Romans 8:32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?
The following is an outline of a response to the common form of modus tollens argument for limited atonement. This form of the argument is a standard argument in limited atonement literature, from John Owen’s Death of Death, to John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied, even to the recent work Pierced for our Transgressions.
This outline takes up one set of responses to the modus tollens argument. It does not attempt to address every relevant issue, permutation or form of possible rebuttal or possible counter. What it does is assume the standard form of the argument, unpack its inner logic and assumptions, and then critiques it.
For the purposes of this outline, I will use the terms and phrases, “delivered up” and “died for” as functionally equivalent. By “limited atonement” I define and use in this sense, that only the sins of the elect were imputed to Christ.
The name for Paul’s argument is called an a fortiori argument. To establish a case for limited atonement, this argument is first converted into a modus ponens syllogism and then into a modus tollens syllogism.
Firstly, logical syllogisms, seeking to obtain necessary conclusions, only work by using universal descriptors, all or none, etc, in the major premise. No necessary and/or universal conclusion can be obtained by use of terms like, we, some, us, our, you, them, etc.1
The problem is that the major premise as alleged from Romans 8:32, only says, by way of paraphrase: ‘Us… for whom Christ was delivered (ie., died), will be given all things…’
Who are the us? If the us refers to believers as I would argue it does, then no negation or argument can be formed regarding all those outside of the class “us.” Even if the us is the elect as a total class, the same holds good. This is the first exegetical hurdle the limited atonement proponent has to get over.
Proponents of the modus tollens argument for limited atonement, want to insert an assumption into Paul’s meaning in order to get to the needed “universal” referent into the major premise. In logic, this is called smuggling in a premise or assumption. Here they have hastily converted the “us” into “all” or “anyone.”
This form of their argument then comes to this:
“Anyone (ie., all) for whom Christ dies, will infallibly be given salvation…”
An initial response would be: How do they know that? The text only speaks to believers or the elect (whoever the us are). Like this: ‘We believers/elect, who have been given Christ, how much more will we believers/elect be given all things…’
Limited atonement advocates have inserted a logical parameter which is not in the original text, and for which there is no exegetical justification.
Furthermore, “for,” can mean, “to die in the place of, to bear the sins of,” or it can mean, “to die for some benefit of.” And as the phrase “to die for” also speaks to intention. In terms of what we can be know from the text, there are two possible options. Paul may be addressing Christ’s dying for the elect, with an elective intention, which is one possible reading. Or, Paul may be referring to Christ’s dying for believers, specifically, in order to assure them that their salvation is infallibly secure. However, Romans 8:32, alone, does not preclude Christ dying for others with a non-elective (though salvific in some sense) intention, exactly because the actual referent is restricted to “us.” It says nothing about what Christ may or not have done for others. If these facts are allowed, Paul cannot be read as denying any other sense or divine intention behind Christ’s death. Thus standard modos tollens argument for limited atonement is completely inadequate to deal with these nuances.
Now to set out and address the syllogistic forms of both arguments.
If A then B.
If A holds, then B has to follow, it cannot fail to follow.
So the theological-logical argument:
Premise 1: All for whom Christ died will infallibly be given complete salvation.
Premise 2: Christ died for John.
Conclusion 3: Therefore John will infallibly be given complete salvation.
This only works if there is a universal term in the major premise, and of course if its sound (true)
Now the direct argument for limited atonement, based on the alleged soundness of the previous modus ponens.
If A, then B.
Therefore not A.
Premise 1: All for whom Christ died will infallibly be given complete salvation.
Premise 2: Peter was not given complete salvation.
Conclusion 3: Therefore Christ did not die for Peter.
That’s the argument more formally stated, though less technically for sure.
The point is, allegedly, if there is a man who does not obtain complete salvation, then Christ never died for that man: ergo, the atonement is limited to only those who are completely saved, namely, the elect.
Keep in mind, however, that the modus tollen argument can only work by illegitimately converting “us” in “all” or “anyone.”
Let me now state the argument and its problems by way of an analogy.
Jack is the executive research director of a large university library. Mike, Peter and Charles, all work for Jack; along with dozens of others.
It happens that on a given day, Jack has given Mike and Peter a key to his executive office, which contains his massive personal library, his rare book collection, and his online databases, etc. While in Jack’s office, Mike and Peter say to themselves, “Surely, if Jack has given us the key to his office and research rooms, much more will he give us the second key to his executive washroom?”
Let us assume that we know Jack would give the second key because he is a good guy.
Some questions then have to be asked.
1) Can we infer that Charles was not, never was, nor will ever be given the key to the office?
2) Can we infer that even if Charles was also given the key to the office, it could not fail that he was also given the key to the executive director’s washroom?
1) should be obvious. But what about 2)?
What if we borrow some Marrow Divinity language, and see the “key” as an objective gift (albeit for temporary use, for sure). Jack did also give Charles the first key. However, Charles, in his class pride and resentment (he is a closet French Marxist) decides never to use it, never to access the room? Indeed, he resents the gift entirely.
Is it reasonable to assume that its possible for a man to be given the first key, and never receive the second? Yes.
So what is happening? In my analogy, there are unstated assumptions and conditions. For example, Mike and Peter may need to ask for the second key, or they must first be in need of the second key, or they must first be in the office in the first place (or a combination of any or all of the above). Such conditional premises being unstated, but assumed, are called an enthymematic premises. This enthymematic premise could almost be anything. Perhaps Jack has such a special and high regard for Mike and Peter? Perhaps Jack has a special intent and purpose for Mike and Peter? Who knows.
As for Charles, we have no knowledge of what Jack may have done or not done in his regard, or of any other possible design or plan Jack may have concerning Charles.
Any form of an a fortiori argument, as analogy or comparable statement, that uses simple pronouns such as, he, she, I, we, you, our, us, they, them, etc, will suffer the same limitations.
We can also look at the problem from another angle. In an earlier version of this same form of argument, Paul inserts the unstated extra premise.
Romans 5:8: But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
So now the modus ponens form looks like this:
If A and B, then C
1) If Christ died for us
2) if we have been justified
3) therefore we will be given complete salvation.
For Paul’s a fortiori argument to work, both conditions have to be met, Christ dying for us, and that we have now been justified.
Roms 8:32, it seems obvious to me that the second premise is already assumed, because he is writing to believers, and in the context of the chapter, he makes gobs of predications about a class which can only apply to believers (which is not exactly the same in Romans 5).
Converting the argument from Romans 8:32 into a modus ponens form, it might look like this:
1) If God has given us Christ
2) If we have been called and justified according to his purpose (v30),
3) Therefore we will be given complete salvation.
I would say that this, indeed, was the intent of Paul. His aim was to reinforce the very argument he has previously used, but now with different terms and descriptors. The key point is, only if both conditions are met, can the conclusion not fail to follow. That is, it may be possible for Christ to have been “delivered up” (Marrow Divinity) for a man, and yet that man fail to obtain complete salvation. There is nothing in Romans 8:32 to preclude this possibility.
The modus tollens form of the argument might look something like this:
If A and B, then C.
Therefore not A and B.
That is, we could know this much, that if a man is not given complete salvation in Christ, then Christ inseparably with calling and justification were not given to him. The second premise is either enthymematic or implied by the immediate context. The true form of any Romans 8:32 based modus tollens argument could not preclude the possibility that a man could be given Christ (for example, in terms of Marrow Divinity), yet not called and justified, and therefore never obtain complete salvation. In short, Romans 8:32 cannot preclude the possibility that a person may have A, and yet not B, and so never obtain C.
To wrap this up.
1) It is not possible to obtain universal or necessary negations or affirmations from undistributed terms such as, I, you, us, we, they, them. The modus tollens argument based on Romans 8:32 immediately falls apart on this single point. Looked at from the exegetical stand-point, the argument has engaged in eisegesis, or more accurately, bad exegesis. It is exegetically impossible to sustain.
2) The more probable reading of Paul in Romans 8:32 is that he is restating his earlier argument in a less formal manner, such that his point is that, because Christ has been delivered up for us, we who have been called and justified according to his purpose, he will surely give us all things; that is, we cannot fail to obtain complete and final salvation. Therefore no inference can be made about the extent of the satisfaction, or for whom Christ did die, or may have died for in any other sense or with any other intentionality. No class negation or exclusion can be inferred regarding other possible divine intents or possible referents for the death of Christ in any other sense.
Unfortunately, I well suspect that many limited atonement advocates will suddenly reject the proper rules of logical inference in this matter, while still attempting to clutch on to the conclusions of their invalid logic.
Supporting arguments and documentation:
1) The subjects in Romans 8 respects believers. If the text is read, the highlighted words make it clear that Paul has believers in mind, not the elect qua elect, that is, including yet-to-exist elect, or living yet unbelieving elect.
Romans 8:1 Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6 For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. 10 If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. 12 So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh– 13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. 15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. 24 For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. 26 In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; 27 and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; 30 and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? 33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; 34 who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 Just as it is written, “FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.” 37 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The proper subjects of most of these predications are believers. For it is true, no matter what our “system” may want to say, that the living unbelieving elect are indeed separated from the love of God [the love expressed as one is in union with Christ], and under the condemnation of the law. When Paul does refer to the third person, he clearly means elect as they stand justified and as believers. For example, “who will bring charge against God’s elect?” can only be true of the believing and justified elect person, not of the living unbelieving elect, who are still under the condemnation of the law.2 Thus, when Paul speaks of the “elect” he means elect qua faithful and justified. Many Calvinists fixate on the word elect, and assume Paul can only mean elect as a total class, past present, future, existing, non-existing, unbelieving as well as believing.
2) What exactly does Paul mean by the phrase “with him”? Does he mean those united to Christ? If so, then this is the second premise made explicit and if so, the limited atonement argument based on this verse immediately falls apart.
3) The import of the “us all” and the “us,” in v32? Charles Hodge in his commentary on this passage, concedes that there is nothing in the context to necessarily limit the “us all.” He is exactly correct. It is apparent that Calvin and others understood the “us all” as all mankind.3 Why does Paul first speak of “us all” and then follow up with the simpler expression, “us”? It may be that Paul seeks to broaden his categories to be inclusive of all mankind. This may be the point of the use of the first “us all” followed up by a simple, “us.” If this is correct, does it change anything? No. Would Paul, then, be teaching absolute universal salvation? No. For the logic of would still hold: If A and B, then C. The form of the argument would look something like this: If Christ was delivered up for all mankind, how much more would God give us, who now believe (called and justified), all things. Indeed, for the same reason, even the Arminian should find the limited atonement argument here uncompelling, so say the least. No Arminian should ever feel the need to think that simply considered, if Christ died for a man, that man must be saved. There is no either/or dilemma as the limited atonement proponent supposes, as the referents in Romans 8:32b are clearly believers in some sense.
What is more, even if “us all” and “us” refers to the elect as a class, the point holds good, that there is no valid argument for limited atonement here, because Paul is not positing this simple form an argument, if A, simply considered, then B. Nor could anyone rightly infer that Christ was not delivered up, in any sense (eg., Marrow Divinity), for any other class. Reading “us all” and “us” as the elect, the argument would look something like this: If Christ was delivered up for all of us elect, how much more will be give us, all the elect, all things.
Again, there is no proof for a category negation, namely “Christ was delivered up only for the elect.” The assertion, while it still could be true, the limited atonement proponent needs to obtain this negation from some other biblical passage or argument as it not an inference obtainable from Romans 8:32.
Thus, Paul in Romans 8:32 is not making any statement about a limitation in the extent of the satisfaction, that it is limited to the elect alone.
For myself, I while I lean to “us all” referencing all believers, I can see no in principle or textual reason to believe that “all mankind” must be excluded. For my argument, all that is necessary is that the second “us” refers to believers, of which all sides must say it at least includes.
Comments, questions, corrections or challenges welcome.
Some men are mortal
Aristotle is a man.
Therefore Aristotle is mortal
The conclusion does not follow. Or:
We men are mortal.
Aristotle is a man.
Therefore Aristotle is mortal.
A necessary conclusion can only be obtained if the major premise contains a universal descriptor.
2To deny this must entail eternal or pre-faith justification.