Where the world comes to study the Bible

Your web site teaches God’s sovereignty and unlimited atonement. How can both be true?

Time won’t allow me to do justice to this subject, but I’ll share an overview of parts of one of my studies on election which covers some of the issues that pertain to your question. I have cut and pasted material into this and so it may not flow very smoothly, but I hope it will be intelligible.

For more on this subject, I would like to suggest Ken Boa’s book, Unraveling the Big Questions About God, Lamplighter Books, Zondervan, Grand Rapids. On the issue of limited versus unlimited atonement, may I also suggest Robert Lightner’s book entitled The Death Christ Died, Regular Baptist Press. You may be able to get copies of these, especially the last book, from Dallas Seminary bookroom (800-992-0998). Dr. Lightner teaches theology there and they usually have the titles of the profs. You can also access their bookstore through www.dts.edu and then click on their bookstore section in the left window at the top. Also Amazon can often find out of print books at www.amazon.com.

These are difficult questions to say the least, but perhaps the following summary will help. Others at the Biblical Studies Foundation will vary on some of the details of this.

Summary of the Doctrine of Election

The Nature of Scripture

Deuteronomy 29:29 tells us “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” (NIV) What the God has revealed to us we are to know and understand to the best of our ability, but the ultimate goal is knowing for the sake of applying. But obviously, as this verse suggests, there are many things we cannot know and that are not revealed to us.

Added to this is the emphasis of Isa. 55:8-9 which stresses the infinite depth of God’s mind in comparison to man’s thoughts. The passage reads:

8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. 9 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.

“Since the Bible is special revelation from the mind of an infinite God, it often brings the human reader beyond the limits of intelligence,” i.e., beyond his capacity of comprehension (Ken Boa, Unraveling the Big Questions About God, p. 12) . Boa continues and writes:

As simple as the Bible is its message of sin and of free salvation through Christ, an incredible subtlety and profundity underlies all its doctrines. Even a child can receive Christ as his Savior, thereby appropriating the free gift of eternal life. Yet no philosopher has more than scratched the surface regarding the things that happened at the Cross. The Bible forces any reader to crash into the ceiling of his own comprehension, beyond which he cannot go until he sees the Lord face-to-face.

Boa adds the following important thought that we all need to take to heart as we seek to understand some to the hard truths of Scripture, those that fall into the category of mystery:

Until a person recognizes that his own wisdom and intelligence are not enough, he is not ready to listen to God’s greater wisdom. Jesus alluded to this when He said to God, “you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” Luke 10:21).

But instead, we take the position of the wise and seek to use or apply our logic to these difficult concepts of Scripture, and in the process, we reject, misinterpret, or distort the plain teaching of the Scriptures because something does not seem logical to us. We become as gods and act as though we have become God’s instructors. But again, I am reminded of the words of Isaiah. Listen to Isaiah 40:13-14

    Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding? (NIV)

To illustrate the vast difference between the human mind and God’s, Boa contrasts the mental ability of a dog with that of a human and then goes on to stress that the gap between a man’s mind and God’s is even infinitely greater than between man and dog because God is infinite and man is finite.

The ability of man and dog may be thought of as consisting of a limited number of bits of information as illustrated by the vertical lines in the diagram (I omitted the diagram from the email). This will of course vary with individuals, but the diagram illustrates the huge difference between man and dog. The human is also capable of doing a great deal more with the information he has. A dog, for instance, has a great deal of difficulty understanding what his master is doing when he watches TV or reads a news paper. But there is enough overlap or common ground that there is limited communication between the two. A master can understand when his dog wants to go out or is hungry and a master can teach his dog a great many things. In addition, a very close bond can develop between a man and his dog.

When a human being does something beyond the comprehension of an animal, it must remain beyond the comprehension of that animal. It is a mystery. A dog can be taught to fetch the morning news paper, or push the button to turn on the TV, but he cannot read the paper or grasp the 5 o’clock news.

Though man is created in the image of God, which I believe pertains primarily to his personality of intellect, emotion, and will, and a dog is not, still, the analogy between God and man is valid, but the gap is infinitely greater because God is infinite, without limits, and man is finite, confined within certain limits. God has accurately communicated to man through the Bible, but not exhaustively, and even some of the things communicated in Scripture go far beyond the limits of man’s ability to grasp, especially as a result of the fall.

This means there a host of things man can comprehend to a limited degree, believe, and live by, but not truly grasp. This is not abnormal. In fact, it is an every day occurrence. We regularly use and live with a host of things we do not truly grasp. We operate automobiles, computers, and appliances without really understanding them. In this case, with study, most of us could understand them, but this still illustrates the point living and using something without total understanding.

Since, therefore, the Bible is God’s revelation to man, we should not be surprised to find some areas that we simply cannot grasp, that go beyond our intelligence, and fall into the category of what we might call super rational, but not irrational.

What then do we call these areas that defy our understanding? Some have suggested the word antinomy and this comes close, but is probably not the best. Webster defines antimony as “a contradiction between two equally valid principles or between inferences correctly drawn from such principles.” (Boa, p. 14). The problem with this word is that the things that are contradictory to us are not contradictory to God because they are super rational. In the latest edition his book, Unraveling the Big Questions About God, Ken Boa has, and I think rightly so, opted for the word mystery to describe these incomprehensible concepts of the Bible. But even this word must be defined so we know how we are using it.

The mystery is sometimes used in Scripture for that which was previously hidden but is now revealed through the revelation given to the NT apostles (cf. 1Co. 15:51; Eph. 3:3-4). However, as we are using it here, as Boa does in his book, the word mystery refers to those things in Scripture that go past the boundary of human understanding.

Then, what are some of the things that fall into this category in the Bible? They would include the doctrines of the Trinity, the Hypostatic Union of Christ (the divine/human nature of Jesus), and God’s sovereign election Vs human responsibility and this would include the issue of limited and unlimited atonement. The Bible teaches Christ died for all and that He desires all to be saved (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2; 1 Tim. 2:4; 4:10, etc.) and yet some are chosen. Man’s logic says it can’t be both ways, but God’s Word, if we take it at its plain statements, teaches both concepts. Some say, therefore, passages like 1 Tim. 4:10; Tit. 2:11; 2 Pet. 3:9; 1 John 2:2 and John 3:16 only apply to the world of the elect, but the passages do not say this.

The Problem of Man’s Explanations

An important principle to remember is that when we are dealing with a true mystery and not just a complex theological issue, we are not able to really explain nor illustrate the mystery. Why? Because anything we come up with will fall short of the truth and clarification or it will distort the truth and lead to error and imbalance. Once we are sure of what the Bible really says and have taken in all the facts, we must realize our need of faith in God’s wisdom and accept the Scripture for what it says.

When faced with a mystery and it supposed contradictory elements, people too often go in one of two different directions. First, they may reject Scripture and claim it is in error. Boa writes: “It would be the height of egotism for a person to say that because an idea in the Bible does not make sense (does not conform to his or her reasoning), it cannot be true and the Bible must be in error on this point” (p. 16).

But there is a second and equally wrong direction. When anyone seeks to subject the two contradictory elements of a biblical mystery to human reason, he will inevitably distort the whole teaching of the Word by moving in the direction of one side at the expense of the other side of truth presented by the Bible. He may avoid or ignore one side entirely by over emphasizing one side, or he may turn to exegetical gymnastics to explain away the other side.

The only way to rationalize a mystery is to remove the tension between the two contradictory elements by essentially ignoring one or the other. Either we will enlarge idea A out of proportion and minimize B, or vice versa (p. 16).

We need to understand both elements in each mystery, while resisting our natural temptation to remove the tension produced. T maintain proper balance we should accept the tension by supporting both ideas involved equally. This, of course, is unnatural, and it is here faith in God’s revealed Word must govern us (p. 16-17).

An illustration of faulty interpretation to reject or ignore one side of a mystery is the way five point Calvinists handle passages that clearly teach unlimited atonement. Because election, to them, contradicts the fact Christ died for all the world, they understand passages like John 3:16 to mean something like “world of the elect.”

Divine Sovereignty In Election Versus Human Responsibility

Mysteries are forced upon us by the facts of God’s Word; we are not inventing them ourselves. Since His written revelation teaches concepts that appear to be mutually exclusive, we must realize that with God both truths are friends, not enemies. In God’s higher rationality, things that we think must be either-or can in reality be both-and (p. 56).

The Alternatives and the Extremes

As with other biblical mysteries, three alternatives are possible. One can accept the mystery, reject it as untrue, or rationalize it. To rationalize it, one must overemphasize one truth and minimize the other, and this leads to the two extremes.

The correct approach is to learn to live with the mystery by accepting both truths involved and holding them in tension because of the authority of God’s Word. This means that the principle should be regarded as apparent contradiction and not ultimate contradictions. God’s revelation in the Bible is always self-consistent. The only problem is that human understanding is sometimes deficient. If we could raise our thoughts to the level of God’s thoughts, there would be no mysteries.

But because so many people refuse to let God be wiser than men, they insist on rationalizing the principles of divine sovereignty/human responsibility mystery. Some are exclusively concerned with the former, others with the latter. Either error can lead to very practical problems. Those hung up on human responsibility may overemphasize methods and develop guilt feelings about not witnessing to everyone they meet. Their counterparts may minimize missions and evangelism, saying, “Why bother? The elect are going to get saved anyway.”

Regarding salvation: From the standpoint of God’s sovereignty, a person is saved because he is elected by God (chosen for salvation). But from the standpoint of our responsible freedom, a person is elected because he receives Christ.

The first truth finds support in a number of biblical passages as 2 Timothy 1:9 and Romans 8:29-30. But the second truth is equally emphasized. No one cab be saved without personally trusting in Christ as seen in Acts 16:30-31; John 3:16 and many other verses.

The two truths of this mystery (one believes because he is elect and he is elect because he believes) are sometimes side by side in the same passage. John 6 is an example. divine sovereignty is emphasized in verses 27, 44, and 65. And human responsibility is emphasized in verses 29, 35, 40, and 47.

Thus, the biblical doctrine of salvation perfectly combines divine sovereignty and human responsibility. God must call and men must respond willingly.

Some believe God has elected sinners to be saved on the basis of the faith He knew they would have. God chose those who He fore knew would accept Christ. This is a popular explanation. The major weakness in this view is that it views God’s foreknowledge merely as foresight when Scripture seems to use foreknowledge as knowing intimately in the sense of to choose before hand.

Some believe election is corporate of the election of a group. Election refers to God’s election of the church in Christ rather than individuals being elected before the foundation of the world. When one believes, he or she then becomes a part of the elect group and is thus called an elect one. The major weakness with this view is its failure to deal adequately with those Scriptures which relate election to individuals.

Calvinists (both four-point and five-point) define election as “that eternal act of God whereby He, in His sovereign good pleasure, and on account of no foreseen merit in them” chooses a certain number of men to be the recipients of special grace and of eternal salvation.

Four and Five Point Calvinism:

    1. Total Depravity. Man is spiritually dead and sinful in all aspects of his life and is thus totally incapable of understanding and believing.

    2. Unconditional Election. Man is elected, chosen to salvation apart from anything that man might do including faith or belief. Man believes because of the effectual grace of God which regenerates man resulting in his belief.

    3. Limited Atonement or Particular Redemption. Since only the elect can and will believe, Christ died only for the elect and not the whole world. “World,” in passages like 1 Jn. 2:2, is given a narrow sense and made to apply only to the world of the elect.

    4. Irresistible Grace or the Efficacious Call of the Spirit.

    5. Perseverance of the Saints or Eternal Security.

Four point Calvinists believe in unlimited atonement in place of limited atonement. Others, like myself, believe in the eternal security of the believer, but reject the idea of the perseverance of the saint since believers can fall away and die the sin unto death, but are eternally secure because of the finished work of Christ.

Those who hold the strict Calvinist view of election often fail to take into account the fact that Scripture does sometimes speak of what might be called group election—the church—in addition to individual election. Also, Scripture does involve God’s foreknowledge in God’s election as in 1 Peter 1:1-2.

Election is personal, corporate (an election of the church), pre-temporal, and from the foundations of the world. Robert Lightner of DTS writes, “God’s foreknowledge of human faith in his election both of individual and the church must be included. He did predestine those He foreknew (Rom. 8:29), and He did choose according to His foreknowledge (1 Pet. 1:1-2).” Furthermore, Lightner adds, “We are not told what it was in God’s foreknowledge which moved Him to choose. It is going beyond what Scripture says to say it was His knowledge of the sinner’s faith which cause him to make the choice” (Sin, The Savior, and Salvation, p. 149).

The Specific Problem of Salvation Reviewed

The general divine sovereignty/human responsibility mystery can be applied in a specific way to the nature of salvation.

  • From the standpoint of God’s sovereignty, a person is saved because he is elected by God (chosen for salvation).
  • But from the standpoint of our responsible freedom, a person is elected because he receives Christ.

The first truth, the truth of election, finds support in a number of biblical passages:

The Clear Statements of Scripture regarding Election:

Eph. 1:4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love. . .

Point: This declares our election occurred before the foundation of the world.

1 Pet. 1:2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in fullest measure.

Point: This states election is according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit (His pre-salvation ministry), that the elect may obey Jesus Christ (trust in His claims).

1 Thess. 1:4 knowing, brethren beloved by God, {His} choice of you;

Point: This simply states the fact of their election as one of Paul’s reasons for thanksgiving for these believers.

2 Thess. 2:13 But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.

Point: This states the fact of election of believers as a cause of thanksgiving, but it also, as in 1 Pet. 1:2, draws attention to the pre-salvation work of the Spirit as the means by which elect come to salvation through faith in the truth of the gospel.

The Clear Statements of Scripture regarding Personal Responsibility:

John 3:16-18. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. 17 “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. 18 “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

John 3:36. “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

Romans 4:3-8. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. 8 “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” 9 Is this blessing then upon the circumcised, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.”

Acts 16:30-31. And after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household.”

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God), Atonement