© 2008 John H Mattox

    At a convention of Baptist ministers in Ashland, Kentucky, during Labor Day week-end, 1966, a most unusual message was delivered by Brother Fred Phelps. In this message Brother Phelps argued that to believe in the doctrine of limited atonement requires that one believe also in the doctrine of reprobation; i.e., that as the elect are predestined to glory, so the non-elect are predestined to eternal damnation. Brother Phelps is a lawyer as well as a minister, and his reasoning was flawless. If one accepts as a major premise the view of limited atonement (that Christ suffered only for the sins of the elect), then Brother Phelps' conclusion is inescapable; the non-elect are born into the world already predestined, at least by default, to go to hell. For if no satisfaction whatever was provided for the sins of the non-elect, then even if they could be induced to repent and believe, the good news of salvation would be found to be hollow mockery as far as they are concerned.
    Some may object that the non-elect will never believe and that God knew this and therefore made no provision for them. In answer to this objection, let it be said that regardless of whether the non-elect ever believe or not, the theory of limited atonement has God bringing into this world some persons for whom there is absolutely no hope of escaping hell. Having no say-so in their entrance into this world, they are offered (along with the elect) an invitation to accept Christ and be saved; an invitation which is completely empty as far as they are concerned, for (according to the theory of limited atonement) no provision whatever was made for their salvation. Thus the doctrine of limited atonement is simply the old God-dishonoring doctrine of reprobation in a slightly disguised form. Brother Phelps has done Baptists a real service in removing the disguise and showing limited atonement in its true form. To deal with the specter of reprobation, then, it is really necessary to refute the theory of limited atonement. This the writer will endeavor to do.
    The foremost exponent and defender of limited atonement among Baptists seems to be T.P. Simmons in his book, A Systematic Study of Bible Doctrines; thus most of the arguments here dealt with will be taken from that book.
    One of the first errors made by Brother Simmons in his discussion of the atonement is found on page 166 (1936 edition) where he says:

"The Greek words in the passages where ransom appears are respectively lutron, a price, and antilutron, a corresponding price"

This statement is incorrect. Lutron does not mean merely a price, but a price by which a captive is set free. It comes from the verb lutroo, which means to set free upon the receipt of ransom. Lutron, then, is not the price of a meal or of a horse; it is the price of a person's liberty. But even more in error is his definition of antilutron, which he gives as a corresponding price. Actually, the word antilutron, is simply the previous word lutron with the preposition anti prefixed to it. Now, anti means instead of, or in place of. Thus the meaning of antilutron is not a corresponding price, but a substitutionary price for setting a person free. The actual definition, as given by Thayer's Lexicon, is what is given in exchange for another as the price of his redemption; ransom. The emphasis clearly is on the substitutionary nature of the payment, not on its correspondence in value, of anything, to the person redeemed.
    This error in the meaning of the word antilutron, leads Simmons to make the following statement, on the same page of his book:

"Note that ransom in I Tim. 2:6 means a corresponding price. This means that the price paid by Christ corresponded to the debt we owed. In other words, Christ suffered the exact equivalent of that which those for whom he suffered would have suffered in hell."

Note that all of this is derived by Simmons from his definition of antilutron, as a corresponding price; a definition for which he gives no authority whatever, and which clearly is erroneous according to standard authorities.
    The above quotation spotlights the basic theory of limited atonement, which is that Christ suffered the exact equivalent of the sin-debt which each of the elect owed. To whom the debt was owed is not made quite clear, but it is clearly affirmed that Christ paid quantitatively for the sins of the elect, and only for those of the elect.
continued at top of next column

Limited Atonement And Reprobation (cont)

    We should note that atonement is the word used by translators in the Authorized Version of the Bible for the Old Testament Hebrew kaphar (covering). Those translators also used the word to represent katallage (reconciliation) in Romans 5:11. So, in order to determine what Simmons meant by his use of the term atonement, we have to rely on the statements that he uses to back up his proclamation of limited atonement. And, he employs a mistranslation of antilutron as a key part of his proof that sinners owe a sin-debt. Since antilutron means a substitutionary price for setting a person free, the term atonement will be used in the following discussion to refer to redemption.
    The theory of limited atonement rests upon three false assumptions; and when these assumptions are shown to be false, limited atonement as an explanation of Christ's saving work is left without any foundation.
    The first false assumption upon which limited atonement rests is that the saving work of Christ was a matter of paying a sin-debt for (elect) sinners. Simmons states the assumption in the following words:

"Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? (Rom. 8:33) The implied answer is, no one. And the implied reason is, because Christ has paid their sin-debt by suffering the penalty of the law in their stead."

This statement is entirely without Scriptural foundation, in view of the fact that the New Testament nowhere represents the sinner as owing any sin-debt. The passages that deal with the work of Christ as a commercial transaction do not affirm that he paid a sin-debt which we owed, but rather affirm that the price which he paid was in the nature of a ransom, i.e., a price paid to set a captive free. In other words, the New Testament does not picture a sinner as an otherwise free man who is merely burdened with a debt which he is unable to pay. Rather, he is pictured as a bond-slave who must be set free by paying the required price.
    This brings us to the second false assumption upon which limited atonement is based; which is that the price demanded of us by the law is primarily our suffering. Thus the exponents of limited atonement, Simmons included, insist that "Christ, in his death on the cross, suffered for all the sins of every believer". That this means that Christ suffered the cumulative punishment for all the sins of all believers, is clear from Simmons' statement on page 170:

"A thousand sinners in hell, all deserving the same degree of punishment, will suffer a thousand times as much as any one of them will suffer individually. It will take that to satisfy justice. Now will justice be satisfied in Christ for the entire thousand if Christ suffers only as much as one sinner would suffer? In other words, does justice demand one thing of the sinners themselves and another of Christ as their substitute?"

    To simplify it still more, the exponents of limited atonement believe that Christ suffered twice as much to save two sinners as he would have suffered to save one; and twenty thousand times as much to save twenty thousand sinners, etc. (assuming that the sinners were equally guilty). As stated above, this notion is based on the false assumption that the price demanded of us by the law (or justice) is primarily our suffering. According to both the Old and New Testaments, what the law demands of a sinner is not primarily suffering, but death. That suffering is necessarily involved is true, but it is our death, and not our suffering that the law primarily demands.

"The soul that sinneth, it shall die."
Ezekiel 18:4.
"The wages of sin is death."
Romans 6:23.

Note that the wages of sin is not said to be suffering, but death. So, then, the price demanded by the law is our death, both physical and spiritual; and as our kinsman-redeemer, Christ has paid our ransom by his death in our place. But his death in our stead is not the whole transaction; for we must by faith enter into his death and appropriate it as our own. Thus we are reckoned to be dead to sin, to the law, and to the world; yet alive unto God. Since a man is freed from that to which he is legally dead, we are therefore, by virtue of entering into the death of Christ, freed from sin, from the law, and from the bondage of the world; and being also identified with Christ in his resurrection, we are made alive to God to walk in newness of life. See Rom. 6:1-10; 7:14; Gal. 6:14.
continued at top of next column

Limited Atonement And Reprobation (cont)

    Since it was by his death, rather than by his sufferings, that Christ redeemed us, it is evident that his atonement (far from being limited to the elect) was actually sufficient for all men, for it is a known fact that Christ died only once. See Rom. 6:9-10. His death was not repeated for each person who was to be saved. It was one death into which one person, or one billion persons, could enter with equal ease.
    The writer is not saying that all will be saved, but merely that all could be saved, by the death of Christ. Only those who by faith enter into the death of Christ and are united (or identified) with him in his death, burial and resurrection are saved; only the elect will do this, and they will do it only when they are regenerated by the grace of God. However, the non-elect are offered salvation on the same terms as the elect. If they will repent and believe; i.e., enter into the death of Christ, they will be saved. It may very well be that not one of the non-elect will take advantage of this gracious offer. Yet it is not because they cannot do it, but because they will not do it. That is, the inability is not one of capacity, but of willingness. The non-elect cannot trust Christ only because he will not do so. There are, of course, a few passages that speak of the sinner as being dead in trespasses and sins. But it will be found by inspection that these passages never refer to the non-elect, but describe the previous condition of those presently in a saved condition. That this death is judicial or perhaps prospective in nature is obvious; for we know by experience that a sinner is far from being dead in sin; he is, in fact, very much alive and active therein.
    The third false assumption made by the adherents of limited atonement, is that Christ's payment on behalf of an individual amounts to that person's salvation. Simmons expresses it as follows:

"His (God's) justice also demands that he save all whose penalty Christ paid."
Op. cit. page 176.

This statement makes no sense at all. Even if, for the sake of argument, we accept the notion that Christ quantitively paid a sin debt for sinners, it is an obvious fact that such payment would have been only potentially, or provisionally, made. In other words, it was made available; but, each sinner must appropriate it as the substitute for his own payment and present it to God for himself. Therefore, God is not bound by his justice to save all for whom Christ died; but only those who accept that death and present it by faith to God as the substitute for their own death. To illustrate: it was not the making of the brazen serpent that cured the bitten Israelite of the poison of the fiery serpents; nor was it the lifting up of the brazen serpent on the pole that brought healing. Both of these must be done, but it was only when the bitten Israelite looked at the brazen serpent that he was healed. Again, let me say that only the elect will actually choose to enter into the death of Christ, and they do so only by virtue of the new, spiritual nature imparted by regeneration.
    Let us sum up the New Testament teaching on atonement (redemption): Sinners are represented by Jesus as being bond-slaves of sin. See John 8:34. Now a bond-slave, in Biblical times, might be freed in one of three ways:

  1. He might be set free without a price by the magnanimity of his master.
  2. He might be purchased out of bondage, either by his own money, or that of another.
  3. His own death would set him free.

As far as the redemption of sinners is concerned, the first possibility can be ruled out. Since the sinner is in bondage due to his own guilt, God cannot let him go free without dishonoring his own law. Inasmuch as the only price which will satisfy the law is the sinner's death, number two can be ruled out (insofar as a commercial transaction involving such things as silver and gold is concerned). The third possibility would indeed free the sinner, but since it involved his actual death, it is not a very satisfactory solution. However, if someone would die in the sinner's name, so that he could, in effect, claim that death as his own, he would be legally (or judicially) dead, yet still be alive to enjoy his freedom.
    This is the plan of salvation in a nutshell. Christ has died in such a manner that his death may be claimed by any man as his own, with the result that he becomes judicially dead to sin, the law, and the world, (Rom. 6:1-10; Rom. 7:1-4; Gal. 6:14), while identification with Christ in his resurrection makes him alive unto God, walking in newness of life. The design of baptism as a church ordinance is to portray the believer's identification with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. See Romans 6:1-3.
    Thus, when the atonement (redemption) of Christ is freed from limitations imagined by men, it is seen to be available to all men. The practical value of this view of salvation lies in the realization that those who finally will be lost, will be so not because God has ordained that they must go to hell, but because they have spurned an offer of salvation that was made just as sincerely to them as it was to those who accepted it. The fate of the lost, therefore, rests squarely upon their own shoulders, instead of on the shoulders of God; where the doctrine of limited atonement, and its bedfellow, reprobation, have blasphemously placed it.

John H Mattox

return to index