Calvinists and Arminians debate whether the atonement is limited or unlimited. My question is—what if that’s a false dichotomy?
The big assumption made by both Calvinists and Arminians is that the atonement comes as a package of benefits. They claim that if one benefit applies to you, they all do because those benefits come as a package. But what if that’s a false assumption? What if, instead, the atonement has different benefits, for different people, under different conditions? Would that make better sense of the Biblical evidence?
In previous blog posts, I made the case that there were several OT sacrifices and offerings with different benefits, given to different people, under different conditions. So it’s not a crazy idea. What if we approached the NT evidence with the same mindset? What if we looked at it asking three questions:
First, what is the benefit?
Second, who is the beneficiary?
And third, what is the condition for receiving the benefit?
If the Calvinists and Arminians are right, the beneficiaries and conditions will always be the same. If I’m right, they will be different. Let’s test my theory against some typical passages.
For example, here is what John the Baptist said about Jesus:
The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Benefit? Takes away sin.
Beneficiary? The world.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
Benefit? Everlasting life.
By way of a brief commentary, Calvinists and Arminians puzzle over the idea of the whole world getting their sins taken away. Since they assume the benefits of the cross come as a package, they think if you get your sins taken away, you must go to heaven, too. For example, one author says, “If Jesus bore the sin of everyone who ever lived, and the certificate of debt has been canceled, then all should go to heaven; otherwise, their debt hasn’t been cancelled.” But that’s a questionable assumption. When we take the texts at face value, it seems you can have your sin taken away without automatically getting eternal life. Those are two different benefits, for two different groups, under different conditions. That isn’t hard to understand, is it? For example, I was reading the story of a man convicted and executed for murder, but who was later exonerated. His criminal record was cleared (a legal benefit), but he was still dead! His legal problem and his life problem were two different problems. Solving one did not mean solving the other. Likewise, it seems the world can have its sin taken away (a legal benefit), without necessarily being given eternal life (a life benefit). The legal benefit is given unconditionally—but the world stays dead. Only believers get eternal life.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19).
Benefit? Non-imputation of sins.
Beneficiary? The world.
Whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:25-26).
Benefit? Justification (i.e., the imputation of righteousness).
Beneficiary? The one who has faith.
Here again, I think it’s helpful to approach these verses with a “different benefits for different people” paradigm. It is one thing for God to not impute sins to you; it is another for Him to impute righteousness to you. Isn’t that the case in every day life? When you’re considering hiring a contractor to re-do your bathroom, and you look at the different companies available, just because you don’t think a company is bad means you must think that it is good. You might take a wait-and-see attitude. It is the same with righteousness. Just because God does not impute sin to you does not mean He imputes positive righteousness to you. Those are two different benefits, given to different people, under different conditions.
But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7-9).
Benefit? Forgiveness and cleansing of sins.
Condition? Walking in the light and confessing your sins.
Notice, fellowship forgiveness is not given to the world. It is not even given to all believers. Rather, it is given to believers who meet the conditions.
“You are worthy to take the scroll,
And to open its seals;
For You were slain,
And have redeemed us to God by Your blood
Out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,
And have made us kings and priests to our God;
And we shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9-10).
Benefit? Being worthy to open the scroll.
Condition? Being slain and redeeming a people.
Not all of the benefits of the cross are strictly for fallen humanity. Jesus received some benefits, too, such as becoming worthy to open the scroll in this passage. The limited/unlimited debates do not do justice to those kinds of benefits.
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil (Heb 2:14).
Benefit? Destroying the devil.
For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted (Heb 2:18).
Benefit? Help during temptation.
Beneficiary? Those who are tempted (i.e., believers).
Condition? Not explained.
And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (1 John 2:2).
Benefit? Propitiation for sins.
Beneficiary? The whole world.
Let me stop there.
Those are just a few examples of the benefits of the cross. They all need further examination. However, as you read them, does the “limited or unlimited” paradigm fit? To me, it doesn’t. These benefits don’t seem to come as a package that is either limited or unlimited. Instead, as I read these passages (and many more like them), it seems to me they present different benefits, for different people, under different conditions (and sometimes they are unconditional).
Does that make sense to you? Is that what you see in the text, too (now that I’ve pointed it out)?
I believe this is a more fruitful paradigm for approaching the relevant texts about the benefits of the cross. I plan to explore these in more depth in a future book. Perhaps, like me, you’re beginning to realize the typical Calvinist and Arminian debates about the atonement are too limited.