The Danger of Teaching that Christ Died Only for the Elect
The following is excerpted from "The Dangers of Reformed Theology," George Zeller, Middletown Bible Church, 349 East St., Middletown, CT 06457. This study and a companion one entitled "For Whom Did Christ Die?" are available from Pastor Zeller for $2.75 each postpaid.
The teaching that Christ died only for the elect is commonly known as a belief in a "limited atonement" (some reformed men like to refer to it has "definite atonement"). It is the teaching that Christ died on the cross and paid the penalty only for the sins of the elect, i.e., the saved. Thus, they believe that Jesus did not die for those who eventually will be cast into the Lake of Fire. The doctrine is worded as follows: "Christ died for all men WITHOUT DISTINCTION but He did not die for all men WITHOUT EXCEPTION." This is a subtle game of semantics which makes it possible for them to say that He died for all without really meaning that he died for all. What they really mean is that Christ died for all kinds of people and all classes of people, but He did not die for every single person. That is, He died for Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slave and free, male and female, etc., but it is understood that He died for only elect Jews and Gentiles, only elect rich and poor, etc.
Dr. Paul Reiter has clearly and simply summarized the Scriptural teaching on this issue. FOR WHOM DID CHRIST DIE? HE DIED...
- For all (1st Timothy 2:6; Isaiah 53:6).
- For every man (Hebrews 2:9).
- For the world (John 3:16).
- For the sins of the whole world (1st John 2:2).
- For the ungodly (Romans 5:6).
- For false teachers (2nd Peter 2:1).
- For many (Matthew 20:28).
- For Israel (John 11:50-51).
- For the Church (Ephesians 5:25).
- For "me" (Galatians 2:20).
One believer who was not committed to the belief that Christ died for all men made this remarkable concession: "If Christ really did die for all men, then I don't know how the Bible could say it any clearer than it does." How true! It is evident that the extreme Calvinist must ignore the clear language and obvious sense of many passages, and he must force the Scriptures and make them fit into his own theological mold. Limited atonement may seem logical and reasonable, but the real test is this: IS IT BIBLICAL? ... "What saith the Scriptures?" (Romans 4:3).
In child-like faith we must simply allow the Bible to say what it says. Those who promote this erroneous doctrine try to tell us that "world" does not really mean "world"' and "all" does not really mean "all" and "every man" does not really mean "every man" and "the whole world" does not really mean "the whole world." We are told that simple verses such as John 3:16 and Isaiah 53:6 must be understood, not as a child would understand them, but as a theologian would understand them. That is, we must re-interpret such verses in light of our system of theology.
The true doctrine of the atonement could be stated as follows: The Scriptures teach that the sacrifice of the Lamb of God involved the sin of the world (John 1:29), and that the Saviour's work of redemption (1st Timothy 2:6; 2nd Peter 2:1), and reconciliation (2nd Corinthians 5:19) and propitiation (1st John 2:2), that was for all men (1st Timothy 4:10); but the cross-work of Christ is efficient, effectual, and applicable only for those who believe (1st Timothy 4:10; John 3:16).
We could even say it in a simpler way: "Christ's death was SUFFICIENT FOR ALL, but EFFICIENT only for those who believe." The cross-work of Christ is not limited, but the application of that cross-work through the work of the Holy Spirit is limited to believers only. The extreme Calvinist would say that the cross was designed only for the elect and had no purpose for the "non-elect" (persistent unbelievers). But the death of God's Son had a divine purpose and design for both groups. For the elect, God's design was salvation according to His purpose and grace in Christ Jesus before the world began (2nd Timothy 1:9; 2nd Thessalonians 2:13).
For unbelievers, God's purpose and design is to render the unbeliever without excuse. Men are CONDEMNED because they have rejected the Person and WORK of Jesus Christ and refused God's only remedy for sin (John 3:18; 5:40). Unbelievers can never say that a provision for their salvation was not made and not offered. They can never stand before God and say, "The reason I am not saved is because Christ did not die for me." No, the reason they are not saved is because they rejected the One who died for them and who is the Saviour of all men (1st Timothy 4:10). They are without excuse. This issue is not merely academic. It is extremely practical. It affects the very heart of the gospel and its presentation. The gospel which Paul preached to the unsaved people of Corinth was this: "Christ died for our sins" (1st Corinthians 15:3). Do we really have a gospel of good news for all men (compare Luke 2:10-11)? In preaching the gospel, what can we say to an unsaved person? Can we say, "My friend, the Lord Jesus Christ died for you. He paid the penalty for your sins. He died as your Substitute"?
One reformed writer said this: "But counselors, as Christians, are obligated to present the claims of Christ. They must present the good news that Christ Jesus died on the cross in the place of His own, that He bore the guilt and suffered the penalty for their sins. He died that all whom the Father had given to Him might come unto Him and have life everlasting. As a reformed Christian, the writer believes that counselors must not tell any unsaved counselee that Christ died for him, FOR THEY CANNOT SAY THAT. No man knows except Christ Himself who are His elect for whom He died" [emphasis mine] (Jay Adams, Competent to Counsel, p. 70).
As C.H. Mackintosh has said, "A disciple of the high school of doctrine [extreme Calvinist] will not hear of a world-wide gospel--of God's love to the world--of glad tidings to every creature under heaven. He has only gotten a gospel for the elect." If the reformed preacher were really honest about it, he would need to preach his doctrine along these lines: "Christ may have died for your sins. If you are one of God's elect, then He died for you, but if not, then you have no Saviour. I cannot tell you that Christ died on the cross for you because I don't know this for sure. If you believe the gospel then this proves that you are one of God's elect, and then it is proper to speak of Christ dying for you." What an insult to the God "who will have all men to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1st Timothy 2:4). The Apostle Paul was not so handicapped when he preached the gospel to the unsaved Corinthians. He clearly proclaimed that "Christ died for our sins [yours and mine!]."
If Paul could preach that message, so should we and so must we!