Limited Atonement and the Mission of the Church
If it is true that God only intends to save his chosen people and if Christ only died for them, then how can we bring the message of the gospel to all men? And, if the elect are chosen to receive salvation without fail, then why have a zeal for evangelism? They will be saved somehow, someday, anyway. In the false view of “hyper-Calvinism,” election and the sovereignty of God is stressed or stretched to the point where the responsibility of man is reduced to nearly nothing. We must avoid such an extreme and such error.
Can we sincerely preach the gospel to all men, knowing that many of those who hear it throughout the world will never believe it? It is inaccurate to say that we “offer” salvation to all men. The preaching of the gospel is not an offer, but a “command” to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. The non-elect person will never have ears to hear this and obey. Yet, the call of the gospel must be sincerely given, allowing God to gather his people by the power of His Holy Spirit. Jesus explained His own ministry with these words: “‘And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him – the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day. For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. And I know that His command is everlasting life. Therefore, whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak.'” (Emphasis mine)
It would be a great error if we limited the preaching of the gospel or mission of the Church because of this doctrine. Rather than hindering evangelism, the doctrine of limited atonement enhances and gives real meaning to preaching. While the messenger of Christ may never say to all men indiscriminately, “Smile, God loves you” or “Christ died for you,” yet he must say that Christ died for the sins of His people and all men are commanded to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Christ is the only sacrifice for sin and the only hope of salvation and everlasting life. It is likewise not wrong to sincerely command all who hear the gospel to “believe.” It is precisely through this preaching of the gospel that God has determined to save His elect for whom Christ died (cf. Rom. 10:14-18). We cannot determine who the elect are, so as to skip some in the spread of the gospel.
God will also use the preaching of the gospel to condemn those who reject it and continue in their unbelief. See Heidelberg Catechism Q. 84 on preaching as one of the keys to the kingdom of God. The unbeliever remains in the state of condemnation (John 3:18; Jude v. 8).
The success of preaching is guaranteed, for none of the sheep will be lost (Jn. 6:37,39). Faith comes by the hearing of the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). Those who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, who speaks through His Word, will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, recognize His voice and will follow Jesus because they are His sheep (John 10:27). Others do not hear the voice of Jesus and will not believe, because they are not His sheep whom He died for (John 10:26).
The preacher does not have to rely (indeed, it would be wrong to) on his own cunningness, slick words, emotional appeal, or entertainment in order to get a response of faith from the sinner. See I Cor. 2:1-8. The only method which the Bible outlines for doing mission work is to go to all men and preach the gospel. God will apply the message to the hearts of His elect through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. It is the duty of the preacher and of all believers to pray for all men that they might believe the gospel with the realization that the sheep surely will believe. It is the Christian’s duty to sow the seed of the Word, and God will bring the increase.
The decree of election determines for whom Christ would lay down his life. This decree is a sacred decree. We as mere men do not know whom God has chosen, but only that those chosen will be repent, believe, and be saved. Therefore, we can be assured of success in missions. Success is not determined by how many become Christians, but it is a matter of faithfulness in bringing the true gospel of salvation to the ends of the earth. God tells Joshua that if he is faithful to the Word of God he will have success (Joshua 1:8).
We are commanded to preach the gospel to all men. The results of preaching lie in God’s hand, not in man’s. We are responsible to maintain the purity of doctrine and bring it to men. Unfortunately, in a mistaken attempt to bring all men into the Church, men have forsaken true doctrine in order to give greater appeal to the sound of the gospel. It may sound like a nice way to approach all men and say “Christ died for you, now you must choose Him,” but it is not true, and does grave injustice to the intent of Christ on the cross. The apostle Paul understood this when he said that he did not use “persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (I Cor. 2:4, 5).
Knowing that God will not save all men, how shall we preach the message of the gospel? The answer may first be seen in the ministry of Christ, or Peter or Paul. They preached the same message to all. Some believed and some did not. When we say that we “freely proclaim” the gospel we must not think that all men are equally capable of receiving it in faith. The unregenerate man is not “free” to believe – not until and unless the Holy Spirit has brought new life and freedom into his heart. No man can do this himself. Only the sheep will listen, and that will be only because the Holy Spirit works faith in their hearts.
It should be remembered the purpose of preaching the gospel is two-fold. It is a message of salvation to all who believe, and a message condemnation to all who reject it. But all men need to hear it.
Is it a “sincere” message if we know some will reject it because their hearts will remain hardened? Yes. The sincerity of the message proclaimed is not dependent on its results. Notice the sincerity of Jesus in Matthew 23:37 when he says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”
Sincerely we must say, “Jesus died on the cross for the sins of His people that all who believe in Him might have life everlasting. You must repent and believe in him for salvation. If you do not you remain lost.” We must pray sincerely and earnestly that God will apply His truth to the hearts of His people that they may be saved. We sincerely confess that God will gather His Church through the preaching of Christ crucified, risen, and reigning.
If zeal for missions is dampened in any way by the doctrines of election and limited atonement, then we have misunderstood them and should go back to the Scriptures and study them again.
In the realm of theology there are perhaps no more ridiculed doctrines than that of God’s unconditional election and the limited atonement of Christ. To many people this is just an example of fanatical narrow-mindedness – unfair, false and foolish. But these doctrines are the true teachings of Scripture in which we rejoice and upon which we are not ashamed to stand.
Blog post content is taken from Rev. Paul Treick’s book, Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still: A Study of the Five Points of Calvinism, available for purchase. It is posted with the gracious permission of the author.
If you’d like to read the blog series from the beginning, start here.