A bit of a rant about limited atonement and unlimited smugness

Come to the table of grace; seek Him who gave you His life
Remember the price that was paid, the gift of His sacrifice
Come to the table of grace; love there to comfort and hold
Remember the cost of His life, given to free ev’ry soul.
Come to the table, the table of grace

from “Come to the Table of Grace” by Pete Carlson

Forget the concept of the atonement embedded within this song. The melody is pretty, the lyrics humble and reverent. It’s an invitation to remember the death of Christ and commune with a God who loves us by means of the ancient rite of the Lord’s Supper.

Believe it or not, my family attends a PCA Presbyterian church in our neighborhood. By design, none of the members know my personal positions, although a few, including the pastor and the choir director (yes, I do try to sing in the choir) are aware that I’m not Reformed.

Recently our choir was practicing the above song when one particular line prompted the choir member next to me to raise his hand and lodge an objection: “I think I have a theological problem with this song.” The choir director immediately knew what the problem was. One word: “…given to free every soul.” The choir member continued ruefully, “A little universalism creeping into the text.” (Prior to last week’s firestorm, this lyric would have been construed as more of a limited atonement issue specifically, but his statement shows that he’s obviously aware of and spooked by the new boogeyman in Reformed circles — thanks, Rob Bell.)

As you might guess, I was a little annoyed. Calvinistic proof-texts aside, there are clearly passages in the New Testament that speak more inclusively, and the Reformed reinterpret those passages to fit their preferred theology. So why couldn’t they do that with this lyric? Besides, it’s only sung once in the arrangement, and singing the song as written would not have turned anyone into an Arminian or a universalist. It was a matter of principle; it was an opportunity to ensure that damnable doctrine was given no quarter in this church.

Seemingly the only other person annoyed by his objection bravely pointed out that the previously practiced song had quoted John 3.16 (“God so loved the world“), but this was vaguely dismissed as “different”. Not wanting to debate limited atonement with a room full of Presbyterians, I still desired to suggest that non-exclusivistic language is actually common within Scripture itself, and they dutifully reinterpret (or ignore) it elsewhere with nary a second thought. So I subtly quoted 1 Timothy 4.10, “the Saviour of all people, especially of those who believe,” but apparently no one was familiar with the passage and it fell on deaf ears as though I had said nothing. The director was happy enough to take suggested emendations, and someone wryly suggested “given to free chosen souls,” which struck us all with its hubris; I had to admit that it was at least an honest statement of their belief, and I think it sunk in among many of them anew that this was in fact what they believed. Ultimately the decision was tabled for later so we could get on with practice.

But it won’t leave the objector’s mind. As we sing the song again, he decides he likes the “chosen souls” substitution. Did I say I he liked it? He loved it. He got positively giddy at the prospect of shocking too-comfortable Calvinists and uncomfortable non-Calvinists in the congregation with a doctrinal affirmation so stark. When we started to sing the song again, he nudged those around him and whispered with a wild, I’m-nailing-the-ninety-sixth-thesis-to-the-door look in his eyes, “We’re going to sing chosen souls.” It was part suggestion, part test of courage: because of his conviction that all of us were good Calvinists, the question was whether we were going to step up to the plate and belt out this “doctrine of grace” with pride.

After my initial response was ignored, I hoped against hope that someone would ask me my opinion on the matter so that I could say, “If Paul can say, ‘As in Adam all died, so in Christ shall all be made alive,’ then I won’t feel bad about saying ‘free ev’ry soul.'”

At the end of practice, the conscientious objector formally suggested “chosen souls,” and the director, now realizing the fact that anything else would be tantamount to compromise against the gospel itself, asked if there were any objections. I didn’t say anything: it would have been the start of a debate I wasn’t prepared for, and I just wanted to get out of there.

As I’m sure you can tell by this post having no particular point, I’m still stewing a bit at the hubris of the revised lyric. Could there be a more obvious way of undermining the beauty and humility characterizing the original lyrics? Could they not find a way to avoid compromising their “gospel” without sounding like self-congratulatory, exclusivistic jerks?

I’d like to emphasize that this occasion is mostly atypical of this congregation, or we wouldn’t be attending. I only know that if I am in the service when this is sung, I will articulate the more clearly, “given to free ev’ry soul!”

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  • Wow! you are going to have to explain why you attend a PCA church as a non-reformed christian

    • Heh…must I? 😛

      It’s a long story. For one thing, I’m pretty sure there aren’t any churches in town that I wouldn’t disagree with on some fundamental level. Factor in its geographical proximity, its robust children’s program, the fact that many of its members actually think about their faith (so what if they think so frequently think incorrectly?), and a few other unmentionable factors…

      It’s actually been pretty easy. I haven’t told them how misled I think they are, and they haven’t asked me to sign a dotted line, so right now we’re cool. 🙂

      • I have never gotten into the bitty details of why leaving our church was so hard. We asked about expanding children’s ministry (it was a small, growing church plant). We were told that reformed theology prohibited the church from over-extending its children’s ministry, since that was the primary responsibility of the parents. It sounds like your church is different and perhaps much larger. There is a rumor that our former church was made up of the hardcore christians from the original church. I have self-acknowledged fair-weather christian friends (i.e. that is what they call them selves, so it is not an insult) that attend the mother church and some are content, most either have no idea what calvinism is or don’t agree with it. We were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

        This said, I can appreciate staying at a PCA church. Perhaps if we had been at the bigger church, things would be different…we could be more anonymous. By process of elimination, geographical proximity may end up our determining factor in our church hunt.

        • In actuality, our church is quite small: but one thing I’ve appreciated
          about more than one PCA group I know of is their focus upon families and
          training up children; they do believe that it’s ultimately the parent’s
          responsibility to educate their children in the things of God, but that the
          community of faith is vital in helping the parents do it. “It takes a
          congregation to raise a child.” 😉 I am really sorry that this wasn’t the
          case for you!

          For us, this of course means that my children are learning the children’s
          version of the Westminster Catechism…which on one hand I like because of
          the mental rigor (children’s minds are steel traps!) and the exposure to
          theological terminology, but on the other hand, I fear the detox process

  • Scott F

    I wouldn’t worry about being non-reformed. Some of your fellow congregants are almost surely atheists!

  • Anonymous

    Steve, this is exactly why I don’t church in an organized church!

  • AMW

    I went to an EV Free church for about 4 years that had a rather strong undercurrent of reformed theology among some of the pastoral staff. The worship pastor had some qualms about Michael W. Smith’s song “Above All.” The offending lyrics read:

    “Like a rose trampled on the ground, you took the fall and thought of me above all.”

    He replaced the words “and thought of me” with “your love was shown.” Why? Because the purpose and focus of the Cross was not our personal salvation, but God’s glory. And he took the time to explain this to the congregation during the service.

    I swear, I rolled my eyes so hard I was staring at my own optic nerves.

    • Well, I highly doubt Jesus thought of any of us, but that’s beside the
      point, isn’t it? Those lyric fixing endeavors bother me: just sing the song
      or don’t.

  • LOL!

    Great post. It seems the more we learn about our faith and about what scripture says, the less we fit in well with any church.

    We have to make concessions somewhere if we want to belong to a community of believers – warts and all. 🙂

    • That’s exactly it, Skeretic (a nickname is born!). We only hope someday to
      find a Christian community in which we can express our skepticism and
      hard-won heresy alike without getting ostracized or thrown out on our
      ears…but I guess maybe that’s asking too much. 😛

  • I’m too busy laughing at the fact that you sing in the choir. I don’t know why but it strikes me as funny. I guess you don’t fit the ‘choir boy’ mold with which I’m familiar. =)

    • It’s really pretty funny, isn’t it? It certainly helps deconstruct the old
      saw about the choir members not needing to be preached to because of their
      presumed agreement!

  • Gusmcattison

    Enjoyed this post, Steve.