One of the problems with the internet (and I’m aware that I’m open to my own criticism here!) is that people often take it upon themselves to be authorities, when in fact they’d often do better to be students for a while. This is a problem in the church as well, as oftentimes men are elected to be elders when they may or may not actually have the proper training. I’m not a perfectionist here either, I just ask that people try to evaluate themselves in this regard and behave accordingly. They should not pretend to be something they are not.
One expression of this problem is seen in a certain PCA ruling elder whose blog represents a personal crusade to rally the troops for over the last year or so. His blog is pretty monotone, and he makes strong pronouncements which are often historically flawed. He previously alarmed another blogger by seemingly denying the free offer of the gospel. I believe he later back-tracked on this, as he was really just unaware of how certain loci of systematic theology work together. Unfortunately his hyper-Calvinist bent is just too strong and more errors pop up in his writing.
In a more recent post we get this wonderful statement: “Christ is in no way ‘savior of all men.’”
Got that? In no way is that statement true.
Now you are immediately thinking, but doesn’t the Bible explicitly say that Christ is? Doesn’t it even include the distinction “especially those who believe” so as to make it plain that “all men” is distinct from “those who believe”?
And the answer is yes. Of course it does. 1 Timothy 4:10 says it right there: “For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”
Now the elder in question points out this verse in his post, though it does seem like he added it later. In an effort to make it say what it doesn’t say, he provides “exegesis.” He gives us a Calvin quote that affirms common grace. In fact, the Calvin quote contradicts the blogger’s earlier statement that “Christ is in no way ‘savior of all men.’”
Calvin writes, “In this way, therefore, our Lord is the Savior of all men, that is, his goodness extends to the most wicked, who are estranged from him, and who do not deserve to have any intercourse with him, who ought to have been struck off from the number of the creatures of God and destroyed; and yet we see how God hitherto extends his grace to them; for the life which he gives to them is a testimony of his goodness.”
So there is at least one way that Christ is the savior of all men.
As best I can tell though, the Calvin quote has little to do with the extent of the atonement. This seems to be a case of fishing for a proof-text, and on this one, our blogger is giving us the ol’ “It was this big.” treatment. Calvin mentions a definite efficacy that the elect necessarily receive, but says little else to the question of atonement. Calvin does speak to that issue elsewhere, and I’m convinced that he is in line with Dort, the Heidelberg Catechism, subsequent English puritans, and more modern folk like Dabney. A full discussion on this issue could take up tomes, and indeed it has and continues to do so.
But let me return to the simple question of “Is there at least one sense that Christ is the savior of all men?” Indeed, I’ll extend this into the realm of atonement. Can Christ be said to have died for all in some sense?
The Heidelberg Catechism says yes.
Q. 37 What dost thou understand by the words, “He suffered”?
Answer: That he, all the time that he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind: that so by his passion, as the only propitiatory sacrifice, he might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the favor of God, righteousness and eternal life.
Now that’s the catechism. 3 Forms of Unity subscribers ought to be aware of that.
Here is David Paraeus, a student of and successor to Ursinus, discussing the extent of the atonement. This comes from Ursinus’s Commentary on the Heidelberg, but I believe I am correct that this portion is from Paraeus. Take a look:
They affirm, therefore, that Christ died for all, and that he did not die for all; but in different respects. He died for all, as touching the sufficiency of the ransom which he paid; and not for all; but only for the elect, or those that believe, as touching the application and efficacy thereof. The reason of the former lies in this, that the atonement of Christ is sufficient for expiating all the sins of all men, or of the whole world, if only all men will make application thereof unto themselves by faith. For it cannot be said to be insufficient, unless we give countenance to that horrible blasphemy (which God forbid!) that some blame of the destruction of the ungodly results from a defect in the merit of the mediator. The reason of the latter is, because all the elect, or such as believe, and they alone, do apply unto themselves by faith the merit of Christ’s death, together with the efficacy thereof, by which they obtain righteousness, and life according as it is said, “He that believeth on the Son of God, hath everlasting life.” (John 3:36.) The rest are excluded from this efficacy of Christ’s death by their own unbelief, as it is again said, “He that believeth not shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.” (John 3:36.) Those, therefore, whom the Scriptures exclude form the efficacy of Christ’s death, cannot be said to be included in the number of those for whom he died as it respects the efficacy of his death, but only as to its sufficiency; because the death of Christ is also sufficient for their salvation, if they will but believe; and the only reason of their exclusion arises from their unbelief.
It is in the same way, that is, by making the same distinction that we reply to those who ask concerning the purpose of Christ, Did he will to die for all? For just as he died, so also he willed to die. Therefore, as he died for all, in respect to the sufficiency of his ransom; and for the faithful alone in respect to the efficacy of the same, so also he willed to die for all in general, as touching the sufficiency of his merit, that is, he willed to merit by his death, grace, righteousness, and life in the most abundant manner for all; because he would not that any thing should be wanting as far as he and his merits are concerned, so that all the wicked who perish may be without excuse. But he willed to die for the elect alone as touching the efficacy of his death, that is, he would not only sufficiently merit grace and life for them alone, but also effectually confers these upon them, grants faith, and the holy Spirit, and brings it to pass that they apply to themselves, by faith, the benefits of his death, and so obtain for themselves the efficacy of his merits.
~Ursinus’s Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism pg. 223
Now I realize that popular American Calvinism has not been willing to make fine distinctions when it comes to systematic theology. I understand that most people come to Calvinism through the “TULIP” and thus never realize the breadth of the atonement discussion. But there is a wider discussion, and it is ingrained in the Reformed confessional tradition. Elders need to be aware of it.
Furthermore, men who are clearly ignorant of the details of historic Reformed theology ought not be the ones given authority to judge other officers’ orthodoxy. This should be undeniable. Reformed theology needs to put the heresy trials on hold for a decade or so and refamiliarize itself with its own confessional theology.