Category Archives: soteriology

Atonement: Particular Redemption

Often the extent of atonement has been a confusing question for Christians who otherwise generally appreciate the biblical teaching on the sovereignty of God in salvation. In light of this, I thought I would post some notes with a bit of commentary for folks to use as a guide to studying the issue for themselves. The notes are meant as a guide so they are not exhaustive, but I do attempt to point to a few of the key points that have to be considered.

Atonement: Particular Redemption

What is the Extent of the Atonement? A Biblical & Reformed View

 First, a God-centered, perspective-setting thought to lay the overarching groundwork for this study:

“What Christ acquired by this sacrifice is beyond description. For himself he acquired by it his entire exaltation, his resurrection (Eph. 1:20), his ascension to heaven (1 Pet. 3:22), his seating at the right hand of God (Eph. 1:20; Heb. 12:2), his elevation as head of the church (Eph. 1:22), the name that is above every name (Phil. 2:9-11), the glory of the mediator (John 17:5; Heb. 2:9), power over all things in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:22; 1 Cor. 15:24ff.), the final judgment (John 5:22, 27). In addition he acquired for his own, for humanity, for the world, an interminable series of blessings.” [1]

 Summary statement: The atonement of Christ has a covenantal design (as does his entire priestly ministry). In the covenant of redemption, a particular group of people was marked out by God to be saved by the Son.

 The covenantal design of the atonement:

  • Covenant of Redemption: (John 6:37-39, 44, 65; 10:26, 28-29; 15:16; 17:1-2, 6, 9, 19, 24)  – John’s Gospel teaches:
  1. In eternity past, the Father has given a certain group of people, out of the mass of humanity, to the Son to be saved.
  2. The Son reveals himself to, prays for, dies for, keeps and guards these people in a way that he does not do for those outside the elect of the covenant.
  3. All who the Father gives to the Son in eternity, will come to the Son in saving faith in time. “Whosoever” comes to the Son in faith, is welcomed and will be saved by the Son.

Various additional texts to consider:

Emphasis on the saving intent of the atonement:

  • Eph. 5:25-26
  • Acts 20:28
  • Luke 22:19-20
  • Exodus 28:17-21; 39:10-14 – “As Tom Ascol says, ‘Just as the high priest under the old covenant wore the names of the twelve tribes of Israel on his breastplate when he performed his sacrificial service, so our great High Priest under the new covenant had the names of His people inscribed on His heart as He offered up Himself as a sacrifice for their sins.’”[2] 

Emphasis on effectual nature of the atonement:

  • Hebrews 9:12
  • Rom. 8:32
  • John 10:11, 15; 15:13 – Christ dies for his sheep and some are not his sheep (John 10:26)
  • 2 Cor. 5:14; cf. Rom. 6:1-14

 Where does disagreement rise? What, if any, benefits are there for the non-elect in the atonement?

Emphasis on the extensive nature of the atonement:

  • Isaiah 53-5-6; Col. 1:19-20; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 4:10; 1 John 2:2; John 3:16

 In light of these texts, can we say that there is some sense in which Jesus died for the non-elect?

  • Every blessing that the non-elect receive is also on the basis of the atonement of Christ. Common grace extends to the non-elect in the form of family relationships, gainful employment, warmth of the sun, air in the lungs, any measure of heath or life, etc. The saving benefits of the atonement are limited to the elect. The innumerable benefits that the non-elect receive in this life do not include a new heart.

Points of agreement with evangelicals who hold to an unlimited or universal atonement: [3]

  1. Jesus’ atonement is infinitely valuable.
  2. There are benefits of the death of Christ for all people.
  3. Not all people will be saved.
  4. The atonement must be limited one way or another. “Either it is limited in its effects (Christ died for all, but not all get saved), or it is limited in its scope (Christ did not die for all, but all for whom he died will be saved).” [4]

Discussion of disagreement: How is the atonement limited?

  • Sufficient for all, efficient to atone for the sins of the elect:The atonement was adequate to atone for the sins of all people but only the elect have the saving benefits of the atonement applied to them.
    • “The Reformed said that Christ’s work by itself was completely sufficient for the atonement of the sins of the whole world so that, if he had wanted to save a smaller number, it [the number of people saved] could have been less, and if he had wanted to save a higher number, it [the atonement] would not have had to be greater.” [5]
    • Yet, “If God planned from eternity to save one portion of the human race and not another, which is what election affirms, then it is a contradiction to say that he sent his Son to die for those he had previously determined not to save in the same way that he sent his Son to die for those he had previously determined actually to save.” [6]

How does this relate to evangelism?

  • The evangelism of the Church is guaranteed to be successful: Those whom the Father planned to save, the Son died to save and the Spirit will effectively save. The evangelism of the Church will be fruitful.
  • All sinners can and should be welcomed to believe in Christ and receive the saving benefits of the atonement.
    • “The design of Christ’s death being to secure the salvation of his own people, incidentally to the accomplishment of that end, it comprehends the offer of that salvation freely and honestly to all men on the condition of their faith. No man is lost for the want of an atonement, or because there is any other barrier in the way of his salvation than his own most free and wicked will.”[7]

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation In Christ, p. 339.

[2] Joel Beeke, Living For God’s Glory: An Introduction To Calvinism, p. 97.

[3] James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken, The Doctrines of Grace: Rediscovering the Evangelical Gospel, Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002, p. 115-16.

[4] Adapted from Boice and Ryken, p. 117.

[5] Herman Bavinck,Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation In Christ, p. 401.

[6] Boice and Ryken, p. 114.

[7] A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972, 419-20.

Does Jesus Believe in a ‘Whosoever’ Gospel?

“I just believe in a whosoever gospel.”

So the response often goes whenever a discussion of sovereign grace is entered upon. I have heard this protest against sovereign grace many times. Normally, what a person means who says this is simply that Jesus accepts any who come.  The conclusion is then drawn from this that all people must be able to come of their own accord. 

So, is it true that Jesus believes in a ‘whosoever’ gospel?

Yes! By all means. No one who comes to Jesus in saving faith will be turned away (John 6:35, 37, 40, 47, 51, 54, 57-58). Does this resolve the issue, however? If it is agreed that Jesus saves all who come to him in repentant trust, have the historic debates over the doctrines of grace now evaporated? Can Arminians and all Semi-Pelagians and whosoever else, now put down their placards?

Sadly, I suspect this will not happen. After all, it seems that the ‘whosoever will’ question is really just a distraction. Evangelicals generally are in agreement here. Calvinists enthusiastically believe in a whosoever gospel. So this protest does not accomplish anything productive. It clouds the real issues by setting up a straw man that is supposed to represent a Calvinist perspective but in reality does nothing of the sort. It is, therefore, merely a distraction.

But if the first question is really just a misguided distraction, what is the real question?

The real question is, who did Jesus believe was going to actually come to him? If I may put it this way, whosoever was he talking about? Simply put, who comes to Jesus?

Is it:

  • Those who of their own initiative, change the disposition of their own hearts from the state of rebellious unbelief to the state of repentant faith.

Or, is it:

  • Those who, in eternity past, God selected out of the mass of humanity to receive mercy and in time are effectively drawn to Christ, having their hearts converted by grace.

A cursory look at a few passages in John’s Gospel will help clarify the answer to this question.

“All that the Father gives to me will come to me and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (John 6:37)

  • The group that the Father gives to the Son is the same group that actually comes to the Son…no more, no less. Jesus receives every person in that group.

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And 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 on the last day.” (John 6:38-39)

  • The Father’s will is that Jesus would save every single person that the Father gives to him. Jesus does this. The group of people that the Father gives the Son is the same group who will be raised to blessed life on the last day.

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:44)

  • Sinful humanity is not able to come to Jesus. The Father must specially, individually and effectively draw them to Jesus. Everyone who the Father draws in this way will ultimately go to heaven. Those who he does not, will not.

“And this is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:65)

  • The ability to come to Jesus in saving faith is a gift, selectively and individually given by the Father.

“But you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” (John 10:26)

  • The reason people do not believe, is that they are not part of the people God has given to the Son. Arminians reverse the logical order of this verse. They say, “You are ultimately not part of God’s flock because you don’t believe.” But God says ultimately you do not believe because you are not of my flock.

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (John 10:28-29)

  • The Father has given a flock to the Son. Jesus will fully and finally save all those whom the Father gave him.

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…” (John 15:16)

  • It is not our election of God, but God’s election of us, that results in our salvation.

“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.” (John 17:1-2)

  • There are two groups spoken of here: broadly, all humanity (“all flesh”) and narrowly, the elect (“all you have given him”). Jesus gives eternal life to the individuals in the second group.

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” (John 17:6)

  • The people the Father gave the Son are specific people; individually known by the Father and the Son. These people are the same ones who keep God’s word in life.

“I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” (John 17:9)

  • Jesus prays for the people the Father has given him in a way that he does not pray for the rest of humanity. Jesus prays in a way that brings about the results intended.

“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:24)

  • The people the Father has given the Son from all eternity will enjoy his glory for all eternity.

John’s Gospel teaches:

  1. In eternity past, the Father has given a certain group of people, out of the mass of humanity, to the Son to be saved.
  2. All who the Father gives to the Son in eternity, will come to the Son in saving faith in time.
  3. “Whosoever” comes to the Son in faith, is welcomed and will be saved by the Son.

From this, we can see the problem with the “whosoever” protest. It seems to ignore the first and second points. John’s Gospel teaches us that the Father gives a certain group of people to Jesus. Jesus fully and finally saves that group of people.

Some Thoughts Regarding Righteousness and Legalism

I mentioned in my last post that I had recently spent some time studying the doctrine of justification by faith. The Bible teaches that Christians are brought by God’s grace into union with Christ. It is in this union with Christ that we are saved. It is in this union with Christ that we are justified. It is in this union with Christ that we have our righteousness. And it is in this union with Christ that we have hope. Consider, for instance, the implications of 1 Corinthians 1:30:

“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'” (1 Cor. 1:30)

If we are in the Lord Jesus, then our boasting is in the Lord. And if we are in the Lord, it is because of the Lord (not ourselves, our goodness, our initiative, our wisdom, our sound judgment, our moral inclinations, our upbringing, or any other thing). It because of God that we are in Christ, and it is because we are in Christ, that we are declared righteous in God’s sight. Our righteousness is not an inherent righteousness but an alien righteousness. By that, I mean it comes from outside of us, not from inside of us. It is Christ’s righteousness, credited to us.

There are endless implications of the doctrine of justification, and  in particular, implications  for our life and worship. One that comes to mind, is that the doctrine of justification wages war against our natural tendency toward both legalism and “anti-lawism” (commonly known as antinomianism, from the Greek word for law, “nomos”). Here are a few quotes that I have appreciated and hope that they might instruct and encourage you as well:

Legalism is “pursuing holiness divorced from an understanding of what Jesus has accomplished for us. This is the essence of legalism. Often we think of legalism as applying the wrong set of rules. But that’s not necessarily true. Legalism is using any set of rules-bad rules, good rules, even God’s laws-in a wrong way…You’ll either become hopelessly disillusioned at your failure, or if you succeed, you’ll become puffed up with self-righteous pride. Your legalism might appear to produce results for awhile, but ultimately it will work against your pursuit of holiness.” Joshua Harris, Not Even A Hint, p. 49-50.

“Legalism is seeking to achieve forgiveness from God and acceptance by God through my obedience to God.” C. J. Mahaney, The Cross Centered Life

Yet, there is something else we need to think about for our practical lives. For instance, consider Paul’s prayer for the Philippians:

“And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.” (Phil. 1:9-12)

There is a real sense in which our righteousness in Christ will have a fruitful expression in our lives. Sometimes our attempts at stamping out legalism can squash the kind of spiritual discernment that goes hand-in-hand with fruit-producing. Our participation in this living fruit is to exercise a discerning love…love for God and love for others. This means that we have an ongoing need/responsibility to make judgments and decisions about what is good and what is not. Or, even harder, between what is good and what is best! Every day we inevitably have many opportunities do this. In fact, we could not avoid these choices if we tried.

Life in Christ ought to be lived out with an overriding desire to enjoy and glorify God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Legalism will not get us there. Legalism is a spiritual bust. Anti-lawism will not get us there either. Anti-lawism promises freedom but it is a liar. The kind of freedom it gives is deceptive and fleeting and ultimately is not freedom at all. But true life is in Christ, who himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6). May you enjoy life in Christ as a justified sinner and avoid the perils and pitfalls of legalism and anti-lawism.

My Sympathies to Arminius

 Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was a theologian and pastor of Dutch descent living in the context of a land where the church had to a great degree embraced the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation. Arminius came to disavow these doctrines in many key areas. Overall, this can be summed up in his acceptance of a synergistic view of salvation rather than the monergistic salvation heralded by Luther, Calvin, Knox and others. Synergism is a heresy found in Pelagian and semi-Pelagian theology that has be condemned as error at various points in church history. Not surprisingly then, this left him embroiled in a fair amount of controversy for the rest of his life.

My sympathies go out to Arminius in this. Not because I agree with him doctrinally….I don’t. But because of the way the battle was engaged at times. Roger Olson, an Arminian himself, has written what is probably the authoritative book (Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities) on the subject from an Arminian perspective. Arminius faced many accusations about his doctrine, most of which were right on the mark. Yet he also faced many misdirected accusations, some of which even bordered on absurdity. His character was slandered and his integrity was maligned. Olson tells us that the heated exchanges even left Arminius accused of “being a secret agent of the pope and the Spanish Jesuits, and even the Spanish government” (p. 22). None of these accusations were grounded in truth. All of these personal attacks distracted from the real doctrinal issues that needed to be worked through.

Sadly, these kinds of ad hominem attacks were not new tactics in Arminius’s day and they continue in our day. They create much heat but little light. They do not help resolve issues of disagreement. They neither edify the Lord’s people nor glorify the Lord himself. These tactics are factitious in themselves and should be shunned for the sake of both truth and love. In Paul’s letter to Titus he says that elders in particular must “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also rebuke those who contradict it” (1:9). Yet he also goes on to say that we should “show perfect courtesy toward all people” (3:2). The elders and congregations in Arminius’s day did not always work out this admonition as well as they could have. How well are we doing in our day?