One of the primary objections to the doctrine of Particular Redemption is that it undercuts the free proclamation of the gospel to all people. According to this objection, if you cannot say with certainty to a lost person, “Christ paid the penalty for your sins,” then you cannot preach the gospel to that person.
But this objection ultimately does not work. As John Owen pointed out over three-hundred years ago, the promise of the gospel that we should proclaim to the unbeliever is not that we know for certain that Christ has paid for his sins. It is, rather, that there is a certain connection between faith and salvation. We may say with boldness to any person, “If you believe in Jesus Christ, you will be saved.” We do not have to pry into God’s secret counsel of election and the specific intent of the atonement in order to say that.
Now, if you take the objection one step further, you might say, “But how can we tell someone for whose salvation Christ did not die that he will be saved if he believes? There is no provision for his salvation, so if he did believe, how could he be saved?” Now we are getting into the difficult territory of the purely hypothetical, because it is evident that this scenario never could come to pass, since it is specifically Christ’s atonement for a person that ultimately results in that person’s faith. Nevertheless, I will do my best to answer.
Language can be tricky sometimes. We often speak of things the way they appear to us, knowing that we are not speaking the truth from a “God’s-eye” viewpoint, and yet because we understand that, we do not doubt the truth of what we are saying. For example, we speak in everyday language about the sun rising and setting. Scientifically, we know that the sun does not rise or set. Its changing location in the sky is owing to our changing position with respect to it as the earth rotates. Yet even knowing all of these things, we still feel the freedom to speak truthfully about sunrise and sunset. So there is a difference between a normal human perspective and something that begins to approximate a “God’s-eye” viewpoint, and yet so long as we understand when we are using which, we can speak truthfully either way.
I believe the same is true here. The promise of the gospel that anyone who believes will be saved is a statement given within our normal, human perspective. To be sure, it is a divinely authorized statement (God is its source), but it is accommodated to human limitations. The question of the universality of the gospel really belongs in that sphere of thought, and thus we should speak freely about the universal promise of the gospel without questioning its truth value. But when we start talking about things only known to God (namely, those who belong to the company of the elect and are, therefore, the objects of his saving purpose in the atonement), then we are taking on a “God’s-eye” viewpoint and cannot speak in the exact same ways. There is not necessarily anything wrong with approximating God’s viewpoint on some issues (that is something of what I am doing in these posts), but we must take care that we do so only under the guidance of God’s revelation in Scripture, without prying beyond what God has told us.
To give just one more point of response to the objection, I would say finally that the problem raised by it is not unique to the doctrine of Particular Redemption. Any viewpoint that claims that God knows the future exhaustively runs into a problem like this one. If God knows with certainty who will and who will not be saved ahead of time, how can we promise someone that if he believes in Christ, he will be saved? What if we are making that promise to someone whom God already knows will never be saved? The point is not that we must reconcile God’s perspective and ours. It is, rather, that we must not imagine that God’s perspective invalidates the truth of his promises, for his conditional promises are real promises based on certain conditions, even if those conditions will never be met.
In the next post I will deal with those passages of Scripture that seem to teach a general atonement.