Theological Commitments of the Biblical Gospel: The Atonement

Atonement: The Heart of the Gospel

Our theological term “atonement” comes from the Anglo-Saxon root that means “to be at one with another” and was over time shortened to  ‘atonement” (at-one-ment). It is the reconciliation of God to man and man to God that comes through the vicarious (meaning, in our place) penal (meaning it was the wrath of God poured out as the justified penalty for our sins) substitutionary (meaning that it was not for Christ’s sin, but for the sin of others) death of Christ.

But for whom did Christ die? Did he die for the whole world or did he die only for his elect? The answer is for both. When we are talking about the death of Christ, we need to be aware of precision. We are not saying that Christ’s death was unable to save all people that have every existed—that would be to say that the blood of Christ was insufficient in power and ability. But if we were to say that Christ’s death was effective in saving all people that have ever existed, we would fall into that heresy called “universalism.”

Minimally, we cannot deny that Christ’s death was both sufficient and effective for the elect. This is not debated by any who hold to the biblical doctrines of grace. But did Christ’s death on the cross have any effect upon the non-elect—those who would never come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ? Yes.

On 1Tim 4:10, the MacArthur Study Bible notes say in part,

The simple explanation is that God is the Savior of all men, only in a temporal sense, while of believers in an eternal sense. Paul’s point is that while God graciously delivers believers from sin’s condemnation and penalty because He was their substitute (2 Cor. 5:21), all men experience some earthly benefits from the goodness of God. Those benefits are: 1) common grace—a term that describes God’s goodness shown to all mankind universally (Ps. 145:9) in restraining sin (Rom. 2:15) and judgment (Rom. 2:3–6), maintaining order in society through government (Rom. 13:1–5), enabling man to appreciate beauty and goodness (Ps. 50:2), and showering him with temporal blessings (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:15–17; 17:25); 2) compassion—the broken-hearted love of pity God shows to undeserving, unregenerate sinners (Ex. 34:6, 7; Ps. 86:5; Dan. 9:9; Matt. 23:37; Luke 19:41–44; cf. Is. 16:11–13; Jer. 48:35–37); 3) admonition to repent—God constantly warns sinners of their fate, demonstrating the heart of a compassionate Creator who has no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:30–32; 33:11); 4) the gospel invitation—salvation in Christ is indiscriminately offered to all (Matt. 11:28, 29; 22:2–14; John 6:35–40; Rev. 22:17; cf. John 5:39, 40). God is, by nature, a saving God. That is, He finds no pleasure in the death of sinners. His saving character is revealed even in how He deals with those who will never believe, but only in those 4 temporal ways.[5]

The Canons of Dort, Articles 3 & 4 (Second Head of Doctrine) say this:

“The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin, and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.[6]” And “This death is of such infinite value and dignity because the person who submitted to it was not only really man and perfectly holy, but also the only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, which qualifications were necessary to constitute Him a Savior for us; and, moreover, because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God due to us for sin.[7]

These statements are in complete agreement with the biblical record. Christ’s death on the cross is only salvific for the elect, but his death also gives benefits to the whole world. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church agrees with this, stating,

“In Reformed parlance we speak of “common grace” as God’s goodness even to those who are destined to be lost (Romans 2:4-5; Matthew 5:45). God’s goodness to reprobate sinners may be considered the product of the cross. In that sense it might be said that Jesus died for all mankind. But saving grace is called “special grace.” And whatever we may say of benefits flowing from the cross, Christ did NOT die to save those whom He willed to pass over unto deserved condemnation!”[8] 

So, why is this so important for us to know? Well first, because it is the nature of the gospel. Christ died to save others. But whom? Some go so far as to reject even saying that Jesus died for the world, in spite of the fact that the Bible clearly says so. But saying this does not mean that all will be eternally saved, nor does it embrace universalism or the heresy called Pelagianism.

You can say that Jesus died for the world! At the same time, we know that not all the world will be eternally saved. Secondly, we need to be honest about several verses in our Bibles that say that Christ’s death did something beyond saving the elect.

We can’t say that it means that the world was justified and redeemed, but we can see that there are temporal types of salvation that were won by Christ. This isn’t something we need to deny. If we do, we deny the fulness of the glory of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. And finally, we need to know this because we need to study the hard things of the Word and strive to be as accurate as possible, wrestling with the truth, and not denying those bothersome bits that don’t fit well into our thinking.

[5] John MacArthur Jr., ed., The MacArthur Study Bible, electronic ed. (Nashville, TN: Word Pub., 1997), 1867.

[6] Historic Creeds and Confessions, electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Lexham Press, 1997).

[7] Historic Creeds and Confessions, electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Lexham Press, 1997).

[8] From http://www.opc.org/qa.html?question_id=284

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