Sunday, May 4, 2014

For God so loved...The Elect? A Confessional Lutheran on Limited Atonement

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

The Limited Atonement is the notion, in a nutshell, that Jesus did not die for everyone, but only for those whom the Father chose from his sovereign will. This teaching is intimately tied together with the Calvinistic teaching on predestination, sometimes called “double” predestination – that God chose some people to be saved, and others to be damned. I mean, it only follows logically that if God the Father predestined you to Hell, Jesus certainly didn’t die for you. One of the problems with the idea that Jesus did not die for all people, however, is the biblical evidence that, well…Jesus died for all people.

I suppose I should, in good Lutheran fashion, write, “For God so loved the world” on a table with a piece of chalk and simply point to it whenever anyone suggested that Jesus didn’t die for all mankind, and call it a day. Since, however, I am a Confessional Lutheran, and I have always found it difficult to keep my trap shut, you shall, therefore, not be spared a wordy explanation of what I believe, teach and confess, and what I reject and condemn. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise…

It seems an exercise in futility to argue with any Calvinist regarding what their theology calls the “limited” atonement. Calvinists would have us understand that the word “world” in John 3:16 means “elect”, just as they insist that the word “is” in the Matthew account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper means “represents”[1]. In both of these instances, the plain reading of the text is rejected because it just doesn’t make sense to human reason. If God picked some to be saved, logic dictates that he picked others to be damned. If Jesus’ body is in heaven at God’s right hand, logic dictates that it can’t be in the bread and wine of communion, last will and testament of the Christ notwithstanding[2][3].

This issue comes up now because I recently heard a wonderful lecture given by a Calvinist lecturer, and his “limited atonement seed” got stuck in my proverbial craw. During the lecture it became apparent that this man giving the talk was as happy and theologically satisfied to be a Calvinist as I am to be a Lutheran. Consequently, as background material for his topic (which, for the purpose of this little diatribe, is immaterial) he discussed several doctrinal issues: “double” predestination, the total depravity of the human nature, his disdain for the concept of baptismal regeneration (which shall receive its own treatment in due course, I can assure you), and, of course, the limited atonement.

As a member of a confessional Lutheran church body I find it frustrating that the Lutheran voice is so seldom heard in this theological debate in America. Luther preferred the designation Evangelical because of their focus on the Gospel, to the term “Lutheran”, which was used by his adversaries derisively (Lutheranism). To call one’s self an “Evangelical” today, however, doesn’t even bring to mind Luther, Lutheran theology, or even the “Solas” of the Reformation[4]. Instead, you get images of fire-and-brimstone tent revival meetings (Arminianism), some variety of the Reformed churches (Calvinism), or some sort of big-box mega-church. 

Both Calvinism and Lutheranism claim to hold to the sola scriptura principle of the Reformation – scripture alone is the only rule and norm by which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated. Calvinism, however, seems at least in practice, to change the maxim to read “sola scriptura…plus human reason”. Lutheranism excludes human reason from the formulation of doctrine. On first reading that might seem to be a knock against Luther and the rest of the boys, particularly in light of our modern culture which exalts the human reason and science to the point of idolatry. It is, however, one of the greatest characteristics of Lutheran theology, particularly when one understands that Christian doctrine is not human teaching, but God’s teaching given to man in the written word of Holy Scripture.

The Lutheran reformers took great pains to make sure that they were not theological innovators, but rather codifiers of Biblical doctrine. They meticulously documented in the 1580 Book of Concord how the doctrines contained therein were drawn from Holy Scripture, and were the same teachings that had always been taught in the church, going back to the ancient fathers[5]. They put down for the record in the Book of Concord that they were simply reforming what had been corrupted in the church during the Middle Ages, and they make a well-documented and compelling case. This was done in reaction to Rome’s attempt to classify them along with Calvin and Zwingli, as well as with the so-called “radical” reformers such as Muenzer, Karlstadt, Schwenkfeld, Franck, and others (McCain, Baker and Veith).

The Lutheran reformers did not advocate the abandonment of reason and thought, but rather that human reason and intellect was useful only if it was employed within its proper sphere. We have a brain with which to decipher Holy Scripture, which was handed down to us by God through men in human language, and in a real historical context. Doctrine (which is just a fancy word for “Teaching”) is to be drawn from scripture alone, using human reason and intellect to apply the rules of grammar and logic, subservient to the text, with the Holy Spirit as guide (Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation). By contrast, Christian Doctrine is not to be reasoned out according to what makes sense or feels good to us. In short, Lutherans are ok with taking God at his word, even if that word, in places, does not seem to jive with human logic. Lutherans affirm the words of Holy Scripture, even when they seem to us paradoxical. Good Lutheran theology simply says what God’s word says and, where God stops explaining, Lutheran theology stops explaining and gives glory to Him.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles… Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves (1 Timothy 2:1-7; Ephesians 1:3-6).
The apparent contradiction that God wants all men to be saved, and that God has elected a definite number of people to salvation from eternity simply cannot be rectified by human reason. It is an apparent paradox. I say “apparent”, because all of these things we cannot now grasp will be made clear in eternity, as St. Paul wrote:

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Luther and the reformers understood the doctrine of election (predestination) as St. Paul described it – through Christ[6] (McCain, Baker and Veith). Holy Scripture teaches that God, from eternity, elected (or predestined) believers in Christ his Son to be his own, without regard to any merit on their part, but simply by God’s grace. There is no mention of any election to damnation. The election is to be understood only through Christ. The key words there are “in Him” and “through Jesus Christ”. The elect are elect, not because God picked his favorites and wrote them down on a “saved” list, and decided to damn all the rest. He chose his elect “in Him” – those who believe/did believe/would believe in Christ would constitute the elect. This is also what St. Paul writes about in Romans:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
To Calvin, for God to elect some to eternal life and others to “reprobation” reveals God’s glory by showing his justice, as well as by impressing upon the elect God’s infinite mercy to them (Craig). The problem is that Scripture does not say that. This is philosophy. This idea is a product of the rational human mind which is, along with mankind’s nature, (to borrow a Calvinist-ism) “totally depraved”.

There is nothing in the surrounding context of John 3:16 which would suggest that “the world” about which Jesus speaks refers only to a group of The Elect, rather than to the plain meaning of the phrase “the world” – the whole of humanity. The Greek word used for “world” in John 3:16 is the same Greek word used for “world” in John 1:10:

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husbands will, but born of God (John 1:10-13).
To whom did Jesus come? He came to the whole of humanity but, because of their depravity, the “world” did not recognize him. By whom was he subsequently rejected? By a smaller group out of the whole of humanity, the Jews, called in this passage, “his own”. To whom did he give the right to become children of God? To those of “the world” who believed in his name. By what means are these Children of God born? They are born by the will of God. How does that work, and by what criterion does God make Children? Through faith in Jesus. That’s as far as we can go, because that’s as far as Scripture goes.

In spite of the rejection of Christ by “the world”, Jesus came into the world to save us from our sin by his death and resurrection. St. Paul seems to echo John when he writes:

For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all (Romans 11:32).
It is not surprising that, following this very passage and ending his longer discussion of God’s sovereignty and eternal election through the three previous chapters in the book of Romans, St. Paul concludes with this doxology:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?” For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
Thanks be to God that he has given us all that we need to have faith, and to understand that which he wants us to know in Holy Scripture, by the power of His Holy Spirit – that Jesus Christ, the God-man, died on the cross and rose from the dead to reconcile mankind with God by bearing the guilt of our sin.

Works Cited

Craig, Edward, ed. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Questions to Sociobiology. Vol. 8. New York: Routledge, 1998. 10 vols. 1 May 2014. <Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Questions to Sociobiology>.

Hesselink, I. John. Calvin's First Catechism: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.

"Lutheranism." n.d. Wikipedia. 1 May 2014. <>.

Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986.

McCain, Paul Timothy, et al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. Trans. William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005.

[1] Matthew 26:26
[2] Christ’s words in the Sacrament must be taken at face value especially because these words are the words of a testament, and even and ordinary person’s last will and testament may not be changed once that person has died (1 Cor. 11:25; Gal. 3:15) (Luther's Small Catechism with Explanation).
[3] Calvin: Accordingly, body and blood are represented under bread and wine, so that we may learn not only that they are ours, but that they are life and food for us…The sharing in the Lord’s body, which, I maintain, is offered to us in the Supper, demands neither a local presence, nor the descent of Christ, nor an infinite extension of his body, nor anything of that sort; for, in view of the fact that the Supper is a heavenly act, there is nothing absurd about saying that Christ remains in heaven and is yet received by us. For the way in which he imparts himself to us is by the secret power of the Holy Spirit, a power which is able not only to bring together, but also to join together, things which are separated by distance and by a great distance at that (Hesselink).
[4] Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura (Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture alone).
[5] The Catalog of Testimonies was appended to several early editions of the Book of Concord to show that Lutheran teaching about the two natures of Christ is thoroughly in line with the historic and universal faith of the Christian Church…Christology makes justification what it is: a powerful present joyful reality through Word and Sacrament by means of which the God-man, Jesus Christ, is present with us, and for us according to both His divine and human nature, giving us forgiveness, life and salvation. Reformed theologians…accused Lutherans of making up new understanding about the two natures of Christ. Therefore, it was necessary for Lutherans to refute these claims and show that their doctrine is, in fact, thoroughly in keeping with Scripture and the Ancient Church Fathers, who taught the same things (McCain, Baker and Veith).
[6] FC Ep. XI. 4; FC SD XI.