So if you take Christianity seriously, at some point you have to ask yourself: “Why did Jesus die for humanity?” Atonement is the big word to describe how we get ‘at-one-ment’ with God, how we are made right with God. In order to understand what Jesus saves us for, you also have to have an idea of what he saves us from.
Calvinism is an incredibly fine-tuned system of thought, each brick laid carefully on top of the other to protect the sovereignty of God. If God is truly above all else, God must be in absolute control of all things. The problem is that sin exists, there is plenty of evil in the world. The only way to explain evil in this system of thinking is to believe that God created evil, sin, suffering, and death for some purpose unknown to us. Jesus saves us from this system of evil, for an eternal life of fulfillment. In order to keep God sovereign, we have absolutely no say in whether we are saved or not…God chooses. You’re either the lucky one chosen before you were born, or you get what you deserved because of your evil deeds that God made you do to begin with.
This does not reflect my experience with the world or with God. I admit this is an uncharitable explanation of Calvinism, but it is also pretty much how it has been described to me from most Calvinists I know. Many people find great comfort in trust God is in control of everything, you’ve probably even said that to yourself to make yourself feel better when things are clearly beyond your control. Maybe you are secretly Calvinist. Maybe we all are a little.
John Murray, on the other hand, was a Calvinist who went the absolute other way with this thinking. He became the founder of the American Universalist Church in the early 1800s. Christian Universalism maintains that all are saved because of Jesus’ atonement. It latches on to the passages in Romans where all have participated in Adam’s sin, so how much more will all receive the benefits of Christ. Some of the logic doesn’t make any sense to me (if Christ died for non-believers, then we should all stay non-believers to honor his sacrifice…that’s freaking ridiculous). Universalism emphasizes the absolute character of God’s love – under the assumption that a loving God would never send any one to Hell. There have become incredibly convincing arguments for Universalism over the years, especially if you add a sort of re-vamped purgatory into the mix where we all get a chance after death to be reconciled with those we have caused harm in this life. Maybe we you are a closet Universalist in this regard.
Then there’s the common assumption that good people go to heaven. What more theology do you need? I thought Joe the Plumber (who represents the average American in more ways than I’d like to admit!) sums up what a lot of people in our churches truly believe…I’m a good person so I’m going to heaven–regardless of my relationship with God. Here, heaven is just a happy afterlife. Moralism emphasizes a convoluted understanding of God’s justice, where good people are rewarded with heaven and bad people are punished with hell. It is usually based more on one’s own moral code rather than biblical ethics. Those who take the Bible seriously yet remain moralistic tend to emphasize Matthew 25 above all else (God separating the sheep and the goats based on their good works). It’s a nice system because it seems to satisfy what most of us really want, as long as we get to define what the morals are. If you’re honest with yourself, you are definitely a little bit moralistic.
John Wesley tried to tie up all these disparate ends to paint of picture of a God who could be both Sovereign and Love and Just. It’s a messy system that emphasizes the grace of God from first to last…but it is a cooperative grace, meaning grace that gives us the ability to respond to God’s love, and the expectation that we will actually live the way God wants us to because we love who God is. In this system, Jesus’ atonement gives everyone a little bit of grace (called prevenient grace, or grace that goes before us), and therefore everyone has the ability to respond in love. However, justification (or salvation) only comes to those who repent of their sin and put their full trust in Jesus who gave them this grace. Thus, God is sovereign but allows for human response, God is loving because everyone gets a legitimate opportunity to respond to God, and God is just because sin is ultimately ‘dealt with.’