted a particular pre-supposition; i.e. the pre-supposition of “universal atonement,” and that this particular pre-supposition is evidently conditioning and coloring your consideration of the Scriptures.

    Actually, Michael, as you will see by searching the archives here, I used to hold very strongly to the particularist view—until, that is, I started to seriously interact with the objections to it, and the arguments in favor of a universal atonement. Arguments outlined in the series I linked, which you evidently did not even skim. Please do not post again if you are merely going to tote out stock objections which I’ve already refuted, while ignoring the arguments against the particularist position. Simply repeating statements like, “The Biblical principle of Election unto salvation, which is clearly discriminatory by the express will of GOD the Father, directly militates against and contradicts the theories of ‘universal atonement,’ ‘universal salvation’ and ‘universal redemption’,” doesn’t make them any more convincing or true.

    Regards,
    Bnonn

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