Response to Driscoll’s Presentation of Un/Limited Atonement: The Proof-Texts

Aside from assuming Arminian definitions for the terms “world” and “all” in a number of Bible passages, Driscoll [in Death by Love] presents two verses in particular as requiring an “Un/limited” view of the atonement. These verses are 1 Timothy 4:10 and 2 Peter 2:1.

But do either of these verses teach the “Un/limited” view of the atonement?

1 Timothy 4:10

For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (ESV)

In what sense is God “the Savior of all people”? The “Christian Universalist” position (which Driscoll rightly identifies as heretical) is that God is the Savior of all people in that He prevents each individual from ever being sent to Hell. The “Christian Universalist” would say that God is the Savior “especially of those who believe” in the sense that those who believe in Jesus have a special access to pure moral teachings from God (they would emphasize the importance of, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount). Non-heretics, including those who hold to “Limited” atonement as well as those who hold to “Un/limited” atonement, would object that the Universalists read an unintended meaning into the phrase “Savior of all people” and that they ignore passages that contradict their assumed meaning of this phrase.

But Driscoll makes a similar mistake in his reading of this verse. In order for 1 Timothy 4:10- a verse in a passage of exhortation that is not specifically focused on the atonement- to be a valid proof-text for “Un/limited” atonement, Driscoll must read “Savior of all people” to mean that Jesus died to purchase each individual “as His possession,” to reconcile each individual to God, and to provide “payment for the penalty of all sin of all people.” But is this complex of meanings for “Savior of all people” intended by the author when he uses this phrase? If so, where can Driscoll demonstrate this from the context of 1 Timothy 4:10? And what of verses that seem to contradict the idea that those in Hell have the penalty of their sins atoned for and have been reconciled to God? Without answers to these questions, Driscoll’s use of 1 Timothy 4:10 seems as big a leap as that made by the Universalists.

2 Peter 2:1

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. (ESV)

As alluded to above, 1 Timothy 4:10 is not about the atonement: the death of Christ is not mentioned. And so, to use this verse as a key building block for a doctrine concerning the extent of the atonement is highly dubious; one should instead look to passages focused on the atonement in order to determine its intended extent. (I’ve heard Reformed Baptist apologist James White illustrate this concept by speaking of a person who wants to gain some information about the headlights on his car; if there is a section in the owner’s manual about the headlights, then it would make no sense for the owner to skip this section and turn throughout the manual in order to see if anything can be implied about the headlights from other sections.)

The above objection to Driscoll’s use of 1 Timothy 4:10 may seem to be irrelevant in regards to 2 Peter 2:1; after all, doesn’t 2 Peter 2:1 speak of the Master buying people? The term “bought” in this passage may lead Christians to immediately think of the work of Christ on the Cross. But is this association necessarily correct? When a Christian reads the word “justified” in the New Testament, he or she may automatically think of “justification” in the sense of obtaining unto a right relationship with God. But then consider James 2:24- “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (NIV). If one does not realize from the context that “justified” is being used in a different sense than with the soteriological definition mentioned above, then one would be led by James 2:24 to deny the Reformation doctrine of sola fide.

In his article, “2 Peter 2:1 and Universal Redemption,” Simon Escobedo III does an in-depth analysis of the term “bought” (Gk. agorazo), and concludes that in this context the word “bought” should not be taken as a reference to the atonement. Escobedo summarizes his findings:

… in the thirty New Testament occurrences, where the Greek term agorazo is used, only five texts are clearly and indisputably redemptive (2 Peter 2:1 being the lone exception). Furthermore, in these five instances, there are seemingly three undeniable contingencies or features that strengthen the redemptive contexts. Namely, a) the purchase price or its equivalent is stated in the text (i.e., the blood, the Lamb; cf., 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; and Rev. 5:9), or the purchase price is implicit in the immediate context (Rev. 14:3, 4); b) redemptive markers or language is used, and b) in every case the context is restrictive to believers (cf. 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; 5:9; and 14:3, 4). None of these features or contingencies are to be found in 2 Peter 2:1.

I strongly recommend that readers consider Escobedo’s entire analysis, as linked above. If he is correct, then this is another example of Driscoll using a passage that is not about the atonement in order to promote a specific view of the atonement.

[For a positive presentation of what 2 Peter 2:1 means in its context, I would point readers to the first paragraph of page 600 in the 1994 edition of Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, which page may be viewed on-line HERE.]

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