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A View from the Altar / When all means all
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When all means all

The doctrine of the limited atonement is not based on hermeneutics.  But since our Calvinist friends do believe the Bible, they must bump against hermeneutics at some point.  When they do, the collisions happen – – a lot – – and that requires some resourceful wresting of word meanings.  The most common claim in defense of the limited atonement is that the term “all” seldom means absolutely all. When the Bible says Christ died for all, so goes the argument, it really means he died for all the elect.

And who could argue with that?  For Christ most assuredly did die for all the elect.  The question, though, is whether he died for anybody else.

To address the “all” argument, I note that it’s certainly true that words sometimes are used in an unusual sense.  A kid complaining about his teacher might say that she picks on him “all the time,” meaning often.  See? asks the Calvinist, all doesn’t mean all.  The teacher complaining about the same kid might say he “never” does his homework, meaning seldom.

But aside from hyperbolic uses like these, there are occasions when words do mean just what they say.  For example, Paul says “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” and by this he means all men.  Go find a human, and you’ll discover a sinner at the same time.  Isaiah reports that “all we like sheep have gone astray,” meaning that everybody has wandered off the reservation at some time.  Now consider the following text where “all” appears in a string of uses:

First Timothy 2:1 I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; 2 For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. 3 For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; 4 Who will have all men to be saved , and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; 6 Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.

Note the underlined occurrences* of “all.”
– – We should pray for all men.
– – We should pray for all who are in authority.
– – God wants all men saved.
– – Christ died as the ransom for all men.

The most straight-ahead, literary, uncomplicated reading of the text is that Paul was using “all” in its unrestricted, universal sense each time. We pray for everybody, and that’s connected in the mind of God with the fact that Jesus died for everybody.

The Calvinist’s insistence that the occurrences of “all” in verses 4 and 6 refer to “all the elect” just doesn’t fit the intent of the text.  It’s as if Paul said, “Pray for everyone and for people in authority.  God is pleased when we do this, even though Christ’s death means nothing to most of the people you’re praying for.”  If that’s true, then why pray for them?  Is it only because we want heathen potentates to leave us alone, or is it not, as Paul says here, because God wants them all to know the truth?

otherbrothersteve@gmail.com

*The first occurrence of “all” is in the phrase, “first of all.”  Here it’s an idiomatic use which means the writer is about to give us a list of things.  It tells us nothing about the other occurrences in the passage where we have to decide whether “all” designates the entire set of humans or merely a special subset of them.

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