Evangelical views of the atonement are broadly divided between two camps.
Calvinists believe that Jesus died only for the elect. Hence, their view is popularly known as limited atonement, because the benefits of the atonement are limited to whomever God has predestined to be saved.
Arminians believe that Jesus died for the world. Their view is known as unlimited atonement. However, to avoid universalism, Arminians say the benefits of the cross are for all and offered to all, but only apply to those who meet the right condition (usually faith or baptism).
I believe both views come into conflict with many Biblical passages about the extent and purpose of the cross, such as John 1:29 which says:
“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Why do Calvinists and Arminians have difficulty with that verse?
If Jesus takes away the sin of the world, and if that benefit includes having eternal life, then it seems the whole world should be saved and universalism would be true. However, Calvinists and Arminians know that some people, perhaps a great many, will be lost in the Lake of Fire, which means universalism is false. So there’s an apparent contradiction here. How can Jesus take away the sins of the world if the world is not going to be saved?
Calvinists harmonize by redefining the word world. It can’t mean all of humanity. Instead, they say world must have a more limited reference, such as “not only the Jews,” or “not only the rich,” or more particularly, “the world of the elect.”
Arminians harmonize by adding the concept of “potentially” to this verse They say that Jesus potentially takes away the sins of the world, but the benefit is only actually applied to believers.
As J. C. Ryle, an Anglican Calvinist, summarized:
“[Of the world.] It is almost needless to say that there are two views of this expression. Some say that it only means that Christ takes away the sin of Gentiles as well as Jews, and that it does not mean the sin of any but the elect.—Others say that it really means that Christ “taketh away” the sin of all mankind; that is, that He made an atonement sufficient for all, and that all are salvable, though not all saved, in consequence of His death.”
The problem with both harmonizations is that neither takes John 1:29 at face value. As Biblicists, we should worry whenever our interpretations force us to read the text as saying something other than what it says. The verse does not say that Jesus takes away the sin of the elect. Nor does it say the taking away of sin was potential. Jesus really did take away the world’s sin. The action takes place; it does not potentially take place.
So neither the Calvinist nor the Arminian theories satisfy a verse like John 1:29. What, then, is the answer? How do I avoid the problem of universalism?
The first step is questioning a big assumption made by both Calvinists and Arminians. Can you guess what it is?
Calvinists and Arminians both assume the benefits of the cross come as a package. If you get one benefit, you must get them all, because they all go together.
For example, I was discussing the meaning of John 1:29 with a Calvinist when he said, “I take it for what it says: He died for the whole world, if anybody believes on Him, that person will be saved…”
When I pointed out that’s not at all what John 1:29 says—it does not mention believing or salvation, he answered, “If you get your sins taken away, getting justification, eternal life would be included as well. I don’t see anything that would suggest that you get one without the other.”
Is that true?
Is that a Biblical assumption?
It deserves to be questioned.
What if, instead of assuming the benefits of the atonement come as a package, we left open the possibility that there might be different benefits, for different people, under different conditions?
By analogy, think about the benefits of the cross as healthcare benefits.
I was born in Canada but now I’m a naturalized American living in Texas. I have lived under very different healthcare systems.
In Canada, healthcare comes as a package of benefits. If you qualify for healthcare in your province (I’m from Quebec), you get all the benefits applied to you.
By contrast, in Texas, my wife and I buy different kinds of insurance, at different levels of coverage, for the different people in our family. We all get basic health coverage. But only my wife and I get vision insurance. My wife has genetic trouble with her teeth, so she is on a more expensive dental insurance plan, whereas the kids and I are on a very basic dental plan. And I have a higher life insurance policy than my kids. In sum, there are different benefits, for different people, under different conditions.
In keeping with this analogy, Calvinists and Arminians assume the cross is like Canadian healthcare—a package deal. But what if the cross is more like Texas health insurance—with different benefits, for different people, under different conditions?
Is there any Biblical evidence to support that idea? I’ll explore the evidence over the next few blog posts. Stay tuned!