The Crux of Limited Atonement

In my theology class, we have recently gotten into the infamous Calvinist/Arminian debates. These debates start to get old after a while, especially with Scriptures being volleyed back and forth at each other to prove a point. Probably the most debated aspect of Calvinism is the idea of limited atonement. Everybody loves to pull up the verses that Christ died for all (this, of course, is to combat the idea that Christ did not just die for the elect). As one swimming in the Reformed tradition, I have found a helpful distinction that must be discussed in order for limited atonement to do justice to both the Bible and to Reformed theology. This is the sufficient vs. efficient distinction. Thus, I think even a five-point Calvinist could say that Christ died for all, but the effects, i.e., the atonement, only impinge upon the elect. In class the other day, a fellow student and I debated this distinction. He is more in the line of Arminius. Anyways, he denied this distinction, both in Calvinism and in Arminianism. I pushed him on this saying that if Christ’s death is only efficient with respect to the atonement, then all are necessarily saved. He accused me of using a slippery slope fallacy which I conceded at the time. But as I reflected more on our exchange, the more I think that this distinction is vital no matter where one falls in this debate. For a Calvinist, it helps make sense of the Scriptures that Christ died for all while maintaining the consequences only affect the elect. For the Arminian, denying this distinction leads to one of two options. Either one becomes an universalist or one adds a caveat – Christ’s death is efficient for all but needs an impetus (namely the coming to faith or conversion) in order for the atonement to have its effects. I think both of these options may lead us down paths we do not want to go down. We can easily become universalists or works-based faith proponents when this distinction between sufficiency and efficiency is neglected.

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