Problems with Calvinist Polemics against Arminianism

Problems with Calvinist Polemics against Arminianism February 10, 2013

Problems with Calvinist Polemics against Arminianism

Of all the “five points of Calvinism” the one that bothers me most is Limited Atonement (or what many Calvinists prefer to call “Particular Atonement”). While I find unconditional election and irresistible grace troublesome and problematic, they rise nowhere near limited atonement in terms of departing from Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. I’ve explained why in Against Calvinism and other writings (e.g., my article about limited atonement in the Assemblies of God ministers’ journal Enrichment:

While writing another talk about Calvinism for a church, problems with much Calvinist polemics against belief in universal atonement occurred to me. Before stating it and pointing out problems with the polemics, however, I need to back up and explain (for those who don’t already know) what these terms mean.

“Limited atonement” or “particular atonement” is the belief held by many Calvinists, nearly all of those who currently belong in the “young, restless, Reformed movement” and their mentors, that Christ died only for the elect in the sense of suffering their deserved punishment. Advocates of limited atonement insist they are not actually “limiting” the atonement. They say that’s what Arminians and other non-Calvinists do by making the atonement less than “securing” our salvation. They believe, they say, that the death of Christ was of infinite value, more than sufficient to save everyone. But it was intended by God only for the elect. Presumably, they also mean that God applies the benefits of Christ’s substitutionary suffering only to the elect.

I have never quite understood this qualification offered by Calvinist advocates of limited or particular atonement. My question to them is: Was Christ’s suffering sufficient to substitute for the deserved suffering of all people? If so, which seems implied by the claim that it was of infinite value, not limited in any way as to value, then how does that differ from universal atonement in Arminianism (as opposed to universalism)?  Both Calvinists and evangelical Arminians believe the benefits of Christ’s death were and are intended by God only for the elect. We disagree about who the “elect” are or why they are elect, what makes them elect, but we agree that Christ’s death was intended by God to save (in the full and final sense) only certain people and not everyone. Arminians believe the “elect” are all those who believe the gospel and receive Christ by faith. Calvinists believe that, too, but they believe those are chosen by God individually and specifically.

Just in case someone got lost in that last paragraph, let me recapitulate my question: If Christ’s death was of infinite value, such that it was sufficient to save everyone but intended by God only for the elect, how does that really differ from what classical Arminians believe about the scope of the atonement?

Where is this leading? Simply put—Many, perhaps most, Calvinists argue that Arminian belief in the atonement falls into incoherence, inconsistency. Here’s how: allegedly, by believing that Christ suffered the punishment deserved by all people, even those who will be lost eternally, Calvinists argue, Arminians imply that God will punish some sins twice which would be unjust. This is the argument set forth in great detail in Puritan theologian John Owens’ The Death of Death in the Death of Christ—a Calvinist classic. The argument is repeated in many contemporary Calvinist polemics against Arminianism. But how does typical Calvinist belief in the atonement escape the same problem (assuming it is a problem)? How does saying that Christ’s death was “sufficient” to save all and of “infinite value” not turn back on Calvinists themselves, making their own view of the atonement as inconsistent as Arminianism allegedly is?

It seems to me the only way for Calvinist believers in limited, particular atonement to escape the same problem is to admit that, in their view, Christ’s death was not of infinite value, sufficient to save all people. But most Calvinists I read do not want to say that.

It seems to me quite unfair and illogical for Calvinists to accuse Arminians of inconsistency or of making God unjust when the structure of their belief about the matter in question (the atonement) would be equally inconsistent and equally make God unjust insofar as the Arminian view is and does. (Notice the “insofar,” which indicates I’m not agreeing that the Arminian view is or does.)

(Now, one way in which some Arminians have responded to Owens’ and Calvinists’ argument about their view of the atonement [“universal atonement”] is to embrace the “governmental theory” which supposedly solves the problem by saying that Christ did not suffer sinners’ deserved punishment but an equivalent one. I’m setting that aside for purposes of this post because the Calvinist polemic is not aimed there. The Calvinist polemic against the governmental theory is different—that it makes the atonement merely “educative” and is therefore not to be taken seriously except as further evidence of Arminian deviation from orthodoxy. My point here is simply to raise questions about the classical Calvinist polemic against “universal atonement.)

Now, I have one further point to make about the Calvinist polemic against Arminianism and the atonement. Owens and those who follow his line of thought argue that God would be unjust to punish the same sins twice and therefore Arminianism impugns the character of God. (I happen to disagree that God would be unjust to punish the same sins twice if the sinner refuses to accept Christ’s substitutionary punishment. But that’s a different subject.) Here’s my point: Why can’t the Arminian simply say, as Calvinists frequently say, that God’s justice is different than human justice? And why don’t Calvinists who use this argument against Arminianism and all belief in universal atonement see how inconsistent they are being? If God’s “love” and “justice” are so different from our most basic and highest intuitions about them that when applied to God they mean only what they mean in that context and have no real connection with other meanings of love and justice, then why can’t Arminians and others believe that God is “just” in punishing the same sins twice even if that means God is unjust in every other meaning of the word “just?”

That was a long paragraph and sentence, but working through it diligently is crucial to understanding my question to Calvinists. (Of course, I know that not all Calvinists believe in limited atonement or use Owens’ argument; I’m talking here about those who do which are many especially in the “young, restless, Reformed” movement and their theological mentors.)

It seems to me that it is grossly inconsistent for Calvinists to accuse Arminians of impugning the character of God by implicitly making God unjust when 1) their own view of God’s double predestination much more makes God unjust, and 2) they have no right to accuse anyone of making God “unjust” if God’s “justice” (like his “love”) is so radically different from other justice that it means only what it means in their theology (or they would say “in the Bible”).

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  • Great blog, Roger.

    Something similar has bothered me about Limited Atoenement. I heard a whole series on it by R.C. Sproul, which was the first time I heard a distinction made between Jesus’ death being “sufficient for all but not efficient for all”. What bothered me about this type of terminology was that I felt it did require God to do something more after paying a sufficient death for all. By “something more” I mean the limiting Christ’s payment to just some elect few (or many). In other words, if God left Christ’s payment “alone” as it were, and if His death is of infinite worth and sufficient for every human being ever, then it seems to me like God has to make and extra effort to not pay for some people in order to send them to hell. I assume a person can believe this and defend it but that person should not replace the word “limited” with “particular” in his/her description of his/her doctrine of atonement since Christ’s death — being of infinite value and sufficient for ALL — is not inherently limited; His death has to be made limited in order for it to be limited. My point in all of this is the following: If God has to actively limit Christ’s atonement (i.e., a separate and second “work” on behalf of God) then Calvinists should no longer say God simply “passes over” the non elect; work is required of God to limit the atonement, which is of infinite value.

    In light of this I have two questions.

    1- Does my argument make sense or is it fundamentally flawed somehow? I have never hear/read anyone use this argument so I wonder if I’m not seeing some essential error in it.

    2- Your blog just brings to my attention something I never considered before, namely, that Arminians can also say Christ’s death is “sufficient for all but efficient for some”. But if that is true, would my argument above apply to myself as well?

    Thanks, Roger! You rock!

    Btw, to my horror I found out yesterday that Crossway is publishing a book around November entitled: “From Heaven He came and sought her: Definite atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective” edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson. It is yet another book by famous Calvinist contributors in their polemic against Non-Calvinists. I dread this systematic equipping of militant YRR who can’t wait to try to embarrass Arminians with what they learn from this new toy. Smh

    David Martinez

    • rogereolson

      I assume this is part of why most Calvinists prefer “particular atonement” to “limited atonement.” But the whole distinction between “sufficient for all” and “efficient for some” baffles me. Especially since many Calvinists claim that IF Arminianism is true, some of Christ’s blood was shed “in vain.” What I want to know is how they escape the same claim. I don’t see how that’s possible (although, in the end, I don’t accept it as a valid criticism of universal atonement).

      • So would you agree that if Christ’s death is sufficient for all, then chronologically a second (and extra) step is required of God in order to make the atonement only for the elect? Does that make sense?

        • rogereolson

          They are distinct if not separate acts of God.

  • Bev Mitchell


    I was going to say something but before doing so took your advice and read your article in Enrichment Journal (linked above). It turns out that the quote you give from Vernon Grounds captured what I wanted to say in far fewer and better chosen words viz. “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.”

    To all: I recommend Roger’s article in Enrichment Journal. He builds out some of what appears here and names names – which can be very helpful in some situations. More importantly, he gives many scriptural references to back up his argument. Finally, he goes to the heart of the matter, introducing it like this: “The greatest problem goes to the heart of the doctrine of God. Who is God and what is God like?” I won’t give away the punch line.

    When was that article in Enrichment Journal published? The appears to be no date published – a problem, ironically, in the computer age.

    Now, since I had already written something…….

    Isn’t the belief that human beings cannot say “no” to God what leads to all the angst about why some people do not accept the sacrifice of Christ? If this belief is true, then limited atonement, unconditional election, double predestination, irresistible grace and all the rest have to be invented to make it work. The whole thing, it seems to me, is a human-derived system based on the simple and unbiblical belief that we cannot resist God, we cannot say no to his grace – which is the same thing as resisting the Holy Spirit. Yet, our own lives and most of the accounts in Scripture deal with the problems that come from resisting God – beginning with the spiritual source of evil himself. With a view of God that is nonsense (God gives freedom then takes it away by not allowing us to use it) and an anthropology that is unbiblical (humans cannot say no to God) no wonder the kind of Calvinism you so valiantly confront causes such confusion and harm.

    • rogereolson

      Of course, as you know, Calvinists believe it is only the elect who cannot say “no” to God. Everyone else does say it. But, of course, they say it because God determined them to say it (even if only in an indirect way). So, it seems to me the Calvinist claim about irresistible grace is a tautology: “The elect are those who do not say ‘no’ to God. Those who say ‘no’ to God are not the elect.” Then, whenever you find a case in Scripture where someone said “no” to God, the answer is “They were not elect.” There’s no way to argue against that because of the way the terms have been defined within the system.

      • Bev Mitchell

        Thank you Roger for the gentle correction. Not being much of a Calvin scholar I had not completely internalized that point. So, if I haven’t been elected, I cannot say ‘yes!’ (it’s been determined that I can only say “no!”). And, if I have been elected I cannot say ‘no!’ Well at least the nonsense is symmetrical. But then, if the logic is sound, it must be – nonsense can only beget nonsense.

        This reminds me of a book I like to dip into from time to time entitled “Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk” by Massimo Pigliucci.

        • Richard UK

          My second one to you, Bev
          It is only nonsense from the starting point of man’s autonomy and a equal limitation of God’s sovereignty, which think is your starting point.
          For a Calvinist it is not nonsense; it may offend your sense of human dignity, or human free will, or that man must be held responsible for not crying for mercy or accepting grace – but please see it is not nonsense. (or explain more as to how it is)

    • Rev. Dr. Kevin McKee

      Amen, what a well written note, thank you.

    • Richard UK

      I need to do your blog here more justice but I think you are critiquing the (Calvinist) view that first we resist God and then we cannot resist God. I think there is at first sight a logical disharmony here, but we know with, say, two lovers, that the personhood, identity, and will of one is not breached when overcome by the attraction of the other. In the same way, we resist God knowing no better, but we are given a heart of flesh and fall willingly into his arms. When seen relationally, it removes much of the disharmony, in my view

      • rogereolson

        And why doesn’t God give everyone a “heart of flesh” so that they will “fall willingly into his arms?” And how “relational” is God’s irresistibly giving anyone a heart of flesh without their consent? Wouldn’t it be like a person who wants someone else to love him giving her a pill that causes her to love him? What kind of love is that?

  • James Petticrew

    I have always felt with their doctrine of particular Atonement that the Calvinists essential conflate atonement and regeneration, as well make the preaching of the Gospel for me disingenuous at best and potentially dishonest.

  • pete d

    Of what value to the eternally lost is Christ’s atonement?

    • rogereolson

      According to John Piper (and some other Calvinists) Christ’s atoning death secured “temporal blessings” for them. As I said, that is the same as saying God gives them a little bit of heaven to go to hell in.

  • Drew

    This has been the most confusing point for me in my relatively shallow theological study (confusing as to the differences between the Calvinist and Arminian positions). I believe Calvin said, (and I could be mistaken) “sufficient for all, efficient for many”. That seems to be an accurate way of characterizing either position, would you agree? It seems as if the “sufficient” argues for unlimited and the “efficient” argues for limited or particular. My understanding of your article here is that the difference lies in the scope of Christ’s suffering. The Calvinist would suppose that Christ’s suffering was specifically for the sins of and to take the punishment for the elect while the Arminian would suppose that Christ’s suffering was specifically for the sins of and to take the punishment for the whole world being only effective by means of the unbelievers exercised faith through prevenient grace. Would you say that is an accurate representation? If not, please feel free to correct me.
    I am doing some theological study on my own due to having some friends of the “YRR” type. I am trying to nail down the specifics of my beliefs and really want to characterize theirs correctly. I am also a big fan of your articles here and they have taught me much. Your input would be greatly appreciated!

    • rogereolson

      My argument in that post was that there really IS no significant difference between Calvinists and Arminians about the SCOPE of the atonement except when it comes to the “efficient” part. Both believe Christ suffered sufficiently to secure the salvation of all. But Calvinists then inconsistently go on to say that Arminian belief in the universal scope of the atonement makes God unjust (in punishing some people in hell), etc., etc. Go back, please, and read the post very carefully. I thought I was clear there, but it does take some careful parsing of the argument.

  • AM I WRONG? – I see essentially NO difference between Arminianists and Calvinists in “limiting” the atonement of Christ to certain conditional expectations and doctrines. For examples:

    * Both agree that Christ’s atonement was “sufficient” in quality to universally cover all humanity.
    * Both agree that Christ’s atonement is ultimately “limited” in quantity to a ‘select of the elect.’
    * Both agree that a part of humanity (a few!) will ultimately end up in a God-created heaven of bliss.
    * Both agree that part of humanity (most!) will ultimately end up in a God-created hell of eternal torture.
    * Both agree that “choice” determines the ultimate fate of humanity: Calvinism = God’s choice;
    Arminianists = Human choice.
    * Both agree that their doctrine is right and the other is wrong.

    May I suggest that both doctrines are in error and that with just two (2) corrections both could be reconciled with each other and (more importantly) with the Scriptures, as follows:
    * Ultimately ALL humanity and ALL things shall be reconciled to God (Col 1:19-20).
    * None shall be lost, thus the concept of a hell of eternal conscious torture is finally recognized as a pagan
    myth unworthy of a God of Love.

    • Dave Smith

      I quite agree. This cerebral chicken and egg type thing on the issue of free will, brings to mind-

      Who have directed the Spirit of the Lord, or being his counsellor hath taught him? With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him in the path of judgement, and taught him knowledge, and shewed to him the way of understanding? Isaiah 40: 13&14 (KJV)

      The more schisms, the more the Church will probably fall apart.

    • Richard UK

      1. does not the bible say that Judas was doomed to destruction?

      2. and that Jesus ‘lied’ when he spoke of men going to hell?

  • Fred Karlson

    Excellent comments Roger. Thank you very much. I find them much in agreement with Richard Muller’s talk on “Was Calvin a Calvinist?”
    There on page 7, he says: “Or, finally, given the christocentric orientation of Calvin’stheology , his views on the work of Christ tended toward “unlimited atonement” in contrast to the “rigid”view of “limited atonement” that resulted from later Calvinist predestinarianism.
    Here is another pertinent excerpt on the problem of TULIP:
    “By way of addressing these issues, we should note first and foremost the problem of TULIP itself — an acrostic that has caused much trouble for the Reformed tradition and has contributed greatly to the confusion about Calvin and Calvinism. (I don’t plan to tiptoe through this issue.) It is really quite odd and a-historical to associate a particular document written in the Netherlands in 1618-19 with the whole of Calvinism and then to reduce its meaning to TULIP. Many of you here know that the word is actually “tulp.” “Tulip” isn’t Dutch — sometimes I wonder whether Arminius was just trying to correct someone’s spelling when he was accused of omitting that “i” for irresistible grace. More seriously, there is no historical association between the acrostic TULIP and the Canons of Dort. As far as we know, both the acrostic and the phrase “five points of Calvinism” are of Anglo-American origin and do not date back before the nineteenth century. It is remarkable how quickly bad ideas catch on. When, therefore, the question of Calvin’s relationship to Calvinism is reduced to this popular floral meditation — did Calvin teach TULIP? — any answer will be grounded on a misrepresentation. Calvin himself, certainly never thought of this model, but neither did later so-called Calvinists. Or, to make the point in another way, Calvin and his fellow Reformers held to doctrines that stand in clear continuity with the Canons of Dort, but neither Calvin nor his fellow Reformers, nor the authors of the Canons, would have reduced their confessional position to TULIP. “

    • rogereolson

      They may not have “reduced their confessional position to TULIP” but TULIP well summarizes the most controversial part of it. By far the majority of TULIP Christians in America today are Baptists and other confessionally non-Reformed free church Protestants. I have always agreed and said that classical Reformed theology cannot be reduced to TULIP. However, TULIP is the contemporary flashpoint of controversy with numerous leading spokesmen for Calvinism defending it as biblical orthodoxy (to the exclusion of those who disagree with it in whole or in part).

  • J.E. Edwards

    I’m not sure if this can add anything to the conversation, but I’ve always like C.H. Spurgeon’s handling of this. His sermon “High Doctrine and Broad Doctrine” is really good. It’s pretty much where I land. Here’s the link.

  • Rev. Dr. Kevin McKee

    To me it is clear that the underlying problem for Calvinist’s is the belief that if humans have the ultimate right to say “no” to God, this dimishes the majesty and authority of God. All the points of TULIP rest upon this premise (at least in their perspective). I guess I am slow, I do not see how God granting human beings the right to choose (knowing the consequences of their choice), whether they wish to take advantage of the grace offered in Christ Jesus’ sacrifice, to come into a full relationship with God, or to declare themself as the God in their existence and as a result leave the presence of God eternally, which from my way of thinking is to choose hell.

    • Rev. Dr. Kevin McKee

      Oops, missing part of my comment. I fail to see how this choice dimishes God. God exercises complete authority and allows us the opportunity to choose. There is no doubt that God could command our presence, our obedience, and use the grace of Jesus actions to make us sufficient to be allowed in God’s presence, but God chooses another way. This does not diminish God’s sovereignty, in fact from my perspecitve it expands God’s majesty.

      • Richard UK

        yes, but it is a bit like a parent watching their 10 year old playing in the road in front of a speeding car and saying ‘I have warned him well enough for him to decide for himself’. Bags of majesty but not of a type I warm to (But I know equally you can say that it is equally heartless of God not to save everyone – though a Calvinist would refer you to Rom 9 which is biblical even if our human sense of justice is offended, as was Job’s )

  • Jeremy

    “While I find unconditional election and irresistible grace troublesome and problematic, they rise nowhere near limited atonement in terms of departing from Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.”
    After disbelieving Calvinism and studying more over the years I’ve come to think that only the T (which I agree with), the U and the P of TULIP can really be argued from Scripture and the rest follow logically from those three. I don’t see any reason to read 1 John 2:2 the way Calvinists do except that they’re already committed to a system that requires them to read it that way

  • gingoro

    ” But the whole distinction between “sufficient for all” and “efficient for some” baffles me. ” It seems to me that if one does not have the sufficient/efficient distinction then one essentially says that the atonement is both sufficient and efficient for all, which as I see it is universalism. As a moderate calvinist this distinction has never bothered me. I find preservation of the saints much more problematic as it does not seem to match what one experiences, consider Charles Templeton who as a Billy Graham associate evangelist certainly seemed to be a Christian but in the end became an atheist and denigrated Christianity.

    As someone who is part of a church that has the Cannons of Dort as part of it’s statement of faith, I can say that I have never heard Sproul of Piper mentioned from the pulpit, either positively or negatively. Although our pastor indicated that he disagreed with those who hold to a deterministic position when I discussed the issue with him.

    • rogereolson

      I like your mention of the “cannons of Dort!” They were and are wrongly trained on Arminians–mostly due to misunderstanding (IMHO).

  • Dave Smith

    Man cannot control the Holy Spirit and predestination appears to be an attempt at reducing God to our own logical limitations. Some of these preachers I see over in America ought to to learn some humility and awe, before sermonizing.

    I loved your book, The Story of Christian Theology, by the way.
    Peace and Goodwill.

  • Joe

    Just recieved Arminian Theology Myths and Realities today! Just wanted to say I cannot put the book down! I cannot wait to get to the last chapter which I believe addresses atonement….This book might cause me to pull a late night to finish it even with having to work a 10 hour day tomorrow. =) I just wanted to say thank you Roger for exposing that so much of what is labeled Arminian theology is really pelagian at worst & semi pelagian at best. True Arminianism definately makes grace stunning! Sometimes I wonder if it would be best for Arminians & Calvinists to stop fighting each other and start fighting the pelagianism that seems to be so rampant in the church today!

    • rogereolson

      That’s what I’ve been trying to say to my Calvinist friends for twenty years! I’ve had some success with some of them, but others…none.

    • I suspect that most non-Calvinists today would be some form of Pelagian, they tend to really think a lot of man and his free will and don’t even consider grace. I’ve often asked my semi-Pelagian friends, “have you ever heard of prevenient grace?”

      • rogereolson

        And it is they Calvinists mean when they blast “Arminianism” as “semi-Pelagian.” I’ve had very little success getting Calvinists, even intelligent, educated ones, to stop that. They are so invested in attacking Arminianism they can’t admit they’ve been attacking a straw man all these years.

        • The misrepresentation of “Arminianism” as “semi-Pelagian” drives me nuts. And I’m Baptist. But what I’ve discovered is that it is so much easier for a man to attack a straw man than to do the hard work of exegesis and studying theological texts. I do think that the best place to begin is not with a branding of PELAGIAM but with a definition of grace. Where does it begin? What does it do? What did God intend for it to do? In my opinion, one of the biggest differences between Arminians and Calvinists isn’t free will, it is what God has done with the will of natural man. That is, it is their definition of prevenient grace.

          • Richard UK


            Your last sentence is intriguing. Both ‘parties’ agree that prevenient grace changes man’s will. For the Arminian, God enables man to see the offer on the table; for the Calvinist, God so woos fallen man (Song of songs) that man then freely (a new heart of flesh) responds to God’s declaration (of love). For Calvinists, the gospel is a good news statement, not an offer.

          • rogereolson

            Good news for the elect, bad news for everyone else. But, ultimately, bad news for everyone because that God (of double predestination) cannot be trusted to be absolutely, unconditionally good.

  • Ryan

    As a Calvinist myself, I my disappointed and hurt that you would write an article bashing something and present no Scriptural proof against. Dear brother, we must test everything by the Word of God and not simply our opinions. John 3:18, 27, 36, John 6:39, 65, John 8:47, John 10:14, and many more are all clear in teaching that Jesus has a particular people He is speaking about. We know this also because there is a Heaven and Hell that will be inhabited by both believers and non-believers respectively. Please learn more about Calvinism before you try to set the record straight on why you believe it is wrong. It isn’t loving to present an argument against something and not include all the information about it.

    • John I.

      One can never present all the information about anything. What is necessary, however, is to present fairly and reasonably the information pertinent to the argument being made or assessed.

      You accuse Olson of being unloving by not including certain verses, but it must be obvious that after several hundred years Arminians have a different interpretation of those verses. Furthermore, you don’t indicate how the verses you raise relate at all to the question Olson raised–consequently by your own standards you are being unloving to Olson. Finally, given that Olson has written an entire book titled, “Against Calvinism”, don’t you think he is aware of the matters you raise?

      John I.

  • Either you are a universalist or you believe in limited atonement. It’s that simple. Arminianism believes that people determine the scope of atonement, Calvinists believe God does.

    • rogereolson

      But my complaint is that all the Calvinists I know insist the “scope” of the atonement is twofold: 1) sufficient for all, 2) particularly effective only for the elect. My question to them, that none have answered yet, is how that avoids Owens’ accusation that IF Christ suffered the punishment for anyone’s sins God would be unjust to punish them in hell so universalism follows from “universal atonement.” It seems to me the ONLY way for Calvinists to avoid having Owens’ argument (which they often use against Arminians) is to admit that Christ’s death was NOT sufficient for all and of “infinite value.”

      • Richard UK

        Christ’s death would have been sufficient for all (in its capability) but the Father chose to apply it only to the elect. ??

        • rogereolson

          How does that answer my challenge to Owens’ anti-Arminian polemic about universal atonement requiring double punishment and God therefore being unjust? I don’t know if you’re purposely dodging the point or just missing it.

          • Richard UK

            I am certainly missing the point – to say I was dodging it would be crediting me with too much historical knowledge!

            Is Owen saying that universal atonement must mean Christ has paid for everyone’s sins (whether they know it, or do anything about it). But if then, on an Arminian reckoning, there is also an offer of eternal life that must be taken up, then those who fail to do so will pay, in hell, for the sins that Christ has supposedly already paid for (a sort of ‘double jeopardy’?) To punish two people for the same crime would be unjust.

            Thus 1 John 1 v9 says ‘God is faithful and JUST’ to forgive us our sins because Christ has already paid for them; for us also to pay would be unjust.

            If we take ‘Limited Atonement’ to be that Christ died for “ALL WHO BELIEVE” (which we more or less take to be equivalent to all who ‘confess their sins’), then the ALL gives a sense of universality (less of the harshness associated with ‘died for the elect’), and the WHO BELIEVE a sense of a limited group and thus limited atonement. Going further, the universality component means there is no ‘type’ of person who is excluded from the possibility of election, be they man, woman etc etc. As I understood it, this explains the use of ‘election’ rather than ‘selection’ which implies something to do with the characteristics of the one selected

            Put simplistically, Owen would presumably say that God gives the faith to the elect to enable (no, to ’cause’) them to believe such that they meet the criteria for forgiveness and salvation. I am happy to call that limited atonement. We might find that all a bit ridiculous, like a child giving one doll some cake to give to another doll, but it is interesting that God does dignify his creation (or parts of it) by using it to fulfill his purposes, whether getting Job to pray for the comforters, getting us to preach the Word that the Spirit will act on, or in this case, giving men the (irresistible) means by which to respond to that Word. One amazing example of dignifying is to take on the form of man now for all eternity.

            I’ve always found TULIP’s L to be the least useful one to be debating because I sense it is essentially terminological, but maybe I am indeed missing the point here !

          • rogereolson

            I thought my post was pretty clear.

          • Richard UK


            (My immediate follow-up having read more of the posts above.)

            PLEASE do not let extended ignorance annoy you – I see you have already addressed the issue by means of atonement ‘accomplished v applied’.
            I will read most carefully but I am beginning to wonder just how much of this ‘L’ is terminological. It seems perfectly possible to maintain an Arminian position from scripture without any single verse holing you below the waterline, but whether the overall biblical thrust/hermeneutic prefers it – I’m less sure

  • Doug Walker

    What do you think about molinism?

    • rogereolson

      Look back in the archives or just google “Roger Olson” and “Molinism” (or “Middle Knowledge”). In brief, I don’t believe in counterfactuals of freedom, so Molinism isn’t an option for me.

  • Steven

    Dr. Olson,

    I have a few questions for you.

    1. I might betray the theological current from which I’ve been nourished, but how far do you subscribe to/agree with the kind of model that John Murray sets forth in “Redemption Accomplished and Applied”? That certainly drives my understanding of Limited Atonement, and I’m wondering if you could tell me why you do or don’t use it as a tool.

    2. I’m not sure if they use this argument, but do the proponents of the Federal Vision such as P. Andrew Sandlin or Douglas Wilson fit into the Calvinists you’re critiquing? It seems that they would have a significantly different answer for the question than would the young, restless, and Reformed movement.

    3. Can you briefly explain or point me to a source that would explain Universal Atonement? I certainly would enjoy it if it so happens that what I and my contemporaries think about Limited Atonement, and what you think about Universal Atonement ended up being the same, but I don’t know enough about Universal Atonement to decifer that. I understand Limited Atonement in Murray’s Redemption Accomplished/Applied model. The Atonement was ‘Accomplished’ on the cross, and is “Applied” later (at Baptism/Faith/Regeneration/Justification/Final Judgment, pick your flavor). If I am understanding you correctly, I am not sure how you could say that the Atonement was Accomplished in any way on the cross. I don’t mean to accuse or argue, I am just curious as to how you understand the Atonement.

    If I were to answer your question (Was Christ’s suffering sufficient to substitute for the deserved suffering of all people?), then I would have to say yes. The suffering was sufficient, but the Atonement for sin was accomplished for those who were elect. It was not accomplished for those who were not elect. Our views of election almost certainly differ, but that is how I understand the Atonement as limited or definite. It was defined on the cross whose sins were to be vicariously atoned for. I’m not sure how we could say that the Atonement was accomplished on the cross and also say that the elect were not definite/particular at the cross already. It would seem like we would have to say that it is accomplished later when a person ‘believes the gospel and receives Christ by faith.’ If you could help me out in understand that would be great, because I don’t want to caricature, but I think from the Redemption Accomplished/Applied model I cannot move anywhere but some form of Limited Atonement. (Which may, of course, be a weakness).

    Thank you,


    • rogereolson

      But I thought I offered my critique quite clearly. Here it is again: To my way of thinking, anyone who believes Christ’s death on the cross was “sufficient” (of “infinite value”) for everyone would seem to fall into contradiction upon also saying that believers in universal atonement (such as Arminians) must logically be universalists because God would be unjust to punish the same sin(s) twice. We all (except out-and-out universalists believe there is a difference between atonement “accomplished” and atonement “applied.” My complaint is that when a Calvinist says (as all I know do) that the atonement “accomplished” was of sufficient value for all sins they have no reasonable grounds for making Owens’ argument against Arminian belief in universal atonement.

  • CJ

    Dr. Olson, My friend brought up a good question the other day that we both don’t know the answer to. If grace is irrestible, why do Calvinists believe we sin in thought, word, and deed even after justification? (I don’t like to equate salvation with justification. The latter is really the beginning of the former, which is continued through sanctification and finished in glorification.)

    • rogereolson

      I invite my Calvinist visitors here to respond. My thought is that most Calvinists would say that regenerating and justifying grace (which is irresistible) does not overcome the person’s fallen human nature but implants within him or her what Baptist Calvinist Augustus Hopkins Strong called a “new affection”–a desire and love for the things of God. The elect person continues to sin because they are not yet in heaven. It seems to me a consistent Calvinist would have to say that even the elect, saved person’s sins are decreed and foreordained by God (because everything is without any exception). Why? Perhaps so that God can display his glory in overcoming them?

  • Don Nelson

    Double predestinarian, Edwardian Calvinist Dan Fuller was my absolute favorite professor ever-Galatians, Hermeneutics, gospel and law, Unity of the Bible. I even liked him better than Colin Brown, Lewis Smedes, Richard Mouw, Paul Jewett, Maryanne Thompson, Bill Pannel et al. I don’t know if I’ve ever run across a better exegete or biblicist than him. He was the hardest teacher too. The Edwardian Calvinist position seems to be that God creates for his own glory and that he can’t resist the urge to do so, not to fill any lack in himself, but the urge to share himself was irresistible. Fine with that. I want a God who wants to do that. The stale idea that he had no motive in creation is no comfort. Yuk. What a bore. I am glad God is passionately in love with himself, his glory, the Trinity etc. But the logic to me was that God had to decide everything… he couldn’t take a chance because he would fail in his effort to to be most glorious if he left it up to human decisions and that he would suffer some sort of failure of loss of glory. Well, it hit me one day that this was an assumption, not something I could find in scripture or demanded by it that the had to glorify himself this way. Why is that necessary or the only way to glorify himself that he has to write the whole script such that I tie one shoe instead of another, which I think Edwards said in Freedom of the will. Love for another glorifies the one loved when it is freely chosen. God is glorified by the persecuted who won’t give up Jesus no matter what comforts might present themselves if they did.
    I’m a pro-life advocate now in NV instead of a pastor. John Piper-the smartest pastor I’ve ever met, an absolutely awesome human being and thinker and pro-lifer- helped me think out the biblical part. I oppose abortion and embryonic stem cell research and cloning in part because it treats other human beings as a means to an end. As a Wesley J Smith human exceptionalist I oppose these attacks on innocent human beings because I also believe human beings are special and that from the moment of conception the unborn is one of us, a human being of infinite value and worth regardless of their degree of dependency, development etc and to harm one is to commit a heinous unspeakable crime. I haven’t thought a lot about double predestinarianism a lot lately and I’m still a Christian hedonist despite Dan Fuller telling us it was fundamental to his system, but I can’t help escaping the conclusion that if double predestinarianism is true, that God is using human beings as means to his own ends. Christian Hedonism, and I’m sure other theologians, teach that God is trustworthy because he is a happy God, A se, complete in and of himself and is so perfect and self fulfilled in and of himself (the Trinity) that we can trust him not to be treating us as means but as ends whom he rejoices over with singing, whom he has plans for good and not evil etc. Who says that better than the Calvinist Christian Hedonists? But at the end of the day it seems to me that that double predestinarian means God creates human beings as a means to an end and that he would be creating infinitely valuable human beings to suffer in hell to make himself most glorified. How do you preach God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, you can trust God completely if all this were true? It would appear that I love and value human beings more than God and want them to come to him more than he does. That can’t be possible. How could I John 2.2 and 2 Peter 3.9 also be true? The Calvinists have a powerful argument in that God created with purposes in mind. But I think the moral argument against double predestination is a serious problem and it rests on certain assumptions.

    • rogereolson

      Agreed–to most of that. But I follow Wesley and Moltmann (different as they were/are) that God’s purpose in creating was to share his inner-trinitarian love. I’m glad you like Piper, but I could tell you some things….

      • Don Nelson

        Roger, thanks for the comment. Yes, we all have some stories we hope people don’t find out about us…
        It’s been a while since I’ve studied theology. Is there a (big) difference between sharing his inner-trinitarian love and not being able to resist sharing His Glory/creating for His glory? God’s work ad extra is the irresistible going public with/displaying the Trinity’s work ad intra. I hope I remember my language. From my understanding of Fuller, Piper, the Christian hedonists, Edwards etc. it seems like the love between the members of the Trinity has to be shared. Fuller used the illustration of a dance troupe. It’s one thing to be in synch and to rejoice in practicing, going through the routines, the joy of participating in that getting to know each other, working in such harmony etc. but one thing remains: you have to go public, the curtain has to go up. So in creating the world, the Trinity (I think since Augustine that’s what we Christians mean by God) had to go public. There was no way to contain it or resist doing so. So hence, God’s purposes are to go public, not of course to meet any need in the Trinity-to use the cosmos and us as a means to an end, but as a multiplying sharing of the joy the members have in each other. Hence the sense in which God does not have to create-to meet any need in himself, but he has to create because of the irresistible joy of doing so. A burdened shared is halved, a joy shared is doubled.
        Anyway, I am wondering if there is a difference there between the purpose you see in creation and some of the double predestinarian’s reason and if maybe the differences are in the means to achieve it. That is, the double predestinarians think God has to be in such control that he has to write the script, who gets into heaven and who goes to perdition. As I noted, I see that as unwarranted and an assumption. I apologize if I am not as precise as I was 25 years ago coming out of Fuller.

        • rogereolson

          The main difference has to do with “love” versus “glory.” I believe, with Wesley, that God’s purpose in creation was love, not self-glorification.

          • Don Nelson

            Thanks for the distinction. I think I might look that up, think about it. I can see where that would prevent Wesley from having to go in the direction the Calvinists go in. I’ve read Edwards et al talk about sharing his joy too. Thanks for your thoughts. Blessings.

  • cherylu

    Dr Olson,

    Can you tell me how anyone that believes in limited/particular atonement can think that it is just for God to hold someone accountable for not believing in Jesus, as in Jesus’ statement that any one that does not believe in Him is condemned already, if He didn’t even die for them to pay for their sins? Hoe can they be expected to believe in something that isn’t even true for them? Or do they not consider that belief/unbelief is the final reason for salvation or damnation? I just can’t understand how one could be required to believe in an atonement that didn’t even apply to them.

    • rogereolson

      No, I can’t explain that. To me this is one of the conundrums of Calvinism.

      • Scott C

        No conundrum at all. The stated reason for judgment is “unbelief.” God never coerces unbelief. Men freely refuse to believe. No one will stand before God in judgment and say, “I wanted to believe, truly I did. But you wouldn’t let me!” Rather, those who do not believe will be content in their refusal and quite satisfied in their rebellion. This is why all good Calvinists are compatibilists.

        • rogereolson

          As I’ve pointed out here many times before, a good God would not leave people in their unbelief if he lifts any out of it unconditionally and irresistibly. That’s the point. But also, your account of why people persist in unbelief is not consistent with the typical Calvinist account of God’s sovereign providence in which nothing escapes God absolute foreordination and control. How many times do I have to say this? Have you read Against Calvinism? Please do.

          • Richard UK


            I agree with you here v Scott C.

            I take the Calvinist position to be:-
            1. Because of sin/evil entering the world through Adam (and/or evil being imputed to us through Adam, which I’ve never quite understood), all of us freely hate and refuse to trust God. ‘Freely’ in this case can mean that there is absolutely no equivocation; we are whole-heartedly against God; but we can do no other because we are so blinded by sin.

            2. We all deserve damnation but God rescues some. You can call this double predestination if you want

            3. Any mercy is better than none. On what grounds can a child receiving a $1 gift grumble that he should have received a $5 gift. It is a gift, not a merit.

            4. Here also I disagree with you. If we want God to be more merciful, we will not be happy with the above but that does not automatically make it untrue – unless we are claiming God-like qualities of knowledge (cf the first fruit).

          • rogereolson

            Who said anything about “wanting God to be more merciful?” God is merciful. That’s what Jesus reveals. It has nothing to do with “wanting.” It has to do with God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Look, we’ve been around this bush many, many times. I don’t want to keep reiterating what I believe against those who seemingly willfully distort it.

        • cherylu


          You are missing my basic point. How can people be expected to believe in Jesus as their Savior, and be held accountable for their unbelief, if in fact He never died for them in order to be their Savior?

          If a person believes in limited atonement, there are many people out there that Jesus never died to save. How are folks supposed to believe in an atonement that doesn’t even exist for them?

          • Scott C

            Tell me again how they know it doesn’t exist for them?

        • Richard UK

          I am sorry Scott, but, as a Calvinist, I have to say that ‘compatibilism’ is a cop-out – for the reasons Roger explains.
          The bible does not talk of free will. It talks of human responsibility but it is only since the Enlightenment that we insist that responsibility means ability. The central core of the bible is that we do not have the ability to meet our responsibilities.
          God is God; we do not need to justify him to anyone’s sense of nicety and propriety

          • rogereolson

            Ah, there you go again. I’m going to stop posting your comments here if you continue to use language that distorts what we Arminians say. We do NOT attempt to justify God to anyone’s sense of nicety and propriety. You are using rhetoric in a dishonest way. So either stop and express Arminianism as it really is or go away.

          • Scott C

            You clearly don’t understand what compatibilism teaches. It holds not concept of libertarian free will as Arminians hold to. I suggest reading D. A. Carson’s book, “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility.” When I use the word “freely” I mean voluntarily. We choose that which we “want” to choose. That is why there is no coercion. Compatibilism gives a dual explanation for human action (think Gen. 50:20 but I could multiple passages).

  • Richard UK

    1. Let me try to tread carefully here to avoid further offense which has not been my intention

    2. My comment to Scott about ‘niceties’ etc was NOT directed to Arminians but to Calvinists who don’t carry through the logic of double predestination. I think you are as tired as I am when some Calvinists try to portray God as someone who does and also doesn’t take responsibility for who gets to heaven

    3. Although I did self-describe as a Calvinist, I am 61 and much closer to a pre-Melanchthon Lutheran than a YRR with whom I am as unimpressed as you are, having left them 15 years ago.

    4. I have been ignorant of evangelical Arminianism (EA) and have therefore sadly failed to distinguish it from semi-Pelagianism.

    5. I have reread your article above and all your following posts though I suspect other articles might help me more. Please help me if you will; the following might at least help you see why people don’t yet see it as clearly as you do.

    6. As I see it, there are common grounds in the start and end points for EA and Calvinist Reformed Theology (RT) and differences in the middle

    7. EA and RT both agree that (A) Christ’s death was enough to achieve all God required of it to bring about his redemptive plan but, at the end, (B) not all men are saved.

    8. To join the dots from A to B, RT also brings in (Double) Predestination but is then required to advocate Limited/Particular Atonement (sufficient ie big enough for all, but efficacious for only some). This joins the dots though Limited Atonement may indeed not be scripturally easy to justify.

    9. EA chooses to join up different dots from A to B. EA brings in Universal ‘accomplished’ Atonement, and Prevenient Grace for the elect to enable them to recognise the atonement as applying to them. Two people can die for the same sin (I agree with you there) so the non-elect can rightly go to hell.

    10. Doctrines of imputation, free will, faith and ‘works’ are also involved. For RT, Christ’s righteousness is imputed; there is no free will; justification is by grace through faith but faith is not a work – it is the ‘instrument’ by which grace is received and is itself given by God

    11. For EA, faith is ?? a free will work by man enabled by God’s resistible grace. That faith is then credited/imputed as righteousness. But somehow that work is not something man can boast of – grateful for details on that.

    12. PLEASE do not see my last para as a straw man of my dishonest making; it is a genuine attempt, as much as simplification will allow, to identify the points of rub between the two parties to benefit my understanding

    • Richard UK

      ref – mine of 21st, 12.16 am above

      1. thinking further about para 11 above, perhaps EA is saying that faith is a free choice by man enabled by God’s resistible grace, but that choice is not in any way a work and therefore no ground for boasting.
      2. My problem here is that, if God provides to all the same ‘gracious view’ of what is on offer, then the fact that some men accept it and others don’t must depend on them. Whether described as a work or not, this suggests one man is smarter than the other, and this difference between men is what makes Calvinists nervous.
      3. If God provides different degrees of illumination to men (the unevangelised having less perhaps), then this is no different in substance from God electing some.
      4. Is it that Arminians and Calvinists ‘only’ really disagree on their reading of scripture as to how God works his plan (which is clearly an important issue), or is there more at stake (ie the substantive role of man in it)?

      • rogereolson

        The “more” that is at stake is God’s character. Please read a book by an Arminian such as my own Arminian Theology. All you questions and concerns are answered there. I don’t want to keep going over the same ground all the time. If you look back at the archives here you’ll find many, many posts where I have adequately addressed your questions and concerns.

    • rogereolson

      You must be relatively new here and no have read my writings about Evangelical Arminianism. I have argued long and, I judge, reasonably that EA does NOT believe faith is a “work” even though it is a free response to grace. I admit that I get tired of repeating the same point so many times and with I could simply point people to one place where I have answered this. The only thing I can think of is my book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities. (I also addressed the issue in Against Calvinism but not in as much detail because that book’s purpose was not to explain Arminianism or defend it against accusations by Calvinist.)

  • Christopher

    Forgive me for posting a link but I thought that perhaps you would find this interesting. It is an Eastern Orthodox critique of TULIP from someone who was formerly Reformed. The Orthodox and Arminian concepts of soteriology have similarities.