If you surf the Calvinist blogoshpere, you will have probably seen the following quote by Loraine Boettner. It it is frequently used to argue for Limited Atonement:
“Let there be no misunderstanding at this point. The Arminian limits the atonement as certainly as does the Calvinist. The Calvinist limits the extent of it in that he says it does not apply to all persons (although as has already been shown, he believes that it is efficacious for the salvation of the large proportion of the human race); while the Arminian limits the power of it, for he says that in itself it does not actually save anybody. The Calvinist limits it quantitatively, but not qualitatively; the Arminian limits it qualitatively, but not quantitatively. For the Calvinist it is like a narrow bridge which goes all the way across the stream; for the Arminian it is like a great wide bridge which goes only half-way across. As a matter of fact, the Arminian places more severe limitations on the work of Christ than does the Calvinist.” (1)
Boettner’s representation of Arminianism is demonstrably false. Let’s take a more detailed look at this quote.
“Let there be no misunderstanding at this point. The Arminian limits the atonement as certainly as does the Calvinist.“
The Calvinist limits the atonement by claiming that God only intends to save a few. No way of salvation is provided for the majority of humanity. The Calvinist believes that God does not care enough about the reprobate to provide a way for them to be saved. God cares only about himself. He does not save anyone out of love, but rather saves a few as a means of demonstrating his control and power. The reprobate are left without help and without hope. They were created to be damned. There is no scriptural support for this view, and it distorts the scriptural teaching that God does not want anyone to perish, but wants all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
Scripture teaches that God loves the world and that Jesus died for all (John 3:16, 1 Tim 2:5-6). Jesus’ sacrifice genuinely provided the means for all to be saved (1 John 2:2). Scripture teaches that God does not show favoritism (Romans 2:9-11) Jesus did not die selfishly, rather, he did so willingly and for all (Isaiah 5:6-7). Jesus’ death demonstrated his unfathomable love for all of sinful humanity (Romans 5). Jesus’ sacrifice was for everyone (Heb 2:9). His love is genuine for all. His sacrifice is applied to those who accept it in faith (John 1:12-13). All are provided for and those who believe are saved (Acts 16:31, John 3:16).
“The Calvinist limits the extent of it in that he says it does not apply to all persons (although as has already been shown, he believes that it is efficacious for the salvation of the large proportion of the human race);“
It is true that the Calvinist limits the extent of the atonement. However, in Calvinism salvation is not “efficacious for the salvation of the large proportion of the human race”. Rather, only a few will be saved. The large proportion of the human race is deliberately left helpless by God. Most of humanity has been damned from all eternity and for all eternity(2), and Calvinists claim this demonstrates God’s love. Boettner also contradicts a point from earlier in his essay where he argues that the wider the atonement, the less valuable it is. “The things we have to choose between are an atonement of high value, or an atonement of wide extension. The two cannot go together.” (B.B. Warfield). Thus in Calvinism if Jesus death was for the large proportion of the human race, then it was also of less value.
Arminians see no conflict here. Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus’ death was of both high value and universal extension. Who are we to talk back to God? :)
“while the Arminian limits the power of it, for he says that in itself it does not actually save anybody.“
Bottner treats Jesus death as an act of power rather than an act of love. God did not send his son to show how powerful he was, rather, he sent his son because of his love for the world. By misunderstanding the nature and application of God’s power, Boettner misunderstands the nature of God’s love. It is false that Arminians believe that the atonement “does not actually save anybody”. We believe Jesus died for all and saves everyone who believes in him. Since God has exhaustive knowledge, he also knew that his sacrifice would be effectual for those who would believe in him.
“The Calvinist limits it quantitatively, but not qualitatively; the Arminian limits it qualitatively, but not quantitatively.”
The atonement is universal in scope and provisional in application. Jesus death on the cross atoned for all sin, but only those who repent will benefit(3). To be forgiven there is a requirement of repentance. Without repentance there can be no forgiveness of sins (Acts 3:19). The Calvinist divorces the atonement from the Biblical teaching that Jesus doesn’t save us unless we believe.
“For the Calvinist it is like a narrow bridge which goes all the way across the stream; for the Arminian it is like a great wide bridge which goes only half-way across.”
This is perhaps the silliest accusation made by Boettner. No one believes in a bridge that goes halfway across. The narrow bridge analogy much better describes the Arminian view of atonement than it does the Calvinist view. In Arminianism, Jesus Christ is the bridge. He beckons all to cross. Those who believe in him are the ones who cross the bridge and benefit. For a bridge to be of benefit one must cross it. A bridge is provisionally useful. Not everyone crosses a bridge, but anyone can. This is the Arminian understanding of the atonement. In Calvinism the reprobate are dead and have no way to cross the bridge, and yet are still commanded to do so. The “elect” do not cross the bridge either. They are somehow irresistibly dragged across. The Calvinist view of the atonement is more akin to an invisible and random wormhole that teleports a few lucky ones to the other side.
As a matter of fact, the Arminian places more severe limitations on the work of Christ than does the Calvinist.
Bottner does not explain what the “severe limitations” are that Arminians place on the atonement. Arminians believe that anyone can be saved, and that those who believe will be saved. The atonement is universal in scope, and provisional in application. This is the scriptural teaching of atonement.
1 Limited Atonement by Loraine Boettner.
2 This is a paraphrase of a quote from The Five points of Calvinism by George Bryson. “You will be saved or damned for all eternity because you were saved or damned from all eternity.”
3 See the Provisional Atonement series on the Arminian Perspectives blog for a detailed treatment of this subject.