To end our examination of Reformed Theology from a doctrinal perspective, I hope to explain how those who are Reformed understand the intent of the atonement. In other words, I will be explaining how the Reformers answered the question, “What did God the Father intend to accomplish through the atonement of Christ?” A perceptive thinker will realize that the answer to this question is inextricably linked to the nature and the effect of the atonement which was the subject of my last post. So, in discussing the intent of the atonement today, I will tie in what the Reformers believe about the nature and the effect of the atonement as well.
The Intent of the Atonement:
There are four substantial positions that Christians have taken on the intent of the atonement in the history of the church. I want to briefly outline each of them to clarify what the Reformed position is.
- Universalism: Christ died with the intention of atoning for each individual person without exception according to the Father’s will such that the outcome of his work effectively saved each individual without exception since the Spirit applies salvation to all. The intent and the outcome are the same.
- Arminian/Roman Catholic: Christ died with the intention of atoning for each individual, but not every individual is actually saved. The cross did not directly satisfy God’s wrath for each individual, for a person must actualize the atonement through their faith in Jesus (and in the case of Roman Catholics, their works of obedience in participating in the sacraments as well) so that the Spirit can then apply salvation to them. The intent and the outcome are different.
- Definite/Limited Atonement (the Reformed view): Christ died with the intention of atoning for the elect only as the Father decreed, and each individual who has been chosen by God to be part of the elect is saved because the Spirit applies it to them. The intent and the outcome are the same.
- Hypothetical Universalism/Amyraldianism: Christ died with the intention of atoning for each individual, but God the Father knew beforehand that not everyone would trust Christ and thus he decreed only a certain number to be saved by the Holy Spirit applying salvation to those decreed by the Father. The intent and the outcome are different.
The implications of what is at stake in these differing positions is clear. Two positions suggest that the persons of the Trinity act incongruously with one another. Both View 2 and View 4 argue that God the Father sends Christ to die for each and every individual, but the Son does not actually accomplish salvation for all (his work is sufficient but provisional), and the Spirit does not apply salvation to all.
Therefore, we must return again to what has been said about the nature of the atonement. I have argued the Reformed position which insists that penal substitution lies at the very heart of the work of Christ. If this is the case, the biblical teaching that Christ died as a substitute requires that we adopt either universalism (View 1) or definite/limited atonement (View 2). Provisional atonement is inconsistent with the idea that Christ satisfied God’s wrath on the cross, for if he did satisfy God’s wrath in our place as our substitute, then it would be unjust for anyone to be punished for their sin even if they never believe in Christ. That would be double punishment. God’s wrath was either actually satisfied or it wasn’t. Provisional satisfaction makes no biblical sense.
The Arminian/Roman Catholic and Amyraldian positions (Views 2 and 4) require a person to argue that Christ’s work on the cross did not actually accomplish anything on its own. They require a person’s faith to actualize his work on the cross. This is a deficient view of the atonement as has hopefully been made clear in the previous post. Furthermore, Views 2 and 4 ignore the fact that faith itself is a gift that Christ purchased on the cross. It is not a purely human activity independent of God’s grace. We have already seen that a sinner cannot believe in Christ apart from the new birth, and the new birth is applied to us because Jesus has purchased it on the cross. If he purchased it for all, then all will receive it. If he purchased it for some, then only some receive it.
It is impossible to argue that the bible teaches penal substitution while also arguing for the provisional atonement of Arminianism/Roman Catholicism and Amyraldianism. In fact, in the history of American Christianity, the denial of penal substitution has come from from those that had rejected Reformed theology long beforehand because of the offensive nature of its teaching on sin and salvation. Rejecting penal substitution was the logical next step!
So, we must embrace Universalism or the Reformed view, and I find it very difficult to read the bible and ignore all the passages that speak of those who will endure the pains of hell. Universalism can only be embraced by those who simply refuse to accept the difficult doctrine of hell.
The Great Puritan John Owen argued in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ against the Arminian, Roman Catholic, and Amyraldian positions well, saying something like this (my paraphrase):
God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for, either all the sins of all men, or all the sins of some men, or some sins of all men. If the last, some sins of all men, then have all men some sins to answer for, and so shall no man be saved. If the second (this is what we affirm), then Christ died in the place of the elect paying for all their sins. If the first, why then are not all saved from their sins? You will say, ‘It is because of their unbelief.’ But, isn’t unbelief a sin? If it is, then hasn’t Christ died for unbelief as well such that everyone, believer or not, must be saved?
I don’t know any Christian who argues that unbelief is not a sin. Unbelief is sin, and if Christ actually died for every sin of every individual, then unbelievers are saved. When we look at what the bible teaches about election, faith, sin, and the nature of the atonement, we can come to no other conclusion than the Reformed view of definite/limited atonement.
One charge that is often raised to the argumentation above is that no Scripture has yet been cited. This is merely an exercise in logic. I mentioned in my third post on Reformed theology (found here) that I wanted to avoid creating a logical system based on verses pulled out of context. Theology should be derived first from a sound grasp of the biblical storyline that culminates in Christ rather than developing a logical system of categories supported by proof-texts and/or rational extrapolation. So, the charge that the doctrine of definite atonement is nothing more than a logical extrapolation from the other issues mentioned in my posts on Reformed Theology is a charge I take seriously.
In response to this charge, I think it is important that we see two things. First, the biblical concepts of redemption, reconciliation, atonement, and propitiation that develop progressively in Scripture beginning with the Exodus and ending with Christ support definite atonement. All of these concepts describe not a potential but an actual effect. Christ actually set people free, not just potentially. A ransom was a specific price paid to redeem or buy a specific person or people out of slavery, to buy back a first-born son, or to pay down a debt. Christ actually brought us back into a relationship with God even though we were enemies. Christ actually satisfied God’s wrath, not just potentially.
Second, there are many passages that teach us that Christ died for the elect only and others that suggest, imply, or assume this.
Biblical Support for the Doctrine of Definite Atonement:
First, let me cite a few passages that I think do teach definite atonement although that conclusion is not logically necessary. I’ll explain what I mean by that below.
Ephesians 5:25-27 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Matthew 1:21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 20:28 The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
Now these are just a few examples of many passages that speak of redemption as something God accomplished for a limited group: the church, his people, and many. However, I see how these verses, on their own, do not convince people . It is true that just because these verses say that Jesus died for a specific group does not logically require that we say he did not die for others. For example, if I am talking to a Christian who is struggling with guilt over a specific sin, and I say to them, “Christ died for you,” this does not mean that I am suggesting that he only died for that person, but that that person is included in the group for whom Christ died.
So, on their own, these verses do not prove View 3. However, in light of other considerations, I think that it becomes clear that these passages are in fact saying that Christ died for a specific group, the elect. To those other considerations, we now turn.
John 10 is a beautiful discourse by Jesus where he explains his mission in the language of shepherding. God as shepherd is a huge Old Testament theme. Throughout the Old Testament, beginning in Genesis, God shepherds his people, eventually establishing under-shepherds to rule, lead, nourish, guide, and protect his people with his word. When Jesus comes on the scene, he declares himself to be the True, Supreme, and Great Shepherd. In John 10, he explains that he has come for his sheep who know his voice and follow him. The language of election is all over the passage, picking up from John 6 where Jesus explains that the Father has given him specific people that he is to keep and ultimate raise up on the last day (John 6.37-39, 44, 65). Speaking to the Jews, including the religious leaders of the day, Jesus explains that the reason many of them are not following his teaching is because they do not belong to his flock. He contrasts those who hear his teaching and follow him with those who do not. He contrasts himself with the religious leaders, who attempt to steal away his sheep, calling them thieves and robbers.
Thus, Jesus explains that Israel is made up of two groups of sheep with two leaders. Jesus’ flock is filled with sheep from Israel and from elsewhere (Jn. 10.16) who hear him and know him and thus follow him. And there is another group of sheep who do not hear God when they hear Jesus speak who are led by thieves and robbers who attempt to steal sheep away from Jesus’ flock. The good news is, those the Father gave to Jesus will hear the voice of Jesus since he calls them by name and they follow (Jn. 10.3-5), and none will be lost.
Thus, when Jesus says in verse 11, “I am the Good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” and in verses 14-15, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep,” he is clearly talking about his own sheep in contrast to the sheep that do not belong to him. Again, Jesus says in verse 10, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Finally, in verses 27-28, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”
This language is all over the book of John, which is why John 13.1 says in reference to Jesus preparing for his ‘hour’ which refers to his suffering on the cross: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.” Again, this is why Jesus prays for his disciples only in John 17.1-2, 9:
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him…I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.
There are other passages that I could cite that I believe make it clear that Jesus died specifically to save the elect and not for all. This is not to say that Jesus’ death was somehow not powerful enough to do so, for it certainly could have paid for all the sin of each individual if that was God’s intent. The doctrine of definite atonement also should not be understood to deny that salvation can be offered to any person. Surely, anyone who repents can trust that Christ died for their sin. Their repentance is in fact one of the benefits of Christ’s work on the cross. (Sidenote: We are morally obligated to repent because we have wronged God regardless of whether or not he offers forgiveness for our sin. However, God does mercifully offer forgiveness to all who repent.)
Biblical Passages often cited that seemingly deny definite atonement:
As soon as someone makes the case for definite atonement, Christians quote two or three passages:
1 Timothy 2:3-6 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
1 Timothy 4:10 For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
Let me attempt to explain why these verses cannot be understood to contradict definite atonement by commenting on them in reverse order.
2 Peter 3.9 is not talking about the salvation of each and every individual in the world but of the elect. Peter’s point is that God has delayed the coming of Jesus, not because he cares nothing about the suffering believers are going through, but until the full number of the elect has repented and believed. This is made clear when one studies the whole book and sees the focus Peter places on the elect who are the recipients of the great promises of God.
I Timothy 4.10 is by far the easiest to address, though I imagine many doubters are least likely to agree with my answer. I believe the translation is not a good one. The word ‘especially’ is better translated, ‘that is.’ In other words, Paul is saying that the living God is the Savior of all people, that is, of all who believe. Paul uses the same Greek word in chapter 5 verse 17 in the same way when he explains that elders are worthy of double honor, that is, those who labor in preaching and teaching. All Christians are worthy of honor, but elders, whose job it is to preach and teach, are worthy of double honor, which verse 18 tells us is financial compensation.
I Timothy 2.3-6 is the most difficult of the three because one must take the passage, verses 1-7, as a whole to see the point. When one looks at all 7 verses however, it becomes clear that the word ‘all’ is being used to describe different types of people. Thus, it is helpful to read ‘all types’ at each use of ‘all’ in the passage. This is clear when one sees that Paul is urging Timothy and the Church in Ephesus to pray for all types of people, even kings and rulers in authority, which are not the type of people the Christians at that time would like very much since they were persecuting the Church. They were to pray for government officials because God even cares about saving that type of person, rich or poor, powerful or not, Jew or Gentile, because God is the God over mankind. He is not a local deity, a national god, or a god of a certain class or profession (as the Greek gods were). God is the one true and living God over all people everywhere, and thus, Christians should pray for all types of people that God might save people from every realm of the world.
Needless to say, I don’t think these passages overturn the abundance of biblical support for the doctrine of definite atonement.
Summary of the Doctrinal Teaching of Reformed Theology:
Reformed Theology teaches that salvation is by God and for his glory. Every aspect of salvation is a gift from God, beginning with election, including the new birth and faith, and ending with our glorification. God determined before the foundation of the world to save a people for himself out of condemnation and judgment justly deserved because of sin. He then sent his Son into the world to die, taking their penalty in their place, so that he could justify all those who believe in him because of the work of the Spirit in them.
Salvation is by grace. We contribute nothing to our salvation, and we receive it because of God’s work in us. There is absolutely no ground for boasting whatsoever by those who believe. We only choose God because of his work for us and in us, and our choice could be no other.
If you have received this grace and understand what God has done for you, even if these are difficult doctrines to accept, you can do nothing but praise God. All good theology must lead us to worship, and so I pray that you will say with me:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11.33-36)