Sunday, May 22, 2016


This is a follow-up to my previous post:

To my knowledge, this is one objection that 4-point Calvinists (more precisely, Amyraldism) raise to limited atonement: Sinners, including the reprobate, have a duty to believe the gospel. Unless they had a duty to believe it, their failure to believe the gospel would be blameless. But if Christ never made atonement for the reprobate, how can they be obliged to believe in something they were never party to?

That's my own formulation of the argument. Assuming that's accurate, let's assess the argument:

1. As often bears repeating in these discussions, the offer of the gospel is a conditional offer: If you repent and believe in Jesus, you will be saved.

So long as that remains true, the reprobate have a duty to believe it–because it's true. To disbelieve it is to treat it as a false promise. But it's culpable to say God's promise is false–if, in fact, his promise is true.

According to 5-point Calvinism, it is always the case that whoever satisfies the terms of the gospel offer will be saved. 

If Christ didn't make atonement for the reprobate, that does nothing to change the veracity of the promise. According to 5-point Calvinism, Christ made atonement for everyone who satisfies the terms of the gospel offer. 

So limited atonement doesn't generate any inconsistency regarding duty faith. 

2. However, a 4-point Calvinist might object that the conditional formula is deceptively simple: If you believe, you will be saved.

Believe in what? That's a fair question. The 4-point Calvinist fills this out as: Believe that Christ died to save me (or something like that).

But there are problems with that:

i) Prooftexts for the gospel offer don't actually unpack the promise in those terms. A 4-point Calvinist may think that's implicit in the promise, yet that's the very question at issue.

ii) A 5-point Calvinist can fill it out as: To believe in Christ is to believe that there's no salvation apart from Christ, that Christ alone is the only hope of salvation. If you throw yourself on the mercy of Christ, you will be saved. 

iii) We might define it in reverse: not to believe in Christ is to presume that you don't need to be saved, or you don't need Christ to save you.

And that definition is borne out by the enemies of the Christian faith throughout the NT. Jewish opponents of Jesus, as well as heretics. 

iv) Furthermore, the 4-point formula is deceptively simple, for the 4-point Calvinist believes you can't be saved unless you are one of the elect. Therefore, if he were to build that qualification into this conditional formula, if he made that explicit, it would read: If you are one of the elect, and you believe in Christ, you will be saved.

But since 4-point Calvinists affirm limited election, how can a person trust a promise that's predicated on a condition he may not fulfill? Election is an additional ground. Another sine qua non of salvation. 

4. Even though that's all that we really need to say, for the sake of completeness, let's consider some other permutations of this issue.

Do 4-point Calvinists think everyone has a duty to believe the gospel? What about people who died before the atonement? What about people who lived and died outside the pale of the gospel? Are they culpable for failing to believe a gospel they never had a chance to hear? Are they culpable for failing to believe in the atonement before it took place? In principle, a 4-point Calvinist could answer that in either, or both, of two different ways:

i) No, people in general are not obligated to believe the gospel. Not believing the gospel is only blameworthy if you heard it, but disbelieve it. Or, perhaps, not believing the gospel is culpable if you failed to take advantage of opportunities to hear it. 

If so, that's a significant concession. Duty-faith is not a universal duty. God can justly condemn sinners apart from failure to believe the gospel. 

But in that event, universal atonement is hardly a necessary condition for divine condemnation. So a 5-point Calvinist could agree with the negative answer of the 4-point Calvinist, and redeploy that answer to defend the consistency of limited atonement with God's judgment of the reprobate.

ii) Yes, everyone is obligated to believe the gospel, although in some cases that's a counterfactual duty. If God had given that person the opportunity to hear the gospel, then he'd be obligated to believe it, and blameworthy for failing to do so.

But in that event, a 5-point Calvinist can resort to a counterfactual defense of limited atonement. If, in a possible world, the same person believes the gospel who was reprobate in this world, Christ would have died for him in that alternate scenario. In this world he is reprobate, but in that possible world, he's elect (and redeemed). If, in an alternate timeline, he were to believe the gospel, then Christ atoned for him in that alternate timeline.

5. Finally, we can be obliged to believe things we're not party to:

i) For instance, suppose a judge hears a case about breach of contract. The judge isn't party to the contract. Rather, the plaintiff and the defendant are the contractual parties. Yet the judge is obligated to believe certain truths about the contract. It's his duty to rule on the law and the facts of the case. 

ii) Suppose a Martian heard St. John preaching the gospel. Jesus didn't die to make atonement for Martians. Suppose Martians are sinless. 

So the terms of the gospel are irrelevant to a Martian. The offer of the gospel is not a promise to Martians.

Even so, our hypothetical Martian is still obliged to believe certain things about the gospel. If the gospel is true, then he has a duty to believe it's true.

iii) Likewise, suppose I'm reprobate. Suppose Jesus didn't make atonement for me. 

Yet there can still be truths regarding the gospel that I'm obligated to believe. It's true that no one can be saved apart from the atonement. It is my duty to believe that, even if I'm excluded from the atonement. I can have an obligation to believe certain truths concerning the redemptive death of Christ regardless of whether he died to redeem me. Those are two distinct issues. 

6. Now, a 4-point Calvinist might complain that a 5-point Calvinist has to introduce finespun qualifications to make limited atonement consistent with the universal offer–qualifications that are unnecessary for a 4-point Calvinist. These are gratuitous complications, made necessary by commitment to limited atonement. 

However, 4-point Calvinism has its own complications. It must qualify its position to make it consistent with the fact that the offer of the gospel is not universal in time and space. In what, sense, then, is there a duty to believe it? In what sense is that a precondition for divine judgment? Likewise, the 4-point Calvinist must qualify his position to make it consistent with limited election. 

Therefore, both positions have complications. Indeed, 4-point Calvinism has some complications that 5-point Calvinism avoids. The distinctives of each position give rise to corresponding caveats.


  1. I've been having a discussion with one of my pastors over the past few weeks. It revolves around limited atonement and the application of the atonement. I believe he is wrestling with the fact that we were once all children of wrath as Paul states in Romans and how is that since we are "the elect"? Also, what of OT Jews that were faithful? I'm reminded of the passage in Acts where the Lord tells Paul to continue to preach "because I many people in this city". I'm hoping my questions make sense. It's interesting because he specifically mentioned the Amyraldian view this morning. I myself have no issues with the term limited atonement and consider it a glorious reminder of God's perfect plan which "is finished".

  2. Well, regarding the "transition" from "children of wrath" to "children of grace" (Eph 2:3), unless we think God actually changes his mind, we need to understand the difference in terms of God changing us. When it comes to conversion, there is a before and after. God's plan doesn't change, but God plans changes in the life of the elect.

  3. I recently read Dominic Bnonn Tennant say, "...the way federal headship works is not by imputing specific sins, but by imputing *guilt*. Jesus paid the penalty for human guilt, which means that his atonement is applicable to any human being in principle..." (

    Do you agree with this view? That is, that Christ paid for human guilt, rather than specific sins? I've always had issues understanding why we confess to God when we sin when in fact (on the latter view) all of our sins were forgiven at the cross. In other words, why do we seek forgiveness for sins already forgiven?

    1. I doubt human guilt is a conglomerate entity that's separable from the specific sins of specific sinners. I don't think Christ atones for guilt in that sense, as if guilt can be detached from guilty agents, to become a free-floating mass of guilt. Guilt is personal. Jesus didn't die for an abstraction. Rather, Jesus died for sinners. He makes atonement for particular sinners. The sinner is prior to the sin. Guilt is just a property of sinners.

    2. The paradigm reminds me of the treasury of merit, where the supererogatory deeds of the saints produce so many pints of merit, which go into a general reservoir of merit. The pope plunges a big dipper into the reservoir when he needs to dole out so many gallons of merit. I don't think of merit and demerit in such anonymous terms. I don't view one sinner's guilt and another sinner's guilt blending into a generic human guilt, like adding drops of water to a bucket.