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The Scriptures tell us:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. – Acts 17:30–31 ESV (emphasis mine)

And yet:

...the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. – Matthew 7:14 ESV

The unavoidable conclusion is that most people that hear the call to repentance, either ignore, resist or reject it (this sadly, also accords with our experience).

A common Reformed argument* (e.g.) against the doctrine of General Atonement, is that a non-efficacious (in terms of its intended scope) Atonement is not consistent with the Sovereignty of God – on the surface, a reasonable argument, particularly from a Reformed perspective of the Sovereignty of God that rests on Unconditional Election and Irresistable Grace. From a Reformed perspective, how is a non-efficacious (again, in terms of its intended scope) call to repentance any different in this respect? Why isn't that equally inconsistent with the Sovereignty of God?

If a King bids a man to come, and the man comes not, is this not an affront to the King's sovereignty?

*Edit: Ok, so maybe it's not as common as I thought, and possibly not strictly logical, but here is some evidence that it is advanced by people who should be able to articulate a consistent position:

  • "Unlimited atonement is inconsistent with the sovereignty of God." - Rev. Steven Houck, Immanuel Protestant Reformed Church Lacombe, Alberta. source

  • "Proponents of limited atonement often make a fifth argument, which is that unlimited atonement cannot be reconciled with God's sovereignty." - p200 Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach By Kenneth Keathley. source

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possible duplicate of What is the Biblical basis for Limited Atonement – curiousdannii Jun 1 '14 at 22:34
@curiousdannii I find it difficult to see that - surely the call to repentance is different from the Atonement? – bruised reed Jun 2 '14 at 3:34
Is this a question about the different wills of God? – curiousdannii Jun 2 '14 at 5:18
@Zoe I'm not trying to define Sovereignty, my question in a different form is this: Given that the Reformed definition of Sovereignty leads to limited (as opposed to general) atonement (if you wish to dispute this, go ahead and I'll stand corrected), why doesn't the Reformed definition of Sovereignty lead to a limited (as opposed to general) call to repentence? – bruised reed Jun 2 '14 at 12:33
@Zoe Or another way yet again: Why is opposing the will of God in regard to the former (i.e. rebellious man making the precious blood shed for him of no effect toward his salvation) impossible, but possible with the latter (ignoring, resisting or rejecting the call to repentence)? If you find any of these re-formulations more clear, please let me know and I can edit my question accordingly. – bruised reed Jun 2 '14 at 12:34

The reformed view would believe both those types of verses you have quoted but would add a third type to ensure the whole picture in presented:

"For many are called, but few are chosen." (ESV Matt 22:14)

So what we have are three things:

  • God offers the gospel to all
  • Only some respond
  • Those who do respond are 'the elect'

God is sovereign in his unalterable decree that all predestined will be called and saved. People who reject the general call do not contradict God's sovereignty just as the Devil who always rejects God's will does not contradict God's sovereignty.

Regarding the concept of limited atonement, the idea is more along the lines that although Christ is offered to all and his death is capable of forgiving all, technically his death was theoretically/speculatively only for some in this sense: God punished actual sins in Christ not conceptual ones so it only the elect that he technically dies for. God would be punishing sins twice in the case of those who do not believe and who bear there on built in eternity which contradicts his omniscience not his sovereignty.

'Effectual calling' by the Spirit does not override human will it only persuades free choice to be directed infallibly. This means a believer may have first heard about the call many times (and rejected it) but then at God's timing His spirit made the call effectual making such a strong impression o the mind that humanly speaking one can't resist. Imagine that a poor person on the street was given 1,000,000 dollars. How many would refuse it? Well there might be a few percentage, but then what if you knew what else they really wanted and offered that as well? Eventually the offer would be irresistible to every person. Yet each person theoretically could still refuse the offer but nobody would. That is kind of what is imagined in the effectual call, God offers free agents a gift and by His Spirit makes the glory of it very clear to the mind making every man unable to resist the free choice of receiving it.

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Thanks Mike! A very much to-the-point answer. Would you go so far as to say that people who argue that general atonement is inconsistent with His sovereignty are wrong to do so? – bruised reed Jun 2 '14 at 13:49
@bruisedreed This answer is the closest to what I meant. I was on my phone so could not do a well rounded research. I think the 'people who argue against...' just got the general idea of sovereignty wrong. God is infallible but He gave us freewill, too. – Zoe Jun 2 '14 at 13:54
@bruisedreed - I do not see how it makes sense. To be honest I have read arguments for limited atonement and it had more to do with the practical aspects of omniscience and justice in punishing sin. I do not recall sovereignty having anything to do with it (aside from of course that the elect will be saved no matter what). Maybe sovereignty is brought in by those who explain 'why' some are chosen but I am the breed of reformer that does not attempt to explain the 'why' but reserves that point to the unknowable from a human standpoint. (A little more like Luther then Calvin on this point). – Mike Jun 2 '14 at 13:59
@bruisedreed, Calvinistic predestination is double. As far as I know, Hyper-Calvinism is not directly related to this. – adipro Jun 30 '14 at 23:41

It's true that the reformed definition of sovereignty leads to limited atonement, but the relationship between sovereignty and atonement is different from that of sovereignty and commands (like the call to repent and believe). The reason is that in the first pairing, there is an intermediate step: election.

This step is sometimes not explicitly mentioned, as in one of the sites you link (also on WebCite):

God does not have to provide for the salvation of all and then wait upon man to make the choice. If that were true, then He would not be sovereign. Unlimited atonement is inconsistent with the sovereignty of God. It makes man sovereign rather than God.

Fleshed out more fully, the argument might read:

Unlimited atonement means that Christ died for every human being. Since not everyone is saved, this implies that man's choice, not God's, is the ultimate ground of salvation. But this conflicts with the doctrine of election, which says that God's sovereign choice is the ultimate cause, not man's. Under unlimited atonement, then, man is sovereign, not God.

That is, the issue here is who is ultimately responsible for the "election" (or choice) of the saved person: God or man. The one who ultimately chooses is "sovereign."

Thus, to the reformed, the relationship between sovereignty and limited atonement/universal call could be represented as follows:

God, in his sovereignty, elects some, which implies limited atonement
God, in his sovereignty, calls everyone to repentance

Is a universal call inconsistent with election?

So why, then, isn't a universal call inconsistent with a "limited" election? The reformed explain this via the different wills of God. R. C. Sproul defines to the two relevant ones this way:

Decretive will: The sovereign, efficacious will of God
Preceptive will: The precepts, commands of God1

Election is part of the decretive will of God, which cannot be violated. But the universal call of the Gospel, the command to repent and believe, is part of the preceptive will of God.2 It is like the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule: people can and do disobey it all the time. But we do not consider such "violations of God's will" to indicate a lack of sincerity or sovereignty, as Charles Hodge writes:

If it is not inconsistent with the sincerity of God to command all men to love Him, it is not inconsistent with his sincerity to command them to repent and believe the gospel.3

Berkhof admits that harmonizing the decretive and preceptive wills of God is "a real difficulty," but it is one that everyone, including Arminians and other non-Calvinists, must deal with, because it is clear from Scripture that God regards many things to be good and yet does not bring them to pass.2 So the reformed argue that we must leave it at that: God truly and sincerely calls all to repentance, just as he commands all to obey him. But only in the elect does he do the work of regeneration that enables them to choose to repent.

  1. Sproul, What is Reformed Theology?, p169
  2. See in particular Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4.5.C.2.b.
  3. Hodge, Systematic Theology, III.XIV.2

Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology is widely regarded, reasonably modern, and is available online, so it may be the best place to start for further reading and confirmation of the above analysis. He covers the will of God in 1.1.7.D.1, election in 1.2.2.D.1, the extent of the atonement in 3.3.6.B (see especially point 4d), and external calling in 4.5.C.

For more, see chapters 16 and 38 of John Frame's Systematic Theology, chapters 13, 27, and 33 of Wayne Grudem's, and sections I.V.9, III.I.8, III.VIII.2, and III.XIV.2 of Hodge's.

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My feedback for what it's worth: While your post is excellent in terms of relevance, sources, faithfulness to viewpoint etc. and I have already upvoted on that basis; I personally don't find that it sufficiently satisfies the challenge presented. Perhaps it's the best answer possible, but from my perspective, there are non-sequiturs in the argument for the necessity of decretal election and a glaring omission in failing to explain why a violation of the preceptive will would not be likewise incompatible with God's sovereignty - it just seems to be a mere assertion that it is not. – bruised reed Feb 23 at 7:06
@bruisedreed Thanks. I'll think over how these points might be best addressed here. – Nathaniel Feb 23 at 7:12
@bruisedreed If you don't mind, could you explain what you mean by "non-sequiturs in the argument for the necessity of decretal election"? Is there a particular place in this answer where you see that? Are you saying that this answer should address the biblical basis for election? Or something else? – Nathaniel May 11 at 15:57
Perhaps I over-egged things using a plural there, as looking back now (well after the fact), I think this is the only real non-sequitur present: "Unlimited atonement means that Christ died for every human being. Since not everyone is saved, this implies that man's choice, not God's, is the ultimate ground of salvation." Later where you are introducing the different will concepts to flesh out the argument, I guess "circular reasoning" would perhaps be a more appropriate critique - the concepts introduced to explain the argument assume the conclusion. – bruised reed May 11 at 16:24
Although - "Under unlimited atonement, then, man is sovereign, not God." is the same deal, so I don't know whether that should count as plural or not. – bruised reed May 11 at 16:31

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