Rather than reading the Bible through the eyes of modern secularism, this provocative six-part course teaches you to read the Bible through its own eyes—as a record of God’s dealing with the human race. When you read it at this level, you will discover reasons to worship God in areas of life you probably never before associated with “religion.”
© Charles A. Clough 1999
Charles A. Clough
Biblical Framework Series 1995–2003
Part 5: Confrontation with the King
Chapter 4: The Death of the King
Lesson 137 – Atonement Provided by Christ’s Death: Nature and Extent
16 Dec 1999
Fellowship Chapel, Jarrettsville, MD
The section I’m handing out continues the section on the extent of the atonement, after we get through this chapter, it’s only about two more pages and we’ll be done with the chapter on the death of Christ, but I’m going to add an appendix. You already have Appendix A on the Trinity, Appendix B on the Son of Man and the Son of God. Appendix C is going to be more of an in-depth discussion of this business of the limited versus unlimited atonement debate that’s gone on in church history, just so we understand some of the issues that are involved there. It turns out that I think the debate is a disease of how we define words and don’t ask the right questions and come up with these things. Nevertheless we want to address it because from time to time it’s been an issue that’s split churches so I think it behooves us to understand where the issues are. Most people that split a church over issues like that usually don’t know what they’re talking about anyway; they just get on one side or the other and follow the leaders. It’s not an easy issue to deal with and I think it’s appropriate to spend a few nights in this appendix that will supplement what we’re doing tonight.
Just to warm up to the subject, we are looking at the event of the death of the King. As we’ve said again and again, and I hope we’re getting this point over, that you cannot… you cannot talk about any piece of Scripture without relating to the whole of Scripture. So when we’re talking about something like the death of the King, we have to ensconce that event, envelop it with understanding from the rest of the Scripture. If we don’t do that we wind up always going off in the toolies on some theological tangent or getting sucked up into rank unbelief. The cross of Christ, as we’ve seen, cannot be understood properly apart from going back to Scripture over and over again.
We’ve seen down through church history different views. We’ve seen what we call the satisfaction view; we’ve seen the human influence view, and we’ve seen the so-called government view. These views are attempts by men to understand what’s going on here. What’s going on at the cross? The satisfaction view can be characterized as explaining the fact that the cross is doing work before God. The satisfaction view has nothing to do with the satisfaction of man; it’s the satisfaction of God. Whatever happened on the cross was directed toward God, not toward man. This is a God view; this relates the cross to what was happening with God. The human influence view says that Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is a witness of His dedication to His mission, etc. So the human influence view is man-centered, and has come down in church history to be characteristic of liberal churches. Liberal theology, usually 99% of the time, explains the cross of Christ in basically these terms. Then kind of a halfway house between the views was the government view that Jesus Christ died to show that God took sin seriously. Of course, the government view is directed toward man too, it’s a witness to man.
The problem with these two approaches to the cross of Christ is that they leave salvation as something that is either trivial, because all we do is repent of our sin and God says oh goodie and just goes on from there, or they just don’t treat sin seriously at all. These two views are very weak in that respect. But as always in the big spiritual battle that goes on, there’s always an element of truth in some of these things. Remember, Satan can’t mislead unless he has truth. He has to have pieces of truth or his counterfeit doesn’t look like anything. Satan doesn’t come in with a name tag. He always has elements of truth in what he uses to divert our attention, and there are elements of truth here. What we always have to watch out for as Christians is when we say that’s basically an unbelieving view, we always have to say yes, but in order for it to be attractive to Satan’s agenda, it’s probably got pieces of truth in it. So what are the pieces of truth in it?
The human influence view is very clearly taught by Jesus Himself. If I be put on the cross, I draw all men to Myself. So is there a human influence to the cross? Yes. Were you influenced by the cross when you became a Christian? Yes. Well then didn’t it influence you? Yes it did. So there is a human influence, but here’s the deal. The influence that it has exists only because of the satisfaction. It’s because of what the cross does before God where it has a modified influence on us, a godly influence on us. The problem … and this is a good illustration of biblical thought versus unbelief. This is an excellent illustration of this. Mr. Unbeliever can sit here and use these two words, “human influence.” Mr. Believer, sitting right next to him can use the words “human influence.” Are they talking about the same thing? No they’re not, absolutely not! Are they the same vocabulary? Yes. Same language? Yes. Maybe even the same sentence structure? Yes. Does it sound the same? Yes. Does it mean the same thing? No.
I’m sure many of you have had this frustration happen, when you’ve been discussing the gospel with somebody and you use the word, they use the word, but you know that what they mean by the word isn’t what you mean by the word. So then you either have to spend hours what is going on here, you get into kind of a semantic slime where you’re sliding all over the place and you can’t come to grips with it, but you know somehow that what you’re saying isn’t being received at the other end the way you wanted it to be received. Here’s an example of this. It goes on and on and on, so don’t feel like the Lone Ranger when it happens. The apostles used words in the New Testament and people read the New Testament and get it wrong. Even people who speak Greek and know the Greek vocabulary get it wrong, because there’s more to it than just vocabulary. There’s a spiritual understanding that happens, and it’s that spiritual understanding, which really amounts to this diagram I keep drawing, that you have to surround all this with a biblical frame of reference.
So if we have a biblical frame of reference we can talk about the human influence of the cross. We are influenced because we’re made in the image of God and having our hearts opened by the Holy Spirit’s miraculous work, we are attracted to what Christ did for us on the cross. We may be ashamed that He had to do it for us, but that’s part of repentance for sin; thank God that He did! It’s something we give Him praise for and we are influenced; we’re influenced to sing hymns about it, we’re influenced to have communion about it, we’re influenced all across the board. So there is such a thing as human influence that is believing; it’s just that that view can be radically different from what I just said. A liberal clergyman can get up in the pulpit and cite Jesus Christ’s death on the cross as agony and go on and on, all the emotional words and get people all excited emotionally, and he hasn’t even touched the truth. It’s just nothing but an emotional reaction. It looks great, it goes over well, but it’s spiritually zero, hasn’t even touched the truth.
The second one, the government view is also that way. Is God demonstrating the fact that He’s a smart ruler? Yes. But how does He demonstrate He’s a smart ruler? Because Christ died for sin, that’s why. So this is like the human influence, this one can also be spoken of by an unbeliever; it could be spoken of by a believer. Both use the same words, both use the same sentences, and both mean utterly different things. Greasy … this is very greasy stuff, but it’s the way human conversation goes.
One other thing, to illustrate the biblical frame of reference, what did we pull out of the Old Testament framework that we spent years developing? What two great events can you go back to give your mind a picture? Lots of times when you catch yourself in these situations, even in your own soliloquies with yourself, it’s useful to slow down, back up and say wait a minute, let me go back and think through a biblical story. There are two great biblical stories from the Old Testament to think through to help appreciate this cross work of Christ.
One of those is the flood and the other one is the Exodus. Why do those two events help? Because both of them are events when God judged and when God saved, and both of them have judgment/salvation back to back. There’s no such thing in Scripture of salvation without a corresponding judgment. Every time God delivers it’s delivering from something, and He only delivers some people from that “something.” The rest of the people get clobbered. The Flood is an example of that. He saved only eight people, and everybody else on this planet was destroyed. There was judgment upon the unsaved and there was salvation for the saved. And it was done through water and the ark. In that situation was there a genuine saving, or was it just a human influence? People weren’t too impressed with Noah’s ark building, obviously that didn’t win many people to the Lord. For a hundred and some odd years the guy set out there and his family and they built this thing. But what did it influence? There were only eight people that were influenced enough to go into the ark. So in that situation the influence came because it was real, the people that were influenced by it, really believed in a real judgment to come.
Who was it that put blood on their doors in the Exodus? People who were influenced, trusting that God was going to judge, and I’d better put blood on my door or I’m not going to make it through this thing. So these two events give you the background for the cross. The cross is a similar thing. The cross is Christ taking judgment upon Himself, but like the ark and like the Exodus, the blessings of what that work is all about don’t come unless we enter by faith. That is the entry. They had to enter the ark by faith. They had to put blood on the door in the Exodus by faith and if you didn’t, too bad. The issue between the saved and the unsaved in both cases wasn’t race, it wasn’t whether they were male or female; gender had nothing to do with it. Educational level had nothing to do with it. A person’s personality had nothing to do with it. There was only one thing that had to do with it. Did they believe enough to do it or didn’t they? Nothing else mattered, only that. Those are good pictures by way of background.
As an extension of this government idea, the last thing I wanted to say in that section about the nature of the atonement is on the bottom of page 90, and that is, the atonement provides us a wonderful illustration that we can dredge up and use when we’re caught in that old classical dilemma of the problem of evil. This is the most potent attack Satan uses against the Christian faith, I am convinced of this. Evolution is strong and powerful but I think the evil problem is the one that is the most powerful satanic attack ever raised against the gospel.
You have got to come to grips personally with this thing. If not in your own life to just ride out the storms in your own personal life, but to master shock because all the human tragedies that happen, personally in your family, with loved ones, all involve a shock, all of a sudden it happens and something bad happens and everybody is walking around in a big daze in shock. The only way to get out of that and control the shock and minimize the shock is to have a worldview that’s big enough to take the heat. If we don’t understand what the biblical issue is in the issue of suffering, we’re not going to be able to handle it when it comes. We have to think it through, it can’t be some Pavlovian reaction, it has to be a thought-through reaction. The problem with this is you have to pray about this and study Scripture and think it through before the crisis hits. Once the crisis hits, that’s not the time to be thinking this all through, it’s too late now. You put notes away on the third shelf in the book room—somewhere, I’ll get those out, that kind of thing. That’s not the time to do it. The time is now; the time is whenever you have time before the Lord to think this thing through. Prepare yourself for when these things happen.
In the Christian view what’s so encouraging is that we’re not the ones that got the problem. It’s the other guys that got the problem. We’re doing great. Review: over here is Mr. Unbeliever; he’s got the problem because he’s always got an evil universe, a universe that has evil in it. He always has and he always will because evil is normative for him, it’s normal to have death, it’s normal to have suffering, it’s normal to have disintegration and decay. All those things are normal. There never can be conceived a universe without those. That’s the way it is, always and forever. You can talk New Age all you want to, which is nothing more than the old age, but because we have such lousy historical memories it comes around for the 108th time, people say oh, that’s new. No it’s not new, it’s just short memories, it’s been around since Genesis 3. Evil is normative according to this position. But the catch is if it’s normative you never escape it. There is no salvation from it. So next time you’re in a situation, maybe in a discussion with unbelieving friends, just realize that you really need to pray for them, you don’t have to pray to defend the gospel; they are the ones that need to defend such a stupid viewpoint.
Coming over here, the uniqueness of the Bible is that the Bible says that there was a universe without decay, suffering and death. And one day there will be another one without decay, suffering and death. That being so, it means that the period between the fall and the judgment is abnormal. The mixture of good and evil is an abnormal and temporary condition, brought on by the creature in his rebellion and resolved by God intervening in judgment, because in judgment He separates the good from the evil.
Why did God organize history this way? Why didn’t He have history without evil in it? He could have. Why did He choose to go create a universe with a history in it that involved creature rebellion and all the rest of what goes with it? Why did He do that? The Scriptures give us no answer other than the glory of God. And people can say oh, great God, does He get a thrill out of watching little babies die of cancer or something? Does that glorify Him? People will say that to you; maybe you’ve thought it yourself. But the ultimate way that you respond to that is to go back to those biblical passages, like when God came to Job and Job went through the wringer, he wanted answers. What happened when God finally spoke to Job at the end of the book? Who had the questions and who had the answers then? God was the one who was asking the questions. Job was the guy that was supposed to give the answers, totally turned around.
It sounds cruel for God to have done that, and I said that I think the reason God came on so heavy is because it was the only way, when you’re in emotional shock, and your feelings are taking over, you can’t approach God without having something functioning in your mind, because faith has to have content. God never comes to us with our brains turned in the off position. Therefore God had to get Job thinking once again, yes he was hurting, but he had to get to the point where those emotions weren’t dominating his soul. The way God chose to approach Job was now you sit down there Mr. and I’m going to ask you the questions: sit, I have a 100-question quiz for you right now, I don’t care if you’re hurting, you have warts all over your body or whatever you have, you sit down there and you answer Me. All of a sudden Job is saying yes Sir, no Sir, and he comes out to the end and he realizes that he was all screwed up.
But the process that God used was never to answer Job’s question. That’s the interesting thing. Job’s questions that he’s raising aren’t answered directly. They’re postponed, they’re put off, because God says you’re going to trust Me, I am the Creator, I am the Potter, and you are the pot, and I make you the way I want to make you, and that’s My right, and if you have a problem with that, we can’t go any further. You accept that and we’ll have some conversations. But the basis of the conversation isn’t going to be you dictating to Me; the basis of the conversation is I’m going to tell you, and when we get rule one straight then we can have a nice family chat. But until you are willing to accept Me for what I am, we’re not going to do any business. That is very offensive but it’s comforting because it breaks through all the crud and God comes in His glory and we see who He really is, and then we do business with God, because now we have respect for God, we’ve acknowledged His authority.
When we deal with these things we are face to face with God telling us, basically, trust Me. That’s what He basically says; that’s the answer, trust Me. So we have to sit back and say to ourselves, with the kind of Creator we have, we have every reason to trust Him because He has thought it through completely. There’s a complete reason for our suffering. He hasn’t chosen to reveal that reason or reasons to me, but because of who He is, I am willing to stand back and say I can’t touch the reason here, but this tragedy that has happened in my life has rationality to it, it’s not an irrational accident. That is comforting.
What is totally discomforting is the horror of having a tragedy happen and it’s meaningless. That is devastating. When there is absolutely no reason whatsoever. Put yourself in that position and think about it. I was listening to Chuck Colson and he reiterated something that I had read about World War II. One of the Nazi commandants of the concentration camps, I think it was in Romania where this happened, the Jewish slaves were in the concentration camp and their work was to produce petroleum for the German army from the Romanian oil fields. If you have studied military history you remember one of the most famous raids the Army Air Corps did in World War II was a raid on Ploiesti, and they made all kinds of navigational problems and bombs fell out of the air by cartons, and all kinds of things, but when the raid was done there were no more Romanian oil fields left. So here’s this commandant of a concentration camp and he’s got all these Jewish slaves so what do we do with them? We can’t get oil.
So he came up with an idea, he had read a novelist, actually a Christian novelist who had told this story, about how to drive people crazy. The way you do it is to give them absolutely meaningless work to do. The interesting experiment that this commandant, this cruel Nazi commandant did with these Jewish slaves, these people were starving, but they had survived. They were whipped, they were beaten, they were starved, they had horrible working conditions, horrible living conditions, but they survived, they were surviving people. He broke them in two weeks, every one of them. And do you know what he did? He said here’s a shovel, I want you go to out and dig dirt at the end of the warehouse, fill up the sandbags and take them to the other end of the warehouse and empty them. So they did that. The next day he comes back, I want you to take a shovel, dig up that dirt, put it in a sandbag and take it down to the other end and dump it. In three weeks most of these people had gone insane or had committed suicide, the very same people that had endured all the horrors of the concentration camp up to that point. Why did they die? Because suddenly there was no reason to do anything, it was absolutely meaningless, and this guy got a big thrill out of it, saying oh gee, that works, now I don’t have to gas them, we’ve got a new way to kill Jews. We can kill people by giving them meaninglessness.
We, as human beings, aren’t made for the meaningless because we’re made in God’s image and God is a rational God. So our heart cries out for an answer and what happens nine times out of ten we don’t know why we suffer. When we went through suffering we said there are seven or eight biblical reasons for suffering. But behind those reasons there’s only one and that is we trust the God who has created us and saved us.
As a picture of how great He is in dealing with evil and as an encouragement to us, the cross is one step further that Job never knew of. The cross is an advanced revelation that shows us a little bit of eternity, because what the cross did, it resolved an unresolved dilemma that came to the New Testament out of the Old Testament. That unresolved dilemma was how could God be just and holy and the One who forgave the sins of His people? How could that happen? Put yourself in an Old Testament saint’s position. Now he’s sitting there wondering, “Wait a minute, Yahweh is absolutely holy, how can I ever be forgiven before Him?”
Turn to Psalm 143 because this is cited as that same passage in Romans, and you’ll see where the Psalmist is struggling with this. Think about what you would have done if you had known just the holiness of God, and yet you had also heard that He forgives, and you were a literate person, your mind hadn’t been destroyed by watching too much television. Psalm 143:2 is quoted by Paul in the epistle to the Romans. So Paul knew about this tension in the Old Testament. He goes back to this Old Testament Psalm. Keep in mind that here’s a Psalm of David, and David says in verse 2, please “do not enter into judgment with Thy servant, for in Thy sight no man living is righteous.”
Go back to Romans 3 where Paul is speaking out of this understanding of the Old Testament and where it left everyone. In verse 26 Paul points to this resolution. He says, using words that you would swear came out of the government theory of the atonement, “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time,” notice “at the present time,” not before time, here’s the progress of history, God’s revelation increases as time goes on, “at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
How could God do that? He did it because somehow the sins of the sinner were transferred onto the cross and received their proper judgment. Of course the darkness came across so nobody saw what was going on, but in some fantastic way the cross resolved this whole issue. So sin was transferred to the cross and judged on the cross. That’s the substitutionary vicarious atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. Right here the judgment happened, and when that benefit comes to you and to me, it means never, for all eternity, will we ever face a judgment for our salvation. Judgment for evaluation of our works, yes, but not as to whether we’re saved or not saved. That has taken place right here. So the answer is, is God just? Has He compromised in any way His integrity? The answer is no He hasn’t. God has holiness here, He has integrity here, and nothing has been compromised, so that’s protected. But have sinners been saved? Has there been salvation? Yes.
Has it been resolved? Yes. In three hours it was resolved. So here we have an example of how what can plague believers for centuries, centuries of thought, prayer and struggle with an issue, and in one afternoon it was all over.
Now if God can resolve such a fundamental apparent contradiction, apparently so easy, like He did with the cross, can we trust Him to solve the other things, so that in eternity when we see all the cards laid out on the table we’re going to be just as amazed as the first believers were when they comprehended what had happened in the death of the King. Wow! He resolved the problem. This is amazing. Could any man have predicted it would have been resolved this way?
Remember Hebrews 11:3, that by faith we understand that the things which we see do not come out of the apparent causes. It was unpredictable. Our God is a rational God but He rationally surprises. He approaches history in utterly unpredictable ways, just to teach us again that we are not omniscient, we are not God, we cannot predict exactly how He’s going to move. Where we can predict how He’s going to move, then we don’t believe the prophecy, is when He promises us to do something and then we don’t trust Him. It’s ironic that in areas where He’s absolutely predictable we don’t trust Him, but then we fuss that He isn’t going to do it the way we want to do it when we want to predict. So it’s all backwards. That’s how screwed up we all are.
We’ve worked with the nature of the atonement and we want to move to the extent of the atonement. We’re going to look at two verse chains. There are two lines of verses on the middle of page 92 and I want to spend a few moments going through these verses. Matthew 1:21, in the first few verses we’re going to go through the verses that are cited by folks who believe in what they call the limited atonement. And by “limited atonement” they mean that Jesus Christ died only for the elect. That’s the statement, that is classical Calvinism, some of you know it as TULIP, Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints, a five-letter acrostic.
Keep in mind that Calvinism is a second- and third-generation development of Calvin. It’s somewhat embarrassing to see the fact that Calvin never addressed some of the things that the Calvinists addressed. In at least one area, a shocking area actually, is in Calvin’s definition of what faith is. A lot of people are frustrated because we have so much sin and confusion in Christian circles and they want to straighten out the church, so they say you really don’t believe unless you totally dedicate your life to the Lord, and this and that, and the emphasis is all on what I do, I’m going to dedicate my life, I’m going to promise I’ll never do it again, this and that and all the rest. It actually comes out of the second and third generation Calvinism. The Puritans in New England did this. If you studied church history you know that the Puritans would write 500–600 page books to find out whether they were of the elect or not. How were they supposed to tell whether they were the elect or not? Whether they were successful in life, whether they lived the Christian perfectly and this and that. They were always morbidly introspective, trying to figure out whether they were in the elect or not. They were trying to have faith in faith is the problem.
When you read Calvin that’s not what he said. Calvin’s definition of faith is assurance. So if I’m assured of my salvation I’m not going to be looking to see whether I’m in the elect or not, because by definition if I’m already looking then I don’t have assurance and if I don’t have assurance, then I don’t believe. So whatever happens when we trust the Lord …, see it’s a miracle. That’s why it’s so hard; it’s just that people like to fight about this, it’s really hard stuff. When the Holy Spirit brings us to Jesus Christ there is a miracle that goes on in our soul and we can’t dissect all of what happened. We can’t even dissect what He does in the natural realm. How does life start? We don’t know, every decade we learn more and more things about the cell. When I first learned biology there was the cell wall, the nucleus and a few chromosomes running around. Now you go into the cell …, my son is in medical school and tells me dad, it’s this, this, this, this and this, there are enzymes here, they’re doing this, they’re doing that, holy mackerel, you wonder how does one little cell make it, it’s so complicated. And we’re struggling to understand that.
Now when you come to the atonement we’re trying to understand how God miraculously works in our heart in an instant of time to take us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light. And the New Testament says in 2 Corinthians 4 whatever this work is that He does, and if you’ve had a family member or friend trust the Lord and you see this, you know that something happens. But to explain what is going on in the soul, no one can do this. All we have is we’re thrown back to the Scripture.
The Scriptures we’re going to look at are going to be all verses that talk about Jesus dying for those who have believed. In Matthew 1:21, the angel speaking, “And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save” who? The world? No, it says “who will save His people from their sins.” The object of the verb, and we can analyze it grammatically to get a little more precision to it, what we’re doing is we’re saying here’s the verb, to “save.” What is the object of that verb? Save who? It says “save His people,” it doesn’t say Gentiles, it doesn’t say Romans; it says “His people.”
There are lots of verses but I’m just trying to show you the approach. In Ephesians 2:15–17, it’s talking about something that was accomplished in the atonement, and it says, “by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace,  and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity.  And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near,” speaking of Jews and Gentiles. In verse 16 who is in the body, believers or unbelievers? Believers. So again Jesus Christ dies to do all this work, and all the work is being done on believers.
Ephesians 5:25, again typical of the church, what we face here is Paul goes through the marriage analogy, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” So there’s a peculiar series of verses throughout the Bible that repeatedly refer to the fact that Christ died in a very special way for those who believe. Titus 2:14, “who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.” He “gave Himself,” there’s the atonement, verse 14, so there’s His saving work. Who “gave Himself for” whom? “For us.” I think you get the idea, there’s a chain of verses that talk about Jesus Christ dying for those who believe.
Now we’re going to look at some verses that say He died for the world. 2 Corinthians 5:15, it says, “and He died for all, that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.  Therefore from now on we recognize no man according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer.” In verse 18, “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation,  namely that God was in Christ reconciling” who to Himself, believers only? No, it says “reconciling the world to Himself, [not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.]” So now we’ve got the same kind of verb, saved, and what’s the object of the verb? Now it’s the world. These are not the only verses but we’d be here all night if we went through every single one.
1 Timothy 2:6, “who gave Himself as a ransom for” whom? “For all, the testimony borne at the proper time.” Now the object is all, the object is the world. 1 Timothy 4:10, “For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of” only believers? No, “the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” What does Titus 2:11 say; it says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.” Here we are again, not some men, not believers, not the church, but “to all men.”
One other verse, 1 John 2:2, [blank spot: verse says, “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.”] …why this has triggered debate, and it’s not just one of these little theological things, how many angels can stand on the head of a pin or something, there are some serious repercussions that can come out of this if you get on the wrong track.
Let’s look at the limited side of the controversy for a moment. Let’s look at some of the good things that are being said here. If Jesus Christ died to save the elect, and by the elect I’m using that word synonymously with believer, I’m not meaning to get into all kinds of predestination arguments, etc., just as a title for believers. If Christ dies for the elect or for believers, is He successful? Well by definition, yes. If He dies for only believers, then is His death wasted on unbelievers? Or said another way, if Jesus Christ dies for this person, this person, this person, this person, they’re all believers, has His work been frustrated or limited somehow by man? No, because He didn’t intend to save all in the first place. Keep in mind these are the Reformed people, and what are they big on? Sovereignty. It’s very important to second and third generation Reform people that they defend the sovereignty of God to the third decimal place.
If God is truly sovereign He can’t be frustrated, so reasoning backwards if only believers are saved and there are lots of other people that wind up in hell, without the benefits of the atonement, then God must have intended it to be that way in the first place. So Christ died only for the elect. See the line of reasoning. Their passion and interest is trying to say that God didn’t intend to do something, then man frustrated it and so God sits in eternity saying well, 35%, that’s not a bad batting average. That’s what they’re trying to avoid, winding up with a God of history who’s sitting there, hmmm, is he going to believe or not. That’s what they’re trying to deal with. It’s a legitimate concern.
The other side that believe in the salvation of the world say how in the world can you people who believe that Christ only died for the elect, how can you be missionaries. How can you evangelize anyone, if in your heart of hearts you say to yourself well, He only died for the elect so only the elect are going to believe, so it’s up to God, so why bother to preach the gospel? After all, if we knew who the elect and the non-elect were we wouldn’t even bother with them, because they’re not going to believe anyway. So on this side of the fence the concern is with evangelism.
On this side the concern is with, we’ll call it the integrity or the plan of God, or the consistency in the plan of God. I want to show you these two things and we want to get into some stuff on this. You can see why I have an Appendix C because some of you would like to dig this out and see what’s going on, and others of you, if you’ll just put up with the rest of us we’ll go on. But I’m going to try to show this by four things in my notes in this chapter. We’ll go into more detail in the appendix, but I’m going to state four things about the atonement. In introduce them to you this way because I want you to realize that I’m trying to be very careful in what I’m saying. I’m trying to give due respect to all the Scriptures that we’ve seen. The Scriptures have these two themes in them. We know enough of our God to know that we don’t have a contradiction in Scripture. So as always we’re dealing with sovereignty and responsibility again.
What was the thing we dealt with in the last event of Christ’s life where you saw this happen earlier? We sat here for two or three nights, and in the Q&A we went round and round with it. In the life of Christ we dealt with impeccability, we had two phrases. Which of these two sentences describe the Lord Jesus Christ during His lifetime? Was He able not to sin? Everybody says yes, He was able not to sin. Was He not able to sin? Well, I don’t know about that one, if He wasn’t able to sin how could He have been tempted? I went through that and gave two examples of two godly men facing off on that issue, but each one of them had a different point in mind.
This is what I want to warn you about, when you get into stuff like this, don’t jump on one side or the other prematurely; come to your own conclusions, but just understand that nine times out of ten when you dig around deeply enough, you find out that we’ve got a lot of this going on, people on one side of the fence are concerned with one thing, people on the other side of the fence are concerned with another thing, and they’re not the same issue. And since God is incomprehensible, meaning He’s infinitely complicated, it might just give us pause to the fact that maybe there’s truth on both sides of this thing, and we’d better be a little cautious about running in here. Obviously God doesn’t have a problem; we’re the ones that have the problem. How do we understand what He has done in the work of Christ?
We’re going to start with the first statement on the bottom of page 92 and all we’ll have time for is the introduction to this. But I give you all that background because I want you to see that this is tough stuff. Most of you have slugged it out over the last three or four years and you’re aware there’s a progress of revelation, and as time goes on in Scripture God reveals more and more. You’ve seen these debates before, you saw the impeccability issue. With the call of Abraham we had election, and we went through that. So you’ve seen things like this before so don’t freak out, we’ll just take it a step at a time.
The first thing we want to say is that no matter what side of the fence you are on here, you have to agree on one thing, that Jesus Christ work on the cross is the only basis of blessing that can ever come to believer and unbeliever alike. Here’s the deal. God has a character, He is sovereign, He is righteous, He is justice, meaning He is holy, and He has the other attributes, He is omnipotent, etc. That’s His character. One part of His character is He’s immutable and He’s not going to change His character. So that means that this quality about our God is never ever going to be compromised. He also has another quality, His love. We want to talk about that because one of the things in this debate is where’s the place of the love of God in all this? Does God love the world? Yeah, but even there we’ve got a problem, whose Gospel said “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son?” John. Whose epistle said “love not the world? John. Ah, what does that mean, God can love the world and we can’t, is that what it means? There’s a finesse to Scripture, and this is why people throw it in your face and say oh well, you can read anything into the Bible. Sure, idiots can always do that. But to read the Bible in the Spirit in which it was written demands maturity, there’s some tough stuff. That’s what Peter said of Paul, this guy is hard to understand. When we get into these truths we have to approach it gradually and build up.
The first thing we want to get into is that if God loves the world, this love of God cannot be manifest unless at the same time this [holiness] is protected. So when God loves He’s got to love in a holy fashion. You can’t separate holiness from love and split God into pieces. It doesn’t work that way. So if God initiates and God is love, what did we say grace was? Grace is God’s initiative. God initiates. What’s a good picture of grace, the easy picture a child can understand it? The first dramatic revelation of grace in the Bible was in Genesis, when Adam and Eve were hiding in the bushes. Who opened the conversation, Adam, Eve, or God? It was God. Forever let this etch in our minds. It was God who opened the conversation; they were hiding in the bushes, they were terrified, they saw the holiness of God and they knew they’d dropped the ball, this is it, what are we going to do now? They knew God’s righteousness, but God, in His love and in His grace opened a conversation that led to their salvation. God was the first soul-winner. He won them; that was an evangelistic encounter right in the Garden, and it was God’s love and His compassion for those people that were sinful.
Does God love? You bet He does. Are we undercutting His love? In no way! What we’re doing, however, is saying that that love is not promiscuous; it doesn’t go in all directions. It goes in accordance with His character. By the way, that’s a great model for us, because we live in a generation that defines love as you do it my way and if you don’t do it my way you don’t love me. There’s a whole generation of school people raised this way, you don’t love me because you don’t let me do what I want to do. No, love, real love has character behind it, and this is the great model of what real love looks like. God, in the cross, did set up the cross, He did set up the cross to save, He did set up the cross to bless all men, but He’s going to do it such that His righteousness is never compromised.
That’s why this leads to the most obnoxious, most repulsive thing about our Christian gospel that just infuriates our non-Christian neighbors. How can you Christians have the gall to say that your religion is the only way? Very simple! Because there’s no way to approach God except on God’s basis. We don’t create the door in the wall, He creates the door, and He only has one door in the wall. So guess what, there’s only one way to God, dictated by His character and His being. God is not plastic, rubber that can be moved around, changed, He’s not a chameleon who takes on the color of our feelings. God has this holiness about Him, He will not compromise His holiness, He is just and He is the justifier of them who believe, not in whatever they want to, but He is just and justifier only of those who accept His door, which is the cross of Jesus Christ. There is no other way. If there was another way, He would tell us about it, and He wouldn’t have risked His own Son dying on the cross to do that.
Conclusion: the atonement is the sole legal basis of all grace. To abandon that is to split God into half, love on one side and holiness on another, and you can’t do that.
We’re trying to finish up the death of Christ, and this raises all kinds of interesting issues when we get into the benefits of the atonement. Are there any questions?
Question asked: Clough replies: I’m trying to be fair to both sides of this conflict as I give you these answers. In the notes I’m going to try to show what’s good about both sides here, without winding up (hopefully) in a contradiction. The answer to that question and that’s a classic objection to the limited atonement view, that it’s unfair, that ultimately someone could argue that Christ didn’t die for me, so hey, what do you want from me, besides, He died for them, He didn’t die for me kind of thing. Classical Reform Theology usually answers that by saying that the basis of the condemnation of the non-elect person is the fact that he’s a sinner, that he has sinned against God and the justice concerns not with a pardon or even the offered pardon, the justice is satisfied in a judgment of this person for their sin. The person who’s objecting, saying Christ didn’t die for him, Christ didn’t have to die for anybody. You can counter that by what you hinted at in the question, well yeah, but once Christ died for some and not all then don’t we have iniquity going on here? [Someone says something] That makes sense, and it also is related to … isn’t it true that not just His justice is limited in this kind of a thing but His love, does not love everyone, you know, this sort of thing.
Limited atonement has a certain compactness about it theologically, and I think that’s why the second and third generation Reformers took Calvin’s teachings and tried to make a coherent system out of them. It’s very systematic. They feel their answer is that God’s justice is not at all compromised in unlimited atonement because His justice is expressed against sin, and as a sovereign God He can choose the judgment against sinners, much like a human judge can spit out sentences. It’s His prerogative to judge how He wishes, and without His grace none of us would make it, and it’s left there. That’s how it is usually, just left; your answer is left with that. And it strikes a lot of people, and has struck a lot of people in church history as cold; something lacking here, something about the compassion that we see in Scripture just doesn’t seem to go.
The other side of the coin is that liberalism, liberal theology has argued, more than once, that since Christ died for all men there’s no need to preach the gospel because all men are already saved. This is the other extreme and it’s called universalism. The idea of universalism is that the gospel is not there to win somebody to Christ; it’s rather the gospel is there to tell somebody that they’re already good, they’re already saved, they’re already covered by the atonement. It’s just an announcement of something that’s already happened. It’s not the trigger to cause something to happen. I’m not saying that every person that believes in unlimited atonement believes that, of course not. I’m saying that when you look at ideas of biblical history … it’s good sometimes to look at church history because church history gives a sample of thousands and thousands of believers and what they did with an idea. It gives you an idea of what that idea is going to do if it’s let loose. Historically the missionary enterprise has come out of which side do you suppose? Unlimited. Where the doctrine of unlimited atonement has taken hold, it has generally spawned missions. That’s not totally so, I’m simplifying here because I just want you to see the ethics of these ideas, because later on, hopefully, in the resolution I’m going to show that it comes about because both sides are asking two completely different questions.
The problem that the limited atonement people argue against the unlimited atonement people is that if Christ died for all men, why aren’t all men saved? And if you respond to that objection by saying, well it’s because they don’t believe, they don’t receive it, then they say, and I’m not saying this is right, but this is what their answer is. They say well, then if Jesus Christ’s atonement doesn’t result in salvation of every man, then Jesus Christ’s atonement is not complete, it’s something that is partial, it’s only potential and must be supplemented by some meritorious act of man. So here you have the complete and finished work of Christ for all men, and to that we add this little thing called faith, and they claim faith becomes a meritorious attitude. So now God and man together are involved in salvation. That’s their argument. I hope to clarify what’s wrong with that statement a little bit later.
What I guess we’re saying here is if you hold to the limited atonement, I think you feel there’s something not like the God that I know Scripture reveals Him to be. But if you go to the unlimited atonement without discernment, you can wind up in universalism if you’re not careful. Or you wind up with the atonement doing only part of the work and then man has to come along and add to it, sort of, with his agonizing repentance and this and that and all the rest of the promises he makes God, etc. meritorious works. Or in the Catholic tradition, that we merit the merit of Christ by doing things in our church mass, etc.
That’s where people are coming from in this debate. It’s sad, but it has split churches, and that’s why I’m spending time on this because in this country it’s been responsible for more than one church split. That shouldn’t have to happen; it shouldn’t have to happen! The safe way to approach it is to say what the verses say, it says that He is the propitiation for our sins and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. So there is a universal element in the atonement, there’s unquestionably a universal element. Why did God … the great commission isn’t go out and preach to the elect, it says go out and preach to the whole world. So there’s a universal going out to all men.
If you’ll think with me for just a minute in the Old Testament, back before Abraham God worked with the whole human race. They had the Noahic Bible, Shem, Ham and Japheth and God revealed Himself to all those people. Then what happened when he called Abraham. Here’s a picture of election. Why did God call Abraham and not Joe Smith? Why did He call Abraham and not Richard? I don’t know, because He designed history that way, don’t ask me, but He designed Abraham and what was He trying to accomplish when Abraham was called from Ur of the Chaldees? When he was called out, why did God, as it were when He called Abraham out He basically turned His back on the rest of the world, saying I’m not going to work with you any more, the heck with you people. You’ve got your tower of Babel, you’ve got your one-world government, you’ve got all this, forget it. Was Abraham called out to form a people that would stay within themselves? What were the three promises to Abraham? Land, seed, worldwide blessing. So whatever God was doing in this narrow limited work with Abraham, it was to have repercussions on the whole world.
If you can think about the cross that way, you come to these questions and ask yourself am I asking the right question here. A hint that helps is are we talking about the extent of the atonement or are we talking about what God’s intentions were in the atonement. Is one side looking at one word and the other side looking at another word, and they appear to be asking the same question but really not. This side is looking at what God intended to do and this side is looking at the extent of what He is doing?
These are the things I want you to think about as we come into this because as Christians we shouldn’t sit here fighting about this kind of a problem. I’ve long thought this was the sort of problem that I think is a [not sure of word] problem, that’s my personal approach to this thing, and it’s caused because we get crusaders on both side of this thing and they take a truth and they get rid of everything else and then that become the holy grail, and then this group gets this proof, and then we start flacking each other over this and I think it’s unnecessary. So I will attempt to show that yes, the atonement is unlimited in its sufficiency, it renders all men savable, it has a universal impact, it’s the basis for missionary outreach in the great commission, and then I will show that the cross, obviously, when history is over and said and done has been effective in a positive saving way to those who believe. But it has also been effective on those who don’t in this sense, that those who do not believe at the end of history are candidates for the population of hell, that those men and women have been changed by the cross of Christ. They’ve been changed in that they are not in judgment, not because of their sins per se, but their legal status is I am being judged because I turned against the God who offered me salvation.
What I want to get away from is the idea … and you get this through what I call impotent evangelistic sickly sentimentalism, would you please accept Jesus kind of thing, like we have to beg people to accept Jesus. No. There’s a compassion, of course there’s a compassion to people to win them to Christ and it’s a lot of hard work, try it sometime, it’s not easy being a missionary, a personal missionary. In our society it’s not easy just to get the gospel straight, leave alone being a missionary. But here we are, the cross goes forward, here is the gospel and it comes to this person. It has the power to bring them to Christ or it has the power to repel them, but after this encounter they have been changed, so that the gospel, far from being oh, won’t you please accept Jesus kind of thing, it’s a commanding power of God that says here’s My Son, what do you do with Him, and you can’t be neutral.
Now who has the agenda? God has the agenda. And the boat’s leaving the dock now. Now what are we going to do; that’s what’s going to happen? So the gospel and the work of the cross is a divider of men, it damns and it saves, and that’s the theme of the ark. There were people excluded from the ark when the door shut, and they were judged, and they were judged not just because there was water, they were in the water because they rejected the ark. That’s what we’re trying to grapple with in all of this, is to come out, I hope, with a very potent picture of what evangelism based on the cross of Christ is all about. It’s a dividing word. It’s very sobering to realize this; it’s a dividing word for all people. That’s where we’re going to head.