A Curious Argument for Limited Atonement by R. C. Sproul
Dr. R. C. Sproul was a well-known theologian, Presbyterian pastor, and prolific writer. We will now examine one of his arguments about limited atonement, the idea that Christ only atoned for some people.
First, we ask if the atonement of Christ was a real atonement? Did Jesus really, or only potentially, satisfy the demands of God’s justice? If indeed Christ provided a propitiation and expiation for all human beings and for all their sins, then, clearly, all persons would be saved. Universal atonement, if it is actual, and not merely potential, means universal salvation. -R. C. Sproul
Notice that his first question is whether the atonement of Christ was real. Answer this question for yourself. Was Christ’s atonement real? Did Jesus really, or only potentially, satisfy the demands of God’s justice? Your answer to those questions determines the mandatory conclusion that you must arrive at, according to Dr. Sproul’s argument, so make sure you have an answer. Do you have one? If so, we can proceed in our analysis.
You should note that if you believe that Jesus really died to atone for everyone (for the sins of the world), you are bound to believe in universal salvation (i.e. that all will be saved), according to Sproul. If Christ’s atonement was real, then universal salvation must clearly be true. That is unmistakably what he is saying.
At first glance, it would seem this is an argument for universal salvation, but Sproul did not believe in universal salvation; he believed in the limited atonement of the Calvinist tradition. By implication, this indicates that he did not believe that Christ’s atonement was real or actual, but rather only potential. It is beyond strange that this is considered “orthodoxy.” It ignores multiple clear biblical statements, including the following:
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
John 1:29 (ESV)
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
1 John 4:14 (ESV)
And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.
This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe .
1 Timothy 2:3-6
This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time.
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance .
A careful reading of these texts leaves no real room for believing that God only intended to save some people through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Instead we see that Jesus is the Savior of the world and all people in it, and the atoning sacrifice who takes away the sins of the whole world as a ransom for all people. We also see that it is God's will that all come to repentance and that none should perish. How then can a belief in limited atonement be justified? Sproul’s approach is rather telling. He does not appeal to scripture. Instead, this is how he explains his view that limited atonement is a better view than universal salvation:
However, the overwhelming majority of Christians who reject limited atonement also reject universal salvation. They are particularists, not universalists. They insist on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. That is, only believers are saved by the atonement of Christ.
If that is so, then the atonement, in some sense, must be limited, or restricted, to a definite group, namely believers. If Christ died for all of the sins of all people, that must include the sin of unbelief. If God’s justice is totally satisfied by Christ’s work on the cross, then it would follow that God would be unjust in punishing the unrepentant sinner for his unbelief and impenitence because those sins were already paid for by Christ.-R.C. Sproul
The rationale given here to reject universal salvation is that most Christians do not believe it, therefore limited atonement must be true. It must be pointed out that this reasoning is a blatant logical fallacy known as an argumentum ad populum, also known as a consensus fallacy, bandwagon fallacy, or appeal to the masses etc. The number of people that believe something has no bearing whatsoever on its truth. Most people used to believe that the world was flat, that the earth was the center of the universe, and that the sun orbited us. Most people used to be polytheists. Most people in the slave states of the South believed that the Bible condoned buying, selling, and brutally mistreating people based solely on their skin color. Most people believe any number of absurd falsehoods. In summary, what most people believe is utterly irrelevant to the truth of a claim.
A cogent argument would look very different from the one being presented by Dr. Sproul. Let's see how this would look. As our first premise, we will use Sproul's very words:
Premise 1: "If indeed Christ provided a propitiation and expiation for all human beings and for all their sins, then, clearly, all persons would be saved. Universal atonement, if it is actual, and not merely potential, means universal salvation." - R.C. Sproul
Premise 2: 1 John 2:2 clearly states that Christ "is the atoning sacrifice (propitiation) for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world."
Conclusion: Universal salvation must be true because Jesus really is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world as stated by the Scriptures.
Now, that is a logical, coherent argument. To deny the conclusion is to deny one or both of the premises. So, we have two options if we want to believe in limited atonement:
1. We can deny Sproul's premise that universal atonement means universal salvation, in which case his entire argument for limited atonement crumbles (since it is based on this premise).
2. We can deny the truth of 1 John 2:2 and say that Christ is not really the propitiation “for the sins of the whole world.”
We cannot logically maintain that both are true and accept the doctrine of limited atonement. This is why Dr. Sproul does not appeal to Scripture but instead utilizes the bandwagon fallacy: there is no scripture that contradicts 1 John 2:2. The solution is to simply ignore it and appeal to the masses who do not believe in universal salvation. But this reasoning is utterly fallacious and has no scriptural backing. Remember, the question that we are asking here is what the Bible says about atonement. Ignoring the biblical text in favor of an argumentum ad populum is obviously not helpful in answering this question.
One other issue with Dr. Sproul's argument relates to his understanding of punishment. Let's revisit his words briefly:
If God’s justice is totally satisfied by Christ’s work on the cross, then it would follow that God would be unjust in punishing the unrepentant sinner for his unbelief and impenitence because those sins were already paid for by Christ.
In this sentence, Sproul is claiming that God would not be able to justly punish sins if Christ truly atoned for these sins. This reasoning is only true, however, if the rationale for punishment is purely retributive and understood as a form of atoning for one's own sins. But what if God punishes as a Father for the purpose of correction and training in righteousness? This is, after all, why good parents punish their children: to correct and train them. I do not give my son a consequence solely to satisfy my desire for justice, but rather to inspire his growth and learning. If God behaves as a Father (which is how He is frequently described in the Scriptures), He could also punish as a means to correct. In fact, the Scriptures tell us that even believers experience corrective discipline and that "judgment must begin at the house of God" (1 Peter 4:17). Are we to believe that this means that Christ did not atone for believers in the house of God since we too experience judgment?
Clearly not. Instead, we see that "the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives" (Hebrews 12:6). This discipline can be painful. The Scriptures tell us as much: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). So, we see that punishment (described here as painful discipline) is something that is experienced also by believers. God will judge fairly “for God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11). Therefore, if believers do wrong, they will still experience discipline, according to the Bible. In fact, in Romans 2 Paul is warning believers not to judge because in doing so they were “storing up wrath against [themselves] for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). Does this mean that Christ did not actually pay for the sins of these believers?
Of course not, and that is the point: God’s chastening punishment (and even his wrath) can still occur even though atonement has happened for everyone. Sproul’s argument implies that God would be unable to judge the world if consequences for sin are experienced by those Christ died for. But we know from the Scriptures that God can and does judge and chastise those that Christ died for. It is, in fact, a hallmark of being His child. So, although Dr. Sproul’s argument is intended to suggest that universal salvation conflicts with the clear Scriptural teaching that God will judge, it can be seen quite clearly that there is, in fact, no real conflict between the ultimate salvation of all people and God’s righteous, refining judgment. Instead, we see judgment and discipline are part of the process through which sanctification occurs.
R.C. Sproul’s argument for limited atonement is not a logical, coherent argument. Instead, combining his foundational premises with Scripture actually refutes the claim he is trying to prove, and provides a powerful argument for the ultimate salvation of all people. Christ’s atonement for all people is clearly attested to by many Scriptures. God’s righteous judgment and punishment of sin does not negate the power or scope of this atonement to save every person. And no amount of bandwagon fallacy can change that.
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Sproul, R. C. “Biblical Scholasticism by R.C. Sproul.” Ligonier Ministries, www.ligonier.org/learn/ articles/biblical-scholasticism/.