Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Sufficiency, Efficiency, and Intent of the Atonement

As I've been teaching about the Reformation in Church History this semester, I have tried to be careful to explain the difference between Calvin, Calvinism, and the TULIP (often spoken of as the "five points of Calvinism"). John Calvin (1509-1535) was a man -- by all measures, a man whom God used greatly for His glory. I always come away from reading Calvin feeling blessed by the experience, and so I read him often. Calvinism is the systematization of Calvin's teachings. I suppose one could say that Calvinism originated with Calvin, but it didn't attain full and final form with him. His followers and successors contributed to what we call Calvinism today. This is why I feel like, unless we can point to a page number in the Institutes of Christian Religion, we ought to speak of Reformed Theology rather than Calvinism. I will never forget when I got my first copy of the Institutes a number of years ago. I searched the Table of Contents and the Index to find the TULIP explained and defended. I expected that Calvin would have a section on each petal of the TULIP wherein he would write some brilliant explanation of the point. But guess what? It wasn't there. The TULIP doesn't come from Calvin (though I suppose one could find quotes from the Institutes to defend each petal of the TULIP) or from the city of Geneva. The TULIP comes, fittingly, from Holland. Well, sort of, anyway. In response to the Five Articles of Remonstrance published in 1610 by the followers of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), Dutch Calvinists convened at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) to articulate the essentials of their faith. The conclusions of this meeting were published in The Canons of Dort. The Canons of Dort articulate what is known as "Dortian Calvinism." This became the most popular expression of what is called Calvinism. But the TULIP acrostic comes much later. From researching several sources, the earliest use of the acrostic seems to have been in a 1905 lecture to the Presbyterian Union by Cleland Boyd Mcafee. From that time, it was popularized by well-known writers, such as Lorraine Boettner, A. W. Pink, and more recently R. C. Sproul and John Piper. For the benefit of readers who may not be aware, the letters stand for: 

T - Total Depravity
U - Unconditional Election
L - Limited Atonement
I - Irresistible Grace
P - Perseverance of the Saints

Now, when it comes to the TULIP, by far the most controversial element of it is the "L", which stands for "Limited Atonement." Thus we find many people who say that they are "Four-Point Calvinists" because they reject Limited Atonement. Others say that they can hold to Limited Atonement only if it can be defined in a specific way, namely that the atonement is limited only in its efficiency (it will only save the elect), not in its sufficiency (it is unlimited in its power to save anyone who would repent and believe on Christ). I myself have made this claim numerous times. However, upon researching this line of thinking, one finds that it is actually closer to what the Arminians posited in the Five Articles of Remonstrance. 

In Article Two, the Arminians said: 
That agreeably thereunto, Jesus Christ the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And in the First Epistle of John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”

This seems to indicate that the dichotomy between "sufficiency" and "efficiency" of the Atonement is an Arminian position. Now, if it is true, then it doesn't matter whether or not it fits into one system or the other. And if it is not true, then we should not hold to it, even though our system may require it. And this is where we run into danger by isolating one proposition of the Arminian system or one petal of the TULIP from the rest. In my class lecture, I likened the petals of the Tulip and the points of Arminianism to a Jenga tower. In the game Jenga, the goal is to remove a block from the tower without toppling the whole thing. It seems that the systems of Arminians and Calvinists require all of the "blocks" to hold up each other. One cannot say, "I am a Calvinist, but I reject limited atonement," and neither can one say, "I am an Arminian, but I reject unlimited atonement." Each of these positions are critical to keep the respective "tower" from collapsing. 

The Arminian system is designed to demonstrate that salvation is a "synergistic" process that combines the work of God with the "act" of the human being to believe upon Christ. The Calvinist system, on the other hand, is a "monergistic" system that sees all the work being done by God Himself, and the belief of the human being as a result or effect of what God has done. Thus, in the Arminian system, unlimited atonement means that sins have been atoned for all people, and those who choose to believe upon Christ will receive the benefits of the atonement. The Calvinist system emphasizes that no one is able to make that choice (because of total depravity) until and unless God has unconditionally elected them, covered them in His atonement, drawn them by His irresistible grace. The Arminian system, regardless of how palatable it sounds, presents "in total," a salvation that is not secure for anyone. As Packer describes the Arminian position, "Christ's death did not ensure the salvation of anyone, for it did not secure the gift of faith to anyone (there is no such gift); what it did was rather to create a possibility of salvation for everyone if they believe" (quoted in R. C. Sproul, Grace Unknown, p164). 

Sproul writes, "Reformed theologians do not question that the value of Christ's atonement is sufficient to cover the sins of the whole fallen race. The value of His sacrifice is sufficient to cover the sins of the whole fallen race. The value of His sacrifice is unlimited. ... When we speak of the sufficiency of the atonement, however, we must ask the question, Is it a sufficient satisfaction of divine justice? If it is sufficient to satisfy the deamnds of God's justice, then no one needs to worry about future punishment. ... [I]f Christ really, objectively satisfied the demands of God's justice for everyone, then everyone will be saved. ... If faith is necessary to the atonement, then Christ's work was indeed a mere potentiality. In itself it saves no one. It merely makes salvation possible. Theoretically, we must ask the obvious question, What would have happened to the work of Christ if nobody believed in it? ... In this case Christ would have died in vain. He would have been the potential Savior of all but an actual Savior of none" (Sproul, Grace Unknown, pp165-167). 

Thus, it seems that we are asking the wrong questions and splitting the wrong hairs in a discussion about sufficiency and efficiency. Sproul says, "The ultimate question has to do not so much with the efficiency of the atonement, but with its design" (p168). So, it seems best to remove the question of sufficiency from the discussion altogether, for it is a discussion of mere hypothetical potentials. When we speak of the atonement, what is at issue is its effect. Only the elect will be saved by the atonement of Christ. In this case, we must conclude that it was only designed to redeem the elect. Otherwise, we end up with either an incomplete atonement (because it needs belief to make it "work", and since so many don't believe, it is a rather pitiful attempt at redemption); or else (worse?), a universalism that has all humanity redeemed ultimately whether they want to be or not. Ironically, this ends up being more "deterministic" than robust Calvinism. 

Returning then to the question of whether or not it is fitting for a Calvinist to speak of a sufficiency/efficiency dichotomy, or whether tinkering with the phrases makes one a "four-point Calvinist" or a "one-point Arminian," we can be encouraged by the language of the Canons of Dort. Under the Second Main Point of Doctrine, Article 3, the Dortian Calvinists wrote, "The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice for the satisfaction of sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world." Article 8 says further, "For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation...." 

Contrary to those who say that such a system hinders the spread of the Gospel, it is instructive to read Article 5 under the same Second Main Point of Doctrine in the Dortian canons: "Moreover, the promise of the Gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together the the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel." 

My point here is to, at a far greater length than I originally intended, suggest that it is perfectly in keeping with a monergistic reformed system of faith to say that Christ's atonement is sufficient for all and efficient only for the elect. Even though this is the language of Arminians, we see in the Canons of Dort that it is also the language of Calvinists. But behind the language is the reality that for Arminians, the atonement does not actually secure atonement for anyone; it merely makes it possible. For Calvinists, there is greater confidence that the atonement actually succeeded in securing the redemption of the elect. Thus, the matter at stake is not sufficiency or efficiency, but design or intent. Therefore, a Reformed (or Calvinist) Christian can say that they believe in an atonement which was sufficient for all, yet designed for the elect, and fully efficient for them. 

As I have said many times, we should never seek to be identified with a system, but with the Savior. By most of my friends, I am called a Calvinist. By a good number of Calvinists, I am called some kind of tertium quid ("a third thing", neither Arminian or Calvinist). But my aim is not to earn any labels. My aim is to follow Christ and His Word, and in so doing, I am ever more comfortable with all five-points of the TULIP, given that they are fully explained and not taken as self-sufficient phrases. 

No comments: