Previous posts in this series:
- Christianity's Glorious Hard Edges
- Universal Exclusivity, 1: For Adam's Race
- Universal Exclusivity, 2: From Every Nation
Two main responses have been given on the extent or intent of Jesus' death: (1) that He died to provide salvation for all men, its effect being contingent on their faith, or (2) that He died to effectually secure the salvation of all who will truly be saved. The former being "hypothetical universalism" - that is, He hypothetically died for the whole world, though only those of faith grasp this universal "gift" - and the latter being "particular redemption" (or "definite atonement") - that is, He died with the intention of saving all whom the Father had chosen before the foundation of the world.
To be clear, this is not a debate over the value of Jesus' death, that is a non-issue. It is infinitely glorious and immeasurably valuable to save whomever the Lord would have predestined to be saved in Him! Rather, we are asking what was the Father's purpose in sending His Son? What was the Son's intention in voluntarily laying-down His life? And what have been the effects of His death and resurrection?
Personally, I used to think this was more of a secondary issue and not one to make too much fuss over. I am increasingly persuaded, however, that this doctrine is at the very heart of the Gospel, is the doctrinal guardian of the atoning work of Christ, and is the very basis for personal assurance and confident evangelism in the Christian life. So, I guess you could say I no longer think it is secondary!
I would offer six reasons why I believe that particular (or definite) redemption is the true and necessary teaching of God's Word. (How 'bout 3 today and 3 more tomorrow, to keep this in the "blogging" range?) However, please do not confuse what follows with the best exposition of this doctrine. I would suggest the following resources to go deeper:
- John Owen, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ All subsequent writings have really been footnotes to Owen's work. It is not for the faint of heart, but it will reprove the faintness of every reader's heart! An attendant classic is J.I. Packer's "Introduction" (ca. 1958) to Owen's work, which is definitely worth reading - plus its shorter and in "normal" English!
- R.B. Kuiper, For Whom Did Christ Die? R.B. Kuiper was a professor at Westminster Seminary (1933-52) who had a way with articulating great truths in an accessible fashion. His Glorious Body of Christ is a classic and so is this work, which many point to as the deciding-point after reading.
- Roger Nicole Professor Nicole, who recently went to be with His Savior (who definitely redeemed him) has been a modern stalwart on the biblical teaching of the atonement. See links to several of his articles here, as well as an excellent three-part series on the atonement at the 1989 Bethlehem Pastor's Conference here (his accent makes it really fun!). A compilation of Nicole's writings is available in Standing Forth
- Justin Taylor has posted a helpful outline in Primer on Limited (or Definite) Atonement.
- John MacArthur has recently treated this doctrine in an accessible and biblical (!) fashion. See his "The Atonement: Real or Potential?" and "The Complexity of Divine Love."
1. Jesus’ commission from His Father had a particular or definite purpose. Why did the Father send His Son? To "gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad" (John 11:52). And "to purify for Himself a people for His own possession" (Titus 2:14).
If we take seriously the relationship of the Father and the Son - the very unity of God Himself ! - then we must not remove the purpose of Jesus' death from His Father's commission, which He stated Himself as "not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me" (John 6:38). So any conception of Jesus' death that is at odds with the Father's sovereign electing will must be rejected as introducing a grievous (and foreign) divide within our Triune God.
Or, put another way, how could Jesus die for those whom the Father never gave Him (and whom the Spirit would not call nor regenerate)? If Jesus is His Father's Perfect Son (and the second co-equal and co-eternal Person of the Godhead) then His death must be consistent with the Father's election. "Hypothetical Universalism," however unintended, introduces a grievous conflict within God's unity.
2. Jesus' mission had a particular or definite point of relationship. Jesus is said in Scripture to have explicitly given His life for "His people" (Matt 1:21), "for many" (Matt 20:28), "for the sheep" (John 10:11), "for his friends" (John 15:13), "the church of God" (Acts 20:28), "the body... the church" (Eph 5:23-26), and as Paul assuredly declares "for me" (Gal 2:20). Did Jesus die to make all men "savable" or did He die for "His people"? We cannot over look the impact of these and many other like statements in Scripture. Jesus gave Himself explicitly for His people. These texts cast much aspersion on the idea that Jesus died for a general potential, rather than a particular people. If Jesus did not explicitly die for particular individuals, how could Paul ever say He "gave Himself up for me" (Gal 2:20)?
3. Jesus’ death and resurrection was a definite substitution. Closely related to #2 above, how often do we read in the New Testament that Jesus died "for us" or "on our behalf"? This is a precious truth of the Gospel, that Jesus is our substitutionary atonement, our vicarious Savior, and His death was a penal substitution. He is the One who "knew no sin" and yet became "sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor 5:21).
How can Jesus be the substitute for a potential or hypothetical mass of people? Even more, for those who will never be saved? Was Jesus the substitute for those who become forever lost? If that is the case, then He is no one's substitute! This is why I say that "definite atonement" stands sentry at the very heart of the Gospel. Without it, the whole basis of our salvation - the assurance that Jesus has suffered God's wrath on our behalf - is undone and must be revised.
In fact, I would suggest that the rejection of this doctrine is a proximate cause to evangelicalism's continued loss of penal substitution and slide toward universalism. Reject "particular redemption" or "definite atonement" and, eventually, you will lose the Gospel entirely.
That's enough for now, I'm sure. Three more definite reasons for definite atonement tomorrow.