My Response to Al Mohler’s Defense of Limited Atonement
No, I’m not obsessed with Al Mohler or “dogging him” as the colloquial phrase has it. When I respond to him it’s for two reasons: 1) someone asked me to respond to him, and 2) he is widely considered a spokesman for evangelical Christians and I think that’s a misconception. People need to know that Mohler does not speak for all evangelicals. He doesn’t even speak for all Baptists.
According to a rather lengthy report published by the Associated Baptist Press (written by Bob Allen entitled “Mohler says Christ died only for the ‘elect’” and posted at the ABP’s web site on May 5) the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary says that “Christ died only for those he has redeemed…in terms of particular redemption.” “Particular redemption,” of course, is Calvinists’ preferred term for what many people call “limited atonement.”
Two things stand out in the report of Mohler’s statement (which was made on his May 3 podcast). First, he does not offer any scriptural proof of the doctrine (because there isn’t any), and second, he generously assures that people who disagree with him about this doctrine are not heretics. In fact, he makes a major point of the fact that he would “preach the gospel” alongside them—assuming they agree that that “salvation comes only to those who confess with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead.”
I believe that limited atonement is more of a dividing line than Mohler claims. Perhaps in this case he is more generous than I am. I don’t reject someone who believes as he does as a heretic, but I would have real trouble preaching the “gospel” alongside them.
To me the gospel necessarily includes that God loves all people and wants all to be saved. Preaching the gospel necessarily includes the truth that Christ offered a sufficient sacrifice for all people’s sins such that I can say indiscriminately declare to everyone “God loves you and Christ died for you.” And by “Christ died for you” I would mean, and insist that anyone preaching the gospel alongside me mean, he provided by his death everything necessary for reconciliation with God except their own personal acceptance of that sacrifice by faith. To me, any other “gospel” is an only partially true gospel if not a false gospel. And many, many Reformed Christians agree with me about this against so-called “five point Calvinists.”
Again, let me be clear, I do not reject five point Calvinists as heretics or non-Christians or even as non-evangelicals. I simply could not preach the gospel alongside someone who cannot say with me to any group of people that God loves them, wants them to be saved, and has provided for their redemption by means of Christ’s death on the cross. That is what a five point Calvinist cannot say and, in my opinion, it is part and parcel of the whole gospel.
Mohler says that both Calvinists and Arminians have to interpret “world” (as in John 3:16 and other passages) one way in some passages (e.g., as referring to everyone) and another way in other passages (e.g., as referring only to some people). However, with special reference to John 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 15:22, he says “If you read ‘world’ and ‘all’ to mean that Christ’s saving work is applied to the world and to all within it on the same basis, then all are saved and that clearly isn’t consistent with Scripture.” But, of course, no classical Arminian believes that Christ’s saving work is “applied to the world and to all within it on the same basis”—except with regard to setting aside the guilt of original sin. Classical Arminians believe that Christ’s death on the cross was a sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world and everyone within it on the same basis. So do Calvinists! The difference lies only in for whom the saving benefit of Christ’s sacrifice is intended by God. Calvinists say “only the elect” and Arminians say “every human being without exception.” The latter view is clearly supported, and I would say proven, by 1 Timothy 2:4-6 as well as by any reasonable belief that God is love. It is also supported by the two times (1 Corinthians 8:11 and Romans 14:15) that Paul warms against causing the “destruction” of a person for whom Christ died (by misuse of Christian liberty). According to five point Calvinism, Mohler’s theology, that’s not even possible.
I am well aware, of course, that five point Calvinists (and many Calvinists are “four pointers”) have their interpretations of all scripture passages that point to universal atonement. But I agree with the late Vernon Grounds, long-time president of Denver Seminary and evangelical scholar and statesman, that “It takes an exegetical ingenuity which is something other than a learned virtuosity to evacuate these texts of their obvious meaning: it takes an exegetical ingenuity verging on sophistry to deny their explicit universality.” (“God’s Universal Salvific Grace” in Grace Unlimited [Bethany House, 1975], p. 27)
Mohler, like many other high Calvinists (i.e., “five pointers”), argues that universal atonement leads inexorably to universalism. (See the quote from his podcast above.) This is an old argument that holds no weight whatsoever. Only five point Calvinists, a tiny minority in the overall scheme of Christian history, believe this. Even most Reformed theologians don’t believe this (depending on what “Reformed” means, of course). Even Calvin himself did not believe in limited or definite atonement! (See R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 [Wipf and Stock, 2011].) Universal atonement and non-universalism are completely compatible unless one pre-defines terms (as Mohler seems to in the above quote) such that Christ’s death and its application to the individual are conflated. Even Calvinists do not do that! (Classical Calvinism includes belief that an elect person is not actually “saved” until they are regenerated by the Holy Spirit at either baptism or conversion.)
How are universal atonement and non-universalism logically compatible? Well, the answer is really so simple it shouldn’t have to be stated or explained. Assuming penal substitution as the right theory of atonement (which Mohler and many Arminians both do), Christ’s death on the cross reconciled God to humanity and humanity to God in terms of providing the perfect sacrifice to satisfy the justice of God. He suffered every sinner’s deserved penalty. So how can any sinner suffer that penalty? Wouldn’t God be unjust to punish the same sins twice? The answer is “yes, but….” Hell is, as I have stated with C. S. Lewis many times, God’s “painful refuge” for those who insist on being separated from God forever. That is why hell is so tragic—not because it is unjust but because it is so unnecessary. A person in hell is one who has chosen that everlasting condition over heaven—a place of glorifying God and enjoying him forever.
Of course, there’s another way around the Mohler’s logic and that is the “governmental theory” of atonement in which Christ did not suffer every person’s deserved punishment but an “equivalent punishment” to the one every person deserves so that God demonstrates through Christ, himself, how seriously he takes sin, making forgiveness possible with righteousness and justice. Some Arminians have opted for this view of the atonement. But, given C. S. Lewis’ view of hell (and mine) I don’t find it necessary.
I believe that belief in limited, “definite,” “particular” atonement is a “deep deviation” from historical Christian orthodoxy, a doctrine that makes God monstrous and unworthy of worship, unbiblical, and a serious threat to the gospel and evangelism. Nevertheless, I accept as fellow evangelical Christians most people who believe in it (I would exclude from that so-called hyper-Calvinists who reject evangelism) and consider them about the same way they consider me and other classical Arminians—as confused and deluded.