For the Record (John Hammett): Being Biblical More Than Logical or Why I am a Four-Point Calvinist

[Editor’s Note: John Hammett is Professor of Systematic Theology and Associate Dean of Theological Studies at Southeastern. He is a former missionary to Brazil and a specialist in eclessiology. He is a theologian in all the best senses of the word. For these reasons, we asked him to put his view of a controversial point of theology on the record.]

Like most Calvinists who hold four of the traditional five points, I have struggled with the L of limited atonement. On the one hand, limited atonement makes perfect logical sense and I like the idea that the cross actually accomplished salvation for me. Further, if the cross is efficacious for salvation, then it must be limited or it leads to universal salvation, which is unquestionably non-biblical. On the other hand, there are a number of verses that I have not been able to reconcile with limited atonement. Placing biblical arguments over logical or theological arguments has led me to affirm a general understanding of the atonement.

The three texts that seem to point most forcefully to the general view are I John 2:2, I Tim. 4:10, and II Pet. 2:1. First John 2:2 affirms Christ as the propitiation not just for “our sins” but also “for the sins of the whole world.” Those who support limited atonement argue that the “whole world” does not mean every individual but all types of people, or all races, classes, or times of people. Those are possible arguments, and if this was the only verse, it might be exegetically fair to infer such a reading. But there are other verses, and there is nothing in the context to indicate a limitation of the scope of “world.”

The second text, I Tim. 4:10, speaks of God as Savior “of all people, and especially of those who believe.” Admittedly, this verse does not speak of the cross specifically, but if the cross that accomplishes salvation, here that salvation seems to extend beyond those who believe. In some sense, God is the Savior of “all people” in a sense that extends beyond believers. In what sense could God be the Savior of those who do not believe? The most cogent way I have heard is to see it as affirming that God has made provision for their salvation through the death of Christ.

The third text approaches the topic from a different direction. According to limited atonement, all those for whom Christ died, the elect, are saved. But II Pet. 2:1 affirms that some of those “bought” by Christ have become false teachers, deny Christ and bring destruction upon themselves. This sounds very much as if they are lost individuals, and yet they had been bought by Christ. It again sounds as if those for whom Christ died extend beyond those who are saved.

I recognize there are several objections lodged against the general atonement view. To my mind, the most serious is that this view weakens the accomplishment of the cross. It sees the cross as making provision for my sin, but it does not become efficacious for my salvation until I receive that provision by faith. But that is in fact what Scripture seems to teach (see Rom. 5:17). I see my reception of that provision as itself the result of God’s effectual calling and election at work in me, both of which are limited, and so I am still a Calvinist, but the L belongs in calling and election, not the cross.

A second argument is that general atonement leads to universal salvation. But this is true only if the cross by itself is efficacious for salvation; that is, that sins are forgiven by the payment offered on the cross apart from any personal response. But the general atonement view argues that it is theologically permissible and biblically warranted to separate the provision of atonement and the application of atonement.

A third objection is that general atonement seems somehow wasteful and introduces disharmony within the Trinity. If God the Father has chosen a limited group, and the Holy Spirit only convicts and draws to faith a limited group, why would the Son die for a larger group, especially when many of that group will not be saved? But we can note that God often provides more than is accepted. Universal revelation is given to all, but Romans 1 is clear that, rather than utilizing that light, many suppress it (Rom. 1:18). At any rate, this too is a logical argument that I cannot place over a biblical argument.

Thus, I find myself in agreement with the classic if somewhat ambiguous formula: the atonement was sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect (or for those who believe, since they are the same group).topodin

Book Notice: “Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, and God”

I find myself choking back tears as I read these introductory comments in Michael Kelly’s new book:

… I tried to keep a two-year-old preoccupied in the prison-cell-sized examination room. We played with trucks. Then we played with a lot of medical instruments that I’m sure we weren’t supposed to touch. Joshua ate one strip of his sandwich. Then the doctor came back. He sat across from me. Looking at him, I subconsciously held my breath. My heart started beating in my head. Why was I nervous? We had been to the doctor before. But something was different this time. Then he started saying words that I never expected to hear: ‘hematology,’ ‘children’s hospital,’ ‘call your wife.’ Then he said the word that would become part of our everyday vocabulary at heartbreaking speed: leukemia (pp. 5-6).

This is the beginning of the journey of doubt and faith described by Michael Kelly in Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal: A Boy Cancer, and God (B&H, 2012). Wednesdays were pretty normal, writes Michael Kelley (Director of Discipleship at Lifeway Christian Resources), until that one Wednesday when the diagnosis came. Kelley found himself looking for a bright spot amidst the chemotherapy routine brought on by his two-year-old son Joshua’s cancer. The book offers substantive fare for readers who are tired of prescriptive spirituality and would rather work through the difficulties of faith with brutal honesty. It also offers the reader a glimpse into the “dark night of the soul” that others may be experiencing as they undergo ordeals similar to the one described in this book. Worth the read.

A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 7: Salvation)

A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 7: Salvation)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

The doctrine of salvation receives as much attention as any of the classical loci of Christian doctrine. It is central to missiological method, and yet ironically, it seems that we have a difficult time making a “full connect” between the doctrine and our methods and strategies.

The Redemption of Man

Salvation is God’s work from beginning to end (Ps 3:8; Heb 12:2). At the beginning, we see God’s hand in election, the gracious decision by which He elects man to salvation. We see God’s hand also in His calling of man back to himself (Gen 3:9), and in calling proclaimers who are an instrument of others’ salvation (Rom 10:14-15).

God is also at work as man repents and places faith in Christ. He is converted as God regenerates him, renewing his inner man, and imparting eternal life to him. Together, conversion and regeneration shed light upon the fact that a saved man now has union with Christ. This salvation is wrought by Christ’s work on the cross, whereby man may be justified and sanctified. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

We seek to form missiological practices that recognize all aspects of God’s work of salvation. Because of the limited scope of this post, I will choose only a handful of the many facets of soteriology and give a limited exposition of their implication for missiology.

We must recognize that it is God who calls.

In the ordo salutis, we seek God drawing men unto Himself (Gen 3:9; Lk 15:1-7). While we as human beings will never have sure or final knowledge of who God is drawing unto Himself, one thing that we may do is pray that God will bring across our paths those men and women whom God is drawing unto himself. These may very well be men and women through whom He will declare his glory to an entire city or people group. We may pray for particular people, asking God to begin drawing them unto Himself.

We must call them to repentance and not merely mental assent.

We must work hard to form evangelism and discipleship practices that recognize all of the salvific process. We cannot ignore any one part (e.g. calling, belief, repentance, etc.) One of the most oft-ignored aspects of salvation is repentance. Therefore, we seek to form testimonies, and gospel presentations, and Bible-study sets that call men to repentance rather than merely to mental assent. This means that men must turn their backs on false saviors; they must repudiate tribal gods and witch doctors; they must reject their belief that the Qur’an is God’s revelation and that Muhammad is His prophet; they must cease to worship in spirit temples and ancestral shrines; and they must turn their back on the worship of sex, money, and power.

We must preach salvation by grace through faith in Christ, and do so in a way that is both faithful and meaningful.

We must work hard to preach justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. We must do so in a way that is both faithful and meaningful. By faithful, I mean that we must be true to the authorial intent of the biblical writers, to the meaning of the text of Scripture, and by meaningful I mean that we must communicate in such a way that the audience understands our message in the way we intend it. We must be very careful, as we face cross-cultural and cross-linguistic challenges, to work hard not only to rightly divide the Word, but also to clearly proclaim the Word.

We must beware of mechanical or magical understandings of salvation.

During a recent conversation with a regional leader for the International Mission Board, he mentioned that perhaps the greatest confusion for many of our good Baptist people is the tendency toward a “magical” or “mechanistic” view of salvation. We must correct the tendency to view salvation as mere mental assent, mere verbal profession of faith, or mere repetition of a prayer of salvation. If a person holds to such a reductionist view of salvation, he will have a wrong goal: the maximum number of people who have prayed a prayer or made a verbal profession. Further, he will have given false assurance of salvation to men who are not saved, and a false testimony to the church and the broader community. Finally, he will likely create methods of evangelism that are reductionist to the extreme and harmful to the progress of the gospel and the planting of healthy churches.

We must beware of both reductionism and complexification.

One who holds to a mechanical or magical understanding of salvation will likely create methods of evangelism, discipleship, leadership training, and theological education that are reductionist to the extreme, that misunderstand what we are saved from and what we are saved for. Others, however, run the opposite risk of crafting methods that are unnecessarily complex. Here, the tendency is to attempt to dump one’s historical, systematic, and philosophical theology on the new convert’s head. Instead, he needs to be taught the gospel in a manner that he is capable of understanding and reproducing. We must resist, therefore, the twin errors of reductionism and complexification.

We must make sure that our methods are grace- and gospel-centered.

We must make sure that our missiological methods are gospel-centered and therefore grace-centered. Since it is only the gospel that saves, our methods should be gospel-centered. Since salvation is by grace through faith, our methods should be centered on grace. Too often, we unwittingly teach and operate in a legalistic, works-centered manner. Further, we fail to realize that it is not only justification which comes by grace through faith, but sanctification also.

We must learn how to disciple.

We must learn to make disciples, and we must learn that discipleship is not a once-a-week Bible study.

When we teach the Scriptures, we seek to teach the whole counsel of God. Evangelism and discipleship are best accomplished by teaching the Grand Redemptive Narrative (GRN). We don’t need months or years to do this. It may be accomplished in 15 minutes, in an hour, or in a 20 lesson Bible study set. This narrative is what explains to us who God is, who we are, what salvation is, and (I would like to stress) exactly what it means that salvation comes by grace through faith.

We must also learn to do obedience-based teaching. We teach men and women to obey the commands set forth in Scripture. This encourages and equips them to begin obeying their Lord and living the Christian life from the very outset. It is best if obedience-based teaching is done in the context of GRN teaching, so that the disciple does not revert to a works-centered, legalistic view of the gospel.

We must learn that discipleship is life-on-life. Discipleship is not accomplished merely by information dissemination. It is caught just as much as it is taught. We must roll up our shirt sleeves, and get involved in people’s lives, eating with them, laughing with them and weeping with them. We must show a man what it means for him to love his wife and children, and show him what it means to carry himself with the grace and love of Christ, and show him how to remain faithful in the midst of adversity.

Conclusion

In sum, the doctrine of salvation is a most precious doctrine, displaying for us the salvation that we have found in Christ Jesus, to the glory of God the Father. It is our responsibility and high privilege to proclaim that gospel in a manner worthy of our Lord. Whatever we model, for the new believers we disciple and for the churches we plant, will likely be copied for generations to come. Nothing less than the purity of the gospel and the health of the church is at stake.

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