The Extent of the Atonement

The following is taken from, “Systematic Theology” by Wayne Grudem

D. The Extent of the Atonement

One of the differences between Reformed theologians and other Catholic and Protestant theologians has been the question of the extent of the atonement. The question may be put this way: when Christ died on the cross, did he pay for the sins of the entire human race or only for the sins of those who he knew would ultimately be saved?

Non-Reformed people argue that the gospel offer in Scripture is repeatedly made to all people, and for this offer to be genuine, the payment for sins must have already been made and must be actually available for all people. They also say that if the people whose sins Christ paid for are limited, then the free offer of the gospel also is limited, and the offer of the gospel cannot be made to all mankind without exception.

On the other hand, Reformed people argue that if Christ’s death actually paid for the sins of every person who ever lived, then there is no penalty left for anyone to pay, and it necessarily follows that all people will be saved, without exception. For God could not condemn to eternal punishment anyone whose sins are already paid for: that would be demanding double payment, and it would therefore be unjust. In answer to the objection that this compromises the free offer of the gospel to every person, Reformed people answer that we do not know who they are who will come to trust in Christ, for only God knows that. As far as we are concerned, the free offer of the gospel is to be made to everybody without exception. We also know that everyone who repents and believes in Christ will be saved, so all are called to repentance (cf. Acts 17:30). The fact that God foreknew who would be saved, and that he accepted Christ’s death as payment for their sins only, does not inhibit the free offer of the gospel, for who will respond to it is hidden in the secret counsels of God. That we do not know who will respond no more constitutes a reason for not offering the gospel to all than not knowing the extent of the harvest prevents the farmer from sowing seed in his fields.

Finally, Reformed people argue that God’s purposes in redemption are agreed upon within the Trinity and they are certainly accomplished. Those whom God planned to save are the same people for whom Christ also came to die, and to those same people the Holy Spirit will certainly apply the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work, even awakening their faith (John 1:12; Phil. 1:29; cf. Eph. 2:2) and calling them to trust in him. What God the Father purposed, God the Son and the Holy Spirit agreed to and surely carried out.

1. Scripture Passages Used to Support the Reformed View. Several Scripture passages speak of the fact that Christ died for his people. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). Paul speaks of “the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28). He also says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” (Rom. 8:32). This passage indicates a connection between God’s purpose in giving up his Son “for us all” and giving us “all things” that pertain to salvation as well. In the next sentence Paul clearly limits the application of this to those who will be saved because he says, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” (Rom. 8:33) and in the next verse mentions Christ’s death as a reason why no one shall bring a charge against the elect (8:34). In another passage, Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25).

Moreover, Christ during his earthly ministry is aware of a group of people whom the Father has given to him. “All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out … this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day” (John 6:37–39). He also says, “I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9). He then goes on from this specific reference to the disciples to say, “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word” (John 17:20).

Finally, some passages speak of a definite transaction between the Father and the Son when Christ died, a transaction that had specific reference to those who would believe. For example, Paul says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). He adds, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:10). This reconciliation to God occurred with respect to the specific people who would be saved, and it occurred “while we were enemies.” Similarly, Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21; cf. Gal. 1:4; Eph. 1:7). And “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).

Further support for the Reformed view is found in the consideration that all the blessings of salvation, including faith, repentance, and all of the works of the Holy Spirit in applying redemption, were also secured by Christ’s redemptive work specifically for his people. Those for whom he earned forgiveness also have had those other benefits earned for them (cf. Eph. 1:3–4; 2:8; Phil. 1:29).

What I have called “the Reformed view” in this section is commonly referred to as “limited atonement.” However, most theologians who hold this position today do not prefer the term “limited atonement” because it is so easily subject to misunderstanding, as if this view somehow held that Christ’s atoning work was deficient in some way. The term that is usually preferred is particular redemption since this view holds that Christ died for particular people (specifically, those who would be saved and whom he came to redeem), that he foreknew each one of them individually (cf. Eph. 1:3–5) and had them individually in mind in his atoning work.

The opposite position, that Christ’s death actually paid for the sins of all people who ever lived, is called “general redemption” or “unlimited atonement.”

2. Scripture Passages Used to Support the Non-Reformed View (General Redemption or Unlimited Atonement). A number of Scripture passages indicate that in some sense Christ died for the whole world. John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). And John 3:16 tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus said, “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). Paul says that in Christ “God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). We read of Christ that “he is the expiation [lit. “propitiation’] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Paul writes that Christ Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6). And the author of Hebrews says that Jesus was for a little while made lower than the angels “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one” (Heb. 2:9).

Other passages appear to speak of Christ dying for those who will not be saved. Paul says, “Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15). In a similar context he tells the Corinthians not to eat publicly at an idol’s temple because they might encourage those who are weak in their faith to violate their consciences and eat food offered to idols. He then says, “And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died” (1 Cor. 8:11). Peter writes about false teachers as follows: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1; cf. Heb. 10:29).

3. Some Points of Agreement and Some Conclusions About Disputed Texts. It would be helpful first to list the points on which both sides agree:

1. Not all will be saved.

2. A free offer of the gospel can rightly be made to every person ever born. It is completely true that “whoever will” may come to Christ for salvation, and no one who comes to him will be turned away. This free offer of the gospel is extended in good faith to every person.

3. All agree that Christ’s death in itself, because he is the infinite Son of God, has infinite merit and is in itself sufficient to pay the penalty of the sins of as many or as few as the Father and the Son decreed. The question is not about the intrinsic merits of Christ’s sufferings and death, but about the number of people for whom the Father and the Son thought Christ’s death to be sufficient payment at the time Christ died.

Beyond these points of agreement, however, a difference remains concerning the following question: “When Christ died, did he actually pay the penalty only for the sins of those who would believe in him, or for the sins of every person who ever lived?” On this question it seems that those who hold to particular redemption have stronger arguments on their side. First, an important point that is not generally answered by advocates of the general redemption view is that people who are eternally condemned to hell suffer the penalty for all of their own sins, and therefore their penalty could not have been fully taken by Christ. Those who hold the general redemption view sometimes answer that people suffer in hell because of the sin of rejecting Christ, even though their other sins were paid for. But this is hardly a satisfactory position, for (1) some have never rejected Christ because they have never heard of him, and (2) the emphasis of Scripture when it speaks of eternal punishment is not on the fact that the people suffer because they have rejected Christ, but on the fact that they suffer because of their own sins in this life (see Rom. 5:6–8, 13–16, et al.). This significant point seems to tip the argument decisively in favor of the particular redemption position.

Another significant point in favor of particular redemption is the fact that Christ completely earned our salvation, paying the penalty for all our sins. He did not just redeem us potentially, but actually redeemed us as individuals whom he loved. A third weighty point in favor of particular redemption is that there is eternal unity in the counsels and plans of God and in the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in accomplishing their plans (see Rom. 8:28–30).

With regard to Scripture passages used to support general redemption, the following may be said: Several passages that speak about “the world” simply mean that sinners generally will be saved, without implying that every single individual in the world will be saved. So the fact that Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) does not mean (on anybody’s interpretation) that Christ actually removes the sins of every single person in the world, for both sides agree that not all are saved. Similarly, the fact that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19) does not mean that every single person in the world was reconciled to God, but that sinners generally were reconciled to God. Another way of putting these two passages would be to say that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of sinners, or that God was in Christ reconciling sinners to himself. This does not mean that all sinners will be saved or were reconciled, but simply that these groups in general, but not necessarily every single person in them, were the objects of God’s redeeming work: it essentially means that “God so loved sinners that he gave his only Son …” without implying that every sinner in the whole world will be saved.

The passages that speak about Christ dying “for” the whole world are best understood to refer to the free offer of the gospel that is made to all people. When Jesus says, “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51), it is in the context of speaking of himself as the Bread that came down from heaven, which is offered to people and which they may, if they are willing, receive for themselves. Earlier in the same discussion Jesus said that “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). This may be understood in the sense of bringing redeeming life into the world but not meaning that every single person in the world will have that redeeming life. Jesus then speaks of himself as inviting others to come and take up this living bread: “He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst … This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:35, 50–51). Jesus gives his flesh to bring life into the world and to offer life to the world, but to say that Jesus came to offer eternal life to the world (a point on which both sides agree) is not to say that he actually paid the penalty for the sins of everyone who would ever live, for that is a separate question.

When John says that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, author’s translation), he may simply be understood to mean that Christ is the atoning sacrifice that the gospel now makes available for the sins of everyone in the world. The preposition “for” (Gk. περί, G4309, plus genitive) is ambiguous with respect to the specific sense in which Christ is the propitiation “for” the sins of the world. Περί (G4309) simply means “concerning” or “with respect to” but is not specific enough to define the exact way in which Christ is the sacrifice with respect to the sins of the world. It would be entirely consistent with the language of the verse to think that John is simply saying that Christ is the atoning sacrifice who is available to pay for the sins of anyone in the world. Likewise, when Paul says that Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6), we are to understand this to mean a ransom available for all people, without exception.

When the author of Hebrews says that Christ was made lower than the angels “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one” (Heb. 2:9), the passage is best understood to refer to every one of Christ’s people, every one who is redeemed. It does not say everyone “in the whole world” or any such expression, and in the immediate context the author is certainly speaking of those who are redeemed (see “bringing many sons to glory” [v. 10]; “those who are sanctified” [v. 11]; and “the children God has given me” [v. 13]). The Greek word πᾶς (G4246) here translated “every one,” is also used in a similar sense to mean “all of God’s people” in Hebrews 8:11, “for all shall know me,” and in Hebrews 12:8, “If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” In both cases the “all” is not explicitly restricted by a specific phrase such as “all of God’s people,” but this is clearly the sense in the overall context. Of course, in other contexts, the same word “all” can mean “all people without exception,” but this must be determined from the individual context in each case.

When Paul speaks in Romans 14:15 and 1 Corinthians 8:11 about the possibility of destroying one for whom Christ died, it seems best here as well to think of the word “for” in the sense that Christ died “to make salvation available for” these people or “to bring the free offer of the gospel to” these people who are associated with the fellowship of the church. He does not seem to have in mind the specific question of the inter-trinitarian decision regarding whose sins the Father counted Christ’s death as a payment for. Rather, he is speaking of those to whom the gospel has been offered. In another passage, when Paul calls the weak man a “brother for whom Christ died” in 1 Corinthians 8:11, he is not necessarily pronouncing on the inward spiritual condition of a person’s heart, but is probably just speaking according to what is often called the “judgment of charity” by which people who are participating in the fellowship of the church can rightly be referred to as brothers and sisters.

When Peter speaks of false teachers who bring in destructive heresies, “even denying the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1), it is unclear whether the word “Master” (Gk. δεσπότης, G1305) refers to Christ (as in Jude 4) or to God the Father (as in Luke 2:29; Acts 4:24; Rev. 6:10). In either case, the Old Testament allusion is probably to Deuteronomy 32:6, where Moses says to the rebellious people who have turned away from God, “Is not he your Father who has bought you?” (author’s translation). Peter is drawing an analogy between the past false prophets who arose among the Jews and those who will be false teachers within the churches to which he writes: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1). In line with this clear reference to false prophets in the Old Testament, Peter also alludes to the fact that the rebellious Jews turned away from God who “bought” them out of Egypt in the exodus. From the time of the exodus onward, any Jewish person would have considered himself or herself one who was “bought” by God in the exodus and therefore a person of God’s own possession. In this sense, the false teachers arising among the people were denying God their Father, to whom they rightfully belonged. So the text means not that Christ had redeemed these false prophets, but simply that they were rebellious Jewish people (or church attenders in the same position as the rebellious Jews) who were rightly owned by God because they had been brought out of the land of Egypt (or their forefathers had), but they were ungrateful to him. Christ’s specific redemptive work on the cross is not in view in this verse.42

With regard to the verses that talk of Christ’s dying for his sheep, his church, or his people, non-Reformed people may answer that these passages do not deny that he died to pay the penalty for others as well. In response, while it is true that they do not explicitly deny that Christ died for others as well, their frequent reference to his death for his people would at least strongly suggest that this is a correct inference. Even if they do not absolutely imply such a particularizing of redemption, these verses do at least seem to be most naturally interpreted in this way.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the Reformed position of “particular redemption” is most consistent with the overall teaching of Scripture. But once that has been said, several points of caution need to be raised.

4. Points of Clarification and Caution Regarding This Doctrine. It is important to state some points of clarification and also some areas in which we can rightly object to the way in which some advocates of particular redemption have expressed their arguments. It is also important to ask what the pastoral implications are for this teaching.

1. It seems to be a mistake to state the question as Berkhof does and focus on the purpose of the Father and the Son, rather than on what actually happened in the atonement. If we confine the discussion to the purpose of the atonement, then this is just another form of the larger dispute between Calvinists and Arminians over whether God’s purpose is (a) to save all people, a purpose that is frustrated by man’s will to rebel—the Arminian position—or whether God’s purpose is (b) to save those whom he has chosen—the Calvinist position. This question will not be decided at the narrow point of the question of the extent of the atonement, for the specific scriptural texts on that point are too few and can hardly be said to be conclusive on either side. One’s decisions on these passages will tend to be determined by one’s view of the larger question as to what Scripture as a whole teaches about the nature of the atonement and about the broader issues of God’s providence, sovereignty, and the doctrine of election. Whatever decisions are made on those larger topics will apply specifically to this point, and people will come to their conclusions accordingly.

Rather than focusing on the purpose of the atonement, therefore, the question is rightfully asked about the atonement itself: Did Christ pay for the sins of all unbelievers who will be eternally condemned, and did he pay for their sins fully and completely on the cross? It seems that we have to answer no to that question.

2. The statements “Christ died for his people only” and “Christ died for all people” are both true in some senses, and too often the argument over this issue has been confused because of various senses that can be given to the word “for” in these two statements.

The statement “Christ died for his people only” can be understood to mean that “Christ died to actually pay the penalty for all the sins of his people only.” In that sense it is true. But when non-Reformed people hear the sentence “Christ died for his people only,” they often hear in it, “Christ died so that he could make the gospel available only to a chosen few,” and they are troubled over what they see as a real threat to the free offer of the gospel to every person. Reformed people who hold to particular redemption should recognize the potential for misunderstanding that arises with the sentence “Christ died for his people only,” and, out of concern for the truth and out of pastoral concern to affirm the free offer of the gospel and to avoid misunderstanding in the body of Christ, they should be more precise in saying exactly what they mean. The simple sentence, “Christ died for his people only,” while true in the sense explained above, is seldom understood in that way when people unfamiliar with Reformed doctrine hear it, and it therefore is better not to use such an ambiguous sentence at all.

On the other hand, the sentence, “Christ died for all people,” is true if it means, “Christ died to make salvation available to all people” or if it means, “Christ died to bring the free offer of the gospel to all people.” In fact, this is the kind of language Scripture itself uses in passages like John 6:51; 1 Timothy 2:6; and 1 John 2:2. It really seems to be only nit-picking that creates controversies and useless disputes when Reformed people insist on being such purists in their speech that they object any time someone says that “Christ died for all people.” There are certainly acceptable ways of understanding that sentence that are consistent with the speech of the scriptural authors themselves.

Similarly, I do not think we should rush to criticize an evangelist who tells an audience of unbelievers, “Christ died for your sins,” if it is made clear in the context that it is necessary to trust in Christ before one can receive the benefits of the gospel offer. In that sense the sentence is simply understood to mean “Christ died to offer you forgiveness for your sins” or “Christ died to make available forgiveness for your sins.” The important point here is that sinners realize that salvation is available for everyone and that payment of sins is available for everyone.

At this point some Reformed theologians will object and will warn us that if we say to unbelievers, “Christ died for your sins,” the unbelievers will draw the conclusion, “Therefore I am saved no matter what I do.” But this does not seem to be a problem in actual fact, for whenever evangelicals (Reformed or non-Reformed) speak about the gospel to unbelievers, they are always very clear on the fact that the death of Christ has no benefit for a person unless that person believes in Christ. Therefore, the problem seems to be more something that Reformed people think unbelievers should believe (if they were consistent in reasoning back into the secret counsels of God and the relationship between the Father and Son in the counsels of the Trinity at the point of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice on the cross). But unbelievers simply do not reason that way: they know that they must exercise faith in Christ before they will experience any benefits from his saving work. Moreover, it is far more likely that people will understand the sentence “Christ died for your sins” in the doctrinally correct sense that “Christ died in order to offer you forgiveness for your sins” rather than in the doctrinally incorrect sense, “Christ died and completely paid the penalty already for all your sins.”

3. In terms of the practical, pastoral effects of our words, both those who hold to particular redemption and those who hold to general redemption agree at several key points:

a. Both sincerely want to avoid implying that people will be saved whether they believe in Christ or not. Non-Reformed people sometimes accuse Reformed people of saying that the elect will be saved irrespective of responding to the gospel, but this is clearly a misrepresentation of the Reformed position. On the other hand, Reformed people think that those who hold to general redemption are in danger of implying that everybody will be saved whether they believe in Christ or not. But this is not a position that non-Reformed people actually hold, and it is always precarious to criticize people for a position that they do not say they hold, just because you think that they should hold that position if they were consistent with their other views.

b. Both sides want to avoid implying that there might be some people who come to Christ for salvation but are turned away because Christ did not die for them. No one wants to say or imply to an unbeliever, “Christ might have died for your sins (and then again he might not have!).” Both sides want to clearly affirm that all who come to Christ for salvation will in fact be saved. “Him who comes to me I will not cast out” (John 6:37).

c. Both sides want to avoid implying that God is hypocritical or insincere when he makes the free offer of the gospel. It is a genuine offer, and it is always true that all who wish to come to Christ for salvation and who do actually come to him will be saved.

d. Finally, we may ask why this matter is so important after all. Although Reformed people have sometimes made belief in particular redemption a test of doctrinal orthodoxy, it would be healthy to realize that Scripture itself never singles this out as a doctrine of major importance, nor does it once make it the subject of any explicit theological discussion. Our knowledge of the issue comes only from incidental references to it in passages whose concern is with other doctrinal or practical matters. In fact, this is really a question that probes into the inner counsels of the Trinity and does so in an area in which there is very little direct scriptural testimony—a fact that should cause us to be cautious. A balanced pastoral perspective would seem to be to say that this teaching of particular redemption seems to us to be true, that it gives logical consistency to our theological system, and that it can be helpful in assuring people of Christ’s love for them individually and of the completeness of his redemptive work for them; but that it also is a subject that almost inevitably leads to some confusion, some misunderstanding, and often some wrongful argumentativeness and divisiveness among God’s people—all of which are negative pastoral considerations. Perhaps that is why the apostles such as John and Peter and Paul, in their wisdom, placed almost no emphasis on this question at all. And perhaps we would do well to ponder their example.

 

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004.

 

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