A Critical Review of “He Died for Me: Limited Atonement & the Universal Gospel” (part 3 of 7)

by | Aug 7, 2017 | Book Reviews, Reformed Theology, Uncategorized

part 1, part 2

Johnson, Jeffrey. He Died for Me: Limited Atonement & the Universal Gospel. Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2017.  201 pp.

Critical Evaluation (Continued)


An extremely disappointing aspect of He Died for Me was Johnson’s exegesis, or rather, the lack thereof.  For instance, under the heading The Exegetical Argument for Universal Sufficiency, he states: “Though every proof text will be highly contested, such as 1 Timothy 2:4–6, Hebrews 2:9–10, and 1 John 2:2, I’m not sure how much closer the apostle Paul could have been in making a distinction between sufficiency and efficacy when he claimed that Christ “is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10)” (130). But he does not provide any exegesis for any of these passages.

Instead, Johnson makes the claim that the purpose for the illustration of the brass serpent was to explain how Christ can be the Savior of all people (129, 130), claims that high Calvinists must explain why such terms as all and world do not mean all people (130), and then states that they typically do so by building a case that restricts all and world to the elect (131).  Then he moves on to John 3:15-21.  After a short discussion of why he believes that world in John 3:16 cannot mean the elect alone, he comes to this conclusion: “Both those who hear and believe and those who hear and do not believe have one thing in common—they both heard the universal offer of the gospel. And if they both (believers and unbelievers) heard the offer, it strongly suggests that they both are included in the ‘world’ of the ‘whosoever.’”

Much stands against Johnson’s seemingly assumed interpretations of the four passages he listed.  The limitation of the universal language in these passages is not something artificially imposed by high Calvinists.  Louis Berkhof, whom Johnson repeatedly claims as a moderate Calvinist,[1] provides solid exegetical arguments for the limited nature of the universal language in each of them in his Systematic Theology. [2]  And he does not do so by merely equating the world with the elect.  And John Calvin, Johnson’s most quoted moderate Calvinist, would take issue with him on both 1 Timothy 4:10 and 1 John 2:2.

Calvin was far from regarding 1 Timothy 4:10 as proof of sufficiency for all men but efficacy only for the elect.  He did not think the term Savior should be taken in the sense of eternal salvation:

To make this more clear, it ought to be understood that this is an argument drawn from the less to the greater; for the word soter is here a general term, and denotes one Who defends and preserves. He means that the kindness of God extends to all men. And if there is no man who does not feel the goodness of God towards him, and who is not a partaker of it, how much more shall it be experienced by the godly, who hope in him? [3]

And in reference to 1 John 2:2, Calvin explicitly denies that the Lombardian Formula is suitable to the passage, but declares, “under the word all or whole, he does not include the reprobate, but designates those who should believe as well as those who were then scattered through various parts of the world. For then is really made evident, as it is meet, the grace of Christ, when it is declared to be the only true salvation of the world.” [4]

I do not know which surprised me more: that he included Hebrews 2:9-10 when the context so clearly indicates that the everyone for whom Christ tasted death was every one of His brethren, or the fact that he seemed to equate the whosoever of John 3:16 with the world of John 3:16.  The phrase translated “whoever believes” is more literally rendered “every believing one” or “every believer” and therefore cannot be a reference to the reprobate as well as the elect or a reference to the world in general.  The final exegetical issue that I will mention comes from another section of the book.  First Corinthians 15:3, according to Johnson, “implies that Paul had no problem telling everyone that ‘Christ died for our sins” (113).  Paul is not speaking to unbelievers in this passage, but rather to the church for whom Christ died.  There is no reason to assume that Paul was here giving a direct quote of the words he used in preaching the gospel to unbelievers.  The fact that there is not one example in any of the Gospels or the book of Acts of anyone telling unbelievers that Christ died for them strongly suggests that this is not the proper interpretation.

Continue to part 4.

[1] While I do not fully reject Johnson’s division of Calvinists into Hyper, High, Moderate, & Low, I’m not sure how helpful it really is, and it definitely seems as if his reasoning for declaring some to be Moderate is a bit arbitrary.

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1939; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 395-98.

[3] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 21, Commentaries on The Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (Edinburgh, Scotland: Calvin Translation Society; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2009), 112.

[4] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 22, Commentaries on The Catholic Epistles (Edinburgh, Scotland: Calvin Translation Society; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 173.

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