Questions for Calvinists (Part 3- My Limited Understanding of Limited Atonement)

Welcome back to Questions for Calvinists where I admit that it’s just entirely possible that I have NO IDEA what I’m talking about when it comes to Calvinism. That’s why I’m asking all of these questions.

This installment brings us to the L of TULIP, which stands for Limited Atonement. This doctrine, just like it sounds, teaches that the atonement- payment for sins, purchased by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ– is limited. Jesus didn’t die for EVERYONE’s sins. He only died for the sins of the “elect.” Those are the people who are given the gift of faith in the U of TULIP. There’s no known or knowable reason, but for maybe reasons God alone knows, a small group of random people were chosen before the world began to receive the gift of faith so that they could repent, believe, and be saved. Jesus died for THOSE people’s sins, and no one else’s.

For God So Hated MOST of the World

“What about all of those non-elect people?” you may be asking. God hates those people, so obviously Jesus wouldn’t die for the sins of sinners God hates. Even if somehow they COULD understand the Gospel (which they cannot because God blinded them to the truth), and even if they COULD put their trust in Jesus to save them by paying for their sins (which they cannot because God refuses to give then the gift of faith), Jesus would say, “Sorry kids, but I didn’t pay for YOUR sins. Off to hell you go!”

At this point, I don’t feel like I even need to make a case against the Calvinist position. Like, if you have read the Bible at all, you should already have a pretty good understanding of why I reject this position. Let me give you just one of many reasons why I feel the Bible doesn’t teach this.

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

I don’t mean to be condescending, but doesn’t it seem like Jesus is saying God loved the world? Like, he doesn’t say “A handful of people from various parts of the world.” He just says, “The world.”

And he says “whoever believes in Him.” Like, whoever sort of sounds like, well, whoever. You know? Like, this is not what you would say if you were referring to a select group of people already elect from before the foundation of the world. Imagine if Willie Wonka announced that “Whoever wants to can come tour the candy factory,” but later it’s revealed that by “whoever” he means “five kids who have special golden tickets which were hidden in Wonka Chocolate Bar wrappers.”

Is anyone going to say, “Oh, sure, THAT’S what he meant by “whoever.” We should have guessed.”
No, there is going to be an angry mob of parents burning that chocolate factory to the ground.

Now, the answer that I have heard from Calvinists about this verse is that, it’s just a bad translation. It shouldn’t say, “whoever believes in him,” but rather it should say, “All of the believing ones.” Some people actually just leave it there, as if that answers the question. But it doesn’t because this means exactly the same thing.

Other Calvinists argue that, while the text here tells us who will be saved (those who believe) it does not address who can believe. Let me translate for you:

“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.” Doesn’t mean, “Because God loves all people, anyone who puts their faith in the love and mercy of God will be saved by the Son whom he sent.” It means “For God so loved a handful of people from various parts of the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever HE chose before the foundation of the world to receive the gift of faith shall not perish but have eternal life.”

It’s a bit of a stretch. I’m not going to lie. After all, a perfectly Calvinist interpretation of this verse, if I understand Calvinism correctly, would be: “For God so hated Most of the world, that He did absolutely NOTHING to pay for their sins, but He sent his only Son, that the few to whom he gives the gift of faith, irresistibly and unconditionally will not perish but have eternal life.” I’m not not seeing how that can mean the same thing as the original. Calvinists? Let me know if there’s something about your doctrine that I am not understanding.

Jesus Taught Repentance

Let me remind you of something else Jesus taught which we already looked at in this series:

Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Mark 1: 14-15

Jesus is going to be gathering crowds of up to 5,000 men, plus women and children, for years, all the while preaching the command to repent, yet (according to Calvinism) knowing that God hates most of those people and wants them to go to hell. Also, Jesus would know better than any Calvinist that no one can choose to put their faith in him- to repent and believe. So why would he say things like this? Or this:

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

John 6:28-29

God requires us to do… what exactly? Jesus answers: “Believe in the one he has sent.” Are we to assume that this also doesn’t address who can believe? Because Jesus isn’t just describing belief as a condition for salvation, but now he’s calling it the work that God requires. God REQUIRES you to believe in Jesus. But… also refuses to give most of you faith? So, God blinds you so that you cannot ever put your faith in Jesus, and also requires you to put your faith in Jesus, and then selects a random collection of “elect” people which He gives the gift of faith so that they will have faith in Jesus…

Sinner: What Does God require I do to be saved?
Calvin: Believe In Jesus.
Sinner: How do I do that?
Calvin: You can’t. God has to give you faith.
Sinner: How do I get God to give me faith?
Calvin: You can’t. He doesn’t want you to have faith.
Sinner: So, God refuses to let me do what He Requires?

So, when people are lost sinners, it’s because God forbids what He requires? Calvinists? Am I getting this right? God sends people to hell because God forbids what God requires?

Jesus Made a Clear Comparison

One more from Jesus Himself:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

John 3:14

Jesus is referring to the incident in Numbers chapter 21, where in verses 8-9 we read:

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.


Jesus is making a comparison between himself being lifted up so that “everyone who believes may have eternal life” and Moses lifting up the bronze snake so that “anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” There are only so many options. Either the account in Numbers means by “anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” that Moses was to sneak around and only show it to certain people selected for no apparent reason, and THEY would live while everyone else died, or, it means that anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”

The first option clearly forces us to shove all kinds of things into the text which it does not say, so the only option is that Moses was providing salvation for anyone who chose to look at it. After all, it says they CAN look at it and live. It’s not something Moses did TO them without their consent. It was something he brought to them and they had the option to look to it and live. The Lord says to Moses “ANYONE who is bitten CAN look at it and live.” That seems as clear as it can be.

It seems Jesus selected this comparison to indicate that “everyone who believes may have eternal life” and by “everyone” he means “everyone.” After all, he is comparing himself to something lifted up so that ANYONE who was bitten (suffering because of their own sin and rebellion against God) COULD look and live. What sense would it make to compare himself to this historical event only to actually MEAN that ONLY a select few chosen before the foundation of the world will be MADE to look to Jesus and be saved? His comparison would be, “Just like anyone COULD look to the bronze snake, a select few will be MADE to look to me, and just like ANYONE who was bitten could be saved and live, I’m only dying for a handful of the elect and not just anyone can look to me to be saved.”

The only thing that makes sense is that Jesus chose that comparison because he understood the story he was referencing, and he intended to say that there was a clear similarity. Anyone can look to the one lifted up, and live. Forcing Calvinism into John chapter 3 makes Jesus bizarrely misleading, and intentionally misleading. You can’t get Calvinism OUT of this text. You can only cram it in with a crowbar.

Let’s look at a few Bible verses.

John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

John 1:29

Once again, are we expected to interpret “The world” to be “a handful of people from various parts of the world”? How do Calvinists equate “The World” with “The Elect”? I can see no way in which those two ideas are equivalent.

we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.

1 Tim 4:10

1 Timothy says God is the Savior of ALL PEOPLE- and especially those who believe. But how is God the Savior of ALL PEOPLE if Jesus didn’t die for those who DON’T believe? If Jesus’ death was provided to be the sacrifice that “takes away the sins of the world,” then Jesus is the Savior of all people, even if some people choose to die in their sins. This is just like the bronze serpent lifted up by Moses was the method of salvation for anyone who was bitten and chose to look to it. That bronze snake on a pole was God’s mercy for everyone- ESPECIALLY for those who looked to it and lived. He has offered salvation to them, but some have chosen to reject it. He is still the one who offers them salvation, and so he is still the savior. But on Calvinism, Jesus didn’t die for them because he hates them and wants them to go to hell. How is he their Savior?

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.

1Tim 2:3-6

Again, are we expected to interpret “God our Savior who wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” to mean “God the Savior of some, who wants some people to be saved but wants most people to go to hell because he hates them and intentionally blinded them so they could never know or understand the Gospel.”? And are we to understand “Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people,” to mean “Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for some people, but not most people.”? Again, it seems that Calvinism keeps demanding that some verses mean the EXACT OPPOSITE of what they are saying.

The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

So Peter says, “The Lord is not wanting anyone to perish, but wants everyone to come to repentance,” and by this he means, “The Lord wants most people to perish, but wants a select few chosen to come to repentance,” by which he means “receive the gift of repentance, which is irresistible so they don’t have a choice.” Am I getting this right?

God Gets What He Wants

The main argument I have heard from Calvinists about this is the philosophy that, IF God wanted everyone to be saved, then EVERYONE would be saved. Not everyone is saved, so God obviously doesn’t want everyone to be saved. That’s how we know Atonement is LIMITED, and thus Jesus only died for SOME people- the “elect.”

But let’s think about how God treats people in the Bible.

Did God have Moses sneak up behind people and smack them with that bronze snake for it to heal them? Or did he have it lifted up so that “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live”? Was this salvation IRRESTISTABLE? Or did the people have to choose to look to God’s salvation? Was this salvation LIMITED? Or did God provide it for ALL of the people- ANYONE who looked at it?

In Exodus Ch. 12, when The Lord tells the people of Israel to “take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs” (v7) does God put the blood on the doorpost, or does he leave it to them to follow his instructions? Was this salvation from death IRRESISTABLE? Or was it contingent on the people obeying the instructions from The Lord? Was it LIMITED? Or did God tell Moses to “Tell the whole community of Israel” so that anyone could obey and be saved?

Noah had to build the Ark. God did not just make him and his family waterproof. And in 2 Peter 2:5 Noah is called “a preacher of righteousness.” If the salvation from the flood was limited to Noah and his family, who was he preaching to? Yet, if the Ark was never available for anyone else to be saved, then wouldn’t his preaching be dishonest?

When Naaman went to Elisha because of his leprosy, Elisha didn’t just heal him with the power of God, but rather said “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”

It seems to me that, while God certainly CAN make things happen without the involvement of others, or even without or against their wills, He also often gives commands with conditional promises. Do THIS and I will do THAT. Don’t do THAT or THIS will happen. And it seems pretty clear that God allows people to make their own decisions.

Jonah Ch 1:1-3 says,

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.

If everything that happens is what God wants, and everything He wants always happens, then did God want Jonah to go to Nineveh, or to run away from Nineveh? This story makes much more sense if God gave a command and then let Jonah make his own choice. Otherwise God wants Jonah to go to Nineveh and He wants Jonah to disobey and NOT go to Nineveh. But there’s that whole “law of non-contradiction” to contend with.

Jonah Ch 3 says

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it.  Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Jonah 3: 1-4

Jonah did not carry a message of LIMITED salvation where by SOME would be saved. He did not bring a message of irresistible grace where by SOME would be given faith and repentance. Jonah told the whole city that God would destroy them for their wickedness, and they threw themselves on God’s mercy and he forgave them ALL and let them live.

My Conclusion

It seems that the idea of Limited Atonement, like the ideas of Total Depravity and Unconditional Election do not match what the Bible actually teaches. Jesus was not a Calvinist, but rather called whole crowds to repent. He told Nicodemus that, like that bronze snake Moses lifted up, ANYONE who looks to him for salvation will be saved. God seems to offer the opportunity for salvation to anyone who will listen, but He does not FORCE people to make that choice. They have to board the ark. They have to go wash in the Jordan. They have to look to the bronze snake. They have to put the blood of the lamb on their doorposts. WE have to put out faith in Jesus, trust in the love of God, and accept his salvation with open hands. I don’t believe that there is any indication in the teachings of Jesus that he would ever tell anyone in the world “I didn’t pay for your sins. I don’t want you to be saved.” That’s not the Jesus I find in the Bible. From cover to cover, the Jesus of the Bible makes a way for sinners. All sinners.

Ok Calvinists, head down to the comments and let me know what I got wrong. And thanks for letting me be your Rent-A-Friend

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