The Plan of Salvation and the Mission of the Son
The Cause of the Atonement
The Necessity of the Atonement
The Nature of the Atonement
Incomplete Theories of the Atonement
The Perfect Sufficiency of the Atonement
The Extent of the Atonement
Resurrection, Ascension, and Intercession
Practically all religions have some concept of atonement—a means by which reparations are made, sin is expiated, deity is satisfied, and reconciliation is achieved between the deity and the sinner. Man-made religions propose some means by which the sinner must make an acceptable atonement to earn merit that will compensate for or erase sin, removing guilt through good works, religious ritual, restitution, the payment of a penalty, the offering of a sacrifice, or some sort of self-abasement. The distinctive teaching of biblical Christianity is that God himself has made full atonement for sinners—and he accomplished this by the substitutionary sacrifice of his own Son on the cross. Sinners contribute nothing by way of merit or sacrifice to the atonement.
This doctrine is the foundation of the gospel itself. God is perfectly righteous, and therefore, by definition he cannot countenance a less-than-perfect righteousness in anyone who would have fellowship with him (Matt. 5:48; 1 John 1:5). Sinners by definition have already violated God’s law and rebelled against him, and because sin has infected the very core of their being, they have no way to pay for sin or secure the righteousness needed to stand before him. They have no inclination or ability to submit to God’s authority (Rom. 8:7–8) and are doomed to face the just punishment of the outpouring of God’s righteous wrath (John 3:36; 2 Thess. 1:9). The divide between the sinner’s depravity and God’s unapproachable holiness is so vast, the sinner, even with his noblest efforts, has no hope of ever standing in a right relationship with a holy God. The only hope for salvation comes—as it must—from outside the sinner. It is found in God’s own provision of full and free atonement for sin. That glorious provision satisfies justice and releases the grace of forgiveness.
In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul tells us that the very heart of the gospel is “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). As has been demonstrated in chapter 6, man’s depravity has established the need for salvation. And as has been observed in the previous portion of the present chapter, the Father’s unconditional election has formed the plan of salvation. But it is the atonement of God the Son that accomplishes that redemption in space and time. If we are going to be fundamentally committed to the gospel, we must devote ourselves to an accurate, robust, biblical understanding of the atonement.
The Plan of Salvation and the Mission of the Son
In the previous discussion, we examined the biblical teaching concerning the Father’s plan of redemption—his intention to rescue his creatures from sin and death and to restore them to a right relationship with himself. That gracious plan materialized in God’s decree of unconditional election—his free and sovereign decision to set his love on certain individuals and, on the basis of nothing in themselves but solely because of the good pleasure of his will, to choose them to receive his salvation. Yet in his wisdom, God did not decree that his salvation would be accomplished and applied to the sinner merely by this sovereign choice. Instead, the triune God devised an eternal plan in which man’s salvation would be accomplished by the redemptive work of God the Son and in which the saving benefits secured by that redemptive work would be applied by God the Spirit. The second member of the Trinity would take on all the weakness and infirmity (yet not sin) of human nature and would secure for his people the righteousness, forgiveness, and cleansing that they could never obtain for themselves. He would live as a man in perfect obedience to the Father, die on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice to atone for the sins of those whom the Father had chosen, and rise again in victory over sin and death, all in the power of the Holy Spirit. Redemption would be accomplished by the miraculous incarnation, vicarious life, penal-substitutionary death, and death-defeating resurrection of the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is imperative for the student of Scripture to understand that the Son’s mission to accomplish redemption is birthed out of this Trinitarian plan of salvation. The atonement wrought by the Son is inextricably rooted in the Father’s purpose to save those whom he has chosen. Thus, in undertaking to pay for sin and provide righteousness, Christ was not “going rogue,” haphazardly embarking on a mission of his own devising. He stated explicitly that he came to do not his own will but the will of the One who sent him (John 6:38). That is, he was acting strictly in accordance with a specific, agreed-upon plan, devised in the eternal councils of the Trinity.
Several passages of Scripture testify to this pretemporal, determinate plan of salvation. In the first place, some passages identify the Son’s atoning work as divinely predetermined. Paul speaks of it as the Father’s “eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:11 NASB). This verse clearly states that the work that Christ accomplished during his earthly mission was carried out according to a predetermined plan—according to the Father’s purpose that was devised in eternity (see also Eph. 1:9, 11). Similarly, when Jesus predicted his betrayal at the Last Supper, he said, “For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined [Gk. kata to hōrismenon, lit. ‘according to the determination’]” (Luke 22:22). Though he would be betrayed by Judas, the death of the Messiah had been determined in eternity past. For this reason Jesus is said to be “foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet. 1:20) and the One in whom grace is granted from all eternity according to the “purpose” (Gk. prothesis) of God (2 Tim. 1:9). Indeed, the crucifixion itself is merely the execution of the eternal purpose of God, for Peter states that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan [Gk. tē hōrismenē boulē] and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23), and the entire church confesses to God that Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and Israel did only “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined [Gk. proōrisen] to take place” (Acts 4:27–28).
In addition to these general statements of predetermination, the mission of the Son is often spoken of as a matter of obedience to the Father’s will, indicating that he had made his will known to the Son in a prior agreement. When Jesus speaks of laying down his life as a sacrifice for sin, he says, “This commandment I received from My Father” (John 10:18 NASB). Elsewhere he speaks of offering himself as a sacrifice for sin, being ready to do the Father’s will (Heb. 10:7). As he prays to the Father on the eve of his betrayal, he speaks of the eternal fellowship he enjoyed with the Father (John 17:5) and declares that he has accomplished the work the Father gave him to do (John 17:4), indicating that he has acted obediently in accordance with the Father’s plan. Each of these instances shows that Jesus was acting in consistency with a prior directive from his Father. Thus Paul characterizes Jesus’s redemptive work as a matter of obedience: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).
A third aspect of this eternal plan was the Father’s promise to reward the Son once he completed his work. In a dialogue between the Father and the Son, the Son speaks of the Father’s decree, in which he promised the Son, as a reward for his obedience, “the nations [as] your heritage, and the ends of the earth [as] your possession” (Ps. 2:7–8). In the prophecy of the suffering servant, Isaiah comments on the terms of this agreement with respect to obedience and reward:
But the Lord was pleased
To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand.
As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will see it and be satisfied;
By His knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many,
As He will bear their iniquities.
Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great,
And He will divide the booty with the strong;
Because He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors. (Isa. 53:10–12 NASB)
Thus, in this intra-Trinitarian council, the Father commissioned the Son to lay down his life for sinners as a sacrificial offering, and he promised him the reward of an inheritance of nations—populated with his spiritual offspring whom he would justify—and of the enjoyment of the Lord’s prosperity. And immediately after Paul mentions Christ’s obedience unto death, he states, “Therefore”—that is, for this reason—“God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Phil. 2:9). As a result of his obedience to this eternal divine commission, the Father rewards the Son with the exalted title “Lord,” at which name every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that the One crucified as a slave has become the Master of all (Phil. 2:10–11).
Finally, perhaps the most significant aspect of the eternal plan of salvation is that the Father gives specific individuals to the Son on whose behalf he is to accomplish redemption. That is to say, the Father commissions the Son to be the representative and substitutionary sacrifice for a particular people—namely, all and only those whom the Father has chosen for salvation. Several comments from Jesus in the Gospel of John bear this out, as he speaks of the people whom the Father has given him:
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:37–40)
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.… My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:14–15, 29)
Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.… I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.… I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.… Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. (John 17:1–3, 6, 9, 24)
In these passages from the Gospel of John, Jesus declares that he has come to earth to accomplish not his own will but rather the will of his Father who sent him (6:38; 17:4). Thus, once again, Jesus affirms that his mission is connected to and driven by the Father’s eternal purpose. In the context of this Trinitarian, eternal plan of salvation, Jesus states that the Father has given him a group of individuals on whose behalf he accomplishes his redemptive work. He calls them his own (10:14) and his sheep (10:15). As the Good Shepherd, Jesus will never lose these sheep (6:39), nor permit them to be snatched out of his hand (10:29). Because they are effectually drawn to Christ by the Father (6:44, 65), the sheep come to Christ (6:37), look on him in faith (6:40), know him intimately (10:14), receive eternal life from him (6:40; 10:28; 17:2), enjoy the unique benefit of his intercession that is denied to the world (17:9), eventually partake in the resurrection of the dead (6:40), and dwell with Jesus forever in admiration of his glory (17:24). And the Lord declares that when the Father commissioned the Son to accomplish redemption as a part of the eternal plan of salvation, he gave these particular individuals to the Son. They are the elect, those whom the Father chose for salvation (Eph. 1:4)—that is, those whom he foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified in Christ (Rom. 8:29–30; cf. 8:33). Those he has chosen the Father gives to the Son to be his bride (Rev. 19:7; cf. John 3:29; Eph. 5:23–24), whom the Son would purify at the cost of his own life (Eph. 5:25–27; Titus 2:14), who would be presented to him in perfect holiness as a love gift from the Father to love, honor, worship, and serve him for all eternity (Rev. 21:2, 9; 22:17).
This eternal, intra-Trinitarian plan of salvation shapes and conditions every aspect of the Son’s mission as he undertakes to accomplish redemption. The Father has purposed to save his own, and the means by which he will accomplish redemption for his own is to give them to the Son. Having entrusted them to his Son, he commissions the Son to be born as the God-man by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:35), to live a life of perfect obedience to the Father in the power of the Spirit (Matt. 3:15; Rom. 5:18–19), to lay down his life as a sacrifice for the sins of his people (John 10:14–15; Hebrews 9–10; Rev. 5:9), and to rise again as the firstfruits and guarantee of their resurrection (Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:22–23, 42–57). John Murray provides a helpful summary: “God was pleased to set his invincible and everlasting love upon a countless multitude and it is the determinate purpose of this love that the atonement secures.”
The Cause of the Atonement
What was the triune God’s motivation for devising this plan of redemption? Often the concept of a penal-substitutionary atonement, in which the Son must die in the place of sinners to assuage the wrath of the Father, is reproached by foes and misunderstood by friends. To many, this view of the atonement pictures the Father as inherently angry and wrathful toward man and as won over only reluctantly by the loving sacrifice of the Son. However, this is precisely backward. The Father does not love his people strictly on the grounds that Jesus died for them; rather, Jesus died for his people because the Father loved them. In this sense, then, the love of God is not the result of Christ’s death but rather its cause, for it is because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to be sacrificed on the cross (John 3:16). God himself is love (1 John 4:8), and the sending of the Son to be the propitiation for man’s sins is the consequence, expression, and demonstration of God’s love to his people (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:9–10). In other words, the plan of redemption is born out of the good pleasure of the Father’s free and sovereign electing love (Eph. 1:4–5, 9). It is because the Lord “set his love on … and chose” his people (Deut. 7:7) that he has decreed to accomplish their redemption by the atoning work of Christ. The love of God is a cause and source of Christ’s atonement.
In addition to his love, God’s justice in a real sense also constrains Christ’s atonement. Once the triune God had decreed in his love to reconcile to himself those he had chosen, it was necessary that he decree to accomplish this in a way that was consistent with his justice. Because of sin, mankind is guilty of breaking God’s law, has incurred his righteous wrath, and is therefore alienated from him. Though God’s love motivates him to save and forgive, man’s sin cannot simply be overlooked. For God to reconcile such guilty sinners to himself, sin must be punished, the broken law must be satisfied, and God’s wrath must be justly assuaged. All these objectives are met in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the law (Matt. 3:15; Rom. 5:18–19; Gal. 4:4–5), paid sin’s penalty (1 Pet. 2:24), and extinguished God’s wrath (Heb. 2:17) on behalf of the elect. As Paul says, the Father put the Son forward “as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness” (Rom. 3:25 NKJV). God’s wrath is satisfied by the cross, because on the cross Jesus bore in his own person the full exercise of the Father’s righteous wrath against the sins of his people. Sin is not overlooked but punished in Christ, and therefore God “show[s] his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
Therefore, the love of God and the justice of God constitute the twofold cause of the atonement accomplished by the Son. It is his love that moves him to act savingly at all, and it is his justice that ensures he will accomplish salvation in a manner consistent with his holiness. Neither may be overlooked. Failure to emphasize the love of God as the motivation for salvation reduces the atonement to an impersonal transaction or, worse yet, an arbitrary display of vindictiveness and hatred. And yet failure to emphasize the justice of God as that which guides and constrains his love obscures the fullness of God’s character and renders the significance of the cross unintelligible, for propitiation—the satisfaction of just wrath—is the pinnacle of God’s expression of love (1 John 4:10). As has been aptly said, “If we blunt the sharp edges of the cross, we dull the glittering diamond of God’s love.”
The Necessity of the Atonement
The freedom of God’s good pleasure to save sinners has led many to raise the question of the necessity of Christ’s atonement. In other words, was it possible for God to have accomplished salvation for his people in any other way, or was he bound to do so by the substitutionary death of his Son? Could God have simply exercised his inexhaustible power to destroy sin in another way? Could he, by virtue of his infinite authority, have declared his people saved simply by divine fiat? Or is there something inherent to the person and work of Christ that makes the cross not merely the only actual way of salvation but also the only possible way of salvation? While students of Scripture have answered these questions in a number of ways, we may concern ourselves with just the two most popular views.
Several of the church fathers (e.g., Athanasius, Augustine), medieval theologians (e.g., Thomas Aquinas), and early Reformers (e.g., John Calvin) espoused what is known as the hypothetical necessity view of the atonement. This view teaches that, based on the sovereign freedom of the God for whom nothing is impossible, he could have chosen to save his people by a means other than the vicarious atonement of Christ. While he ultimately has decreed to save by the shedding of Christ’s blood, there is nothing inherent in the nature of God or the nature of forgiveness that makes this absolutely necessary.
In contrast, an overwhelming majority of theologians (e.g., Irenaeus, Anselm, John Owen, Francis Turretin, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, Louis Berkhof, John Murray) maintain what is called the consequent absolute necessity view of the atonement. This view acknowledges that it is not absolutely necessary for God to save anyone from sin at all—a fact illustrated by his immediate damnation of sinful angels, for whom no provision of salvation has ever been made (2 Pet. 2:4; cf. Heb. 2:16). As in the case of the fallen angels, God was entirely within his rights to abandon sinful humanity to misery and to vindicate his justice by consigning all to hell. In this sense, the atonement was not absolutely necessary; that God has graciously chosen to rescue anyone is a free act of the good pleasure of his will (Eph. 1:5). However, once God had determined to save man, the cross of Christ was, consequently, absolutely necessary. Murray explains, “In a word, while it was not inherently necessary for God to save, yet, since salvation had been purposed, it was necessary to secure this salvation through a satisfaction that could be rendered only through a substitutionary sacrifice and blood-bought redemption.”
Scripture clearly vindicates this latter view, as it often speaks of the necessity of Christ’s cross. In Hebrews 2:10, the author declares that it was fitting—that is, that it was consistent with the nature of God, sin, and salvation—that the Father, in bringing many sons to glory, should make Christ perfect through sufferings. A few verses later, he adds that it was not only fitting but also necessary: Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). Man could not be saved by the Levitical sacrifices, “for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). Instead, “it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these” (Heb. 9:23). Because of the standard of God’s holiness, no one lacking perfect righteousness can have any fellowship with him (Matt. 5:48; 1 John 1:5). Yet man could not achieve his own righteousness by keeping the dictates of God’s law, for no law had been given that was able to give life (Gal. 3:21). Instead, the law served only as our tutor to lead us to Christ, whose righteousness is credited as a gift through faith in his atoning work (Gal. 3:22–27). Further, the Lord Jesus himself makes it plain that unless God had loved the world by sending his only Son to be lifted up as a sacrifice for sin, all humanity would have perished in their sins (John 3:14–16; cf. Num. 21:6–9).
Ultimately, the love and justice of God that cause the atonement are also the ground of its necessity. The Scriptures indicate that the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ to make propitiation on behalf of sinners is the supreme demonstration of God’s love to man (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 3:16; 4:10). The magnitude of God’s love is manifested by the extraordinary cost that he is willing to absorb in order to accomplish our rescue. Yet it is unthinkable that the Father would unleash the fullness of his righteous fury on his beloved Son, in whom he was well-pleased, unless it was absolutely necessary—unless this price was the only means of securing his desired end. Further, the justice and veracity of God himself require sin to be punished. God has declared that he “will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7). God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18), and therefore the fullness of his righteous wrath must be poured out against sin. It is precisely through Christ’s cross that God vindicates his righteousness, for man’s sin is punished in his substitute (Rom. 3:25; Gal. 3:13). God’s unwavering demand of justice required that salvation be accomplished by a propitiatory sacrifice, for in no other way could God be both “just and the justifier” of his people (Rom. 3:26).
As the people of God, we behold the special brilliance of the infinite glory and worth of Christ’s atonement when we consider that not even almighty God himself could have accomplished our salvation in any other way. If anyone was to enjoy the saving grace and beneficent mercy of the God who saves, the cross of Christ was absolutely necessary.
The Nature of the Atonement
Scripture employs several themes to describe what Christ accomplished on the cross. The work of Christ was a work of substitutionary sacrifice, in which the Savior bore the penalty of sin in the place of sinners (1 Pet. 2:24); it is a work of propitiation, in which God’s wrath against sin is fully satisfied and exhausted in the person of our substitute (Rom. 3:25); it is a work of reconciliation, in which the alienation between man and God is overcome and peace is made (Col. 1:20, 22); it is a work of redemption, in which those enslaved to sin are ransomed by the price of the Lamb’s precious blood (1 Pet. 1:18–19); and it is a work of conquest, in which sin, death, and Satan are defeated by the power of a victorious Savior (Heb. 2:14–15). Each of these themes is worthy of study and will be the subject of this section’s discussion.
THE OBEDIENCE OF CHRIST
However, there is a unifying principle in Scripture that encompasses the many facets of Christ’s atonement: obedience.
There are three senses in which obedience encapsulates the whole of the substitutionary work of Christ. First, Scripture characterizes Christ’s work as obedience to the divine plan of salvation, which has been delineated above. The Father has sent the Son from heaven to earth to accomplish the divine mission of redemption, and the Son declares that he has “come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38; cf. 12:49). With reference to offering himself as a final sacrifice, the Messiah declares to the Father, “I have come to do your will” (Heb. 10:7, 9), for he always does the things that are pleasing to his Father (John 8:29). He freely and willingly lays down his life as a sacrifice for sin because, he says, “This commandment I received from My Father” (John 10:17–18 NASB), and “I do exactly as the Father commanded Me” (John 14:31 NASB). Thus, in Paul’s hymn of praise concerning the incarnation and atonement of the Son of God, he describes Christ’s work as his “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Christ’s atoning work was a work of obedience to the Father.
Second, it was necessary for Christ to be obedient to all of the Father’s commands in order for him to be a suitable substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. In the Levitical sacrificial system, it was imperative that any animal offered to the Lord be without blemish: “You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable for you.… To be accepted it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it” (Lev. 22:20–21; cf. 1:3, 10; 3:1, 6; 22:18–25). The same was true of Israel’s Passover lamb; if it was to be accepted as a suitable substitute, God stipulated, “Your lamb shall be without blemish” (Ex. 12:5). If the penalty for sinners was to be executed on a substitute, that substitute was required to be without any spot or defect. The same principle extends to Christ’s atoning sacrifice, the fulfillment of the Levitical sacrifices (Heb. 9:23). Christ himself is our Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7; cf. Isa. 53:7; John 1:29; Rev. 5:12), and therefore it is by his precious blood, “like that of a lamb without blemish or spot,” that we are redeemed (1 Pet. 1:18–19). For Christ to have been a fitting substitute to bear the punishment for sin in the place of sinners, he himself had to be sinless—holy, innocent, undefiled, and separate from sinners (Heb. 7:26). For this reason, Scripture links the life of Christ, in which “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8), with his fitness to become “the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9). Of course, his learning obedience was not a process of putting off sin and increasing in practical righteousness, as it is for us. However, before his incarnation, Jesus never knew what it was to obey the Father in the infirmity of human flesh, with all the weaknesses and temptations that men and women face as they strive to obey God. But as he experienced the suffering of life in a fallen world, he learned to obey as a suffering man, just as we must. And “because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18; cf. 4:15). Having learned obedience through the sufferings that human life brought, he was prepared to be obedient in the sufferings that death would bring as well.
Finally, it was necessary for Christ to be obedient to the law of God in order to provide the righteousness that is the ground of justification. The perfect standard of God’s righteousness expressed in his law consisted of two key aspects: prescriptive commands that required full obedience and penal sanctions for the breaking of those commands. Not only has sinful man failed to obey the positive demands of God’s law, he has no way to pay the prescribed penalty for his disobedience, since the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23; cf. Titus 3:5). To be our Savior, therefore, Christ had to meet both necessities. By becoming obedient to death on a cross (Phil. 2:8), “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13; cf. Deut. 21:23)—that is, by bearing the fullness of divine wrath against himself. But if this was the end of our substitute’s work, we could never be saved. In that case, the penal sanctions of the law would be met, and our guilt would be removed, but we would still lack the positive righteousness that the law required of us. We would be left in the state Adam was in before the fall—innocent but without the positive righteousness God required for fellowship with him (cf. Matt. 5:20, 48). Therefore, man stands in need of a substitute who will not only die obediently in our place to forgive sins but will also live obediently in our place to provide the righteousness that is credited to us through faith (Rom. 4:3–5; Phil. 3:9). For this reason, Paul contrasts the first Adam with Christ, the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:22, 45), saying, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19; cf. Gal. 4:4–5). Adam’s sin provides an actual, lived-out record of human disobedience, which, counted to be ours through our union with him, becomes the basis on which God justly constitutes all men guilty (Rom. 5:12). In the same way, Christ’s vicarious obedience provides the actual, lived-out record of human righteousness, which, counted to be ours through our union with him, becomes the basis on which God justly constitutes guilty sinners righteous. Justified sinners are not righteous in themselves, but the record of Christ’s perfect life is counted to be theirs through their union with him through faith: “Because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us … righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30; cf. Rom. 10:4; 2 Cor. 5:21).
The Lord Jesus Christ did more than just die for our sins; he also lived to fulfill our righteousness. Jesus’s interaction with John the Baptist at his baptism speaks to this fact. John the Baptist went into the region around the Jordan “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:3). Originally developed in the intertestamental period, that baptism was a ceremonial rite for Gentile converts to Judaism by which they confessed their uncleanness and need for spiritual cleansing. In John’s day, Israel had so multiplied their wickedness—that is, they were in need of such cleansing—that ethnic Jews submitted themselves to proselyte baptism to signify their repentance. People from Jerusalem, all Judea, and all throughout the region of the Jordan River came to confess their sins and be baptized (Matt. 3:5–6). So when Jesus came to his cousin to be baptized, John was rightly incredulous: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ ” (Matt. 3:14). John knew that Jesus was the sinless Son of God (John 1:29; cf. Luke 1:41); why should he be asking for a baptism of repentance? Jesus’s brief reply is full of significance: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). Jesus had no need to undergo the rite of a proselyte baptism for repentance. He had no sins for which to repent. His inherent divine righteousness would have qualified him to be a righteous sacrifice; he would not have been any less fit to be the spotless Lamb of God had he not been baptized. He submitted himself to this baptism “to fulfill all righteousness”—not for his own sake but for the sake of his people who needed righteousness to be fulfilled on their behalf. From the beginning of his life, Jesus continued to amass a perfect record of human righteousness that would be imputed to sinners who would trust in him for salvation (Rom. 4:4–5). In this way, “by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19).
Thus, Scripture identifies both aspects of Christ’s substitutionary work—namely, the payment for sin and the provision of righteousness—as having been accomplished by his obedience to the Father. By his obedience he fulfilled all righteousness, became a sympathetic high priest, demonstrated himself fit to be the perfect sacrifice for sinners, and submitted himself to that sacrificial death. As John Murray concludes, “It was by obedience he secured our salvation because it was by obedience he wrought the work that secured it.”
After the rubric of obedience to the Father, the most fundamental description one can ascribe to the atonement is that it is a work of penal substitution. That is to say, on the cross, Jesus suffered the penalty for the sins of his people (hence penal) as a substitute for them (hence substitution). When man sinned against God, his sin erected a legal and relational barrier between him and God. The divine law was broken; man thus incurred guilt and is required to pay the penalty of spiritual death. The holiness of God was offended, and thus God’s wrath was aroused against sin. This leaves man alienated from God; broken fellowship and even hostility mark the relationship between God and man, who is in bondage to sin and death. If there is to be any redemption from sin and reconciliation to God, man’s sin must be atoned for. And yet man’s spiritual death and depravity leave him unable to pay the penalty for his sin. However, God in his love has appointed the Lord Jesus Christ to stand in the place of sinners to bear their sin, guilt, and punishment and thereby satisfy God’s wrath on their behalf.
For this reason Isaiah characterizes the suffering servant as the one who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4), who “bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6), and so “he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11). Thus, when Jesus comes into the world, John the Baptist announces him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)—that is, by taking sin on himself. The apostle Paul declares that “for our sake [the Father] made [Jesus] to be sin” (2 Cor. 5:21a), which cannot mean that the Father turned Jesus into sin in any ontological sense but rather that he made him to be sin in the same sense in which he makes us to become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21b): by imputation—that is, by counting our guilt to be his. The curse of the law that we were under was borne by Christ, who became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). The apostle Peter says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” Then, quoting Isaiah’s account of the suffering servant, he adds, “By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24; cf. Heb. 9:28). The Lord Jesus Christ bore the punishment of the sins of his people and thereby brought them blessing: “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace” (Isa. 53:5).
In addition to these clear statements, the New Testament attaches the concept of penal substitution to the cross of Christ by using four Greek prepositions that all have a substitutionary force: peri (“for,” “concerning”), dia (“because of,” “for the sake of”), anti (“in place of,” “instead of”), and hyper (“on behalf of”). First, Christ “suffered … for sins” (Gk. peri hamartiōn, 1 Pet. 3:18) and thus is “the propitiation for our sins” (Gk. peri tōn hamartiōn hēmōn, 1 John 2:2; 4:10). These texts teach that our sins demanded that we suffer under the wrath of God yet that Christ has done this in our place. Second, Jesus is said to have died “for your sake” (Gk. di’ hymas, 2 Cor. 8:9; cf. 1 Cor. 8:11), another clear indicator of substitution.
Third, the preposition anti is perhaps the strongest indicator of substitution, literally signifying “in place of.” This sense is clearest in Matthew 2:22, where it speaks of “Archelaus … reigning over Judea in place of [anti] his father Herod.” Matthew 5:38 also uses anti to translate the lex talionis—“An eye for [anti] an eye and a tooth for [anti] a tooth”—which mandated that an offender be deprived of his eye or tooth in place of the eye or tooth of which he deprived someone else. Jesus uses this phrase with respect to his own death when he says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Gk. anti pollōn, Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). That is to say, while sinners deserved to die because of their sin, Jesus laid down his life as the ransom price in the place of the lives of his people, so that they might go free.
Finally, while anti has the strongest connotations of substitution, hyper is a close second, meaning “on behalf of.” It is also by far the most common preposition to signify the substitutionary relationship between Christ and his people. The body of Christ is “given for you” (Gk. hyper hymōn, Luke 22:19; cf. 1 Cor. 11:24) and “for the life of the world” (Gk. hyper tēs tou kosmou zōēs, John 6:51), and the blood of the new covenant is poured out “for many” (Gk. hyper pollōn, Mark 14:24) and “for you” (Gk. hyper hymōn, Luke 22:20). That is to say, Christ’s body and blood are given as a substitutionary sacrifice on behalf of sinners so that they might avert wrath and punishment. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus lays down his life on behalf of the sheep (Gk. hyper tōn probatōn, John 10:11, 15; cf. 1 John 3:16), and he died on behalf of us, the ungodly (Gk. hyper asebōn, Rom. 5:6; hyper hēmōn, Rom. 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:10). He gave himself for his bride, the church (Eph. 5:25), which Paul describes both collectively (Eph. 5:2; Titus 2:14) and personally (Gal. 2:20). On our behalf (Gk. hyper hēmōn) he was made sin (2 Cor. 5:21), became a curse (Gal. 3:13), and tasted death (Heb. 2:9). The Righteous One suffered the penalty of sin on behalf of the unrighteous (Gk. dikaios hyper adikōn) so that he might reconcile those sinners to God (1 Pet. 3:18).
As the above passages show, there is no more well-attested doctrine in all the New Testament than the vicarious suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ on behalf of his people. Penal-substitutionary atonement is woven into the fabric of new covenant revelation from beginning to end, for it is the very heart of the gospel message. In free and willing obedience to his Father, the Lord Jesus Christ has stood in the stead of sinners, has died as a sacrifice for their sin and guilt, has propitiated the Father’s wrath toward them, has reconciled them to the God for whom they were created, has redeemed them out of the bondage of sin and death, and has conquered the rule of sin and Satan in their lives. Each of those themes—sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, redemption, and conquest—is a different facet of Christ’s substitutionary work and deserves further examination.
Sacrifice. The New Testament explicitly identifies the death of Christ as a sacrifice for sins: “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). Such imagery draws from the history of Israel and the Old Testament’s prescriptions for sacrificial worship to God. The book of Hebrews explicitly identifies Christ’s atoning work as the antitype and fulfillment of the Levitical sacrifices instituted under the Mosaic covenant (Heb. 9:23). For this reason, to properly understand the significance of Christ’s death as sacrifice, we must turn to the Levitical law.
The book of Leviticus begins immediately after the glory of God has filled the completed tabernacle (Ex. 40:34–38), symbolizing that the spiritual presence of the Lord is now dwelling in the midst of his people. In fact, the Hebrew term for “tabernacle,” mishkan, means “dwelling place.” Thus, the presence of God is a key theme in the book of Leviticus, as confirmed by the fifty-nine occurrences in the book of the phrase “before the Lord” (Heb. liphne Yahweh, lit., “to the face of Yahweh,” signifying presence). Leviticus also teaches that this God who is present is fundamentally holy; the Hebrew word for “holy” and its cognates appear 150 times in the book’s twenty-seven chapters, more frequently than in any other book. The question that Leviticus seeks to answer, then, is, how can the holy presence of God dwell in the midst of a sinful people? The answer to that question is that sinners are to make sacrifices to the Lord that will atone for their sin and render them acceptable in his presence: “He shall offer [his sacrifice] at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord. He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf” (Lev. 1:3–4 NASB).
While not every Levitical sacrifice is prescribed to atone for sin, the ceremonies of the Day of Atonement surely are. Once a year, the high priest of Israel was to enter the Most Holy Place in order to “[make] atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel” (Lev. 16:17; cf. 16:24, 32–34). Two goats were to be offered: one as a sacrifice and another as a scapegoat that bore the sins of the people and was banished from the presence of the Lord (Lev. 16:8–10). The blood of the sacrificial goat was to be sprinkled on the mercy seat, the covering of the ark of the covenant where atonement was made (Lev. 16:15–19). Because “the life of the flesh is in the blood, [God has] given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Lev. 17:11). After this, the high priest was to deal with the scapegoat:
And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (Lev. 16:21–22)
By laying his hands on the head of the scapegoat and confessing all of Israel’s sins on it, the high priest was symbolizing that God had reckoned the sin and guilt of the people to be transferred to the goat. Instead of bearing their own iniquity (cf. Lev. 5:1, 17; 7:18; 17:16; 19:8; 20:17, 19; 22:16) and thus suffering the punishment of being banished from God’s holy presence (i.e., “cut off from his people,” cf. Lev. 7:20–27; 17:4, 9, 10, 14; 18:29; 19:8; 20:3–6, 17–18; 22:3; 23:29), the people of Israel had their sin imputed to a substitute. The innocent scapegoat bore the sin, guilt, and punishment of the people and was banished in their place. By sprinkling the sacrificial blood of one substitute on the mercy seat, and by virtue of the imputation of sin to a second substitute, the priests atoned for Israel’s sins, and the people were released from punishment.
Another picture of Old Testament sacrifice—the only other one that rivals the Day of Atonement in significance for Israel—is the Passover sacrifice of Exodus 12. The manner in which God redeemed his people out of slavery in Egypt became a picture of how he would finally redeem his people out of slavery to sin and death. God had promised to kill every firstborn child and animal throughout all Egypt. Though Israel had been spared from the first nine plagues, they were not automatically exempted from the tenth, for they had fallen into idolatry and turned to worship the gods of Egypt (Ezek. 20:8). In order to be spared from his wrath, God required each family in Israel to kill an unblemished lamb and to put its blood on the doorposts of the house. He said, “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt” (Ex. 12:13). The Passover lamb died as a substitute in place of the firstborn children of Israel. The wrath of God was turned away by the blood of a spotless lamb. Israel was to “observe this rite as a statute for [them] and for [their] sons forever” (Ex. 12:24) to commemorate the Lord’s forgiving their sins by substitutionary sacrifice (Ex. 12:27).
Both of the Levitical sacrifices as epitomized in the Day of Atonement and the rite of the Passover portray the sacrificial work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Passover meal was the setting of Jesus’s Last Supper with his disciples, wherein he instituted the new covenant, declaring that his body would be broken and his blood poured out for them (Matt. 26:17–29; Mark 14:12–25; Luke 22:7–20). In this way he declared that his death would be the fulfillment of the feast of the Passover: “Whereas the old Passover focused on the body and blood of a lamb, slain as a penal substitutionary sacrifice for the redemption of Israel, the Lord’s Supper focuses on the body and blood of Christ, who gave himself as a penal substitutionary sacrifice for his people.” Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29; cf. 1:36). It is by “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” that the people of God are redeemed (1 Pet. 1:18–19). Paul explicitly identifies Jesus as the fulfillment of the Passover when he says, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). Just as the blood of the slain lamb protected Israel from the execution of God’s judgment, so also the blood of the slain Lamb, Jesus, protects his people from the Father’s wrath against their sin.
Similarly, the New Testament identifies Jesus as the fulfillment of the Levitical priesthood and sacrificial system. While God allowed himself to be temporarily propitiated by Israel’s sacrifices, that never changed the fact that those sacrifices “cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper” (Heb. 9:9):
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.… For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Heb. 10:1, 4)
Therefore, the author of Hebrews instructs us,
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (Heb. 9:11–12)
The parallel imagery is astounding. Just as the high priest entered beyond the veil into the Most Holy Place, so also Christ is the Great High Priest (cf. Heb. 3:1; 4:15; 7:26; 8:1) who has entered beyond the veil of the heavenly tabernacle (which Scripture characterizes as his own flesh, Heb. 10:20), into the very presence of God himself. And while the high priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrificial goat on the mercy seat to make atonement, the Lord Jesus sprinkled his own blood (Heb. 9:21–22; 12:24; 1 Pet. 1:2), and inasmuch as his blood is infinitely more valuable than that of goats and calves, he thus secured an eternal redemption. He is therefore the fulfillment of both the high priest and the sacrifice; he is both offerer and offering, for “he offered himself without blemish to God” (Heb. 9:14; cf. Eph. 5:2; Heb. 7:27; 9:23, 26, 28; 10:10, 12, 14).
Not only is Jesus the fulfillment of both the high priest and the sacrifice, but he is also the fulfillment of the mercy seat itself. The high priest was commanded to sprinkle the blood on the mercy seat (Heb. kapporet; Gk. hilastērion [Septuagint]), where God’s holy presence was uniquely manifested for fellowship with Israel (Ex. 25:22; 30:6). God himself warned that anyone who approached the mercy seat aside from the high priest on the Day of Atonement would die, “for,” he said, “I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat” (Lev. 16:2). And yet the apostle Paul declares that God displayed Jesus “as a propitiation [Gk. hilastērion] by his blood” (Rom. 3:25), using the very same Greek word for “propitiation” as is used for the word “mercy seat” in the Septuagint version of Exodus. Just as the mercy seat was the place where atonement was made and God’s wrath against sin was averted, so now is Jesus the place where atonement is made and God’s wrath against sin is averted. Jesus is the High Priest who offers the sacrifice, the sacrifice that is offered, and the mercy seat on which the sacrifice is offered.
Finally, Jesus perfectly fulfills the scapegoat as well. The imputation of sin from Israel to the scapegoat is epitomized by the Father laying on him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:6), reckoning him to be sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21), so that he has borne our sins in his body on the tree (1 Pet. 2:24). As the midday sun was shrouded in darkness, the Father was, as it were, laying his hands on the head of the Son and confessing over him the sins of his people. As a result of bearing their sin, the Son was banished from the presence of the Father, leaving him to suffer outside the gate (Heb. 13:12) and to experience the terrifying abandonment of his Father (Matt. 27:46). “Outside the camp,” away from the presence of the Lord and of his people, was where the sacrifices were to be disposed of (Lev. 4:12, 21; 6:11; 8:17; 9:11; 16:27; cf. Heb. 13:11); it was that lonely place where the leper was isolated to bear his shame (Lev. 13:46) and where the blasphemer was to be stoned (Lev. 24:14, 23). And it is to that place of shame and isolation that the Son of God was banished so that we might be welcomed into the holy presence of God.
Propitiation. Scripture represents Christ’s death not merely as a sacrifice but as a propitiatory sacrifice. That is to say, by receiving the full exercise of the Father’s wrath against the sins of his people, Christ satisfied God’s righteous anger against sin and thus turned away his wrath from us who, had it not been for our substitute, were bound to suffer it for ourselves. The New Testament explicitly identifies Christ’s work as a propitiation in four texts:
[We] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation [Gk. hilastērion] by his blood, to be received by faith. (Rom. 3:24–25)
Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for [Gk. eis to hilaskesthai] the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:17)
He is the propitiation [Gk. hilasmos] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation [Gk. hilasmos] for our sins. (1 John 4:10)
While the Scripture is very straightforward in identifying Christ’s work with the Greek term hilasmos (from the hilaskomai word group), some have insisted that “propitiation” is an improper translation of the word. Rather than speaking of a sacrifice that satisfies and turns away God’s wrath, they have argued that it speaks of expiation, the cancellation or removal of sin. Evangelical scholarship has offered very capable responses that vindicate the traditional understanding of the hilaskomai word group as signifying propitiation. Though it is beyond our scope to engage that debate fully, there is nevertheless clear biblical justification for reading hilaskomai as a wrath-averting sacrifice.
The Greek hilaskomai word group also translates the Hebrew term kaphar, which has a range of meanings, including “to forgive” (e.g., Lev. 4:20, 26, 31; 19:22), “to cleanse” (e.g., Lev. 14:18–20, 29–31; 15:19–30; 16:16, 18–19, 30), and “to ransom” (e.g., Ex. 30:11–16; Num. 35:29–34). Yet several key texts show that kaphar can also refer to propitiation, the concept of averting God’s wrath. First, when Israel committed its first act of brazen idolatry with the golden calf, God responded in wrath, telling Moses, “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Ex. 32:10). The next day, Moses told the people of his intentions to intercede with God on their behalf. He said, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for [Heb. kaphar; Gk. exilaskomai (Septuagint)] your sin” (Ex. 32:30). Moses clearly understood the problem: God’s wrath was kindled against the sin of his people. His instinctive solution was to seek to “make atonement” for their sin—that is, to seek to turn God’s wrath away from his people. This clearly suggests that propitiation is a concept inherent to the biblical teaching on atonement and a meaning carried by the Hebrew term kaphar.
Second, in Numbers 25, Israel found herself in a similar morass of idolatry. The people had committed sexual immorality with Moabite women and had begun worshiping the gods of Moab. Here again, the Lord responded in wrath: “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (Num. 25:3). He manifested it in the form of a plague that eventually claimed twenty-four thousand lives (cf. Num. 25:8–9), and he directed Moses to kill the leaders of Israel so that his wrath might be turned away (Num. 25:4). Just then, another Israelite brought a Midianite woman to his family’s tent, apparently intending to follow in the sexual immorality of the rest of the people. Phinehas, one of the priests, was so incensed by such brazen rebellion that he “took a spear in his hand, and he went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly” (Num. 25:7–8). As a result of Phinehas’s zeal, God’s wrath was propitiated and the plague ended (Num. 25:8). The Lord praised Phinehas for his righteous indignation:
Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, “Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for [Heb. kaphar; Gk. exilaskomai (Septuagint)] the people of Israel.” (Num. 25:11–13)
Here turning back God’s wrath is synonymous with making atonement. This clearly indicates that propitiation is inherent in the concepts denoted by the Hebrew kaphar and the Greek hilaskomai.
A final example comes in Numbers 16, as Israel was grumbling against Moses in the wilderness in response to the death of Korah and his men. In response to the people’s mutiny against Moses and Aaron, the Lord’s wrath was kindled against Israel, again in the form of a plague, which eventually killed 14,700 people (cf. Num. 16:48–49). He directed Moses and Aaron, “Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment” (Num. 16:45). Moses told Aaron, “Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for [Heb. kaphar; Gk. exilaskomai (Septuagint)] them, for wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun” (Num. 16:46). Aaron did as Moses said: “And he put on the incense and made atonement for [Heb. kaphar; Gk. exilaskomai (Septuagint)] the people. And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped” (Num. 16:47–48). Once again, a clear parallelism emerges between making atonement and turning away God’s wrath against sin as exercised in the form of a plague. While not every instance of kaphar may speak of propitiation, in certain instances this meaning is unmistakable.
Therefore, when the New Testament writers use the Greek hilaskomai word group—that is, the same word group used to translate the Hebrew kaphar in the Septuagint—it is reasonable to expect that it denotes propitiation just as it did in the Old Testament, especially given the contexts in which the term is used. For example, the first use of “propitiation” in the New Testament comes in Romans 3:25, after Paul has spent two chapters detailing how the wrath of God is kindled against the sin of all mankind—both Gentiles (Rom. 1:18–32) and Jews (Rom. 2:1–3:20). God has manifested this righteous anger by delivering the Gentiles over to “lusts” and “impurity,” to “dishonorable passions,” and to “a debased mind” (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). To the Jews who have the law and who are yet unrepentant, Paul says, “You are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5; cf. 2:8; 3:5). The thread of divine wrath has been so woven through this opening section of the letter that the reader almost expects to be confronted with how God will provide for its abatement. We see precisely that in Romans 3:21–26: God has put forward his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:25). God has satisfied his wrath against sin by the sprinkling of the blood of the spotless Lamb on the mercy seat of the heavenly altar (Heb. 9:11–15, 23–24). He has punished the sins of his people in a substitute, and thus his wrath has been turned away from them.
Ultimately, any denial of a propitiatory component to Christ’s atonement is a denial that God’s wrath is aroused against sin or that it must be appeased for man to be granted salvation. Yet such a supposition does violence to the full breadth of biblical revelation. The small sample of texts that we have considered has demonstrated this point clearly. God’s response to man’s sin—whether idolatry, sexual immorality, or grumbling against his leaders—is to be righteously aroused in wrath. Then to read in such universal terms that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18) is to remove all doubt. And since God is holy, he must exercise his wrath against sin. As Murray says, “Because he loves himself supremely he cannot suffer what belongs to the integrity of his character and glory to be compromised or curtailed. That is the reason for propitiation.”
The significance of propitiation, then, is that it identifies Christ’s work as a wrath-bearing sacrifice. Sin may not merely be overlooked; sin must ever and always be punished, whether in the sinner in hell or in Christ the substitute on the cross. God has not relaxed his justice, for he himself declares that he will by no means leave the guilty unpunished (Ex. 34:7). Every ounce of wrath that the elect sinner deserved—all the wrath that God would have exercised on the sinner in the eternal torments of hell—was poured out fully on our substitute in those three terrible hours on Calvary. Because of this, there is no longer any wrath left for Christ’s people. God is propitious toward them, for their sin has been paid for.
Reconciliation. Man’s sin has not only incurred guilt and aroused the wrath of God but has also effected an enmity and alienation between God and man. Such alienation is pictured throughout Scripture, most notably in the garden, where Adam and Eve’s immediate instinct after sinning is to hide from God and avoid his fellowship (Gen. 3:8), from which fellowship they are driven out (Gen. 3:22–24). In Israel’s history, God’s separation from sinful man is powerfully illustrated by the threefold barrier of the tabernacle and temple: the outer court, accessible only to those bringing sacrifices; the Holy Place, accessible only to the priests offering sacrifices for the people; and the Most Holy Place, accessible only to the high priest on the Day of Atonement to make propitiation for the sins of the nation. This is a far cry from speaking with God face-to-face in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). The prophet Isaiah comments on the nature of the broken relationship when he says, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear [your prayers]” (Isa. 59:2). God has become man’s enemy (Gk. echthros, Rom. 5:10), and the mind of man is “hostile” (Gk. echthra) toward God (Rom. 8:7).
For this reason, Scripture also speaks of the atonement as a work of reconciliation, whereby the ground of the enmity between God and men—namely, the guilt of sin and the punishment of God’s wrath—is removed and dealt with, thus accomplishing peace. The following key texts with highlighted Greek terms establish this theme:
For if while we were enemies [echthroi] we were reconciled [katēllagēmen] to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled [katallagentes], shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation [katallagēn]. (Rom. 5:10–11)
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled [katallaxantos] us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation [katallagēs]; that is, in Christ God was reconciling [ēn … katallassōn] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation [katallagēs]. (2 Cor. 5:18–19)
… [that Christ] might reconcile [apokatallaxē] us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility [tēn echthran]. (Eph. 2:16)
[God was pleased] through him to reconcile [apokatallaxai] to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
And you, who once were alienated [apēllotriōmenous] and hostile [echthrous] in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled [apokatēllaxen] in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. (Col. 1:20–22)
Several characteristics of the doctrine of reconciliation emerge from these texts. First, reconciliation is a work of God, accomplished in the person of Christ through the efficacy of his blood (2 Cor. 5:18; Col. 1:20). Man does not effect this reconciliation by doing something to remove God’s hostility toward his sin. Rather, sinners passively receive reconciliation as a gift through the work of Christ (Rom. 5:11). Second, Scripture presents reconciliation as a finished work accomplished by Christ’s sacrifice. Each of the above passages indicates that reconciliation occurred in the past through the once-for-all death of Christ. Third, reconciliation is fundamentally forensic. This is demonstrated by the parallelism in Romans 5, where the phrase “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” is parallel to “we have now been justified by his blood” in the immediately preceding verse (Rom. 5:9–10). Since justification is forensic and is parallel with reconciliation, it is likely that reconciliation also ought to be understood in forensic terms. Paul removes all doubt in 2 Corinthians 5:19 when he explicitly identifies the work of reconciliation as God’s “not counting [the world’s] trespasses against them.” “Counting” comes from the Greek word logizomai, the New Testament’s most common term for “imputation” (e.g., Rom. 4:1–25). By imputing our sins to Christ our scapegoat, by exercising his wrath on him as our substitute, and by imputing his righteousness to us (2 Cor. 5:21), God has removed the ground of his enmity against us, namely, the guilt of sin. As propitiation is the removal of God’s wrath against sinners, so reconciliation is the removal of God’s enmity against sinners.
This means that, like sacrifice and propitiation, which speak of “things pertaining to God” (Heb. 2:17; 5:1 NASB), the biblical concept of reconciliation is primarily objective rather than subjective; that is, it has its fundamental effect in God and not man. The alienation between God and man is double edged. To be sure, man is hostile to God because his mind and heart are depraved, but God is also hostile to man because in his holiness he hates sin. When we consider (1) that the Bible pictures reconciliation as a forensic act decisively accomplished by God in Christ and (2) that elect sinners who have not yet come to faith remain hostile to God, it is apparent that reconciliation “does not refer to the putting away of the subjective enmity in the heart of the person said to be reconciled, but to the alienation on the part of the person to whom we are said to be reconciled.”46 Therefore, the mutual peace accomplished by the act of reconciliation is experienced as the result of reconciliation, when the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit overcomes man’s hostility to God as the Spirit applies Christ’s objective work to sinners, granting them the justifying faith by which they have peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Because of Christ’s atonement, sinners once separated from God may be restored to loving fellowship with him whom they were created to know and worship: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).
Redemption. As sacrifice, Christ’s atonement is suited to remove the guilt and penalty of sin. As propitiation, it is suited to remove the wrath incurred by sin. As reconciliation, it is suited to remove the alienation and enmity incited by sin. In addition, Christ’s atonement is characterized as redemption, that by which man is redeemed from the bondage of sin and the law through the payment of Christ’s shed blood as a ransom.
The most significant implication of characterizing Christ’s atonement as redemption is that redemption language is fundamentally commercial. The Greek terms agorazō and exagorazō come from the noun agora, which means “marketplace” (Matt. 20:3; Luke 7:32; Acts 17:17). Thus, to redeem is to purchase out of the marketplace. Lytroō, another Greek word for “redemption,” refers to purchasing by payment of a ransom (lytron). For example, when an Israelite had become so poor that he had to sell himself into slavery, God’s law made provision for his family to redeem (Heb. ga’al; Gk. lytroomai [Septuagint]) him out of slavery by paying a price (Lev. 25:47–55). In a similar way, then, sinners have found themselves in bondage to sin (Rom. 6:6), and Christ has redeemed them by the ransom price of his life. He himself declares that he came “to give his life as a ransom [Gk. lytron] for many” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; cf. 1 Tim. 2:6). Jesus characterizes the mission of his incarnation as a work of ransom, of which his life was the ransom price that would be given “in the stead of” (Gk. anti) the many sinners whose freedom he bought. For this reason, Paul can exhort believers to glorify God in their body, for “you were bought [Gk. agorazō] with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20; cf. 7:23). The apostle Peter speaks similarly when he tells believers that they were “ransomed [Gk. lytroō; NASB: ‘redeemed’] … not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet. 1:18–19). Here contrasted with silver and gold, the blood of Christ is explicitly identified as the price by which redemption is purchased. Thus, when the apostle John describes creatures in heaven worshiping the ascended Christ, he notes that they praise him for his atoning work: “Worthy are you … for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed [Gk. agorazō; NASB: ‘purchased’] people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9; cf. Acts 20:28). Christ’s people—that is, those “who follow the Lamb wherever he goes”—are therefore called the “redeemed” (Rev. 14:3–4), the purchased ones, for they “have redemption through his blood” (Eph. 1:7; cf. Col. 1:14).
It is plain, then, that Christ has redeemed sinners out of slavery by paying the ransom price of his blood. Yet we must ask, to whom did he render this payment? One might expect that a ransom had to be paid to Satan, for he is the custodian of sin and death (Heb. 2:14–15), to which men are enslaved. For this reason, several church fathers conceived of the atonement as a ransom to Satan. However, God the Son is not beholden to Satan that he should make payments to him; Satan himself is God’s chief captive and thus is in no position to make demands on God. Instead, the ransom of Christ’s blood was paid to God, whose holiness demanded a just payment for the penalty of sin. Here again is observed the fundamentally objective nature and “Godward” direction of the atonement: the blood of the Lamb was sprinkled on the mercy seat of the heavenly altar as a sacrifice, as a propitiation, and as a ransom for sinners.
However, redemption also has a “manward” direction, for while God is propitiated and reconciled, man is redeemed. In the first place, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Gal. 3:13; cf. 4:4–5). The law of God has always brought with it promised blessings for obedience and promised curses for disobedience (see Deuteronomy 27–28). In fact, in the Galatians 3 passage, Paul quotes the promised curse for disobedience just a few verses earlier: “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, and do them’ ” (Gal. 3:10; cf. Deut. 27:26). For those who seek to attain righteousness by their works, the law requires perfect obedience (James 2:10). Because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), all come under the curse of the law. It is from this curse of spiritual death and destruction that Christ has redeemed his people. He has done this by becoming a curse for us, that is, by bearing the penal sanctions of that curse in our place.
Second, Christ has redeemed us from sin. Sinners are enslaved by sin (John. 8:34; Rom. 6:6, 16–17; 2 Pet. 2:19), and therefore, “a death has taken place for redemption from … transgressions” (Heb. 9:15 HCSB). By his substitutionary death, Christ has redeemed his people from the guilt of sin by paying its penalty (cf. Rom. 6:23). Thus, by the redemption that comes through his blood we have forgiveness of sins (Matt. 26:28; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14). Yet Christ has also redeemed his people from the power of sin in the flesh. Having been redeemed from the enslaving power of sin, they have become “slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18), and thus Paul concludes, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22). Redemption from sin’s power, then, becomes the ground on which believers put off sin and put on righteousness (1 Pet. 1:17–19), for Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).
Finally, several texts in Scripture speak of man’s redemption in an eschatological sense, in which we are finally freed not only from the penalty and power of sin but even from its presence. In Romans 8:23, Paul comments on how believers “wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” This is not to suggest that the redemption purchased on the cross is somehow inefficacious until the believer’s glorification but rather that Christ’s perfectly efficacious redemption applied to the believer’s soul at his justification will also finally be applied to the body at his glorification. In other words, the cross has secured the consummation of our salvation no less than its inauguration. For this reason, that final day is called “your redemption” (Luke 21:28) and “the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30).
Conquest. While the redemption of his people did not consist in paying a ransom to Satan, the redemption Christ accomplished does affect Satan. In paying the penalty of sin and freeing his people from sin and death, Jesus also accomplished a victory of conquest over Satan and the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Since “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), who is “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), overcoming the penalty and power of sin in the lives of his people is to triumph over Satan, to enter the “strong man’s house and plunder his goods” (Matt. 12:29; cf. Luke 11:21–22). For this reason, as he nears the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus declared, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31), and then several days later he proclaimed, “The ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:11). That is, by his redemptive work on the cross, Christ dealt the decisive death blow to Satan and his kingdom of darkness, realizing—that is, inaugurating even if not yet consummating—the purpose for which he came into the world: “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). When he forgave us “all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands,” setting it aside by “nailing it to the cross,” he removed the ground of Satan’s accusations against us (Col. 2:13–14). Therefore, Paul writes, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15). Through the paradoxical triumph of his death, he “destroy[ed] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver[ed] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14–15). And on the third day, Jesus displayed his conquest over the power of sin and death by rising from the grave. It was impossible for him to be held in death’s clutches (Acts 2:24), for, having defeated death, “the keys of Death and Hades” belong to him (Rev. 1:17–18).
Summary. Such, then, is the character of the penal-substitutionary atonement of Christ. The guilt of our sin demanded the penalty of death, and so the Lamb of God was slain as an expiatory sacrifice on our behalf. The wrath of God was kindled against our sin, and so Christ was set forth as a propitiation to bear that wrath in our place. The pollution of our sin alienated us from God and aroused his holy enmity against us, and so by atoning for sin Christ has reconciled God to man. Obedient to sin, man was in bondage to sin through the law that exposed sin in our lives, and so Christ has paid the ransom price of his precious blood to God the Father in order to redeem us from such slavery. In doing so, he has plundered Satan’s house, conquering death and its captain by the exercise of his own power.
Incomplete Theories of the Atonement
As has been demonstrated, the nature of the atonement concerns the very heart of the gospel of Christ. Because of this, misunderstanding the character of Christ’s work can result in serious theological error and, in some cases, even heresy. Church history has provided examples of both, as there have been various views and theories put forward concerning what really happened on the cross. For this reason, it is important to know some of the major historical conceptions of the atonement and to evaluate each by Scripture.
THE RANSOM THEORY
First, proponents of the ransom, or classic, theory of the atonement argue that in the cosmic struggle between good and evil and between God and Satan, Satan had held humanity captive to sin. Therefore, in order to rescue humanity, God had to ransom them from the power of Satan by delivering Jesus over to him in exchange for the souls held captive. Proponents of the ransom theory often appeal to Jesus’s statement that he came to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). A contemporary variation on the ransom theory has become known as the Christus Victor theory, which emphasizes Christ’s atonement as accomplishing a victory over the cosmic forces of sin, death, evil, and Satan.
Though Christ did give his life as a ransom for many, and though his death did indeed disarm the powers of darkness (Col. 2:15), rendering powerless the Devil, who had the power of death (Heb. 2:14), this view of the atonement affords more power to Satan than he actually has. Satan has never been in any position to make demands of God. Further, it is the holiness of God, not any supposed sovereignty of Satan, that requires a just penalty to be paid for sin. Scripture makes it clear that Jesus paid the price of the cross in order to ransom sinners from the just punishment of God’s holy wrath (Rom. 5:9). In the deepest sense, Jesus saved us from God, not merely the power of sin and Satan.
THE SATISFACTION THEORY
The satisfaction theory, championed chiefly by Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109), supports the idea that Christ’s death made a satisfaction to the Father for sin. However, taking a cue from the paradigm of feudalism that characterized society at that time, Anselm focused more on the notion of making satisfaction for God’s wounded honor than on the appeasement of his righteous wrath.
It is certainly true that God’s glory is belittled when his creatures commit sin. Indeed, sin is synonymous with failing to honor God by giving him thanks (Rom. 1:21) and with falling short of his glory (Rom. 3:23). Thus, any adequate theory of atonement will provide for the vindication of God’s righteousness and the restoration of his honor. However, Christ accomplished this vindication of righteousness in a particular way—namely, by becoming a substitute for sinners, vicariously enduring in his body the punishment that was justly due to his people (1 Pet. 2:24). By setting forth Jesus as a propitiation of holy wrath, God has displayed himself as both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Christ (Rom. 3:26).
THE MORAL-INFLUENCE THEORY
The moral-influence theory of the atonement regards Christ’s work as little more than a beautiful example of sacrificial Christian love and behavior. Propounded first by Peter Abelard (1079–1142) and adapted later by the Socinians and subsequent liberal theologians, the moral-influence theory posits that Jesus’s death accomplished nothing objective, for God required no penalty to be paid for sin. God was not wrathful against humanity, and because God is free, there was no absolute need for his justice to be satisfied. Instead, Christ’s death was merely an example of how humanity should act. By the demonstration of such love, Christ’s death was said to win over the hearts of impenitent sinners and thus woo them to live a moral life as Jesus did—hence the designation moral influence. Proponents have also stressed that the cross was a way for God to empathetically identify with his creatures by sharing in their sufferings.
While these are nice sentiments, and while it is certainly true that Jesus’s sacrifice is the exemplar of Christian love and service (cf. John 15:12; Eph. 5:1–2; 1 Pet. 2:24; 1 John 3:16), to reduce the atonement to a mere example vitiates it of what makes it truly loving—namely, that Christ has objectively and sufficiently paid for our sins, appeased the holy wrath of a deeply offended God who was made our mortal enemy because of our sin (Rom. 5:10; 8:7–8), and thus removed our guilt and alienation. One cannot deny these central truths of sin and grace inherent in the atonement without fundamentally undermining the gospel of Jesus Christ.
THE GOVERNMENTAL THEORY
The governmental theory of the atonement was first advocated by Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), a student of Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609). The governmental theory downplays the notion that Christ actually paid a penalty corresponding to man’s particular sins. Instead, Christ’s death served as a token suffering for sins in general—demonstrating that a penalty must be paid when laws are broken but not actually paying a specific penalty imposed against specific infractions. In fact, proponents of the governmental theory hold that God’s justice did not demand a payment for sin at all. By accepting merely token suffering, God set aside or relaxed his law, since he is “liable to no law.”50 Nevertheless, he chose to punish Christ in order to maintain the moral order and government of the universe (hence the name). Christ’s punishment also acts as a deterrent against future sin, since it shows the fearful lengths to which God will go in order to uphold the moral government of the world.
This is another case of capturing a part of the picture but, by not reflecting the full breadth of scriptural testimony, failing to present a truly biblical conception of the atonement. Christ did, in fact, pay the penalty for specific sins (1 Cor. 15:3; Heb. 2:17). His sufferings were not merely a token example of God’s antipathy toward evil, as if God were simply averse to evil in general but tolerates it on the whole. No, God’s justice is meticulous; he has provided a fully sufficient payment for sin in Christ. Without particular payment for particular sins, God’s absolute justice is not satisfied, and thus sinners have no hope of forgiveness.
THE BIBLICAL CENTER: PENAL SUBSTITUTION
Ultimately, the only conception of the atonement that does justice to the fullness of the Bible’s revelation of the gospel is penal substitution. Each of the preceding views contains some truth. It is right to affirm that Christ’s death and resurrection defeated death and ransomed sinners, yet we must qualify that that ransom was paid to God and not to Satan. It is right to affirm that Christ’s death satisfied God’s wounded honor, but we must hasten to add that it also satisfied God’s righteous anger and justice by providing a sufficient payment for sin. Further, the cross is indeed a wonderful moral example of Christian behavior, but we fall woefully short if we fail to recognize that it is so much more than that. Finally, the atonement was indeed an instance of God’s moral governance of the universe, yet it was more specific than Grotius and others stated it to be. Without the concept of penal substitution undergirding all these pictures of the atonement, we fail to do justice to the full-orbed biblical revelation of Jesus as the sin-bearing, wrath-propitiating substitute for sinners.
In his death, the Lord Jesus Christ paid the penalty that our sins incurred by suffering vicariously as our substitute. The righteous wrath that our sins aroused in God was exercised fully on the suffering servant when the Father “laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). The Savior, our Passover Lamb (John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7; Rev. 5:12), who knew no sin, was made sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21), becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13), and he thus extinguished the Father’s wrath against our sin (Heb. 2:17). Because of this sufficient sacrifice and the provision of Christ’s righteousness reckoned to be ours (Rom. 4:3–5; 5:18–19; cf. Matt. 3:15), our sins can be justly forgiven (Rom. 3:25–26), and we can be reconciled to God (Rom. 5:10). This is most fundamentally what the cross is about. It is not merely a demonstration of God’s love or an example for Christian ethics—though it is those things (Rom. 5:8; 1 Pet. 2:21). At its core, the significance of the cross is that the innocent and righteous Son of God bore the sins of his people by being crushed under his Father’s righteous wrath, bearing their punishment in their place and thus taking away their sin. If the wrath-bearing, substitutionary nature of the cross is denied—or even not properly emphasized—one fundamentally misunderstands the very gospel itself, which stands at the heart of the Christian faith.
The Perfect Sufficiency of the Atonement
If there is one description to be applied to the nature of Christ’s penal-substitutionary atonement, it is that it is a perfectly sufficient sacrifice. Several features establish its perfect sufficiency.
In the first place, it is an objective atonement. Those who have held to the sufficiency of the atonement have always had to defend this sound doctrine against the attacks of false teaching. Throughout the history of the church, the spirit of the age has always driven men to arrogantly exalt themselves to the position of being their own cosavior. It is the natural delusion of the sinful human heart that man himself has retained enough goodness to at least cooperate with the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ—that sinners can and must partner with the Savior to effect their own atonement. Thence flow the polluted streams of all false religion, according to which man adds to Christ’s work his own religious performance—the multiplication of good works and the repudiation of bad works—to secure his salvation. Liberal theology has not only embraced such idolatry but has canonized it as one of the few dogmas on which it stands: man is basically good, and to be accepted before God, he need only respond to the moral influence of Christ’s death and imitate his example of self-sacrifice. By this, it is argued, even if never so explicitly, God will be pleased with us and will not count our sins against us.
However, the Lord Jesus fully possesses the very nature of God, who said, “I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior” (Isa. 43:11), and “I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other” (Isa. 42:8; cf. 48:11). The name of our Lord is Jealous (Ex. 34:14), and he will not share with others the glory that is due to him as the only Savior of man. The atonement that he effected is objective—a work accomplished independent of and apart from those who will eventually partake of its benefits. No cooperating work or response to grace adds to or energizes this ground of our salvation. To be sure, those who subjectively experience the benefits of the atonement must respond in repentance and faith, but such responses belong to the application of redemption—not its accomplishment—and are themselves purchased by the perfect work that Christ has wrought. “It is finished!” was the triumphant cry from the cross, not “It has begun.” As with the Father’s work of election, which depends “not of him who wills or runs” (Rom. 9:16 ESV mg.), and with the Spirit’s work of application, in which he blows where he wishes (John 3:8), so it is with the Son’s work of redemption. Salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9), and therefore, it has been perfectly accomplished by him, two thousand years ago, external to those who will reap its divine blessings.
Second, the sufficiency of the atonement is established by its finality. It is a single, finished, unrepeatable work. The Roman Catholic Church teaches precisely the opposite, demeaning the sufficiency of Christ’s work by proposing to repeat his sacrifice in the ceremony of the mass. In blasphemous candor, Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott wrote the following:
In the Sacrifice of the Mass and in the Sacrifice of the Cross the Sacrificial Gift and the Primary Sacrificing Priest are identical; only the nature and the mode of the offering are different.… According to the Thomistic view, in every Mass Christ also performs an actual immediate sacrificial activity, which, however, must not be conceived as a totality of many successive acts but as one single uninterrupted sacrificial act of the Transfigured Christ. The purpose of this Sacrifice is the same in the Sacrifice of the Mass as in the Sacrifice of the Cross; primarily the glorification of God, secondarily atonement, thanksgiving, and appeal.
Contrast this, however, with the incessant testimony of the book of Hebrews to the finality of Christ’s sacrifice:
For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (Heb. 7:26–28)
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (Heb. 9:11–12)
Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 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. (Heb. 9:25–28)
And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Heb. 10:10–14)
These passages explicitly deny that Christ was to offer himself repeatedly (Heb. 9:25). To suggest such a thing is to impugn the character of Christ himself, for it was the weakness of the high priests—the fact that they themselves were sinful and could never bring a perfect sacrifice to atone for sins—that demanded their repeated offerings (Heb. 7:28). Yet there is no such weakness in our High Priest; he is the eternally perfect Son—holy, innocent, undefiled, and separate from sinners (Heb. 7:26).
Further, many pieces of holy furniture adorned the tabernacle and temple, such as the laver, the showbread, the lampstand, and the ark. Yet one piece of furniture that was nowhere to be found was a chair. The priest of Israel never sat down but stood constantly, because his work was never done. Sin was ever present, and thus sacrifice was ever necessary. But as different as the new covenant is from the old, so is our Great High Priest from the priests of Israel. For Christ entered the perfect tabernacle not made with hands (Heb. 9:11; cf. 8:2), offered a single sacrifice, and sat down (Heb. 10:12), for his offering was unlike their offering. He offered not the blood of bulls and goats, which can never take away sins (Heb. 10:4), but rather his own precious blood, by which he secured “an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). And inasmuch as the Son of God himself is intrinsically worthy, his was a better sacrifice (Heb. 9:23; cf. 8:6), of such a character as to perfect—for all time—those for whom it was offered (Heb. 10:14). Can there be any greater violence done to these texts than to suggest that Christ’s sacrifice has to be repeated? Such perverse doctrine drains the cross of its very saving power, for “where there is forgiveness of these [sins], there is no longer any offering for sin” (Heb. 10:18; cf. Rom. 6:10). If there remains an offering to be given, there has been no forgiveness of sins.
Finally, the sufficiency of the atonement is established by its efficacy. That is to say, by dying on the cross, Christ has actually saved his people. He came not to make salvation hypothetical, possible, or merely available but to actually “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). He came not to make men redeemable but to redeem them. He died not potentially but actually, and so he made not a provisional atonement but an actual one. As the Lord of glory prepared to yield up his spirit to the care of the Father, conscious that he had accomplished the work he came to do, he declared: “It is finished” (John 19:30). Redemption had been accomplished. Our High Priest had actually made purification for sins, and, his work completed, he sat down (Heb. 1:3). The Good Shepherd had actually taken away the sins of his sheep (1 John 3:5) by bearing them in his own body (1 Pet. 2:24). He had actually extinguished the full exercise of the Father’s wrath (Rom. 3:25), having actually become a curse for us (Gal. 3:13) and thus exhaustively paying the full penalty for our sins. In so doing, he actually purchased the redemption of his people by the ransom price of his own blood (Acts 20:28; Rev. 5:9). Each of these passages is a statement of efficacious accomplishment. To artificially insert the concept of provision or potentiality into any of those texts is to force one’s theology on the plain meaning of Scripture.
In fact, this element of efficacy has been inherent in the biblical conception of atonement from its beginning in the Levitical law. The Hebrew verb kaphar is the most common verb in the Old Testament for the concept “to make atonement,” and more than half of its occurrences are in Leviticus. In many of these occurrences, the word appears without any modifying phrase (e.g., Lev. 16:32). However, in several cases the speaker comments on the atonement he has just prescribed, and every time he does so, he makes a statement of the atonement’s efficacy:
And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. (Lev. 4:20)
The priest shall make atonement for him for his sin, and he shall be forgiven. (Lev. 4:26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7; 19:22)
And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean. (Lev. 12:8)
Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean. (Lev. 14:20)
So he shall make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean. (Lev. 14:53)
The repetition of the laws for sacrifice would have indelibly impressed on the mind of the faithful Israelite that when the priest made atonement, he actually atoned, and that atonement brought about its intended effect of the forgiveness of sins. Thus, when the same Greek word group (hilaskomai, hilasmos, hilastērion) that was used to translate kaphar in the Septuagint appears in the New Testament to describe the atoning work of Messiah, the reader naturally understands that same efficacy to inhere in the concept of Christ’s atonement. Jesus’s death did not make sins forgivable; it accomplished forgiveness. His atonement was not hypothetical, potential, or provisional; it was an efficacious atonement.
None of this is to suggest that the elect were justified or granted saving faith and repentance at the time of Christ’s death in the first century. Neither is it to suggest that anyone is saved apart from faith. To assume so is to confuse the accomplishment of redemption with its application. Rather, to speak of definite atonement and accomplished salvation is to say that Christ has endured all the punishment of, paid the full penalty for, and satisfied the whole of God’s wrath against the sins of his people. It is to say that he has done everything necessary to completely secure the salvation of those for whom he died—to render certain and definite the application of salvation’s benefits to all those for whom Christ purchased them. It is, finally, to say that nothing can be added to Christ’s work in order to invest it with power or efficacy but that because our substitute has actually borne the full penalty of sin’s condemnation, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
The Extent of the Atonement
Having understood the glorious nature of Christ’s atoning work, it is now necessary to answer the question of its extent. For whom did Christ die? On whose behalf did Christ offer himself as a penal-substitutionary sacrifice? For whom did he propitiate the wrath of his Father? Whom did Christ reconcile to God and redeem out of slavery to sin and Satan?
At the very outset, it must be observed that this topic is not merely a theoretical quibble on which only doctrinaire theologians speculate for sport. Answers to the above questions are not the impractical and esoteric musings of ivory-tower academicians. This is an intensely practical discussion, for the nature of Christ’s cross work runs to the very heart of the gospel; it is not very far from the center of the Christian faith to ask, for whom has Christ accomplished these things? While it is a shame that the question of the extent of the atonement has often been a topic of intense disagreement and disunity among otherwise like-minded believers, it is a greater shame that some, with little patience for disciplined theological debate, have regarded it as an unworthy discussion and have mocked those who insist on a position out of biblical conviction. If the Son of God has destroyed the power of sin and has purchased the redemption by which sinners may be freed from divine judgment, can there be any more important question to ask than, for whom has he done this? This is a question to which the student of Scripture must devote himself to answering biblically.
The answers given to this vital question typically fall into two general categories. The universalist school of thought answers that Christ has paid for the sins of every person who has ever lived without exception. This is often called general, unlimited, or universal atonement. By contrast, particularists teach that Christ died as a substitute for the elect alone—for only those particular individuals whom the Father chose in eternity past and gave to the Son. While this position has long been known as limited atonement—that Christ’s atonement is limited to the elect—many proponents have found such a label to be easily misunderstood and have preferred definite atonement or particular redemption. Throughout the discussion of soteriology in the present volume, particular redemption has been affirmed. In this section it will be defended from Scripture.
That discussing this topic too often generates more heat than light is owing to two primary factors. First, the precise question under consideration is often misunderstood. Asking the question, for whom did Christ die? is not asking, to whom should the gospel be preached? Both particularists and universalists readily acknowledge that the gospel ought to be proclaimed to all people without exception; Christ genuinely offers himself as Savior to anyone who would turn from his or her sins and trust in him for righteousness. Neither is it to ask, for the forgiveness of whose sins is Christ’s work sufficient? Both sides agree that, had God chosen to save more sinners than he actually has, Christ would not have had to suffer any more than he did in order to save them. Nor is the question, who will finally be saved? Both stipulate that the benefits of Christ’s salvation will be applied only to those who repent and believe in him. Thus, both particularists and universalists can subscribe to the popular dictum that the atonement is “sufficient for all, yet efficient for only the elect.” This is also not a dispute over whether any nonsaving benefits resulting from the atonement accrue to the nonelect. If God had not intended to save sinners through Christ’s atonement, it is likely that he would have immediately visited justice on sinful man as he did the fallen angels (2 Pet. 2:4). Yet because God intended to save his people through Christ in the fullness of time, even those whom he will not ultimately save will have enjoyed the benefits of common grace, divine forbearance, and a temporary reprieve from divine judgment. Therefore, to avoid unnecessary confusion and contention, it ought to be acknowledged that one’s position on the extent of the atonement does not necessarily affect one’s answer to these other questions. Instead, the question is, in whose place did Christ stand as a substitutionary sacrifice when he bore the full fury of his Father’s righteous wrath against sin? The answer is, only those who will never bear that wrath themselves, namely, the elect alone.
Another reason this discussion often leads to frustration relates to methodology. Too often, universalists cite a number of proof texts containing the words “all” or “world” and consider the matter closed, declaring the particularist interpretation a violation of the “plain reading” of the text. Yet such an approach fails to take into account the context of these isolated texts along with the rest of the teaching of Scripture and thus demonstrates that what is often claimed to be the “plain reading” is nothing more than a superficial reading.
Numerous passages of Scripture contain universalistic language while they do not speak of every individual without exception. For example, 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.” The so-called “plain reading” of this text would seem to require that the two phrases “all men” be interpreted identically in both halves of the verse. Such a position, however, leads either to affirming the doctrine of universal salvation or to denying the doctrine of original sin. All without exception are condemned in Adam (Rom. 5:12), yet not all indiscriminately receive justification and life (Matt. 7:13, 22–23; Rev. 21:8). In Romans 5:12–21, Paul contrasts Adam and Christ as the two representative heads of humanity, which sheds light on his intent in 5:18. Just as Adam’s actions affect all men who are in him, so also Christ’s actions affect all those who are in him. Thus, considering the context can correct a superficial reading of an isolated passage of Scripture.
In other instances, universal language is simply a convention of common speech. When the Pharisees said of Jesus, “Look, the world has gone after him” (John 12:19), they did not mean that everyone alive on the earth at that time had begun to follow Christ. When Paul said, “All things are lawful for me” (1 Cor. 6:12; cf. 10:23), he did not mean that he was at liberty to do anything and everything without exception, for he acknowledged that he was not without law but was “under the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21). Therefore, the presence of universal language should not automatically be read to mean “all without exception.” Like anything else, universal language needs to be properly interpreted according to its context and in accordance with the entirety of biblical teaching.
Rather than volleying proof texts back and forth, it is essential to consider the clear teaching of Scripture concerning the nature of Christ’s mission to accomplish redemption. The Bible’s teaching on the nature of the atonement has significant bearing on the proper understanding of its extent. Several lines of scriptural evidence must be considered to support the particularist view of the atonement.
The beginning of this chapter set forth the biblical teaching concerning the divine plan of salvation and its relationship to the Son’s mission. It was demonstrated that the decision for the Son to take on human flesh and rescue sinners from death and judgment was made not unilaterally but in accordance with an agreed-upon Trinitarian plan. In perfect unity, the Father commissioned the Son to go in the power of the Holy Spirit in order to save sinners. The Father sent the Son for a specific purpose, to accomplish a particular mission. That is why Jesus continually described his ministry as doing the will of the Father who sent him, going so far as to say, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34; cf. 6:38; 17:4; Heb. 10:7). When he spoke of his atoning death, he stated that he was thus commanded by his Father to lay down his life (John 10:17–18), and so the totality of his mission is rightly characterized as an act of obedience to the Father (Phil. 2:8). Whatever the Son intended to accomplish on his saving mission, it was precisely that purpose for which the Father had sent him. There is a perfect unity of purpose and intention in the saving will of the Father and the saving will of the Son.
However, it is plain that the Father has not chosen everyone for salvation. Those on whom he set his electing love he also predestined, and those he predestined he also called effectually, and those whom he called he also declared righteous in Christ, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Rom. 8:29–30, 33; cf. Eph. 1:4–5). Since not everyone is justified and glorified, it follows that not everyone has been foreknown and predestined by the Father for salvation. There are “vessels of wrath” that were prepared for destruction and “vessels of mercy” that he prepared for glory (Rom. 9:22–23). The election of the Father is not universal. If the Father’s election is particular and not universal, and if the Father and the Son are perfectly united in their saving will and purpose, it is impossible that the Son’s atonement should be universal and not particular. As Reymond writes,
It is unthinkable to believe that Christ would say: “I recognize, Father, that your election and your salvific intentions terminate upon only a portion of mankind, but because my love is more inclusive and expansive than yours, I am not satisfied to die only for those you have elected. I am going to die for everyone.”
Yet this is the unavoidable conclusion of those who deny particular redemption. Said another way, if the atonement is universal, then either election is also universal, or the Father and Son are at cross-purposes with one another. Yet Scripture has refuted both notions. The saving will of the Father is expressed in his particular election (that he has chosen some, not all, to be saved), and the Son has come to do the will of his Father who sent him.
What is that will? Jesus explicitly explained, “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39). There exists a group of chosen individuals whom the Father has given the Son, and it is on their behalf that he accomplishes his redemptive work. They are all those who will eventually come to him (John 6:37) and believe (John 6:40) because they have been effectually drawn by the Father (John 6:44, 55–65); they are the sheep for whom the Son lays down his life (John 10:14–15, 27) and to whom he gives eternal life (John 6:40; 10:28; 17:2). Christ says plainly, “Yours they were, [Father,] and you gave them to me” (John 17:6; cf. 17:9, 24), and he clearly distinguishes them from the rest of the world (John 17:9). These individuals who belonged to the Father before the foundation of the world can be none other than the elect whom he has chosen for salvation. It is therefore these, and these alone, whom the Father gives to the Son, and thus it is these, and these alone, for whom the Son accomplishes redemption.
Therefore, it is not surprising to read of the many ways in which Scripture identifies a particular people as the beneficiaries of Christ’s work on the cross. He has given his life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; cf. Isa. 53:12; Matt. 26:28), not all. He is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11–15), not for the goats who are not his (cf. John 10:26). He is the lover of the brethren who lays down his life for his friends (John 15:13). He is the great Redeemer, who with his own blood purchased the church of God (Acts 20:28). He is the bridegroom of the church (Rev. 19:7; cf. John 3:29), whom he loved and for whom he gave himself up (Eph. 5:25). He was delivered over for the elect (Rom. 8:32–33), for whom he continues to intercede (Rom. 8:34; cf. John 17:9). And he is the sanctifier of “a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).
It is popular for universalists to respond that such particularistic language does not necessarily rule out universalism; that is, Christ may have died for his sheep, but it does not follow that he did not also die for the goats. Yet this defense of particular redemption is far more than merely marshaling a number of isolated particularistic proof texts; it is setting those texts in the context of the explicit unity between the saving will of the Father and the Son, which Scripture defines as particular and not universal. Further, there is evidence that at least some of these particularizing designations are necessarily exclusive. Paul identifies those for whom the Father gave up his Son as “God’s elect” (Rom. 8:32–33)—a category that necessarily excludes those not chosen and that has already been established as not universal. Jesus declares that he lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:14–15), which are defined as those whom the Father has given him (John 10:29), thus making “sheep” simply another designation for the elect. Add to that Jesus’s remark to the Pharisees, “But you do not believe because you are not among my sheep” (John 10:26). Given that Jesus says, “I lay down my life for the sheep,” just moments before he declares to the Pharisees, “You are not among my sheep,” it is legitimate to infer that he did not lay down his life for those Pharisees. Finally, when Paul makes Christ’s sacrificial love for the church the pattern for the husband’s love for his wife, he shuts us up to a particularistic understanding of Christ’s love for his bride (Eph. 5:25–27). Clearly, husbands ought to love their wives in a way that is special and different from the way they love all others. If (1) Christ loved even the nonelect and gave himself up for them in precisely the same way he gave himself for his own bride, and if (2) husbands were called to love their wives after that pattern, then husbands are to love their wives in a way that is no different from the way they love other women. Surely that was not Paul’s intent. Thus, it can be soundly inferred that Christ’s dying love for his church is unique and distinguishing.
In summary, by virtue of their own unity of essence, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are perfectly united with respect to their saving will and purpose. Christ was sent by the authority of the Father and in the power of the Holy Spirit to save no more and no fewer people than the Father chose and the Spirit regenerates (cf. Eph. 1:3–14). The Father has elected some, not all; the Spirit regenerates some, not all. To suggest that Christ has atoned for all, not some, is to put the persons of the Trinity entirely at odds with one another; it is to be forced to say that the will of the Son is not the will of the Father and the Spirit. This not only threatens the consubstantiality of the persons of the Trinity, but it flatly contradicts Christ’s own explicit statements that he had undertaken his saving mission precisely to do the will of his Father. As the Father has given to the Son a particular people out of the world, it is for these—his sheep, his own, the church—that Christ lays down his life. Unity in the Trinity demands a particular atonement.
Perhaps the most common argument from those who hold to some form of an unlimited atonement is that Christ died for all without exception in a provisional sense. Christ died to provide salvation for all yet not to infallibly secure it for anyone in particular. He has died potentially for all, it is said, such that the potential exists for anyone to have the benefits of his sacrifice applied to him or her through repentance and faith. Very rarely is this provisional nature of the atonement argued based on the exegesis of Scripture; rather, it is presented as a theological construct to explain texts that speak of Christ’s death in universalistic terms. The argument usually takes the following form:
1. Scripture speaks of the death of Christ in universalistic terms; thus, Christ died for all without exception.
2. Not everyone receives the saving benefits of Christ’s death; some perish in hell.
3. Therefore, Christ died for all in only a provisional or potential sense; the atonement is granted its efficacy by the decision of the sinner to repent and believe.
The entirety of this argument depends on the unproven assumption in the first point, namely, that universalistic language must be interpreted to mean “all without exception.” Yet that assumption does not follow. If it can be shown (1) that universalistic language taken in context can be properly interpreted to mean “all without distinction,” and (2) that the whole of biblical teaching identifies atonement not as provisional but as inherently efficacious, the universalist’s argument fails. The former will be addressed below. The latter is taken up here.
The key to the universalist’s argument is to cast Christ’s atonement as intrinsically ineffectual. However, in the above treatment of the perfect sufficiency of the atonement, it was established from Scripture that the attribute of efficacy is inherent and essential to the biblical concept of atonement. To review, Scripture teaches that Christ has actually—not potentially, provisionally, or hypothetically, but actually—accomplished the salvation of his people by virtue of his work on the cross. It is nearly tautologous to say that when Scripture states that our substitute “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24), it means he actually, not potentially, bore our sins in his body on the tree. When Scripture says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5), it would be exegetically monstrous to conclude that he was only potentially pierced or potentially crushed—that his chastisement brought only a potential peace or that his wounds brought only potential healing. That would be to artificially inject the concept of potentiality into texts that speak of efficacious, objective accomplishment. No, Christ was actually pierced, crushed, chastised, and wounded, and therefore he accomplished actual peace and actual healing. Scripture does not say, “By his wounds, you were made healable.” It does not say, “By his wounds, you were put into a state in which you might be healed if you fulfill certain conditions that activate the hypothetically universal scope of Christ’s wounds.” The text simply says, “By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). That is, Christ’s objective, substitutionary suffering and death actually accomplished the spiritual healing of those for whom he died—those who, because of the intrinsic worth and efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice, “not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved.”
Examples such as this one could be multiplied throughout the Scriptures. As has already been mentioned, beginning as early as the Levitical law, atonement has always been presented as inherently efficacious, always accomplishing its intended effect (cf. Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7; 12:7–8; 14:20, 53; 19:22). Thus, when the New Testament applies the Old Testament terminology for atonement to the work of the Messiah, it is proper to regard Christ’s atonement with the same inherent efficacy. And this is precisely how the New Testament writers portray it: Jesus actually expiated our sins (1 John 3:5), actually propitiated the Father’s wrath against us (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17–18), actually reconciled God to us (Col. 1:22), and actually purchased our redemption (Acts 20:28; Rev. 5:9). He came not to make salvation possible but to decisively save his people (Matt. 1:21). In his atoning work, Christ did not provide a hypothetical salvation but rather infallibly secured the salvation of those for whom he died by actually bearing their punishment. Packer writes poignantly,
God’s saving purpose in the death of his Son was [not] a mere ineffectual wish, depending for its fulfillment on man’s willingness to believe, so that for all God could do Christ might have died and none been saved at all.… The Bible sees the cross as revealing God’s power to save, not his impotence. Christ did not win a hypothetical salvation for hypothetical believers, a mere possibility of salvation for any who might possibly believe, but a real salvation for his own chosen people. His precious blood really does save us all; the intended effects of his self-offering do in fact follow, just because the cross was what it was. Its saving power does not depend on faith being added to it; its saving power is such that faith flows from it. The cross secured the full salvation of all for whom Christ died.
Since, then, Christ’s atonement is inherently efficacious, and since it is agreed that not all will finally be saved, the extent of the atonement must be limited. The only other option is to suggest that God demands the payment of sin’s penalty first from Christ on the cross and then again from the unbelieving sinner in hell. But surely such double jeopardy is wholly inconsistent with the justice of God. In his memorable hymn “From Whence This Fear and Unbelief?,” Augustus Toplady (1740–1778) captured this truth beautifully:
If thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine,
Payment God cannot twice demand—
First at my bleeding surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.
Scripture affirms that our “bleeding Surety” efficaciously endured “the whole of wrath divine” in the stead of those for whom he died. If there is wrath left to pour out on the unbelieving sinner, then that wrath was not satisfied by the substitutionary work of Christ. If there is a penalty left for the sinner to pay in hell, then that penalty was not paid by Christ on the cross. That leaves only two options: either (1) Christ’s sacrifice was impotent and ineffective, or (2) Christ’s powerful and efficacious sacrifice was accomplished for a specific number of persons. Since the former is blasphemous and explicitly contrary to Scripture, the student of God’s Word is constrained to embrace the latter.
Since, then, Christ’s atonement is by its very nature an efficacious substitution—that is, since he actually satisfied all of the Father’s wrath against the sins of those for whom he died—one cannot affirm a universal atonement but at the same time deny universal salvation without emptying the atonement of its saving power. Again, Packer argues,
Any who take this position must redefine substitution in imprecise terms, if indeed they do not drop the term altogether, for they are committing themselves to deny that Christ’s vicarious sacrifice ensures anyone’s salvation.… If we are going to affirm penal substitution for all without exception we must either infer universal salvation or else, to evade this inference, deny the saving efficacy of the substitution for anyone; and if we are going to affirm penal substitution as an effective saving act of God we must either infer universal salvation or else, to evade this inference, restrict the scope of the substitution, making it a substitution for some, not all.
It becomes plain, then, that unless one believes in universal final salvation, everyone limits the atonement. The particularist limits its extent, while the universalist limits its efficacy. Yet an inefficacious atonement not only contradicts the biblical teaching concerning the nature of the atonement (as outlined above), it also fundamentally undermines the gospel itself, for an inefficacious atonement is no atonement at all. An atonement that is inefficacious is an atonement that does not atone.
The implications of this way of thinking are disastrous. If Christ has provided the same “potential atonement” for everyone, then the decisive difference between the saved and the lost is not the omnipotent grace of the Savior but the depraved will of the sinner. Taken to its logical conclusion, it is to say that “Christ saves us with our help; and what that means, when one thinks it out, is this—that we save ourselves with Christ’s help.” Yet this is neither the perfectly sufficient atonement nor the almighty saving gospel revealed in the pages of Scripture. So far from undermining the free offer of the gospel, as is so often charged, the doctrine of definite atonement establishes the free offer of the gospel. A universal atonement can offer sinners nothing more than the possibility of salvation—merely the opportunity to be put into a savable condition. Indeed, what does it mean for the universalist to declare to sinners, “Christ died for you,” when, according to him, those for whom Christ died may very well perish in hell? Without an efficacious substitution, what, if any, saving substance can be offered? Only a perfectly efficacious atonement offers an accomplished salvation to which nothing need be added, a gift to be received by faith alone. Therefore, we must conclude with Spurgeon that the universalist may keep his ineffectual atonement:
The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, “No, certainly not.” We ask them the next question—Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They say, “No.” They are obliged to admit this if they are consistent. They say, “No; Christ has died so that any man may be saved if”—and then follow certain conditions of salvation. We say then, we will just go back to the old statement—Christ did not die so as beyond a doubt to secure the salvation of anybody, did He? You must say “No”; you are obliged to say so.… Now, who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why you. You say that Christ did not die so as infallibly to secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon, when you say we limit Christ’s death; we say, “No, my dear sir, it is you that do it.” We say Christ so died that He infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.
THE UNITY OF THE HIGH PRIESTLY WORK OF CHRIST
Scripture frequently speaks of Christ as the Great High Priest of his people (Heb. 2:17; 3:1; 4:14–15; 5:1, 5, 10; 6:19–20; 8:1–6; 9:11–12, 25), borrowing the conceptual framework of the Old Testament sacrificial system as a foundation for understanding Christ’s work of atonement. Thus, except for where the New Testament explicitly contrasts Christ’s priestly ministry with that of the Old Testament priests (e.g., Heb. 7:27), there is a basic continuity between them. The work of the Levitical priests thus sheds light on the extent of the atonement in the inseparable unity between the priest’s work of sacrifice and his work of intercession.
On the Day of Atonement, the high priest was to slay one goat as a sacrifice for the sins of the people of Israel (Lev. 16:9). Yet the sacrificial death was not the end of the priest’s work. After slaying the goat, he was required to “bring its blood inside the veil” into the Most Holy Place, and “sprinkl[e] it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat” (Lev. 16:15; cf. 16:18–19). It is this twofold work—both the slaughter of the goat and the intercessory sprinkling of its blood—that accomplished atonement for Israel’s sins. This was the case not only for the Day of Atonement but also for all the sacrifices that required the death of animals. The priest was first to slay the animal and then to “offer up the blood and sprinkle the blood around on the altar” (Lev. 1:5 NASB; cf. 1:11; 3:2, 8, 13; 4:6–7, 17–18, 25, 30, 34; 5:9; 7:2; 17:6). The observation we must make from these rituals is that the scope of the priest’s sacrifice is identical to the scope of his intercession. It is not the case that the high priest would sacrifice the goat on behalf of everyone throughout the Gentile world and then sprinkle its blood only on behalf of Israel. No, the sacrifice and the intercession were two sides of the same atoning coin, both done on behalf of Israel alone.
The same principle applies to the unity of the twofold High Priestly ministry of Christ. The author of Hebrews depicts Christ as our Great High Priest who both offered himself as the perfect sacrifice and entered into the Most Holy Place to intercede for his people: “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24). In other words, Christ’s sacrificial offering of himself is inextricably linked to his intercessory work on behalf of his people in the presence of God (Heb. 4:14–15; 7:25; 1 John 2:1). That is, Christ intercedes for everyone for whom he died, and he died for everyone for whom he intercedes.
That conclusion is also supported by Romans 8:29–39, where Paul discusses redemption from beginning to end—from the Father’s election in eternity past (8:29–30), to the death and resurrection of Christ (8:32–34), through to the application of redemption to sinners both in justification (8:33) and in perseverance unto glorification (8:35–39). Of particular interest is Paul’s comment in Romans 8:34, where he connects Christ’s death and resurrection with his present intercession: “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” The question is, to whom does the word “us” refer? The nearest antecedent is found in Romans 8:32: “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?” Thus, those for whom Christ presently intercedes are the ones for whom the Father gave Christ over to death.
Once again it is observed that Christ intercedes for everyone for whom he died and that he died for everyone for whom he intercedes. The key question is, does Christ intercede before the Father on behalf of all men without exception or on behalf of the elect alone? Surely it is the latter. Is Christ praying to the Father for the salvation and blessing of the nonelect, a request the Father, because he does not intend to save the nonelect, will refuse his Son? Are the persons of the Trinity so divided? Here again the doctrine of unlimited atonement would drive a wedge between the will of the Father and the will of the Son, which has disastrous implications for biblical Trinitarianism. Further, Christ himself answers this question in the High Priestly Prayer of John 17. Here the Great High Priest is interceding before the Father on behalf of those for whom he will soon offer himself as a sacrifice, and he explicitly says, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9). Jesus offers his High Priestly intercession only to those whom the Father has given him (cf. John 6:37, 39, 44, 65; 10:29; 17:2, 6, 20, 24)—namely, the “elect” of Romans 8:33. Since the priestly work of sacrifice and intercession are inextricably linked, and since it is unthinkable that Christ would refuse to intercede for those for whom he shed his precious blood, we must conclude that the extent of the atonement—like the extent of Christ’s intercession—is limited to the elect.
THE ARGUMENT OF ROMANS 8:29–39
Coming back to Romans 8, Paul’s comments in this passage are themselves a biblical argument for particular redemption. He speaks explicitly of the extent of the atonement in 8:32 when he says that the Father did not spare his Son but gave him up “for us all.” Who is the “us all” for whom Christ was given up to death? Paul answers this question in a number of ways. First, if we look for an antecedent to “for us all” (8:32), we find another “us” in 8:31, referring to those whom God is for. Continuing our search for an antecedent, we find that those whom God is for are those whom he foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified (8:29–30). Moving forward, we learn that those for whom Christ was delivered over are those to whom God will graciously give all the saving benefits purchased by Christ’s death, for “how will he not also with him graciously give us all things” (8:32)? Romans 8:33 then explicitly identifies these people as “God’s elect” and those whom he justifies, and 8:34 identifies them as those for whom Christ intercedes. Finally, those for whom Christ died are those who can never be separated from the love of Christ (8:35–39).
Several conclusions should be drawn from these observations. First, since the nonelect do not receive all the saving benefits of God’s grace as promised in Romans 8:32 (particularly being rescued from eternal punishment), they are not part of the “us all” for whom Christ was delivered over. Second, since Paul identifies the “us all” for whom Christ was delivered over to be “God’s elect” in 8:33, Christ was not delivered over for those who are nonelect. Third, since all for whom Christ was delivered over will also be the beneficiaries of his intercessory ministry at the Father’s right hand, and since Christ does not intercede on behalf of the nonelect, they are not included in the “us all” for whom Christ was delivered over. Fourth, since all for whom Christ was delivered over can never be separated from the love of Christ, and since the nonelect will in fact be separated from the love of Christ in eternal punishment, they are not included in the “us all” for whom Christ was delivered over. The extent of Christ’s atonement is once again shown to be necessarily limited to the elect.
MAKING SENSE OF UNIVERSALISTIC TEXTS
The preceding positive arguments are sufficient to establish particular redemption as a biblical doctrine. However, the most common objection against limiting the extent of the atonement comes from several passages of Scripture that seem to explicitly contradict it by using universalistic language in relation to Christ’s death: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16); Christ Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6); and so on. Therefore, in order for the case for particular redemption to stand, these universalistic texts must be explained in a way that (1) harmonizes with the precepts of particular redemption and (2) is consistent with contextual, grammatical-historical interpretation. This section, then, will examine three categories of texts that are used to support a universal atonement, interpret them in their contexts, and demonstrate how none of them contradicts the doctrine of particular redemption but how they all complement and in some cases provide further supporting evidence for the doctrine.
Christ Died for “All.” As was mentioned above, one of the most disappointing aspects of discussing the extent of the atonement occurs when universalists appeal to texts containing the word “all” and simply declare the unwarranted assumption that “all” must always mean “all people without exception.” To be sure, there are instances where that is the case: all people without exception “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23; yet even here there is one exception—the Lord Jesus Christ). But as has been shown, in several passages of Scripture the word “all” simply cannot refer to all people without exception. To deny that is to make a liar out of Jesus (Matt. 10:22; John 18:20) and to commit oneself to the final salvation of all without exception (Rom. 5:18; 11:32). Paul himself necessarily limits universalistic language when he comments on Psalm 8:6 in 1 Corinthians 15:27: “But when it says, ‘all things are put in subjection,’ it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him.” That is, in this case, “all things” does not mean “all things without exception.” Therefore, “all” is not a self-defining expression. While it may legitimately be understood to speak of every person who has ever lived (i.e., all without exception), it may also legitimately be understood to speak of all kinds of people throughout the world (i.e., all without distinction). The determining factor of the proper sense of “all” is not one’s a priori assumptions but rather the context of the particular passage in which the word occurs. When those passages are subjected to the scrutiny of contextual exegesis, it becomes clear that none of them supports an unlimited atonement.
In John 12:32, Jesus declares, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth [i.e., crucified; John 12:33; cf. 3:14], will draw all people to myself.” Universalists teach that the phrase “all people” refers to all without exception, and they posit that this “drawing” refers to a universal grace that removes the effects of depravity for everyone, bringing all men into a state of neutrality by which they can accept or reject Christ. This is often called prevenient grace, signifying a grace that “comes before.” It is worth noting that, in order to maintain what they believe is the plain meaning of “all people,” universalists must distort beyond recognition the plain meaning of “draw,” for Scripture nowhere speaks of an ineffectual prevenient grace but only of the effectual call of the sovereign and almighty God (John 6:37, 44, 65). Besides this, however, the context of John 12:32 favors interpreting “all people” as “all without distinction.” A few verses earlier, in John 12:20–21, John reports that a number of Greeks were asking to see Jesus. In response to this, Jesus explains the certain necessity of his death (John 12:22–28) and then declares that by his death he will draw all men to himself—that is, not only his Jewish countrymen but even Gentiles like those who were searching for him.
Universalists also appeal to 2 Corinthians 5:14–15. There Paul writes, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 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.” Universalists claim that the phrase “one has died for all” indicates that Christ has died for all men without exception. Yet this interpretation is not without significant problems. Paul immediately follows that statement by saying, “Therefore,”—that is, on the basis of Christ’s death for them—“all have died.” That is, they have died in and with Christ (Rom. 6:8; Col. 2:20; 3:3), and thus they have died to themselves and now live for Christ (2 Cor. 5:15). Further, Christ not only died for his people but also was raised on their behalf (2 Cor. 5:15). If union with Christ in his death necessarily effects the spiritual death of those for whom he died, it must also be the case that union with Christ in his resurrection necessarily effects their spiritual resurrection as well. Paul says this explicitly in Romans 6:5: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” However, unless one embraces universal final salvation, it simply cannot be said that all people without exception, including unbelievers, have died to themselves, have been raised to newness of life, and now live for Christ. Instead, Paul uses the language of corporate solidarity—that the One died for the many—to emphasize the union between Christ and his people. He has died for them, and they have died to sin and to self in him, so that they now live for his honor and glory.
The universal statement in Hebrews 2:9 ought to be handled similarly. Because Christ is said to have tasted death for everyone, universalists argue that the atonement is unlimited. However, several contextual considerations militate against such an interpretation. First, in the very next verse the author proclaims the efficacy of Jesus’s death: by his sufferings he was bringing many sons to glory. This statement is inconsistent with an atonement that is universal in its extent but limited in its efficacy. He was not bringing many sons into a condition in which they might hypothetically avail themselves of glory; rather, by the efficacy of his sufferings apart from any response on their part, he was actually bringing them to glory. Second, those for whom he suffered are characterized as his “brothers” (Heb. 2:11–12); such an intimate, familial designation cannot properly be made of anyone but the elect. Third, the author characterizes the beneficiaries of Christ’s death as the “children God has given” him (Heb. 2:13). The language of the Father giving a certain group of individuals to the Son is reminiscent of Jesus’s High Priestly Prayer: “You [Father] have given him [the Son] authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him” (John 17:2; cf. 6:37, 39; 10:29; 17:6, 9, 20, 24), namely, the elect. Finally, Hebrews 2:16 states that Jesus savingly “helps the offspring of Abraham.” If all people without exception were the objects of Jesus’s saving design, the reader would have expected to read that the Son helps the offspring of Adam. Yet the author of Hebrews restricts the Son’s help to God’s chosen people, the children of the promise. Therefore, the universalistic language of Hebrew 2:9 must be conditioned by the several particularistic comments in the immediate context and must thus be understood to emphasize the corporate solidarity between the One and the many for whom he has interceded.
Hypothetical universalists often have recourse to Colossians 1:20, which says that God was pleased “through [Jesus] to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” “All things” is grammatically in the neuter gender and therefore most likely refers to the whole created order. Because such a reconciliation is accomplished by the blood of Christ’s cross, hypothetical universalists argue retrospectively that Christ must have died in some sense for everyone. However, arguing on the basis of this text that Christ has in some sense atoned for the created order confuses the atonement with the results of the atonement. The creation is cursed (and thus is in need of reconciliation to God) not for its own sins but rather as a consequence of human sin (Gen. 3:17; Rom. 8:20). In the same way, then, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21) as a consequence of human redemption. That is why Paul calls the creation’s freedom “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Therefore, Colossians 1:20 teaches not that Christ atoned for the sins of the created order but rather that the particular redemption Christ accomplished for men carries cosmic implications. The consequences of atonement should not be conflated with atonement itself. Thus, Colossians 1:20 provides no basis for universal atonement. Jonathan Gibson argues persuasively that
[Paul’s] focus is the eschatological impact of Christ’s cross, not the substitutionary extent of it. To argue retrospectively from the eschatological effects of Christ’s death back to a universal atonement is a false deduction. Indeed, the parallel passage, Romans 8:19–23, shows that what lies behind the cosmic renewal is not a universal provision made by Christ’s atonement but a consummated redemption of a particular group of people—“the sons of God.”
Another text often marshaled in support of an unlimited atonement is 1 Timothy 2:3–6, which speaks of “God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” If God desires all people to be saved, and if Christ has given himself as a ransom for all, how can we deny a universal atonement? Again, this passage must be read in its context. When Paul wrote 1 Timothy, certain persons were teaching “different doctrine” (1:3), swerving from sound teaching and wandering into vain discussion (1:6). These false teachers had ambitions to be “teachers of the law” (1:7), and their speculation regarding genealogies (1:4) and forbidding of marriage and certain foods (4:1–3) indicates that their false doctrine consisted of an exclusive Jewish elitism.
Paul’s universalistic statements throughout the letter (cf. 1 Tim. 2:2, 4, 6; 4:10) make perfect sense in light of the context of this elitist false teaching. He is not teaching that Christ died for all without exception but rather that, contrary to this false teaching, Christ died for all without distinction. This conclusion is strengthened by the fact that he urges prayers to be made “for all people” (1 Tim. 2:1), by which he means not all people throughout the entire world (for such would be impossible) but rather all kinds of people: “for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:2). Also, immediately after the passage in question, Paul speaks of his apostolic appointment as a teacher of the Gentiles (1 Tim. 2:7), indicating further that his intent is to speak of all without distinction (i.e., not just Jews but Gentiles also). Finally, it must be remembered that the ransom Jesus paid was not a potential ransom but an actual and efficacious one. If we accept the universalist interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:6, we must either (1) embrace universal final salvation or (2) denigrate the efficacy of the atonement. Instead, the particularist interpretation makes the best sense of the totality of the biblical data. Paul uses the word “all” to refer to all kinds of people in order to undermine a heretical Jewish elitism that had taken hold at Ephesus.
The same conclusion is warranted for Paul’s statement in Titus 2:11. Given that Paul had been providing instruction concerning different classes of people—older men, older women, younger women, younger men, and slaves (Titus 2:2–6, 9–10)—the “all people” to whom grace has brought salvation refers to all people without distinction, not all people without exception. This interpretation is buttressed by another statement of the efficacy of the atonement in Titus 2:14, where Christ is said to have given himself to both redeem and purify a particular people for his own possession.
A passage that has been the subject of much discussion is 1 Timothy 4:10, where Paul describes God as “the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” Universalists teach that Jesus is the Savior of all people in the sense that he died for all but that he is especially the Savior of believers because the benefits of salvation are applied only to them. However, it is worth noting that the Son is not the nearest antecedent to “Savior” in this passage; rather, it is God the Father, “the living God,” who is in focus here. This verse is speaking not about the atonement of Christ in particular but about God’s nature as a Savior. Paul is thus outlining two ways in which God’s saving nature is expressed. He is the Savior of all men in a temporal sense; that is, though all men have sinned against him, incurred guilt, and will pay for their sins in hell, God has not immediately visited his justice on them as he did with the fallen angels (cf. Rom. 3:25; 2 Pet. 2:4). Even the reprobate enjoy a temporary stay of execution and thus experience the joys of life in a world infused with the common grace of God (Matt. 5:44–45). Yet God’s saving nature is also expressed in a more profound way for those who are his own. He is the Savior of all men in a temporal sense but the Savior of the elect—that is, those who eventually come to saving faith—in an eternal sense.
Finally, though 2 Peter 3:9 does not explicitly speak of the atonement, universalists argue that it reveals a universal saving will in God that contradicts a particular redemption. Peter writes, “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.” Since God does not wish that any should perish but that all should repent, it is argued that God has done everything he can to provide salvation in the universal atonement of Christ and that now it remains to the sinner to appropriate salvation by repentant faith. However, it simply does not follow that since God in some sense takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 18:31–32; 33:11), Christ has atoned for all without exception.
Two responses may be made to the universalist approach to this text. The first has to do with the complexity of the divine will. What does it mean for God to desire that all without exception should repent when he himself has expressed his saving will in choosing some, not all, for salvation? And what does it mean for the God who accomplishes all his good pleasure (Isa. 46:9–10; Pss. 115:3; 135:6; Eph. 1:11) and whose purpose can be thwarted by no one (Job 42:2) to desire the salvation of all when he does not exercise his sovereign will to finally bring all to salvation? Rather than denying God’s absolute sovereignty, as the universalists do, it is right to observe a distinction in the way Scripture talks about God’s will. God’s decretive will is his “good pleasure” that accords with his sovereign decree. Isaiah speaks of this aspect of God’s will when he prophesies of the crucifixion of Christ, saying, “It was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isa. 53:10). It is this sovereign, efficacious will that can never be thwarted and that always comes to pass. On the other hand, God’s preceptive will is that aspect of his will that is expressed in the precepts, or commands, of Scripture. God issues to all people the command, or precept, to repent and believe in the gospel (Acts 17:30). Unlike his decretive will, God’s preceptive will is thwarted any time someone disobeys any one of God’s commands. Third, Scripture also sometimes speaks of God’s will to describe God’s disposition—what is pleasing to him or that in which he takes delight. We might call this his optative will.
Which of these senses fits Peter’s statement in 2 Peter 3:9? It cannot be his decretive will, for if God had decreed the repentance of all without exception, all without exception would repent. Yet universal final salvation is at odds with biblical teaching. Neither is it best to characterize this as a statement of his preceptive will, for that would be to say that God forbids that anyone should perish. In this sense, perishing would be against God’s law, and he would have to punish people for perishing. It is best to understand this verse as expressing the optative will of God. Peter is describing the same truth about God that Ezekiel did when he recorded God’s words: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). Even though God has not chosen all, and even though the Son has not atoned for all, God nevertheless sincerely desires the good of all his creatures. And though God does take pleasure in the exercise of his justice against sin and evil, he does not maliciously enjoy meting out punishment against his creatures. Thus, God wills the repentance of all people in this optative sense. However, because God is absolutely sovereign, and because not all people do in fact repent, God has not decreed that all should repent. Thus, God does not will the repentance of all people in this decretive sense. Though we may not understand the complexity of God’s will, we may not redefine his sovereignty to accommodate our lack of understanding.
Though this answer refutes the universalist interpretation of 2 Peter 3:9, and while it is true that God desires the repentance of all according to his optative will (cf. Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11), there is an even better way to understand Peter’s comment. The recipients of Peter’s letter and the immediate context of this passage must be taken into account. In this very verse, Peter addresses those to whom he is speaking, writing that the Lord is “patient toward you.” When one considers that the “you” to whom he is speaking are the “beloved” of 2 Peter 3:8, “those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:1), it must be acknowledged that Peter is addressing the people of God. The Lord Jesus delays his return because he is patient toward those who are his, those whom the Father has given him and for whom he has died but who have not yet come to faith. Thus, this passage does not speak of all people without exception, as the universalist claims, but is restricted by the context to the elect, consistent with a particularist view of the atonement.
Christ Died for the “World.” Just as with the word “all,” texts that speak of Jesus’s death with respect to the “world” must also be interpreted according to their context. In the cases in which they are used to describe the extent of the atonement, they are properly interpreted to mean “all without distinction” rather than “all without exception.”
Universalists often claim that John 3:16 decisively settles the matter of the extent of the atonement. Jesus 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.” Universalists claim that, by giving his only Son over to a substitutionary and sacrificial death, God has expressed his love for the entire world, which they believe refers to every individual who will have ever lived on the earth. However, nothing in the passage demands that “world” be interpreted to mean “all without exception.” In fact, there is good reason to understand it as “all without distinction.” In particular, Jesus is discussing salvation with Nicodemus, “a man of the Pharisees … [and] a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1). The Pharisees, like virtually all Israel in Jesus’s day, regarded Gentiles as unclean and alienated from the covenant promises of God. As Jesus discusses salvation with this ruler of the Jews, he explains that God’s love terminates not only on Israel but also on men and women throughout the whole world—Gentiles as well as Jews. Further, one must note Jesus’s own particularism in this very verse. Christ has been given up so that whoever believes (Gk. pas ho pisteuōn, lit., “all the believing ones”) should not perish but have eternal life. Jesus clearly limits the scope of his atoning death to those who will eventually believe in him for salvation.
The universalist alternative would create numerous problems. For instance, if Christ had been sent to atone for every individual without exception, would that not have included those sinners who had already died and were paying for their sins in hell? But for what reason? To give them an opportunity to repent? Yet such an opportunity had passed, for they had already been undergoing divine judgment (cf. Heb. 9:27). An even greater problem would be that, by saying that Christ atoned for people who will finally perish in hell, the universalist necessarily limits the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice. If Christ can atone for someone’s sins and that person can still go to hell, then something other than Christ’s atonement is ultimately responsible for salvation.
The same is the case for John the Baptist’s declaration, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). If Christ takes away the sin of all without exception and yet some still perish in hell, what does it mean to say that their sin was taken away? At this point, the universalist must voice an unstated assumption: “takes away” has been redefined to mean “potentially takes away.” Yet this is not what the text says. Again, the atonement Christ achieved was not merely an offer or a potential; he actually secured the salvation of those for whom he died. Thus, to avoid fundamentally undermining the nature of the atonement, one must interpret “world” to refer to Jews and Gentiles—all without distinction, not all without exception.
Similar issues are at play in 1 John 2:2. John writes, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Here we have a statement of the nature of the atonement (propitiation), followed by a statement of the scope or extent of that work (the whole world). A superficial reading of the text at first seems to leave the reader in tension, because propitiation—that is, the actual satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin—for all without exception would demand universal final salvation. Yet again, because Scripture teaches that not all will finally be saved (Matt. 7:13, 23; 25:31–46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 21:8), such an interpretation is untenable.
At this point there are two options. First, the universalist accepts the superficial interpretation of “whole world” to mean “all without exception” and therefore modifies the propitiatory nature of the atonement to mean “a potential propitiation.” Such an interpretive move, however, militates against everything Scripture teaches concerning the efficacious nature of propitiation. There is no exegetical basis for such an interpretation. The second option is that of the particularist. The particularist interprets the nature of propitiation in accordance with the rest of biblical teaching and seeks a way to understand “whole world” that both avoids doing violence to the grammar, context, and authorial intent of 1 John 1–2 and averts the problematic implications of universalism. Such a way is available. It is to understand “the whole world” to refer to “all without distinction” rather than “all without exception.” This option fits better lexically because it respects the Bible’s uniform definition of hilasmos as the efficacious satisfaction of wrath. It also fits better contextually, for John is writing to churches being harassed by the false teaching of sinless perfectionism (1 John 1:6–10), likely linked to an incipient Gnosticism promising that the key to spiritual victory was found in a secret knowledge that only the Gnostics possessed. Thus, when John writes of the scope of the Savior’s accomplishment, he repudiates all vestiges of exclusivism: Christ is not the propitiation for our sins only, whether Jews rather than Gentiles, Gnostics rather than other Christians, or believers in Asia Minor rather than believers throughout the rest of the world. No, he is the propitiation for the sins of God’s people scattered throughout the entire world.
Such an interpretation is only confirmed by the syntactical parallel in John 11:49–52. There John reports Caiaphas’s prophecy concerning the death of Christ—that one man would die for the people (John 11:50). John then comments: “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 11:51–52). Note the parallelism:
John 11:51–52—… 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.
1 John 2:2—He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Thus, this other comment from John’s pen would support interpreting “the whole world” in 1 John 2:2 to mean “all without distinction,” namely, the children of God who are scattered abroad throughout the whole world (cf. John 10:16). Indeed, in Revelation 5:9, John also writes explicitly of Christ’s particular atonement, which he describes as for all without distinction, for the saints sing, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” John does not say that the Lamb ransomed every tribe and language and people and nation, which would fit the universalist interpretation, but that he ransomed people from every tribe and language and people and nation—that is, not all without exception but all without distinction.
With regard to 1 John 2:2, then, the particularist interpretation of “the whole world” fits the language, context, and authorial intent of the passage, does not contradict any other passage of Scripture, parallels other passages John wrote, and avoids the undesirable interpretive conclusions of either universal final salvation or an inefficacious propitiation, one of which is unavoidable in the universalist interpretation. Thus, the particularist interpretation is both biblically and theologically preferable.
Finally, Paul’s comment in 2 Corinthians 5:19 must be addressed. He writes, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” Again, the immediate context guides the interpreter to read “world” not as “all without exception” but “all without distinction throughout the whole world.” Paul immediately defines God’s action of reconciliation as “not counting their trespasses against them.” The only people whose trespasses God does not count against them are those who receive the blessing of salvation (Rom. 4:6–8). Unless one is prepared to adopt universal final salvation, this must refer to the elect alone. The previous verse also confirms this reading, since “the world” in 2 Corinthians 5:19 is coextensive with the “us” of 5:18—that is, those of us whom God has reconciled to himself through Christ. Once again, universalistic language proves to complement a limited extent of the atonement.
Christ Died for Those Who Will Finally Perish. A final set of texts must be addressed. These texts suggest that those who are the objects of Christ’s death may finally perish for their sins in hell. Paul seems to make the same point in two texts:
For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy [Gk. apollye] the one for whom Christ died. (Rom. 14:15)
And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed [Gk. apollytai], the brother for whom Christ died. (1 Cor. 8:11)
Here Paul’s concern is that a believer whose strong conscience allows him to enjoy the Christian liberty of eating meat sacrificed to idols may cause a weaker brother to stumble. In both cases, the weaker brother is described as one “for whom Christ died,” and also in both cases, the weaker brother faces the prospect of being destroyed. For this concept of destruction, Paul employs the Greek term apollymi, which he often uses to describe perishing in eternal punishment (cf. Rom. 2:12; 1 Cor. 1:18; 15:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3; 2 Thess. 2:10).
Though this line of thinking would seem to offer a significant challenge, one must keep in mind that the authors of Scripture often “can refer to those who may finally perish as, for a time, visibly possessing all the descriptions of genuine believers.” Smeaton calls this “the judgment of charity.”80 That is, they represented themselves as truly belonging to the covenant community and thus were regarded and spoken of as true believers while they remained in the church. In this way, John speaks of Judas as one of Jesus’s disciples (John 12:4); the author of Hebrews addresses his many warnings to the “brethren,” though the church includes a mix of believers and unbelievers (e.g., Heb. 3:12–4:7); and Peter speaks of the false teachers as those whom the sovereign Lord bought (2 Pet. 2:1). However, their eventual departure from the covenant community demonstrates that they never truly belonged to Christ, for nothing can separate the true believer from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35–39; cf. John 10:27–30; Phil. 1:6). Thus, while the abuse of Christian liberty has the potential to “grieve” (Rom. 14:15) and “wound the conscience” of (1 Cor. 8:12) the weaker brother, a true brother for whom Christ died will never finally be lost. If such a person does fall away from the faith, they reveal themselves to have never truly been a brother in the first place (1 John 2:19).
Related to this is Peter’s comment concerning the false teachers in 2 Peter 2:1: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” Here Peter indicates that the false teachers were “bought” or “redeemed” (Gk. agorazō) by the Master (Gk. despotēs) and yet will nevertheless face eternal destruction. Thus, universalists argue that Christ the Master died for all without exception, even purchasing the false teachers, but that because they are never truly saved, they will not finally partake of the saving benefits of Christ’s death.
However, at least five considerations prompt us to reject this interpretation. First, in all but one instance in the New Testament (Jude 4), the word “Master” (Gk. despotēs) is used to indicate not the Son but the Father. Thus, Christ’s redeeming work on the cross is likely not in view here. Second, Long explains,
Of its thirty occurrences in the New Testament, agorazō is never used in a soteriological context (unless 2 Peter 2:1 is the exception) without the technical term “price” (timēs—a technical term for the blood of Christ) or its equivalent being stated or made explicit in the context (see 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; Rev. 5:9; 14:3, 4).
That is, it is very likely that Peter is using agorazō in a nonsoteriological sense. Third, Peter is clearly alluding to Deuteronomy 32:6, which says, “Do you thus repay the Lord, O foolish and unwise people? Is not He your Father who has bought you? He has made you and established you” (NASB). The language of “denying the Master who bought them” serves to identify the false teachers of Peter’s day with the false prophets of Israel. Fourth, it is likely that Peter is granting, for the sake of argument, the premise that the false teachers are true believers. In other words, as Schreiner says, “It appeared as if the Lord had purchased the false teachers with his blood [2 Pet. 2:1], though they actually did not truly belong to the Lord.” Peter is thus sarcastically saying, “These who claim to be redeemed deny by their deeds and their doctrine the Master whom they claim has bought them. They are no better than the false prophets of Israel.” Fifth, if taken to its logical conclusion, the universalist interpretation denies not only an efficacious redemption—which Scripture explicitly affirms (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14)—but also the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, that is, that one who is truly redeemed cannot be lost (John 10:27–30; Rom. 8:31–39; 1 John 2:19).
In summary, though several texts of Scripture employ universalistic language with respect to the scope of Christ’s death, not one text stands under exegetical scrutiny as support for an unlimited atonement. Rather, when interpreted in context, passages that refer to Christ’s death for “all” and for “the world” are used to speak of all without distinction, not all without exception, and passages that might seem to indicate that those for whom Christ died can finally perish in their sins are shown to teach no such thing.
Because Scripture reveals (1) that the three persons of the Trinity are entirely united in their saving will and purpose, (2) that atonement is never potential or provisional but always actual and efficacious, (3) that Christ’s High Priestly ministry of sacrifice is coextensive with his High Priestly ministry of intercession, (4) that several passages of Scripture speak of Christ’s atoning work in particularistic terms, and (5) that no passage of Scripture teaches that Christ atoned for all without exception, therefore Scripture teaches that the extent of Christ’s atonement is not universal but is limited to the elect alone.
Resurrection, Ascension, and Intercession
It is also necessary to mention that Christ’s intercessory work was not exhausted at the cross. He was not only “delivered up for our trespasses”; he was also “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Further, he also ascended to the right hand of the Father to rule over all things (Eph. 1:20–23), in which place believers are said to be seated with him (Eph. 2:6). Because he ascended, he sent the Holy Spirit to permanently indwell every member of his church (John 14:17; 16:7) and to empower us for holiness and service. Further still, he presently intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25), praying for our greatest spiritual benefit, defending us against our Accuser, sanctifying our prayers, and ministering to us in our time of need (cf. Heb. 4:15).
The culmination of our study of the accomplishment of redemption must be to worship the triune God for the work of the Son. Accurate theology must always issue in transcendent doxology. Satan has an excellent theology of the atonement; the demons believe and shudder (James 2:19). While Satan and the demons may be excellent students of the work of Christ, they are not beneficiaries of the Son’s atonement. But we his people are beneficiaries. And so we conclude our study of the atonement of Christ with the song of the saints and angels in Revelation 5:9–13:
Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
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.…
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!…
To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!
 MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 511–565). Crossway.