Question: "What is Amyraldism / Four-Point Calvinism?"
Answer: Amyraldism is an off-shoot of Calvinistic theology (sometimes called “4-point Calvinism” or “moderate Calvinism”). It is named after its creator, Moses Amyraut, a 16th-century French theologian, who was influential in the development of the doctrine of “hypothetical redemption” or “hypothetical universalism.” This doctrine, in essence, softens the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement. In order to better understand Amyraldism, it might be beneficial to recap what Calvinism is.
Classic Calvinism centers on the so-called five points of Calvinism. It should be noted that Calvinism isn’t limited to just five points, nor was it the invention of John Calvin. Rather, Calvin put together his system of five points from the clear doctrines of Scripture. The five points of Calvinism were responses by the Dutch Reformed Church to Arminianism, another five-point system which was developed by Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), a Dutch theologian. The five points of Calvinism are summarized below:
1. Total Depravity – Man, in his fallen state, is completely incapable of doing any good that is acceptable to God.
2. Unconditional Election – As a result of man’s total depravity, he is unable (and unwilling) to come to God for salvation. Therefore, God must sovereignly choose those who will be saved. His decision to elect individuals for salvation is unconditional. It is not based on anything in man, but solely on God’s grace.
3. Limited Atonement – In order to save those whom God has unconditionally elected, atonement for their sin must be made. God the Father sends His Son, Jesus Christ, to atone for the sins of the elect and secure their pardon by His death on the cross.
4. Irresistible Grace – The Holy Spirit applies the finished work of salvation to the elect in "space and time" by irresistibly drawing them to faith and repentance. This saving call of the Holy Spirit (not to be confused with the general call to preach the gospel to all people) cannot be resisted and is referred to as an efficacious call.
5. Perseverance of the Saints – Those whom God has elected, atoned for and efficaciously called are preserved in faith until the last day. They will never fall away because God has secured them with the seal of the Holy Spirit. The saints persevere because God preserves them.
As mentioned earlier, the particular point that Amyraldism takes issue with is the third point, limited atonement. Amyraldism replaces it with the concept of "hypothetical universalism," which in essence asserts that Christ died for the sins of all people, but because God knew that not all would respond (due to man’s total depravity, to which Amyraldians do hold), He elected some to whom He would impart saving faith. By doing this, Amyraldism avoids some of the problems that limited atonement raises, while at the same time, preserves the doctrine of unconditional election.
This places Amyraldism somewhere between Calvinism and Arminianism when it comes to the extent of the atonement. Calvinism teaches that the extent of the atonement is limited to the elect only; Christ’s death on the cross makes salvation a reality for the elect. Arminianism teaches that the extent of the atonement is unlimited and available to all; Christ’s death on the cross makes salvation possible to all and man must exercise faith to make salvation actual. Amyraldism says that Christ died for all men, but God only applies this salvation to those whom He has chosen. This is very similar to a view that is circulating in some Calvinistic circles called unlimited/limited atonement.
However, in attempting to resolve some of the apparent problems that limited atonement presents – namely, the biblical passages that teach Christ died for all men (John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 2:2 to name a few) – the Amyraldians create larger problems that require resolution. The same objection that can be applied to Arminianism regarding the extent of the atonement can also be applied to Amyraldism. If Christ died for all men as it says in 1 John 2:2, then we have a problem; namely, there are people in hell right now who have had their sins atoned for. The Arminian would respond by saying that they didn’t activate their salvation by believing in Christ, and the Amyraldian would respond by saying that God didn’t elect them. Yet, that does nothing to resolve the dilemma. Whether or not they responded in faith or God elected them, their sins have been atoned for and they should not be in hell! If Christ died for my sins, then my believing it or not believing it doesn’t make it any less true. If my sin debt has been paid, then I should go to heaven, not hell where I will pay for the same debt for eternity. In fact, Amyraldism makes things worse than Arminianism because it posits God passing over people for whom Christ died.
Without going into a detailed exegesis of 1 John 2:2, the apparent contradiction between what some think that verse means and the doctrine of limited atonement can be easily resolved by looking at the context of the verse. John writes:
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2 ESV).
It is clear from the context that John is writing to a group of believers (“My little children”). John is telling his believing readers that a life of continual sin is incompatible with being a Christian. Yet if someone does sin, we have an Advocate who stands in our defense before the bar of God’s justice. He was the atoning sacrifice for our sin, but not ours only but also the whole world. In other words, the extent of Christ’s saving work isn’t only applicable to John’s readers, but is a message for the whole world! Christ not only died to save God’s remnant amongst the Jews, but His elect throughout the whole world. God’s elect people are chosen “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). As Jesus said, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16).
Another thing to note is that John says that Christ is the propitiation for our sins. In other words, Christ actually atoned for the sins of John and his readers; it is a statement of fact. John then applies this actual atonement not only for his readers, but the whole world. The Arminians say that the atonement didn’t actually save anyone, but makes all men savable. Yet that’s not what John is saying. He is referring to an actual atonement, not a potential atonement. It would be hermeneutically incorrect to go from an actual atonement to a potential atonement in the same sentence. On the other hand, as noted earlier, the Amyraldian claims that God actually atoned for the whole world, but only applies it to the elect, to which we would argue that God is sending people to hell whose sins have been atoned for.
In conclusion, Amyraldism seeks to modify some of the "harsh" conclusions of the Calvinist position, but as we have seen, it raises much more serious questions than it attempts to answer. The five points of Calvinism are links in a chain that put forth a strong biblical case that God is completely sovereign in salvation. The act of saving a people unto Himself is a testament to God’s grace and mercy and displays His glory in a unique way.
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