I recently read this statement by a prominent Reformed Presbyterian preacher:
“Jesus suffered the wrath of the Father only for the elect, not for all sinners.”
This is, of course, the common teaching of many evangelical Christians who espouse a “systematic theology” predicated upon the doctrinal innovations of John Calvin and the theological errors spawned by the Protestant Reformation. The theology behind this single statement is deeply flawed on many levels, but I will simply try to summarize the main heresies that are implicit within.
In my former Evangelical days, I too once embraced these erroneous ideas of “limited atonement” and “penal substitution.” But now I cringe when I encounter such gross distortions of the holy gospel and the life giving Cross. Thank God for the truth of apostolic Teaching that set me straight. You see, the apostles, the ones who actually walked with Christ and wrote the gospels and the epistles, well their theology is actually a bit more reliable than Martin Luther's, John Calvin's, or any other “Reformed” theologian’s.
Now, I want to be fair to my Reformed Protestant friends. I realize that their soteriological doctrines stem from a sincere desire to attribute all glory to God and none to themselves. But sometimes the noblest intentions lead to the worst mistakes. And rather than bringing glory to God and elevating the Cross, the theology of Calvinism perverts the divine nature and distorts the message of Calvary.
The wonderful truth is that Our Lord died for all people, not just some. (St. John 3:16) This is the clear Teaching of the apostolic Church. To assert that Christ died only for the elect is to assert that God pre-ordained some men to hell and some to heaven. That is blasphemy, for our loving God would never create human beings in His image and then condemn them to an everlasting hell against their wills. Such a god would be a monstrous god, and any theology that teaches that human beings are divinely destined to eternal torment is a dark and hopeless theology. In fact, it would be wrong to call it “theology” at all. God has nothing to do with such a fatalistic mortal philosophy.
All men bear the image of God, and therefore all men are worth redeeming - not because of our own meritorious righteousness, but because we are the very image of God. And God’s image is not “totally depraved.” God’s image is indelibly imprinted upon all human beings. To accurse the image of God as “worthless” and “utterly damnable” is to blasphemously malign His creation. St. Paul writes: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before appointed that we should walk in them.” [Ephesians 2:10] Do we suppose that St. Paul means that only some people are the workmanship of God, but others are not? Do we suppose that St. Paul contradicts the words of Moses who wrote: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” [Genesis 1:27]
God looked upon His image and saw our fallen state. He saw our sorrow, our sin, and our despair. He saw that mankind, who was created to love Him, was wandering in darkness and succumbing to evil. And God’s divine love compelled Him to become a man and suffer and die so that man would be compelled to come to Him.
God created us with free will, and the volitional component of man has remained with us even after the fall. Our free will has certainly been affected by sin, but it has not been negated. The Bible contains hyperbole, and St. Paul’s expression "dead in our trespasses and sins” [Ephesians 2:1] is a hyperbolic statement to emphasize how much we need the grace and mercy of God to redeem us and give us new life through the Cross.
God loves all the world, all people, all of creation. God the Father is not separated from God the Son. To teach that the Son had to appease the wrath of the Father is heretical theology, for it pits God against Himself and does violence to the essential Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. No man can come to God apart from the grace of God, and yet every man must choose to accept God's saving grace by an act of their own volition. It's called a paradox, and the Christian Faith is full of such divine tensions. And I thank God for these holy antinomies, for they have liberated me from the narrow and suffocating confines of systematic heterodoxy. Our eternal God cannot be contained by mortal rationales, and He will not be reduced to human legalisms.
The Orthodox Church has retained the apostolic Faith for 2,000 years. I hate to argue with my dear Protestant brothers, but when it comes to heresies that undermine the nature of God and corrupt the glory of the Cross, then I am obligated to refute them with sound apostolic doctrine. It doesn't matter what I think or what any Protestant preacher thinks. In fact, it really doesn’t matter what any individual person thinks. “The Church is the foundation and pillar of truth” [I Timothy 3:15], and “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of any private interpretation.” [II Peter 1:20] So the only doctrine, teaching, or opinion that matters is the doctrine, teaching, and opinion of the apostolic Church – that Church which is the guardian and repository of “the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints.” [Jude 3]
Divine truth is both convicting and comforting. And the good news of the Gospel is the greatest truth there is. But if God created human beings and destined them to hell against their wills, then the Gospel is not good news at all; in fact, it’s nothing more than a cruel joke created by a capricious deity. But the good news is that Christ has saved the entire world. (St. John 3:16) Whosoever will may come and partake of the joy of salvation. (Cf. Rev. 22:17) It is freely and abundantly offered to all. But God will not force His will on any man. We must accept His gift of free will and choose to follow Him or deny Him. And following Christ is not a single, momentary decision; salvation is a long and narrow road, and we must carry our own cross along the way. (Cf. St. Matthew 7:13-14) And yet, the Lord is our Shepherd, and He alone preserves, protects, and saves us.
Throughout the Bible we see the synergistic nature of salvation. God saved Noah, but Noah had to labor for years to build the Ark. God saved the Israelites from Pharaoh’s bondage, but the Israelites had to follow Moses on the arduous road of the exodus. Christ has saved us by His Cross, and yet we must take up our own cross and follow Him. (St. Luke 9:23) Those who are busy “working out their own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) have no thought that they are “earning their way to heaven.” They are too preoccupied with clinging to Christ, repenting when they sin, pleading His unfailing mercy, and bathing in His unconditional love. Those who carry their cross are so busy struggling that they have no time to keep a record of their virtues. And those consumed with the love of Christ are not consumed with a record of their sins.
God loves mankind! This is a simple and glorious truth. He loves us so much that He became a man and suffered and died to redeem us. God forbid that we should denigrate the Cross and disparage the love of God by limiting His atonement and proclaiming that God the Father was at enmity with God the Son.
The Cross is eternally vertical and infinitely horizontal. The limits of sin, guilt, death and despair are vanquished in its limitless shadow. The atonement is the ultimate expression of divine love - and His love cannot be confined, contained, controlled, or limited.
Thank God! Thank God! Thank God for the Cross!
[If I have erred in anything I have stated here or in how I have stated it, I submit my words to the correction of Orthodox Teaching and Tradition.]
Gebre Menfes Kidus