Two sticking points of predestination: Limited Atonement and Free-will

Predestination

Predestination is a fun topic.

And it creates a lot of internet fights.

Yet as Origen once said, “…any teaching that has had a serious origin, and is beneficial to life, has caused different sects.[1]

Solomon's Idolatry
The Idolatry of Solomon, 1622, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

 

It’s a good and bad debate

Discussions about predestination encompass the whole of an individual’s theology. And they can come to define how the community ultimately views the structure of the Christian path, sanctification, and ethical/moral behavior.

This means it can be a real positive. If we use the concept of predestination correctly, it not only offers the believer assurance but instills the desire for personal action.

But it can also be a negative. John Calvin, a predestination expert, himself noted, “Human curiosity renders the discussion of Predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous.”[2] Predestination debates can devolve into arguments about fate or attempts to pierce the veil of human limitations in understanding the divine.

Recognizing this danger, there are points in this discussion where the only correct answer to give is, “we do not know.”

I believe there is a consensus point were we can get to as far as we can get.

There are many places where we have an answer. Some of these answers seem confusing or intimidating. And in my experience, there are large aspects of this debate where people just do not like or accept the answer that there is.  

Still, I think most of the divisions on the issue of predestination flow from attempts to resolve this tension responsibly.

Personally, I hold to the doctrine of supralapsarianism.

I came back around to this stance after much personal wandering and even dabbling in semi-Pelagian Catholicism.

I get a lot of repeat inquiries

People across the spectrum ask me a lot of questions regarding predestination. I Often wonder why that is, and I think I have a lose answer.

The Penitent Magdalene
The Penitent Magdalene, 1555 – 1565

Common areas of inquiry that I encounter are on limited atonement and free-will. Limited Atonement is the real fire-starter, and Free-will the sacred unquestionable truth.

If I can be a bit vain, the contemporary religious outlook in America was heavily influenced by reformed theology. If I can be a bit pessimistic, I think nearly every major contemporary expression of our faith ascribes to the opposite school known as “Armenianism.” And Armenians take issue with every subject mentioned above.

Predestination has the lure of familiarity and heresy. All the new positions must battle it to establish their newcomer authenticity and try and overturn the not-quite forgotten old views. And people dissatisfied with the new directions seek the living bread which they once ate again.

 

I have no intention of rolling over and letting the new kids win, nor of leaving the people ignorant of what I feel is the apostolic faith.

Thus, I would like to here briefly restate a core part of reformed theology by engaging the common questions put to me honestly.

 

Limited Atonement – The big controversial one

Limited atonement is the aspect of Reformed Theology to which many persons most object. Limited Atonement is the belief that Jesus only died for the saved. His death on the cross could have saved them all, but he did not “elect” it too.

That sounds cocky hu?

Right off the bat come the objections. A common objection is emotive or philosophical, “Jesus died for every sinner!” Some come from scriptural evidence, often cited is 1 Timothy 2:5-6, “…Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. (TNIV)”

Some think that settles thing; however, this verse and many like it have trouble leveraging enough support to stipulate universal atonement. Moreover, the purely emotional / philosophical counter-argument is also powerful.

1 Timothy 2:5-6.

Saint Paul
Saint Paul, about 1720 – 1730, Image Courtesy of Getty Open Project

The modern school masters dislike hyperbole. Do not say “Everyone!” say “Most.” So much do they hate it; I think they always misread it.

There are many reasons why our example, 1 Timothy 2:5-6, should be read “for all [God’s] people”: This reading is in keeping with the wider Pauline corpus, such as Romans 9-11 where it is made apparent that Israel as a nation is elected, yet not every single Jew is understood to be included.

Scholars like Michael Gorman, author of Apostle of the Crucified Lord, explored all of Paul’s works. Using the whole corpus, not just a single verse, he concludes that the apostle’s view of justification was “…about reconciliation with God and membership in God’s covenant community.” he Denys that Paul uses Justification in a strictly individualistic sense of who’s in or out.[3]

Calvin’s danger

The inability to be individualistic, or to ask “what about me” or “what about Tom” is part what Calvin was talking about being “dangerous.” The church never knows where anyone stands, only we do in our personal walk. To say all are good is to assume we see everyone’s individual heart, just as much to say “none are” or only “they are.”

Those arguing against can be just as guilty as those arguing for.

Bigger Systematic/ Philosophical picture of it

There are entire books dedicated to this or that proof verse for every position. I will leave that to authors that get paid per word.

Beyond just the biblical proof text, I am assured that theological considerations weigh against universal atonement. 

Charles Spurgeon, a highly influential Reformed Baptist preacher, once described the issue head on:

[…if it was Christ intention to save every man, how deplorably has He been disappointed, for there is a lake of fire, and into that pit of woe have been cast some of the very persons who, per the theory of universal redemption, were bought with his blood…][4]

It is uncomfortable attributing people’s damnation to a failure of the cross of Christ. I just cannot go in that direction. And we plain do not have too.

Christ Before Pilate
Christ Before Pilate, about 1640 – 1650, Image courtesy of Getty Open Project

We have versus that Jesus “knows” those that are given to him (John 10:11-26) and Jesus does not know those that are not his (Matthew 7:23).

But it fits who Jesus is! Jesus not dying for strangers, but making the decision to die for his enemies to make them his friends (John 15:13 & Romans 5:10) is no less the God of Love than opponents of limited Atonement’s God who blesses “all willing” to bless him.

I think it is fair to hold God to a higher standard than tax collectors. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.” (Luke 6:32)

The Gospel tends to be particular, that is, particularly favorable to us!

Miniature, Possibly from a Manuscript, fourth quarter of 15th century
Miniature, Possibly from a Manuscript, fourth quarter of 15th century, courtesy Getty Open Project

In the same line of thought Jesus never said he died for everyone. While I confess I particularly hate, “he never spoke on issue X” arguments, he did at least say things to an opposite effect.

 Ideas of universal atonement also go against key aspects of Jesus’ own gospel. Because we use the sacrament of Eucharist as a capsulation of the Gospel, I’ll take it as my limited exemplar.

In Matthew 26:28 we find, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This shows that Christ’s blood is shed for many not all. And we the Church, not the whole world, take it in reembrace of him. I beg you remember our warnings so far, and the point of this whole discussion is to build faith and welcome people into it.

For Reformed Thinkers like Calvin (whose views I expound here), the Sacrament of Communion is not about Jesus flesh and blood. It is about building the faith. Faith that a human Jesus broke that bread. Faith he spoke those words. And faith that you are among the many.

So, while I need to point to the exclusivity inherent in Jesus’ statements I am not attempting to overturn the call and offer to all. The church is made of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:43-40) and that not everybody responds correctly to his message (Luke 8:11-15), but at the same time, we are a light to the nations.

Summing up why I stand for Limited Atonement

Jesus is for me the only means of salvation.[5] If you are going to posit unlimited atonement, I cannot see how to do it without calling Jesus a general failure. At the very least it makes Jesus suffer for strangers who ungratefully benefit from him and force him to damn them.

The Jesus I know however doesn’t condemn. He came to save the world not add another reason to Judge it! I cannot ethically preach such a gospel. “Justified” people going to hell? Or do we go universalist and say the plainly blasphemous idea that Jesus died so people may worship devils, sacrifice human lives, and still “get to heaven?”

This discussion does not equip us in any way to judge an individual’s fate. But it has a nice bow to stick on it.

St. Anslem once spoke these sage words, “If you die in unbelief, Christ did not die for you.”

And I beg you take the positive, if you die in belief than indeed Christ died for you and he cannot will not fail.


 

The Harrowing of Hell, illumination about 1190
The Harrowing of Hell, illumination about 1190, image courtesy of Getty open project

I am not going to exhaust the issue of Free-will but it is the 2nd elephant in the room

The second common point of conflict between reformed theologians and their opponents if not everyone is “free will.”

A lot of folks spend time discussing how it works, how it would not. And a whole bunch of ink is spilt to day God really loves free-will. Last I checked, choice occurs in the Bible; the verse does not read, “for God so loved free-will” but humans. I just feel “humans” are a lot more than free-will and that those without free-will by injury, defect, or human imprisonment are not stripped of human worth in the Lord’s eyes.

Honestly, I think these arguments have a lot more to do with:

  • the combining of “reason” and “soul” in Thomism, which I explain the genesis of in the post here.
  • Theodicys – a fancy word for answering the question, “Why does God allow evil.” Normally people say free-will is so good but needs to allow evil that it’s a wash.
  • Pride – There is a desire to say our choices control things, even God’s reaction to us. Free-will is like a line in the sand for many
  • Odd ideas of “love”- people say love must be freely chosen. This one makes me wonder little why Christians match the secular 50% divorce rate. Go! Tell your lover you ‘chose to love them very logically.’ Go! Say you ‘are compelled to by animalistic nature and divine confluence and it would destroy you to resist. You cannot help but love them.’ I have little wonder which will work… and who will sleep on the couch.

 

My own take on free-will

Free-will debates are to me just groundless. Mostly because they revolve around what for me is a false conception of what will and related ideas are. I did sit through all that German Philosophy in college, like my piece on Hegel and Nietzsche shows.

Freedom is the lack of a coercive outside power and will. Volition (will) is the following or at least feeding of internal desires.

Both are two very different things. And both can exist independently.

Yet in many Christian traditions the two have become synonymous or inexorably intertwined. This spills over when discussing soteriology, let alone predestination.

If the terms at the core are unclear, the debate is fruitless.  

Philosophy Consoling Boethius and Fortune Turning the Wheel
Philosophy Consoling Boethius and Fortune Turning the Wheel, about 1460 – 1470, image courtesy of Getty open project

John Edwards, the man of “affections.”

John Edwards was among the first to start to argue out of the free-will paradigm. He did not shift terms like I advocate, yet he noted that our “wills” are influenced by our own subset of internal desires and feelings.

These in turn motivate our decisions by fighting it out, thus we, by way of a bunch of conflicting “affections” influence our own will. Die Wille zur Macht is not a correct estimation; it is actually that Wille gehört den Macht.[6] Will is just the surface result of conflicting desires and drives that humans end up following. Edwards wrote in the 1700’s; this side of Freud with his Ego and Id I believe Edwards and astute observer.

Freedom, then, is simply the ability to assent to the most powerful desires without an outside desire influence. A more familiar way of putting it is that the conscious can only arbitrate sub-conscious imputes that it does not fully follow or control.

Will, in the free-will paradigms often used needs a concrete front and no “coercion” by the unknown. Yet human, we do not fully even know our own mind. Hence Psychology. And that means Free-will is in trouble in a vacuum.

But we never exist in a vacuum.

People exist in the environment, as humans cannot defy gravity, etc. and that stirs moods and may make one path easier than another. We never judge from a pure “zero.” Edwards put it thus, “In some sense, the affection of the soul differs nothing at all from the will and inclination, and the will never is in any exercise further than it is affected; it is not moved out of a state of perfect indifference.”[7]

What we call the will then, is just the sum of our own conflicting subconscious desires and benign or malevolent outside powers.

At the very least, it is not some esoteric, self-existing, neutral force that is so good that God must listen to it, cannot save you without it, or would allow evil to exist for.

It is blasphemous to say your freedom is so important God allows evil for it; nay, it is an indictment. How much evil do we allow because we perceive our own good out of it? Aquinas just gives a good benediction on what we already do.

Wider issues in the debate when it becomes particularly Christian

If we delve deeper into the paradigm of free-will I find it can be even further undercut.

First off, it is an old idea from old philosophy. Much of modern philosophy, and as I pointed out Psychology, is realizing that our mental world is subjective and constructed out of our frames of reference set by who and what we are, and that we as a species evolved by outside influences within a system.[8] Humans still exist in an ecosystem, and in the future “kosmos” will still have external influences.

The Temperate and the Intemperate
The Temperate and the Intemperate, about 1475 – 1480, Image courtesy of Getty open Project

Second, a mental assent and thought processes are only part of what is going on spirituality. Just as an infection in the foot makes the mind hazy, making spirituality rely solely on mental “will” as the pivotal issue ignores that believer’s whole bodies entire metabolic process. This process underpins their brain, and just as much needs to be transformed and saved. Healing sin is tied in with walking, not test-scores.

In a related sense, it is in transformation that Christians gain “power” to modify their will new direction. Consider the sentiments of John 1:12-13 and that Gospel’s idea of “born-again” in a more holistic sense. A holy brain in an evil body does not make sense, especially when we think of the resurrected body to come later.

It must be a complete re-birth. Paul shows the same radical corporal reality of salvation in 1 Corinthians 15:42-4, “So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” It is the new body that experiences life in the spirit.

 

Arguments Ad-Absurdum

Open-theists, such as Gregory Boyd, are an extreme example of a when free-will ideals are not even debatable when they cause problems.

Open theist hold that free-will itself cannot even exist without unlimited freedom. They go so far that they deny even God himself foreknowing decisions or outcomes. They say that would destroy free will (Devine Foreknowledge 53).

As I stated in my piece specific to Open Theism, this causes all sorts of issues for very little payoff. They see God, who is now blind, to allow the all-important human Free-Will as blessing, being tricked, and even changing his mind. At a gut level, I think that pagan prophet for hire Balam was more theologically tuned (Numb, 23:19); the real fault I saw in it was that Open Theism is deistic. Jesus as human has all those traits, and if they are given to the Father the incarnation is rendered modalist. God is in Open Theism a clock maker who must always fix it.

Clocks always break…

But, there are those who make him a clock maker content to watch. For example, the Catholic and Arminian concepts of soteriological processes require postulate of a free-will. Without they see no salvation. The statements to this effect are to manifold to handle here or one-to-one; a free-will must respond to God (Summa Theologica 1, 1145-49 /Council of Trent Cannon 9/ Sproul).

God, for his part, is limited even by less extreme versions of free-will. He cannot save and must punish based off actions people take. His hands are tied in these systems. He wishes things would turn out better; free-will is just too important to handicap. Many Christians go one about social justice; this is very akin to “I earned it” establishing of rights and wrapping them in the phrase “God Given” to hold up corrupt social systems,

The important thing is, people who follow such systems cannot see God as being just without an option of us having an obeying free-will. They do not even see that free-will is a debatable subject. So, the debate which should happen here goes to predestination with the sacred cow intact.

That’s why I said the predestination debate needs to take a step back.

Yet, I feel these anthropocentric views that we influence our salvation by our free-will a shallow theological anthropology (view of human’s existence/ place / souls/ etc.).  Just like the notion of free-will affects views of God and predestination, it effects our views of each other.

Namely, the Open-Theist/Catholic/Arminian position does not consider the whole person, in a holistic sense of blood, guts, and toes, as person. Instead they cut a person up into “savable” sections along Greek ideals that favor cognizance. Aquinas was particularly guilty of seeing one part of a person labeled as “reason” as inherently virtuous and an anologia entis or a similar existence that is immune from sins effects by nature of its similarity to the divine being.[9]

I have another post about the whole history of this development  of Rational Souls here

Christ descent to hell
Christ’s Descent into Hell
Series: The Engraved Passion, pl. 13
Albrecht Dürer (Germany, Nuremberg, 1471-1528), Courtesy LACMA, image is link to source

This is a Gospel level issue. Free-will talk misses the point that for Christians Jesus’ corporeal existence is the anologia entis. Jesus became not just similar but fully identical to us in order to make the connection. 

Bodies are saved too!

It is the “bodily nature” that responds in faith. The mind merely reflects our inner desires (Matt15:18-19), and these inner desires spring from the hormonal levels and mental, nerve, and sinew connections within a whole person. Science teaches us that humans evolved as a species, within a system an animal kingdom, and it is only by a change of the system, the reason we preach God’s Kingdom, that salvation comes.

In fact, as I discuss in this article there are some scriptural evidences a holistic “Resurrection of the Dead” view is hard to square with abstract views of “souls that make pure decisions”

And we are guilty often of preaching a very different Kingdom. We are blind to people starving and say believe. We go after the rich and the intellectual. How badly the book of James needs to be read again in the churches chambers. Is it fine for Catholic Portugal to enslave the natives physically but compensate by feeding their souls? That was were free-will led and will go again as we see the Church more and more grow cold to its neighbors!

The entire embodied humanity and the system it exists within, still as a new organism still existing in a system (New Creation) is the Gospel Jesus.

Time

A final wrench comes down to the matter of time as well. I have never run into a free-will postulate that did not require some sort of straight timeline, and one God’s salvation is subject to at that, to work.

As I discuss here, those have become far more untenable in a day that humans can literally see time being bent by mere physical mass. 

I mussed on the subject of God and time loosely; In the future I plan to really delve into this issue of “eternal” life versus “forever” life. That’s why sometimes I even side with annihilationism

Back on to Predestination then

This all relates to the core ideas undergirding the aim of the doctrine of predestination. I feel that sloughing off the Gnostic dualism of flesh and spirit by admitting people exist as embodied beings[10] is only a first step.

Reformed theology does not utilize the outdated “freewill” language, and the language that it favors are the more correct language of systematic influences.


 

More succinctly, we speak of power. And it is power to truly make men free

This focus on power has often caused detractors to object that God is forced into “violating” people’s free-wills. But this is just a dodge.

Without negating evil usages of power to coerce which I fully admit exist, it must be granted that in the animal kingdom in which humans live, pheromones and other enticements can make internal chemical changes within animals influencing their neurological processes. These are very neutral occurrences in most cases, and can even be positive.

We do not call the feeling love bad when our heart sputters at our spouse. But the power of Chemicals helps express it in an embodied being. To limit God’s influence to exclude such enticements does not reflect this type of reality.

There are those who say that the love of God cannot be forced. Yet, if God is by nature lovable, then who he is, his very essence, is love inspiring. Imagine if you will he is like a perfume, there is a power there that works below the surface.

I feel resolutely, that for a person to be turned to God is to love him. Anyone who feels differently needs to stop reading and start praying. We have “tasted and seen” and that is the whole point of the Gospel. One of the attributes of God is that which inspires love. In fact, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Back to Edwards to briefly touch on how the “free-will-less” ideal looks

Allegory of Magnanimity
Allegory of Magnanimity, about 1670, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

Further argument along this sentiment can be found in Edwards, “Pure benevolence in its first exercise is nothing else but beings uniting consent, or propensity to being; whose welfare is consistent with the highest general good…”[11] (Bold mine to point out he is using “Being” as a noun)

Edwards argued that for you to “be” good, bad or anywhere in between you must first exist.

God, for Edwards, being the supreme existence and source of all life exists as the basis and source of love. Once Gods “existence” is comprehended, one can only to respond in love towards him.

In contrast, sinful people do not love God. The simple reason that their “being” has been cut off from God. They no longer can know God “exists.” (Isaiah 59:2). If there is any freedom in love, it is that evil people are freed in order not to love God which counters the “rape” claims of some idiotic dolts. The situation presupposed by the coercion paradigms are inaccurate; it is hard not to love God not vice versa.

If God can only be responded to in love, then limited atonement also gives God freedom. God only must “give his existence” to those whose love he will return. And approaching the divine mysteries of the faith, the Gospel is that Jesus in taking on human “being” completely made that tie. We are connected in Christ, who put it, “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” John 14:20.

And that is power. Power to change. Power to heal. Power to raise the dead from the grave. Free-will is focused on our power to choose. And by Jealously holding onto it, we seek to rob God of his power.

There are only to reasons for that. Continuing animosity, or fear that God truly is cruel and vengeful. Has not his son taught us otherwise?

Trust God.

Ok, so back to predestination

The Lamb Defeating the Ten Kings
The Lamb Defeating the Ten Kings, image courtesy Getty open Project

Predestination works on that basis. That there is something about “who God is” that he shares with his elect. And it is as natural to him as breathing is to us. We cannot figure out what it is; there are much better people than any of us who are not among the elect.

Yet, it still allows us ‘In him and through faith in him [to] approach God with freedom and confidence.’ (Eph. 3:12). Remember the warning way back that predestination is to comfort? The assurances are plenty and clear, “you are no longer slaves but sons” (Gal 4:7) and “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23) and even once more, “The Word was God” it goes to the core of the Spirit, Word, and the Father, whatever God’s “IS is” that we ARE his sheep.

Closing

I have not handled nor attempted to handle every possible objection to reformed theology and its view of predestination. I have not even given the official answers or sought to close out the question.

I have instead sought to address the questions that are frequently asked of me in ways that are derived from, but not identical to, the answers I found in researching the reformed tradition.

My hope is to spur the conversation forward. Has this helped you at least understand where the position comes from? Or if you are Reformed, have you found some new ways to think at things?

I would love to know!

By exploring these arguments on myself, on hear, and in my walk, it is my hope to present the Gospel as close to as what I can see as its “raw” form.

Moreover, while a type of reformed theology is a viable perspective held by many believers, it is not a power player in the developing dogmas of American Protestantism. I think, if you’ll join me in searching it out further, we can add fresh insights to the American Christian worldview.

 

 

EndNotes

[1]Contra Celsum, tr. By Chadwick, pp. 135-36

[2]Institutes (long to type in… sigh)

[3]Pg138

[4]

[5]John 14:6, Matthew 7:13, Romans 3:23, Titus 3:5, etc. It is not my purpose to argue Christianity’s validity

[6]“Will belongs to power”

[7]John Edwards p188

[8]Grenz

[9]

[10]Genz

[11]Edwards 247

Post Author

Paul is the founder of Religible.com and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.


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