Sunday, August 16, 2009

For Whom Did Christ Die? - Ben Witherington (Arminian View)

According to Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary):

Christ died for the sins of the world, and to ransom that world. 1 Tim. 2.4-5 puts the matter succinctly. God our savior "wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all people." One could compare this to John 3.17, God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world, or the repeated refrain in Hebrews that Christ died once for all time, for all persons, and so on. (See the discussion of these matters in my forthcoming volumes on NT Theology and Ethics entitled The Indelible Image).

But this is not just a matter of finding sufficient proof texts (of which there are many more), it is a matter of one's theology of the divine character. God is love, holy love, to be sure, but nonetheless love, and as 1 Tim. 2.4 says, the desire of God's heart is that all persons be saved. It is not just the elect whom God loves, but as John 3.16 says, the world, for whom Christ was sent to die. It follows from this that Christ's atoning death is sufficient for the salvation of all persons, but only efficient for those who respond in faith to God's gracious provision of redemption.

Even more foundational is the understanding of the meaning of saying that God is love. Among other things, this means God is committed to relating to those created in his image in love. Now real love must be freely given, and freely received. It cannot be predetermined, manipulated, coerced or else it becomes contrary to what the Bible says love is (see 1 Cor. 13). In the debate between whether the primary trait of God is God's sovereignty or God's love, it seems clear that God exercises his power in love, and for loving ends. Even his acts of judgment, short of final judgment, are not meant to be punitive but rather corrective and restorative. God in short, is unlike vindictive human beings, very unlike them. Thus Hosea relates that God says "All my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger ... For I am God and not a human being." God, the divine parent, is not less loving than the best of human parents, God is more loving. If Christ is the perfect incarnation of the character of God, then the answer to the question, for whom did Christ die, becomes theologically self-evident--- for the world which God created and still loves.


Sean said...

Still the best view available.

lukeisham said...

Now real love must be freely given, and freely received.

What definition of freedom are using here Ben?

Unknown said...

Now real love must be freely given, and freely received.

I've heard this argument before, and I think it is a poor one.

For example, what if a child were to refuse to eat? Is it unloving for the parent to force the child to eat them? Or is it more loving to put the plate in front of them but let the child starve? I would think its more loving to force the child to eat, even if it doesn't want to.

Of course, relating back to the gospel; when the child does it, he finds out the food is absolutely delicious.

kerrin said...


Do you have kids? I find it hard to believe you would actually force feed a kid who refuses food. Yes, force feeding lacks love. Love requires more effort than simply "put[ing] the plate in front of them but let[ing] the child starve."

I think God is more creative in his love than resorting to force feeding grace. He may play the airplane food game, arrange the food in a smiley face on the plate, create silly names for the vegetables, etc. All in a loving way to entice the child to eat (receive) the needed sustenance.

Unknown said...

How is it that every action God takes except for the final judgement "not meant to be punitive but rather corrective and restorative"?

John Thomson said...

Was God's judgement at the flood a loving act? Was his destruction of the firstborn, Pharaoh and his armies a loving act? Was the destruction of the Canaanites a loving act? Was his promise to destroy Babylon and leave her desolate for how she had treated Israel a loving act. We could go on.

Where do we read that all God's acts towards post-fall humanity are motivated by love?

The right to be loved is forfeited at the fall. Thereafter love is a sovereign choice sometimes granted and at other times withheld - Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated. It seems that only those who are the spiritual offspring of Abraham are promised love that is always in life corrective and restorative - covenant love(Roms 9).

The problem of course is that the word 'love' admits of different kinds depending on relationship. I love my wife, my son, my country, my dog in different ways. In John, Jesus has a love for 'his own' which seems to be distinguished from his love for the world. He prays for 'those the father has given him' not the world.

I would not wish even for a moment to diminish the love of God but it does seem to me a mistake to argue that love must lie at the heart of all God's severe actions even to the unbeliever prior to the Second Coming.

Dec said...

JohnGreenview: "He prays for 'those the father has given him' not the world"

True, but look at later on in that John 17 passage...

"I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me."

Jesus's prayers are so that the world believes He has been sent from God.

You talk of Jesus's love for "his own" being distinguishable from his love for the world. John says in his epistle that love's greatest expression is a man laying down his life for another. This is what God, out of love for the world, sent Jesus to do. And so if the world has already been exposed to the greatest love ever known, any talk of distinguishing between God's love of own and love of world is, if not incorrect, then surely irrelevant.

David Brush said...

JohnGreenview: I am currently reading some Leslie Newbigin, to give my coment some context... Your interpretation of John seems to hinge on a exclusionary form of the doctrine of election. Newbigin would point out (as Dec I think has) that election calls the elect to be the beacon by which the entire world can be saved; not it's sole beneficiaries.

John Thomson said...

To Dec: Those who believe in him through his word become 'his own' for whom he prays in contradistinction from those who do not believe.

Also Jesus says, Greater love has no man than this than a man lays down his life for his friends. He identifies 'friends' as those who follow him.

To David: God's people are called to be a light to the world (as Jesus was), however, there is a narrower sense in which their witness and preaching is specifically intended to convert the 'elect'. Paul endures everything 'for the sake of the elect that they too may obtain salvation'. He is instructed by the Lord to keep preaching in Corinth despite opposition for 'I have many people in this place'. To Titus he describes himself as 'an apostle for the faith of God's elect'

In Israel, the elect receive salvation the rest are hardened (that is God hardens them).

It seems to me impossible to resist the conclusion that God has a people 'chosen by grace' (Roms 11). and that for this people, the many, his friends, in a special sense Jesus 'lays down his life'.

Good to discuss.

Dec said...

As far as I'm concerned, either the offer of forgiveness to everyone is a genuine offer, or every Christian is a liar or a con artist; the equivalent of someone who offers a child a packet of sweets, when in reality no such packet exists.

Am I right in saying that this is the Calvinist view? Fake offers for some people, genuine offers for others?

John Thomson said...


I believe the offer of forgiveness to all is genuine (and the value of the death of Christ is sufficient for all). However, left to ourselves no-one will respond in repentance and faith to this call. Thus in grace God determines that he will save some - those he calls 'his elect'. These he works in a special way in to bring about repentance and faith and a renewed heart. In the language of John's gospel, these he loves and keeps and loses none - they are 'his own', those who belonged to the Father and have been given to the Son.

The issue of course is not a matter of a system that you or I may like but making full sense of all the bible says about these matters. I commend D A Carson's little book, 'The difficult doctrine of the Love of God'.

David Brush said...

JohnGreenview: I think you are hitting on the core difference between the two views (of which the one of this post is Arminius'). You state that no one would respond to this call apart from God effecting that response in us; the view of this posting would say that God has imparted that ability to respond to everyone already and it is matter of acting on that prevenient grace. Although we are fallen, our first wish is to please God. (I am Wesleyan if you can't tell already)


John Thomson said...


Yes you are right. It is a big topic. Anyway - good to chat. One day we will likely see all views are deeply deficient.

Unknown said...

The metaphor of God as a parent deciding between "force feeding" his babies or letting them starve doesn't work for me. It assumes an infant's level of understanding. This downplays our true guilt, which no one, Calvinist or Arminian, wishes to do. A better metaphor is the one Christ gave us: God as a loving father who allows his ungrateful son to leave with his inheritance. The father didn't go after the son, grabbing him by the ear and bringing him back home. Instead he watched and waited, and when the son returned he threw a party. As a parent, that story resonates with me.

lukeisham said...

The problem with arguing from freedom is the definition of freedom itself. Only God has pure, true freedom, all humans have is responsibility.

Arminianism denies the full debilitating force of sin. ("Slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness.")

David Brush said...


I am sorry but you are characterizing Arminianism incorrectly.

We believe in total depravity as well. (Yes I admit there are some semipelagians who believe in limited depravity but they are not strictly arminian.) In your comment you use the example of slavery. I can be a slave to sin and not like it one single bit. I can long for union with God but be under curse. however since God has made a way by which I can have those shackles removed I can ask that He does just that.

Also for Arminians sin is just as binary as it is for Calvinists, and just as debilitating. All have sinned and fallen short of God's design. All are under the curse of sin. However we simply believe God is soverign enough that he doesn't have to pick some, but he chooses all knowing that some will respond and some will not (to their own detriment and judgment.)

Aaron said...

I am in full accord with Dr. Witherington on this matter. He sums up the debate succinctly and sufficiently when he says that it is "whether the primary trait of God is God's sovereignty or God's love." Notice that there are logical limits on power; even an omnipotent Being cannot make a square circle and place it in my pocket next to the number 7. However, there are no limits on love because love transcends reason. It doesn't make much sense to the world that God could freely offer pardon to sinners, but that is precisely what S/He does! God's essence is both rational and loving, but love triumphs over all. There is no power greater than God's love.
Understanding the primacy of God's love is also a great argument for the soteriological theory of apokatostasis, that all of creation will be restored to God in Christ Jesus because God does not withdrawal divine grace when we die or at the parousia; niether height nor depth can separate us from the love of God! It's never too late to change your mind; the Parent waits for the prodical child -as long as it takes.

lukeisham said...

@David: But if your a slave you have no choice! That's the power of sin, which no amount of choice can break. However He alone can pluck us from slavery!

Steve said...

How adorable the whole conversation must sound to God. Like children arguing over what dad does for a living, how much money he carries, persuading each other about how strong he is compared to other dads, when he'll be home, and by what means. And we really believe this dad finally walks in from work and boils some of the children gathered that proved unable to comprehend his nature and role, despite their deliberating, or snuffs them merely because he'd predetermined to do so since the day they were born.
We're all in for a remarkably fantastic surprise, yet many of us will need a few hundred years to cease from thinking that what we'll then be experiencing with our gracious Father is somehow a downgrade from absolute perfect holiness.

Aaron said...

To the anonymous commenter, you are either highly uncharitable in your assessment of theological dialogue, or you misunderstand its purpose.
First off, we Arminians do NOT believe that God predetermines anyone unto death/damnation. In fact, that view, although it may be well-inteded, is misled and borders blasphemy against the Divine character. Nor do thoughtful Christians believe that God "boils some of the children" despite their efforts to understand and grow in relationship with God. Actually, we believe that God looks at "the heart," which makes intentions paramount; we are not draconian utilitarians. Also, Christianity is unique in stressing grace the way it does, as you yourself recognize, calling God "our gracious Father." This does not, of course, mean that seeking understanding is futile puerility with no positive contributions to offer.

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Anonymous said...

The ultimate cause of your seeing it a mistake to see God's love that way is because from all eternity God sovereignly decreed that you would see it that way ;-)