Christians of every stripe agree that Christ’s substitutionary and atoning work on Calvary’s cross is marvelous beyond comprehension. It is an act of unspeakable mercy, condescension, and grace—on the human level, wholly unearned and uninitiated, a visible and concrete demonstration of God’s love for sinners and enemies (Romans 5:10). As Jesus tells Nicodemus, “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).
Surely, this is good news—indeed, the best of news—for sinful, fallen humanity. Where would we be without it? It is a pearl of great price, not to be exchanged for even the whole world. Curiously, however, one very influential theological system—Calvinism—bids us to pause at this juncture. Is Jesus penal, substitutionary death good news for all or just some? According to one of Calvinism’s finest defenders, R. C. Sproul,
The doctrine of limited atonement…declares that the mission and death of Christ was restricted to a limited number—to his people, his sheep…The mission of Christ was to save the elect (Chosen by God, 206 [link]).
The story is a familiar one. There are two groups: the elect – those who are chosen, showered with irresistible grace, and consequently saved. And then there are the non-elect – intentionally not chosen, not given irresistible grace, not died for, and hence not saved. As Sproul sadly notes, God “gives [the non-elect] over to their sins. In effect, he abandons them to their own desires” (147 [link]). Abandoned.
The “Biggest” Problem
Naturally, this comes as something of a shock and disappointment to those who take Jesus at his word: “God so loved the world”—not some of it but the whole thing. It’s one thing for provision to be made for the salvation of all, but not all to be saved. That is a basic consequence of the fact that not all (freely and willingly) satisfy Jesus’ “whoever believes” condition. It’s another thing entirely to say that those who don’t believe were abandoned a priori, before the foundation of the world, before the Son was given, and that Christ’s atoning death was limited to the elect. Thus Sproul:
The biggest problem with…limited atonement is found in the passages that the Scriptures use concerning Christ’s death ‘for all’ or for the ‘whole world’.
The world for whom Christ died cannot mean the entire human family. It must refer to the universality of the elect (people from every tribe and nation) or to the inclusion of Gentiles in addition to the world of the Jews (179-180 [link]).
You can see that the problem Sproul has in mind isn’t “big” simply because of its theological implications. It’s also an offense on a logical level. For if Calvinism is true, “all” doesn’t means “all”; it means “some” (the elect). Jesus didn’t die for “the whole world,” but only a part of it. This is indeed a problem.
The “Believing” Predicate
Perhaps we can see this as follows. Consider the 3:16 principle:
(3:16) 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.
And now suppose for reductio that Sproul is right: this principle (taken at face value) is potentially misleading. Although (3:16) says God loved “the world” and gave his Son for it, that is actually false. God didn’t (and doesn’t) love everyone; he loves only the elect. Then (3:16) is more accurately rendered as
(3:16a) God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
The Domain Dilemma
We now confront a dilemma. How are we to take the universal quantifier “whoever.” Does it range over the whole domain of fallen human beings (wide scope), as the text strongly suggests? Or should we restrict it in the way we restricted “the world” (narrow scope).
Let’s look at each possibility in turn. First, suppose that “whoever” ranges over all of fallen humanity—both elect and non-elect. On this reading of the quantifier, (3:16a) turns out to be false. To be sure, God’s loving and giving his Son for the elect is sufficient for their believing and having eternal life. But this has no bearing whatsoever on the non-elect. For abandoned to their fallen desires, they cannot believe in Christ. Surely, it would be a strange and pointless thing for Jesus to be at pains to tell Nicodemus that “whoever (of those who cannot believe) does believe: these persons won’t perish but have eternal life.”
Accordingly, the best course here, it seems, would be to restrict our quantifier to “the elect,” which gives us:
(3:16b) God so loved the elect, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever of the elect believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
On this reading, Jesus is talking about the elect straight through the verse. This is at once balanced and consistent. Even so, it is puzzling in excelsis. Consider, for a moment, that final “that” clause. Where “Ex” is “x is elect”; “Bx” is “x believes in him”; “Px” is “x perishes”; and “Lx” is “x has eternal life,” we can set out this elect clause as follows:
ELECT: (x)((Ex & Bx) → (~Px & Lx)).
Of course we also know (by hypothesis), that believing in Christ is an entailment of being among the elect; it isn’t possible for the elect to receive irresistible grace and not believe. As Sproul notes, “If God gives us a desire for Christ we will act according to that desire. We will most certainly choose the object of that desire” (120-121 [link]). Or again, John Piper: the irresistible grace received by the elect “unfailingly brings about the act of saving faith” (“T.U.L.I.P.: The Pursuit of God’s Glory in Salvation” [Slide 27: Link]). So along with ELECT, we also have:
BELIEF: (x)(Ex → Bx)
But ELECT and BELIEF together entail
TRIVIAL: (x)(Ex → (~Px & Lx)).
This proposition, on Calvinism, is an empty tautology; it is utterly trivial. It is logically impossible that one be elect and yet perish and be lost. These predicates are included in the concept of being elect. Accordingly, TRIVIAL is about as informative as the analytic truth All bachelors are unmarried and male. It tells us nothing we didn’t already know by definition. Obviously, the good news Jesus came to preach isn’t anything like this. After all, nothing can be good news if it’s not news at all (and analytic truths aren’t news).
But there is something else. It turns out that TRIVIAL and BELIEF also entail ELECT. (I shall leave the proof as homework for the reader.) In the presence of BELIEF, therefore, ELECT and TRIVIAL are equivalent propositions. But then, curiously, what Jesus is telling Nicodemus is that God loved the elect and gave his Son to bring about TRIVIAL: that the elect have eternal life and won’t perish. But that scarcely makes sense. You might as well argue that God needed to enter human history to ensure that whoever is a bachelor and male is also unmarried. This is wrong headed. Bachelors would be unmarried and male even if there were no bachelors, no persons, and no world that God created.
The same thing goes mutatis mutandis for TRIVIAL. Even if the elect didn’t exist, and the Son wasn’t thereby given for them, it would still be true—and indeed necessarily so—that the elect believe, have eternal life, and don’t perish. To put (3:16b) into the mouth of Jesus either has him teaching falsehoods or empty tautologies, neither of which is befitting to the Savior.
The Domain Desiderta
So what’s the problem? Clearly, it’s that original supposition: that “the world” really means “the elect.” Under that assumption, we get our unsavoury dilemma. What we need, obviously enough, is a domain over which “the world” and “whoever” can range, where unlike the case of BELIEF, non-belief is a real possibility. We need a domain (i) broader than the elect alone, and (ii) where believing isn’t a condition for membership in the domain. Well, if we opened things up to include the non-elect, we could have our cake and eat it too. We could then take Jesus’ (3:16) principle as follows:
(3:16c) God so loved the fallen world, that he gave his one and only Son, that any fallen human being who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
This rendering of Jesus’ words has decided advantages over that of the Calvinist. It is true. It is informative. And it avoids the tragedy of reducing the gospel—the good news to “be preached in the whole world” (Matthew 24:14)—to an empty tautology. I therefore recommend it to you.
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