by John G. Reisinger
I have not always been convinced that Limited Atonement was a biblical doctrine. I saw the other four points at least five years before God taught me the truth about the nature of the atonement. I well remember tearing in half Arthur Pink’s booklet on Was the Sin Question Finally Settled at the Cross? and throwing it into the wastebasket saying, “I will never believe that!” I think the last three issues of Sound of Grace prove beyond question that I now not only believe the truth of Limited Atonement, but, along with J.I. Packer, I affirm that this truth is the very heart of true Evangelical faith.
A few readers have tried to convince me that I could not have been saved when I tore Pink’s booklet in half. One man has vehemently urged me to repent of my false conversion and admit I did not become a true child of God until I became a five point Calvinist. I say all of this at the beginning of this article so you can “brace yourself” for what is coming next. By the way, we published a booklet many years ago entitled “Decisional Regeneration.” We were trying to show that Arminianism really teaches that a sinner’s decision has the power to regenerate his heart and make him a child of God. “Doctrinal Regeneration” would be a good label for the brand of Calvinism that insists only five point Calvinists are truly saved. In reality these people give correct theology the same power that the Arminian gives to his decision. We insist that neither the sinner’s will nor correct theology can give a dead sinner life.
When Peter said, “Not so, Lord” our Lord rebuked him and said, “Get thee behind me Satan,” but at that very moment Peter was a saved man. J.C. Ryle correctly observes, “Just because God has sanctified your heart does not mean that He has totally sanctified your brains and taught you all the truth in one instant.” A true child of God can be awfully mixed up both theologically and emotionally and still be in Christ. If you think it through, I think you will agree that it is better to be a confused and emotionally upset saint on their way to heaven than to be the best-adjusted and theologically correct unregenerate person on their way to hell. Holding firmly to the truth of sovereign grace is not absolute proof that a person knows the sovereign Lord in a way of saving faith.
I am not at all minimizing the importance of understanding the doctrines of grace. Our theological understanding does not save our soul but it does shape the way we understand and preach the gospel. Some sincere Christians have made some awful stupid statements because of bad theology even though their hearts were right with God. That was my problem while fighting Limited Atonement for over five years.
The following statement is part of a Christmas sermon preached and printed over forty years ago by a man named Noel Smith. He was a professor in a Bible Baptist seminary in the mid-west. I never met Mr. Smith but I know quite a few men who studied under him while at seminary. Without a single exception, they testify that he was a very godly man and a good professor. However, Noel Smith hated Calvinism and embraced universal atonement. I suspect his first contact with the Doctrines of Grace was with a Primitive Baptist. Be that as it may, his statement is either gospel truth or close to utter blasphemy.
Knowing God as I do through the revelation He has given me of Himself in His Word, when I am told that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance, I know it means that the Triune God has done, is doing, always will do, all that the Triune God can do to save every man, woman, and child on this earth.
If it does not mean that, then tell me I pray you, what does it mean?
What is hell? It is infinite negation. It is infinite chaos. And it is more than that. I tell you, and I say it with profound reverence, hell is a ghastly monument to the failure of God to save the multitudes that are there. I say it reverently, I say it with every nerve in my body tense; sinners go to hell because God Himself cannot save them. He did all He could. He failed.
I am aware that Noel Smith’s candid statement is shocking. Few preachers, no matter how Arminian they are in their theology, will say publicly that they believe “hell is a ghastly monument to the failure of God.” However, no other honest conclusion is possible if Noel Smith’s understanding of II Peter 3:9 is correct. Mr. Smith is an honest and consistent Arminian. The only difference between this man and preachers like Billy Graham is that Smith is both honest and totally consistent with his view of universal atonement.
If such a great effort on God’s part does not accomplish His intention then what other word can be used to describe the situation but failure. What is wrong with clearly and publicly stating that “God Almighty failed” to accomplish the thing His heart desired the most. If, as Smith concludes, “sinners go to hell because God Himself cannot save them” then God indeed failed! If God “did all He could” and still was not able to accomplish His heart’s desire, then on what grounds is Noel Smith to be faulted for concluding, as he logically does, that “He (God) failed!” If the premise is correct then the conclusion must also be true.
If you sincerely believe in universal atonement and interpret II Peter 3:9 the same way as Noel Smith, you should rejoice that Smith had the courage to state clearly and logically what your system dictates that you must believe! If (1) Christ endured the wrath of God for “every man, woman, and child on earth,” and (2) if it was God’s heartfelt purpose to save every man, woman, and child on this earth, and (3) God has done, is doing, always will do, all He can do to save every man, woman, and child on this earth,” then I agree with Mr. Smith’s correct conclusion. God indeed failed in such a miserable system.
C.H. Spurgeon also clearly saw the same logical truth as Noel Smith. Spurgeon made almost the identical statement that Smith did except he was ridiculing Smith’s position. Here is a classic statement from the prince of preachers:
Once again, if it was Christ’s intention to save all men, how deplorably has He been disappointed, for we have His own testimony that there is a lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, and into that pit of woe have been cast some of the very persons who, according to the theory of universal redemption [the view advocated by Noel Smith – JGR], were brought with His blood.
The only difference between Smith and Spurgeon is the fact they are on different sides of the “if.” Spurgeon is heaping scorn and ridicule on the very doctrine that Smith is holding up as the greatest of supposed gospel facts. My, my, how the Baptist gospel has changed in one century. Isn’t it amazing that Spurgeon could openly ridicule as nonsense the very same doctrine that men today preach as the foundation of their whole system of theology. At least no one can accuse either Spurgeon or me of burning “straw dummies.” The zealous and honest Noel Smith took care of that with great clarity.
It may be embarrassing, and men may try to run in denial, but the only alternative to Limited Atonement is either (1) universal salvation, which is at least consistent with the belief that God is all powerful, or (2) the failure of God as Mr. Smith’s legitimate application shows. There are really only three choices. Either (1) everyone is going to be saved, (2) God miserably failed, or (3) particular redemption is true.
To those thoroughly brainwashed in universal atonement and free will, the doctrine of particular atonement based on God’s sovereign electing love seems to be unfair and even cruel. The doctrine of universal atonement seems to magnify and broaden God’s love. Actually, the exact opposite is the case, and Mr. Smith, by being consistent, honest, and courageous enough to blurt out the ever present, but never spoken, legitimate conclusion and application of universal atonement has proven the point better than any Calvinist ever could.
Magnifying man and so-called free will as the determining factor in God’s plan of salvation is the true expression of universal atonement. This magnifying of free will and extolling of universal love may at first appear to magnify God, but it will ultimately be seen as the first blow at dethroning God and corrupting the very spring of grace from which the gospel flows freely to sinful man. It is a hollow victory that proves that God is all love by reducing Him to impotence before man’s almighty will and declaring that the God’s greatest act in history, the cross of Christ, was a colossal failure because man’s almighty free will refused to “give God a chance.”
It is not my intention to labor this point to an extreme, nor am I trying to make Noel Smith a whipping boy. However, any sane Bible believer should want to ask, “What ever possessed that preacher to make such statements?”
The answer to that question is just as clear as the statements themselves. Mr. Smith, was, I believe, “possessed” with a burning desire to exalt the love and grace of God. The title of his sermon was “The Middle Man,” and he was extolling the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Mr. Smith was exalting the amazing love of God in giving His only begotten Son to die on the cross. It was Smith’s purpose to so exalt this great display of God’s love that his hearers might be gripped with the glory of the birth, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. Noel Smith was setting forth Christ as the “Middle Man” who alone could stand between a holy God and sinful creatures and perform the ministry of reconciliation.
No preacher ever had a more glorious subject and I doubt that any preacher was ever possessed by a higher motive. I am personally persuaded that Noel Smith loved God and wanted to exalt His amazing grace. Unfortunately, Noel Smith was also possessed with the error of universal atonement. It is tragic but true that pure motives are not sufficient to correct either bad theology or its tragic results. I agree that Mr. Smith sincerely attempted to exalt the love and grace of God. All will have to agree that he attempted to do so in perfect harmony with his Arminian doctrine of universal salvation. I leave it to the reader to decide if this sincere attempt to glorify God’s grace achieved its purpose, or if this consistent and conscientious man came close to out-right blasphemy. The obvious answer should go a long way towards fixing the correct view of the nature of Christ’s death in our minds.
Copyright 2004 John G. Reisinger