The Doctrine of the Atonement addresses the question, “For whom did Christ die?” Two prominent positions are advocated. One position says that Christ died for all sins of all men. The Reformed position says that Christ died for all sins of the elect.
Both positions agree on the value of the atonement of Christ. Both positions affirm that Christ’s sacrificial work was perfect. Jesus could not have done more than He did to effect the redemption of mankind. But then, it is said that the atonement of Christ was sufficient for all, but efficient for some, and the theological divide begins.
What this statement advocates is that while the atonement is limited to those for whom it is effective, the death of Christ covered all the sins of all men. Such a position can lead to Universalism. Universalism is the theory that Jesus not only died for all the sins of all people, and the effect of the atonement was to redeem everybody. Universalism teaches that all people are saved.
In contrast to Universalism, Particularism says that some are saved, but not all. A conservative Arminian, and a devout Calvinist would agree on Particularism, meaning only some are saved.
With agreement that the death of Christ has universal value, and the death of Christ only saves some, the question comes down to this. “Why are only some saved?” “How does particular salvation relate to the work of Christ at Calvary?”
One possible answer is to look at the Cross and say, “Jesus came to potentially secure salvation for everybody.” It is believed by many that the design of God, the intent of God in sending Christ into the world, was to make it possible for every human being to be saved. Comfort is found in the thought that the death of Christ is sufficient for all, but efficient for some.
Those who embrace Reformed theology are concerned with this position, and for this reason. To say that the death of Christ is sufficient for all, but efficient for some, is to embrace what amounts to a Hypothetical Universalism. If the Hypothetical Universalism position is true, then it is potentially possible for all human beings to be saved, because all human beings have the potential opportunity to be saved, and their sins have been atoned for, because Christ was sent to save everybody.
To say that salvation is based on an atonement that is sufficient for all, but efficient for some, is to present salvation in potential, and conditional terms. The condition is a person’s response. That is what will determine whether or not the atonement is efficient. The cross is only effective for those who will believe in it. Unless a person believes in Christ, all of His atoning work, all of His living, all of His dying will be to no avail to that person.
The atonement then, is not an absolute atonement, but a conditional atonement. It is an atonement that makes Jesus say in essence, “Father, here is my sacrifice, apply it to those who meet the conditions” (Dr. R. C. Sproul). This has to be said because, in and of itself, the atonement of Christ does not satisfy the justice of God for everybody’s sins.
This is proved by the fact that if the atonement did satisfy the justice of God, and then God sent someone to hell, He would be judging that person twice, once at the Cross, and then in hell. But, if a person has already been justified by God, if all sins have already been paid for, how can God send a person to hell? The conclusion is that the atonement is not sufficient in and of itself to save anyone. Something more is needed, and that is a person’s response. This is where the struggle is. Consider this exchange between a clever unbeliever and a concerned Arminian.
Clever Unbeliever. “If Christ satisfied the demand of God’s law for me, if Christ paid for all of my sins, how can God punish me?”
Concerned Arminian. “Because you failed to meet the condition of salvation. You failed to believe.”
Clever Unbeliever. “My failure to meet the condition is a sin. But is not even that sin covered by the atonement of Christ, who died to pay for all sins, of all men?”
Suddenly, the position of the Hypothetical Universalist, the Concerned Arminian, must shift.
Concerned Arminian. “Well, Christ has died for all sins, of all men, except for the sin of unbelief. If you do not believe you will not be saved and the atonement will not cover that one sin. It is unpardonable.”
Suddenly, even for the Arminian, the atonement is limited. And now, the whole discussion is complicated and confusing.
The solution to the discussion is to remember that the real issue is not the sufficiency of the Cross, or even the efficiency of the Cross, but the design of the Cross, and the atonement. However, to talk about the design of the atonement means first of all that something must be said about the Designer.
Question. “Who designed the atonement in the first place?” The correct answer is, God. The atonement is of divine design. In the Covenant of Grace, from eternity past, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, were in perfect agreement about Creation, and about Redemption. The agreement was that from all of humanity, from all the world, from every tribe and nation, souls would be saved. Not all, but some.
Question. “Was the plan of salvation, designed by God, executed? Indeed it was. “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). Notice that John says, “that we”, not “all” but “that we” who are Christians, “might live through him.”
Question. “Did God send Christ into the world as a God who does not know the beginning from the end?” The Biblical answer is, no. “Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world” (Acts 15:18).
Question. “Is God a God who is totally open to potentialities? Is God a God who waits and watches to see how a person will respond to the offer of salvation? Is God’s knowledge limited by contingent of choices?” The Biblical answer is, no. God works all things according to the counsel of His own will. “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11).
Question. “Did God send Christ into the world to die, and then begin to pace up and down in heaven hoping that someone would take advantage of His great grace?” The Biblical answer is no. God knows all things. “And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him. 20 For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things” (1 John 3:19-20).
Question. “Does God not know if anyone is going to be effected by the sacrifice of His own dear Son?” The Biblical answer is that God decreed that souls would be effectively saved by the sacrifice of His own dear Son. “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. 29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. 30 Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Rom. 8:28-30).
The glorious truth of the gospel is that the Bible does indicate that the work of Christ would be effective prior to His coming, and His death. “He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11). “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day” (John 6:39). “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37)
Jesus made it plain that the work He was going to do at Calvary, He was doing it for the ones the Father had given to Him. Jesus did not believe that going to Calvary was going to be an exercise in futility.
The problem with the Hypothetical Redemption position is that Jesus could die for everyone, theoretically, or He could die for no one, theoretically. It is theoretically possible that the cross would have been an exercise in futility.
Because this is true, the Christian is forced to think about the character of God in terms of the atonement. If God is the Designer of the Atonement, then the purpose of the atonement must be realized, and that is Christ made a definite atonement for the sins of those whom the Father has given to Him. The salvation of the sheep is certain. Their sins are forgiven. They are justified in the sight of God.
“As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again” (John 10:15).
It is true that a person must believe in order to receive the gifts of God, but even our faith is a gift of God. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
Every person for whom Christ died will be saved for they are ordained to eternal life. “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). Christ did not die in vain. Everything that Christ set out to accomplish, will be accomplished.
By way of personal application, “Can you say that Christ died for you?” If you are in doubt, embrace this gospel promise and you will know for certain your personal and particular eternal destiny. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved. (Acts 16:31).