Calvinism and the Unlimited Love of God

Calvinism is a popular theological system known primarily for its commitment to five doctrinal positions: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. Of these five, limited atonement is almost always the first one a Calvinist will jettison. Limited atonement is the doctrine that Christ did not die for those whom the Father did not sovereignly elect to salvation. For example, since God the Father did not elect Judas Iscariot to salvation, Jesus simply did not die for Judas. The gospel is thus not for everyone; instead, the gospel is only for those whom the Father has elected to salvation.

This raises an important question: Does God love those whom he did not elect to salvation? This question isn’t as speculative as it may seem. I firmly believe that every Sunday, there are people in my local church who will die and go to hell because they refused the gospel. As a Classical Arminian, I believe that Jesus died on the cross for those people and earnestly desires their salvation. I further believe that the Holy Spirit is active in drawing unbelievers to salvation when the gospel is proclaimed. In contrast, a Calvinist believes that these people will not go to heaven because God simply did not elect them to salvation. From a 5-point Calvinist perspective, when I preach the gospel at my church, it is a hollow offer to some in the crowd. The gospel simply is not for them. Thus, the question is really whether God loves everyone in our local churches, everyone in our families, and every one of our friends.

In John 15:13, Jesus ties his love for his followers to his death on the cross. Jesus says, “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[1] It seems that Jesus says that how great a person loves someone is evident based on their actions. Since Jesus makes the ultimate sacrifice for his followers, he can say that he loves his followers with the highest type of love. This same principle is the reason that people usually respect military personnel, police officers, and firefighters. These individuals make great sacrifices for the good of others; consequently, society affords them greater honor and respect. According to Jesus, if you love others, you will act on their behalf when the opportunity is available. We know God loves us because of what he has done for us.

The problem comes when we flip Jesus’s statement on its head. Jesus claimed that if you love someone, you will act on their behalf. The converse of this statement is that if you don’t act on someone’s behalf when you are able to, then you don’t really love them. At least, you don’t love them as much as you could. For example, if I always help my friend Steve but never help my friend Andy, after a while, Andy will probably get the hint that I prefer Steve. Our actions are reliable indicators of the people whom we care for. It’s for this reason that Jesus consistently ties a person’s actions to their faith. If you love him, you will keep his commandments.[2]

If limited atonement is true, it means that Jesus did not die for every person. On the cross, Jesus simply didn’t purchase the redemption for those whom God did not sovereignly elect to salvation. It wasn’t that Jesus couldn’t have purchased their salvation. As Anselm of Canterbury argued, since Christ was divine, his death was of infinite value.[3] As immortal God, his death had the power to cover the sins of every single person to have ever lived. According to limited atonement, God did not choose to allow Christ’s death to be available for the forgiveness of all sins. Instead, the Father chose to allow Christ’s death to cover the sins of the elect alone. In short, Christ could’ve acted on behalf of every human being but did not. The Father could have had the Son take a crucial step towards the redemption of every soul but declined.

If a person’s actions towards others are reliable indicators of how they feel about that person, it follows that God does not love everyone. At least, he doesn’t love everyone in the same way. God clearly prefers some human beings over others. While this doesn’t disprove Calvinism, it is certainly an unsavory view of God. Indeed, I would argue that the logical end of limited atonement damages God’s goodness.

Notes & Sources

[1] John 15:13, NIV.

[2] Cf. John 14:15.

[3] Anselm, “Why God Became Man,” in Anselm of Canterbury; the Major Works, ed. and trans. by Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), chapter 14.

12 thoughts on “Calvinism and the Unlimited Love of God

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  1. Surely, if you believe that Jesus died for people who never believe in Him, then Christ’s death failed because not everyone gets saved. Instead, I believe that God saves everyone that He intends to save. I believe in the sovereignty of God.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I personally don’t think that believing that Christ died on behalf of those who don’t get saved means that his death failed. To make that stick, you have to assume both unconditional election and irresistible grace, neither of which I affirm.

      I, too, believe in God’s sovereignty.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That personally sounds Arminian to me. I think you’re saying that God loves everyone but that not everyone responds to his love. That seems to imply that the reason a person goes to hell has more to do with the person refusing God’s love than it does with God’s choice to pass over the person.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t like to label myself but I hold God’s sovereignty and mankind’s responsibility in tension. When the Bible says “Esau I’ve hated” I believe that’s relative to His prodigal love for Jacob…

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    2. Why can’t you believe then that God will save everyone instead of a small number, it would seem that the power of Adam to pass on original sin would be stronger than gods ability or intention to save.

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      1. I don’t believe that God saves everyone because I don’t think the Bible teaches universalism. The fact that people still go to hell doesn’t mean that Adam’s sin had more power than God. It means that people freely reject the call to salvation. People going to hell has much more to do with our sin than it does with God’s power.

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    1. You assume that original sin imputes guilt. I reject the idea that I’m declared guilty for Adam’s sin. I believe we inherit a sin nature which invariably leads us to sin. However, we must choose to sin for it to count In the same way, salvation is not automatically applied to our account.

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  2. One of your last sentences was this: “At least, he doesn’t love everyone in the same way.”

    As a Calvinist, you are correct. Most Calvinists would say God loves everyone, just not in the same way. God loves His elect—the Church—in a different way than He loves the whole world. Just as you would love your spouse more or different than you’d love a friend, per se.

    You gave a fair critique and balanced view of limited atonement and God’s love. I don’t see that very often from Arminians. Thank you for that!

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