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Issues, Etc. has a post on Lutheranism vs. Calvinism. I'm more or less in total agreement with the pastor on the first two of the five Calvinistic points. However, he loses me when talking about limited atonement.

At 29:37 in the audio, he begins to tell a story about a friend from seminary who was a Calvinist, and this Calvinist's need for assurance of absolution following a grievous sin. The pastor goes on to explain from 31:40 - 32:46 that because Christ has taken the form of man, that he represents all men. Every sin has been paid for, for every man. Obviously a Calvinist would disagree with taking the atonement to this extent.

In the scriptures, Christ was spoken of as the last Adam, a title which confers universality (in the same way that the first Adam did). They also say that Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). How is it that if Christ is the last Adam and is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world that we still speak in terms of particular redemption and also limits as to who the atonement covers?

Edit: As an example of what I'm asking, please consider John Owen's argument for Limited Atonement that if Christ has paid for the sins of all people and some still end up paying for their sins in Hell, then we have two realities that appear unthinkable:

  1. Christ's precious, perfect blood was shed in vain for some people.

  2. God's justice was satisfied in Christ, and now he's also executing his justice on those in hell. How can this be justice, then?

These points make the case for Limited Atonement in the Calvinistic sense, but it seems to stand in opposition to the scriptures I cited above. It makes the 2nd Adam less effectual than the first and it means that Christ is not the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:2 leaves no room for a "potential" propitiation. So how does Limited Atonement harmonize with scriptures such as these?

Note: At this point in time, I would call myself a Calvinist. I've done so for about 10 years. I'm not new to this, but I'm not as willing to accept the "L" in "TULIP" any longer on ground of logical proceedings that seem to contradict scripture. Thus, I'm seeking to learn what I may be missing.

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Both versions of the atonement here considered are limited -- Calvinists limit it in scope (or recipients), while non-Calvinists limit it in power (or efficacy). It's not a matter of whether it is limited, but rather how it is limited.

In the scriptures, Christ was spoken of as the last Adam, a title which confers universality (in the same way that the first Adam did).

Is that a valid inference from the title? One way to think of it is in terms of the "tree of salvation" imagery in Romans 11:1-24. God had a chosen people, a subset of humanity, and Gentiles were added into that tree, while some of the natural branches were broken off and excluded from the tree. Only those in the tree are saved. Note here how the scope is explicitly limited.

Hence, I don't think universality is properly applied to Christ in this way. There is an analogy to Adam, but not an identical role in every respect. He is the federal head or representative only those who belong to him (John 10, the locus classicus for the Calvinist view of the atonement, though there are others).

  • Thanks. Excellent answer. I'm not sure that Lutherans (unstated, but my main juxta-position) would agree with your statement that the atonement is limited in efficacy. At this point though, one is arguing the theological definition of "efficacy," not the doctrines themselves. I would like to ask: Why is Adam the federal head of the entire race, but Christ is the federal head only of the elect? Why is it wrong to say that all are now under the covenant of grace, but most have refused to fulfill it (i.e. they outright refuse or instead want to fulfill it themselves, not vicariously in Christ)? – San Jacinto Aug 6 '13 at 14:27
  • Adam is the head of all mankind in the covenant which God made with him (we infer from Hosea 6:7 as well as the blessings/curses structure of Genesis 2 and following and the way Paul treats it). Like the covenant with Noah, it applies to all mankind. When we get to the Abrahamic covenant, there is a limiting factor put on it -- Abraham's descendents throug Isaac are the heirs of the covenant, not those through Ishmael or other Gentiles. Christ is the representative head of this same special, limited covenant with God, which again opens to the Gentiles in the NT. – metal Aug 6 '13 at 19:59
  • I don't think it is right to say non-Calvinists limit the power of the atonement. My understanding of the Orthodox view is that the atonement truly and powerfully atones for the sins of all men by virtue of the fact that they will be raised from the dead. The consequence of sin is death (not necessarily God's wrath), therefore this has been solved for all men by the universal resurrection. Hell is therefore also not understood as the everlasting wrath of God as punishment for sin. – Ian Oct 12 '17 at 15:49
  • @Ian: By "non-Calvinists" I was intending a limited scope (if you'll pardon the expression) of the Western church. The Eastern church is a little different. – metal Oct 12 '17 at 17:25
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I'm no theologian, and my answer is probably not complete or rigorous by any means.

Christ's sacrifice was and remains sufficient to atone for everyone's sin. I don't think limited atonement denies that. It is only efficient for the elect. This is tantamount to saying that the sacrifice could save everybody from any sin, but there are people who won't accept Jesus and be saved.

Atonement is limited not because Jesus's sacrifice was insufficient. It is limited because not all people will receive it. If a room full of people are dying of thirst, and I start handing out free bottles of water, and you choose not to drink it and die, it's not because my water wouldn't have saved you, it's because you made a bad decision.

TL;DR: Christ's sacrifice was sufficient for all, efficient for the elect.

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    Hi. I understand Limited Atonement in the way you've described, sufficiency vs. efficiency. However, neither proponents nor opponents of Limited Atonement disagree with your statements. Your's is not an explanation of how Limited Atonement works in a Calvinistic framework but rather the definition of Limited Atonement. It doesn't get at what I'm after. – San Jacinto Feb 17 '13 at 0:11
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I see the two questions below as being your main concerns. I am no theologian either, but I will give my best ideas.

  1. How is it that if Christ is the last Adam and is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world that we still speak in terms of particular redemption and also limits as to who the atonement covers?

In answering this, I refer you to God's foreknowledge and his right as creator to have those whom he elects and those whom he rejects. This flies in the face of man's sense of justice, but we must understanding that God's justice rules. We cannot conceive God's nature. He does not live in time. He knows all things, past, present and future and all three elements of time are his "present." He not only made vessels of honor, He made vessels of dishonor. Why, is something we cannot comprehend. Even so, the elect have freedom of action, to express or not express their love and faithfulness to the Creator, God. Nothing can shake them out of His fold. Good works are not part of salvation, but can be evidence of election. God greatly desires expressions of love and obedience to His Word. The atonement was sufficient for the whole world but was only efficient for the elect, as the previous writer stated.

2.God's justice was satisfied in Christ, and now he's also executing his justice on those in hell. How can this be justice, then?

Again, God is just, man is not. How could man's understanding of justice stand in the face of an omnipotent God. God is God. You could take your argument to the level of saying that the whole atonement was unjust because a perfect man/God (Jesus) should not have been required to suffer such humiliation as death on a cross. Why would a just God require this? Why would He even require animal sacrifice before Christ's death? This is where we simply have to accept, by faith, that God is perfect and we are not. We do not understand many things when it comes to God and will only become clearer when we are with Him.

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    I've asked a theological question, but you've answered pastorally. – San Jacinto Aug 5 '13 at 19:27

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