Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Atonement of Christ: It's Nature and Extent

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
A few weeks ago we celebrated Good Friday and we were reminded of the awesome fact that the Son of God gave His life, Òa ransom for many.Ó The question is, for how many did Christ lay down His life? That has always been a matter of dispute and controversy in the church, ever since the Prince of glory died on CalvaryÕs cross. Some of the hottest theological battles have been fought over the question: for whom did Christ die? Did He give His life for the whole world or only for a certain segment of the human race? In other words, what is the nature and the extent of the atonement?
The Reformed View
According to the Reformed faith or Calvinism, Christ's redemptive work was definite in design and accomplishment. That is to say, the atonement was intended to secure the salvation of a certain number of people, namely God's elect. This salvation, which Christ earned for His people, included everything involved in bringing them into a right relationship with God, as well as the gifts of faith and repentance. All Calvinists agree that Christ's death was of infinite value and that if God had so willed, the whole human race could have been saved by it. It would have required no more suffering for Christ to have obtained salvation for every human being who ever lived, than it did for Him to secure salvation for the elect only. Christ came into the world to represent and save only those given Him by the Father. His saving work was limited, therefore, in that it was designed to save some and not others.

The Arminian View
Over against this view, there is the Arminian position, which states that the atonement was designed to make the salvation of all men possible on the condition that they believe, but that ChristÕs death in itself did not actually guarantee the salvation of anyone.

Notice how both Calvinists and Arminians place a limitation on the atoning work of Christ. Yet there is an important difference. As Steele and Thomas say in their book, The Five Points of Calvinism: ÒSince all men will not be saved as the result of Christ's redeeming work, a limitation must be admitted. Either the Atonement was limited in that it was designed to secure salvation for certain sinners but not for others, or it was limited in that it was not intended to secure the salvation for any, but was designed only to make it possible for God to pardon sinners on the condition that they believe. In other words, one must limit its design either in extent (it was not intended for all) or effectiveness (it did not secure salvation for any).

For Scriptural proof we can point to such passages as John 17, where Christ in His high-priestly prayer specifically states: "I pray not for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me; for they are mine.Ó Here we see that our Saviour draws a sharp line of demarcation between the world in general and His own people. ÒThey are mine,Ó He says, Òfor thou hast given them me.Ó Christ is about to shed His blood for them on the cross and He commends them to His Father's keeping. They are the objects of His special love and concern.

In this same connection we remind you of Matthew 1:21 where the angel tells Joseph that the son Mary is carrying in her womb must be given the name Jesus, Òfor He shall save His people from their sins.Ó In the Gospel of John we find the same concept. "I am the good shepherd," Jesus says, "and I know mine own, and mine own know me, even as the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father and I lay down my life for the sheep." Many more passages could be cited in support of the doctrine of a limited or definite atonement.

The ÒAllÓ and ÒWorldÓ Passages in Scripture
Of course, the opponents of the Calvinistic view also have their Scripture verses to defend their notion of an unlimited atonement. They point to the so-called universal passages that seem to teach that indeed Christ died for the whole world. These may be divided into the "all" passages and the Òworld" passages.

The most common "all" passages are Romans 5:18, 1 Corinthians 15:22, 2 Corinthians 5:14,15, 1 Timothy 2:4-6, Hebrews 2:9, and 2 Peter 3:9.

The so-called "world" passages include John 1:29, 3:16,17, 4:42, 2 Corinthians 5:19, 1 John 2:1,2, 4:14.

We cannot to give detailed exegesis of these Scripture verses. Just a few comments, however, are in order to explain what these passages are intended to teach.

The universalistic terms in these texts often have a limited reference, which is determined by the context in which they occur. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:22 Paul can hardly mean that all men without exception are made alive in Christ. He is speaking in the context of the blessed resurrection of the believers as fruit of the resurrection of Christ. In the very next verse (23) he speaks of those "that are Christ's at His coming." These are the same who are made alive in Christ, according to verse 22.

Some universalistic passages emphasize the truth that salvation is for Jews and Gentiles alike. For instance in John 4:42 the Samaritans say that Christ is "the Saviour of the world." Coming from the lips of these people, the expression must convey their great joy in knowing that they too, as well as the Jews, were included among the objects of God's salvation.

Divergent Reformed Views
About 20 years ago a Christian Reformed minister, Rev. Neal Punt, came up with quite a different interpretation of these universalist passages. In his book Unconditional Good News he sets forth the view that these passages should be taken quite literally and that they indeed teach that Christ died for the whole world or all mankind. His position differs from that of the Arminians, however, in that he believes the atonement does not just make salvation possible for all men but that it was designed to save all, except those who consciously and persistently refuse to be saved. This view has been called by some ÒQualified Universalism.Ó Punt himself, however, refers to it as Biblical Universalism.

Punt clearly reflects the influence of Karl Barth as interpreted by Berkouwer and others in the Netherlands who for a quite a few years already have been developing a radically new understanding of election and the atonement. Barth was very critical of the traditionally Reformed view of election and reprobation as set forth in the Canons of Dort. This doctrine, he says, constitutes a serious threat to the assurance of salvation. He himself takes a radically different view. "Election", he says, "is in no wise concerned with the fearful depths of a hidden God, but with the revealed Gospel, the joyful message." Election is "primarily and uniquely the election of Jesus Christ." Barth calls election the "Jesus Christ event." This event is the only source of all our knowledge of God's election. He concludes, "we know that Jesus Christ is the Urgeschichte, the first, original, and primary thing that God wills".

He thinks he has found the solution to the whole complex problem of election and he is amazed that no one ever thought of it before he did. It is really very simple. If you want to know what election is, you must simply look at the redemptive work of Christ. Barth agrees with classic Reformed theology that predestination has a double aspect, namely election and reprobation, but he takes the word "double" in a radically different sense. Predestination is not double in the sense that one group of men is elected to salvation while the rest goes to perdition. No, Barth is convinced that such a view is false. His message is this: both election and reprobation are met in one person, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is both the electing God and the elected man. In Jesus Christ "it is man who is elect while Jesus Christ is Himself reprobate." In Jesus Christ, God has taken man's rejection upon himself. God thus is not against man but for man. Election becomes "the sum of the Gospel, the whole Gospel, the Gospel in a nutshell".

Ministers of the Word must preach this wonderful message of the divine "Yes" and eliminate the false notion of a divine "No." "Never, nowhere, is election threatened or made relative by some deep and final mystery of God." Says Barth. He firmly believed that he had found the answer to a problem theologians had wrestled with for centuries: How to preach the Gospel of the atoning death of Christ for sinners against the dark background of election. By letting election and reprobation come together in the Person of Christ, this should not be a problem any longer, Barth says. Many have rejoiced with him in this wonderful solution.

Refuting BarthÕs View
But is it a Biblical solution? Barth makes what at first glance seems to be a Biblical case. But upon careful investigation one soon finds out that he uses Scripture very selectively. For Barth, Scripture is concerned with one subject only: the Person and Work of Christ. "All the other words in the Bible merely witness to Christ.Ó That sounds very good until you see what he really means by this. Barth's theology is thoroughly Christ-centred but in such away that nothing else in Scripture matters. Christ came into the world to save sinners. From this Barth draws the conclusion that God wills the election of all men. How do we know this, Barth asks? Not from the Bible as such, i.e., not from any specific words or statements in Scripture, "but from the event of Jesus Christ in the light of which we are to understand all of the statements of Scripture."

If there are passages in Scripture that seem to conflict with Barth's "solution" he is not worried at all. For instance, he readily admits that there are some "crooked paths" and many "hesitations and contradictions in Romans 9-11,Ó but he solves all these difficulties by reading everything "in the light of his understanding of the Christ event".

Although he denies it, Barth's view of election must inevitably lead to universalism. If Christ is the only reprobate, then it is reasonable to conclude that all men are elected to salvation. If someone would ask him: "Will all be saved in the end?" Barth would reply, "No, for grace which would in the end automatically have to reach and embrace everyone and anyone would certainly not be sovereign, and would not be divine grace."

What does Barth mean by this? No one really knows. Barth has kept everybody guessing for years and he has never committed himself, as far as I know.

Berkouwer is very impressed by the unresolved tension in BarthÕs theology between the triumph of grace and the fearful prospect that some may be lost as a consequence of rejecting that grace. Berkouwer may be impressed, but I wonder why. What is so impressive about Barth's theology? Is it really theology, Biblical theology, or is it philosophical speculation in the sense of 1 Corinthians 2:4, where Paul warns against "enticing words of man's wisdom?"

Getting back to Punt, I'm afraid that his position, while avowedly Biblical and Reformed, will in the end amount to about the same thing. Punt maintains that in theory some will not be saved because they reject the salvation Christ obtained for them. But in practice there will be very few if any who will reject his message of unconditional good news. People don't mind hearing that God loves them and that Christ died for them, especially if the rest of the Biblical message is de-emphasized or left out, namely the command to repentance and faith with all that this involves such as self- denial and crucifixion of the flesh. Biblical universalism Punt calls his view. But I'm afraid it is just universalism minus the adjective Biblical.

Scripture and the Confessions
According to Scripture and the Reformed confessions the atonement is limited in that it was designed to save none but the elect. But there is a sense in which we may speak of the atonement as universal in scope, namely when we think of the preaching of the Gospel. That preaching is to be worldwide. Christ has commanded His Church to call men everywhere to repentance and faith in Himself (Prov.8: 4; Acts 17:30; Canons of Dort, II, 5).

Some people think it does not make sense to preach the Gospel to all if only the elect will be saved. There is admittedly a problem here, which we can never solve by our finite minds. But since when is it necessary to understand God's commandments fully before we should obey them. God has clearly commanded us to present Christ to the nations, offering salvation to all with the promise that any who repent and believe will be received in mercy. In no wise will Christ cast out those who come to Him, is His unambiguous promise. The Gospel of Christ is preached to sinners as such; they are not only invited but are also commanded to come to Christ that they may be saved. Those who do not come obviously are not interested in salvation or because they question the sincerity of the God who offers it, which is a terrible sin.

Others who do come do so only because God gives them the grace of repentance and faith. They do not necessarily realize this at the moment. Many who have come to faith in Christ were not at that moment thinking about the secret purpose of God, but they simply saw their need of Christ and hearing the invitation to come, believed that it was sincere and they embraced the promise and were not disappointed.

When preaching the Gospel, it is necessary to point sinners to their need of salvation. They must be told of their danger as sinners; that if they die without Christ as their Saviour they will perish. This should then be followed by an invitation to come and trust in Christ who died for sinners.

Some think that preachers must tell sinners that Christ loved them and died for them in particular. But this is neither Scriptural nor helpful. All we can say with certainty is that Christ died for sinners and that whosoever believes in Him has everlasting life. This is how the apostles preached and the Reformers and Puritans after them. It is only during the last 150 years or so that the Arminian slogan of "Christ died for all and therefore for you" has become the accepted way of presenting Gospel.

Even many in Reformed churches have capitulated to this trend. They may still be Reformed in their theology but when it comes to evangelism they adopt Arminian methods without any misgivings or hesitations. As long as it works it must be all right. But is it? The Arminian approach may bring many into the church, but are they true converts? Has the Lord added them to the church? Or is mostly man's work? The low level of spirituality in many Reformed churches and in Christendom generally, leaves one to wonder.

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