Limited Atonement (2)

March 12, 2023 / No. 4184

Last time we asked the question:  For whom did Christ die?  And we asked that question of the Lord Jesus Himself, the One who did the dying.  And we saw that the Lord was not silent about that matter, but on the pages of Scripture He answered that question and said, “I laid down my life for the sheep.”  Today, we want to come at this from a slightly different angle and now ask the apostles, inspired theologians of the New Testament, a question.  A little bit different question:  What, apostles, did that death of Christ now accomplish?  What was the effect?  And we will see that their answer is in accord with the death that was for the sheep.

There are a number of words that the epistles use to describe the effect of the death of Christ.  We are going to focus on three:  propitiation, redemption, and reconciliation.  And we will notice that every time the epistles use one of these words to describe the effect of the death of Christ, they are saying that Christ has actually accomplished this effect by His death.  They do not just say that His death made this effect possible, but that it actually accomplished it. 

The first word, then, is “propitiation.”  I John 4:10:  “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”  The death of Christ, sent by God, propitiates the wrath of God for us.  That is an effect of it.  It propitiates the wrath of God for us, that is, it turns back the wrath of God.  On the cross, Jesus Christ took the wrath of God for the sins of His people into Himself, upon Himself, bore it fully, thereby satisfying God’s justice in the punishment of their sins.  Therefore, for God’s people, there is no wrath remaining for them anymore.  God’s wrath has been propitiated.  His justice has been satisfied.  His wrath is turned away from those for whom Christ died.  And notice that I John 4:10 is saying that God did not just send His Son to make such a thing possible but to really propitiate His own wrath, to accomplish it for those for whom He died.  God sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

A second word that the epistles of the New Testament use to describe the effect of the atoning work of Christ on the cross is “redemption.”  Galatians 3:13:  “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us.”  And Ephesians 1:7:  “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.”  The atoning death of Christ redeemed us.  That is, it bought our freedom, paid the price in order to liberate us from the guilt and dominion of sin—as a man, in days gone by, might pay the price for a slave so that he could let that slave go free.  Having a care, a love, for that slave, he purchases him, not to enslave him further, but to give him his freedom.  We are slaves to sin.  We are bound by sin’s guilt and power.  And by taking the punishment for those sins upon Himself, Christ liberates us from the dominion of the guilt and power that sin has over us, sets us free, redeems us.  And notice that Galatians 3:13 says that Christ hath done this.  He hath redeemed us.  He did not just make it a possibility, He has done it. 

The third word the Bible uses to describe the effect of Christ’s atoning work on the cross is the word “reconciliation.”  Romans 5:10:  “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.”  The death of Christ reconciled us to God, that is, made us one with God again.  Because of our sin, we are at enmity with God.  But God sends His Son to take away the cause of that enmity, what would divide us from God, and to reconcile us to God—bring us back to oneness with God.  Again, you notice that the text says that He did this by His death.  We were reconciled to God by the death of His Son. 

And we could keep going and show how every time the Bible talks about the effect of Christ’s atoning work it is this way:  it is something He did, something He accomplished.

This is clear in the apostles’ answer to our question:  “Apostles, what was the effect of His death upon the cross, what did it do?”  Their answer:  “It did propitiate God’s wrath for those for whom He died.”  “It did redeem those for whom He died.”  And “it did reconcile to God those for whom He died.”  We have heard, then, those apostles give their “Amen” to the fact that Jesus died for His sheep. 

The effect of the atonement answers the question of the extent of the atonement.  You see, Arminianism teaches that Christ died for the sins of every individual, that the sheep of “for the sheep,” is every individual; that the “us” of “he became a curse for us” is every individual; that the “us” in “he laid down his life for us” is every individual.  And the apostles describe the effect of that death now as redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation, as we have seen.  But yet, in Arminianism’s teaching, not everyone actually is redeemed, reconciled to God, and has God’s wrath turned away from him.  In fact, the teaching is that, for the majority, that is not the case, for the majority do not accept this work of their free will. 

But, if Christ accomplished for every single person the content of those three words (propitiation, redemption, reconciliation), then why are not all men out from under the wrath of God?  And why are not all men redeemed?  And why are not all men reconciled to God?  If Christ propitiated the wrath of God for all men, then no one would go to hell, for there would be no sins left for God to be wrathful about.  God cannot punish someone in hell for whom the crimes have already been paid.  If you get a speeding ticket, and then I pay the price for that ticket, I propitiate, I turn back the wrath of the government for you for that ticket, the government does not come down upon you and say you have to pay again.  So too, if Christ really died for all men, then there would be no wrath, there would be no one to go to hell, for the sin has already been paid for.  Christ has propitiated the wrath of God on His cross for everyone.  He accomplished that, it is done!

Take that second word.  Christ accomplished redemption.  He hath redeemed upon the cross.  If Christ accomplished that redemption upon the cross for every individual, then why do so many remain enslaved to sin and unbelief and die that way?  What kind of redemption is it if the majority of people who have been redeemed never are liberated?  If I have a friend who is in jail and the bail is set at $600, I and my wife might discuss it together and say that we are going to pay the $600 to release that man, to redeem that man from jail so that he can go free.  And so, I go down to the courthouse, leaving my wife at home, and I pay the $600.  But then I come home to my wife and my friend is not with me.  And my wife says, “Well, where is he?  You paid the $600, didn’t you?”  And I say, “Yes, I did, I redeemed him, but I left him in jail.  I didn’t get him out.  He is still there.”  What good is that.  That is no redemption.  If Christ really accomplished redemption, as the Scriptures say He did, and if Christ died for everyone as the Arminians say He did, then everyone would be actually redeemed.  You get the point. 

But the same is true of that third word, reconciliation.  What kind of reconciliation has been accomplished if for so many the result of that reconciliation is that the parties are not reconciled?  What marriage counselor says, “I have reconciled you,” if the marriage is still a mess, if the parties are still at war?  The Bible, you see, does not leave open the possibility that Christ merely made these three things possible by His death.  It says He did them.

Therefore, you have to believe one of two things:  Either you have to believe that all men are actually redeemed, reconciled to God, have God’s wrath propitiated for them (which is, of course, against the teaching of Scripture—there are goats that will be separated from the sheep when Christ comes back to judge); or you have to believe that Christ died for His sheep and does actually accomplish all these things for them.  The latter is, in fact, the biblical teaching and the teaching of Christ Himself.  Arminianism, by teaching that Christ’s atoning death was for all men, is forced to say that Christ accomplished a redemption that does not actually redeem, a propitiation that does not actually propitiate, and a reconciliation that does not actually reconcile.  For the vast majority of the cases, Christ was an absolute failure and shed His blood in vain. 

Yes, Calvinism limits the number of people for whom Christ died, but Arminianism limits the effect of Christ’s death for everyone.  Calvinism limits the number of people for whom Christ died effectually, but Arminianism limits the effect of Christ’s death for everybody.  In Calvinism, Christ builds a bridge, a narrow bridge, but a bridge that crosses a chasm all the way to the other side, that actually saves.  In Arminianism, Christ builds a wide bridge, but a bridge that goes only half way across and does not save anyone, and says, it’s up to you, individuals, to decide to finish the bridge of your own free will.  That is the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism in the effect of the death of Christ. 

It is probably enough to settle the matter right there.  And we could really stop right there, but our Arminian friend is going to press on, claiming that, while Christ atoned for the sins of all men, not all men accept His atonement by believing in Him of their free will and, therefore, not all men are saved, even though Christ has paid for all their sins.  Christ died for all their sins, but they do not believe of their own free will, so they do not get the benefits, the effects of His death. 

That does not solve the problem, however, because Christ is still shedding His blood in vain for the vast majority of people, and it is still an atonement that does not atone.  But, leaving that aside for a moment, if Jesus died for the sins of all men but the only thing that prevents some of those men from getting the benefits of Christ’s death is unbelief, then what is unbelief? 

Is unbelief a sin?  If it is a sin, then Christ died for it, for He died for the sins of all men.  And, therefore, we are back to where we started—all men should go to heaven, for all the sins of all men have been paid for.  There is nothing left to punish.  If the answer is that unbelief is not a sin and, therefore, Christ did not die for it, then you have the same problem—all men should go to heaven, for man cannot be punished for something that is not a sin.  Christ died for the sins of all men.  And unbelief is not a sin.  Therefore, there are still no sins to punish.  And all men should go to heaven.

If it is said, well, it is a sin, but it is the one sin that Christ did not die for; Christ died for all the sins of mankind except for the sin of unbelief, then no one will be in heaven because He did not die for all the sins of anybody.  And everyone will have to pay for their sin of unbelief in hell.  For, no matter who you are, even a believer, we all have unbelief in us, sometimes all unbelief for large portions of our life.  But we all have unbelief in us.  No matter how many times you turn it around in your head, the teaching of Arminianism does not work and the Synod of Dordt was right to reject it and hold the biblical truth that the only possible explanation of the atoning death of Christ, as it is described in the Scriptures, and having the effect that the apostles teach by inspiration that it has, is that Jesus died for His sheep and really saved each one of them to the uttermost.

The effect of the atonement matches the Lord’s answer to our question that we asked Him last time:  For whom, Lord Jesus, did You die?  “I laid down My life for the sheep, therefore those sheep are reconciled.”  This is the effect:  they are reconciled, they are redeemed, the wrath of God is turned back from them, and not one of them will go lost.  It is sure.  He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He with Him not also freely give us all things?  And then the “us all” is explained:  Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?  It is God who justifieth.

Here is a Savior who saves.  Here is a cross that earns everything necessary for God’s people to be saved, including the spiritual gifts of repentance and faith that will be given to the sheep in due time in their life.  Here is a cross, the God of which the apostle can describe as One who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of His will.  Here is a cross that takes away all condemnation for the sheep.  Who is he that condemneth?  And the apostle does not answer:  It is Christ that died and then I who made His death effective; but, it is Christ who died (period).  Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth, a charter of salvation:  one Lord, one faith, one birth.  From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride.  And with His blood He bought her, and for her life, He died.

People do not have a problem with a man laying down his life for his bride.  They do not have a problem with a husband giving himself, doing so to actually save his bride, to protect her, to keep her, not just to save her if she chooses to accept it, but to go in and rescue her.  Why should we find it a problem when we hear that the great Bridegroom, the great Husband, Jesus Christ, came down and knew who His bride was and saved her all the way?  We should be so comforted by it.

Take this, now, out of the realm of proof and intellectual and come back, child of God, before the suffering Savior on the cross.  What do you see?  Come, to the table of the Lord, child of God, the table of the Lord where Christ presents in the symbols of His atoning death, symbols that He ordained for His church—the broken bread and the wine poured out—presents Himself in those symbols, what do you see, what do you find there, what is communicated to you there?  Here He speaks to me of a sacrifice that was made for everyone but for no one and that will fail in so many instances for so many?  Here I see that He built a bridge halfway and that I must complete it every day.  When I wake up I must complete it again, and the day I stop, I shall perish?  Or do you see here a sacrifice that was made for you personally and that did atone, actually saved you, redeemed you, reconciled you, propitiated the wrath of God from you before you ever knew of it?  Here is the comfort for God’s people.  There is comfort only in an effective cross.  He represented you upon His cross, child of God.  He substituted Himself for you and saved you all the way.  Only that gives a rock-solid assurance to God’s people, and only that leads them to give God and Christ all the glory.  I will give my glory to no other in salvation, God said in Isaiah 48.  And the child of God, knowing this, what we have been explaining in last message and this message, he cannot help but join the apostle in crying out:  “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Let us pray.

Father in heaven, again we return our great thanks for a Savior who saved, for a cross that atoned, redeemed, reconciled, and propitiated Thy wrath.  To think, Father, that we are the beneficiaries of this, to Thee be the praise for it.  Hear our prayer, and may it lead us to a life of gratitude to Thee.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.