Monday, July 19, 2010

The Application of the Atonement (John 3:16-18)

Timote Afu, one of the followers of this site (Center for Theological Studies or “CTS”), e-mailed me recently about the application and appropriation of the atonement. I promised him that I would begin to blog on this issue, so I decided to start doing that now. For the next few posts, I will work through some simple passages regarding “all” and what “all” means in those specific contexts.

I will begin with comments from “The Five Points of Calvinism”:

“There are two classes of texts that speak of Christ’s saving work in general terms: (a) those containing the word ‘world’ and (b) those containing the word ‘all’ reason for the use of these expressions was to correct the false notion that salvation was for the Jews alone. Such phrases as ‘the world,’ ‘all men,’ ‘all nations,’ and ‘every creature’ were used by the New Testament writers to emphatically correct this mistake. THESE EXPRESSIONS ARE INTENDED TO SHOW THAT CHRIST DIED FOR ALL MEN WITHOUT DISTINCTION (i.e., He died for Jews and Gentiles alike), BUT THEY ARE NOT INTENDED TO INDICATE THAT CHRIST DIED FOR ALL MEN WITHOUT EXCEPTION (i.e., He did not die for the purpose of saving each and every lost sinner)” (“The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, Second Edition” by David N. Steele, Curtis C. Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004, page 50).

Interestingly enough, the quote above provides “all” (and in this case, I do mean “all) of the explanation of these men regarding universal atonement. They have nothing else to say on these verses, which leaves me wondering if they had nothing else to say because they didn’t know how to explain these passages in their system (which says that Christ died only for some). However, the most interesting thing happens: when they attempt to explain their view, they give one-and-a-half pages worth of Bible verses. I think I smell a rat here...

Let’s tackle one of the Bible references provided that argues for a universal atonement: John 3:16-17. I selected this passage because it seems to be a familiar one that every Christian knows. At least in my experience, it seems to be the case that, no matter how young of a Christian you are, one can always recite John 3:16-17 by heart.

The text reads:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17, English Standard Version).

Here’s a question I would pose to Calvinists: explain the use of “world” in this verse. What does “world” mean here? If a Calvinist says, “all the elect in the world,” then I would pose this question next: “So then, does that mean that the elect in the world can be condemned?” They may say, “Yes, the elect were condemned as fallen humanity”; but if they do so, the word “world” must be broadened to include the “non-elect” as well (since the non-elect are also part of the world). If they say “no,” then I would respond, “so God sent His Son into the world so that “the ELECT MIGHT BE SAVED through Him” (substituting "elect" for "the world")?

This last question is one that will make even the Calvinist stumble. If God sent Jesus to die on behalf of the elect, then how is there a way that they “might be saved”? If Jesus died for the elect, then their salvation is certain, right? So if the elect will infallibly be saved, why does the language itself include “possibility” and not “certainty”? Look at the phrase “might be saved”. The word used here in the Greek is “sothe,” which is a Present Passive Subjunctive. The idea of the “subjunctive” indicates potentiality (“might, could, should, would, may”). These words demonstrate possibility, but not certainty. The world “could” be saved (there is the opportunity for universal salvation), but this doesn’t mean that the world “will” be saved (does not provide certainty). And as experience shows, there are those in the world who die everyday without coming to faith in Christ. The subjunctive “might be saved” is more of a potential opportunity (more truth-telling) than most people realize.

If you get a Calvinist to admit that the elect will infallibly be saved, then they will have to deny that “the world” of John 3:16-17 involves just the elect; they will also have to include the non-elect, for fear of making it possible that the elect could fall away or not be saved at all.

A little further into John 3 shows that my interpretation of “world” is correct. Read the next verse:

“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18, ESV).

Notice there are two types of people mentioned in verse 18, not just “the one who believes.” This supports my argument above about what is meant by “the world” in John 3. In addition to the believer, there is also the non-believer, “whoever does not believe.” Now, notice what Jesus says about the non-believer:

“whoever does not believed is condemned already, BECAUSE HE HAS NOT BELIEVED IN THE NAME OF THE ONLY SON OF GOD” (Jn. 3:18b).

Is the non-believer guilty for not believing? Yes. And why? “because he has not believed,” because he has refused to exercise his faith in God. The non-believer is not guilty because he has been damned from before the foundations of the world (as many Calvinists seem to say); no, the non-believer is guilty because he is “able to believe” but refuses to do so.

The fact that “the world” includes “the one who believes” and “the one who does not believe” testifies to the universality of the atonement. Christ died for every human creature.

However, while there is universality to the atonement, there is also exclusivity (or restriction). Only those who believe will receive redemption: “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM should...have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). Christ died for both those who believe and those who do not (3:18); but without faith, one will not be saved. The condition for salvation is faith (“the one who believes”).

What about those who do not believe? Ken Keathley writes:

“So what about those for whom the Savior died who yet reject Him? In their case, the atonement testifies against them, and serves as the basis of condemnation. As John declares, ‘Anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God’ (John 3:18b)” (Ken Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.” Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2010, pages 196-197).

The reason why the unbeliever can be condemned is that he had a genuine opportunity and genuine ability to believe.

I will deal with more passages regarding universal atonement or reference to “the world” in the coming posts.

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