In this series of articles on, “Calvinism and Mission Preaching,” I have devoted considerable space to the subject of particular atonement. Anyone will understand that this is actually the very heart of the matter, because preaching is the proclamation of the cross of Jesus Christ. Moreover, it is exactly at this point where the objection is raised that it is impossible to preach Calvinism with its limited atonement on the mission field. And it is in connection with the insistence on a universal love of God for mankind that we are told that mission preaching must include telling all men and every man, “Christ died for you.”
The particular passage I wish to discuss in this present article is found in II Peter 2:1, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.”
The chief point of interest at the moment is the clause, “denying the Lord that bought them.” A cursory reading of the text would leave us with the impression that Christ actually bought some who deny Him, of whom Peter writes that they bring upon themselves a swift destruction. It would appear as if Christ bought some with His blood who, nevertheless, perish in their sins. And from this we would readily conclude that Christ died for all men.
This is in essence what Lenski writes in his commentary on II Peter:
“Christ bought them to be his own for ever at the tremendous price of his own blood. Despite his absolute might and this act of purchase land ransoming these are men who “deny,” disown, repudiate “even” him. They challenge his absolute power; ungratefully they scorn his buying them. Ingrate rebels! Here we have an adequate answer to Calvin’s limited atonement: the Sovereign, Christ, bought with his blood not only the elect, but also those who go to perdition. Calvin does not accept this epistle as canonical; in his extensive commentary on the New Testament it is not treated. May this clause, perhaps, have been a reason for this omission?”
Lenski can see no other interpretation in this passage than the error of universal atonement. That does not surprise us, because Lenski is opposed to Calvinism, especially because he defends a universal offer of salvation and man’s ability to accept the offer. Here again Lenski sees a strong argument against the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement. He also points out that limited atonement was one of the doctrines staunchly defended by Calvin himself. In fact, he goes so far as to assume that because of this text Calvin rejected the entire second epistle of Peter. Now it may be well to add in passing that this is not true. There is an exposition of II Peter included in Calvin’s Commentaries. Calvin also prefaces this with his remarks that show that he is by no means ready to reject this epistle as not being canonical. True, Calvin does express some doubt about it, based particularly on the argument of Jerome that this second epistle seems to have an entirely different style from the first. But Calvin explains this by reminding us of Peter’s extreme age, so that some one else may have set forth in writing what Peter wanted to tell the churches. And then he concludes, “Doubtless, as in every part of the epistle the majesty of the Spirit of Christ appears, to repudiate it is what I dread, though I do not recognize the language of Peter.”
All those who wish to maintain a universal atonement will also appeal with Lenski to this passage.
Yet a universal atonement is contrary to Scripture, and also to our confessions. And to interpret this passage as teaching a universal atonement is impossible in the light of the rest of Scripture.
The error of a universal atonement actually creates more problems than it can ever solve.
The text speaks of “the Lord that bought them.” The word ‘despot’ is used, which emphasizes the idea of sovereign power and absolute authority, without any of the evil connotation that is attached to the word today. Christ is called the sole Possessor, the Absolute Master. This can only mean that God gave to Christ a people as His sole possession. They are His possession, Hi sheep, because they belong to God. For them Christ died on the cross, for them He arose from the dead, for them He now lives and reigns in heaven. Anyone who preaches the Gospel according to the Scriptures must certainly preach that.
Now Christ has purchased His people unto Himself. He redeemed them from the curse of sin, so that they have the right to forgiveness of sins and the right to be called sons of God and heirs of salvation. From a legal aspect He bought them. But He also bought them from a spiritual, ethical aspect. He delivered them from the power of Satan and the bondage of sin. He has purchased them unto God as God’s peculiar possession in Christ. Therefore, as fruit of that accomplished work of Golgotha, they are made new creatures, united to Christ by a bond of faith. They love Him, confess Him as Lord and walk in daily repentance and sanctification. They confess in word and deed that they are not their own, but belong to their faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. And that is also the contents of the preaching of the cross.
Now no one can deny that this is the Scriptural interpretation of the expression, “The Lord Who bought them.”
But here is where the defenders of a universal atonement must certainly meet their difficulty.
First of all, if the debt is paid for all men, why are not all men saved? How can God reckon to any man a debt that actually no longer exists? Still more, if Christ has purchased all men unto Himself to be His personal possession, why does He not claim them as His own? If they are His sheep, why does He not gather them? But here the Lord Himself answers, I do claim my own. For “all that the Father giveth unto me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.” John 6:37.
Secondly, if we assume that Christ died for all, but that now it depends upon man to accept that proffered salvation, then we also have our problems. Does it depend upon man to make the cross efficacious? Did Christ actually only attempt to make salvation possible? Did He merely open the way for a cancellation of our debts? Do we become the real objects of God’s love and His prized possession only when we reciprocate by loving Him? Is the confession, “I belong to Jesus Christ,” contingent on man’s free will? But then we deny the power of the cross, and Christ becomes an impotent beggar. Then faith is the work of man and not the gift of God. Both of which are contrary to all of Scripture as well as our Confessions. I refer you particularly to the Canons of Dordt, second head of Doctrine, article 8, and the third and fourth head of Doctrine, article 10.
Finally, there is still another alternative. You realize, I am only trying to find a solution to the very knotty problem that must be confronted by any minister who wants to say to all men head for head, “Christ died for you.” Does Peter mean that these false teachers actually did accept that truth of Scripture that Christ died for them? Did they believe, at least for a time, that Christ’s death was efficacious for them, but later rejected it? Must we assume that the words, “Christ died for you,” did not have the same meaning for them as it did for those who are saved? Were they deceived? Or did they believe and fall away? If the first is true, the Word of God is not honest. If the I latter is true, there is a falling away of saints. And this is contrary to our Canons. See particularly the fifth head of Doctrine, Art. 8.
These questions, avoid them as much as you will, are bound to come up in the minds of a discerning audience that must listen to the preaching of a universal atonement. And such preaching does not stimulate the assurance that Paul confesses when he says, “If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? . . . For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
But let us look at the text and see just what the apostle says.
1. You will notice that he speaks of false prophets among Israel in the old dispensation. The true prophets of God were characterized by the fact that their prophecy came not “by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (II Pet. 1:21) These false prophets professed to be holy men that were moved by the Holy Spirit. They wore camel’s hair garments to give the impression of having been sent of God. (Zech. 13:4). When they spoke they deliberately invented their own messages to deceive the people. And this became evident when their prophecy was contradicted by God; it never saw its fulfillment. There are many examples of that in the Old Testament, but the one that comes readily to mind is the example of the four hundred prophets who persuaded Ahab to go into battle, where he was also killed.
2. Peter warns the church against false teachers who will arise again, even in the church of the new dispensation. They will be members of the church institute; for they will arise “among you.” They will be considered to be sincere believers, who belong to the Body of Christ. They will worship with the church, have their children baptized, partake of communion, and in every way profess that “they belong to their faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, Who has purchased them with His blood.”
3. But they will secretly bring in damnable heresies. Alongside the truth they will surreptitiously introduce false teachings, which are made as appealing as possible. These false teachings are nevertheless “damnable” heresies. They not only have their origin in hell, but the idea seems to be that they are invented for the very purpose of leading the unwary astray, so that they bring damnation upon those who follow such heresies as well as upon those who present them.
4. Now among the damnable heresies that these deceivers bring is also the denial of the atonement of the cross. As the original expresses it, “they deny the having bought them Lord.” Although they may still profess to be believers who are saved by the blood of the cross, they actually deny that cross and all its power. Although theoretically they profess that Christ is their only Lord, they are not subject to Him, but walk in their own willful, wicked way.
5. We must bear in mind that Peter is speaking of false teachers that arise within the church from time to time. Therefore these teachers may deny Christ and His atonement in various ways. Some may deny the doctrine of vicarious atonement, even though they still profess to believe in Christ, just as the modernist does. Some may live in sin, so that Christ is not their Lord and Master, but Satan. According to the context, especially the latter are on the foreground. These teachers lead others to lasciviousness. They are seeking themselves and their personal gain. They walk “after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government.” (Verse 10).
6. The church should be on its guard against them. These teachers, in spite of all appearances, bring damnable heresies. Let the ministers beware of any and every tendency toward such a sinister error. Let the believers try the spirits whether they are of God and. always hold tenaciously to the Word of truth. It is our only salvation, for the Word at the cross is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe.