A Critical Look at Limited Atonement and Matthew 22

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Soteriology Simplified.

In Matthew 22:14 Jesus makes the statement, “for many are called, but few are chosen.” Jesus makes this statement in the context of the marriage supper of the Lamb. In this story Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to the story of a king who prepared a feast to celebrate the marriage of his son. He instructed his servants to send out special invitations to come to this great feast. Many are invited to the feast and one by one, they all found excuses not to come. The King even sent more servants to remind and encourage those who had received invitations to come to the feast. Once again, they declined the invitation; it was not that they could not come; they simply refused to do so. The King then instructed his servants to go out into the highways and byways and to invite “all they found” to come to the feast.

In looking at this passage it is clear that Jesus’ reference to those who received the initial invitations was a direct reference to the Jews. The King is no doubt a reference to God Himself and the son who was getting married, is a reference to Jesus.

In this story there is also a picture of man’s depravity painted for us. Instead of accepting the invitations, these men rejected those invitations. To further demonstrate man’s depravity Jesus said they not only refused to come, some killed the messengers who brought the invitations. The King became furious and put those murderers to death and even burned up their cities. God’s judgment was clearly one that was in response to the choices these men made with respect to the invitations they received to come to the wedding feast for His Son. The invitations were delivered but those who received them refused to come. The King had made provision for the supper to take place. All those who were invited had to do was come. This is a clear picture of the invitation Christ offers to come to Him in repentance and believing faith to be saved. Revelation 3:20 echoes this invitation, “20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” The invitation has not changed. It is for anyone who will come!

His instruction for the servants to go out into the highways and byways is clearly a direct reference to taking the gospel message to the Gentiles. Their instructions were clear: “invite everyone you see to the wedding.” Here is a clear cut picture of the universal invitation to come and sit at the table of the wedding feast of the lamb. This invitation is open to all who will come. There are no doubt individuals who like those who had the original invitations refused to come for whatever reason. It is entirely possible and quite likely that some who received the original invitations could have been among those on the highways and byways who received additional invitations and even did ultimately come to the feast. The focus here is not on those who were invited but those who accepted the invitation and came. This might be questionable if this was where the story ended; it is not.

The king enters the banquet hall and looks at all of the people seated at the tables. As he looked around the room, he saw one sitting at the table who was not wearing a wedding garment. The King asked the man a very simple question, “Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?” Jesus says the man was speechless; he had no excuse. The King then ordered his servants to bind the man’s hands and feet and take him from the feast and cast him into outer darkness and into torment. This man had no excuse for not wearing the wedding garment for these garments were not brought by the guests; the garments were provided to the guests by the king as they came to the wedding feast. This man made the mistake of arrogantly thinking what he had to wear was as good as the garment offered to him. It was not. This was a direct reference to the self-righteous attitudes that keep people from coming to Christ. This man did come to the supper but he came with the wrong attitude and he did not enjoy the benefits prepared for him and provided to him because he failed to put on the wedding garment that was offered to him. Once again, this man’s choice cost him dearly. His choice was as detrimental as the choices made by those who refused to come at all. The truth is life is made up of choices. Even the choice not to choose is a choice and there are consequences to the choices men are called to make.

Jesus conclusion to this story is summed up in the statement, “for many are called, but few are chosen.” In Jesus’s own illustration of salvation the invitation is virtually open to all. The invitation itself is universal in scope. However, the focus is not on those who have been invited but rather on those who have come to sit down to dine at the table. Those who chose to accept the invitation by coming were accepted at the feast. They were given wedding garments to put on and a seat at the table.

In looking at this concept of limited atonement and Jesus’ own picture of the invitation to salvation in this story, those who were chosen to receive personalized invitations in the beginning were the ones who initially refused to come. Pay particular attention to what Jesus said about this group: “The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy.” Jesus was referring to those who had received the engraved invitations. It must be understood that their worthiness had nothing to do with their own merit; however, their worthiness had everything to do with their response to the invitation. The interesting thing is, the same thing is true of those who were on the highways and byways of life who also received the later invitations. There were no doubt many who were on the highways and byways that received this invitation and just like those in the beginning, they too refused to come. There is really no mention of them because the focus quickly shifts to those who came. Those who did eventually come were no more worthy to come than those who had received the original invitations and did not come. The guests who were allowed to sit at the table were the rebels who accepted the invitation and put on the wedding garment and were given a seat at the wedding feast.

This is vitally important as a discussion of the merits of limited atonement are examined. This story clearly indicates that invitations were sent out to many who did not come. It must also be understood that these invitations were not simply “general” in nature and the king knew that these individual’s would not or could not come. The fact that the king became furious that some killed his servants and he had them killed and their cities burned indicates he had every intention of them coming to the wedding feast! So there was no general invitation and then an effectual invitation. The invitations were sent with the expectation that all who received them would come. This severely challenges the Calvinist tenet of limited atonement. For here, invitations to come would by necessity be prepared specifically for individuals for who would come and not those who would not come. That is clearly not the case in this story. The same is true for the instructions to go out into the highways and by-ways to invite everyone within sight to come to the wedding feast. Many would simply ignore the invitation but many did come. Again, the emphasis is not on limited atonement at all which is represented by the handing out of the invitations to everyone and anyone. This is a significant aspect of the invitations that simply cannot be ignored and overlooked. The wedding feast was prepared for all who came. The choices to come were made by the individuals and not the king. The same is true of conversion and salvation. God has made provision for any and all to come and the choice to come is man’s and not God’s. The benefits for those who do come are provided for exclusively by the king.

In conclusion, the benefits of the atonement are indeed limited not by God but by the choices men make to come to the table properly dressed. All men have to do is come; God takes care of everything else.

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Interested in bringing the issues facing The Southern Baptist Convention to light.
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14 Responses to A Critical Look at Limited Atonement and Matthew 22

  1. Bob Wheeler says:

    “for many are called, but few are chosen.”
    This sure looks like a distinction between a general call (many are called) and an effectual call (few are chosen).
    Most Calvinists would not deny the free offer of the gospel, to which the parable clearly refers. But the fact that many refused to respond does not answer the question of WHY they did not respond. “They were not ‘chosen.’ . . . Who is choosing whom?

    The invitation in Rev. 3:20 is issued to the church, not the world!

    • sbcissues says:

      So I guess the setting of the invitations to the wedding feast has NO BEARING on this statement? My point is that the focus of the wedding feast is not on the invitations given out but rather on the individuals who actually came to the feast. Those who came were blessed. This is the setting and effectual call is not even so much as a hint in this account.

      • Bob Wheeler says:

        I’m sorry I didn’t reply sooner — I didn’t realize that you had responded on the 5th! I should have been paying better attention.
        I think that you are right in saying that the focus of the parable is on the response of the various people who received the invitations. This is especially evident from the context. In the preceding chapter Jesus has been confronting the chief priests and Pharisees who were rejecting Him. The Parable of the Marriage Feast in chapter 22 was evidently directed toward them, and for the most part I think that your interpretation of the parable is correct.
        However I cannot see the inferences that you are drawing from the parable about Limited Atonement and a special, effectual calling. Only Hypercalvinists would deny the free offer of the gospel, and it is obvious that God would hold those accountable who reject the invitation. But none of that says anything at all about human ability or the extent of the atonement or why some people do respond to the gospel. Those things aren’t the focus of the passage!
        Verse 14, however, certainly seems to indicate that those who are “chosen” are fewer in number than those who are “called.” It sure looks like a distinction between a general and an effectual call!

      • sbcissues says:

        You are going to be in shock but I agree with you 100%.. “But none of that says anything at all about human ability or the extent of the atonement or why some people do respond to the gospel. Those things aren’t the focus of the passage!”

        That is actually the point I am making. Total Depravity and inability are NOT even hinted at in this passage. Those who heard the invitation and CAME are the ones who were blessed with one exception. The king who issued the invitations did not determine who did and did not come. An invitation is an invitation; that is the kings initiative. The response determines who is blessed by the issuer of the invitation.

        In all fairness… I do not believe there is any relevant context to justify a general and effectual call; there is NO effectual call in this passage. I would argue an invitation that one cannot accept is not an invitation at all. That is certainly not applicable to this passage.

        I believe it is an errant tenet. God’s plan for salvation is to ALL WHO BELIEVE… and all who hear the gospel are able to believe. Why do some believe and others not believe? That is the tough question for sure but I believe the answer lies in the individual and not God.

    • stephthegrey says:

      Bob, thank you for this reply, especially for the clarification of Rev. 3:20. This verse is abused so often in modern evangelism by taking it kicking and screaming out of context. Paul Washer does a masterful work in discussing this very thing in his book, “The Gospel Call and True Conversion.” Washer isn’t a perfect man, but he has nailed our problem in the SBC with this work. Every pastor and leader should read it and heed Washer’s unpopular rebuke.

    • james jordan says:

      First, many handpicked ones were called and none came.

      The entire first group, the original “elect,” is written off.

      Then many nobodies from all over, not hand picked, were called in a second calling, and many came.

      Then, from the many nobodies that came only few got to stay, because ONCE THEY GOT THERE it was found that they weren’t dressed properly.

      Clearly, the calling comes BEFORE the choosing. The king sent his men out to call beggars and nobodies EN MASSE and he weeds them out when they get there, based on what they’re wearing. They weren’t chosen ahead of time. They are chosen upon arrival. So God calls everyone, and when we get there, on the DOJ, he chooses.

  2. rhutchin says:

    Pastor writes, “In looking at this passage it is clear that Jesus’ reference to those who received the initial invitations was a direct reference to the Jews…In this story there is also a picture of man’s depravity painted for us. Instead of accepting the invitations, these men rejected those invitations. To further demonstrate man’s depravity…” Here seems to be an affirmation of the concept of Total Depravity. God calls to all, Repent and Believe the Gospel, and all reject God’s call “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness,” as Paul explains. All those who are totally depraved are called but not chosen – thus they refuse to repent and believe.

    So, now God sends out to gather people from the highways which could have included those from before except it seems that God killed them all (but I don’t see a direct application to this elsewhere in the Bible). I think this is in reference to the gospel going to all the world – to the Gentiles as well as the Jews. My reading is that none are allowed to refuse this invitation and all are brought to the wedding for they “gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good:” These were also called (both wheat and tares) but again not all are chosen.

    Finally, we have the issue of the wedding garment. As Pastor says, “This man had no excuse for not wearing the wedding garment for these garments were not brought by the guests; the garments were provided to the guests by the king as they came to the wedding feast.” How is it that the man did not have a garment? Well, one reason is that he was not given a garment. His reaction to the king, “he was speechless,” indicates that he did not refuse the garment but had not even been given a garment to wear. This could only have been at the instruction of the king as the servants did only that which the king instructed. We see that the man was not chosen. Not only must a person be called by the king, he must wear the garments provided by the king.

    Nothing in this parable speaks to the atonement for sin (i.e., limited atonement). It does speak to the choices that God makes over which man has no say as demonstrated by the “speechless” guest. The sovereign king chooses those who are to receive wedding garments. Such garments are not offered to people to accept or reject.

  3. Bob Wheeler says:

    While the question of why some respond to the gospel and others do not is not explicitly addressed in Matt. 22, it is addressed in passages such as John 6:36-45, 64,65 and Rom. 9:14-24. Both passages explicitly address the issue of why many Jews in particular rejected the gospel. The answer is not what you might expect!

    • rhutchin says:

      The parable emphasizes in the first part (v1-6) that all who are invited reject the invitation. They do so because they lack any desire to go to the wedding (the Calvinist calls this being totally depraved and unable to go). So the servants go out and gather together all that they could find both good and bad. I am not sure how we are to understand this except that it includes both elect and non-elect. I do not think the verses you cite come into play here as those verses describe a much more hands-on and involved role for God to achieve a specific outcome. I think we have a general call to all to come to the wedding and then the difference noted between those who are given wedding clothes and the one who is not (which seems contrary to many being called and a few chosen as many seem to have been chosen to wear the wedding garments). I am reluctant to use this passage to advance any theology because I have not run across anyone who has figured it out. If you think someone has, please, please share.

      • james jordan says:

        Nowhere is any mention of anyone being ‘give’ wedding garments — nowhere. The first group invited who will not come to the wedding, who are handpicked, were the Jews. When they refused to come a general invitation was extended to the Gentiles. Those who bought their own wedding garment and showed up got to stay (Be chosen, the choosing happened on arrival, AFTER the call, AFTER arrival) and those who were bums and didn’t bother to buy a wedding garment didn’t get to stay. Just like the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins: NOBODY GAVE THE VIRGINS OIL, THEY HAD TO BUY IT. The foolish virgins who didn’t buy enough oil said to the wise “give us some of your oil” and the wise virgins said “No way, Jose, go buy your own!” And while the foolish virgins were off buying it, oops, the groom arrived, everyone went into the wedding and the doors were locked. They arrived late and couldn’t get in. The point of these parable is GOD DON’T DO IT ALL FOR YOU. You’ve got to buy the wedding garment, you’ve got to buy the oil — that is, you’ve got to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” He that is going to build a tower must first SIT DOWN AND COUNT THE COST — so must everyone (Jesus says) who would be my disciple; unless you are willing to lose all, you cannot be my disciple. What does that mean? It means you’ve got to make some preparations for the Judgement; you’ve got to buy the oil and the wedding garment because it ain’t going to be given to you, it ain’t going to just drop out of the sky.

      • james jordan says:

        The problem everyone is having is “How can we harmonize Paul and Matthew?” and the answer is “You can’t.” They are antithetical because Paul was a Marcionite who sold Jesus out.

  4. Bob Wheeler says:

    May we point out to you, James, the obvious historical fact that Paul lived before Marcion, and thus could hardly be considered a “Marcionite”? Paul was recognized by the Council at Jerusalem, and by the early church fathers, as an authentic apostle of Jesus Christ.

    • james jordan says:

      Whether or not this is historical fact is precisely the question. The fact of the matter is, all inerrantists whether they will admit it or not, treat one of the texts as a forger, either the Paulina or the Synoptic Gospels, because both cannot be authentic. Everyone knows that on a deep internal level. They may even admit it to their conscious mind. But it takes a very honest person to admit it openly, for you all just lie and pretend to believe in both, but you don’t.

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