Why Arminians Limit the Atonement More than Calvinists

The term “Limited Atonement” has become a favorite fodder for Arminians in their criticism of Calvinism (or preferably, Reformed theology). However, their criticism is misplaced for the following reasons:

(1) Historically, the term, “TULIP” was not used when the five points of Calvinism were originally affirmed in the Synod of Dort (1618). It gained popularity only in the 20th century as a convenient mnemonic device to summarize five central teachings of Reformed theology.
(2) The criticism is misguided.  It would be more fruitful to shift the debate from a fixation with the negative term, “Limited Atonement” (which suggests a spirit of defensiveness), to an engagement with the positive affirmation of the Reformed doctrine of “Definite Atonement,” “Effective Atonement” or “Particular Redemption.”
(3) Arminians should think twice before throwing stones at the Calvinists when they themselves could well be living in a glass house. In truth, Arminians also teach a “Limited Atonement”, perhaps more so than Reformed theology! [Tu quoque?]

[How Arminians unwittingly limit the efficacy of Christ’s atonement]
And when we come to preach the gospel, our false preconceptions make us say just the opposite of what we intend. We want (rightly) to proclaim Christ as Saviour; yet we end up saying that Christ, having made salvation possible, has left us to become our own saviours. It comes about in this way. We want to magnify the saving grace of God and the saving power of Christ. So we declare that God’s redeeming love extends to every man, and that Christ has died to save every man, and we proclaim that the glory of divine mercy is to be measured by these facts. And then, in order to avoid universalism, we have to depreciate all that we were previously extolling, and to explain that, after all, [for Arminians] nothing that God and Christ have done can save us unless we add something to it; the decisive factor which actually saves us is our own believing. What we say comes to this—that Christ saves us with our help; and what that means, when one thinks it out, is this—that we save ourselves with Christ’s help. This is a hollow anticlimax. [Emphasis added] But if we start by affirming that God has a saving love for all, and Christ died a saving death for all, and yet balk at becoming universalists, there is nothing else that we can say. And let us be clear on what we have done when we have put the matter in this fashion. We have not exalted grace and the Cross; we have cheapened them. We have limited the atonement far more drastically than Calvinism does, for whereas Calvinism asserts that Christ’s death, as such, saves all whom it was meant to save, we have denied that Christ’s death, as such, is sufficient to save any of them. We have flattered impenitent sinners by assuring them that it is in their power to repent and believe, though God cannot make them do it. Perhaps we have also trivialised faith and repentance in order to make this assurance plausible (“it’s very simple—just open your heart to the Lord…”). Certainly, we have effectively denied God’s sovereignty, and undermined the basic conviction of religion—that man is always in God’s hands. In truth, we have lost a great deal. And it is, perhaps, no wonder that our preaching begets so little reverence and humility, and that our professed converts are so self-confident and so deficient in self-knowledge, and in the good works which Scripture regards as the fruit of true repentance. [p. 14]

[For Arminians, Christ’s atonement does not really save; it merely makes salvation a possibility since it is premised (contingent) on the ability of fallen man to exercise his libertarian freedom whether to accept or reject Christ’s offer of salvation. In contrast, Calvinists affirm unequivocally that Christ’s atonement actually saves sinners.]
Christ’s work of redemption was defined by the Arminians as the removing of an obstacle (the unsatisfied claims of justice) which stood in the way of God’s offering pardon to sinners, as He desired to do, on condition that they believe. Redemption, according to Arminianism, secured for God a right to make this offer, but did not of itself ensure that anyone would ever accept it; for faith, being a work of man’s own, is not a gift that comes to him from Calvary. Christ’s death created an opportunity for the exercise of saving faith, but that is all it did. Calvinists, however, define redemption as Christ’s actual substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners, through which God was reconciled to them, their liability to punishment was for ever destroyed, and a title to eternal life was secured for them. In consequence of this, they now have in God’s sight a right to the gift of faith, as the means of entry into the enjoyment of their inheritance. Calvary, in other words, not merely made possible the salvation of those for whom Christ died; it ensured that they would be brought to faith and their salvation made actual. [Emphasis added] The Cross saves. Where the Arminian will only say: “I could not have gained my salvation without Calvary,” the Calvinist will say: “Christ gained my salvation for me at Calvary.” The former makes the Cross the sine qua non of salvation, the latter sees it as the actual procuring cause of salvation, and traces the source of every spiritual blessing, faith included, back to the great transaction between God and His Son carried through on Calvary’s hill. Clearly, these two concepts of redemption are quite at variance. [p.7]

[For Calvinists, salvation is the work of God alone (monergism). There can be no dividing the achievement of salvation between God and man and making the decisive part man’s own, or by soft-pedaling the sinner’s inability so as to allow him to share the praise of his salvation with his Saviour.]
The Spirit’s gift of internal grace was defined by the Arminians as “moral suasion,” the bare bestowal of an understanding of God’s truth. This, they granted—indeed, insisted—does not of itself ensure that anyone will ever make the response of faith. But Calvinists define this gift as not merely an enlightening, but also a regenerating work of God in men, “taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by His almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.” Grace proves irresistible just because it destroys the disposition to resist. Where the Arminian, therefore, will be content to say: “I decided for Christ,” “I made up my mind to be a Christian,” the Calvinist will wish to speak of his conversion in more theological fashion, to make plain whose work it really was:

“Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night:
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke; the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off: my heart was free:
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”

Clearly, these two notions of internal grace are sharply opposed to each other. [p. 7-8]

For to Calvinism there is really only one point to be made in the field of soteriology: the point that God saves sinners. God—the Triune Jehovah, Father, Son and Spirit; three Persons working together in sovereign wisdom, power and love to achieve the salvation of a chosen people, the Father electing, the Son fulfilling the Father’s will by redeeming, the Spirit executing the purpose of Father and Son by renewing. Saves—does everything, first to last, that is involved in bringing man from death in sin to life in glory: plans, achieves and communicates redemption, calls and keeps, justifies, sanctifies, glorifies. Sinners—men as God finds them, guilty, vile, helpless, powerless, unable to lift a finger to do God’s will or better their spiritual lot. God saves sinners—and the force of this confession may not be weakened by disrupting the unity of the work of the Trinity, or by dividing the achievement of salvation between God and man and making the decisive part man’s own, or by soft-pedaling the sinner’s inability so as to allow him to share the praise of his salvation with his Saviour. This is the one point of Calvinistic soteriology which the “five points” are concerned to establish and Arminianism in all its forms to deny: namely, that sinners do not save themselves in any sense at all, but that salvation, first and last, whole and entire, past, present and future, is of the Lord, to whom be glory for ever; amen.[Emphasis added] [p. 6]

Source: J.I. Packer, “Introductory Essay,” in John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Banner of Truth, 1959), pp. 10-31.

Related Post: The Fundamental Principle of Calvinism

* Note the verbs and the absence of human initiative or action that brought deliverance and freedom. Perhaps the Arminian hymn writer (Charles Wesley) knew better in his heart, what his head denied? Ironic. Thanks to Whitefield?

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