The Particular Nature of the Atonement: A Thought on What it Meant and What it Means, Part Three (Final)

Friday, June 03, 2005

In the first post of this series I raised the question as to what the limited nature of the atonement meant in Scriptures. In the second post I began exploring what that means for us today, beginning with believers. I trust you were comforted and humbled by this truth. But now, I must open a can of worms and take on the difficult project of examining how the limited nature of Christ's atonement applies to unbelievers.

Simply by virtue of saying such a thing I call myself into question, for two reasons.

First, the doctrine of 'limited' or 'particular atonement' is not something we would normally understand as a necessary part of the gospel message. I would ordinarily agree with this view, and never have I in my entire life shared this doctrine when evangelizing. However, it has only been in the last year that I have merely raised the question of such an approach based on the wording of 1 Corinthians 15:3 - "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins..." Every word in this verse is important, and none may be left out...including the exclusive word 'our.' This last post is not intended to debate this point, but only raise the question of whether or not the limitation of the atonement to believers can have any useful evangelization truth in it for unbelievers.

Second, if it is limited only to believers, why even discuss its application to unbelievers. All we will really end up doing is saying the atonement wasn't for them, right? I used to think so...before my doctrine of 'particular redemption' cross paths with my theological and practical passions for evangelism. Therefore, such a seemingly logical conclusion cannot be all we say about limited atonement to them, if we talk about it at all with them. Read this last post with an open mind and see what you think.

What It Meant

For Unbelievers: It creates a jealousy which may hopefully bring them to Christ Jesus.

The suffering and death of the Messiah for a specific group of people whom He would justify, has not only implications for us a believers personally, but it has implications which are equally as great for unbelievers.

“How so? Didn’t you say, Rob, that the death of Christ accomplished the justification and salvation for a specific group of people? And didn’t you say these people were believers? How then can His death have implications for unbelievers?”

Simply because these unbelievers who are still alive and kicking today are not yet believers! How do we know whether or not their justification has been accomplished at the cross? The only way we know for sure is if they come to Him. And the only way they can come to Him is to be invited.

“By whom?” you ask? By you and by me. Jesus has already invited them to come. We must simply extend His invitation. This is Paul’s whole point in Romans 10. After making his case concerning the sovereignty of God in salvation in chapter 9 – where he concludes that God has ordained the ends for every person – Paul moves on in chapter 10 to make his case concerning the responsibility of man. Yes, God has ordained the ends, but God has also ordained the means to the ends. The ends is salvation, but the means is preaching. Listen to Paul in his own words:

“What it says is this: ‘God's message is near you, on your lips and in your heart’---that is, the message of faith that we preach. If you confess that Jesus
is Lord and believe that God raised him from death, you will be saved. For it is by our faith that we are put right with God; it is by our confession that we are saved. The scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in him will not be disappointed.’ This includes everyone, because there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles; God is the same Lord of all and richly blesses all who call to him. As the scripture says, ‘Everyone who calls out to the Lord for help will be saved.’ But how can they call to him for help if they have not believed? And how can they believe if they have not heard the message? And how can they hear if the message is not proclaimed? And how can the message be proclaimed if the messengers are not sent out? As the scripture says, ‘How wonderful is the coming if messengers who bring good news!’” Romans 10:8-15 (Good News Bible, emphasis added)

The point I want you to get here is that if the suffering and death of Christ was by design limited to a certain group, then the unbeliever needs to hear that.

Now don’t shut me out on this point, but listen to me carefully, and consider my argument! When it comes right down to it,

...every Christian believes that the death of Christ is limited only to believers.

...every Christian understands that the reason there are people in hell now is because they rejected Christ and did not believe in Him.

...and every Christian knows the only biblically logical conclusion to this is that they were not forgiven for their sins. That is why they are in hell. If they had been forgiven, they would not be suffering there now.

Any disagreement so far? Now, keep tracking with me. You’re doing great so far! What if we were to offer this truth to the unbeliever then? What if we were to say to them something like this:

“Jesus’ death actually took God’s wrath for sin, so you wouldn’t have to; and if you trust in Him, He will remove your sins from His mind, declare you no longer guilty for those sins, and then give you a new heart that is able and desirous of following Him.”

You’re probably saying, “That’s what we should tell unbelievers anyway, right?” True, but now consider adding the concept we’ve been dealing with here. What if we tell them:

“The saving benefits of Jesus’ death on the cross (His satisfying God’s wrath, declaring you not guilty, and removing your sins forever) can only be given to
you if you believe in Him and trust in Him.”

I can hear what you are saying. "We already tell them that because that's what the Bible teaches!" And you're right! But did you know that most Christian's don't understand that concept? Just ask them to explain (1) what Christ's saving benefits were, (2) how one comes to benefit by those benefits, and (3) whether or not they are limited to certain persons. Ask them these things and you'll see what I mean. So here's my point.

If we tell them this, then we are telling them the atonement of Christ was indeed limited, and that they only way they can become one of this limited number is if they come to Jesus.

You see, understanding the limitation aspect of the atonement produces jealousy in an unbeliever. Who wouldn’t want to be involved in something special, something limited to only a select few? I honestly don’t know a single person who would turn down any offer like this, especially if it involved something free! And isn't this the reason we find Paul referring to in Romans with regard to Israel and God's sovereign election?

"But I ask, did Israel not understand? First, Moses says, 'I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry'" (Romans 10:19, quoting from Deut. 32:21).

"So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous" (Romans 11:11).

"Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them" (Romans 11:113-14).

The context of Romans 9-11 is all about God's sovereign election of individuals without reference to nationality. And I find it quite interesting that despite Paul's knowledge of sovereign election, he is still fanatically and faithfully involved in preaching the message of sovereign election "in order somehow" to stir up jealousy within the Jews, "and thus save some of them." Certainly the truth of the limited nature of the atonement finds a unique place within this same line of reasoning, since it is inseparably connected to sovereign election.

Believing that the death of Christ was designed to justify a specific group of people actually motivates us to evangelism and motivates them to run to Jesus as fast as they can.

The limited nature of the atonement is a truth which acts as a stimulus within us to get out there and beat the bushes to tell people about Jesus, His work on the cross, His loving offer to forgive them, His glorious plan to give them eternal life and victory over sin once and for all. It is a stimulus to tell them that if they want in on the best thing in the world ever planned by God, they’ve got to come to Jesus, confess their sin, admit their guilt, and seek the mercy and grace of Jesus which was displayed on the cross as their substitute. Matthew Henry’s words, written some four hundred years ago, still ring true.

“The salvation of souls is a great satisfaction to the Lord Jesus. He will reckon all his pains well bestowed, and himself abundantly recompensed, if the
many sons be by him brought through grace to glory. Let him have this, and he has enough. God will be glorified, penitent believers will be justified, and then Christ will be satisfied. Thus, in conformity to Christ, it should be a satisfaction to us if we can do any thing to serve the interests of God's kingdom in the world. Let it always be our meat and drink, as it was Christ's, to do God's will” (emphasis added).

On this last sentence I emphasized, Henry has in mind Jesus’ words from John 6:37-40.

“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own
will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day."

Are these not the glorious truths you should emphasize with an unbeliever? Are these not the same truths you probably have already been sharing with unbelievers? Then there is really no major confusion surrounding the truth that the death of Christ and its benefits were limited to a particular group of people whom the Father had chosen to be part of that plan.

There is a Father who has given a certain number of souls to Jesus when He died. And if the unbeliever wishes to be numbered among those souls he ought to get up and run to Jesus, for Christ has promised never to cast him out (John 6:37).

The will of the Father for the Son was to die and in that death to procure the salvation of all those the Father has given to the Son. Ask the unbeliever if he wants to be among those who will forever belong to the Son.

In giving a certain number of persons to the Son, the Father has guaranteed that none would be lost or left behind. Ask the unbeliever if he wishes to be either numbered in those left behind by the Father or in those who will be saved.

Then urge, beg and plead with him that if he desires to be part of that number whose resurrection from the dead to eternal life has already been guaranteed by Jesus Christ Himself, he ought to waste no more time but believe right now!

And lest there still be one straggling and struggling to see the magnificence of God in this plan of salvation and the motivation of believers to preach such a plan, it is good to meditate on the words of John Gill in closing. Yes, there are many for whom Christ did not die. But do we really know who they are while they are still living and breathing? Who are “the many” who are recipients of the blessings of Christ’s death, and of whom Isaiah and Jesus and Paul wrote and preached?

“…they are many who are so justified; the many who were ordained to eternal life; the many whose sins Christ bore, and gave his life a ransom for; the many sons that are brought by him to glory. This shows that they are not a few, which
serves to magnify the grace of God, exalt the satisfaction and righteousness of
Christ, and encourage distressed sinners to look to him for justification of

May these words and the deep thoughts behind them be meat for you to chew on, savoring every taste and spice that comes from its juices. And though some of it may be tough to chew, begin with the assumption that our mouths are probably not quite fit enough to chew and enjoy it. But as we grow older and more mature in the Lord, our ability to chew on the deep truths of His Word will also grow and mature.

Have I caused irritation and frustration among some? How about among 'the many'?! The email me and we'll work through these things. They can only lead to further maturity and hopefully toward a greater love for the lost.

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