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This regular feature is an attempt to provide an elementary Biblical analysis of various topics in Christian theology and practice. We anticipate that this and future contributions will be helpful in explaining fundamental theological issues to those who may be relatively unfamiliar with them.

Unlimited Atonement

G.I. Williamson

For whom did Christ die? Was it for the elect only? Or was it for the whole world? That is the question. And strange as it may seem to us, the answer is that Jesus died for both. It is all a matter of proper understanding. And the central thing that we need to understand is the doctrine of union with Christ.

Those Jews--who rejected Jesus--did not object to a certain kind of doctrine of election. It was quite to their liking to think that God had elected Abraham and that they were his children. "We are Abraham's offspring" they boasted "and have never yet been enslaved to any one." (John 8:33). Reformed people, too, have made this mistake. They have made it when, for example, they have taken God's covenant promise (Acts 2:39) as a kind of automatic thing. `If you are born to covenant parents,' they say, `and are baptized, and outwardly conform to the Church, then the clear presumption is that you are a regenerate person.' The doctrine of election, then, becomes a kind of natural possession. It is a kind of birth-right that you have because you are covenant-born.

The whole teaching of the Word of God is diametrically opposed to this concept. That is why the words of Jesus were so offensive to the Jews.[1] For over against the common Jewish conception of the covenant, our Lord set the true conception. And the heart of this true conception is the doctrine of union with Christ.

We can illustrate this (the way Paul does in Romans 5) by comparing Jesus with Adam. As a matter of fact, we all have union with Adam by nature. Because we were, in some sense, one with Adam when he sinned, we also sinned in him and fell with him (Rom. 5:12). A person may not know this (such as one who has never heard the teaching of the Bible), or, a person may not like it (such as an unbelieving American who has). But it is true just the same. We are what we are by nature because we have (or, if we are believers: had) union with Adam. And it is so with the second Adam, the Lord Jesus. For just as all who were in Adam sinned and fell in him, so all who are in Jesus Christ were dead and are risen (Rom. 6:1-6).

The amazing thing about this union with Christ is that there is a sense in which it was already there even before we came into existence. For Paul says, "He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4). It was for this reason that Jesus prayed (on the night in which He was betrayed) for all those whom the Father had given Him (Jn. 17:9). He did not pray for all men, but only for these. And yet, at the same time, it is also true that we do not enjoy the fruits of this union with Christ unless--and until--we receive Him as He is freely offered to us in the gospel. It is only when we repent of our sins, and put our trust in Him, that we actually possess the saving benefits of union with Christ.

It follows, then, that all who do embrace Jesus as He is offered in the gospel are persons for whom Christ died. And this takes us, at once, outside the confines of Jewish exclusivism. For the truth is that Jesus did not die for the Jews only (just as he did not die for all who are by nature, Jewish). No, as Jesus clearly said, He came down to give His flesh for the life of the world (Jn. 6:51) and not just the Jewish nation. And on both of these counts the teaching of Christ was offensive to them. They wanted a covenant that guaranteed salvation to all Jews, and to them only (although they were willing to include others who would, in effect, become Jews!). But they did not want a covenant which included Gentiles on an equal footing, and which required that whether Jew or Gentile they must, to be saved, be in union with Jesus.

Now it has been a long-standing custom to call this the doctrine of `the limited atonement.' But if ever there was a bad choice of terms, it is found in this traditional designation. It is the writer's contention, to the contrary, that it is in the Reformed conception, and the Reformed conception alone, that justice is done to the teaching of Scripture. And that teaching could better be described as the doctrine of the unlimited atonement. This is true because the atonement is one of two things: it is either (1) that Jesus died to make salvation possible for all men, or (2) that He died to make salvation certain for some.[2]

The first of these two propositions can be made to sound very appealing, and is certainly more popular, today, than the second. But is it true? It is to this that we now direct your attention as we ask one simple question.

If Jesus died only to make salvation possible for all, then it would not be the death of Christ alone that made the salvation of some (out of the `all') an actual reality. And we would have to ask: `what is it, then, that makes a possible salvation become an actual salvation?' Well, the answer which has been given, again and again in the history of the Church, is that it is something man himself does. One man, of his own natural strength and ability, decides to reject Christ. Another, of the same strength and ability, decides to accept Christ. And it is this act--this decision--added to what Christ has done, that turns a possible salvation into an actual salvation. And this, as you can see, limits the atonement because it clearly says the atonement of Christ is limited to providing only a part of what man needs for salvation.

The Reformed doctrine, on the other hand, really ought to be called the doctrine of the unlimited atonement. By this, we mean that in the Reformed view, it is Christ's death--with nothing added to it at all--which is seen as the sole cause of man's salvation. It is unlimited because it saves to the uttermost all those for whom Christ made His atonement. The difference, be it observed, is not that Christ's atonement (on the one view) saves everyone, or (on the other view) only some. All Bible believing Christians know from the infallible Word of God that only some men will be saved. The whole difference is simply concerned with whether the death of Christ is, or is not, limited in its power and effectiveness. Is it an atonement of limited power, which saves some men when they add their part to Christ's part? Or is it an atonement of unlimited power which saves some men because that is precisely the effect that Christ intended?[3]

Jesus expressed the essential thing in this doctrine in precisely the way the Jews needed to hear it. He warned them that unless they had union with Him, in His sacrifice on the cross, they could have no part whatever in God's salvation (Jn. 6:53). If they were not willing to eat His flesh and drink His blood (which is equivalent to union with Christ), there could be no life in them. If they did have their pride obliterated and came to see Christ as their only hope, on the other hand, they would live forever.

The atonement of Christ is particular (or definite)--it was designed to effect the eternal salvation of God's elect people. But it is right here that we need to make one further observation. It is precisely because it is particular that it is also universal. It is, in a word, because it makes salvation certain for many, that it also has worldwide dimensions. For, astounding as it may seem, it is the world that will be saved. No, not every man in the world. But it will be the world as a whole--some (as John tells us) out of every tongue and tribe and nation, until there is at last a multitude that no man can number (Rev.7:9). And remember: this is not a mere possibility; it is a certainty. For just 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...that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 5:19, 21).

As Professor B. B. Warfield once put it: "There is no anti-nomy...in saying that Christ died for His people and that Christ died for the world. His people may be few today: the world will be His people tomorrow." And again, "it is only the Calvinist that has warrant to believe in the salvation whether of the individual or of the world. Both alike rest utterly on the sovereign grace of God. All other ground is shifting sand."


G.I. Williamson, B.D. (Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary), has served as a home missionary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is the author of, among other works, The Westminster Convession of Faith for Study Classes. He is currently serving as pastor of Bethel Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Carson, North Dakota.

Notes

[1] e.g. John 6:50-58.

[2] There is, of course, a third possibility which has been suggested, namely, that Christ died to actually effect the salvation of all men without exception. This is so clearly contrary to the Scripture that we leave it entirely out of the picture.

[3] Jesus said: "I pray for them: I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them". (John 17:9, 10).


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