“If Christ actually bore the punishment for sins in a substitutionary way--- if he paid the penalty for our sins and if the Father accepted that payment--- it would be grossly unjust of him to demand it again from an unbeliever. If he bore the punishment vicariously for everyone, we have full-blown universalism. As John Owen said, if Christ died for the sins of all and if unbelief is a sin, then he died for their unbelief too, in which case they cannot be punished for it. Hence, either unbelief is not a sin or Christ did not die for it and his death was, therefore, not universal in its intent and effect” (Terrance L. Tiessen, “Who Can Be Saved? ReAssessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004, pages 93-94).
I’ve already made plans for new classes this coming Spring 2011. Lord willing, I should graduate May 2011 (Praise the Lord!) and pursue a Master of Theology degree (ThM, postgraduate degree) either Fall 2011 or Spring 2012. As a result, I’ve begun some reading rather related to soteriology regarding world religions and salvation for the unevangelized, etc. One such book is Terrance Tiessen’s work titled, “Who Can Be Saved?”. This morning, I read his chapter on “Whom is God trying to Save?”, and the chapter itself was basically comparing and contrasting Classic Calvinism versus Classic Arminianism. Tiessen uses the argument in the quote above that Christopher Bass also uses in his 1 John work done with Broadman and Holman Academic Publishers. Owen’s argument can be syllogized as follows:
Premise #1: Christ died for all sins.
Premise #2: Unbelief is a sin.
Conclusion: Therefore, Christ died for unbelief.
Once one accepts this, another syllogism appears:
Premise #1: If sin is committed, a penalty must be paid.
Premise #2: Unbelief is a sin.
Premise #3: Since unbelief is a sin committed, a penalty must be paid.
Premise #4: Jesus paid the penalty when He died on the cross for all sin. (Penal-Substitutionary Atonement)
Premise #5: Since unbelief is a sin committed, and sin requires a penalty, and Jesus paid the penalty for sin, no more penalties can be required (only one penalty is to be paid for sin).
Premise #6: for unbelievers, then, they are to be saved because Jesus has already died for their unbelief. Unbelievers then, end up saved, just like believers do.
Since Jesus paid for all sin (and unbelief is a sin), then Jesus has already atoned for unbelief. As a result, unbelievers have no need to worry about their eternal destination. They will end up with God.
Tiessen uses Owen’s argument to separate sin and the atonement: if unbelief is a sin, then Jesus died for every person; if unbelief is not a sin, then Christ did not die for every person. He seems to think that the logic is impeccable.
But there is a problem with Tiessen’s (and Owen’s) logic above for a few reasons. First, unbelief is a sin. Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their unbelief (John 5:38-40) and states that those who do not believe are already condemned (John 3:16-18).
However, unbelief is an eternal sin that places an individual in the lake of fire (Rev. 21:8). If you read the list of individuals who will experience Hell fire (Rev. 21:8), you will find that they all committed sins that “could be” (key phrase here) forgiven: the “cowardly” could be forgiven of their lack of boldness; the “unbelieving” could receive Christ and be saved. They did not have to live forever in their unbelief. Look also at “the sexually immoral.” These individuals did not have to continue in their sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:9-11). They could have received salvation and stopped practicing these sins. It is the duration of the sin (lifetime) and the subsequent rejection of Christ’s atoning sacrifice (for a lifetime) that puts them out of reach for final salvation. As the writer to the Hebrews wrote, “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27, NKJV). Unbelief is a sin; but it is a sin that, like other sins, cannot be tolerated forever. God cannot forever tolerate sin and those who practice it. At some point, evil must be punished and done away with. If not, then good never triumphs.
Back to Tiessen’s dilemma: “either unbelief is not a sin or Christ did not die for it and his death was, therefore, not universal in its intent and effect.” Unbelief is a sin, so the normal conclusion (if we follow Tiessen’s argument) is that Christ did not die for unbelief and his death was not for everyone in the world. But if this logic holds true, what about the other groups in Revelation 21:8? If Christ did not die for every sin, then He only died for specific sins---and, as a result, only died for specific people. But is this not what Tiessen assumes to begin with (limited atonement)?
Why does God allow those practicing specific sins (unbelief among them) to experience eternal damnation? Because the duration of these sins (in the lives of those who practiced them) was eternal. While these sins could be forgiven through the atoning sacrifice of Christ, such individuals refused to accept that forgiveness and persisted in their sin. Since Christ is the just judge who judges rightly, He will give an eternal punishment for the one who has eternal unbelief. An eternal sin deserves an eternal punishment.
The idea that Christ did not die for eternal sin is clearly seen in the temporary call to faith that the Lord gives to all mankind. Dr. Ken Keathley writes:
“There is no reason to believe that the opportunity for any particular person to be saved is open-ended or indefinite. God warns that His Spirit deals with men only for a period of time (Gen. 6:3). Isaiah exhorts Israel to ‘seek the Lord while He may be found; call to Him while He is near’ (Isa. 55:6), and Paul urges, ‘Look, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation’ (2 Cor. 6:2)...the window of opportunity for salvation is real, but temporary. Some are gloriously saved on their deathbed (and for that we praise God), but none should presume that God will continue to deal graciously with them until their final hours. The author of the book of Hebrews uses the Kadesh Barnea incident (Numbers 14) to build a sustained case that grace must be responded to while it is available. The children of Israel refused to enter the promised land, so God sentenced them to forty years of wandering. Even though they later feigned repentance, it was too late (Num. 14:39-45)” (Ken Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.” Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2010, pages 133-134).
God calls us to faith, but He will not forever call us to repentance. The call is “for a limited time only,” and the forgiveness is only for a short time. Those who persist in their sin risk throwing away their only hope for eternal life. So don’t play around with God’s kindness; accept Him today. Grab ahold of the forgiveness He offers in Christ His Son, and experience the newness of life that will be fully realized in the world to come.