Addressing Calvinism, 1 of 4: Jesus Died for Everyone
I read a story about a man who entered a downtown restaurant, took a seat by the window, browsed the menu, and ordered a steak. As they brought out his sizzling steak, he was amazed at how large and tender it was. It was the juiciest steak he had ever eaten! Later that day, he couldn't stop talking about it to his friends, and he convinced them to join him at the same restaurant for lunch the next day. They walked in, sat down, ordered steaks, and talked while they waited for their food. When the waitress finally brought out the plates, they were disappointed at how small and tough the steaks were. They were some of the worst steaks that any of them had eaten. The man was embarrassed and demanded of the waitress, "Look, I came in here just yesterday, and the steak was amazing, and big, and juicy, but today they're awful. What's going on?" "Oh," the waitress replied, "Yesterday, you were sitting by the street window."
We've probably all been tricked by false advertising. It's practically everywhere here on earth! And advertisements which are technically true are often misleading, like the man who owned a gas station on a state border and put on his sign, "Last chance to get gas for $1.75". As one customer pumped gas, he asked the owner, "So what's the price of gas over the border?" He replied, "$1.55." Thankfully, we know that God is not like that at all! He doesn't use deceptive advertising. On the contrary, He is very upfront (e.g., Matthew 8:19-20). This is one very important reason why I believe Jesus died for everyone. If He didn't, then clear and simple verses about the gospel, which God has commanded to be proclaimed throughout all the world, would not say what people reasonably think they say.
To me, it seems like in the discussion of Calvinism, frequently, people vastly overestimate their own intellect and make things way too complicated. We would probably like to think of our brains as blazing fast race cars, but I suspect they're closer to puttering and worn-down Model T's, even for the sharpest of brains (I Corinthians 8:2-3; Colossians 2:18). Extremely intelligent and educated people can fall for logical fallacies, often without realizing what happened. Just look at all of the brilliant and super-smart scientists who believe in evolution! If we trust our own intellect, the devil will surely outpace us with his handcrafted lies. Above all, we need to rely on constant prayer and the Holy Spirit for guidance. We also need to be careful to avoid exalting the intelligence of other men too much, lest we ourselves become puffed up against others (I Corinthians 4:6).
Usually, the first step to a profitable discussion is gaining clarity; that is, figuring out exactly how you disagree. Otherwise, the discussion tends to jump and dart back and forth, mentally wearing us out just trying to keep up with where the argument is. I think Calvinism can be especially tricky in this regard. With the subtle differences in terms, it can be tough to know just how to accurately frame the disagreement. I have great respect for many godly Calvinists, both historic and modern, who love Jesus; they have plenty of awesome things to say, and many of them are very studious and knowledgeable in the Bible. But I think there are a few structural parts of their doctrine which are unbiblical, and even harmful to our spiritual health. I'd like to discuss four simple statements in plain language which I believe the Bible clearly teaches, yet which disagree with Calvinism: (1) Jesus died for all; (2) God wants all to repent unto salvation; (3) Faith comes before the new birth; and (4) God leaves to us a choice in receiving Jesus Christ. In this post, let's look at the first point: That Jesus died for everyone.
In John 3:16, which is probably the most famous verse in all the Bible, Jesus says: "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." Now maybe you say, "But Peter, a big theme in the New Testament is that salvation is not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles from all over the world; and so this verse simply means that God loved the elect of every tribe and nation, which is how the Jewish audience would have taken it." I've tried to imagine myself hearing these words as a first-century Jew, "putting myself into Nicodemus's sandals," so to speak; and I understand how I might think, "Wait, the Gentiles are included?", especially if I had grown up believing otherwise; but that still doesn't dilute the full strength of the words. I simply don't get the sense of "only the elect" out of this passage at all. On the contrary, especially looking at the context, it seems so clear to me that "the world" has to include the non-elect, or the world as a whole. Later in this passage, Jesus says that "light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19v19). Clearly in this verse, God's light shined on everyone, even those who refused it, like sunshine on a bright day, not like a bunch of narrow spotlights only on certain individuals. The wording is similar to a passage later in John (John 12:46-4812:46-48), where "the world" includes those who will be judged in the last day. And earlier in chapter 1, John the Baptist said that Jesus "taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29v29); He "lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (John 1:9v9), the same "world" which was made by Him, who didn't know Him, and including those who didn't receive Him (John 1:11v11). Later in John, it is "the world" out of which the elect are taken (John 17:617:6, John 17:99). And the "whosoever" in John 3:163:16 implies that only part of that world will actually be saved. Put simply, the young child's understanding of John 3:16 is absolutely correct; Jesus died for the whole world.
Also, I John 2:2 says that Jesus is the propitiation "not for [our sins] only, but also for the sins of the whole world". Jesus "is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe" (I Timothy 4:10). In other words, there is a "special" group to which Jesus' blood applies (believers), but it is available to more, or "all men". In I Timothy 2:6 we see that Jesus "gave himself a ransom for all". Reading the entire passage, this includes the same "all" for whom we are to pray (cf. I Timothy 2:1v1, I Timothy 2:22, I Timothy 2:44); and most of these people, sadly, never get saved.
Hebrews 2:9 says that Jesus "[tasted] death for every man" (you could compare wording in Hebrews 2:2-3v2-3, "every transgression...how shall we escape"). And Romans 5:18 says, "Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life." Notice that "all men" is stated twice in the same verse, the first time clearly referencing all of humanity in condemnation for sin. And if you go back to Romans 5:12verse 12 of the same chapter, we see that "death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned". In that very same sense, Jesus also died for all.
Jesus said to "preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). Suppose you know a man named John, and you want to share the gospel with him. You take the wording right out of the definition in I Corinthians 15:1-4 and say, "Hey, John, I have some good news for you! Christ died for our sins..." Won't John think that includes his sins, too? Of course! Why shouldn't he? God isn't being deceptive. The very word "gospel" in the Bible means "good news," and it can be good only if Jesus died for you, and we are to preach the gospel to every creature. If all of these different verses, contexts, and wordings won't convince us, then I seriously doubt that anything would. No matter what wording God uses, theologians can put an asterisk beside it and say, "This is in the context of the elect only"; but you have to really want to avoid the clear meaning of these verses to try that. To me, Jesus' death for everyone is one of the most basic truths in all the Bible; and whatever we may not fully understand about other doctrines, we can be sure of this.
The Purpose of the Cross
One question that many people ask is, "On the cross, what did Jesus accomplish? Did He make salvation only a possibility for everyone, or did He certainly secure it for a definite group? What was His purpose, or intent?" Something about the question seems presumptuous to me. Do you remember those questions in literature class, like, "When Melville wrote that chapter in whats-it-called, the chapter about whats-his-name, what was the author thinking?" I always felt those questions could get out of hand very quickly! Yet here, we're not theorizing about what a man was thinking, but about what God was thinking. Isn't that dangerous if we go beyond the obvious? (I Corinthians 2:11; Isaiah 55:9)
But in any case, to get back to the question--whether God intended to make salvation only possible for all, or certain for some...Well, I would say both, in a particular and qualified sense. For instance, there were myriad of Old Testament saints who were eligible and waiting to be saved, and Jesus intended to save them immediately, which He did.
But as for future saints, there are two things on which we would both agree. First, God knew precisely how many future saints there would be, and specifically who they would be, although we would disagree as to why and how. Second, until a person repents and places their faith in Jesus Christ, they are not yet saved from God's wrath, or justified before God, or forgiven of their sins. And so we would agree that Jesus did not actually save any future saint on the cross immediately. Yes, He could have "secured" their salvation, I suppose, but what does that mean anyway? That He made provision for their salvation? Sure, I agree with that. That He died in their place? Absolutely. That He intended definitely to save them in the future? Okay, I suppose I could go along with that too, because of God's foreknowledge that they would repent and believe some day (I Peter 1:2). But how does that keep Him from making salvation possible for the entire world? It doesn't.
What about "double jeopardy"? That is, if God punished the sins of the entire world on the cross, then how could He be just (or fair) if He punished the same sins again, by sending unbelievers to hell? That's an interesting question, and I think it uncovers our inability to fully comprehend the atonement while down here on earth. (See Matthew 18:27, 32-34, reinstatement of debt; II Corinthians 5:19-21, two parts to reconciliation.)
I would answer in three parts. First, we evidently agree on the value of Jesus' death. The leading Calvinists, at least that I have read, believe that Jesus' death was sufficient to save the whole world. They simply take issue with the purpose of the cross. And so wouldn't they need to fundamentally answer the same question? The concept of double jeopardy does not care about purpose or intent, but only about actual punishment. If Jesus' death has enough value to theoretically save the whole world--that is, if God poured out enough wrath on the cross to have theoretically satisfied it for everyone--then this question applies equally to both of us.
Second, we would both agree that until a person actually repents and believes on Jesus Christ, they are still under God's wrath, are not yet saved, are not justified before God, and do not have their sins forgiven. This proves that there are two distinct steps: one of making salvation available, and another of making it applicable. For those of us saved today, these steps are separated by about two thousand years. This distinction must exist biblically, whatever your view on Calvinism. If God cannot punish sins which He already punished on the cross, and if the wrath toward the elect has been completely satisfied, then why does God's wrath still abide on the elect before they repent and believe? Why do they still need to be "saved" from it? This confounds the question of "double jeopardy" by proving that, in asking it, there is obviously something about the atonement that surpasses our comprehension. (Ephesians 2:3)
Third and finally, we need to remember that the Bible contains more than one analogy for the atonement, and we cannot take a single analogy too far by itself. One such analogy is the absolving of a debt (Matthew 18:23-35; 5:25-26; 6:12). We could say that on the cross, Jesus made the funds available to forgive the debt of the entire world, but that it is applied only against the accounts of those who will receive it. For the rest, Jesus' sacrifice is "trodden under foot" (Hebrews 10:26-29), wording which wouldn't make sense if it weren't accessible to them in the first place. This makes Jesus' death the ultimate example of selfless love (Romans 5:6-8), and the spurning of it the ultimate "neglect" (Hebrews 2:3).
Various Other Objections
Since most people reject Jesus, was part of His death vain in the end? No, because He proved His genuine love for them (John 3:16). Matthew 5 commands us to love even our enemies, most of whom will never repent, so that we can be like God; and our love for them isn't vain, even when they spurn it. Some people ask, "But what about those who were already in hell? Did Jesus really die for their sins, too?" Jesus planned to die before the world began (Revelation 13:8) and promised a redeemer for the race of Adam in Genesis 3:15, before anyone was in hell, a promise which I believe He kept for everyone (Psalm 15:4). On judgment day, no one can say God didn't love them or have any plan to provide for their rescue.
But didn't Jesus die specifically for His church, His sheep, or His people? Yes; but for example, just as His death for Paul individually doesn't take away from His death for the rest of the church (Galatians 2:20), neither does His death for the church take away from His death for the rest of the world. And further, Jesus was thinking specifically of the host of Old Testament saints who were waiting to become the church's first members (Ephesians 4:8; John 10:11 cf. John 10:16v16). He died with the intent of establishing His church (Ephesians 5:25-27; Acts 20:28), looking forward to an eternity with it in heaven (Hebrews 12:2).
In part, we could think of it this way: When a soldier lays down his life for his nation, what does that mean? Is the soldier thinking only of the citizens of the nation at the time he died? No; he is thinking of generations yet unborn, and of immigrants yet overseas. He lays down his life for all of these. If you choose to immigrate to the United States, then many of our brave founding fathers died so that you could be free, even though they never met you. Similarly, when Jesus died for His church, that doesn't mean He sealed the book of membership or locked the door. Anyone may join this church, or immigrate to this nation, for whom Jesus died (I Peter 2:9). Today, the door of God's church doesn't say, "Members only", but "Whosoever will" (Revelation 22:17).
Don't some verses say that Jesus died for "many" (Matthew 20:28; Hebrews 9:28)? Yes, and the entire population of the world throughout history is a great "many"! If you got a job reading the names of people at a speed of three per second (not a very fun job), and if you stayed with that job your entire working life, you wouldn't even get to a quarter of the people alive today by the time you retired. There are over seven billion people alive today, and that doesn't even include those who lived in the past! And Romans 5:19 says that "by one man's disobedience many were made sinners" (cf. Romans 5:15v15). Does that mean only some of us are sinners? No; here, "all" can be truly expressed as "many."
Maybe you say, "But Peter, hold on--back to the meaning of words like 'the world' and 'all'--Luke 2:1 says all the world was taxed, but that didn't include America, for instance." Actually, the verse says Caesar Augustus wrote a decree that all the world be taxed. I'm certain the decree said exactly that. No doubt Caesar Augustus was a pompous man who thought the whole world revolved around him. Such is the thought of kings. Come to think of it, such is the thought of lots of people! "But wait," you could say, "there's also John 12:19, which says the 'world' followed Jesus, but obviously not everyone did." But who made this statement? The Pharisees? Oh, that explains it! They were not exactly the most honest people of their day. If I lived in Jerusalem during that time and heard the Pharisees say the weather would be warm and sunny, I might consider grabbing my coat and umbrella. (Actually, they were trustworthy at least in matters of meteorology; Luke 12:54-56.) We can't be surprised if liars exaggerate, especially when filled with hatred and mockery.
Calvinists believe that Jesus died only for the elect, which is probably their most glaring and obvious error in my opinion. Some call themselves "four point Calvinists," rejecting this part of Calvinism while holding to the other points, but the hard-core Calvinists say that isn't possible, while being intellectually consistent. I tend to agree, and this means that, in my view, the simple verses about Jesus dying for everyone are enough to topple the entire tower of Calvinism as a whole. In the next post, we will look at why I believe God wants all to repent unto salvation.