Arminianism and the Atonement

If sovereign, unconditional election disturbs the Arminian, it stands to reason that the Calvinistic doctrine of the atonement will likewise greatly upset him. In fact, anyone who has ever had any dealings with these people will know that there is nothing that so enrages the Arminian as the doctrine of definite atonement. When you tell him that Christ died, not for the whole world, but for a very specific and select group of people, he can hardly contain his wrath. When you add to that the fact that this limited atonement is in perfect harmony with God’s good-pleasure and even His love, the rage of the Arminian knows no bounds. Even to suggest that God loves only the elect and therefore sent Christ to die for only the elect is to declare war on one of the fundamental principles of his “faith.” 

To the Arminian, our doctrine of limited atonement is a most horrible doctrine that is contrary to the Scriptures and even abhorrent to God Himself. For they accuse us of limiting the meritorious work of Christ on the cross. They tell us that we make the cross of Christ insufficient for the salvation of the world. We belittle and under-value the precious blood of Christ when we deny that He died for all mankind. We make God some kind of a monster Who is unfair and cruel in His dealings with man. 

But is that true? Are we, who uphold the doctrine of definite atonement, the ones who limit the value of the cross? Are we the ones who destroy the power of His grace as manifested in the death of Christ? Indeed the positions of the Arminian and the Calvinist are so contrary to one another that it is impossible for both to be right. Someone has turned the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ into the lie of the devil. The question is, “Who?” 

A careful evaluation of the Arminian position will demonstrate very vividly that the destroyer of the Biblical doctrine of the atonement is not the Calvinist at all, but the Arminians themselves, the very ones who point the accusing finger at us. 

The fundamental principle of the Arminian doctrine of the atonement is that Christ died on the cross for all mankind. The atonement is general and universal in its scope. 

Does not Jesus Himself tell us, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”? God loved the whole world and therefore sent Christ to die for all mankind. The cross is so broad in its scope that it includes everyone who has ever lived, everyone who ever will live, and all who are living now. Christ died for all. He died for the unbeliever, who will spend eternity in hell, just as much as He died for the believer who will forever be with God in heaven. 

That, however, creates a tremendous problem for the Arminian. For if Christ died for all and that death is the means of salvation, then all mankind must be saved. But that can not be. Obviously, there are many who are not saved. The Arminian, however, has a very simple solution to that problem. Christ did not die actually to secure salvation. He died merely to make salvation possible. That Christ shed His precious blood for all does not mean that all are automatically saved. It means only that all now have the possibility of salvation. Christ did not merit actual salvation. He merely removed certain obstacles, so that man, if he wants, can have salvation by meeting the prescribed condition of faith and repentance. 

For they tell us that, in the death of Christ for all men, God is given the authority to save those that come to Him by faith. In the cross the guilt of original sin was taken away so that no one is worthy of condemnation on account of that guilt. In fact, some go so far as to say that the death of Christ actually took away all the sins of every man, so that God, in perfect righteousness, can save anyone. They make one exception however. The cross does not remove the sin of unbelief. That is the one unpardonable sin. No one will ever go to hell because of any sin he has committed, nor because of original sin. He will go to hell only because he rejects Christ. All other sins have been removed by the cross. Thus God is free to save anyone as long as he by faith accepts Christ as his Savior. In Christ, God has provided salvation for all. It is now up to man to make that possibility a reality. Thanks to the cross, it is no longer a question of sin; it is a question of faith in Christ. 

All of this might sound very nice and good to the majority of those who call themselves Christians; but we dare not be fooled. This Arminian view of the atonement comes from the very pit of hell itself. In reality it destroys the true doctrine of the atonement and makes salvation utterly impossible. 

It destroys the atonement as a substitutionary satisfaction. The Scriptures teach us that when Christ died, He took the place of a very definite group of people. He bore the wrath of God against the sin of His people, in the place of His people. In that way He satisfied the justice of God on behalf of us. God says that the sinner must die; but Christ died in our place. Thus the apostle Peter refers to Christ as the One, “Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by Whose stripes ye were healed” (I Pet. 2:24). Christ is the substitute Who satisfied God’s justice with respect to the sin of His people. 

But the general, universal atonement of the Arminian can not possibly be this kind of atonement. For if Christ’s death truly is a substitution which satisfies the justice of God, then all those for whom Christ died must be saved. If Christ actually died for all men, then their sins, including the sin of unbelief, have indeed been taken away. There is no Scriptural ground whatsoever for making unbelief a special sin and excluding it from the cross. If the sin of unbelief is not paid for on the cross, then no one will ever be saved. For even a true Christian’s faith is very imperfect and tainted with sin. That imperfect faith alone would be all that is needed to send us to hell. No, if Christ actually became the substitutionary sacrifice for all, then all must be saved. 

The Arminians of old recognized this fact and therefore openly rejected substitutionary atonement. They believed what we call the governmental theory of the atonement. Christ’s death was only an example of what God could do to us if He wanted to. It was no substitution and it was not needed to satisfy God’s justice. Christ did not have to die for our sin in order that we might be saved. His death was merely an object lesson. It teaches us that God is a moral governor who will not pardon the sinner without a display of His displeasure. 

It is true that most Arminians today reject this governmental theory and claim to believe wholeheartedly in substitutionary atonement. Nevertheless, as we have demonstrated, their view of the atonement is of necessity inconsistent with substitutionary atonement. You simply can not believe that the cross merely makes salvation possible and still believe in substitutionary atonement. If Christ’s death only makes salvation possible, then the shedding of His precious blood did not blot out a single sin. The cross either took away sin or it did not. There is no other alternative, if His death was indeed a substitutionary death. 

That is why we Calvinists insist that the atonement was both definite and particular. Christ died for a very select group of people—His elect church. This is the doctrine of the Scriptures. Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd: the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Notice, Jesus does not say, “for the sheep and the goats.” No, only the sheep were in His heart when He suffered all the agonies of hell for us. We learn the same thing from the apostle Paul’s exhortation to husbands, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it” (Eph. 5:25). Christ loved His Church and gave His life for it. He did not die for all mankind. He died for a definite and particular group, namely, for those whom the Father had given Him from before the foundation of the world (John 17:9).

For it is the elect and the elect alone that Christ purposed to save and does actually save, so that not a single one of those for whom He died will ever perish (John 6:38-39). He did not come to make salvation possible. He came to save. The angel announced to Joseph, “Thou shalt call His name Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). This is exactly what Jesus Himself said, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus did not come to make it possible for the lost to be saved. He came to save the lost. To that fact also the apostle Peter testifies when he says, “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (I Pet. 3:18). Notice, he did not say, “that He might make it possible for us to be brought to God.” He said, “that He might bring us to God”—actually bring us to God. This is the teaching of Scripture throughout. Christ came actually to secure the salvation of His people. 

Thus the Arminian doctrine of the atonement is an abomination to the Lord. It is the lie of the devil. For it is nothing more than work righteousness. To them, the death of Christ is not even the critical thing. It is not His death that saves (that only makes salvation possible); it is man’s faith that saves. For that is what makes the difference between heaven and hell. All share the death of Christ in common, but the one who exercises his free will and believes, that one alone is saved. Salvation, then, becomes man’s work. No wonder our fathers refer to this doctrine of the Arminians as “the Pelagian error brought again out of hell.” 

We Calvinists are not the ones who belittle and undervalue the death of Christ. It is rather the Arminians. For they have such a low view of the atonement, that it is not even sufficient to save a single soul. And whose god is a monster? Is it not the god of the Arminians? For he is so cruel that he makes our salvation utterly impossible. And not only is he cruel, but also weak and impotent, for his grace can keep no one from hell, if men are unwilling. 

How thankful we ought to be that this god is not our God. Our God, the true God, not only purposes the salvation of His beloved people, but He actually does save us through Jesus Christ. For His death is an effectual power that surely brings us to God. As the prophet says, “He shall see His seed. . .He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied” (Isa. 53:10-11).