Thursday, May 15, 2014

Theology Thursday: Agreement on Atonement

"Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins."  -Hebrews 9:22, ESV

This week's "Theology Thursday" takes on the light-weight issue of the atonement of Christ.  :)  Rarely among pastors--let alone laity in our churches--is the subject of atonement theories raised.  But when it is, the discussion seems to evoke strong emotions on both sides which can very easily escalate into a vitriolic debate that dishonors both Jesus, and the price He paid for sinners.

In our Association, our pastors hail from Reformed and non-Reformed schools of thought where this issue is concerned.  Thankfully, both sides have understood that what we agree on is greater than what we disagree on, since for most all of our churches, there is a common understanding of penal substitution as the "heart" of the atonement--the belief that Jesus died as a substitute for sinners, bearing the wrath of God in our place so that those who repent and turn to Him in faith have eternal life.

But as recent as last week, a national debate regarding the "extent" of the atonement ignited again.  On one side, Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, responded to a question about "limited atonement" in a May 3 podcast, arguing that Calvinists and Arminians aren't as far apart as it might seem, while at the same time defending his own understanding that Christ died for the elect.  Four days later, Truett Seminary theologian Roger Olsen issued a written response to Mohler's statements from the Arminian viewpoint.  The online responses to these public words substantiates my claim above that it is hard to separate this discussion from strong emotion.

I'm a two-time alumnus of Southern, and overall, I admire Dr. Mohler, and to a large degree share his theological convictions, so its difficult for me to critique this discussion.  Also, I freely admit that both Mohler and Olsen are way smarter than I am on a number of issues.  Still, as I heard these two men speak, I heard nothing particularly new from either position, which concerns me, given the fact that I believe both sides of this debate have talked past each other for many decades now--principally by asking the wrong question.

By "wrong question" what I mean is this:  Asking "who did Jesus die for?" is, in my view, an over-simplified way to begin this discussion.  For one thing, how one answers this question, regardless of which "side" one takes, will carry some degree of nuance.  As a seminary student, I studied historical theology under Tom Nettles, who held to what has been pejoratively called  a "commercial view" of limited atonement.  That is, Dr. Nettles claimed that Jesus died for the elect, and the elect alone.  He believed that there is no sense in which Jesus' death on the cross benefited in any way those who reject the message of the Gospel.  I don't believe this, which is why when I stand in a room that includes non-Christians, I have no problems telling them "Jesus died as an expression of God's love for you, so that you can have eternal life."  And in that sense, I'm not only comfortable, but confident to tell unbelievers "I believe Jesus died for you."  At the same time, when I'm asked what I believe actually took place on the cross, my understanding of texts such as Colossians 2:13-15 cause me to answer that question in a way that sounds a lot like someone who believes in particular redemption.

So where does that leave a guy like me?  Honestly, I don't know.  And honestly, I'm OK with that ambiguity, because I think focus on "extent" is, to a large degree, problematic, and ultimately solves very little.  A better question to ask is, again, "What took place on the cross?"  Because the crux of the difference between the Calvinist and Arminian positions lies here.  One believes that Jesus made debt payment possible for all people, while not actually paying a debt for anyone until they repent and believe.  The other side believes that Jesus actually paid a debt.  This is, in my view, the appropriate question to ask, because its the question the text actually answers.

As I ponder these deep questions with the work of our network of churches in view, I'm deeply thankful for the men in our pulpits who, while on different sides of an issue like this, have not allowed it to interfere with their cooperation with others.  After all, regardless of what you believe about the extent of the atonement, if it keeps you from sharing the death of Christ with an unbelieving world--even alongside people who may reach a different conclusion than you regarding the minutae of what took place there--you ultimately help no one.  Truth is, Mohler is right to state that preachers on both sides of this debate are much closer than it might appear.  Perhaps what makes the distance between these two positions seem further apart are the questions we are asking.

You can find Mohler's podcast here:

Roger Olsen's response on his patheos site is here:


Prophet Among Them said...


The Law of Non-Contradicion in Logic applies here.

Perspective A is correct and Perspective B is not
Perspective B is correct and Perspective A is not
Both Perspective A & B are incorrect
But, both cannot be correct

1Cor. 11:19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval (NIV).

. said...

I don't deny the law of non-contradiction as a metaphysical reality Tom. My struggle here is at the level of epistemology. For example, based on what I believe Scripture clearly teaches happened on the cross, it would be really easy for me to automatically (and logically) move from there to a clear-cut view of particular redemption. But I also have to take into account texts like 2 Peter 2, where false teachers, who have been "marked out" for condemnation (a good Calvinist would say "predestined" to be damned) for their false teaching BECAUSE they deny their Lord and Master who BOUGHT them. So, it would appear that, in some sense, they have been 'Purchased." Yet, they will go to hell. When placed alongside other texts such as Colossians 2, I come to the conclusion that ultimately, Scripture answers the question of what happened on the cross, but as much as logic wants to take me to the next step, Scripture doesn't appear to answer that question. Logical or not, I don't believe we should ask questions that Scripture doesn't appear to answer. We get ourselves into trouble that way. Additionally, I've always found it mildly annoying that the commentaries tend to skip right over these texts. Could it be that too many scholars don't want to admit that they just don't know? ;)

Prophet Among Them said...


God is not schidzophrenic and neither is Scripture. He does not say one thing in on place and something utterly and absolutely contradictory in another.

I make no claim to have comprehensivley and exhaustively garnered an accurate understanding of Genesis to Revelation. But, I passionatley believe God expects me to strive with all diligence applying the marvelous training He has provided to identify and declare with humble certainty what Scripture says and teach the revealed Truth line upon line and precept upon precept.

There is not neraly as much ambiguity in Special Revelation as some would choose to portray.

Appreciate the dialog!

. said...

I too appreciate dialog, but I would appreciate this one more if you wouldn't assume things about my Theology Proper. ;) I have never said, or thought God to be schizophrenic, nor have I discouraged diligent study of His Word, which I also believe is inerrant and thus, consistent. Our disagreement here, if there is one, is one of epistemology. I'm simply willing to live with more ambiguity on this issue than you are, and would contend that this disposition is based on faithful exegesis relative to this topic. I believe Colossians 2 and 2 Peter 2 are consistent with each other. I don't believe they contradict each other. At the same time, I confess that their respective content leaves my preferred Reformed schematic with questions that that schematic can't answer, so I'm content to live with the mystery. Hope all is well down in Alabama.