Potential Vs Actual Salvation? What’s the Difference?

Potential Vs Actual Salvation? What’s the Difference?

MacArthur, along with number of calvinists (generally of the neo-calvinist variety), teaches that only limited atonement (that is, Jesus only died for the sins of those whom God chose for salvation) can effectively save people. He calls this an “actual” salvation. He also says that if Jesus died for all the sins of all people, then such an atonement can only lead to what he terms a “potential salvation” which he says cannot be an actual salvation. MacArthur clearly demonstrates his total lack of understanding of the subject matter when he says, “There is no such thing as some kind of potential atonement, some kind of half-way atonement.” (The Doctrine of Actual Salvation Part 1 – MacArthur)

So where is the evidence for MacArthur’s bold yet futile statement? Let’s take a look at some of his “supporting statements”.
And all we have to do is tell sinners that He loves them so much that He paid the price and He wants them to be saved, and all they have to do is respond.
Now if that is true, then on the cross Jesus accomplished a potential salvation, not an actual one.  That is, sinners have all had their sins atoned for potentially, and it’s not actual until they activate it by their faith.  So, what we need to do is to tell sinners that they need to pick up the salvation that’s already been purchased for them.  Since Christ died for everybody, everybody therefore can be saved.  It’s just a matter of them coming to receive that salvation.  And so, our responsibility is to convince people to come and take the salvation that’s been provided for them, to convince them to come and accept the gift.
(The Doctrine of Actual Salvation Part 1 – MacArthur)

So far MacArthur has (even if somewhat cynically) stated Biblical truth. Even in stating that it is a potential salvation that only becomes actual by the sinners’ faith, he has stated Biblical truth. But, MacArthur does not believe that any of this is true. He is merely stating what he says the average Christian would say. He is simply mocking the actual truth of the Bible! Let’s see what else MacArthur says in this document.
That is to say, the death of Jesus Christ, then, is not an actual atonement, it is only a potential atonement.  He really did not purchase salvation for anyone in particular.  He only removed some kind of barrier to make it possible for sinners to choose to be saved.
So the message then – the typical evangelical message – is to sinners, “God loves you so much He sent His Son who paid in full the penalty for your sins. And won’t you respond to that love, and not disappoint God, and accept the gift, and let Him save you since He already paid in full the price for your sins?”  The final decision is up to the sinner.
(The Doctrine of Actual Salvation Part 1 – MacArthur)

MacArthur then goes on to say that because man does not have the free will to make such a decision, then the potential salvation remains potential and can never become actual. Of course, the Bible actually teaches that man does have a free will to choose the accept the gift of salvation. I have never once seen any calvinist satisfactorily use a Biblical response to demonstrate any such lack of free will! Why does God give man so many choices in the Bible concerning good and evil, yet never allows him the ability to take the responsibility for any of those choices? And, if man cannot take the responsibility for any of those choices, then why is the calvinist God so unjust in that he created a class of mankind that could never choose to not sin, yet illogically and unjustly be punished for eternity in hell for doing that which he was created to do? The logic of this all rests upon whether or not man has any free will at all in calling upon the name of the Lord to be saved (Romans 10:13), or does God decree beforehand that such a person will call upon the name of the Lord to be saved. (If the calvinist God has indeed decreed beforehand that this should be so, then he has also decreed that those of mankind who are not chosen for salvation will not call upon the name of the Lord and thus they will not be saved; they will go to hell because the kind, considerate, calvinist God has chosen this for them!)

MacArthur then attempts to redefine the terms “potential” and “actual”.
For whom did Christ die?  Did He die a death that is a potential salvation for everyone, and therefore on the largest part it was useless?  Or did He die a death that is an actual atonement, not a potential one? …..
It was not some kind of virtual atonement.  It was a real actual atonement.
It was limited in its extent to those who would believe, who are the called and the chosen.  But it was unlimited in its effect.  For them, it was a full and complete atonement.  There is no such thing as an atonement by Jesus Christ on the cross that is less than a true and actual atonement.  There is no such thing as some kind of potential atonement, some kind of half-way atonement.
(The Doctrine of Actual Salvation Part 1 – MacArthur)

In other words, MacArthur is saying that a potential atonement can never be full and complete. That is, if Jesus died for all people, then they all have a potential salvation, yet none of them has an actual salvation. What MacArthur is really saying is that potential salvation can never be a full actual salvation. Potential atonement is only a “half-way” atonement! It only goes “half-way”! But, anything that is “potential” means that it hasn’t gone anywhere at all until it is triggered or actuated by some event or decision. Something that is “potential” cannot go anywhere, not even “half-way”, until it becomes “actual”.

So, let’s look at what “potential” actually means! A dictionary defines potential as something that can become actual. The word “potential” comes from a word meaning “power” (that is, it is potent or powerful). In science, “potential” is defined as that which can become “actual” when triggered or set in motion, at which point potential energy becomes kinetic energy. Potential energy changes to kinetic energy when the object moves. To be “potential” means to be just as powerful as “actual”, yet not activated yet. Potential is stored energy that is currently at rest.

For example, a gun with a bullet pointed at someone’s head is a potential death for that person. Just because the bullet is not activated does not lessen the threat at all. It only needs to be triggered to become actual, and when the potential becomes actual here, it is fully actual, not part-actual or “half-way” actual!

Another example: A wild tiger has been trapped in a cage for more than a week. It hasn’t been fed while it’s been in that cage and is consequently very hungry. Let’s say, for instance, that someone tells MacArthur to get into that cage with the tiger. He might say, “No! It’s a man-eater!” You might reply, “No! It’s not a man-eater, for it has never eaten anyone yet, nor has it even killed a man before. It’s only a potential man-eater. It’s only a potential killer!” MacArthur might reply, “It’ll become a killer and a man-eater when I get into that cage.”
So, if that tiger has never killed anyone, and never eaten anyone, then it is not an actual killer, nor is it an actual man-eater! It is only a potential killer; it is only a potential man-eater. But only a fool would argue that because it’s only a potential killer that it would be safe to get into the cage with it.

It is abundantly clear that being potential does not lessen the force nor power if it should become actual. And something cannot be potential if it cannot happen! That which is potential must be fully capable of happening, and that which is potential must have the full potency (full power) of that which is actual.

Thus, a potential salvation must be fully capable of happening and, if and when it does happen, it must act with the full force (potency) of an actual salvation. All “potential” needs to become “actual” is a trigger. So where did MacArthur learn the fallacy that because something is potential, it lacks the full potency of that which is actual? That a potential salvation only atones half-way? That “potential” means “half-way”?
There is no such thing as some kind of potential atonement, some kind of half-way atonement.” says MacArthur.

So according to MacArthur that tiger may be a potential killer and man-eater, and therefore can only become “half-way” actual? Don’t worry, that tiger will only half-kill you! Don’t worry, that tiger will only half-eat you! Because, according to MacArthur’s logic, that which is merely potential can only become “half-way” actual.
That potential bullet in the gun will only be “half-way” actual. Does that mean it only travels at half the speed, or that it stops half-way, failing to reach you because it was only “potential”!

And how can any atonement be “half-way”? Can a person be “half-saved”? Did Jesus die for only half that person’s sins? The Bible clearly teaches that a person is either saved, or not saved; there is no middle ground of “half-way” saved! So a potential atonement must either be fully effective, or not effective at all. There is no scriptural option anywhere for defining a potential atonement as a “half-way atonement”! It either is, or it isn’t!

The truth (a rare commodity for many calvinists) is that a potential event either remains potential (and therefore effectively dormant or non-effective) or it becomes fully (not “half-way”) potent (fully active) when triggered. Potential either remains potential or becomes fully potent, not half-way, nor anywhere else in between. So, when those calvinists in a seemingly phrenetic effort to appear “half-way” scholarly, start using terms for which they have no apparent understanding, check them out. You’d be surprised (really, you shouldn’t be surprised!) just how often their “scholarly” statements are actually incorrect or even straight-out mistruths. Check them out. Test all things. Hold fast to that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). They might appear to have real potential, but, by their own teaching, to appear to be potentially correct might actually turn out to be only “half-way” true!

For further reading on MacArthur’s salvation heresies, follow this link to “MacArthur Teaches Works Salvation”

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If you wish to read other documents on the heresies of calvinism, please use this link.

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