f The Wittenberg Door: For Whom did Christ Die? Problem Texts

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Commenting on Christendom, culture, history, and other oddities of life from an historic Protestant perspective.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

For Whom did Christ Die? Problem Texts

. . . For the record, I'm not an Arminian, but I have been wrestling with the concept of Limited Atonement for a while.

What, then, do we do with verses like 1 John 2:2, Romans 5:18, and 1 Timothy 2:3-5? Either the Bible contradicts itself (which I don't believe), or there must be some other explanation, perhaps beyond the logic of finite creatures? If Christ's blood is not sufficient to cover the sins of the whole world -- past, present, and future -- then where is its power?

The chagrin expressed by the above commenter is something I’m familiar with; I, too, was there. Particular Redemption was the last of the Calvinistic dominos to fall my way. But once it did, everything made sense. There was a cohesiveness to Scripture (not to mention to soteriology) that was lacking in Arminianism. But now that static was gone.

We are called to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). But this certainly isn’t always an easy task. We often get it wrong. The message doesn’t seem clear, or maybe we think it contradictory. Whatever the conundrum, we have to remember that the problem lays with us, not with Scripture. It’s like static on the radio: Is the station sending a garbled broadcast? Or is the problem with the receiver? God’s message is clear; the static is on our end.

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all (2 Pet. 3:16); yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (Ps. 119:105, 130).

Westminster Confession of Faith (1.7)

So when we think that passages contradict each other we have to realize that we’re missing something. We need to dig deeper and find the answer that’ll bring the verses together. And one of quickest paths to resolution is interpreting the difficult passages in light of the clear—and that’s how we're going to answer the questions above.

For whom did Christ Die?

The answer to the question, “for whom did Christ die?” is required before we look at the texts mentioned in the comment. We’ll also need to answer the related questions, “Did Christ actually save anyone? Or did He simply make salvation possible?”


  • Christ Came to actually save men (Mat. 1:21; Luke 19:10; 1 Tim. 1:15; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 1:3-4; Tit. 2:14; 1 Pet. 3:18).

  • Christ accomplished justification for His people (Rom. 3:24; Rom. 5:8-9; Gal. 3:13; 1 Cor. 1:30; Col. 1:13-14; Heb. 9:12; 1 Pet. 2:24).

  • Christ secures regeneration and sanctification for His people (Phil. 1:29; 1 Cor. 1:30; Eph. 1:3-4; Acts 5:31; Titus 2:14, 3:5-6; Eph. 5:25-26; Heb. 9:14, 13:12; 1 John 1:7).

As a matter of fact, the Scriptures do not speak of Salvation in tentative terms. Instead, salvation is spoken of as being accomplished by Christ, not merely as being made possible by Him. That’s why on the cross he proclaimed “it is finished,” not “it is possible.”

We’ve seen thus far that Christ was successful in his mission. Consider John 6:35-40, where Christ declares that “all that the Father gives Me will come to Me.” He further promises that He’ll lose none and that He’ll raise them all up on the final day. A good Shepard indeed!

In the tenth chapter of John we learn more of our good Shepard. For instance, we learn that he laid down His life for His sheep. He also promises that His sheep will hear His voice. Moreover, He explained to the unbelieving Jews that the reason they didn’t believe is “because you don’t belong to my sheep.”

What are we to make of this? Christ died for His people—the sheep—not the goats. Furthermore, He declared that His sheep will hear His voice, meaning that His elect will respond to the gospel call. Finally, the reason the unbelievers are unbelievers is because they are not His sheep. Consequently, Christ’s death was not for everyone, but for His elect (sheep) only—not a drop of Christ’s blood was wasted!

Also consider: Mat. 1:21, 20:28, 26:28; Rom. 8:32-34; Heb. 9:15, 28.

Many more Scriptures could be cited, such as Christ’s high-priestly prayer in John 17, where He prays “not for the world,” but “for those whom you have given Me.” Even though this is but a brief survey, the Scriptures are clear: Christ died for the elect, those whom were given to Him by the Father before the foundation of the world. Furthermore, Christ actually accomplished salvation for His people, not merely making it possible. Once again, as Christ said on the cross, “It is finished!”

Problem Texts

Now that we’ve established that Christ died for the elect only, and that He accomplished their salvation, we have the needed clarity to review these problem texts.

1 John 2:2

and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.

John is writing his letters to warn his readers of the Docetics and their teaching that Christ did not have a material body and that He didn’t actually die. This is important because the “us” refers to is his audience. He’s telling them that Christ’s death is not only sufficient for them, but for the “whole world.” This language matches John 11:51–52:

Now he did not say this [on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

Christ died to gather God’s people from around the world (Isaiah 53:8; Matt. 1:21; John 10:11; Rev. 5:9), and not just from the church to whom John was writing. It’s also import to note here that Christ’s death is sufficient to save all, but efficient for the elect only (i.e., applied to the elect only).

. . . if we take into consideration the magnitude and worthiness of the merit, we admit that it would suffice for the redemption of ten worlds; but if we take the plan of God and the intention of Christ into consideration, then it is false to say that Christ died for every person. For this reason others say that his death was sufficient for all, but not effective for all;1 that is, the merit of Christ, because of his worthiness, is sufficient for all, but it is not effective for all in its application, because Christ did not die with the intention that his. death be applied to all. Why should he die for those for whom he would not pray? But he told us that he did not pray for the world On. 17 :9). Those who oppose us argue from passages in which there is reference to the whole world, or to all men, [ Timothy 2:4 and 1 John 2:2, in which all men in general are named. But in I John 2:2 the meaning of "the whole world" is, by metonymy, "the elect scattered throughout the whole world," and in 1 Timothy 2: 4 "all men" means men of every sort, whether gentiles or Jews, kings or private citizens, and so not individuals in a class, but classes of individuals, as the words that follow make plain. The word "all" is used in the same sense in Genesis 6: 19 and Joel 2:28.5

Johannes Wollebius (1586-1629)

Romans 5:18

So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.

What makes this verse difficult is that “all” does not mean the same thing in each usage. The first instance is referring to Original Sin, and that usage is not in question: clearly Adam’s condemnation is passed on to his all progeny without exception (Rev. 12:9; Gen. 3:1-6; Rom. 5:12-21; Romans 3:10-12).

But the second usage can’t mean “without exception.” Justification is a legal term that refers to being declared righteous (in right standing) before God. In other words, the person who has been justified has been saved from God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9). If “all” refers to every person without exception, then everyone is saved: Universalism. But we know that universalism is not true, so “all” cannot mean without exception. That leaves us with the meaning “without distinction.” In other words, Christ justifies both Jews and Gentiles. The verse therefore means that through Adam death spreads to all men (without exception), but through Christ some men, “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9), are saved from this condition.

1 Timothy 2:3-5

This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,

There are two ways of understanding this passage that avoid conflicting with the rest of Scripture: 1) this is an example of God’s moral will or 2) “all” is meant in the “without distinction” sense. We’ve already discussed the “without distinction” sense above, so here we’ll just look at the first interpretation.

I told my adult daughter that I don’t want her smoking cigarettes. It’s my desire but I don’t impose it. But what I would impose is my opposition to her smoking in my house. (Thankfully she chose to bid farewell to the Marlboro man.) This is similar to what we find in Scripture regarding God’s will: He reveals a moral will, which can be opposed, and a sovereign will, which cannot.

For example, we know that it’s God’s will for us to not bear false witness, but we do anyway. Likewise, we know that it was God’s will for Christ to be born, die, and to be raised, and there’s nothing that could stop that. The first can be resisted while the second can’t. Therefore, what we see in this verse is an example of his moral will: God desires all men to be saved (He does not delight in the death of the wicked, Ezekiel 18:23, 32), but He does not enforce this desire (all men are not saved).

--The Catechizer

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2 Comments:

Blogger John Hutchinson said...

Dear Sir:
With regard to Romans 5:18, I think that if you go to the Greek and in the context of the preceding verse, you will not have to play sophistic games with the meaning of the Text (e.g. “all” means one thing with regard to Adam but another with regard to Christ).

You quote the NASB – “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men.”
However, I have taken the liberty to go to the transliteration.

“It follows then therefore, as through one transgression into/unto all men into condemnation; so also through one (act) declared righteous into/unto justified life unto all men.”

It may not be perfect translation. However, it suffices to make the point that NASB’s “resulted” emotes an understanding that does not exist in the Greek text. The NASB naturally lends to a universalist understanding, such that you must arbitrarily circumscribe the meaning of the Greek pantas. However, its semantic meaning and overwhelmingly general usage in Scriptures gives you little justification to do so. This admittedly amateur translation suggests that a justified life (justification) is unto all men through (Gr. - di’) one declared righteous or one act of righteousness (I prefer the former).

Verse 18 is a corollary of the previous verse(s) “So then”, which in the NASB states “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (v.17).

I do not need to give a personal translation of the verse to make my point here. Where it says in the NASB “because”, the Greek is tō tou. “Because” is taking lascivious license with the Greek and emotes a direct, accusative causation. However, that is less important for our purposes than the usage of the word “receive”. The Greek is lambanontes, which comes from the root lambánō, denoting an aggressive (actively) accepting what is available and offered.

This understanding would be consistent with the notion that to all men, justified life is extended, as available, ready to be aggressively received or appropriated.

This exegesis does not violate your concerns about upholding the full Sovereignty of God (e.g. limited atonement). The Arminian cannot incontrovertibly prove their case here, because the passage does not exclude, in of itself, a monergistic understanding. Actively receiving is the secondary and imminent cause (or God’s Sovereign Will through means), by which His Sovereign Election is accomplished. And I say this as one, who is a full (Hebraic) monergist, which I do differentiate from Hellenistic monergism (a.k.a. Classical Calvinism). I believe that it still requires the irresistible grace of God for one to come to faith and nothing less. (The difference between Hebraic monergism and Classical Calvinism is that in the former, God’s irresistible grace works through the human will rather than underneath it.)

Of course, this might hurt your contention that Christ purchased salvation for only some (limited atonement). However, this is an absurdity. The divine and infinite merits of Christ satisfies the objective principles of a divine and universal justice, enabling the justification of all humanity. (We are justified not from the wrath of God, but from His justice, which thereby saves us from His justice (Romans 5:9). It is just that God elects not to justify all. And I can think of a number of reasons of governing “wisdom”, why He elects not to do so.

5:20 AM  
Blogger The Catechizer and The Deacon said...

Greetings, John. Whenever I'm reading a long comment such as yours, I have one question that I'm trying to answer: What's the point? Perhaps the problem is with me, but I'm missing the point. Would you sum it up, please? Or would you succinctly tell me where we differ?

11:28 AM  

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