TOWARD UNDERSTANDING THE ATONEMENT
Christ’s death on the cross is not a peripheral or secondary issue. It is THE crucial doctrine of the Christian faith. In fact, the English word crucial comes from the Latin word for cross (crux). The cross is crucial to Christianity because it is absolutely central to the Scriptures and to our faith.
Among the theological words related to the work of Christ on the cross is the word “atonement”. The Atonement embodies the work of Christ on the cross whereby reconciliation with God was accomplished, the righteous judgment of God was satisfied, and our redemption was achieved.
Christianity is Christ, and the crucial fact about Christ is His death upon the cross and our atonement. Of course, His example, teachings, and miracles must not be neglected. The fact of His resurrection must be celebrated and loudly proclaimed. These are essential doctrines to Biblical Christianity. Yet, in a most special way, Christ’s atoning death is absolutely crucial. It is so clearly taught in the Scriptures that all serious students of the Bible who are committed to the full inspiration, inerrancy and final authority of the Bible would agree regarding the necessity of Christ’s death.
But not all who agree regarding the necessity of Christ’s death would agree regarding the intent of Christ’s death. There is one question regarding the cross which sharply divides theologians and Bible students: For whom did Christ die? Or putting it another way, why did Christ die: for the sins of the elect only or for the sins of the entire world?
This question regarding the intent and purpose of Christ’s atonement has sparked heated debate for centuries. It has divided sincere Bible-believing Christians into two theological camps:
- “Either Limited Atonement or Unlimited Atonement.”
- “Either Particular Redemption or General Redemption.”
- “Either Specific Atonement (for the elect only) or Unlimited Atonement (for the sins of the world).”
Theologian Walter Elwell summarized the debate over the intent of the Atonement this way: "Although there are variations as to the basic ways in which this subject can be addressed, the choices boil down to two… The first view is sometimes called 'limited atonement' because God limited the effect of Christ's death to a specific number of elect persons, or 'particular redemption' because redemption was for a particular group of people. The second view is sometimes referred to as 'unlimited atonement' or 'general redemption' because God did not limit Christ's redemptive death to the elect, but allowed it to be for mankind in general." (W. A. Elwell, “Atonement, Extent of the” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001, p. 98)
THE CRUCIAL QUESTION
Whenever confronted with a theological controversy, members of IFCA International have always sought to be true to the revelation of Scripture, allowing our theology to develop from the Scriptures rather than injecting our presupposed theological assumptions into Scripture. Therefore, we believe the crucial question in determining the intent of the Atonement is not, "Should I be a Calvinist or an Arminian?" or "What did the Reformers believe and teach?" nor is it even, "What is the historical view of the church?" But the crucial question must be, "What do the Scriptures teach?” The concern in every doctrinal discussion must always be to study the Scriptures carefully and interpret them accurately.
So what does the Bible say about the intent of the Atonement? What is the Scriptural evidence presented by both sides of the issue? In answering this question, it is my intention to present each side fairly. But I want to be clearly understood. I have a distinct position on the meaning of the following passages.
PASSAGES PREFERRED BY THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN LIMITED ATONEMENT
Because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many.
Matthew 1: 21
And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.
This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.
John 10:11, 15
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep ... even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.
For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.
Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.
For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings.
So Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without reference tosin, to those who eagerly await Him.
PASSAGES PREFERRED BY THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN UNLIMITED ATONEMENT
All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.
The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.
I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.
So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.
2 Corinthians 5:14-15
For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.
2 Corinthians 5:19
Namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.
1 Timothy 2:5-6
For there is one God, andone mediator also between God and men, theman Christ Jesus,
who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time.
But we do see Him who has been made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.
2 Peter 2:1
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.
1 John 2:2
And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
1 John 4:14
And we have beheld and bear witness that the Father has sent the Son to bethe Savior of the world.
ONE PASSAGE BOTH SIDES PREFER
1 Timothy 4:10
For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.
In this verse, “God is clearly identified as the ‘Savior’ of ‘all men’ and of ‘ones who believe.’ No matter how one interprets this statement, he must not deny or grossly distort this apostolic affirmation.However, it is apparent that God is not necessarily the Savior of both groups in the same way or to the same degree ... It seems at the bottom line of 1 Timothy 4:10 there is some sort of macrocosmic application of salvation and there is a special microcosmic application ...it seems to suggest different levels of divine intentionality which lead to different applications of it. There is an efficient dimension to the death of Christ, and there is also a sufficient dimension. An exegetically based both/and position sees in the Scriptures more than a single purpose to the cross-work of Christ. Needless to say, a biblically balanced both/and view creates logical tensions, but the Scriptures must inform us, not we them.” (George Zemek, A Biblical Theology of the Doctrines of Sovereign Grace, Wipf & Stock, 2005, p. 142.)
An honest reading of the passages cited above presents a quandary. One commentary notes: “Some passages speak of Christ’s dying for ‘all’ men and of His death as saving the ‘world’, yet others speak of His death as being definite in design and of His dying for particular people and securing salvation for them.” (David Steele, Curtis Thomas, Romans, An Interpretive Outline, Presbyterian Reformed, 1967, p. 174.) It becomes even more interesting when both concepts are found in the same context, such as in Isaiah 53:6,12; 1 Timothy 4:10; Romans 5:18-19; and Hebrews 2:9-10.
Dogmatic Theologians attempt to settle this theological dilemma by appealing to church councils, creeds and the views of important theologians in church history. Systematic Theologians attempt to settle this debate in the realm of Systematic Theology using selected Scriptural passages and further appeals to deduction and logic.
On the one hand, it is certainly appropriate to consider the historic teaching of various creeds and councils to gain the insight of the ages. It is foolish to ignore what the Holy Spirit has revealed in the past to wise and godly men from the pages of His Book. But this cannot be placed on the same level of authority as Scripture itself.
On the other hand, it is important to remember that Scripture interprets Scripture. Often a passage will cover a topic or subject addressed elsewhere in the Bible. It is important to interpret all of these passages consistently with one another. This is Systematic Theology and it is to be prized. But Systematic Theologians do not have the final answer to this theological quandary.
ONE PROPOSED ANSWER
Exegetical Theologians insistupon an honest reading of the Biblical texts. And that seems to argue against a simple either/or solution to the debate proposed by Dogmatic and Systematic Theologians (“Either Limited Atonement or Unlimited Atonement”). An honest reading of the verses cited above by the proponents on the two sides in the debate would suggest that a simple either/or solution may not be best.
There is another point regarding the differences in the two sets of verses cited above: the limited statements above need to be defined in light of the unlimited statements. For example, when Mark 10:45 says that the Son of Man came to give His life a ransom for many, it does not mean that He did not come to bethe Savior of the world (1 John 2:2; 4:14). Perhaps this illustration will help. When I say “I love my son” it doesn’t not mean “I don’t love my daughter.”
One way to explain the seeming conflict between the series of verses cited above is to propose a two-part answer. First, concerning the provision Christ made by His death on the cross, it is universal in that it is sufficient to pay the penalty for the sins of the world. As sin and iniquity is universal, so also is the provision Christ made on the cross. And second, concerning the application of the blood of Christ, its benefits are gained only by the believing sinner. The application side of the Atonement is part of the special will of God for those who come to faith.
Christ died to make atonement for all the world. Yet in the end the benefits of the cross can only be applied to those who come to faith (and those are the elect). This differs from Five-Point Calvinism which states that Christ died to make provision only for the sins of the elect. This also differs from Arminianism which teaches that God willed the application of the Atonement to all, but God’s purpose is frustrated by human resistance.
In the 5th Century, Augustine was the first on record to present a both/and position. He explained the extent of the Atonement in this way: sufficienter pro omnibus, efficienter pro electis (“sufficient for all; efficient for the elect”). According to Buswell, Calvin grudgingly tolerated this Augustinian maxim (J. Oliver Buswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, Zondervan, 1962, Vol. 2, p. 141). But the answer proposed above offers greater specificity than Augustine’s. It affirms that by God’s intention, the death of Christ is universal in its provision yet by application it is particular. Christ is the universal Savior in that He made redemptive provision for all persons, but He is the effectual Savior only for those who believe (1 Timothy 4:10).
The Atonement is not limited, but its application through the work of the Holy Spirit is. This seems to me to be the best way to correlate all the verses cited above.
THE ATONEMENT AND THE NONELECT
There is a significant disagreement over “whether God, when He sent Jesus to the cross, did so with any purpose(s) for those human beings who would never receive salvation, the nonelect. Advocates of particular redemption believe that He did not, while advocates of unlimited atonement believe that He did” (Gary L. Schultz Jr., “God’s Purposes in the Atonement for the Nonelect,” Bibliotheca Sacra, April-June, 2008, p. 146). Schultz asserts that Christ’s atonement has accomplished five things for the nonelect, which he delineates as follows.
First, Christ paid for the sins of all people (John 1:29). He is the propitiation and the ransom for everyone (1 John 2:1-2; 1 Timothy 2:3-6). He reconciled all people to the Father on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:19), and He even bought false teachers who would later deny Him (2 Peter 2:1).
Second, the Atonement provides common grace to all humanity. This common grace is demonstrated through God’s good gifts (Matthew 5:45; Luke 6:35-36), His restraining of evil (Romans 13:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:7), and His gracious patience in judgment (Romans 2:4-5; 2 Peter 3:9).
Third, Christ died to reconcile all things to the Father (Colossians 1:19-20). This reconciliation is cosmic in scope, and it is possible because Christ died for all sin. It includes the resurrection of all people, the elect and the nonelect (John 5:28-29).
Fourth, the Atonement secured the genuine offer of the gospel to all people (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-48; Romans 10:13-17). Without Christ’s provision for the sins of all people, the gospel could not be legitimately and sincerely offered to everyone. Why does God invite all men if Christ did not provide for all?
Fifth, Christ died to insure that the judgment of the nonelect is just because they reject a gift that is really, freely, and graciously offered to them (John 3:18; 2 Peter 2:1 with 20-21). Those who reject Christ’s death for themselves obtain even greater condemnation for their sins.
THE PASSOVER AND THE ATONEMENT
Another question is raised by Charles Ryrie in Basic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1986, p. 323) regarding the night of the first Passover in Exodus 12. Would the Israelite who refused to apply the Passover lamb’s blood to the door of his house have his sins covered?
When the Passover lamb was killed, the Israelite’s sins were theoretically covered. But if the individual Israelite did not apply the blood to his own house’s doorposts, he died in the judgment of that night; the death of the Passover lamb was sufficient payment, but it was not applied to that particular house. Similarly, the Atonement of Christ paid for the sins of the whole world, but the individual must appropriate Christ’s payment for his sins through the exercise of faith. And this is the work of God.
THIS ISSUE IN IFCA INTERNATIONAL
So where does all of this leave IFCA International?
The 1945 IFCA Doctrinal Statement said this: “We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ accomplished our redemption through His death on the cross as a representative, vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice; and, that our justification is made sure by His literal, physical resurrection from the dead (Ro. 3:24, 25; 1 Peter 2:24; Eph. 1:7; 1 Peter 1:3-5).”
In 1984 the IFCA Doctrinal Statement was amended to read: “We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross for all mankind as a representative, vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice, and that the sufficiency of this atoning sacrifice to accomplish the redemption and justification of all who trust in him is assured by his literal, physical resurrection from the dead (Romans 3:24, 25; 4:25; Ephesians 1:7; 1 Timothy 4:10; Hebrews 2:9; 1 Peter 1:3-5; 2:24; and 2 Peter 2:1).”
Five-Point Calvinists would reject the 1984 IFCA Doctrinal Statement with an either/or view of the Atonement (“it must be either Limited or Unlimited”), opting for their Limited Atonement view. They would consider the IFCA Doctrinal Statement to reflect Arminianism in this doctrine. The Five-Point Calvinists have settled the matter in their minds by appealing to the verses cited above and the logic of Systematic Theology and the complex deductions regarding the logical order and implications of the divine decrees.
Members of IFCA International have reached a different conclusion than strict Five-Point Calvinists. Some of our men hold to a both/and view of the Atonement (saying “it is universal in intention, particular in application” or saying “it is sufficient for all, efficient for the elect”) and in good conscience sign the Doctrinal Statement and remain committed IFCA members. Others in our IFCA Fellowship hold to an either/or view of the Atonement (“it must be either Limited or Unlimited”) and take the Unlimited Atonement view. They too in good conscience sign the Doctrinal Statement and remain committed IFCA members. But when this issue is brought up within IFCA International, those holding these two differing views (“universal in intention, particular in application” vs. “it must be either Limited or Unlimited”) often become very uncomfortable with one another. Some go so far as to question the integrity of those who sign the IFCA Doctrinal Statement while holding to the view which opposes their own.
My appeal to everyone of us who have agreed to unite under the IFCA International Articles of Biblical Faith, but who also walk in the above tension, is that we walk together in unity (Psalm 133:1). Of course, biblical unity can only be based upon the truth. And our mutual commitment to truth is what binds our IFCA fellowship. However, it is also correct to state that unity can only be expressed when there is also diversity.
It seems best to adopt the attitude of Zemek when he writes: “Needless to say, a biblically balanced both/and view creates logical tensions, but the Scriptures must inform us, not we them.” (Zemek, A Biblical Theology of the Doctrines of Sovereign Grace , p. 142)
I encourage theological discourse which is founded upon the Bible as God’s truthful, accurate, understandable, written revelation AND which also understands the limitations of our human comprehension and the inability of language to describe perfectly God and His ways. My plea is for a fully developed Bible-based theology which also accounts for antinomy, tension, and mystery. (See my article: “Theological Antinomy, Tension, and Mystery,” VOICE, March/April, 2008.) Whether you call it an antinomy or a mystery, honest IFCA men have to agree that there is some tension regarding the intent of the Atonement. Some Scripture verses limit the intent or benefits of the cross while other Scripture verses make it clear there is a universal aspect of the cross. That is why I believe the Atonement is not limited, but its application through the work of the Holy Spirit is. The Atonement is universal in intention, yet particular in application. Christ died for all the world, but His atoning death becomes effective only when received by the individual.
We know there are no errors in the Bible. That is the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy. We also know there is nothing logically impossible within the mind of Almighty God. That is the doctrine of Theology Proper. So, we could spend a lifetime (and indeed many have) trying to flesh out a precise answer to the questions posed by the verses cited above regarding the Atonement. But I do not believe we will ever fully comprehend nor fully explain all the questions we can ask. Healthy tensions do exist in the minds of believers with regard to biblical truths. And this healthy tension has existed in the IFCA ever since our founding. Both of these understandings (“universal in intention, particular in application” vs. “it must be either Limited or Unlimited”) were present in the very first organizational meeting at Cicero (IL) Bible Church in April, 1930. Five-Point former Presbyterians were part of the men who founded our Fellowship and faithfully remained part of the IFCA for the rest of their ministries. I know this to be so because I met one and talked to him in the 1970s.
Everyone in IFCA International might not agree regarding the details of how to describe all the theology involving thedeathof Christ. Yet all of us would most certainly agree regarding the necessity of Christ’s death and the centrality of the cross. And all of us would agree that Christianity is Christ. And we would all agree that the crucial fact about Christ is His death upon the cross and our atonement. And all of us in IFCA International have agreed to these words to describe this doctrine: “We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross for all mankind as a representative, vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice, and that the sufficiency of this atoning sacrifice to accomplish the redemption and justification of all who trust in him is assured by his literal, physical resurrection from the dead.”
ADDITIONAL HELPFUL RESOURCES NOT CITED ABOVE
Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997), especially Chapter 4.
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), especially Chapter 39.
Robert Lightner, The Death Christ Died: A Biblical Case for Unlimited Atonement, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998).