Limited Atonement — An Inescapable Category

In a recent post I insisted that everyone believes in election. Either one believes that a sovereign God elects his people or they believe that sovereign people elect their God. As such, I argued, election is an inescapable category. Now I would like to proceed with arguing that limited atonement is an inescapable category that everyone has.

In the Reformed understanding of limited atonement the sovereign Creator limits the extent of the atonement applicable to those He has elected. In non Reformed understandings it is the sovereign creature who limits the extent of the atonement to those who decide to elect God as God, arguing that it wouldn’t be fair if the sovereign Creator limited His atonement. What needs to be noted here that both the sovereign creature party and the sovereign Creator party believe in limited atonement. The question reduces itself to where the sovereignty lies as to the decision on the extent of the atonement. Further reflection by both parties should move them to agree that whoever gets to make the decision on the extent of the atonement is the God of their belief system.

As we have said, the argument by the sovereign creature party is how it would be unfair to the creature if a sovereign creator were to limit His atonement. They makes this argument without blushing over the fact of how unfair to the creator it is of the sovereign creature to limit an atonement that doesn’t belong to them to begin with.

So limited atonement is an inescapable category. The only question is where the sovereignty lies in the decision making process as to who will do the limiting. Will the sovereign creature limit the atonement or will the sovereign creator limit the atonement?

Now, if the sovereign creature must elect God before God can be God and if the sovereign creature gets to determine the extent of the atonement can any one tell me where the advantage is in being God?

Role Reversal

Non Reformed people believe in the Reformed doctrine of election every bit as much as Reformed people except that they turn it inside out and upside down. Whereas Reformed people believe that God is absolutely sovereign and as such God chooses and elects those who belong to Him, Non-Reformed people believe that libertarian free will invested man is sovereign and as such, man, being God, chooses and elects whether or not God will belong to Him.

Election thus is an inescapable category which everyone holds. The only question is who is the god doing the electing.

Musings On Harnack & Barth

Adolph Harnack gave the Church a immanent and historical Jesus without a transcendent and ascended Christ. Karl Barth responded by giving the Church a transcendent and supra-historical Christ without a immanent historical Jesus. Harnack was all history and no kerygma. Barth was all kerygma and no history. The result of each was a skewed christology that resulted in each school, though at severe odds with one another, embracing a subjective Jesus.

Form Of Subscription Debate

“The first task of any fascist reformation is to discredit the authority of the past, and this was the top priority of the New Left….Received wisdom, dogma, and ‘ritualistic language,’ Tom Hayden wrote in his 1961 ‘Letter to the New (Young)Left,’ would be swept aside by a revolutionary spirit that ‘finds no rest in conclusions (and in which)answers are seen as provisional, to be discarded in the face of new evidence or changed conditions.

J. Goldberg
Liberal Fascism — pg. 172

In the Christian Reformed Church there is currently discussion swirling on the 2005 proposal to substantially alter (some would contend functionally eliminate) the Form of Subscription. For those who are unaware of what the Form of Subscription is, you should know that it is a document that office bearers in the CRC sign, communicating their intent to be loyal to and to defend the three forms of unity. The intent of the Form of subscription is to preserve doctrinal unity in the denomination. In 2005 an adventurous committee was assigned to give the form of subscription language a update, but instead what transpired was a proposal to reinvent the wheel. The committee was assigned a wax and polish job and returned instead with a completely different vehicle.

The reason that I provide that Goldberg quote in connection with this is that when one reads the draft proposal on the table in has a good bit of the kind of smell in it that reflects what Goldberg is getting at in the quote. I do see in the committees work a (perhaps unintentional) discrediting of the authority of the past.

For example the committee can write,

Our committee believes that from 1976 on, the history of the FOS indicates that the first assumption remains true (that a church’s identity and mission arise out of a specific heritage) while the second (that a regulatory instrument is needed to keep us orthodox) is increasingly being called into question. Increased cultural and ethnic diversity, the increase in new church plants, and the cultural moment often described as postmodernism are among the factors raising these questions.

Notice that ‘changed conditions’ are convincing the committee that the Form of subscription and the authority of the past it represents must be severely altered. One wonders if this is the first time since 1619 that our conditions have so changed that it requires largely gutting what amounts to a simple promissory note to be faithful to the Gospel as expressed in the three forms of unity. What has changed so much in our conditions that promising to be faithful to the Gospel is now some kind of barrier? Further, what is the present Form of Subscription a barrier to? I wonder how it is that the requirement for office bearers to sign the present Form of Subscription gets in the way of ministering the Gospel?

Well, having re-read the committee report I have decided to tackle this issue in a different, and more thorough fashion. Stay tuned for a return to this subject.

Also, quickly, please note I am not trying to accuse anybody of being self-consciously fascist. I am just noting the similarities of approaches between what Goldberg sees in the political realm and what I am seeing in a theological realm. Perhaps those similarities will become more clear as I continue to deal with this.

Christ Died For God

“Indeed, if one reflects even for a moment on the sinful condition of the race vis-a-vis the holy character of God, it will become clear that its Godward reference was the cross’s primary reference. The Bible plainly teaches the doctrine of the wrath of God. It teaches that God is angry with the sinner, and that His holy outrage against the sinner must be assuaged if the sinner is to escape his due punishment. It is for this reason that a death occurred at Calvary. When we look at Calvary and behold the Savior dying for us, we should see in his death not first our salvation but our damnation being borne and carried away by Him!”

Dr. Robert L. Reymond
A New Systematic Theology Of The Christian Faith — pg. 639

There is a bit of a contradiction in this otherwise fine quote from Dr. Reymond. Early on in the quote he says that, ‘it will become clear that its Godward reference was the cross’s primary reference.’ Yet later Dr. Reymond can say of the cross work, ‘we should see in his death not first our salvation but our damnation being borne and carried by him.’

Because Dr. Reymond was correct the first time Dr. Reymond should have said in the later quote something to the effect that, we should see in his death, not first our salvation, nor even first our damnation being borne and carried by him, though those are both fundamentally true, rather what we should recognize in his death first, precisely because Christ’s cross work was Godward in its primary reference, is that Christ was clearing any doubt about the Character of the Father being both just and merciful. In the death of Christ the Father’s justice is upheld regarding His opposition to sin thus showing that He does not leave guilt unpunished. In the death of Christ the Father’s mercy is revealed in the reality that God, in the incarnate second person of the Trinity, would rather take upon Himself His own just wrath then visit that Wrath upon His own people. At the cross we should see in Christ’s death first the vindication of God’s name and then and only then should we see that in the vindication of God’s name the Father showers the Son by giving Him a people (Isaiah 53:11).

In short the cross is not primarily about us. Christ died for God before He died for us. To be sure our fate was tied up in His but the blessing that we receive from Christ’s death is a blessing because the Father was the Son’s primary consideration.

Now this reality blows holes in most evangelistic efforts which often tend to communicate that people were at the center of Christ’s death. Christ died for people, or so we often say, and that is true in a secondary sense. But if Christ died first and foremost for people then it seems what we are saying is that the chief end of Christ was to glorify people so that He might fully enjoy them forever. Yet we know that even in the death of Christ the chief end of Christ as 100% man was to glorify God.

The reason that this idea needs to be trumpeted is that we have tended to make the good the enemy of the best in our evangelism. Because we tend to think that the death of Christ was first and foremost about us and forget how God’s glorious name was first and foremost we tend also to diminish God’s glorious name in how we craft the message. Because we tend to think that the death of Christ was first and foremost about us we tend to craft a Gospel message that is more sensitive to fallen sinners and their feelings then a Gospel message that is reflective of the work of Christ who prioritized the Father’s desires. I sometimes wonder if it is the case that because we think the Son’s death was first and foremost about us that we end up communicating a Gospel that has God prioritizing sinners repenting over the character of His name being upheld. (Yes, Yes, I know …. there shouldn’t be that kind of dichotomy in our thinking since the only way sinners will genuinely repent is if God’s name is upheld, but such are the times that such dichotomies seem to exist in people’s thinking.)

Another thing we should interject here before we finish is the idea that it is not the case that in the Christ’s atonement the Father was changed from being mean to being nice. We must remember that it was the love of Father that sent the Son. The atonement did not cause God to be gracious but rather was indicative of the already existing character of our eternally gracious God. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. The love of God for His glory required His Holy opposition to sin. The love of God for His justice visited His punishment for sin upon Christ. The Love of God for a company to publish His glorious character sent Christ to be our propitiation. Herein is Love indeed!

The atonement was the revelation of a Father’s love who loved His glory so much that He would rather win a people by bearing His own punishment in the incarnate second person of the Trinity then have the character of His mercy come into question. His love for His own glory became the overflow for our rescue.