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Theology, philosophy & apologetics from Reformed marketing expert Dominic Bnonn Tennant


Was the atonement wasted if God chooses who to save?

By D Bnonn Tennant

A response to the common intuition that, under Calvinism, Jesus’s suffering was wasted for all those who God did not choose to save.

I was talking to a non-Calvinist Christian friend yesterday—I will call her Eliza to protect the innocent—and the topic of election came up.

(Incidentally, while most of my friends are Calvinists simply because they are the people I go to church with, Eliza is a very dear friend—which illustrates that although Calvinists and Arminians sometimes give the appearance of being constantly at each other’s throats, it is simply not so.)

Anyway, she commented that she takes the Bible literally when it says Jesus died for the whole world. And it seems to her that if God chooses whom to save, then Jesus’s death is wasted in respect to everyone else for whom he died.

I’ve written before about whether Jesus died for everyone whomsoever—you’re welcome to look around to find those posts. My view is he did, at least inasmuch as federal headship works by one human being representing all human beings. That’s how it worked for Adam—and if it isn’t how it worked for Jesus then the crucial comparison between Adam and him in Romans 5 seems to collapse.

So I agree with Eliza that Jesus’s atonement is quite sufficient to save every person ever—were every person ever to have faith. (Note my emphasise on the word “is”. Some Calvinists would say only that Jesus’s atonement would be sufficient to save very person ever, were every person ever to have faith. In other words, the scope of the atonement has to be retrofitted to the hypothetical, because in their view Jesus only died for those who will in fact be saved.)

But why think Jesus’s death is “wasted” if God chooses who to save? Eliza seemed to think that if unconditional election were true, then the atonement was in some sense frittered away for the people God reprobated to hell; whereas if people were able to choose salvation for themselves, then it wasn’t. I’m struggling to find some relevant distinction between Calvinism and Arminianism here that would explain why this is so. Here are a few ideas:

Parsimony

It could be a matter of economy. It would be gratuitous for Jesus to suffer for Roger if God will not save Roger.

But God not saving Roger is just a particular mechanism of a broader kind of situation: namely, Roger not being saved. And if Roger is not saved under Arminianism either, why is it gratuitous for Jesus to suffer for him under Calvinism, but not under Arminianism? Merely saying it is because God chooses to save Roger under one, but not the other, doesn’t explain it so much as beg the question.

(Also, how could Jesus avoid suffering for Roger, given the nature of federal headship?)

Ability

Maybe it is something to do with ability. That was the sense I got from Eliza in our brief exchange. It is wasteful if Jesus died for someone who cannot appropriate that atonement, because it makes the atonement pointless or useless for that person. I don’t think pointlessness or uselessness is quite the same as wastefulness, but this was a friendly conversation we were having, not a philosophically-rigorous debate—so when she said the atonement was wasted on the reprobate, she could well have meant it was in vain.

But again, it’s hard to see how Arminianism changes anything here. Even if we say Roger can appropriate the atonement, if he does not do so, and God knew in advance he would not do so, then surely it was pointless for Jesus to die for him? It seems quite reasonable to say the atonement was in vain for Roger if God knew all along that Roger would never appropriate it.

(However, in what sense can Roger appropriate the atonement if God has created a world in which he knows it is inevitable that Roger won’t appropriate it?)

Grounding the gospel

You could say that while the atonement was not efficacious for Roger, Christ’s suffering for him was not wasted because it made the gospel invitation possible in the first place. If Christ hadn’t suffered for him, God could not have called him to have faith, since there would have been nothing for him to have faith in. But that is exactly what a Calvinist like me says to a Calvinist who denies the universal scope of the atonement. So this line of reasoning doesn’t select for Arminianism; it merely selects against a specific kind of Calvinism which I don’t hold.

(However, it actually seems to select against Arminianism as well. Eliza’s implication seemed to be that Jesus’s suffering was wasted for anyone who did not at least hear the gospel message. A Calvinist doesn’t have to agree with that. So Arminianism seems to shoot itself in the foot here.)

Other…?

I can’t think of any other ways in which Jesus’s suffering is wasted if God chooses to save, rather than if salvation is up to us. But I’m willing to bet my imagination is limited compared to other Christians. So if you have any other ideas, chip in below.

1 comment

  1. Ask Mr. Religion

    How is the atonement wasted when one considers the nature of the atonement? If it was God’s chosen people, and none are lost to Him, where is the waste?

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