Category Archives: #EVANGELISM
Answer: Perseverance of the saints is the name that is used to summarize what the Bible teaches about the eternal security of the believer. It answers the question, “Once a person is saved, can he lose his salvation?” Perseverance of the saints is the P in the acronym TULIP, which is commonly used to enumerate what are known as the five points of Calvinism. Because the term “perseverance of the saints” can cause people to have the wrong idea about what is meant, some people prefer to use terms like “preservation of the saints,” “eternal security,” or “held by God.” Each of these terms reveals some aspect of what the Bible teaches about the security of the believer. However, like any biblical doctrine, what is important is not the name assigned to the doctrine but how accurately it summarizes what the Bible teaches about that subject. No matter which name you use to refer to this important doctrine, a thorough study of the Bible will reveal that, when it is properly understood, it is an accurate description of what the Bible teaches.
The simplest explanation of this doctrine is the saying: “Once saved, always saved.” The Bible teaches that those who are born again will continue trusting in Christ forever. God, by His own power through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, keeps or preserves the believer forever. This wonderful truth is seen in Ephesians 1:13-14, where we see that believers are “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchase possession, to the praise of His glory.” When we are born again, we receive the promised indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit that is God’s guarantee that He who began a good work in us will complete it (Philippians 1:6). In order for us to lose our salvation after receiving the promised Holy Spirit, God would have to break His promise or renege on His “guarantee,” which He cannot do. Therefore, the believer is eternally secure because God is eternally faithful.
The understanding of this doctrine really comes from understanding the unique and special love that God has for His children. Romans 8:28-39 tells us that 1) no one can bring a charge against God’s elect; 2) nothing can separate the elect from the love of Christ; 3) God makes everything work together for the good of the elect; and 4) all whom God saves will be glorified. God loves His children (the elect) so much that nothing can separate them from Him. Of course this same truth is seen in many other passages of Scripture as well. In John 10:27-30, Jesus says, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” Again, in John 6:37-47, we see Jesus stating that everyone that the Father gives to the Son will come to Him and He will raise all of them up at the last day.
Another evidence from Scripture of the eternal security of a believer is found in John 5:24, where Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” Notice that eternal life is not something we get in the future but is something that we have once we believe. By its very nature, eternal life must last forever, or it could not be eternal. This passage says that, if we believe the gospel, we have eternal life and will not come into judgment; therefore, it can be said we are eternally secure.
There is really very little scriptural basis that can be used to argue against the eternal security of the believer. While there are a few verses that, if not considered in their context, might give the impression that one could “fall from grace” or lose his salvation, when these verses are carefully considered in context it is clear that is not the case. Many people know someone who at one time expressed faith in Christ and who might have appeared to be a genuine Christian who later departed from the faith and now wants to have nothing to do with Christ or His church. These people might even deny the very existence of God. For those who do not want to accept what the Bible says about the security of the believer, these types of people are proof that the doctrine of eternal security cannot be right. However, the Bible indicates otherwise, and it teaches that people such as those who profess Christ as Savior at one time only to later walk away and deny Christ were never truly saved in the first place. For example, 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out from us, in order that it might be made manifest that they all are not truly of us.” The Bible is also clear that not everyone who professes to be a Christian truly is. Jesus Himself says that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21-22). Rather than proving we can lose our salvation, those people who profess Christ and fall away simply reinforces the importance of testing our salvation to make sure we are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5) and making our calling and election sure by continually examining our lives to make sure we are growing in godliness (2 Peter 1:10).
One of the misconceptions about the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is that it will lead to “carnal Christians” who believe that since they are eternally secure they can live whatever licentious lifestyle they wish and still be saved. But that is a misunderstanding of the doctrine and what the Bible teaches. A person who believes he can live any way he wants because he has professed Christ is not demonstrating true saving faith (1 John 2:3-4). Our eternal security rests on the biblical teaching that those whom God justifies, He will also glorify (Romans 8:29-30). Those who are saved will indeed be conformed to the image of Christ through the process of sanctification (1 Corinthians 6:11). When a person is saved, the Holy Spirit breaks the bondage of sin and gives the believer a new heart and a desire to seek holiness. Therefore a true Christian will desire to be obedient to God and will be convicted by the Holy Spirit when he sins. True Christians will never “live any way they want” because such behavior is impossible for someone who has been given a new nature (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Clearly, the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints does accurately represent what the Bible teaches on this important subject. If someone is truly saved, he has been made alive by the Holy Spirit and has a new heart with new desires. There is no way that one that has been “born again” can later be “unborn.” Because of His unique love for His children, God will keep all of His children safe from harm, and Jesus has promised that He would lose none of His sheep. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints recognizes that true Christians will always persevere and are eternally secure because God keeps them that way. It is based on the fact that Jesus, the “author and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2), is able to completely save those whom the Father has given Him (Hebrews 7:25) and to keep them saved through all eternity.
Answer: “Irresistible grace” is a phrase that is used to summarize what the Bible teaches about the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of sinners. It is represented by the “I” in the acronym TULIP that is commonly used to enumerate what are known as the five points of Calvinism or the doctrines of grace. The doctrine is also known as “effectual calling,” “efficacious grace,” “efficacious call of the Spirit,” and “transformed by the Holy Spirit.” Each of these terms reveals some aspect of what the Bible teaches about the doctrine of irresistible grace. However, what is important is not the name assigned to the doctrine but how accurately the doctrine summarizes what the Bible teaches about the nature and purpose of the work of the Holy Spirit in the salvation of sinful, spiritually dead men. No matter which name you use to refer to the doctrine of irresistible grace, a thorough study of the Bible will reveal that, when properly understood, it is an accurate description of what the Bible teaches on this important subject.
Simply put, the doctrine of irresistible grace refers to the biblical truth that whatever God decrees to happen will inevitably come to pass, even in the salvation of individuals. The Holy Spirit will work in the lives of the elect so that they inevitably will come to faith in Christ. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit never fails to bring to salvation those sinners whom He personally calls to Christ (John 6:37-40). At the heart of this doctrine is the answer to the question: Why does one person believe the gospel and another does not? Is it because one is smarter, has better reasoning capabilities, or possesses some other characteristic that allows him to realize the importance of the gospel message? Or is it because God does something unique in the lives of those whom He saves? If it is because of what the person who believes does or is, then in a sense he is responsible for his salvation and has a reason to boast. However, if the difference is solely that God does something unique in the hearts and lives of those who believe in Him and are saved, then there is no ground for boasting and salvation is truly a gift of grace. Of course, the biblical answer to these questions is that the Holy Spirit does do something unique in the hearts of those who are saved. The Bible tells us that God saves people “according to His mercy…through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). In other words, those who believe the gospel and are saved do so because they have been transformed by the Holy Spirit.
The doctrine of irresistible grace recognizes that the Bible describes natural man as “dead in his trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1; Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13), and, because man is spiritually dead, he must first be made alive or regenerated in order to understand and respond to the gospel message. A good illustration of this is seen in Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In John 11:43, it is recorded that Jesus told Lazarus to “come forth” and that Lazarus came forth out of the tomb. What had to happen before Lazarus—who had been dead for several days—would be able to respond to Jesus’ command? He had to be made alive because a dead man cannot hear or respond. The same is true spiritually. If we are dead in our sins, as the Bible clearly teaches, then before we can respond to the gospel message and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ we must first be made alive. As Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:3, one must be “born again to see the kingdom of God.” John 1:12-13 tells us that being born again is not the result of something we do—“the will of man”—but is a sovereign act of God. Just as Lazarus could not bring himself back to life or respond to Jesus’ command without being brought back to life, neither can sinful man. Ephesians 2:1-10 makes it very clear that while we are still dead in our trespasses and sin God makes us alive. The Bible is also clear that the act of being born again or regenerated is a sovereign act of God. It is something He does which enables us to believe the gospel message, not something that comes as a result of our belief.
The reason this doctrine is called “irresistible” grace is that it always results in the intended outcome, the salvation of the person it is given to. It is important to realize that the act of being regenerated or “born again” cannot be separated from the act of believing the gospel. Ephesians 2:1-10 makes this clear. There is a connection between the act of being made alive by God (Ephesians 2:1, 5) and the result of being saved by grace. (Ephesians 2:5, 8). This is because everything pertaining to salvation, including the faith to believe, is an act of God’s grace. The reason God’s grace is irresistible and efficacious (always bringing forth the desired result) is that God “has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into” His kingdom (Colossians 1:13). Or, as Psalm 3:8 puts it, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”
To understand the doctrine of “irresistible grace,” it is important to recognize that this is a special grace given only to those God has chosen for salvation (His elect) and is different from what is known as “common grace” which God bestows on both believer and unbeliever. While there are many aspects of common grace, including life and all that is necessary to sustain it, common grace is what is often referred to as the “outward call of God.” This is God’s revelation of Himself given to all men through the light of creation and their consciences. It also includes the general call of the gospel that goes out anytime the gospel message is preached. This call can be resisted and rejected by those that receive it. (Matthew 22:14; Romans 1:18-32). However, God also gives an “inward call” which always results in salvation. This is the call of God that Jesus spoke of in John 6:37-47. The certainty of this inward call is seen in John 6:37: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” John 6:44 confirms this: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Other verses where irresistible grace can be seen include 2 Corinthians 4:1-6; Acts 13:48; Acts 16:14 and Romans 8:30. In 2 Corinthians 4:1-6, after explaining why some people do not believe the gospel (it is veiled to them and their minds have been blinded toward it), Paul writes, “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). The God who said, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3) is the same God who gives the light of salvation to those He chooses, and the result is just as sure. The same truth is seen in a different way in Acts 13:48. Here it is said that “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” God saves those He chooses to save; therefore, His saving grace is always effective or efficacious. In Acts 16:14, we have another example of God’s irresistible grace in action. The Lord opened the heart of Lydia “to respond the things spoken of by Paul.” Finally you have what is called the “golden chain of redemption” in Romans 8:29-30. Here we see that everyone God calls to salvation (the inward call) will be saved (justified).
A common misconception about the doctrine of irresistible grace is that it implies men are forced to accept Christ and men are dragged kicking and screaming into heaven. Of course, neither of these is an accurate description of the doctrine of irresistible grace as revealed in the Bible. In fact, the heart of irresistible grace is the transforming power of the Holy Spirit whereby He takes a man dead in his trespasses and sins and gives him spiritual life so that he can recognize the surpassing value of God’s offer of salvation. Then, having been set free from the bondage of sin, that man willingly comes to Christ.
Another misconception concerning this doctrine is that it teaches the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted at all. Yet, again, that is not what the doctrine teaches because that is not what the Bible teaches. God’s grace can be resisted, and the Holy Spirit’s influence can be resisted even by one of the elect. However, what the doctrine does correctly recognize is that the Holy Spirit can overcome all such resistance and that He will draw the elect with an irresistible grace that makes them want to come to God and helps them to understand the gospel so they can and will believe it.
The doctrine of irresistible grace simply recognizes that the Bible teaches God is sovereign and can overcome all resistance when He wills to. What God decrees or determines will come to pass. This truth is seen throughout Scripture. In Daniel 4:35, we see that “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand!” Psalm 115:3 declares, “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” God’s grace in salvation is irresistible because when God sets out to fulfill His sovereign purpose, no person or thing can successfully resist Him.
The doctrine of irresistible grace accurately summarizes what the Bible teaches about the nature of saving faith as well as what must happen to overcome man’s depraved nature. Since natural man is dead in his trespasses and sins, it stands to reason that he must be regenerated before he can respond to the outward call of the gospel. Until that happens, man will resist the gospel message and the grace of God; however, once he has been “born again” and has a heart that is now inclined toward God, the grace of God will irresistibly draw Him to put his faith in Christ and be saved. These two acts (regeneration and faith) cannot be separated from one another. They are so closely connected that we often cannot distinguish between them.
Question: “Limited atonement—is it biblical?”
Answer: “Limited atonement” is a term that is used to summarize what the Bible teaches about the purpose for Christ’s death on the cross and what His life, death and resurrection accomplished. It is the third letter of the acronym TULIP, which is commonly used to explain what are known as the five points of Calvinism, also known as the doctrines of grace. The doctrine of limited atonement is clearly the most controversial and maybe even the most misunderstood of all the doctrines of grace. Because the name can confuse people and cause them to have wrong ideas about what is meant, some people prefer to use terms like “particular redemption,” “definite redemption,” “actual atonement,” or “intentional atonement.” These terms correctly focus on the fact that the Bible reveals Jesus’ death on the cross was intentional and had a definite purpose that it succeeded in accomplishing. Yet, like all of the doctrines of grace, what is important is not the name that is assigned to the doctrine but how accurately the doctrine summarizes what the Bible teaches about the nature and purpose of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.
The doctrine of limited atonement affirms that the Bible teaches Christ’s atoning work on the cross was done with a definite purpose in mind—to redeem for God people from every tribe, tongue and nation (Revelation 5:9). Jesus died, according Matthew 1:21, to “save His people from their sins.” This truth is seen in many passages throughout Scripture. In John 10:15, we see that He lays “down His life for the sheep.” Who are the sheep? They are the people chosen by God from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). These are the same ones Jesus said were given to Him by the Father in order that He would fulfill the Father’s will by losing none of them and by raising all of them up in the last day (John 6:37-40). This truth that Jesus came for this specific reason is seen in both the Old and New Testaments. One of the greatest passages on the atonement in the Old Testament is Isaiah 53. In this passage alone, we see that He was “stricken for the transgression of God’s people” (Isaiah 53:8); that He would “justify many” because “He shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11); and that He indeed “bore the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:12). These verses and many others talk about an atonement that was specific in whom it covered (God’s people), was substitutionary in nature (He actually bore their sins on the cross), and actually accomplished what God intended it to do (justify many). Clearly, here is a picture of an intentional, definite atonement. Christ died not simply to make justification a possibility but to actually justify those He died for. He died to save them, not to make them savable.
The doctrine of limited atonement also recognizes that the Bible teaches Jesus’ death on the cross was a substitutionary atonement for sins. Many theologians use the word “vicarious” to describe Christ’s atonement. This word means “acting on behalf of” or “representing another” and is used to describe “something performed or suffered by one person with the results accruing to the benefit or advantage of another.” The vicarious atonement of Christ means He was acting as a representative for a specific group of people (the elect) who would receive a direct benefit (salvation) as the result of His death. This concept is clearly seen in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He (God the Father) made Him (Christ) who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” If Jesus actually stood in my place and bore my sin on the cross as the Bible teaches, then I can never be punished for that sin. In order for Christ’s atonement to truly be a substitutionary or vicarious atonement, then it must actually secure a real salvation for all for whom Christ died. If the atonement only makes salvation a possibility, then it cannot be a vicarious atonement. If Christ acted as a real and true substitute for those for whom He died, then all for whom He died will be saved. To say that Christ died a vicarious death in the place of all sinners but that not all sinners will be saved is a contradiction.
Four different words or aspects of the atonement are clearly seen in Scripture, and each one helps us understand the nature and extent of the atonement. These four words are ransom, reconciliation, propitiation and substitute. These four aspects of Christ’s atonement all speak of Christ as having actually accomplished something in His death. A study of these four terms in their biblical contexts leads to the obvious conclusion that one cannot hold to a true universal atonement without also requiring universal salvation. If one holds to an unlimited atonement while denying universal salvation, one ends up with a redemption that leaves men not totally free or actually redeemed, a reconciliation that leaves men still estranged from God, a propitiation that leaves men still under the wrath of God, and a substitutionary death that still makes the sinner himself help pay the debt of his sin. All of these aspects of the atoning work of Christ then become nothing more than a possibility that relies upon man to make them a reality.
But that is not what the Bible teaches. It teaches that those who are redeemed by Christ are truly free and their debt has been fully paid. It teaches that those who are reconciled to God are actually reconciled and the wall of separation that existed between them and God has been torn down (Colossians 2:14). It teaches that Christ’s death on the cross was a sacrifice that fully satisfied the wrath of God. It also teaches that Christ was indeed a substitute, a kinsmen redeemer, who acted in place of and on behalf of His people. When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and the Greek word translated “finished” is teleō, which was used to indicate that a debt had been paid in full. And that is exactly what Jesus accomplished on the cross. “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14).
One common misunderstanding about the doctrine of limited atonement is that this view somehow lessens or limits the value of the atonement of Christ. Yet exactly the opposite is true. Limited atonement correctly recognizes that Christ’s death was of infinite value and lacking in nothing. In fact, it is of such value that, had God so willed, Christ’s death could have saved every member of the human race. Christ would not have had to suffer any more or do anything different to save every human who ever lived than He did in securing the salvation of the elect. But that was not God’s purpose in sending Christ to the cross. God’s purpose in the atonement was that Jesus would secure forever the salvation of those the Father had given to Him (Hebrews 7:25). Therefore, while Christ’s atonement was limited in its intent or purpose, it was unlimited in its power.
Another common misunderstanding about the doctrine of limited atonement is that it somehow lessens or diminishes the love of God for humanity. Yet, again, exactly the opposite is true. Of all of the doctrines of grace, the doctrine of limited atonement, when correctly understood, magnifies the love of God; it does not diminish it. Limited atonement reinforces the intensive love of God that is revealed in the Bible. God loves His people with a love that saves them from their sin, as opposed to the love of the unlimited atonement view that sees God’s love as being more general in nature. In the unlimited atonement view, He loves everyone in general but saves no one in particular and, in fact, leaves the matter of their salvation up to them. Which is more loving, a love that actually saves people or a love that makes salvation “possible” to those who are dead in trespasses and sins and unable to choose God?
One of the main arguments used against limited atonement is that, if Christ did not atone for the sins of everybody in the world and if God only intended to save the elect, how do you explain the numerous biblical passages that indicate the free offer of the gospel to “whosoever will come?” How can God offer salvation to all, including those whom He has not elected or foreordained to be saved? How can we understand the paradox that occurs because the Bible teaches God intends that only the elect will be saved, yet, on the other hand, the Bible also unequivocally declares that God freely and sincerely offers salvation to everyone who will believe? (Ezekiel 33:11; Isaiah 45:22; 55:1; Matthew 11:28; 23:37; 2 Peter 3:9; Revelation 22:17) The solution to this paradox is simply an acknowledgment of all that the Bible teaches. 1) The call of the gospel is universal in the sense that anybody that hears it and believes in it will be saved. 2) Because everyone is dead in trespasses and sin, no one will believe the gospel and respond in faith unless God first makes those who are dead in their trespasses and sins alive (Ephesians 2:1-5). The Bible teaches that “whosoever believes” will have eternal life and then explains why some believe and some don’t.
Another argument against limited atonement points to the passages in the Bible that speak of Christ’s atonement in a more general or unlimited sense. For example, in 1 John 2:2 John says that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the “whole world.” Likewise, in John 4:42 Jesus is called the “Savior of the world” and in John 1:29 is said to “take way the sin of the world.” Other verses that seem to indicate an unlimited view of the atonement include 2 Corinthians 5:14-15: “He died for all” and 1 Timothy 2:6: “He gave Himself a ransom for all” (although Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 say Christ came to “give His life a ransom for many”). Those who believe in unlimited atonement use such verses to make the point that, if Christ died for all and takes away the sins of the world, then His atonement cannot be limited to only the elect. However, these verses are easily reconciled with the many other verses that support the doctrine of limited atonement simply by recognizing that often the Bible uses the words “world” or “all” in a limited sense. They do not automatically mean “every individual in the entire world.” This is evident when just a few verses are considered. In Luke 2:1 it is recorded that a “decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered,” and Luke 2:3 says, “So all went to be registered everyone to his own city.” But, clearly, that it is not talking about every individual in the whole world. Caesar’s decree did not apply to the Japanese, Chinese or countless other people throughout the world.
Similarly, the Pharisees, being dismayed at Jesus’ growing popularity said, “Look how the whole world has gone after Him!” Did every single person in the world follow Jesus? Or was the “world” limited to a small area of Palestine in which Jesus preached?
So, it should be readily apparent that the phrase “all” or “all the world” does not necessarily mean every individual. Understanding that basic fact allows one to consider each of these seemingly universal passages in their contexts, and, when that is done, it becomes apparent that they do not present any conflict with the doctrine of limited atonement.
Yet another argument against limited atonement is that it is a hindrance to the preaching of the gospel and to evangelism. Those that use this argument will say that if an evangelist cannot say, “Christ died for you,” then his effectiveness in presenting the gospel will be limited. Or they will say that, if only the elect will be saved, why should the gospel be preached at all? Once again, these objections are easily dealt with. The gospel is to be preached to everyone because it is the power of God to salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16), and it is the means that God has ordained by which the elect will be saved (Romans 10:14-17). Also, the evangelist does not need to tell the unbeliever that “Christ died for your sins,” specifically. All he needs to proclaim is that Christ died to pay the penalty for sin and provide a way for sinners to be reconciled to a holy God. Believe in Him, and you will be saved.
The doctrines of grace, and specifically the doctrine of limited atonement, empower evangelism rather than hinder it. Embracing these wonderful biblical truths allows one to boldly and clearly declare the good news of the gospel, knowing that the power is not in our presentation of it or in the audience’s ability to understand it or desire to believe it, but, instead, rests solely upon an all-powerful God who has determined to save people from every tribe, tongue and nation. Belief in an unlimited atonement, on the other hand, presents many logical and biblical problems. First of all, if the atonement was truly unlimited, then every person would be saved as all of their sins, including the sin of unbelief, would have been paid for by Christ on the cross. However, such universalism is clearly unbiblical, as the Bible is very clear that not all people are saved or will be saved. Therefore, both the Arminian and Calvinist believe in some sort of limited atonement. The Arminian limits the effectiveness of the atonement in saying Christ died for all people but not all people will be saved. His view of the atonement limits its power as it only makes salvation a possibility and does not actually save anyone. On the other hand, the Calvinist limits the intent of the atonement by stating that Christ’s atonement was for specific people (the elect) and that it completely secured the salvation of those whom He died for. So, all Christians believe in some sort of limited atonement. The question, then, is not whether the Bible teaches a limited atonement but how or in what sense the atonement is limited. Is the power of the atonement limited in that it only makes salvation a possibility, or is its power to save unlimited and it actually results in the salvation of those whom God intended to save (the elect, His sheep)? Does God do the limiting, or does man? Does God’s sovereign grace and purpose dictate the ultimate success or failure of the redemptive work of Christ, or does the will of man decide whether God’s intentions and purposes will be realized?
A major problem with unlimited atonement is that is makes redemption merely a potential or hypothetical act. An unlimited atonement means that Christ’s sacrifice is not effectual until the sinner does his part in believing. In this view, the sinner’s faith is the determining factor as to whether Christ’s atonement actually accomplishes anything. If the doctrine of unlimited atonement is true, then it has Christ dying for people the Father knew would not be saved and has Christ paying the penalty for the sins of people who would also have to pay the penalty for the same sin. In effect, it makes God unjust. Either God punishes people for the sins that Christ atoned for, or Christ’s atonement was somehow lacking in that it does not sufficiently cover all the sins of those for whom He died. The problem with this view becomes even clearer when one considers that at the time Christ died on the cross there were already sinners that had died who will face the wrath of God in hell for their sin. Logically, it makes no sense for God the Father to have Christ atone for the sins of people who were already suffering the wrath of God for their sin. Where is the justice in punishing Christ for the sins of those that were already being punished for their sins? Again, this also shows that an unlimited atonement cannot be a vicarious, substitutionary atonement.
Still another problem with an unlimited view of the atonement is that it demeans the righteousness of God and destroys the grounds of a believer’s assurance. An important aspect of a believer’s assurance is that God is righteous and that He will not nor cannot punish sin twice. Therefore, the sin that is covered by Christ’s blood can never be charged to the sinner’s account. Yet that is what a universal atonement leads to. Christ is punished for the sins of those that are not saved, and then they are also punished in hell for the same sins.
Unlimited atonement says that, while Christ does a great deal to bring salvation to His people, His death on the cross did not actually secure that salvation for anyone. Christ’s death is not sufficient in and of itself to save lost people, and, in order for His atoning work to be effective, there is a requirement that sinners themselves must meet. That requirement is faith. For man to be saved, he must add his faith to Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Therefore, the effectiveness of the atonement is limited by man’s faith or lack thereof. On the other hand, limited atonement believes that Christ’s death and resurrection actually secures the salvation of His people. While God does require faith of His people, Christ’s death even paid for the sin of our unbelief, and, therefore, His death meets all requirements for our salvation and provides everything necessary to secure the salvation of God’s people including the faith to believe. That is true unconditional love, a salvation that is by grace alone in Christ alone. Christ plus nothing equals salvation—an atonement so sufficient that it secures everything necessary for salvation, including the faith that God gives us to believe (Ephesians 2:8).
Limited atonement, like all of the doctrines of grace, upholds and glorifies the unity of the triune Godhead as Father, Son and Holy Spirit all work in unison for the purpose of salvation. These doctrines build upon one another. The doctrine of total depravity establishes what the Bible teaches about the spiritual condition of unregenerate man and leaves one with the question “Who can be saved?” The doctrine of unconditional election then answers the question by declaring God’s sovereign choice in choosing to save people despite their depravity and based solely on God’s sovereign choice to redeem for Himself people from every tribe, tongue and nation. Next, the doctrine of limited atonement explains how God can be perfectly just and yet redeem those sinful people and reconcile them to Himself. The only solution to the depravity of man was for God to provide a Redeemer who would act as their substitute and suffer the wrath of God for their sins. He did this in the death of Christ, who, having been crucified, completely and totally “canceled out the certificate of debt…having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13-14). That leads to another question: how can a spiritually dead sinner who is hostile to God have faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross? That question is answered by the doctrine of grace that is known as irresistible grace, the “I” in the acronym TULIP.
Answer: Unconditional election is a phrase that is used to summarize what the Bible teaches about the predestination—or the election—of people for salvation. It represents the second letter of the acronym TULIP, which is commonly used to enumerate the five points of Calvinism, also known as the Doctrines of Grace. Other terms for the same doctrine include “unmerited favor,” “sovereign election” or “adopted by God.” All these terms are good names for this doctrine because each reveals some aspect of the doctrine of election. However, more important than the term we use to describe the doctrine is how accurately the doctrine summarizes what the Bible teaches about election and predestination.
The debate over unconditional election is not whether or not God elects or predestines people to salvation but upon what basis He elects them. Is that election based upon foreknowledge that those individuals will have faith in Christ, or is it based upon God’s sovereign choice to save them? As the word “unconditional” implies, this view believes that God’s election of people to salvation is done “with no conditions attached, either foreseen or otherwise.” God elects people to salvation by His own sovereign choice and not because of some future action they will perform or condition they will meet. Those who come to Christ become His children by His will, not by theirs. “They were not God’s children by nature or because of any human desires. God himself was the one who made them his children” (John 1:13 CEV).
God, before the foundation of the world, chose to make certain individuals the objects of His unmerited favor or special grace (Mark 13:20; Ephesians 1:4-5; Revelation 13:8; Revelation 17:8). These individuals from every tribe, tongue and nation were chosen by God for adoption, not because of anything they would do but because of His sovereign will (Romans 9:11-13; Romans 9:16; Romans 10:20; 1 Corinthians 1:27-29; 2 Timothy 1:9). God could have chosen to save all men (He certainly has the power and authority to do so), and He could have chosen to save no one (He is under no obligation to save anyone). He instead chose to save some and leave others to the consequences of their sin (Exodus 33:19; Deuteronomy 7:6-7; Romans 9:10-24; Acts 13:48; 1 Peter 2:8).
There are many verses in both the Old and New Testaments that speak of election, and, when one looks at all the Bible teaches about election and predestination, it becomes obvious that God’s choice was not based on any foreseen act or response, but was based solely on God’s own good pleasure and sovereign will. Properly understood, God’s unconditional election is one link in the unbreakable chain of salvation seen in Romans 8:28-29: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified.” All those who are predestined will be saved (John 6:39; Romans 8:30) because they are the ones that God the Father gives to Jesus Christ (John 6:37) who will raise them up on the last day (John 6:39; John 17:2). They are Christ’s sheep (John 10:1-30) who hear His voice and for whom He died (John 10:15) in order to give them eternal life and make them secure forever in the hand of God (John 10:26-30).
There are several common misconceptions about unconditional election. First, it is important to understand that the doctrine does not teach that God’s choice is capricious or arbitrary. It is not random or made without reason. What it does teach is that God elects someone to salvation not because of something worthy God finds in that individual but because of His inscrutable, mysterious will. He makes the choice as to who will be saved for His own reasons, according to His own perfect will and for His own good pleasure (Ephesians 1:5). And while some object to the doctrine of election as being unfair, it is nevertheless based upon God’s will and it pleases God; therefore, it must be good and perfectly just.
Another misconception is that unconditional election precludes and stifles evangelism, but the reality is just the opposite—it empowers and confirms it. When one correctly understands that God has not only elected certain individuals to salvation but also has ordained the means of salvation—the preaching of the gospel (Romans 1:16; Romans 10:14-17)—it empowers the spreading of the gospel message and the call to evangelism. We see this very thing in Paul’s writing to Timothy in the midst of deep persecution. “I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ…” (2 Timothy 2:10). A proper understanding of the doctrine of election encourages evangelism and guarantees its success. It overcomes the fear of failure when sharing the gospel and empowers people to remain faithful to the message in times of great persecution. They know that the power lies in the gospel message and in God’s sovereign election and not in their own feeble presentation. A biblical understanding of election helps one share the gospel freely with all people, knowing that any one of them could be Christ’s sheep whom He is calling into His fold (John 10:16). It is not up to us to determine if someone is elect or non-elect, and there is always a hope of salvation for anyone who will repent and believe in Christ. The gospel message should be preached to all people in the knowledge that God will use it to draw His sheep to Himself.
Unconditional election also does not mean that there will be people in heaven who do not want to be there, nor will there be people in hell who wanted to be saved but could not be because they were not elect. Unconditional election properly recognizes that, apart from God’s supernatural work in the life of a sinner, men will always choose to reject God and rebel against Him (see the article on Total Depravity for more information on this subject). What unconditional election does correctly recognize is that God intervenes in the lives of the elect and works in their lives through the Holy Spirit so that they willingly respond in faith to Him. Because they are “his sheep…they hear his voice and follow him” (John 10:1-30). As for the non-elect, God is still gracious to them, but because of their sin they are not thankful for that grace, nor do they acknowledge Him as God (Romans 1:18-20). Consequently, they receive the just punishment due them. Those whom God elects are beneficiaries of His sovereign grace and mercy, and those whom He does not elect receive the justice they have earned. While the elect receive God’s perfect grace, the non-elect receive God’s perfect justice.
Those who argue against unconditional election often use verses like 1 Timothy 2:4 and John 3:16. How can we reconcile election with a verse like I Timothy 2:4, that says that God “desires all men to be saved,” or John 3:16, that says God “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”? The answer lies in correctly understanding the will of God and the love of God. God’s passive will needs to be understood in contrast to His decreed will (those things He foreordains to happen). The passive will of God includes the things He might desire in a sense but does not foreordain or bring to pass. Certainly, if God is sovereign and all-powerful, as the Bible declares Him to be, then He could bring about the salvation of all men, if that was His decreed or pre-determined will. Reconciling this verse and others with the many that teach election is an unconditional choice of God is no more difficult that recognizing that there are things God might desire but does not decree to happen. It could be said that God does not desire men to sin but as part of his predetermined plan He allows them to sin. So while there is a real sense in which God does not take pleasure in the destruction of the wicked and desires that all be saved, His pre-determined plan allows for the fact that some will go to hell.
In a similar way, concerning John 3:16 and God’s love, the difference lies in God’s general love for all creation and all humanity versus His specific love for His children, the elect. The difference is that God’s love for His elect is an intensive love that has Him actually doing something about their lost condition instead of simply sitting by wishing that they would in turn love Him, a picture so often conjured up by those who believe themselves to be in control of their own eternal destiny. In a generic sense, God desires all to be saved and He loves all of humanity, but that is completely different from the specific love He has for His elect and His desire and provision for their salvation.
When one examines what the Bible teaches about election and predestination, it becomes clear that the doctrine of unconditional election does accurately represent what the Bible teaches on this important subject. While this—or any of the other Doctrines of Grace—can stand on their own merit, their importance becomes even clearer when they are considered together systematically with all the Bible teaches about salvation. They essentially serve as building blocks, with each one furnishing a necessary part of a biblical understanding of salvation. Total depravity defines man’s need for salvation and reveals his hopelessness when left to his own resources. It leaves man with the question “Who can be saved?” The answer lies in an understanding of unconditional election—God’s sovereign choice to save people despite their depravity and based solely on His redeeming for Himself people from every tribe, tongue and nation. This He accomplishes by predestinating them “to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Ephesians 1:5). A proper understanding of this doctrine should not result in questioning the justice of God, but instead in marveling at His great mercy. The question we really should ask is not why God chooses only some to salvation, but why He would choose any at all.