For Whom Did Christ Die?
Ryan King, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Wood Green, London
This article was originally published in the January/February 2014 issue of Grace Magazine.
The Bible teaches us unequivocally that God became sinless-thoughtempted man in Jesus the Christ. During his three–year ministry, this Jesus commanded people to turn away from their sins to follow God and condemned those who refused to do so. The all-pervading message of the gospel is that Christ lovingly died an exemplary, selfless death in a perfect once-for-all sacrifice on a cross thus satisfying the righteous wrath of the Father by substitutionally enduring what rebellious mankind deserved, washing away sin and delivering sinners from the penalty and power of sin.
As Christians have sought to plumb the depths of this glorious message, they have asked deeper questions about the nature and extent of the atonement – and given different answers! As a Grace Baptist, I am an heir to the theological traditions of the early Particular Baptists and so have a clear notion as to my beliefs on this subject – but God forbid that what I believe is the product of what I am, a blindly accepted tenet of some brand of hyphenated Christianity rather than a biblically discerned truth of God’s Word! Rather may what I am be the outpouring of what I believe. This is my attempt to outline the Bible’s teaching on those more controversial aspects of the atonement.
Limited atonement is ‘L’ in the TULIP acronym often used to articulate the ‘doctrines of grace’: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance. We may sacrifice precision and clarity for the sake of the clever and cute memorability of acronyms. This doctrine known as ‘particular redemption’ has so often been misrepresented by its critics chiefly because it is misrepresented by some of its proponents.
The occasional clumsiness of the English language is not our friend here, nor indeed is the subjective broadness with which it can be interpreted. I believe in what some might call ‘limited atonement’, but nowadays the word ‘limited’ can carry with it the idea of cheap and powerless inferiority, unless of course we’re talking about a limited edition Jaguar C-X75!
In a fallen world, prototype super-cars, and might I add, limited time-only vast reductions on tickets to your favourite sporting event are trivialities far outweighed by more painful, personal limitations. Some suffer from limited thought patterns, limited speech, limited hearing, limited sight, or limited mobility, and we all face a limited life span. You would rather think about the car and those tickets than the disabled and comatose?
It was silly to get too excited: only the richest of the rich can afford the car, so only enough cars are made for the richest of the rich; as for the tickets, the offer ends before you get your paycheque and even if you did scrape up enough money to buy them, you find that you have only a limited view of the pitch, track, or ring. To sum up, limited can be a bit lame.
God is not limited by anyone or anything but himself, and since he is eternally infinite, limited is still not a great word to use about God or anything he has done. And he most definitely isn’t lame – to suggest such would be blasphemy. As God is, so are his mighty deeds.
When we think then about atonement, the awesome work our Triune God has done through the crucified and resurrected Christ: satisfying holy wrath, washing away filthy sin, reconciling rebellious sinners to himself and to each other, providing a perfect example of Spirit-empowered selfless suffering and so on, we would do well to come up with more appropriate, Godglorifying, Christ-exalting terminology than ‘limited’. Or, if we really want to get radical and take a thoroughly biblical approach we could just speak of ‘redemption’ or ‘atonement’ without the preceding caveat and work any additionally required information into our exposition of the term. It is this latter course I will now take.
I believe that by purposefully dying on the cross, Christ definitely accomplished all that he actually intended to achieve, particularly the salvation of his people that is applied to them upon their repentance and faith. Let me focus on God-breathed Scripture, which is far better than any logical argument (however simple or complex). Key words are highlighted for emphasis:
‘He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.’ (Isaiah 53:5);
‘She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21);
‘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 11:52).
‘Care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood’ (Acts 20:28).
‘So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for
him’ (Hebrews 9:28).
‘For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified’ (Hebrews 10:14).
These verses and others like them leave me in no doubt whatever that my salvation, and yours if you believe, is not just possible, it’s purchased. Christ died for you!
Salvation by the atoning work of Christ is applied only to those who repent and believe. As Jesus said, ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’ (Luke 13:3, 5). Salvation is of the Lord, and enjoyed only by those who trust in him. It is this innumerable host of believers in particular for whom Christ gave his life. The purposeful particularity of God’s redemptive plan is again revealed in Scripture:
‘By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people’ (Isaiah 53:8).
‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:28).
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep’ (John 10:11, 15).
‘Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends, You are my friends if you do what I command you’ (John 15:13-14).
‘I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours… I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word’ (John 17:9, 20).
‘But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).
‘Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.’ (Ephesians 5:25).
He died only for his bride – the church.
‘For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him’ (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10).
What we believe about the atonement should produce a God-glorifying church-centred desire to see Christ exalted in the salvation of lost sinners, and a holy passion to win souls to repentance and faith by the clear, bold, Spirit empowered proclamation of the gospel. If we are not burdened and broken for the unrepentant, unbelieving people of the world; if we are not stirred to greater fervour in evangelism; if our hearts do not mourn when a person dies and is eternally lost; if our gospel presentations are not punctuated by the urgency, immediacy, universality, and efficacy of the gospel invitation: ‘Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28), then we have completely missed it. Such callous inactivity denies the Scriptures’ teaching and dishonours the Saviour’s triumph; it is selfish and toxic, bringing only decay and destruction.
The emphasis of Scripture is not first on ‘who gets’, but rather on ‘Who gave’, and that is a message everyone simply must hear, whether they heed its implications or not. The fruit of Christ’s definitely accomplished, particularly applied, and universally proclaimed atoning work will be seen in hell and sung in heaven: ‘You were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth’ (Revelation 5:9-10).
Christ’s atonement is not limited in its power or its purchase: both are full, free, and final. Accordingly, definite aspects of particularity in the atonement do not limit proclaiming the equally full and free offer of salvation at the core of the gospel. Jesus said: ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned’ (Mark 16:15-16). People are judged because, ‘they refused to love the truth and so be saved’ (2 Thessalonians 2:10), not because Christ did not die for them.
For this reason, we should cross whatever boundaries of culture, class, creed, and conduct the world, the flesh, and the devil raise against us that we might join the likes of Paul and Barnabas who, ‘spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed’ (Acts 14:1). None of this is by man’s power or for his glory, but to the glory of God: as goes the heavenly victory-cry of a blood-bought innumerable multitude of people, from all nations, tribes, people-groups, and languages: ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ (Revelation 7:10).
Biblical quotations are from the ESV