For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Heb. 2:16, ESV
It’s often said in Reformed circles that everyone is born Pelagian, and by extension Arminian. If that’s the default starting point, Reformed theology is something a person reaches over time, when he/she begin to understand that God doesn’t do things like I would do if I were God. This is an understanding that comes from, at least in my case and the case of many more like me, the study of the Scriptures first, and secondarily the refreshing discovery that we are not alone in our understanding of the Bible’s portrayal of the sovereign grace of God.
But admittedly, until the sweetness of these doctrines washes over like a mixture of refreshing wave and ocean tsunami, the doctrines of grace, as they’re called, or TULIP for short, can be a rather tough pill to swallow, especially to those who don’t understand them well. They seem to portray a God who seems rather unbothered by trampling all over the free will of man (though somehow, mysteriously, leaving it intact enough to judge one for his deeds!), who appears to arbitrarily or randomly choose to save some, but not all, and by implication then chooses not to save certain people. Commonly going one logical misstep further, (and this is nothing but a straw man, because none of the Reformed I know believe this) it would seem that it is not Jesus who is found standing at the door and knocking, but rather the non-elect standing at the door of heaven desperately knocking, pleading for forgiveness and mercy, only to find it barred, locked, and sealed shut against them; they are not among the elect, so they can just forget it, they’re without hope, and the doors of salvation are sealed against them, while at the same time, those who would rather not be followers of Jesus are mysteriously sucked up into the glories of heaven kicking and screaming against their will.
The bitterest pill of all the 5 points, is undoubtedly the ‘L’ of the Reformed flower, that doctrine of Limited Atonement. I know (and love, I would add!) many self-professed 4 point Calvinists, some 3 pointers, and even a few 3-1/2 pointers. Of all the “less than 5’s,” the one point universally dropped is this tenet called Limited Atonement, which in simple terms means Jesus died and atoned for only the sins of those who believe and receive eternal life. It’s the idea that the atonement does not apply to all, but only the elect. It’s admittedly a bitter pill on its face, and especially difficult on an emotional level. After all, who among us could imagine that if we had the power, we would purchase eternal life for some but not others, even when providing it to all is hardly more trouble than just providing it for some? It makes God seem so, well, monstrous. The reaction is often violent, figuratively if not literally (and by “literally,” think of the last time this came up in an adult Sunday School class! Calvinism never fails to stir up strong feelings in such a setting).
I’m the first to admit that unless there can be a good textual and logical argument for this doctrine, it will hardly stand on the basis of emotional appeal, because, well, it has none, especially in Western culture. Fairness, equality, and (carefully regulated and proportioned) diversity are the supreme moral standards of the day, and the “L” flies in the face of all of them, leaving us with a rather immoral God, culturally speaking.
The logical arguments for limited atonement have been well made by others, but I think the textual argument is ultimately the only real argument, and without dealing with the texts that sound like universal or unlimited atonement (a good place to begin with far greater writers than me on the subject is here), I want to offer up the text that has helped me most in understanding this doctrine, Hebrews 2:16, which says, “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.”
In this sense every Christian I know, from 0 pointers to 5 pointers, believes in limited atonement: we understand that God saves no angels. There are two classes of morally responsible creatures, angels and humans. So far as I understand, no dogs (and unfortunately no cats!) will burn in hell for sins committed against their Creator. But at least a third of the angels, and unless I miss my guess, an overwhelming percentage of humans will find themselves cast into the lake of fire for all eternity.
There are many, but here is one major difference between men and angels: God has provided a means by which men may be redeemed and the judgment for their sin cast upon a substitute, but He has provided no such means for angels. Every angel that followed Lucifer’s rebellion is forever damned. Not every human that followed Adam’s rebellion (and all of us followed in it, by nature) is eternally damned. God helps humanity; He has sent His Son to atone for the sins of at least some. But God doesn’t help angels. They stand or fall on their own merit. Those fallen cannot revert to their position of favor. In short, angels have no Savior. Jesus died for exactly zero angels.
Now here’s where this verse helps my emotional reaction to the “L”. In regards to people, it seems ridiculously unfair and even bordering on unjust to think that Jesus didn’t pay for all sins but only some (hence the term “limited”). However, I’m actually ok with all the demons going through life without a Savior and then frying for all eternity. I’m not that emotionally aroused by their lack of a perfect substitute. After all, the only purity within them is their pure hatred of God. So I can appreciate the judgment that their wickedness, their vile anti-God nature deserves. It’s not just their original fall that helps me feel that way, it’s the fact that since that fall, they’ve just kept falling – none of them so far as we know has tried in any way to make amends with their Creator.Quite the contrary. The hostilities have in no way ceased and indeed only escalated between the demonic realm and the Court of Heaven, and that’s not changing. Ever.
I don’t really feel God owes them a Savior. None of them. If He sent them one, that would be incredible grace, because they surely don’t deserve it. And if He chose to rescue some of them, that seems far more merciful than they deserve, and I’m not sure I’d feel like He owes all of them a helping hand. And from that perspective of God’s relationship to the fallen angelic realm, I can begin to appreciate better the wonder of the grace of God to the fallen human realm.
The “L” indeed is, I believe, a biblical doctrine, though I happily admit to the presence of much mystery and ambiguity. I don’t think there’s textual warrant for very tight, ridgid, purely logically defined categories, which only exist in the straw men that some have dressed up like Calvin, soaked in the gasoline of rabid emotionalism, and set ablaze with the fires of professed evangelistic fervor! (you thought I was going to say “set ablaze with the fires of hell,” didn’t you?) Ah the irony of torching the effigy of Calvin, the great Incinerator in his own right!
Reformed theology doesn’t picture Jesus as hanging on the cross chuckling to Himself thinking about the torture that awaited his adversaries, “Ha! I’m not dying for you! How does that feel, losers?!” because that’s not what happened. It understands the truth that God is not willing that any should perish, while at the same time making allowance for the existence of “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.” Some mystery exists in every theology, whether Reformed or Arminian. The question is “where does that mystery lie?” So the doctrine of Limited Atonement properly understood is not as airtight as its critics would believe or ascribe, but it is clearly defined enough to help us appreciate the fact that God doesn’t punish anyone’s sins in Jesus and in hell.
God doesn’t offer forgiveness to any angels, because He sent them no Savior. Among the class of creatures God does help, namely humanity, He has chosen, for reasons His own, to help some, thought ultimately not all. Those whose sins Jesus bore on the cross will be drawn by grace to eternal life through faith. Those who perish without Christ will bear their own sins. Jesus bore the punishment for no sins in vain.
So I offer this verse from Hebrews and it’s interesting perspective on God’s choosing to give no help to any of the entire realm of rebellious angels as a spoonful of metaphorical sugar to help the medicine of the “L” go down.