By Bob Allen
Christ died not as a substitute for all sinners but only for those predestined to believe, a leading Southern Baptist Calvinist said in a weekend podcast explaining the atonement, a Christian doctrine that describes how sinners are reconciled to God.
“As I understand God’s Word, if Jesus truly died for the sins of all mankind, if even one of those persons ends up in hell, then that would make a mockery of the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning blood on Calvary’s cross,” said a caller to Albert Mohler’s “Ask Anything” weekend edition of his daily news podcast May 3. “Could you help me on this subject, please?”
Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said Bible verses like “God so loved the world” in John 3:16 and “for as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” in I Corinthians 15:22 illustrate that Calvinists and Arminians are not as far apart as many assume.
“If you read ‘world’ and ‘all’ to mean that Christ’s saving work is applied to the world and to all within in it on the same basis, then all are saved,” Mohler said, “and that clearly isn’t consistent with Scripture.”
“Christ’s death has meaning for every single life, but salvation comes to those who are confessing with their lips that Jesus is Lord and believing in their heart that God has raised him from the dead,” he said.
“Limited atonement” is generally accepted as most the controversial of five points affirmed by Calvinist or Reformed theology. The theological view was advocated by 16th-century theologian John Calvin and emphasizes predestination and downplays human agency in salvation.
Also called “definite redemption” or “definite atonement,” limited atonement denies that God would send his son to die for everyone with the possibility that none might repent. Rather, it claims that God’s eternal plan was to redeem specific sinners through the atoning work of Christ.
The traditional counterview, “Arminianism,” popular in Methodist and Freewill Baptist traditions and named for Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, contends that faith is the product of human free will, and thereby God’s saving grace must be offered equally to everyone.
Mohler, a leader in the “young, restless and reformed” neo-Calvinism popular in evangelical circles including pockets of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the language of Scripture “goes far beyond” the question of how far the atonement extends.
“Both Calvinists and Arminians are put in the position, if we are intellectually and biblically honest, of saying we’re going to have to read the word ‘world’ here one way and a different way somewhere else,” Mohler said. “We’re going to have to read the word ‘all’ here one way and the word ‘all’ somewhere else in a different text differently.”
“So the question of the extent of the atonement is one that I, as one committed to reformed theology, would answer in the terms of the fact that Christ died for those he has redeemed, and would be very clear about that, in terms of particular redemption,” Mohler said.
“But I would never classify someone who holds to a different understanding of the extent of the atonement, within the context of Christian orthodoxy, as a heresy,” he continued. “In other words, I would gladly preach the gospel alongside those who would argue for a different understanding of the extent of the atonement, or a general atonement, so long as they hold to the belief that salvation comes only to those who confess with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in their heart that God has raised him from the dead, in other words who come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Mohler said neither Calvinists nor Arminians are universalists.
“Neither of us believes the ‘all’ means that everybody is going to be saved,” he said. “None of us believes that when we talk about the world we mean that every single person in the world is going to be saved.”
Mohler said neither actually believes that Christ’s death is of benefit only to the redeemed.
“Actually all Christians, all biblical and orthodox Christians, believe that the life, the death, the burial, the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ has an effect of some benefit to all people everywhere, if for nothing else than the restraint of sin and the allowance of a period of time for preaching the gospel,” Mohler said.
“And yet all biblical Christians, regardless of how we may debate the extent of the atonement in terms of a general or a particular redemption, we hold to the fact that salvation comes not to all of those but only to those who come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Some Southern Baptists fear the renewed interest in Calvinism is potentially divisive, particularly in cases where pastoral candidates are less than forthcoming about their views until after they are hired. A blue-ribbon study in 2013 found “points of tension” between the two groups but said it need not divide Southern Baptists in the same way that biblical inerrancy did in the closing decades of the 20th century.