Listening to Christian radio can be a frustrating thing. Earlier this week, this examiner was listening to Christian talk radio. On the morning, a show aired on The Tradtion (WTWZ 1120 AM of Clinton, MS) discussing the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement. The show, using John 17, argued that if Christ, in his high priestly prayer, didn’t pray for the world, he obviously didn’t die for the world, but for only a select number. The argument went that God never intended to save everyone, but rather only a select number, and Christ’s atonement, instead of making salvation possible for all, excluded some altogether and actually secured the salvation of some.
Later that same afternoon, on Moody Radio South (89.1 FM--Forest, Jackson, Meridian) Janet Parshall had a guest on her radio show, In the Market, who’d written a book, The God Questions, opposing universalism—the belief that all will eventually go to heaven, regardless of religious affiliation while on earth. A man called in pointing out that the Bible states that Judas Iscariot perished in his sin—a fact that contradicts universalism. The caller also asked the author if the book addressed the doctrine that God creates some for honor and some for dishonor (Romans 9). Much to this examiner’s dismay, Janet Parshall’s guest, Dr. Hal Seed, argued that Judas Iscariot might be in heaven after all—maybe, the guest reasoned, Judas had good intentions when he handed Jesus over to the Sanhedrin. Seed also said that God creating some for honor and some for dishonor is an unbiblical doctrine.
1. Difficulties with believing Christ never intended to atone for the sins of all people
These two radio programs, widely varying in their theological orientation, illustrate what are, in this examiner’s opinion, two opposite errors. The first program articulated such a rigid Calvinism as to almost imply that God loves certain people and not others. It is true that, out of the fallen human race, God predestines some for eternal life and leaves others—he has mercy on whom he wills and whom he wills he hardens. That, however, doesn’t mean that the atonement wasn’t for the world. It is both logical, and Biblical, to argue that Christ atoned for the sins of individuals God knew would actually perish in unbelief. The Synod of Dort, which solidified what would become known as the Five Points of Calvinism, discussed Christ's atonement as sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect only. This is Biblical, but to go beyond this and try to further define God's intentions seems to be an exercise in mere conjecture.
Consider John Wesley’s commentary on John 316:
"When it says, 'the world', that is, all men under heaven; even those that despise his love, and will for that cause finally perish. Otherwise not to believe would be no sin to them. For what should they believe? Ought they to believe that Christ was given for them? Then he was given for them."
2. What is the Biblical doctrine of election?
On Janet Parshall's program, Dr. Seed overlooked the Biblical doctrine of election altogether, ignoring Paul’s forceful teaching in Romans 9, wherein he explains that salvation is not a matter of human will, but solely of God who chooses to give mercy to some, while showing justice to others.
Contrary to popular misperception, believing in the Reformed doctrine of election doesn’t mean believing that the majority of the human race will perish. As Lorraine Boettner pointed out in his classic, Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, we have good hope that the overwhelming majority of the human race has been appointed by God to be objects of mercy, not objects of wrath. In fact, Boettner pointed out that the Reformed view—which teaches that God regenerates people through a sovereign act of his will—is the only view on the market that could, theoretically, prove universalism. Calvinists believe that God could, if he wanted to, elect everyone to salvation. If, as the non-Reformed view states, conversion is, at least in part, a result of human free will (which God never violates) we have no absolute assurance that anyone in the human race will be saved, much less everyone. From this vantage point, theoretically everyone in the human race could reject Christ’s atonement and, though it was intended to save all, it might save none.
3. Can we know what happened to Judas?
It is true that we should never presume to know where people are after they die, no matter how godless they may have been in their life. God could bring someone to repentance even in the final seconds of life. We should never smugly presume to know whether or not a person died in a state of grace. This is for God to know, and it is for us to simply pray for the best.
In the unique case of Judas Iscariot, though, it is not presumption to say that he perished. Believing that Judas Iscariot perished and was finally and irretrievably lost is not in any way a “Calvinist” position. Jesus himself calls Judas the “son of perdition”. He says it would have been better for his betrayer to have never been born. He says that, of all those whom the Father gave to him, none would be lost, except for the betrayer. In Acts 1, Peter quotes Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 as prophetically referring to Judas, and both are imprecatory psalms of judgment and condemnation. How Dr. Seed then could argue that Judas might not have been so bad after all is mindboggling.
Contrary to the first radio program, though, this doesn’t mean that Christ didn’t die for Judas Iscariot. Christ washed Judas’ feet, along with the rest of the disciples, at the Last Supper, and Christ shared the Lord’s Supper with him. These acts illustrate that Christ truly and sincerely offered salvation to Judas, even if he knew Judas would reject him, don’t they? We should take no pleasure in Judas’ perdition, anymore than Christ took in it.
4. Can we know we’re forgiven? If so, how?
Whereas the first radio program might conceivably trouble someone’s assurance by making a person wonder, “If Christ didn’t die for everyone, how can I be sure he died for me?”, the second radio program, basing conversion on human free will, also undercuts any solid basis for assurance since human will is fickle and liable to change with the weather. Christ died for your sins, and if you believe this, you can rest assured that you are right with God. Without the Holy Spirit regenerating your heart, you couldn’t believe this in the first place.
At one point on Janet Parshall’s show, a woman asked Dr. Seed if being born again was accompanied by any kind of tangible sign or evidence from God. Dr. Seed, instead of going to Scripture, explained that he could only speak from personal experience and that in his own case, he did “feel” God’s presence strongly at the moment of conversion and heard what was akin to a still, small voice. He then said that a change of life is a strong indicator of conversion having taken place, although not a sure fire one, since even people who’ve had false conversion experiences may experience some temporary change.
Dr. Seed admitted these evidences he was referencing were “subjective”, which means they are very difficult to verify or pin much hope on. It is true that the Bible does talk of outward marks or “fruit” of salvation—deep love for God, love for other people, etc. However, assurance of salvation can’t rest upon these outward things since, as Dr. Seed admitted, such “fruit” often appears to be present in the life of unbelievers who’ve made insincere professions of faith (Matthew 7). Rather than cautioning the caller against basing assurance of salvation on feelings—a very dangerous thing to do—the author appealed to his own feelings.
The Biblical answer to the question, “How do I know if I’m really saved and forgiven by God?” is this: If you have believed the gospel—that Jesus died for your sins and rose from the dead—you may rest assured that you are forgiven, regardless of whether you “feel” it or not. As Martin Luther said, “The sentences in Holy Scripture touching predestination… seem to terrify and affright us; yet they but show that we can do nothing of our own strength and will that is good before God, and put the godly also in mind to pray. When people do this, they may conclude they are predestinated.”
But aren’t there people who think they believe the gospel, but then when testing comes they fall away, showing that their belief was never truly genuine? Even so, the only place to look to for assurance is Christ. We must look outward, not inward.
Looking outward, looking to Christ, is what the Bible says believers are to do to keep from stumbling and falling away. Let us try to avoid the opposite errors posited by both of these radio programs. Christ, who died for all people, invites all people to come to him and when they come to him in faith, they may rest assured they are forgiven. Introspection, though healthy up to a point, is not how believers preserve themselves from falling away. Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, is the one who preserves us.