Lost in a thicket of Arminian and Calvinist debate, we sometimes lose sight of the grand truths we hold in common.
What does it mean that Jesus died for all? The question is beguilingly simple. You would not know from the face of it that the question has been at the center of a heated and sometimes vociferous debate. For almost two thousand years, Christians have struggled to understand the effect of Jesus’ death and the scope of its saving power. With the publication in recent months of a number of books by evangelicals on the fate of the unevangelized, larger questions about the scope of the Atonement are gaining renewed currency. Does “all” refer to individual human beings, or nationalities and peoples, or just the elect?
Within the Reformation mainstream, two contending viewpoints have emerged, which observers often label Calvinist (after John Calvin), on the one hand, and Arminian (after Jacob Arminius, an early Dutch opponent of Calvin) or Wesleyan (after John Wesley), on the other. On the Calvinist side of the debate, you have Augustine, Calvin, and their followers. They argue (with varying degrees of explicitness and forcefulness) that the “all” refers to the elect: Christ died to save only those whom the Father had predestined to eternal life.
On the Arminian side, represented also by Wesley, believers argue that Christ in his atonement intended to make salvation available to everyone. It is faith (or, in some versions, obedience) that makes the saving work complete.
The debate includes a host of related questions. What are we to make of this preposition for? If Jesus died “for” every human ever born, can anyone finally be lost? Does a yes to that question mean Christ’s death was somehow ineffective? And just who are ...1
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