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Three Verses That Keep Me in the Fight

With his retirement on the horizon, my mentor/friend, Steve McLean, was asked to speak to a group of a missionaries on the topic “Three Verses That Kept Me in the Ministry.” As you can tell, the topic spurred me to consider the same question for myself. After some prayer and reflection, I selected the following verses and ruminated on them a bit. The result is this blog.

While you may not serve in vocational ministry, I’d love to hear what verses or passages in the Bible have meant a lot to you in your life. As for me, here are some verses to which I return quite often.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

Ministerial life is a combination of exceeding joy and inescapable sorrow (“sorrowful yet always rejoicing,” to quote Paul [2 Cor. 6:10]). Far from a holiday at the sea, it implants one squarely within the throws of the perennial war between God and the devil. Such tension makes for an adventurous earthly trek, to say the least.

One moment we’re pulsating with resurrection life; the next we’re pining within due to death and disappointment—and a veritable host of other tragedies that make up one’s life east of Eden.

Eugene Peterson was right: pastoral work “specializes in the ordinary”[1]—small talk, forays into a congregant’s quotidian existence of parenting, diaper changing, unruly bosses, etc.—but it also involves placarding the splendid truths of the gospel—Christ’s life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the Father’s right hand, and the marvelous gifts purchased for his people as a result—“the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Moreover, the complexities of soul care usher a minister into the joys and sorrows of his fellow sojourners, lifting one either to the heights of praise or the depths of Sheol.

Perhaps you’re wondering at this point: “Why does this verse keep you in the fight?”

They keep me in the fight because they reveal that the shape of my life is par for the course. Say what you will, but Calvin Miller was right: “Ministry is not for sissies.”[2]

The level of spiritual attack is heightened for those on the frontlines of ministry. An onslaught of accusations from Satan is inevitable; coping with feelings of discouragement is normal; jousting with the inner taskmaster of workaholism is expected; enduring the Dark Night of the Soul is almost a rite of passage. Mini-deaths, intractable people and circumstances, sleepless nights, feelings of worthlessness, tearful goodbyes—such is our lot. Paul’s words plant us firmly in the real world. They winnow me off any notion that ministry will be a life of ease and safety. For this, I am thankful.

“Central to what it means to be ordained is to open the doors of one’s soul to the complexities, pathos, longings, and even sins of those the pastor has vowed to serve.”[3]

From the ominous words of Ephesians 6:12, we move to a life-giving exhortation from the same apostle.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Pastoral ministry requires disciplined rather than desultory living. The rhythm of work and rest notwithstanding, we are to “throw ourselves into our ministry tasks” (to paraphrase Paul’s charge to Timothy [1 Tim. 4:15]). Such a call precludes me from having a medley of interests pulling me in varied directions. Rather, I must focus all my energy on fulfilling God’s call on my life.

Nevertheless, it’s at this point that 1 Corinthians 15:58 serves as a ballast for the rough seas of ministry. You see, Satan often tells me that my labor is in vain. And it’s a fight not to believe him. Hence, my deceitful heart needs such a delectable promise!

In a world replete with traps, opportunities to fall, and a ministerial culture brimming with obsessive strivers, we need to rub the scent of Paul’s words deep into our psyches.

My work is not in vain. Brother pastor, your work is not in vain.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:1–2)

God summoned me into the ministry during one of my pastor’s Sunday evening sermons. Out of nowhere the thought gripped me, “That’s what I want to do. I want to preach.” Through many twists and turns, detours and roundabouts, the passion to preach has never left me.

For this reason, when I drift into ministerial malfunction, Paul’s simple yet profound words to Timothy latch on to my heart like a vice grip. As one who plays a primary role in the mind renewal process (Rom. 12:2), I’m charged with delivering up nutritious meals (sermons) to God’s people. This is both my greatest joy and my greatest burden—my greatest joy because I serve as a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1); my greatest burden due to the relentless return of Sundays. Therefore, I must rightly handle the Word of God and study to show myself approved (2 Tim. 2:15). This entails drenching myself in the text, kneading it into my own heart and life, so that as a well-trained scribe in the kingdom (Matt. 13:52), I can make the truth glisten, showcasing all of its richness, power, and applicability.

“Let most of what you do be dominated by the demands of the sermon as if your whole life and reason for being is to preach Christ, because it is.”[4]

Conclusion

When it’s all said and done, ministry is pure gift. It’s the privilege itself that keeps me in the fight. Meandering through life with the same group of people, in a specific location, for a lifetime is the greatest privilege imaginable. We live together. We rejoice together. We weep together. We listen together. We pray together. We sing together.

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[1] Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 112.

[2] Calvin Miller, Letters to a Young Pastor (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2011), 23.

[3] M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 22.

[4] Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 44.

Preachers or Pastors? Choose Ye This Day

What do churches want in a pastor? This question has swirled around in my mind for years.

Given that no pastor can or will be a second incarnation of Jesus Christ, no church will find or select a sinless man to lead their church. This means every search committee will have to decide what’s most important to them as they prayerfully consider calling a pastor.

During my time in ministry I’ve come to see that pastors are typically either more of the “shepherd type,” or the “preacher type.”

Let’s flesh this out together.

Years ago I read an article by John Bisagno in his Pastor’s Handbook. The chapter title caught my attention right away: “Pastors or Preachers.” Here’s his thesis: While pastors are basically called to preach and shepherd their people, they are typically more gifted in one area.

Admittedly working with stereotypes, Bisagno nevertheless delineates the differences between the two: The “shepherd-type” is usually not a strong preacher, but is quite adept at caring for people—particularly in the areas of counseling and visitation (whether in home or hospital). In sharp contrast, gifted preachers are not usually skilled counselors and generally are not wired to spend an inordinate amount of time doing hospital or home visits. Apparently, this is because strong preachers tend to be introverts.

To be sure, through personal study or continuing education weaker preachers can take steps toward improving in the pulpit and weaker shepherds can enhance their counseling and visitation skills.

Nevertheless, Bisagno helpfully reminds readers that whether a man is more of a shepherd or more of a preacher comes down to his personality. And it’s at this point that Bisagno makes a distinction between personality and character. He notes that “[w]hile human character can be changed, human personality rarely can” (226). Whether you agree with the last statement or not, the argument Bisagno advances is that the gifted counselor and the dynamic preacher are “two entirely different personalities.”

Distinguishing between personality and character clarifies this discussion greatly. Here’s why: Keeping this discussion in the realm of human personality means that neither the weak preacher nor the weak shepherd is guilty of moral transgression. Stated differently, we’re not talking about moral defects; we’re talking about the way God has wired a man.

Although you didn’t ask for my opinion, since it’s my blog I’m going to give it anyway.

I am inclined to agree with Bisagno that a lot of this comes down to personality. While I suppose there might be a pastor out there who excels in the areas of preaching, teaching, counseling, evangelizing, managing, fundraising, “CEOing,” cheerleading, visiting, sweeping, mowing the church lawn, changing church light bulbs, shoveling snow, and conflict resolution, all the while making time to update all the church’s social media accounts—and, of course, seeing to it that he’s caring for himself and his family, something tells me this is rare.

So, what’s the way forward? First, pastors must be honest. We need to be honest with our churches about what our strengths and weaknesses are. It’s better to get this out in the open so that people know what to expect. Trust me, expectations are powerful things. And, as someone once said, expectations are planned resentments.

Secondly, churches need to be realistic. Your pastor isn’t going to do everything well. It’s not possible. He can read all the books, take all the classes, attend all the seminars. But the bottom line is God has wired him a certain way. Therefore, it’s better to let him develop where God has naturally gifted him, and either get volunteers to make up for where he lacks or, if your church is able, to hire around his weaknesses. This will make everyone happier.

Here endeth this post.

Cultivating an Appreciation for the Local Church

If you had told me as a kid that I would spend my life pastoring a church, I may have punched you in the face. Not really, but I certainly would have thought you were crazy. (I suspect my friends would have as well, since they somewhat routinely tell me they can’t believe I’m a pastor.)

At sixteen, when I felt called to ministry, I never expected that I would be a pastor in this kind of cultural environment. No, I’m not talking about the decline of Christian values (though that’s true), but about the depreciation of the church among those who are (at least by profession) Christians. As I study the Bible, three things stand out to me as for why I should love and appreciate the church.

God desires to have a people. From Genesis to Revelation, it’s clear that God desires to dwell among a people and be glorified through a people. We see this in the opening chapters of Genesis (1–2), but we see it most clearly in God’s covenant with Abraham, what Paul Williamson calls the Bible’s “magna carta,” given its prominence in the biblical record.[1] God calls Abraham to be the father of many nations, and from him came a nation—Israel, God’s holy people. Additionally, throughout the OT we read of people coming from other nations to worship Yahweh (Ps. 67, 87). These texts make clear Yahweh is not some tribal deity. He is the one and only God who desires people from all nations to come and worship him alone. Hence, he “shall inherit the nations” (Ps. 82:8). And more specifically, he will exercise his rule through the Messiah, the descendent of David, established in Zion who will have “the nations as [His] heritage” (Ps. 2:8). The NT reveals unequivocally that the Messiah in the line of David is none other than Jesus Christ (Lk. 1:32–33).

Nothing changes when you come to the NT. Jesus came to earth “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (Jn. 11:51–52). In Acts 20:28 we’re told that Jesus shed his blood not just for individuals, but for a people—a body of believers. Moreover, in the NT, passages that originally applied to the nation of Israel are now applied to the church (2 Cor. 6; 1 Pet. 2:9, citing Ex. 19:4–6). Promises made are now promises fulfilled. The church, therefore, to quote theologian John Frame, is “the continuation of Israel.”[2] In the new heaven and new earth, God will dwell among his people and be forever glorified as their faithful, covenant-keeping God (Rev. 21:3).

God’s desire to be glorified through his people. It’s something of a truism to say that God desires to be glorified through his people since he does all things for his glory (Isa. 48:11; Eph. 1:3–14) and desires for his people to glorify him (1 Cor. 10:31). But we read something incredible in Ephesians: God’s glory, Paul says, is on display “through the church,” since through it “the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:10–11). Did you catch that? God’s glory is on display through the church. This should make us yearn to be part of the church.

Of course, we must also note that God is glorified through his people’s good deeds (Matt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:12). As a body of priests (1 Pet. 2:9), we engage “in the priestly service of the gospel of God” as we bear witness to Christ through word and deed (Rom. 15:16). We see in this the continuity of God’s purposes among and through his people. Just as Israel’s calling was “fundamentally missiological,”[3] so also is the church’s (Matt. 28:18–20). Thus, Michael Morales notes, “Matthew 28, then, is but the embrace of the inheritance promised in Psalm 2.”[4]

God cares for his people. God cares for his people through the Body of Christ. To be sure, this happens through what we might call “the official ministries of the church”: Preaching, teaching, discipling, disciplining, counseling, and ministries of mercy. Doctrine is for discipleship, which gives shape to our lives. At the same time, this also takes place through the members of the congregation. Paul writes in Gal. 6:1 that those who are “spiritual” are to restore people who have fallen into sin.

While more could be said, it seems clear from biblical revelation that the doctrine of the church should be located within the larger framework God’s work of salvation. Our discipleship takes place within the context of a local church.

For these reasons (and many more) believers should join a local church and commit themselves to it.

Yes, the church is flawed and imperfect in many ways (it’s filled with sinners!). Everything in this world is characterized by brokenness, but we have Jesus’ promise that the gates of hell will not prevail (Matt. 16:18), and we look forward to the day when the church, as the Bride of Christ, will be presented spotless to Jesus at the marriage supper of Lamb (Rev. 21:2). Until then, join the rest of us plodders.

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[1] Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 77.

[2] John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the LORD: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Philipsburg: P&R, 2006), 235.

[3] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 76.

[4] L. Michael Morales, “The Great Commission in the Old Testament,” Tabletalk 38:4 (April 2014): 9.

Marcion Is Still with Us: Highlights from a Recent Conversation and Help from Herman Bavinck

“There is no effrontery in burning to know, out of faithful piety, the divine and inexpressible truth that is above us, provided the mind is fired by the grace of our Creator and Savior, and not inflated by arrogant confidence in its own powers” ~ Augustine (354–430)[1]

“The proper rule of things to be believed and disbelieved is not the apprehension of their possibility or impossibility, but the Word of God” ~ Francis Turretin (1623–1687)[2]

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Nothing New under the Sun

Marcion (85–160 AD) is still with us.

Armed with a strong disdain for Judaism and a virulent hatred of the material world, Marcion didn’t like what he read in the Old Testament. Not only was he unwilling to accept what the Bible revealed about God as creator of the world, he also didn’t care much for its portrayal of God executing judgment on people. So, Marcion did what any “reasonable” person would do: he dismissed the Old Testament out of hand and insisted that God is only love. And according to Marcion, Jesus’ teaching is all about love—except for those portions of Jesus’ teaching that didn’t comport with Marcion’s definition of love. Apparently those sayings were “interpolations” inserted by those desiring to subvert Christ’s original message.[3]

Alas, nothing is new under the sun.

A recent conversation with someone brought Marcion’s views back into the limelight for me. This person insisted that the God of the Old Testament is different from the sweet and tender Jesus of the New Testament—except for when the Jesus of the New Testament doesn’t seem so sweet and tender.

When confronted with the “hard sayings” of Jesus, my conversation partner retorted that those texts had been corrupted by the church. After carefully pointing out how often Jesus and other New Testament writers spoke of divine judgment, my friend could only sigh and confess, “I guess I need to read the Bible more.” Still, this person kept returning to Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37–39: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This, according to my friend, is the heart of Jesus’ message. However, I kindly pointed out the following verse: “On these two commandments depend the Law and the Prophets” (v. 40). To point out the obvious, Jesus was quoting the Old Testament (Deut. 6:5).

I proceeded to highlight for my friend that the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:37–39) was not the gospel. Indeed, we need Christ’s sacrifice precisely because we neither consistently nor authentically live out the Great Commandment. Visibly frustrated by my comments, my friend asked, “Why do you keep talking about sin?”

In truth, what this person struggled with is not new. It’s consistent with what most Americans (and perhaps even what some people in our pews) believe. The gist of it is this: God is all love and no wrath . . . and people get to define “love” however they want.

Help from a Dutchman

Enter Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), the eminent Dutch theologian who succeeded Abraham Kuyper at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902. In the third volume of his Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck provides a biblical response to Marcion and his contemporary intellectual descendants.

Let’s consider his response together.

First, Christians have always held that the Bible tells one story. Scripture unfolds the triune God’s unwavering commitment to have a people for himself through Jesus Christ. The law, the prophets, and the Psalms point to Christ (Luke 24:25–27, 44; see also Jn. 5:39–47), predict his coming, and illuminate the scope and significance of his mediatorial work (think Old Testament sacrifices). Hence Paul’s insistence that the types and shadows of the old covenant have given way to the substance—which is Christ (Col. 2:17). Since the entirety of the Bible tells one story, the early church rightly judged Marcion’s teaching heretical.

Secondly (and building upon the first point), Christian reflection entails patiently attending to the entirety of the biblical witness. Thus, Bavinck observes: “it is one-sided and conducive to error if one takes one of these names [attributes of God]—disregarding all the others—to be the full revelation of God.”[4] Faithful biblical exposition, therefore, necessitates declaring not only “God is love,” but also God is holy, righteous, and just.[5] According to Bavinck (along with the Bible, incidentally) the problem with Marcion was his faulty assumption (based upon his failure to attend to all of Scripture) that justice, holiness, and wrath were not perfections of God. Instead, he wrongly maintained that “only love describes his being”[6]—a love that’s never properly defined.

Thirdly, Bavinck noted that Marcion (along with his intellectual offspring) failed to properly understand grace. While he loved to beat the drum of God’s love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, he failed to provide biblically informed definitions for these attributes. For example, we need answers to the following questions: How is God forgiving? What is he forgiving? What is grace? What is mercy?

In his response to those with Marcionite tendencies, Bavinck cleverly noted that the attributes of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness assume God has sin to forgive; they presuppose his wrath and demonstrate the need for atonement. In one of his more profound paragraphs, Bavinck noted:

Remember: grace is that perfection in God by which, for some reason or other, he relinquishes his rights. Hence, if as the righteous and holy one he did not have the right to punish, we cannot speak of grace in relation to him either. Similarly, the highest love in God, that is, forgiving love that is revealed in Christ, is no longer love if in God’s righteous judgment sin did not deserve to be punished. Those who deny justice thereby also deny grace.[7]

Without realizing it, in their zeal to exterminate any notion of God’s judgment, they simultaneously strip God’s love of meaning.

If one cares at all about following the storyline of Scripture, it’s impossible to miss that Scripture specifically links Christ’s death to our sin (1 Cor. 15:3).[8]  He was made a curse for our sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). He’s the propitiation for our sins (1 Jn. 2:2; Rev. 5:9; 7:14). He offered himself up for our redemption, which implies sin (Heb. 1:3; 2:17; 7:27; 9:12; 10:12; 1 Pet. 1:18; 2:24). Jesus himself stated that he came to give his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Identifying himself as the Son of Man figure in the prophet Daniel (7:13–14), Jesus declared that he came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). He announced that his mission was to call sinners to repentance (5:32). Indeed, his incarnation was not a self-serving act, but a necessary component of his salvific work: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins,” as the angel told Mary (Matt. 1:21, emphasis mine).

The biblical testimony, therefore, does not depict Christ as a martyr, and neither does it portray him as a naïve prophet who, though sincere, was mistaken about the timing of the kingdom’s arrival. Rather, he’s revealed as knowing beforehand what was to take place. He specifically indicates that Judas’s handing him over was . . . wait for it . . . determined by God (Luke 22:22). His suffering was necessary (Luke 24:26), so that he might bear the sins of many (Matt. 20:28), thus procuring forgiveness for his people (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13)—all points which Peter reiterated during his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:23; cf. 3:18; 4:28).[9]

An Old, Old Story, A Question of Authority

However you slice it, this is an issue of authority. Marcion and his progeny dismiss the Old Testament because they dislike what it says. Finding the teaching of Scripture amenable to our tastes, however, is not the criterion of truth. Our vocation as image bearers means we’re not at liberty to reject what God reveals.

Therefore, engaging in “canonical amputation”[10] entails arrogating to ourselves authority we do not possess. We are receivers of revelation, not commanders who decide what we will accept from God.

As E. J. Young pointed out years ago, “If God is the creator, and man the creature, there is no way in which man can set himself up as a judge of what God has revealed.”[11]

Those divorcing the Old Testament from the New Testament think they know better than God. They hold the Bible up to their standard of thinking and find God wanting. This has been the tack of Protestant Liberalism from the beginning. And as J. I. Packer poignantly observes, liberalism is subjectivism trying to be Christianity.[12] Whereas fallen humanity “craves a thought-life free from the rule of God,”[13] Christian theology is the faithful articulation of the entire biblical witness—both Old and New Testaments—“the two lips by which God has spoken to us.”[14] Christians, therefore, are stewards of the mysteries of God, not sovereigns who get to select what they will or will not accept as sacred Scripture.

Conclusion

Not only are the so-called “texts of terror” in the Old Testament understandably difficult to digest, but readers also naturally recoil at the gruesome details described in the various wars recounted in the Bible, along with the passages describing rape and other sexual sins—to say nothing of the despicable behavior of some of the patriarchs.

Nevertheless, ditching the Old Testament is not the best way forward. Instead, bringing our questions before the Lord honestly and admitting our perplexity at what we read is the way of faith seeking understanding. On our knees before God, sitting in holy silence, only able to voice our laments as we contemplate God’s Word and ways is appropriate. But standing over God’s Word, itching to excise large swaths of the sacred text is not becoming to our humanity.

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[1] The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill, The Works of Saint Augustine (Brooklyn, NY: New City, 1991), 51.

[2] Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 1. 8. 19.

[3] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, rev. ed.(New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 1:74.

[4] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 372.

[5] In addition to having a biblically informed definition of love, people also need to learn that the Bible speaks about God’s love in more than one way. I highly recommend reading D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000).

[6] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 374.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 390.

[9] Again, Bavinck’s masterful treatment of this topic is worth reading in its entirety. See ibid., 368–417, especially.

[10] Language borrowed from Michael Allen, “Disputation for Scholastic Theology: Engaging Luther’s 97 Theses,” Themelios 44:1 (2019): 105–119.

[11] E. J. Young, Thy Word Is Truth: Some Thoughts on the Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration (1963; Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2008), 189.

[12] J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 153.

[13] Ibid., 171.

[14] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust), 26.

Some Differences Between Calvinists and Arminians on the Intent and Extent of Christ’s Atonement

If the small group Bible study you’re attending is ever in need of some scintillating conversation, bring up the intent and extent of Christ’s atonement. In my experience, the next five or six hours should be filled with lots of interesting discussion. And if you’re in tight quarters at a theologically literate dinner party and could use some “me” time, declare that you hold to limited atonement. This should provide you with all the elbow room you need.

For those not aware, “limited atonement” is the view that Christ died for the elect alone. More precisely, proponents of this position hold that Christ propitiated the wrath of God for those God predestined to save from all eternity.[1]

Mentioning limited atonement spawns a visceral reaction by those who believe the position depreciates the value of Christ’s sacrifice. Before drawing this conclusion, however, it’s important for theological students and informed laypeople to slow down, take a deep breath, and listen intently to the entirety of the Scriptural witness.

My goal in this post is not to give my position, but rather to lay out some of the differences between Calvinists and Arminians regarding the nature and extent of the atonement.

First, know that the central disagreement between Calvinists and Arminians is over the design of the atonement. In short, Calvinists and Arminians answer the question “What did God intend to accomplish in Christ’s death?” differently.

The Covenant of Redemption
Calvinists argue that God the Father sent the Son to earth on a specific mission—namely, to provide atonement for those whom the Father had given him. They find support for this in passages like John 17, where Jesus speaks of “giving eternal life to all whom you [the Father] have given him” (v. 3). Later he says, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world” (v. 6). In v. 9 Jesus prays for these people, and not for the world. Furthermore, Jesus says he consecrates himself for their sake (v. 19).

That Jesus doesn’t have some random work to accomplish is made explicit in verse 4 where he declares, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work you gave me to do” (v. 4, emphasis mine). Moreover, in John 10 Jesus says he lays down his life “for the sheep” (Jn. 10:11). In John 15:13 he indicates that he lays down his life “for his friends.”

Earlier in the gospel of John, Jesus announced, “All that the Father gives me, will come to me . . . And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me” (Jn. 6:37, 39, emphasis mine). In a portion of Scripture highlighting the believer’s security in Christ, Jesus says, “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (Jn. 10:29).

Taken together, these texts (to say nothing of Romans 8 and Ephesians 1) give the impression that Jesus didn’t come to earth on an undefined mission. Rather, it seems clear that from all eternity the Father gave His Son a work to accomplish.[2] All this stands in stark contrast to the Arminian position.

Lee Gatiss frames the differences between Calvinists and Arminians regarding the nature and extent of the atonement this way:

The Calvinist Conception of the Atonement: Personal, intentional, and effective.

The Arminian Conception of the Atonement: Impersonal, random, and ineffective.[3]

The Undivided Work of the Triune God[4]
In addition to the passages cited above, throughout church history theologians have noted that the Persons of the Trinity are united in the work of redemption. However, if Christ’s death extends further than the Father’s electing purpose and the Spirit’s effecting power, then it seems that the three Persons of the Godhead are at odds with one another.[5] Thus, the question arises: Is it really the case that the Father elects some and that the Spirit regenerates some, while Christ provides atonement for every human being that has ever lived, is currently living, and will live in the future? More importantly, can one prove such a position exegetically? Calvinists answer in the negative.

In light of the passages from the gospel of John cited above, Ryan McGraw concludes, “God is triune, and the atonement is a unified Trinitarian act in purpose, production, and perfection.”[6]

While Arminians may disagree with McGraw’s conclusion, I hope they can at least see where their Calvinist brothers and sisters are coming from. Far from placing a theological construct over the text of Scripture, their deductions are drawn from the lips of Jesus and the witness of the apostles.

Secondly, know that both Arminians and Calvinists limit the atonement. This may come as a surprise to Arminian readers, but the Remonstrants (the Arminian party in the Netherlands) affirmed the limited nature of the atonement. What they denied, however, was that God the Father only intended to save the elect. As Kevin DeYoung summarizes, “the Remonstrants championed an atonement that allowed for the potential salvation of everyone but actually secured the salvation of none.”[7] These words once again bring the major disagreement between the two camps into sharper focus—namely, the design of the atonement.

Before my Arminian friends balk at the idea of limiting the atonement, consider the Puritan theologian John Owen’s (1616–1683) observations. As he thought about the atonement, Owen said we have three options:

  1. Jesus died for all the sins of all people.
  2. Jesus died for some of the sins of all people.
  3. Jesus died for all of the sins of some people.

Most evangelicals want to affirm the first position—that is, they want to say that Jesus died for all the sins of all people. At the same time, however, they also want to make clear that they are not universalists—that is, they do not believe that everyone is going to heaven when they die.

But this raises a question that most Christians have not adequately thought through: What about unbelief? Is unbelief a sin? Given that Jesus came declaring, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15), we can safely say that refusal to believe in Christ is a sin. Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 16:22 Paul says, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.” Additionally, in 2 Thessalonians 1:8, Paul notes that at his second coming, Christ will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Since these three verses indicate that unbelief is a sin which will condemn people, we rightly conclude that unbelief is a sin.

In light of the above, if we say that Jesus died for all the sins of all people—including the sin of unbelief—then logically we would have to affirm universalism (before you scream “not so!” at your screen, keep reading). But this is exactly what evangelicals repudiate. They insist that unbelievers will spend eternity in hell for their unbelief. If that’s the case, then why would we say that Christ propitiated the wrath of God on their behalf?

The typical Arminian response is, “Well, I believe Christ died for all, but people must actually accept Christ if his work on the cross is to apply to their account.” But notice how this changes the nature of Christ’s work on the cross. The Arminian conception of the atonement is such that the work of Christ is insufficient in and of itself to accomplish anything. Rather, its effectiveness depends upon a self-generated response of faith on the part of an unbeliever. (I say “self-generated” because most Arminians also deny effectual calling.)[8]

Pressing this point further reveals a massive difference between Calvinists and Arminians regarding the atonement: The Calvinist denies that “God’s saving purpose in the death of His Son was a mere ineffectual wish, depending for its fulfillment on man’s willingness to believe, so that for all God could do Christ might have died and none been saved at all.” Rather, the Calvinist maintains that “the intended effects of His self-offering do in fact follow, just because the cross was what it was. Its saving power does not depend on faith being added to it; its saving power is such that faith flows from it.[9]

Additionally, the Arminian conception of the atonement raises another significant question. Since an entailment of the Arminian understanding is that Christ’s sacrifice didn’t actually guarantee the salvation of anyone, it’s difficult to see how they can hold to penal substitution.[10] Remember, in the Arminian scheme God the Father didn’t intend only to save the elect, and Christ didn’t actually die for anyone in particular. Therefore, how can they insist that Christ lived a vicarious life and died a vicarious death on behalf of specific people? Theologian Robert Letham gets to the heart of the issue:

“[I]f we wish to maintain that Christ died for all without exception while rejecting universalism, we will have no alternative but to redefine the nature of the atonement. Christ’s death will then have secured the salvation of no-one in particular. It will simply be a provisional suffering, dependent for its effect on a believing response by the sinner. . . . It seems impossible theologically to hold to the penal substitutionary nature of the atonement and at the same time maintain that Christ died provisionally for all without exception.”[11]

All this leads to my final point.

Thirdly, know that the “world” passages prove too much for the Arminian. In my reading of Arminian authors, they reject limited atonement because of the “world” passages found in the Bible. For example, they cite John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (emphasis mine). They look to 1 John 2:1–2: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (emphasis mine). Additionally, they quote 1 Timothy 2:4, which says that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (emphasis mine, also see 2 Pet. 3:9).

First, careful readers should note that John 3:16 is actually irrelevant to the discussion. The verse says nothing about the extent of the atonement; rather, it simply states a fact—namely, that everyone who repents of his or her sin will receive eternal life. Calvinists believe this wholeheartedly. John 3:16 serves as the basis for the free offer of the gospel. However, as Lee Gatiss notes, one should not equate “God so loved the world” with “God sent Jesus because he intended to save the whole world.”[12]

In truth, 1 John 2:2 is more difficult for the Calvinist because it specifically says that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. But Arminians shouldn’t be so quick to raise their voices as they cite this verse with verve. After all, it’s not like they’re the only ones who have some work to do reconciling this passage with other biblical texts. Don’t forget: Universalists appeal to this text to prove universalism—the view that everyone, no matter what they believe, will eventually be saved. For this reason, I’m suggesting that the “world” passages of the Bible prove too much, if left unqualified.

Still, what do we do with 1 John 2:2? Calvinists typically say that when one properly understands the context of 1 John, along with placing the text within the entirety of the biblical witness, his point in saying that Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world means that Christ is the Savior of all kinds of people—Jews and Gentiles. Christ is the Savior of all without distinction, not all without exception.

Furthermore, the Bible also discloses the particularity of Christ’s atonement. For instance, Ephesians 5:25 asserts that Christ gave himself for the church. Acts 20:28 specifies that he purchased the church with his own blood. Revelation 5:9 says that Christ purchased people from every tribe, people, language, and nation.

We’re Almost Done
Admittedly, we could keep going, and my Arminian friends could respond with several passages of their own to counter my arguments. But my goal isn’t to answer every objection and refute every opposing claim. The point is to understand each other and perceive the differences between Calvinists and Arminians.

As is obvious from this post, these are massive differences. They are fundamental, not incidental.

Why care about this pastorally? Briefly, because who God is matters and what he sets out to accomplish in redemption is momentous. We dare not take it lightly, think about it incorrectly, or contemplate it wrongly.

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[1] I am slightly modifying the definition found in Millard J. Erickson, The Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001), 18.

[2] For more on this point see Donald Macleod, “The Work of Christ,” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 351–352.

[3]Less Gatiss, For Us and for Our Salvation: ‘Limited Atonement’ in the Bible, Doctrine, History, and Ministry (London: The Latimer Trust, 2012), 14.

[4] For a helpful overview see Kyle Claunch, “What God Hath Done Together: Defending the Historic Doctrine of the Inseparable Operations of the Trinity,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56:4 (2013): 781–800. On why this is especially important when considering penal substitution, see Keith E. Johnson, “Penal Substitution as an Undivided Work of the Triune God,” Trinity Journal 36 (2015): 51–67.

[5] I am indebted to Ryan McGraw for some of this language. See his article “For Whom Did Christ Die?” Tabletalk 43:4 (April 2019): 24. This also illustrates why the so-called “five points” stand or fall together. Matthew Barrett shows how this relates to the effectual call: “The efficacious nature of grace also reveals the particularity of God’s choice” (see his “The Bondage and Liberation of the Will,” in Reformation Theology, 492).

[6] McGraw, “For Whom Did Christ Die?” 25.

[7] Kevin DeYoung, Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400-Year-Old Confession Teaches us about Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 57.

[8] I realize that not all Arminians agree on this point. Some Arminians are actually more semi-Pelagian in their thinking.

[9] J. I. Packer, Introductory Essay to John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Carlisle, PA: The
Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 9–10, emphasis mine.

[10] In making this point, I am not suggesting that penal substitution is the only way the Bible portrays what Christ accomplished in the atonement. Since I won’t go into detail on this point, I happily direct interested readers to Jeremy R. Treat, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 174–226.

[11] Robert Letham, The Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1993), 230.

[12] Gatiss, For Us and for Our Salvation, 48, 50. That said, it is true in one sense that God will renew the whole world and reconcile the whole world (the cosmos) to himself (2 Cor. 5:19; Eph. 1:10). Cosmic restoration is part of God’s plan for the world. Still, the Bible gives no hope to those who reject Christ (2 Thess. 1:7–8; Heb. 9:27).