All right, maybe not you …
The NY Times has this profile of Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Driscoll has a large congregation in a very secular city. He talks dirty (kinda) and preaches the doctrine of limited atonement. Sometimes called “particular” atonement, it refers to the idea that God has brought into being the overwhelming majority of men, women, and children for the sheer purpose of sending them to hell. This, to his glory.
Imagine a God who seeks His glory in such a fashion.
Wait — it gets worse. Not only are the majority of people doomed to an eternity of torment, but sometimes God will “awaken” a defective faith, “an inferior working of the Spirit” (Calvin), in unsuspecting individuals, for the sheer purpose of faking them out into thinking God loves them and that Jesus died for them when, in fact, His Holy Wrath abides on them.
Yeah, that’ll preach.
But, strangely, it does. Driscoll’s robust congregation is proof of that. I was swayed by it, once upon a time, becoming a member of Tim Keller’s Redeemer Presbyterian in New York (although Keller doesn’t sell the election part all that hard). Why? Because Calvinists believe they’re in. As in the Kingdom. Of Heaven. And if you’re in — you can’t get out. So all is good. For you. There’s certainty in an uncertain world. Yes, there may be those who only think they’re in when they’re, in fact, not, but they’re all out there somewhere. Not in here, in my heart, with me.
It should also be noted that the craftiest of Calvinist preachers keep certain unpleasantnesses to themselves, so as to lead you to believe that you, too, can be in. Perhaps the greatest, or at least the most winsome, example of a crafty Reformed preacher was the 19th century English Baptist C.I. Spurgeon, who softened the election blow by maintaining that any attraction to the Gospel you experienced was evidence of the Spirit of God drawing you. And as God finishes what he starts in the human heart, you could rest easily about your own eternal destiny. (Spurgeon was a constant companion for a good long time in my own spiritual journey.)
What of those who read between the lines — or who read line by line the works of Cornelius Van Til (whose books were sold in profusion at Redeemer) and Jonathan Edwards? What if you begin to unravel the unbroken chain of fate, which starts with God’s engineering of the Fall, and come to despise this construal of the gospel? That’s just evidence that you don’t understand the justice of it. Adam, the first man, federal head of all mankind, had a curse placed on him. We are all his descendants, and so the curse abides on all of us. God alone can remove the curse — the death sentence. He does this through means, the Cross of Christ. But it requires faith. And faith is a gift — a gift He alone gives. And He gives it to some and not to others. No one deserves to be saved, and so those happy few who are favored thus should be grateful and shut their traps.
The problem is that Christ is the Second Adam. If all are condemned under the First Adam, then all must at least potentially be saved under the Second Adam if the analogy is to hold. Notice: Jesus is not the Second Moses, a lawgiver for a tightly circumscribed few. He is both the Incarnation of the Word that brought everything into being and the Savior of that everything. (Even the creation groans in anticipation of its salvation.)
“And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” (John 12:32)
The Reformed argument goes like this: “all” refers to some from every nation, as opposed to some from Israel alone.
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. (2 Peter 2:1)
Try as the Reformed might to divert attention away from this verse by arguing for its ambiguity, the idea of our having been “bought” has always been a picture of what Christ accomplished at the Cross.
You are not your own; you were bought with a price. (I Cor. 6:20)
So false teachers, on whom destruction is coming, have been bought by Christ. This cannot be reconciled with the doctrine of limited atonement.
For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. (1 Tim. 4:10)
Here Scripture makes a distinction between those who believe and those who do not, and yet — God is savior of them both.
But what about the dragon-slayer, Romans 9: 19-24: “You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” That would seem to end the argument. But if one flips over to 2 Timothy 2: 19-20, which undoubtedly was written later, whether by Paul or by someone assuming Paul’s apostolic mantle, perhaps interpreting Paul from oral arguments he had made, one finds this: “Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” [emphasis added].
Aside from the fact that the Romans 9 discussion in set in the context of Jews and Gentiles as groups, this later Pauline text seems to be clarifying what was perhaps a misunderstanding when the Romans text first broke. One can’t help but think that Paul has returned to his “vessel” argument to clear up any fatalistic misunderstandings.
And Heaven forbid we have recourse to the early Church Fathers, the overwhelming majority of whom taught an unlimited — or general — atonement. They may not have been infallible, but they are historical witnesses to what the Church resoundingly believed and taught in the first few centuries after the death of the Apostles. Yes, Augustine taught a version of double predestination, but he was an exception, and his view was never embraced by the undivided Church of the first Christian millennium. But it is pointless arguing this way with most Reformed apologists. Once you’re locked into a mindset in which only a tiny minority of people get in, then only a tiny minority of Christians can be expected to get it — namely the truth about limited atonement. So the majority of Christians and Christian churches have simply been wrong. Just as they presumably have been wrong about baptismal regeneration — one of the earliest Christian doctrines articulated by Church.
Keep something in mind: Every cult convinces its followers that it has the Truth because it’s small and rejected and misunderstood. I am not equating Presbyterians with cultists, mind. I’m simply saying that because something is believed by a relative few, and because what is believed is held to be offensive by the many, does not in and of itself make that belief true — or Scientology would be the One True Faith.
What of those who never hear the Gospel? Haven’t they been rejected by God and left without hope? Don’t they stand condemned by geography?
We’re not told what happens to those who never explicitly reject the Gospel. And where Scripture is silent, we should be silent. But Calvinism is big on God’s secrets, as in His secret decrees. Think about a God who humiliates himself publicly only to keep back the secret of how the whole salvation thing really works. I understand the Reformed emphasis on God’s sovereignty, over and against man’s hubristic need to act as self-savior. But again, the Cross is a strange central symbol of God’s nature if His sovereignty is what He wanted to reinforce in men’s minds — as opposed to a scandalous love and magnanimity in self-giving beyond measure. This is why we should err, if err we must, on the side of God’s generosity in His salvific purpose.
What Scripture is explicit about is publishing the Good News of Jesus Christ everywhere. And it’s called Good News for a reason. If “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever should believe in him will have eternal life,” and if that same God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” why would He go to such scandalous lengths to save but a paltry handful of human specimens? Wouldn’t that be conceding defeat to sin, death, and the devil?
There have been many great Christians who have flown the Calvinist banner: John Bunyan, Isaac Watts, George Whitfield, the aforementioned Jonathan Edwards — great preachers of Christ as Lord and Savior and great hymn writers. (A study should be done, though, on the relation of Calvinist theology and missions, or Calvinist theology and charity/work among the poor.) But I ended my sojourn among the Calvinists because their view of justification is not so much “by faith alone” as it is “by luck alone.”
And good luck with that.