Anti-individualism is the reigning ideology of our day. Even most political and religious self-help books end with the exhortation to find fulfillment by finding community. We meet together to be chastised again for being too concerned about ourselves alone. We are reminded that “He loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20) does not eliminate the greater truth that “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:2). Since me does not rule out us, then us does not rule out them. And since nobody talks about elect and non-elect, the truth that Christ died for His sheep cannot be understood as denying that Christ died also for goats. So the Arminians tell us.
Election yes, but not when we are talking about Christ’s death
But what about the Neo-Calvinists who will not talk about election when they are talking about Christ’s death and love? When they will only say, “if you put your trust in Him,” and will not spell out the antithesis between sheep for whom Christ died and goats for whom Christ did not die, they doubletalk about God’s love. On the one hand, everyone listening to them is regarded as one of the “us” who Christ loves. On the other hand, listeners are being warned that Christ’s love depends on them “putting their trust in”. At issue here is not only the extent of Christ’s love but the nature of Christ’s love. If Christ’s love is often unrequited, then even His love for those who love Him back is of a very different nature than the biblical love which never lets go of any God gave His Son.
It does no good to say that God took the initiative, or even that God loved the unlovely. In our own relationships, one of us takes the first steps. But if the other person does not respond to the first love, it amounts to nothing. Think about that. I say it quite seriously. If Christ’s love is an initiative which depends on our response, then Christ’s love amounts to nothing. Galatians 2:20 does not say that the Son of God loved you and gave Himself for you. Nor does the text give clergy the authority to extrapolate that God loves you and gave Himself for you. Rather, the next verse says “if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” If Christ’s love depends on you keeping the law to put your trust in Him, then Christ’s love amounts to nothing and His death was for no purpose.
A love which possibly amounts to nothing
But am I not forgetting that God loved the unlovely? In our relationships, we love the lovely. We become lovely to those who are lovely to us. In the same way, the false gospel depends on our becoming more lovely. If we don’t become lovely enough to at least put our trust in the love of the false Christ of the false gospel, then that love fails. What good is a love for the unlovely which depends on them becoming lovely at some point? A love which CAN amount to nothing always DOES amount to nothing. I say this first because we are unlovely sinners who cannot respond to initiatives. If we think we can do one lovely thing to respond, then we presume that God is wooing us. We think God is appealing to the part of us which God finds lovely. So then, no matter what we say, we don’t really believe that God loves the unlovely. We can’t believe it.
Second, I say that a love which CAN fail amounts to a meaningless nothing, because such a love disregards the cross and the death by which Christ paid for the sins of the elect alone. Neo-Calvinists think of election and definite redemption as two different things, because they think of love and propitiation for the elect as two different things. Not so the Scripture! John 10 does not say that the good Shepherd loves the goats so that they can become sheep if they respond. John 10:12 says that “he who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” Notice the antithesis. The good shepherd does not act like the hired man. The hired man’s love amounts to nothing. How do we know the Shepherd loves the sheep? “I lay down my life for the sheep.” Does this mean that the Shepherd dies as a representative of the sheep along with the sheep? No. The Shepherd is not only the leader, not only the first to die. The Shepherd dies as a substitute for the sheep. Because the Shepherd dies, the sheep do not die. So John 10 does not separate Christ’s love and Christ’s death. Christ loves those for whom He dies. Christ dies for those He loves.
So what’s my point? Christ loves everybody. Christ died for everybody. No, He did not. John 10 makes this clear and simple. It does not say, “If you put your trust in and believe.” John 10:26, “But you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep hear my voice.” It’s not, if you put your trust in me, then you will become my sheep. Ok, Ok, the Neo-Calvinists reason, we also believe in election. We too know that John 10:29 tells how “My Father has given them to me”. We just don’t happen to talk about that when we are talking about Christ’s loving and dying. When we talk about Christ’s love, we stay with the “if you trust in Him”, and don’t get into the business of them not being able to trust if they are not elect. Christ knew who was not elect, but we don’t
We don’t know who‘s elect
I agree that we don’t know who is not elect. Just because a person does not now believe the true gospel does not mean that person never will believe. Any person who will one day believe the true gospel is already a sheep. Christ already loves them, and Christ already died for them. But we can say all that without leaving the door open for those who teach that Christ died for everybody. If we do not say that Christ died for the elect and not for the non-elect, those who climb in other ways will be telling people that it all depends on “if you trust In Him”. If we don’t talk about Christ’s death and election at the same time, we ourselves will be heard preaching a love that depends on the sinner to respond.
My main point is not the motives of the Neo-Calvinists. Surely some of them are hired men who know they won’t be hired if they talk about Christ not dying for the non-elect. Others of them sincerely have essentially the same false gospel as the thieves who teach a universal death conditioned on a sinner’s faith. My main point is that Christ’s love amounts to everything! Christ’s love meant dying on the cross for those He loved, and that love is decisive. That love is not one factor among many. Christ’s love is not about making some people lovely. Christ’s love is about a death which propitiates the wrath of God against elect sinners for their sins. Christ’s love is not over against God’s wrath. God’s love gives Christ some elect individuals, and this is not ever ever ever for one moment something separate from God’s love which gives Christ to die for these elect individuals.
John 3:16 says “He gave His only Son, that as many as believe in Him would not perish but have eternal life.” God did not give His Son, so that everybody could believe in Him. God gave His Son, so that those who do believe in Him will not perish. God did not give His Son for them because they would believe in Him. Nor is the only thing going on in the giving of the Son the purchasing of faith for the elect, even though this is true. I Peter 1:21, “who through Him are believers” and II Peter 1:1, “to those who have been given a faith as precious as ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.”
The main event in the giving of the Son is propitiation. The death of Christ does not make appeasement of God’s wrath possible if other factors fall into place. The death of Christ is the punishment required by God’s law for the sins of those God has given Christ. It is not only God’s law that requires the death. God requires the death. Never ever has God loved one individual sinner without God also requiring the death of Christ for that sinner. Never has Christ loved one sinner without Christ also needing to die for that sinner. It’s not, if I love, then I will die for. It’s not, if I die for, then I will love. It’s always love and die for. The love was decided from the foundation of the world. The death was about two thousand years ago, but that death was decided the same as when God gave the love. God gave. God gave. God gave elect sinners to the Son. God gave the Son for the elect sinners. We did not make the difference between us and them by putting our trust in Him. But there is a difference between us and “everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.“ Revelation 13:8.
Rejoice, names in the book
But the current ideology warns us that we won’t be ethical if we focus on individual names in a book. Even though there are some Arminians left around who are pleading with individuals to write their names in that book, most religious people today can’t be bothered to rejoice about names in a book. The current idea is not to argue about the significance of names when God loves everybody, but to move on to the matter of ethical community. Surely the kingdom of God does not consist of God’s will and decision before the foundation of the world. Talking about guilt being appeased only makes people feel guilty. And they look back, instead of to the future. They think about themselves and their sins, instead of trying to help people. I could document this with book after book, but I have no desire to replay the conservative-liberal debate here. The Arminians say, keep the faith and don’t become universalists. The universalists say, putting your trust in is just another legalism and instead we need to get busy for the kingdom. And the hired men say, let’s keep the right balance and just preach the texts without talking about election so that one Sunday we can make everybody feel guilty for killing Jesus and the next Sunday we can make people feel guilty for not being more busy for the kingdom.
The false gospel, in all its forms, has enough guilt for everybody. This is the irony of what is supposed to be good news. Even if there are no sentimental songs about killing Jesus, whenever you tell a person that Jesus had to die for them and did die for them, but then deny that this is enough to take away their guilt if they don’t put their trust in it, you have just pushed that person further into self-righteousness. First, they think, even though I am guilty of all those sins and Jesus had to die for them, at least I am not guilty anymore of not putting trust in. Second, they think, God depends on us so much that our sins have ruined everything so much that not even Jesus dying for all of them is enough to get rid of the problem. We assume not only that God did not ordain our sinning but that Christ’s death for sinning will not work without the sinner’s consent. You can argue that this kind of epistemological self-awareness is not real, but I think this attitude is in the very air we breathe. It is not individualism gone bad but an idolatry of the self which cannot be cured by being busy for the kingdom.
I John 2:2
The true God is not held hostage by our sins, and the love of Christ is not frustrated by a sinner’s lack of trust. I John 2, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” And Ne0-Calvinist Don Carson says that world means everybody. And I say, this will not do. And Carson says, but the whole world agrees with me, not least because I have a PHD. But I John 2:2 is not about making an offer of the false gospel to everybody, or telling them that God loves them, with extra for others in the fine print. I John 2:2 is about propitiation. Christ is the advocate, the propitiation, not only for us who are reading I John but also for the whole world. The world in this context does not include the non-elect anymore than world in John 3:16 includes the non-elect.
God gave His only Son as the propitiation taking God’s wrath so that those for whom He was given do not perish under God’s wrath. John 3:16 is about a love which keeps those loved from perishing. If Carson wants to say that God gave the Son to die for everybody and that God loved everybody, instead of doubletalk he will need to explain why the propitiation is not effective. I do not say, not effective for everybody. I say, not effective for anybody. Yes, we can discuss every text with the word “world” in it, and we will agree that it does not always mean the same thing. But when we are done with all that, the question remains: if the propitiation is for everybody, does the effectiveness of it depend on the sinner? Does the putting trust in also propitiate? It is not quite rational to accuse somebody of being a rationalist without answering that question.
Election and propitiation together
Election is God’s love, and when the Bible talks about God’s love, it talks about propitiation. I John 4:10, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” If the hired men leave it to the Arminians to climb in and stipulate that the appeasement of wrath will not work without our faith, then it’s inadequate for the hired men to add on that God sent His son to purchase our faith. The nature of the cross as a propitiation will not be proclaimed. You can use the word without agreeing with the Bible about what it means. A propitiation for the non-elect amounts to nothing. Since there is only one propitiation, a propitiation for the elect which is also the same thing for the non-elect, amounts to nothing. If’s it not the same thing, then the Neo-Calvinists need to stop playing with words and tell the truth.
Does the Neo-Calvinist love the gospel of election, or does he hate the doctrine and suppress it? Yes, Christ loved the church, but the church in the non-election way of talking is not individuals written in the lamb’s book, but a class of people who put their trust in. So the Neo-Calvinist does not talk about Christ not dying for the non-elect, but about Christ not dying for those who don’t put their trust in. The Neo-Calvinist wants you to give yourself to Christ without knowing anything about election. Then he will teach you that all who give themselves to Christ were given to Christ. The Neo-Calvinist will justify this as being the only perspective possible to us. We have to know we believe, before we can know if we are elect. I agree that knowing our election before we believe is impossible. Knowing our election is not our warrant to believe. (See Abraham Booth, Glad Tidings). But this is no excuse for leaving the doctrine of election out of the doctrine of redemption and propitiation by the cross.
Knowing Christ without knowing which gospel?
The person who believes the true gospel knows something about election. The gospel explains that the cross is what saves. The cross is decisive. The gospel is not only that only those for whom Christ died will be saved, because also the gospel tells how Christ loved the elect and propitiated the wrath of God in His death. You can know this, and must know this, to know the nature and purpose of Christ’s death. The Neo-Calvinist can either argue that the thief saved on the cross did not know the gospel or he can argue that there is a gospel which omits the nature and necessity of propitiation. If we begin to say that people are saved without believing the gospel, then we are contradicting John 3:16 which says that those who do not perish believe on Him. If we can know who He is and believe on Him, without knowing the gospel, then we have become liberals or universalists. On the other hand, if there is a gospel in which the death of Christ is not the good news, in which the death of Christ amounts to nothing, then let’s not waste anymore time talking to people who are already busy in the kingdom of the resurrected Lord about scholastic debates on the meaning of Christ’s death. Can’t we all agree that Christ needed to die in order to be resurrected? Why say anything more? At the end of the day, the liberal can be a baptized Christian even if he claims that propitiation language leads men to become more violent. So why say more about election or the cross? At the end of the day, we should not demonize Arminians simply because they reject the theory of substitutionary atonement.
But the hired men know that not all the sheep follow the Shepherd. Some of the sheep attend Reformed conferences and become a little more precise. And with that preciseness comes a humility and a carefulness about when to not talk about election, and an understanding that the Shepherd knows sheep who know and follow Him without knowing the gospel. Or to be more precise, they know a gospel which not only does not know election but which is frightened by election and which redefines election to make it depend on the sinner putting trust in. Because the Neo-Calvinist claims to have already known Jesus Christ when he believed that same false gospel.