The Achievement of the Cross: The Unifying Key: Substitution

Desiring God 1989 Conference for Pastors

The Achievement of the Cross

Tonight, we discuss the matter of the scope of the atonement. And on this subject, people of the Reformed persuasion are a minority.

Definite Atonement: A Minority View

If you go to the Roman Catholic Church, you will find that the great majority of the people who belong to it assert a universal atonement. If you go to the Eastern groups whether Greek Orthodox, or Russian Orthodox, or Romanian Orthodox, or any others, you will find an affirmation of a universal atonement. If you go to the Lutherans, you will find a very decided affirmation of the universal atonement. This is in fact one of the matters on which there was difference even early in the time of the Reformation. If you go to the Methodists and other people who have an Arminian influence in their church life, and you will find a strong emphasis on universal atonement. If you go to some people who have downgraded Presbyterians and Reformed, you will find there also an affirmation of universal atonement in spite of the great creeds that’s stated otherwise.

And if you go to the Congregationalists and the Baptists, I fear that you may find a majority of people who maintain a universal atonement, and would not be satisfied with anything else. And so, people who maintain a doctrine of definite atonement are clearly a minority in the total body of people who claim the name of Christ and can be subsumed under the general title Christendom. And yet, I would like to emphasize that here we have a Reformed conference, a Reformed Baptist Conference. And we have six addresses that are planned in this Reformed conference, and all of them tied up in one way or another under the achievement of the cross. And yet, you will note there is only one out of the six that is oriented toward a question as to what is the actual scope of the work of Jesus Christ.

So we have not been abounding in just the thing that differentiates us from others, but we have said a number of things with which many others would feel quite free to agree. Probably very few statements have been made or will yet be made in this conference, which would really shock people who are not of our persuasion in the matter of the scope of the atoning work of Christ. So at that point, it is important to recognize that while Reformed people have a distinctive teaching here, which they feel is in accordance with Scripture, they do not claim that they have a corner on the work of Christ. Other people talk rightly about the work of Christ. Other people proclaim the cross. Other people are saved by the benefits of the cause of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to be Reformed in order to go to heaven.

When we get to heaven, I have a belief that God will arrange matters in such a way that we will be vindicated. But in order to go to heaven, you don’t have to be Reformed as a prerequisite. So we are glad to recognize a kind of ecumenicity, a catholicity of belief among sound Christians concerning the nature of the work of Jesus Christ. And when we discuss the question of the scope, we are conscious of being a minority, and yet, a minority may be in the right. If they were not, Baptists would be in a fool position in almost every place except the South of the United States of America. And here we are fairly well in the North judged by your climate. Now then, we need first of all to recognize exactly what is at issue, because people are often misunderstanding what the question is that we need to approach.

Misunderstanding the Discussion

I would like to delineate this by saying three things which are not in discussion here. First, this is not a question concerning the value or sufficiency of the work of Christ. It is considered on all parts — including joyfully by Reformed people — that the work of Christ is infinite in its value. And that infinity comes from the fact that it is the performance of the one who is God himself, the second person of the Trinity. And while this work was performed in part by virtue of his owning a human nature, the dignity, and significance, and value of this work is raised to an infinite level by the fact that this is the work of God, the God-man. In humanity, he could suffer, and die, and be the sin-bearer. But the same one who suffered and died as the sin-bearer is also God, the second person of the Trinity. And therefore, there is no limit to the value of the work of Christ.

Therefore, no one imagines that if there should have been another person saved, somehow a special addition would have had to be made to the cup of suffering of the Lord, that another drop of blood would have had to be shed or anything of that kind. For surely, the work of Christ is widely sufficient to atone for the sins of every man, woman, and child in the whole history of mankind. And if there were other worlds to redeem, a thousand worlds beside, it wouldn’t be exhausted, since in infinity, you can add as many quantities as you wish without ever reaching an overwhelming measure. And so, the sufficiency and the value of the work of Christ is freely confessed. This is not the issue.

A second misunderstanding arises in that, some people think that those who hold to definite atonement suggest that there is nothing of benefit that comes to those who are not saved from the work of Christ. Now, this is not true either. For the work of Christ does bestow benefits upon people who are not saved. They are not the same benefits that the saved receive, but they are benefits which are of very significant nature. Specifically I would say, because of the work of Christ, there is a patience in the Godhead before the judgment comes, which could probably not take place if our Lord had not offered himself in sacrifice. The people who are unsaved live under this dispensation of patience where God, instead of meeting them with full judgment on their sins, provides a period in which they are still under test as it were, in which they have still opportunity to repent, and to believe, and to turn unto the Lord Jesus Christ.

Specifically, the fact that God has enjoined that the preaching of the gospel should go to every man, woman, and child that we can reach is a signal blessing. For members of the race indiscriminately whether or not they are to be of the elect, whether or not they are in the end going to be saved, are approached by a God of mercy who says, “Here is everything that is needed for your salvation. Just extend your hand and receive it, and you will be saved.” And so, this is a marvelous sign of blessing which is bestowed even upon those who in the end do not accept.

Furthermore, I think we would have to say that the work of Christ has cosmic significance. So that in addition to the work that Christ accomplishes for his own people out of the human race, there is a sense in which also it is meant to bring back reunion between heaven and earth. There is a cosmic redemption that God intends to accomplish and which has dimensions that go even beyond humanity. So that again is a benefit that comes from the work of Christ, and which does not require the purpose of salvation in order to be applied. So in this respect, Reformed as well as people who are not Reformed can agree that the fact that Jesus Christ offered himself on the cross is beneficial for humanity at large. And these benefits can be freely received even by people, who in the end may not be saved.

Not a Matter of Universalism

In the third place, the question is not at this point as to whether all members of the human race will be saved or not. For here, evangelical people in line with the Scripture are agreed that there is a bifurcation of destiny in humanity. There are some people who will be saved and other people who will be lost. Hell is not a mythical place that has no existence. It is a real place, a place in which indeed the justice of God is manifest, and in which the absence of the presence of God is probably the most signaled source of suffering and lack of fulfillment that you could imagine.

Now, if the Scripture permitted, to think that somehow all people of the human race would in the end be reunited to God in salvation, I don’t think you would find anybody happier than I would be on the pronouncement of that particular news. I have no interest in sending a lot of people to hell. And the reason why some people hold to definite atonement is not that they intend to rejoice in the suffering of people in hell. The problem is however that the Scripture is so plain on the matter of the destiny of humanity, and the fact that there are many people in our race who will not in the end be united with God, that it is impossible to escape that particular teaching.

People who are universalists in an outright sense, believing that all people will be saved, have to discard a great many Scriptures. I once counted at least 50 different very notable Scriptures in the New Testament alone that articulate this bifurcation. That is not actually including the Old Testament. In fact, in my article on Universalism in “Christianity Today” about a year and a half ago maybe, I had the list of those 50 Scriptures, and unfortunately they omitted that, which for me was the core of my article. Because in the end, we don’t know anything about these things unless the Scripture teaches us. Therefore, the teaching of Scripture for me was much more important than anything I might say on the subject. Well, it just turned out that way.

But I still announce to you there are many, many Scriptures, incontrovertible Scriptures that make it plain, that a portion of humanity will not in the end be in fellowship with God. And so on this, evangelical people agree. I know there is a current of universalism that is sweeping in the land at the present time. I know that people are thought to be bigoted and narrow-minded if they are not universalists. But the problem is that it is very dangerous to attempt to be more generous than God. The reason for it is that perhaps people who are speaking that way have, in the words of Anselm, not yet considered how grievous a thing sin is. And sin is so grievous that in the end it may actually separate forever a creature made in the image of God, and whose main purpose was to glorify God, is abandoned in separation from God forever and ever.

Christ’s Sacrifice: Universal or Effectual?

So now, having dismissed some of the matters concerning what the question is not, I would like to define clearly what the question is. The question of the scope of the atonement is, what is the purpose of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit in providing the atonement for sin? Is it to provide a possible salvation for all human beings? Or is it to secure the salvation of some human beings that God had in his mercy destined to eternal life? This is not a question of value, it’s a question of intention. And at this point, I think it is wise to express a protest against the word limited that is often used in this connection. Already the prayer of our brother has prepared us for this, that in a way to use the word limited atonement is a taking upon oneself a burden that we do not need to bear.

Because the word “limited” suggests that we are setting up some limits while other people have recognized an unlimited quality in the atonement of Jesus Christ. In those terms then, it is their position that would be more calculated to exalt and magnify the grace of God, while ours would be restrictive and narrow. As a result, it would not do justice to the fullness of the grace of God. Let me suggest to you that inevitably, when it is asserted that all people will not be saved, there is a limit that is presented by that very fact. Some people limit the work of grace in its breadth. That is, they say it applies to some of the race only and not to others. Others limit it in its depth. That is, they say it is intended for all, but it is effective only for some. And here, the question comes really before us in terms that are found in your program, is it universal or is it effectual?

If it is universal and effectual, then all people will be saved. But we know that is false. It is universal and non-effectual, then some people only will be saved, in some others the universal intention will not find fruition. But then, God will be frustrated because he intended something, and it doesn’t come to pass. If it is effectual, and we do not have the word universal, and we emphasize the effectuality of the atonement, then obviously, it is effectual for those on whom it takes effect. And these are the people that will be redeemed head for head, not one more and not one less. And so, this is really the matter about which we need to consider the teaching of Scripture. Is the atonement universal or is it effectual? It is not both and we have to choose.

Choosing the Right Words

Now, in order to make our choice known, it seems to me it is wise to avoid the word limit which ought to apply in any case for people who are not universalists. And so at that point, I would suggest that the word “definite” is a more exact expression of the scope of the work of Christ. The word “definite” overcomes at once a psychological difficulty which ties in with the word “limited.” For supposing you say, “I believe in a limited atonement.” And the person who disagrees with you will say, “And I believe in an unlimited atonement.” That person seems to have a psychological advantage from the start by not limiting what you have limited, and therefore giving glory to the grace of God. Now, suppose you use the term that I just suggested, “definite.” Supposing that the reformed person can start, and say, “I believe in definite atonement.”

What is the other person going to say? I believe in indefinite atonement? That doesn’t sound so good. Now why concede the psychological advantage unnecessarily? Now, if those people want to say you believe in “limited atonement,” well, we can’t help it. They have their right to describe what we believe any way they desire as long as they are reasonably accurate in what they say. But when we describe ourselves, we might as well use the best terms, the ones that are most descriptive and most appropriate. There is no sense in surrendering a psychological advantage before the matter has even been discussed. Therefore, I suggest to you “definite atonement” or as the Baptist used it very often, particular redemption. And in the history of the Baptist, you know there were General Baptists and Particular Baptists.

It was this issue which led to that particular language. They were Particular Baptists because they believed in particular redemption. And the others were General Baptists because they believed in the universal general redemption of all mankind. And the Particular Baptist, were in line with the Reformed confessions, like the Reformed Confession of Westminster. And the Second London Confession which was resumed in the Philadelphia Confession is a very clear echo of the Westminster Confession of Faith of the Assembly of Westminster between 1643 and following. The confession is dated 1648. The General Baptists by contrast were Arminians. And so, they carried out the Arminian leanings in many other directions besides the question of the scope of the death of Christ.

But this was recognized to be the crucial issue which made it desirable to have two denominations of Baptists. They were united in holding that only believers should be receiving the ordinance of baptism, but they were not in agreement on the matter of the scope of the death of Christ. They differed at this point, and the word particular was used to describe a Reformed position.

Evidence for Definite Atonement

Now when that is clear, we need to see what evidence is there for a particular redemption. And in the first place, I think we might say there are a number of passages which are found in Scripture and which make the blessing of salvation definite in a relationship to those who will in fact be saved. And here we have Matthew 1:21, which says:

You will call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.

Regarding his friends, John 15:13 says:

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

Regarding his sheep, John 10:15 says:

I lay down my life for the sheep.

He lays down his life for the sheep in a way in which he doesn’t do it for the goats. Regarding his church, Ephesians 5:23–26 says that Christ gave himself for her to make her pure and blameless, and so on. This is the whole pericope there. All of those verses relate to a specific intention of Christ as the bridegroom for his church as the bride. And then again in Acts 20:28, Paul says elders should feed the church of God that he has purchased with his own blood. Then, the word “many” is used. In Isaiah 53:12, it says he bore the transgression of many. In Matthew 20:28, it says that the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. It’s the same thing in Mark 10:45. In Matthew 26:28, Jesus says, “This is the blood of the covenant shared for the remission of sins of many.”

And then for us, in Titus 2:14 it is emphasized that Christ died for us. Finally, in Galatians 2:20 Paul says, “The life that I live, I live in the Son of God who gave himself and died for me.” So here, we have a specific intention that is articulated.

Now, I grant that this does not in every case rule out others that might be included. And very specifically in the last passage quoted, it is very plain that Paul did not mean that it was for him alone that Christ gave himself, but it was for him and all other saved people. So the exclusion of others is not implied in all of these passages. Although specifically, when you hear of the sheep, there seems to be a suggestion that it is just for these that Christ gave himself and that others are not included. A shepherd has no responsibility for others other than the sheep. And the same thing with his church. So here, the idea of universality is not in good keeping with a specific affirmation of a particular purpose tying in with redeemed people.

Now, the other passages that I have also are articulating a special intention. The intention of God in salvation is to bring together the children of God that were scattered. This is what we find in John 11:52. Similarly, in John 6, which is a great Reformed passage, you have the emphasis that God gives to Jesus Christ a certain number of people, and the others are not similarly given to him. And so, a particularity is spelled out in the relationship specifically of the atoning work of Christ. So in Scripture we are not lacking in statements that emphasize a particularity in the intention of our Lord.

A Resource from John Owen

This is not, I would think, the primary argument. The primary argument rests more in other features which are also biblical in which we need to consider together. If you want to have a full articulation on the argument for the definite atonement, I recommend to you a book that I should probably have mentioned this noon, but I was suddenly put up to give some suggestion about what I’d seen in the Nook. And so, it’s not surprising I might forget something that was there. But the best book on the scope of the atonement is the work by John Owen entitled The Death of Death in The Death of Christ. And the addition that you have on the book table is also the best one to use, because it has a marvelous preface by Dr. J.I. Packer that articulates the unity in the five points of Calvinism.

Also, it has an analytical outline of the work, which is very important for most people. John Owen had an unusual ability to have a perfect fixation in space in relation to the argument that he was pursuing. It’s almost like the bee that has an ability to get right back in one small little hole in the beehive, even coming from a mile away. John Owen had a mind that was so adept at thinking that he never got embroiled in his own argumentation. He knew exactly that this was the third part of the second proof brought in connection with the fifth proposition he just made. Now, some people who read him do not necessarily have that same ability. And so, they can get lost in an argument that is at times very complex and astute. So an analytical outline is very helpful.

There is one fault that I find with the analytical outline that you have there. It does not show you on which page of the book a particular thing starts and finishes. And so, I found it’s not always easy to find something in there. You have 18 arguments for definite atonement, together with the discussion of the arguments presented against it. And at that point, it is valuable to have the actual pages in which this thing begins. And I’ve made the notation of those in my copy. At times, I xeroxed that, and some people had the impression that it was my outline, but it’s Packer’s outline which is very well done. Owen lends himself very well to be outlined, because he has a very, very logical and careful mind, so that he’s never wandering away from his purpose. But he is difficult to follow.

As a result, because I want the students to use Owen, and because it is a burdensome reading, I give them triple credit for when they read Owen, whatever it is they read of him. I have succeeded in this way to have a certain number of my students reading Owen, and I’m grateful to that. And I know the Lord will reward me for it on the last day, after I’ve passed through purgatory.

Descriptions of the Achievement of the Cross

Now, tonight I think rather than to give you 18 proofs, or 11 proofs, or anything like that, I want to hit on what I consider to be the main decisive arguments on this. But there are others that are important as well. I want to major in the majors rather than to major in the minors. And the first argument comes in a five-fold way in Owen in the observation of the language that is used to describe the work of Christ.

In three terms particularly that are used in scripture come before us, the term redemption, the term propitiation, and the term reconciliation. Now, each one of those terms describes something that is achieved. It does not describe a potential that is opened. It does not describe merely a possibility to which people are challenged or summoned. But it describes something that has been done, and which is a fait accompli, as we say in French.


Now, let’s take the word redemption. The term redemption indicates that a price has been paid for the deliverance of the captive. And I have to ask, what kind of redemption is this where a large number of captives are still held?

Now, I have a friend who ran afoul of the law, and so he was put in the slammer as somebody said. And well, as a man of means, I rushed there to provide bail for this man. Two days later, I asked, “Now, how is this fellow getting along?” “Oh,” they said, “He’s in prison.” I said, “In prison? But I paid bail for him.” They said, “Well, somehow the bail didn’t work, he’s still there.” Well, that’s the kind of redemption we can get along without. If that’s what redemption does is to leave people in the condition where they were, phooey for it. We want redemption that redeems. And Scripture speaks of a redemption that redeems, not merely one that makes possible the deliverance of captives, but then one that actually delivers captives.

Now, if you press and say the captivity of what? Well, it’s the captivity of sin over against the righteousness of God. It’s not just the empire of Satan or the power of Satan over people, but this is the fact that they are exposed to the wrath of God in justice. And if the wrath of God in justice has been met, then why are these people not in fact redeemed? And Scripture in using the word redemption — and I’ve shown you how often it does — emphasizes something that is accomplished, not something that is merely made possible.


That is even stronger with propitiation. For propitiation is the transaction by which the just wrath of God for our sins is appeased. And I have to ask, what kind of propitiation is this that leaves the wrath of God intact, so that people are still subject to it and are suffering from it over eternity in hell? The propitiation Scripture speaks of is a propitiation in which God himself appears appeased.

And the wrath of God having fallen on Jesus Christ does not have to fall on those who are subsumed under him. But it is an accomplishment. It’s not just tentative. It is a provision by which the wrath of God is in fact exhausted.


And take reconciliation, the same thing is true. Reconciliation describes the situation in which the two people that were estranged are brought back together. And I say, what kind of reconciliation is this when the two people are still estranged? And this is what would happen to people who are not saved. They are estranged from God and will remain estranged forever. And therefore, the description of the nature of the work of Christ that we discussed at length yesterday afternoon does not comport with an atonement that is ineffective. It describes something that has taken place and that does in fact carry out its impact.

That is true of other terms as well, but most emphatically of these three: redemption, propitiation, reconciliation. And if we take those seriously, then we will recognize that this accomplishes the work and does not simply provide a possibility in that direction.

Condemnation at the Last Day

The second argument that comes from Scripture is that, it is the doctrine of the atonement that our Lord Jesus Christ taking the place of human beings has in fact endure the punishment due unto all their sins, so that they will not appear before God in terms of their performance, which would only elicit condemnation, but they will be declared free of all guilt, and be received by God into fellowship with him on the ground of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. If that is so and if this is something that Jesus has done for everybody, what is there to condemn in the last judgment?

If Jesus died for all the sins of all men of all times, then the only issue will be salvation for all men of all times. There will be nothing left to condemn. That’s the point that our brother underlined before even singing. He reminded us of some lines in that hymn of Toplady, the Lord will not demand twice the price of sin, once at the hands of my surety and the second time at my own hands in the last judgment. But in fact, this picture of the judgment is one in which some people will be condemned. And they will be condemned for what? Well, some people will not be condemned for their sins, they will be condemned for their unbelief. And so, this unbelief, is it a sin or is it not? If it’s not a sin, why should they be condemned for it? If it is a sin, then I say Jesus died for it or he did not.

If he died for it, why should they be condemned? If he did not die for it, he didn’t die for all their sins. This is what I call the vice, in the sense of an instrument in carpentry where you have a screw that you can tighten as much as you want. It’s the vice of Owen, and I’m going to show you that in writing. It argues on the principle of substitution, which is the core of the atonement, and it shows that substitution inevitably when understood properly leads to a definite atonement. Here I have that. He says:

God imposed his wrath due unto, and Christ underwent the pains of hell for either, all the sins of all men, all the sins of some men, or some of the sins of all men.

Now, those are the only options that are worth considering. If you see no sin of nobody, there is just no point in discussing any further. So these three options are the ones that are interesting to us. Now, what does he say?

Necessary Substitution

If the last, some of the sins of all men, then all men have some sins to answer for. And so, nobody will be saved because there is one sin on our record that is sufficient to condemn us. If the second, all the sins of some men, Owen says, “That is which we affirm that Christ in their stead and room suffered for all the sins of all the elect in the whole world.” And now let’s examine the first, all the sins of all men. If the first, why then are not all freed from the punishment of all their sins? You will say, because of their unbelief. They will not believe. But this unbelief, is it a sin or is it not? If not, why should they be punished for it? If it be, then Christ underwent the punishment due unto it or he did not. If he underwent the punishment due to it, why then must that hinder them more than their other sins for which he died from partaking of the fruits of his death?

And if he did not, then he did not die for all their sins, and the people are in contradiction with their premise. So when you really hold to substitution, it has to be the substitution of Christ to those who, in fact, will be saved. He cannot have substituted himself in the same way to people who are not saved, because those people who are not saved will have to answer for their sins. And in fact, this business about having only unbelief is simply not a correct view in terms of the picture that Scripture gives us of the judgment. The Scripture never tells you that there is no sin that will be condemned except unbelief. You see, unbelief is a terrible sin, and it will make people particularly guilty, so that Sodom and Gomorrah may be less guilty than Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.

But the picture of the judgment is that it is the concrete sins that people have committed — their murders, and their adulteries, and their thefts, and their pride, and their ambition, and their selfishness, and their gossip, and all of those things — that will be the object of divine condemnation. And so obviously, since God will condemn them in the person of the malefactors, he has not condemned them in the person of Christ. And it is only the sins of those people who actually are redeemed that will be condemned and have been condemned in the person of Christ. And therefore, there is no other condemnation. And so, the Apostle Paul doesn’t say there is now no condemnation for any human being. But he says there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. That’s where the freedom from condemnation comes.

So the logic of substitution, I think, irresistibly leads us to definite atonement. And if you do not accept that, what happens is that the universal atonement begins to erode the position that you hold on the nature of the atonement. And this is true in the governmental view, and it’s true in the vicarious penitent’s view, and some other views which have appeared in the history of the church, where people in recoil against the idea of a definite substitution have moved on to damage and fluff up, if I may put it that way, the nature of the work of Christ as taught in Scripture, and as I tried to exhibit it to you in the two previous lectures.

The Nature of the Divine Purpose

And now, the third argument. The third argument relates to the nature of a divine purpose in relationship to the Trinity. What people who hold to universal atonement would want us to believe is this, that God in his own unsearchable council has, of all eternity, determined that a certain number of our fallen race would be saved. These are called the elect. He has chosen them, and he has determined that they will participate in his grace, and others will be bypassed. And so, the will of the Father is manifest in particular. Otherwise, we might as well not talk about predestination or election.

But then the Son comes and he says — I hope I’m not blasphemous in suggesting a kind of personal or human conversation between the person — “Hold on for a while, I’m coming and I’m going to give myself for all human beings.” That’s what universal atonement would suggest, that Christ intended to save all human beings by the offering of himself. And then, the Holy Spirit would come and say, “The Father wins because I’m going to give repentance and faith only to the ones that the Father has elected. And so, your generosity comes to naught.” Well, this represents a huge problem in the doctrine of the Trinity, because it actually divides and splinters the will of the Godhead, as if the Father and the Spirit were in agreement against the Son, and the decision was made by a two to one majority. Things don’t work that way in the Godhead. In the Trinity, there is a perfect unity of will.

The Father’s will is the same as the Son’s will and as the Holy Spirit’s will. We know specifically that Jesus said, “Not my will be done, but yours.” And that which is true in Gethsemane is true all the way from before the incarnation down to the end. The will of the Father, and then the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one. And people who suggest that the Son intended to do something else than what the Father had designed and what the Holy Spirit would accomplish are introducing an intolerable disjunction. In the doctrine of the Trinity, unity is what we need to recognize. One could hardly imagine a more serious theological blunder than that. It’s a catastrophic blunder.

Ordinarily I try to be gentle. But here, I think I have to express myself. It is a catastrophic blunder to splinter asunder the unity of the Trinity. It’s one of the worst things we can do in theology. And yet, the idea of universal atonement does it, unless by some dint of other pressure, you reduce the will of the Father, and extend the work of the Spirit, and make them all ineffective.

Difficulties with Definite Atonement

Now, there are difficulties. And the difficulties that are presented are first of all of a scriptural nature. There are a number of passages that people who hold to universal atonement quote, and which they feel will prove their position. And first of all, there are some passages which show a saving will on the part of God which extends to people in general. Ezekiel 18:23 and Ezekiel 33:11 are very clear. God says, “What is it that I want? Is it the death of the sinner or rather that he should live? It’s rather that he should live.” First Timothy 2:3–4 says:

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Second Peter 3:9 says:

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

And finally, John 3:16 says:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

In every case I tried to take the most impressive passages that are quoted, and not to bypass any, because presumably I wouldn’t have any good answer. But I bypass some which appear to me more easily answered than these. Well, none of these I think proves what is in view. The passage of Ezekiel particularly emphasizes that it is amazing that in the presence of our sin, God should have any interest in the salvation of anybody. And it is a proof of the marvelous benevolence of God that instead of saying, “My fist is itching to let them have it,” he should say, “I want the conversion of the sinner rather than his death.” That does not mean that he has ordained the conversion of all sinners.

So this does not deal with the secret will of God whereby he ordained his Son, but to the generous disposition of God by which in spite of our sinfulness, he makes a show of his benevolence, and assures us there is joy in heaven for one sinner who is converted. In 1 Timothy 2:3–4, what Paul is saying is not that God wants and has appointed all men to salvation, but rather God wants people of all kinds to be saved, even kings and princes who are very poor prospects for membership in the church. Now, some people might have said, “What do we have to do with kings and princes? They are the ones who persecute us. They are the ones who are abandoning themselves in lasciviousness. They are not people that we can have in our churches.”

Paul said, “Nevermind that, pray for them anyway.” Because God wants all kinds of men to be saved and to come with the knowledge of truth even from sections in which you do not expect to find many candidates. And it’s interesting that the “all” in this case does not have the article in the Greek, so that the tendency is not to be all kinds of men, rather than all human beings head for head.

In 2 Peter 3:9, Peter is speaking about you, Christians. God is not postponing the second coming in an idle manner. But the postponement is made in order that all people who are elect could be gathered in due course. If the Lord Jesus should come ahead of time, then there would be some people that would not have a chance to be in on it, and therefore the postponement will take place until the whole number of the elect have been gathered. This says nothing about wanting all human beings, head for head, to come to repentance.

God’s Love for the World

As far John 3:16 goes, it is true that the love of God is focused toward the world. This is the planet toward which God has manifested love. But that does not mean that you have a redemptive love that is expressed similarly to redeemed the non-redeemed people. You have a famous fellowship that has been organized by a man called Rhodes, who was a gentleman of means in England who lived at the beginning of the 19th century, if I’m not mistaken. Well, at that time, there was a great antagonism between the United States and England. And you would hardly expect that a gentleman from England would make use of his means to provide facilities for American people to come and study in the best schools that the British can have, Oxford and Cambridge particularly.

But Mr. Rhodes had a vision that was more broad than that of many of his fellow citizens. So as he died, he made a legacy putting an enormous sum of money aside for the purpose of providing scholarships for people of the United States. We could say in truth, Rhodes so loved the United States that he made provision for the scholarship. That didn’t mean that he expected the whole population of America to register at Cambridge and Oxford. He meant that some people who would meet some qualifications would do so. And that’s exactly what John 3:16 says. God so loved the world that he gave his Son that whosoever believes should not perish but have everlasting life. So the blessing and the love of God is oriented toward people who believe in a way that is different from those people who do not believe. Therefore, the passage does not prove universal atonement.

Will the Elect Perish?

Now, a second group of passages are those in which it is stated that some people for whom Christ died may perish. In Romans 4:15, we have a discussion of the meat sacrifice to idols and the attitude of the weaker brother. And Paul said, “We knew for your meat to cause him to perish for whom Christ died?” And about the same thing he said in 1 Corinthians 8:11. Again, 2 Peter 2:1 speaks about doubters who denied the Lord who bought them. In Hebrews 10:29, we hear about people who, having been enlightened, trample underfoot the blood of the covenant whereby they were sanctified.

So here we have four passages. It’s always the same four that surface. And in which it would appear that people for whom Christ died, for whom the blood was shed that sanctified them who were bought by Jesus Christ may in the end perish or will in the end perish as stated in Hebrews and 2 Peter. Now, you have therefore two categories of passages, those on the first line and those on the second line. Those on the first line indicate not so much that people will perish, but rather that they might perish by virtue of the indolence and the carelessness of people who, thinking themselves saved, are riding roughshod over their conscience. In Romans 14, we are told specifically that the Lord will cause them to stand, so that here you have a possibility that is envisioned, which in fact is refuted as taking place.

What Paul condemns however is the attitude of indifference of people who consider themselves to be strong Christians, and who manage to continue an exercise of their liberty that is injurious to the conscience of their weaker brothers or sisters. And so here, what Paul is saying is not hypothesizing about the future destiny of these people, but showing the contrary disposition. On one hand, we have these people who don’t seem to care for their souls. And on the other hand, we have the care of Jesus Christ who died for them. How could anyone who calls himself a Christian show indifference toward the souls of people for whom God showed so much care that Christ died for them? This is the contrast. It does not speak of people actually falling away after having been saved.

In the case of Hebrews 10:29 and Second Peter 2:1, the situation is more difficult, because as I understand the passages Hebrews 10:29 and 2 Peter speak about people who will surely be lost. There is no glimmer of salvation available there. And so, what is said must be interpreted in relation to people who may have had the appearance of being Christians, but who were not in fact saved. And in that case, it may be difficult to say why it is that they were sanctified by the blood of the covenant, and that the Lord bought them? The answer to this, I think, is not so very difficult, although I would recognize that this may be, perhaps of all the passages of Scripture, the one that gives me the most to ponder. But the suggestion I think that can be made is that both Hebrews and Peter are speaking in terms of what these people pretended.

The ones in Hebrews may have been people who were members of the church and participated in the Lord’s Supper. In participating in the Lord’s Supper, they were placing themselves under the blood of the covenant that ought to sanctify people. And yet, they were not true Christians. They were hypocrites. They were professors who were not true confessors. Professors have nothing to do with the teaching office, but rather to people who profess Christianity rather than to confess it and accept it in their hearts. And similarly in 2 Peter, the statement “denying the Lord who bought them” could be paraphrased, “denying the Lord by whom they had claimed to be bought and under whose leadership they claimed to march.”

So here there would be a reference in the judgment of charity to what these people professed, and not to something that had happened in fact. Note that if this thing has happened in fact, and that would be essential for an argument against definite atonement, those two passages also will militate in an extremely damaging way against the doctrine of the perseverance of God with the saints. For here, there would be people who would really be saved and then be lost. And if they were bought by Christ, we couldn’t say they were not saved. If they were sanctified by the blood of the covenant, how could we say that they were not saved? So the problem would be, not only with the third point of Calvinism that many people are ready to reject, but also with the fifth that some people who have only one of the points are still holding to tenaciously. So let’s try to have things in proper order here.

Chirst’s Work Described in Universal Terms

The third line of argumentation concerns passages in which the work of Christ specifically is presented as designed for all. Isaiah 53:6 says:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
     we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
     the iniquity of us all.

Romans 5:18 says:

Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

Romans 8:32 was quoted yesterday, and it says:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Second Corinthians 5:14 says:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died . . .

First Timothy 2:6, where Jesus Christ is presented as the the substitutionary ransom for all, says:

Who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

Titus 2:11 says:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people . . .

Then again, the word “every” is used. Hebrews 2:9 says:

He tasted death for every man . . .

The word man is not in the Greek, but it’s every one, every man. That’s the translation we have. Then, the word world appears in John 3:16, which says:

For God so loved the world . . .

John 4:42 says, “The Savior of the world.” In 1 John 4:16, it says, “The Savior of the world.” John 12:47, we will have to get that particular passage. John 12:47 says:

If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.

Here again, the word world. John 1:29 says:

Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

First John 2:2 says:

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Second Corinthians 5:18–19 says:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

And then finally, words like “whosoever” in John 3:16 give an argument for this — “whosoever believes in him.” And Revelation 22:17 says, “Whosoever will, may come.”

A Need for Careful Interpretation

Now, all of these passages constitute a remarkable gathering of passages which seem to imply, certainly at first reading, universality. So the people who speak about a universal atonement say this is what the scripture teaches. Its manifest and reasonings cannot prevail against the clear teaching of Scripture. And at this point, I think what we need to recognize is that we need to be careful in our interpretation of terms like this. For indeed the context is very important to determine what is meant by all of those terms.

For instance, if I talk about an expedition to Everest, and there may have been eight persons who participated in this expedition. And then, I say the remarkable thing is that in this expedition all actually arrived at the summit. Well, by all, I mean, obviously the people who were on the expedition. I don’t mean all humanity. If I say to a class, “All will prepare a term paper that will be given on May 5th.” They don’t understand that I am calling on the whole of humanity to provide term papers for me. The “all” is obviously related to the class that I am teaching, and everybody understands that. I have an unhappy reputation for being slow in correcting. But if the “all” that I used there were applied to humanity, then I could be excused for taking a long time before corrections are returned. Obviously, we need to be careful about the scope of reference of these passages. And some of them are manifestly ill-considered.

Now, I did not on purpose bring you passages that I could easily explore. I’m taking my list from the list that has been given by people who hold to universal atonement. And yet, at times, I’m wondering what they are thinking of in presenting the passages they do. Let’s examine some of them. Romans 5:18, what does it promise? Justification of life. So here, it’s not just a possibility of being saved, but actual justification. It’s the very thing that is inevitably connected with salvation. And so, the “all” on one side must be all in Adam. And the all on the other side must be all in Christ. But that does not mean that the two “alls” are coextensive.

All Who Love God

Take again Romans 8:32, where it says, “He who spared not his only Son but freely gave him for us all, how shall he not with him give us all things?” Well, obviously the context itself or the situation itself shows that God will not give all things to those who are lost. They will not gain the most important thing they could have, which is salvation. And then, let’s see the context. If you start with Roman 8:28, it says that God works all things for good to them who love him. It’s not to everybody, but to those who love Christ and God, to those whom he has predestined according to those who have been called according to his purpose. And then, you have a great passage on predestination which says:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (ROmans 8:29–30).

It’s a golden chain without any failure at any point. All the links are coextensive there. And then he says, “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?” (Romans 8:33). Once again, the strange word appears. And he says, “Nobody can do that because Christ is the one who justifies.” But he justifies only those who are in him. And then comes in, if God spared not his own Son but delivered him for us all who are in him, how shall he not with him give us all things? It’s to us who are elect, loved of God, predestined, united with God by a love that nothing can break down. He concludes with the statement:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:35–39).

So the context is one of the strongest particular redemption contexts in Scripture. To pull this verse out or this context, to make its bare witness to universal atonement is a folly that makes you wonder about the propriety of the mind of people who advance a passage like this. When people do that, I feel the Lord has delivered them into my hands. How can they maintain this in the face of the context? It’s impossible. It’s absurd.

Then you take 2 Corinthians 5:14, which says:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died . . .

Can we say that people who are unsaved are dead in Christ? Indeed, not. He continues:

And he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised (2 Corinthians 5:15).

And so obviously, this again by the context applies to people who are believers and Christians. And you take 1 Timothy 2:6 and we have the same thing:

[Christ] gave himself as a ransom for all (who are in Jesus Christ), which is the testimony given at the proper time.

And that provides for us the scope of our prayers. In Hebrews 2:9, it’s the same thing. The context shows that here is Jesus who comes with the brethren that God has given to him. He tasted death for everyone means those people who are sanctified, those people who are brought forward by the Lord Jesus as his brethren. He says, “I will declare your name to my brethren in the presence of a congregation.” And they are sons who are brought to glory, not people who are confined in the end to tradition. So the context of Hebrews 2, again, is definitely a context of actual salvation, not simply potential salvation.

A Propitiation for the Whole World

So what shall we say about a passage like 1 John 2:2? That I think is thought by many to be the most difficult passage. For here, we have not only a positive statement, but we actually have a statement, “not only” but “also,” which is a statement which incidentally parallels the passage in John 17:9, where Jesus said, “I pray not for the world, but for those whom you have given me.” So the intercession of Christ is manifestly restricted. It is particular. And it is in contrast to an intercession that would be universal and that would extend to the whole world. Now here in 1 John 2:2, we seem to have the exact opposite.

So let’s examine in what context it comes. First John 1:8–2:2 says:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (a passage for Christians). My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (Here the precise intercession of Christ is brought to the fore). He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

The people who read this passage as a supporter of universal atonements would paraphrase it this way: “He is the propitiation for our sins as Christians, and not only for the sins of us Christians who are redeemed, but also for the sins of everybody in the world — man, woman, and child — whether they are saved or not.” That would be certainly a paraphrase that might be possible at first sight if you don’t take sufficient notice of the word propitiation, that implies that the wrath of God has been averted. The use of this very strong word, which emphasizes the efficacy of the atonement, I think would cause us to wonder whether this is the actual meaning of the text. I will suggest now to you some other paraphrases that are also possible.

The first one would be that the Apostle John is speaking of some people, a small group who might be contrasted with a large number of people out of the whole world, who would be beneficiaries of the propitiatory work of Christ. Specifically in the early church, there were many people who had the inclination to think that the blessings of God were reserved for the Jews. It was a great discovery taught by painful steps by the Holy Spirit as manifested in Acts 1–15, that now the Jews did not have a place of favor that was unusual or different from that of other people, but that the message of the gospel could be given to anybody, man, woman, or child who could hear it, and that the blessing of God was prepared there.

In that case then, I would suggest the meaning of the passage would be: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for us (a small community of perhaps Jewish Christians), but for a great multitude of Christians that are gathered from the whole world without any consideration of the distinctions that we make in our lives.” And so, this would emphasize the fact that now, the orientation of the message is toward the universality of mankind, rather than toward a restricted company like the Jewish people.

No Other Propitiation for Sins

A second suggestion is this, that what the apostle was emphasizing is that there is no other propitiation available anywhere in the world except the propitiation that Jesus Christ provides. And the paraphrase in this case would be this: “He is a propitiation for our sins, and not for our sins only so that other people might have other means of propitiation, but he is the propitiation for all the sins in the whole world that will, in fact, be propitiated.” So there is an exclusive place of propitiation in the whole wide world, and that is the propitiation offered by Jesus Christ.

The third possibility relates to time. It would be that the apostle would emphasize that this is not only for one time as the time where those people who received the letter were living, but that it is a perennial provision. That paraphrase would be going like this: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for us who are contemporaries, but actually for all the sins of all people in all ages that will in fact be saved.”

These three incidentally may well be combined, and may in the aggregate tend to justify the language of the apostle, even though as it is presented now, there is a certain ambiguity to it. But let no one imagine that people who hold to definite atonements are obliged to cut off 1 John 2:2 from their Bibles in order to be able to do this with good conscience. For indeed, the passage comports well with the thought of definite atonement, which is incidentally so strongly emphasized in the writing of the Gospel of John.

Sometimes people think that Paul was the greatest Calvinist in the New Testament. But you read the writings of John and you will find some of the strongest statements of all right there, and actually from the lips of Jesus. So even this passage, difficult as it may seem, does not actually teach universal atonement. All of those passages together — John Owen gives a much more extensive discussion of them — are not even in the aggregate proving anything about salvation prepared for people who are not elect.

was a native Swiss Reformed Baptist theologian. He was a founding member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), established in 1949.