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Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

That ‘Limited Atonement’ is a Biblical Doctrine Rather Than a Philosophical Conclusion

[The following post is lightly adapted from a blogpost originally published on 11/28/05.]

Limited Atonement is a philosophical not a Biblical point. If one is JUST GOING BY THE TEXT, then it is clear Jesus died for the sins of the world.

I believe in Substitutionary Atonement and am a bit offended that one would suggest my SCRIPTURAL / NON PHILOSOPHICAL position makes "a mockery". I preach II Corinthians 5:17-21 w/ passion.

Introduction

The above quote was provided to me by my dad in an email correspondence that we were having concerning the doctrine of ‘limited atonement.’ Apparently, Dad let a Baptist minister friend of his read an email that I sent to him on this subject and the outcome was the statements that you read at the top of this post. I have no knowledge of the identity of this anonymous Baptist minister, and so the following observations are unencumbered by personalities, but are rather an examination of the meaning of the assertions shown above. It is my desire to examine this quote in the light of Scripture to the best of the ability that God has given me and to publish my beliefs on this issue for the edification of anyone who reads these words as well as for my own edification, that I might be open to reproof if I have indeed erred in my reading of God’s Word.

‘Limited Atonement:’ A Brief Definition

‘Limited Atonement’ is the teaching that addresses the question, “What was God’s design in sending Christ to the Cross?”

The ‘unlimited atonement’ or ‘general redemption’ answer to this question would assert that God sent His Son to the Cross to die under His just wrath as the payment for each and every sin (save, perhaps, the ‘sin of unbelief’) of each and every individual sinner who has ever lived or will ever live.

The ‘limited atonement’ or ‘particular redemption’ answer to the above question would assert that God sent His Son to the Cross to die under His just wrath as the payment for each and every sin of only the elect: those whom God has chosen from eternity to be the recipients of His mercy (cf. Romans 9:6-18).

The entire point of this post will be to challenge the first sentence in the quote at the head of this post- that “Limited Atonement is a philosophical not a Biblical point”- in order to do this, I will examine each of the other sentences of this quote sequentially.

“If one is JUST GOING BY THE TEXT, then it is clear Jesus died for the sins of the world.”

This statement is based upon passages such as John 1:29, “The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming to him and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (NASB) and I John 2:2, “He’s the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (ESV). The question here that must be answered concerns what John means by the word “world” in these passages. For it is obvious that John uses the word “world” to mean different things in different passages. If you doubt this, I invite you to look at I John 2:15 and compare it with John 3:16.

I John 2:15 reads: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (ESV), and John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”(KJV) In the first of these verses, believers are commanded to NOT love the world with the warning that love for the world proves an absence from our lives of the Father’s love. In the second verse, God’s giving of His Son is said to be based on His love for the world. Under close inspection of these verses in their contexts, it is obvious that I John 2:15 is speaking of a system of thought that is prevalent throughout the sinful people of the world, which system is against God, whereas John 3:16 is speaking about the people themselves.

Now many would have us to understand the word “world” in verses such as John 1:29, John 3:16, and I John 2:2 to indicate every individual person in the world. But this idea ignores certain contextual elements that are crucial to understanding John’s soteriology- his teaching about spiritual salvation. For John is writing primarily to a Jewish audience who had been expecting a Messiah to save them from the Gentile oppressors and establish His mighty kingdom on earth based in Jerusalem. So one of John’s inspired goals in his Gospel account and his epistles was to help his readers understand that Jesus Christ is the Savior not only of the Jews, but of the Gentiles too: people all over the world. And so John records passages such as the following:

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.  He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. (John 11:49-52 ESV)

And they sang a new song, saying: "You are worthy to take the scroll, And to open its seals; For You were slain, And have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, (Revelation 5:9 NKJV)

In the John 11 passage quoted above, a major point is that Jesus was not only going to die for national Israel, but He would also by His death gather in people from all over the world. Similarly, the Revelation 5 passage speaks of people from all over the world: from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” But it is clear (in this last passage especially) that Christ’s redemption was particular; He redeemed (or made payment for) “us”- the elect; those who would come to believe in Jesus- who were chosen “out of” the general population of all the people in the world. With this understanding we come to realize that the word “world” in passages such as John 1:29, John 3:16, and I John 2:2 is given to indicate what Revelation 5:9 plainly declares: people “out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” and not just the Jews. It is a stretch of the Biblical use of the term to claim that the word “world” indicates every individual person ever to live.

"I believe in Substitutionary Atonement and am a bit offended that one would suggest my SCRIPTURAL / NON PHILOSOPHICAL position makes 'a mockery'."

The doctrine of ‘Substitutionary Atonement’ mentioned above is the Biblical teaching that Jesus died as a substitute for sinners. That is, whereas we deserved God’s judgment of death and Hell for rebelling against Him and breaking His Law, Jesus died in our place, making payment for our sins on the Cross.

The above statement in bold print is given in response to something that I wrote to the affect of, “The ‘general redemption’ position makes a mockery of the doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement.” Upon review, I should have chosen my words more carefully. The word “mockery” would seem to indicate a willful ridicule of that which is mocked. No evangelical that I know personally who holds to either the limited or the unlimited atonement view would actually wish to ridicule the doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement. What I should have said is, “The ‘general redemption’ position makes nonsense out of the doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement;” (though the Baptist minister who wrote the statements quoted at the beginning of the post would certainly disagree with this assertion, I stand by it for the reasons mentioned below).

Just think about what the word “substitute” means: “someone that takes the place of another,” right? If I, as a teacher, have a substitute for my class, then that means that I am not doing the work of teaching for that day. The substitute does the work for me. There is no situation in which I would first call for a substitute and then I would also show up and we would both do the exact same work (unless the substitute was grossly incompetent and failed to teach the assigned lesson so that I had to repeat his or her lesson the next day).

In a similar way, if Christ has been the effective substitute for an individual in providing payment for their sins, then the individual sinner for whom our Lord had provided payment would not then be able to pay for his or her own sins. Therefore, if someone believes that Jesus was a substitute for each and every individual sinner, then he or she would have to conclude that each and every individual sinner will escape God’s wrath. And as the Bible is clear in teaching that there will be sinners who suffer the wrath of God against there sins (cf. Revelation 20:15), then the belief that Jesus was not a substitute for each and every person- that the intended benefit of His atonement is limited- inevitably follows.

As Phil Johnson, an elder at Grace Community Church, has noted,

If the atoning work of Christ is substitutionary it must be limited to those whom Christ actually redeems. The substitutionary aspects of it dictate that. In other words when you understand that the atonement is substitutionary you must see that in a certain way it applies to particular people. That is the inevitable ramification of vicarious atonement. I’m not sure why this doctrine of the extent of the atonement is such a controversial doctrine. It’s a point that certainly doesn’t warrant all the debate and bickering that it generates. In fact I’m sure that if people truly appreciated the substitutionary nature of the atonement they would not stumble so badly over the particularity of the atonement. It’s a simple matter really.

Here’s another way to say it. The aspects of the atonement that are substitutionary are inherently efficacious. The very reason I don’t have to fear condemnation in the final judgment is that Christ has already paid the price of my sin in full as my Substitute. And if He substituted effectually in that same sense for everyone then everyone would be saved. The atonement of Christ did not just make salvation possible. It actually purchased redemption for those who will be saved. And His dying on the cross made their ultimate salvation an absolute certainty, a done deal, because He paid the price of their redemption in full. He actually bought them. Paid their debt. Wiped it off the ledger. Sealed their pardon. Assured their eternal salvation. He didn’t merely put them in a position where salvation was possible if they made the right choice, He accomplished their salvation. He even graciously provides the faith that is the instrument by which the atonement is applied to them. He stood in their place and bore their sins. They’ll never have to pay a second time for what has been paid in full.

And Charles Spurgeon also declared,

To think that my Saviour died for men who were or are in hell, seems a supposition too horrible for me to entertain. To imagine for a moment that He was the Substitute for all the sons of men, and that God, having first punished the Substitute, afterwards punished the sinners themselves, seems to conflict with all my ideas of Divine justice. That Christ should offer an atonement and satisfaction for the sins of all men, and that afterwards some of those very men should be punished for the sins for which Christ had already atoned, appears to me to be the most monstrous iniquity that could ever have been imputed to Saturn, to Janus, to the goddess of the Thugs, or to the most diabolical heathen deities. God forbid that we should ever think thus of Jehovah, the just and wise and good!

And lest this teaching be called philosophical rather than biblical, consider the following phrase from Hebrews:

Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. (Hebrews 9:28a, emphasis added)

Verses such as this limit the extent of the atonement and show that the verses containing phrases like “[Jesus] takes away the sin of the world” must be understood in the sense that I have explained above.

"I preach II Corinthians 5:17-21 w/ passion."

This sentence is in reference to a statement I made asserting that the doctrine of double imputation, found particularly in II Corinthians 5:21, is supportive of the ‘limited atonement’ view.

The doctrine of ‘double imputation’ is a name given to the teaching in the verse just mentioned:

For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.(KJV)

This verse (and many others like it) teaches that our sins were credited- or imputed- to Christ as He died on the Cross, and that His righteousness was imputed to us as He rose from the dead. As the Apostle elsewhere declares:

[Jesus] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.(Romans 4:25 HCSB)

My point in raising the issue of double imputation is that both aspects of imputation are wedded together in the text. The New Testament knows of no ‘single imputation.’ The ‘unlimited atonement’ or ‘general redemption’ teaching would assert that each and every individual who has ever lived or will ever live has had his or her sins imputed to Jesus as He died on the Cross. But due to the fact that imputation is double, then the conclusion, from this perspective, would have to be that each and every individual who has ever lived or will ever live has also had the righteousness of Christ imputed to his or her account before God. Again, this conclusion is plainly contrary to Scripture.

Conclusion

The exact phrase “Jesus is God” is never found in the Bible. There are some instances like John 1:1 in which the text uses phrases almost identical to those three words, but the exact manner in which the Son is identical to the Father and in which the Son is also distinct from the Father is not easy to discern from a casual reading of the New Testament. Doubters can always point to the supposed difficulty of translating John 1:1 and can raise the issue of verses such as John 14:28, which contains Jesus’ statement, “My Father is greater than I”- or the fact that Jesus prayed to the Father- in order to question the belief that Jesus is Divine.

Likewise, the word “Trinity” is nowhere to be found in the Bible and many people bring similar objections to this doctrine as well.

My point in bringing up the Divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity is that these doctrines are truly biblical- and not merely philosophical- although the exact phrase “Jesus is God” and the word “Trinity” are never found in the New Testament. We know that these teachings are biblical because when we look at the Scriptures as a whole we find that any alternative views of the person of Christ and relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are fatally defective. These views are defective for many reasons, some of which are:

1. They fail to take clearly taught doctrines into account [such as the unity of God and that God alone is Lord and Savior];

2. They do violence to the plain meaning of the sense of the words used in these doctrines [if God alone is Lord and Savior and Jesus is declared to be Lord and Savior, then it is erroneous to try and change the meaning of these words with each usage];

3. They overlook the implications of specific verses when examining the question at hand [verses like John 1:1 and Colossians 1:15, just to name two].

In the same way, the doctrine of ‘limited atonement’ is shown to be biblical and not merely philosophical, even though we must look for more than one phrase or one verse to see this doctrine in full. We know that this teaching is biblical because when we look at the Scriptures as a whole we find that the alternative view on the extent of the atonement is defective. This view- ‘unlimited atonement’- is defective from a Biblical standpoint because:

1. It fails to take clearly taught doctrines into account, such as the Substitutionary Atonement and Double Imputation.

2. It does violence to the plain meaning of the sense of the words used in these doctrines. If the atonement is truly substitutionary and imputation is truly double, then the atonement must be limited to the elect.

3. It overlooks the implications of specific verses when examining the question at hand- verses such as Hebrews 9:28, mentioned above, and also Isaiah 53:5-

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed
.

In this verse, the Messiah is shown to be pierced, crushed, punished and wounded for our transgressions and iniquities. Who does “our” refer to in this passage? It is clear: “our” refers to “we” who have been brought peace and are healed. The atonement of the Messiah is thus limited to the elect alone from the biblical text itself.

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