Universalism, Lynchburg Style
A Falwellian Theologian’s valiant struggle to not fall over the cliff
by Michael Spencer
Christ died for the sins of everyone. Right? Seems simple enough. When I was journeying towards Calvinism, I’ll admit the biggest bump in the road came when I discovered what that “L” in the TULIP was all about. Arthur Pink seemed like a nut case to talk about a “limited atonement.” How could anyone get something so plain that wrong?
Nothing sounds less Southern Baptist than “limited atonement.” We were the ones singing “Whosoever will may come” and “Come every soul by sin oppressed. There’s mercy with the Lord.” We lived by “God so loved the world.” If someone had come up with the idea that Christ died for some, but not all, we would have thought it beyond bizarre, if not criminal.
Scripture seems clear on this one: 1 Timothy 2:3 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
This isn’t the only place that an “all” or an “every” seems to nail the notion of “limited” atonement to the wall. But did we really need to argue scripture? What kind of Gospel is for some people, but not others? How can we tell kids to sing “Jesus loves me” if Jesus might not have died for their sins? How can you offer a Gospel invitation based on such theology? Won’t limited atonement be the death of missions and evangelism? This could get out of hand!
Such is the alarm being sounded today against limited atonement by Elmer Towns, well-known Baptist writer and a dean at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and Seminary. In what is becoming a surprisingly persistent squabble among Southern Baptist conservatives, Towns expressed shock that Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, is an open Calvinist who embraces all five points of Calvinistic soteriology and encourages others to do so. He was particularly bothered that Mohler embraced a view of the atonement that does not say Christ died for each and every person, but only for the elect.
(Your dyed-in-the-wool, Lottie Moon supporting, three-services-a-week, Cooperative Program-loving average Southern Baptist would find both Liberty University and the current Calvinistic version of Southern Seminary to be mongrel dogs. The rise of former independent Baptist pastors, churches and schools to prominent Southern Baptist leadership and especially to the role of resident SBC theologians is at least as strange as the resurgence of Calvinism in a thoroughly revivalistic denomination.)
Towns’ exact quote is fascinating, for it shows to what extent Baptists have moved towards embracing the universalism that has haunted evangelical history in the past. The first Great Awakening should have left New England a bastion of orthodox Calvinism. Instead, within a few generations, Unitarians and Universalists commanded large congregations and influential educational institutions. The rejection of Calvinism didn’t stop with a shift to Arminianism, though. The whole cart slipped over the cliff into an outright abandonment of the Trinity and the Reformation Gospel, a loss from which New England has never recovered.
Here’s the quote: “Jesus died for all. No man goes to hell for his sin — people go to hell for unbelief … they have not believed in Jesus Christ,” Towns says. “Therefore, the atonement covers the sin of every person — but that’s not universalism. We must give them the message, they must believe.” If the subtlety of the difference between sin and unbelief escapes you, then come along for the ride.
Let me say some general things about “limited atonement.” First, the name is not Biblical and most of us prefer not to use it. “Effective atonement” or “definite redemption” is preferred by many of us, because we would agree that this is not about “limiting” the work of Jesus in any way. The phrase leads the hearer to believe there is an “unlimited” atonement that is being rejected in order to subscribe to a “limited” atonement.
Secondly, there are many in the Calvinistic camp who do not accept this point in its narrowly formulated form. Professor Bruce Ware, an outspoken Calvinist and associate dean of theology at the seminary in question, does not subscribe to “limited” atonement. The exact nuances of this rejection vary. Most, such as this writer, would say the atonement was sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect. There is no limitation on the saving value of the atonement, as if it were worth 100 million souls and no more. Such mathematical notions of the atonement are not helpful. The infinite value of the substitutionary life and death of Jesus is never to be limited.
Third, no matter how they conceive of the value of the atonement, Calvinists acknowledge the actual salvation that was accomplished by Jesus was intended for the elect and is efficiently applied to the elect. These are those who are regenerated, come to Christ, have faith, persevere and are saved. Typical of this language are these verses from Hebrews 10:12-14 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
Notice that the “all” is limited to those who “are being sanctified,” a specific group corresponding to Romans 8:28-30 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. Almost immediately after this statement of “limitation” of the application of God’s saving work, you read the following: Romans 8:32-33 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?
“Us all” is not “all” in the sense that Towns and others are insisting. In fact, there are extremely clear statements of the limitation of the atonement itself, such as Hebrews 9:28 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. Or Revelation 5:9 9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, Please notice that in both passages, the work of Christ is limited in its intention to a particular group.
What this means for most Calvinists is not some nefarious plot to reduce the atonement to including only the current subscription list of Tabletalk magazine, but a glorious affirmation that the atonement actually saves- that it does all the saving work necessary- for all those God predestined from eternity past. The scriptures do not celebrate a potential salvation that awaits our faith and obedience to be complete. The scriptures celebrate that “It is finished (or accomplished)!” One of my favorite acknowledgements of this is Revelation 7:9-10 9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Some Limited Atonement!
A point I like to make in a discussion on this matter is the one Spurgeon made many times. The Calvinist “limits” the atonement in intention and design. The Arminian limits the atonement in its effectiveness. In other word, the Arminian says God designed an atonement that potentially saves no one. It was theoretically possible that Christ would have lived, died and been raised and no one be actually saved. Spurgeon suggested that this “limitation” of the work of Christ is certainly more distressing than what Calvinists affirm. I totally agree, and have never met an Arminian who could dispute this point. In fact, some openly embrace this as a measurement of the risk God took in becoming our Savior.
The really dazzling aspect of Towns’ criticism is his assertion that all the sins of all people have been paid for by Christ, and the only reason anyone is eternally condemned is unbelief. This is so close to Universalism that one can understand why a renegade charismatic like Bishop Carlton Pearson has taken the ball and ran right over the cliff into outright glory hallelujah Universalism. Pearson says that Christ has forgiven everyone for all their sins, they won’t be condemned now or ever and we simply need to tell them the news before they hear it at death. (This is remarkably similar to one of my favorite near Universalists, Robert Capon.) This kind of evangelical universalism can’t be avoided if Towns assertion is true. Which, of course, it is not.
I assume that Towns is basing his strange near universalism on John 3:18 8 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. I don’t know if Towns is unaware of other scriptures known by any youth department Sunday School teacher, but it seems he has forgotten them.
We are all dead in sin. We are all rebels against God. We are all under the judgment of God. We are God’s enemies. Our deeds and hearts are evil and we can do nothing savingly good. And this situation does not change because Christ died for sinners. The idea that our only problem is unbelief is about the most optimistic view of human nature I can think of. We are DEAD in trespasses and sins, not just in unbelief. What would Towns say is going on in Revelation 20:12. What was written in those books?
Revelation 20:12-15 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Or this passage, which seems at first to back up Towns, but on reflection says just the opposite. 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, 12 in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
Is the only problem here unbelief? Is unbelief the ONLY reason these people are condemned? Is the judgment of God coming on these people for their sins or for their unbelief only? Westminister VI :VI says “Every sin, both original and actual, being a transgression of the righteous law of God, and contrary thereunto, doth, in its own nature, bring guilt upon the sinner, whereby he is bound over to the wrath of God, and curse of the law, and so made subject to death, with all miseries spiritual, temporal, and eternal.”
Towns’ view of salvation means that the only sin that will be accounted for on the day of judgment is unbelief. But this is not what scripture teaches. Again, Westminister XXXIII:1 summarizes the day of judgment as when “all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.”
Where does Towns odd and sloppy theology come from? From the pleadings of revivalistic public invitationalism and pragmatic, “get ’em down front” manipulations from the pulpit. Preachers in Town’s tradition are used to talking with sinners not from the perspective of our guilt before God’s Law and the necessity of a mediator, but as if the sinner is in charge, needing only to be convinced to open the door and let Jesus in. Towns’ critique of Mohler is not a theological one, but entirely practical and sub-cultural. It is endorsing a “close-the-sale” line. He wants to tell the sinner that the only thing that stands in the way is unbelief. Christ took care of all sin for all people. Now all that is left is for the sinner to remove the real problem- unbelief.
In other words, the real saving act is my act of belief, an act that makes up for my unbelief. My slate is clean except for one sin, and I can remove that by believing. Doesn’t exactly sound like the Gospel, does it? If it sounds like self salvation to you, you’re not alone.