Saturday, November 18, 2006

Did Jesus Die for Everyone?


One of the most controversial points of Reformed theology concerns the L in TULIP. L stands for Limited Atonement. It has been such a problem of doctrine that there are multitudes of Christians who say they embrace most of the doctrines of Calvinism but get off the boat here. They refer to themselves as “four-point” Calvinists. The point they cannot abide is limited atonement.
I have often thought that to be a four-point Calvinist one must misunderstand at least one of the five points. It is hard for me to imagine that anyone could understand the other four points of Calvinism and deny limited atonement. There always is the possibility, however, of the happy inconsistency by which people hold incompatible views at the same time.
The doctrine of limited atonement is so complex that to treat it adequately demands a full volume. I have not even given it a full chapter in this book because a chapter cannot do it justice. I have thought about not mentioning it altogether because the danger exists that to say too little about it is worse than saying nothing at all. But I think the reader deserves at least a brief summary of the doctrine and so I will proceed—with the caution that the subject requires a much deeper treatment than I am able to provide here.
The issue of limited atonement concerns the question, “For whom did Christ die? Did he die for everybody or only for the elect?” We all agree that the value of Jesus’ atonement was great enough to cover the sins of every human being. We also agree that his atonement is truly offered to all men. Any person who places his trust in the atoning death of Jesus Christ will most certainly receive the full benefits of that atonement. We are also confident that anyone who responds to the universal offer of the gospel will be saved.
The question is, “For whom was the atonement designed?”Did God send Jesus into the world merely to make salvation possible for people? Or did God have something more definite in mind? (Roger Nicole, the eminent Baptist theologian, prefers to call limited atonement “Definite Atonement,” disrupting the acrostic TULIP as much as I do.)
Some argue that all limited atonement means is that the benefits of the atonement are limited to believers who meet the necessary condition of faith. That is, though Christ’s atonement was sufficient to cover the sins of all men and to satisfy God’s justice against all sin, it only effects salvation for believers. The formula reads: Sufficient for all; efficient for the elect only.
That point simply serves to distinguish us from universalists who believe that the atonement secured salvation for everyone. The doctrine of limited atonement goes further than that. It is concerned with the deeper question of the Father’s and the Son’s intention in the cross. It declares that the mission and death of Christ was restricted to a limited number—to his people, his sheep. Jesus was called “Jesus” because he would save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:15). Such passages are found liberally in the New Testament.
The mission of Christ was to save the elect. “This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day” (John 6:39). Had there not been a fixed number contemplated by God when he appointed Christ to die, then the effects of Christ’s death would have been uncertain. It would be possible that the mission of Christ would have been a dismal and complete failure.
Jesus’ atonement and his intercession are joint works of his high priesthood. He explicitly excludes the non-elect from his great high priestly prayer. “I do not pray for the world but for those whom you have given Me” (John 17:9). Did Christ die for those for whom he would not pray?
The essential issue here concerns the nature of the atonement. Jesus’ atonement included both expiation and propitiation. Ex-piation involves Christ’s removing our sins “away from” (ex) us. Pro-pitiation involves a satisfaction of sin “before or in the presence of” (pro) God. Arminianism has an atonement that is limited in value. It does not cover the sin of unbelief. If Jesus died for all the sins of all men, if he expiated all our sins and propitiated all our sins, then everybody would be saved. A potential atonement is not a real atonement. Jesus really atoned for the sins of his sheep.
The biggest problem with definite or limited atonement is found in the passages that the Scriptures use concerning Christ’s death “for all” or for the “whole world.” The world for whom Christ died cannot mean the entire human family. It must refer to the universality of the elect (people from every tribe and nation) or to the inclusion of Gentiles in addition to the world of the Jews. It was a Jew who wrote that Jesus did not die merely for our sins but for the sins of the whole world. Does the word our refer to believers or to believing Jews?
We must remember that one of the cardinal points of the New Testament concerned the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation. Salvation was of the Jews but not restricted to the Jews. Wherever it is said that Christ died for all, some limitation must be added or the conclusion would have to be universalism or a mere potential atonement.
Christ’s atonement was real. It effected all that God and Jesus intended by it. The design of God was not and cannot be frustrated by human unbelief. The sovereign God sovereignly sent his Son to atone for his people.
Our election is in Christ. We are saved by him, in him, and for him. The motive for our salvation is not merely the love God has for us. It is especially grounded in the love the Father has for the Son. God insists that his Son will see the travail of his soul and be satisfied. There never has been the slightest possibility that Christ could have died in vain. If man is truly dead in sin and in bondage to sin, a mere potential or conditional atonement not only may have ended in failure but most certainly would have ended in failure. Arminians have no sound reason to believe that Jesus did not die in vain. They are left with a Christ who tried to save everybody but actually saved nobody.

HT: R.C. Sproul


David W. Bailey said...

I have recently published the authorized biography of Roger Nicole, entitled Speaking the Truth in Love: The Life and Legacy of Roger Nicole. It is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or the publisher, Solid Ground Christian Books.

Anonymous said...

When I was in seminary one of my favorite instructors, who by the way was reformed, spoke of Calvinism in a way I will never forget. He said, "Jesus died for the world, but especially for the elect or His chosen children." That made perfect sense to me.

If you struggle with the biblical doctrine of limited atonement or definite atonement I encourage you to view it as my wise seminary instructor.

Andrew Wheatley said...

We all agree that the value of Jesus’ atonement was great enough to cover the sins of every human being.

I would sincerely like to know:

Is this a supposition that we hold? Is it explicity stated in Scripture? Can it be validly deduced from Scripture?


Justice said...

Andrew, I hope this helps and answers your question.

John writes that: “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). This text, more than any other, is cited as scriptural proof against definite atonement. At first glance it seems to argue that Christ’s death was intended for everybody (the whole world). However, if it is taken in that sense the text proves more than non-Reformed people want it to prove. It becomes a proof-text for universalism. If Christ indeed propitiated or satisfied God’s demands for the punishment of the sins of everybody, then clearly everybody would be saved. If God punished sins that were already propitiated then He would be unjust. If the text is understood to mean that everyone’s sins have been conditionally propitiated (contingent upon faith and repentance) then we are back to the original question of only the elect satisfying the conditions.
The other way to view this text is to see the contrast in it between our sins and those of the whole world. Who are the people included in the word our? If John is speaking only of fellow believers, then the previous interpretation of the text would apply. But is that the only possible meaning of our?
In the New Testament a frequent contrast is made between the salvation enjoyed by Jews and that enjoyed by non-Jews. A crucial point of the gospel is that it is not limited to Jews but is extended to people all over the world, to people from every tribe and nation. God loves the whole world, but He does not save the whole world; He saves people from all parts of the world. In this text, John may merely be saying that Christ is not only a propitiation for our sins (Jewish believers) but for the elect found also throughout the whole world.
In any case, the plan of God was decided before anybody was in the world at all. The atonement of Christ was not a divine afterthought. The purpose of God in Christ’s death was determined at the foundation of the world. The design was not guesswork but according to a specific plan and purpose, which God is sovereignly bringing to pass. All for whom Christ died are redeemed by His sacrificial act.

John’s teaching that Christ died for the sins of the whole world means that the elect are not limited to Israel but are found throughout the world.

Other good verses for reflection:
Matthew 1:21
John 3:16
John 10:27-30
John 17:9-12
Acts 20:28
Romans 8:30

Anonymous said...

So, basically, there is evidence to prove that the death of Christ could save all of mankind, but not all of them will be saved and come to faith in Him. Rather only those that He died for.