The Extent of the Atonement

The Extent of the Atonement


“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus; who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people of His own possession, zealous for good deeds.”
~ Titus 2:11-14

For centuries, the debate has continued over the question, “For whom did Christ die?” Some have chosen to avoid the discussion, not wanting to embroil themselves in controversy. Others relegate it to the arena of theologians and seminaries. We have chosen to present a response if for no other reason than it is a biblical issue. In other words, there are major Scripture passages which speak directly to this issue.

We are under no illusion that we have an answer that will end all argument and satisfy every reader. Our motivation is to clarify for our congregation and anyone who would be interested, what is the position of the Elders of El Paso Bible Church.

In Titus 2:11-14, the passage quoted above, Paul is reminding this young pastor of the wonders of God’s saving grace. The tense of the verb translated “has appeared” in verse 11, refers to a definite past event. That event was the incarnation of Christ. And that event was the greatest demonstration of God’s grace to the world. Why? Because it brought “salvation to all men”.

Now, what did Paul mean by “all men”? Did he mean that salvation was made actual for all men; that all men are saved? The doctrine of universal salvation, however, is not a biblical doctrine. It is nowhere supported in Scripture. The work of Christ in His incarnation was not intended to make salvation actual for all men, but available to all men. The perfect sacrifice was offered in Christ’s death on the cross. It was accepted by God, evidenced in His resurrection from the dead and ascension into glory.

Here is where the division is drawn. Does “all men” mean every single individual or does it mean all men who are elect? Was the atonement offered by Christ limited or unlimited? Was it universal or particular? Did Christ die for the sins of the whole world or only for the sins of those who were chosen by God the Father from before the foundation of the world?

There are basically two opposing theological positions, each of which have their spin-offs. On the one hand are those who believe in a limited atonement or, as many prefer, a particular redemption. They assuredly maintain that Christ died for the elect. The saving work of Christ was limited in scope. His intent in dying on the cross was to die for a particular group of people.

On the other hand are those who believe in an unlimited atonement or an unlimited redemption. This is not to say that every person will be saved, but that the death of Christ was for every single individual born of Adam’s race.

One point which needs clarification is this. The debate is not over the sufficiency of the death of Christ. Both the limited and unlimited redemptionist positions generally agree that the death of Christ was sufficient for the sins of the whole world. Since the death of Christ was the death of a perfect sacrifice and since, therefore, it is of infinite value, it would be sufficient payment for all and every sin. The question is over the intent or the purpose of Christ when He gave His life a ransom for sin. Certainly, His death was sufficient, but did He intend to die for every sinner or only for the elect sinner?

To maintain their argument, particular redemptionists point out passages that specify those for whom Christ died. And there are a number of these. For example, He died for……..

• His people (Matthew 1:21)
• His sheep (John 10:15)
• Those whom the Father had given Him (John 6:17)
• The children of God (John 11:52)
• The Church (Ephesians 5:25)
• The many sons (Hebrews 2:10)
• His brethren (Hebrews 2:11,12,17)
• The children whom the Father had given to Him (Hebrews 2: 13-14)
• The seed of Abraham (Hebrews 2:16)
• The people of God (Hebrews 2:17)

It is obvious that these are specific groups. However, it is not valid to then assume that these references were meant to be exclusive. For example, while Matthew 1:21 announces that Jesus came to save His people, the Jews, from their sins, it does not necessarily exclude the fact that He also came to save Gentiles as well.

The particular redemptionist position also reasons that if Christ died for the sins of the world, then everyone would be saved. But if everyone will not be saved, then God is not sovereign since His saving purpose failed.

This line of reasoning, however, confuses the provision of salvation (the atonement) with the application of salvation to individual (regeneration). In other words, the death of Christ made salvation possible for every person, but is not actual for the same number. Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit whereby He applies the work of Christ to those who believe or, from God’s viewpoint, to those whom God sovereignty had chosen from eternity past.

Arguing from this doctrinal persuasion, the particular redemptionist cannot interpret words which have a universal sense from a literal standpoint. He must attach qualifiers. In other words, “all” or “world” or “everyone” means all the nations of the world, all the elect in the world or the world of the elect or everyone who is elect. But it cannot literally mean every person because it is not consistent with their doctrine or with their reasoning.

This approach is used in explaining such passages as these:

John 1:29 “…Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
John 3:16 “…God so loved the world…”
John 4:42 “…this One is indeed the Savior of the world.”
1 John 4:14 “And we have beheld and bear witness that the Father has sent the
Son of the Savior of the world.”

Their interpretation then is: The Lamb of God took away the sins of the world of the elect; God so loved the world of the chosen; Jesus is indeed the Savior of the world of the elect; and the Father sent His Son to be the Savior of the elect.

The literal interpretation of Scripture considers the context of a passage. Unless the context indicates otherwise, such words “all” and “world” should be taken in its natural sense, meaning everyone and every individual. If we abandon this approach or are not consistent in its application, the passage becomes subject to each person’s subjective interpretation.

This is a key issue with regard to the particular redemptionist viewpoint. The foundation of this position seems to involve more of a logical approach, rather than an exegetical one. Much of the support for their position runs along the lines of reasoning. They would argue, for example, “How can God extend a universal offer of salvation if He did not intend for all to be saved? That’s not logical.

While we are not discounting reasoning and logic, these must be subordinate to be clear teaching of the Word of God. In light of this, consider the following observation.

First of all, there are a number of passages which teach a UNIVERSAL PROVISION of salvation. Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 2:3-4, “This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And then notice verses 5-6: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all…… “Clearly, the intent in the mind of Christ was to give Himself for all men. That provision was universal.

Also 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 tells us that Christ gave His life for all who had died spiritually because of sin. Who were the ones spiritually dead? Everyone. Therefore, Christ died for whom? Everyone. Yes, logical argument is involved. But that logical flow of thought rises out of the literal interpretation of the passage, without attempting to read into the passage any preconceived doctrinal position.

Secondly, 2 Peter 3:9 suggests a UNIVERSAL INTENT on God’s part to save. Peter writes, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” Who is the “any”? Any of the elect? Or any sinner? There is nothing in the context that restricts a literal interpretation of this passage. So there is a universal provision and a universal intention.

Thirdly, the New Testament holds forth a UNIVERSAL OFFER, the well-known one being John 3:16. Jesus said, “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.” The extent of the gift was to match the extent of the love. And the extent of the love was the world. Again, there is no indication in the context that limits the world to the world of the elect. It is the world of sinners. Another reference to a universal offer of salvation is Acts 10:43. Peter said, “Of him [that is, of Jesus Christ] all the peoples bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”

Fourthly, there is a UNIVERSAL INVITATION to salvation. We read in Acts 17:30, “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent.” And continuing in the next verse, “Because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” Who are the “all men” in verse 31, who would be furnished proof that Jesus was given authority to judge the world? It was intended for every individual. Is there any reason why the “all everywhere” in verse 30 would encompass the same scope of people?

So there is a universal provision, making possible a universal offer which sounds forth in a universal invitation to salvation. This brings us to a crucial point in this discussion. What is it that condemns men to judgment? According to the New Testament, it is the fact of their unbelief. That’s the crucial basis. That’s that fork in the road that sends men into the only two possible directions to their eternal destiny: their belief or unbelief. The following scripture bears this out:

John 5:38-40 “And you do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent. You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me, that you may have life.”

John 6:29 “Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom he has sent.”

John 16:8-9 “And He [that is, the Holy Spirit], when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me.”

There are many, many more, but the point is clear. The reason why people end up in hell, suffering the wrath and judgment of God is not because they were not chosen, but because they are lost sinners and they did not believe in Christ. Sin came into the world (Genesis 3; Romans 5), placing all men under the judgment of a holy God. God, in eternity past, chose to provide the sacrifice for sin that would open the way of salvation (Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:20). But because lost men are spiritually blind and dead, they would not choose to come to God left to themselves (Romans 3). So, God, also in eternity past, chose those whom He would save (1 Peter 1:1-2; Ephesians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). Tied in with that choice is “the sanctifying work of the Spirit, that you may obey Christ and be sprinkled with His blood” (1 Peter 1:2). Salvation is the work of God (Ephesians 2:1-10; Titus 3:3-7; 1 Peter 1:3-5).

It is often asked, “What would possibly be the purpose of Christ dying for those who are non-elect? God knows that they would never believe.” That is an important question. The answer is this: the sacrifice for the sins of the non-elect would serve two vital purposes.

First of all, it would be the basis upon which God extends common grace, that is, grace shown to all men, every individual. If God would give man what he deserves, we would all be swept away into eternal death this very instant. The fact that God allows a sinner to take another breath, to experience the simple enjoyments of life on earth, to have health and strength and appreciate the beauty and wonder of the creation around him, to have food shelter and clothing… this all is the grace of God, based on the temporary stay of the terrible wrath of God. That wrath is stayed by the death of Christ. Why? Paul gives us the answer (Romans 2:4), “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” Can that grace be resisted and finally rejected? Paul again provides the answer (Romans 2:5), “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.”

Secondly, Christ dying for the non-elect is the greatest evidence of their just condemnation. How so? Because when God removed all the barriers and provided the way for them to be saved, they still refused, exposing the depth of their depravity. The cross then becomes, for the non-elect, an evidence of God’s righteous judgment. They will not be condemned because God did not elect them, but because even when Christ died for them, they still rejected the offer. Jesus said in John 3:18, “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

The Bible teaches that Christ died for “sinners’ (Romans 5:8; 1 Timothy 1:15), for the “helpless and ungodly” (Romans 5:6), for His “enemies” (Romans 5:10). There are no qualifiers, such as: elect sinners, elect helpless, elect ungodly or elect enemies. Furthermore, the sinners, the helpless, the ungodly and the enemies describe whom? Every single individual born into this world. In fact, 2 Peter 2:1 indicates that Christ died even for false teachers who were “denying the Master who bought them.”

The Day of Atonement in the Old Testament (Leviticus 16; 23:26-32) foreshadowed the atoning work of Jesus Christ. On that day, provisions were made for all. The high priest took the blood of the goat that killed and sprinkled it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat (16:15b) in order to make “…atonement for himself and for his household and for all the assembly of Israel” (16:17). In verse 21, we read, “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgression in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness.”

In response to that (16:29), all the people were to humble themselves, now notice in Leviticus 23:29 and here is what is crucial for us to understand, “If there is any person who will NOT humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people.” WHY? Because the sacrifice was not for him? No. It is because he did not respond to a provision that was made even for him. The provision was made for his sins; he rejected it. The atoning sacrifice should be described as sufficient and intended for all, but efficient and effective only for those who made a righteous response.

Carried over into the New Testament and applied to the sacrifice of Christ, we affirm the same regarding the atonement of Christ. In fact, the following sums up what we believe the scriptures teach:

1. The work of Christ was a sufficient payment for the sins of the world- that is, unlimited in its provision.

2. The work of Christ atoned for the sins of every sinner- that is, unlimited in its intention.

3. The work of Christ is, however, limited in its application. It is efficient, that is, it produces the desired effect, only for those who believe. And those who truly believe demonstrate their election of God.

Therefore, as Paul said,”…..we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior or all men, especially of believers” (1 Timothy 4:10).
John Brown, one of the last of the Scottish Puritans, had this to say about the extent of Christ’s atonement:

“There can be doubt in the mind of a person who understands the doctrine of personal election that those who are actually saved are the objects of a special love on the part of God and that the Savior has a special design in reference to them. But there can be little doubt that the atonement of Christ has a general reference to mankind at large and that it was intended as a display of love on the part of God to our guilty rave. Not merely was the atonement offered by Christ Jesus sufficient for the salvation of the whole world, but it was intended and fitted to remove out of the way of the salvation of sinners generally every bar which the perfections of the divine moral character and the principles of the divine moral government presented. In consequence of that atonement, every sinner may be, and if he believes in Jesus, certainly shall be pardoned and saved. The revelation of mercy made in the Gospels refers to men as sinners not as elect sinners.”

Paul tells us (2 Corinthians 5:19-20) that “…God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed to us the work of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

What a wonderful message we have to convey to every individual, “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gave His life for you. Why not give your life to Him?” If you have not already done that, you can do that right now. These are the facts you need to know:

Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans 5:8 “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

How can you be saved and have eternal life? Trust in Jesus Christ and Him alone to save you through His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. You can be sure of a right relationship with God and be sure of eternal life.

If you are already a Christian, we trust that this material has help to deepen your understanding of the great salvation we have in Christ, the extent of His compassion and sacrifice, and the passion with which He desires to see men saved. May we be faithful in passing on the Gospel, which was one day faithfully passed on to us.