Christians agree that:
- the death of Jesus is sufficient to atone for every person everywhere
- not everyone is in fact saved by Jesus (the view of universalists)
- everyone nonetheless benefits in some way from Jesus’ death (e.g. kindness of Christians)
- the blessings of the gospel should be preached and freely offered to everyone
But not all Christians agree about the DESIGN, PURPOSE or INTENTION of Jesus’ death.
- What did Jesus plan to do, by his death?
- What did he actually achieve/win/secure by his death?
- Was he successful in doing what he planned to do?
To put it another way:
> When Jesus died, did he simply make it possible for every person to go to heaven … did he make salvation available to every man, woman, boy and girl?
> When Jesus died, did he obtain a definite salvation for all for whom he gave his life?
Did his death result in a possible salvation, or an actual and definite salvation?
Did Jesus die as much for Paul as for Judas, as much for an atheist as a Christian, for those now in heaven as much as for those now in hell? If the answer is ‘yes’, then what makes the difference between being in hell and being in heaven, if it is not the death of Jesus?
>>> The universalist believes that Jesus died for all mankind, and that every person will ultimately be saved.
>>> The arminian believes that Jesus died for all mankind, and no individual in particular, and that his work remains ineffectual unless human faith is added to it.
>>> The calvinist believes that Jesus died for the elect alone, and actually saved them.
WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
1. God is One
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit, though three persons are one God. Each is in perfect unity with the others. What the Father, loves, the Son and the Spirit love; what the Son seeks, the Father and Spirit also seek, and so on. They are never at odds, but all are committed to the same goals and plans.
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are as harmoniously active in the new creation, as they were in the old:
- in eternity, the Father loved the elect, and determined to save them (Eph 1:4)
- in time, the Son comes to give his life for ………………………………………………… (John 6:38,39)
- in time also, the Spirit brings the elect to life, by imparting faith to them (Eph 1:13,14, 2:8)
The Father does not choose some to be saved, but the Son resolve to save others as well. He dies with the specific purpose of giving his life for those whom the Father had given him before time, and those alone. (John 6:39, 10:29, 17:2,9,24 etc)
2. The work of Jesus is one
All of Jesus’ work can be summarised as the work of a prophet, priest and king.
The work of the Old Testament priest had 2 major parts:
- to pray for the people
- to offer sacrifice for their sins
He represented the same group in each work. Those he prays for, are those for whom he offers sacrifice.
We know that when Jesus prays (in his “High priestly prayer” of John 17) he prays:
- “not for the world” (17:9) ... but “for those you (Father) have given me, for they are yours” (17:9)
- This includes those who, like the disciples heard his Word personally (17:6) and those who, like us, hear his word as it is transmitted to us through them (17:20)
Jesus’ work is one – it all fits together ... those to whom he reveals the truth (17:6), he prays for (17:9) and then dies for. His death is for “the many” (Mk 10:45), “those whom the Father has given me” (John 6:37-39), “my sheep” (Jn 10:11).
3. God always gets what he wants
If God does not get what he wants, and succeed in what he aims to do, then he is no longer God. Job knew that “no plan of yours can be thwarted” (42:2). With God nothing is left to chance. What he plans, he makes happen.
How different, from the ‘gospel’ heard in many churches today:
God the Father sent his Son to die for every single person in the world. He did this because in his love he wanted to save everyone from hell, and give every person the chance to be in heaven. He broke down the obstacles to heaven, and made it possible for anyone and everyone to be saved – if only we will believe. He would like us to believe, and be saved. But God gave us the power of veto … we can choose not to believe, if we wish. And the death of Jesus will be a wasted sacrifice.
This man-made gospel cannot be right because:
If God gave us the power of veto, and left the deciding vote up to us, it would then be possible that no one would believe, and the death of Jesus would be entirely without fruit. Indeed, because we are dead in sins, it is absolutely certain no-one would believe, and Jesus’ death would save no one.
Does God direct the sun to rise, order whom we shall marry, and ordain the day of our death, but leave the most important matter of our salvation, and a reward for Jesus, up to chance?
The Bible does not speak about the possibility, or availability, of salvation, but the certainty of it:
- “He redeemed us from the curse of the law, becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3:13)
- “He reconciled us to God while we were enemies” (Rom 5:10)
- “He bore our sin in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24)
These works are presented as accomplished facts, not potential possibilities.
When God says Jesus died “for” us, it often uses the Greek preposition huper, meaning in place of. It is a word which speaks about substitution – one dying instead of another. He died, and those for whom he died do not. He is punished; they are not. God will not punish the same sin twice. That means Jesus did not atone for those who are in hell – and never intended to. If that is what he intended, that would have happened.
TWO QUESTIONS TO ANSWER
#1. What about the verses that say Jesus died for “all” and “the world” and “all men”?
When the Bible speaks of God loving “all” and “the world”, we must understand what those words mean, in their context, since their use in Mk 1:5, Lu 21:17, Acts 4:21, for example, cannot mean everyone in the world.
Very often “world” and “all” are used to break down the distinctions that we might make, between people of different races etc. They often mean “all without distinction, rather than all without exception”. The temple as “a house of prayer for all people” … for Jew and Gentile, slave and free etc, in opposition to narrow Jewish thinking. Remember from Jn 17 that Jesus specifically says that he does NOT pray for the world ... the Bible is not contradictory!)
1 Tim 2:4, 4:10, 2 Pet 3:9 etcspeak about the kind of people God saves, not that he was trying to save everyone. God saves all kinds of people (1 Tim 2:4); he loves to forgive repentant sinners (2 Pet 3:9), whoever they are, whatever their background and their sin.
#2. What, then, shall we offer to sinners?
Today’s usual evangelical gospel message is “Jesus died for you”. That message cannot be found in even one place in the Bible. That is because:
- no one can say that for certain to an unbeliever ... that may not be true.
- the evangelistic message is about who Jesus is (Lord and Judge) more than about his work.
What we offer to sinners is Jesus himself, and we call on “all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:31) because “God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in a righteousness by a man he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all, by raising him from the dead.”
When people repent and turn to him as Lord, then we assure them that in him there is “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38) and tell them about his death for them, as a matter of first importance (1 Cor 2:1-5, 15:3-5).
One of the reasons we are tempted to tell sinners that God loves them, and Jesus died for them, is to make them feel important and worthy. So we tell them that their destiny is in their hands, and that Jesus has died for them, but he cannot save them until they ‘let’ him. That is not honouring to Jesus ... and it means sinners have no real reason for repenting, except pity for a saviour who would like to help them, but cannot. That is nothing like the gospel we find in Scripture, and is the preaching of a different Jesus.
CHANGING OUR PRACTICE
⇒ We can praise God as we really ought.
When Jesus “sat down” after his work of sacrificing (Heb 10:12) it was because he had finished all the work his father gave him to do to redeem and save eternally those whom the Father had given him. He did not do 50% or even 99% of the work and leave it up to us to supply what was lacking, or to make his work effective.
If it were our faith that makes the difference between heaven and hell, then we would ultimately be saved by our faith, not by Jesus’ death. But we rejoice in the finished work of Christ, now (Gal 2:20) and eternally (Rev 5:9,10).
We have a Saviour who obtained what he paid for. He has redeemed, reconciled and justified us, and secured faith and all other gospel blessings for us. It is his faith(ful work) that saves us, not our faith. Study Galatians 2:16.
⇒ We have a real Jesus to preach.
Others may preach a Jesus who would like to save, but cannot until people allow him ... or a Jesus who won a possible salvation. But we preach a real Saviour, the Lord and King of everyone and everything. Believing in the “would-like-to-save-you” Jesus will never be enough for those whose faith grows weak, and whose sin is large.
VOICES FROM THE PAST
We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved, and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. (Spurgeon)
If we start by affirming that God has a saving love for all, and Christ died a saving death for all ... we have not exalted Christ and the Cross; we have cheapened them. We have limited the atonement far more drastically than Calvinism does. For whereas Calvinism asserts that Christ’s death, as such, saves all whom it was meant to save, this way denies that Christ’s death, as such, is sufficient to save any of them. Perhaps we have also trivialised faith and repentance in order to make this assurance plausible (it’s very simple – just open your heart to the Lord …). Certainly, we have effectively denied God’s sovereignty, and undermined the basic conviction of religion – that man is in God’s hands. In truth, we have lost a great deal. And it is, perhaps, no wonder that our preaching begets so little reverence and humility, and that our professing converts are so self-confident and so deficient in self-knowledge. (J.I.Packer)