One of the most common arguments for what is popularly called limited atonement is the argument that it is either the case that Christ died to merely make men savable, or to effectually save some (as opposed to all). However, we know that it is true that Christ so died as to effectually save his elect, and as it turns out, only these ones are finally saved. Thus the first proposition has to be false.
But before we get too far into this, I need to be clear on something important. By “limited atonement” I mean by that, the idea that Christ sustained a penal relationship only with the elect, he bore the condemnation due only to their sins, etc. The issue is not the effectual intent of the expiation, but its intrinsic nature and extent. With that aside…
The standard form of the argument goes like this:
Its either A or B.
This form of syllogism can be a sound line of argument, if and only if, there are only two alternatives, ie, if there is no tertius quid.
Stated in conversational English, the argument works like this. Either Christ died for all merely and only to make it possible for God to save all, or he died with an effectual intention to save some only. The argument assumes that both cannot be true. First the proponent of this dilemma will cite Scripture which speaks to Christ intentionally and effectually saving some. This then establishes B. Next, the proponent will claim that A cannot be true.
Now this line of argument might work against some wings of Evangelical Christianity who may say that Christ died for all exactly equally, and in no way for any with a discriminating effectual intentionality.
However, in terms of responding to the classic and moderate Calvinist position, this “dilemma” is just a false dilemma. For us, it is simply a false either/or fallacy.
For the classic and moderate Calvinist, it is not a case of either/or but of both-and. The only thing we do need to do is remove from the first proposition the idea of “merely” or “only,” that, it is either that “Christ only died to make men savable.” With that qualification, I think Nathaneal Hardy’s following comments well explode the false dilemma fallacy:
In regard of Christ, the certain continuance of all the true members of the church depends upon the energy of his death, and the efficacy of his intercession.
[l.] Though the design of Christ’s death was in some respect general, namely, to purchase a possibility of salvation for all upon the conditions of faith and repentance, yet I doubt not to assert, that besides this there was a particular design of his death, which was to purchase a certainty of salvation by faith and repentance for some, to wit, the elect, this being the most rational way of reconciling those scriptures which do enlarge Christ’s death to the whole world, with those that restrain it to his church. Indeed, if there be not some who shall be actually saved by Christ’s death, his death will be in vain. If there be not some for whom Christ hath purchased more than a possibility of salvation upon condition, it is possible none should be actually saved by it, especially if (as those who deny this peculiar intention affirm) the performing of the condition depends so on the liberty of our will, that notwithstanding the influence of grace a man may choose or refuse to do it; for then it is as possible that every man may not believe as that he may, and consequently it is possible no man may be saved by Christ’s death, and so Christ’s death in vain, as to that which was its primary end, and consequently his intention frustrated. It remaineth, then, that as Christ intended his death to be sufficient for all, so that it might be efficient to some, in order to which it was necessary that for those persons he should purchase grace, yea, not only grace, but perseverance in grace till they come to glory.
Nathanael Hardy, The First General Epistle of St John the Apostle, Unfolded and Applied (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1865), 312.
Sometimes I see responses to the classic and moderate position which just remind me of the Bahnsen-Stein debate. Recall in this debate, Stein approached the debate with arguments that Bahnsen both himself would have repudiated and would have considered outmoded. It is as if Stein was not “up to date” in his counter-apologetic. The lesson was, he did not truly know his opponent, or his opponent’s position. Likewise, when folk table this argument against the classic-moderate position, it’s as if they are using outmoded and irrelevant arguments against an opponent, whose position they seem clueless about.