The Particular Nature of the Atonement: A Thought on What it Meant and What it Means, Part One

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Particular Nature of the Atonement:
A Thought on What it Meant and What it Means
Part One

One of the most gut-wrenching things I have to work through when doing exposition, is dealing with a word, phrase, text, concept or issue that may cause problems or issues for the hearers. How much more is this true when today’s hearers are separated by some two-thousand years of culture and history.

There are two responses to this. First, while it is certainly difficult, it is necessary for every Christian to squarely and honestly face a biblical text. This involves the important task of bible study and interpretation (2 Tim. 2:15). You may not come to the same conclusion I did. But as all Christians are called to study the Scriptures to see whether or not what their pastor is saying is true (Acts 17:11). Shying away from a text just because the sound of it makes you uneasy is not allowable for the Christian. Avoiding the study of a particular text because you think it might really be saying something different from what you've been taught all your life, and you won't know how to handle it if it does...that's not allowable either.

Second, the exposition of a text requires looking at all the words of a text. And this task is all the more important when a series of words are to be found in such an important text as 1 Corinthians 15:3 where our Christian faith has been codified by the Apostle Paul. And the little word “our” in a text like this one demands close scrutiny so that we understand it as the original hearers did. So buckle your blogbelts for the next three days. These posts might crash into your life and show you a truth about Christ's death that perhaps you hadn't thought of before, or that just might rub your traditional beliefs the wrong way.

As a result of the question or confusion which arises in so many believers' hearts and minds regarding what is commonly known as 'limited atonement,' I thought I'd revisit the aspect of the the atonement's limitation, and two aspects of it in particular. What follows in this post is a brief thought on what that limitation of the atonement meant when it happened, and what it means for us today.

What It Meant

If you've read Isaiah 53, you’ll recall that the prophet speaks of the suffering and death of the Messiah as actually accomplishing something specific. I like the way the NLT translates verse 11:

“When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied.”

The point is that in God’s plan, Jesus’ ordeal on the cross would not be without guaranteed results. God decreed the cross to occur in human history, and He decreed that among all the sinners in the world, there would be an unnumbered multitude of many, many people who would most definitely, without any shadow of a doubt, be made heirs to the blessing of Christ’s death – that blessing being, in one word, justification. Isaiah further wrote,

“By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (NASB).

Let’s briefly consider two key concepts here in this verse: justification, and its limitation.

First, the text says that Christ Jesus would “justify the many.” Justification is a past event, for the Christian. It is a pronouncement that has already been made about the sinner. At the cross, when Jesus died, the sinner was declared not guilty, and he was declared holy and righteous by the Father. Both of these occurred because Christ was the substitutionary atonement for their sins.

Some might say that justification is something that happens when a Christian comes to know Christ as His personal Savior. While that is true, according to Isaiah 53:11, justification for the Christian actually happened at the cross when Jesus died there. Yes, the text speaks in the future – “My servant, will justify the many.” But Isaiah, prophesying before Jesus dies, is preaching about what will happen when the Messiah actually suffers and dies. Therefore, when Jesus did actually die, He did actually justified sinners.

Consider what that means: the atonement means that justification actually happened for sinners at the cross, and did not merely make justification possible for sinners. It 'sealed the deal,' so to speak. Salvation was not merely made possible, but it was truly and completely obtained.

Consider what that means: justification is something that actually happens to a person, and it is not some abstract, nebulous umbrella that sinners can get under. Justification is the declaration about an individual that he or she is no longer guilty in God's sight, but that he or she is now righteous. God justifies actual persons, and He does not spread justification out like a picnic blanket for people to gather on.

Consider what that means: if justification is something that was actually achieved for sinners at the cross, and if was actually achieved for and applied to individuals, then the number of those sinners for whom it was achieved and to whom it was applied must be limited. Does logic dictate this? Of course. But do we always rely on logic? Not always. So is there a biblical text leading us to this conclusion? You betcha! Look at the Isaiah text again. Who does the text say would be justified? "The many" would be justified.

Second, consider “the many” who would be justified. These are the recipients of this justification and atonement. A more literal translation of the phrase would be “the many manies” or “many multitudes” (there is a plural Hebrew suffix attached to the word which pluralizes “many”).

In short, there were innumerable multitudes of people whose sins were placed on Christ as He suffered and died. And these multitudes of people were the ones justified by that act of Jesus. This act of Jesus planted and produced fruit for Him which would, as it would any gardener, bring unbelievable joy! As the great Baptist preacher, John Gill wrote,

“Now the fruit of all this he sees with inexpressible pleasure, and which gives him an infinite satisfaction; namely, the complete redemption of all the chosen ones…”

Commenting on verse 11 of Isaiah 53, Gill also aptly stated:

“as a woman, after her travail and sharp pains are over, having brought forth a son, looks upon it with joy and pleasure, and is satisfied, and forgets her former pain and anguish; so Christ, after all his sorrows and sufferings, sees a large number of souls regenerated, sanctified, justified, and brought to heaven, in consequence of them, which is a most pleasing and satisfactory sight unto him…”

As an added note, all of this together points to the conclusion that a believer’s profession of faith in the present would simply be the fulfillment of something already planned in the past. The profession you made of your faith, whenver that was, is simply the blooming of a fruit already planted by Christ at His death. That’s right! If you are a Christian, you were part of the Father’s plan from the very beginning. Your justification and salvation was an integral and guaranteed part of God’s plan in the death of Jesus Christ.

There's so much here to study and ponder, especially as it relates to justification. But the point to get today is that the conversion you experienced, whether just recently or decades ago, was an event that was made possible by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ at the cross. It was that time, at the cross, when your salvation was sealed. That was the actual time of your justification. And the time at which you were converted is simply an outworking through time of what God had already planned for you and accomplished for you at the cross. That means you were one of His chosen, one of those for whom Christ died, one of 'the many' for whom God achieved your justification.

Tomorrow we will move to part two in this blog series to discover what the limited nature of the atonement means for believers and for unbelievers.

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