Three theological schools of thought exist that each attempt to provide a unified understanding of the atonement. All three schools endeavor to present the plan of redemption in a way that reveals a God of uncompromised justice, while maintaining that He is also the personification of love and mercy. These schools of thought are known as Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universalism. Each of them presents a radically different description of “justice.”
Calvinist denominations include Presbyterians and various reformed churches, such as Dutch Reformed, Christian Reformed, and Reformed Baptists.
The Calvinist Reaction
The Calvinist solves the problem of double jeopardy with the doctrine of double predestination. The idea is that God predestined some people to be saved, and He also predestined some to be lost. Therefore, Calvinists believe that Jesus died only for those whom God foreordained to be saved. This group, they call the “elect.”
Calvin’s theory of double predestination further teaches that Jesus did not suffer and die for those who will be lost. Thus, in the Calvinist view, there is no double jeopardy. This teaching is referred to as “limited atonement.”
Since the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus “died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15; Hebrews 2:9; 1 Timothy 2:6), the Calvinist position fails to provide a satisfactory understanding of the atonement.
The Arminian Reaction
Arminianism arose as a reaction against Calvinism. Arminian denominations include Wesleyans, Pentecostals, and Seventh-day Adventists. The Arminian school of thought comes closer to the teaching of Scripture in some respects. This group teaches that Jesus died for everyone who was ever born and everyone who ever will be born. As noted above, this is truth which the Bible explicitly affirms. However, a close examination of the Arminian position uncovers serious problems.
The Five Articles of Arminianism are as follows:
1. God has decreed to save through Jesus Christ those of the fallen and sinful race who
through the grace of the Holy Spirit believe in Him, but leaves in sin the incorrigible and
2. Christ died for all men (not just for the elect), but no one except the believer has
remission of sin.
3. Man can neither of himself, nor of his free will, do anything truly good, until he is
born again of God, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
4. All good deeds or movements in the regenerate must be ascribed to the grace of God,
but His grace is not irresistible.
5. Those who are incorporated into Christ by a true faith have power given them,
through the assisting grace of the Holy Spirit, to persevere in the faith. But it is possible
for a believer to fall from grace.
Article 2 emphasizes that Christ died for every soul. However, according to the Arminian position, the death of Christ alone is not sufficient to justify or save anyone. In the Arminian view, the sinner must respond to the sacrifice of Christ by believing in Christ, then repenting of and confessing his or her sins, in order to be saved.
If the appropriate response is lacking, there is, in the Arminian view, no atonement for unconfessed sins. Thus (according to Arminianism) the death of Christ does the ignorant or unresponsive person no good at all. The Arminian believes that the death of Christ for the sins of the world is merely provisional or potential, not actual. This understanding has been referred to as “conditional atonement.” Although Adventism differs with most Arminians on various points of doctrine, Seventh-day Adventists nevertheless affirm Arminianism.
Articles 2 and 5 are problematic. We will examine Article 2 again later. That which Article 5 teaches is true, but the resulting position is false because of what it denies. Unfortunately, Article 5 does not recognize the different phases of the “in Christ” idea. It presents only the second phase (i.e., being “incorporated into Christ by genuine faith”).
The universal application of the “in Christ” idea maintains the scriptural position that Christ died for all (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15). He could not have died for all, unless all were “incorporated into Christ” at the incarnation. In other words, He had to be the Representative of all in order to die for the sins of all.
Another major problem with the Arminian proposal is that it does not resolve the “double jeopardy” dilemma. It actually complicates it. While the Arminian Christian may sing as fervently as anyone else, “Jesus paid it all,” his or her understanding of the gospel says, “Nothing was paid at all.” The payment was simply put into an “escrow” account—available, but not applied to the sinner’s account unless certain preconditions are fully met. This means no forgiveness, and perhaps more important, no probationary life. This, the Arminian often fails to realize. All men live because of the cross of Christ.
When it comes to the issue of salvation, the Arminian slogan is: “We have a part to play.” That we must perform our part satisfactorily, or the payment remains “in escrow,” is understood. Arminians typically state it this way: Those who fail to play their part (i.e., believe, repent, and confess) take their sins back upon themselves, and they will ultimately suffer for the same sins for which Jesus made “provision.”
A significant problem exists with this concept. The Scriptures never refer to the “atonement” as a mere “provision,” and for good reason. The atonement is not merely “provisional.” In reality, the atonement has profoundly affected all of humanity, irrespective of personal belief or lack thereof. The Bible says, “Christ…has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). Notice the term life. Christ has brought two things by His death. He has brought “life,” and He has brought “immortality.” Payment for the sins of the world has been made. This payment, also called “atonement,” has had a profound effect upon all mankind. All of humanity has, or has had life because of the atonement.
The “escrow account” is not described in the Bible. The Scriptures teach that Jesus actually made atonement for sin (see Romans 5:11, KJV). Therefore, if the sinner dies for the same sin in the lake of fire for which Jesus atoned on the cross, the final judgment amounts to a form of double jeopardy, punishing the same sin twice. If this be the case, there is no good news here. The Arminian position falls far short of providing a unified view of the atonement. Therefore, it cannot be the message that must lighten the earth with God’s glory.
The Universalist Reaction
The Universalist believes that Christ actually died for everyone’s sins. The Bible affirms this premise:
For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that if one died for all,
then were all dead: And that he died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live
unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15).
But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death,
crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every
man (Hebrews 2:9).
The problem arises with a conclusion the Universalist draws based upon a valid premise. The Universalist concludes that all of the sins of the world have been atoned for and completely forgiven. Therefore, they believe every person will be eternally saved. This conclusion requires that we reject many other passages of Scripture. For example:
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth
to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat (Matthew 7:13).
And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down
with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the
kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of
teeth (Matthew 8:11, 12).
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then
shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and
he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King
say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom pre-
pared for you from the foundation of the world. . . . Then shall he say also unto them on the
left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his
angels…. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life
eternal (Matthew 25:31–46).
Some Universalists believe that even the devil himself will ultimately be eternally saved. But God has declared concerning him:
Thou hast defiled thy sanctuaries by the multitude of thine iniquities, by the iniquity of
thy traffick; therefore will I bring forth a fire from the midst of thee, it shall devour thee,
and I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee. All
they that know thee among the people shall be astonished at thee: thou shalt be a terror,
and never shalt thou be any more (Ezekiel 28:18, 19).
The Universalist position that no one will be eternally lost has the smallest number of adherents amongst the three proposals—and justifiably so. The errors of Calvinism are somewhat subtle, and the errors of Arminianism are very subtle. On the other hand, the problems of the Universalist position stand out in bold relief. It does indeed resolve the issue of double jeopardy. However, it does so by blatantly rejecting significant portions of the Bible. Thus Universalism has no place in the message of the latter rain.