What Is Definite Atonement, and Why Does It Matter?
Pastor John, you have a chapter in the book From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective. I was wondering if you would just introduce definite atonement, explain why it is so important to you, and what’s at stake for the Church.
It is important. Sometimes it is called “limited” atonement, which is an unfortunate designation, because it seems to minimize or diminish the work of the atonement. In fact, what we are arguing for is not something less than others believe but for something more. This what I mean: The Bible speaks about God loving the world (John 3:16). And he speaks about Christ being “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10).
And I think in that little phrase what I want to say is: in a sense, Christ dies for all but not in the same sense for all. In the sense that he dies for all, we mean that he dies in such a way that you can offer his death to all without exception and say to them without no qualm, “Here is Christ. I offer Christ to you. If you will believe in Christ, it is yours. Everything he bought from the Father for eternal life he bought for you if you will have it.” So, “if you will have it” enables us to preach the gospel indiscriminately to every single person on the planet and say, “This death will cover your sins if you will believe it.”
For those who affirm definite atonement, we believe that there is more, not less, to atonement than this. God had a definite intention or design in the atonement. “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25), meaning he has a special love for the Church, a special design in the giving of his Son for the Church. God had the Church in view in a special way when he died.
Effective Purchase of the New Covenant
And here is what persuades me about the definite atonement. In the new covenant, in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 and Ezekiel 11, it says that God will take out the heart of stone. He will put in the heart of flesh. He will give us a new spirit. He will write the law on our heart. And then Jesus lifts up the cup at the last supper in Luke 22:20, and he says, “This cup,” — meaning this blood, this death — “that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Piper: “The Church should feel God’s love, not generically, but in the covenant way that he really loves his bride.”
So what Christ’s blood does is purchase for us the benefits of the new covenant. And the new covenant benefits are not simply the offer of salvation. The new covenant is precisely the effecting of salvation and the preserving of those who are saved, taking out the heart of stone and putting in the heart of flesh and writing the law on our hearts.
So when we talk about the new birth or when we talk about Ephesians 2:5, that he made us alive together with Christ, that act of mercy, I argue, was purchased for me by the blood of Christ. Well, if my new birth and my receiving a heart of flesh and my heart of stone being taken out was purchased for me in the new covenant transaction by the blood of Jesus, then that atoning work is what saved me. It didn’t just offer me salvation. It didn’t just make me favorable. It actually rescued me. It changed me. It gave me the gift of faith.
It says in 2 Timothy 2:25 that God may perhaps grant them repentance. So if I have repentance, God gave it to me, and that gift of repentance and the gift of faith, according to Ephesians 2:8, is a purchase of the blood of Christ for me. I didn't deserve that gift. He bought it for me, which means he does that uniquely for the elect, for the bride of Christ.
Where Definite Atonement Touches Down
Here are a couple of practical implications. One is that I want the Church to feel loved by Christ in the covenant way that he really loves his bride. He loved his bride and went after her, and he purchased her and brought her home to himself. So we don’t just feel ourselves loved generically, like we are loved in the same way as people who are in hell or going to hell. We are loved in a covenant way in which God is going to pursue us. He is going to overcome all our rebellion. He is going to make us his own. He is going to beautify us for his Son, and he has fixed his heart on us. And we know that because he has put the faith in our hearts to embrace it.
Piper: “Christ’s blood purchases for us new birth, a heart of flesh, salvation—not just the offer of these things.”
And another implication is that if he has bought me out of darkness into light, out of death into life, by virtue of his atoning work, then he is going to keep me. I think Romans 8:32 functions exactly this way. It says, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all,” — and in the context of Romans 8, that “all” means the elect — “gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
In other words, if God has died for us, will he not keep us forever? The only way that argument works is that Christ’s dying for us secures for his people an everlasting life that includes all the blessings of the new covenant. So, practically, it is really precious for people to work their way through to an understanding of the love of God in Christ for his own.