Sunday, November 25, 2012

Trinitarianism Is Complementarian

Some egalitarians, and particularly those of the feminist variety, like to appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity in support of their rejection of complementarian ideals. In their opinion, the equality of the three divine persons should do away with any and all talk about the distinct roles of husbands and wives. Since men and women are created in the image of God, then it follows that men and women are equal in value.

I've simplified the argument somewhat, but for whatever reason, it seems like some egalitarians are under the impression that complementarians disagree with the notion that husbands and wives are equal. The validity of the above argument and the truth of its conclusion are things that any complementarian will notice and point out immediately. Egalitarians who make these kinds of assertions show that they don’t really have a solid grasp on either complementarianism or trinitarianism. So here's my attempt to un-muddy the waters.

Kevin DeYoung provides what I think is one of the most helpful and basic summaries of the doctrine of the Trinity. I don’t know if this summary is unique to him or reproduced from another source, but in any case, DeYoung explains the Trinity by way of seven key statements:
1. There is only one God.
2. The Father is God.
3. The Son is God.
4. The Holy Spirit is God.
5. The Father is not the Son.
6. The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
7. The Holy Spirit is not the Father. (source)
DeYoung then writes, “All of the creedal formulations and theological jargon and philosophical apologetics have to do with safeguarding each one of these statements and doing so without denying any of the other six.”

This is where the egalitarians fumble the ball. In their egalitarian vision of the Trinity, they aren’t being careful to safeguard all seven statements. They want to emphasize the first four, but they keep quiet about the last three. They do this for one of three reasons: either (1) because they’re not aware of the importance of distinguishing the divine persons and their respective functions, or (2) because they recognize that having a right understanding of these distinctions hurts their argument greatly, or (3) because they actually deny any distinction between the persons. In the first case, they show that they don’t understand trinitarianism and need to brush up. In the second case, they’re being dishonest. In the third case, they’re modalist heretics. I want to give egalitarians the benefit of the doubt, so I’ll assume the first option is true.

DeYoung goes on to quote the Athanasian Creed: “Now this is the catholic faith: That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons, nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit, still another. But the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.”

The emphasized portion of the above quote, and the last three of DeYoung’s seven summary statements, teach what egalitarians need to remember about the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct. In other words, they are different persons who do different things.

First, the Father is not the Son. It is inaccurate, even heretical, to teach that the Father died on the cross (patripassionism). It was not the Father who died, but the Son. In fact, the Son willingly submitted to his Father’s will when he laid down his life for the salvation of the world (Matt. 26:39). As a side note, this submission of the Son to the Father demonstrates the falsehood of what egalitarians frequently claim, namely, that submission entails inequality or inferiority.

Second, the Son is not the Holy Spirit. It was not the Son who was poured out at Pentecost, but the Spirit. Jesus told the disciples that he would send them another helper, i.e. someone else who will do something else (John 16:7).

Finally, the Spirit is not the Father. Rather, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. With authority, the Spirit is sent into the hearts of believers to help, comfort, and sanctify. This authority is not tyrannical or domineering, but it is nevertheless real authority.

These considerations help us to see how, contrary to what egalitarians would have us think, complementarianism is consistent with, and even derived from, trinitarian theology. There is headship in the Trinity whether egalitarians want to acknowledge it or not. Since complementarians recognize this headship, they are often charged with promoting heresy; and I suppose it would be heresy if it wasn’t in the Bible. Paul said, “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3).

The heresy that egalitarians are mistakenly appealing to is the heresy of subordinationism. Subordinationism teaches that the Son is ontologically inferior to the Father. In other words, the Son is essentially a lesser quality being; he is less God-like than his Father. But complementarians are affirming no such thing when they acknowledge trinitarian headship and point out that a parallel exists between this and marital headship. Just as complementarians affirm the ontological equality of each divine person, so also do they affirm the ontological equality of all husbands and wives. At the same time, just as complementarians affirm the personal and functional distinction between each divine person, so also do they affirm the personal and functional distinction between all husbands and wives.

To express this in a simpler fashion: All the divine persons are equally God and equally valuable, just like all husbands and wives are equally human and equally valuable. Yet at the same time, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are personally distinct, and function in complementary ways; just like all husbands and wives are personally distinct, and function in complementary ways.

In other words, trinitarianism is complementarian.

Fred Sanders, who is obviously much smarter than I am, has written a helpful and thorough article about this, though he seems to suggest that the Trinity should not inform anyone’s view of gender, either egalitarian or complementarian, which I don’t agree with. Give it a read anyway. I’ll leave you with a paragraph from that article, and a personal postscript:

Sanders writes, “So when gender warriors on either side appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity, I don’t expect much light, though there’s always plenty of heat. A particularly unfruitful line of inquiry is the question, “what did the church fathers say about this?” Pursuing that question can lead to very long but irrelevant florilegia: endless quotations of classic theologians talking about something else, presented as if they are talking about Trinity and gender. They almost never were.”

Postscript: Personally, my suspicion is that here we’re dealing with people who wouldn’t have given much thought to trinitarian orthodoxy had they not stumbled upon a (defective) way to make the Trinity serve their egalitarian vision of manhood and womanhood. In some situations, egalitarians strongly emphasize the need to contextualize Christianity by casting off the dated traditions of the past in order to make Scripture's message more relevant to our own culture. But whenever they see an opportunity to advance the egalitarian cause, they call an audible and present themselves as stalwarts of historical orthodoxy.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Doug and Nancy on Complementarian Family Life

"A two-year-old boy should be taught to respect his baby sister because she is a girl. A five-year-old boy should be required to say "yes, ma'am" to his mother simply because she is a woman. Young boys need to be taught to stand when a woman enters the room. They should be taught to hold open doors for women. They should seat their mother at the dinner table. These are not arbitrary or random cultural practices which have no meaning. They are a constant daily reminder to males -- whose lusts when unmortified always degrade women -- that women must not be degraded, but rather honored."

Doug Wilson, Future Men: Raising Boys to Fight Giants

"Just as men need respect from their wives, so sons need respect from their mothers and sisters. Of course, respect to your son will look different than respect to your husband, because your son is not in authority over you, but it is respect nonetheless. . . . Mothers, remember that Dad is the head. You must not take your duties of obedience lightly. Your son will respect you when you respect Dad. And sons should hear often from Mom's lips what a great Dad they have. This is important in growing healthy sons. Mothers must also learn how to respect their sons, and they must teach their daughters to respect their brothers. This not only prepares daughters to be practiced in giving respect, but it also teaches sons what they want to look for in a wife."

Nancy Wilson, Praise Her in the Gates: The Calling of Christian Motherhood

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reflections: 1 Samuel 26

In this passage, God caused a deep sleep to fall on Saul’s army, such that David had a perfect opportunity to assassinate the man who sought his life. But this providential state of affairs didn’t mean that killing Saul was sanctioned by God. This was Abishai’s mistake: “God has given your enemy into your hand this day. Now please let me pin him to the earth with one stroke of the spear” (v. 8). Abishai’s premise was correct, as God had indeed worked this miraculous circumstance (v. 12); but Abishai’s conclusion was wrong. David, on the other hand, rightly recognized that even though God had given him the opportunity to slay Saul, it would be a crime to put his hand out against the Lord’s anointed. Rather than acting on slippery human interpretations of divine providence, David relied on wisdom and God’s objective moral standard. Not every door that God opens is meant to be taken, at least not in the way we might initially think.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ginsberg, Beatniks, and Romans 1

Q: Allen Ginsberg was the most famous figure of the “Beat” movement and an outspoken proponent of its philosophy. What perception of the “Beat” movement and the “hipsters” that populated it do you get from “Howl”?

A: I get the impression that the Beat Movement was comprised of those who were in truth the products of prolonged adolescence,

who refused to grow up, having been proverbially sacrificed to Molech by their own parents,

who sought to be free from any authority whose name was not “me,”

who had no objective sense of right and wrong, and no interest in pesky moral standards,

who skillfully strung together long lines of random, discombobulated nonsense and were able to pass it off as poetry,

who were the espousers of a godless worldview, and spent large amounts of energy suppressing the truth in unrighteousness,

who enjoyed a heyday that has come and gone, were an unfortunate blot on American society, and will hopefully be remembered historically as a prime example of what not to emulate.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

When Does Theology Superintend Hermeneutics?

The plainest interpretation of a biblical text is not always the best one. In fact, sometimes its the worst. Lets imagine that Peter Pagan is a person who has grown up in an entirely secular home and has never been taught even the most basic biblical truths about God. If Peter decides to read the Bible one day, and chooses, naturally, to start at the book of Genesis, it wont be long before he reads this verse: But the Lord called to the man and said to him, Where are you? (Gen. 3:9).

For a totally non-theological secular person like Peter, the plainest way to interpret the content of this verse would be something like this: God is here seeking to gain information that he does not yet possess. He is unsure of Adams location and so, in order to find out, he asks Adam the question, Where are you?

After all, is this not the plainest way to understand a question?1 If I send my friend a text message with the same inquiry, “Where are you?”, I expect him to understand that I have a deficiency in my knowledge of his current whereabouts and would appreciate his help in obtaining that information. So our friend Peter will likely assume the same thing of God as he first reads Genesis 3:9, and Im willing to admit that this is, in fact, the plainest way to understand Gods question; and yet it is emphatically incorrect.

Peters plain understanding is actually the worst way to interpret Gods question because the same God reveals elsewhere that he is a God whose knowledge has no deficiencies (Psa. 33:13-15; Pro. 15:3; Heb. 4:13). There is not one true fact, nor one state of affairs in the whole universe of which he is not aware. This will rightly lead Peter to reevaluate Genesis 3:9 and abandon what he initially thought was the best (i.e. plainest) interpretation of the verse. He will understand Gods question as simply a rhetorical confrontation, or perhaps a way of testing Adam, but not as a request for unknown information. Theology does, at times, dictate the way we interpret certain texts, but that is not always a bad thing.

And I suppose neither is it always good.


1. Irony intended!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Humble Little Case for Particular Atonement


The doctrine that goes by the name “limited atonement” is often associated with the five points of Calvinism, and is most commonly situated as the third point (representing the L in the acronym TULIP). Simply stated, limited atonement refers to the belief that Christ, by his death on the cross, bore the sins of only those who would become believers in him, namely the elect, and not the sins of every member of the human race. This post will set forth a biblical case for what I will call “particular atonement,” which will be understood as virtually synonymous with what has historically been known as limited atonement. One reason to prefer the term “particular atonement” is that “limited atonement” has the ill effect of highlighting those for whom Christ did not die, which makes for a distorted emphasis on the ones who are not included. “Particular atonement” rightly shifts the focus onto those for whom Christ did die, and places the emphasis on Christ’s powerful and effective work on behalf of his people.

Particular atonement comprises two key concepts: (1) definite efficacy, and (2) limited extent. Definite efficacy refers to the idea that Christ’s atonement on the cross infallibly accomplished the salvation of those for whom it was made. This means that those for whom Christ died are saved and will certainly be saved. Perhaps no one could express definite efficacy more clearly than did Charles Spurgeon: “We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.”1

The issue of the atonement’s efficacy inevitably raises questions related to the extent of the atonement. For whom did Christ die? Whose sins did Jesus bear in his body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24)? Advocates of particular atonement argue that Christ bore the sins of a select group of individuals and not every member of the human race. Jesus did not die for the sins of every human being, but for those in particular who would believe on his name. This notion is referred to as the limited extent of the atonement.

Over against particular atonement is the view known as general atonement. General atonement is the belief that Christ died for every member of the human race (i.e. he died for all in general). According to advocates of general atonement, Christ’s death on the cross atoned for the sins of every human being, and not just the sins of those who would be saved. Thus, against the limited extent of the particular atonement view, those who hold to general atonement contend for an unlimited extent. They likewise argue against the notion of definite efficacy with an alternative that one might call provisional efficacy. Provisional efficacy means that Christ’s atonement provided the possibility of salvation for all individuals, though it did not guarantee or make certain the salvation of anyone in particular. Norman Geisler summarizes provisional efficacy when he argues, “Christ’s payment for the sins of all mankind did not automatically save them; it simply made them savable.”2

The argument I will make here is that particular atonement, with its understanding of both the definite efficacy and limited extent of Christ’s work on the cross, is the consistent teaching of Scripture. A biblical case will first be made for the notions of definite efficacy and limited extent, which will be followed by an examination of a number of biblical texts often leveled against particular atonement.

Definite Efficacy

Scripture teaches that Christ’s atonement infallibly secured the salvation of those for whom it was made. If the work of Christ was foreshadowed in the levitical priesthood and sacrificial system (Heb. 7-10), then naturally we should allow the levitical pattern to shape our understanding of atonement as a basic category. Throughout the text of Leviticus, acts of atonement are almost invariably followed by the formulae, “and they shall be forgiven” (4:20, 5:10) or “and they shall be clean” (14:53, 16:30). These consistent and recurrent phrases point to a very simple truth, namely, that an atonement results in the actual forgiveness or cleansing of the person for whom it is made; not a possible forgiveness or cleansing, but a real one. To be clear, animal sacrifices could never wash away sins in a permanent sense, so that no atonement would be needed in the future (Heb. 10:4). Nevertheless, when the levitical priest made atonement for the sins of the people, actual forgiveness was the result. While this observation alone does not prove the definite efficacy of Christs atonement, it does teach us about the basic end (or outcome) of atonements in general, and ought to make us puzzled by and suspicious of the claim that Christ’s atonement, far superior to those of the levitical system, does not necessarily result in the actual forgiveness and reconciliation of those for whom it is made. In other words, one should naturally assume that the superior atonement of Christ will be at least as efficacious as the inferior atonements of Leviticus.

So it is no surprise to read the author of Hebrews speak of Christ’s powerful and permanent atoning work in terms of definite efficacy: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come . . . he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:11-12). And again, “he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant” (Heb. 9:15). Christ’s death on the cross made certain an actual redemption, an actual reconciliation (Rom. 5:10), and an actual forgiveness of those for whom he died; and that is the notion of definite efficacy. Anything less should strike the Bible reader as exceedingly odd, and could hardly be called an atonement at all.

In the first chapter of Matthew, the angel of the Lord tells Joseph about the child that will be born to Mary: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). We learn from this angelic message that the aim of Christ’s work was to save a particular people who belonged to him, and this is the very reason he would be named Jesus (Іηςουνfrom the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning “Yahweh saves”). Yet we also see that this salvation is not merely the goal of Christ’s work, but also the certain outcome. The point of the verse is not that Jesus will make possible the salvation of all people, but that he will make certain the salvation of this people. Matthew does not reserve the possibility that these Christ came to save might end up not saved. Christ will infallibly save all of his people, else the verse is not true. In keeping with the levitical standard (Lev. 17:11), Jesus accomplished the redemption of this multitude by pouring out his own blood for the forgiveness of their sins (Matt. 26:28); and anyone acquainted with Leviticus would intuitively add the familiar formula: “and they shall be forgiven.”

In the latter half of the chapter that is perhaps the pinnacle of the whole Bible, Paul offers a series of rhetorical questions to his Christian readers that speaks strongly to the definite efficacy of Christ’s work: “If God is for us, who can be against us? 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?” (Rom. 8:31-32). The phrase “all things” probably refers to what Peter elsewhere describes as “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). Notice that Paul does not speak as though these blessings are ultimately contingent on a response of faith (though faith is certainly the means of application). Rather, he grounds the certainty of these benefits on the singular fact that Christ has died on their behalf. If one were to convert Paul’s rhetorical questions into positive statements, they might look like this: “If God gave up his own Son for you, then he will certainly also give you all things (v. 32). Moreover, if Christ died on your behalf, then you will certainly not be condemned (v. 34).”

These points are problematic for those who would contend that there are many people for whom God gave up his Son that will never be given these benefits. Those who reject definite efficacy must believe that there are a large number of those for whom Christ was condemned that may also be condemned themselves. But Paul stresses that this cannot be the case; it is not possible. John Owen made this point well: “Upon [Christ’s death] the apostle infers a kind of impossibility in not giving us all good things in him; which how it can be reconciled with their opinion who affirm that he gave his Son for millions to whom he will give neither grace nor glory, I cannot see.”3 If it were true that many for whom God gave up his Son will never be given “all things” and may in fact come under the wrath of God, then any comfort or assurance that Paul here intends to give his readers would fall flat.

In the fifth chapter of Revelation, John recounts an apocalyptic vision of the four creatures and twenty-four elders worshiping the Lamb with a new song: “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” (Rev. 5:9). From this song of praise, we learn that Christ, by his own blood (i.e. his death), secured the redemption of a particular people made up of individuals from all parts of the earth. John uses the preposition εκ to indicate that this is a group of individuals drawn out of (c.f. NASB, NKJV) every people group. He goes on to describe these who were ransomed by Christ as being “made a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (v. 10). The heavenly song that John here records testifies to the definite efficacy of Christ’s atoning work. Those Christ ransoms by his blood are made members of the kingdom and priesthood of God.

The above passages demonstrate some of the biblical evidence for definite efficacy, the first key component of particular atonement. But what about the second component, i.e. limited extent? Is there any evidence in Scripture that Christ died for a specific and limited group? To this question we now turn.

Limited Extent

Scripture teaches that Christ’s atonement was made for a particular people. The passages in which Christ is said to die for a select group of individuals are abundant. John states that the purpose of Jesus’s death was “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:52). Paul teaches the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit has made them overseers “to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). He also writes that husbands should love their wives, “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Peter, while encouraging his readers about the imperishable blood of Jesus by which they were ransomed, writes that Christ was sent for the sake of those who believe (1 Pet. 1:18-21). While these passages do not explicitly say that Jesus died only for the group specified, it is difficult to understand why the New Testament authors would so frequently use restricted language in these contexts if they believed that Christ actually atoned for the sins of all human beings alike. Wayne Grudem writes, “Even if they do not absolutely imply such a particularizing of redemption, these verses do at least seem to be most naturally interpreted in this way.”4

Even stronger evidence for the limited extent of Christ’s atonement is found in John 10. Jesus makes the following statement: “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). Several verses later, Jesus says to the unbelieving Jews, “but you do not believe in me because you are not part of my flock” (10:26). Concerning this text, Edwin Palmer writes, “[The unbelieving Jews] were not included in His flock, for whom, He had said earlier, He would lay down his life.” The logic here may not comport with strict formal standards, since Jesus does not explicitly say that he lays down his life only for his sheep; yet the informal force of Jesus’s statements makes it difficult to avoid this conclusion. When we put together verses 15 and 26, Jesus says, in effect, “You are not those for whom I lay down my life.”

Lastly, it deserves to be noted that limited extent is logically necessary for anyone who affirms the biblical teaching of definite efficacy but denies the unbiblical notion of universalism. In other words, if one holds that all for whom Christ died will be saved, but also believes that some will not be saved, then the irresistible corollary is that the atonement is limited in its extent. The following syllogism illustrates this point:
  1. All persons for whom Christ died will be saved. (definite efficacy)
  2. Not all persons will be saved. (non-universalism)
  3. Therefore, Christ did not die for all persons. (limited extent)
Answering Objections

Those who hold to general atonement cite a number of biblical texts against the claims of particular atonement. These passages appear to contradict either definite efficacy or limited extent, the two components of particular atonement for which a case was made above. While space does not allow a response to all of these texts, three passages will be examined that represent the most formidable textual challenges to particular atonement.

1 John 2:2

Advocates of general atonement often cite 1 John 2:2 against the notion that Christ’s atonement is limited in its extent. John writes, “Jesus Christ . . . is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Kenneth Keathley cites this verse as support for the idea that “Christ provided redemption for all universally.”5 Colin Kruse, in his commentary on 1 John 2:2, writes, “When the author says that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice ‘for the sins of the whole world’, that includes not only our sins (i.e., the sins of believers) but the sins of the unbelieving world as well.”6

There are several points to be made in response to this interpretation of 1 John 2:2. First, advocates of general atonement often ignore the implications of the word ιλασμος (propitiation) when they contend that this verse teaches an unlimited extent of the atonement. For Christ to be called the propitiation for any sins at all, he must actually propitiate those sins; that is, he must actually satisfy and avert the divine wrath deserved by those sins. Therefore, anyone whose sins have been propitiated by Christ will by no means come under the wrath of God (else their sins were never really propitiated). The definite nature of propitiation is problematic for advocates of general atonement, who would make Christ’s death merely provisional in nature.

Second, the phrase ολου του κοσμου (the whole world) should be understood as all believers scattered throughout all parts of the earth. Of the 186 occurrences of κοσμος in the New Testament, never does the word unequivocally refer to all members of the human race. Most often, κοσμος is used to indicate the natural sphere of creation (John 1:9, Rom. 1:20). Additionally, whenever κοσμος is modified by the adjective ολος (all, whole), it refers without exception to the earth in all its parts, nations, or kingdoms (Matt. 26:13, Mark 14:9, Luke 9:25, Rom. 1:8, 1 John 5:19). This is the sense in which John uses the phrase ολου του κοσμου in 1 John 2:2.7

Thus, Christ is the propitiation not only for the sins of John’s immediate Jewish audience, but for the sins of every nation. Christ’s atonement satisfies the wrath of God against all Christians in every part of the earth, irrespective of race or nationality. Since Christ actually turned away God’s wrath against the sins of believers in every part of the earth, he is rightly called the propitiation for the sins of the whole world. John Calvin, who may or may not have held to limited/particular atonement, interpreted 1 John 2:2 precisely in this way: “John’s purpose was only to make this blessing common to the whole Church. Therefore, under the word ‘all’ [‘whole’] he does not include the reprobate, but refers to all who would believe and those who were scattered through various regions of the earth.”8 Interpreting 1 John 2:2 in this manner allows us to preserve the definite nature of  ιλασμος (propitiation) while at the same time understanding ολου του κοσμου (the whole world) in a way that is entirely consistent with John’s writings and the rest of the New Testament.9

1 Timothy 4:10

First Timothy 4:10 is another text commonly used to discredit the belief that Christ’s atonement is limited in its extent. Paul writes, “For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” Laurence Vance argues that this verse teaches that Christ made a universal provision of salvation.10 Similarly, Dave Hunt contends that this text indicates that Christ died for all human beings, but his death “is only propitiatory for those who believe.”11 Thus, 1 Timothy 4:10 appears to be strong evidence for general atonement.

However, when one takes a closer look at this text, it becomes clear that it does not support general atonement as strongly as it might initially seem. First, it must be noted that Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross is not directly in view. Paul speaks of the “the living God” in a general sense commonly used as a reference to God the Father (Matt. 16:16; Acts 14:15; Heb. 9:14). So we should not assume that 1 Timothy 4:10 speaks singularly of the atoning work of the Son. Second, Vance’s category of provision is entirely absent from the verse and must be read into it. God is the Savior of these people; he is not their potential Savior.

With these points in mind, there are at least two reasonable interpretations of 1 Timothy 4:10 that advocates of particular atonement may put forward. One interpretation involves understanding the word σοτηρ (Savior) as a reference to the common grace and mercy that God the Father shows to all living beings, as in Psalm 36:5-8 where God is said to save “both man and beast.” Along these lines, John Gill argued that Paul here speaks of God “as the preserver of all men, in a way of common, and particularly of believers, in a way of special providence.”12 In other words, Paul is teaching that God is Savior in two senses: one sense that is truly universal in extent, and another sense that is particular to those who believe. The former can be understood as God’s common grace and kindness toward all creatures, while the latter can be understood as his special and effective work of redemption accomplished through his Son for all believers.

A second alternative interpretation of 1 Timothy 4:10 involves the proper translation of the word μαλιςτα. In most English versions of the Bible, μαλιςτα is here translated “especially,” but the word can also be faithfully rendered as “namely” or “that is.” Even I. Howard Marshall, who advocates general atonement, prefers this rendering of μαλιςτα since he believes it better suits the surrounding context.13 If one takes this to be the correct translation, then what Paul says here is perfectly consistent with the particular atonement view: “God is the Savior of all people, namely of those who believe.”

2 Peter 2:1

A third text often cited against particular atonement is 2 Peter 2:1, where Peter writes the following: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” Those who advocate general atonement contend that this verse plainly demonstrates that there are some who are bought by the blood of Christ who nevertheless reject the faith and experience the wrath and judgment of God. This is the most important textual objection leveled against particular atonement, because it strikes directly at the conviction that Christ’s atonement actually and effectually saves those for whom it is made. In other words, if this text does in fact teach that those for whom Christ died run the risk of being lost forever, then the notion of definite efficacy is false and the particular atonement view, as stated and defended above, completely falls apart.

Fortunately, interpreting 2 Peter 2:1 in this way requires two unnecessary assumptions. First, one must assume that the word δεσποτης (Master) here refers to the Lord Jesus Christ. Second, one must assume that the word αγοραζω (to buy or purchase) here refers to the redemption accomplished by Christ on the cross.

As for the first assumption, δεσποτης occurs ten times in the New Testament, and it is almost never used in reference to Christ.14 The word κυριος (Lord) is much preferred by the New Testament authors when speaking of Jesus, and is especially frequent as a title of Christ in 2 Peter (1:2, 8, 11, 14, 16; 2:20; 3:2, 18). Therefore, it is unlikely that 2 Peter 2:1 would be the one place where Peter uses δεσποτης (rather than κυριος) to refer to Christ. Moreover, δεσποτης is used elsewhere clearly in reference to God the Father (Luke 2:29; Acts 4:24).

As for the second assumption, the word αγοραζω does not have to be understood as a euphemism for the atonement of Christ.15 Considering the rich and constant Old Testament imagery in Peter’s letters, and seeing that the immediate context is a clear allusion to the false prophets of Israel, it is best to understand αγοραζω to refer to Yahweh’s redeeming his covenant people out of captivity. So the theological imagery echoed by Peter’s use of αγοραζω is that of Exodus 15:16: “Terror and dread fall upon them; because of the greatness of your arm, they are still as a stone, till your people, O Lord, pass by, till the people pass by whom you have purchased.” The apostasy and subsequent destruction of these false teachers of Peter’s day should call to mind Deuteronomy 32:5-6: “They have corrupted themselves; they are not His children, because of their blemish: a perverse and crooked generation. Do you thus deal with the Lord, O foolish and unwise people? Is He not your Father who bought you?”.

In this light, Peter’s flow of thought calls for a better interpretation of 2 Peter 2:1 than the one posited by those seeking to negate particular atonement. Peter is here claiming that the false teachers creeping into the church will reject God as their redeemer and deliverer in the same way that the false prophets of Israel did. Grudem even suggests that Peter here has in mind Jewish false teachers who will lead the New Testament church astray.16 If he is correct, then the words δεσποτης and αγοραζω certainly have special covenantal connotations that are uniquely applicable to these particular apostates. In any case, there is no clear indication that Peter is here speaking of the atoning death of Christ on the cross. When we consider the most common usage of δεσποτης and understand the contextual meaning of αγοραζω, it becomes clear that 2 Peter 2:1 does not by any means overthrow particular atonement.


The preceding paragraphs have sought to demonstrate Scripture’s consistent teaching that the substitutionary atonement of Christ is both definite it its efficacy and limited in its extent. Moreover, the texts to which opponents of particular atonement often appeal are inconclusive and do not warrant a rejection of these truths. Every person who has repented of his sins and believed on the Lord Jesus can have unshakable assurance in the efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection. In Christ, God was reconciling to himself men and women from every tribe, tongue, and nation (i.e. the world); all of whom will be present and accounted for on the last day when they join the worship of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 5:9).


1. Charles Spurgeon, sermon entitled “Particular Redemption” (no. 181), in The New Park Street Pulpit Vol. IV (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1981), 135.

2. Norman Geisler, Chosen But Free (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1999), 85.

3. John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 183.

4. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 600.

5. Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 196.

6. Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John, New Testament Pillar Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 74.

7. Kruse has some justification for here interpreting κοσμος as the entirety of the unbelieving world, since John does regularly use the term to indicate fallen, unrighteous humanity as opposed to righteous humanity; but considering the context and the modifying adjective ολος, it is best not to understand κοσμος in that way here.

8. John Calvin, Commentaries: The Gospel according to St. John 11-21 and The First Epistle of John, eds. David Torrance and Thomas Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 244.

9. See also the conspicuous parallel text in John’s gospel (11:51-52).

10. Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola: Vance Publications, 1999), 428.

11. Dave Hunt, What Love is This? (Sisters, OR: Loyal Publishing, 2002), 242.

12. John Gill, The Cause of God and Truth (Lafayette: Sovereign Grace, 2002), 244.

13. I. Howard Marshall, “Universal Grace and Atonement in the Pastoral Epistles,” in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark Pinnock (Grand Rapids: Bethany House, 1995), 55.

14. The one exception is Jude 4, where δεσποτης does appear to refer to Christ if the Granville Sharp rule is applied.

15. To be sure, αγοραζω is unequivocally used of Christ’s atonement in other parts of the New Testament (Rev. 5:9), but one should not readily assume that a word to which one writer attaches a distinct theological concept will always be used by other writers in the same way. For example, Protestants recognize that the word δικαιοω (to justify) does not carry the same theological import for James as it does for Paul (James 2:24; Rom. 3:28).

16. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 599-600.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Subjects and Mode

In discussions about the right way to practice baptism, a mistake that is often made is the conflation of two issues that really ought to be treated separately. These two issues are the subjects of baptism and the mode of baptism. The first issue, the subjects of baptism, refers to the question of who should receive baptism (either infants, or only professing believers). The second issue, the mode of baptism, refers to the question of how baptism should be administered (either by sprinkling, pouring, immersion, etc).
Terms related to the subjects of baptism: Credobaptist - One who believes that baptism is properly administered only to those who give a credible profession of faith in Christ Paedobaptist - One who believes that baptism is properly administered to the infants of believing parents Terms related to the mode of baptism: Aspersion - Baptism by sprinkling Affusion - Baptism by pouring Immersion - Baptism by fully submerging One should not think that a particular mode of baptism entails also a particular view of the subjects of baptism. Thus, proving immersion does not prove credobaptism, nor does it disprove paedobaptism.1 Likewise, proving aspersion (sprinkling) does not prove paedobaptism, nor does it disprove credobaptism. In the same way, one should not think that a particular view of the subjects of baptism entails also a particular view of the mode of baptism. Thus, proving credobaptism does not prove immersion, nor does it disprove aspersion or affusion. Likewise, proving paedobaptism does not prove aspersion, nor does it disprove immersion. Today, it is true that the vast majority of credobaptists insist on, or at least prefer, immersion. They have a credobaptist view of the subjects of baptism and an immersionist view of the mode of baptism. But it would be a mistake to think that this combination is inextricable or necessary, such that to prove immersion is, in effect, to prove credobaptism. If a paedobaptist were to ask a credobaptist to defend his view (that baptism is only for believers), the credobaptist should not start talking about the lexical meaning of the word βαπτίζω or the significance of the preposition ἐν in Mark 1:5. He should not do these things because the paedobaptist has not asked him for an explanation of his view of the mode of baptism, but only his view of the subjects of baptism. The lexical meaning of βαπτίζω and the significance of prepositions associated with baptism in Scripture are important discussions to have, but they are usually concerned with only the mode of baptism, and not the subjects. Notes
1. One might argue that proving immersion does in fact disprove paedobaptism, since infants cannot be immersed; but this is false. Infant immersion is not unusual in the Greek Orthodox Church.