The new book on definite atonement is out — From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. You contributed a chapter in the book, Pastor John. Some initial reviews have started to pop up online, and I know you’ve read some of them. Any initial responses to the book reviews you’ve read so far?
I have read some of these reviews, Tony. And this morning, I was reading in 1 John a very common verse opposing definite atonement or limited atonement. And so I thought I would throw together these two — my thoughts from my devotions and my response to some of these reviews like this.
My main response is to encourage people. Everybody who is listening to this, anybody who reads the book, reads their Bible, reads the review, whenever you hear somebody make a comment about the death of Christ, be sure that you ask, “What do you think that means?” In other words, if somebody says, “Jesus died for all people,” fine. I am not going to disagree with that until I ask, “What do you think that means?”
“‘What do you mean when you say ‘Jesus died for all?’”
So when you are in an argument or a conversation with somebody about the extent or the effectiveness of the atonement, don’t smash each other with slogans. It is useless just to keep saying, “He did die for everybody!” “He didn’t die for everybody!” Well, that is just useless. You have got to stop and say, “What do you mean when you say he died for everybody?”
Three Key Texts
The controversy around this doctrine, it seems to me, perhaps more than any other, starts spinning its wheels on the ice, getting nowhere, because people are quoting verses to each other without asking, “Now what do you think that means?”
1. Everyone Who Believes? — John 3:16
So, for example, I was listening to my father preach last Sunday. He has been in heaven for six years, and I have numerous recordings of his preaching. I love to listen to my dad preach. So, he is preaching a sermon called, “The Secrets of Spiritual Power.” My wife and I are listening at a bed and breakfast where we’re celebrating our 45th wedding anniversary. And he suddenly stopped and said, “Do you believe Jesus died for everyone? Aren’t you glad Jesus died for everyone?” I just loved it. And Noёl and I looked at each other. The next thing out of his mouth was this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish” (John 3:16).
So immediately, I know exactly what I my father is thinking. He is thinking Jesus died for everyone in the sense that everyone who believes will be saved, which is exactly what I believe. And my father wouldn’t have called himself a Calvinist, and he wouldn’t have called himself a believer in definite atonement. But at that point, my father tipped his hand perfectly, just as he ought to, what he meant by the term “he died for everyone.” He quoted John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes.”
So what is the meaning, then, of his statement? The meaning of his statement is, Christ died for everyone such that everyone who believes will be saved. It is clear as day, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that statement, nothing unbiblical about it. John 3:16 means what it says, and we ought to believe that Jesus died for all in that sense. And I think, Tony, that is what 99 percent of the people in the world who say Jesus died for everyone mean by it.
2. The Sins of the Whole World — 1 John 2 and John 11
The question isn’t whether that is true or not. The question is, Did he do more than die so that everyone who believes may experience the benefits of his death? Because the answer to that is clearly everyone who believes will experience the benefits of his death. Did he do more than that?
And that is where my devotions come in from this morning. I was reading in 1 John 2, and I read this sentence: “He is the propitiation” (1 John 2:2). Jesus is the propitiation — that is, the one who removes the wrath of God, who assuages the wrath of God, who absorbs the condemnation that God is going to put out our sin unto destruction. “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
Now, that is a verse that is usually quoted back to those, like me, who believe in definite atonement or limited atonement. They say, “See? He is not only the propitiation for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world. So he removed the wrath of the whole world.” And I think I should just stop at that point and say, “Okay, let’s just pause here. I want to make sure I understand what you believe that means. I hear the words. I want to know what you think it means. What are you saying when you quote that at me? What do you think it means?”
Now here is what I think it means, and I am just amazed at how John helps us here, because in his gospel, in his epistle, and in the book of Revelation — all written by John — he addresses the same issue in words that are similar to help us not misunderstand what he means.
So if you go to John 11:51–52, where he is addressing the same issue of the death of Jesus and the extent of it, here is what Caiaphas, who is speaking prophetically, says. And John reports it: Jesus would die “not for the nation only” — that is the Jews only — “but also . . .” Now, just pause there and hear the similarity. In 1 John 2:2, “He is the propitiation, not for our sins only, but also.” And here in John 11:52, Jesus would die “not for the nation only, but also.” And then instead of saying for the whole world or whatever, he says “but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” So, not for the nation only will he die. He will die to gather into one the children of God that are scattered abroad.
3. Ransomed People for God – Revelation 5:9
Now that means the death of Jesus procures, obtains, gathers in, receives, accomplishes the ingathering of God’s elect, the scattered children of God all over the world. So I think that would be the natural way to take 1 John 2 — that when it says, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world,” he means the world is included here. This is not a private religion. He didn’t just deal with us. He is dealing with the whole world, and he is gathering people into Christianity from the whole world, and he is blessing the whole world by obtaining people from every tribe and tongue and people and language, which is exactly what Revelation 5:9, the third text, says: “You were slain, and by your blood your ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
So he is gathering the children of God by the death of Jesus, which means there is something more God does in the death of Christ than simply making it possible for everybody to believe, à la John 3:16. Rather, it says he is actually effectively purchasing them from the tribes, and he is gathering them like children from the tribes. And so it is not only our little precious gospel. It is a gospel for the whole world.
Now, the point of all that is just to say this: When people read reviews, when they read the controversy, be sure to ask, “What do you mean when you say ‘Jesus died for all?’”