Nothing in human history testifies to the wideness of God’s mercy or the breadth of his love like the atoning death of Christ.
So begins chapter 4 of Grace for All, in which we are presented with both an “exegetical” and a “systematic” investigation of the intent and extent of the atonement.
The essay was written by Robert Picirilli (link), the former Academic Dean of the Graduate School at Free Will Baptist Bible College. Picirilli has authored numerous commentaries, including one on Romans from an Arminian perspective. He has also written the book Grace, Faith, Free Will (amazon), one of the best and most accessible books (IMO) on the Calvinism/Arminianism debate. Some of the points covered in this essay can also be found in a lecture Picirilli gave in 2002 (link).
What is the atonement? Noted Reformed pastor, John Piper, provides us with a great definition (link):
the work of God in Christ on the cross whereby he canceled the debt of our sin, appeased his holy wrath against us, and won for us all the benefits of salvation.
There would be little to debate on this important truth, so Picirilli focuses his essay on the question: what did God intend to achieve through the atoning, redemptive work of Jesus?
In the article Piper argues for a limited atonement in which Christ only died for some.He did not die with the “intention to appease the wrath of God for every person in the world.”
Rejecting unconditional election and the limited atonement, Picirilli describes an atonement that is unlimited in its scope.
[God] intended to provide a basis for the salvation of all humanity and did, in fact, achieve this in the general atonement of Christ for the world. That atoning work made possible the salvation of anyone and everyone who will receive the gospel in the loving, trusting obedience of faith.
Quoting the 19th century Reformed writer Shedd, Picirilli reminds us that the “atonement in and by itself, separate from faith, saves no soul” and that “without faith” the atonement is “powerless to save”.
While strongly affirming a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, Picirilli, like N.T. Wright (post), affirms that “no single view expresses the whole meaning of this gracious, self-giving work of God.”
We are presented with three different aspects of the atonement in this essay. Each area is explored in great detail with a heavy focus on both the context of the passages and the Greek.
- Jesus died as our ransom (1 Tim 2:6)
… [Christ Jesus] gave himself as a ransom for all
- Jesus died as a propitiation (1 John 2:2)
[Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.
- Jesus died as a means of providing reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19)
in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself
Each section ends examining whether God’s intent was to provide an atonement that was unlimited in its scope, providing the means by which all people could be saved. The conclusion at the end of each section can be summarized as follows (emphasis in original):
The contrast between us and the world … seems clearly to be a contrast between believers and the world at large. … the world … does not lend itself to mean something like “the elect of the nations”
Picirilli only hints at one of the serious problems with limited atonement in the essay. However, in the lecture notes he explains:
Calvinists don’t deny that the Bible offers salvation to all and that we are accountable to preach the gospel offer to all. But I think they have failed to be logically consistent here: salvation cannot be truly offered to any for whom Christ did not die.
If limited atonement is true then the good news really amounts to: Christ might have died for you.
Does the Atonement save or make salvation possible?
The rest of the essay focuses on the Reformed argument that Scripture teaches us that the atonement not only made salvation possible but actually accomplishes it.
[the Calvinist argues that] the New Testament is better read to say that the atonement actually saved those it was intended for, rather than simply providing for the possibility of salvation for all human beings. …
[God] did not just make salvation possible, he saved.
In addition to the numerous citations given in the chapter, we find John Piper making this argument:
If you say that [Christ] died for every human being … then you would believe that the death of Christ did not actually save anybody: it only made all men savable.
Later he writes that Calvinists affirm:
Propitiated sins cannot be punished. Otherwise propitiation loses its meaning. Therefore if Christ is the propitiation for all the sins of every individual in the world, they cannot be punished, and must be saved.
In a nutshell Calvinists say that Christ only died for some. If Christ died for all then we would have to conclude that “all people will be saved”.
The essay challenges this assertion. If the atonement accomplished, not just the means, but the actual salvation of the elect on the cross then there is an issue. The argument goes something like this:
If Jesus death on the cross removed God’s punitive wrath for some at the time that the sacrifice was made then the elect (at least those born after the cross) are never in a state in which they are dead in trespasses or under God’s wrath.
Consider this condensed timeline:
- George is unconditionally elected to salvation.
- Jesus is sent to be the Savior of the
- Jesus dies on the cross accomplishing the “real removal of wrath” from the elect and all the sins of the elect are atoned for by his blood.
- George no longer is under God’s wrath and his sins are removed.
- George is born.
- George is regenerated and “chooses” to accept the gospel.
The Calvinist wants to argue for the accomplished work of the atonement on behalf of the elect at the cross saying that
the term propitiation refers to a real removal of wrath from sinners. When God’s wrath against a sinner is propitiated, it is removed from that sinner.
If that is true, then between the time of George’s birth and regeneration what are we to conclude? How can it be that he is “dead in trespasses” and God’s wrath remains on him as Scripture clearly affirms?
If the Calvinist wants to delay the application of the atonement for George until the time when he is regenerated then the means to save George was accomplished at the cross. The cross made it possible for George to be saved but it did not actually save him until a later time. Why? Because the atonement only actually saves George when it is joined by faith, thus making the atonement provisional.
If this is what the Calvinist means then this would take the force out of the Reformed argument.
For those holding to a universal atonement, Christ’s death is sufficient enough to satisfy God’s wrath and cancel the debt of all sins for all people. It also provides the means by which anyone can receive these benefits. However, the application of the atonement is only credited to those who come by faith when and if they come.