Among conservative Bible-believing Christians there is often passionate resistance to the doctrines of unconditional election and the limited atonement. One reason for this, I believe, is a commendable zeal for evangelism coupled with a common misconception about the essential content of the gospel message. I think it would be fair to say that most Christians believe that preaching the gospel means saying two things to the unconverted: (1) “God loves you and wants to save you,” and (2) “Christ died for you.” Many would say we have not presented the gospel at all if those two assurances are not given.
Based on the assumed centrality of those two phrases in evangelism, many Christians understandably arrive at doctrinal positions that make no allowance for unconditional election and the limited atonement. The reasoning goes something like this:
- If it is appropriate to say to everyone, “God loves you and wants to save you,” then it cannot be true that He has chosen only some for salvation.
- If it is correct to say to everyone, “Christ died for you,” then it cannot be correct to say that Christ died only for the elect.
What is Biblical Evangelism?
Biblical evangelism is proclaiming the biblical doctrines of salvation to the unconverted.
A biblical evangelist (whether he is a pastor, a neighbor, a family member, or a co-worker) is one who studies to know what the Bible says about God, Christ, sin, holiness, justice, wrath, grace, love, and the salvation of sinners, and then teaches those doctrines to unconverted people. Relying solely upon the truth of the doctrines of the Bible and the working of the Spirit of God, he urges them to repent and believe the truth. The biblical evangelist is not a clever or manipulative person who says or does whatever it takes to get people to “make a decision for Christ.” He is not the one who, because he genuinely longs to see people saved, is willing to stray from, add to, modify, or reduce the doctrines of the Bible. The biblical evangelist is the one who is convinced that God saves those who believe “the foolishness of the [biblical] message preached” (1 Corinthians 1:21). He has no confidence in a message that seems more palatable, user-friendly, culturally relevant, or seemingly more effective in persuading people to “make a decision” or say a “sinner’s prayer.”
For those committed to biblical evangelism, the question needs to be asked: Are the phrases, “God loves you and wants to save you,” and “Christ died for you,” the Bible’s message to the unconverted? Are we reflecting biblical doctrine when we unreservedly assure unconverted people that those things are true of them? Have we drawn that message from the Bible, or have we allowed the message to formulate (instead of reflect) Christian doctrine? All too often the latter is the case. As the saying goes, the tail is sometimes guilty of wagging the dog.
The first evangelists never assured unconverted people that God loves them. This is not to say conclusively that He does not love them in any way whatsoever. But the undeniable fact is, the love of God for man was a total non-factor in the evangelistic preaching recorded in the New Testament. In the book of Acts, for example, the greatest manual for evangelism that exists, the word “love” is never even used. So the first supposedly essential phrase—”God loves you and wants to save you”—has absolutely no biblical precedent (see Appendix 3 on the love of God for “the world” in John 3:16).
Likewise, and contrary to the second common assumption about the essential content of the gospel message, the words, “Christ died for you” were never addressed to unconverted people. The only people who are ever assured in the Bible that Jesus bore their sins on the cross are Christians. You will search the Bible in vain to find words like, “Jesus died for you,” presented as a promise or an appeal to the lost. This is particularly noteworthy in the book of Acts where post-resurrection preaching is modeled for us by Stephen, Peter, John, Paul, Barnabas, and Silas. These men preached publicly to Jews as well as Gentiles, urging them to repent of their sinful ways, to believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah, to believe that He was crucified and raised from the dead, and to tremble at the knowledge that He would come again to judge the world. But they never said to the unconverted, “Christ died for you.” They never even implied such a thing. Those words (and implications) are found only in the New Testament letters which were addressed to Christians.
If the first evangelists never told unconverted people that God loves them or that Jesus died for them, how did they preach the gospel? What did they tell them? And what should we tell them?
- We should tell them that Christ came for the purpose of saving sinners like them by dying as a substitute for those who would be saved (Isaiah 53:11; Matthew 1:21; John 10:15).
- We should assure them that if they will repent, believe, and give evidence that their heart has been changed by God, they may be confident that their sins were paid for by Christ on the cross (Ephesians 5:25; 1 Peter 2:24, cf. 2 Peter 1:5-11).
- We should assure them that Christ died to redeem not only a few, but a multitude of people from out of the mass of fallen humanity (Revelation 5:9-13).
- We should assure them that neither their race, gender, social status, level of education, past history of sin, or any other factor, removes them from the scope of God’s redemptive purpose if they will repent and believe (Acts 2:21; Romans 10:11-13; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:12-18).
- We should tell them that Christ came to redeem those who know they are in desperate need of salvation (Mark 2:17) and that He stands willing to receive them with open arms if they feel the weight of their guilt due to sin and will come to Him in humble repentance and by faith (Matthew 11:28; John 6:37).
In short, we should present every promise that is presented to unconverted people in the Bible. We should proclaim every warning that the Bible reveals about sin, judgment, and hell. We should reason with them and be persuasive. We should seek to take away every possible excuse for not believing in Jesus.
Clearly there is much that we can and must say to unbelievers. But if we are to be consistent with biblical evangelism and the biblical doctrines upon which it is grounded, we may not say directly to a particular unbeliever, “God loves you and wants to save you,” or, “Christ died for you.” That is never the way the gospel is expressed in the Bible, and there is no need to use such unprecedented appeals given the wealth of biblical promises, assurances, and warnings that we can and should give. Most importantly, the doctrines of the Bible do not assure us that such statements are true concerning every unbeliever, as long as he or she remains an unbeliever.
What about the “free offer” of the gospel?
If Christ died only for the elect, what exactly are we “offering” everyone else when we preach the gospel? This question is commonly thought to raise a huge problem with the doctrine of limited atonement. Consider this illustration:
Let’s say I write ten checks for one hundred dollars each. I then offer those checks to ten different people, assuring each one that the money is in my bank account to cover their check if they will accept it and cash it. But if I only have four hundred dollars in the bank, I am guilty of making a false offer. If everyone accepts the offered checks and tries to cash them, six people will be sadly disappointed. Even if I somehow knew that only four of those people would accept and cash the offered check, I offered something to the other six that was not truly available to them.
The logic of this argument is undeniably sound. When coupled with the common understanding of “the free offer of the gospel,” it is often appealed to when arguing against the limited atonement. As the argument goes, if we offer all people the gift of salvation when Christ has only purchased that gift for some, we are making a false offer. In other words, if Christ has only obtained salvation for the elect, we are telling a lie when we say unreservedly to everyone, “In the death of Christ, God has purchased for you the tangible reward of salvation, a gift that stands ready for you if you are willing to take possession of it.”
The logic of the cashed check illustration does seem to carry through. But is that the way we are supposed to present the gospel? Is biblical evangelism an “offer” of something that has been obtained? Or is it something else entirely? There is no doubt that we are commanded to preach the gospel to all people everywhere. That much should not be in question. But are we using an appropriate label for the biblical mandate of unrestricted preaching when we call it “the free offer of the gospel”? Perhaps it is our terminology that needs to be adjusted, not the doctrines that we are trying to represent. Perhaps we have coined a phrase that does not accurately represent our task.
To find the answer, it seems best, once again, to examine the preaching found in the four gospels and the book of Acts. Consider the following categorization of types of biblical gospel preaching. There is a certain degree of overlap between the following types of preaching. Many passages could easily fit into two or more categories. But as you will see, the one category that is distinctly missing is the presentation of the gospel as an offer of something that has been obtained for all people. The first evangelists simply never put it that way.
The Various Forms of Gospel Presentation
“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
This is one common form of gospel preaching—proclaiming dire warnings of what will happen if you do not repent and believe. Such presentations are obviously not an “offer” of something obtained by purchase (also see Matthew 3:8-12; 18:3; Mark 10:15; Luke 3:7-8; 18:16-17; John 8:23-24; Acts 13:38-41; 17:30-31).
2. Statements of Theological Fact
This category represents the largest number of gospel presentations in the Bible. John 3:16, for example, contains no offer, but rather two simple statements of fact:
- Because of His love for the world, God sent Christ to die.
- Whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
Statements of fact like John 3:16 are the types of gospel presentations that are most commonly seen as proof that something has been purchased for all people. As the reasoning usually goes, if whoever believes will be saved, then everyone has a chance to be saved. And if everyone has a chance to be saved, then salvation must have been purchased for everyone. Otherwise we could not rightly make such an unrestricted “offer.”
According to this way of thinking, many Christians say there must be an actual purchased benefit—like a gift sitting on a table with a person’s name on it—for such an “offer” to be valid. Such reasoning is unsound for two reasons: First, the supposed “free offer” is not stated as an offer at all. In John 3:16, absolutely nothing is offered or promised to those who never believe, so nothing must necessarily have been purchased for them. Second, whether Christ died for the elect alone or for all people everywhere, it is just as accurate to say, “whoever believes will be saved.” Only the elect will believe and so only the elect may find assurance that salvation was obtained for them by Christ’s death as a result of God’s love (see Appendix 3 for further discussion of the meaning of “the world” in John 3:16).
(For other examples of this “statement of fact” type of gospel preaching, see Luke 15:7; John 4:13-14; 6:35; 7:37-38; 8:12; 31-32; 51; 11:25-26; Acts 4:11-12; 5:30-31; 9:20; 10:42-43;17:30-31).
3. Direct Commands or Instructions
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17).
“Enter through the narrow gate . . .” (Matthew 7:13).
“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34).
Direct commands and instructions like these are fairly common forms of gospel preaching. They may also be seen as promises because anyone who obeys the command or follows the instruction is assured that he will be saved. But in these cases the gospel is not presented in the form of a promise, and even less, in the form of an offer of something that has been purchased for everyone.
(Also see Acts 2:38; 16:30-31; 17:30; 26:19-20).
4. Descriptions of the Characteristics of Those Who Will Inherit Eternal Life
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . . Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:3, 8).
This passage simply describes what saved people are like. They are meek and humble. They have a genuine heart-love for God, for truth, and for righteousness. In Matthew 7:21, they are those who are obedient to the Father. In Matthew 7:24-27, they are those who not only hear, but also act on what they hear. In Luke 18:14, they are humble and penitent. In Luke 5:31-32, they are those who know themselves to be desperately sick with sin and in need of a physician. In many other places, they are those who believe (e.g., John 5:24; 8:51; 11:25-26). And in John 8:31-32 and Matthew 10:22, they are those who not only begin, but continue in belief.
Once again, nothing is “offered” in presentations like these. The unconverted person is simply told that if certain things are true of him, then he may be assured that he has eternal life.
5. Promises of Reward
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
“One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21).
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved . . .” (Acts 16:31).
Presentations such as these are in the form of a promise. If you do this (come, believe, etc.), then this will be the result (“I will give you rest,” “you will have treasure in heaven,” “you will be saved,” etc.). None of them, however, state or imply that the promised reward is something that has been purchased for everyone and is waiting only to be claimed. They simply state what will happen for those who do comply with the required conditions.
Using Matthew 11:28 as an example, the reward (“rest”) is what will be given to those who come to Christ. If you are weary of sin and come to Christ, He will give you rest. But Jesus never indicates that the promised “rest” has been purchased for everyone. In fact, He does not even offer it to everyone. Jesus specifically limits the scope of His invitation to those “who are weary and heavy-laden.” This is no invitation to the self-righteous. It is a promise of relief to people who see their sin for what it is and are weary of it. And the only people who will ever be truly weary of their sin (that is, with the godly sorrow that leads to repentance and salvation as opposed to the sorrow of the world that produces death—cf. 2 Corinthians 7:10) are those who have been given life and are being drawn by the Holy Spirit to repentance—that is, the elect. And in case you think the doctrine of election is out of character with Jesus’ winsome words of invitation in verse 28, notice that it is strongly confirmed in the previous verse. Just before saying, “Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden, Jesus said,
All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matthew 11:27).
The Gospel is to be preached, not offered.
The gospel is not something that can be packaged and offered to someone like a gift bought at a store. The gospel is the truth about Christ. It is the body of biblical doctrine that explains who He is, why He came, what He has done, what He requires of His followers, and what He promises as an eternal reward to those who trust and obey Him. It would be accurate in one sense to say that the gospel is Christ, or better said, “the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).
This truth—this body of biblical doctrine about Christ—affects everyone who hears it, some positively, others negatively. People either believe or disbelieve, and thus a separation is made. Perhaps that is why Jesus spoke of the gospel, not as an offer, but as a sword.
Do not think that I came to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household (Matthew 10:34-36).
Jesus came with a message of truth designed to divide, not a gift purchased for all. Some believed the truth and found peace with God while others disbelieved and remained God’s enemies (cf. Romans 5:10). In this way, the earthly peace that formerly characterized many close relationships was replaced by strife and division. And Jesus clearly said that His purpose in coming was to make such a division.
Paul describes the gospel in similar terms of separation in both of his letters to the Corinthians:
For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him [i.e., the gospel] in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved, and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma of life to life (2 Corinthians 2:14-16).
Rather than being an offer of a purchased gift (something the Bible never affirms), the gospel is God’s instrument for cutting out the heart of stone in His elect and separating them from the rest of humanity. For the rest it is seen as foolishness—a foul odor in their spiritual and intellectual “nostrils.” It is a body of truth that either offends the depraved sense of pride and self-sufficiency, or provides welcome relief to the soul that has experienced God’s grace in regeneration.
Where have we gone wrong?
Many have taken two words that are found in the Bible, refashioned the definition of each one slightly, and then combined them to construct the modern evangelistic formula. They have connected the word “gift” (Romans 3:24; 6:23; Ephesians 2:8; etc.) with the word “receive” (John 1:12) in such a way that the transaction between God and man is made to look more like Christmas or a birthday party than a sovereign act of grace and mercy. On such occasions, gifts are purchased by one and offered to another, but the intended recipient must “receive” the gift and open it for it to become his. In this scenario the receiver holds the option of leaving the giver disappointed and offended if he chooses to reject the object that was purchased and is being offered.
The commonly understood connection between the giving of gifts and the receiving of gifts seems logical enough when applied to evangelism until one realizes that several crucial factors have been overlooked:
1. The word “gift,” when referring to God’s gift of salvation (or of the Holy Spirit, as in the book of Acts) is always shown to be something God gives (not offers) by grace. He gives it according to His spontaneous and unmerited favor. Nowhere in the New Testament is the word “gift” used in a context where it is something offered, but rejected. In Acts 2:38, for example, where Peter assures the people that if they will repent they will “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” the promise of the Holy Spirit (the gift) is not said to be for all people everywhere, but rather for “as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (v. 39).
The most well-known uses of the word “gift” are in Paul’s letters to the churches where Christians are being reminded about what God has given them by His grace (Romans 3:24; 6:23; 2 Corinthians 9:15; Ephesians 2:8). Certainly the gift of salvation must be received by faith (as in Romans 3:25), but even the faith necessary to receive the gift of salvation is itself a part of the gift of God’s grace (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9).
The bottom line is this: Salvation is a gift that is given by grace to whom God wills to give it. And such people do not ultimately resist or reject it. The willingness to receive God’s gift of salvation is itself part of the gift of salvation. Those who receive the gift of salvation through faith have already been given the gift of regeneration. They were made alive (as a gift of God’s grace) so that they would believe and be saved (as a gift of God’s grace).
The idea that the gift has been conditionally obtained for all and may be rejected makes sense according to the human understanding of gift-giving and receiving. But it is foreign to the doctrines, and even more to the evangelistic preaching of the New Testament.
2. John 1:11-12, probably more than any other passage, has been interpreted as an “offer” of something that must be “received.” This is the passage where the idea of “reaching out to take hold of God’s offer of grace” comes from. But is it rightly understood in this way?
He came to His own, and those who were His own [i.e., the Jewish people in general] did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.
John tells us that what most Jews rejected, others “received.” Modern evangelists have commonly used this passage to justify an invitation to “come to the altar,” “pray a sinner’s prayer,” “invite Jesus into your heart,” or “make a decision for Christ.” These are all seen as ways to “receive” Jesus—to take hold of the gift of God’s grace—a salvation that has been purchased by Christ and is being offered by the evangelist. It takes only a simple look at the immediate context, however, as well as other uses of the word “receive” in John’s gospel, to see that this reasoning is faulty.
First, compare the modern application of this verse (invitations to walk forward or pray a prayer to “receive” Jesus) with what most of the Jews did not do. They “did not receive Him,” John says in verse 11. But are we to believe that these Jews failed to “come forward,” “say a sinner’s prayer,” or “invite Jesus into their hearts”? No, of course not. No such “invitation” is ever taught or modeled in Scripture. What they did not do was believe Him. They did not “receive” His claims as true. They did not trust in Him for salvation.
John goes on in verse 12 to describe those who did “receive” Him—in other words, those who did the exact opposite of what the Jews did not do. While most Jews did not believe (receive) Jesus, these people did believe (receive) Him. But John’s obvious meaning is that they accepted His claims as true. They became His devoted and lifelong followers. They became “children of God” through faith, not through some overt physical or verbal act performed in response to an invitation.
Second, compare the way “receive” is used elsewhere in John. In John 13:20 Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me” (emphasis added). By applying the common interpretation of “receive” to John 13:20, we would have to conclude that for a person to be saved, he must invite the evangelist into his heart. But clearly this is not what Jesus is saying. What He is saying, both here and in John 1:12, is that for a person to be saved he must believe. That is what it means to “receive” Jesus. It means to believe the gospel. To add anything to this requirement, such as the necessity of a particular prayer or a walk to the front of the church, is to toy dangerously with the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
To “receive Jesus” is not a physical or emotional act. It is not a one-time “decision for Christ.” It is not merely deciding to accept a gift that has been obtained for you and is being offered. To “receive” Jesus is to become a believer. And being transformed from an unbeliever to a believer is a change of nature that is itself a part of God’s gift of grace. As John continues in verse 13, those who believe are those “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” According to John’s theology and that of the rest of the New Testament, those who “decide to accept the gift” (to use the popular language) are those who have already been given the gift!
When biblical doctrines are understood rightly, the idea of the gospel being an “offer” of something that has been conditionally obtained for everyone loses all credibility. First, in the evangelism of the New Testament, salvation is never presented as a gift that has been obtained for all and is being offered to all. Second, the natural man (the one who has not yet been “born of God”) would have no capacity to receive such an offered gift. And third, the idea is patently illogical and degrading of God’s character. Why would God purchase a gift for all and offer it to all when, according to His own sovereign decree of election, He has no intention of giving it to all? It is offensive to reason and to the perfections of God’s wisdom to imply that when He purchased the gift of salvation for each and every person, He also secured a heavenly warehouse (to use an admittedly ridiculous illustration) where the billions of purchased but unclaimed gifts—gifts that He never intended to give—would need to be stored for all of eternity.
The fact is, much of modern evangelism has gone wrong in that it has become an innovative science of methodology and terminology rather than an enduring discipline in faithful obedience to God. Many modern evangelists have sought “better” ways of reaching the lost than the plain, honest, unapologetic proclamation of the truth. Success is increasingly seen in large numbers of “decisions” rather than faithfulness to the biblical message. And the biblical evangelist who is not granted huge numbers of converts is quite often seen as a poor deluded soul who refuses to advance with the times.
Using the right Bible verses and words, modern evangelism has invented a new message in which the right verses and words are given the wrong “spin.” Consider as another example the common phrase, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” God did send Christ out of love—for His elect (cf. Romans 8:31-32; Ephesians 2:4-5). God does have a wonderful plan—for His elect (cf. Romans 8:28). But to imply that these things are true of every person is to tell a lie. God’s “wonderful plan” for Judas was such that it would have been better had he never been born (cf. Matthew 26:24). God hated Esau from His mother’s womb and dedicated his descendants to destruction (cf. Malachi 1:1-5; Isaiah 34:5; Romans 9:13). God’s “wonderful plan” for Pharaoh was to harden him in his own sin so that He could display His awesome power by destroying him in freeing the Israelites (cf. Exodus 7:3-4; 9:15-16; Romans 9:25-18). The “good news of great joy which will be for all the people” (the announcement of Jesus’ birth) did not bring joy to Herod, Pontius Pilate, or most of the Jewish Pharisees. God’s “wonderful plan” for these men was that they would carry out His predestined purpose by crucifying Christ (cf. Acts 4:27-28). They were God’s instruments in accomplishing Christ’s purchase of salvation for His elect, though they themselves were not a part of that purchase.
The biblical evangelist has no biblical justification for implying that Christ has purchased benefits for every person and that God is somehow holding them in storage, hoping that all will be claimed. Neither the doctrines of the Bible, nor the evangelistic preaching recorded in Scripture, would affirm such a presentation of the gospel. The only thing the biblical evangelist is required to do is to bring the sword of the gospel down sharply, accurately, persuasively, patiently, and repeatedly, allowing the blade to divide between the blessed and the cursed. He strives for conversions and is grieved when people persist in unbelief. Because he loves to see God’s mercy in action, he loves to see people repent and believe. But he does not presume that he can expand God’s mercy by gift-wrapping the sword of truth.
A More Biblical Description of Our Mandate
Rather than “the free offer of the gospel,” I would suggest a much more biblical “label” for describing our mandate for preaching the gospel to everyone. I believe that when a concise description is needed, (and there are times when one is indeed helpful) it should be “The unrestricted and unadulterated proclamation of the Truth.” Unlike “the free offer of the gospel,” which can easily be misunderstood and often represents a misconception, this description clearly conveys two important biblical meanings:
First, it means we must preach the gospel of God’s sovereign grace in Christ to everyone. There should be no restrictions on when, where, or to whom we will preach. We must never attempt to pry into God’s secret will. We cannot know the objects of God’s election and redemptive love until they repent and believe. We do not wait for a “warrant” (the apparent conviction of sin) before proclaiming the gospel and urging people to repent. We preach (as opposed to “offer”) the gospel to everyone indiscriminately because we are not God and we do not know when or where He will pour out His mercy next. Also, we preach to everyone because we have been commanded to do so (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8).
Second, it means that biblical preachers and others who seek the salvation of the lost must wield a sharp sword—doctrinal precision and unwavering firmness. It should come as no surprise when I say that Christians are easily tempted toward unbiblical “softness” in the proclamation of the gospel. The evidence is all around us and the pressure to be “softer” ourselves is often intense. We must be patient and kind, we must be gentle and caring, but we must never allow our sword to grow dull. We must never allow man-centered thinking to wear down the often uncomfortably sharp and unpopular edge of the sword of the gospel of God’s sovereign grace. This is admittedly difficult in an evangelical climate in which biblical views of God’s grace and love are not widely accepted, and biblical speaking about these doctrines is not often popular. But always remember that the Apostle Paul, in the face of the most severe persecution, refused to “shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:20).
Remember also what Paul said to the Galatians in defense of his boldness in refuting error:
For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ (Galatians 1:10).
Also, remember that as a pastor, an evangelist, or any other person who takes up the task of presenting the Word of God to unconverted people, there is a much greater danger than offending your hearers. You might offend God. It was when Jesus sent His disciples out to preach the gospel that He said,
What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:27-28).
Given those sobering words from Christ, it is understandable why James would say, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1).
Charles Spurgeon both rebuked and warned the preacher who would “shrink back” from preaching unconditional election as an essential part of “the whole counsel of God” when he said,
Some of you have never preached on election since you were ordained. “These things,” you say, “are offensive.” And so you would rather offend God than offend man. But you reply, “These things will not be practical.” I do think that the climax of all man’s blasphemy is centered in that utterance. Tell me that God put a thing in the Bible that I am not to preach! You are finding fault with my God. But you say, “It will be dangerous.” What! God’s truth dangerous? I should not like to stand in your shoes when you have to face your Maker on the day of judgment after such an utterance as that.1
Responding to “Difficult” Passages
Many who hold to the biblical understanding of election and the limited atonement are reluctant to stand against the unbiblical doctrines of God’s indistinguishing love and Christ’s universal atonement because of their lack of confidence in responding to a few “difficult” passages. On the other hand, those who oppose the doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement know these few passages well and often confidently appeal to them when they argue their case.
- “The Bible says God loves the world, and so He must be trying to save the world” (referring to John 3:16 and meaning “all people everywhere”).
- “Paul told us plainly that God wants to save everyone” (referring to 1 Timothy 2:4).
- “Scripture plainly says that Christ died for everyone” (referring to 1 John 2:2).
It is commonly believed that verses like these obviously refute any idea of unconditional election or a limited atonement. And at first glance the arguments seem strong. A surface reading of a few verses does indeed seem to affirm the universal view. And unless you are well-informed and well-prepared to expose the exegetical errors involved in reaching the above conclusions, you will have little to say in response.
One thing is certain: The doctrine of universal atonement clings dependently to the commonly-accepted interpretations of only a few verses. Without these verses, the weight of Scripture to the contrary easily crushes it as a belief system. If these few verses are as irrefutable as they are said to be, we do indeed have an interpretive dilemma on our hands. But have these texts been correctly interpreted by those who rely on them? It is my opinion that they have not.
The three appendices that will follow this article are examinations of some of the most commonly offered “proof-texts” for universal atonement and God’s universal saving desire. These are, one might say, the “big guns” that are leveled against the doctrines of unconditional election and limited atonement. As I hope to demonstrate, however, not one of them must necessarily be understood as they commonly are, and most of them may not legitimately be understood to mean what they are often said to obviously and necessarily mean. These verses may appear to be doctrinal “cannons” with great destructive capability. But if you will look more closely, I believe you will see that the only capability they truly have in the hands of the advocates of universal atonement is that of making a great deal of noise.
It is also important to realize that this is not merely an academic argument. These are not secondary doctrines of little importance to the average Christian. This issue lies at the core of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. These are the doctrines that will determine your own personal meaning when you say, “Jesus died for me.” They affect your understanding of the word “grace” and they determine the measure of glory you assign to God when thinking or speaking about your own salvation and the salvation of others. This is an important study for every Christian who has an interest in the cry of the Protestant Reformation—Soli Deo Goria!—to God alone be the glory!
1 Charles Spurgeon, 2200 Quotations from the Writings of Charles H. Spurgeon, Tom Carter, compiler, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1988), 65.
Note: The following appendices will be available at www.CCWtoday.org over the next three months:
article_view.asp?article_id=21 Appendix 1—passages that seem to say God wants everyone to be saved. (1 Timothy 2:4; Ezekiel 18:23, 30-32; 33:11; 2 Peter 3:9).
article_view.asp?article_id=22 Appendix 2—passages that seem to say Christ died for all people everywhere. (2 Corinthians 5:19; Hebrews 2:9; 1 Timothy 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1).
article_view.asp?article_id=23 Appendix 3—an examination of God’s love for “the world” in John 3:16.