Definite Atonement (Part 2/3): Biblical Evidence and Theological Arguments

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It is imperative that theological discourse goes beyond polemics and offers positive evidence and constructive arguments to establish the veracity of doctrine. This being the case, I would like to invite our readers to consider carefully several lines of biblical evidence and theological arguments for the doctrine of definite atonement given below:

The Particularistic Vocabulary of Scripture
The Scriptures themselves particularize who it is for whom Christ died. The beneficiaries of Christ’s cross work are denominated in the following ways: “The house of Israel, and the house of Judah,” that is, the church or “true Israel” (Jer. 31:31; Luke 22:20; Heb. 9:15); his “people” (Matt. 1:21); his “friends” (John 15:13); his “sheep” (John 10:11, 15); his “body,” the “church” (Eph. 5:23–26; Acts 20:28); the “elect” (Rom. 8:32–34); the “many” (Isa. 53:12; Matt. 20:28; 26:28; Mark 10:45); “us” (Tit. 2:14); and “me” (Gal. 2:20).

Christ’s High-Priestly Work Restricted to the Elect
It is highly unlikely that Christ’s high-priestly work of sacrifice and intercession, two parts of one harmonious work, would be carried out with different objects in view—the former (the sacrifice) for all mankind, the latter (the intercession) for only some people. Since Jesus expressly declared that his intercessory work is conducted not in behalf of the world but for the elect (“I am not praying for the world,” he said, “but for those you [the Father] have given me,” and later he prayed, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message” [John 17:9, 20; see Luke 22:31–32], that is, for God’s elect [see Rom. 8:32–34]), consistency of purpose demands that his sacrificial work would be conducted in behalf of the same group for whom he carries out his intercessory work. It is difficult to believe that Christ would refuse to intercede for a portion of those for whose sin he, by his blood, made expiation!

The Father’s Particularistic Salvific Will and Work
It is unthinkable, because of the essential and teleological unity of the Godhead, to suppose that Christ’s sacrificial work would conflict with the overall salvific intention of the Father in any way. Christ himself declared that he had come to do the will of the Father (Matt. 26:39; John 6:38; Heb. 10:7). In other words, there is harmony and consistency between the Father’s salvific will and work and the Son’s salvific will and work. But the Scriptures expressly represent the Father’s salvific will and work (for example, foreknowing, predestining, calling, justifying, glorifying) as particular and definite with regard to their objects (see the many passages which declare that God the Father, before the foundation of the world, chose certain persons in Christ unto salvation, such as Rom. 8:28–30, 33; 9:11–23; 11:6–7, 28; Eph. 1:4–5, 11; 2 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 1:9). Harmony between the salvific intention of the Father and the salvific intention of the Son would demand that Christ’s purpose behind his cross work be as particular and definite as the Father’s salvific purpose, and terminate upon the same objects. This is just to say that Christ’s cross work was carried out savingly in behalf of the elect—those whom the Father had given him (John 17:2, 6, 9, 24), whom the Father would draw to him (John 6:44), whom the Father would teach to come to him (John 6:45), and whom the Father would enable to come to him (John 6:65). It is unthinkable to believe that Christ would say: “I recognize, Father, that your election and your salvific intentions terminate upon only a portion of mankind, but because my love is more inclusive and expansive than yours, I am not satisfied to die only for those you have elected. I am going to die for everyone.”

The Death to Sin and Resurrection to Newness of Life of All Those for Whom Christ Died [Omitted]

The Intrinsic Efficacy of Christ’s Cross Work Necessarily Exclusivistic
The Scriptures make it clear that Christ died not a potentially but an actually sacrificial death on the cross (1 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 9:23, 26; 10:24), becoming there both sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and curse (Gal. 3:13) as the substitute for others (περί, peri—Rom. 8:3; Gal. 1:4; 1 Pet. 3:18), as the substitute in behalf of others (ὑπέρ, hyper—Rom. 5:6–8; 8:32; 14:15; Gal. 2:13, 20; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:15; Heb. 2:9), as the substitute for the sake of others (διά, dia—1 Cor. 8:11), and as the substitute in the stead or place of others (ἀντί, anti—Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45), thereby paying the penalty, bearing the curse, and dying the death for all those for whom he died. Christ by his death work actually (1) destroyed the works of the devil in behalf of (1 John 3:8; Heb. 2:14–15; Col. 2:14–15), (2) propitiated God’s wrath for (by satisfying the demands of divine justice) (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10), (3) reconciled God to (Rom. 5:10–11; 2 Cor. 5:18–20; Eph. 2:16; Col. 1:20–21), and (4) redeemed from the curse of the law and the guilt and power of sin (Gal. 3:13; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14; Tit. 2:14) all those for whom he died as a sacrifice. If he did his cross work for all mankind, then the sins of all mankind have been atoned for. But then all mankind would be saved, for what is it which keeps any single man from heaven but his sin? Unless, that is, God punishes sin twice—once in the person of Christ and again in the person of the unrepentant sinner. But the Scriptures will not permit us to espouse either the universal salvation of all mankind or the enactment of double jeopardy by God. The only conclusion that one may fairly draw is that Christ did not do his cross work for all; he did it rather only for some, and for all the sins of those people.

An Atonement of High Value Necessarily Exclusive of an Atonement of Universal Extension
Unless one is prepared to affirm the final universal salvation of all mankind (which is so patently unbiblical that we will altogether ignore it as a possible option), one cannot have an atonement of infinite intrinsic value and also an atonement of universal extension. One can have one or the other but not both.

If the nature of his atoning work is such that by his death Christ actually propitiated the wrath of God, removed God’s holy sense of alienation, and paid the price for sin that God’s offended justice required (which is what we mean when we speak of an atonement of infinite intrinsic worth), and if he did this work sacrificially, meaning that he did it for, on behalf of, in the stead of, and in the place of sinners, then it follows that for those sinners in whose stead he did this work, as Charles H. Spurgeon wrote, “Christ so died that he infallibly secured [their] salvation … , who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.” But then this requires that we conclude that Christ did not savingly die for everyone—since neither Scripture, history, nor Christian experience will tolerate the conclusion that everyone has been, is being, or shall be saved—but for some people only, even those whom the Father had given to him.

If, on the other hand, Christ did his cross work, whatever it is (and those who advocate an atonement of universal extension must make clear precisely what Christ did do at the cross if he did not actually propitiate, reconcile, and redeem and then must square their view with Scripture), with a view to the salvation of every person without exception, and if he did not do for any one particular person anything which he did not do for every person distributively (which is what we mean when we speak of an atonement of universal extension), we must conclude (1) that Christ died neither savingly nor substitutionally for anyone, since he did not do for those who are saved anything that he did not also do for those who are lost, and the one thing that he did not do for the lost was save them, and (2) that Christ’s death actually procured nothing that guarantees the salvation of anyone, but only made everyone in some inexplicable way salvable (which, according to Luke 16:26 and Heb. 9:27, is in actuality manifestly impossible in the case of those who were already in hell), whose actual salvation must of necessity be rooted then ultimately in soil other than Christ’s cross work—namely, in the soil of the individual’s own will and work. But it should be plain to all that this construction eviscerates Christ’s cross work of its intrinsic infinite saving worth, is Pelagianism and makes salvation ultimately turn on human merit. As Warfield insists:

The things that we have to choose between, are an atonement of high value, or an atonement of wide extension. The two cannot go together. And this is the real objection of Calvinism to [the universalizing] scheme which presents itself as an improvement on its system: it universalizes the atonement at the cost of its intrinsic value, and Calvinism demands a really substitutive atonement which actually saves.

It is often urged by Arminian Christians in response to all this that this particularistic teaching is cold and heartless. But in his sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:14–15, J. Gresham Machen observed:

People say that Calvinism is a dour, hard creed. How broad and comforting, they say, is the doctrine of a universal atonement, the doctrine that Christ died equally for all men there upon the cross! How narrow and harsh, they say, is this Calvinistic doctrine—one of the “five points” of Calvinism—this doctrine of the “limited atonement,” this doctrine that Christ died for the elect of God in a sense in which he did not die for the unsaved!

But do you know, my friends, it is surprising that men say that. It is surprising that they regard the doctrine of a universal atonement as being a comforting doctrine. In reality it is a very gloomy doctrine indeed. Ah, if it were only a doctrine of a universal salvation, instead of a doctrine of a universal atonement, then it would no doubt be a very comforting doctrine; then no doubt it would conform wonderfully well to what we in our puny wisdom might have thought the course of the world should have been. But a universal atonement without a universal salvation is a cold, gloomy doctrine indeed. To say that Christ died for all men alike and that then not all men are saved, to say that Christ died for humanity simply in the mass, and that the choice of those who out of that mass are saved depends upon the greater receptivity of some as compared with others—that is a doctrine that takes from the gospel much of its sweetness and much of its joy. From the cold universalism of that Arminian creed we turn ever again with a new thankfulness to the warm and tender individualism of our Reformed Faith, which we believe to be in accord with God’s holy Word. Thank God we can say every one, as we contemplate Christ upon the Cross, not just: “He died for the mass of humanity, and how glad I am that I am amid that mass,” but: “He loved me and gave Himself for me; my name was written from all eternity upon His heart, and when He hung and suffered there on the Cross He thought of me, even me, as one for whom in His grace He was willing to die.

Source: Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson, 1998), pp. 673-683.

Related Posts:
Definite Atonement (Part 1/3): Engaging Arminian Proof Texts for Universal Atonement.
Definite Atonement (3/3). The Logic of 1 John 2:1-2.
Why Arminians Limit the Atonement More than Calvinists.

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