The doctrine of Limited Atonement—the teaching that Christ died only for the elect—has been disputed in Christianity for a long time. Some call it Definite Atonement or Particular Redemption, but regardless of what it is called, the doctrine could have some serious implications for the gospel. To be specific, I have thought lately that if one took Limited Atonement to its logical, necessary conclusion, one would have a very weak gospel or no gospel at all—either for oneself or for others.

If you really believe that Christ died only for the elect, then when you share the gospel with someone, you cannot honestly say to that person, “Christ died for you.” In fact, you cannot even say that to yourself, since you cannot know with complete certainty that you’re one of the elect. After all, lots of people have shown great promise in the Christian life only to turn away from Christ later.

Thus, the most that honest adherents of Limited Atonement can say to themselves or others is this: “Jesus might have died for you, so believe in him, and you have a chance that you’ll be saved.” That, of course, is no gospel. What good news is it if the message promises only the possibility that Christ died for me and not rather the certainty that he did? The gospel is good news only when it assures me that Christ died for me personally. On the other hand, if I have no assurance that Christ died personally for me, then how could I personally trust in him for my salvation? There would always be doubt.

Therefore, if you believe in Limited Atonement and are consistent with that belief, it is highly doubtful that you have any good news to share with others, let alone with yourself.

The phrase personal relationship has become a very common buzzword in our culture, appearing in various venues, from the military to business to religion. Not surprisingly, it has also crept into Christianity, particularly evangelicalism.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with personal relationships. What is problematic, however, is when the concept is elevated too high.

One example of this is the popular evangelical emphasis—or, more specifically, the overemphasis—on having a personal relationship with God. It’s not the idea of a personal relationship per se that is troubling. The idea of having a relationship with God can be found throughout the pages of Scripture. God is very personal. He stoops to our level to reveal Himself to us in various ways: through both special and general revelation. His ultimate condescension to us was in Christ, who was the ultimate revelation of the Father: Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, ESV). In fact, as one radio talk show host once rightly commented, everyone has a personal relationship with God; the question is whether God is near to you in wrath or in friendship.

What concerns me is when the concept of personal relationship is emphasized so heavily to the exclusion of objective realities, like Scripture, doctrine and the sacraments. It’s not uncommon for those who are enthusiastic about having a personal relationship with God to also frown upon what they call “religion”: doctrine, liturgy, creeds, councils, and so on. For such people, it seems their personal experience is all that matters and is, in fact, their final authority for determining truth. It’s the elevation of the subject over the object, making one’s own subjective experience the measuring rod for determining what constitutes genuine religion. That is always dangerous.

John Calvin

John Calvin

Charles Spurgeon, and others after him, have confidently proclaimed that Calvinism is actually the gospel. When this is said, what is meant by “Calvinism,” of course, is the TULIP, aka the 5 points of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. According to those who make this claim, one cannot preach the gospel truly and accurately unless these truths are also communicated. According to this unusual, innovative view, if you don’t talk about total depravity, unconditional election, and/or the other points of the TULIP when communicating the gospel, then you haven’t really preached the gospel.

At this time, I am reexamining these 5 points—in particular I have grave doubts about Limited Atonement—but even when I accepted them all without question, this kind of dogmatic statement never sat right with me. Nowhere in the New Testament (NT) is the TULIP ever equated to the gospel message. For example, in the accounts of gospel preaching that are recorded in the NT, the apostles never spent time explaining these doctrines of grace.

I can almost hear the objection that will immediately come from those who disagree: “You’re wrong! Paul explained Unconditional Election in great detail in Ephesians 1.” Yes, he did. There is just one problem with this objection, though: He explained these things to established churches, not to people on his missionary journeys to whom he first preached the gospel. There is a vast difference between these two activities. To preach the gospel to people who have never heard it is one thing; to provide pastoral counsel and instruction to those who are already Christians is quite another.

At one point I took an online course in systematic theology at a Reformed seminary. I distinctly recall Joel Beeke warning against interpreting the Scriptures to fit our system of theology. To illustrate this error, he recalled a time when a sermon was preached (either by him or someone he knew) on the basis of a biblical text, and afterward one of his listeners objected by saying something to this effect: “Too much free will in there.” The man who objected in this way was evaluating a statement about a biblical text on the basis of a theological system he held near and dear. In other words, he was subjecting the biblical text to a theological system, not the other way around.

Ever since hearing that, I have been mindful of avoiding that pitfall because it equates a man-made system with an indispensable message of the Bible, conflating the biblical text with the system. Any responsible Bible interpreter will think twice about doing such a thing.

Before anyone objects by saying that Calvinism is not man-made but is biblical, allow me to explain my meaning. I am not saying that all the doctrines are man-made but rather that the system is. Doctrine and system are not necessarily the same because the latter is a human attempt to interpret the former and consolidate it into a harmonious, consistent system of thought.

Now let’s look honestly at how Paul described the gospel:

Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1 Corinthians 15:1–8, NKJV)

It’s vital to note that Paul makes it a point to say that he actually received the gospel he describes. This means that the description that immediately follows has divine origin. It is the true, authoritative gospel, and even a quick reading of the apostle’s description shows clearly that it does not even hint at the TULIP. These facts alone should give anyone who claims that Calvinism is the gospel serious misgivings.

If that is not enough, though, those who make this outrageous claim should turn to the following important warning by the apostle Paul:

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8–9, NKJV)

When someone says that the doctrines of grace are the gospel, but those doctrines of grace are not even hinted at in a biblical, apostolic description of the gospel, one has to wonder if those who proclaim such dogmatic things are in danger of being accursed.

If you don’t understand the significance of the sarcasm in this meme, it’s time to brush up on church history:

If we test/verify everything by Scripture, how do we verify the list of 66 books using Scripture alone? To ask it another way: Since the table of contents in our Bible is not inspired, it must be what we, as Protestants, would call a man-made tradition that must be tested by the light of Scripture. But what purely Scriptural test can we perform on that table of contents to determine that the books listed there belong in the Bible? If we cannot verify it using Scripture alone but must go outside the Bible to verify it, aren’t we just accepting a “man-made tradition” as infallible without Scriptural proof?

Having said that, I will point out that in spite of this issue with sola Scriptura, I am not prepared to jettison it. The alternative to it is to head to Rome, but there one will find countless volumes of church teaching and canon law and, therefore, even more questions—not to mention a “gospel” that shifts the burden of salvation from Christ to the individual believer. The situation would not be much better if one went to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

annunciation2And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. (Luke 1:28, Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition)

Although this translation renders the angel’s greeting in Luke 1:28 with the words, full of grace, the underlying Greek conveys a meaning that is perhaps quite different. In this passage, the underlying Greek is a single word: κεχαριτωμένη (kecharitwmenei), a perfect passive participle that means one having been favored. If the angel had really meant “full of grace,” then surely we would see the more precise phrase, πλήρης χάριτος (pleireis charitos) used in John 1:14 to describe Jesus:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father,) full [πλήρης] of grace [χάριτος] and truth. (Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition)

It seems clear that the Greek text underlying the description of Mary indicates something entirely different. Since the word πλήρης (full) does not appear in that description of Mary, there is no indication that the author intended to describe Mary as being “full” of grace. We can definitely conclude from that text that she was favored. We can even conclude from the context that she was highly favored, since she was to be the mother of the Lord—truly a unique, special role—and that she should be honored. We can also conclude from the perfect tense that the favoring had begun at some point in the past and had continued to the present time (from the standpoint of the speaker).

Perhaps it’s true that Mary was “full of grace,” but I’m not so sure that it can be proven from Luke 1:28.

There seems to be no shortage of evangelistic methods that people devise and hold up as the most preferable technique. Some claim it is friendship evangelism, others say it is engaging others in question-and-answer dialogue, and still others insist it is showing love and doing service for others. It is likely that there are others as well. No matter what the method is, they are sometimes presented and/or embraced as a “silver bullet” solution, that is, the single solution that will work where all others have failed. Consequently, it is not unusual to hear their creators or defenders try to persuade others of their worth with arguments that tend to sound like this: “Here’s why our evangelism is usually ineffective, so do this method, and your evangelism will be effective.”

Unfortunately, what they don’t seem to realize is that no evangelism is ineffective if it includes proclaiming the gospel and is devoid of unnecessary offenses. What is ineffective is the human heart’s ability to respond favorably to that message about Christ.

As good as their intentions may be, these toolmakers of evangelism seem to miss another important fact: The Bible doesn’t give us various methods and procedures for evangelism; it speaks only of proclaiming the gospel message. In fact, if the Bible upholds any particular method of evangelism at all, it is the verbal proclamation of the good news. From the parable of the sower to Paul’s descriptions of his own ministry to recorded events in the book of Acts, Scripture consistently emphasizes one evangelistic method: proclamation. That is the “silver bullet” of evangelism. Consider these passages:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16, ESV, emphasis added)

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:18–25, ESV, emphasis added)

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1–5, ESV, emphasis added)

For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16b, ESV)

This is not to say that any of the aforementioned methods are wrong simply because they do not appear in Scripture. In fact, some of these approaches may be useful in certain situations. The problem happens when they are lifted up to the same level as gospel proclamation and seen as equal to it in efficacy, as though gospel proclamation were optional—just one method to choose out of many. Thus, it is wrong to see any one of them as the single, long-sought-after silver bullet that will slay sin and resistance to the gospel once and for all. These various techniques are specific tools to stow away in one’s evangelistic toolbox, not as one-size-fits-all techniques but as implements to be retrieved when a particular occasion requires them and as support for the verbal communication of the gospel.

In all our methods, tactics, techniques and procedures, we need always to keep at the forefront of our minds this biblical truth: The gospel message is the method. It is the gospel that has power (Romans 1:16, James 1:18), not the various methods that we devise. We must always remember that.

Many people contrast the portrayal of God in the New Testament with that of God in the Old Testament and conclude that they were two different deities. They feel that the God portrayed in the Old Testament was harsh, cruel, judgmental and quick to anger, whereas the God of the New Testament is fatherly, loving, tender and merciful. This is actually a false dichotomy. Ironically, it is in the very act which we rightly see as the greatest act of mercy—Jesus hanging on the cross and bleeding for our sins—that we see the same Old Testament holiness, severity and judgment. Christ’s self-sacrifice was the result of both unrelenting judgment and the tenderest compassion: God’s holiness and justice required that the full penalty due humanity for their sins be satisfied, and He gave up His own Son compassionately to accomplish that. Mercy and justice are both seen on Calvary’s cross, just as they are both seen in the Old Testament. God did not change between Malachi and Matthew.

One day that stern holiness of God will break out against sin forever. It will be the unleashing of a righteous hostility toward evil that will never end—like a massive flash fire that suddenly breaks out and whose fury never ceases. Christ’s shed blood on the cross, however, is a complete satisfaction and appeasement of that righteous anger toward sin. When God sees that blood applied to a believer in Jesus, He has no wrath whatsoever toward that person: “Whoever believes in him [Jesus Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18, ESV).

The God revealed in the Old Testament is exactly the same God revealed in the New: loving and merciful and kind, yet also fearful and terrifying in His wrath. He is not to be trifled with. Don’t make light of Jesus’ death and suffering on the cross. If you reject it, you have nothing to look forward to but an eternity of suffering God’s holiness breaking out against you in hell. Repent and come to Christ now!

Click here to see the video.

This has long been one of my favorite messages. Some people may want to come to Christ because they are genuinely concerned about their salvation but might have doubts about whether the gospel is meant for them. Ralph Erskine does a great job assuring such people that the word of salvation is truly meant for them.

It is probably too long to post here, so here is a link to a PDF of it: The Word of Salvation Sent to Sinners (by Ralph Erskine)

It is well worth taking the time to read it through.